The Black Bandanna This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine.

January 9, 2012
It was a typical Monday morning. I grabbed my books, kissed my mother good-bye and walked out the front door. As I ventured past a freshly painted, jet-black Caddy, I stopped to take a look at my reflection. Staring back was a 14-year-old thug with a shaved head wearing a wife-beater, filthy cut-off jeans tattered around the bottom and paratrooper boots, white laces all the way up. I smiled, removed a black bandanna from my belt and tied it around my forehead. From there I proceeded to my destination, a friend’s house two blocks down. I was nervous because I knew later in the day I was going to have to fight three of my fellow gang members. I had missed two meetings, and it was the rule.

I made my way to Josh’s place. It was small and smutty. The smell of dog waste lurked among the garbage left behind by months of constant drinking and belligerent partying. I walked around back, jumped through the bedroom window and ended Josh’s slumber by blowing a bong hit in his face.

In the midst of our morning session, the neighbor came popping through the half-broken window. We said our hellos and exchanged gang signs. Our words “White pride” and “Down white criminals” could be heard in the next room by Josh’s mother, but she remained a recluse, too inebriated to face reality. She just lay in bed, half-crippled and eating tranquilizers like candy. Periodically, she would threaten to call the police.

Within 20 minutes we made it to the store and back. Two 12-packs and a half ounce of weed between the three of us would be sufficient until afternoon. We were merrily intoxicated and blowing the beer bong horns by 9 a.m. It was time for morning entertainment.

We filled up our beer bottles with gasoline, threw them into our burning trash can and ran like hell into the small backyard shed. From there, we had the best view of the flames bursting up into the air as a rich, black mushroom cloud ascended, infecting the calm blue of the sky.

As they usually did, the explosions woke a neighbor. He took advantage of the noise and began firing his Tech-9 and .38 caliber handgun into the ground on our side of the fence. The shotgun made it outside, but was definitely inappropriate for the occasion.

We closed the morning hours with some weightlifting and more beer drinking. It was the perfect remedy for the alcohol poisoning I had accumulated over the weekend.

Noontime came, and we decided to venture to a friend’s house. A short walk over the dirt and crabgrass and we were at Big Ed’s front door. Ed was the 26-year-old president of a local motorcycle gang. He weighed about 270 and stood six and a half feet. If his size wasn’t intimidating enough, his cold green eyes were powerful enough to pierce a man’s chest and rip the breath from his lungs. It was Ed’s idea to start our gang.

We were greeted with the tastiest of marijuanas and the finest of liquors. We sat, took out the peace pipe and began discussing what the day would bring. Ed was always calculating new schemes for us to make some cash. Stealing from construction sites and homes, lifting car stereos and ripping off registration tags were all quick and easy ways to come up with money.

Ed had just begun describing his new idea when Josh’s brother, Bear, came storming in. His face red and dripping with sweat, the enraged giant was too winded to speak a word. When he was able, Bear explained that his aunt had been beaten by her boyfriend. Josh sprang to the telephone to call other members.

I went into another room to call my parents. I told my mother I had just returned from school and was going to the park with friends. Instead of giving me permission, she told me to come home immediately. My grandmother had returned from the hospital, and she needed me to look after her.

The other “brothers” quickly arrived. Six, including me, were chosen to go down and take care of the aunt’s boyfriend. I took Josh and Bear aside and explained that I would always be there for them, but I had to take care of my grandmother. I splashed some cold water on my face in a vain attempt to sober up. We exchanged gang signs, and I was off. The guys jumped into the bed of the gray, beat-up Chevy and drove off in a frenzy of drunken hatred; I was disappointed I couldn’t go.

I left for my grandmother’s house and returned to mine the next day. The ride home lasted an hour that seemed a lifetime. I was incredibly anxious to find out what had happened. As soon my car pulled into the driveway, I charged into the house and phoned Josh, but no one was there. I threw my clothes into the bedroom and ran down to the ’hood, but the block was like a ghost town. I could sense something was not right.

As I was leaving, I noticed Bear’s girlfriend pulling up to her house. I dashed over to learn any news, but before I got out a word, she said angrily, “Arrested!” A single tear dripped down her cheek and fell to the sidewalk. I could see the disgust on her face when she turned away. I was in shock.

Then realization set in. Eric, a friend who was involved, came rushing toward me. Confirming my horror, he further explained what had happened and how he managed to evade the police. He then warned me that the cops would most likely be back to search the house for weapons and stolen items. Ed had instructed us to take everything illegal from Josh’s house and stash it. In one truckload, we transferred everything to a nearby friend’s house we felt was safe. With Josh’s mother unaware, Eric and I decided to stay the night in our recently incarcerated friend’s shed. It was a safe distance from the house, where we couldn’t be heard. A bottle of Jack Daniels and some high-powered LSD would comfort us through the evening.

That entire night my thoughts were consumed with questions. How did just having fun turn into this? Why was I lucky enough to have escaped the fate of my friends? Would I be so lucky next time?

That night, I realized my life was being wasted. The only things I put effort into were getting high and proving to people how tough I was, how much intoxication I could withstand, and just how far I would go to show it. I needed out.

I woke up the next morning to a series of explosions. When I looked, there were no friends with bottles of gasoline. The ATF [Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms] had thrown percussion grenades into the neighboring houses. From that small, filth-encrusted window, I watched black uniformed agents with submachine guns blaring swarm the surrounding back yards. They began hurling the men, women and children to the cold, wet grass. More blasts, followed by high-pitched screams, could only mean the raid had spread farther down the street.

In the midst of insanity, my attention suddenly turned to Ed kneeling in the mud, his hands restrained behind his back. Everything else hushed. My focus was fixed on the man who, to us, had always signified power, respect and courage. I watched his screams of anger turn to tears of horror as he watched his wife and four-year-old son taken into custody. His scowling face was like an open book. I could read his fear as the agents ran in and out of the house, each time seizing guns, drug paraphernalia and stolen goods. From the shed window, that life didn’t seem so wonderful anymore.

Right then and there, I vowed that if I made it out of there, everything would be different. I was ready for things to change. I had seen enough to know I didn’t want it anymore.

Afraid to use the bathroom or even open the door for air, I hid on a mattress inside that old hovel for five hours. Eric tried to escape, but was apprehended immediately after leaving the back yard.

The air had grown silent. It seemed that the lunacy had ended. I gazed outside to see the path of devastation that lingered behind the morning’s chaos. The personal belongings of the people I cared about were scattered like ashes on the floor of a burning forest. With that, I left the neighborhood and the cloud that had long been shadowing me with a false perception of life and what was important. I didn’t understand why I had been so lucky, but I knew I was being handed the opportunity to regain the life I had so quickly forgotten.

As I approached my house, I lowered the black bandanna from my brow and grasped it in my fist. I walked to the back yard and sat in front of a half-broken cinderblock where I laid the emblem I had worn so proudly, the symbol that once represented a brotherhood of courage and pride. My eyes closed, and a moment of serenity came over me. I felt the warmth of the fire rise to my face as I inhaled the smoke of my seemingly impenetrable binds and exhaled the breath of a new life. It was over. I had just begun.

This work has been published in the Teen Ink monthly print magazine. This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.

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