17 June 2011

Mark Salzman

[from Mark Salzman's True Notebooks, Knopf, 2003]

At half past ten, Mr. Sills wandered past the library and looked inside. The boys were all working, but Mr. Sills did not seem impressed. To me, it looked as if he was searching for any excuse to throw us out. He stood motionless in the doorway for two or three minutes, then returned to his office without any comment. My relief must have shown when he left, because Francisco asked, "Wha'chu trippin' about? He can't do nothin' to you!"

"I'm not used to being watched like that."

"Try takin' a shit that way." Francisco slapped his pencil down on the table and looked around the room. "What the fuck's that, Chumnikai? Some kinda bird?"

"It's a penguin."

"What you drawin' a penguin for, fool?"

"In school the other day the teacher asked us what animal we thought we were most like. I said penguin."

"Fuckin' Chumnikai!"

"Fuckin' Javier."

"Why a penguin?" I asked.

Patrick shrugged. "Because a penguin is small, it has wings but it can't fly, and it can withstand cold temperatures. That's me." He began crossing out the drawing, but pressed so hard with the pencil that the tip snapped. He froze, bracing for my angry reaction.

Francisco winced; he also seemed to expect the worst. "Damn, Chumnikai! You fucked up his pencil!" I sensed that this was more of a plea than a reprimand. Francisco seemed to assume that I, as an adult, would naturally go ballistic over a small infraction; he was trying to keep me from taking it out on the whole class.

I handed Patrick a fresh pencil, told him not to worry about the broken one, and asked if he'd finished his essay.

"Yeah – I'll read it if you want." As he had never volunteered to read before, I took this as a gesture of gratitude.

"Go ahead."

It was a Thursday, around mid-October of '94. It seemed like a normal day, but something happened that day that changed my life forever. I used to be a good kid doing good in school, but that changed. I arrived at my cousin Ryan's house. He was about fifteen at the time, bald-headed, and wore khaki pants and a white shirt. He told me that a group of his friends were coming over to kick it and drink. Ryan's friends were different. They were from a gang. A gang I used to see on the store walls when I was young.

Soon the house was filled up with gang members. It seemed like they were like one happy family having fun, and I wanted to be part of that family. I was sitting on the couch drinking. The air was filled with smoke from the cigarettes, and loud and noisy from the guys who were yelling and singing because we were all drunk from drinking forty ounces, tequila, and vodka. I was a little dazed when I saw a guy who was about twenty, stalky-looking, and had a fade. John was his name. He asked me if I wanted to join. I thought about it for a while. I mean it seemed OK, because we were all talking, dancing, drinking, just having fun. I told him I'd join. So he told me to just hold on tight, and suddenly, two guys just rushed and jumped me. They beat me for about twenty seconds, then they stopped. All of them in the room were watching me. ALL EYEZ ON ME. They shook my hand and gave me a name. Now I was a part of their family. It was about 2:30 p.m. I had to pick up my brother from school. I told John that I was going to walk to the school. But he insisted that he drive me there to pick him up. We went and when I saw my old friends at the school, I felt different. I was from a gang now. I felt like I had power. People would fear me and my friends when we went into places. Little did I know how much trouble I got myself into. I now have enemies I haven't met before, police watching me, endangering my family, and sending me to a place like this. Sure, I thought it was cool three years ago, but I didn't know it could put me in jail. If I had the chance to go back to that day and not join, I would. And maybe I wouldn't be in a place like where I am today.

. . .

Deep down inside, this angry person awakens. Another day facing perpetual incarceration behind no mercy walls, as we are inmates.

Deep down inside this angry person there is an image of a rejoiceful person who's facing perpetual incarceration behind no mercy walls. Just like your fellow inmates, as you think about the happiness in the past you'll like to shout out for mercy upon your life. But living in darkness for so long, you're taught not to express certain emotions. The voice no one hears is the voice that yells out for freedom in the mind of a forbidden child. Struggling to survive in an ongoing war that seems to have led me and my fellow troops to a meaningless situation. But as I'm found innocent in God's prison, the light should shine on this voice of mine that people just can't seem to follow and understand and I could say farewell to all my hidden voices. And the loneliness in my life shall run for cover.

. . .

"So you sayin' we deserve to get locked up for life for one mistake we made?" Victor asked, getting heated up.

"I'm sayin' if you want the benefit, you gotta face the consequences. Same goes for society. They want the benefit of lockin' kids up and throwin' away the key? They playin' they cards wrong. They gonna face the consequences."

I asked him what he thought the consequences of adult sentences for juvenlies would be.

"Most of us gonna get out someday, right? Teen gangbangers be steppin' out of the pen after twenty, thirty years of livin' like animals, comin' of age in a place where nobody trusts nobody, bein' treated like less than a piece of shit. Wha'chu think they gonna do? Most they family be dead by then. What they got to live for? Revenge. Nothin' else."

Mark Salzman


  1. Interesting read, thanks!

  2. Thanks for this post. I'm reading Salzman's Iron and Silk right now. The other day I shared a short scene from it with my third graders, teaching them how to "buzz" about books. It looks like this blog does just that.