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Original Essays | September 30, 2014 0 comments
Brandon Bartlett, the fictional mayor of Portland in my novel Sherwood Nation, is addicted to playing video games. In a city he's all but lost... Continue »
The Assistby Neil Swidey
Or sometimes, it's a variation of that question, like: Were you really with these guys as they got up at the crack of dawn to make their long commute to school? Or hanging out with them in classes throughout the school day? Or walking beside them as they ambled through housing projects?
The implication behind these questions is pretty obvious. These were black teenagers living in some of the toughest neighborhoods of the city. I was a white guy in his thirties living in the suburbs. How was it possible for me to observe all this without somehow changing the dynamics of the situation, without sticking out like a grandpa in the front row of a Hannah Montana concert?
It's a fair question. But, as it turns out, the answer is not that complicated. I was, in fact, able to witness all those scenes, and I don't think anyone behaved all that differently because I was there. That's partly because Ridley and his friends were remarkably welcoming of me into their lives. It's partly because I tried to know when to put my tape recorder away or give them some space by leaving the room entirely. But mostly it's because the guys grew so accustomed to my being around.
When I began my work on this story back in 2004, some of the players were justifiably guarded. But it's pretty amazing how quickly those walls came down. The first breakthroughs took place on the bus rides to away games. For each long ride, I would sit next to one player or another and we would start talking. This was just before the explosion of iPods, and most of the guys were still listening to their music through headphones attached to Sony Discmans. I had just gotten a combination MP3 player and digital recorder a little white cube of a thing called a Muvo and many of the guys were curious about it. "What music you got on that?" they would ask me. Figuring they'd be unimpressed by my Solomon Burke and Ray Charles, I'd put the question back to them, "What should I put on it?"
The players turned me on to some good rappers. There was 50 Cent before he became a big crossover hit, and The Game before his blowup with 50, his former mentor. There was Lil Wayne and Shawnna and many others. I loaded it all onto my player and began listening to it. And liking it. The next time someone asked me what I had on my player, I could point to music they knew.
I would also show the guys how the digital recorder function of my MP3 player worked, and let them know when I was recording our conversations. Sometimes, after we had finished one, they'd want to hear it, so I'd hand over my headphones. My goal was to demystify the process for them while also making them aware of what I was doing. Time bred familiarity which in turn bred a certain ease between us.
I found it especially useful to hang out with the guys in different settings and configurations. When we'd talk one-on-one, usually when I was giving one of them a ride home from practice or when we were taking the subway together, they'd sometimes get reflective, opening up about things they would have never discussed had their buddies been around. But when I hung out with a small group of the guys, I would get to see the natural interplay between them the ribbing, the off-color jokes, and the warmth they had for each other.
Probably the most productive times for me were when I sat with the guys in one of their bedrooms usually Ridley's, the team's preferred off-the-court hangout just watching ESPN or playing PlayStation or hanging out while they got their hair braided or trimmed. Spend enough time doing nothing and things begin to feel nothing but real.
I think it also helped for the guys to see that I wasn't going to skimp on effort when it came to trying to understand their lives. I awoke at 4:30 in the morning to make my way over to their apartments so I'd be able to see them getting up at 5:30 to start their day. I'd ride with them for their 3-hour roundtrips to and from school, through changes from bus to subway to bus, sometimes taking the least efficient route in order to avoid tripping over some housing project gang boundary that was invisible to me but unmistakable to them. I'd sit with them through their full day of classes, trying to survive a midday study hall when time crawled so slowly that it made you plot when to make your trip to the bathroom to best break up the tedium. By the end of the school day, I'd be sharing their fatigue, knowing they still had several hours of grueling practice in front of them.
Establishing trust was also key. Even though I was talking every day with their coach, Jack O'Brien, the guys quickly realized that I was not going to betray confidences. If they complained to me about their coach, or if the coach complained to me about them, neither side was going to hear about it from me.
Over time, they were kind enough to grant me some pretty robust access into their world. And as grateful as I was for that access, I was careful not to try to fool myself into thinking I was more than a visitor. I loved the clever nicknames the guys had for each other. Spot got his because of the birthmark on the side of his head and a threat a former teammate once made to "smack that spot onto the wall." Midnight got his on account of having the darkest skin on the team. Phil, a player with a complexion just a shade lighter, was called "11:59." But as much as I delighted in knowing all these nicknames, I usually called the players by their real names. That just seemed more appropriate.
With most of the guys, our conversations got deeper and easier the longer I'd known them. But things were different with Jason White, who went by the nickname Hood. With piercing eyes and a muscular build, Hood cast an intimidating figure. But once I was able to get him to open up, I found him to be incredibly bright and reflective. After he let down his defenses, we had some deep conversations. Yet the next time I saw him, we'd have to start from scratch. That's just the way it was with him. No matter. Hood, who would become one of the people at the center of the book, was worth the effort.
In the beginning, I suspect I was more than a little self-conscious about the gulf of experience between me and the teenagers whose lives I was documenting. But I learned an important lesson from O'Brien, the driven coach who made it his life's work to help these kids get ahead. He never got caught up on the differences separating him from his players. He just dove into their lives, getting to know the dreariness that held these kids back and the dreams that kept them going. In time, I tried to do the same.
In my three years in their lives, I grew to care deeply about these guys, to cheer quietly for them to get ahead. Even if I felt I owed it to everyone involved to be truthful when things didn't go well, in my heart I never stopped hoping that they would.
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Neil Swidey is a staff writer for the Boston Globe Magazine. His writing has won the National Headliner Award and has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing and The Best American Crime Writing. He lives outside Boston with his wife and their three daughters. Visit the website for The Assist at www.theassist.net.