It was a playground, not a park, in the traditional sense of grass, kiddie swings and benches. A concrete ballfield, with tennis courts, softball diamond, handball and basketball court, two rims with no net. Crowded with twelve year-olds and older, close to one hundred people, mainly boys, but the place packed enough girls to turn one’s head a few times. We entered through the gate near the basketball court. The words were, “G, what’s up!”
“Love is in the air, baby!” It took some restraint not to bust out laughing even though Girard had primed me on why they called their crew “The Love Connection”. From the little I’d seen these past few weeks of living around here, their antics bordered more on hate stuff. I saw how they ran around the corner, to and from the main avenue. Not all of them, but many of their faces brought memories of stick-ups, fights, snatched pocketbook or just plain rowdiness.
We walked near the basketball court, edging the out-of-bounds line, and headed to the other side where a metal backboard posted with no rim, only four gaping holes, where bolts had been stripped and pulled through, the rim now gone. A person behind me shouted, “Yo! Look up!” I turned to find he had thrown the ball hard, a bee-line toward my face. My reflexes allowed me to catch it with ease. After two quick dribbles with my left before taking a step, I switched to my right and made my way to the basket. Though one more step would have let me lay it against the backboard, I spun and threw a bullet pass back to him. A simple catch for him, he nodded. “Ernest, right? They call me Slick ‘cause my game is pure and smooth.”
He dressed the opposite of someone fronting to exaggerate his ball skills – a simple long sleeve thermal, loose gray sweats and white leather Pony sneakers with the logo in black. His movements were fluid; shoulders tilted from side to side, giving his medium build the look of a scarecrow being blown by a gust of wind. Slick stood in one spot, dribbling the ball back and forth behind his back, while our eyes and head nods confirmed what we each felt – on the court we were the real deal. I could tell for him that basketball was his real love, and whatever love connection these other kids were claiming came second, if at all.
I broke our silent communication by walking away, toward where Girard had stopped. As my shoulders passed Slick’s, he shot the ball from about thirty feet out. No need to turn around because I knew it went in before the others reacted with sounds of wonder.
By the time we made our way to the benches and short fence by the handball courts, Girard told me so many names. With each name, he uttered a person’s rank in The Love Connection - fist, knife or gun - and whether the person was cool. Years would pass before I learned, to Girard, everyone was cool. It took a major trespass for someone not to be cool. My older brothers, Lionel and Eric were in the group we joined. There were about fifteen guys, and everyone pretty much said the same thing, what’s up Love, except for Manny. “Yo E, that’s your little brother? Man, I saw him looking out the window last week. He’s SOFT.”
His exaggeration of the word coupled with a fake little twang, pronouncing it “sawft” confirmed everyone would laugh. Before I had the chance to spit some words back at him, Manny reached out and slapped me. He did not do it with a lot of force, but it was clear we were about to get into a slap box match. Slap boxing was part play, while also serving as a means to establish the alpha males in youth crews. Open hand, no closed fists. Most times the boxing match was a quick pace swing-fest with little technique – an arbiter to test reflexes or toughness. The key to winning was to not duck nor shift your feet. Use your reach; move your head to either side or back, push with one shoulder, swing with the other arm.
My customary reflexes had abandoned me, leaving me there to process what just happened. No more than two seconds ticked before Girard’s left hand slapped Manny. Manny’s first swing missed because Girard stepped back. Since it was an error that gave Manny an advantage where he could plant his strong foot, I did not give Manny a chance to complete his second swing. I grabbed him and tossed him into the fence. That shorter fence reached only a few inches above his waist; he nearly fell over.
Of knives being drawn.
Switchblades. Double-O Sevens. Even Eric had his drawn. Then I felt a second wave from behind me, coming from the basketball courts. The fists were with me. Then Lionel’s voice boomed, “Everybody chill. It’s all love.”
Manny had balanced himself by grasping the fence, in the middle with his right hand, the fingers clutching the open circles while his left hand held onto the top bar. His steady steps toward me indicated no intention to retaliate. His extended right hand confirmed this, but the upside-down smile told of a calculation being done. The precise nature escaped me because his face gave way to no plot. Manny’s smooth brow aligned flawlessly with his dark Caesar haircut. Topped with three-sixty waves, the haircut had the flash and symbols of our times: two parts - a crescent on the left and a dollar sign on the right. I responded to his reach by giving him a pound. The low, reassuring sound of his voice uttered, “It’s all love. OK?”
“Okay!” My word came too quickly, indicating eagerness not to be Manny’s adversary. It hinted at my confusion and drew me back to thoughts of my lagging reflexes.
Everything went back to normal. Small talk continued. Minutes later everyone agreed to meet later that night at The Center. The Love Connection split into small cells of two or three. I looked at Eric, to his eyes to see why he pulled out his knife; they said, “No he was not going to hurt me, but yes, he’s got Manny’s back.”
I walked away with Girard, thinking of how he had covered my back twice in one day, once in class and now in front of his whole crew. “What’s up with that kid Manny?”
“Oh, he’s cool! That’s my brother.”
“I thought you were an only child?”
“He’s my brother because we want to be brothers, not because we have the same parents.”
“Am I your brother?” I was goofing on him because as hard as Girard tried to maintain an innocent-boy persona, the swagger in his walk, his predilection for peace, and the way he enunciated his words foretold of a boy who had been trained to make the hard call, much like my father had trained Lionel, Eric and me.
“Time will tell. Time will tell.” Girard’s words implied a deviation from early this morning when we first met. I considered whether he and others had picked up on my aversion to not just Manny but The Love Connection.