Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Boys From The Old Hood (Reprint w/ photos)

I originally published this last June. I found some old photos of my crew and thought I'd include them.

Man aka Johnny aka J Man

J Money aka Jermaine

Dre aka Andre
(Notice the color scheme of the clothing, red and black are prevalent, gang colors. I had to let them wear them because it's all they had. Also note hat tilted to the right. It's the reason today's kids where their hats to the side. To emulate gang culture. Back then, they'd get their ass kicked)

The title of the previus post made me think of these guys. It's a phrase we would use when I was "on". It should read, "On like a chicken bone" but it cannot be pronounced that way. It's "Own like a chicken Bown".

About 15 years ago we opened our first "restaurant". We were leasing a space in a small hotel that consisted of a nicely equipped commercial kitchen and spacious dining room. We used the space primarily for our catering business and only opened the dining room for lunch. One of the reasons we didn't open for dinner was the area had a stigma of being dangerous. The spot was great for a catering kitchen because it was located in the center of the metropolitan area but not so good for dinner business with all the pan-handlers, prostitutes and gang bangers. It was indeed a dangerous neighborhood. My wife and I were intimately familiar with it. We lived less than a mile away in a grand old Victorian we rehabbed, my wife worked in the hood as a community organizer and I was stationed in the neighborhood's firehouse. If I had a fire at my home or business while I was at work at the fire dept. I would have been with the first fire engine at both. As a matter of fact my wife was instructed to call 911 and say there was a fire for any emergency. I would be there in less than two minutes with four other guys.

When we opened the "cafe" it was tough getting help. I think we had five people apply. I hired four. I passed on the homeless guy who asked for money during the interview. I hired Johnny, Jermaine, Andre and Mary. Mary would be the waitress and the boys would be in the kitchen. (I use the term "boys" for all my male kitchen staff.)

Johnny, Jermaine and Andre were all related. Johnny, better known as "Man" was the obvious ring leader and thinker in the group. Jermaine, better known as, "J-Money" was the enforcer, tall, dark and covered in corn rows he was the sterotypical "gangsta". J-Money was living with Man's sister and was her baby's daddy. Andre, better known as "Dre" was Man's younger brother. He was the shy and demure one, lowest member on the totem pole. At least by the hood's standards. Man had held jobs before but the others had not. J-Money had been doing hard time for two felony convictions and Dre was getting disability money for a mysterious ailment.

These guys stayed with me until we moved to our current restaurant 30 miles away. They attempted to make the trek to the boonies when we opened but that didn't last long. Car problems and the law plagued them. In these parts there aren't too many black folks and they tend to draw attention from the local police. The last straw was when their car broke down on the way home and ended up at the "Southbound Saloon". They called the only white guy they knew to rescue them. When they told me where they were I rushed over to get them the hell out of there. The Saloon is redneck central. I wasn't worried about their safety I was worried about the law. No matter what the black dudes weren't coming out on top.

Close to four years those guys had my back. Four years! That's an eternity in their world. We became this weird little "gang". Eventually we hired their cousin Robert. Robert had just gotten out of prison and needed work. We'd been getting busier and I needed a dishwasher. Robert didn't have a nickname. He was just Robert. Not sure why, he was the hardest one of the bunch. He'd been convicted of shooting his brother five times. His brother! We'd work together for 40 hours a week, hang out in the hood after work and I'd see them when I was riding around on the fire truck. It was "our" hood. That's one of the reasons I managed to hang on to these guys for so long. When they went to work it was "the pack" or "gang" going to work. And work was in their hood. It was comfortable and safe for them. And as long as I was with them it was comfortable and safe for me. (Not unlike being on a Fire crew) I could almost sense why the gang mentality exists in the hood. It's that comfort thing. Most of Man's and J-Money's friends that I met and got to know lived in the neighborhood all their life. Most had never been outside of Milwaukee county. The anxiety of poverty, the ghetto, alcohol, the man and violence wears on you and knowing that circle of people you trust will have your back is important.

We never had trouble at our restaurant in the hood and I think a big part of that is that the boys worked there. They were also part of a larger network of "folks" who looked out for each other. They were all members of the Vice Lords. One of the two largest and most violent gangs in Milwaukee. They kept that on the DL when they were around me but I'd notice the pant leg rolled up when they'd get to work etc. They'd remove any colors or "signs" when working. Through their network the other members of the organization new not to mess up a good thing for the brothers. Pan handlers we can deal with, having connections with the real power in the neighborhood was priceless.

I've spoken with Man recently. He's still in the same hood, in the same house with the same family. Except it's grown by two since we last talked. He's been working off and on and Dre still collects social security for that mystery illness. I was relieved to learn that J-Money was in prison. I had previously looked up his criminal record online and noticed it stopped four years ago. That meant he had found God, died or gone to prison. I didn't think he found God. Being a three time loser he'll be gone for a while. It may sound weird but J-Money was a good guy. His basic human characteristics were sound. Sweet as an angel, hard working and loyal as the day is long. I miss that big dude. Unfortunately he had issues when it came to drugs and alcohol. Like many, it turned out to be his down fall.

I feel fortunate to have worked with those guys. They taught me lessons on the most basic levels. I hope they picked up something from me during the time they were with me. I take comfort that during that time none had gone back to jail, none had lost family members to violence, none abused drugs, most established a family foundation and hopefully came away with knowing a middle aged white guy they respectfully dubbed "Dawg" had their back for four years.

One of these warm summer days I'll take a ride up to Waupon and see J-Money. Bet he got fat.