“How many of y’all think your friends will take care of you?”
On an early June day this summer, Shawn Banks is leading his class of youngsters again, and he smiles as all the boys raise their hands.
“Yeah?” he says. “Your friends, when you were a baby, did they ever come over and wipe your ass?”
There is a small window of silence before the boys grudgingly answer: “No.”
“Who did that?” Banks asks.
“And who puts food on the table?”
Again, a pause. “Mom.”
“And who is there for you when you get hurt? Do your friends come over with Band-Aids and clean you up?”
“Y’all think that if you get in with a clique, if you get with a gang, that’ll be your family and keep you safe. But I can tell you, ’cause I was in a gang, the gang’s what got me hurt.”
The kids look more circumspect at this, quizzical expressions drawing shadows across their young faces.
“A real friend isn’t gonna ask you to put yourself in danger,” says Banks. “A real friend is gonna want you to stay safe.”
After a while, Diana was clear about what was happening with Joseph: Her son’s problem was peer pressure. He had started hanging with a new crew, with boys who went by the names Javy, Fatty and Dante. These boys turned up at the house at odd hours, in the middle of the night, as though they had no parents at all. And sometimes Joseph sneaked out, when everyone was asleep, to run the streets with them. For Diana, it was like having a different son. Joseph mouthed off to his teachers. His grades dropped off. And one afternoon in January 2012, following school, he tried to sneak away from his grandmother’s house and get in a car with a bunch of teenagers.
His uncle stopped him, driving him back home to his mother.
Later, the news arrived.
Joseph’s friends had been in some kind of Facebook war, trading insults with boys from the Juniata section of the city. They arranged to meet for a fistfight. After Joseph’s uncle stopped him from getting in the car, his friends went on without him. When they arrived, the other kids, three brothers from Juniata, were nowhere to be found. Instead, their stepfather showed up, gun in hand, and started hailing bullets at the car.
Joseph’s three best friends—Javy, Fatty and Dante—all died from gunshots. And Joseph, who wasn’t even there, seemed somehow wounded, too. “He started freaking out at me over every little thing,” says Diana. “He would just explode, over anything I said. And that—that was not my son.”
Diana warned him: “I’m going to send you to your father, in the Dominican.”
Joseph missed his father but knew: She’d never send him away.
His hypersensitivity, the sudden explosions of temper, were likely signs of trauma. He tried to act brave. But he clearly struggled with grief. “My friends are dead,” he said, like an announcement for those who missed the news. “All my friends are dead.”
At the lowest depths of all this, his mother put him in a program for at-risk kids run by the Norris Square Civic Association. And there, one afternoon this past June, he talked with Shawn Banks.
“Would you like to get some grub before we talk?” Banks asked.
In response, Joseph, now 13, simply nodded, then made a show of being in control of the whole situation. The adults there, running the program, brought him some food. Sauceless spaghetti. Salisbury steak in thin brown gravy. Joseph leaned back in his chair like a king on his throne as the adults placed the food before him. Then he looked it over, and instead of devouring it eagerly, like a kid, he eased into his meal, like he wasn’t really all that hungry, like he had all the time in the world to eat at his leisure while everyone waited for him to decide he was ready to talk.
It was during this part of the charade, when Joseph darted glances around the table to see how his performance was going over, that he revealed himself—his mouth stuffed with spaghetti, his eyes uncertain. And in minutes, Banks got him talking about his fears—about how he’d rather not be in a gang but considered membership a necessity.
“If I ain’t in,” he said simply, “they’ll stroll me”—meaning the very kids promising their friendship would kick his ass if he didn’t swear allegiance.
How long might that last, before they gave up and let him go on with the life he wants?
Months. An eternity in adolescent time, quite possibly forever in North Philly. And it was Banks who comprehended and remarked upon the dark thought flickering behind Joseph’s eyes. “You can’t think farther than that, huh?” he asked. “Tell me, what do you see for yourself in 10 years?”
Joseph just sat there, staring at the table.
“You don’t ever think about that?”
“No,” said Joseph.
“What about being 20? I mean, you think you’ll live to be 20?”
Joseph looked weakened by the question. The silence stretched on—time suddenly gone elastic. At one point, some small noise emanated from his throat, as if he might groan his way to an answer. But the moment passed. And Banks just sat there, waiting, till finally Joseph spoke, shaking his head like he was sorry: “No,” he said.
After a year in community college, Antwan determined that his chosen field, architecture, was a lot tougher than he’d thought. He wasn’t quite sure what path to pursue. So in 2012, he decided to take a year off from school, to think about his next move and find work. With his mother’s help, he got an interview at the Hopkins Center, a live-in health-care facility in Wyncote. The food service director there, Aqullia Thomas, liked his enthusiasm and gave him a part-time gig, ferrying meals to residents and cleaning up. The job required a long commute—starting with the number 3 bus and ending with a shuttle, all for a 4-to-7:30 p.m. shift that paid just $10 an hour. But he took to this life.
A couple of weeks in, he phoned his new boss. “I’m just calling,” he said, “to tell you I love my job.”
Thomas responded warily. “What did you do?” she asked. “Did you do something wrong?”
“No, Ms. Thomas,” he replied. “I really just wanted to call and tell you I love my job.”
As he tried to navigate his way into the adult world, he started paying particular attention to an old head in the neighborhood, Shawn Banks. They’d have long talks about how to stay safe, about how Antwan could work toward employment that might mean real money. A couple of times, Banks gave him a ride to the subway so he could get to his job.
“You just keep doing what you’re doing,” Banks told him.
Antwan took that advice, giving himself over to the center, calling Thomas every night. “Has anyone called in sick for tomorrow?” he’d ask. If they had, he’d take their shift, putting in a 12-hour day. Aqullia Thomas had never seen an employee like this one, who gave effort so far beyond his pay, who saw in the rewards of his work a cause for celebration.
On payday, Antwan would stroll outside and open his check where the staff of the Hopkins Center gathered to talk and smoke.
“I love my job,” he’d say, performing some funky little dance and kissing that check. “Oh, I love my job.”
Sometime after his friends were killed, Joseph Garcia came to his mother with a question. “Mom,” he asked, “am I going to be a crackhead?”
Diana heard this like a signal from outer space—an artifact so alien to her own thinking she could barely decode it. “Of course not,” she said.
“What am I gonna be?” he asked.
“You’re going to be a lawyer,” she told him, “like we’ve always said.”
“For real, Mom?” Joseph asked.
“For real,” she said. “Now don’t talk this nonsense anymore.”
The question made sense to her only later, one night when she came home and Joseph was asleep. “Do you smell anything funny?” her daughter asked.
She didn’t. But she went upstairs. She leaned down over Joseph’s face and sniffed. She leaned down again and smelled his hands. Nothing. His computer was still on, though. And Facebook was pulled up. So she went ahead and looked.
“Anyone got any weed?” he’d written. “Any tree?”
When she confronted him about smoking pot, he didn’t deny it. “All my friends are dead,” he told her. “I’m depressed, and I don’t know what to do.”