Colors Part 1: Kidz ‘N the Hood

If it hadn’t been for Manny Garcia’s mom, I would probably be dead or in jail by now.

It was 1980 – we had just elected our first movie star president, the Cold War was in full effect, and Joanie Loves Chachi was still two years away. I had just turned nine, had a lot of anger inside me and nowhere to direct it. So I turned to the streets, or rather, to the playground. Feeling alienated from society, and rarely being picked for the kickball starting lineup, Manny, our friend George, and I decided to form a street gang. Inspired by the movie, The Warriors, we called ourselves The Warriors. After school, we’d go to the park to train so that our bodies and minds were strong. We knew that they had to be, just in case we were ever called into battle.
The three of us would run laps, climb trees, and practice karate, but we pronounced it “ka-ra-TAY” because it sounded a lot more authentic that way. We took our regimen very seriously, keeping a journal of how many pushups George could do, or how long I could hang from the willow tree before letting go. Sometimes we’d look for big sticks to use as weapons, or just grab Manny’s old baseball bat and tap it menacingly in our hands at each other.
George and I were pretty good at drawing, so we worked together to come up with a gang symbol. George wanted it to be a snake coiled around a dagger. I lobbied to get two intertwined pairs of nunchucks, which I thought seemed a little more artistic, yet still intimidating. We compromised and ended up with a pair of nunchucks draped over a dagger. There was some talk of getting satin jackets with our logo on them, but we were nine.
One day, after a particularly grueling training session, we decided to go on our first patrol. Our initial stop in protecting our turf was Manny’s house, which was a few blocks behind the elementary school. As we walked toward his house, I saw his mother standing on their porch, so I waved. When she saw the baseball bat in Manny’s hand, she yelled, “Manny! Are you going to play baseball? Take your little brother to the park with you!”
George smiled and chimed in, “We’re not playing baseball. We’re in a gang!”
Manny winced.
His mom just stood there for a minute without saying anything, and I contemplated turning around to go home. Just then, she stormed off the porch, snatched the bat out of Manny’s hand and pointed it at us as she yelled, “Do you think being in a gang is some kind of a joke? You think this is funny? Do you want to get yourselves killed? Manuel – if I ever hear you talk about being in a gang again…”
She never finished her sentence. She didn’t need to.
“All three of you – look at me. You promise me you will never get mixed up in gangs. Promise me!”
As I learned that day, there already were gangs in Manuel’s neighborhood. Real ones. Not ones who sang “Macho Man” while climbing trees in the park. Not ones who went to the mall to get their names ironed on T-shirts in fuzzy letters. And definitely not ones who wore Smurfette wristwatches.
We all sheepishly nodded our heads and promised not to fall into a life of drugs and violence. Manny waved, and mouthed the word, “Bye” as his mother yanked him into his house.
As George and I walked back home, I told myself I would never break my promise to Mrs. Garcia. And for over 20 years, I stayed true to my word.
But that was before Natasha, Seamus, and I started taking tap.
[Stay tuned for the dramatic conclusion – Colors Part II: Gangsta Tap!]

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