The wife and I are thinking of getting a gun. I mean, it’s mostly me doing the thinking. I don’t know jackshit about guns, but I’ve been doing some research, and from what I can tell, the Czech one is top notch. The CZ 75. That’s the one I should get, the one I would get if I were strictly going with my head. I got a cop cousin though in Kansas City who says the Glock 19 is easy and reliable, never fails, good for beginners like me.
Then there’s those people who can’t stop gushing over their .38 Specials. Women, usually. Probably because lots of those sexy crime dramas feature a .38 Special, usually a Smith & Wesson snub or some kind of Colt. Plus those little revolvers pack a mean punch for something that fits so snugly in a purse, right next to the lipstick and tampons.
For my money, though, I want a Beretta. An M9, to be exact. All black. So stylish. Gorgeous. Italian. It’s been the official gun of the U.S. military for a minute now, which is pretty cool; Glocks are mostly a cop gun. But Glocks are too plastic and basic, no art to them—probably why they give them to cops.
The Beretta though, pure poetry in a pistol.
I’m not big on the Second Amendment or anything. I’m from Chicago, where guns are for outdoorsy types, cops, and criminals. I’ve never been hunting, or a criminal, not professionally.
There was this time up at my ex’s lake house in Northwoods Wisconsin, near Lake Superior. My buddies and I’d brought a pump-action BB gun rifle to shoot whatever living thing we could find, besides another human or a pet. We shot a bunch of little birds and a squirrel. The poor little fuck was minding his own business when we spotted him, cleaning his face on a high branch. My buddy Che had to lift the rifle’s long barrel up at an angle; he’d already pumped the hell out of it, so it was ready to blow.
The squirrel must’ve been forty feet away, facing to the side. The rest of us stood around Che, holding our breaths. He exhaled slowly as he squeezed the trigger, there was a loud pop, the squirrel stiffened on the branch, like it had just realized something, and then the little guy fell over sideways, smacking against branches on his way down, from side to side. Smack. Smack. Then the thud as it hit the dirt. It never so much as twitched once it was down in the dead leaves, its mouth hung open in shock. Che’d got him right through his furry little chest. The thing was like a Beanie Baby when we picked it up.
We played with it for a while and Che skinned it with his pocket knife, slit it down the belly and gutted it, scooping out the heart and lungs with his bare hand. Then he jammed a twig through it from ass straight out the mouth, seasoned it with salt, pepper and Adobo, and roasted it over a fire I’d got going specially for the kill. We draped the fur over a clothesline, hoping to use it for something, maybe make a pouch for Che’s pocket knife. But the flies found it, and pretty soon it reeked and there were maggots crawling all over inside the skin, dripping down in squirming droplets.
We cooked the squirrel longer than normal to kill off anything that might kill us. It barely had any meat on it—squirrels are stringy, wiry—and whatever meat it did have was rubbery, gamey as they say. Not even Sweet Baby Ray’s could save it. We roasted the little chickadees we’d popped too. They were only a little better, like popcorn chicken almost.
That’s the closest I ever got to hunting, which I guess is hunting in a way. But I’ve never tracked an elk or bagged a grizzly or anything.
I used to think no one needed a gun unless they were a soldier in the army. Hunters too, I guess, but who needs to hunt in the 21st century? Now my thinking is, if other people have guns in their houses or attached to their belts, then I should have a gun too. For protection. Especially these days. Things are getting squirrelly out there, more desperate, fanatical, and it’s only getting worse as the economy gets stupider and the planet goes to junk.
So I need something to defend myself, mostly my family, the wife and stepdaughter. I don’t want to wake up one night to some psycho coming up the stairs and me standing there in the dark with nothing in my hands but my dick and balls. I keep an aluminum bat under the bed and sometimes a big pair of scissors on my nightstand, but you have to close the distance between you and the maniac in order for those to do damage. And even then you got to hit the right spots, around the face and throat, and hit them with gusto. Who has that kind of energy and focus right after waking out of a dead sleep?
We have a dog and he’s vicious but he’s too small to kill someone, more of an alert system; fucker hears everything. Worse he’ll do is bite the shit out of someone’s hand or foot, he’s always doing that. But it isn’t like blasting someone through the door with a 12-gauge.
With a shotgun they say all you got to do is let the asshole hear the pump action and he’ll go scrambling out the house. Which is good enough for me because I don’t want to kill anybody, but I will if I have to. Of course I would—wouldn’t you? Survival always trumps morality. Lots of things trump morality in the middle of the night. Which is why I need a gun.
The only reason I haven’t gotten a gun yet is because we live in a real nice neighborhood. All old people mostly, who keep their garages wide open all day. A gated community, just like a lot of them are here in the suburbs of Southern Nevada, where murders only occur among friends and family. And since I don’t have much of either out here, I figure my chances of being murdered are slim to none. I keep to myself mostly, which is the safest way to go. Making friends quickly gets you enemies.
Not like back in Chicago, where anybody can get touched no matter what they do to prevent it. I grew up in Logan Square and the old Wicker Park, people getting shot almost every night, guns all around. My grandma’s next-door neighbors in Logan were apparently into heavy illegalities and got their house sprayed up a few times. Some of the bullets came through my grandma’s window. No one got hurt on our side, but still.
First time I saw a gun in real life was in front of my grandma’s house. My brother and I were coming back from the park with the babysitter, a neighbor girl who grew up to be a hooker. There were these dudes huddled around an open car trunk loaded with rifles and guns. I only caught a glimpse before one of the guys glanced my way and I pretended I hadn’t seen a thing. I must’ve been in first grade.
My mom told stories of how the neighborhood used to be back in the day, in the late seventies, early eighties. All gangs, drugs and violence, more so than when I was living there in the late eighties and early nineties, and way more than now; now you see a lot of ATMs and blondes on bicycles, it’s crazy. Gentrification wouldn’t be so bad if only it helped the poor people, too.
My mom told us about this one time when she was in high school and her Puerto Rican gangbanger boyfriend came to her with a gun and told her to stash it somewhere. She knew it’d been used on somebody, so she buried it under one of my grandma’s rosebushes out back. Seeing the excitement in our eyes, that one of us was going to go digging around for it sooner or later, she told me and my brother she dug it up later and tossed it in a trash bin out in the alley. Who knows though; my mom’s a high-level liar. The gun could still be there under the roses.
I should go looking for it before my grandma croaks and they tear down her house to put up condos like they’ve been doing up and down the block. We wouldn’t want some nice little boy finding it and getting his brains blown out.
That scene from Goodfellas where Henry gives the gun to what’s-her-face to hide always reminds me of Mom.
The gun’s a Smith & Wesson Model 36 snub, by the way. Same gun Tommy uses to shoot poor Spider in the foot.
Then there was this time my grandma got robbed at gunpoint. My grandma owned a fashion boutique, La Doña Chic—she’s owned a few stores, this one was on Ashland, just south of Division—and my brother and I stayed with her at the store when we weren’t at school. This was when my mom was in the navy and my dad was M.I.A. We’d just got back from this hot dog joint on the corner. My brother and I were eating at our little plastic table in front of the TV behind the register. My grandma was posted in her usual spot, in one of the two chairs on the other side of the register, facing the entrance. In the other chair was a friend of hers, Mirta, around her age; my grandma wasn’t even fifty at the time, but she’s always looked like a grandma to me.
The two of them were sitting there, bumping their gums, when this guy came knocking on the front door. It was a glass door like most storefronts had, so you could see whoever was outside, and my grandma kept the door locked sometimes to control who came in or out—seems weird, storeowner locking their door during business hours, but that’s what she used to do.
My grandma’s friend Mirta gets up to open the door for the guy and my grandma gets up to stand behind the glass counter, look professional. As the guy and Mirta come walking back, dude grabs Mirta by the back of the head real rough with one hand and pulls a black gun from his jacket pocket with the other, pointing it at my grandma’s face. It was like a bomb went off in the store. The air shifted. The walls tensed up. The two ladies start wailing and crying immediately.
“Open the register and gimme all the money!” the guy says, but in Spanish. The dude was some kind of Latino, with dark features, dark hair, a thick-ass mustache. He almost looked Arab, but he spoke Spanish like that’s all he spoke.
My grandma kept telling him, “I don’t have money!” and it was true. My grandma had the store but it was losing money every month and she was basically broke, or at least she didn’t have extra money laying around. On most days all I saw in the register were coins, but sometimes she had bills underneath the tray—I don’t know how many bills or which denominations, I was only about five or six at the time, you know. But for sure my grandma was no rich lady.
So she keeps telling the robber, “I don’t have any money! Please! Please, no!” but in Spanish, too. The guy knocks over this huge rotating display where all the earrings were hung. The thing falls right on top of my little brother’s head, the thing was taller than he was, but he’s so in shock he just keeps eating his hot dog and watching TV like nothing’s happening, normal day in the neighborhood. His eyes were what told me he was scared though, wide and blank like the dead animals at the Field Museum. The poor bastard. My brother used to be real short for his age, which made him look a lot younger, so if I was in kindergarten or first grade at the time, imagine how he looked. Like a big baby. His fat little hands holding the hot dog, his pudgy little face watching the TV screen, bits of bun sticking to the ketchup smeared on his cheeks. Hurts my heart to dig up the image, though I don’t have to dig too deep.
The robber comes around the counter to where my grandma is standing in front of the cash register, pointing the gun at her head the whole time. My grandma keeps her face down and her hands up around her head, to block the bullet. She’s frantic, the first time I’ve ever seen her so helpless. I’m watching everything but the guy never even glances at me or my brother, like we aren’t there.
The guy shoves my grandma down to the floor and starts digging through the register like a wolf ripping into a carcass. The register was one of those old heavy ones—I used to love pressing the buttons, like on a typewriter—but the guy is on such a rampage he bangs the register around like it’s a toy, sweeping it off the counter with one arm. It smashes against the floor and bursts open like a piñata filled with pennies, nickels and dimes, but no cash.
Really pissed now, desperate, realizing he’s picked the wrong store to rob, the guy grabs my grandma by the back of the head and points the gun at her friend Mirta and tells them to head toward the back of the store. Guy must’ve scoped the place out beforehand; he knew there was a bathroom back there. That’s where he put them, my grandma and Mirta, locking them in somehow. It all happened so fast and I was so young, I don’t remember every detail.
As he’s pushing them back toward the bathroom, I get up to follow but on the other side of one of the long racks of clothes paralleling the center aisle, so that I’m in the aisle along the wall. I look back and see my poor brother still sitting there eating his hot dog, scared stiff, ketchup and crumbs all over his chubby cheeks. I yank him by his fat little arm and drag him down the aisle along the wall, and we stay there on our hands and knees, watching this asshole storm back down from the bathroom.
My grandma and the other lady are in the bathroom, my grandma pounding on the door saying, “Please leave! Don’t hurt my grandsons! Please! No!” and the other lady just crying. You could hear the shaking in their voices, the helpless fear. The guy’s crouched down in the middle of the center aisle with their purses, looking for money or whatever’s valuable. My brother and I are on the other side of the clothes rack, under it really, just watching him from about five feet away. He never saw us, never even seemed to wonder where we were. The only other sound in the store is the TV, the audience laughing every now and then.
After a minute he gives up and rushes out the store. I go and unlock the bathroom door—the guy might’ve locked them in with a chair. When my grandma sees me and my brother her shoulders drop and she holds us, crying, shaking. Then she goes and calls the cops. They never catch the guy, I guess my description was too vague, but they install a little emergency button to press for next time.
I only had a gun pointed at me once. On the last day of sixth grade.
Sixth grade was the year I almost became a gangbanger. We were already living out in the burbs with our mom, and I’d made friends with this jock kid Adan, whose older brother and his friends were all mini gangbangers. They introduced me to Tupac, Bone Thugs, all that gangsta rap; stuff I hadn’t been exposed to in the city, where most of the people around me listened to Celia Cruz and Héctor Lavoe, or Madonna, Michael and Janet, Salt-N-Pepa, lots of house music.
We pretended to be Latin Kings because that was the gang claimed by the older kids in our circle. The story was our friend Chipper’s oldest brothers, adults by then, really were Kings, with connections to the main crew in the city. I learned that the Kings’ mortal enemies were the Gangster Disciples—G.D.’s for short, or S.G.D.’s for Spanish Gangster Disciples. We called the G.D.’s Folks, too. They wore black and blue and spray-painted the Star of David everywhere, whereas we wore black and gold and scrawled the five-point star on everything, desks, in the bathrooms, on the back of seats on the bus.
For obvious reasons us Kings all owned Dallas Cowboys gear, though a lot of us actually were fans of the team too. It was the mid-nineties, after all: Emmitt Smith, Deion Sanders, Troy Aikman. What’s not to root for?
I learned the handshakes and hand signs, the Kings’ being like the Texas Longhorns sign only with your thumb out, or you could put two signs together to form the three-point crown. For the Folks hand sign you just formed a three-pronged pitchfork using your thumb, index and middle fingers. As pretend Kings we’d flash the pitchfork too, only we’d point it down to show our contempt. We also yelled out things like “Amor de rey!” “King Love!” “G.D.K.!” “D.K. all day!” or just “D.K.!”
I only did any of that when I was sure there weren’t any G.D.’s around.
As wannabe Kings we were in the minority, confined to my apartment complex and the one next door. Most of the gangbangers in the area were G.D.’s, all Mexicans. The Kings were Mexican too, except for me, but the Kings were more Americanized; we played basketball, baseball and football, and spoke mostly in English, whereas the G.D.’s played basketball and soccer and spoke mostly in Spanish. I’m sure we listened to different music, too, and watched different movies and different shows on TV.
The G.D.’s were concentrated in a group of low-rent apartment buildings known collectively as Piper Lane, for the little street that ran through them. Piper Lane was the main Mexican enclave in our area; the other was in the next suburb over, an apartment complex known as Lollipop, wedged between a McDonald’s on one side and a tiny, ancient-looking cemetery on the other. There was another Mexican area further away in the other direction, a block of apartment buildings called Boxwood, right next to the local mall. The Boxwood kids went to a school outside the district, so we didn’t know much about them, only that they were G.D.’s
The G.D.’s controlled all three places. You couldn’t walk through any of them wearing any gold or five-point stars. You weren’t even really that safe wearing neutral colors, not if you were a boy or girl of a certain age. People got shot once a week at least, in each place.
All this in the safe suburbs, supposedly.
Feeling safer at school, in the halcyon days before Columbine, we proudly wore our gold and five-point stars to class. Our suburbanite teachers, meek and mild, a staff of sweethearts, knew there were gangs in the area but knew nothing about the colors or the symbols, and thus had no clue who was what. Out of sheer prejudice they assumed correctly that the poorer, baggy clothes-wearing, Spanish-speaking boys were gangbangers, but damned if they knew what kind. Us Americanized kids, on the other hand, slipped right past their green noises. We were mostly sociable, fun-loving, good at sports—or, in my case, school. Some teachers, for whatever reason, considered us a menace, but most figured we just listened to too much rap music.
Rarely did we cross paths with the G.D. kids in school, since most of them were in ESL classes. Whenever we did see them, during the ten-minute passing periods, the G.D.’s always gave us murderous looks in the hallways, a pack of bloodthirsty hyenas, flashing their hand signs at us and us flashing ours back at them, grinning. I was a clumsy chickenshit nerd, still I felt secure knowing the boys in my clique were not only jocks but the most talented jocks and most popular boys around.
Adan’s older brother Mikey was the eighth-grade king of the school, and probably the most popular kid in the whole district, good-looking, charming as a mobster, with a devil-may-care smile, the Mexican Tupac, scar across his eyebrow. He was short but super athletic, a star player in baseball, basketball and running, the first boy I knew with big bicep muscles, like tennis balls; I started doing curls at home with my mom’s dumbbells to get mine just like his. Every boy wanted to be him and every girl wanted to make out with him, or better. Even in eighth grade he was already getting drunk with high-schoolers at house parties and rolling around in his mom’s red Chevy Beretta—what a poetic coincidence! I swear it’s true though, despite whatever else I’m lying about, that part about the Beretta is the truth!
So it was my last day of sixth grade. We’d just got off the bus and were walking through the complex toward Mike and Adan’s apartment, where they lived with their mom and sometimes dad. Adan, Mikey and his two friends, José—we called him Joe—and Tone, and me, just shooting the shit. The definition of a beautiful day, a few puffy clouds in the sky, early June, birds singing, the whole summer rolled out before us like a golden carpet.
We were passing the little park in our complex when a black Oldsmobile sedan rolls up alongside us and stops ten or twenty feet ahead. All but the driver door open, and out the back door, behind the passenger, steps Danny Camacho, this short Mexican eighth-grader with a shaved head who was the leader of the G.D. clique at school, essentially Mikey’s archenemy. He wore a long dark trench coat, and as he steps out the car his coat flaps open, revealing a shotgun held against his leg.
I can still hear the sound of the car doors opening, still see them opening in slow motion, Danny Camacho stepping out, his long coat flapping open, the shotgun big as his leg.
My soul sank.
All sound disappeared, silence throwing a shadow over everything.
We booked, scattering in different directions. Adan and I ran toward my building, all the way at the back of the complex, but Adan was way faster than me, and in less than twenty yards they were on me, Danny Camacho and this kid a grade older than me named Miguel. I collapsed in a patch of green grass and curled up in the fetal position as they stood over me, Danny pressing the barrel of the shotgun against the side of my head, right above my right ear. Hard.
“You wanna die today?” he said. The way it came out, he must’ve practiced it.
I just kept my eyes shut tight, whimpering. I was nowhere, in no place or time, with no past, no future, nothing existed, except me, Danny Camacho, Miguel, and the shotgun barrel against my head. We were at the bottom of a black pit as deep and wide as the ocean. The whole world was darkness.
Then they were gone, Danny Camacho and Miguel. I didn’t even hear their footsteps trailing off, they were just gone, and there was light again.
I dragged my feet through the parking lot toward my building, blubbering. It was still a beautiful day out, sunny, birds. But I was shattered. Shaking uncontrollably. Hollowed out. Wrecked. No taste in my mouth. The air smelled of nothing.
“Hey! Hector!” I heard someone call out to me in a hushed voiced. I turned my face for a second and saw Adan peeking out from this big-ass construction dumpster. He’d been hiding in there. When he saw the coast was clear, that I was all by myself—and wasn’t being used as bait—he climbed out.
I can’t remember what he said to me, or what I said back. Then he was gone, and I was home, slumped on the couch, crying hard, moaning, shaking, my mom holding me and asking what happened.
She says I was sick for three days, but I don’t remember any of it. Not a single thing I thought or did. For three lost days I was gone.
A few nights later, while my mom was at work, Adan knocked on the door and told me Mikey and them were going to meet up Danny Camacho and them at the park by our old elementary school. Mikey was going to exact our revenge. They were bringing brass knuckles and bats and a shotgun, Chipper’s brother’s. Adan said he was going over there to watch, but I didn’t want any part of that bullshit anymore. I was done with gangbanging, done trying to live the thug life, done trying to be like Tupac, or even Mikey.
Mikey fucked Danny Camacho up real good though, left the whole side of his face lumpy and swollen for a week; he looked like Quasimodo. Adan said Mikey tried to squash it after he’d beaten Danny up a bit, but Danny had the balls to suckerpunch him when Mikey offered his hand, leaving Mike no choice but to stomp on Danny even more. Some motherfuckers never learn the nice way. They only understand force, so you have to beat the lesson into them. It’s a shame. Such a waste of human energy.
Later Adan showed me where the fight went down, on the tennis courts by our old school. There were still spots of blood on it. Seeing the blood made me feel satisfied but sick too.
The thing is I would’ve done anything my friends were into. I would’ve joined the Boy Scouts, I would’ve made an excellent Scout—I was really into nature and science, always exploring the woods at the end of our block, with a river running through it, where my brother and I would fish or watch for beavers and great blue herons, I dreamt of being some kind of biologist or at least a naturalist—but I didn’t know anybody who joined the Boy Scouts; the Scouts were for white kids and fags. Or I would’ve gone to Space Camp, I would’ve made a great astronaut, or at least an astronomer—I was always looking through telescopes and studying star maps, and I’ve always been able to name the planets in order, always will—but I didn’t have any friends who went to Space Camp either, or even looked up at the night sky for more than a few seconds. We were poor latchkey kids, all of us. We weren’t in the habit of seriously dreaming anything that big.
My cop cousin went to something like a Space Camp, but he only told me about it after the fact. He went to a middle school in a different district, on the other side of the forest preserve, a school with a bunch of Korean nerds. If I’d gone to that school maybe I would’ve gone to Space Camp with him. But oh well. C’est la fucking vie.
Funny enough, that kid Miguel, the one who stood over me with Danny Camacho, he ended up living with me for a stretch after high school. I was staying at my girlfriend’s apartment, paid for by her millionaire father, a financier with a corner office on the top floor of this building in the Loop. I’d been dating her since junior year of high school—she was a year younger, I was her first, broke her virginity, cheated on her constantly the whole five or so years we were together, we had an abortion when I was at DePaul and she was still in high school, went away to college with her afterward, downstate, for a semester—but by the time Miguel moved in her and I were on our way to being over. We were still officially boyfriend and girlfriend, still kissed at times, hung out and attended family functions as a couple, but privately we were on a long break and living mostly separate lives, what with our college classes and jobs, though we were still roommates.
During our falling apart she became friends with Miguel somehow—which shows how less of each other’s life we’d become before the end. Yet he wasn’t the Miguel I’d known in middle school. Now he was a club boy, super metro, I even caught a gay vibe from him. I guess he’d ditched the thug life, too. I wonder what did it, what cured him, if he got scared straight like me.
He told my soon-to-be ex he needed a place to keep his stuff at least and shower, and she was such a sucker, so sweet, one of these suburban girls who grew up watching too many Disney movies and developed a doormat for a heart. And gay vibe notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure they were fucking, him and her. But I didn’t really care by then; I was straight-up using her myself, though I denied it to myself even, for a long time after too.
Miguel once walked in on me fucking her for old times’ sake. I had her in missionary on the carpet in the living room when he came through the front door, said “Ohpf!” and stepped back out. Awkward but hilarious.
He never said anything to me about that June day back in middle school, we never really said more than three words to each other, and I pretended I wasn’t that same little kid whose head he and Danny Camacho almost blasted off with a shotgun way back when.
Life’s a trip the way we try to pretend things away. It works though, sometimes. Enough anyway.
Or maybe it’s just stalling, kicking the pain down the road, postponing the emotional work for later.
Speaking of pain, they warn that a man who buys a gun normally ends up shooting someone in his household, usually himself, either by accident or not. I’ve gone through some suicidal periods in my life, it doesn’t shame me to admit. Who hasn’t? You’re not living right, as the saying goes, unless you’ve seriously considered ending it all.
The first real time I wanted to kill myself was when I was at DePaul. Life reeked of pure dogshit. I didn’t know what I was doing at DePaul; I only applied there for the name. I didn’t know anything about college, being the first in my lineage to go. I’d planned to study psychology, naturally. But after I did so well on the math portion of the entrance exams, some counselor told me I’d be a shoo-in for their Honors Accounting program, Strobel. So I went into “acunting,” as my grandma said it, figuring I’d get a degree which would make good money. A life raft to help me escape the sinking ship of poverty.
The classes weren’t that hard, but everything around attending them was a struggle. First off there was the commute, since I couldn’t afford the on-campus tuition of something like $30,000 a year. I could barely afford the off-campus tuition of $20,000, but I got grants and scholarships and a subsidized loan which covered nearly all of it; I had to pay the leftover every quarter, but I’d worry about that when the time came.
I had no money for anything else, not even to buy something from the vending machines when I was hungry. On numerous occasions I stood in front of a machine just staring at the Danishes and cookies and bags of chips, my stomach angry, my mind seeing nothing but food. Sure, I could’ve gotten a job to cover such minor expenses, but who was going to hire my black ass? And where would this job be located? How would I get there? How much would it pay? What were the hours? And how was I going to juggle working God knows where, doing God knows what for God knows how little, all while tackling this Honors Accounting program meant to challenge even the rich kids who didn’t have to worry about anything except where they would beg their parents to send them for Spring Break? I had a lot on my plate, in the strictly figurative sense.
I decided I’d rather beg for money from strangers.
And I did beg, a few times, at Union Station. I would ask the commuters if they could spare a quarter so I could buy my ticket home, telling them I just needed a few more cents to cover the fare—an old trick they’d taught us kids when we worked for this candy bar-selling pyramid scheme, “I just need to sell one more candy bar and I get to go to Disneyworld!” Worked like a charm. When I’d collected five quarters, I’d head up to the McDonald’s and get me a McChicken, or an apple pie, tucking into my first meal of the day at four o’clock in the afternoon, making sure not to be seen by any of the generous souls who’d handed me a quarter or two. The cashiers always flashed me a sorry look when I busted out those quarters to pay, but they knew the deal.
I envied the rich kids who showed up laughing and smiling to class in the morning, fashionably clothed, sipping from their Starbucks cups and opening their fancy new laptops, looking so well rested, smugly half-asleep still. I hated their spoon-fed guts. I’d never even been to Starbucks but was already convinced the coffee was garbage truck juice, nowhere near as good as the café con leche the Puerto Ricans served in Humboldt Park.
Everything came so easily to those rich fuckheads. Their parents had money and college degrees of their own, and they mapped out every twist and turn on the road to success for their kids, telling them what to do every step of the way, holding their hands, encouraging them, guiding them, picking them up when they fell, making them feel safe even when they weren’t, removing or at least lowering every obstacle besides having to actually sit in class.
I must’ve looked ridiculous to them, with my cheap clothes, no laptop, just my old high-school backpack with a few folders, notebooks and pens, wearing the same clothes every few days on rotation. I couldn’t afford all of the textbooks and had to borrow from someone, when someone would let me borrow one, or use the ones at the library. How badly I wanted to swipe a book from one of those rich kids, just tax them a little. But I’ve never been a thief, not of my own volition, and I definitely didn’t want to give those higher-than-thou cake-asses any reason to suspect me of being some kind of degenerate, no matter how close I was to being one. No one need know how low you are. Appearances are tantamount to reality.
Mainly, and the least bearable part of it all, I was so, so lonely. Completely alone at school. Not a single friend. The only kid in my high school class to go to DePaul. Those rich white kids from the suburban schools never bothered even smiling in my direction, though it wasn’t like I never gave them the opportunity by making eye contact and speaking up in class. I’m pretty friendly; if your family moves as much as mine did when I was a kid, you learn to make friends ASAP. But the students at DePaul mostly gazed past me, or through me. I was a nothing to them. Worse than nothing. A shadow.
Whenever I did lock eyes with another student, they’d quickly look away, as if my face were badly burned, or I were a smelly dirty bum lying on the sidewalk. They seemed sorry to have noticed me.
A few even seemed upset by my being in their classroom. It appeared they’d applied to DePaul under the tacit understanding they wouldn’t be mixing with other students of my… kind, to put it gently. I felt this distinctly whenever I got out of one of my late classes and had to walk across campus at night, how I unsettled students if ever I came near them on the sidewalk, even when they were in a group and I was by myself. I was treated as a potential threat, as well as an actual nuisance.
This kid once asked me if I was at DePaul on an athletic scholarship. I was built, but no one could’ve seriously confused me for a collegiate athlete of any kind. And yet many kids, including a lot of the kids I’d graduated high school with, still struggled to understand how I could be at school like DePaul unless I played on some team. It stung to get pegged like that, boxed in, the object of low expectations. Especially to have my whole inner life disregarded, when I knew my inner life was much more vast and active, more of who I was, than my outer life could ever be. I was so alone in the anonymity imposed on me.
I remember later reading Kafka and Ellison and thinking, Exactly. I’ve had a few really good friends in my life, my wife being the greatest, but none have touched the depths of my soul the way books have. A good book seems to speak from within you, as though you’d written it in a past life and were only now remembering, letting you know you’re not alone and you never have been. None of us are ever alone in our everyday struggle to achieve the goal of goals: a happy human life. History is long, and human nature has hardly changed an ounce since the days of Troy, so we can take solace in knowing what we feel today has been felt by others to different degrees for thousands of years.
But I didn’t know that then. I only knew what I felt. And I felt painfully and desperately alone.
Admittedly, like those rich kids, I’d applied to DePaul for the status, too. But when someone spray-painted swastikas on a few dumpsters on campus toward the end of my first quarter, it only confirmed what I’d come to realize about the place—the school wasn’t meant for people like me. I wasn’t even Catholic anymore, or a Christian, or a believer in anything, much less middle class. I was a rat at a school for pampered house cats.
Whenever I did have the $8.30 for the roundtrip from Prairie Heights to Union Station—my mom has her moments—I would ride the Metra into the city in the morning and then, using my U-Pass, which let any student enrolled in a city university ride public transportation for free, I would either walk down Jackson to the Blue Line station, cross over to the Red Line station through the underground pedestrian tunnel, and catch a Red Line train up to the Lincoln Park campus at Fullerton, or just keep walking down Jackson to DePaul’s Loop campus building on State Street, where all my business classes were. Then I’d do the whole thing in reverse on my commute back home in the evening.
I actually loved the commute. Riding into the city, staring out the window, people-watching on the train, inventing stories about them in my head. I loved the sour smells of the platform at Union Station, being carried along with the flow of other commuters, 140,000 a day, rivers of people surging past each other and whirling through doorways, shop owners calling out breakfast orders on the mezzanine, the blast of cold air as you stepped outside, the honking and hissing of buses and taxis jockeying for position along Jackson Street, gangs of pigeons watching for food with a hustler’s eye, the gusts of wind that almost swept you off the bridge over the pale Chicago River, boats going up and down it, the people on the boats waving up at us on the bridge, the buildings of glass and steel standing stiffly against a grey sky, tall and proud and daring, the swirls of mist rising up from manhole covers and the tops of buildings, as though the city itself were on a smoke break. Everything humming, pumping, grinding, whirring, rolling, buzzing, groaning, churning, trembling, like the inside of some monstrous engine. A giant mechanical heart. I felt the action all around me. I just didn’t like being broke, with no money to buy so much as a cup of coffee or a doughnut. No money to relax and enjoy the moment.
I used to watch the beggars with pity and dread, recognizing how close I was to being one of them, how thin the line was between broke student and bum. I even looked like a few. To this day I’m always kind to homeless people, out of human solidarity of course, but also because I hope to be shown the same kindness when it’s my turn to be tossed aside.
When I couldn’t afford the Metra I’d either skip classes or walk to the very end of my street in Prairie Heights and catch the Pace bus—which was also free with my U-Pass, a real lifeline in those days. I’d take the bus down Milwaukee to Golf Mill Mall in Niles, then catch another bus to the Jefferson Park station, then take the Blue Line to Washington in the Loop, if I was headed to the Lincoln Park campus, and switch over to the Red Line and take that all the way back up to Fullerton; or, if I was going to the Loop campus, take the Red Line down a few stops to Jackson. Then do it all over again but in reverse on the way back home once my last class was out.
On certain days I had classes in both the Loop and in Lincoln Park, so I’d be commuting back and forth between the two campuses all day, starving, a coffee junkie without coffee, between my morning and evening commutes to and from the city.
Most weeks I just stayed at my grandma’s house in Logan Square. She lived a block from Armitage, so it was nothing for me to catch the Armitage bus down to Lincoln Park, or take the bus to Western and ride the Blue Line to the Loop.
But staying with my grandma all week was as hard on me emotionally as commuting back and forth from Prairie Heights was hard on me physically. I loved my grandma—still do—but she was an old lady and I was eighteen, nineteen, in the prime of youth, mixing with young people all day and retreating back to my grandma’s musty dusty house every evening. It wasn’t that bad, thinking back on it now; I had home-cooked food from the motherland, and at least someone to talk to, I guess. But a young man’s psyche is so fragile, his confidence so easily shaken, and I needed all the confidence I could summon during those hard days, confidence that staying with my grandma didn’t give me. The only thing that filled me up was seeing my girlfriend. So I’d try my hardest to make it back to Prairie Heights on Friday night to spend the weekend with her and party with whichever of my buddies hadn’t gone away to college, just to feel normal, like a human being.
I did real good grade-wise my first quarter. But then my girlfriend had the abortion, right after the first winter break, and my second quarter gradually went to shit; I failed Microeconomics, got a C in Managerial Accounting, a B and a C in my other classes. The fallout from the abortion had left my girlfriend depressed and without friends during the last few months of high school—she had been one of the popular rich girls, co-captain of the pom squad and best friends with the Homecoming Queen, but once word of the abortion got out…—and I was stressed out and alone whenever I wasn’t with her. That’s when I began to daydream about killing myself.
I should’ve sucked it up and muddled through, but I didn’t. Maybe us millennials really are softer, or maybe we just all can’t be F.D.R. Plus a lot of other things had happened to me, I haven’t told you a tenth of what my childhood was like, but there’s no need to go into any more of it. The fact is everybody eats shit from time to time, some more than others, and more frequently. And I’d eaten plenty of shit by the time I got to DePaul, where life served up yet another large helping of shit. Not hot and steaming shit either, but cold and hard, enough to choke on.
Lest anyone think suicide’s pathetic, “a man’s entitled to an opinion about his own death,” says Céline, which is perfectly true. The right to life is the right to death, since death is a part of life. To place restrictions on how a man dies is to limit how he lives. We have the right to choose our own exit; it’s our first right.
And, since I’ve brought him up, let me tell you what else Céline says about our little subject:
“The loneliness in Africa had been pretty rough, but my isolation in this American anthill [Manhattan] was even more crushing.
“I’d always worried about being practically empty, about having no serious reason for living. And now, confronted with the facts, I was sure of my individual nullity.” Individual nullity—paints it perfectly. “In that environment,” he writes, “too different from the one where my petty habits were at home, I seem to have disintegrated, I felt very close to nonexistence. I discovered that with no one to speak to me of familiar things, there was nothing to stop me from sinking into irresistible boredom, a terrifying, sickly sweet torpor. Nauseating.” You start to get sick of yourself, even bully yourself, taking pleasure in your own misery.
See what I mean about books? And Céline was a genius too, no question.
The point is we’re social animals, and few more than me. I grew up never at home, always staying at friends’ houses till I was practically living with them, with my own toothbrush there and everything, especially when my family was homeless for a couple years in high school. I was never alone, always with a friend or family or somebody. I was never able to really talk to them about what I was thinking and feeling, still the company was sweet enough. So to go from that to this life of weeklong isolation, a public isolation at that, a solitary grind threatening to drag on for at least another semester, if not years, completely alone in the midst of so many people, I felt like a ghost already.
So I started to fantasize about not existing anymore. The release of it all. The weight lifted. The pain gone. No happiness but no sadness either. Nothing. Just a peaceful nothingness. Instant gratification. The first bite of cake.
The closest I ever came was on a train platform one night. Cliché, I know, but if you’re walking around dreaming about being dead, and you’re surrounded by these heavy metal objects rushing past you at high speeds, the chance to get dead quick and easy just leaps out at you.
I was waiting for the train to take me home. It was late. It had been a long day, classes from morning till night, and I was dead tired. Not just from classes, but tired of everything. Tired of commuting, of homework, tired of business books and business thinking, tired of worrying if I’d be able to afford classes next quarter, tired of worrying about my future at all, and constantly poked by the past, those horrible memories I’d buried which came clawing back into my mind at moments when I needed to be focused on school and other everyday concerns—to this day a memory will suddenly flood my mind like a burst water pipe, and I’ll get the urge to cry for the little boy I was, the little boy inside me still, but there’s never time to cry—tired of being poor, tired of being black and Latino, tired of having to chase the American Dream with this name and this face, of coming from a broken home and having a permanently broken heart, of surviving one shameful condition after another, tired of the look in people’s eyes when they saw me, the look that made me sorry to be seen, tired of having high hopes for myself, as much as I tried to be hopeless, tired of hating myself and hating life. It was so much work, so much weight to walk around with. I wanted to put it down somewhere, leave it on a bench and keep walking. But the weight was a part of who I was. Misery made me. The only way to get rid of it was to get rid of me, take us both out together, in one brilliant, delicious bite.
You feel the train first, the floor trembling under your shoes. Then you hear it, roaring off in the distance, you don’t know from where at first, like thunder without lightning. You lean over, and peer down the tracks, two glowing eyes headed your way, growing more and more insane. Then you’re trembling too, the sound of the train in your ribcage, in your guts. Everything else dissolves to black, the whole world goes dark. It’s just you, the weight, the tracks, and the train, screeching toward you like a metallic snake god creeping out of an inky black pit. Coming for you, licking its lips, grinning, crazy for blood. Man, how the train would scare me. I always got the urge to duck behind a pillar and hide, as if the thing would spot me and lunge off the tracks. Only this time I wanted to be swallowed by it.
I closed my eyes, listening to the rumble of the train grow louder and louder, the floor and the air and me trembling harder and harder, everything building toward something, a decision, a moment of truth, pure and simple and beautiful. I saw myself step off the platform, one small leap, the train slamming me in midair, a bright flash of white light. Could it be that easy? Would it be that easy? If there were a way to know beforehand how dying would feel, how many more of us would take that leap? Way more than we’d like to think, I bet.
The final pep talk: No one will miss you. Not really. You’ll just be a sad story people tell, your name something that makes a few people lower their eyes and frown for a few seconds. But life will go on, and they’ll all be laughing and smiling again, never thinking about you, thank God. Your girlfriend’ll fall in love with someone who knows how to treat her right, someone who’ll make lots of money and can afford to provide her the lifestyle she and her father are expecting her to have, a lifestyle you would’ve never been able to give her. You would’ve never been enough for her. You were never enough for anything. Nothing is lost by burning a pile of trash; if anything there’s more space afterward for the truly valuable things. So get yourself out of the way. You know the rest of your life was going to be as painy and shitful as the beginning. Your goals were pure fantasy, the house, the car, the family, the dog, the good job, the smiling. You poor bastard. Poor thing. You’ve watched too much TV, been sold a version of life incompatible with people like you. That life is reserved for other people, different people. So cut the charade already. Your life wasn’t going to end well, so you might as well end it now rather than later, save yourself more grief. You’ve already been carrying that load around. Put it down, buddy. Let it go. Let everything go. You’re only hurt by everything anyway. Trust me, don’t be afraid. What’s to be afraid of? The brave thing is to live the way you’ve been living. That’s really brave. And you’ve been brave long enough, longer than expected, way longer than fair. You tried, man. No one can say you didn’t try. But you see how this is going to end, right? It’s a set-up. A trap. And you can fight to avoid the trap and keep being miserable, or you can skip the whole business altogether by stepping off this platform, right here, right now. Imagine it. Savor it. The release. One long exhale into nothing. Then it’s over, finally, thank God.
Of course, I never did step off the platform. My feet were too stubborn. A part of me was afraid, sure, but a part of me also wanted to live. The part of me that loves watching a cardinal streak across a snowy field. The part of me that loves the smell of rain coming. The part of me that loves seeing my brother and sister laughing, even loves my mother, despite everything, loves her as a part of myself, and loves my father too, the poor suffering fool. The part of me that felt loved by my grandma. That felt loved by my girlfriend, and wished I knew how to love her back properly; the part of me that trained me to love my wife and stepdaughter. The part of me that tries to be a good person, even to those who are bad to me. The part of me that forgives, and is gentle. The part of me that loves books, the part of me that forces me to write, the part of me that still dreams. It was this same part, that cries not because the world is so ugly, but because the world is so fucking beautiful. That part saved me.
Plus killing yourself is presumptuous. Life is long, especially if you’re young. To end your life early, when you’re perfectly healthy, is to assume you already know the future, that the world has no more surprises for you, which is damn stupid lie. Life is way more complicated than any one of us can ever begin to understand. We can only accept what happens to us with simplicity, as the sages tell us, secure in the knowledge that whatever does happen, whether good or bad, time is our friend. No night lasts forever.
Suicide’s too easy, too. Living is the real test, to see what you’re made of, to see if you can eat shit and still laugh. So fuck them. Fuck the whole beautiful world with a big bright bow on it. They want you dead, or at least sick with sadness. So fuck them. Hard. Eat the shit they serve you, eat it like it were cake, laughing in their faces the whole time. They don’t know how to laugh. They’re the real miserable fucks, not you; only the truly miserable take pleasure in making others miserable. So live, you stupid fuck, in spite of them! Bury them with your love for life!
Well, anyway, I’ve been thinking of getting a gun. For protection. I want the Beretta, those pretty bitches.
I should probably head over to the shooting range first though, see how I like the feel. I’ve never even fired a gun. Not yet.