Omaha on a String
But before I got the job to get that money, the money that would allow me to keep my dingy little basement room (for a while anyway) before I got that job, I had a few days to get to know my new little gang of “punks”.
Of course, we didn’t hang out in my room. We just went there to eat. My new young friends took me to a few of the other places they went to hang out. Sometimes in open and fairly public places, and sometimes in dark, private places. In the dark corners of small public parks, alleys and a few abandoned buildings near the neighborhood. In these hangout spots, we would stand around, shuffling our feet… and smoke.
This went on for a few days. In the morning, I’d walk downtown to where I knew there were job postings and come home to find them in my ally. We’d go in to eat some SOS and then go out. To hang out somewhere.
I somehow kinda knew we weren’t too far from where they lived. Or at least a few of the younger ones. The places we hung out seemed to be in various locations surrounding Gifford Park. I assumed they either went to school (or were supposed to anyway) near there. They never said anything about themselves, though. Never said anything to me and rarely to each other (in front of me). Every now and then one of them would look at me, take a drag off his cigarette, and look away. I could tell they were checking me out, deciding, and then…
They let me in.
We were hanging out around a clump of trees in the corner of the park and suddenly someone said to follow and we all quickly went inside one of the houses nearby. Once inside we went straight downstairs to the basement of this rather normal-looking home and into a kind of makeshift living room.
It was like a den, with couches and a TV. Hanging white sheets separated it from the rest of the basement. Once everyone settled in, everything and everyone changed. The change in these kids was immediate and complete.
And it was dramatic!
Suddenly, in that basement that afternoon, they all became just the bunch of kids that they all truly were. Laughing and eating junk food from Mom’s fridge and watching anything they wanted on TV. They were horsing around and joking with each other like normal kids. Somehow, in this place… the reality of the street punk part of their lives was put on hold.
In this space, they could be kids.
So here I was, nineteen-year-old good boy me. Hanging out in the basement of this nice middle-class home with this group of kids that had let me into their lives. Kids I’d just a few minutes ago, been seeing as street punks. These kids were of varied ages from the oldest at fourteen, to the youngest who couldn’t have been more than seven or eight. They still weren’t talking about themselves (or to me at all) but they were now showing me. They were showing me this important part of themselves.
So I just watched, and listened.
I should have kept doing that too. I should never have said anything. Instead, I asked a question and ruined everything.
Apparently the parents of whoever’s house this was, were gone on vacation or something but the kid had an older brother who would be back from work eventually, so we could only be there for a few hours. I’d overheard one of the older kids ask when he’d be back. No one answered and there was this uncomfortable silence. A silence that I broke.
“Why do we have to leave when he get’s home?”
That was a mistake. That was the question that ruined everything.
A look of sheer terror came over this kids face immediately. The others looked at me and said nothing, but I knew I shouldn’t have asked that. It was like I broke the spell or something. I’d ruined the magic that was creating this moment in time.
It was like these kids had their own little fantasy Omaha on a magic string. A string that gave them control over their world and allowed them to be the kids they truly were. A string someone had wrapped around their fingers. Someone they trusted.
I had just made them see the string for what it was. Just a lousy piece of string. A fantasy. My question “why?” was part of a world the magic string had thus far been insulating them from. It had them distracted for just these few hours, but my question had broken the spell and so we all had to leave now. Now THEY had to go and do something else to get distracted again.
These distractions were part of the Omaha street survival skills they had learned from someone I had yet to meet. The one who had tied that magic string around their fingers. He was their leader and I would only meet him when my little group of new young friends had decided that it was time. When they decided they could trust me.
My mistake had them questioning whether they wanted me to meet him but I couldn’t know that. All I knew was that we all had to leave the house NOW and they were going to go and do something else to distract themselves.
I was not invited.
So I had to go “home”. Back to my dingy little basement room with the scary, creepy neighbor and the dungeon-like door. The next day I would get the job I needed to keep my room.
It would be a while before I would again hang out with my little group of friends. By then (like the kids they really were) they forgot all about my little street punk faux pas, and decided to introduce me to the guy who had tied that magic string around their fingers. The guy who taught them those Omaha street survival skills. Their leader.
In a way, he was just another a seventeen-year-old kid. But a kid toughened on the streets after being thrown out of his middle class North Omaha home by an alcoholic mother and abusive step dad at the age of fourteen. A kid trained to fight and think like a “man” in juvenile prison. Trained to think like a predator who would eventually be looking to carve out his place among the pros.
The “real men” of this world.
“Crazy Allen” would eventually appoint himself as my new “best friend”. He showed me generosity shortly after we met, and tolerance of my refusal to participate in much of his toxic, violent world. Certainly much (if not all) of this was driven by self interest. His predatory scammer instinct to get everything he could from every relationship.
But my adult self would also like to think that this chapter in my personal growth (from naive good boy, to mature good man) might have influenced him at least a little. That… in the end, he might have some positive takeaway from our relationship.
A relationship that would really only get started after I got back from Kansas.