Yesterday, as I stood in the kitchen with my two daughters discussing their grades, I took an unexpected trip to my childhood. Before I knew it, both of my daughters were in tears. You see, I spend so little time dwelling on my past, that I forget how tragic it appears to others. When I describe my experiences, I find myself listening to my own words as if being told about a some horrific disaster. I don’t live in my past, but somehow it’s still there, waiting for me to stumble across it, like tripping over the head stone of a miserable life hidden in the weeds of my present life.
Before you read any more, you need to understand that my story is not tragic. My life has been riddled with troubles, but it has been amazing, beautiful, and full. From a very early age, I was happy and content. When I started school, I loved it. Preschool and kindergarten were amazing. We danced, sang, and learned. I can still smell the thick paste that we used to glue our art projects together. The memories of the bright colors and feel of finger paints lay pleasantly on my mind. I can still feel the warmth and love of the teachers. School felt like a fun version of home. I was too young to realize that we were desperately poor. Too young to realize that my single mom was an alcoholic and that we lived in a dangerous neighborhood. My mind wasn’t able to wrap around the fact that I didn’t know my father, and my mom’s boyfriends would simply tolerate me.
As a happy kid, I didn’t realize or care that my mom didn’t finish high school. After her second divorce, she moved my older sister Chris and I from Ohio to California. My mom worked at a California gas station while she worked on obtaining her GED and did her best to make ends meet. We were dependent on welfare and food stamps and spent our Saturdays standing in the cheese line at the local Catholic Church. Everything we owned was 2nd or 3rd hand. From our clothes to our car, all of our belongings were damaged or discarded by someone “above” us. But again, I was too young to know. My existence was as fun as any other kid. My clothing, furniture, and toy store was the “Purple Heart” thrift shop in North Highlands, CA. Somehow, my mom made it all work and provided a home for my sister and I.
The first day of 1st grade was so exciting! I could hardly wait for my mom to come home from her graveyard shift to take me to school. I hoped that she wouldn’t be late so that I could be in class with my friends as soon as class began. She came home in plenty of time and helped me get dressed, fixed my lunch in my tin Captain Kangaroo lunch pale. I was sporting some tan colored pants and a bright orange and blue striped polo shirt from the thrift shop. I didn’t mind that the pants really didn’t fit, they cut into my waist and most of my socks were showing. My shoes were used, but they looked like new and as far as I was concerned… the whole outfit was “new”. My teacher “Mrs Hamlin” was as warm and loving as my kindergarten and preschool teachers. It seemed that she couldn’t speak without smiling and showing her perfect white teeth. She had dark hair and glasses and was wearing a brown dress with a paper apple with the title “Mrs Hamlin” pinned to it. I did well in first grade. I got good grades, had a ton of friends, and didn’t have any notable struggles.
Second grade was the beginning of my troubles and the discovery that being poor made me less than the other kids. Much like first grade, I was very excited about the first day. I had my thrift store outfit ready to roll and I was anxiously anticipating another fun year of art, friends, and learning. But this year I had a teacher named “Mr Waterman”. He seemed grumpy and tired from day one. He was a huge guy with a booming voice. He didn’t greet the class and he seemed to have a cruel side that I wasn’t sure how to handle. You see, I didn’t have anything cruel or harsh in my life that had prepared me for this teacher. He didn’t just yell at kids, he went out of his way to embarrass them. I was a soft spoken shy kid. My home was peaceful and other than my squabbles with my older sister, nobody yelled or screamed at each other when there was a problem. I liked it that way. My mom was still working the night shift at the gas station and my tardiness to class quickly made me a target for Mr Waterman. There were days that I would come to class 15 minutes late. You see, we lived in a bad neighborhood and I had to wait for my mom to come home from work before I left for school. Mr Waterman didn’t just yell at me, or just stand me in the corner… he would spend a considerable amount of time mocking me… repeating my “sorry” back in a whiny cruel voice. His mockery of me found some joy in other students. As he chastised me he would tease me about my clothes and warn me that I was turning into a “loser”. As an adult, it seems impossible that a teacher like this had a room full of second graders at his mercy, but oh how times have changed.
We were working on our cursive letters and I was thriving. I practiced my cursive at home for hours, working ahead of the class. Mr Waterman set up the class in groups and the class was working on the letter P and Q. I was excited because I knew these letters well and I worked ahead on the assignment. In fact, I was writing a story that I was planning on sending to Readers Digest! Mr Waterman had a habit of walking around the class and checking to see if students were following his instructions. When he got to my group, I was expecting him to nod with approval as he looked over my nearly perfectly completed assignment. When he looked over my shoulder, he snatched my paper and walked to the front of the class. I thought for a moment… “is he going to actually praise me?” “maybe he will use my paper as an example”. No, that’s not why he snatched my paper. He wanted it as an example for sure; an example of a student that didn’t follow along. You see, because I had completed the assignment, I wasn’t following along. I had worked ahead of everyone else and therefore was ignoring Mr Waterman. I was expecting the worst, “stand in the corner, miss recess, a good verbal lashing”.. but Mr Waterman had a better idea. Instead, he made my entire group thank me for causing them to lose their recess. I had to sit with my group during recess as they passed me notes telling me how stupid I was and how I was going to “get it”.
Well, my group kept good on their promise and beat me up as I made my way home that afternoon. They cornered me and took turns. The only girl in my group spit on me while the boys punched me and put the boots to me. From that day on, I was marked and became a target for the kids in that class. When I told my mom what was going on, she complained to the school but warned me “it’s NEVER okay to hit anyone for any reason” and forbid me to fight back. it was okay with me, I was scared of what the kids might do if I actually fought back. I started to dislike school. I dreaded days that my mom would come home late because I knew that Mr Waterman’s cruelty would be intense and would directly affect the intensity of my after school attacks.
So, as I sat with my tummy aching from nervousness about school, I noticed that my mom was already 15 minutes late… I felt like crying but I held it together. My mom pulled up and I ran out to car holding my stomach. She raced up to the school and I ran to class. When I walked in the class, Mr Waterman was at the chalk board. I was almost a half hour late! He didn’t stop lecturing. In fact, he didn’t even acknowledge that I walked in. I though “cool, maybe he isn’t going to be mean today”. Then I went to sit at my desk but it was gone. My desk, my school supplies, my coat hook, my art work, and any sign of me was absent. There was nowhere to sit. I had no choice but to interrupt Mr Waterman and ask him where to sit. He stared at me, cold as ice. He said “can I help you?”, I stuttered “where do you want me to sit”. He responded “We don’t have room for you in this class any more. We only have room for people who can make it on time. We have decided that we don’t put up with losers in here.” I asked, “what do you want me to do?” He responded, “I don’t care what you do as long as you leave this classroom right now”. As my classmates giggled, I felt the tears well up in my eyes. I turned and headed for the door hoping to hide my shame from the class. When I got outside of the classroom I couldn’t see and I felt like I couldn’t breath. I thought, “what do I do? Where can I go? I can’t go home? What will happen to me? I know, I’ll go to the office, they’ll know what to do.” When I walked into the office, I couldn’t speak.. the tears had me choked to the point of incoherence. The secretary, who loved me and knew me well, put her arm around me. She asked what had happened and I told her the story. She sent me to lay down in the nurse’s office and called my mom. When my mom got to the school, I could hear her voice and the awful voice of Mr Waterman. I heard him call my mom a loser and I just covered my ears and waited for the argument to be over. My mom took me home and she cried all the way home and kept telling me she was so sorry.
The next day when she tried to drop me off for school I refused to get out of the car. I rarely refused to do what my mom said, but I sat stubborn, arms crossed, tears streaming down my face. When she ordered me to get out, I grabbed the steering wheel of the car and refused to let go. She pried my fingers off of the wheel and physically removed me from the car. I cried and went to class, eyes swollen and nose running. Mr Waterman didn’t say a word to me. He didn’t even look at me… My mom and I repeated this for the next two weeks until I figured out that after she dropped me off, I didn’t have to go to class. Instead, I went and hid in the sewer pipe at the end of the playground until I was sure that my mom was asleep. Then, I returned home, turned on television and that’s how I spent my day. This worked for another couple weeks until the school truant officer contacted my mom and informed her that child protective services had been called and that they were going to investigate.
My mom was terrified of the prospect of child protective services taking her babies away and decided to send my sister and I to live with my grandparents Phyllis and Clarence Osborn nearly 200 miles away. My grandma was very strict but she loved us very much. My grandpa was a retired air force sergeant and had hated me and my sister since they day we were born. We were “spiks” to him… bastard children from that “little piece of shit Puerto-Rican ” that was my dad. I didn’t know the kids at my new school and they didn’t know me so I managed to get through the school year without being targeted for bullying. I missed my mom and cried myself to sleep most nights. My grandpa was as cruel to me as Mr Waterman only I didn’t have to see him all day. I only had to deal with my grandpa in the morning, evening, and weekends. My grandpa was physically abusive. He would get angry with me as call me spik or wetback while he picked me up with one hand and choked me, sometimes to unconsciousness. He hid his abuse of me from my grandma because she wouldn’t have tolerated it. I made the mistake of telling her once. She confronted him and they argued. The next day, my grandpa waited for her to leave and then got his hands on me. He told me he was going to kill me and choked me again until I passed out. This was my life at my grandparents, but it was still somehow better than life with Mr Waterman. I was beginning to enjoy school again.
That summer, I missed my mom so badly. I wrote her letters and begged her to return home. I promised to go to school if she would just let me return. Well, she agreed and I was allowed to give school a second try. My first day back was a disappointment. All of the fear and anxiety returned immediately. My third grade class with Mrs Miller was NEXT DOOR to Mr Waterman and I heard his voice booming through the walls. He would regularly come into class and whisper in Mrs Miller’s ear while looking right at me. Mrs Miller was nice to me the first day, but never after that. She wasn’t cruel to me, she was just short with me and very critical. I continued to be late to class a couple days a week, depending on my mom’s schedule. As the school year progressed, I began to fall behind. I really had trouble with the “time telling” lessons because those were the first thing we did each day and I was late so often. I began skipping school again and before to long… I found myself living with my grandparents again.
As if things hadn’t been bad enough, this was the year I was introduced to rape. I continued to do well in school, despite the cruelty of my grandpa. My grandma’s goodness almost balanced out his evil. Their home was in the woods and I lived too far away from most of my classmates to have regular visitors, which was probably a blessing considering how my grandpa treated me. It was my birthday and we had a lot of family visiting. I was excited because there were lots of kids there. There were too many family members in this little two bedroom house and some of us kids had to camp outside or in the van. Well, while staying in the van, an older family member asked if he could sleep with me. Being pretty innocent, I really didnt think anything of it. When he said we were going to play a game, I thought “cool”, until it started to hurt. Then when I said “NO” he got violent and did whatever he wanted. Threatening me the entire time.
In the morning, I was changed. I was still pretty naive and was having trouble processing what had just happened. He acted like nothing happened. The lines of family/friend/love were all blurred. I felt ugly and I heard the words in my head “loser… nothing…worthless… piece of shit” ringing in my ear. I was too ashamed to tell anyone. I just wanted to pretend it never happened… and did just that. But suddenly I found myself curious about sex and began experimenting with other kids, some of them related to me, some of them neighborhood friends. I was so confused. I missed my mom and my life in North Highlands. That summer, my mom refused my pleas to come home. I spent fourth grade at my grandma’s.
Fourth grade was a good school year for me. My home life at grandma’s house wasn’t good, but I had learned how to avoid my grandpa and survive his physical abuses. I had also learned how to deal with missing my mom. She had given me a big bag of candy at my birthday party and I would take them out and eat one piece a day while I went and sat in my grandparents peach orchard. As the candy started to run out, I would use my grandpa’s tools to break the pieces of candy in half in order to make them last until I got to see my mom again. The next summer, my mom called me to tell me that my dog “boots” had passed away. I felt a million miles away from her and began to beg her to come home again. I deliberately made her feel guilty about the passing of the dog, knowing full well that I didn’t give a shit about the dog. I wanted to come home and she fell for it. The fifth grade would be spent in North Highlands, CA.
The fifth grade was not exactly a red letter school year for me. I still hated the school and my mom had given up trying to force me to go. I went to school when I felt like it. My teacher “Mrs Linton” was about as warm as a badger. She was not cruel to me and she was a pretty effective teacher. She was very strict, the kind of teacher that gives you an F for not putting the dot directly over the top of the “i”. To me, she was just someone that I had to tolerate. Most of the kids in my class remembered me from years ago and I regularly got beat up. I didn’t mind the after school attacks because they were much easier and less humiliating than my grandpa’s abuses, plus I knew my classmates weren’t going to kill me. At least, until one of them stabbed me in the head with a spade; a scar I still wear today. Despite all of my troubles, I managed to finish the 5th grade with C’s and D’s. My grades were poor mostly because I missed so much school.
The sixth grade would impact my life in a such a way that I could never have predicted it. Sixth grade lives and breaths through the man that I have become. You see, it had been a while since I had a teacher that was truly kind to me. Mr Pack was a warm, kind, and loving person. He was the kind of person that was born to be a teacher. Mr Pack was kind to me from day one. He never had a cross word and any time something bad happened, he would put a positive spin on it. I continued to miss class, but when I would return, Mr Pack would make a big deal out of it. After missing an entire week of class Mr Pack said to me “Wow! Rico we missed you so much! I am so glad you are back! I have so much stuff to share with you that we covered! You have a lot to do to get caught up but I know you can do it because you are so smart! Is there anything I can do to help you get to school because I just hate it when you’re not here!” This was Mr Pack. I didn’t realize it at the time, but he would impact the rest of my life.
I graduated from Mr Pack’s class with all A’s and B’s. Now it was time for my next great disappointment. Don Julio junior high school. Needless to say, missing class didn’t work out any better in Jr high than it did in elementary school. Now add in the fact that I was in that awkward, gangling, overweight, and pimpled up stage of my life. My class mates still knew me as the loser from elementary school and the harassment only got worse. Missing classes at Jr high landed me in the principal’s office with a quickness. It wasn’t long before the principle began referring to me as loser. When my mom had to come bail me out of the principle’s office, he didn’t hesitate to refer to her as a loser. I decided to stop going to school altogether, which landed me back at my grandparents home. I was getting bigger now and my grandpa was getting older. He seemed to have become bored with physical abuse and stuck to verbal ridicule. Needless to say, I did well at the Jr High at my grandma’s although my home life wasn’t really any better. The only time I really was at peace was when I was with my grandma or completely alone out in the orchard.
I was older now and I insisted that I be allowed to return to live in North Highlands or I threatened to run away. My grandma and my mom knew I was serious and allowed me to return. For eighth grade, I didn’t even attempt to go to Don Julio Jr High. Instead I chose to attend to local alternative school. The kids there were bad, but they liked me and instead of beating me, they protected me. They identified with the “loser” side of me and embraced me. The teachers there were disinterested. I got the feeling they they were counting the minutes until 3pm and as an adult I guess I understand why. About half way through the 8th grade, I dropped out of alternative school, despite my straight A grades, and began independent study. I stayed in independent study for the remainder of my eighth grade. I did so well that I decided to attempt regular school again for the ninth grade.
I lasted 4 weeks in my ninth grade classes at Highlands High School. The high school teachers and classmates were more of the same thing I had been experiencing most of my educational life. By now, I was old enough that my mom really had no control over me. She begged me to go live with my Grandma so that I could finish school. She used driver’s education to convince me. She succeeded. I spent the rest of my 9th grade with my grandma and grandpa. I got decent grades, except in math, but that would be the last of my regular school. In 10th grade, I didn’t even try to attend. I went to the local alternative school to take drivers ed. Once I had my permit, I stopped attending school. I began driving everywhere I could. With or without my mom.
At this time, our family life was nothing to brag about. We were still very poor. My mom had managed to complete her GED and some coursework in nursing at the community college. She worked very hard and she drank herself to sleep every night. My sister had become pregnant at 17 and now had a two year old son “Michael”. I was 15 at this time and was using the car every chance I got. I had no responsibilities and my mom had no control or desire to have control over me. It was this summer that my life would take another drastic turn. I would return home from a friend’s house to hear my sister howling in pain, crying and screaming as if she was being tortured. My mom’s face was unlike I had ever seen it. It was cold and expressionless… She didn’t greet me when she saw me. I had to clap my hands in her face to get her attention and ask her what was happening… She replied “I don’t know. Chris says her legs are hurting and she doesn’t know why.” My mom took my sis to the hospital where she was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer.
Over the course of the next year, our lives would be hell. My mom wasn’t there for me physically or emotionally. My sister would go in and out of consciousness. She really didn’t seem to be in there any more. I would talk to her and she would respond with nonsense. She didn’t know my name or seem to recognize me. Micheal lived with us and my mom took care of him. At 2 years old, he only knew that mommy was sick. He really didn’t have any understanding beyond that. At 15 I only knew my sister was sick, and was not wrapping my mind around the idea of losing my sister. One day, about 10 months into her cancer, I was sitting on the couch. Chris walked into the room “I hadn’t seen her walk in months”. She said “Rico, what’s going on. I’m confused. I feel like I’ve been asleep my whole life”. I was shocked, not only was she walking.. but she knew who I was, she was in there. I was so happy. She sat and talked to me for hours. She told me she loved me so much and was so glad I was her brother. When we went to the doctor, he said her cancer was in complete remission and it looked like she was in the clear. The hospice society set up a trip to Disney land for all of us to celebrate her recovery.
I had never even considered getting to go to Disney Land. That was something wealthy families got to do. I was very excited. My mom, Chris, Michael and I all boarded a plane and went to the park. Chris seemed to be feeling especially tired that evening in the hotel. She asked my mom to come into the bathroom with her. When my mom came out of the bathroom, she had that look again. I asked what was wrong and she said “There’s a huge lump on Chris’s neck that wasn’t there before”. Three weeks later, my sister passed away in our home. Our family had gathered to say good bye to her. Including my mom’s two children from her previous marriage Bob and Lori. I felt like I was in a bad dream. She died at around 10pm and within a couple of hours the family had departed. I waited up all night with my mom and Micheal for the morticians to show up. I kind of expected a hearse, but they showed up in a van. They put my sister in a body bag and my mom lost her mind. She was screaming and crying. She was begging the men to open the bag because my sister would be afraid. She begged them to put a blanket on my sister so she wouldn’t be cold. Micheal just sat there with me, quietly watching.
Within a week, my mom had been taken away to a mental hospital. I didn’t hear from her for weeks. My grandma sent money for me to live on. I was alone with Micheal for what seemed like an eternity. Eventually Mike went to live with his father. When my mom finally came home from the mental hospital, she was emotionally unavailable to me. She just sat and stared out the window. She had worked at the hospital that my sis was diagnosed in. She knew she couldn’t go back to work there, but she had no plan. She had no ability to show emotion to me any more. I wondered why all this had happened. I asked “why her and not me”. I was the loser. I was the person that didn’t contribute anything to this world. It seemed so unfair. My mom started asking relatives if they would take care of me if she committed suicide. She threatened to do it daily. I was scared. She was all I had left. Chris was gone.. Micheal was gone… and nobody in the family really liked or wanted me except my grandma… who had aged to the point she really couldn’t care for me.
By this time in my life, I had met my dad a couple times. One of his visits was when he came to meet me and the other when my sister was dying. I really did not have much of a relationship with him. But as I sat and wondered about my next move and what kind of life I was facing in California, I considered returning to my birth place of Akron Ohio. My teenage mind had devised an “out” for me. My half brother was living in California and he offered to drive back to Ohio. Now, if I could just convince my dad to let me stay in Ohio. I figured this was going to take some work. It took two days to drive to Ohio, but as soon as we arrived, I knew this was where I was supposed to be. Everything was green and it was cloudy. Lightning bugs (I had never seen before) twinkled in the night. This place was amazing and I fell in love. I wasn’t sure how my dad was going to react to my proposition and I worried that all of my efforts might be in vain. When I arrived at his house, he greeted me and was very friendly. I got to meet my two step brothers Bobby and Ronny and immediately fell in love with the family. Bob and Ron had a band and a full studio in the basement. We jammed together a few times. We hung out with their friends and I met a girl right away. I loved everything about Ohio and prayed that I would be allowed to stay. I told my dad some of the reasons I didn’t want to return to California but he wasn’t moved. He didn’t have room for me and sent me back. The drive back to California seemed like it took a year. I couldn’t chase the memories of my short visit out of my head. Within minutes of returning to Cali, I was reminded of the life that awaited. The police helicopter circled my neighborhood and sounds of gun fire and screams echoed through the night.
The next year I would be introduced to gangs. Life was empty. I had lost my relationship with my mom. I was still an awkward teen. I got my driver’s license but really didn’t have a purpose for it, other than entertaining myself. I had a couple of friends from school but I wasn’t very close with them as I really didn’t see much of them during the year my sister was sick. The bad kids from the alternative school liked me and still hung out with me, but most of them were heavily into drugs and crime. I began to hang out with the bad kids more and more. That’s when I met Sammy and Armando. They were members of the Northenio Blood’s. They immediately accepted me and made me feel at home. They were good to me. They fed me and gave me money. The first time I got into trouble with them I showed them a skill that would prove to dominate the next few years of my life.
Sammy, Armando, and Carlos had me drive them to a drug deal. It was a deal with some white Aryan gang at a house in North Highlands. Everyone in my car was nervous but they were only talking to each other in Spanish so I really didn’t know what was going on. They went in the house and told me to keep the engine running. After a few moments I heard yelling and glass breaking. Suddenly the screen door flew open on the house… my friends burst through yelling “GO GO GO” as they ran for the car. I put the car in gear and they jumped in the windows. I pressed the gas pedal to the floor just as a bottle smashed against the side of the car. I looked to my left and saw a whole gang of armed angry white guys running after us. I was driving so fast, everything was a blur. My friends were laughing and speaking in Spanish again. Suddenly I heard the screeching of tires and I looked behind us to see a jeep with the armed guys gaining on us. My friends yelled “faster Holmes!”. The passenger in the jeep took aim and fired a shot. I was terrified. I knew that my life was on the line. I became focused. My hands gripped the wheel and I swerved into oncoming traffic. Cars honked and swerved off of the road. I was missing them by inches, all the while the jeep was keeping pace in the parallel lanes. I then swerved off of the road and cut through a field, through a fence, and across a yard. I could hear the jeep try to cross the oncoming traffic.. I heard screeching. I didn’t see the jeep behind us any more but I kept the pedal down. We were doing 110 mph through a residential neighborhood. I was 16, and had no concerns other than getting away with my life. God must have needed me because no children or cars crossed our paths. Once we were safe, we met up with other gang members. We gave them some bags that we had acquired during the deal.
This would be the beginning of my “get away driver” status. They used me for everything. Drive bye’s, robberies, and other activities that required a “get away”. Sammy taught me how to hot wire most cars and I got to use my skills many times. The Northenio Bloods were so kind to me, but so brutally violent to others. I witnessed so many murders that I began to become desensitized to death. In some sick way, this was helping me overcome my grief from my sister’s passing. But this new found peace would take a slow and terrible toll on me.
The murders I witnessed would change me. My first experience with murder was at 16. I was standing out in front of the LaTeindita store along the Broadway cruise in Sacramento CA. This was how I spent my relaxation time with the gang. We would get drunk and high while we listened to music and tried to get girls along the strip. It was mostly Mexican gang members, although there was an occasional white or black guy. As we stood in front of the store, music blaring low rider oldies, a car pulled into the lot. I was too drunk to really notice the make or model, or even who was in side. Suddenly there was a loud boom followed by a spray of liquid. My ears were ringing and I wasn’t sure what had just happened. I thought for a moment that I might be shot. Then I looked at my hands, covered with blood and bits of bone. It was all over me, the guy beside me had taken a shot gun blast from the passing car at close range. I was covered with his blood and flesh. Everyone scattered. I heard my friends yelling for me to “vaminos! The cops are coming” I was so drunk… I wasn’t sure if I could even drive. I got in my car and left the scene. I was covered in blood and got off the road quickly. In my haste, I drove into unfamiliar areas and quickly got lost. It took me until just before sunrise to find home. I don’t remember most of the drive. I snuck into my house quietly, just in case my mom was there and awake. I went into the bathroom to check myself for bullet holes. All I found was blood, brains, and flesh. I jumped in the shower and scrubbed. But no matter how hard I scrubbed, the blood would not wash off. I scrubbed and scrubbed… my hands and arms ached. I was sober now but didn’t know what I was going to do to get the blood off of my hands. I finally gave up, hands and arms throbbing in pain and went to bed. When I woke, I discovered that I had scrubbed the skin off of myself and that much of the blood in my bed was my own. This would begin my life long battle with PTSD.
The next murder did a different kind of damage. The next one caused me to have more guilt than I have ever felt in my life. This gang was huge and all of us had low-riders. We were back at the Broadway cruise. There were about 20 lowriders parked in this parking lot and as many gangsters. We were doing our usual thing, drinking, smoking, and listening to Motown oldies. As we were sitting there I noticed someone who looked out of place. It was a little old man carrying a paper bag of what appeared to be groceries. My first thought was “wow, this old guys has some balls walking through this parking lot at night with all these gangsters around”. I watched as the old guy walked up to one of the guys and asked for a light in Spanish. The gang member lit up a cigarette and told the old man to go home then stuffed the lighter back in his pocket. The little old man stood there with an unlit cigarette hanging out of his mouth. He spit out the cigarette and then spit directly in the face of the gang banger. A couple of the guys laughed and said “don’t worry about it holmes, he’s just a crazy old man. Let it go.” Then, they were talking in spanish again, too fast for me to understand and my friends said “come on Rico, lets go”. I said, “where are we going?” and my friend said “you’ll see”… so everyone go in their cars. Engines started and the cars all split up. I followed the group that went to the left and the other cars went to the right of this store we were in front of… when we met in back of the store, there stood the little old man. Surrounded by an ocean of gang members. They said something to the old man in spanish and the old man flipped them off. Then one of the young members “bout 10 years old” walked up to the old man. The old man put down his guard just in time to get struck in the face by the kid. The old man stumbled back and swung his bag at the group. Every time he swung his bag, his groceries came out and flew across the back lot. The guys all laughed. I wasn’t laughing. I thought “surely they aren’t really going to hurt this guy”. I was wrong. About five guys approached the old man holding bumper jacks. The first one swung and connected with the old guys mid section causing him to drop his bag and drop to his knees. Then the others started swinging… within a few seconds a whole mob was on top of the old man. I could feel the tears welling up in my eyes and I made eye contact with Sammy. He shook his head as if to say “Pull it together Rico or you’re gonna get us killed” I wanted to save him so badly but I knew it was hopeless. I had a choice, shut up or join him. The old man just lay there while they beat him with jacks, crowbars, and fists… after he was clearly dead they continued to beat him until pieces of him started to break from his body… they continued to beat him into an unrecognizable pile of mash. I thought I would vomit. Not because of the mash, but because of my guilt. My cowardliness had taken control. I thought, somewhere someone loves him. Somebody is waiting for him to come home with groceries. Tomorrow someone will miss him. We took the only thing he had, his life. That night, when I went home again, my hands were covered with blood. Again, I couldn’t wash it off because it wasn’t really there. My mind was slipping.
The next murder put things in perspective. I was hanging out again, only this time it was in North Highlands. I was at a friends house. I was helping him fix his Chevy Monte Carlo. There were about five or six of us there in the front yard under the tree. It was hot out and we all had greasy hands. I don’t remember what we were working on, only that the car wasn’t working. As we sat in the yard, drinking beer in between turning wrenches. A low rider pickup pulled into the yard. They called my friend Jerry over to the window. I didn’t realize what was happening at first, but then I saw the pistol in Jerry’s face. The guys in the pickup were from a rival gang and they had Jerry right where they wanted him. I wasn’t armed and neither were my friends. I knew Jerry had a gun in his car but there was no way any of us could get to it without getting shot. I waited for the “pop” but then I saw the guy take the gun out of Jerry’s face. The rival said “Just what I thought, fucking pussy Northsider. Why don’t you go cry to your momma you little bitch” Then, the truck backed out of the grass while the driver and passenger laughed. As the truck started to pull away I saw Jerry dive into his car. I knew what he was doing and we all begged him to stop… we were saying “later, we’ll get em later” But Jerry was pissed and he wanted to settle the score right now. His car was dead so he hopped on his bike and began chasing the truck. The truck was about 100 yards away. They heard Jerry yelling and turned the truck sideways in the road. Jerry got about 20 feet away from the truck when I heard the pop. Jerry’s head jerked back and he fell off his bike. I heard him scream “I’m shot” then he laid down and went silent. Just about then, the screen door flew open on Jerry’s house. It was his mom. She said “what was that sound”. Then she looked up the street to see her only child laying still in the gutter with two guys laughing hysterically in the truck. She ran to him screaming and crying. It was too late, he was gone and suddenly I realized. This was the only way out. I know that now.
The next murder was a turning point for me. The next murder was as unexpected as any of the others, but it was a dear friend that was the victim. Jay was a beautiful person. Just one of those people that was obviously one of god’s creatures. He had perfect olive skin, a deep smooth voice like the smoothest singer you’d ever heard, and the most amazing sense of humor. Jay never bothered anyone. I knew he was into some bad stuff but everybody liked him. Even rivals would give him a pass because he was so likable. I like to hang out with Jay. He was one of those people that could make you forget how bad things were. He could distract you from grief and worry with a single sentence. It had been a week or so since I had seen Jay. I asked around and it seemed that he was just gone. I wondered if he had been picked up by the cops. I finally got tired of looking around the streets for him and went to his mom’s house to ask about him. I found out that Jay had been covered in gasoline and set on fire. It was then that I realized that there are worse things than death, like living through an experience like that. I thought of my mom, Jerry’s mom, and the other people who’s lives had just been turned upside down. I knew then that I had to get out. Over the course of the next few weeks, I searched for comfort. My friends from elementary school were not in the gang life and really didn’t understand what I was experiencing. The friends that would understand were either dead or locked up. I had nobody to talk to.
During those years that I worked as a get away driver, one of my my more important tasks was to transport weapons. I had a pistol, and had used a shot gun, but I had never fired an automatic weapon. On this particular day, I was to deliver a trunkload of automatic weapons. I am unsure what they were, oozy or Mack 10’s I suspect. As my partner and I were driving along I said “hey, have you ever wanted to shoot one of these?” He replied, “yeah, but not these. If they found out they’d kill us” To which I replied, there’s about 50 guns back there, how in the hell would they ever know if we shot just one of them?” After some convincing, he agreed and we drove to the middle of nowhere. I took one of the guns off of the pile and aimed it at the sign that was about 10 feet away. I pulled the trigger and missed as the gun yanked my arm up and to the side. My friend laughed and said “you suck holmes” So then he tried. He hit the sign but only with one of about 15 bullets. So, I swapped clips with another gun and gave it a second try. This time I had both hands on it and I shot the crap out of the sign” We put the gun back in the trunk and put it at the bottom of the pile. We delivered the guns and nobody ever knew about out little test… or so I thought.
About six months later, following that delivery and Jay’s death, there was a knock at my door. In the back of my mind I hoped it was one of my friends out of prison. It wasn’t. There were two men standing there. They said they were law enforcement and wanted to speak with me. They showed me their badges but honestly I couldn’t have told the difference between and real badge and a gumball machine badge. The were both armed and said I had to go with them. My mom wasn’t home so I didn’t get to say good bye. They loaded me into this windowless brown cargo van that was full of monitors and electronics equipment. They started asking me questions about transporting illegal weapons. I denied all of it. I remember them saying “hmm, maybe we have the wrong guy”. I noticed that they were driving me out to the middle of nowhere and it occurred to me “these guys are going to kill me and dump me out here”. I began to be afraid. I started asking them to take me home but they ignored me. Finally the van came to a stop. The driver turned to the passenger and said “look at that sign. It’s all shot up. Who would do such a thing?” The passenger then said “I’ll bet the person that did that REALLY doesn’t want anyone to know they did it.” They had me dead to rights. They took me home and told me not to go anywhere or tell anyone about my trip, unless I wanted someone to find out that I shot the sign.
About a month after that, I decided I wanted to get out of North Highlands, but I wasn’t sure how to do it or even where to go. I still had a handful of friends that I was in touch with who suggested that I finish my GED and go to college. I did. I attended GED classes for a couple weeks, took my test and passed. Then I signed up for college, only to fail every class my first semester. School still felt like school. Then I had a friend suggest that I go to college to be an auto mechanic because I was so good at fixing cars. I did. While I was going to college I lost touch with most of my gang member friends either because of death or lengthy prison sentences. It was during this time that I met my wife. She was just what I thought I needed at the time. She was plain, no crime, no drama, no loud music or drinking. She was exactly the kind of girl that I could tolerate a life with. After about a year I married her.
About a year later I graduated from college and got my ASE master certificate for auto repair. I sent resumes to every little Podunk town I could find on the map. I wanted to be as far away as possible from the California life. The first company to respond was a Ford Dealership in Twin Falls, Idaho. I loaded up my truck, kissed my wife goodbye and left, promising her I would send for her after I got settled. Ford hired me right away and I eventually got an apartment and sent for my wife. I worked for the dealership for a couple of years before I was injured on the job. I did severe damage to my lower back and my doctor said that I had to “reinvent” myself and that I would never be able to “turn wrenches” again.
At this time, my mom was still living in California. She lived by herself and her severe depression had taken hold of her life and she was no longer able to work. She was in serious financial trouble and I invited her to move into our huge home in Idaho. She agreed and I set up my home to accommodate her. This took a toll on my marriage and life in general. But I really missed my mom and had spent a good part of my life without her.
This was the time that my sixth grad teacher’s influence, Mr Pack, returned to my life. The doctor told me that I should consider doing something meaningful. That I needed to find that “something” that really mattered to me. All I could think of was elementary school and the damage that my experiences there had done. I thought that maybe I could be an elementary teacher and do things with way Mr Pack had done them. But how? How could I manage all of those kids? I didn’t know anything about kids or teaching. I had decided long ago that I would never bring a child into the world, yet alone take on teaching and guiding someone else’s child. My wife had a great idea. She said, “you are a good driver and you are interested in school. So how about working for a couple years as a school bus driver? If you can handle that then surely you could handle being a teacher”. I thought her idea made perfect sense and I became a school bus driver for the Twin Falls School district. It was the best job I had ever had. I looked forward to coming to work every day. Eventually, I became a school bus driver trainer for the state and then transferred to my local school district. Not only was I sold on the idea of becoming a teacher, I also was reconsidering my decision not to have children.
I returned to school as a full time elementary education teaching student at the College of Southern Idaho. As soon as I got close to obtaining my associate degree I began working for Head Start of Southern Idaho as a bus driver and then Nurturing Father Course teacher. I transferred to Idaho State University and began working on my bachelor degree in elementary education. School was rough. I was working full time and going to school full time when my wife had our first child Felicity. I began growing away from my wife while I was excelling in school. I was in the middle of completing my bachelor degree when my wife became pregnant with my twins Malcolm and Sadie. I was almost to the end of my degree. All I had left was my student teaching when someone from the HR training and development program convinced me to switch my degree. After another semester I graduated with a bachelor degree in Corporate training and Professional Technical Education which provided me with a credential that allowed me to teach adults.
I began teaching in the adult education department at the college. I loved this job. I really identified with the students. So many times, students came to school late or didn’t show up to class at all and I finally had the freedom and power to say “Oh please don’t worry. We missed you and I can help you get caught up. I treated my students with kindness as I guided them toward their GED and hopefully college. I felt like I was finally making a difference in people’s lives but I wanted more. I felt like there was so much more to do and I wasn’t sure how to make it happen. My life still had holes and a deep empty feeling. Something was missing still… I felt a longing. I wanted to do more so I continued with my education. I entered the graduate program at Idaho State and began working on my Masters of Training and Development. My marriage and my home life continued to deteriorate and eventually I filed for divorce. When my divorce was granted, my oldest child Felicity was 5 and my twins Malcolm and Sadie were 2. My ex wife and I didn’t fight. She was a good person and a good mother to our children but we had just grown apart. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was in control.
The divorce was hard on all of us. I was the one who wanted it, but my ex wife struggled to get along with me despite being angry about the divorce. I was the only support system my ex wife had known and her family really had nothing to offer her. I had been considering moving to back to my roots in Ohio, but I would need to convince my ex wife to move as well. After a short conversation, my ex wife and I decided that it was time for both of us to make a change. She was tired of Idaho and California and all of the disappointments she associated with both places. So we began our search for a new place to live. This was early in 2008. By the time we actually got to find jobs and relocate, it was summer of 2008, weeks before the great financial crash of 2008. I was moving away from my huge home in the small town of Hansen Id, to a huge city in Ohio.
When I arrived in Ohio, the great recession was under way, but still, it felt right. I knew right away that this was where I was supposed to be. I had people to help here somehow. This place looked, smelled, and felt right. I had a great education, nice belongings, perfect work history and no job. I had decided that this was to be the beginning of my new life. I wanted to make something of the terrible things that I had experienced. Unfortunately, due to the economy, there were mass hiring freezes and finding a job was nearly impossible in Ohio. I had a truckload full of furniture and no place to put any of it. I had a couple thousand dollars in my bank account that I knew could get us through for a couple months.
My step brother Bobby offered to let me stay with him but I didn’t have any place to put my furniture. There sat the moving truck, full to the brim with every belonging, including my car on a trailer. My ex had secured a job and a small apartment in Columbus but I really wanted to settle in my birthplace. She had moved into one of the worst neighborhoods in Columbus and my three small town Idaho kids stuck out like a sore thumb in their new school. I knew I had to get them to Akron as soon as possible and get them out of Columbus. Luckily, I met my new wife Shelly my second day in Ohio. She was so kind to my children and I. She moved us into her two bedroom apartment with her and her son Cody within a few weeks. Shelly hadn’t gone to college. She worked full time as a bar tender and was still reeling after a very difficult divorce. Shelly and I struggled to make ends meet. We found a bigger house in North Hill and got married. Shortly after I was hired by Project Learn of Summit County as a teacher. It was all coming together now.
The recession had caused many foreclosures, including the one on my home in Idaho. The good news was that foreclosures provided the market with thousands of very cheap homes. This allowed my ex wife to move to town called Massillon by purchasing a foreclosed home. When Shelly and I checked out Massillon, we immediately fell in love. It was fall and everyone was out walking. People seemed happy here and there was more charm than any little town should have. We purchased a beautiful foreclosed home with an huge back yard and put our children in the Massillon School District. I stayed at Project learn and was finally able to give back by helping adults complete their education and realize their own successes. Over the course of the next few years, my wife would enroll in college, end her bar-tending career, and I would help more than 100 impoverished adults complete their education and I would see more than 50 of them go on to college and university.
Fast forward to today… to the conversation in the kitchen…a mere month or so after my wife graduated from Stark State College with her first social work degree after several semesters of being on the president’s list and Deans list. My wife was no longer a bar tender. She wasn’t home this evening because she as a family counselor for drug addicted teens at a local rehabilitation facility, or maybe she was on her way to Akron University to attend her LSW classes… either way, Shelly wasn’t home and my girls were keeping me company. They were so excited and were telling me about their straight A report cards. They wanted to know if I was learning the same things as they are learning. I wasn’t paying close enough attention to what I was doing… I didn’t realize that my description of my childhood and school experiences were so awful to hear. As I bent over the dishwasher, trying to find enough room for the last remaining bowl, I described my experiences to my daughters. They were not prepared for the story that poured from my lips. I didn’t get emotional until I looked at their faces. When I asked what was wrong, my oldest daughter said “It’s so sad and so unfair”. Nobody should have to go through those things.
I tried to comfort them…. as I stared into their swollen little eyes. I tried to convince myself that my sacrifices had somehow contributed to our current life, but I realized that it was my children, my wife, and the hundreds of people that I touched who were my most amazing accomplishment. It was they that would fix all of the unfairness, all of the pain and sorrow that I had dealt and received. When I ask the question “did I make it?” the answer is not what I had planned, a simple yes or no… rather it was changed… The answer has become “the people closest to me hold the keys to whether or not we all make it. My wife and my children will touch other’s lives… and those lives will touch other’s lives… and when that infinite cycle of interactions that pull people from poverty continue… then I will be able to say ” I made it”.