Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Not Your Average Gang

           It never fails.  As I’m writing one piece a rabbit trail leads to another idea which leads to another essay or story.  It happened again as I was working on the essay, Hell’s Hawks, for my collection, Hey, Four Eyes!  Hell’s Hawks is about my failed attempt at being in a gang in ninth grade and as I started writing I began to wonder about the reasons why people join gangs in the first place.  I mean, it’s not as if they have the greatest public relations team promoting them as, say, the Lion’s Club or the Knights of Columbus.  Furthermore, it’s common knowledge that a gang member’s life expectancy drastically diminishes the moment they sign on the bloody line.  So, why not forsake being gunned down or possibly arrested and leave the gang membership behind?

            One answer is that in some neighborhoods a person’s life expectancy is shorter outside of the gang than in it.  People feel trapped and forced to join, sealing them to a fate they never really wanted and while that may be true for a few neighborhoods, it’s not true for most.  There are gangs in the most peaceful of suburbia.  Hell, there are gangs in my area, which may not be Mayberry RFD, but it’s still a far cry from Harlem.  I’ve read the reports, watched the documentaries and I still don’t get it.
            Of course, then my mind wandered to the subject of friendship and our cluster of friends.  What I discovered was that there seemed to be a correlation in motivations in both groups.
            One of mankind’s most basic needs is to belong, to be a part of a group.  We may not all be of the gregarious sort, but we are not meant to be isolated from others.  Of course, some people may feel this need stronger than others and after the kids have bounced through the house with their friends I’m ready not to belong to anything for awhile and be alone in quietness.  However, lengthy isolation is mentally and emotionally unhealthy I was told and I was forced to let the kids out of their room.
            People join gangs to fulfill that need of belonging and to be a part of something, anything.  For some, it gives them a sense of family that perhaps they aren’t feeling at the time.  Their leader is their father figure and he takes care of them, making sure their needs are met.
            With family scattered all over the world nowadays our close circle of friends becomes our surrogate family.  We tend to bond with our friends as we would blood relatives and quite often they know us better than parents or siblings.  Furthermore, just like with gangs, there is usually a patriarch or matriarch figure that tends to be the compass or thermometer for the group.  They are the guiding force, the available shoulder, and they give their all for those that they surround themselves with.
            Protection is another reason people join gangs.  The streets can be a dangerous place and there is strength in numbers.  It’s not just protection from one’s enemies, either.  No, it’s protection from life.  Everyone has each other’s back no matter what’s going on.  Life can be rough and people need comrades in arms to help them through the battles that arise.
            Our gangs, our friends, are our protection during the journey of life.  We surround ourselves with individuals that are there for us as we are for them.  They are that shoulder we can cry on, the helping hand that moves us into a new home, or the one who takes your keys when you’ve had one too many.  When Life forces you to circle the wagons, these are the people in your wagon.  You count on each other because you know that you can.
            Acceptance.  Respect.  The gang provides these even if for the wrong reasons.  In return, the gang demands unwavering loyalty.  The idea is to protect and defend the gang from outside forces, rival gangs, the police, and even abusive families.  While members within the gang may have their own inner squabbles with one another, to the world they are a united band that no one messes with or betrays, because to mess with one is to mess with all.
            The inner circle of friends is the same way.  Oh, there’s that outer group that flutters around on the fringe that doesn’t really care.  They float along the current of popular opinion, playing it safe, trying to keep a foot in every world and eventually never truly committing or being a part of any.  However, there’s that tighter band of comrades that are there to brave the thickest storm with you.  Their battles are yours and vice versa.  To slander you is to slander them and together you brave the fickleness of idiots.  These are the ones you can depend on and who you defend as loyalty binds you to each other and pulls each of you into an unknown future.  These are the people I could not do without and though they are few they are more than enough.
            We may not have cool jackets and only a few of us have tattoos and most of those are of cute, cuddly things and not daggers dripping blood, but those that I hold close are as tough as any gang around.  We’ve battled cancer, seen loved ones pass into the next life, and guided children through the murky waters of adolescence into adulthood.  We’ve fought with each other as well as each other’s battles.  We’ve seen marriages and divorces and have remained a solid group.  Our gang isn’t big and it’s nowhere near as big as it used to be, but that’s okay.  The storms of life have removed the chaff and given deeper roots to the wheat.  Friends, true friends, survive the tornadoes of life and keep each other sheltered until the violent winds die down.  We may be a gang of misfits, but we have the greatest times.  I wouldn’t trade these people for anyone in the world.

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