SCENE 7: THE TRAGIC NEED FOR RESPECT
Inspired by literary journalism made famous by Capote’s In Cold Blood, this award-winning book project is entitled “Little Murderers: Character Studies of Ten Children That Kill”. The following excerpt of Chapter One: This One Loved Math tells a story about one boy.
S O M E B O D Y
(The boy begins to woo hoodlums on winter nights to become somebody. This trumps school.)
The boy doesn’t understand that being better won’t garner friendships, instead it instigates war. It’s primal, survival of the fittest. Being quiet and shy works against him too, yet his numerous awards in junior high school speak for themselves. Friendships with good kids are difficult; early school records show they ridiculed his Hispanic accent. Friendless and tough, he finds it easier to rise above on the streets where bravado stirs hoodlums that prize his ascendant machismo. An 18-year-old Hispanic drug dealer uses cat and mouse tactics to belittle, rob, and ridicule him in the neighborhood where they live. It’s a bullying story of the 21st century but with a twist.
The testing day stands clearly in my memory. It’s a Wednesday in November 2012; I’ve made the trek from Brooklyn on the Metro North to Grand Central to the 2 train to the Bronx, then walk with my roller bag heavy with tests to the detention center. I put everything on the scanner, a petit version of those in airports, put my name, credentials, and time-in on the sign-in log beckoning from the security desk. Then, escorted by the corrections officer, I approach the large rectangular glass-encased operations center visible from all angles, and pass through steel medieval gates that eerily grind as they retract. Once this closes, locking the visitor and escort in place, the iron door clicks open into the public area. All movement of personnel or visitors are strictly monitored. The escort opens the visiting room, then he fetches the boy from his room. I sit at a metal desk for five minutes, I brace myself. I think to abandon the evaluation for the day. Then the door opens. The officer releases the boy into the room. The boy sits across the table where his hands are always visible to the guard outside the room. I’m so absorbed by his rage that what he wears that day becomes nondescript. His arms folded on his chest, seething with frustration and rage about the six assailants including him cornering a boy against his bedroom wall and each taking his turn punching him. I know his well-told excuse ‘they always blame me, I didn’t do nothin’. There’s a brief painful silence; we quietly sit together for a few minutes as I reflect on how to intervene given his volatile condition. His forehead is damp and acne tells his age. His eyes are glazed bright, and the blood that pulses on his neck and face change his dark complexion to reddish brown skin. Wet rosy blotched blackened skin. Although the police record states his eyes are brown, that afternoon his eyes are momentarily black holes and then pitch black polished onyx stone that glimmer by capturing the light of the glaring overhead institution florescent lights. I know that these aren’t crying tears; these are tears of wanting to kill again. These are tears of humiliation that could only be assuaged by hurting someone else. These tears and that tight-lipped reticence would not spill too much today. He wants to say, ‘I’ll soon get these guys. They’ll be sorry for this’. But he’s now jail-savvy enough not to incriminate himself. A true mathematician, he proceeds in his own time, his goal to be reached at the opportune moment. That said, what actually took place is not clear. Who instigated? What was said? The rampage cannot be deciphered, and the report by the officer on duty would be tainted by self- interest. Yet, let the record show that this event comes at the cost of a misdemeanor (while waiting for his trial about the fatal stabbing). After the night of the attack, his dream of college sunk and disappeared into the River Styx in the lower realm of Hell, never to become a possibility of the living again.
Known for his ambition and pride, his character sets off anarchy. That afternoon, fear mixed with the desire for revenge was a powerful elixir; now the boy’s determined to reap power and status with the gang behind him or perish. With that killing rage peaked, either option would work. He’s not worried about his own death which youth relinquish without forethought, he’s thinking about getting even, if not now, later. In his mind he has joined the ranks of the Dominicans bonded by identity and the river of power that feeds a name. He feels the belongingness right then, as he sits with the restraint of a more mature 15-year-old. Ironically the stabbing has given him an undeniable visibility with the gang. What he did on August 27, 2011 made headlines. “Malito” has struck; notoriety has marked his forehead. Trinitario leaders in Washington Heights and Highbridge Bronx are impressed. An unlikely event, a kid that size single-handedly ending someone’s life that way.
He looks at me but he’s not telling how he feels. He’s unlearned the openness of innocence. He can’t tell me. He’s going to find connections inside, and later at Rikers. Since gang presence exists in all jails, his determination will secure him a safety net from harm that comes without protection. Filtering information is easy. He learns the lesson. He fancies being a hero in their eyes, while placing an imaginary body on a platter with flare.
Now in detention, he must hide the pride as he sits across from me, he confesses having a fight. There’s the unmistakable glimmer in his eyes, portals to the soul that’s become comfortable with sin. New York City Front page news about the stabbing is woefully shared by this mother when she next visits.
The gist of what happens is simple. That summer, the fateful day when Darrin becomes rougher and outrageously disrespectful, fertilizing an underlying vendetta, the boy’s temperament shift crosses that line between tolerance and dangerousness. This bully is an evil friend, feeling entitled to suppress those outplaying him, and so he must put the boy ‘in his place’. Shortly, the boy realizes the futility of seeking respect from this older teen. Darrin isn’t going to have any ‘smarty pants’ feeling his oats on his turf and on his watch.
What begins as Thursday’s water fight ends with a confrontation about Darrin’s disrespectfulness, answered with a slap. This begins the transformation. By Saturday night his mathematical mind configures it: he feels deep embarrassment sprinkled with hard-heartedness. Nonetheless, he won’t miss the Saturday night gathering at the deli hangout on 176th. At this point, the boy has no permanent solution; what’s changed is his determination to address any further disrespect. He thinks, “Then and only then could he call himself a ‘somebody”.
The winter of his thirteenth year, he fortified his status by befriending thugs that appreciate his self-believing, self-promoting fearlessness, garnering ill repute. His peer group changes to those notorious enough to value what later becomes the impulsive act of stabbing someone much bigger than himself. Killed him dead! He can boast. He’s paying for that impulsive act, but ironically it turns into a backhander for gang affiliation and its perceived special social status.
If it gets him this amount of fame, glory, and admiration, will he repeat it, I ask myself? His attorney visits him as he moves through the prison system. About his last visit at Rikers, he says, “He’s a leader” “He’s too mean” “He’s going to pile up bodies”.
Nineteen on my March 2017 visit at a medium security prison, he glows as he discloses the fight of the day which labels him a higher security risk. I try to pierce through his wall of importance by saying, “Foolish men fight with their hands, wise men fight with their minds”. I want to place more value on his mind than his aggression. He likes it so much, he asks me to repeat it.
Now he no longer hides the satisfaction of the crime, yet in jail he won’t disclose any incriminating information. He stays one step ahead of everyone. Behind bars, the new goal is not about cultivating friends. He no longer needs someone like his kind sixth grade childhood friend, Cesare, who shared life centering on grades and sports, and goodness.
(Maria Burgio is the author of two nonfiction books, including Wise Parent Healthy Child: A Practical Guide to the Gentle Art of Childrearing, and All Children Have Different Eyes: Learn to Play and Make Friend, awarded the USA Book News, 2007 National “Best Books” Award Finalist for Children’s Picture Book: Hardcover Non-fiction. She works as a forensic psychologist in New York City courts, Dutchess County, and Columbia County)