I’ll never forget the first thug I ever met who was light-skinned with green eyes.
The setting is the legendary and much emulated 1990 in Wynnefield, the small but powerful subsidiary of West Philadelphia. A geographical paradox. Some of the homes and foliage provided in the Wynnefield & Overbrook area were that of a dream. But you could travel just a few minutes on foot in the opposite direction down 54th street towards Parkside, and it would present the perfect landscape to be murdered. I digress…
Mann Elementary School. Fourth grade — Ms. Jacobs classroom. I sat next to Carmia, the skinny beau who was responsible for introducing me to “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” and ‘Cry Baby’ bubble gum. CotDamn 1990 was a pivotal year! I sat directly across from Roberta, who unbeknownst to me, would become my first ‘girlfriend’ in my human lifetime.
Short story — she penned me a beautiful note asking, “do you want to go with me?”
Yes No Maybe So
I received the note, went home, fondled the message from days on end, bragged to my parents, performed celebratory long stroke dances to Ralph Tresvant’s “Sensitivity.” My 8-year old swagger was validated. Life was good. Until I got to school one day and Roberta uttered that fateful sentence:
“Charles, I don’t want to be your girlfriend anymore.”
The very 8-year old heart inside my 8-year old body that I had come to know and trust with my 8-year old wisdom, was toasted. Broken sounds like an upgrade – I was shattered.
I looked up at Roberta – with her sweet brown skin, chubby cheeks that I was too young to know what to do with, luscious adult-esque hips that the metal kiddie chairs could barely confine, a head doused with barrettes of silky/swirly hair, real baby follicles lying on the forehead, and angelic overly lip-glossy glossed up lips RIPE for a first kiss that would never happen…
It occurred to me, at this exact moment — that she had never looked more beautiful to me. It was here on the brink of a decade of life that I learned a valuable lesson — “forbidden fruit is the sweetest, or so it seems.”
In my deep state of shock, I asked my now ex-girlfriend, “why you don’t want to go with me no more?”
Her reply, simple.
“Because you never answered my question.”
And here I was, celebrating for weeks! — a victory that I hadn’t even taken the time to confirm. That poor girl, she must have been miserable at home awaiting my response. Communication is so key. It was then and it is now.
So here we are in Ms. Jacobs classroom amid all my friends. Jameel, the green-eyed thug, sat way in the back of the classroom. He was my homie. Jameel was light-skinned – with curly hair – with light colored eyes. So he had three things going against him. Contrary to popular opinion of light-skinned cats not being able to hold their hands in the face of battle – in a lot of cases, this could not be farther from the truth. As a fellow light-skinned constituent, I conceded this. We are tested more by the general population of students and community kids due to our hue, which is ironic, because nobody chooses what they look like. We are mere products of the DNA afforded to us via sexual conquests of our foremothers and fathers who didn’t actually choose theirs. Being spawned from my neck of the woods, the lighter kids were considered “cuter” or “more valuable”, thus getting more attention from the young ladies, thus leading us to constant scrutiny, antagonization and in some cases, bloodbaths and physical warfare by our comrades. Self-hate and lack of proper education are some of the deeper rooted issues that lead to the fruit; but try rationalizing that with a jealous group of 11- year olds. Nonetheless, here we are, fighting for no reason at all.
Many don’t know this about me — but I fought, almost daily. In a given school week, I fought 4-6 times. Sometimes more. Was never suspended, because I got good grades |and knew how to finesse the principals| — but rest assured I fought my ass off. My homie, Jameel, was no different. And like I mentioned, he had the eye color AND the curly hair – multiply his battle scars by at least 5. His luck with schmoozing the authorities wasn’t so fortunate – he’d get suspended for days at a time due to his altercations.
Time passed, as it always does.
Life took us to Beeber Middle School. I don’t know about you, but we never called it “junior high.” ‘Middle School’ was the moniker. Perhaps that was a Philly thing. 6th, 7th, 8th grade — Jameel was always around. We grew closer. I admired his ability to rock the flyest sneaks, Reebok Pumps or huaraches, which were around $200 even with the 90’s dollar. I always figured that he was raised in a household with both parents. Either that, or he was an only child. Jameel had developed noticeable scars around his eyes and cheekbone area, wear and tear from the many fistfights over the years. Now, I never found Jameel to be a particularly handsome kid and the battle scars certainly didn’t help. I also noticed that he had developed an edge, quicker to anger, slower to forgive. The vessel of paranoia fueled by scorn and disdain was undeniable. The sweet young kid in the back of Ms. Jacobs classroom cracking mediocre jokes — Jameel was no longer. The troubling waters of West Philly had been unkind to my friend. It’s as if I was now witnessing him become the troubled water that would rock the ships of many.
Probably much to my Mother’s chagrin, I was never a kid that carried a lot of fear. I didn’t have the space for it. I do, however, remember the first time hanging with Jameel where I thought to myself: “Hmm, being around him too much may get me killed.” He had just purchased a high pressured BB gun, off the black market, of course. This was one of those models, that was said to be able to severely hurt a human being if hit at point blank range. Emphasis on “severely.”
He said, “Take a walk with me.”
I laced up my sneaks.
The walk started off, shooting abandoned beer bottles, aiming at squirrels, you know the type. But then, Jameel loaded up what seemed like a special clip that he had reserved during the day. We walked around Wynnefield in the span of about an hour and a half. I watched him shoot out the windows of every-single-car of his enemies. That’s windshield, rear view, driver side front and rear, and passenger side front and rear. He was generous — spared the side view mirrors. Anyone who had ever done him wrong – beat him in a fight – cursed at him – or rubbed him the wrong way, your automobile glass was shattered that day. He nearly destroyed the car of a known small-time kingpin. I thought to myself that if someone saw me with him, it may not end up well for me. Notwithstanding, my fearlessness remained.
I lost touch with Jameel, the green-eyed thug, for quite a while. Maybe some years. Heard that he gotten into some trouble that almost resulted in him losing his life. I always kept him in my good thoughts and wondered how he was doing.
10th grade. I had a summer job sweeping hair at Butts Barber Shop. I developed a street rep from playing Chess — my last first hand experience of community in West Philly. No one could beat me, including the OG’s who were fresh out |of jail| and had nothing but time to sharpen their swords. I was a monster with the horses, and if I possessed both knights, you couldn’t beat me. I would sit down with the Ol’ heads, checkmate them after a few meticulous moves, and send them back into the world from whence they came. A lot of money was made off of me, but I wasn’t the one making it, unfortunately. It was a sport of love, for me. Chess is the game of life.
Jameel linked up with me at the shop. He told me the story of his near death experience and how he was turning a new leaf. He was recently jumped and brutally beaten by a dangerous squad led by a cat named J, and wanted revenge but even thought of letting it go. I told him that I was happy to see him – and that we need to stay alive because there’s a lot of life out there designed for us to take.
We then proceeded to talk about Timberland’s and some of the latest fashions. Jameel had just bought some fresh sneakers that he was lacing up. We played a game of chess by the window when all of a sudden, Jameel’s senses started tingling. He looked around swiftly and said,
“Hold my bag.”
I grabbed the backpack. Jameel rushed outside, walking with purpose.
It was then that I noticed that J, a big burly known corner boy and street thug, was walking outside with his clique —
Jameel approached J and cocked back his right fist so firmly, that even thinking about it now, it looks like it happened in slow motion. Jameel, the green-eyed thug, suckerpunched J with the wrath of God. To this day, I have never heard the crackle of raw bones encased by flesh in the form of knuckles resounding on a man’s face so explosively. The sound could be heard inside the barbershop. I was awestruck. The result, was even more surprising to watch.
J, likely the brandisher of a firearm, who was known in the streets of Wynnefield and had done harm to so many – I witnessed fear overtake him. His entourage, who under normal circumstances of control would engage – subscribed to J’s fear and were absolutely powerless. They were out of their element. Jameel was in his. He made J pay for all of the sins that he had to bear since 4th grade, in Ms. Jacobs class. Finally, it all made sense.
The opposition scattered and Jameel came back into the barbershop.
“Is it my move?”
I wasn’t sure.
He then went on to say the fateful words,
“You don’t get to jump me then just walk down the street like everything is okay.”
I came across this story in my mental rolodex as I circumvented traffic. I found that Jameel, the light-skinned green-eyed thug, is us — and J, the bigger badder thug who travels with an entourage is life. As time goes on – with new experiences, adversities, trials, hardships, heartbreaks and all the other stuff, we naturally become hardened to the elements. This is the nature of a thug. Hardening to conform to the elements that made you hard. It’s not only a defense mechanism, but a survivalist instinct.
Life, while being a God-given blessing on so many levels, can be the greatest thug of all. In the midst of the Joys and Prosperities are the things that ultimately define us. These are the turbulent things that can try us — they can beat us, flog us, torment us, scorn us, and all the other stuff, naturally. Life sometimes will pull out all of its tricks until somehow it feels like you’re being jumped. All of this is fine, so long as you are refined from these things and do not allow them to destroy you. Life is so beautiful — you just need to be patient enough for it to have the opportunity to show you.
Persevere through the thuggest parts of life; show life that you are not one to be conquered. If all else fails, just like my friend Jameel did, crack that Mu’F*cka right in the forehead. That’ll give it some perspective.
May your 20|20 be one of perfect vision.
This was written on the first draft.