As I am gazing out of the picture window on this brisk and starry night, I am thinking about fear. Fear that is so biting that it keeps some hidden behind their closed windows. Ny is hiding behind those windows in another city tonight, being sheltered in a relative’s home far from his normal life, out of fear. He hasn’t slept a peaceful night’s sleep in a month and I know that it may be many more before his fear subsides and he can again sleep the rest of the weary yet safe.
I have known him for several years. He was a good kid, made the same mistakes that so many of these young men do, fall for the deception that is a gang’s lifestyle. Desperation for a sense of belonging, something to fill the void left from broken homes and shattered dreams of a family life far removed from his reality.
He was always willing to do what others would not, just to get noticed, to get recognized and feel accomplished. This did not happen at the dinner table at home nor at the student desks in school. But being bold and sometimes reckless are attributes rewarded in the wasteland of a crime ridden and desperate city. He would get caught and spend time away from the streets. Each time he returned, we tried to help him start anew. Each time he told us he had changed and would not follow the path of destruction that he followed before.
But each time the grip of the lifestyle would reach back for him. Almost like a drug addict in desperate need for the next fix, knowing that they shouldn’t, but needing that relief. He was addicted to the lifestyle of a street gangster. Ny was no more, replaced by a low level thug doing what he had to do to get attention and gratification. Seeking those rewards often comes with a cost. He was now discovering that cost.
For every gang identity there are other gangs whose identity is based on conflict. They declare ownership of their streets and seek to defend their own abnormal and often twisted sense of respect. With conflict comes blood. On our streets today, fists no longer suffice to end the battle. These are now gunfighters and the sound of gunfire echoes through our streets daily. They feel power when they are the ones holding the gun. They are also coming to know fear when they are on the wrong end of the gunfight. Ny is learning that lesson.
Last week three people jumped him as he walked to his school bus after school. They attempted to beat him, to hurt him and in the same way that animals in the wilderness show their superiority by vanquishing their enemies until their enemy will pose a threat no longer. Adults interfered. Their attack was thwarted. But there he felt the first real twinges of fear.
When I saw him next it was with his grandmother by his side in a hospital not twenty-four hours after the first beating. The shades in his hospital room were drawn tight and even then he looked suspiciously between the window and the door. The bandages wrapped around his head hid the stitches where the bullet grazed his temple. Another inch, the doctor had told him, and he would have expired. Ny understood what that meant. That meant fear.
He looked up at me with the same fear. I knew that he would not tell me who had done this to him. He knew, he was walking toward them when they did it in broad daylight. But if he told me, if I went out and attempted to serve justice, the real justice that is done in the sterile environment of a courtroom, the street would seek its vengeance upon him. It will be worse he said. I knew that is what he would say. Snitches get stitches isn’t a catchy play on words in his world, it is a code.
His grandmother cries. She cannot help him and has other babies in her home. She too is afraid, for his life, for her life, for the lives of the others trusted to her care. She is the foundation of this small family. She also knows that for the sake of the rest, she must let this one go. He will go to another city. She packs a bag and the relative meets us the next day at the hospital.
Like a person in the witness protection program, every noise as he walks from the open doors of the hospital to the waiting car startles him a little. His eyes are weary, sleeplessness and helplessness twist together to cloak him in a dark fabric of despair. I tell him to look out for himself and to call if he needs anything. I tell him to get some sleep in the car ride, knowing that he will not. Knowing that it may take months or even years for him to sleep without waiting for the crack in the silence that comes with violence.
The car pulled away and I went home to ponder another victim to those streets where I grew up. How had I survived yet so many of them cannot find a way out of the decay? I had hope and with hope comes the courage to fight for that escape. Without it they simply exist, waiting to be swallowed up by the demons that consume them and their community. Ny doesn’t have to wait any longer. The demons have won. He will sleep in their grasp now, simply waiting for the darkness to come.
I look at the sky one last time and say a quiet wish for him. I pray that he will find renewal and peace. He is out there tonight, under these same stars but he will not take the time to see them. They hold nothing for him now, his only concern is for what lies below. I still hold a fleeting hope that he will not become a statistic. I must believe that or the journey would not be worth the fight for me. Once again, I go inside, kiss my wife and draw the blinds. Tomorrow is yet another day to seek renewal and a better view from inside my sometimes shattered windows.