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A Face In The Crowd
He’s 14, he’s black, and he ran with the big-city gangs. But the stereotypes say nothing about who he truly is.


By Chuck Nowlen
Published January 1994
Copyright 1994, Madison Magazine



The rap group Public Enemy rattles my walls as I write this – shrill music, pounding music, music that shakes an angry fist at the crazy white man’s world. This is how it always is when my young friend Eddie cleans my house on weekends: I get a chance to write for a couple of hours; he gets to play Public Enemy as loud as he wants – almost – as he tidies up a white man’s home.


“Yo, Chuck, you still got your P.E.?” he asks every week, as if I might have burned the CD in a fit of Caucasian pique since I saw him last.


“Yeah, it’s still here,” I say, tossing him a can of Pledge and a towel. “Go ahead and put it on.”


A few seconds later, the music is making my entire race sound like a conspiracy of prison guards. But, believe it or not, I can’t help but groove to it and smile. After three years of friendship, Eddie is closer to me than most of my own family; and this kind of music is at the center of his world. It makes him feel special; it makes him feel powerful – like the proud black man he wants to be someday. It also makes him feel like exactly what he is – in many ways, a typical 14-year-old boy.


“One of my girlfriends wants to come over tonight,” he bragged to me on the car ride over here, munching a McDonald’s fish sandwich. “I don’t know if I can, though. I might have to babysit.”


And yet, Eddie has already had one hell of a life. The son of a notorious former stick-up man, he’s appeared twice in this magazine since I met him – once explaining how he sold crack for his mom in the big city when he was nine, and a second time when he was back there telling me by phone about gunplay in his neighborhood gang. He’s currently suspended from middle school for hiding a buddy’s BB-gun pistol in his locker, and, looking back, he sees that incident as a chump’s bow to peer pressure.


“Homework – that’s my religion now,” he says when I ask him about the bad-boy classes he has to attend during school hours. “The gang – they all want to fight me ‘cause I flipped; I did a three-sixty; you know, I said I wanted out. That’s OK, though. I’ll fight ‘em if I have to. I don’t have time for that stupid stuff anymore.”


At the same time, he sure still looks the part: a black stocking cap that bends his young brow into a scowl; a worn, bulky, knee-length jacket; huge, droopy pants and black high-tops. He slouches when he walks, and if he’s never met you before, he’ll more than likely just stare sullenly ahead when you say hello.


It’s just the kind of image that sends a lot of people – particularly in a place like Madison – into a frenzy of fear these days. Eddie was my foster child briefly a year or so ago, and I’ll never forget when I had to bring him into my former job at the university for a day. My lily-white co-workers all smiled when they met him – stiff smiles, nervous smiles. Then they scattered like pigeons back to their desks, where wallets and purses could be stashed safely out of sight.


We joked about it afterwards: “Sorry, man, these people all think you’re gonna rob them,” I told him.


“That’s OK, Chuck. Whenever you come over to my building, everybody thinks you’re a cop.”


That part, sadly, has not changed for either of us so far. I go to his neighborhood, and new residents eye me with suspicion; he comes to my house, and a lot of my neighbors do the same to him. But he has never done anything to betray my trust – and, believe me, he’s had the chance. I don’t think twice about leaving him alone with cash and change on the counter when I have to run out for an errand. There was also the weekend when I was short on money and couldn’t pay him the 15 bucks he usually gets for cleaning my house, mowing my lawn or raking leaves, and shoveling snow in the winter.


“No problem,” he said with a shrug. “Hey, I know how it goes.”


Don’t get me wrong: Eddie and I have had our scrapes, and sometimes I think he craves a cop figure in his life from time to time – if nothing else, to make him feel noticed. Once, as I drove him to Chicago for a bus ride back to his home town, we had an early morning dispute about how loud he could play the rap group N.W.A. in my car. I’d make him turn it down, but a few minutes later, it would be back at full volume, searing my eardrums. We went around and around like that for a while, but then I suddenly hit the roof.


“Listen, you little s**t, I want this thing OFF!” I said, pounding my steering wheel and ejecting the tape. “Just who the **** do you think you are!”


Stunned, he sat quietly, staring straight ahead at the highway.


“I’m your friend, Chuck,” he answered finally in a low, penitent voice. “I’m your friend.”



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