Bike Safe Boston
I’m pacing up and down the 30-yard line on the second football field behind Madison Park High – the one that gets half-a-field-lengthwise stolen light from the streetlights.
Pacing is what I do when I’m impatient: I pace a lot.
Today my impatience is driven by too-warm-for-rugby-practice October weather, and the fact that in thirty minutes, the stolen-light half of the field will be all we have to practice on. And what do the heat and dark matter anyway – when only ten players showed for practice?
Welcome to college rugby.
Still, the ten that showed are good kids, young men really: Most of them will be out of the crazed-college-world, and into the crazed-real-world, in a matter of months.
They sit on the artificial turf, pulling on cleats, and bullshitting to one another with the sort of bullshit that drove me, one day, to inform them: “You know I’d run into a burning building to carry any one of you out. But please, … please don’t ask me to drive in the same car to a game with you.”
I check the time – it helps make me even more impatient – on the cheap watch I bought to ref games when the ref doesn’t show up – yet again.
Welcome to college rugby.
I’m looking up for more players to come straggling in, when the first pops – and that’s what they really sound like; “pop … pop-pop-pop” – make me turn my head.
A few of the less-involved-in-bullshitting rugby players look up too, and turn toward the sound.
Beyond the end zone, where everyone is black, contrasting to rugby practice, where everyone is white, on the street in front of the housing projects, there’s a few, same-ish age as the rugby players, men lounging on the battered furniture – a half burned sofa, lopsided beach chairs, two rusting no-longer-folding-chairs – that gets summer-strewn around projects. One tall, young man, baggy, black sweats, white tee shirt, arms-outstretched-crucifixion-style across the hood of a red Jeep Cherokee, stares up at the dusky-orange sky.
Across the street, an older man, dark pork-pie hat, scary-skinny arms and neck coming out of a short-sleeved, white dress shirt, leans up against a pickup truck bed, his slight torso propped up rigidly on his forearms. He stares straight ahead into nothing.
In the middle of the road, there’s a kid – maybe thirteen, fourteen, a thick-striped, navy-and-white tee shirt, baggy sweats, a shock of scraggly hair rising straight off the top of his head – stopped on a BMX bike.
It goes again – because I’m watching it happen, it processes clearer, louder in my mind.
I see smoke rise up in front of BMX-kid’s face.
“Is that gunfire?” a rugby player asks.
“Nah!” another player scoffs back. “That’s just … some fucking city-shit-noise …”
The BMX-kids eyes are clouded by gun smoke, but through the smoke, I can clearly make out his snarled-focus.
“That was gunfire, I been deer hunting in Maine,” another rugby player says, standing up, staring down through the end zone, hands-on-hips-middle-class-ready-to-act. “I know a gun when I hear it.”
I can barely make out what must be the pistol, held in both his thirteen-year-old-hands, shadowed by a thick navy blue stripe on his chest.
“That’s not a fucking gunshot, a gunshot hurts your fucking ears,” the scoffer rebounds. “I went to the gun range one time with my cop uncl … .”
In my head, there’s one of those pauses, when everything seems to slow down and move so clearly that you get all the little details.
BMX-kid holsters his weapon in the right pocket on his baggy sweats; the black metal gun disappearing completely in there; he executes a BMX-180 – left sneaker on the ground, his tensed right quad showing through the grey sweats as he skid-rubber-grinding forces the bike around; then, standing on the pedals, torso tightening, shoulders hard to neck, he takes off, pedaling rapidly.
The street-furniture guys – frozen until now; like characters in a video game – come to life.
One angry-bounces out of the sofa, sprints a few yards, realizes BMX-kid is already out of sprinting range – and has a gun – skids to a stop, arches his back, and unleashes an unheard scream-threat.
The crucified-guy on the Cherokee hood is off his cross, speeding around back of the vehicle; he yanks the hatch open and grabs a baseball bat.
“Who does he think he is?” one of the younger rugby players genuine-asks. “Obi-Wan Konebi?”
He paces up the street in the direction BMX left in, slapping the baseball bat hard off his left hand.
“Yeeaaah,” the scoffer jeers, with 40-yards-plus-a-childhood-with-zero-shootings-complacency. “What’s he goin’ do, swat the bullets away?”
The just-shot-at young men huddle around the burnt-sofa. The body language is all revenge-anger; heads turn repeatedly, shoulders-tighten-to-necks; a no-longer-folding-chair gets kicked hard into the middle of the street; the guy with the baseball bat can’t stop pacing and tapping.
“Are you guys just total fucking nerds or what?” a city kid, rugby player asks, gathering up his gear, like he’s leaving. “Making jokes during a drive by?”
“Cycle by,” the scoffer corrects.
Beyond the end zone, a decision is made. The young men pile into the Cherokee, baseball-bat-guy tap-tap-tapping the metal bat off the road, until he slings himself into the driver’s seat.
They pull a fast-flee-U-turn. Then drive off, at suburban-family-grocery-shopping-pace, in the opposite direction of BMX-kid.
The scary-skinny guy – the shots having forced him upright for a minute – leans forward again, resting his forearms on the pickup truck bed.
There’s an odd not-silent-silence about the scene.
Behind me, the rugby players start bullshitting again – with nervous half-laughs.
The city hums in the background.
Nothing moves on the street beyond the end zone.
The street furniture is knocked over and strewn further apart.
There are bullets buried somewhere in the embankment at the edge of the turf field.
The scary-skinny guys stares into nothing.
Then, far off, but constant, and rising steadily enough to know they’re headed here, the sirens start.
The wail rises-rises-rises until it’s painfully close, then winds down to nothing, as two cruisers jam to a sudden-sideways-stop. Police officers, guns drawn, emerge; crouch behind open doors; radios squawking.
Nothing happens for another weird minute.
But the not-silent-silence is broken.
Four more cruisers, two unmarked Crown Vics, and an unmarked van arrive. Everyone, other than the van – who carefully parallel parks in an available street space – pulls up haphazardly, closing the surrounding streets to traffic.
Blue-white light swirls off cruiser roofs; smaller blue lights whir in the front windows of the unmarkeds; all the vehicles’ regular lights fight the dusky-orange evening light, frantic-flashing red-white-red-white-red-white-red.
The cops slow-invade the area; hands clapped on holsters; moving forward hunch-crouched.
The only black cop there, a uniformed officer, stays behind, sway-standing by his flashing-lights-cruiser at the top of the street, hands rising from his hips to whip his hat from his head, and wipe his sweaty-baldness with a red bandana.
A tall-muscled-jeans-and-golf-shirted plainclothes officer swaggers fast into the middle of the street furniture, his arms shooting out as he points at the sofa, head nodding directions.
A heavyset, black woman, fortyish, bedraggled hair, loose fitting orange shorts and white tee shirt, lime green flips, with a small white-foo-foo dog on a leash, pads through the blue swarm. She force-notices none of them, dragging the curious-friendly dog right through the flashing-lights-scene.
“Is she out of her fucking mind or just stupid?” the scoffer asks: Everyone laughs.
The tall-muscled plainclothes officer, black leather notebook flapped open, pen held ready, high-energy heads across from the street furniture to the scary-skinny guy.
He rests the notebook on the pickup, pen held ready. The tall-muscled head and shoulders nod as he talks.
The scary-skinny guy stares ahead, shifting slightly on his forearms.
A minute later, maybe less, the notebook rises over the golf-shirted-muscled-shoulder, and is dramatically slapped closed.
Head shaking, he stomps back to the sofa, anger-fumbling the notebook into his back pocket.
The swarming slows; hands off holsters, shoulders down; aimless walking, lightly kicking trash around. Two groups of officers – uniformed and plainclothes – form in the middle of the street furniture. A minute later, they merge into one big blue huddle.
Then, a decision made, they all head back to their vehicles, and depart, killing the lights as they pull away.
The non-silent-silence returns.
The city hums in the background.
The scary-skinny guy shifts on his forearms.
“All right, all right,” I yell, turning to the rugby players, who are still gawking-frozen at the now vacant scene. “Everything’s ok – for us anyways. Let’s get going; burn off some of this craziness. Take a lap! Take a lap!”
They form up, still bullshitting, still half-laughing nervously, and take off at a trot.
I fall in behind them, to burn of some craziness too.
But the craziness won’t burn: In my head, the snarling-focus of a thirteen-year-old’s face – clouded by blue-grey gun smoke – stamps hard onto my memory.
The dusky-orange evening light tinges to black.
The streetlights snap on.
In the far distance, sirens wail.