The old dark green Honda Odyssey moved slowly down South 8th Street, radio playing barely audible music and paint peeling. The headlights had started to dim with age, the leather seat was giving out, and the car was strewn with fast food wrappings, sports gear, and garbage.
The minivan’s passengers were boys, ranging from 14 to maybe 23 or 24. There were 5 of them in the van, loosely seated, maybe by chance or maybe not, according to seniority. In the driver’s seat was Smarty, so named for the unique distinction of almost graduating from Camden High School. He had been one of the 3% of minority students to participate in AP courses there, something he refused to talk about. Riding shotgun was Syrup, the oldest, known for his tendency to watch over the younger kids, or his boys, as he called them. Two more Camden high schoolers, both juniors, were in the way back. By the tiny window was 14-year-old Process.
Process was a freshman, named for his obsessive love for Philadelphia’s sports teams, and his constant repetition of the 76ers motto: trust the process. This love stemmed, although he would never admit it, from his mother’s childhood stories that his father was Allen Iverson. He had, she explained, carried the 76ers to the NBA finals because he knew his son was going to be born soon in July of ‘01. She went on to explain that he couldn’t focus in school because neither of his parents could, but Allen had still managed to be pretty damn successful if you asked her. Process had become friends with Smarty a few months ago, when the 19-year-old had started to lend him money, take him out on nights when his mother had men over or drank, and gave him old homework assignments.
The ancient minivan turned on Mount Ephraim Avenue, as Process had mustered up the courage to ask for McDonalds. The older kids said it was ok, lent him the money for a Big Mac, and sent him inside. He hadn’t really eaten much all day.
The car reentered the city, swerving back onto 8th. It was approximately 10, maybe 10:30, and the minivan was cruising aimlessly. Mom had said be home by around 10:30 because that was when she was going to be done but she would probably forget. She wasn’t good with stuff like that.
Process didn’t really talk much, and when he did, he agreed. He’d like to think he was participating in the conversation, but some forced laughter and nods didn’t really count. They were better than open wide-eyed adulation, he thought.
These were the guys who always had pocket money, who got with the hottest girls, who didn’t care about school. They didn’t eat the filth served in the cafeteria; they didn’t keep their heads down and their bookbags close while walking through the hallways. They smoked loud and didn’t try to hide it. They didn’t watch old cartoons for kids half their age in their room or go out into the cold when their moms were doing God-knows-what with God-knows-who. They didn’t fade into the shadows, or watch from the side.
Officer Mike Bryne wasn’t from Camden. He was from a good Irish family, a real Jersey kid raised a couple miles outside of Newark, so why on God’s green earth was he driving down a Camden street wonderfully named “Heroin Highway” at 10 o’clock on a frigid December night, he could not tell you. It was something with the incompetent Camden PD, and they had sent the Trenton PD in or something like that. Idiots. Even worse, there was football to watch, and Christmas leftovers to eat, and he missed his wife and newborn daughter, and he was out following some little dropout asshole who sold dope to and got in fights with other soon to be little dropout assholes and drove around in a green minivan and needed to be followed and picked up because he was dumb enough to be caught on camera.
His partner, Officer Luis Sanchez, was a personification of the city itself: he was surly, ugly, and quiet. He barely spoke, and much less about anything remotely interesting. All the goddamn guy did was sit and brood and burn his goddamn lungs and lips with a goddamn pack of goddamn cigarettes a goddamn day. Stunk up the goddamn patrol car.
“We pulling them over on 8th?” he grunted.
Bryne nodded his approval, muttering that the kid had better not have “pulled anything funny,” and that he could better protect and serve society plopped on his couch watching the Eagles get smacked around by whoever they were playing. He couldn’t help but think about how many times cops pulled some stupid kids over and in the commotion, the kids had guns… You never knew. This was the type of thing older guys in the precinct told you to be careful of. Not because anything would happen, just because. It just wasn’t smart, everyone knew that. Not in a place like Camden.
Process, or P, as the kids were starting to call him, was fitting in more: they were all bragging about their accomplishments, with girls and sports and money and guys who had talked smack and payed for it. He didn’t say much besides the occasional “yeahhhh,” or “oh damn, that’s crazy” or “facts!” It didn’t matter, though—he was one of them, he was in their car, eating their McDonalds, listening to their music, he had their respect; for once, he truly mattered. These kids were gods, straight up, they didn’t have any worries or problems, they did whatever the hell they wanted and you just dealt with it. And then the wail of sirens rolled over Process’ ears like blare of his alarm clock and shredded the fantasy he had been living.
Don’t talk to cops, don’t get in trouble with the cops, don’t argue with cops, don’t get pulled over by cops, avoid cops, don’t be seen avoiding cops, don’t piss cops off, those were Mom’s rules. He frantically shoved one of the guys in the middle and pointed backwards, eyes wide and hands trembling.
The guy turned slowly and told him to shut up and let someone else do the talking and to not be a pussy. Having any one of the other guys in the car call him that was infinitely worse than anything the cops could do; it was worse than getting snuffed out, it was worse than going to jail, it was worse than becoming one of the memorials outside of people’s houses with all of their candles and flags and crosses and pictures. So he did what he was told, he sat and stayed quiet and he wasn’t afraid, he ignored the plummeting feeling in his stomach and he waited.
The minivan pulled over quickly, the cop car right behind it. Process’ face was glued to the window, desperate not to show fear and not to seem suspicious.
The white patrol car screamed to a halt, and two enormous cops sprang out, their twisted and hideous pistols upraised and gleaming. One was big and burly, pale, with a flock of blond hair on his forehead. The other was short and a little bit fat; Process thought he looked Hispanic. Maybe like Mom’s ex.
The cops were screaming, everyone had to get out slowly with their hands up and line up near the car and none of them were supposed to move quickly or suddenly. They wanted to see a license and registration and anyone who disobeyed didn’t even want to know what would happen. But Process still wasn’t scared, he just put his hands on his head like he was told but he shuffled his feet and glared like the best of them, like the others did. The right way, the way he had been taught. Someone named Cameron Davis-Johnson was under arrest and the sirens were flashing and wailing and the Hispanic cop was patting Syrup down and Smarty gave one of them the middle finger and reached into his pocket and there were a few sounds like thunder and the white cop had a wild look in his eyes like a crack fiend and his gun was smoking and he was screaming something about resisting arrest.
Process wasn’t crying. Wasn’t being a pussy. He never was. Smarty was lying out in the middle of the street. His head had almost shuddered differently from his body. Like in football when there was a hard hit. The helmet looked like it was separate from the uniform beneath. Smarty got sacked by the cops. Dumbass. That was funny. So he laughed. There was blood pouring from his head. It almost looked like juice. Maybe blood was people juice. Who knew. He looked a little like a dead shark. Sometimes they had shows about fishing and the ocean on TV and there were dead sharks. And living sharks. That's how he knew. He wondered if it was only like juice and sharks and getting tackled when it was cops who did it. If it was cops who shot you. They were both talking. Screaming. Gesturing. The cops. So he just left. He ran. Down the block. Got home somehow. He didn’t make the ramen on the counter. Or say hi to Mom. Or the new guy asleep on the couch.
He didn’t wake up the next morning, just stayed in bed and sat there. It was Thursday, but Mom wouldn’t mind. He didn’t want to go to school and see more kids. More kids who drove minivans and sold weed. More kids who would one day bleed juice and look like dead sharks and sacked quarterbacks sprawled on the Camden sidewalk.
This piece is visceral and thought-provoking. The themes it explores (masculinity, police violence, gun violence) are all too current.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Sidney Essex is currently a senior at Loyola School in Manhattan, New York City, NY. He lives in Brooklyn with his family and dog, and hopes to study Political Science or International Affairs in college.