I used to be convinced that I would die young.
And by that I mean, there was a certain time, I think around the age of 11 or 12, that I was pretty sure I would not live past the age of 23. I don’t know what it was that gave me that idea. Perhaps it was during a time when I was watching a lot of movies about being young and black and growing up in the inner city, and in all those movies, the good kids died at a young age and usually at the hands of violence. Not to mention the news, seemed like I was always hearing a story of the guy with the promising future being killed in some tragic incident. Being somewhere at wrong place at wrong time, and now sadly gone too soon.
For so long I was convinced that’s how my story would end. Nathan McDougal, wrong place, wrong time, gone to soon.
Eventually I outgrew such thoughts. But, it’s not really the thoughts you have to outgrow.
When I was 15, I almost joined a gang. Almost. Delvin and I were hanging out a lot with my older cousin Gene. Now, Delvin was my best friend, and had been since about the age of 6. And Gene, well Gene is not actually my cousin at all, but rather, he is the best friend of my actual cousin. Here is the thing. In my community, and by my community I mean, the inner city, poverty stricken, African American community particularly of the Southern United States, friends don’t just stay friends. Once we have known someone for an extended amount of time, especially when those relationships originate in childhood, friends graduate into family and “my friend” simply becomes, “my cousin”.
Me and Delvin are hanging with Gene and Gene is hanging with/is apart of, this gang. A very small, very local gang from Nashville’s west side, they wore red bandannas, when bandannas were called for and were a hybrid cross between bloods and vice lords, they were all fiercely loyal to one another and could be rather wild from time to time. Gene was silly, fun loving and kind-hearted, and as a result the gang was very similar. A good group of guys that just so happen to be a roving band of teenage criminals. Call it what you will, but for us, it was life. So one day me and Delvin are with the gang and someone announces.
“Man, Nate and Delvin be around so much we might as well gon put them down.”
“Put them down” means to initiate into the gang usually by being beaten to the satisfaction of, as well as, by, already existing gang members. Being initiated into a gang this was is supposed to be a display of the possible recruit’s strength, ferocity and determination as it was expected of you to fight back against overwhelming odds, and to stands one’s ground even in the face of imminent defeat.
When this statement is made the only thing that follows is dead silence. Delvin and I kind of stare at one another with an “Oh Shit!” kind of expression stamped across our faces, which then quickly fade into a shoulder-shrugging “I guess we’re joining a gang” kind of expression. The idea of being in a gang was not farfetched for either of us.
Before either Delvin or I can respond Gene interjects “Man, hell naw!” he says with a big grin “Nate take karate, he’ll beat everybody ass if we try and jump him in!” Gene erupts in laughter, the whole gang erupts in laughter, the topic of Delvin and I joining the gang never comes up again. Crisis averted.
Gene had known my father would have blew a gasket if he caught a whiff of me being involved in gang activity and he also knew that my father had put me in karate classes in an attempt to streamline my hand eye coordination for football. He was looking out for me, stepped in, intervened. He kept me out of the gang, without kicking me out of the gang. That’s the type of guy he was, a good guy, through and through.
Gene and I grew up together, so even outside the gang we hung out a lot. He had taken me under his wing and even more then a “cousin” he treated my like a little brother.
One day he and I are riding in his mom’s car. It’s me, him, this guy name Rod, from the gang, Gene’s younger sister, Amanda, and Amanda’s friend, who’s name I can’t remember. The car is only a two door vehicle, and there are five of us. Gene is driving, Rod is navigating and I’m squeezed into the backseat with the two girls.
We are heading to a young woman’s house. Someone Rod knows, she has a friend that she wants to introduce to Gene.
We pull up to this girl’s house in a neighborhood called Trinity Hills. Sitting on her porch are about five guys, apparently from the neighborhood. We park in the driveway Rod and Gene hop out, me and the girls are still in the back. This is supposed to be a quick pit stop, no need for everyone to get out of the car.
“Where ya homegirl at?” Rod ask, ignoring the large group of random guys sitting in the shadow of her front door.
“She’s on her way up here now.” She responds, also pretending the group of guys on her porch are some type of collective hallucination.
Gene is standing outside of the car by the driver side door. He’s tall, 6’3 maybe 6’4. He looks skinny, but he’s not. He’s lean. A natural born athlete, for a period of time we were both on the high school track team and he ran the longer races, the mile, the half mile, and he made them look easy. When everyone else was dead tired he was making funny faces at the crowd. Before that we were on the swim team for the Hadley Park community center. He swam like a fish.
Both Gene and Rod are talking to Rod’s young lady friend. Gene is wearing a navy blue Nike t-shirt, on the front is a fork and on the back is the phrase “Eat Dirt”. The windows to the car are down and I can hear the guys on the porch begin to snicker and giggle.
“This nigga got a fork on his shirt.” They whisper to themselves and then begin laughing.
Gene looks up from his conversation.
“Aye! What you say?” Gene speaks toward the porch.
The group of boys begin to bumble.
“Who he talking to?” One of them ask.
“Nigga he talking to you!” another one of them responds.
“Aw shit,” Says another one of the boys and he immediately hops out of a chair and walks into the house. He mumbles something about calling someone but he trails off as the door closes behind him.
“What he say bruh?” Rod ask Gene, but Gene is not paying attention.
“You know what?” Gene says, still speaking to the porch. “I’ll be right back, and none of ya’ll better be here when I get back.” Gene hops back into the car and slams the door. Rod hops back into the passenger seat. “They got me fucked up.” Gene says, he’s still smiling. It’s like he’s happy, even when he’s angry.
We drive back to the west side, back to Preston Taylor Housing Projects. The gangs base of operations. Gene drops off Amanda, and her friend while him, Rod and I ride through the neighborhood on a new mission. See, there was the gang, but things did not all begin and end with the gang. In reality the whole neighborhood was a loosely affiliated gang, and by simply being from the west side put the entire neighborhood at your disposal in times of need. We were on The Drive, a very specific subsection of our public housing project, when Gene pulls up on Junnie.
Junnie is in the gang, and him and Gene are best friends, nearly inseparable. He explains what happens in Trinity Hills and immediately Junnie is on board. The only logical response that any of them have from our interaction in Trinity Hills is to go back and beat the ass of every guy standing outside that house. Gene tells Junnie and Junnie tells Bert, Bert agrees to join us too. Bert is not in the gang but he is a respected west sider. He’s like a West Nashville Patriot, completely down for the cause. He is sitting in a car with a girl that doesn’t live in the projects but goes to our school, and even she is down to ride back to Trinity Hills with us. It’s her car they’re sitting in and before anyone can even ask, she volunteers to drive.
There are a few more people with us as well. I can’t remember who all else was there but before we head out we form a makeshift game plan. There is a gun. Only one, I cant even recall exactly where it came from. It may have been one of those weapons that belonged to someone from the crew that kind of floated from person to person. Either way we had it, and we only had one. The plan was simple. Pull up to the house, jump out and beat up everyone outside. The most important thing, do not pull out the gun unless its absolutely necessary. Very simple, pull up, jump out, beat up everybody, don’t pull out the gun unless we need it. Easy. The perfect plan, couldn’t possibly go wrong.
We leave Preston Taylor in three cars. Rap music blaring from the speakers of the small two door sedan. We’re speeding, zipping in and out of traffic, racing one another as we zoom through the streets. Our cars are rocking. Excitement and adrenaline have overthrown logic and reason, and the only thing left is the mission. I’m in the back seat again, I’m the youngest of the gang so it’s only natural. But while everyone is getting hyped up about task at hand, I couldn’t help be sit back and think how all this was a horribly and unequivocally bad idea.
At this particular moment our radio is playing Juvenile. It’s the title track from his “400 Degreez” album. Junnie’s Car speeds up beside hours, Rod is now in the car with Junnie. He leans forward from the passenger seat bouncing up and down with pre-fight energy. He has the gun in his hands and he is rapping along to whatever song they are listening to as if he is filming a music video. I shake my head in disapproval, “Do not pull of the gun unless we need it.” It was a simple rule, and he is already flashing the gun on the car ride over. I protest.
“What is he doing? Put the gun down nigga!” I scream across the speeding cars. I turn to Gene. “He tripping”
“Hell yeah, they bullshitting.” Gene agrees, a large smile plastered across his face.
He’s laughing, as both Junnie and Rod are rapping out the lyrics of their song word for word. The cars are swerving away from one another and then quickly jumping back to parallel lanes. In our car Juvenile is still rapping. I sit back taking in the entire scene and for a moment times slows to a crawl. Energy begins to transfer. Juvenile’s lyrics are echoing through my head and my old visions of dying young… well, they had been gone for some time and all that I am left with is the moment. The music from 400 Degreez is reverberating throughout the interior of the car and the vibrations penetrate my very being. I look at Junnie and Rod across traffic, their faces are twisted and turned up into tough frowns, but the frowns never last long before the smiles squeeze through again. I look at Gene and he’s laughing, and a gleeful grin stretches from one ear to the other. My doubts about our decisions begin to fade. Juvenile is rapping. His voice is surprisingly loud, crisp and clear amid the chaos of rushing wind and speeding traffic.
“How I’m gon be running with these killers and backing down, how I’m gon look in front of my people, like a clown?”
Juvie’s words ring throughout my inner mind, echoing and replaying themselves in an infinite loop. It’s like i’m just now hearing the song for the first time and now it finally makes sense. The gang is ecstatic at the thought of conflict, there is no doubt, no anxiety, they are either mentally prepared for all possible outcomes, or they simply do not care. Yeah, how am I going to be running with these killers and backing down? For the past year and a half the gang has fully embraced me, taken me in as one of their own without question. They are like family. Gene is family. Who am I to back out on them now, to back out on Gene. How am I going to look in front of my people…like a clown? And suddenly my anxiety dissipates. Energy transfer complete. “Fuck it.” I say to myself, then I too begin bouncing to the music.
We pull all three cars into the front yard of the girls house to find the boys still sitting outside. I see one boy immediately retreat into the house at the sight of us.
“I told you I’d be back didn’t I!” Gene jumps out of the car and immediately dashes into the yard with his shirt off.
The damn car is a two door so I have to reach up and move the seat to let myself out. In doing this, my eyes break from the scene in the yard for a brief moment. Once I make my way out of the car I look back to the yard to see that the chaos and energy from the drive over has spilled over into the girl’s driveway. Gene is in front of the house. He takes two skips forward, leans in and swings with his right, the punch is reckless and wild, he’s trying to knock out the kid who made the fork comment. The jokester dodges, but only barely. He’s back pedaling trying to keep his distance from Gene as best he can, but it’s difficult. Gene is tall and fast and breathing down the kid’s neck, giving him little to no room to operate. On the other side of the yard Rod has jumped out of Junnie’s car and is jumping up and down, flailing the gun in the air and screaming at the same time.
“Yea nigga, what’s up with all that shit now!” Rod yells out, but the only one to respond is Rod’s female friend. She is also jumping up and down and screaming, only in her hand, there is only a cordless phone.
“Rod stop! Why are you doing this!” She heaves the phone in his direction and it shatters against the pavement. Rod is unaffected, he continues failing the gun. None of the guys from the porch seem to be interested in having a conversation with Rod, they are either running or ducking or fighting one of my friends. I shake me head. We had one rule.
I look over to my right at one of the other cars that came with us and see I am not the only one who is not in the yard, actively engaged in combat. Bert is standing back leaning on the front hood of his car watching everything unfold. He looks over to me.
“These fools crazy.” he says with a smile and a chuckle.
“Man, yeah they are.” I agree as I too lean up against the trunk of Gene’s car.
We have pulled up into someone else’s neighborhood with guns and gangsters. All with the intentions of doing someone bodily harm. And it is to laugh.
Internally I breathe a sigh of relief. We’ve won this, we have the muscle and the manpower and the situation is completely under our control. I know now that no one will be seriously hurt, after all we really only came to scare. To possibly black an eye and bruise an ego. To instill fear, not to kill. For this I am relieved.
And then power changes hands.
The tires of the two vehicles let off a high pitched screech as the cars slam to a stop, the doors fly open and everyone who hops out has a gun in his hand.
“Nuh unh’ don’t run now!” One of them calls out.
My reaction time is slow, I turn around to see them standing across a small two lane street. Maybe about 20 feet from me. Guns drawn. All pointed in my direction.
I watch one of the guns go off. There is a small flame that leaps from the barrel, hardly even visible in the daylight, a puff of white translucent smoke that dissipates almost as quickly as it appears and a loud auditory pop. The gun I’m staring down goes off at least twice before I realize I’m staring death in the face, and I snap out of it. I break to my left in an attempt to get out of the line of fire. Gene’s car is in the opposite direction but so are the other guys with guns so I am forced to make due with what I have. Against my better judgement I turn my back on the guys shooting at us and rip open the back door to the car Bert came in and I dive inside. The car is already full and I am practically on top of someone. I don’t even have enough room to close the door behind me. And the only thing going through my head is how I’m about to get shot in the back and spend the rest of my life in a wheelchair. Just my luck.
The girl that volunteered to drive over with us speeds away. The word of the day had been “Chaos” and the theme continued over into out getaway. As we sped down the street it was realized that not everyone had made it into a car. I see Junnie and Rod running down the street, they’re still smiling. We were all just standing in front of a firing squad and they are laughing like we just left a comedy club. Rod screams out something indistinguishable and points our one gun into the air and pulls the trigger and letting off two shots before hopping into Junnie’s car. The car I’m in speeds down a hill around a corner and then makes a few more twists and turns. We end up coming down a hill that dumps us out on to Clarksville Pike, a major street north of the city. The frenzy in the car continues. Turns out Bert did not hop into the car that he arrived in, the car that I am currently in, and we don’t know if he is in one of the other cars. As we come up to Clarksville Pike, the girl in the car is telling me to get out of her car and get in the car with Gene.
“Where are they?” I ask.
“They’re right over there, you’ll see them as soon as you get out, straight ahead.”
I hop out of the car in the middle of traffic and I don’t see anybody. I think I hear someone calling out to me but there are cars everywhere and I can’t tell who is who. As a result, I do the only logical thing I can think of. I run out of the street to the nearby sidewalk and begin casually strolling down Clarksville Pike as if I were not just involved in a shootout.
I am horrible with directions, but fortunately for me, the area we were in was somewhat familiar. After a quick look around I knew that Tennessese State University was nearby, and just so happens Preston Taylor Public Housing sits right next to Tennessee State. I make my way to a store front and grab hold to a pay phone. I consider making a collect call, but I can’t decide who I would make the call too, so I just put the phone down. I see a guy coming out of the store.
“Excuse me, which direction is TSU?” I ask.
He points me south and I start walking.
It’s summer time, the sun is out and I can actually see the university in the distance. It’s going to be a long walk but its manageable. I convince myself that not jumping in the other car was the smartest thing to do. There must have been at least 15 shots fired in a residential neighborhood and the last place I needed to be was in a speeding car with a loaded gun. Yeah, now I was making well thought out decisions. After the fact.
“Nate! Nathan!” I hears some one calling my name. It’s Gene. He’s in the backseat of a completely different car and there is a whole new girl driving. He waves me over “Come on get in!”
A dash over to the car and hop into the back seat. Gene is explaining to the woman driving what happened and how we ended up in our current predicament. She was Gene’s age, probably around 18 or 19. I recognized her from the neighborhood but for the life of me I couldn’t tell you her name at this point in time. The girl was mad, when Gene was not explaining himself she was scolding him and the rest of us for making such stupid decisions. He offered no argument. He simply agreed with her every point and apologized whenever he wasn’t agreeing.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one missing in action. Turns out Bert had not been in any of the other cars either. Gene had made it back to Preston Taylor saw that neither I nor Bert were accounted for and had comeback out to find us. I was rather easy to find as I imagine someone told him I had hopped out of the car on Clarksville Pike and that was all he needed to track me down. Bert on the other hand, had not been seen since the shooting started.
In order to find Bert we had no choice but to ride back through Trinity Hills, back to where the shooting took place. The girl driving told Gene and I to duck down in the back seat of the car so we wouldn’t be seen. We drove back past Rod’s friend’s house. Both me and Gene in the back of the car attempting to make ourselves as small as possible, scrunched down into contorted positions trying our best to be invisible. We made a pass through the neighborhood but came up empty handed. Bert was no where to be found. Gene and I were dropped back off in the projects once again as the girl was going to go back out and make another pass through to try and find Bert. We arrived back at Gene’s house on the Drive. His mother was sitting on the porch smoking a cigarette. There was more scolding. We got an earful. I can’t remember if it was Cassandra, Gene’s mother, who told me to go call my dad or if I did it of my own volition. I just remember making the call.
If staring down the barrel of a gun had not been terrifying enough, calling Big Reggie to tell him you had been staring down the barrel a gun was. I was inside Gene house when I made the call. He picked up after the second ring.
“Man umm, I was with Gene and Rod and we went to this girl house and got to arguing with some dudes in the neighborhood got into a fight and um… they ended up shooting at us.”
“…. I’m on my way to get you.”
Click. Conversation ended. I had conveniently left out how we had left the neighborhood, went back to the projects gathered up a posse, then went back to the neighborhood with a gun in our own possession, hopped out of three cars, tried to beat up everyone in the neighborhood, then got ambushed by the residents of said neighborhood.
The day had been intense, my adrenaline was spilling over and I’m sure there was some trembling in my voice as I spoke. My father probably thought I was traumatized by the ordeal. He didn’t ask for any details or additional explanation. Nor did I offer any. He was just on his way. Works for me. I would have rather went back and took my chances in Trinity Hills then have an Angry Reggie Wade on his way to pick me up.
I went back out to the porch where Gene and the other guys were standing. Cassandra was still upset and she was letting us know exactly how much. Not that I could blame her. Gene just kept trying to explain himself but she would hear none of it. I remember this next moment quite distinctly. We were on the porch and Cassandra was smoking a cigarette, I was sitting on the metal railing not more then a few feet from her. And in that moment my body was so amped up on adrenaline that when I inhaled the second hand smoke from her cigarette I could feel the left over nicotine hit my nervous system and begin to try and ease my tension. I hadn’t realized until that moment how mentally wrecked I was. Not until that second hand cigarette smoke begin to go to work on my frazzled nerve endings.
Before to long, they found Bert. He was okay. In all the confusion he just bolted in some random direction altogether, as opposed to jumping into a car. He had a few bumps and bruises but overall was no worse for the wear. I saw him later that same day as he rode off in the car with one of his family members.
“Aight man, I’ll holla at ya’ll later” he said as he leaned on the door poking his head out of the window.
I was relieved that nothing had happened to him. In the end everyone made it out of the ordeal okay. Cassandra’s car had few bullet holes in it, a couple by the driver’s side door and another near the gas tank.
My dad got to Gene’s house right as the sun begin to set. I hopped in the car and we headed home. He didn’t ask for to many more details about the ordeal and I didn’t volunteer any. There was nothing else that needed to be said.
Gene and his mom and his sister eventually moved out of Preston Taylor to an apartment in Bellevue, a neighborhood further west of the city. This was maybe a year later. Gene’s house had been a central meeting place for the gang and while his moving didn’t break up the crew, it weakened my ability to hang out as much. A year or two after that I graduated from high school and I went off to college. The gang kept being the gang, and I stayed in touch when I could.
Some ten years later, in January 2010 my cousin Gene was shot and killed outside of Nashville, Tennessee. He was 29 year old.
When I was a kid, I use to be convinced that I would die young because they say “The Good Die Young”. But as I got older I realized, it’s not the good that are taken at a young age… it’s the best that are taken at a young age.
Rest in Peace to my Brother Stanley Eugene Gregory Jr.
A great man gone to soon…..
In case you want to load up into a car that’s too small and drive into a world full of trouble along with the gang, I’ve inserted a link to the one theme song for it all!