The following is another compelling excerpt from the e-book In Through A Coloured Lens
January 14, 2007
Some Who Fancy Themselves Tough Guys Don’t Die Young
Guns have been in high schools for decades, another signal of the folly and recklessness along the way to adulthood and maturity. A stable home life ups the chances a teen will be better able to navigate those deceptively treacherous years. If not a stable home life, then a strong early foundation leaves a good chance to recover from the relatively risky teen years.
I remember José (not his real name), a rosy-cheeked boy of Spanish heritage who wore a puffy Afro and identified himself as Black. He went — for a while anyway — to my high school. José was growing up in a household of women – his mother and two older sisters – where he was the only male and had no male presence to emulate or to guide him. School gossip was that his father had died.
José was one of the guys who smoked substances that were not allowed in the smoking area just outside the school building. Later, his attendance at school became irregular. After that, he would visit the school although he was no longer a student there.
I remember the day José showed me his gun. Well, showed off was more like it. He handed me a small bag that was surprisingly heavy. When I saw what was inside, I immediately handed it back to him and asked what he was doing with such a thing.
I didn’t see José again for years, until we ran into each other by chance. The rosiness of his cheeks was all gone. The baby softness, which decades before seemed so incongruous with his tough man attitude, was also gone. Now he was muscular and wiry. Of below average height, he looked nevertheless like someone you wouldn’t want to test in a fight.
He said he was living in a nearby basement apartment and that he had recently returned from one of the States out west where he had served time for armed robbery. He said something about lawyers being some of the best people in the world, and especially sang the praises of his lawyer. Apparently, he had been able to get José off with less jail time than might have been the case, given the charge.
José said he’d learned a lot in jail about how to be a better skilled criminal. What we are interested in we study. What we study we become good at. What we become good at we practice as a skill.
José would pop up in unexpected places at unexpected times over the years. The next time I saw him was about 15 years after his return from the West Coast jails. Then, he looked like a homeless person. When I said hello, he either didn’t recognize me or pretended not to. It was hard to tell. He said he didn’t know who I was. Mental illness was evident.
The last time I saw José was on a subway train. He looked much, much older than his years. His hair had turned mostly gray and his features had become hardened. Given the previous chance meeting years before, I wasn’t sure whether to say hello or not. I looked in his direction a few times, and as I prepared to get off the train he waved and said hello. He asked how I was. I said, “Fine.” I didn’t ask how he was.
Not every youth who wants to be the bad man is killed off before he reaches 25. Some, like José, live past their dangerous youth. Then they have the rest of their lives to contend with. José didn’t study academics or a trade; he studied crime. He had come from a fine family. That’s what the gossip was. But he didn’t look like a man who had come from a fine family. He looked beaten and worn out by his life choices.
Toronto writer and columnist Pat Watson is the author of the e-book In Through A Coloured Lens available at amazon.com, amazon.ca, amazon.co.uk