Carter stands on the corner in front of the U.S. Attorney’s office eating a chili dog. He is concentrating on each bite so that not a drop of hot sauce or mustard will land on his white T-shirt or immaculate sneakers. It is a hot day in July, and he is also wearing white shorts: He gleams. You couldn’t miss him. Especially if you happened to be riding around the block with a gun on your lap, looking for a man who had just spilled his guts to the U.S. Attorney.
“Should you be standing here?” I ask. I have just walked around the corner on my way to court only to find him here. We are plain happy to see each other, we who used to meet every week when he was a child. Now Carter is an adult at 19, and does adult things: grand jury, criminal trials, drugs, and death.
Carter catches the last drip of chili sauce on his tongue and wipes his hands carefully.
“You’re just standing here, Carter, where God or anybody can see you.”
Carter is always slow to catch on. He concentrates on one thing at a time. Right now he is trying to figure out what the U.S. Attorney knows. “They think I did it.”
“Did you?” I ask, not knowing which of the three or four killings that have been in the local news he might be referring to.
“Nah.” He looks offended.
Seeing Carter standing out there on the corner with a chili dog in his hand, I’m thinking, time will be short. No way around that. Death is riding down the middle of the highway, hogging the center line. If Carter doesn’t want a head-on crash, he has to pull over—way over—to the side.
When Carter was 1 year old, his daddy went to prison. Carter’s good-looking mother grabbed her chance to try the big time in New York. She handed Carter over to his daddy’s folks, where he joined a cousin, Petey Boy, who was already there. Carter and Petey Boy were the same age and grew up together in their grandparents’ home.
Grandma died when Carter and Petey Boy were 9. Grandpop was left to manage them. They ran circles around the old man. They cut school so often that finally it seemed pointless to go anymore. Instead, they stood lookout for drug deals. Increasingly, Grandpop stayed in bed and forgot to feed them, and they used their lookout money to buy soda and potato chips. One morning Grandpop didn’t move at all. Carter and his cousin talked. What should they do? It was quickly clear that they should do nothing for as long as they could. They understood that their world would shatter when the body was found.
Three weeks later the police broke into the house and removed the body. The boys were put into separate foster homes. Carter’s mother was located. With her brilliant looks and childish ways she wove charms around her interrogators. How could she care for this wild boy whom she had not seen for eight years? She could not even care for herself, needing advice about everything: money, food. The world was a mystery to her. Caught in the net of her charms, the social workers turned tender. They would relieve her of the burden that was her son. They would place this untamed, handsome boy for adoption, and surely there would be many bidders.
As indeed there were. But no one had reckoned on Carter’s deep resistance. He simply refused. Carter did not wish to be adopted into a happy home. He knew who he was. Whether his mother liked it or not, she was his family. She might not live with him, but he would not let her throw him away.
Several times a year she would pull up in a sports car before whatever modest foster home he happened to live in. When she drove him to her home for a few hours, he always slipped something of value into his pocket: a gold ring, a diamond watch, a fine pen. And in addition he exacted a flat price from her each time: one new pair of sneakers and a $100 bill.
The money he spent any old way, quite generously, but the sneakers were fiercely guarded. He had a closet full of them and a memory of his mother connected to each pair. Perfect dressing became his trademark.
By the time he was 14, Carter would steal anything from anybody, as long as it was on a dare, as long as everyone knew that he was the thief. He was brazen in his denials, hunched over behind bars, looking as much like a thug as he could with those great, golden looks of his.
It took him longer than it would have taken a homely child to work his way into reform school, but eventually he succeeded. He loved it. The Christmas he spent in Boys’ Village probably was his happiest: the rowdy community of boys, a tree, loud singing, and ham and sweet potatoes for dinner.
Carter was sprung from lockup to go to a fine school for delinquent boys that stressed excellence through sports. Though he had never played a day of tennis in his life, Carter was captain of the team within four months, an absolutely natural athlete. But Carter saw any school as an impediment to his intended criminal career, and he argued wholeheartedly to come back to the District. He wanted to get on with it. Warned that he soon would be doing time, Carter rejoiced in his coming manhood: Doing time is hard, but men have to do time, and do it alone.
By the time Carter was 17, he had moved in with his cousin Petey Boy. What began as a joyful reunion quickly turned dangerous. While they laughed heartily at their nights’ exploits, carloads of threatening young men began to circle the block where they lived, show up at the door, and spray bullets around. Carter and Petey Boy stacked guns under the bed. They bristled with arms.
I pleaded with Carter to leave. Just get out. You wouldn’t have to go far. Even to Baltimore. He looked at me as if I had said, “Fly to Mars, now.” There is only one world and it is called D.C. It is divided into quadrants; its places are perfectly known. In D.C., Carter is Somebody. D.C. is edged by outlands, Prince George’s County. Prince George’s is not divided into quadrants. Its streets are imperfect. Carter is unwelcome there. Anyplace else is No Place and Carter is Nobody. Anyplace else is unthinkable.
One early afternoon when Carter was 17, I stopped by the place where he was staying. There were four other young men sprawled on the floor. They were just waking up after a night on the streets, and they were watching a soap opera on TV. They knew the whole story. One of the men had missed an episode, and the others filled in the details. It was clear that Days of Our Lives and All My Children spoke to them. They worried whether Bart and Shelley, who loved each other, would get married, and whether Katrina would find her father. The outlines of these fictions were more clearly etched in some respects than their own violent lives on the night streets. The soaps have writers to clarify the plot, help it hang together, make sense of it.
After our surprise meeting at the corner by the U.S. Attorney’s office, Carter calls me from a telephone booth, very late at night. I can hear cars squealing in and out of a parking lot. He is polite and he sounds scared. Will I check his criminal record and see if there is a bench warrant out? He wants to know why the cops are following him. Maybe it’s just because he missed a court date. I refuse. I will not run errands to help him in a life I had warned him away from. But I say, “Promise me you’ll be very, very careful.” He says, “I will.” We speak formally; it feels final.
In April, when spring has captured the trees, and lawns smell of moist dirt, Carter’s weeping mother calls. She has just heard the news that Carter’s body was found in a car, a bullet in the head, the window riddled. That very night he had been to the funeral of a good friend. “I never saw him so down,” she cried. “He thought it was his turn.”
The last happy day on earth for Pretty was the one before Mama was hauled away right before her eyes. Two men came and grabbed Mama in the morning when she was still in bed, 5-year-old Pretty on one side of her, 6-year-old Toughie on the other. Pretty cried as if she knew what was coming. She cried like hell. Toughie just stared and didn’t say word one.
They didn’t see Mama again for almost eight years. Mama was locked up, put away, doing time. Pretty and Toughie lived in Grandma’s apartment, but it was their aunt who paid the rent and told them what to do. That aunt didn’t like those kids one bit. She was just looking for a way to get them out and stick it to her sister who’d left her in this mess.
By 11 years of age, Pretty was tall and strong. She had a stormy look on her face. Her brother Toughie was clever, quick, and careful. He didn’t fight and didn’t tip hishand. He was the only one who didn’t yell at Pretty and the only one she would listen to. Look at them standing there at 11 and 12: Toughie, with his knack for numbers and artful silence; Pretty, a powerful girl who can run like a deer.
Gold earrings, $10 here and there, a savings passbook began to disappear around the apartment, and of course Pretty got blamed. She didn’t deny it, just looked moody and mean, and kicked in a wall when accused. Toughie said nothing. It happened again, more fireworks, again, and the aunt marched Pretty and Toughie down to the court and dumped them on the government. Not her kids, she said.
After exploding out of foster homes, the two of them landed in group homes on opposite sides of the city. Pretty couldn’t be held. She would rather sleep in an alley. She didn’t just hook school, she roared out, fists flailing. The Terror of Southeast, as she was known at first, soon bounded into every quadrant. Watch out! Here comes Pretty. Every door was sealed against her. She made damn sure of that. But in a few days Pretty would find Toughie. They would huddle together. His few words were quiet. Pretty nodded. Sometimes she cried.
Quick and smart was Toughie’s game. He learned the drug trade in the alley behind the group home, becoming so adept at now-you-see-it-now-you-don’t that he wasn’t on lookout more than two weeks before he had graduated to serious sales. He would slip out the bedroom window, work all night, and still grab a B on a math test the next day. He always looked good, with the finest clothes. It didn’t faze him a bit to be grounded by a counselor. Restricted to the house on a Thursday night, say, a pizza delivery car might pull up, and out would come five large pizzas with everything. “Pizzas for Toughie Gates,” the man would say at the door, and Toughie would saunter up and lay a big bill down. All the kids’ mouths would be watering, and it would be that counselor’s life if he had stood between them and the pizzas. After a while, the counselors just gave up the power struggle. Toughie didn’t believe in violence.
Before Toughie was booted out of high school, he was called into the principal’s office. Sweating and flustered, that man shouted across his desk at Toughie, “I want you out. Out!” Beepers and attitude were all he could muster. There was no blood in the halls, no knives, and no gun. Fights happened all around Toughie, but nothing could be laid at his feet. Was he dealing? No drugs had been found. Teachers didn’t like him, though. Toughie was violence waiting to happen.
He watched the principal shout and shake. Toughie was calm. He was deeply indifferent.
Pretty was 13 when she was taken down to prison to see her mama. It was an amazing moment. Families gathered in a big room together, sitting uneasily on folding chairs. Pretty sat near the wall, stiff and scared. Then a door opened at the far end of the room and all the women came in, dressed up and hopeful. Children hollered and ran into their mamas’ arms. Men embraced their dearhearts, or looked nervous. The most beautiful woman in the whole room walked right up to Pretty and put her arms around her. They talked and talked an hour before the guards rounded all those mamas up and marched them back inside again.
Right then and there Pretty knew she would live with her as soon as Mama got out. Pretty was pregnant then, so they would have to look for a place for three of them. Well, as it happened, the baby and Mama came out together. It should have been bliss, but it wasn’t. Mama had to handle freedom; Pretty had to be a mother. Probably they should have changed places, but they couldn’t. More walls were kicked in, windows broken, and the whole dream just shattered. Baby was taken away. Mama went back to the streets. Pretty was “treated,” meaning doctors tried to get inside her head and straighten things out before it was “too late.”
Not just on Jan. 9, the date her brother Toughie was murdered, but on any day when she passes places Toughie was, Pretty remembers. But on Jan. 9 the wound is fresh all over again.
He was killed at 2:07 a.m. while he placed a call from a pay telephone a half block off North Capitol Street. The killers had paged him to the phone through his beeper. He was 18, a big dealer in four neighborhoods.
Mama didn’t come to the wake or the funeral. She had a date with crack that couldn’t be broken.
They kind of covered up the left side of Toughie’s face where he was taken down. He didn’t look careful or clever. Just dead.
A lot of young men came to pay their respects. They cried and carried on.
Pretty is 22 now. She is sad and graceful, a mother three times over. She puzzles about her losses: her own Mama, her first baby. When she reaches Toughie’s name, though, it is pure grief. Toughie lives in her tears.
Ben, in the waiting room of the adolescent AIDS clinic, turns the pages of a sports magazine, here and there spotting Michael Jordan or Charles Barkley or someone else he recognizes. He has an appointment and arrived on time. He has not told the receptionist at the desk that he is here, and he is carefully sitting out of her line of sight. Now and then he glances at the hands on the clock. When he has been there an hour and a half, he closes the magazine and walks out. Only then does the receptionist recognize him from his retreating back.
Ben is angry, says the clinic psychologist. All of our HIV-infected teens have rage.
But he doesn’t act angry, Ben’s foster mother replies. He couldn’t be sweeter. He’s easygoing. He just gets mixed up. He seems to forget from one minute to the next where he is going.
He’s angry, the psychologist replies. Our teenagers know they are going to die. And they punish us for that.
Ben is nearly 6 feet tall. He has a crooked smile. He looks you right in the eye. Ben hangs with a crowd of young people in and around Union Station after 9 o’clock at night. He is “slow,” but they may not have noticed. He acts no differently than they, expressing the same opinions as his friends about things he has heard over and over again: who won or lost last night’s basketball game, who is an undercover cop, and which guns are most accurate.
Ben’s home is with J.J., a stalky, energetic man who is a teacher’s aide at Ben’s school. J.J. looked out for Ben when he first entered the school. He registered him for athletic events, helped him get a job bringing coffee and food to a construction site, and eventually persuaded his mother to let Ben live with them. Now Ben calls J.J.’s mother “Mom,” and she loves him.
But Ben has had many “Moms,” and it is hard to know what Ben is thinking when he calls J.J.’s mother “Mom.” When he was 1 year old, he was taken to an orphanage where the good nuns and nurses cared for him until he was 3. Ben has tender feelings for that place. He goes back often to visit and he says he remembers those days. The clinic psychologist doubts his ability to remember those early days, but Ben is firm on the point.
Ben returned to his mother and father when he was 3 years old. That family arrangement ended forever when, at the age of 5, Ben was rushed to the hospital with a deep gash in his head. Thereafter, he wandered in a maze of social service agencies until J.J. reached out a hand to lift him back into family life.
Is Ben star-crossed? The foster mother with whom he lived for several years after he left his own family forever called him “son.” Together they planned how she would adopt him. Then two people in her family shot each other. Ben was in the room when the guns went off and the bodies fell. His foster mother slipped into a deep depression and Ben had to pack his bag and move on to a new foster home.
At the age of 10, Ben became Mercury the Fleet-Footed. He ran from school, from home, from police, from social workers, from doctors….He ran and ran. Caught, he would fly into a rage, throw over desks, heave books, shred clothing.
After one of these outbursts, Ben was admitted as an emergency patient into a psychiatric ward. The doctors discovered that he was not only mildly mentally retarded, but also HIV-positive. Ben described how he had been anally raped by a man he had encountered on the streets. A medical record confirmed that Ben had required surgery to close the anal wound. Seeing no sign that Ben had ever injected drugs, the doctors thought it plausible that the rape was the source of the infection.
Psychiatrists recommended a certain treatment center where Ben could work out his anger and grief. They helped him pack his few clothes, but the day he was to leave, the center’s director called to say they would not accept him because he was HIV-positive. They did not want to imperil the other children. Ben’s doctors frankly told him what had happened.
Ben showed no emotion. He took his suitcase out the door to a group home for teens, then to a special foster home, then….
It is all of that which J.J. and Mom are trying to lift off Ben’s back.
After Ben walked out on the doctor’s appointment (third time in a row), the angry father of a young woman Ben has been seeing confronts J.J. in the street. He has just heard that Ben has AIDS. Is that true?
Where did you hear that? J.J. asks.
Ben and my daughter have been having sex in a friend’s house after school. Yesterday he told her he had AIDS. Is that true? I’m calling the cops. He needs to be locked up.
Hold on, let me talk to Ben.
Talk, nothing. That man is a killer. And we lock up killers.
J.J. thinks hard. This is not the first enraged parent who has threatened to kill or lock up Ben, first for having sexual relations with their daughters, and then for saying to them, “You know, I have AIDS.” He says “AIDS,” not HIV. He knows the difference. But he says the word that hurts the most.
Mom and J.J. have sent Ben to the best clinics in town: Whitman-Walker, Adolescent AIDS, and at least three private psychologists, all of whom talk about safe sex, no sex, respecting your partner…and Ben knows all the words. Ask him, and he will repeat the lecture back to you, covering not only the practical aspects of an HIV life, but the philosophy. “Everyone has to die sometime,” he says. “You could die before I do. You could cross the street this afternoon and be run over by a car, and I could still be sitting here. I’m not afraid of death.”
J.J. corners Ben and demands to know why he has disrespected and frightened the neighbor’s daughter. The next day J.J.’s car and Ben both disappear. J.J. can’t get to work and he is furious. J.J. and a friend begin to cruise the streets around Ben’s old haunts, and on Saturday they see Ben hanging out on a corner in Northeast Washington near the place where his mother is known to live. J.J. flies out of the car and grabs Ben. “Where’s my car?” Ben doesn’t fight back or run. He leads J.J. into the alley and points to the smashed chassis. J.J. turns to Ben and beats him up right there, breaking Ben’s arm and two ribs and blacking his eyes. Then J.J. calls an ambulance and rides with Ben to the hospital. When the police come, Ben waves them away. “I would have beat me up, too.”
Three days after Ben is released from the hospital, he disappears again. No AZT. No warm jacket. No telephone call. Nothing. He does not come back for Christmas, and Christmas is mournful. J.J.’s family has special gifts for Ben, a wallet and a radio. There is a big dinner for 10 people, but they are all thinking of the 11th. J.J.’s friend calls to say that he saw Ben wandering in another part of the city. J.J. and the friend go looking for him in the early dark of Christmas afternoon.
Six days later, a hospital security officer calls to say that Ben was found slumped in a corner near the urinal in a men’s toilet, sleeping. Attendants had noticed Ben in the hallways and the lobby of the hospital for the past two days. They had thought he was waiting to hear about a sick relative.
They were right about one thing, J.J. thinks.
Ben is waiting.
On March 16, a car drives by with six men in it. They turn their heads with one motion, and stare as they go by. The features of the men are not distinct. You wouldn’t know one from the other if you saw them standing or walking on the street. They are just killers. The car goes around the block and comes by again.
March 16. That’s when Wayne’s dad was killed in the alley behind their apartment off Florida Avenue. Every March 16 Wayne gets weird, he goes off. He sees the car again that no one else can see. Six men. Heads left. Stare.CP
Art accompanying story in the printed newspaper is not available in this archive: Lisa Montanaro.