I ran across a faded photograph today, a childhood snapshot of myself, my sister Lisa, and childhood friends Ben and Steve on the sidewalk playing Super Friends — something we did a lot back then. Looking at the joyful expression on my baby face centered there, it’s hard to believe that I could ever have been so happy.
How could I ever have been that happy?
It was probably during the summer of 1974 when my father snapped the photograph. Within its aged borders I glimpse again the innocence that was once my childhood. Can it be that it was all so simple then?
I was born in Chicago in February of 1969, 14th months before my sister, Lisa, who came along in May of the following year. Having only the one sibling, Lisa and I were always close as children. Sister was, maybe, my very first friend. In many ways, she has always been one of my best friends.
The other best friends that I had early on were Ben and Steve. Steve was a year my senior, and Benjamin, though somewhat small for his age, was actually two years older. At the time, the three of us were the only boys living on the block in our age group. For several years, we were virtually inseparable.
In fact, it’s impossible to think about my childhood years without thinking about Steve and Ben. In one way or another, the jigsaw puzzle of my earliest childhood memories is inextricably connected to experiences shared with them.
Middle-class (more or less) and spoiled, we played with and shared all of the must-have toys of the day: Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots, Mego Super-Heroes, G.I. Joe, Big Jim, Shogun Warriors, Stretch Armstrong, Star Wars action figures — all of the playthings our hearts desired then.
It was also with those two that I learned to play the rough-n-tumble games of yesterday: Running bases, hide-n-go-seek, cops & robbers, tag, red light green light. It was with them that I waged my earliest water- gun battles, climbed trees, flew kites, tossed a Frisbee, and raced bikes. With them that I chased the jingling bells of the Good Humor ice cream truck in the afternoon and the flickering lights of fireflies at night.
And outside to Ben and Steve I ran on random afternoons to yap it up about the latest episodes of our favorite television cartoons, like Super Friends, The Fantastic Four, Johnny Quest, The Muhammad Ali Adventures, Space Ghost, Spider- Man, Prince Planet, Speed Racer, Battle of the Planets, and more.
As might be expected, we also spent equal lengths of time doing the same for the live-action shows that we also watched then, like Batman, Kung Fu,Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot, Ultraman, The Six Million Dollar Man, Shazam and Mighty Isis, Wonder Woman, The Incredible Hulk, and far too many others to mention.
God only knows how many times we imagined ourselves as one or every one of those make- believe heroes, dashing off to who-knows-where to right the wrongs of the world, as children dream they can. But there were true-life heroes who we would emulate too. Chief among them were Muhammad Ali and Bruce Lee. As far as living, breathing heroes went, nobody meant as much to us as they did.
Muhammad Ali was everywhere then, on television dancing around the ring and posed on the cover of sports magazines. Along with the Jackson 5 and the Harlem Globetrotters, Ali was one of the few African-Americans to be featured in a Saturday morning cartoon show, and the first black celebrity to have an action figure cast in his image in 1976.
On the radio in ’77, Ali was immortalized in Johnny Wakelin’s Top Ten tune “Black Superman.” And in ’78, the larger-than-life heavyweight was featured in a super-sized DC Comic book where he handed Superman his big blue butt and bright red cape.
Much more than just a boxer, Ali was a poet, a philosopher, an activist, and a minister with the controversial Nation of Islam. In 1968, the year before I was born, he condemned the misguided war America was waging in Viet Nam and refused to submit to the draft. Steadfast in his anti-war beliefs, he was stripped of his boxing license and his title, and was illegally banned from boxing for three and a half years.
Ali was also notoriously outspoken on race matters in America, a country still smoldering from the hard fought changes wrought by the civil rights movements of the 1950s and 60s. His outspokenness resulted in Ali being vilified by many but adored by scores more.
Now more than five decades since he first appeared on the world stage, Ali is thought by many to be one of the most recognized people in the world. And anyone who watched his tear- jerking torch lighting at the ’96 Winter Olympics would co-sign that claim.
Bruce Lee was another larger-than-life fighter/ philosopher cut from a similar cloth as Ali. He was an actor, teacher, author, and the creator of the Jeet Kune Do (“Way of the Intercepting Fist”) martial arts fighting system.
With his on-screen exploits in films like Enter the Dragon, and Chinese Connection, it was Lee who single-handedly kicked off the international kung fu craze of the 1970s. Stripped of Bruce Lee’s presence, the world of pop culture as we know it would not look, sound, or feel the same. Despite his gifts to society, as a man of Chinese ancestry, Lee was affected by some of the same race bias experienced by other non-whites in America.
The 1972 television show Kung Fu, as one example, was originally made as a primetime vehicle for Lee, who had made a name for himself in 1966 as the high-kicking sidekick Kato on The Green Hornet television show. But with the belief that the country’s white TV watching majority would never tune in to a show with an Asian lead, producers cast actor David Carradine as a half-Chinese immigrant wandering the American West in the early 1920s.
Such humiliations mirrored those also experienced by the minority audiences who embraced Lee as one of their heroes. His fight for equality in America ran parallel to our own. Most of what I knew early on about Bruce Lee came from Steve. His uncle Gil bought him copies of all the popular martial arts magazines, each of which featured the martial arts movie star. And it was also Steve who told me in the summer of ’73 the saddening news Bruce Lee’s tragic passing.
Sitting outside on the concrete patio in my backyard, he pointed to a photo on the wrinkled page of one of his magazines, a disturbing image of Lee in a nylon-padded casket.
In spite of that image, at so early a time in our lives the true meaning of death was too abstract a concept for either of us, at ages four, five and six, to fully comprehend. The reality was only further obscured by the fact that when we saw reruns of the two-part Batman episode that featured Lee in the Kato role, he seemed to be vibrantly (and violently) alive.
“Maybe God brought him back to life,” I decided one day watching Batman at the foot of the bed in my parent’s bedroom. Lessons on the meaning and true consequences of death would be better understood at a later time.
Despite our closeness as kids, as it so often happens, Steve, Benjamin and I grew apart over the years as we all turned inevitably into preteens. I remember how foolishly optimistic I was that things would never change, and that the first friends that I had ever known would still find the time to play with me after they both graduated from Bennett, the elementary school we attended then.
If only I could now pen something as trite or cliché as “it’s funny” or “amazing how things change.” It hasn’t been funny or amazing for the better part of three decades. Shit changes, simple as that.
I’ve lost track of how many years it’s been now since Steve was sent to prison, convicted in the shooting of a member from a rival gang — a killing he allegedly ordered as the leader of a South Side sect of Chicago’s notorious Gangster Disciples, or committed by his own hand. Although I may have suspected the latter, I’ve never known for sure. And regardless of the facts, I still see him as the tough but sensitive comic book-loving kid that he used to be.
On the afternoon that I heard about the shooting, I drove up to the corner of 102nd & St. Lawrence. The killing had taken place in front of the Rosemoor Dry Cleaners, a handful of blocks from where we all grew up on 101st & Calumet. As I sat there in the car a short distance away, I recalled how as young boys, Steve and Ben and I would walk past that dry cleaners on trips to the White Hen Pantry convenience store on the other side of 103rd to buy candy and comics.
Or how, after Sunday service, when Steve and I started hanging out again briefly during our high school years, we would walk the same path from Pullman Christian Reformed, the church on the corner of 102nd & Vernon, to the McDonald’s restaurant across the street from the cleaners.
My last memory of that corner now is of the makeshift shrine: the yellow flowers and the ivory candles that burned there that day — and the blood. So much scarlet had spilled from that young man’s body, scarring the ground, that I’d be surprised if the cement, like my memory of it, doesn’t still carry a stain.
There was only one other time that I had seen that much blood. It was shortly after another gang related killing that happened about seven years before. That one, which was essentially an execution, took place in the second house on the opposite corner of 100th & Calumet, twenty yards from my family’s residence.
I was in the 7th grade then, an elementary school patrol boy stationed on the corner of the block on which I lived. Patrol boys were usually allowed to leave school about ten minutes early so that we could be on our corner posts wearing our reflective belts before the student majority was let out at 3:00.
As I arrived on my post that day I saw Crindy, a local banger who lived on 100th & Vernon, crossing the street at 100th & King drive one block east of Calumet. He was on his way to Ed’s, a guy who lived in the aforementioned house on the opposite corner of 100th & Calumet. From time to time their gang meetings would take place at Ed’s and one was apparently taking place that day.
Crindy seemed like one of the less threatening members of the Gangster Disciples that I knew from the neighborhood. In addition to the easy- going way he had about him, I was put at ease by the melody of the name he was called by (Crindy was his last name), and his sly, chipped tooth smile.
Seeing me on the corner fifteen yards away, he nodded his acknowledgment and disappeared behind the corner garage into the alley. By the time I had raised my hand to wave he was gone. A few minutes later, I heard the sound of rushed footsteps coming up from behind followed by the stern whisper of a familiar voice commanding me to “Go home.”
Turning my head partly around, I smirked to see my friend Chuck approaching.
Steve had introduced me to Chuck about two or three years before. He lived on the same block as Ed but at the opposite end, three houses from the north corner. And though we later became the best of friends while attending the same high school, I didn’t like his ass much at first.
When I first met Chuck, I was outside in the grass in front of my house practicing kung fu moves I saw on TV with Tyrice, a young kid from across the street who I started hanging with more after Steve and Ben began spending time with their new high school friends. Steve and Chuck were walking down the street towards Steve’s house, and stopped to observe the mock kung fu battle.
After a couple minutes of watching, Chuck said that he wanted to teach me something he saw in a Bruce Lee movie. I was of course happy to learn whatever it was.
Facing one another, Chuck and I slowly bowed, like they do in some movies before a duel. But as I reached mid-bow, I felt a slap on the back of my skull that caused my eyes to water. Pointing at me with the hand he’d hit me with, Chuck teased: “Always keep your eye on your opponent.” Then, with a devilish laugh he walked away to signal the end of his “lesson.”
I learned later that the head slap came right from a scene in Enter The Dragon. When the rated-R, “No children under 17 admitted without a parent” martial arts movie came out on 1973 I was only 4 years old. What’s more, being from a somewhat strict, two-parent household, by age 12 or 13, I still hadn’t yet seen the film — which explains why I fell for the trick. So I didn’t like or trust Chuck for a while after that. But I’d come to view him as a friend by the time he approached me as I stood on my corner post.
“Go home,” he commanded again, his face holding a calm but serious expression.
“Why?” I responded, observing Chuck’s annoyance with my curiousness as his mind labored over something dreadful and unspoken. Unlike the guys in the neighborhood who were in one way or another involved with the Gangster Disciples, Chuck was a member of the gang known as the Cobra Stones. The Cobras were an offshoot of the Black Stone Rangers or
Black P. Stones, the Disciples’ largest rival on the South Side of Chicago.
Both gangs were formed during the social unrest of the 1960s. But within a few years, they’d set the precedent for many of the later gangs across the country that followed, including the Crips and Bloods of Los Angeles — both of which showed patterns of the Disciples and the Stones right down to their “colors.”
Despite Chuck’s chosen affiliation, he could move throughout the neighborhood without incident. It had certainly made a difference having grown up there forging friendships years before high school-age gang affiliations had been made.
“Look…” He began to warn, pausing to look back at the alley where Crindy had walked only a few minutes before. “I think some bad shit is gonna go down at Ed’s house today, and I don’t think that you wanna be standing here on the corner if does. Go home.”
“Okay,” I said, taking off my patrol belt and turning to walk across the street to my home only some ten yards away.
Glancing over my shoulder as I turned up the walkway to our beige bricked bungalow, I spied Chuck as he walked along the tall, black wooden gate of the house on the opposite corner and turned into the alley, headed in the direction of his family’s home at the other end of the block.
It was less than an hour later that the sound of muffled gunshots invaded the open windows of my attic bedroom. I sat nervously at my desk, permanently disturbed from homework. It wasn’t until the police and ambulance arrived about ten minutes later that I ventured back outside.
Reaching the corner, I crossed the street and melted into the crowd of concerned neighbors that had quickly formed there.
After a long while, Crindy was carried from the house on a stretcher. His shirt had been ripped away by the paramedics who were trying to sustain his lifeless form. His bare brown torso and the waistband of his blue jeans were saturated in the colors of Valentine’s Day.
My mind lapsed into a recollection of his nod to me as he turned into the alley on his way to Ed’s earlier in the afternoon. But as the stretcher cleared the porch stairs on the way to the ambulance, I was yanked from that recollection by what was visible a few feet inside.
As one of the last people to see him alive that day, I knew that Crindy had entered Ed’s house through the back, either through the basement or back porch door. Looking at the open door atop the front porch, however, it was clear that he had made a desperate attempt to exit the house that way.
On the ornately patterned moss green wallpaper two-and-half feet inside the door were pints of Crindy’s blood, splattered across it like one of Jackson Pollock’s grotesque paintings. I’d never seen so much blood before.
At the hospital, Crindy would be pronounced “dead on arrival.” But as I stared at his empty shell as the stretcher lifted into the ambulance a few feet before me, it was clear that he was dead before he’d even left the scene. A kid of barely seventeen.
It had been a handful of years since I’d last seen or talked to Benjamin David Cross. I was actually a sophomore, attending Roosevelt University the summer that he and I ran into one another during the Taste of Chicago food festival in downtown Chicago near Buckingham fountain, half a block north of the school.
Ben was hanging with a group of his friends and I, likewise, was hanging with a group of friends from the dorms. Amused at having run into each other there, Ben and I exchanged phone numbers and expressed our seemingly sincere intentions to keep in touch much better than we had since the time when we were kids.
The road to hell, as goes the saying, is paved with good intentions.
Within a few months of that chance encounter, I was living in Winona, Minnesota, having taken the lead from my sister who’d moved there a few months before. Lisa, after visiting a friend who was living and working there, fell in love with the quiet little college town of 27,000 located 30 miles south of La Crosse, Wisconsin. And upon my first visit there I found myself feeling the same.
I had also had enough of living in Chicago, enough of the havoc that the rampant drug epidemic of 1980s had wrought, laying to waste the lives of so many on both ends of the trade; enough of President Reagan’s questionable war on drugs which drastically raised the already disproportionate number of incarcerated minorities; enough of the dehumanizing assault on the senses that came with seeing an endless stream of the usual black suspects flashed across the TV news each night like some sick-n- twisted slide show.
I’d also had more than enough of being treated like a criminal- waiting-to-happen by the police, and a menace to society by others; walking from the front door of Roosevelt University to the curb of Michigan Avenue after class late at night, it was almost impossible to hail a cab. Every driver who passed me by in search of safer (read: white) fares taught me remedial lessons in the art of humiliation.
Finally, I had also had as much as I could stand of the violence that seemed to surround me there. I’d practically hit rock bottom the day I learned that my teenage cousin Alfie had been shot in the back several times while driving his car through Black Stone Ranger territory.
Al was driving west down 79th street one night with his best friend Terry,. They were coming home from somewhere on the east side. A group of teens their age standing on the corner of 79th & Yates flashed the Gangster Disciple hand sign as Al’s car idled before the ruby traffic light. Al and his homeboy Terry returned the sign — they both had an affiliation with the Disciples. Those teens on the corner, however, did not.
The members of gangs in Chicago often did that: “false flagging” in order to dupe the unsuspecting into revealing what gang, if any, to which they were connected. Those who responded by showing the hand signal of the rival gang, like Al and Terry did that night, often found themselves surrounded by members of a rival gang. The lucky ones got off with the threat of bodily harm or by actually getting their asses kicked. Those who were not so lucky could end up having their lives taken.
Al wasn’t one of the lucky ones. My mother would argue that there was something greater than luck at work which enabled my cousin to survive something that should very well have been his undoing. But not only that, a force so great that in addition to saving him, also saved me from the destructive path upon which I was determined to tread had my cousin died.
Standing in the emergency room holding his limp brown hand and listening to the drone of the respirator the day I made up my mind, it mattered not the least to me that I would probably wind up shooting the wrong guys in my raging act of retaliation. At the very least, the right guys would get the bloody fucking message. A message that, before I was satisfied, would be left again and again: Do not fuck withmy family.
It was may have been by the grace of God that both of our lives were saved and that, after five life-threatening gunshots, the most significant remnants of my cousin’s ordeal are the physical scars he carries, the bullet fragments left inside, and both his and Terry’s promises to leave their gangland associations behind.
And then, too, there was my quiet decision to leave Chicago.
Though I never spoke of it to anyone, the urge to leave burned as a matter of my life and death — or sanity at the very least. It had begun to seem as if the city of my birth and youth, which had once given me so much, dared to take away so much more. I couldn’t afford to lose myself. Not there. Hell, not anywhere, but least of all there.
Ironically, like I, Benjamin had never joined a gang. In fact, he (unlike I) never seemed to have a violent bone in his body. He was the proverbial “innocent bystander” on the day that he was shot and killed while walking into one of Chicago’s fucked up housing projects to visit his dad during Thanksgiving holiday weekend in 1991. His soft-spoken life was snuffed out in an eruption of gang-related gunfire. He was 24.
It almost felt as if the flesh was being ripped from my heart the day I learned of Ben’s death, and then torn completely in half when I’d learned that the funeral and burial of my childhood friend had taken place just the day before.
Sis and I were in Chicago that day visiting family. Before returning back to our childhood home, where our mother still lived, we dropped by to say hello to Steve’s grandmother and aunts, who still lived in the house four doors down.
Grandmother Wills, Aunts Shirl, Tippy and Debra were all there in the dining room, each of them as happy to see us as we were to see them. After we had all settled around the dining room table, Debra expressed her gladness that we had managed to make it back in time for Ben’s funeral.
“Ben who?” I replied, my voice and eyes sharpened.
“Ben Cross…” Deborah replied, realizing then that Lisa and I did not know what had happened, and that she would now have to tell us.
Half an hour later, Lisa and I were walking quietly down the block to express our condolences to Mrs. Coleman, the doting grandmother who had raised Benjamin.
So many years had passed since she had seen either Lisa or myself, I was never completely sure when she opened the door of her home that she recognized us for the children we once were: the brother and sister who once played Super Friends with her grandson in her backyard underneath the plum trees.
Benjamin, always pretending to be Batman, would wear one of his grandmother’s silk scarves safety-pinned around his neck. “He lost every single scarf that I let him play with,” she would joke in later years.
But there were no joking remembrances on the day we visited. His anguished grandmother could barely utter the words used to thank us for stopping by as we stood on the other side of the door with no invitation to step inside.
It was clear that Mrs. Coleman was still struggling to accept the reason why we had to come to her home in the first place. How could it be possible that she would have to bury the grandson whom she’d so lovingly raised?
Our visit with Mrs. Coleman was extremely brief. Nothing that either Lisa or I would say could provide any sense of comfort. And we were both still reeling from the shock of the news that had been learned less than an hour before. We hadn’t even had time process ourselves, let alone mourn.
Returning to the beige bricked South Side bungalow, Lisa and I sat down at the dining room table. As my mother entered from the kitchen, we shared the bitter news.
A few minutes later, Lisa stood and walked to her old bedroom closing the door behind her. Unsure that my troubled legs would get me up the stairs to my old room in the attic, I rose and walked into the living room.
Staring out the panes of the front room window, I thought the large flower garden in old Reverend Hammond’s yard across the street looked as beautiful as ever: a vibrant hodgepodge quilt of perennials, lilacs, roses, marigolds, and other flowers. Looking at the garden called to mind a sunny Saturday morning some fourteen years before.
Benjamin was excited as he rang the doorbell that day. He had come down much earlier than normal. Usually he, Steve and I would meet around noontime after the last of the cartoons had aired. But it was barely even 10:00 AM this morning as he rang the bell.
Reaching the top of the stairs and peering down through the storm door, I saw Ben’s face beaming with a toothy smile on the opposite side of the glass. Wrapped in Ben’s small arms was a jumble of shiny new Star Wars toys that were given to him by his grandmother the night before. I quickly made out Luke Skywalker, Ben (Obi-wan) Kenobie, C-3PO, R2-D2, and the Luke Skywalker Land Speeder vehicle.
“I’ll be out in a minute!” I yelled as I dashed back to my bedroom to change out of my pajamas.
Ten minutes later, Ben and I were sprawled across the sidewalk on our stomachs with his shiny toys in the early morning sun. We played there in that spot in front of the house the entire day.
Under the mountain of that memory, I collapsed onto my hands and knees. Fists clenching at the thick fibers of the dark brown carpet beneath me, my lungs heaved in deep, grief stricken sobs. And as my forehead pressed hard against the off white wall beneath the sill, I heard the unfamiliar sound of my trembling voice wailing in anguish as it raged out of my throat and rampaged back into my ears.
But beyond the sound of my gasps, I could also hear the consoling voice of my mother as she bent to embrace my heaving frame as it knelt there on the floor.
The Way We Were
Over the span of a relatively short life, I have attended more than twenty funerals. Each one has allowed me the opportunity grieve the passing of family, neighbors, friends. Through that ritual I have grown accustomed to feeling the varying degrees of closure that come with participating in the ceremony of parting. Benjamin’s death, however, was a different experience from any I’d previously known.
Now so many years later, there still has been no sense of closure. I never had the chance to say goodbye to my childhood friend. I’ve tried and failed a thousand times since.
Neither Steve nor I have really mentioned Ben since his passing. Not that, even after all these years, I’d be ready to reminisce — or that there has been much communication at all between Steve and me since his incarceration.
In our first and potentially last written correspondence, Steve expressed how much he missed the innocence of that long ago yesterday, and revealed how much he envied Lisa and me back then for having both our father and mother in our lives; how much he wished that he and his sister Stacy — raised mostly by their grandmother — had experienced the same.
In that letter, Steve also wished me a happy belated birthday, revealing to my surprise that he remembered that our birthdays were only about a week apart; mine the last week of February and his the first week of March. And he thanked me for the large box of comic books that I’d shipped to him as an unexpected birthday surprise.
More than a birthday gift, the box was sent as a gesture to communicate that, although we hadn’t been close in many years, he was never far from thought.
It was touching to learn how after he received the box of comics, Steve — to his great surprise — also gained a sense of “status” among his imprisoned peers that he hadn’t experienced in all the time since he was incarcerated. Comic books were an extremely rare and valued commodity there.
Steve wrote that he never would have imagined how even the prison’s most hardened criminals could almost look like kids again with one of those comic books in hand, their hearts and minds free to wander down the memory lane of some guiltless yesterday.
So Hard to Say Goodbye
Not a month goes by that I don’t think of them, Steven and Benjamin. And as I pen these words, I realize that too much time has passed since that box of comics was sent — that it’s due time to write another letter and pack another box of spine-tingling tales to remind my remaining childhood friend that he is loved, remembered, and special still.
On August 8th of every year I light a candle to honor Benjamin on his birthday. The tears that follow the application of flame to wick are still as fresh and anguished as those shed on the day that my sister and I first learned of his passing. In my heart I know that I should do something to mourn Ben’s passing properly; something ceremonial that will allow me to release those childhood images of him from consciousness where they remain, in some way, imprisoned.
And so someday, when I am ready, I’ll browse around online and I’ll order a little collection of Luke Skywalker, Ben Kenobie, C-3PO, R2-D2, and Luke’s Land Speeder vehicle — toys just like the ones that Ben and I played with on the sidewalk as kids. And after the items have arrived in the mail, I’ll take off with the box to find a secluded spot under a leafy tree somewhere. Once the perfect place is found, I’ll unpack the ancient childhood treasures and I’ll actually play with them there for just a little while. But once the time for play is done, I’ll dig out a little grave right there in the earth, and while placing his toys in that hole in the ground, I’ll whisper a prayer, and weep my goodbye.