By Joel Warner
By Michael Roberts
By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
It had gotten through to Antonio. He'd even had custody of his young daughter, Patricia, while he was going to art school and asked Lynn to help him get a job in order to provide for her--and meet the conditions of a deferred sentence on a drug charge.
But in the long run, what he got from Lynn was better than a job. It was a new way of looking at how he arrived at decisions that either got him into trouble or helped him stay out of it.
"Amer-I-Can gives you the idea that if you don't like where you're at, go somewhere else," Antonio says, as he scrubs dishes and loads them in the dishwasher. "It says there's always more than one option and points out how if you're sitting in a cell or laying in a casket, it was probably because of a bad decision you made days ago.
"Lonnie didn't lecture about right and wrong. He talked about living with the consequences of whatever decision you make. No blaming it on somebody else."
The program's doctrine of personal responsibility was an antidote to the "all for one" rhetoric of the gangs he'd been hearing since he was twelve years old. There is no "we," there is only "I." No "my homeboys did this or said that." Only what "I" do or say.
It took a long time for the antidote to take hold. Antonio still lapses into the thinking that captivated him for so long, although not nearly as much as he used to. He can laugh one minute about a gang rape--with a nervous, I can't believe we used to do that sort of shit giggle--and the next minute rush to a back bedroom to take care of his girlfriend's invalid son.
The child was born without the part of the brain that controls motor functions. He is wheelchair-bound, helpless. Antonio, the (formerly) antisocial, violent gangster, works with the boy to understand what it is he wants, gently wiping his face and caressing his head.
Antonio lost custody of his daughter when her mother wanted her back--after he'd raised her for two years. Letting Patricia go was one of the roughest times of his rough life. He'd accept the responsibility of raising her again in a heartbeat.
A little later, four-year-old Patricia is brought to the apartment by Antonio's sister, Raquel, to say goodbye. She wants to know if she can take Snacks, a Cabbage Patch doll, that's at the apartment for when she spends the night.
No, Antonio says. The doll goes with him and will be waiting for her when she comes to visit.
"You know I love you," he says. His eyes are moist as he demands and receives a hug. "I love you," she murmurs back. He watches her leave with some apprehension, knowing that the world can be a dangerous place for girls.
He's reminded others of that. After Antonio graduated from the Amer-I-Can program, Lynn paid him to teach it at a middle school. Lynn was impressed with how much time he put into the assignment, staying late to play basketball or just talk with the kids. He also noted that Antonio didn't come into the classroom telling war stories about his days with the gang...but the kids found out who he was as soon as they talked to their older brothers and sisters. They'd come back to class the next day, their eyes wide, suddenly respectful. You didn't tell us you was Boom!
He wouldn't deny it, but he pointed out the price he'd paid: "I can't go to the mall with my little girl without looking over my shoulder. I can't go to a concert without taking six or seven other guys. And if somebody comes after me, I might have to kill him...and that would ruin my life."
One day, a thirteen- or fourteen-year-old girl, the most disruptive kid in the class, was bragging to her classmates about how she would be hanging out on Federal Boulevard, going to parties with older guys. She tossed around the names of known gang members like they were her best friends.
Antonio brought her up short. "One of these times you're gonna get in a car with the wrong guy," he said. "It might be some of my friends or someone just like the way we were...It's gonna get rough, you're gonna get scared...and you ain't gonna make it."
The girl sat still, blinking and swallowing hard as Antonio dropped the kind smile and soft voice he'd used as their teacher. She saw the ferocity and hardness that had made him a feared gang member.
Although the girl remained subdued through the rest of the classes, Antonio doesn't know if she really got the message. And there are always other girls out there who think gangs are glamorous, that there's something romantic about criminals.
"They want to party. They do our drugs, drink our liquor...but when it's time for the panties to come down, they panic," he says. "Even the older girls--seventeen, eighteen--have a hard enough time trying to get out of it. The younger ones..." He lets the rest of the words go unspoken.