Sudhir Venkatesh, Columbia sociologist and author of “Gang Leader for a Day,” is back once again for an eighth report after watching “The Wire” with a group of gangland acquaintances. His past reports can be found here.
Where is Flavor?
Readers of this blog may have noticed the absence of Flavor, the youngest member of “the Thugs,” from last week’s discussion. Shine wouldn’t tell me what happened to Flavor until he failed to appear for this week’s viewing as well.
Here’s the story: Flavor has a rival gang member named Jo-Jo. Flavor decided to sleep with Jo-Jo’s girlfriend, Pootchie, “just for fun!” according to Shine. “Flavor drove over to a bar Pootchie hangs out at, pretended he was a hot new rap star, started buying champagne, throwing the money around. That’s it: he got her in about two hours.”
But Flavor didn’t know that it was all a setup: Pootchie was involved in the trap.
While Flavor and Pootchie were getting to know each other, Jo-Jo used the opportunity to secretly visit with members of Flavor’s posse, and incorporate them into his own outfit.
“Jo-Jo went over to Flavor’s boys and stole them away,” Shine said, puffing on a cigarette while his dog sat obediently at his feet. “Jo-Jo told Flavor’s boys that he would pay them double what they were making. They all jumped at it. Flavor was left out in the cold.”
“Just like that?!” I asked incredulously. “They left Flavor for a few bucks?”
“Jo-Jo hated Flavor ever since high school: they were both fighting for the guard spot on their basketball team.”
“Flavor got his big brother to beat Jo-Jo up so bad that Jo-Jo couldn’t play for the rest of the season. Flavor made the team,” said Shine. The 10-year itch apparently came to fruition last week when Jo-Jo successfully persuaded Flavor’s boys to switch their allegiances.
Then, Jo-Jo went after Flavor himself. Flavor was driving home one night, when a car pulled up beside him. Two people started shooting at him, but he managed to drive away. After that, he went into hiding.
“For n—-s on the street, the only home you got is your crew,” Shine said. “Once they take that away from you, you got nothing. Flavor got it all taken away from him.”
“What do you think will happen to him?” I asked.
“He’s got two choices. And they ain’t pretty. He can leave town, move in with some relatives somewhere. But Flavor ain’t the sweetest man in the world, you dig? It ain’t like a lot of people are waiting around to help him. And, anyway, we’re like dogs: all we know is the streets we grew up in. So he’ll have to go back and fight his way out. This means he has to win back his boys. All he needs to do is get two of them to be on his side. That’s enough.”
“What’s the easiest way to do that?” I asked.
“Easiest way for Flavor is to get his brother, Richie, who’s a cop, to help him. Let’s say he gets Richie to pick up two of his crew when they’re on the streets. We call it ‘playing the fool.’ Richie drives up in his [police car] and rounds up two of Flavor’s boys. Richie doesn’t put the cuffs on them, just keeps them in the car, or smokes a cigarette with them, and then lets them be. The rest of Flavor’s guys start thinking these folks are snitches. You think [black men] would be smart, know that this is all just a trick. But there is a reason we’re on the street: ’cause some of us are broke-ass, dumb-ass, can’t-do-nothing-else. The few smart ones know that you never get into a cop car unless you got a charge. Go down kicking and screaming before they open that door.”
Shine and I walked back into the apartment to watch episode 8. The rest of the crew was already assembled. Many had served up plates of catered food and were opening their fine domestic beers.
The viewing was uneventful until, “BANG!” Omar fell to his death. Kenard, the shortie from Michael’s street crew, had laid claim to the bounty.
The place went crazy. Omar is dead! Long live Omar! Kool-J threw a bag of pork rinds in the air, causing Shine to rebuke him with: “Hot sauce don’t come out of the carpets, boy!” Orlando woke from his semi-comatose state, crying, “No! No! They took my boy! First Butchie and now Omar!”
Tony-T was the most visibly shaken. “It can happen to any of us, just like that. You think you’re going out to buy some chicken and Pepsi, and the next thing, some kid wants to make a name for himself by taking you out.”
“We got to tell Flavor,” Shine said. “I know he’ll go nuts when he hears this.” Shine left the room to call Flavor on his cell phone. The rest of the Thugs began making side-bets.
“I say Michael kills Marlo,” Orlando said soberly. “That young [man] is going to take over.”
“Nope,” said Tony-T. “Avon. Avon, Avon, Avon. He’s got a deal with the Greeks, and they’ll take out Marlo. You watch: Avon is coming back! That’s my boy!”
Amidst the speculation and wagers, Shine returned. He had a fresh beer in his hand and he was shaking his head.
“Flavor’s in some real trouble now,” he said. “That boy should have laid low, and instead…”
“He went after Pootchie, didn’t he?” Kool-J yelled. (Everyone in the room evidently knew about Flavor’s troubles.) “Just say it! I’m right, ain’t I? Flavor went after Pootchie, didn’t he? I knew that son of a b—h couldn’t just hide out, keep quiet. That’s all he had to do! Jo-Jo was going to get arrested in a week — I told him that.”
Shine nodded and then explained: Flavor was so upset about the coup d’etat orchestrated by Jo-Jo that he decided to go after Jo-Jo’s girlfriend. But on the way to her place, he stopped off at a strip club, where he ran into some of Jo-Jo’s guys.
“They beat the s–t out of him, but that n—-r got away! I guess he left this trail of blood; he’s hurt pretty bad. But he’s in his car, still running.”
“I say Flavor goes after Jo-Jo,” Orlando said. “That [guy] can’t wait. Impatient m—-r f—-r.”
“No,” said Shine. “I think he’s shaken up. I think he’ll call his brother, Richie, stay at his place.”
“Hell no!” Tony-T yelped. “He’s going out like John Wayne. Guns firing.”
The Thugs turned their attention to the fate of Flavor. They had left a message on his phone, hoping he would call before they left Shine’s apartment. True to form, they laughed about the whole affair, but they were clearly worried. Flavor was the kid brother whom they watched over. And, like Flavor, at one point in their lives the Thugs had all felt immortal.
Shine started playing some rap music — 2-PAC‘s “Picture me Rollin” filled the room and people lost themselves in the lyrics. Kool-J offered up a toast to Flavor and Omar.
My own mind wandered to my research on gangs in Chicago. A gang leader named J.T. would always tell me that “success” in the game was simple: if you woke up and you weren’t in jail and you were breathing, that was reason enough to celebrate. These kind of pronouncements often felt like bluster until I heard stories like Flavor’s.
The young Thug’s troubles also made me wonder about my own limits. There was little I could do to help Flavor, but that didn’t make me feel any better. I felt a little bit like Prezbo, the cop-turned-teacher, who becomes a key player in season four: helpless, uneasy, and looking to do the right thing — although Prezbo did manage to eek out a few victories along the way.
Before completing this post, I decided to call Shine and tell him what I was feeling. His response: “You want to know what’s hard, Sudhir? Understanding that you just can’t fix [anything] — not always, and not right away. Live with that feeling you got, my brother, ’cause we’re living with it every day. I hope you suffer; it’s good for you.”