You know what’s crazy? I’ll tell you what’s crazy™
The Gangster Disciple Mattress King.
It begins with a hail of gunfire outside a Dollar General Store.
A man is shot in the back and is in critical condition.
His girlfriend will call 911, screaming, frantic. “My boyfriend’s been shot, he’s bleeding. Help.”
Meanwhile the get-a-way car flies from the crime scene at a reckless, high rate of speed.
Police quickly get behind the shooter’s car and give chase.
The vehicle races through city streets, around peregrine county roads and finally down the interstate.
Blue lights and sirens are wailing as the driving is fast and dangerous.
At one point the get-a-way car slows enough so the gunman can jump out on the interstate and run into the woods.
He will be caught 3 days later in a massive manhunt involving helicopters, dogs and SWAT.
In the meantime, the get-a-way car continues at an insane clip toward Nashville. After a 2 county chase, the Tennessee Highway Patrol is ready. Officers stand on the side of I-40 at the Kingston Springs Exit in Cheatham County, some 40 miles from where the shots were fired, and they throw the spike strips across a lane of traffic. The get-a-way car drives over the tire deflating device and the outcome suddenly becomes much more certain.
The get-a-way car limps down the interstate, finally crashing into the woods, a mile down the road.
Law officers from the drug task force, city police, Tennessee Highway Patrol and County sheriff, swoop in, guns blazing and effect a felony arrest.
The 3 occupants surrender, hands up, without incident and are taken into custody.
The next day I am at the county jail, an austere institution of bricks and bars and guards who haven’t smiled since Obama was voted out of office.
We walk into the lobby. The cinder block walls are a soft yellow. There are posters reminding you to dispose of your heroin needles properly. There are 3 bonding companies, all pledging to spring me out of jail the fastest.
As we enter, I notice what I always notice. Jail people have distant eyes. They are often staring at something the rest of us cannot see. They are looking through walls and furniture and cell blocks into a place a thousand miles away, perhaps where there is light and love and all the things that don’t exist here.
The lobby of a jail is a sad place. You are never here for something good. They don’t hand out money here. They don’t sing Christmas Carols here. They don’t give away puppies or lemonade or sell Starbucks Coffee. Everyone is here for all the wrong reasons; whether they are turning themselves in or waiting on someone who has committed a crime.
As we walk in, with TV camera and Tripod, they stare.
I feel their blank stares on the back of my neck. It feels like tiny yellow jackets pricking my skin. As my cowboy boots step across the hard linoleum, I hear their murmurs. It is a low guttural whisper like a toilet flushing in a distant room. I hear words like news people and wonder why they’re here.
We enter a room at the rear of the lobby. The door says bondsman and lawyers only.
We enter this vacuous space and shut the door with a thud that echoes ominously.
I am standing in the visitation chamber; perhaps a six by six room. There are 2 plastic chairs that my camera man quickly pushes to the periphery, a concrete mausoleum of 3 concrete walls and a glass partition.
The thick glass is attached to a steel counter. The counter has a slot on a spring, about the size of a box of animal crackers. It opens just enough for visitors to pass small items to the other chamber, which is a much larger sitting area, heavily fortified with security doors that lead into the bowels of the jail.
A few moments later, the thick security doors behind the wall reverberate. I hear sliding steel and garbled intercom voices clearing access points.
“He’s coming,” I say to my photographer who positions his zoom on the doorway beyond the glass partition.
It’s the moment of truth. In a moment, the Get-a-way car driver will walk through that door. He will either see me, realize he shouldn’t talk, turn around and decline the interview. Or he will stupidly, defiantly, move forward toward the plastic chair on his side of the glass, take a seat, and bare his soul.
The door churns open, and two guards emerge into the chamber. I see a flash of orange. I hear the clank of leg irons. I try and act like calm, perhaps smile, so as not to spook my potential interview subject.
This is the moment of truth. So many times, the bleery eyed idiots walk to this point then see me and my camera and have second thoughts. Many times they don’t realize what they are agreeing to. The question is always simple. DO YOU WANT TO TALK TO THE NEWS MEDIA?
These prisoners are not the sharpest tools in the shed. What is going through their demented, often drug induced minds is anyone’s guess. What they are thinking as the door opens and they see the bright hot light of truth staring at them through the other side of the glass is anyone’s guess.
The prisoner emerges from the darkness beyond. My camera man zooms in. He’s a grizzled vet. He knows this 10 seconds may be our only moving image of the suspect.
The young man is handcuffed. The cuffs are secured by a chain to the leg irons around his angles. He is dressed like a neon colored orange traffic cone as he shuffles from the door to the chair on the other side of the window.
“How ya doing?” I scream through the partition, shoving the microphone through the slot below the window.
The guard takes the wireless mic and clips it on his collar as my camera man signals we’re rolling.
The 20 year old on the other side of the glass looks at me. His face indicates he is aware, he is ready, he knows why he is in this chair before my camera.
The young black man is 20 years old. He has a tattoo on his neck and shoulder.
He is the get-a-way car driver.
“There’s always 2 sides to every story,” I shout.
I pause as he nods his head. There is a slight smirk on his face.
“So what’s your story?,” I ask.
The get-a-way car driver will tell me he was just the driver. He will tell me they were just there to make money.
Though his words are peppered with an urban gang vernacular that takes the English language on a horrific ride into the depths of conjugation hell, I can tell by the way he chooses his words, the thoughts he is trying to convey, the get-a-way car driver is also intelligent.
“Was it a drug deal?” I ask.
He smiles. “Yeah, you could say that.” He pauses. He seems to be reaching for the truth. In the back of my head, I can hear the D.A. filling out the paper work for a subpoena to get all my footage.
“Yeah, it was a drug deal gone bad you might say. But I didn’t shoot nobody.”
“What was that like?,” I ask. “When the shots started firing?”
“I’m no child when it comes to this,” he says matter of factly. “I’ve been shot at before. I didn’t really see what happened. I was just driving.”
I’VE BEEN SHOT AT BEFORE.
He says it calmly, non-chalantly. He says it proudly, like it’s a badge of honor. He tells me he’s shot at before like a kid proudly telling his father he got an A on his report card.
I look at the black kid before me.
He’s a felon, a gang banger, another young life with a mug shot charged with a myriad of felonies.
But as I talk to this young kid through the glass, I can’t help but think this kid didn’t have to be here, dressed like a traffic cone, chained like a dangerous piece of meat.
As I stare at this 20 year old felon, who is intelligent, who is brutally honest, who isn’t even old enough to buy a beer, I think of my own son.
“You’ve made some bad choices, haven’t you?”
“I put myself in a bad position,” the young man says, his gangster persona giving way slightly to proper grammar. I look at the young man’s face and see a spark of intelligence that lurks just below this tattooed surface.
It reminds me of swimming in a choppy sea. It’s often difficult to fight the wind and the spray and the waves slapping you in the face. But if you dive down, just a foot below the surface, the water is calm, smooth, navigable.
Sometimes I interview criminals and they cannot look at me. Sometimes they look at me and there is a void in their eyes as if there is nothing behind the glassy stare.
But this interview is different. This young man has clear eyes and a profound understanding that each of the occupants in this drug deal gone bad will suffer the same consequences for the actions of the gunman. Their charges are already serious, but could amp up significantly if the man on life support at Vanderbilt Medical Center, succumbs to his injuries.
As I look at the 20 year old itch his nose, his handcuffs clinking, I see through his harsh, gang banging veneer. I see past the epidermal layer that says black youth, gang banger, danger to society. I see a small light, a spark behind his eyes that is still lit.
We will chit chat about the crime, the chase and why he didn’t stop.
Through all the questions and answers I wonder if this kid might have turned out differently with a little guidance. If someone took him to soccer games and helped him with his homework and read him bed time stories from Dr. Seuss when he was young, would he be here, dressed in orange and chains?
This interview is essentially a confession to his role in a series of violent and dangerous crimes. This interview will undoubtedly show up in court and after it airs, the judge will slam down the gavel of justice and send this young man to prison.
The young man before me is smart. He knows this. For some reason, he is telling me the truth, his truth. Perhaps, this is the light inside his eyes pushing him toward a conversion that must take place if he is to ever become a productive member of society.
Can recover from this?, I ask.
He ruminates a moment and scratches his forehead. The handcuffs clink ominously once again, reminding all of us we are in a jail, full of felons and bad intentions.
“It’s a possibility,” he says pausing. “It’s a possibility.”
I laugh. And then he laughs.
Is he being honest? Or is he another jailhouse thespian telling the world what it wants to hear.
There’s no way out of this saturated sponge of felonious miscalculations.
The 20 year old get-a-way driver is in way too deep.
He’s a sad dichotomy of existence. He is not old enough to legally drink, but he’s old enough to go to prison and be molded by the most heinous evil that exists.
He might die in prison. If he doesn’t die, chances are he won’t be a productive member of society.
The chances of him re-offending and going back to prison are more likely than a sword swallower getting a sore throat.
He’ll more than likely exit the penal system worse than he went in.
He is still young. He is still impressionable. He is a soiled lump of clay, but he could be saved. In the right hands, he could be anything that this great American Dream has to offer.
But the hands that have molded him to this point, and will continue to shape him behind prison walls are soiled, evil, stupid and uncaring.
The hands of guards will mold him into hating authority. The hands of prisoners will mold him into thinking like a criminal dreaming of easy money and a thug life.
In the quiet of his cell, listening to the nocturnal sounds of men raping other men, he will think back on his life. A life of barely 20 years and he will wonder about going straight, getting out and walking away from this insanity that is one knock away from the morgue.
But the young man with the little bit of light burning behind those bright eyes will be harder and colder and less willing to assimilate then. One day, he will leave the cold, defined routine of prison and re-enter society.
The man with the gang banger disposition will have completed his doctorate in criminal enterprise and once on the streets, he will fall into the only life he has ever known.
The lump of soiled clay will be molded completely and irrevocably. Without the compassionate guidance of a father, a priest, someone who cares, he will find a gun, he will find a crew, he will realign with his old homies and begin slinging that rock.
Sooner or later he’ll either pump a bullet into someone or he’ll be on the wrong end a slug.
He’ll be another black kid planted in the dirt. Nobody but his momma will even remember him. His last image in life will be his Department of Corrections intake photo.
Welcome to life kid. Now move over.
I stare at the kid who is obviously smart. He is street, but he is also eloquent.
I look at his jail intake sheet.
On one side it says GANG: GANGSTER DECIPLES.
On the other side it says: Occupation: MATTRESS KING
The kid is 20 years old.
What a contradiction. The Gangster Disciples are a nationally recognized street gang that originated in Chicago. They are known for brutality, street level executions and rampant drug sales.
My son’s resume says honor student, plays well with others, likes ice cream
I wonder if this black kid had a father like me, would his resume be completely different?
I look at the occupation. Mattress King is a local business that airs cheesy commericals for bedding. He is listed as a sales rep.
Most of these gang banging wanna be’s don’t have anything listed under occupation.
Again, I think; WHAT IF?
I look at the Gangster Disciple Mattress salesman.
I see the struggle between the good and the bad in the prisoner before me.
“Thanks for your truth,” I say.
“No problem,” the young man says waiting for the guards to take him back to his cell.
The man gets up. The guards close in and remind him, he’s little more than an animal. The young man walks through the door and never looks back. The door slams with a poignant, echoing thud.
I stare at the closed door for a moment.
I hope the young Gangster Disciple Mattress King finds his light.
I stare at his mug shot.
I fold it up and put in my back pocket.
As I pick up the tripod, and walk into the lobby of zombies, I know that with the close of that jail door, the light doesn’t have a chance.