A month or so before the beginning of summer vacation of my freshman year, the homeroom teachers in my high school addressed the recent gang war problem in the city. It wasn’t so much a gang war, as in guns and knives and death and all that, as it was robberies and muggings of people who were wearing the wrong colors.
The two main gangs were relatively new, but there were so many rumors about them that their popularity grew, and everybody “knew” or was “related to” someone in one of those gangs. Whichever color you preferred determined which gang your family was in. None of us claimed to be in a gang ourselves; you were just cooler if you knew someone who was.
Only one guy claimed to actually be a gang member: Travis Brathwait.
I don’t know how it happened, but in the first few weeks of high school your status was determined. travis was one of the “tough” guys. He gained popularity among the guys and girls who wanted to be associated with him.
As for me, I wasn’t a nerd, but I wasn’t popular either. I had my friends, but I wasn’t on anyone’s cool radar which, for me, was fine.
The only person whose radar I wanted to be on was hers. The beautiful Kimberly. Kimberly something-or-other. Her last name wasn’t important. To everyone she was just “Kimberly.”
I’d been trying all year to get her to notice me. I was doing everything from, you know, dropping things that would make a loud noise to, like, coughing and… stuff. But they never worked.
A month or so before the end of the term, I decided to just be direct. Be forward. Be brave. I planned to walk up to her and give her a note. And that was the day that my life, as it had been, was over. The new me was born. The Legend.
Everything went according to plan. I wrote the note on the paper and folded it perfectly so that the “Yes or No” boxes on the bottom were separated by a crease. I got the spot I wanted on the lunch line, two people away from her─this way when she reached the end of the line and made a 180 to go to her seat she would pass me and I could give her the note and keep going in the opposite direction.
I was wearing my new cologne. I had a fresh haircut. Everything was perfect.
Then it wasn’t.
As soon as she finished on the line, I got nervous and I started rethinking things. A voice in my head was screaming abort! abort! My palms were sweaty, and my lunch tray shook so violently my macaroni nearly fell. I shuffled to save it and stepped back and accidently stepped on the foot of the person behind me.
Travis freaking Brathwait. Wearing white sneakers. Bought for him, I later learned, as a birthday gift. My heart stopped racing. It stopped completely. The air left the room and the noise quickly followed.
A brown semicircle of dirt covered the toes of Travis’ left foot. I was conscience of everyone’s eyes on me and was a little comforted by that fact. No one kills a guy over a dirty sneaker in front of witnesses, right?
“Travis, man, I’m sorry,” I said. “My bad.”
Travis looked around. He scanned the cafeteria and then gazed on Kimberly standing amidst a group of girls. They were watching us.
My heart started racing again. I could feel it rising in my throat.
Travis turned back to me. He looked back and forth between my eyes. “Clean it.”
I immediately felt my knees start to bend and the voice in my head started to speak. Just take one of the napkins from your tray and wipe counterclockwise swift and hard and you’ll be done in no time. Then you can live and Travis can leave. But before my mind got the signal to bend a knee my ego spoke up. Are you really gonna get on your knees and clean someone’s shoe in front of Kimberly?
Time froze. I knew that if I knelt down to clean his shoe Kimberly would never love me. I knew that if I didn’t, Travis would kill me. I knew that it was impossible to clean it from a standing position but that if even it were possible my ego wouldn’t allow that either.
So… I killed myself. “I’m not cleaning that.”
There was movement in the air. I don’t know if anyone actually said anything. I wouldn’t have been able to hear it over the pounding of my heart in my ears anyway.
I had to read Travis’ lips to know what he said in reply. “Clean it now.”
Pause here for a second.
Keep in mind that this wasn’t the movies. I didn’t say “No” and have him get so taken aback by my bravery that he backed up and made an idle threat and left the cafeteria with two of his goons while everyone else applauded me and patted my back. No, no, this was real life high school and we were both guys with egos. He was gonna see how far this would go.
And, don’t forget that part I told you about the gangs.
I had already decided to die to let Kimberly see my bravery. And I’m good with my words so this was gonna go as far as he took it. “Travis, you and I both know that the only way I’m cleaning them is if I’m taking them home with me. But if I wanted shoes like those I could just have your mom get me a pair too.”
I know what you’re thinking and you’re right. You think the part about his mom was too much, don’t you? Maybe but… you know, I might as well have gone out in style. Right?
And it looked like I did. Travis didn’t say anything. He took a deep breath, put his tray down, and walked out.
Now, don’t be too impressed. Travis still outdid me. He didn’t walk out of the cafeteria. He walked out of the school. It was the 4th out of 8 periods and he just left. You needed permission to leave, and he just walked out.
People were impressed with my bravery but the talk of the cafeteria was his exit.
By the end of 5th period the confrontation had spread across the school. By the end of 6th period rumors of Travis’ gang affiliation had spread too. By the end of the 7th I was sitting in the principal’s office surrounded by concerned adults discussing the situation. They all assured me that rumors are just rumors and that there was nothing to worry about but by the end of 8th period my parents had been notified, a cab had been called to take me home and I was given permission to stay home the following day while they figured things out.
When I got home my parents were waiting to discuss it with me. My dad is a genuine tough guy. He laughed when he heard the situation and told me I should go to school the next day and step on the other sneaker. My mom didn’t approve of that plan but didn’t see any real danger in going back to school either. “People talk,” she said. “Legends are made with words and not often earned.”
So the next day I went back. I got on the subway by my house and made the familiar ride to school. There’s a stop, 6 stops before I get off for school, where most of the kids get on. It took them all about a minute to see me on the train with my backpack and start whispering. One of my friends came up to me and asked me why I was doing this. He told me that I should just stay home and let things blow over. I assured him that there was nothing to worry about and we rode through the last couple of stops in silence.
When I got off the train all the other students let me go up the stairs to the exit before them. I know they were doing it so that if there was anything to see they wouldn’t miss it but it felt good anyway. I felt like royalty, you know?
The subway was two blocks from school. The block that separated the school from the subway had a bodega, a bagel shop, and a barbershop (The B’s are just a coincidence). When I came out of the subway and looked across the street my heart stopped.
Travis was there. And he wasn’t alone.
Lining the store fronts was a group of guys all wearing the same color. Standing like soldiers facing the curb, lining the curb, was an equal number of guys wearing that color all facing the other dudes. It was a gauntlet.
I could feel the crowd stop behind me. The only sounds were the sounds of the morning traffic. I decided then that I’d be crazy to give up a free day off from school and no one could call me a coward for taking advantage of the system. I turned around to run and get back on the train, but then I saw her. Kimberly. She was standing there eyeing me with a hint of a smile on her lips. Death.
I turned back around and considered my options. I could run through. If I made it to the school I’d have the teachers and the guards to protect me. Or I could just stand there. A gauntlet only hurts if you go through it. Just when I was leaning towards running I spotted a school guard on the corner of the school block, facing us.
Travis may have been brave but everyone feared the guards. I made a point of noticing the guard and Travis turned around and saw her too. He turned back to my block and glared at me.
I looked at Kimberly who didn’t seem to notice the guard and I saw my opportunity.
I dropped my backpack. Just slid the straps off my shoulders and let it fall to the floor. I rolled up my sleeves and turned my head side to side to loosen my neck. I checked for traffic on the street between my block and Travis’ then I walked across. I walked slow.
Travis stood in the middle of the block, 4 pairs of men down the gauntlet.
I walked past the first pair.
They glanced at Travis and then back at me and did nothing.
I smiled inside. I continued slow enough to look at both of them before I passed them. I approached the second pair.
They glanced at Travis. Did nothing.
I looked at both of them too, turned my head side to side and looked them straight in the eyes.
The third pair. Glance. Nothing.
I could hear the crowd of students crossing the street behind me. I could see the security guard watching. A teacher had joined her.
The fourth pair did nothing.
Now, I was standing beside Travis. I stared back at him and walked slowly past. I turned my head to keep my eyes locked on his. I let it turn until it was parallel with my shoulder than I left his gaze and just looked down. In my head the image said, “I’m not concerned enough about you to turn all the way around. You won’t do a damn thing.”
I passed through the rest of the gauntlet looking straight ahead. When I crossed the street to the school the security guard patted my back and I went inside without looking back.
Travis never came in.
By the end of 6th period that day, the story of the morning had spread and evolved. It started true: I came out of the subway and saw a gang of guys lining the sidewalk.
After that though, things took a bit of a turn. Apparently I had stopped in the middle of the guantlet, tossed my back pack at Travis, punched one of the guys, kicked another, flipped a third, used the 4th as a shield, and, well, I was here and Travis wasn’t so…
By the end of the next week people were impressed with how good a fighter I was. Everyone had seen me beat up those guys.
My story had been retold and reinvented a hundred different ways.
The following year, some new kid in the school had taken offence to something I did but quickly got over it when people told him what I could do to him. I got through four years of high school without fighting ‘cause everyone “knew” I was an awesome fighter.
Truth is Travis probably wouldn’t have needed anyone else to beat me down. But, who am I to complain. In my year book, Kimberly wrote, “Good luck in college. I know you’ll do well. You’re cool.”
So, you see? Everything worked out. Kimberly ‘caused the old me to kill himself, and in the void, a legend was born.
Jason Powell is a New York City Firefighter in the FDNY and an avid people watcher. He spends all of his free time and (some of his work time) writing and reading and eating chocolate covered pretzels.