Vanilla Funk


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Vanilla Funk

  1. 1. DARIUS and the Vanilla Funk By Phil Wohl
  2. 2. CHAPTERS Lost and Found Candy Man My Name Is… Partners in Crime Mr. Cohen Can Play Breakfast in Desk Elements of the Universe Thug's Life Court's In Session Jersey Blues Shot In the Dark Limping Through Life Second Chance Blame It on the Funk 1
  3. 3. Lost and Found My father was gunned down when I was five years old. Seeing him lying there in that coffin was so spooky that the image has haunted me my whole life. I never had the chance to say goodbye to him and barely even had the opportunity to say hello. Being an undercover cop had its advantages for my dad, Dennis Mitchell. He grew up in Oakland, California in the late 1960‟s as a member of the Black Panthers. The Panthers were the black community‟s answer to oppression and injustice. In the early 1970‟s he moved from the city by the bay to Harlem, New York. The purpose of this exodus was to bolster the Panthers presence in New York‟s premier African American community. A few years after he arrived at 135th Street, dad met my mother, Angela, at a Panther rally. A year later they had Malcolm, their first child, who was named 2
  4. 4. after Malcolm X. Shortly after Malcolm arrived in the world, Dennis Mitchell married Angela Baines. With the glory days now fading in the glow of Harlem, my family picked up and moved to a new community on Long Island called Branchville. With the promise of a new career in law enforcement waiting for my dad and a new house to live in, the family had come a long way from the tension-filled, big city streets. My parents had three more kids in seven years, ending in the early 1980‟s, as Rosa, Martin, and finally Julia were brought into the world. Rosa was named for Rosa Parks; Martin got his name from Martin Luther Ling; and Julia was coined in love for Diahann Carroll‟s TV character bearing the same name. With four kids and barely enough room for everyone in the house, my mom‟s baby making days seemed to be over. A decade went by and the family was flourishing. My dad worked his way up the ranks and out of the 3
  5. 5. shadows and dangers of undercover work into a coveted position of Captain. After his last undercover operation in the early 1990‟s, he and my mom spent a few days getting reacquainted. Nine months later, I was born with the name Darius Theo Mitchell. The name Darius was an original concoction, but Theo was taken directly from the son on The Cosby Show, who I grew to appreciate by watching Nick At Night reruns. Being an “Oops!” baby didn‟t exactly give me the explosive head start I needed in life. The one advantage I did have was that my dad was around a lot more than he was when my brothers and sisters were growing up. Working nine to five instead of being away from the family weeks at a stretch left my dad with a lot of free time. Luckily, I was the immediate beneficiary of that extra time. My dad must have felt some guilt about not having spent so much quality time with my brothers 4
  6. 6. and sisters. He would take me to the park when I was real small, and then we went to a few basketball games together once I was out of diapers. By the time I realized who my father was and what he meant to me, he was gone. I heard people talking about an “old score” that a few local drug dealers wanted to settle with him. Seems that dad had infiltrated their operation and the dealers served about ten years of hard time for their indiscretions. I still remember the night he left us like it was yesterday. We had just walked back from watching Branchville High School beat its archrival Pritchett High School in a basketball game. Branchville High was down the block from our house and so was the local elementary school I was going to attend the following year. As we were walking into the house my dad told me to go inside, and he went to set up the lawn sprinkler in front of the house. 5
  7. 7. Just as my mom asked me about the game, we heard the roar of an engine barreling down the street. My dad must have heard it too, because he was reaching for the gun in his ankle holster before the car had approached our house. His nine-millimeter was no match for the machine guns these guys were packing. Instead of trying to run into the house and jeopardize his family, Dennis Mitchell became a hero on his front lawn. The sprinkler he just turned on washed away much of the blood trickling out of his new holes, but failed to wash away the memories of my main man: my dad. The pain of my father‟s death extended way beyond my little head; my mother received a huge sum of money from the state and the police department. She proceeded to live the good life and leave me behind. The subsequent virtual passing of my 6
  8. 8. mother exacerbated the grief of losing my father. She had no time or energy left for me and I was on my own. The years rolled by between kindergarten and the end of fourth grade. Being a kid that was always surrounded by women of color at home, it was a surprisingly easy transition to be bossed around by a bunch of uptight white ladies at school. The sound of a woman‟s voice seemed to connect to some sort of obedience mechanism in my brain. Conversely, the sound of a man‟s voice never made it past the outer reaches of my ears. It would sound interesting to say that male speech went in one ear and out the other, but the noise was deflected even before it had a chance to be processed. I was like a wild Mustang running with no sense of control or purpose. Once my sister Julia graduated from Branchville High School, she was home about as often as my mom. Being a fourth grader with a key 7
  9. 9. and an empty house gave me license to do just about anything I damned pleased. My life had come a long way from park strolls and basketball games with my dad. Looking back on my life in those days is often painful and a constant reminder of the person I might have become -- the person I might have become if not for Mr. C. Lucas Cohen picked up where my dad left off. He cared about me even after I no longer cared about myself. What I had lost he had found. What I had forgotten he had remembered. What I couldn‟t see he clearly stated. Without Mr. C I would no longer be living on this earth. I would have been just another punk who had a death wish. Dying time will come, but I have plenty of living to do before that fateful day. 8
  10. 10. Candy Man The summers are really hot and humid in New York. The humidity clings to your body like a sopping wet t-shirt. The heat also has a way of turning boredom into trouble for the small, deviant minds of ten year-old boys. My crew and me were growing and we were bad, in every sense of the word. I used to hang out with two guys – one guys name was Edgar Ellison, or Easy E as we called him; the other dude was simply known as Beast – this brother was as wild as he was strong. I was never really sure of his full name because we didn‟t go to the same school. In fact, I don‟t even know if he went to school. Someone once told me his name was Harold, but I didn‟t dare call Beast by his formal name in fear that I would get beat down. My nickname was D Mitch, but Beast just called me D. 9
  11. 11. Easy E, Beast, and me made quite the trio of trouble. I was the brains, Easy E had arms like an octopus, and Beast was the muscle in case we got in trouble. Beast always had some level of protection for us when we walked around; he carried anything from a screwdriver to a piece of broken glass but we always knew we were safe when he was around. One liquid August afternoon we took our usual stroll up to the Korean market about half-a-mile from my house. We had a few close calls with the owner of the store, but enjoyed the challenge that the market presented us. This guy had seen every trick in the book; he even saw through my distraction tactics of asking questions while my friends use their five-finger discounts to get us some snacks. We were out of tricks and out of money, but we were going to try to rob the vault with little more than speed, strength, and my devious mind. It was about 10
  12. 12. 100 degrees outside and it had to be at least 110 inside of the store. I was tempted to crawl inside of the small soda refrigerator just to get some relief from the heat. The three of us worked the store pretty good – stuffing drinks and chips in our pants and shirts. We were about to leave when this huge white guy walked in, blocking any sun that was beaming through the swinging front glass door. I thought Larry Bird‟s entrance would be the diversionary tactic that we needed to escape, so I motioned over to E and Beast that it was time to go. We quickly shuttled toward the door but were blocked by the owner, Mr. Morioto, who somehow had beaten us to the door. I swear I never saw the man move but he was so quick that any escape attempt on our part seemed pointless. Morioto yelled, “You punks rob me for last time! I call police!” E said, “Easy, Mr. Miyagi,” 11
  13. 13. making a reference to the wise Asian man in The Karate Kid. Just as Beast was about to pull something dangerous from his pocket, the big white dude spoke. “Excuse me, sir. I just wanted to pay for all of our stuff.” He looked at me and said, “Bring all of your stuff up here so we can get back to school.” My friends and I looked at each other in shock as we slowly moved up to the front counter. Mr. Morioto said to the man, “What are you doing with hoodlums?” The white guy responded, “They‟re n my class as part of a summer program. I‟m sorry I should have told you when we walked in.” He then nodded at me like he wanted to know my name. I whispered, “Darius.” He then said, “Darius, make sure you and the guys get a few candy bars, too. We don‟t want you guys running out of energy this afternoon. We have a lot of work to do.” 12
  14. 14. We grabbed three or four candy bars each until the white man gave us a look and put up two fingers. He then asked Mr. Morioto for a lottery ticket and then gave it back to him once it was printed, “That ticket is for you. Thank you for your help. C‟mon guys, let‟s go.” We left the store and walked toward the man‟s blue PT Cruiser; he got in the car, rolled down his window, looked at us seriously and said, “Next time don‟t be so obvious.” We exchanged slaps and the man stuck out his left fist and I banged my right fist on his in affirmation. As he drove away I thought, “Who was that tall white dude and why was he in Branchville?” That was the first time I met Mr. C; he was on a break from new teacher training and he came over to the store to get a bite to eat. Little did I know what awaited me a few weeks later when school started? Destiny had a way of setting me up for things before I 13
  15. 15. even knew what was happening. Easy E, Beast, and me talked about getting away with stealing stuff from Mr. Morioto all day. The extra bonus that the Candy Man threw into our bounty, made our getaway even sweeter. Little did I know that nothing in life is handed to you for free – there is always some price to pay down the road. But, for one shining moment, I was enjoying being a kid who could do no wrong… or was that do no right? 14
  16. 16. My Name Is… The summer seemed to drag on as slowly as a Social Studies lesson. With the month of August moving off into the blazing sunset, it was time to get my groove on and head back around the corner to school. Fifth grade would be my last year at Acorn Road Elementary School, and would signal the end of my not so innocent youth. I had spent so much time at the school during the summer when the air was calm and the spaces were wide open. Workmen had built an overhang to protect the kids in the portable classrooms from being rained and snowed on as they traveled to the main building; me, E and Beast often sat in the shady steps right in front of my new class. I was in the front of the line that first day for Mr. Cohen‟s class. Not that I knew who Mr. Cohen was, or what torture he had foolishly signed up 15
  17. 17. for. As the line for my class grew longer, I could sense that this would be a memorable year. It was like someone picked all of the bad kids and put them together in one class. I smiled as the other fifth grade classes looked at us both in horror and relieved amazement. I was talking to my friend Vernon, when the line suddenly grew quiet and everybody looked up. I was laughing as I turned directly into the bottom of a large rib cage. I looked up and saw a slightly familiar white man staring down at me with a big smile. He beamed and said for the class to hear, “Darius my man, this is your lucky day!” Embarrassment and I were the worst of friends. I didn‟t like it when somebody made me look like a fool in front of my friends. While it was cool what the big white dude did at Mr. Morioto‟s store, this was school and it was my turf. The teacher led us into the 16
  18. 18. classroom and we looked up at the board for our seating assignments. He waited for everyone to nestle into their wooden desks before introducing himself, “My name is Mr. Cohen, but you can call me Mr. C.” He then wrote his name on the board and kept talking, “This is the first year for me as a teacher and, by the looks of this class, I‟m hoping it won‟t be my last. I expect you to come prepared to work every day, because I will be presenting the material a little different than what you have become accustomed to at Acorn Elementary. We have 24 students in this class that I expect to be freethinking individuals. While we will do many tasks together, I want your creativity to be the dominant force. Be respectful but don‟t ever act like a robot. Now that you know what I‟m about, let‟s go around the room and hear your stories.” 17
  19. 19. One person after another babbled on and told their names and life stories. Every other teacher I‟ve ever had would have cut each person off after only about a minute; Mr. C. gave each student between five and ten minutes to exhaust his or her tension. Twenty-three people and a few hours later, it was finally my turn to speak. Before I had a chance to open my mouth Mr. C. interjected, “There won‟t be any „My name is‟ with this last speaker. Class, this is Mr. Darius Mitchell. Mr. Mitchell, this is the class.” I felt both embarrassed and special at the same time. While just about everyone in the class knew me, I felt a great deal of pressure to live up to the expectations of my words. I think Mr. C. sensed my anxiety and he helped me through my ten minutes of fame. In my five previous years at Acorn Elementary I was never made to feel anything more than average. Occasionally I would get a B on a test or a project, but 18
  20. 20. no teacher ever gave me a second chance. Mr. Cohen saw right through my ordinary student smoke screen and helped me clear the fog that surrounded my head. From the way I am talking, it sounds like it was all smooth sailing from the moment I walked into that class -- it took quite some time for the two of us to achieve a harmonious balance -- proving once again that nothing good comes easy. The one mistake that Mr. Cohen made was that he was trying to be so supportive that we took advantage of his generosity. To be honest, that‟s what kids do if you don‟t set some kind of limits for them. Mr. C. often talked to me about the guidance he got from fellow teachers and administrators. Among the gems of advice included, “Don‟t smile until Christmas” and “Give them so much homework in the beginning that their heads will explode.” I couldn‟t imagine Mr. C. not 19
  21. 21. smiling at some point in the day. I‟m not really sure how he stopped himself from exploding, but he managed to make it through that year without completely melting down. There wasn‟t a day that went by during that first month of school that I didn‟t test Mr. Cohen. The funny thing was that he was testing me right back. I had finally met my match on the stubborn scale; Mr. C. was determined to break down my walls and unlock the riches in my protected mind, but I had other ideas. I waited a few weeks before I told Mr. C. about the death of my father. He told the class that he was a big kid and that he loved being with us – but the real reason he became a teacher was because his wife had passed away a few years prior to becoming a teacher. I identified with his loss and instantly latched on to his unwavering spirit. I could sense that he was hurting inside but he wouldn‟t let us into that world. He 20
  22. 22. told us “You have to be able to separate the professional from the personal in your life.” There was nothing that wasn‟t personal about Mr. Cohen‟s professional life. He treated all of us like we were part of his extended family. We all could have used a good ass-wupping every once in a while, though. That first month was rough; the classroom became sort of a battlefield because Mr. C. was giving us room to be ourselves. We had never been in a classroom where our thoughts were listened to; life before that was all about learning random facts and winning useless certificates for good behavior. We must have changed the configuration of our desks at least once a week in the beginning. With relationships shifting almost every time we stepped in the room, it was difficult to find a group of four or five people you got along with at any given time. 21
  23. 23. All of the fifth graders had to take a big state Social Studies test In November. That didn‟t give us much time to get to know each other and also put in the hard work needed to do well on the exam. Mr. C. would say almost every day, “I‟m not changing what we are doing for a test. I have a responsibility to prepare you guys for the future, not just the present. While the other three fifth grade classes studied Social Studies facts for at least three or four hours a day, we did our usual one hour per day. At first, I questioned Mr. C.‟s methods; I think the whole class was wondering what he was doing. We weren‟t used to a balanced attack; whenever we had a major test in a subject, the preparation was usually exhaustive. I remember giving Mr. Cohen a real hard time during those first few months. I made sure the majority of his lessons were as broken as my heart. I clung to Mr. C. at every opportunity but made him 22
  24. 24. suffer when I thought he wasn‟t paying enough attention to me. Mr. Cohen said to us often “When you sit down to take this test, I want you attack it. I have found when you walk into a test and you‟re afraid, you have no chance to succeed. Failure always comes to people that look for it; we are all winners in this class. There is no reason to fear a simple test – I will give you the tools to succeed and all you will have to do is listen and execute the plan. I was a poor test taker most in my life because I wasn‟t focused. You will be focused because nobody outside of this classroom thinks you can do this.” It was a classic Us Against the World speech that hit home for a group of cast-offs that were used to finishing second best. 23
  25. 25. Partners In Crime It seemed the closer Mr. C. and I became, the more I tried to push him away. It usually didn‟t take this much effort to separate myself from the average adult. However, as disappointed as Mr. Cohen was at my attempts, he kept coming back stronger and stronger ever day. That was, until I joined forces with my new buddy Javon Trumane. Javon wasn‟t your average fifth grade student. In fact, his diminutive size put him closer to the average height of a second or third grader. But, what J Bug lacked in height he made up in guts. He was the toughest kid in our school, but that didn‟t stop other stronger, bigger kids from beating him up every day. It was natural for Javon and me to be friends. He had a special talent of getting under people‟s skin and I could look into anyone‟s eyes and influence their 24
  26. 26. judgment. I remember this one time when I was called down to the Vice Principal‟s office. Mrs. Daniels was a large, Nubian princess who was the main authority figure in our school; Principal Lewis was the white figurehead, while Mrs. D did all of the dirty work and kept all of his hoodlums in line. Mr. Cohen was in Mrs. Daniels‟ office talking to her about his unruly mob. Mrs. D. asked him, “Who is this boy named Darius Mitchell in your class? You‟re not going to believe this, but I had four girls in my office the other day because they were fighting. I asked them why they were fighting and they said, „Darius Mitchell.‟ I have to see this for myself.” Mrs. Daniels picked up the phone and called the gym and had me sent down to her office. I walked into the small office and looked at Mr. C, who put his head down and smiled. While my pearly- white smile and riveting hazel eyes might have cast a 25
  27. 27. spell on every female within a 30-mile radius, it did little to make my teacher‟s legs weak. Mrs. Daniels took one look at me and told me to go back to the gym. She waited a few seconds, changed her work voice to a more casual tone and said, “That boy‟s has gorgeous eyes.” I think I even saw Mrs. D. fighting with a few of those girls the next day on the playground. Rumor had it that my man Javon had a chemical imbalance. We always knew he was a bit volatile, but none of us thought that it would go as far as him needing medication to balance his brain waves. Javon lived with his grandmother, who was in a wheel chair, and his little brother. Dispensing medication wasn‟t the first thing that crossed Mrs. Horton‟s mind every morning. It took her at least ten minutes to get out of bed and climb into her chair. By the time she emerged from her room, Javon had already eaten a donut and was well on his way to school. 26
  28. 28. Medicine that was previously distributed twice daily by the school‟s nurse was now given first thing in the morning in a time-released formula. Forgetting to take the medicine each morning slowed the release of the feel good formula to never. We all knew each morning whether Javon had remembered to take the medication before he left his house. I could tell by the look in his eyes whether I could leverage his instability for my own pleasure and gain. Javon and I were literally partners in crime, leaving destruction and devastation in our path. Mr. C decided to separate us from the rest of the class, but all he did was give me the chance to create even more havoc. With J Bug directly in front of me, my thoughts were focused on directing him toward the most unusual of stunts. There was this one morning when we finished a lesson and Mr. Cohen had us work in groups. 27
  29. 29. The activity was a little slow, so I told Javon to do a flip on to the carpet in the middle of the class. Before I knew it my words were quickly turned into action; Javon had jumped onto a chair and quickly bent his knees and then headed airborne into the thin air of the classroom. The thud of Javon landing flat on his back resonated through the class like an earthquake. He had every intention of doing a flip but only made about halfway around. Mr. C looked at Javon in amazement as he jumped up off the carpet as quickly as he had hurled himself into the air. We all got a good laugh at flying J Bug’s expense, and then quickly got back to business. We had become used to his zany antics and didn‟t let any of his moments last any longer than were necessary. Most of my ideas about stirring up trouble were pretty tame; that was until I came up with the mother 28
  30. 30. of all pranks. I was pretty disturbed at Mr. Cohen for not agreeing with me in class the previous day. He asked the class, “If you could go out to eat with anyone, who would it be?” We were doing a history lesson, but the answers were anything but historical. He probably expected answers like “Harriet Tubman” or “George Washington,” but what we heard was more like “50 Cent” and “B2K.” My answer was sweet and simple; “I would go out to dinner with my dad.” I then asked Mr. C who he would go out with and when he hesitated, I said “Wouldn‟t you want to go out with your wife?” He tried to avoid the issue but I pressed him for an answer, “Don‟t you miss your wife?” Mr. Cohen had talked about getting remarried, and he even had a picture of his new wife on his desk. Since I hadn‟t moved on, why had he? I didn‟t think he ever gave me an answer, and it was one of the rare occasions when he didn‟t have an opinion. 29
  31. 31. Mr. Cohen‟s silence fed my lack of clarity of my own situation. I figured that it was better to have a wallowing partner than one who could so easily move on from tragedy. I was in rare form the next morning and was planning to do something big to get Mr. C‟s attention. With Javon as my vehicle and rage as my ally, it would be a day that none of us in Room 232 would ever forget. We were in the middle of another long, slow Social Studies lesson, when I looked across at Javon and noticed something shiny sticking out of his pocket. From the looks of Javon‟s wild eyes, it had been a few days since he had taken a hit of that mood-softening medicine. I motioned to him to show me what he had in his pocket and he pulled at a metal protractor. When the metal glistened from the fluorescent classroom lights, I flashed back to the summer and the way Beast was able to turn virtually any item into a 30
  32. 32. weapon. I have regretted what happened next ever since it occurred. Mr. Cohen was up at the board with his back to us, writing down a few things for us to focus on in the chapter. I smiled and motioned to Javon to get up and stab Mr. C with the protractor. He got to his feet quickly – Javon did everything quickly – and stabbed Mr. Cohen in the right side of his lower back. Javon removed the pointy end of the protractor and dropped it on the floor. He ran back to his seat and started crying as Mr. C gently grabbed his back. He walked over to his phone and quietly called the main office, so that the Vice Principal and the nurse could come to our class. Mrs. Daniels came to get Javon and check on Mr. Cohen. It was time for recess so the class filed out to the playground and Mr. C. and some of my classmates 31
  33. 33. quickly told Mrs. Daniels what had happened and he then walked to his car to go to a nearby clinic. That was the longest lunch hour of all time! I felt so guilty at first that I couldn‟t focus; about midway through recess, the guilt was replaced by sadness. I asked one of the aides if I could go to the bathroom, and I then proceeded to cry in the bathroom for the next ten minutes. Why did I want to hurt someone I had such strong feelings for? Did I get rid of the one person that actually cared about me? I made sure that no one knew that I was crying before returning to recess. The whole class was depressed at lunch and Mrs. Daniels ushered all of us into the vacant gym to have a talk. We all couldn‟t believe what had happened, but nobody knew that I was just as much to blame as Javon. Mrs. Daniels told us that Principal Lewis had 32
  34. 34. suspended Javon indefinitely, pending a hearing on whether he would be sent to an alternative school. We all wanted to know if Mr. Cohen would be our teacher for the rest of the year. Mrs. Daniels did not know Mr. C‟s status and if he would be healthy enough to return. By the end of lunch, we were picked up by one of the aides and brought back to our classroom. As we walked into our classroom we were shocked at what we saw; Mr. Cohen was in front of the classroom writing the afternoon‟s lesson on the board. He was wearing the same white dress shirt and there was a bloodstain over the spot where Javon had stabbed him. I‟m sure he could have changed his shirt but knowing Mr. Cohen, he was wearing the shirt to prove a point. The weapon‟s point missed puncturing Mr. Cohen‟s kidney by a fraction of an inch. He got patched up, got a few tetanus shots and was back 33
  35. 35. fighting the good fight within the hour. I walked up to the front of the class, gave him a hug, and whispered, “I‟m sorry.” Mr. Cohen bent down and whispered in my ear, “Next time we both might not be so lucky.” I remember that I ran and ran for miles through the streets of my neighborhood that afternoon. Not only wasn‟t I sure what I was running from, I also had no idea where I was going. I was completely lost in recognizable territory, but had no idea how to get home. I saw Mr. Cohen‟s familiar PT Cruiser rolling down toward me and I waved my hands for him to stop. The car came to a stop and the driver-side window gradually rolled down. Mr. Cohen smirked at me and I slowly stuck my head in his car until my forehead connected with his; we banged fists and I then punched my hand to my chest, put my head down and walked away. That man did care for me but I 34
  36. 36. wasn‟t sure how to return the favor. What if something happened to him just like it did to my dad? It frightened me to see blood on his shirt – I‟ll never forget the image of my dad‟s bloodied body on our front lawn. The image comes to me almost every time I close my eyes at night, or I see blood. I wish I could have jumped into Mr. C‟s car that day and escaped from that place – even if it was for a few minutes, or an hour, or for a few days. What I‟ve learned is that you can‟t run from your past, because it will hunt you down like an angry mob. No matter how fast I ran, my inner demons would always be a few steps ahead of me. 35
  37. 37. Mr. Cohen Can Play I love basketball more than anything else in the whole world. The only things that can deflect my attention away from playing ball are girls. Girls and basketball must have been ingrained in my head at an early age, because my dad used to point out both the finer points of the game and the finest cheerleaders. The apple didn’t fall far from that tree. It was plain to see that Mr. Cohen was a tall, white man. The way I saw it was not only can‟t white men jump; they also have no basketball skills. I also thought that girls were put on this earth to drive me crazy. All right, that second one was right but Mr. C put that first one to rest one afternoon in the gym. Mr. Cohen never missed an opportunity to make our day more interesting. Simple things such as a few extra minutes on the playground or going to gym class 36
  38. 38. while the previous class was still outside, gave us additional chances to blow some steam off. Mr. C was walking over to the sidelines when I called out his name and threw him a basketball. Without hesitation, he turned and shot the ball through the hoop and then sat down on a stack of gym mats. One lucky shot did not convince me that Mr. C could play basketball. I called him out to play one-on-one with me and he happily obliged. I have never played against someone who knew my every thought before I had chance to react. I tried to embarrass Mr. C by dribbling through his legs on the first move but he stole the ball before I had a chance to collect the ball behind him. He said, “You didn‟t just try to put the ball though my legs.” Then he talked as he shot the ball, “You‟re gonna‟ have to come out here and play me.” The ball swished through the net as he finished talking. For a change, I was speechless. Mr. 37
  39. 39. Cohen had proved his point, but I knew he let me score a bunch of times. I really can‟t remember who won the game; in fact, I don‟t think our game was about keeping score. It was so much fun competing against somebody who knew how to play, and Mr. Cohen could play. The other kids in the class smiled at the sight of their teacher playing with them. I took his participation to a completely higher level. This was a man who got me – who felt my pain and did everything in his power to ease my brain burden. Mr. Cohen would usually let us out five or ten minutes early for recess. Sometimes he would follow us to the basketball court on the playground and even up the sides a bit. The funny thing was that Mr. C and I never played on the same team. He very rarely shot the ball, preferring to give kids a chance to shoot that rarely could create their own shots. The more we 38
  40. 40. played with Mr. C, the more I felt my game changing. Before we met, my game consisted of breaking down the defense with my Allen Iverson-inspired crossovers. As the weeks went by I found new joy in passing and bringing my teammates along for the ride. As long as the ball was in my hands it was my choice to lead, not just take for myself. It was easy to get what was mine; Mr. Cohen taught me that it was all there for me to take what my opponent gave me. The game and life were so much easier when I let things come to me, instead of forcing the action. Mr. Cohen kept telling the class that he had no favorites among the 24 kids in his class. However, he and I shared a connection that went beyond the average student-teacher relationship. The class used to go to Computer Lab every Friday after lunch. Mr. Cohen initially resisted the temptation of letting us go on the Internet and play our favorite games. He always 39
  41. 41. went through the motions and gave us some lame educational assignment, only to give us at least 30 minutes of playtime. It only took a matter of minutes before Mr. C would pull up a chair and sit next to me. A few minutes later we were locked up in an epic battle of Slam Dunk! I was always the brother and Mr. Cohen was always the vertically challenged white dude. The action of Slam Dunk! Got so intense that we often lost track of time. It was a good thing that Mr. C wasn‟t a scheduling freak, or he would have really cared if we missed a science lesson, or two. For Mr. Cohen, school was more about real-life lessons than facts listed in a textbook. For me to say that my teacher spent all of his free time with me would be a false statement. There were many times that Mr. Cohen circulated throughout the computer lab and played games against other kids. It 40
  42. 42. was plain to see how much he enjoyed the interaction with all of us. We seemed to have our best moments outside of the limiting confines of the classroom. Maybe Mr. C felt as uncomfortable as we did in that class. He often talked about how much he disliked school, and said he was “here to make the experience more pleasant for you.” None of us could have argued with that. 41
  43. 43. Breakfast in Desk To say that my mother was not a morning person would be a complete understatement. Come to think of it, she didn‟t smile much in the afternoon and evenings, too. I‟m sure that part of my mother died along with the passing of my dad; a part of all of us was taken when I heard those thugs barreling down the street toward our house. I spent at least five years looking for a reason to carry on and it took me even longer to stop beating myself up over not being able to save him. I was constantly disturbed by the memories that hovered around our house. For most kids, the smile on their face would mask the pain that was gnawing away at their insides. My smile was certainly genuine – too bad for me that it was genuinely a disguise. I rarely hung around my house, using it only as a place to sleep 42
  44. 44. and stay out of bad weather. I use to wake up at least an hour before school started and bolt out of the house as soon as I was showered and dressed. Eating breakfast at home was not an option for any of us – that was dad‟s favorite meal to eat with us. He was always so busy running around during the day that he often ate lunch and dinner on the road or grabbed a bite to eat when he came home late at night. None of us could stomach sitting at that kitchen table and facing each other every morning. It became a lot easier to skip breakfast or grab something quick at 7- Eleven or Dunkin Donuts. Even though I wasn‟t a big fan of the learning part of school, I loved being in school. I used to get there early and sit on my favorite stoop in front of the class. One morning I even fell asleep waiting for Mr. Cohen to show up. I was so small and he was so big that he scooped me up off the ground and carried me in the 43
  45. 45. classroom. Good thing no one else was there to see that. A few minutes later I awoke at my desk with the blurry sight of Mr. Cohen at the board preparing our lessons for the day. Before I could even speak I looked down into my desk and picked out a box of breakfast cereal with my right hand. I felt like thanking Mr. C but he played it cool and went about his business and the other kids started filtering into the classroom. When things settled down later that morning I turned to him and said, “Fruit Loops.” He smiled and replied, “Next time I‟ll go to Costco.” I didn‟t go in early every morning looking for food. Some mornings I was able to fend for myself and eat leftovers from the night before. Cold pizza tastes a lot better the piping hot, skin-scalding, greasy pizza. Mr. Cohen started coming in later and later as the temperature dropped. It must have been as difficult 44
  46. 46. for him as it was for me to get out of bed. Besides, it would become increasingly difficult to fall asleep on the porch of the class when the temperature dipped below the freezing mark. It was a rare occurrence that Mr. Cohen would say “No” to us. The relationship he had with the class bordered on abusive, but he could not deny us if the cause was right. Pretzel and cookie sales were prime examples of Mr. C‟s generosity. His bigheartedness must have been contagious because I swear that kids started to give him things in return. I remember this one time when some of the women of the PTA walked into our class in an attempt to sell the final batch of pretzels from a daylong sale. There must have been over 30 pretzels on the tray – Mr. C. said to Mrs. Smith, “How much for the whole tray.” She told him “15 dollars” and he didn‟t even blink. Money wasn‟t the issue for him – he always looked past 45
  47. 47. the money, or the time, or the difficulty, and zoomed in on a greater good. Buying the tray of pretzels was an opportunity for Mr. C to support the PTA, but more than that it was a chance for all of us to interact as people – not teacher and student. We sat there on the end of that day and ate pretzels until our stomachs were about to burst. After he bought us the pretzels, I whispered in his ear, “You want me to get some sodas?” I looked at the five-dollar bill in his hand and slid the green from his fingertips. Little did Mr. Cohen know that I had pocketed the five spot and lifted some cold sodas from the cafeteria. At least that‟s what I thought before he approached me the next day. “I hope you didn‟t spend all of that money I gave you yesterday,” Mr. Cohen said in a sarcastic tone. I shot him an inquisitive look that said “What money?” but he wasn‟t buying it. “I left ten dollars with the people in the cafeteria yesterday afternoon after I 46
  48. 48. realized that you failed to inform anyone that you were taking the sodas.” Mr. C knew that the money he had given me was nearly gone and he was going to make me squirm a bit before letting me off the hook. He continued talking, “This is why I‟m the teacher and you‟re the student. You still have a lot to learn, D.M.” I knew the lecture was over as soon as he called me D.M. Mr. C wasn‟t my dad but he did know how to get into my head without laying a hand on me. It was very comforting to know Mr. Cohen was thinking about me even when he went home. I would imagine that he would go to Costco and walk up and down the aisles for food that would fill the bottomless pit that was my stomach. Not that I even knew what the inside of Costco looked like, being that I had never been inside the warehouse club at the time -- although I did peak inside one day while riding around the neighborhood with my Beast and Easy E. It looked like 47
  49. 49. the inside of a warehouse to me, but it did give me a good visual when I thought of Mr. C walking around looking for cereal, or Pop Tarts, or candy, or cookies. You know, the good stuff. Mr. Cohen‟s generosity extended far beyond my classmates and me. He would even give leftover candy to the smaller kids of our school. They would crowd around him at the end of the day like bees buzzing around the hive. Although I didn‟t like sharing my teacher with other kids, it wasn‟t really up to me how other kids acted around him. Mr. C was a fun guy to be around, and he also let me be myself… whoever I was back then. 48
  50. 50. Elements of the Universe Music was always a big part of Mr. Cohen‟s classroom. He figured that “Music Makes Moods,” and he never hesitated to slide a CD into his portable player so we could relax. Whether it was Jay-Z or Andrea Bocelli, we usually enjoyed any music that took us outside of the usual day. Our class was anything but ordinary and our leader wouldn‟t have had it any other way. Kids in other classes were always telling our class that we were “Crazy.” In fact, I think some of the teachers were starting to question Mr. Cohen‟s unique methods. Mr. C had met with the parents during Parent-Teacher conferences and assured all of them that he “would not forego the children‟s‟ education to only focus on a Social Studies test. You could feel the pressure building for the states Social Studies exam, but 49
  51. 51. somehow Mr. Cohen was able to shield us from the stress. We didn‟t realize that his methods would prepare us to take any test, whether it was English, or Math, or Social Studies. The first thing Mr. Cohen did was taught us how to write. Now, we all knew how to write -- we just didn‟t know how to effectively get our points across. Any moron can write, but the true test comes if the reader can stay awake for the duration of your words. Mr. C was not only teaching us how to open or minds he also insisted that we open our mouths. Again, we all knew how to open our mouths, but it became debatable if anyone wanted to hear what we had to say. I had become an expert at giving teachers just what they wanted. It was a rare day when I would give them any more or any less than what was expected of me. I knew from the moment I walked into Mr. C‟s 50
  52. 52. classroom that my days of minimalism had come to an end… at least for a year. Simply writing words on a piece of paper were not good enough for our teacher. He made us divulge our precious, confused feelings, too. When we used verses like “I felt bad” or “I felt good” he immediately went digging for more. The confusing part for us was always that teachers couldn‟t to put their directions in words we could understand. Simply telling us to talk about our feelings never got us to open up. Mr. C told us repeatedly, “Use you senses people! When you write a story tell me what you see, what you hear, what you smell, what you feel through touch, and even what you taste!” We often questioned the taste part of the senses package but often explored it as a means to complete the task. I had never been able to talk about my dad‟s death in any other terms than “it hurt.” Yeah, of course 51
  53. 53. it hurt but the pain went much deeper than a truckload of mental and physical anguish. My dad‟s dramatic passing limited so many aspects of my life that I couldn‟t see the walls that had surrounded me. With a broken heart and a matching shattered family structure, I was living a solitary existence that left me with nowhere to go. When you don‟t care whether you live or die, most likely you‟re going to wind up six feet under the ground with a crappy tombstone. Many of my friend‟s brothers were the subjects of eulogy after eulogy, and many of us little thugs in training were following a similar path toward destruction. Mr. Cohen tended to keep his emotions in check while he was with us in the classroom. I guess you could say that he never got to low or too high while babysitting us. That‟s not to say that he wouldn‟t smile 52
  54. 54. a great deal, but I sensed a sadness surrounding him that he wouldn‟t share with us. One morning before lunch I wrote an essay about my dad. I believe the topic of the day was “If you could change one thing about your life, what would it be?” We all have things we would change if we had the ability, but somehow I think he gave us the assignment to help me open up about my dad. I‟m here to tell you that talking about the past and virtually reliving it are two completely different stories. The thing I‟ll always remember about that day was how hard I cried when the rest of the class left for recess and I was alone with Mr. Cohen. It took me the better part of two hours composing this one page essay. Mr. C. had sent me back to my desk at least five times to dig deeper and deeper as I was composing this tearjerker. Once the classroom cleared out I handed Mr. Cohen the essay and took a seat across 53
  55. 55. from his desk. Mr. Cohen took a deep breath and started to read my words: DADDY I’ll never forget the look in your eyes when we were together. I wish I could see you now because being with out you hurts. The pain in my heart hurts so much sometimes that I think it will explode. I walk on the front lawn and I still smell the smoking guns and I see your blood stains on the grass. I can taste the salt from my tears and every time I hear the revving of an engine my stomach drops to the ground. Sometimes I wear your shirts so I can feel you close to me. I miss you daddy and I will see you again. I love you. Darius 54
  56. 56. Mr. Cohen put the paper down and tears started streaming from his eyes and down his stubbly cheeks. I started hysterically crying and jumped into his arms. It had been a long time since I got a hug from an adult. He told me, “Everything is going to be all right. Everything is going to be all right,” and for a few moments I believed him. A few weeks and a couple boxes of Kleenex later, the class devoured the state Social Studies test. Mr. Cohen told us over and over again that we “had to attack the test” and “If you walk in thinking you will fail, you probably will.” We were calm and nothing surprised us; I didn‟t feel that the other fifth grade classes were as calm as we were. Pressure from parents and teachers was intense, and it wasn‟t difficult for a 10 year-old to crack under the pressure. Mr. 55
  57. 57. Cohen‟s “Us Against the World” stance worked and we all did better than expected. It was amazing that 15 out of 24 of us got a perfect score on the writing portion of the test. Only one person in our class got a below average score, but he was a Special Education student. Mr. Cohen was so pleased that we did well on the test that he invited us back to the classroom during lunch for all of the pizza we could stuff into our faces. The boxes of Domino‟s were stacked to the ceiling and our spirits had never been higher. I was standing next to Mr. Cohen‟s desk when he opened his drawer and pulled out a CD. He said, “Guys, get ready for the elements of the universe.” He slid the CD into the player and the class was immediately sent into an old- school groove. What had started for me as simply meeting a white dude who gave us free food turned into a surreal experience with Mr. Vanilla Funk. The 56
  58. 58. color of this man‟s skin concealed the depth of this cocoa brother‟s soul. There was no doubting that the elements of the universe on this pizza celebration day were Earth, Wind, and Fire. 57
  59. 59. Thug‟s Life It was pretty ironic that I decided to participate in the play Annie in the spring of my last go-round at Acorn Road Elementary. I was one of the orphans singing “It‟s a Hard-Knock Life” and nothing could have been closer to truth about my world. I was on the fast track to a thug‟s life and being a virtual orphan left few obstacles in my path. With my mom rarely around to keep me in line, it was open season for me to explore the boundaries of my impending manhood. I‟ll never forget the look on Mr. C‟s face when I told him about the gangs in the neighborhood. He said, “I‟ve been living next door to this town my whole life, but I never realized that Branchville had gangs. I detailed for him the constant turmoil between the Bloods and the Crips, fully thinking that these gangs were the modern-day version of my dad‟s Black 58
  60. 60. Panthers. In the traditional East versus West showdown, the Bloods and Crips gang members were the heroes of the neighborhood. Once I heard that the Crips were responsible for gunning down my dad, I knew I would be in the Bloods for life. It was a good thing that I didn‟t tell Mr. Cohen that I was already involved with the Bloods. I could see that his mind was already on overload about basic information, so I didn‟t dare tell him that I was already earning my stripes and working my way into the gang. It was never too early to start making deliveries or going on food runs for the guys. My buddy Beast had already seen action and been stabbed a few times by the time I became involved. It was kind of innocent how I got my first taste of the thug‟s life. I was playing basketball on my street when I heard the sound of a car with a huge engine slowly creeping down the street. I immediately had my 59
  61. 61. dad being gunned down flashback and stood motionless watching the chrome-rimmed tires spin down the block. There were four guys in the old Cadillac convertible, which came to a halt in front of my house. Three of the guys got out and started to play basketball with me. The other two kids I was playing with ran in their houses at the sight of the car. It was like we were swimming in the ocean and the music from Jaws started playing when they came by. I started to relax after a few minutes and even crossed-up this one skinny dude, Allen Iverson style. I looked over to the car as this big dude got out and said, “You‟re D. Mitch‟s boy, ain‟t you? He used to have that same move when he played against my dad over at Groves Park.” I nodded my head and the guy smiled and asked me, “What‟s your name, boy?” I replied, “Darius.” He laughed and proclaimed, “Look what we have here. It‟s the second coming of D Mitch, 60
  62. 62. Deuce Mitch.” I had my first and last gang named attached to me that day. The big dude, named B Rob -- „cause his name was Billy Robinson – and sometimes they called him Big Rob -- led me and his crew over to my house. We were all facing the front of the house when he said, “This is your house, right?” I said, “Yeah” and he continued, “I remember when the Crips did your dad.” He walked right over to my dad‟s final resting spot. “D Mitch was a good man. He fought hard so us brothers could get some power back on the streets. My dad filled me in when your old man was killed.” He turned and looked straight into my eyes with his cold, brown eyes, “That can‟t happen in our house, right Deuce?” “No sir,” I quickly replied. “You come see me sometime. I‟ll make sure the Bloods take care of one of their own.” I nodded as B Rob shook his head and muttered, “It was a damn shame.” 61
  63. 63. It didn‟t take long before I paid B Rob and his boys a visit. Don‟t ask me how I found their hideout – if I tell you they‟ll come after me. My association with the Bloods started slowly with food runs and small cash deliveries. The boys were testing me out at first to see if I was trustworthy. There were many times that I used my blazing speed to get away from the Crips chasing me to steal my stash. My initiation into the thug’s life was filled with scrapes, bruises, and profitability. Within three months of joining the Bloods, I no longer had to worry about stretching mom‟s meal money over the whole week. B Rob gave me fifty bucks per week, which worked out to about ten dollars per delivery. The smell of money was intoxicating and kept me coming back nearly every day. My blood money wasn‟t the only thing that helped make my life easier and more exciting. Word was getting around school that I had joined a gang 62
  64. 64. and you know how much the ladies love a dangerous man. At 11 years old and a diminutive five feet tall, I was turning the corner quickly from adolescence to manhood. Although I hadn‟t been a steady drug user, I did take the occasional toke of a joint every once in a while. If one of the older guys offered you something, you either took it or got your butt kicked in. I‟d rather be floating on a cloud than bloody and bruised any day. It seemed that I could fool everyone with bright smile and sunny personality; everyone except the person that knew me from the inside out, Mr. Cohen. He was more concerned with my well being than the fact that I was living the dangerous life a gang member. Mr. C. was much more into where my head was at, and he could tell what I was thinking even before the thought was formed. Maybe my ideas were 63
  65. 65. unoriginal -- maybe he had seen it all before -- maybe I had finally met my match in life. I was careful to show too much to the white establishment at school. I‟m not even sure if Vice Principal Daniels even understood what I was going through. Although she had the same skin color as most of us in the neighborhood, she drove her Range Rover every afternoon out of our world and back into her upper middle-class existence. I often thought that she lost touch with who she was; it‟s easy to do that when you can listen to the birds chirping when you walk down the street rather than wondering if you‟re going to make it home safely every day. I think deep down Mr. Cohen knew that I was digging a deeper and deeper hole for myself. At the time, I never even thought I was struggling. In fact, I viewed my situation as ideal; to be a member of the greatest gang in the world was both an honor and an 64
  66. 66. extremely powerful position. No one even bothered to mess with me at school and all of the girls knew whom to come to if they wanted some action. I was 11 years old going on 20 and I never wanted the fast ride to end. I used to see my buddy Beast every once in a while when I hung out at the not-so-secret hideout of the Bloods. The guy had been with me all summer and, in only nine short months, had become a full-fledged member of the gang. He had grown like six inches over the year and was now 6‟2” and had muscles exploding from just about every part of his body. Beast must have been 15 or 16 years old and had me wondering why he had been hanging out with a 10 year-old kid and his friend. Beast was the kind of dude who needed to be pointed in the most efficient direction because he was born with the brawn not the brains. 65
  67. 67. I had heard that Beast had been shot at least three times and managed to walk away with barely a scratch each time. The guy was a living legend because he always managed to get the job done no matter how long the odds were. This version of Beast was a significantly advanced predator than the one that had my back over the summer. The one constant Beast brought to the table was that he had absolutely no regard for his well being. He would have given his life to save mine, and he put his life on the line for the Bloods every day. The guy had dropped out of school, although I was never convinced that he ever went to school beyond the first grade. I was strolling through the neighborhood one afternoon when I saw Mr. C‟s familiar PT Cruiser rolling down the street towards me. It was 4:30 and I was in full Bloods mode and on my way to make a delivery. 66
  68. 68. He rolled down his window and I leaned in and we banged fists. “Hey DM, what‟s up?” Mr. Cohen said. I looked around and replied, “Not much, just doing my thang.” What he said next has stuck with me ever since; he looked me straight in the eyes and softly said, “If you ever get in a jam you can‟t get out of, or you just want to talk outside of school, call me.” He reached over and tore a page out of his notebook and then scribbled his number on the piece of paper. I acted all cool as I stepped away from the car saying, “Ayight, Mr. C.” As his car rolled away from me tears streamed down the side of my face as the impact of love caused me to have temporary paralysis. Little did I know that the pain I was causing my teacher, and my friend, was equally as debilitating. Little did I know that Mr. Cohen 67
  69. 69. drove his car around the corner and tears started flowing out of his eyes, too. You see, as cool as we both seemed on the outside our insides were like an active volcano ready to blow at any moment. In the world of the average man, public emotional displays are few and far between. We like to keep every mushy and squishy moment to ourselves; no matter how much pain it causes us down the line. Don‟t hate us for it; we feel things just like women, but we don‟t like to show weakness. Apparently, the only weakness I showed was anger; I was angry that the Crips had gunned down my dad and I wouldn‟t rest until I got revenge. I did keep that piece of paper Mr. C gave me in my pocket everywhere I went. It made me feel somewhat comforted to know that he had my back. The only problem was that if I really got into a tight spot, his white butt would be the last person that would be able to pull me out of a black hole. 68
  70. 70. Court‟s in Session I love basketball. Back then, basketball was the only thing I had control over. I could dribble that basketball like it was dangling from a string connecting my fingertips to the ground. I could crossover guys twice my age, just like my idol Allen Iverson. I got so good at making people look foolish that guys in the neighborhood would call me A.I. I could always find moments of calm in my life and my mind by shooting around by myself. In my neighborhood, it was pretty tough to find an open hoop but I took any free shots I could find. The block where I lived was rarely ever quiet; there were so many kids always parading around that it was often difficult to get some privacy. Mr. Cohen would often look at me when we were approaching lunchtime. He probably wanted to get 69
  71. 71. out of that stuffy classroom as much as the rest of us, so he would give us an incentive to finish our work in a timely fashion. He was not one for details, so we were all usually on the playground a good ten minutes before any other class. This gave us plenty of time to run our own hoop game before it got too crowded. Mr. C. always played with the weaker athletes in our class and I ran with my squad: Jessie, Gonzo, D Train, and T, who were the only girl on our team. Tunisia, or T as she was called, was nearly six feet tall and weighed close to 200 pounds. We figured that she must have been on the frequent leave back plan because nobody had ever seen her before the year had started. Kids in our school had a way of appearing out of nowhere in the beginning of the year and disappearing in equally mysterious fashion at the end of the year. We all liked Tunisia so we never really questioned where 70
  72. 72. she came from, we were just happy she was there to protect us. She could throw a ball farther than any kid in the school and she could take out three average- sized kids when she went for rebounds. She gave me enough daylight so I could shake the kid that was trying to guard me. I had never seen anyone play like Mr. Cohen before. He rarely ever shot the ball, but when he did it usually went in. It was more important for him to get his teammates involved than steal all of the glory for himself. There was really no difference between his on and off-the-court attitude. It was like he was able to transfer his unselfishness from the classroom to the court. What did that say about me? Was I a self- centered person and player? Damn straight! I never really evolved into a Mr. Cohen-type player, primarily because I had many more god-given 71
  73. 73. skills. I‟m sure if he heard me say that it would bring a big smile to his face. It was spring and there were only a few months left in the school year. The class had become so overbearing and obnoxious that Mr. C often sat in front of the class and wrote in a small notebook. Some kids would ask him, “What are you writing about us?” and he would reply, “Why do you think it‟s always about you?” Mr. Cohen focused on empowering even the meekest kids – by the end of the year, even Jayla Smith was acting like the rest of us. You have to understand that Jayla, or “Jail” as she was called rarely spoke and was testing every year for a hearing problem. All Mr. C had to do was look in Jayla‟s eyes and he knew that she could hear him. People were so crazy around J at school and at home that she was a little shell-shocked. She became embarrassed every 72
  74. 74. time a teacher would call on her and would curl up into a protective shell. Mr. Cohen not only called on her all year, he also made her stand up in font of the class and voice her opinion. We were on the basketball court the first time I heard Jayla talk. I stole the ball from her and was headed the other way. She whispered, “Foul” and I stopped short and said to her, „What did you just say?” She said meekly, “You hit my on the arm, you fouled me.” Although I felt for her lack of speech, I nonetheless went after her. “You never talk and now you‟re going to call a foul on me! I never touched you!” She rolled up her sleeve to reveal and long scratch and on her forearm. She looked at the scratch and then at me as her eyes instantly widened. “Not a foul! I‟m gonna‟ foul you!” 73
  75. 75. I started running as she chased me all over the playground. The guys were cracking up while watching us from the basketball court. From that moment on the mystery of Jayla “Jail” Smith was solved and she was free to talk out of turn like the rest of us. 74
  76. 76. Jersey Blues The last few weeks of school were merely a microcosm of the rest of the year. The four fifth grade classes were in the auditorium every day practicing for their graduation ceremony, but our class was constantly treated differently. Why did the other students and teachers think they were better than us? Mr. C had pumped us full of so much confidence that we felt that no one was better than us. Teachers would scold us every time we breathed wrong or talked out of place. There was this one teacher, Mr. Tool that loved to talk down to me in a tone that made me wan to kill him. In fact, I almost borrowed a gun and blew his ass away. It was a good thing for Tool that Mr. Cohen saw the look on my face and talked me out of it. He said something like “You‟re going to throw your life away for 75
  77. 77. that sorry-ass human being. Even the bullet would be insulted.” Mr. C didn‟t like the guy either and he had a knack of making me laugh when I didn‟t want to laugh. While most teachers saved their comments and grades for the viewing of parents only, Mr. Cohen felt that every student should be informed of their progress. Mr. C took the time to meet with all of us personally and discuss what we were doing well and how we could make things even better. He was able to find a positive even for Javon, who had come back to rehearse with us after being at the alternative school for the last half of the school year. “Did I ever tell you how great you did on that Social Studies test? You didn‟t even study and you got three out of four on the writing part,” Mr. Cohen said in a positive tone. I‟ll never forget the happy look on 76
  78. 78. Javon‟s face; you could tell that he was nervous about being around the class and Mr. Cohen. Javon looked up at Mr. C and they hugged each other briefly away from the class. He knew that Javon didn‟t mean to stab him and wasn‟t even going to mention the incident. Javon eventually got the right blend of medicines and went on to become an upstanding citizen and graduate high school. I‟ll never forget what happened at the end of the school year. We were taking final exams and Mr. Cohen was doing his usual motivational tour around the class. He always knew the exact incentive to give to us so we would reach a little higher. One last afternoon we were sitting in our usual reading group and I walked over to Mr. Cohen‟s desk. “You ready for the ELA final?” he asked me. I was not only unprepared for the English Language Arts final, I hadn‟t ven looked at the book. “Yeah” I said in a 77
  79. 79. pretty unconvincing tone. “Well, if you can get better than an 80 I will have a surprise for you after graduation” He responded. Some students responded to candy, others to comic books and food. I had been talking about this cool Allen Iverson jersey all year and Mr. C knew that was my button. “What‟s the surprise?” I asked. He shot back, “Well, if I told you it wouldn‟t be much of a surprise.” A few days later Mr. Cohen caught me as I was running out to recess. He left every day at lunch to spend some time with his wife and was in the process of walking to his car. I followed him on the school side of the fence until he stopped and we were face-to-face on opposite sides of the fence. “Allen Iverson jersey,” Mr. C said and then strolled out of view. It took me a few seconds to get what he said but then I jumped around and ran all over the 78
  80. 80. playground like I had won the lottery. The only problem was that the test was two days away and I hadn‟t even cracked the seal on my books. Those next two days I worked hard and made my Bloods deliveries right after school. I knew I couldn‟t fail as long as I gave it my best try. Before Mr. Cohen‟s class I would never try as hard as I did on the basketball court. On the court, I would leave everything I had out there and the results were usually positive. Schoolwork was hard and it was only hard because I didn‟t make exert any effort. When I got the test back the afternoon following the test, I knew the jersey was mine. The circled “87” with an equals sign and a jersey with the number three on it accompanies a smiling Mr. Cohen. He bent over and whispered, „See, you can do anything if you put your mind to it.” 79
  81. 81. My report card was the best I had received since kindergarten. Five B’s, an A in gym and a B+ in ELA were probably the apex of my schooling experience. I was starting to get a little edgy the day of graduation. It had been a few days since my stunning 87 on the ELA exam and I still hadn‟t received the jersey. On the one hand I was sure that Mr. C would come through, but on the other hand I was an anxious kid looking for immediate gratification. School ended and still no sign of the jersey. Mr. Cohen kept telling me not to worry but I was like a kid on Christmas morning. School was over for the year and a bunch of the kids in the neighborhood were handing out outside my house playing basketball. In the middle of the game I saw a familiar car headed toward us at the end of block. I completely forgot about the game going on and floated toward the driver side of the car. Mr. Cohen‟s smiling face 80
  82. 82. came into view as he slowly stopped his car. He reached over and flipped the red and white Allen Iverson jersey at me through his open window. He looked me in the eye and nodded in approval as I pounded my chest with my right fist. The jersey was about three sizes too big for me and I wore it for a good four years after that. It was both a happy and sad moment for me – I finally had my dream jersey but felt a little blue because my time with Mr. Cohen was now over. 81
  83. 83. Shot in the Dark I wish I could say that my life became easier once I graduated from Acorn Road Elementary. Getting through Turtle Creek Middle School was a real struggle trying to balance my gang time with playing hoops on the school‟s team. It was a daily battle trying to stay in school and I often skipped class to take care of gang business. By the middle of sixth grade, I would see my mom in the vice principal‟s office more than I saw her at home. By the end of sixth grade, she stopped coming to school and basically walked out of my life. By the end of seventh grade my mom met this guy from Atlanta, Georgia and decided to sell our house and move down south with him. She asked me only once if I “would like to come with her.” My brothers and sisters were scattered all around the 82
  84. 84. country, with the oldest, Malcolm in California, Martin in New Jersey, Julia in South Carolina, and Rosa latching on to my mom and her money train. Rosa should have given back her name because she was nothing like the courageous Rosa Parks. If someone told her to sit in back of the bus she would have gladly taken her seat. I had the option of going to Atlanta or staying with my mom‟s cousins, who lived on the other side of Branchville. I decided to have my Aunt Angela as my legal guardian so I could stay in school and play basketball. I had been spending my all of my time at the Bloods hangout and hadn‟t been home in weeks. It is still a bit fuzzy in my head whether I actually said goodbye to my mom. She was far from the wishy- washy, hug me „till you squeeze the life out of me type. She had become so numb that the moving truck was there only a week after she told me that she was leaving. It was a good thing that me and my boys 83
  85. 85. went in the house and cleaned out everything of value. We figured it would save mom the time and aggravation of getting all of that junk out. I really only had a few things that I couldn‟t let go, but most of my stuff fit in a few gym bags and a box. Keeping some of my dad‟s possessions was always on my mind; I made sure to get his badge, uniform, and the American flag they gave me at his funeral. I also went through the house by myself to find every picture I could find of the two of us. My dad had a way of keeping me strong and weak at the same time. Once my mom cleared out of town, my family was now the Bloods. Although her move only made the formality a reality, I still harbored some anger over being abandoned. As usual, I would find my way back to Mr. Cohen‟s class and be able to talk to the one person on the earth that really knew me. 84
  86. 86. I would walk in talking about basketball and walk out talking about life. Mr. C would always tell me that “basketball is a microcosm of life.” Once he told me what “microcosm” meant I was good to go. He was right – basketball was just like life – sometimes the ball goes in and sometimes it doesn‟t. Sometimes you get knocked down and have to dig deep to get back up. Sometimes a referee‟s call or a bounce just doesn‟t go your way and you have to keep your head up. My freshman year at Branchville High School was interesting. I still wasn‟t going to class much but I was the starting point guard on the varsity basketball team. Not only was I starting as a ninth grader, I was also leading the team in scoring and assists. High school was a lot different than middle school – the teachers mostly left me alone and the principal and vice principal made sure I was comfortable, not distracted and hassled. This lack of discipline not only 85
  87. 87. expanded my creativity on the basketball court, it basically gave me free reign of the school and town. By the time my sophomore year rolled around I was taking more and more stupid chances, feeling as if I were invincible. I especially remember this one day after a game when I hooked up with a bunch of my crew and we thought it would be fun to terrorize the people at Kmart. We usually grabbed a bunch of carts and sprinted up and down the aisles grabbing anything of value within reach. The 30-second romp was designed to keep up sharp and get some cool stuff at the same time. In hindsight, I guess it wasn‟t the smartest idea to hit the same Kmart four times within the same month. We raced out into the parking lot and people scattering everywhere like Godzilla was stomping through. I was feeling like Godzilla until five police cars came at us from every direction, rendering us helpless 86
  88. 88. to escape. I thought about running for a split second, but the feeling of a cold pistol pressed against the back of my neck took away that desire. Sitting in the back of a police car with my cuffed hands behind my back wasn‟t exactly my idea of a fun afternoon. I knew that I couldn‟t be stopped and once they found out who I was, I would be free. Three hours and many interrogations later, I was still sitting in the cell with my Bloods brothers when a cop came to the bar and told me that I could make a phone call. My reflex reaction was to call some of the Bloods to get me out but quickly realized that most of them were wanted criminals and the police would surely scoop them up if they rolled into the precinct. I reached deep into my right pocket and pulled out a piece of paper with Mr. Cohen‟s faded number written in black ink with the words “ANY TIME” written in bed letters. 87
  89. 89. For some good reason I had kept Mr. Cohen‟s number in my pocket, probably realizing that he would help me if I got in trouble. He was also the only person on the earth that understood me and my tortured soul. My instincts proved right as Mr. Cohen came quickly and had baled me out within the next half hour. He also appeared at my hearing the next day, despite a confrontation we had, and help get me off with just a little slap on the wrist. About that confrontation… Mr. Cohen took me from the 3rd Precinct and took me out to eat at Banini‟s Italian Restaurant. This restaurant was in Mr. C‟s town, which was a few steps from the border of Branchville. I must have eaten just about everything with red sauce and it felt good to fill my body with something other than McDonald‟s or KFC for a change. I could tell that Mr. Cohen was getting ready to talk to me about something serious, so I said, “Think we 88
  90. 90. can win it all this year?” He looked me in the eye and said, “Darius, you can do anything you want if you put your mind to it.” I had heard this kind of talk from him before, so I shrugged it off and kept eating my lasagna. “What is going on with you anyway?” Mr. Cohen asked me. I kept me focus on the food and shrugged me shoulders. “If you don‟t stop doing this you‟ll wind up either in jail or worse,” he said trying to get my attention. I continued to ignore him and ate the last piece of the lasagna. I could hear by his breathing that he was starting to get upset. He inhaled and went for the jugular, “What do you think your dad would say if he could see you now?” I became instantly incensed like I was face- to-face with the person who jailed me, not the one that had bailed me out. “Mother fucka! What the hell do you know about my old man? You ain‟t my old man! Never was, never will be.” 89
  91. 91. I looked angrily into Mr. Cohen‟s eyes as he waited for me to calm down so we could talk. When I refused to back down, he got up slowly from the booth, reached into his pocket and pulled out a couple of twenties and tossed them on the table. He put on his coat and said, “Darius, good luck to you” and he walked out of the restaurant. I was surprised to see him the next day at the hearing but I wasn‟t surprised by all of the nice things he said to the judge about me. He said his piece and left the hearing without even looking my way. I had hurt the last person in the world that deserved it but I at the time there was no other way. Mr. C had become a fixture at our home basketball games because the high school was right next to the elementary school. The 4:00 games gave him plenty of time to get his room in order after school and then be home in time for dinner. After I yelled at 90
  92. 92. him, I didn‟t see him in the stands for the whole second half of the season. I made All State that year and was being recruited by over 100 colleges. The state championship was ours and a full scholarship seemed like a formality when I graduated in a couple of years. If they allowed me to skip from tenth grade to college I would have done it right then. I figured that once I made it to my senior year, college would be an afterthought to jumping right to the NBA. Talk about an enormous head… My celebrity on the court did little to slow my activity down off the court. I had survived the state championship, flying bullets, and knife fights, so in the spring of my 16th year I was feeling like nothing or nobody could take me down. I was the one that took down everything in my path, including my relationship with Mr. C. 91
  93. 93. We got tired of running around retail stores, so we started to focus on our enemy the Crips instead. It was no secret where their hideout was and we would wait until they left before entering through a back window. These guys became pretty predictable and soft after a while; every night they would pile into the Escalade and get some dinner. They used to have a few guys getting dinner for the gang but we kept stealing it from them. It was a game of cat and mouse and we thought we were the sly cat again when the back window was open that night. In a strange twist of fait, I had been reunited with my original crew, Easy E and Beast. Beast had taken more bullets than 50 Cent and had been assigned to protect me full time. I didn‟t know he was there to protect me because I didn‟t feel that I needed protection. It was good to have him on my back anyway. 92
  94. 94. Getting into the hideout was easy enough – we were able to find a big stash of cash and a load of drugs and stuffed everything we could into the garbage bags we brought. We were on our way out when Easy E went back in to get this rocket launcher he had seen. We helped him out of the window with his new toy and started running around the dark corner. Once we moved into the light we could see the white Escalade screeching to a halt and thugs about 8 thugs coming at us from all doors. Once again, my first instinct was to run, so that‟s what I did. Easy E reached for his gun and was greeted by a storm of Oozie machine gun bullets. Beast wasn‟t the running type, so he hoisted the rocket launcher onto his right shoulder and quickly aimed it at the Escalade. Bullets were flying all around him by the time he unloaded the rocket launcher. 93
  95. 95. I looked back and saw the rocket exploding into the Escalade and the power of the blast sent me flying about 20 feet through the air. I must have been knocked out for a few seconds because when I regained consciousness, I saw a bloodied Beast standing over me offering a hand to get up. We limped over to Easy E’s dead body and then got out of sight when we heard the police sirens coming closer. The rocket blast had not only blown up the escalade but it also started a fire that also destroyed the Crips hangout. By the time we got back near our hangout, the place was also engulfed with flames and bodies were scattered around the street. I must have been out for more than a few seconds because the war had shifted and then came to a bloody end. The next thing I knew, I was in a hospital bed next to Beast. It was light outside, so I must have passed out and had been sleeping for a while. A doctor came in 94
  96. 96. and said, “Mr. Mitchell, I‟m Dr. Cooke and your lucky to be alive son.” I took as much in as I could and then he continued, “You‟ve sustained extensive damage to your left knee as a result of two bullets that you were hit with last night. I‟m sorry son, but I don‟t think you‟ll ever play again. It would be a miracle if you walked without a limp.” I rolled up the sheet with my left hand and saw my left knee bandaged up and in a brace. I didn‟t remember getting hit but the adrenaline was pumping so hard that I didn‟t remember passing out either. I looked up at the doctor and asked, “Is my friend going to be all right?” as I looked over at Beast who was on life support. The doctor looked at him and replied, “It‟s up in the air. He‟s just hanging on by a thread.” 95
  97. 97. Limping Through Life That night I was in the hospital I started to feel the pain in my knee and I started to cry. Beast had died only a few hours earlier and I had been moved out of the Intensive Care Unit. I must have been crying for a while because a nurse came in and gave me a few pills to numb the pain. The events of the past 24 hours started to sink in – the Bloods and the Crips had been virtually destroyed in Branchville – the explosions came as such a shock to people in the town that they instituted a curfew for years after that. I started to think back to what the doctor said about my knee and his opinion that I wouldn‟t play basketball again. Just as my mind was surrendering, I heard footsteps at the door. My first visitor would be the one and only Mr. Cohen. “I got next” he said as he 96
  98. 98. walked toward my bed. When you say, “I got next” in the schoolyard that means that you are going to play the next basketball game. My smile quickly turned to full tears once Mr. Cohen leaned over and hugged me and cradled my head in his long arm. Any thoughts he had about letting go were squashed by my Kung Fu grip on his arm. “The doctor said…” I blubbered after a few seconds. “Shhh, I know, I talked to him” Mr. C interjected. We released from the hug and Mr. C pulled up a chair close to my bed. “Remember when we first met?” Mr. Cohen asked. “Yeah, you were the Candy Man” I replied as I wiped away my tears with my fingers. “Yeah, the Candy Man. But that was a time in your life when you didn‟t feel special. When nobody 97
  99. 99. really believed in you. Words can only take you so far. If you want to believe everything you hear than you might as well throw your brain and spirit away.” “But, what if I can‟t play again?” I asked. “Is that all you are, a basketball player?” Mr. C asked. I shrugged my shoulders. “I‟m a firm believer that if you take care of the mind, the body will follow.” “What does that mean” I asked. “It means that if you focus on other good things besides your knee than your life will be balanced and good things can happen to you.” I just shook my head and my thoughts seemed so jumbled and distant. We talked for another 20 minutes until I started getting groggy from the drug‟s the nurse had given me. Mr. Cohen took a business card out of his pocket and wrote his cell phone number on the blank side. He once again wrote the words ANY TIME 98
  100. 100. on top of his number. We banged fists and he walked through the door as my eyes closed. Three days later I was walking with crutches out of the hospital with my Aunt Angela, who had come to visit me and told me I could live with her. She was tougher than I had remembered when she said, “You start any of that nonsense again and you‟ll feel the door hitting your ass when I kick you out!” It was a good three weeks before I could get up and walk again. It was the summer and my aunt‟s air conditioning was no match for the New York heat. My skin was stuck to the plastic covers of her couch and I needed to get out and get some stale, humid air. Walking around the block with my metal cane was a sobering experience for a guy who could race around the block and make a big breeze. The hospital offered to provide physical therapy as part of my aftercare but I had no way to get back and forth from 99
  101. 101. the hospital. I thought about calling Mr. Cohen but he was on summer break and I wanted to save that call for when I really needed him. No, I would let my knee heal naturally and when it came time for the season to begin I would be ready. It was that simple in my young mind. School started and I found myself walking better and going to classes. It was my junior year and it was time for me to step up. It was amazing but my average had not suffered greatly from my lack of caring. By virtue of my basketball talent, teachers had let me slide with an average that approached 80. As each day passed my confidence was being mended and restored. I was walking better and feeling as comfortable in school as I ever had. Practice was about to begin and I thought I was ready to take on the challenge, although I had played sparingly in months. 100
  102. 102. My teammates were amazed to see my on the court but my coach had been pushing me to return the minute he saw me the first day of school. He hadn‟t visited me in the hospital and barely said two words to me since then. But it was winning time, so DMitch needed to get his groove on again. I made it through the lay-up drills, although it was apparent that I had lost over half of my 40-inch vertical leap. As my knee loosened up I tried to do more and more. Twenty minutes into the practice I was started to feel like my old self again. My knee felt so good that I tried to do one of my Allen Iverson crossover dribbles; my body seemed to leave my knee behind as I felt a huge pop and collapsed to the floor in excruciating pain. Forty-eight hours later I had my knee “scoped” and Dr. Cooke came into talk to me like a he had months earlier. This time he was a little sterner, if 101
  103. 103. possible. “Was I wrong last time? Under no circumstance can you play again! Unless you want to be crippled and walk with a huge limp the rest of your life, just put your hoop dreams away.” Later that day, Mr. C stopped by the hospital after school. I was still a little dazed from the surgery and was trying to digest my crumbled life. This time when he sat near my bed his words never got near my ears – they seemed to float away like a kite with a broken string. When I got out of the hospital I returned to school the next week. Things seemed to be calming down a bit and I was able to get back into my schoolwork. That was until the basketball season started. It wasn‟t a problem for me when the team was just practicing but when I went to the first home game and was watching from the sidelines, reality hit me really hard. 102
  104. 104. Nothing could have hurt me more than to watch my team lose that first game. The guys were looking at me like I had let them down. Every time they made a bad play they would like at me like I could save them from their trouble. It had been a month since the surgery and I was falling off the end of the world. By the middle of the next game, I couldn‟t stand being Darius Mitchell anymore. After that my schoolwork started slipping and I started drinking at least a couple of 40’s a day. Since I wasn‟t the man that carried the team anymore, the school‟s administration had a real short fuse with me. I didn‟t care at that point what happened to me – the pain of my life had brought me to a place where I needed an out. I took the gun I kept in my sock drawer and put it in my pants -- then and scooped up my third 40-ounce Colt 45 for the afternoon and decided to take a little 103
  105. 105. walk. With no particular destination in my clouded mind, I wound up in strangely familiar territory. It was 12 years to the day that my father had been gunned down and I was feeling it. That remembrance was definitely the straw that broke my back that day. As I drew closer to my house thoughts of ending it all were in the front of my mind. Being without my father all of those years was a burden I didn‟t want to carry anymore. It appeared no one was home so I walked up the driveway and proceeded to walk left up the path to the front door. I then stopped at the spot where my father was killed and took a seat. At the time I didn‟t even realize that I had started crying. Tears were streaming down my face and onto the ground just like the sprinkler when my dad died. I reached for the gun in the back of my pants and lifted it to the right side of my head. I was so far gone 104
  106. 106. that I didn‟t even hear a car speed and screech its tires in the street in front of me. My index finger started to squeeze the trigger but a strong hand moved my hand away in time for the speeding bullet to fly harmlessly into a neighbor‟s tree. I even thought about trying again but a voice woke me from my death daze. “Darius! Darius! What the hell are you doing?! Mr. Cohen screamed as my eyes were finally able to refocus. “Oh, hi Mr. Cohen. What are you doing here?” I replied in a clam voice. Mr. Cohen was sweating as he said, „Son, it‟s not your time. It‟s not up to you when you leave this earth.” Mr. Cohen helped me up and led me to the passenger side of his car. His PT Cruiser had been replaced by a large SUV, but I was happy to be finally driving in the car with him. Before we sat in the car he emptied the bullets out of the gun and threw the gun in the garbage can near the garage. Once in the car he 105