The Life of a Jamaican Ghetto Statistic

1 month ago Ricardo Hylton 0

I’m trapped in a hell with whom society decrees to be the worst of living and better off dead. Robbers, rapists, child molesters, carjackers, murderers, and dope fiends who would spend their mother’s monthly rent for a quick fix. And here I am, amongst them. As much as the mere thought disgusts me, I am one of them. Just another number, not deserving of a second chance.

 

My friend ***** became a convicted felon in his teens.

If the path to paradise really begins in hell, then the Jamaican ghetto inhabitant is truly heaven bound because he occupies a special type of furnace.

 

My friend ***** was arrested at 14. My neighbor Dawn, My friend *****’s oldest sister, walked with a crew of us to collect him from the “Rehabilitation Center” which lay at the end of a dusty stretch of Marl Road.

My friend *****, the youngest of nine kids, was born 2 months before I was. I had grown up with him. The baby of a sprawling family, he was my cautionary tale, a child of cruel stares and doomed smiles, who I thought was a living embodiment of what not to do, not understanding that not even divine intervention could have rescued him. The cards were lined up against his survival. We had lost him in his 14th year, when he was arrested, for an attempted burglary. When released, we thought we had him back. It felt like a resurrection. But that was a willful illusion, a fiction, not unlike the idea that the good life is available to us all.

Dante, Hell and all that…

Dante was not in hell due to a fatal sin but somewhere in his life he strayed onto the path of error, away from his true self. Midway through my friend ***** life’s journey (aged 10 and a half), he found himself in the thicket of some dark woods, the right road lost.

In the putrid waiting hall, an uneven, low-shouldered man trundled up to deposit the prisoners being released. My friend ***** stepped out, saw us, and smiled. His broad, toothy grin took up half his face, a bright flash of white against his dark skin. He had a little bob in his step, the same natural spring he’d had as a child. His early and mid adolescence had been spent in captivity, yet he bounded toward us like a fawn.

What sets the course of a life? A few years before my friend *****’s murder—before the weeping, before the raging, before the heated self-recriminations and icy reckonings—I awoke with the most glorious sense of anticipation I’ve ever felt. On the corner, his mother’s pale cottage, cobbled together from discarded plywood seemed serene, aglow in the morning sun. Poverty always looks much worse in the Jamaican ghetto than it does elsewhere.

He watched Coming to America and ate suck sucks, sold discarded beer bottles while his uncle sold weed, his momma emitted babies like a far too active volcano while his brother punctured the six-packs of adversaries. Since his introduction to the world, my friend ***** had been the bad kid from an ugly city. He embraced his roots, accepted being a boy from the hood. Since birth, he was inducted into the madness.

The homecoming party was in his mother’s colorless hut. Uncles and friends, cousins and second cousins, and cousins who knows how many times removed pulled folding chairs up to folding tables, which were covered with paper tablecloths and laden with fried chicken and mutton. The merriment continued all afternoon, and seemed to attract some attention from the neighbors. My friend ***** feasted and played football keepie-ups with the nephews and nieces who had been born while he was in prison.

After the party, we had little time to waste. That summer, I had my first summer job at Big M Hardware store in Savlamar, counting, adding, and calculating in the unventilated back office. My friend *****, for his part, was intent on making something of himself. Making that happen, managing his reentry into society was my job. Not mine alone, but mine consistently, day after day, as the friend on duty, the one with resources, the one who was at university and according to the brochure, the one who was going to be rich. You see dear reader, my friend ***** couldn’t read.

My friend ***** couldn’t open a bank account because he couldn’t fill in the form. He couldn’t apply for a job because he couldn’t write. I assumed the role of carer.

Then, under the scorching sun of the deadly Jamaican heat wave we returned each day to the street with a typed resume and scoured the streets for jobs. We focused on large chains like KFC and Tastees Patty, which would have room for advancement, and sent out a lot of applications. Most of the time, my friend ***** never got a reply.

Mr George offered him a job to feed, clean chickens and maintaining the fields but he could not imagine himself spending his life driving stakes into the ground, erecting fences, dividing the land. He thought of himself not as something heavy that left tracks behind it, but if anything as a speck upon the surface of an earth too deeply asleep to notice the scratch of ant-feet, the rasp of butterfly teeth, the tumbling of dust.

But then he caught a break: Singer Appliances invited him to a job interview. One morning in late June, he donned a new pair of khaki trousers and a button-down shirt, and we headed downtown. It was the perfect opportunity—but also, to me, a fraught one. A young man who had been imprisoned would have to make the case that he ought to be hired. We had practiced bits and pieces of his story, but never the whole thing. In fact, I never heard my friend ***** recount his own tale of horror from start to finish.

I wonder now whether this was because the full version would have led me to ask questions that my friend ***** did not want to answer. He had so much to give—stories, reflection, engagement—that somehow none of us ever noticed just how much he was withholding. He could not love everybody on the terms on which they needed to be loved, give everybody what they needed to receive; and so, in the end, none of us really knew him. I’ve come to realize that he didn’t quite know himself, either. He didn’t get the job.

The Root of it all

The trouble began in preadolescence. His mother lived on and off with a man who was not his father and had kept from her the fact that he had a lengthy acquaintance with the criminal justice system, and who soon became abusive. She took her children to Montego-Bay and then to St. Elizabeth. There, a few months shy of ten, my friend ***** stole a jar of coins, amounting to something under $10, from a mulatto family across the street. He was starting to want things, impatiently, and he was also naïve, an urban kid transplanted to the rural south. Only out of naïveté could he have thought to steal from a prosperous mulatto family in Jamaica.

Rather than telling his mother and asking for the money back, the family pressed charges. It was my friend *****’s first encounter with the law, and he went to court with his mother. She had by then fled from the abusive relationship and hopped a creaky Encava bus to my neighborhood. The judge told her the charges would be dropped so long as she left the area and never came back.

My friend ***** earned money gardening and feeding chickens, but resented the hectoring lessons about life that the boss delivered as he weeded.

He was becoming something of a rule breaker. He and his new friend D***** were caught stealing chocolate-chip cookies from the school cafeteria, and sometimes had to be separated after making noise in class. My friend ***** was also caught shoplifting at a nearby Texaco petrol station. Luckily, the storeowner delivered him to my mother, not to the police. But his pattern of petty theft worried his mother; the weeding job was meant to deal with his need for money.

We know something about his experiences as a student, because the department of education surveyed its youth during that school year. 40% of ninth graders reported being in a physical fight; nearly 60% reported seeing someone at school with a weapon. Gangs filled in for family; almost one in five ninth graders reported belonging to one at some point. My friend *****, then just shy of fourteen, seems to have flirted with the Russians [gang] downtown, who were active on the west side of the town; later, he started hanging with a friend from the Roses, a rival gang.

My friend ***** was testing out a new world. But in that summer he would also return to his old one, hanging out with D*****. During one of those visits, D*****’s parents were looking after the next-door neighbor’s house, and the two boys let themselves in and took a radio and some other items. The neighbor reported a burglary, and when my friend’s mother realized who was responsible she hauled him to the police station. The boys returned everything. They were given a two-year juvenile probation, which entailed a curfew but no court date.

The narrative so far is familiar. A kid from a troubled home, trapped in poverty, without a stable world of adults coordinating care for him, starts pilfering, mostly out of an impatience to have things. In my friend’s first fourteen years, his story includes not a single incidence of violence, aside from the usual wrestling matches with siblings and friends. It could have had any number of possible endings. But events unfold along a single track. As we make decisions, and decisions are made for us, we shed the lives that might have been. In my friend’s fifteenth year, his life accelerated, like a cylinder in one of those pneumatic tubes, whisking off your deposit at a drive-through bank. To understand how that acceleration could happen, though, another story is needed.

Decisions, Decisions

The summer before my friend *****’s first year in secondary school, he worked in a grocery store as a bag boy. He again began to roam the streets, and stayed out past his curfew. In class, his grades plunged from straight C’s to F’s. His teachers who told him that he was smarter than this. He countered, “I don’t want to be smarter than this.”

On those warm summer days, he spent as much time as he could out-of-doors. Sometimes he would stand in front of the house of a kid he’d come to know. The last I saw my friend ***** was Saturday, August 6th, the independence day summer sun burning a hole in the ether. He didn’t have work. He’d long quit. The next time I saw him, he was in handcuffs.

Where were you when you were fifteen? When I close my eyes, I can still see a bedroom with a brass bed topped beside a decaying Super Nintendo and a yellowed copy of To Kill A Mockingbird. There were matching valences on my windows, and I had a wooden rolltop desk, with a drawer that locked and held my secrets, including a few letters from a pretty girl with whom I’d had a minor romance at summer school.

Finale?

It was September 12, 2001, a cool and foggy Sunday morning. ***** Thomas, a lanky forty-four-year-old, was cleaning his new BMX bicycle in the alley behind his apartment, on Meylers Avenue. The street was lined with drab wooden apartment buildings. My friend ***** appeared holding a chrome.380, a cheap pistol prone to malfunction. His friend, D***** was apparently on lookout, but not visible to Thomas as he washed his new bike. My friend ***** approached Thomas, told him not to move, and demanded his watch. Thomas handed it over.

Then my friend ***** asked for his wallet. When he found that it was empty, he tossed it back into the low grass. Then, as the police report recounted, my friend ***** “tapped Thomas’ left knee with the gun and said he was going to take the bicycle.” According to Thomas, my friend kept the gun pointed at the ground. Thomas lunged for the weapon. They wrestled. My friend punched him. Thomas gained control of the gun and shot my friend ***** through the neck.

As my friend ***** lay bleeding on the ground, Thomas hollered to his wife to call 119. When the police arrived, they collected evidence and looked for witnesses, although no one had anything to say. Meanwhile, paramedics took my friend ***** to a hospital, where he was treated for a “through and through” bullet wound that had narrowly missed his spine. It didn’t miss his heart.

By the time his mother got to my friend’s ***** bedside, he was hooked up to several tubes. I don’t believe that my friend was prepared, that morning, to be violent; he had a gun, but refrained from using it. Still, I was far away, a student in Kingston. On the tree-lined campus, I shared shock at terrorists felling the twin towers with friends and debated crime and punishment in ancient Athens. I had gravitated toward the subject upon being struck by how a sophisticated, democratic society had made next to no use of imprisonment. When the news of my friend’s death came, it was stupefying. My brain raced in endless loops. How could it be? How could it be? I now have a sense of an answer. But there were harder questions ahead.

Five weeks after that champagne-filled wedding day, my father called me with the news: ***** had been discovered in a shallow ditch , dead from multiple gunshots. I was on Preston Hall, UWI, and I remember my father’s voice, the careful, clipped speech of a elderly upholsterer, crackling like eggs dispensed in heated oil.

 

There He Lay

I saw my friend ***** lying in his casket. I was taken aback, seeing him, his still face so sombre in repose, with a slightly grayish tinge. I was struck by his solidity. I had never noticed how much he had bulked up. In the casket, there was no smile. The light was gone, and with it, I suppose, the lightness.

We had lost him at fifteen to jail; we regained him. At eighteen, he was lost to us again, gone for good. My friend’s idea of hell was to be reduced to a number; now he became a statistic, joined to the thousands of black Jamaican ghetto inhabitants who have died violently in the years since his first arrest.

In my heart’s locket my friend and I will be forever at play beneath a pair of mango trees bathed in June sunshine. We loved to climb trees. An arm here, a leg there, juts out from the trees’ floral sundress, a delicate skein of pink and purple blooms. When we found unbloomed buds on the dichondra lawn, we would gently press at their nubs until the skins slit and fragile, crinkled blossoms emerged whole. Meanwhile, inside the house, through the living-room picture window, the adults, beloved, pass their time in glancing, distracted talk.

Now I tell my tales of the homies, how I witnessed their departure into darkness. I could have been them. Somehow, I stayed away from the gangs. Kept my head in a notebook instead of rolling up papers. How I the ghetto untainted, a survivor, trying to tell the world this story. Just as Obama became a symbol of hope when he was elected, maybe my friend *****’s story can make him into an example for kids living in the same jungle.

He was like a stone, a pebble that, having lain around quietly minding its own business since the dawn of time, is now suddenly picked up and tossed randomly from hand to hand. A hard little stone, barely aware of its surroundings, enveloped in itself and its interior life.

What was his life worth? Maybe he wasn’t important but that doesn’t mean he is forgotten. No one is forgotten. But who was he but one of a multitude who live in the second and third classes? A mouse that quit an overcrowded, foundering ship. A nobody who slid through this life unnoticed. A simpleton, a poor helpless soul who wandered onto the battlefield of life without arms or armour. But who then survived eighteen gruelling years in the shadows of the city against a universe of predators in its bizarre shape. Somehow. The obscurest of the obscure, so obscure as to be a wunderkind. Does that explain his indifference to life? Maybe. The death he chose was full of misery and pain and shame and regret.

But you should never have come to this camp. It was a mistake. In truth your life seems a mistake from beginning to end. It’s a cruel thing to say, but I will say it: he is someone who should never have been born into a world like this. Someone once said it would have been better if his mother had quietly suffocated him when she saw what he was, and put him in a trashcan. That’s perhaps a bit extreme. But what’s the purpose of life when the death certificate is already written at birth, waiting for you to come back and claim it.