Hurdles and Barricades
A winner in Oregon Quarterly’s 2016 Northwest Perspectives Essay Contest.
Growing up my mom always told me I was special. Her comments about me being artistic, funny, and smart were gold-plated words forged in the cavity of her chest. Each one was verbalized with purpose. The sincerity made my body tingle every time she whispered out words of encouragement. Our parents are the first ones we learn to trust.
When I left the safety of her jurisdiction and made my way into the school system things began to change. My energy was no longer cute. It was a distraction. My drawing on everything was no longer artistic; it was destructive. My disinterest and inability to perform well on mandatory school subjects was a learning disability. School is what we first look to for our identity.
With time I became calloused to the words of others. I took each compliment with caution. Examining them like counterfeit money from imposters trying to buy my trust. If I didn’t believe it about myself then it wasn’t true.
Like all kids I wanted to fit in. The need for acceptance is a gravitational pull that embodies what it is to be human. The only ones unaffected are sociopaths. I found acceptance through suspension and office referrals. Being known as a trouble maker was a badge of honor. I was noticed. I was in an abusive relationship with my potential. Some attention is better than none.
This brought me to find others who felt like me, a rag tag group of emotionally damaged children. The ones too loud to be forgotten and too crazy to be helped, preteens who decided they were adults. Tired of being hurt, we wanted to prove we were tough. The gang life provided the security we all lacked.
We pledged our allegiance to the streets of Portland. Self-destructing in an effort to show we were significant. All I wanted to be was significant. To have the things society defined as success. Nice clothes, socks that weren’t stained brown.
I was a “white boy” in a Mexican gang el guerro. A self proclaimed Chicano. At twelve years old the way I spoke began to change, along with my hair and style of dress. I threw away all of my jeans and bought Dickie pants. My blue bandana was the cherished piece of cloth that occupied my left pocket, a symbol of unity.
These clothes and that piece of cloth formed the shape of a target sign in my rivals' eyes. Car loads of people from different blocks would shout out the phrase, “Que varrio?” (What hood?) Depending on who they were my response would bring handshakes, or closed fists. My young age didn’t matter.
When I would walk home alone I would drift into the shadows. My eyes would scan each car as it passed by. Oldsmobiles, Cadillacs, and Buicks would send shots of adrenaline through my body. My fingers would grip the rusty screw driver in my pocket as I prayed to get home safe.
When I turned 16 things began to change. Puberty blessed me with 7 inches of height and 20 pounds of body weight. My scraggly chin hairs and poorly kept mustache were proof that I was a man. I exchanged my rusty screwdriver for a pistol. I assured myself that nobody could hurt me anymore.
I was so tired of the cyclical violence and drama that repeated itself like old sitcom. You can only drown it for so long. I dreamed of world travel on a consistent basis with my best friend, my road dog. We would talk about cashing out all of our drug money, buying plane tickets and leaving everything and everybody behind. It was the thought we retreated to when times felt hopeless.
At seventeen I was robbed during a bad drug deal. He took 3,000 dollars and all of the pride I had left. Hot tears streamed down my face as I made my way home. I couldn’t let this happen to me. I told myself I was a man and men don’t let things like that go. I had to get my money back. My family’s house payment depended on it.
My stomach soon filled with malt liquor. A small sea of liquid courage dulled my senses and propelled my damaged pride forward. I was a kamikaze pilot flying towards my own demise. I knew it. I knew what was going to happen. The result would never be what I wanted it to be. Nonetheless it felt like the only option.
That night I stormed in through a window drawing down with my 357. Holding it in the same way the gang task force did when we reached towards our pockets. I cried out, “Give me my money back,” no luck. He tackled my legs and a stray shot was fired. It charged through the floor boards, finding a resting place in the basement. My pistol lifted and swung down, lifted and swung down, lifted and swung down. My mind turned off.
I woke up with my ears ringing in full sprint down the wet streets of Portland. I began jumping fences like hurdles. The sirens in the background cried run faster. Barricades were placed on my street corners. Megaphones shouted my name. I was exhausted. With terrible advice from those around me, I surrendered.
My drunken head was heavy, lifting, falling, and resting on the table as they interrogated me. My mother’s words whispered, “The truth will set you free.” I believed it. So that is what I did. I told them what had happened. I told them I was robbed; I told them I fired my pistol. I told them I hit him.
That same year I was sentenced to seven and a half years in prison. My teenage mind tried to make sense of it all by doing life span calculations. Contemplating how much I had changed from 10 years old to 17. I couldn’t imagine what I would be like at 24. When I was out, 24 seemed like a lofty goal.
Upon my incarceration I made my own route. I ran into the woods of self discovery, surviving on books, seminars, and the guiding words of kindhearted mentors. I tore off my labels like old Band-Aids exposing the healed wounds that were hiding underneath. Education became my ally. College graduate soon replaced the label of “gang member.”
I am 24 now. The time that was given to me is no longer seen as frightening, nor do I feel it to be a regret. It was the guiding hand that pulled the pistol of self-destruction away from my head and replaced it with a pen. I have rewritten my existence. I now have enough ink to show anybody I come in contact with that they have the power to do the same.