Wrong Place, Wrong Time

An excerpt from a new book on how to help the most common victims — and perpetrators — of violent crime.

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Six weeks after Kari and I sat together in the surgi­cal clinic, I
drove to Hyde Park to meet him at his grand­mother’s house. The house
sat on a narrow two-way street not far off American Legion Highway,
which lies just off Blue Hill Avenue, the main road that cuts through
Roxbury, Dorchester, and finally Mattapan before coursing out of the
city into the suburb of Milton. The house sat midway down a long row of
attached two-story houses, a noticeable contrast from the cen­tury-old
triple-deckers that lined Blue Hill Avenue standing di­rectly opposite
these more modern and modest homes.

  • Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men by John A. Rich, M.D., M.P.H. 232 pages. The Johns Hopkins University Press. $24.95.

Kari met me at the door and motioned me to come inside, taking a moment to scan the street before following me inside. The Venetian blinds were drawn closed, and the small living room felt close and dark. The furniture was vintage 1970s, the upholstered gold chairs draped in thick plastic. The carpet seemed to me to be the same grass-green pile rug that I had grown up with. Perched on faux-marble end tables were fading black-and-whites of a gleeful young woman being held by a mustached man with his hair slicked back.

Kari invited me into the small square kitchen, where I took the seat at the table across from him. It was after 5 p.m., and the late autumn light outside was starting to fade. A small lamp mounted above the table glowed with our only light. The kitchen was tidy, and the clean appliances, though also more than 20 years old, sparkled like new. The counters held ceramic canisters painted to look like miniature bungalows. The kitchen table was white Formica with specks of gold, and the table top was wrapped with a thick metal band decorated with wide ridges. It reminded me of the table in my grand­mother’s kitchen.

Kari slumped in his chair. He had lost weight. There was an air of sadness about him. He looked down much of the time and smiled less than before, rarely flashing his brilliant white teeth.

“What has life been like for you?” I asked.

“Well, they caught the dude that shot me. That’s one good thing. They told me that he just got out of court that same day for armed robbery.” He sighed heavily. “That’s the crazy part. They was all set to send him away, but they let him out ’cause his mother’s disabled. They say she needed him to take care of her. So, they let him go and he comes and shoots me.”

“I never even seen that dude before. Or maybe I seen him once. Now I can’t get this dude out of my head. I see him every day, every night, even though he’s locked up. And now I have to deal with what people on the streets are sayin’.”

“Like what?” I asked.

“That I snitched on him and stuff like that. But I don’t let that bother me. But that’s the word on the street, I guess.”

“Why are they saying that?”

“Because I told the cops that he did it. But I feel like he put himself there. He threw the gun right down the street from where he shot me. I didn’t turn him in. He did it to himself.”

“So, what do they think you should have done?”

“I don’t know. I guess they think I shoulda tried to handle it myself. But that’s crazy. That’s how people go to jail.” He scratched at an area of dried skin on his hand and looked non­chalant.

“I used to care what other people thought before I got shot. Now I don’t care what people think about me. I’m still livin’. So hey, they can say whatever they want. They ain’t feedin’ me. They ain’t puttin’ no clothes on my back. They ain’t givin’ me a place to live. They can say whatever.”

“How about physically? Do you feel like you’re getting bet­ter?” I asked.

“Yeah, probably, but I don’t really know. I hope I don’t be hunched over forever. I don’t know why the doctors cut me up like this, man. I got shot in the back, but they cut me in my stomach. I don’t understand why they cut me in my stomach. They cut me from here, all the way up to like right here, but I got shot over here.”

Kari lifted his shirt to show me where the bullet entered, but my eyes were immediately drawn to the scar that ran down his belly. The mark stood out against Kari’s smooth onyx skin. It was deep and not completely straight. Starting just below his ribcage, it ran down the middle of his abdomen, looped around his navel and disappeared beneath his jeans. The scar was flanked on either side by rows of protruding, scarred flesh. The wide scar cut through his young body the way a plow cuts through soft earth, leaving mounds of soil along its furrow. These sides were not smooth but were interrupted every 3 inches or so by a band—remnants of stitches—that bunched the troubled flesh into rough bulging segments. I recognized this appear­ance as a sign that the surgeon was forced to let the wound heal on its own, from the bottom up—“secondary intention,” it was called—as a way to prevent a serious infection.

“They said the bullet’s still in my chest. And now I’m scared about that, because they’re talkin’ about if it ever moves, I have to come back to the hospital to get operated on, and they gotta put the chest tubes back in. And I don’t think I can take that again. My ribs are still sore from those chest tubes.”

“So, I ain’t goin’ through that again. I just can’t. Unh-unh.” Kari shook his head, clearly dreading the thought.

He paused. “In a way I blame myself for it. I should have just given him my chain. That way, I could have avoided all this. I almost lost my life over it. I don’t even wear a chain no more. I got a gold watch too. I don’t even wear that. I wear this cheap one instead.” Kari stretched out his arm and turned his wrist back and forth. The watch was a Timex, the kind of watch they sell at Walgreens and CVS.

“I was innocent, and I got shot. So, anything can happen. Anything. Everybody kept tellin’ me that life is like that. Any­thing can happen.”

“Have you been concerned about your safety?” I asked.

“Yeah, sometimes. I don’t wanna walk past where I got shot. I’ll never go up that way no more. But I don’t even let that get to me.

“I just think, if I was to get in that predicament now, I wouldn’t try to push him, I would just give it to him. It ain’t worth it. I’m not even gonna get another chain. It ain’t even worth it no more.”

“What are you thinking about for the future?” I asked.

Kari smiled for the first time. “I think about the future a lot. I always wanted to be a model, you know?”

“A model?” I asked.

“Yeah, man. I always wanted to be a model like that dude Tyson. I wanted to, but after I got shot, it messed up my body. Now I got scars and stuff.

“I wanted to do a lot of things. I shoulda just went to school, like everybody was tellin’ me to.” His smile faded into regret.

“What do you think you’ll be doing in five years?” I contin­ued.

“In five years? I know what I’m gonna be doin’. I’m gonna be in A&R.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

“Artists and Repertoire. Like findin’ young talent? ’Cause my friends just signed a record deal. And they’ll get like a $80,000 advance. So, they was gonna buy a three-family house and turn it into their own studio. I was gonna be their A&R, findin’ the groups, gettin’ ’em in the studio, makin’ sure they do what they gotta do. ’Cause they gonna open up their own record label, eventually. That’s my plan. That’s an option.”

I remembered now Kari’s friend Marlon, who weeks ago looked so proud when he talked about his successful contract. Now there was an uncertainty in Kari’s voice that made me wonder if this dream would become a reality.

“Everybody’s tellin’ me to go to college, but I don’t think I’m a college-type person. I probably could go, but that don’t fit me. Not a college boy.”

“I barely got outta high school. Barely, but I made it out. I wasn’t doin’ my work. I was chasin’ after girls. But that’s the en­vironment I was in. I don’t think I could handle college life. I’d be goin’ crazy from all the stress, man. I hate stress.

“It’s for the better, I think. I wasn’t like the perfect kid, but I wasn’t a bad kid. But now, I’m a good kid. That’s how I look at it now. I ain’t a man just yet, but I’m soon to be. I want to live to see myself be a man and my son to be a man.”

These words came out earnestly, as if Kari wanted to believe them, even if he could not, entirely. He looked straight at me now and a dullness inhabited his eyes. The optimism of months before was fading, overtaken by regret. I thought back to sev­eral months ago, when Kari told me that getting shot was his “wake-up call.” But now it seemed that that window of oppor­tunity for Kari to see his injury as an act of grace from God had begun to close. It was as if he were trying to catch up to where he was in the week or so after he had gotten shot. In the months that had passed, the daily tasks of trying to recover his strength while also acting on his promises to change his life had worn him down and left him adrift.

I recognized something in Kari that I had seen in other young patients who had suffered near-fatal trauma. In the days and weeks after the injury, the transient light of hope and pos­sibility burns remarkably bright. Even then, it can be hard to detect this hope in their numbed, expressionless faces. But it came through loud and clear in their words.

But if this small fire lit by the near-death experience was not kindled, often it was smothered by the burdens that began to accumulate in their lives. Families and friends grew tired of the routine of caring for young men who should, in their estima­tion, have reverted to the vibrant teenagers they had been just months before. Regrets, disfigurement, pain, and fear rolled together and blurred their hopes for the future.

“But you know I’m not giving up, Doc,” Kari said, interrupt­ing my thoughts as if he had heard them. “I know I’m gonna be all right. I gotta be all right, gotta make it for my son.”

“I hear you,” I told him. “And I agree. You need time to heal.”

Kari nodded as he pushed himself up from the chair with a faint grunt and walked me through the living room and toward the front door.

When I left Kari, it was dark. Still, as I walked to my car, I strained to see the spot where Kari had fallen and the place where he later had lain in the street, wondering whether he would live or die. But there was nothing that marked this place for me. Because Kari was alive, there was no shrine of teddy bears, Botanica candles, or half-sipped bottles of Hennessy marking the place where he might have taken his last breath. The exact spot, though, was precisely etched in Kari’s memory and his aching, scarred body.

I made my way back down American Legion Highway, along the edge of Franklin Park and onto Blue Hill Avenue, retracing the route that the ambulance carrying Kari likely took. Not many people were moving in and out of the humble storefronts of bodegas, hair salons, and liquor stores that lined this main drag. The air had taken on a decided chill, and Bostonians were not yet acclimated to the coming winter.

I thought back to something my colleague Dr. Sandra Bloom, trauma psychiatrist, told me. Our tendency to demonize these young men re­quires that we classify them into one of two categories: sick or bad. Seeing them as sick implies that they bear no responsibil­ity for their actions, that they are inherently defective, and that experts are needed to provide them with treatment. Seeing them as bad, on the other hand, implies that they bear all of the responsibility for the problem, that they are even more defec­tive, and that what they need most is punishment.

But Dr. Bloom holds out a third possibility that changes the whole way we approach them. She suggests that we see them as injured. To do so does not relieve them of their responsibility; we merely recognize all the poverty and loss and violence and hopelessness that made them see the world as they do. It im­plies that all of us bear responsibility for understanding why they got injured and how to prevent it from happening again. Seeing them as injured also leads us to the conclusion that the remedy is healing. • 19 February 2010

 

John A. Rich, M.D., M.P.H., is the chair of and a professor in the Department of Health Management and Policy at the Drexel University School of Public Health, where he is also the director of the Center for Nonviolence and Social Justice. A 2006 MacArthur Fellow, Rich founded the Young Men’s Health Clinic in Boston and is the former medical director of the Boston Public Health Commission.
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