The sun rises over Compton Avenue and lights up the buildings that make up the Nickerson Gardens Housing Project. A new coat of gold paint doesn't fool anyone. I'm on my morning jog, 111th Street to Compton to Imperial to Central Avenue. The morning quiet is pierced by a police siren. I hurry home so as not to be confused with the suspects. My aunty is already outside watching four young boys not past 12 years of age being chased by the LAPD.
It's a sight way too common in my neighborhood. I know these kids and though I don't know what they've done this morning I know why they're in trouble. They've succumbed to their own greed and want -- to fit an image they've seen on television and social media. They need the latest Jordans, designer belts, jewelry, etc. The only way they can feed these desires is to rob people or sell drugs.
And run. Run like hell. Run hella fast -- and soon they are gone. A chorus of worried mothers on front doorsteps mutters words of concern. The loss of one mother's son is a loss to them all but it's much worse if it's their own. The police are gone now, chasing after those boys who are chasing after their twisted idea of who they want to be, and I'm back outside to run my second mile.
A few buildings down, I almost step on a small red toy car jutting out of the weeds. I bend and snatch it up. This is no ordinary toy car, or at least it belongs to no ordinary kid. This is Lil Don Don's toy car and Lil Don Don is the hope of my neighborhood. He is the faith of my community. Lil Don Don is the last kid left.
There are plenty of kids running around my community, but none like Don Don. He is the epitome of what a kid his age should be doing, how a ten-year-old boy should act and how he should be thinking. He's the only kid his age who hasn't seen the inside of a squad car. While other kids his age are plotting illicit schemes to get the new Jordans, Don Don is at his parents' bedroom door asking for the new video game he's had his heart set on for the past two weeks. The rest of the neighborhood kids have already been molded into tomorrow's "gangsters" and most of them seem to be in too deep to reverse the curse of hood politics.
No one notices how special Don Don is to the community. His innocence is power. His peers think he's "scared to get money," "a punk" because he doesn't want to hang out all night but would rather be in his room building sculptures out of Legos. He's a dreamer, a visionary, the hope of the future. His dreams haven't been crushed. Not yet. In his mind everything is still possible. He just hasn't done it yet.
Don Don looks nothing like me, but when I see him I see myself. At his age I too saw no benefit in hanging and heading in the wrong direction. I knew which way I wanted to go and it seemed as if my friends were just going in a different direction. By the age of 12, I had lost most of them to the law. We grew apart. We still see each other, but there isn't much to talk about. I stayed in school while they dropped out. I applied to college while they went to jail or managed to stay one step ahead of the police. I see the same happening to Don Don. I hope he can keep his innocence and I hope he can stay out of trouble.
I've got to hurry to school but on the way I bring Don Don his small red toy car. His friends are crowding his front door. They are urging him to come outside. I can hear what they're talking about. Seems that Don Don didn't get the money from his parents for his new video game and is considering joining his friends to get the cash he needs. I reach around them to hand Don Don his toy car and watch him find twenty dollars inside of it. The cash astonishes him and his innocence returns and he's like a kid who just checked under his pillow after the tooth fairy was there.
Immediately he lets his old friends he doesn't need to go with them anymore.
They walk off mumbling insults -- "Punk!" "Bitch!" "He scary..."
That $20 is my lunch money for the week. I'm hungry already as I run for the 120 bus to school. But I'm glad I gave it to him. I couldn't just watch them snatch the innocent soul of the last kid left.