Authors: Jeff Hobbs
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Dedicated to Robert DeShaun Peace and to his heart, Jacqueline Peace
IF YOU'RE GOINGto tell the story of a man, tell the whole story.”
I was sitting in Cryan's Beef & Ale House in South Orange, New Jersey, with Jason Delpeche, one of Robert Peace's friends dating back to elementary school. His words were not so much a command as they were an observation: if the intent of these pages was to recount the life of a friend who has diedâwho could neither tell nor defend his own storyâthen I had better recount that life well, using all means available.
This story is told through memory, observation, and documentation: mine, of course, but primarily that of many dozens of others, including Rob's family, friends, lovers, classmates, teachers, neighbors, colleagues in the professional world, and colleagues in the drug world. In addition, many people have contributed to this telling who did not know Rob at all but have keen perspective on one or more of the many complicated milieus in which he traveled: lawyers who worked for or against his father, politicians in Newark and the surrounding townships, community workers, police who patrol the streets on which he grew up, police who investigated his murder, academics, college administrators, state prison inmates, state prison employees, and more. I sought out anyone who might have a shred of perspective not only on Rob's direct experiences but also on the places and structures that informed those experiences. The result has been more than three hundred hours' worth of recordedinterviews which, paired with my own memories, eventually became this book. Much of this material is subjective, but so is any human life.
The dialogue that appears in this book was taken directly from these interviews. Though recalling precise exchanges, in some cases from decades ago, can be an inexact science, I am confident that the words I've written reflect very closely the words that were said. In instances where more than one person was present for these conversations, I have fact-checked their accuracy.
Segments relating to Rob's consciousnessâhis thoughts, feelings, various states of beingâcame from sentiments he shared with others during the respective time periods in which they took place. I acknowledge that it is impossible to fully understand a man's interior, particularly a man as complicated as Rob Peace, and I included such passages only in cases where the recollections were explicit and specific.
There are moments detailed herein in which Rob was alone or was interacting with someone who has also passed away, and so no one could attest as to what actually happened. Again, I relied on conversations he later had with friends and family. On the very few occasions where Rob never did relate the goings-on both within him and without, I used language to indicate that the content is based on the projections of myself and/or those who knew him well.
Names and some identifying characteristics have been changed.
Rob with his father, Skeet Douglas, in 1985.
WHY IS THE AIR NOT ON?” Jackie Peace asked from the back of the car.
“It wears the engine,” her mother, Frances, replied from the driver's seat. “You can't bear it for four blocks?”
“He just feels hot to me, real hot.” And then, when her mother chuckled: “What's funny?”
“You're a brand-new mama and that's why you have no idea.”
“Idea of what now?”
“Babies are strong. They can handle just about anything.”
Robert DeShaun Peace, the baby in question, lay sleepy-eyed and pawing in Jackie's arms. He was a day and a half old, eight pounds, ten ounces. When he'd first been weighed, the number had sounded husky to her. Now, outside the hospital for the first time, he felt nearly weightless. The street outside the car was dark and empty on this swampy late-June night in 1980. The last of the neighborhood children had been called inside to clear the way for the hustlers who governed much of the greater Newark, New Jersey, area, and particularly this township of Orange, during the wilderness of the nocturnal hours.
As Frances had noted, St. Mary's Hospital was indeed less than half a mile from 181 Chapman Street, where the Peace family lived. They were parked outside their home within two minutes. Chapman Streetwas about a hundred yards long, dead-ending on South Center Street to the west and Hickory to the east. These bookends actually protected the 100 block from most of the neighborhood's nightly commerce; dealers found the short stretch claustrophobic, and they were slightly wary of Frances, who never hesitated to march outside at any hour and tell them to get the hell out of her sight.
Jackie carried her son inside, past the rusty fence and weedy rectangle of lawn, up the five buckled stoop stairs, across the narrow porch, and through the open front door, where the ceiling fan made the air cooler. The street had been deserted, but the parlor and dining room were crowded with family. She had eight siblings, enough that she couldn't keep track of who was living in the house at any given time. Still dizzy from labor and first feedings, she didn't bother to count how many were there tonight as she reluctantly let the baby be passed around the living room, from her father, Horace, to her sisters Camilla and Carol to her brothers Dante and Garcia. Then her son was crying, and Jackie took him back and carried him to the room on the second floor where they could be alone, which was all she really wanted right now.
“Swaddle that baby and he'll stop the crying,” her mother called as she ascended the stairs.
“I told you I'm not swaddling anything in this heat!” Jackie called in response. And to Carl, who was something like an adopted younger brother, “If you see Skeet out tonight, tell him to get back here.” Skeet was Rob's father.
She laid the boy naked in the center of the mattress with a towel spread beneath him, and she lay beside him at the edge of the single bed to let him feed. They fell asleep that way, with her hand pressed against his back, holding him against her. His cries woke her in the early morning, and she raised her head hoping that Skeet would be thereâhe had left the hospital room abruptly a few hours after the birth, saying he had some “things to take care of”âbut she and the baby remained the only warm bodies in the room.
ASIDE FROM Afew failed attempts to strike out on her own, Jackie Peace had lived on Chapman Street in Orange, New Jersey, since 1960, when she was eleven. The house had first belonged to her uncle and had been left in her father's name when that uncle died of lung cancer. Back then, the Peaces had been one of two black families on a block of middle-class European immigrants, mostly Italian, and their race hadn't bothered anyone. In that climate, people didn't think much about race, at least not outwardly. They thought about work. They thought about family. They thought about property. Men woke early and rode buses and car pools to the factory jobs that were the lifeblood of the greater Newark economy. Women stayed home and raised children. Neighbors, in silent and efficient understanding, kept an eye on the homes on either side of theirs, most of which were turn-of-the-century clapboards with peaked roofs set atop fourth-floor atticsâattics packed with old photo albums and records and dishware, remnants of the passing down of property from generation to generation beginning in the early 1900s. The homes were narrow and close together, but inside they felt big enough, with high ceilings and wide portals between rooms and long backyards shaded by native willow oaks. Police made regular patrols and were known by name.
Central Avenue, a thoroughfare one block south of and parallel to Chapman Street, connected downtown Newark to the pastoral townships farther west: a succession of Italian, Polish, and Jewish grocers, pharmacies, clothing stores, flower shops, funeral homes, and local banks. On the south side of Central Avenue, Orange Park stretched out in ten green, rolling acres shaped like an arrow, its grounds bright with mothers gossiping and children playing. Though dense and urban, ÂOrange could feel very much like a small town where all needsâÂsocial, domestic, Âfinancialâwere proximate and easily sustained. Because factories were the central commerce of greater Newark, and because the workers in those factories lived in places such as Orange, families like the Peaces could feel vital, as if the history of the city of Newark were moving through them.
If Jackie looked east on Central Avenue, in the direction of downtown, she could see in the distance the first of those brick, boxy towers known as “slums in the sky.” The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development had erected sixteen of these projects in the 1950s to manage the influx of southerners seeking industrial workâmostly poor and mostly black. These communities had been intentionally segregated by race, in accordance with the common wisdom of urban planners at the time: if people were going to be stacked in such an uncomfortable way, they'd likely be more comfortable stacked with others of their own kind. The towers also served to segregate the urban problems of drugs, violence, and extreme poverty. With such signals largely contained behind those sheer walls and barred windows, people like Jackie and her siblings could drive wide around them, windows up and doors locked.
Jackie's father, Horace, worked at Linden Assembly, a General Motors plant three towns away. She didn't know what he did exactly, only that his work involved simple mechanical tasks that he performed over and over again, all day, every day. She'd always figured this repetition to be the source of his sternness, his absolute insistence on correct manners and etiquette. To him, life was lived successfully by getting the small things right every time. If he grew lazy on the job, he'd be fired and replaced by someone else who wouldn't, any one of the thousands of workers who could do what he did. Likewise, if Jackie or her siblings forgot to say, “May I pleaseÂ .Â .Â .Â ,” when asking for something, they'd be slappedâonce, hardâon the back of the head. Days were about doing your chores and schoolwork quietly, keeping questions to a minimum. Nights were about staying out of Horace's wayâalso quietly, which was harder to do as younger siblings (Jackie was the third of nine) kept being born every two to three years. That house came to feel quite small indeed once three people inhabited each bedroom. As the number of bodies increased, so, too, did the financial and physical strain, shared by all except the very youngest, of keeping everyone fed.
Jackie knew from a young age that she didn't want a big family. As a girl, in church and school lessons, she was taught that Love was a boundless and ever-expanding entity. As she grew into her teens and found herself increasingly responsible for taking care of a generation of children she hadn't herself conceived, she learned that there were limitations even to Love. She understood those limitations definitively: her mother out for milk, her father working a second job, her two older siblings gone with friends, and fifteen-year-old Jackie in the living room, tasked with keeping six stir-crazy little brothers and sisters from breaking anything, including their own bones. She didn't have enough Love in her to avoid losing her mind at certain points. And in the back of that mind lay the knowledge that once she'd seen all those children grown and positioned out there in the world, the time would come not long thereafter when she'd be responsible for her parents in their place.
She wanted a family of two children, that was all: two children who would be hers, plus a man capable of fathering and providing for them adequately.
JACKIE HADN'T BEENtold that Carl's friend Skeet might show up, but there he was: not tall but barrel-chested and dark-eyed with a particular coil-like hunch in his posture, the kind of man whose presence was noted by all patrons when he walked into a barâall except Jackie, even as Skeet approached her directly. She was well accustomed to eluding these sorts, men who relished playing the heavy.
The year was 1979, and Jackie was thirty years old. She'd lost her job at a soul food restaurant on South Orange Avenue, which meant that she'd moved back into her parents' house from the East Orange apartment she'd been sharing with two high school girlfriends. Carl, a friend of the family who had more or less grown up at 181 Chapman Street, felt sorry for her, as she had neither a man nor a baby and was no doubt hearing about it from her mother all the time. Still, Jackie hadn't been leavingthe house much lately. Carl considered that a shame, because she was a striking woman with small but intense eyes, a tall brow, an angular chin, thin lips, and short hair (she refused to spend money on a weave) that cumulatively projected an immovable conviction. Carl, when they hung out, got a kick out of the way men would approach her over younger, more classically attractive, easier women; these men seemed drawn to the challenge that Jackie's countenance most surely offered. Jackie was fun, too, and he'd convinced her to meet him at Passion Sports Bar & CafÃ© in the Grove Terrace section of Vailsburg, just west of downtown Newark, a conveniently located stopover for the mostly black workers commuting home at the end of the factory shifts. For many, these stopovers could very easily become all-nighters, and the room grew rowdy around nine or ten o'clock, which was when Jackie and Carl found themselves at the bar, talking about work, money, friends, and how to get her out of the house on Chapman Street.
Carl had met Robert “Skeet” Douglas a few months earlier on a factory demolition job, both grunt laborers who manually cleared the debris too fine for the diggers. They'd gotten along wellâCarl was quiet and reserved while Skeet was a witty leader of men. Their acquaintance had led to a loose partnership hustling cocaine. “Making movements,” Skeet called what they did, nothing major or particularly dangerous in the great scheme.
At the bar, Skeet eyed Jackie and smiled disarmingly. She ignored him; there were plenty of girls at the bar who would be susceptible to his clearly well-honed charm, girls who didn't know any better. She said she had to get home to make sure her youngest brother had finished his schoolwork.
“What's the assignment?” Skeet asked.
Jackie replied that it was a biography of Frederick Douglass. Skeet proceeded to lay out, from memory, all the key moments and dates of Frederick Douglass's life. The smooth talk vanished as he explained, humbly, that he'd always had a knack for remembering things.
Jackie let him give her a ride home. He happened to live on PiersonStreet, just two blocks north of Chapman. She listened to more biographies on the way; anyone she could name, he knew his or her story. Of his own story, however, she didn't learn much that night, or any of the nights that followed.
“YOU SPOIL THATchild.”
Jackie heard these words from everyone. She heard them during her four-week maternity leave from St. Mary's Hospital (in addition to having given birth there, she worked in the basement kitchen), and she heard them after she went back to work. She heard them from her parents, from her siblings, from her friends, and most often from Skeet. “You never put him down. Whenever he wants something, you give it to him. He sleeps in the bed with you!” Skeet would say, not angry but incredulous in a way that only Skeet could get. “Now I see why you won't marry me, because you're married to a six-month-oldâ”
“There's nothing bad about him feeling safe.”
“There's something real bad about him getting everything he wants when he wants it. The boy's never had to struggle for anything in his life.”
“If I have my say, he never will.”
She talked back to Skeet, and that was one of the reasons he liked her. She didn't know as many facts as he did, and so didn't have the capacity to rebut arguments as he took such pleasure in doing. But she could often shut him up with just a few words, Jackie's basic confidence in her own sense trumping all of Skeet's verbal tricks and back doors. She never let him talk her in circles like he did with Carl; she never let him be right when he was wrong.
The stance that most flummoxed the man was her refusal to marry him, because of the precise and intractable way she'd thought it through. Her older sister Camilla had gotten pregnant at nineteen, married the father, and had the baby. Two years later, the father was gone but the baby remained. Her best friend, Janice, had done the same thing, as hadso many others. Jackie believed it wasn't the baby that drove a man to abandonment; she'd observed the bond between a father and his child and knew it to be a true and powerful force. In her estimation, the union of marriage was what ultimately severed the union of family: the arguments over housing and money and time, the ribbing by unfettered friends, the inexorable waning of years and freedom. Men were aggressive creatures by nature, she believed, and as strongly and skillfully as they could push for immediate satisfactions such as lovemaking, they could just as strongly (though less skillfully) push past any obstacles they saw as being in the way of those immediacies.
The baby had not been accidental. She was thirty-one and he was thirty-four; she was strong and he was smart; each enjoyed the other more than anyone else in their orbit; they challenged one another in a positive way; they both had incomes; they were ready. But she'd been clear from the start that she wasn't going to marry him. Knowing that he trafficked in drugsâand intentionally not knowing to what extent, where, or with whom besides Carlâshe refused even to move into his home on Pierson Street, which, like Jackie's home, had been in his family for decades. But she still, two years and one child later, couldn't make him see that her decision was for his own good. He could live his life, and all he had to do was help provide, spare what time he could, and treat them well when he was around. She wanted him to expend whatever doting instinct he possessed on the baby, not on her. Of course, this orchestration wasn't entirely selfless. She had her own freedom to consider, too. Before Rob was born, she thought this would mean going out and meeting new people on her own terms, without the curfew of a possessive husband or the baggage of having been abandoned by one. However, the moment she first held her son that fantasy evaporated and a freedom of a different kind coalesced in its place: the freedom to raise her child the way she, and only she, desired. Jackie hadn't been out socially since the birth, and she had no inclination to do so.
People looked down on her with pity and even with scorn for this fundamental, atypical decision. She could bear their opinions, some ofwhich were silent, some not. She had a baby boy, and she never saw a trace of pity or scorn in his eyes.
NEWARK AND THEOranges were not the places Jackie had known as a child. During the 1970sâher twentiesâshe'd been vaguely aware of the things people talked about when they talked about Newark. There were the riots of July 1967, incited by the alleged brutality inflicted on a black cabdriver by white policemen: five days of burning, looting, sniper fire, and rage, at the end of which twenty-six people were dead, more than seven hundred were injured, fifteen hundred were arrested, and the texture of the city was forever changed. On one of those nights, Jackie and her girlfriends had ventured toward the city; they'd wanted to see for themselves what was going on, like a party they would regret missing (they'd been turned away by National Guardsmen at a checkpoint). There was also much talk about how the communities were no longer defined by the factories where people worked or the countries from which their grandparents had come seeking that work. Instead, they were increasingly defined by skin color: black, brown, or white. But very little of this talk had happened at her own dinner table, where Horace had presided from the contained space his soul inhabited. She'd seen teenagers throwing stones at squad cars and then fence hopping through the backyards of Chapman Street. She'd seen white-black fistfights break out in broad daylight on busy streets, and she'd stepped over the gore of teeth and bloody gum tissue left on the sidewalk in their wake. The men her girlfriends dated were too often angry and muttering about oppression. One of the reasons she took to Skeet later in life was that he never went to that place; he believed with a firm positivity that he didn't need to waste time resenting real or imagined social constructs because he would always be ahead of them. The individual, not the people, was responsible for success or failure. Skeet aimed to succeed.
After the riots came the phenomenon of white flight, which wasn'tdiscussedânot yetâbut was observed when she rode the bus to her first job after high school, working in the mail room of Orange City Hall:FOR SALEsigns, three and four to a block. In 1973, the western spur of the I-280 was completed, a freeway that channeled beneath the Oranges (just four blocks north of Chapman Street), connecting downtown Newark to suburban enclaves in Morris County and the WatchÂung Mountains. Transits that had previously taken more than an hour on surface thoroughfares like Central Avenue now took fifteen minutes. In the wake of the racial tensions that had erupted with the riots six years earlierâand that hadn't ebbed much sinceâthis highway provided a corridor by which people who felt threatened or simply uncomfortable near the city's impoverished alignments could coast through them at sixty miles per hour.
One thing her father did talk about, contemptuously, was the crooked real estate market, specifically realtors who profited off the civic unrest by convincing white homeowners that, once one black family moved onto the block, more would follow, and their home's value would only decline if they remained. Jackie did in fact noticeâmore as a feeling than an empirical observationâthat neighborhoods like Vailsburg, Irvington, and East Orange were becoming “blacker”: house by house, block by block, moving west from downtown Newark over the span of decades. In 1960, when Jackie's family had moved from Elizabeth, the population of East Orange was 39 percent black and 53 percent white. In 1980, when Rob was born, the population was 89 percent black and 4 percent white, and the area was known colloquially as “Illtown.” But as a young woman existing in the day-to-day, Jackie didn't concern herself too much with demographic shifts; she was simply happy to have a job when she could find it, to help pay for fun when she could have it.
Her father, too, was happy to have a job still, because the city's factories were concurrently shutting down in great swaths. All across America but particularly in port cities like Newark, St. Louis, and Chicago, improved transportation capacities caused manufacturing companies togravitate toward cost-efficient real estate far from urban centers. Japan and China became major exporters of cheaper goods. American companies outsourced jobs to foreign labor. The service economy of the United States grew steadily while the industrial economy tapered and then, beginning in the late '60s, steeply declined. For these reasons and many others, the factories closed, one by one, and the closures came with massive layoffs. Tanneries, glass, plastics, industrial machine partsâover six hundred factories in and around the city, which had made the port of Newark the busiest in the nation for decades, shut down between 1970 and 1980. With public housing already at capacity and unemployment rising steadily, the dangerous side of urban culture began to spill down and outward from the project towers into the spaces left vacant by the fleeing working class: across the wards in the north and west of Newark, and then still farther, into East Orange and, ultimately, past it.
The Peace home lay just over the boundary separating Orange from the traditionally more dangerous East Orange. A half mile west sprawled the affluent neighborhoods like Tuxedo Park and the Seton Hall campus that still made Orange, on paper, a far more diverse and desirable place to live. Because of the technical remove of her addressâbecause Orange was not generally associated with the slums to the eastâJackie couldn't have imagined while growing up that the ethnic grocers on Central Avenue might one day be replaced by liquor stores and check-cashing centers, or that any of the houses on Chapman Street would be abandoned and boarded up, or that the crack of proximate gunfire could interrupt their dinner table talk. But the blight did come, inexorably overtaking Chapman Street, South Essex Avenue, and Lincoln Avenue before the suburbs west of Scotland Road formed the retaining wall that town lines drawn up in City Hall could not. This tide progressed slowly throughout the 1970s, and by the time it was complete, its effects had been sewn into the neighborhood's fabric almost as a given. At any rate, Jackie's physical life had always been based primarily in East Orange, where her friends lived, where she worked and shopped and felt comfortable, and where Skeet Douglas conducted his business. So, too, was Rob's.
During Rob's early childhood, East Orange represented the second-highest concentration of African Americans living below the poverty line in America, behind East St. Louis. The violent crime rate of thirty-five hundred per one hundred thousand people was almost six times the national average of six hundred, and eight times that of adjacent South Orange, which stood at four hundred. The figure meant that any given person in East Orange had roughly a one-in-thirty chance of being violently robbed, assaulted, raped, or killed in any given year; an equivalent person in South Orange, half a mile away, had less than a one-inâtwo hundred chance of experiencing the same. Horace held his job, though, and the family remained in the house, as they always had, keeping it open to anyone in the family who needed shelter.
Around this time, a resident of the North Ward coined what would become Newark's informal nickname: “Brick City.” Depending on whom you asked, the moniker referred to the hardness and resiliency of its people, the bricks that paved many of the older streets downtown, or the easy availability of brick-shaped packages of crack cocaine.
SKEET PLEADED WITHher to stop working, move in with him, let him support her even if she wouldn't let him marry her.
“I'm not moving to your house,” she told him.
“You know exactly.”
He looked at her as if she were the most cynical person on earth. “You think I'd ever put my son in danger? Or my woman?”
The kitchen job at St. Mary's was the first in which she earned an annual rather than an hourly wage. The wage still amounted to the national minimum of $3.10 an hour: a little more than $6,000 a year. The work itself was awful, mixing industrial quantities of low-grade animal products into stews ingestible by straw, portioning out endless lumps ofJell-O onto paper plates from huge vats of it, boiling vegetables to paste. Yet the pride lay in knowing that when she left work, work would still be there tomorrow, and that she'd receive a check on the first and fifteenth of each month. The hospital had a program through which, when the time was right, she could opt to attend night school for a management degree, qualifying her to supervise a kitchen. She'd worked in the cafeteria at Orange High School for credits, so a career in food service represented something like a linear trajectory, more than what many of her friends who ricocheted from job to job had. The money was important, but not as important as the ownership of her life apart from the other lives with which hers was entangled. Fundamental to that ownership was not becoming dependent on a man who dealt drugs, even if she loved that man. Jackie and Rob remained on Chapman Street.
In that house, Rob read. Rather, Jackie read to him, but she felt as if he were reading along with her. With the opening of a book, a shift occurred in his eyes and he nestled an inch deeper into her lap while angling his chin upward, and he seemed to age a year or two. Not a reader herself, Jackie went to the local library for the first time and pulled the popular titles: the Berenstain Bears, Richard Scarry wordbooks, Dr. Seuss, Eric Carle. At a year, he began pointing his index finger at words as she spoke them. At two, he was memorizing simple sentences after he'd heard them once. Always he was entranced by the pictures, the successive turning of pages, the rhythm of his mother's voice. With her job, housing situation, and relationship status, Jackie could sometimes feel as if she had no right to have borne a child. But during those hours, she was meant to be a mother.
Skeet, once he caught wind of the reading obsession, was righteously opposed. In his estimation, a toddler who spent all his time sitting in his mother's lap immersed in fairy tales wasn't getting any better prepared for life. A child, especially a boy, needed to be out and about, around real people, growing skin. “He can do all that when he's with you,” Jackie replied. “Me, I'm reading to him.” Skeet picked Rob up from day care on the days he wasn't working. He tended to avoid spending time onChapman Street, where he often clashed with Horace and Francesâdespite or maybe because of his gregariousness, they were suspicious of him, and they also seemed to blame him for the no-marriage clause. Instead, he'd drive Rob around town to show off his son to various friends. These regular rounds were never drug related; he knew better than that. Skeet simply loved peopleâtalking with them, eating with them, helping them fix thingsâand it wasn't uncommon for him to eat six separate lunches over the course of an afternoon. He wanted to instill that sociability in his son; he believed that being curious about people was one of the few crucial life skills that could be fully nurtured in a place like East Orange.
Jackie's hypothesis regarding fathers and sons had proved correct: the boy had a powerful connection with his father, and Skeet was generous with his time and money. But what she hadn't accounted for was the fact that, by the architecture of her design, the three of them were rarely together. Rob was at day care, or with her and her family, or with Skeet. And so the mannerisms he picked up from each of them appeared abruptly, often abrasively, to the other. The toddler's mind had incredible suction, as his father's did. When he spontaneously recitedGo, Dog. Go!rhymes in Skeet's car, his father came back to Jackie wondering loudly why his son's head was being saturated by stories involving canines picnicking in tree canopies (dogs around here were often fierce creatures bred for their aggressiveness, not to be treated so lightly). When Jackie put Rob to bed with a book and heard him instead singing himself to sleep with Grandmaster Flash and the Fabulous Five lyrics, she winced. Skeet saw his three-year-old son being bullied on the playground, timid around older people, quiet when other boys were loud; Jackie saw the same son pushing another child at day-care drop-off and grabbing his toy truck.
Like any two parents, they fought. These fights happened mostly on the Chapman Street front porch at night, sitting in the plastic chairs that were chained to the wooden railing, Skeet's cigarette making loops of smoke as he waved his hands around. The neighborhood becamedesolate after dark, aside from a few clusters of young men passing periodically, smoking and murmuring. Some of them would offer nods of recognition to Skeet, a telepathy between men from which Jackie was glad to be excluded. Jackie's and Skeet's voices would echo off the cracked sidewalk. She didn't care if these street thugs or neighbors or her family could hear, so long as Rob, asleep upstairs in their room, could not. They concentrated on the particulars, the minute details of books and music and diction and schools. Deeper in their hearts, they were debating what kind of man they wanted their son to be.
“THEPROFESSOR'S RIGHTover there.” The day-care lady pointed to a set of building blocks, over which Rob, now three years old, crouched intently.
“The Professor?” Jackie replied.
“You didn't know we called him that?”
Jackie thought sheâor, worse, her sonâwas being made fun of somehow and began searching for a cutting rejoinder while mentally mapping out the second-nearest day care.
“It's because he's so smart and he knows everything.”
Jackie looked up and saw that the woman was actually seriousâthat she called Rob Peace “Professor” in an earnest reference to his intellect.
Professor, she thought to herself.My boy, the Professor.
Humbly, she figured that the moniker came simply because Rob talked so much. He could make her own brain go lumpy with the constant stream of comments and questions. More than any other child she'd ever cared for, he asked, “Why?” And maybe she was projecting this, because he was her own, but she felt that he did so not out of reflex but out of a genuine desire to understand their world and the people who inhabited it.
On weekends when it was warm, she'd take him to Orange Park by herself: a blanket, some canned pears and ham, a precious few lazy hours between the night shifts and backaches of the six-day workweek.For many years now, the park had been owned by the dealers, and more so as the progression of the 1980s brought crack to the neighborhood. Menâand sometimes women, sometimes boysâsat on picnic tables in groups of two, their feet planted on the benches beside malt liquor in brown bags. Their talk was generally cheerful, and they were unassuming enough until their patrons approached and a certain gravity fell over the ensuing transaction. The executive of this enterprise was named Day-Day. He was a smooth-faced man in his midthirties, Jackie's age, and he was always on his feet traversing the diagonal footpaths. He never interacted with the dealers, but he was always watching. If you didn't know him, he looked like a guy strolling in the park for exercise and peace of mind. But everyone knew him. Jackie figured he must walk fifteen miles a day within those few acres of city land. He knew Skeet and always paused by their blanket to comment on how Rob looked more like his father each day. On Sundays, he moved his salesmen to the south side of the park and gifted the north side, where the playground was, to parents and children.
The playground equipment was splintered, held together loosely by rusty protruding nails. Bits of glass from crack pipes and vials were embedded in the dirt beneath the swing set. The park was a highly secure place for people to do drugs after dark, more secure even than homes and apartments. The police didn't make regular patrols because they were too busy answering 911 calls. Policemen were more likely to enter a user's building during the night, answering a domestic abuse call from down the hallway, than they were to make a pass through the Orange Park playground.
Jackie and Rob would eat their snacks on the blanket (never on park benches, because stupefied addicts peed themselves on them), and she'd follow him closely over the jungle gym while her eyes searched always for nails or glass or older, rougher children who had no business on a toddler playground, anything that posed a threat to her boy.
JACKIE ENTERED THEhouse to raised voices, one of them her four-year-old son's. She walked into the kitchen where Rob and her younger sister Debbie stood on opposite sides of a pool of milk and an empty, upturned carton. He'd spilled it; Debbie was demanding that he clean it up and, once Jackie appeared, that she go buy more. Rob's arms were crossed, his eyes wild. His logic for refusal was that someone had carelessly left the carton open and with the bottom hanging a third of the way over the shelf edge.Thatperson should clean it up and buy more. That person was clearly Debbie, judging by her defensiveness. Jackie told her son, not gently, to clean the mess, and he didâhuffing and muttering to himself with the fury of the wronged.
“It's just not right,” Debbie said, “that in a house with this many people, you've fixed it so you're the only one he listens to.”
Too many people were spread across too many years in the house on Chapman Street, and the result was friction. Jackie and most of her siblings were blunt and to the point, like their father. The house could be a chorus of minor discontentments and accusations that became further compacted when Horace took on tenants on the third floor. Because the neighborhood was increasingly unsafe, everyone stayed in the house most of the time, pent up with no energy outlets but to go at one another. Solitude, silence, stillnessâthese commodities were nearly impossible to find.
Jackie wanted to move, particularly once Rob grew old enough to engage in arguments himself, something he did with particular tenacity. She experienced a spiritual erosion when watching her four-year-old scrap his way indignantly through an argument with an equally indignant adult, and do so with increasing tactical skill. The aggravated environment was no place to nurture qualities like reason and sensitivity. She had the money to move, barely, but nowhere comfortable and nowhere permanent. Renting an apartment in East Orange, the only neighborhood she could afford, was a massive and insecure endeavor. First came the actual search, which meant riding unfamiliar bus lines through neighborhoods that changed from livable to dangerous to mortally dangerous quickly and with no defined boundaries betweenâa street sign, a dogwood tree, an unthreatening housefront containing a drug den within. Then came the taut negotiations with landlords who were always ultraskeptical because they'd been had so many times before, the rules and restrictions and deposit she'd never see again regardless. Then came the maintenance issues, the expenses of furniture and fixes, the fighting neighbors, the cronies of prior tenants knocking on the door in the middle of the night. And above all, the constant wonderingâthe fearâof her job going away. Jackie had been through it all a few times before and each attempt had ended with her back home.
And now Rob was about to turn five. She was thinking about elementary school, determined to send her son to a private school. That cost moneyânot much, but “not much” was relative. She knew that the security required to afford tuition would be a stretch to maintain anywhere else except on Chapman Street.
Skeet tried to make the extraction easier for her by renting an apartment on Chestnut Street, a few blocks from the house on Pierson. His plan was to conduct his business from the apartment and leave the house free and safe for his family. Jackie remained reluctant. She knew that in the deeply layered world of drugs, the nexus of commerce was the person, not the place. Too, in the very possible event that Skeet was arrested and sentenced to a few months or years in jail, she had no interest in being knotted to any property bearing his name.
“Look at me,” he told her. “I'm thirty-eight years old. Nothing's ever happened to me, and nothing's ever going to. I'm cool.” And Skeet was cool about his involvement with the drug trade, as far as she could see.
Jackie didn't like to talk about or even reference obliquely the drugs that Skeet sold. She had never gravitated toward the dealers in high school or the years after, the way many women around her had, enticed by the gifts of coats and jewelry, the bravado and relentless charm, the respect these men commanded from their peers. However, Skeet wasn't like the other dealers. He never flaunted the money he madeâwhich didn't seem like all that much, just enough to even out the math between work payingxand life costingy.He drove a boxy Volvo that had constant problems. He had jobs during the dayânothing permanent, but there was always something; the man wasn't lazy. His friends were for the most part people from childhood, decent-seeming men who'd stayed around and paid attention to their mothers if not always their children. He coached a youth basketball team. He was always casual, never anxious. Most important to him in terms of safety, he didn't try to run with or compete against the younger generation of hustlers, with their codes and protocols always evolving toward brutality. “I got too much respect for human life to mess with all them young 'uns,” he assured her. “I stay the hell out of their way.” Skeet was loud and sometimes arrogant about his own intelligence and prospects, but he was quiet and conservative about drugs.
What made Jackie wary was the huge extent to which Rob's father was known. To her, it seemed as though everyone living in the three square miles of East Orangeâall fifty thousand peopleâknew Skeet Douglas. Wherever they went out, she heard the constant hoots and waves and incantations of “You call me now!” He told her that this was just the kind of person he wasâfriendly, with a lot of friends. Jackie knew that friends and friendliness weren't always directly related. Skeet had a huge smile, a beautiful smile, and he bent the truth very well from behind it.
She didn't have to make a final decision on his offer, because the house on Pierson Street burned down. She never found out why. Skeet hadn't called her for a weekârare even for him. She needed to figure out the day-care pickup situation for the month to come, and so she went to the Pierson Street house after work, ready for a fight. The smell of combusted carbon still hung in the air a week after the fire. Skeet was sitting on the front step, hunched over, talking to an elderly acquaintance from the block, his expression one she'd rarely seen on him before: resigned, tired, damned. The house was completely gutted, just an assortment of heavy beams scarred black and ashy objects that had once been furniture. He muttered something about faulty wiring, andshe got out of his way.
And the house on Pierson Street just stayed like that, a torched shell, while Skeet moved into his rented apartment on Chestnut Street but continued to pay the property taxes on the now-useless plot of land.
OAKDALEELEMENTARYSCHOOLwas on Lincoln Avenue, just a few blocks west. Redbrick, two stories, with a footprint in the shape of the Chevrolet logo, the local public school looked like a nice enough place to send a six-year-old. When Jackie's younger siblings had gone there, it had been. When Rob began kindergarten, it was no longer. The school's decline wasn't immediately evident. The interiors were generally well maintained, the curriculum in keeping with federal guidelines, the other kids more or less what they were: kids, just barely past toddlerhood. Jackie would walk Rob there and watch him join the stream of children his age going inside with backpacks and lunches, usually turning at the door to wave. But she observed something less tangible in the expressions and movements of the teachers, the laissez-faire attitudes of fellow parents. Most of these children, Jackie felt, were being sent here to be watched for a few hours, not to be taught.
She had gently floated the idea of private school past her parents, and they'd both shaken their heads. He's six, they told her. He's not reading Shakespeare. He's not learning cutting-edge chemistry. Kindergarten was about being with people his age and maybe picking up some simple letters and arithmetic. Paying significant money for an elementary education was silly, considering what she earned. They told her to spend her income on feeding, clothing, and sheltering him. Education was what they all paid taxes forâa whole lot of taxes in this state.
Still, she talked to Skeet about it. Catholic schools, the cheapest of the private options, generally cost $200 a month. If they split it, then Jackie would be paying only a quarter of her own salary toward education: manageable if not ideal. Skeet looked at her and said she was being “uppity.” Though he was speaking off-the-cuff, the word carried weight.Where they lived, being known by this label meant that you thought you were better than everyone else around you, that you deserved more, and thatâgiven the opportunityâyou would leave this place behind without a second thought. There was shame in thinking like that. Jackie didn't understand what the term had to do with her wanting the best education they could afford for their son, but Skeet had deployed it at just the right moment to make her second-guess.
So Rob went to Oakdale, where by Skeet's reckoning he would learn how to stop being a mama's boy and become a man respected, listened to, and followed by other men. This was more important than humanities and sciences.
The transition to school brought another transitionâSkeet began buying Rob things, mostly clothes and music. Jackie resented these purchases heavily, especially coming from a man who refused to pay $100 a month for school, but she stayed quiet about it, which was hard for her to do. The rap group N.W.A. was the worst, with songs like “One Less Bitch” and “Fuck tha Police” that contained not even a nod toward grammatical consistency let alone morality. Skeet worked out in a boxing gym on Halsted Street a few times a week, and a punching dummy soon appeared in the corner of the room she still shared with the boy, a bottom-heavy rubber bowling pin featuring a cartoon white man with a handlebar mustache that righted itself regardless of the force with which it was knocked over. Like a salty manager, Skeet worked with the boy intensely. He taught Rob to swing his arms laterally from wide angles, so that a fist to the temple could be followed by an elbow to the chin.
“Elbows, elbows, elbows,” he would chant. “No one ever sees them coming.”
It was okay, Jackie told herself in spite of all the ragging she'd endured for spoiling the boy herself. It was okay because there was no denying, or interfering with, the degree to which the son worshipped the father, a kind of worship she hadn't anticipated. Skeet wasn't the type to understand an infant or toddler; he didn't possess the physical and emotionalpatience required by the very young. As such, the rhythm of Rob's first four years had been mother heavy, with Skeet present to a degree slightly beyond what might be expected. But all of a sudden, to Skeet, the child became a human being who could process situations, who formed opinions about people, who had muscles growing beneath the skin of his chest and back and arms. He looked like his father, too, with the overhang of his brow giving his eyes a hard, caged expression even at rest.
Whenever his father was due to pick him up, Rob waited in the parlor just to the right of the front door. Jackie didn't let him peer out of the glass, which was always shrouded by three layers of curtains to preclude even a sliver of visibility from the street. All the windows on Chapman Street were treated like this to prevent any canvassing by potential burglars; the crack addicts who squatted in the abandoned apartments on Chapman and Center would take anything. But the moment Skeet's Volvo choked around the corner and his footsteps shook the front porch, Rob stood, beamed, and his breaths grew short with anticipation. When his father appeared in the doorframe, Rob would run and drive his shoulders into the powerful man's thighs. Then Skeet would bend over and grab the boy's legs and somersault him upward until Rob was over his shoulders, arms around his neck, and the boy would piggyback on his father upstairs. Then they'd work the punching bag for a half hour, and Skeet would take him out around town. When Jackie got her son back in the eveningsâalways before nightfall, a steadfast ruleâRob would be talking about the four or five people they'd gone to visit. He gave little in the way of details, not because he couldn't remember but because he seemed to relish these adventures, these characters, shared only with his father. The boy kept them close to the vest, the hours he spent with other men.
ONE WEEKDAY MORNINGin the spring of his first school year, Rob wouldn't get out of bed. He moaned about an aching stomach. He had no temperature, so Jackie was skeptical. But she was also tired and latefor work, so she made sure Frances would be around to watch him.
As Jackie opened the front door to leave, she heard him call. Reluctantly, she went upstairs.
“What?” she asked. “You want soup?”
“Your son's sick and you're going to work?” he asked, the question an accusation.
“I don't get personal days.”
“Whatever,” he mumbled and turned away from her.
She stayed home. As the day progressed, he began writhing and crying, the hardness cultivated under his father's watch slowly crumbling beneath the physical pain. Though Frances told her she was making a fuss over a faker and thus encouraging these manipulations, Jackie took him to the hospital in the late afternoon. After three hours in the ER waiting roomâstandard, even though she was employed thereâshe finally harassed their way into an examination room.
His appendix was swelling fast. Late that night, it was removed. The doctor said it could have ruptured at any moment, and Jackie might have saved her son's life that day by not doubting him.
JACKIE KNEWSKEETbetter than he knew himself. And so she knew that no matter how authentically he presented himself as the tough guyâacidly cutting down the concept of private school, instructing the boy on dirty lyrics and dirtier fistfight tricks, driving Rob around East Orange while giving coded shout-outs to the hustlersâSkeet valued intelligence above all, and the early manifestations of Rob's intellect (picture books notwithstanding) excited him truly. The image became regular and nourishing: father and son crouched over second-grade homework assignments splayed across the coffee table, going back and forth over simple sentence structure and arithmetic. The same intensity with which Skeet could battle her he brought to that coffee table three or four evenings a week.
Skeet harped on particulars that Jackie, in her own childhood, hadnever even considered: penmanship, consistency of format, and above all, the importance of memory. With an old wisdom in his attention to detail, Skeet would drill Rob heavily on vocabulary, definitions, states and capitals, until the facts became embedded in the cerebral circuitry. She could not believe how patient and tireless they could be, the father and the son, both with the work and one another. She would pretend to be cleaning in an adjacent space, but really she'd watch Skeet as he watched Rob set his lips and point his eyes upward to ponder some elusive connection. And their sonâsometimes prompted but usually notâwould invariably make that connection. Skeet would grin and squeeze the back of the boy's neck in his hand, then look at the subsequent entry to make sure the handwriting was clean. These quiet, unassuming moments, embedded as they were within her harried days, gave her not only pride but also a simple beauty she'd always sought but never knownâmade more powerful by the fact that she participated only as an observer. Something positive could happen without her wrangling it through sheer force of will, and it could be shared within the trinity of mother, father, and son.
IN THE SHADEDrear compartments of her mind, Jackie had always expected the call to come in the middle of the night, when it would jar her awake from the pleasant seclusion of dreaming.
When the call did come, on August 9, 1987, she was at work, just before the lunch surge on a Sunday. Frances told her anxiously that the police were looking for Skeet. They hadn't said why.
“What'd you tell them?” Jackie asked.
“I said I don't know where he lives or anything about that man.”
Jackie asked her to pick up Rob from summer camp at Branch Brook Park, since Skeet now wouldn't be able to.
She kept working, eyes and ears in a heightened state of alertness as she waited for men in uniforms to arrive and pull her aside in front of her coworkers. She thought mainly of what excuse she could give toher boss. After that, she thought about money and time. One of the maintenance staff had a record for dealing; it was all she could do not to ask him about the particulars of a man's being arrested for selling drugs. How much was bail? How much was a lawyer? What was the average sentence? But the police never came, nor did they call. In this moment, more than any other that had come before, she was thankful for the domestic arrangement she'd wrought. Because she didn't share Skeet's name or address, she would be free to manage the consequences this event would have on her and her son's future.
She went home that evening and assumed Skeet's role with homework; the summer camp assigned short exercises to keep the children busy. She was relieved that Rob, who had turned seven two months earlier, didn't ask her why. Jackie was less patient than Skeet when it came to addition and subtraction problems and subject-predicate structure. She did her best, though, and only when Rob fell asleep did she start calling around, starting with Carl.
“When they find him, how long's he going to be away for?” she asked.
“They found him already. He was at Irving's house.”
“How long? How long for dealing?”
Carl paused, the silence a reply. Then he told her that Skeet hadn't been arrested for drugs. He'd been arrested for murder. Two, in factâboth young women, neighbors of his in that apartment building on Chestnut Street.
FIVE DAYS AFTERSkeet's arrest and three days after his arraignment hearing, Jackie went to Essex County Jail for the first time. She went alone. The jail was a two-story, blue-and-white modular structure made of cinder blocks, surrounded by two concentric rectangles of ten-foot-high chain-link fences. Sandwiched between the Passaic River and the New Jersey Turnpike, the atmosphere smelled of toxic, unfamiliar elements due to the General Chemical plant directly across Doremus Avenue, a towering cistern of polyaluminum hydroxychloride used in wastewater treatment.
Passing through checkpoint after checkpointâand asked at each what her relationship was to the prisoner, to which she replied succinctly, “He's my son's father”âshe felt herself racking up distance from the outside world. She knew only as much as Carl did, which was hardly anything. Her lone hope, aside from the whole situation turning out to be a wrong placeâwrong time misunderstanding, was that it would be resolved quickly. She knew that this impulse was selfish; she was thinking about the adjustments she'd have to make to get on with her life. She still hadn't told Rob. That a week had passed without her son seeing his father was uncommon but not truly strange. The boy hadn't asked, but she knew he was attuned to the anxiety coursing through the house on Chapman Street; she knew that the question was coming.
A guard escorted her down a hallway, past the reception room for prisoners held here on lesser offenses, who were allowed to sit in open air across a table from their friends and family. Jackie was led to a narrow room with concrete walls, tight cubicles, low stools, guards stationed on either side of the Plexiglas partitions. Knowing that her son would ultimately come here to visit, she'd hoped the place would be less than completely grim. It wasn't. A buzzer sounded, the steel-reinforced door across from her opened, and Skeet entered wearing bright orange, with his wrists manacled together and palms facing toward her.
She hadn't expected him to be smiling, but the fact that he wasn't jarred her nevertheless. Even during the worst of their arguments over the years, Skeet had been able to grin his way through any conflict. He seemed curiously energized, but the energy was an uncomfortable one: fidgety, pent, his eyes darting everywhere except into her own.
They had fifteen minutes. He asked her if she could find him a lawyer to handle the bail situation and get him out of here quickly. At the arraignment hearing, bail had been set at $500,000. That amount had to be lowered if he were to get out, plan his defense, talk to some people, and see his son.
He didn't seem to comprehend yet that his charge could not be evaded through guile and charm. She wanted to tell him this, tell him that peopleâtwo young womenâwere dead, and he might very well be sentenced to pay for their lives with his own. Instead, she said she didn't know any lawyers and didn't have the money for one anyway. She spoke clearly and directly, leaving no room for Skeetesque rebuttals. The maintenance man at Jackie's workplace had told her in the intervening days about lawyers and the hours they billed. This was a capital case. Good lawyers would be beyond unaffordable; bad lawyers would be ill equipped for the task. And even the cheapest lawyer around would find a way to bill five figures, minimum. He'd told her that contacting the public defender's office might be the best option. Skeet could get lucky by being assigned one who truly became invested in the client. Not likely, but possible.
She tried as hard as she could to look at him and not see a man who had killed others, to commit herself to the idea of innocent until proven guilty.
“How's our boy?” Skeet asked.
“He's good,” she replied. Soon their allotted minutes were up, too few for him, too many for her.
THE MURDER VICTIMS, sisters Charlene and Estella Moore, had been in their twenties. Charlene's infant son had been in the apartment, along with a third woman who had been shot in the face and arm but survived. (Jackie's underlying hope was that this woman had witnessed the violence and would clear Skeet's name; she didn't know yet that the survivor, Georgianna Broadway, had identified Skeet as the murderer in the hours following the shootings.) Jackie couldn't help visualizing the scene. She had no context, and so, while lying wide awake in the middle of the night, she would make up scenarios that varied in detail but all shared the same expressions of disbelief or denial among the victims, the same pleas of “Don't” or “Why?” and the same silence that must have settled in the moments after, interrupted by the unharmed and suddenly motherless baby's cries. She would think these thoughts and, when morning came, stare at her own son and hold him tight, to the point where he'd squirm away and say, “Ma, c'mon now.” As he'd grown, he'd become less responsive to physical affection in the way boys did once toughness became a desirable quality.
Rob was very tough, and he had been making a name for himself in neighborhood football games on weekends. These games were played in the street, with the lines of parked cars forming sidelines (these sidelines were considered “in play,” such that one could be pushed or tripped or outright tackled against one). Rob was neither fast nor agile, but he had broad shoulders with premature muscle mass. He was known to hit low, drive upward from the hips, and flip other boys over his shoulder and onto their backs, knocking the wind out of them on the glass-littered asphalt, sometimes causing a fumble and always inciting cheers from onlookers up and down the streetâespecially when he punctuated the hit with the words “Patent that!” (He didn't know what a patent was, but the expression was used among his father's friends when something clever had been said.) This permissible violence was unique in that it elicited respect from the victim rather than calls for retribution. Neighbors would watch from second-floor windows, and Rob imagined that these were the upper decks of the Meadowlands, where the New York Giants played, and he was Lawrence Taylor, a Giants linebacker so athletic and mean that NFL coaches were currently reinventing their entire offensive philosophies, not to stop him but simply to slow him down.
East Orange, with congested traffic and little in the way of street greenery to oxygenate the atmosphere and provide shade, could feel poisonously humid during the late summers. Visible waves of heat clung to the blacktop. Men walked around bare chested with their shirts hanging like rags from their low-slung belts. Malt liquor in tall, cold glass bottles was passed around groups of stoop-sitters, often offered as refreshments to the boys playing football. A positive energy coursed through the neighborhood, because up and down and across the grid of residential city streets, everyone was outside. Plumes of dark smoke that smelled of seasoned meat rose above the houses from backyard cookouts. Elderly women opened their front windows wide and sat there all day behind fans that blew across bowls of ice cubes. Cards, dice, checkers, jacks, jump rope, hopscotch, craps, step danceâoffs, stickball, handball, basketballâone could not turn a corner without encountering a game being played, often with the elderly cheering on the young, dispensing their peanut gallery wisdom gained from decades of playing the same games on the same blocks. Because of all these crowds, it was the safest time of year, even if one of the least physically comfortable, to be outside. This was the time of year when Skeet and Rob, wearing matching sleeveless undershirts, would normally walk from Chapman Street to Taylor grocery, where Skeet bought ice cream for Rob and cigarettes for himself, and then just keep walking together, farther and farther east, into thecenter of East Orange, stopping multiple times on every block to chat with people Skeet had known his whole life as well as people he was meeting for the first time. Skeet was not old but certainly not young, and he enjoyed that temporal in betweenness. He could watch a hoops game from the sidelines and comment on the sloppiness or talent on display with the other retired veterans, or he could take his shirt off and enter the game himself and usually hold his own. Despite the heat, this time of year had always been Skeet's favorite, and so it had always been Rob's, too.
A memory, which must have seemed innocuous at the time but which ultimately Rob would hold close, began with a Yankees game that two strangers were listening to on their stoop as Skeet and Rob walked past. Skeet asked what the score was; it was close. They stopped and listened to a few at bats. Someone else walked past and began chatting and listening, too. Teenagers who lived in the house came outside to convene with their friends. The game remained tight. The crowd of listeners grew, overflowing onto the sidewalk, then the street: middle- and lower-middle-class people who worked and raised families in this neighborhood, whose primary desire was for their children to have better opportunities than they had, and who had long since accepted the fact that, though they represented the majority population of East Orange, their home would always be characterized by the few thugs and dealers whose presence kept them inside on most other evenings like this. The radio's owner kept turning up the volume. Suddenly a glass of lemonade was in Rob's hand; he didn't know who'd put it there. Late afternoon became early evening, and amiable sand-colored light slanted across to the east side of the block and made the houses there momentarily luminous. The temperature dropped, only a couple degrees but just enough. And as the game ended with a Yankees win and the cheers erupted and the back-talking Yankee haters scowled, Rob looked around at the crowd of people that had amassed here together and felt the kind of kinship with his world that his father had always spoken of but that Rob, overprotected as he was, had never before known.
That day had been in August 1986, one year ago. Now, in the middle of August 1987, Rob's football game ended with the side mirror of a car being taken off by someone's shoulder. The boys dispersed quickly, and Rob walked back to Chapman Street. Over the past week, more than a few acquaintances had asked in passing where his father was, and Rob was eager to see him and have a day together like the one that had culminated in the Yankees-themed block party.
Jackie couldn't tell him. Not that day, not the day after, not the day after that. She let her son call the apartment on Chestnut Street and get no answer. She lied and said that Skeet had taken a last-minute trip to see extended family, knowing that every hour that passed increased the likelihood that one of the kids on the street would hear the gossip and take it upon himself to tell Rob that his father was locked up. Lord knew that the concept wasn't exactly new or novel among Rob's peers.
Frances urged her to tell him before the school year started. “Don't put it all on him at once,” she said. “Summer's over. Father's locked up. It's too much for a boy his age.”
“I know, I know,” Jackie replied, and still failed to tell him.
A few days before first grade began, Jackie found him alone in the front living room, past dusk, kneeling on the sofa with his elbows perched on the headrest, pressing his face against the window to peer up and down the block. He crouched in the expectant way he did whenever he knew that Skeet was en route. The ceiling fan creaked and wobbled on high speed above his head. She'd told Rob many times not to situate himself this way. Stray bullets didn't actually concern her, though this was sometimes the reasoning she used. She just didn't want him to become too interested in the daily and nightly rhythms of their block; she didn't want him to know all the loiterers and hustlers by name, the way Skeet always had. She told him to sit back, away from the window, and then she initiated the hardest conversation she'd ever had with her son.
Afterward, she didn't remember what exact words she'd employed to explain what had happened. She'd told him that the crime was Âmurderâbut not how many victims and not that they were women. She'd told him where his father was and that she had no idea how long he would be there. She'd told him that he could visit when he was ready.
The boy nodded throughout and picked at his thick, coarse hair with thumb and index finger, saying less and less as his face tightened into an almost sepulchral mask. Unusual for him, he never asked, “Why?” The question he kept asking instead was, “When is he coming back?”
At that point, Jackie had no idea. All she could say was, “Soon. He'll come back soon.”
TWO ARMS OFthe criminal justice systemâthe county prosecutor's office and the office of the public defenderâhad already begun moving. As usual, both moved glacially, the former a little less so.
Thomas Lechliter, the Essex County prosecutor assigned to the case, immediately began interviewing the police officers who had first encountered and searched the crime scene and the detectives investigating the murder that had occurred there. He did not need much time to assemble the events that unfolded between the night of Friday, August 7, when Georgianna Broadway, Estella Moore, and Charlene Moore convened at the Moores' apartment for a night of liquor and cocaine, and the morning of Sunday, August 9, when Robert “Skeet” Douglas was arrested in a friend's home near Branch Brook Park, the loaded murder weapon reportedly tucked into his belt.
Late on that Friday night, Georgianna Broadway and her roommate, Deborah Neal, went to visit the Moore sisters at 7 Chestnut Street in East Orange. The four women took turns holding Charlene's four-month-old baby boy, they drank cocktails and malt liquor, they danced and complained about work and men and povertyâuntil midnight, when Georgianna took Deborah home to the house they shared on Palm Street. Georgianna then proceeded to 17th Avenue in Newark, one of the most dangerous areas of the city, to buy $40 worth of cocaine. She returned to the Moores' apartment at around one fifteen. At thatpoint, Estella left with a man named Mervin Matthews to go drink at a nearby bar. Georgianna and Charlene sat together in the dining area. Georgianna drank Colt 45 malt liquor; Charlene drank rum and Coke. Both smoked cocaine while the baby slept in the crib in the bedroom. Georgianna smoked regularly, and so her highs lasted only fifteen minutes. For four hours, while Charlene nodded off, Georgianna had hit after hit, until $40 had been cooked into her respiratory and nervous systems. The baby cried but fell back to sleep.
When Estella came home with Mervin at five thirty on Saturday morning, Georgianna asked if she could sleep there. She'd been up for twenty-four straight hours that had begun with a full workday. In the bedroom, with the crib at their feet, Georgianna and Charlene curled up together, backs to the door. They slept.
On his way home, Mervin Matthews stopped to buy cigarettes and realized he still had Estella's keys, so he returned to Chestnut Street at six o'clock to return them. He encountered Skeet Douglas standing in front of the entrance of the complex with another man. Mervin knew who Skeet was and assumed that he had interrupted a drug transaction, so he tried to slip past them casually, but Skeet entered the building with him. Skeet's apartment, 2D, stood perpendicular to the sisters in 2E at the end of the hall. The two men went into their respective doors. Estella was still awake, Charlene and Georgianna sleeping, but Mervin stayed only a minute or two. When he left, Skeet joined him again on his way back outside, saying that he was waiting for a pickup to take him to Newark International for an eight o'clock flight to North Carolina, where he had familyâthough he carried no luggage.
Georgianna woke up at seven thirty, groggy and cotton mouthed and with an angry pulsation in her head, all that pleasure she'd stoked fewer than two hours ago replaced by deep aches and pains. She heard voices down the hallway, probably from the kitchen, a man and a woman. Charlene still slept soundly beside her, the baby asleep in the crib. When Estella came into the bedroom, Georgianna asked her for some food. Estella brought her leftover Chinese from the refrigerator. Georgiannathen requested salt. Estella, apparently too distracted by whatever exchange was happening in the kitchen to be annoyed, went and grabbed the salt, which would be Estella Moore's final movement on this earth. She returned to the darkened bedroom with a salt shaker and what Georgianna would later describe as a “scared look.”
Then the bedroom door opened. Five shots were fired immediately, in quick succession. Estella fell first, onto the floor, a single bullet embedded in her brain. Charlene, who had rocketed upward out of her sleep, fell next, into mortal repose behind Georgianna, bullet holes in her chest and head. Georgianna felt a kick in her arm and a sharp sting beneath her chin as the bullet ricocheted upward off her humerus bone, and she fell backward off the far side of the bed without ever glimpsing the shooter.
At nine thirty, 911 dispatch received a call from Deborah Neal's home on Palm Street. Georgianna was there with Charlene's baby, wearing Estella's blood-soaked trench coat. The police and an ambulance arrived at the same time, and before Georgianna was taken to University Hospital she told Officer Alfred Rizzolo that “Skeet” shot her in apartment 2E of 7 Chestnut, and there were two dead bodies at the location. None of the responders understood why Georgianna, critically injured, had chosen to drive there on her own, why she hadn't sought a neighbor's help on Chestnut Street, why she hadn't gone straight to East Orange Hospital, less than a block from the building where she'd been wounded.
Three police officers pulled up to the Chestnut Street address at nine forty. They proceeded inside with caution. The doorway to 2E was wide open, and the inner hallway was spackled with blood. They found the bodies in the bedroom, still very warm. They searched the apartment according to protocol and found no weapons, just the remnants of the previous night of drinking and drug use, an infant's playpen, Georgianna's Chinese food barely touched on the bedside table. Because the dispatcher had alerted them to the possible suspect residing in 2D, they moved onâcarefullyâinto Skeet's apartment, the door to which had been ajar when they'd arrived.
In 2D, they found absolute squalor, which the lead officer, Michael Brown, would later liken to that of an unclean, unsupervised child: dirty clothes everywhere, filthy dishes and rotten food, naked lightbulbs, and torn, stained furniture. Since there was no sign of any physical struggle or burglary, they could only assume that this was how the suspect lived day to day. On a table, they found scales, glass bowl pipes, a razor blade and spoons dusted with cocaine residue, a bag of marijuana, a plastic container of cocaine, an empty black gun holster on a chain buried beneath dirty clothes, two black cestuses (fighting gloves weighted with iron studs), and a thick Rolodex.
By now, investigators and medical personnel had begun arriving, including Captain John Armeno and Detective Sergeant Alan Sierchio. Without a warrant, they were permitted only to “look around” the apartment, specifically for weapons. They found no firearms, but Captain Armeno did gravitate toward a conspicuous framed photo lying on its side on a built-in shelf. In the photo, Skeet Douglas wore a bright green tuxedo complete with top hat, andâbizarrelyâhe was swinging a bejeweled cane. Armeno immediately sent this photo to University Hospital, where Georgianna was lying on a gurney in the emergency room, in critical condition due to shock and blood loss. She had been intubated and couldn't speak. But she remained conscious, and when asked whether she knew the person responsible for the shootings, she nodded. The officer took out the photograph and asked her whether the pictured person was the shooter. She nodded again and began to cry. Later, she would admit that she had never actually seen who pulled the trigger, but she would claim to have recognized Skeet's voice talking to Estella in the kitchen. She'd met Skeet once, a week before the murders, when he'd come over to the sisters' apartment to fix their faulty door.
That same afternoon, Detective Sergeant Sierchio used this exchange to obtain an official search warrant for 2D and access Skeet's Rolodex. A short time later, Frances Peace received the call inquiring as to Skeet's whereabouts, and she relayed this to both Jackie and Carl.
The following day, using information gleaned from Skeet's Rolodex, Detective Sergeant Sierchio and three uniformed officers knocked on Irving Gaskins's third-floor apartment door. Mr. Gaskins, seventy-eight years old and a longtime friend of Skeet's family, lived on 13th Street in Newark proper, a few blocks from Branch Brook Park, where Rob was currently enrolled in the summer camp. They were admitted entry by a woman. In the apartment, a group of children played on the floor. Mr. Gaskins was hooked to an oxygen tank due to a combination of emphysema, diabetes, and heart disease. The suspect, Robert “Skeet” Douglas, was seated nearby, and after a brief, charged confrontation during which Mr. Gaskins begged the police not to shootâbecause a stray bullet might explode his oxygen tank and harm his grandchildrenâSkeet was put in handcuffs. According to the police report, the arresting officers found a .38 caliber Taurus Spesco revolver tucked in Skeet's pants, loaded with six rounds of ammunition, with five more live rounds in his pocket. In the days following, ballistics experts would confirm that striations on the bullets removed from the murdered women's bodies exactly matched those within the flute of this revolver, and in turn the revolver had unique markings etched on the outer surface of the barrel that matched the holster found in Skeet's apartment.
At his desk in the prosecutor's office, Thomas Lechliter reviewed dozens of transcripts and reports, photographs, and inventory lists, and he constructed a clear narrative of the murders. As he did so, his confidence grew that not only would this evidence lead to a conviction, but also that a conviction would represent justice in the world. In other words, the defendant was guilty. He did not overlook the many loose ends presented within the story: the single witness who had been inebriated, strung out, severely overtired, and hungover at the time of the murders, and who had identified a suspect, by voice only, whom she had encountered once in her life and never spoken to directly; the very odd time lapse between when the murder was said to have taken placeâseven thirtyâand when Georgianna's roommate had first calledthe police two hours later (the warmth of the dead bodies upon police arrival did not help explain that, either); a suspect who, though a known drug dealer, had neither prior convictions nor any history of violence; the less-than-kosher initial police search of apartment 2D, the tuxedo picture illegally taken from the scene, and conflicting police statements as to when the gun holster had actually been foundâbefore the warrant was issued or after (because the holster had been concealed by dirty clothes, finding it before the warrant would have required more than the quick, noninvasive search granted by law); the fact that not one of the interviews conducted so far had alluded to anything resembling a motive.
All of these questions would be sufficiently answered, Lechliter was sure, before the case went to trial. In the meantime he had the murder weapon, found on the suspect's person at the time of arrest, and that was really all he needed to win. That, and for Skeet Douglas to obtain legal representation, so that the requisite filings, hearings, appeals, motions, pleas, movements, selections, andâultimatelyâthe trial ofState of New Jerseyv.Robert Douglascould commence.
JACKIE TRIED TOhold her son's hand on the bus ride to Essex County Jail, but he wouldn't let her. He gazed out the windows at autumnal Newark flashing past. Most of the other passengers were women in their late teens and early twenties en route to see boyfriends, husbands, brothers. The rest were older, probably parents. Rob was the lone child.
Jackie hadn't wanted to bring him so soon, but Skeet had been adamant. He'd used so many of his daily fifteen minutes of phone timeâminutes that were supposed to be used to contact lawyersâto call her instead, demanding to see his son, that she'd finally given in. “I'm his father, he loves me, he can see me as I am,” Skeet told her. “I'm not guilty and I'm not ashamed.”
At the jail, Rob walked the same path she'd walked a few times already, past the same checkpoints and the same gatekeepers, until he was watching his father through the glass. Never before had their likeness struck her so strongly, and it loosened valves within her, the ones that kept her darker feelings contained. Even here, the boy emulated his father, the way he held the handset loosely to his ear, his other elbow propped on the counter, head angled down, words spoken in a low mumble.
Skeet asked, “How are you doing, little man?”
Rob told him about street football, summer camp, and first grade starting at Oakdale. Skeet promised that he would call him every day, that he would be here whenever Rob was able to visit, that he would be home very soon.
“Hey,” Skeet said, just before their time was up, “you know I didn't do anything wrong, right? You know I'm innocent?”
“Yeah,” Rob replied, his confidence unwavering. In that moment, Jackie almost believed Skeet, too.
SCHOOL BEGAN, and Jackie tried to treat the changing days and seasons normally, for her son's sake. She walked him to school, bused herself to work, and met him back at home. She was worried about his learning progress, both because his teachers were less than inspired and because of the emotional trauma he was enduring. With Skeet's help and his own motivation, Rob had always been able to bridge the gap between his own drive and the lack thereof at Oakdale Elementary. Jackie tried to fill Skeet's role doing homework, but she wore out easily. After long days taking orders in the kitchen, she didn't generally have the strength to give orders at home. Over the following months, Rob began gaining weightâ“husky,” she started calling himâand acting lazy. Coming home and seeing her seven-year-old splayed on the sofa, half asleep with his books unopened and watching junk on TV, reminded her of every man around the neighborhood whom she wanted nothing to do with. And yet she hadn't built up the heart to push Rob forward from this event the way Jackie was pushing herself forward. Usually, she simplydropped on the sofa next to him and watched whatever he was watching. Whenever she felt sorry for herself, she tried to think of Skeet, seven miles away, alone in a cell. Whenever she felt really sorry for herself, she thought of the Moore sisters.
Then she was in the school principal's office, with Rob sitting hunched beside her, his blood still hot, muttering breathy little resignations to himself, “I don't care if they kick me out, that boy's a fool.”
In the winter of first grade, Rob had had his first fistfight, on the front steps outside Oakdale Elementary. Fights weren't uncommon, and the faculty didn't treat them very seriously. But they'd still called Jackie at work. To her chagrin, no one at the school asked for a disciplinary meeting. So Jackie demanded one herself, left work, and walked to Lincoln Avenue. Throughout the curt discussion that followed (she felt the administrators were humoring her so they could go home), she visualized the scene: two seven-year-old bodies in winter coats tumbling down the concrete steps into dirtied snowbanks, arms flailing and profanity in play, while fellow students and young male passersby from the surrounding neighborhood chanted encouragement (“C'mon, li'l man, kick his ass!”). They were two little boys pretending to be men.
On the walk home, after chewing him out, she thought to ask why he'd thrown the first punch. This wasn't an act of the boy she knew.
“He called me a nerd,” her son informed her.
“You keep going like this,” she said, “and you've got nothing but disappointment coming to youÂ .Â .Â .” She went on, but a part of her heart was pleased. Members of her family had been called a lot of things over the generations, but she was pretty sure “nerd” had never been one.
Rob ultimately expressed the appropriate sentiments to project shame. She sensed that he, like the principal, was humoring her so that she would leave him alone, and then he could wait for his father to call from jail, so he could tell the man how he'd won the fight. The other boy had come away with a black eye. Rob had only a bruise on his shoulder from hitting the steps.
After his arrest, Skeet was assigned a public defender. Their initial meetings did not involve the events of August 8 at all but rather Skeet's finances. The lawyer filed a plea of not guilty, but that was his only legal motion over the course of the fall; in January 1988, the public defender's office wrote Skeet in prison to say that they were denying him representation, due to his failure to prove indigency. They referred to the house he owned on Pierson Street, which according to “reliable real estate brokers in the area” had a value of between $70,000 and $110,000. The letter also cited a pending civil action, from a car accident Skeet had been in years earlier, in which he still had an expectation of financial recovery (the insurance claim for damages and lost work was $3,174). Skeet began appearing in court without representation, and the judge advised him that if he truly could not afford a lawyer, he could appeal the public defender's decision. This process took almost a year, a year of nearly cosmic miscommunications and misunderstandings between Skeet, the public defender's office, and the appellate courtâand a year in which the defendant remained lawyerless, his witnesses uninterviewed. The public defender's office accused Skeet of intentionally mailing the wrong forms and failing to read the case studies they had cited; Skeet accused them of misinformation and outright sabotage. He complained about lack of access to the law library, functioning copy machines, stamps, and envelopes. A recent legislative change, in which indigency came to be decided by the judiciary branch rather than the public defender's office, caused additional confusion as Skeet continued sending appeals to the wrong office without being notified of the change. In nine hearings spread over eleven months, Skeet fought not for his innocence but for his right to someone capable of pleading his innocence.
On November 2, 1988âa year and three months after the murdersâhis case was once again taken up by the public defender's office. The entire delay boiled down to a single overlooked form and the proper submission of a photo of Skeet's burnt-out property on Pierson Street,which Jackie took.
Almost five months later, on March 28, 1989, Skeet's newly appointed attorneys filed a motion to set “the dates for the filing and hearing of all pretrial motions”âin other words, a motion to schedule further motions. After more conferences, this date was set for August 7, 1989, exactly two years after the Moore sisters' final evening together. The hearing of pretrial motions commenced September 6 and continued into October. During that span, Irving Gaskins, in whose home Skeet had been apprehended, passed away. Due to the prolonged legal confusion, Gaskins had never given a formal statement to the defense attorneys that could be presented in a trial. According to Skeet, Gaskins had been prepared to testify that the murder weapon and ammunition had not, in fact, been found in his beltâthat the police had planted it on him. After all, what killer would fail to get rid of his weapon in the span of a full day following his crime? What sensible human being would carry a loaded gun around a sick, elderly man and his grandchildren?
On February 22, 1990, Skeet's lawyers filed a motion to set the trial date, asserting that in addition to the loss of key witnesses and inability to properly strategize a defense, the long delay between arrest and trial might give the impression to the jury that the defendant's guilt was not really at issue, just the punishment he should receive. On March 9, a trial date was scheduled for September 10. On that day, now three years and one month after the murders, jury selection began forState of New Jerseyv.Robert Douglas.
Three years: three years during which Skeet waited in jail along with all the other accused murderers and rapists and pedophiles of Essex Countyâlike a new, warped incarnation of the neighbors he'd once spent his afternoons chatting up along the avenues of East Orange; three years, or more than eleven hundred days, on each of which he was permitted one hour of exercise and fifteen minutes of phone time, calls made collect at extremely high prison rates; three years, or 160 weeks, during each of which Jackie took Rob to see his father; three years during which Skeet, on days when he didn't need to speak with his lawyers,called his son on the phone to go over homework problems; three years during which Rob grew from a child of seven to a boy of ten; three years during which this boy went about his daily life, knowing full well that Thomas Lechliter and the State of New Jersey were building their case against his father for the death penalty; three years during which Jackie waited in dread to learn whether or not Rob would be called to testify in this regard.
He was called to do so, once in the winter of 1990, at the hearing to confirm that the death penalty would be sought. For ten minutes the nine-year-oldâfully aware that his father's very life might be at stake in his wordsâanswered questions from Mr. Lechliter.
“Have you ever been to your father's apartment on Chestnut Street?” Lechliter asked.
“Just outside the front, sir,” the boy replied.
And, later on: “Have you ever seen your father using drugs?”
To the extent that he could, Rob used his responses to declare over and over that his father was a nice man who cared about homework and would never hurt anybody. Lechliter managed to sway the judge toward the death penalty regardless.
ATOAKDALEELEMENTARY, Rob led the math league and spelling bee teams to area competitions where they were typically routed by more affluent schools in South Orange and Montclair. He took these defeats to heart, scowling and stomping around the house for days afterward. Already, he and his more motivated classmates were learning that no matter how badly they wanted to succeed, they seemed to lack some element that would put them on equal footing with peers growing up just a few miles away. Of course, they figured that the element was money.
In addition to such socioeconomic awakenings, her son now officially hailed from a single-parent home. He was far from alone in this regard; of the roughly sixty thousand people living in East Orange in thelate 1980s, 25 percent were under eighteen years old, and 67 percent of those children lived in single-parent homes. More than ten thousand children in the three square miles Rob Peace inhabited shared his new situation, whether through abandonment, death, or imprisonment. But for the most part, families in the area tended to break up very early, before long-term memory imprinted and the children had fully formed their attachments. These children had never had involved fathers and so they didn't know, as Rob knew, what it felt like to love and be loved by oneâand then have him ripped away.
The only positive effect Jackie observed was that in a high-crime area such as East Orange, where murders were relatively common, no one crime stood out to the extent that it generated much gossip or judgment. People close to the Peaces knew what had happened, of course, but the event wasn't otherworldly enough to send shock waves of “Oh my God, can you believeÂ .Â .Â .Â ?” coursing through the surrounding blocks. Jackie had worried about Rob in this regard at firstâhis association by blood to an alleged killer of womenâbut found that there was no need. He didn't seem to experience any exclusion, name-calling, or dirty looks. No one cared, not really. What did worry her was when Rob would come home smirking with an ugly sort of pride. He'd tell her how someoneâan older kid at school whose dad knew Skeet, or a random set of guys trolling the neighborhood in the evening, or Carlâhad lauded his father as some kind of noble rebel-warrior and considered him above all a victim of the white establishment. “Shame how they did him like that,” they would say to the boy. And worse: “You have to carry his name on proud, little man.”
To avert this name carrying, Jackie had to make a change.
During the year after Skeet's arrest, she began attending night school to become qualified as a kitchen supervisor. Consequently, for six months she saw her son for less than an hour in the mornings. This huge sacrifice proved worthwhile when, upon completion, she landed an administrative job at University Hospital and a raise of $2,000 a year. Instead of cooking the food, she was now responsible for ordering, tracking, keeping inventory, and delegating work to others. She skimped on clothes, food, and all luxuries, both for her and Rob. She took a second job sweeping hair off a salon floor. And after two years of thisâof Rob enduring ridicule for wearing clothes he'd outgrown while eating yellow rice with black beans most nights, often by himself or with his grandparentsâJackie had saved enough to send her son to private school on her own. This time, no one questioned her desire to do so. She was forty-one years old.
In September 1990, just as his father's murder trial began in the courthouse downtown, Rob entered the fourth grade in a private Catholic school. During the months to come, the remainder of Skeet's life would be decided upon by a jury of his peers. In a certain way, Rob's life would be, too.
MT.CARMELELEMENTARYSCHOOLstood on East Freeway Drive overlooking the I-280. As the mostly poor, mostly black and Hispanic students filed in and out, they could look down the steep embankment at the cars whooshing past, carrying suburban commuters from their bucolic homes to their downtown jobs and back again. The modest brick building was sandwiched between a church and a nursing home. On a grass lawn directly behind it, nurses took turns jumping rope while the octogenarians in their care looked on eagerly, clapping out revolutionsâand also creating a kind of neighborhood watch that kept loiterers and dealers away (the interstate off-ramps provided convenient locations for white-collar commuters to buy drugs quickly, without venturing into the hood). Mt. Carmel, kindergarten to eighth grade, cost $200 a month. Most of the teachers were elderly white nuns, of whom Skeet would disapprove. But unlike before, or possibly ever again, he had no say in the matter. Jackie was paying about a third of her monthly salaryânow around $600âin tuition, plus additional expenses for clothes, books, and supplies. She was also taking a big risk by hoping this sacrifice would mean something. If Rob turned out like any other rough boy in the neighborhoodâif her son wasn't special like she believed he wasâshe feared the disappointment that would follow too much striving on her part. At the very least, she was confident thathe was now among people who saw beyond who and where they were. Uppity or not, Jackie saw beyond.
Rob was a quiet boy who, with his broad chest and wide shoulders and constant glower, strutted around the school as if someone had just stolen something that he wanted back. With only eighteen students per grade, he stood out. He wore boots with untied laces, and the belt of his pants hung halfway down his backside (he still took care to make sure his shirt was tucked in, in accordance with the dress code). He received A's in every subject.
The heavy burden Rob carried was clear to all around him. But whatever plagued him specifically, he didn't speak of it, and his self-Âcontained bearing inhibited his classmates from asking (they were, after all, ten years old, though many were growing up much faster than they deserved). And as Rob gradually made friends and ingratiated himself with his teachersâthrough work ethic and graciousness, if not his demeanor and appearanceâhe never mentioned the trial unfolding downtown throughout the fall of 1990. Rob's first months of private school were his father's last months of being presumed innocent.
AFTER MORE THANthree years of waiting, the weeks-long jury selection began. Though the jury ended up being composed of eight blacks and four whites, the defense attorneys still complained of racial bias since the composition did not adequately represent the area in which the crime had occurred. In turn, the prosecution chose its jurors based on the strength of their belief in the death penalty.
The actual trial spanned a single week in November 1990. Mr. Lechliter's opening statement painted an intimate, detailed rendering of the morning of August 8, 1987, with multiple references to the infant in the apartment. Then he called a parade of policemen who'd been at the scene of the crime. One after another, these officers described the arrangement of the bodies of the two women, the disarray of Skeet's apartment and the drug paraphernalia found there, thephoto corroborated by the single witness, and the moment when Skeet had been apprehended, armed with the loaded murder weapon, sitting among children. Lechliter's strategy seemed to be to imprint his narrative on the jury through force of repetition, as nine different policemen answered more or less the same two dozen questions over the course of three afternoons. During cross-examination of the State's witnesses, Skeet's public defenders focused almost exclusively on details of positioning, needling each officer to recount, practically down to the square inch, where he had stood during every moment of the crime scene investigation. Even the judge seemed to grow prickly during these lengthy, sometimes redundant exchanges during which few conclusions or refutations were made. Aside from a few roundabout assertions that a certain officer couldn't have seen a certain piece of evidence at a certain time because of a door or obstruction of some kind, the lawyer's strategy was unclear and ineffective.
A ballistics expert for the prosecution then explained why the spent rounds found at the crime scene could have been fired only by the gun found on Skeet at the time of arrest.
And then Georgianna Broadway, who had recovered from her wounds, took the witness stand. Though her foggy memory and misunderstanding of hearsay laws muddled what the prosecution intended to be a highly dramatic moment, her testimony still concluded with her pointing to Skeet Douglas and identifying him as the murderer. “Him right there. He killed Stella and Charlene.”
After six days, Mr. Lechliter rested his case. He had not pressed any of his witnesses to present a motive to the crime (nor had the defense pointed out the lack of one). He had based his case on the same set of facts he'd learned of in the days following Skeet's arrest: a witness placing the defendant at the crime scene, a less reliable witness pointing to him as the shooter, and a murder weapon owned by and found on him.
The witnesses for the defense numbered three: an old friend of Skeet's from junior high basketball, the mother of another childhood friend, and a neighbor from Pierson Street. All served strictly as character witnesses, asserting Skeet's basic kindness and aversion to trouble. After each witness spoke, Mr. Lechliter approached for the prosecution's cross-examination and asked a single question: “Were you in Apartment 2D of 7 Chestnut Street on the morning of August 8th, 1987?” to which each witness replied no. The defense's case lasted less than an hour.
And yet the jury reported they couldn't reach a consensus despite deliberating for a longer time than the trial proper had actually taken. Maybe Georgianna's choppy testimony had interrupted the prosecution's story (the jury had requested a reading of Georgianna's transcript multiple times during deliberation). Maybe the stark visual contrast between nine white policemen testifying against one black man proved hard to overlook. Maybe one of them believed the defense attorney when, in his closing statement, he asked the jury toconsiderthe possibility that, in an area long known for police corruption, one or all of the arresting officers might have conspired to plant the weapon in Skeet's belt.
The judge directed them to deliberate for at least another day, noting that one of the jurors had reported sick during one day of deliberation. He sternly insisted that a verdict should be reached.
When the twelve citizens finally emerged, they did so with a verdict: guilty on each of two counts of first-degree murder, as well as one count of aggravated assault on Georgianna Broadway and possession of an unregistered handgun.
On December 13, 1990, after more than four dozen appearances at the courthouse over the previous three years, Skeet came back for the sentencing. The state sought the death penalty, but Skeet received a life sentence in Trenton State Prison. He would not be eligible for parole until 2020, thirty years hence. Near the end of the hearing, Skeet was given a chance to make a statement. He stood up before the court and cleared his throat.
I respect my lawyers and I have a lot of respect for them and I think they're fine gentlemen, but as far as in a professional capacity sometimes, well, from my understanding a crime is committed, the police reports are taken and all investigations go at that point and from that point and if those police reports are erroneous then people are going to have erroneous investigations and they're going to try to defend based on that. I have a lot of respect for Mr. Lechliter, I know he's just doing his job, but he wasn't there and if they say this is the designated defendant then it's his job to win the case, you know, but the truth never came out. It's win or lose and unfortunately my lawyers lost, but justice wasn't done and the truth never came out during that trial and I think a better effort could have been put forthÂ .Â .Â . From the beginning, as I said, I did not commit this crime. I know the jury has determined that I'm guilty of the crime. I really don't know anything about what happened in that room. I was not there. I did not commit the crime. I was arrested and unfortunately the only gentleman that could really tell the truth, since I did not take the stand, under the advice of my attorneys, was Mr. Irving Gaskins and he died. I did not have the weapon on me, that's completely fabricatedÂ .Â .Â . [Gaskins is] the only one that could tell what happened at the time of my arrest, that I did not have a weapon on meÂ .Â .Â . I don't know why I'm accused of this and I never saw the photographs of the actual crime scene until court. I don't understand how a person could come in a doorway and shoot someone whose right side is facing the doorway and she is shot on the opposite side and there was no testimony elicited from the medical examiner as far as the person that's supposed to have fired the shots. Someone evidently fired the shots, but where they could have been standing for this lady to be shot from someone coming from one direction and the entrance wound, contact entrance wounds are coming from the opposite direction. I just don't understand that and it was never brought out in the trialÂ .Â .Â . I mean it seemed like Miss Broadway was laying on that side and that's the side where the shots came from. I mean, something is not right here and I've been convicted of thisâ
At this point, the judge stopped him and said, “I know that you have sustained throughout the trial and today your innocence and as you can see I'm struggling. I really don't know. I'm sitting here with the verdict and I don't knowÂ .Â .Â .”
Skeet finished by saying:
I have a ten year old son. His mother has been very gracious. He's been coming to the jail every week for three and a half years. This whole thing is unbelievable. I know I've been convicted. As I said from the beginning, as God is witness, I'm innocent of this crime. My heart goes out to the family of Charlene and Estella MooreÂ .Â .Â . but I have a family and my son's a beautiful child and when I was out there I spoiled him. I was with him everyday. I thank God that he's a very brilliant child. He's a straight-A student and he sings in the choir at church andÂ .Â .Â .
Finally, Skeet trailed off, shook his head, and sat. Rob and Jackie were not in the audience, and hadn't been at all throughout the trial. This, like the prison visits, had been Skeet's decision. He hadn't wanted either of them to see him in this most vulnerable position. After gearing his entire existence and child-rearing philosophy around friends, Skeet's fate ultimately lay at the mercy and judgment of strangers.
JACKIE CONSIDERED THATmaybe it was a good thing Skeet would be gone for a while, considering that the Mt. Carmel uniform would have given him an aneurysm: pink shirt, brown slacks, with a purple-and-pink plaid tie.
Two evident types of children walked through the neighborhood each afternoon. The kids who went to school walked in cheery clusters, many wearing simple bicolored uniforms and carrying backpacks. They walked slowly to and from the bus stop, savoring one another's company, none eager to part ways and return home to whatever awaited them there.
The other kids walked in much smaller groups, usually two but never more than three. During the summer they wore wife-beater undershirts, and during the winter they wore baggy coats that they shouldn't have been able to afford. Whether these children actually sold drugs or simply wanted to project an association with people who did, Jackie felt sorry for themâsorry for the fact that ten and twenty years down the road, assuming they were not incarcerated or dead, they would be doing exactly the same thing they were doing now. These kids, mostly boys, mostly fatherless she presumed, would pass by the schoolkids, leering. The schoolkids, whose safety came from numbers, would quiet for a moment and walk on. Jackie saw this dynamic almost every day on the corners on either end of Chapman Street, but only as she edged farther into her forties did she begin to see the power in it: half the generation already lost, the other half just trying to get home each day.
Just after Skeet's conviction, Jackie splurged on a gift for her son: theAvolume of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. She bought it from a door-to-door salesman, with a spontaneity rare for her, and she began saving extra so that every few months she could furnish another volume.
Her faith in her son's promise began with his intense interest in books, a passion that could not be taught, not where they lived and not with Jackie's work schedule. These books were gateways, not just in abstractions of the mind but to real-world opportunity. They led him to as many school academic squads as he could fit into his schedule and subsequent competitions in the tristate region. Unlike Oakdale, the Mt. Carmel teams were actually capable of winning. Rob began bringing home ribbons, certificates, and small plastic trophies. He placed them all in a cardboard box beneath his bed. He joined a traveling church choir at St. Mary's. Rob never said much about these extracurriculars, aside from asking for rides to and from places and small amounts of money for travel fees. “Industrious,” the nuns at Mt. Carmel called him. “FocusedÂ .Â .Â . advancedÂ .Â .Â .”
Jackie, Frances, Horaceâeveryone who loved Robâfeared the effect that Skeet's conviction would have on the boy's energy, his intelligence, and above all his spirit. After news came of the sentencing, and after they made their final visit to Essex County Jail before the transfer to Trenton State, Rob turned inward and ceased to ask questions, perhaps because the first question he'd asked about his father back in August 1987â“When is he coming home?”âhad finally, irrefutably been answered. His family could only hope that he was pushing at his own pace through this uniquely protracted process of losing a father. They believed he was strong enough to do this on his own, and they hoped he wouldn't lose sight of the bigger picture; they hoped he wouldn't get mired in self-pity. Self-pity was hard to avoid in East Orange, and once it took hold of a person, it was harder to shed. Jackie knew that. Her rule for herself, in the event of loss or strain or bad luck, was to take a night to feel sorry for herself, typically with a strong drink next to her bed. The next morning, she flushed the sorrow out with her hangover.
In her son's case, she was confident that the new friends who surrounded him at Mt. Carmel, many of whom had lost fathers themselves and possessed the sympathy needed to relate one situation to another earnestly, would be sufficient to move her son forward.
She didn't know that Rob hadn't told his friends anything about his father. As far as any of them knew, the man had simply never been around, a typical enough story that Rob could wholly elude their attention and whatever support they might have given.
ASIGNAL EVENTin Newark history had occurred four years earlier, in 1986, when Sharpe James had been elected mayor. A former alderman, he'd campaigned on a platform of jobs, improved low-income housing, and attracting development money back to downtown Newark. Over the next twenty years, Mayor James would govern a generation of Newarkers. He presented himself as a different sort of politician, who had lived his whole life among residents, who wore jogging suits in public, and who knew and cared about the people on the individual level. At the time of his election, Newark proper was 52 percent African American,and the African American community for the most part adored Sharpe James. Skeet Douglas, in the eight months between James's inauguration and his own arrest, was one of those people, and the mayor had been a fixture in Skeet's neighborhood conversational rounds.
At the time, more than one in three people in Newark lived below the poverty line. The violent crime rate was so consistently high that a 1996Timemagazine article dubbed Newark the most dangerous city in America. The public high school graduation rate was below 60 percent, and in some outlying areas, such as East Orange, less than 10 percent of residents held a college degree. The city had lost 130,000 residents since the 1967 riots. The Ironbound District, once a busy, ethnically diverse commercial center northeast of the train station, was now a seedy stretch of shuttered storefronts inhabited by squatters. Some of the oldest companies in the city's downtown, such as Prudential Insurance, were trying to move; attracting workers had become too difficult. The city had gone so far as to construct enclosed “skyways” two stories above the ground, so that employees in the city center could walk from building to building without having to set foot on the street.
These larger socioeconomic problems persisted through Mayor James's first term, while he sorted through the complicated, land mineâladen pathways toward revitalization. His primary goals were to raze the project towers built by Mayor Addonizio's administration in the '50s and replace them with small-scale public housing and middle-income units, and to bring a performing arts center and sports arena downtown. But as he worked toward these and other aims (while also committing the first of more than fifty fraudulent acts that would lead to his own indictment years later, in 2007), he offered many of his residents a symbol. Here was a dignified black man of resonant conviction, born and bred here, who'd gone to college and worked his whole life and now, in his early fifties, had entered public service toserve the public. In fact, an acquaintance of Jackie's had asked Mayor James for a job during one of his rallies downtown, and a week later she was hired as a school crossing guard.
Rob heard this and other stories, and in his own ten-year-old waycame to worship James, who in 1990âwhile Rob began private school and Skeet began his lifetime prison sentenceâeasily won a second term in office. His face brightened when he or Horace or one of the nuns at Mt. Carmel spoke of the mayor. The Oranges were their own townships with their own city halls and did not fall under James's jurisdiction. But Newark cast a long shadow. To a boy like Rob, growing up on Chapman Street and never attending a school beyond walking distance, that cluster of earth-toned towers a mile and a half to the east, surrounded by a network of tall steel cantilever bridges spanning the Passaic River, represented a beacon, a diverse population center where commerce, education, and potential converged. And Sharpe James was the standard-bearer.
Jackie was surprised when her son suddenly began watching the news, just to hear what the mayor said. In fifth grade, he composed a biography of him. He asked her to take him to speeches downtown, which were held whenever Mayor James cleared a lot for a new office building or appropriated money to hire more police officers.
She didn't know what the term “surrogate father” meant exactly, but years later she would agreeâ“Mm-hmm, I suppose that's right”âwhen asked if Sharpe James might have been Rob's first.
WITH SCHOOL TUITIONeffectively canceling out the pay raise Jackie had obtained, and with Skeet no longer contributing to the day-to-day, Rob saw how she struggled. There were, as ever, the constant night shifts. There were the ramen noodles and cans of beans and bags of rice in the cupboard. There were the increasing arguments at home about who was responsible for what share of annual property taxes, roughly $3,500 per year. There was Jackie's contracting social life and the beeline she made for her bedroom upon returning home from work, where she immediately fell asleep. There were the aunts and uncles and cousins he'd grown up with who, in steady succession, left New Jersey for better opportunities in Ohio, Florida, Atlanta, or elsewhere in northern NewJersey (of Frances and Horace's nine children and five grandchildren, only Jackie and Rob remained on Chapman Street). There was the decade of age Jackie had on the mothers of almost all his friends, and in the latter half of that decade a doubling of the financial and emotional burden she carried. Though she hadn't wanted to marry Skeet, and though he hadn't left them intentionally, the aura of abandonment intractably clung to her.
Despite the attachment he felt to his father, Rob came to scorn abandonment above all things, and as he turned eleven and fifth grade began, he aggressively assumed the role of husband to his mother. She would find dinner plates covered with foil in the fridge when she got home late, leftovers of whatever Rob had cooked for himself that night. Sometimes she would wake up around midnight, after a few hours' sleep, and he would be in the rocking chair beside her bed, reading. He began working odd jobs on weekends for people he knew through his fatherâraking leaves, shoveling snow, paintingâfor a few dollars per gig. Always, he divided these earnings and left half on the counter for his mother. If he made $6.50 over a weekend of helping move furniture, and his employer gave him an extra fifteen cents for a candy bar on the way home, Rob factored the tip into his wages, rounded up one cent, and left $3.33 for Jackie. He became competitive with himself, trying to earn more each week than he had the last. He could always find people in Skeet's orbit to call on, always carve out additional hours with which to bring in money. He logged these earnings in a pocket-size notepad beside his bed, maintaining neat columns of what he'd made alongside what he wanted to make. Jackie let him do this not because she needed the money or didn't want him to spend it on himself, but because she saw the feeling of empowerment that taking care of her gave him.
Above all, whether at work or school or home with her, Rob strove to project confidence and strength while refusing to show weakness or insecurity. And Jackie wanted to stoke that quality, which she considered a greater embodiment of manhood than any football heroics or rap lyrics or fashion statements or even academic awards. Too, she didn't have theheart to inform him that, however mature he may have felt, he was not yet the man of the house.
But still she saw the anger in him, a gradually thickening shade just behind the sometimes impenetrable veil of his eyes. She knew that any anger could be dangerous, and that this particular variety, seeded so deeply during Skeet's three years in jail awaiting trialânearly a third of her son's life by the time it was finishedâwas especially destructive. But its source came from a time and place from which Jackie had already willfully moved on, and she didn't have the heart to revisit it. She could only hope that over time, Rob's feelings would fade, the way all of anger's counterpart emotionsâhatred, sadness, love, joyâtended to do.
Â .Â .Â . Later Jack and Ralph had an argument and Jack went off into the forest. Jack and the hunters went hunting again. They invited Ralph and the others to the feast. During the feast, Simon ran out of the woods, and the hunters killed him. The next night Jack, Roger, and Maurice stole Piggy's glasses. Ralph, Piggy, and Sam 'n' Eric went to retrieve his glasses. This action resulted in Piggy's death. Ralph was now alone running from Jack and the savages. Jack set the whole island on fire which flushed Ralph out. Fortunately a military group saw the fire and were waiting at the beach. Ralph fell at the officer's feet and told him the story.
Conflict: Man vs. Man and Man vs. Himself, because the boys fought each other and the savages within themselves.
Voice: The story was written in the third person point of view because the author, William Golding, is narrating the story.
Tone: The tone of this story is the adventure, nothing happy or sad about it (with the exception of two deaths).
For the most part, Mt. Carmel's English teachers let students choose their own books from a predetermined list rather than assigning specifictitles to all students. Rob opted for the classics, relatively dense books with big themes often rooted in mortality: Jack London'sThe Call of the Wild(“Conflict: Man vs. Man and Man vs. Himself, because Buck had to prove to his owners as well as himself that he was a leader”), John Steinbeck'sThe Pearl(“Conflict: Man vs. Man and Man vs. Himself, because Kino fought many people and the emotions of shooting his son”), Mark Twain'sThe Adventures of Tom Sawyer(“Conflict: Man vs. Man and Man vs. Himself, because Tom fought many people in the story and his own bad judgment”). He always made a cover for his book reports with crayon illustrations and large elaborate lettering (the above excerpt, written onLord of the Fliesin sixth grade, received an A along with a note scrawled diagonally by the teacher, “I would like you to share this with the class!”). He wrote succinct sentences, each leading quietly into the next, short on adverbs and adjectives, penned in cursive perfected under Skeet's watch. His teachers were accustomed to grading book reports composed of a few poorly punctuated and often illegible sentences, and Rob quickly found himself singled out, often prodded to read his work aloud to the class. His ability to consume and digest pages was iconoclastic at Mt. Carmel. As his teachers gradually learned through parent-teacher meetings with Jackie, he read these books and wrote these reports with minimal help from her, as on the nights she wasn't working he tried to finish his homework before she came home from the day shift so that the two could hang out.
His real passions were math and science, subjects in which hard conclusions were calculated from known variables by way of clear, logical processes that were largely absent from his life. The key component of middle school math was “showing the work,” mapping the pathway between questions and answers. His teachers graded the format and logic of the problem solving with the same weight as the solution itself. At first, Rob took issue with this and would repeatedly write only the answer. His fifth-grade math teacher was fairly convinced he was cheating on his homework by using a calculator, that he wasn't learning how to problem-solve (in fact, Rob wouldn't own a calculator until freshman year of college). She sent home a note to Jackie.
“I'm not cheating,” Rob told his mother adamantly.
“I know,” she replied. “Just do what she says and show your work.”
“It's just a waste,” he replied, as if the world were conspiring to get one over on him.
“A waste of what?”
“Paper, pencil leadÂ .Â .Â .my time.”
Talking to Rob, like talking to his father, could be beyond frustrating when he had a firm opinion on a matter. “Justdoit how they want it,” Jackie said, and then something occurred to her. “How do you get the right answers without writing anything down anyway?”
“I do it in my head,” he replied.
Jackie won, and Rob began to painstakingly write out every step of his problem sets, often making little notes in the left margins explaining what he did, as if the teacher grading might not be up to speed. As the math advanced from fifth grade to eighth grade, from long division to algebra and geometry, so did these sheets of calculations, often with extra loose-leaf paper stapled to the back. As in English, his work was often displayed on a bulletin board. Rob was not as proud of these accolades as his teachers thought he should be. He rarely cracked a smile. They were mystified by his nonchalance that bordered on apathy. Most kids his age, especially those from suboptimal circumstances, received a significant confidence boost from public praise. In contrast, Rob would turn away from his work on display, as if it were all he could do not to tear it down.
Rob had always been what most would describe as a nerd. With the loss of his father's persistent street influence, the nerd was permitted to flourish unbridled beginning at age seven. Like his father's, Rob's brain had a huge capacity to store facts. Unlike his father, however, Rob developed an outsize work ethic and attention span: he was able to open a book and read straight through until he finished it, or study the science texts until all the relevant facts were embedded. His mother encouraged this. His teachers marveled at it. The other boys in his orbit, at least those who were not his close friends, were lessimpressed, which engendered the fundamental struggle of Rob's adolescence: being a fatherless boy in East Orange was hard, but being a nerd was harder.
The struggles of losing a fatherâemotional, social, financialâwere helped by the fact that they were shared with so many of his peers and thus provided a common bond through individual hardship. Without necessarily trying to, Rob would draw these particular boys to him. Though they communicated in typical kidspeak over typical topicsâfootball, girls, complaining about schoolâa genuine, mature tenderness manifested in their interactions that touched Jackie deeply. Most of Rob's friends were good boys in their hearts. They called her “Ms. Peace,” had fine manners, and didn't talk back. And they were always around, either on the street or on the porch or in the house. Her son, though now fatherless and in some ways motherless considering her hours, was hardly ever alone. She'd always wanted her son to have a sibling, and now, on weekends, she felt as though he had more than one. These relationships, the way the boys talked often of brighter futures, drew forth faint music from Jackie's heart, allowed her to feel that she was doing well in the parental intricacies she could control and doing her best in those she couldn't.
But being academically gifted presented a different struggle entirely, because unlike fatherlessness, Rob was isolated in it. His schoolworkâthe unbroken succession of A's year after year, the solitary hours spent obtaining themâwas an aspect of his life that could not be shared. He had his close friends to whom grades did not matter at all, but the rest of the kids at Mt. Carmel did not know what to make of this young, hard-looking upstart whom most of the nuns adored. So many of them treated him with suspicion, and their suspicion bred scorn. Private school could be even worse in this regard than Oakdale; because Mt. Carmel presented a more competitive environment, the academic structure could also breed more negativity. Periodically Jackie would come home at the end of the day to find her son sitting alone in the dark, sulking, and she knew something had happened that day, some cruel namehad been applied to him. These were some of the rare moments when he still permitted her to embrace him physically, and a part of her was grateful for the ridicule her son endured so quietly.
And then there were the various arenas he had to navigate outside school, on the street. Walking from Mt. Carmel to Chapman Avenue, Rob would pass the Center View Plaza apartment project on Center Street (which had neither a view nor a plaza, but always a steady stream of hustlers walking in and out), followed by four blocks of houses inhabited by people who'd known his father, and then Town Liquor and the teenagers hanging outside. Sometimes he might cut across Pierson Street to pass the burnt shell of his father's old house. But whichever route he took, loud music played, drug deals were transacted, threats were dealt. Some people would tell him how sorely his father was missed, while others would step in front of him and aggressively try to create conflict, something Rob learned to avoid by naming someone he knew in the projects, constructing a human bridge over the social gaps between them. This happened almost every day while Robâwearing the pink shirt and purple tieâmade his way home along with whoever was walking with him that day.
Starting in seventh grade, he was usually walking with Victor Raymond. Victor had grown up in Bridgeton, a working-class, ethnically split town in southern New Jersey. When he was eleven, his parents both passed away from illness within months of each other, and he lived with his seventeen-year-old brother, the aptly monikered “Big Steve,” who gave up a college football scholarship in order to work, pay the mortgage, and raise Victor. Then the state involved itself and declared that Steve, himself still a minor, could not be considered a legal guardian. So Victor moved north to live with his aunt in her apartment on Center Street adjacent to Orange Park, about a quarter mile from the Peace home. She sent him to Mt. Carmel, where Victor was taken with the quiet boy who sat in the back, somehow found a way to make the school uniform look thuggish, and scored 100 percent on every test. Rob took Victor under his wing, invited him to play in his football games, helpedhim study, and provided an unvoiced assurance that, though Victor was reeling from the loss of his parents and the vastly different climate in Orange, everything would be okay.
The first time Rob called Victor's apartment to hang out, his aunt answered the phone, heard the deep, drawn-out voice on the other end, and asked Victor, “What is a grown man doing calling and asking for you?” Victor told her that this was the kid he'd been talking about, the one with the best grades.
Rob and Victor were eleven, then twelve, then thirteen years old and feeling their minds expand exponentially each year. At the same time, they commuted daily through a slum populated by people they knew and liked but who never seemed to change at all. In order to make these transits safely, they had to be seen as fully a part of the streets and their residents. If they happened to be carrying any money, they would spread the bills around their bodiesâtucked inside socks, back pockets, and underwearâleaving a few dollars in their wallets so that in the event they were mugged (which they were three times during middle school), they could hand over their wallets and plead their case: “This is all I have, take it.” They carried their book bags everywhere, slung over their shoulders, so that they seemed to be going to or from school and thus not threatening anyone's turf. Too, for Rob, this meant talking like the people talked, quoting the lyrics they quoted, playing football the way they played, and never letting them forget that he was Skeet Douglas's son. Not relevant in this arena were the Catholic principles of patience, pacifism, and conflict resolution taught at Mt. Carmel; nor was Rob's widening knowledge of American literature, human biology, European history, and algebra.
Victor watched Rob begin to develop and hone the system of neural switchesâthe subtle, never-ending calibrations of behavior and speechâthat enabled him, at intervals throughout the day, to be an ideal student, the stand-in provider on Chapman Street, and just another mouthy kid parlaying on the corner of Hickory Street and Central Avenue. Further subsets existed within each of these roles, a complexnetwork of personalities, each independent of the others, that Rob had to assume. In school he listened attentively to the nuns and their Christ-centric lessons. He was a steady sounding board for the personal lives of Victor and the rest of his friends. Though he was not a leader by nature, he became one by the example he set, and he assumed this role dutifully; he spoke slowly, enunciated clearly, and the faculty often deployed him to resolve conflicts among the students. At home he was obedient to his rapidly aging grandparents, mindful of the chores Horace still assigned a generation after his own children had performed them. He was enthusiastic about rendering his day to Jackie when she had the energy to listen, and quiet when she did not. To the extent that he was allowed, he participated decisively in matters of time, property, and especially money. And on the streets outside, he knew everyone by name; he never lowered his head to scuttle past the hustlers, as most of his classmates did, but engaged with them as people. During football games he continued flipping ball carriers over his shoulder and not helping them up. He walked with his head raised and his chest puffed out, spoke fast and commandingly, and he took to being called by his middle name, ÂDeShaun and later just “Shawn,” in much the same way that his father had opted for “Skeet” over their shared given name.
Each day, he was all of these people. But at any given moment, he walled off all but one. This existence was fracturing, but it was the only way to integrate his ambition and intellect in a milieu in which neither had currency and in which both could get him hurt.
He had a title for this all-encompassing process: he called it “Newark-Âproofing” himself.
ROB ANDJACKIEkept visiting Skeet after he was transferred to Trenton State Prison in January 1991. Jackie would borrow her parents' car and endure an hour of monotony on the New Jersey Turnpike before taking the I-295 spur west into Trenton. The prison rose ominously from the surrounding neighborhood of short, narrow row houses and wholesalers. Whereas Essex County Jail was surrounded by chain-link fencing, Trenton State was wrapped by an unbroken brick-and-concrete wall that exuded permanence, like a coffin the size of a city block. This wall was twenty feet tall but rose to seven stories in some stretches, a fortress on the scale of the medieval structures Rob had been reading about in history books. Manned turrets resembling airport towers were spaced at fifty-yard intervals, dwarfing the steeple of the Church of God of Prophecy across the intersection at Cass and 2nd Streets. On the Cass Street end of the prison, which was the stretch Rob and Jackie drove along to reach the visitor parking lot, a colorful panoramic mural depicting a baseball game ran along the wall for its entirety of two hundred yards. Directly on the other side of this wall, attached to it, lived New Jersey's death row inmates.
If walking into Essex County the first time had felt to Jackie and Rob like a passage into purgatory, then the entryway to Trenton State was hell. A hundred Essex County Jails could fit into Trenton State. Through barred windows in the visitor hallways inside, they could glimpse the first inmate buildings across a concrete courtyard, six stories high and a hundred yards long and perforated by rows of tall, narrow window slits. They wondered how many six-by-eight cells could fit into that building, and how many more similar buildings there were, and which Âbuildingâwhich cellâwas now inhabited by Skeet. Fully contained from the surrounding neighborhood, which looked not unlike East Orange, the grounds had their own order, with buildings fanning out from a central security hub. The men who lived there followed a specific schedule, designed in accordance with rehabilitation guidelines of the time. Trenton State felt like a warped college campus, and it seemed that a person could not achieve a greater state of anonymity, of meaninglessness, than to become one of the nineteen hundred inmates. The visitors moved along slowly in a line to the point where Jackie stopped and let Rob see his father alone, as she would from now on, knowing that the long trip wouldn't be worthwhile to her son if his conversations with his father were monitored. She would sit in the waiting area and try notto think about the smell, which even here in the far fringe of the facility was a mixture of sweat, garbage, food of far lesser grade than what she worked with at the hospital, blood, feces, rot, guilt, resignationâa smell akin to the monotonous inevitability of death.
On the long drives back to Newark, often as dusk and then night fell, she'd talk to Rob about the week of school coming up, what Victor was doing tomorrow, and what was going on with the girl Rob had a crush onâeverything but the man Rob had just seen. Rob would humor her, only rarely mentioning the various legal appeals that Skeet had slowly begun moving forward. Her son deeply, firmly believed that his father had been falsely accused by witnesses, set up by police, positioned to fail by the system, and wrongfully convicted by the jury. This Jackie knew and regretted, because she saw nothing more hopeless that her son could waste his ample mind worrying about than his father's past or future. The past had happened; the future was literally locked in place. Neither could inform the present in any meaningful way. Her son, still such a boy complete with a boy's terrible optimism, was not yet capable of understanding this kind of permanence, as Jackie did. Like many other aspects of their reality, she figured that her son would be best served by learning about this on his own, in good time.
But still she dutifully took him to Trenton State, and these visits very much marked the passage of time during Rob's middle school years. The transit, the arduous entry process, the waiting room, the interstate rest stop fast-food counters all added up to a singularly endless day for herâusually her only day off of the week. But to the boy, the actual time spent with Skeet must have seemed much too short. Each time Jackie parked on Chapman Street and entered the house afterward, she would feel relieved; no sooner could she experience that relief than Rob would ask when they could go back.
“Soon,” she would tell him as she went to work making dinner. “Maybe in a couple weeks.”
A few days would pass, and Rob would start talking about heading down to Trenton this coming Sunday, after church. Sometimes she would be able to put the next visit off for two weeks, three, but nevermore than four. Rob was persistent in almost everything he did, and visiting his father more than the rest. For all the toll they took on her, the prison visits seemed to energize her son. Maybe this energy came from the way Skeet kept him up to date on his legal processes and enabled Rob to feel like an adult participant in contrast to the way he'd been largely removed from the actual trial. Or maybe he just liked to lay eyes on the man and be heartened by the fact that prison, during these first years, was not enough to break Skeet Douglas. If not surprised, exactly, Jackie was herself struck by howhimselfSkeet remained after his conviction. The trial had burdened and frustrated him to the point where communication had been hard; Skeet had simply come to exist on a lower wavelength than she. The verdict, while not the one any of them desired, seemed to have released all that pressure and given him a return to his true form. When she did go in to see him now, maybe every third visit or so, he grinned and talked vibrantly about new friends inside while asking questions about old friends outside. He was clearly hopeful about his sentence eventually being overturned. She didn't know to whom he was talkingâshe was no longer privy to his legal undertakings, as Rob increasingly wasâbut Skeet took with him to Trenton State a hopefulness that was not contagious to Jackie as it clearly was to their son.
In the meantime, Rob seemed to expand through adolescence in every manner. His bones elongated and thickened; muscles followed. Basic math and reading begat abstract problem-solving and reading-comprehension skills. Boy-girl crushes became full-fledged, impassioned romantic pursuits. And his perspective of adults and adult behaviorsâno doubt accelerated by his interactions with his fatherâmatured to the point where he fully considered himself one, though he had not yet completed middle school.
IN THE FALLof 1993, Jackie lost her job due to mandatory cuts at University Hospital. She'd been stretching their finances thin lately, trying to spoil her son a little. She'd bought him a used bike so that he could ride to his friends' homes. She'd bought some new clothes to accommodate a recent growth spurt. She'd been trying to nourish him better with fresh produce instead of canned. Because of these efforts, she had no savings to carry her through a job search. After two weeks, her severance pay ran out, and unemployment insurance covered only the essentials. She had to take Rob out of Mt. Carmel and send him back to Oakdale.
“Okay,” he said casually. “It's okay, Ma. We'll do what we need to do.” He began leaving 100 percent of his work earnings on the counter for Jackie, which she found when returning home late each day after busing around the city applying for jobs.
Public school was much different in eighth grade than it had been in third grade, in terms not just of physical violence but also emotional stress. From his first day back, Rob had to put more energy into navigating his fellow classmates in order to avoid being jumped or robbed, and this left little reserves with which to maintain his grades, to glean at least some new knowledge from the limited amount being dispensed in those classrooms, some of them packed with more than forty kids at a time. Mt. Carmel was not a high-end private school, but it was far enough removed from Oakdale to make for a surreal contrast. The disparity wasn't strictly financial, as Mt. Carmel ran on a smaller operating budget per student than the publicly funded school and had no subsidies for books or supplies. The difference lay in the attitudes of both students and teachers. When Rob told Jackie casually that kids were dealing drugsâand a lot of themâat Oakdale, she knew two things immediately: she had to get him back into Mt. Carmel and place him in a private high school next year.
A part of her had been thinking that he could go to Orange High, just like Jackie had, and easily make it into their gifted student program. But in the wake of these Oakdale revelations, she took the bus to Orange High between job interviews, in the middle of the school day. There, she stood on the sidewalk on South Orange Avenue and looked up the short rise to the building that she'd entered every day for four years in the mid-1960s. Aside from the food service supervisor program she'd attended after Skeet's arrest, this had been the last place she'd gone toschool. Jackie was forty-four years old; high school had been a quarter century ago. The place looked different now, and not simply because of the profane graffiti sprayed across its walls. It appeared to her that those hundreds of kids perched on the steps and leaning out of windows and milling around the yellowed lawn were training not for college or jobs but for their destiny as loiterers, hustlers, and single mothers. Jackie felt very old in that moment. But the natural questionâwhat had happened to twenty-six years?âoccurred to her only once, fleetingly, because its answer was obvious. Her son had happened. Many of her decisions had turned out poorly, many of her circumstances were more precarious now than they'd ever been, and most of her dreams had fragmented. But her son remained, and he was bright and he was strong and he loved her to world's end. Jackie understood now, looking at her old high school, that she would never leave this place, Orange, like most of her siblings had. She was part of the asphalt fabric on which she stood. She also understood that, with a few more years of determination and sacrifice on her part, Robwouldleave. He would do so in spectacular fashion. She could almostâalmostâvisualize it, through the massive outlay of effort that sat between this stark moment and that prescient one.
A few weeks later, Jackie found a job with a health care company that managed hundreds of nursing homes and posthospital rehabilitation centers around the country. She was placed in the food service department at the Summit Ridge Center, in West Orange. The job was a demotion from management back to kitchen work, but her employer pitched itself as a strong company in an expanding field with room to grow, and all these terms appealed to Jackie, who'd never had experience with a single one. She enjoyed riding the bus daily west toward the suburbs rather than east toward the cityâto see her neighborhood open up and give way to fields and woods and ranch homes sprawling across half-acre plots along Route 501, to see where all those former neighbors she'd grown up with had moved during the '70s while the Peace family had stayed put.
The work starting out was worse than the hospital, and the kitchen had a hierarchyâof which she started on the bottom rungâthat was jolting, having come from a place where coworkers generally tried tohave fun and help each other by sharing car rides, covering shifts, being interested in the lives around them. She had a hard time falling in with the big-corporation cost-consciousness that led to her cooking food for the patients that she would never let her own family eat. But she was able to transfer Rob back to Mt. Carmel.
Christmas that year was very thin. Jackie could manage no more than some homemade baked goods and stocking stuffers. Rob didn't seem to mind; he told her that he considered the used bike, which she'd bought him last spring, to be like an early Christmas present, plus the encyclopedias (Jackie had gotten up to theGvolume before losing her job). A few of her siblings came home for the holiday to sit in the living room with Horace and Frances. The house had been feeling too quiet lately, hollow in a way, and Jackie missed the chorus of arguments that used to resonate through the halls and stairways. She was worried that without anyone to engage him at home while she was working, Rob would reach farther and farther outward for stimulation, to people and locales where she had less control, if any at all.
That year, at age thirteen, Rob learned how to drink alcohol and smoke marijuana. Absent was any ceremonious “first time” that would later be fondly remembered as a rite of passage. These two crutches were a standard aspect of the stoop culture on and around Chapman Street, and the matter was as simple as Rob, goaded by the older boys with whom he played football, climbing three steps onto a neighbor's porch, swigging from a bottle of beer, malt liquor, or E&J brandy, and then filling his lungs with a joint. And he liked it. The alcohol, since he had no tolerance for it, immediately brought forward a kind of blissful stupidity, a state in which words poured forth from his mouth free from analysis or reservation, and he must have found ease in laughing with others without weighing the relative meaning of what they had said. And then came the marijuana, with its immediate dilution of stress, and each of the five senses grew more receptive to minute pleasures in the air, in the sounds, in the faces. Under these influences his father's trial and his mother's dreams must have seemed suddenly very far away, and far less a part of him than they actually were. This state of mind was easy to enter,particularly with the advent of spring and warm weather when the whole neighborhood for a mile in every direction came out onto the stoops.
Rob couldn't afford to buy alcohol or marijuana himself, but one of the benefits of remaining so well known in East Orangeâand being Skeet's boyâwas that wherever he went, there were people, mostly men, who wanted to take care of him and who didn't have much else to do. Rob would have to walk only a couple of blocks west along Central Avenue into East Orange, past Harrison Street and Evergreen Place. He'd make a left on Burnett Street, and in three blocks he would be on Chestnut Street, near the building where his father had lived, where the Moore sisters had been murdered by someone Rob believed in his heart was not his father. And here he would be summoned onto stoop after stoop, asked how he was, asked how his father was doing, and ultimately asked if he wanted a sip or a toke.
Victor Raymond accompanied him on a few of these excursions. At first Victor was impressed by the extent to which his best friend was a part of the neighborhood, treated as an adult by all these other adults who seemed so cool and wise. He drank and smoked a little himself. Sometimes there were girls around, and he and Rob would take turns trying to talk to them, practicing lines. Always, they heard music, about which Rob was increasingly passionate. He devoted much of his time to memorizing rap lyrics of groups like A Tribe Called Quest: breaking them down, analyzing them, internalizing the words as poetry.
But Victor quickly and alarmingly noticed that for his friend, these walks were more than time-wasting little adventures, boys doing things they shouldn't be doing and hoping not to get in trouble later. And these people whom Rob kept introducing him to with prideâdozens of peopleâwere not so cool, not so wise. These were grown men and women who sat on their front porches all day in various states of inebriation listening to music. Rob threw himself into these gatherings with an intensity not evident in anyone else, which Victor struggled to confront directly. Rob knew who was having car trouble, who was looking for a job, who was behind on rent. He knew everything about everyone, it seemed to Victor, and was able to store each separate personal storyin that cavernous brain of his. Like a math or science problem, Rob was always trying to get inside these people, figure them out, learn their problems, provide solutions.
Most disturbing to Victor was the almost professional means by which Rob hid these vices from his mother and grandparents: saline drops for the eyes, spearmint gum for the breath, aerosol deodorant for the clothes, and a preternatural ability to carry himself with as much controlled composure high as he did sober.
Victor much preferred the Caribbean Festival in Prospect Park, Brooklyn, to which he and Rob took the train together every year to walk with the brightly dressed crowds down wide, blockaded avenues far from those they lived on, drinking mango juice and eating jerk chicken off skewers and meeting smiley strangers with melodic island accents. That was his favorite day of the year, and that was the Rob Peace he liked best.
THE PRIVATE HIGHschools were all well known: Seton Hall Prep, the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Essex Catholic, and St. Benedict's Prep. Simply put, these schools sent students to college, andâmore important in most casesâthey were affordable. Each accepted one hundred to two hundred freshmen a year, roughly six hundred placements for the ten thousand or so teenagers of greater Newark seeking the opportunity. Each had tours, interviews, and entrance exams. About half the students at Mt. Carmel applied, guided through the process by the nuns. Some of these children had never written a personal essay before and were stymied by questions like, “In two hundred words or less, describe yourself.”
Victor was already committed to attending St. Benedict's, the only all-boys school. He'd geared much of his last two years around applying: writing letters to the faculty there, going to soccer and baseball games, attending community open houses. Rob and Jackie toured each of the schools, and she could tell immediately that he gravitated toward St. Benedict's, tooâher last choice, due mainly to geography. Seton Halland Immaculate had relatively expansive campuses in suburban West Orange and Wayne, respectively, whereas St. Benedict's was a compact building in central Newark, on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, in the exact opposite direction of her new job. Traffic would be terrible during both rush hours, and the neighborhood immediately surrounding the school was sketchy at best, with adjacent basketball courts and fast-food restaurants tailor-made for hustlers. The school was two blocks from the courthouse in which Rob's father had been convicted of murder.
But she empowered her son to choose, and she figured he based his decision on staying close with Victor and on the matter of diversity. St. Benedict's was the least diverse of the four schools: the student body was 89 percent black and Hispanic. The school had a much more generous financial aid program than the others due to its strong and successful alumni network. The tuition was $8,700 per year against an overhead cost of $16,000 per student, along with further financial aid available based on need.
Rob was wait-listed at first. No one understood why but figured it had to do with the financial statements, which Rob had undertaken himselfâmaybe he'd left them incomplete, maybe he'd fudged a little. Victor, who had been accepted with a B average at Mt. Carmel, told his aunt. The next day she went to the school personally, sat down in the headmaster's office, and said she would raise a stunning amount of hell if they didn't accept Robert Peace. Jackie received the acceptance letter the following weekâwhich left her anxiously waiting to learn what aid they would offer. That envelope came in the late spring, after a long day of work during which she'd been yelled at constantly by her boss, an irritable white man who supervised the kitchen at Summit Ridge. St. Benedict's offered Rob a tuition of $4,000 per year: a $500 down payment followed by monthly installments of $388 if she opted to pay only during the nine-month school year, or $291 if she wanted to pay continuously year-round.
The decision was a hard one and involved a lot of math that Rob helped her sort through. She'd been paying $200 for Mt. Carmel, but with her recent pay cut that tuition was already gouging the food budget. The extra $90 per month and additional three months of payments would begin encroaching on utilities and other basic costs. She'd have to ask her parents to pay the full property taxes this year, and probably for the next four if she wasn't promoted.
“You'll get promoted soon,” Rob told her, “I know you will. And I can get a real job.”
She kept looking at the numbers he'd written in his lined composition book, where he kept track of his own wages.
“Ma,” he said with conviction beyond his years, “we'll do this. It's important. It'll be all good. You can bring home food from work. I'll eat whatever.”
“Yeah,” she said, “you'd eat horse meat if it was put in front of you with ketchup. And that's just about what I'm serving these days.”
She took his arm, about to give him a hastily prepared speech about focusing on work and taking advantage of this coming opportunity. But she said nothing. Rob didn't need to hear it; he already knew.
Rob (second row, third from right) and Victor Raymond (second row, sixth from left) with their seventh-grade class at Mt. Carmel. Jackie made many sacrifices to send her son to private school, which she could onlyhope would prove to be worth it in the end.
Rob and Jackie celebrating Christmas during his junior year of high school.
FORROB, the summer of 1994 lasted all of three weeks: three weeks of sweltering heat and football games and stoop hopping around East Orange, sometimes drunk and often high. Then, during the second week of July, the incoming freshman class of St. Benedict's showed up for “Summer Phase,” which in their collective minds was akin to summer camp but would prove to be something different entirely. One hundred and forty fourteen-year-old boys passed through the small vestibule on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, bookended by automated double-locked doors that were controlled by the guard in the adjacent glassed-in security station. They filed beneath the sign in the lobby that read in bold gray lettersWHATEVER HURTS MY BROTHER HURTS ME, and down a hallway of classrooms to the gymnasium, known as “the Hive” in reference to the school mascot, the Gray Bee. Here, they lined up in rows with sleeping bags and duffels at their feet.
This group came from forty different towns and sixty middle schools in and around Newark. The boys represented all economic backgrounds but were weighted toward lower and lower middle class. They stood there and took each other in, some loose and cracking jokes among Âalready-formed small groups, others stiff and nervous and alone. Even before Friar Edwin Leahy, their new headmaster, made his lofty speech about the trust and unity they would have to build in order to succeed here and in life, the incoming students intuited that the next four years were crucial, that there would be no do-overs or second chances. Theyhad all gone through the rigorous application process; they had chosen this school knowing all the challenges ahead of them; they were committed to becoming men here. Summer Phase officially began with the singing of the school song. After that weak and discordant effort, the group was divided into eighteen colors, with eight boys randomly assigned to each group. These colors would account for a large part of each student's identity over the next four years. Rob was tagged maroon, which at the very least trumped the pink to which he'd never grown accustomed.
Summer Phase entailed full academic days, followed by sports games and evening group activities, and then the gym lights clanked off over the boys as they whispered in their sleeping bags on the floor. The gym had been built in the 1940s and never renovated; the hardboard basketball court was bowed and splintered, and mice could be heard in the walls. The boys did everything in their color groupsâclasses, meals, even toothbrushing. In between structured activities, they were required to learn the first and last name of every other student in the class before week's end, as well as memorize the lyrics to five school songs, which were to be sung in the hallways between classes for the duration of freshman year. They had to leave all their belongings in the gym, fully exposed; no locks were permitted inside the school. At the end of the week, they took a test in which they wrote the name of each classmate, as well as the names and dates of every headmaster in the 126-year history of St. Benedict's. Only then did the students formally receive gym T-shirts and shorts in the colors they had been assigned.
The purpose of these various structures was obvious to the freshmen: memorizing names and songs fostered discipline and loyalty, the color assignments kept the boys from forming their own cliques, the schoolwork gave them a preview of what to expect come fall semester, the unsecured belongings built trust, the overnights implanted a feeling of shared experienceâof family. And yet a greater aim loomed behind all this effort that would be apparent to the boys only years later, after they'd left St. Benedict's and begun navigating the challenges of adulthood: trouble, and staying out of it.
Friar Edwin Leahy and the elderly Benedictine monks who ran this school knew that before they could teach math and history, before they could coach soccer and baseball, before they could take attendance or host parent nightsâthey had to preempt the problems to which this group of boys, most of them urban, many living with minimal family guidance, was prone. Through decades of experience, the faculty had learned the many forms these problems took. Fights, theft, and negative attitudes were the most common. Beyond those lay the more disruptive tendencies of emotional abuse inflicted on peers, dealing and using drugs, or dropping out of school entirely. The preventative measure the school deployed against these lurking obstacles was a combination of keeping the boys very, very busy while fortifying them with school pride: an inoculation, so to speak, administered primarily through force of repetition and a borderline invasive control over the most precious asset in their lives: their time.
Rob went through the Summer Phase largely unnoticed by anyone, including Victor, who had been assigned to a different color group. He stood out only once, near the end of the week when summer reading assignments were given:The Adventures of Huckleberry Finnby Mark Twain,A Light in Augustby William Faulkner, andChesapeakeby James Michener. While the other boys emitted disbelieving laughter at the sheer weight and thickness of the combined pages, Rob sat cross-legged on his bundle of blankets, opened the cover ofChesapeake(888 pages), and spent the hour before lights-out quietly reading. He'd already read the two other books on his own, for fun.
A rumor had also begun circulating that there was a boy in the class who knew the lyrics of every Bone Thugs-n-Harmony song, every single word to every single song. Because these songs were typically so fast-paced they sounded like a random spewage of consonants and vowels, learning one song, let alone all of them, was a feat that inspired awe in the freshman class. They began asking around: “Who's the Bone Thugskid?” He was Rob Peace.
ST.BENEDICT's Preparatory School for Boys was founded in 1868 by a group of Benedictine monks, and over the next ninety-nine years it expanded from a church and small schoolhouse to a group of structures spread over a full city block. During the postwar boom in Newark, the student body came to be composed primarily of the white sons of affluent white men in the area, the leaders of the city's corporate and manufacturing sectors. Headmaster Edwin Leahy graduated in 1964 and left for divinity school, planning to return to St. Benedict's afterward and teach English.
Then the 1967 riots happened, the thickest of the violence in the second police precinct, right outside the school's redbrick walls. While the live-in monks fortified themselves within, the city center was decimated, not just in terms of property but also in attitudes and in trust. The racial tension left in the aftermath of the riots was compounded by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.âwho later gave name to the very street St. Benedict's was built onâin April 1968, followed by Robert Kennedy's in June, and the expansion of American involvement in Vietnam, which manifested itself in a draft that summoned by force of law many hundreds of young, uneducated black men from their homes in and around Newark. A racial awakening occurred in these homes, in the town halls, and in the streets of downtown. The St. Benedict's facultyâmost of them elderly, pacifist white men who wore dark red robes and grew thick white beards beneath their spectaclesâwas not equipped to adjust to the tension, nor were the school's traditional students prepared to commute from their suburban homes into the city center, the crucible of unrest. More than a dozen teachers left for cushier positions at wealthier monasteries. In 1972, the school found itself unable to reach a sustainable attendance. The doors closed with no promise of reopening, even as a church. This was the state of the school when Friar Leahy came back.
He was twenty-four years old, skinny and pale and relatively green. He was also fearless, ambitious, and direct. He saw that the school closure had more to do with the energy, or lack thereof, of the monks than with any new social reality that had taken hold of the city. So he recruited a group of young, fresh, liberal divinity school graduates, and he led the movement to reopen the school in 1973, not as St. Benedict's Prep but as a smaller, religion-focused educational venture. This effort actually exacerbated rather than alleviated the anger within the African American community. At a town hall meeting that spring, Friar Leahy fielded a question from a young black mother in the crowd. She said, “How come you can call the school St. Benedict'sPrepwhen it's all of you around, but now that it's all of us around you don't call itPrepanymore?” Her remark seemed to exemplify all the social issues in the country that seemed impossibly complicated. In 1974, Friar Leahy reopened the St. Benedict's Preparatory School for Boys with a new mission to serve young men from the urban districts within and immediately surrounding the city. The transition didn't occur overnight, nor did it always occur smoothly. And yet, quicker than any of the monks expected, and in the middle of one of the most tumultuous decades in Newark's history, something happened that many residents in the city, both white and black, had previously dismissed as a progressive fantasy: the African American community of Newark took ownership of the school.
Nurturing this change was not easy. From a business standpointâwith tuition covering just half of the per-student overheadânobody could make sense of the budget, and Friar Leahy spent two-thirds of his time on the phone or in meetings, beggar's hat in hand, tasked with raising $1 million a year just to cover operating costs. But the school grew, thanks to an alumni network predating the school's reinvention that remained extremely loyal (and extremely wealthy) even though the student body was suddenly unrecognizable to them.
By the time Rob and Victor arrived in 1994, Friar Leahy was raising $5 million per year from a reliable network of corporate and individualdonors. The school had a pool, an auditorium, a sports complex with a turf field and synthetic track, a science wing with sufficient chemistry and physics equipment for each student to run his own individual experiments, a computer room with a row of Apple IIc's, and a library with six thousand books.
But even though the school had modernized and flourished, the biggest challenge these teachers faced each fall was still the same challenge that had existed in 1973, two decades before Rob ever walked onto the grounds: how to minister to the often crippling emotional trauma caused by the suboptimal home lives of so many students, and in doing so, free their cognitionâand their potentialâin full.
ROB'S FRIENDS FROMthe neighborhoodâthe ones he played ball, drank, and smoked withâcracked themselves up in the weeks leading up to the fall term: his school had fencing, water polo, and chess teamsâbut no football. They wondered loudly how a badass like Rob Peace could have chosen an all-boys prep school like that over a real school like Orange High. They made Jesus jokes. They made pussy jokes. They made gay jokes. Rob had no grounds to fight them over it, because in his eyes these friends were more or less right to laugh. Matriculation at St. Benedict's posed problems.
Through a special application process with the Orange Township school board, Rob and Victor acquired waivers to play on Orange High's football team in the fall while attending St. Benedict's during the day. They went to two-a-days in the August heat; the players spent the first practice on hands and knees in full pads picking glass from broken bottles out of the field. Rob played running back and linebacker in the JV squad's first scrimmage the week before the school year started. Some of his upperclassman teammates had been playing with him in the street games for five years, so he didn't have to prove himself the way many freshmen did. Other teammates knew him as a guy who liked to chill and get stoned around East Orange, and they were amazed at hisintensity, his desire for collision.
For the first three weeks of school, he would catch the bus downtown at six, get to school by seven, go through the school day, catch another bus to Orange High at three, be on the field by four, practice until six, catch another bus home, and read until he fell asleep. The schedule left him with little energy to socialize at school, where most of the boys were still in the process of checking one another out, projecting confidence while feeling insecure in their new surroundings. Between classes, freshmen were required to walk with their right shoulders touching the wall at all times while singing the school songs in a predetermined order. The upperclassmen maintained discipline in this regard, and they were quick to call out any freshman they saw breaking rank with a smack on the back of the head. The students stayed with their colors throughout the day, from convocation in the morning to classes to meals to gym. Each of the eighteen colors had its own president and vice president in the senior class, tasked with addressing any behavioral or academic problems that arose within the group. Entering the school, the freshmen could roll their eyes at this manufactured brotherhood and its hierarchy reminiscent of British imperialism. But day by day, the system had a way of drawing them in. An individual young man could easily get lost among five hundred other young men in the school; among twenty-five wearing his same color and obligated to look out for him, he couldn't.
Rob did get lost, and not by accident. Because of football, he was able to feel like he could come to St. Benedict's each morning and take advantage of its curriculum and facilities without buying into its philosophies. He showed up on time, sang the songs, and went through the motions without ever fully engaging with them, as if he were in on the joke that his friends from the neighborhood were in on. And the moment classes ended each day, he was out the door, on the bus, then on the field, in pads, standing among the boys he lived with, bashing his head against theirs.
Immediately, the smartest kids at St. Benedict's stood out; the school encouraged this by posting grades in the hallways. The majority of thissubset commuted from the suburbs, where they had attended private middle schools and their families were intact. Their good grades were, in the oversimplified view of less fortunate peers, a given. For the students of lesser means, part of the sacrifice of coming to a school like St. Benedict's was the knowledge that they would never be among the smartest in the class.
Which was why, when cumulative GPAs first went up halfway through the fall of freshman year, and Robert Peace was listed along with three other names at the top with 4.0s, guys were confused. Nobody knew much about Rob yet, just that he did the football thing and lived west of downtown and strutted around with a dour expression on his face while referring to himself as “Shawn.” Once his grades were made public, a collective perception formed of a wealthy, well-educated black kid from the suburbs who walked around acting like he was from the hood.
The year might have continued like that, with St. Benedict's being a school Rob attended rather than an ideal he was a part of, if not for the clumsy bureaucracy of the Orange School Board. A month into the football season, an administrator filing insurance forms noticed that two names on the football roster weren't registered in the Orange system. The next day, as they hustled out onto the field for practice, Rob and Victor learned that they could no longer play football due to the insurance liability. Rob took it hard, but Jackie had no patience for her son suddenly moping around. She'd disapproved of the football situation anywayâher son busing all over town among the transients, not taking full advantage of his own school campus that she was stretching herself thinner than ever just to pay for, all so that he could participate in legalized violence alongside boys she wished he didn't know anyway.
“What am I going to do now?” he mumbled.
“St. B's has sports teams,” she replied. “Lots of them. Find one and join it.”
He laughed. “Like what,fencing?”
“Well, you wear a helmet, just like in football.”
“You want to play football?” Jackie said, feeling an energy surge that was rare for her these days. “Because I'm sure as hell fine to take you out of that school and send you to Orange High. You can play as much football as you want there.”
He thought about her words and looked away, momentarily silent. And Jackie smiled; as with his father, she rarely got the last word in with her son.
WAYNERIDLEY HADgraduated from St. Benedict's in 1990, and he'd started teaching and coaching there the year before Rob arrived. He'd grown up in Irvington, just west of downtown Newark, in that gray area between the heavily policed city blocks and the outlying wilderness where the neighborhoods truly began to fray. He coached the swim team, and in the late fall of 1994 a powerfully built but still soft freshman approached him about joining.
“Sure,” Coach Ridley said. “You in shape?”
“Come out this afternoon and swim some laps.”
Rob didn't reply. His limbs were a little short for a swimmer; he had muscle there, but no litheness, no grace.
“You have something else you need to do? Because you came to me, here.”
“No,” Rob said, “it's just that I don't swim.”
“You don't swim?”
“I mean, I don't know how to swim.”
During practice that day, while the team swam their daily 240 lapsâsix thousand yards, or a little less than four milesâRob lowered himself into the half lane adjacent to the wall. Coach Ridley began guiding him through the physical dynamics of freestyle, breaststroke, backstroke, and butterfly. He understood the toll this took on the boy's pride: splashing slowly and clumsily while the pool teemed with two dozen boys his age cruising swiftly through the water. And Rob came off as a particularly prideful kid. Ridley didn't expect him to last more than a few daysâespecially when Rob ditched the second practice, claiming that he had sprained his back as a result of sneezing while simultaneously grabbing milk out of his refrigerator at home. But he came back, and by the end of the winter swim team season he could handle himself capably enough in the water to come out for the polo team the following fall.
Swimming and water polo were “cool” sports at St. Benedict's, and Tavarus Hester was the prized recruit of the freshman class. Tavarus was short and scrawny but a natural and experienced swimmer. He had grown up in East Orange with a single parent. His was a rare case in which the mother had abandoned the familyâshe would disappear for stretches of six months or a year throughout his childhood, and she fled for good when Tavarus was twelve. He and his older brother had been raised by their father, a good man, a good parent, Tavarus's best friend. In the spring of eighth grade, Tavarus's father died suddenly of cancer. He'd gone to the doctor with a persistent stomachache one afternoon, and three months later was buried. Tavarus's admission to St. Benedict's with significant financial aid had been the last positive thing that had happened before his father died. Tavarus now lived with his aunt and grandmother, provided for by Social Security checks, and he'd entered St. Benedict's in a conscious state of not giving a fuck about anything except drinking, smokingâand swimming.
Tavarus had been assigned to Rob's color group, so he knew him a little better than the rest of their classmates. During the fall of freshman year, he'd sensed an anger in Rob that ran parallel to his own. So when football was taken away, he told Rob to come swim. He tried to explain how there was something cathartic about being in the water. You stared down at the thick black line scrolling steadily beneath you, and all you heard was the rush of water past your ears, and a life that at times felt cosmically complicated was reduced to the simplest elements: oxygen, buoyancy, propulsion.
Rob listened, and because he did, through swim team practice that winter and water polo the following autumn, he met the four friends who would compose the daily heart and rhythm of his life until its end.
DREWJEMISON GREW UPin Montclair, a middle-class suburb northeast of the Oranges. His father had left when he was four, but his mother's boyfriend, Snow, had been a steadfast presence since thenânot a father exactly, but the next best thing. Drew was massive, with a booming voice that belied his relatively soft sensibilities. He wasn't a brawler because he didn't have to be; just by standing up straight he projected an assurance of never being confronted about anything. He played goalie, his wide shoulders and long arms all but blocking the whole net.
Julius “Flowy” Starkes was tall and almost cartoonishly thin, with a long face that gave him an ever-present hangdog expression. He and his twin sister, Tess, had grown up in the worst of poverty, their father killed by violence and their mother troubled enough to practically destroy their formative years, yet functional enough that social services had never intervened in their home on 18th Avenue off the Garden State Parkway. They lived in the very center of greater Newark's web of drugs and violence, a place where lethality hovered close by always. People called him Flowy for his ability to exist casually in a grid of blocks where men and boys could be killed simply for walking down a street they didn't live on. He was all good with everyone; he just flowed. The last words he remembered hearing from his father, without much momentousness, were, “You ain't gonna live to see twenty-one.” But his uncle was the dean of discipline at St. Benedict's, and Flowy had chosen to apply to and pay for St. Benedict's fully on his own, using Social Security checks for supplies. He'd undertaken this mainly because he'd known that going to public school, with girls, would sentence him to fatherhood by age sixteen, and he wanted to evade that pattern, one from which he himself had been born. At six five and 150 pounds soaking wet, he was awkward in the hallways, barely able to wedge himself behind the classroom desks. But in the pool, he was in control, and with a sharp scissor kick could elevate his body from the water up to the waist and extend his long arms still higher for towering, indefensible shot angles.
Curtis Gamble was an amiable leader in the school immediately. Hewas curious, easygoing, hilarious: the boy who knew how best to spend each hour. His mother was white, his father was black, and they were both schoolteachers. Their home on Smith Street in East Orange was about a mile southeast of Rob's and would provide a refuge and a family for the rest of the newly formed crewâparticularly Tavarus, Flowy, and Rob, none of whom had ever known truly what those two words meant. Curtis, with his relatively comfortable circumstances and laid-back approach to life, served as a model, the person they all wanted to be more like, the son they wanted to raise themselves someday.
The boys knew very few of these details about one another at first; they didn't talk about their lives, their histories, their problems. Instead, they talked about music. They talked about what they wanted to eat. They talked about weekend parties that may or may not have been happening. They talked about practice and their hard-ass teachers and coaches. They talked about the momentary wants and obligations of their daily lives, the way all boys did. But their unvoiced pasts, the way their stories bridged and intersected and illuminated each other, formed the foundation upon which their bond grewâas well as the fact that they were members of what they assumed to be the only all-minority water polo team in the country, maybe even the world.
When semester grades were posted freshman year, with Rob's name again clustered at the top of the list with a 4.0, he noticed that Tavarus was on the other end of the spectrum with a 0.7. Rob had known that Tavarus was struggling emotionally, but he didn't know how badly until he saw the atrocious figure. Without mentioning the grades or alluding to any personal issues that spawned them, he organized a weekly study group after swim team practice. Rob didn't need the group, and indeed spending nights helping his friends catch up actually hindered him from getting farther ahead. But he observed the depressive pattern Tavarus was in, and here was a tangible way to help.
Usually Curtis's mother would pick up the boys downtown and bring them home to Smith Street. She would make sure everyone was fedâa laborious and calorically expensive task with five high schoolboys swimming the miles that they did, but she could tell there was minimal nourishment occurring in their own homes. The basement, adjacent to a laundry area, was cramped and penned in by metal storage shelves and boxes of old clothes. But it had a refrigerator stocked with soda, and the boys made it into a clubhouse of sorts, cramming themselves into the stuffy subterranean space with their books nestled on their laps. There, for hours on end, Rob would tell them what they had to know in each of their classes, including the ones he wasn't taking himself. Curtis's father was usually upstairs watching the news or prepping his lesson plans for the following day at school. To Rob and Flowy, his simple and constant presence was something to marvel at and, perhaps, envy. To Tavarus, Mr. Gamble was like a mirage of some kinder present day than that which he'd been granted. Then Mr. Gamble would speak, making abstract-sounding statements that almost always started, “When you all head off to collegeÂ .Â .Â .” He spoke as if this, college, were a given.
The house at 34 Smith Street (incidentally, less than a block from where Georgianna Broadway and Deborah Neal had shared their house) was within walking distance of all except Drew's. The houseâÂspecifically, the basementâbecame the physical center of the boys' lives, where any or all of them could be found at any given hour when they weren't at school, and sometimes when they should have been. They were comfortable there, warm, fed, far from conflicts. On the foundation of this sudden, unexpected stability, the boys built a brotherhood, a family structure that was easy and permanent and good.
MILLIONS OF LEAVESfluttered overhead. Water flowed along a ravine beneath them, from snowpack in the Catskills a hundred miles north. On either side, woods stretched out, impenetrable. Ahead and behind, the packed dirt of the trail meandered steadily, definitively through them. The air was sweet and washed and full of oxygen, though slightly tainted by the odor of 150 boys marching through it in a line two hundred yards long. Once in a while they would crest a rise and the view would open up, and still all they saw were more trees and maybe a distant church steeple to mark a town isolated in all the nature.
The fifty-mile hike along the Appalachian Trail, from High Point State Park to the Delaware Water Gap, was the physical and metaphorical completion of their first year of high school. Most complained about the heavy packs, blistered feet, mosquito bites, and the too-fast pace set by Coach Ridley up at the front of the column. Rob, who had been elected leader of his subgroup of eight students, was quiet during the walking phases but turned vocal during the camp setup and cooking. He seemed to derive a purpose and efficiency from what they were doingâcarrying their own load as they covered a specified number of miles each dayâthat eluded most of his classmates. When they finally boarded the bus to go home, they were pumped full of endorphins and the once-a-year glee that accompanied the beginning of summer. Back in Newark a few hours later, its neighborhoods could not have felt more claustrophobic. Many of the boys had never before registered the fact that their hometown had the smallest proportion of open space per person of any city in the country.
That summer, Rob went to the public pool at Columbian Park four days a week to train with Flowy and Tavarus. They would swim a hundred laps and throw the ball around, shooting on a homemade net kept afloat with empty milk jugs. Afterward, they would go back to Curtis's house, eat, play video games, and do schoolwork since St. Benedict's held a Summer Phase to keep the students engaged.
Tavarus was tapped to go on a retreat to Maine, at the estate of Charles Cawley. Mr. Cawley, Class of '55, was the CEO of MBNA bank and the largest benefactor of the school. Of the $5 million Friar Leahy raised to keep St. Benedict's running each year, Mr. Cawley gave roughly half, sometimes more if needed. Every summer, the banker opened his vast property to twelve students: four top students, four average students, and four academically poor students. All were deemed by school counselors as coming from “troubled” circumstances (which was why Rob,who exhibited no outward signs of hardship at home, was not selected). The idea was to reward good work while providing incentive for those falling off. Tavarus was among the worst of the latter selection, and between the catered sit-down lobster dinners and fishing trips and lectures on economics given by credit card titans, he managed to start a fistfight. That night, still heated and snarling under his breath, he was ordered to call home and explain what he'd done. He called Rob instead.
“What happened?” Rob asked, sounding very much like the stern but patient father Tavarus had lost.
Tavarus explained: the kid had made a comment about his shoes, they'd started having words, one thing led to another, Tavarus wasn't about to let himself be punked, etc.
“Wait, wait, wait, hold up,” Rob said. “You're getting served steak and lobster, getting to sleep in your own bedroom with your own bathroom and amaidâand you're starting shit over some words about shoes?” Rob made apshasound. “Don't be such a bitch, T.”
When he phrased it that way, Tavarus felt pretty much like a bitch.
“Just chill,” Rob told him. “Don't let the stupid shit get to you. Think about the big picture.”
The retreat, a comprehensive immersion in the lifestyle of the haves, was transformative for Tavarus. When he returned, with Rob's guidance and encouragement, he signed up for extra summer tutoring at the school and in the evenings let Rob coach him on how to studyâÂspecifically how to take quality notes in class and then focus on the meat of each subject without going cross-eyed from the details. When Curtis's father spoke of college, Tavarus had never allowed himself to feel included in that particular brand of long-term thinking. And as a 0.7 freshman-Âyear GPA was a deep, deep hole to be tasked with digging himself out of, he still didn't. But in some long-dormant part of his consciousness, now stirred by his friend Rob, he saw it: a campus far from here with grassy quads and matching eaved buildings, with ÂTavarus himself walking through it carrying an armload of books. This image was grainy, but the resolution became sharper and more detailed with each hourspent in awe of Rob. During their first year, Tavarus had figured his friend to be naturally gifted, as if all he had to do to maintain that 4.0 GPA was open his eyes each morning. Over the course of that summer, he learned how doggedly Rob worked, the sheer volume of pages he read, the Âmeticulousness with which he notated those pages. In Rob's small room on the second floor of the Chapman Street house, a three-shelf bookcase was packed with black-and-white composition books, the front and back of each page filled with single-spaced notes from various classes. Tavarus thought,Damn, this is how you go places.
ABIG DRAWof the water polo team was that there were only three squads, including St. Benedict's, in all of New Jersey. For competition, the team had to travel most weekends to tournaments in Pennsylvania, Connecticut, and Massachusetts, where the school would rent four doubles at a Motel 6 or Super 8 and the players would pack in seven and eight to a room.
During an early-season trip in the fall of sophomore yearâRob's first on the teamâone player had managed to bring along a six-pack of Bacardi Breezers. To enthusiastic hollers, he handed them out, but Rob refused his. He panned around the room of young black men sitting on cheap hotel mattresses, sipping on their pink carbonated lady drinks.
“You look like a bunch of pussies,” he cracked.
Flowy responded, “You're so hard, you bring the party supplies next trip.”
The following weekend, Rob opened his duffel bag and pulled out a dime bag of weed as well as a fifth of E&J Brandy. He poured the liquor into small plastic cups from the lobby. Tavarus, who also had more than a bit of experience with drinking and drugs, was the only excited one. All the other boys sniffed the stuff, made faces, looked around to confirm that they were not alone in their apprehension. But they were trapped in this room now, with pride at stake as Rob Peace watched them expectantly. He was already rolling a small blunt, sliding his tongue across the cigarette paper and tweedling the package back and forth between his thumbs and index fingers.
“This gonna make me sick for the game tomorrow?” Drew asked.
“Game's not till the afternoon,” Rob replied. “And you're big as hell. You'd have to drink this whole fifth to get sick.”
“Smells nasty,” someone else said.
“That's why you down it fast.” Rob took a shot, exhaled a sated breath, poured another.
Dutifully, without toasts or fanfare, the boys downed their shots. The brown, lukewarm spirit tasted toxic and burnt, like a zipper of fire being ripped down their throats. And yet even this first shot, before Rob finished rolling the joint and sharing hits, seemed to soften the world around them while at the same time hardening their own interiors. Once the weed entered into the proceedings, time itself began to thin out and grow gentler. They chanted rap lyrics and talked sports and mostly just laughed so hard that they were sure Coach Ridley would knock down the door and kick them out of schoolâwhich, because they were stoned, made them laugh harder. The next day, though Rob was not yet a strong enough swimmer to make the starting rotation, they won their JV game.
After that trip it was clear that Curtis may have been a leader of men, but Rob was the Man, a guy who couldhook you up.And indeed, not long after that a few classmates approached him quietly in the hallway with a question (this as they walked single file, shoulders pressed to the wall, singing): Can we buy some weed off you?
“Hell no,” Rob said, and instead told them to talk to Tavarus, who was able to get real quantities of marijuana through his older brother. Tavarus was living in a one-story, two-bedroom home on Halsted Street with his grandmother, aunt, and numerous cousins. Rob knew how badly he needed the money, which was why he was surprised a few days later, when Tavarus slipped him a twenty-dollar bill in passing.
“Kickback,” Tavarus said quietly. “Thanks.”
Rob had the money changed at a store on the way home and left half for his mother, just like he always had. Twenty dollars for a referral was not bad at all.
CURTIS PULLEDRoband the rest of the team out of the pool during warm-ups. “There's a fight. Shit isreal.”
With towels around their waists, they ran to the skyway connecting the school to the faculty parking garage across the street, from which they could see all the way down Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. What they saw wasn't a fight so much as a riot, with a few dozen students and some teachers from St. Benedict's lined up across from a phalanx of students from the nearby public school, Central High. The Central kids would often venture down toward St. Benedict's at the end of the school day to taunt what they saw as overprivileged prep schoolers, call them faggots and pussies and bitches. This had been a problem for years, and Friar Leahy addressed it from time to time during morning convocation. He told his boys to keep their heads down and maintain their perspective, and never to forget that words were just words. But words mattered, more so in Newark than many other places. In a world where income and possessions were limited, words represented dignity, pride, self-worth. And just as they had with Tavarus at the Maine estate, words electrified that day and became clenched fists cracking against chins, brains colliding against crania. Teachers from St. Benedict'sâthe young ones who'd gone to school here not long before and were still in tune with these tensionsâcame outside to break it up, only to become involved themselves. Rob's crew watched the melee from one story up and fifty yards away, aching to take partâRob more than the rest, watching his classmates be inexorably overcome by the greater numbers from Central. He headed for the stairs, his musculature tensing in full. Curtis grabbed him by both shoulders from behind.
“You don't even have shoes on.”
Rob looked down at his gym shirt, the towel around his waist, his bare feet on the cold concrete. “Fuck,” he said.
Flowy murmured, “I'll go down there. I know those boys. I'll talk.”
They went inside and got dressed. Rob and Flowy intended to find familiar faces in the Central High group, and pacify. But by that timethe police had already arrived, and seven people were in handcuffs. Still, Flowy wandered up to the front steps of Central at the end of the day, founds some guys he knew, tried to sort out what exactly had happened, and ensure that everyone was cool.
The next morning, Friar Leahy assembled the entire school in the gymnasium and lit into students and faculty alike for two hours. He gave sermons every Sunday in the church that adjoined the school, and the one he gave that day was full of fire and brimstone, rendering a vivid version of the future begotten by what had happened: prison, poverty, and early deathâa future that many of the boys saw around them every day. The friar's voice, hoarse to begin with, faded to an angry, condemning rasp.
Afterward, a rumor began spreading that Friar Leahy was going to retire in the wake of this, that he couldn't go on leading people who wouldn't follow him.
Rob, Curtis, Flowy, and Tavarus set a meeting in his office, and they begged him to stay. They promised to corral the student body and bring guys back in line. With Rob speaking for the group, he told Friar Leahy that if he were to leave, they would leave, too. Because they still had two years and change, and they wouldn't go to a school where Friar Leahy wasn't the headmaster.
Friar Leahy had in fact never harbored any thought of leaving the school he'd built, but he indulged the boys their pleas because they were so sincere. What struck him most about the meeting was that he'd never heard Rob Peace speak so much at one time, and he saw in the speech a kind of quiet leadership that came along rarely. Later that year, he asked Rob to lead the freshmen on the Appalachian Trail in May, a task normally given to juniors.
During the hike, a rainstorm moved in quickly, in the middle of the night, shrouding them in total blackness and flooding the campsite with runoff beneath the sharp strikes of lightning and resounding thunder. While everyone scrambled for shelter from the lashing winds, communication along the line of campsites was lost, and Rob's groupof twenty-four freshmen became isolated from the rest. Their cheap tents collapsed. The freshmen, though just a year younger than he, were mortally scared. More than a handful of them had witnessed gunfights in their neighborhoods, seen dead bodies sprawled on concrete. But this, the raging of nature, was completely new and terrifying. Rob had everyone hold handsâ“Just do it,” he growled when one student gave it a homosexual slantâand he led them down off the exposed mountainside like children. They left everything except rain gear so that they could move fast. They ended up in a small town off the trail, two dozen black kids huddled in the front yard of a rural house at three in the morning while Rob knocked on the door and, very respectfully and politely, asked if he might use the phone inside. After Rob called a faculty coordinator back in Newark to let him know they were okay, the homeowner asked if the boys wanted to stay in his garage until the storm let up. Rob declined; now that no one was going to be struck by lightning or washed down a mountainside, he wanted his group to get through this on their own.
The next fall, a new addition came to the Class of '98 in the tall, pale, goofy form of Hrvoje Dundovic. He'd come alone from Pula, Croatia, fleeing the economic malaise that had gripped the country since the Balkan conflict of 1992. He was living with a host family in East Orange, an arrangement made through the St. Benedict's alumni network. Having come from a suburban seaside enclave in a nearly all-white country, he could not have ended up in a more alien environment. During nights and weekends, he rarely went outside. At school, the cultural divisions were amplified by the fact that this was a particularly tight-knit class that had been together for two years already. Three months into the school year, he had yet to hear anyone, including teachers, pronounce his name correctly (HIT-of-way). He did, however, join the water polo team. He'd grown up playing water polo, which was one of the reasons he'd landed at St. Benedict's. His strategy to fend off homesickness was to listen to his Walkman all the time and lose himself in the songs he'd grown up listening to in his bedroom back home.
“What you got in there?” Rob, now one of the leaders of the varsity team, asked out of the blue. He nodded toward the music player.
“The Misfits,” Hrvoje answered in his thick glottal accent.
Rob motioned with his hands, and Hrvoje slipped off the headphones and passed them over. Rob's eyes went wide with distaste upon hearing the screechy wail of Glenn Danzig, the metallic confusion that was the guitar and drums. “What the hell kind of music is this?”
“Prog rock,” Hrvoje answered. “Or some call it punk.”
“Damn, that is awful.” Rob walked away shaking his head and laughing.
Hrvoje assumed this exchange would be the end of their acquaintance, but the next day Rob came back to hear more, Black Flag in the Walkman this time. Rob knew what prog rock was now; he'd looked it up in his Encyclopaedia Britannica the night before. He had memorized the dates, the important figures in the movement, the intellectual thinking behind the sound. From then on, the two of them sat together on bus rides, Rob willing himself to develop an appreciation, if not a taste, for punk rock while he coached Hrvoje through the lyrics of his own favorites: DMX, Nas, Tupac. An image that would be remembered always by the team was Hrvoje, standing in front of the bus aisle while Rob goaded him on, both hands folded into hang-ten signs and jabbing at the air, singing Tupac's “Hail Mary” in his Croat accent.
Rob, Tavarus, Drew, Flowy, and Curtis called themselves the Burger Boyz, because between class and practice they could typically be found at the Burger King around the corner. Rob never bought food for himself. Tavarus would spring for him on occasion, a culinary version of the kickbacks he still gave to Rob for shepherding marijuana business his way. Most of the time, Rob was content to suck on ketchup packets from the condiment bins, sometimes a dozen in one sitting. He told his friends that he did it for the salt, and he would segue into a chemistry-Âbased explanation of the NaCl exchange necessary, on the cellular level, to drive the body through the workouts to which Coach Ridley subjected them. But his friends knew he was concerned about money. They'd all beento his house, registered the austerity of it, the way the lights or the heat would be shut off from time to time. By now, they called Jackie “Ma.” Sometimes she would bring home surplus food from work, which was a long fall quality-wise from the homemade spaghetti and casseroles Mrs. Gamble made for them, but the boys were always gracious. The only other food option at Rob's house were the rows of Oodles of Noodles in the cupboard, bought from the Price Cutter on Springfield Avenue.
They all were poor, but Rob seemed to hold his poverty closer than the rest of them, to feed off it like he fed off the ketchup packets: a nutritionless condiment that powered him through miles and miles of water. He didn't joke about being poor the way most did; he didn't outwardly resent it, either. Rather, he carried it with him under vigilant guard: the one pair of school shoes he shined obsessively, the earnings figures still recorded in the composition book beside his bed, the encyclopedias he kept dusted, the refusal to spend money on anything personal, not even weed, which he'd been procuring through Carl, whom Rob called his uncle, since Carl had been the most constant male presence on Chapman Street since his father's imprisonment. His friends figured that he contained whatever anxiety he felt because he alone knew that he would one day overcome it, and not even too long from now.
THE WATER POLO TEAMwas strong their junior year, in the fall of 1996. Rob, now the lead butterflyer on the swim team, played in the “hole,” the basketball equivalent of a power forward. At five eleven with a barrel chest and short but muscular armsâas well as the ability to absorb and dole out punishmentâhe was naturally suited to the role. The offense ran through him as he hovered five yards in front of the opponent's goal, shrugging off defenders who would alternately lock their forearms under his armpits to pull him underwater, dig their nails (unclipped specifically for this purpose) into the flesh of his neck, angle their kneecaps to take shots at his testicles underwater, where the refs couldn't see. Rob, often deploying the covert elbows that his father once schooledhim on, was adept at shrugging these defenders off so that he could pull in a pass, take a shot himself, or kick the ball out to Flowy or Hrvoje on the wings. Tavarus, small but quick enough to cover the full width of the pool, played defense along with Drew in the goal. A big part of their game was the intimidation inherent in a team of muscular, razor-mouthed, dark-skinned (all except for Hrvoje, who looked like a pale, skeletal specter among them) inner-city boys walking into the pools of the privileged majority, there to play rough and win games dirty if need beâand talk more than their share of smack while they did it. If parents in the stands weren't complaining to the refs about their language, then the Gray Bees figured they weren't talking enough. The team carried with it an unbridled quality, some primal mixture of arrogance and competitiveness and zeal.
They won their first tournament at Lawrenceville, near Princeton, and came in second at their next, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Ultimately, they would come two wins shy of winning the Mid-ÂAtlantic championships, and Flowy would be selected to the All-Regional First Team. A referee pulled him aside one weekend and told him that if he was interested, he could pull strings to put Flowy on track for a scholarship to UMass. On the nights in motels between the games, the boysâwith Hrvoje now a part of their groupâwould drink and smoke, listen to music, and play spades deep into the night before playing their hearts out the following day. During the week, they would practice until after six, watch game film at Coach Ridley's house until eight, go to Curtis's house and study until ten, at which point Mrs. Gamble would drop each of them back at his home. When she'd first begun doing this, Flowy had asked her to let him off on South Orange Avenue, a well-trafficked thoroughfare, rather than enter the narrower, darker side streets of his neighborhood on 18th Avenue. She'd told him not to be silly; she'd lived in East Orange for over three decades and knew how to check her mirrors.
At school, they began working with college guidance counselorsâeven Tavarus, who in two years had raised his 0.7 GPA to 2.1. Flowywas extremely aware of the financial realities that lay between him and something like collegeâwhich, unlike St. Benedict's, could not be paid for with a few hundred dollars' worth of Social Security each monthâbut that referee's voice made a resonant echo in his head:scholarship, scholarship, scholarship.Curtis, the only one whose parents had gone to college, was already listing party schools, particularly in Atlanta; Morehouse appealed to him. And Rob was thinking about Seton Hall, eight blocks from his home and his mother. His counselor told him that he should apply wherever he wanted to applyâthat with Rob's grades and his leadership accolades (not to mention a combined SAT score of 1510 out of 1600, placing him in the ninety-ninth percentile nationally), it couldn't hurt to visit a few of the top-tier schools, if only to see what they looked like. The school organized and paid for these visits, which would begin the following summer before senior year. Rob went ahead and signed up for the Ivy League tour; he didn't take the prospect seriously, but he would travel anywhere given the free opportunity.
Junior year, as the Burger Boyz would remember it, ended with a party. Rob walked the mile to Curtis's house, where Tavarus and Flowy met up with them. They took a few hits of weed together and then all walked west as the sky darkened, their crew looking the same as any other group of young men trolling around East Orange that night. They said hey to anyone they passed, people they knew and people they didn't. They smoked continuously and drank from brown-bagged bottles of Cisco wine, past the Seton Hall campus and into South Orange, where the wide streets curved beneath blooming cherry blossom trees and the green lawns were lit by yellow lights embedded in the mulched gardens. They ended up at Columbia High, the public school servicing this wealthy area. Rob's friend from Mt. Carmel, Jason Delpeche, went to school here and had invited them to a dance. Drew met them in the gymnasium. There were supposed to be girls there. The Burger Boyz tended to do well with girls.
Except tonight's party sucked: a few dozen kids pressed against the wall of a cavernous gym, with parent chaperones eyeing those who ventured to dance too closely. They couldn't believe that they'd walked three miles to be there and would have to walk three miles home. Curtis made a call from the lobby pay phone and learned of a party down the street, at some kind of dance studio, so the five of them took off. They didn't realize they were being followed until a hundred yards later. Back in East Orange, trailing footsteps would cause the backs of their necks to tingle in apprehension, their eyes to begin scanning for an alley down which to escape. But behind them now, almost all the Columbia High students were walking as if in formation, just as the freshmen had done on the Appalachian Trail, confident that Rob, Curtis, Tavarus, Flowy, and Drew would lead them somewhere they all wanted to be.
They landed at the next party and immediately became its center, cluster-dancing in slow motion under strobe lights, surrounded by girls, sneaking outside for hits of marijuana, feeling the excited beating of their own hearts as the culmination of the last three years together, three years that had formed them somehow, without any of them being aware. In the fall of 1994, they'd been boys, followers of other boys. Now, in the spring of 1997, they were young men, leaders who had earned the right to strut the way they did. And three, ten, twenty years from now? On that night, they were confident, even arrogant, that they would rule the city of Newark.
COACHRIDLEY STOODacross from the seething, wild-eyed boy as their last volley of charged words ricocheted off the tiles of the pool. He couldn't believe this was happening, that he'd allowed what had been intended to be a quiet, sensible conversation to reach this pitchâand at seven in the morning no less.
St. Benedict's opened its pool to the neighboring public in the mornings, mostly city employees swimming a few laps before work. Rob had been lifeguarding for a small wage his junior and senior years, which meant getting to school no later than five thirty to open up the pool.
Coach Ridley had figured that this early, quiet hour would be as good a time as any to broach a topic that had been bothering him for many weeks now, and so he'd waited for all the swimmers to finish, leaving Rob alone to close down the pool. As the boy went about his succession of tasksâspooling in the lane ropes, stowing away the kickboardsâCoach Ridley approached and asked Rob outright why he smoked so much marijuana, why he would jeopardize his lungs, his mind, his future that way. His intention was to have a reasonable conversation in the manner that St. Benedict's teachers were trained to confront their students' out-of-school lives: nothing accusatory, nothing tense, nothing to drive a boy farther away. But Coach Ridleyâthough he'd spent so many hundreds of hours in this very same chamber with Rob, though he'd taught the kid to swim, though he'd opened his own home so the Burger Boyz could study filmâhad no idea of the vast reservoir of anger within Rob Peace. And somehow his very earnest questions about Rob'sdrug use had fully loosed this anger.
Now Coach Ridley was standing there, his own temples pumping with blood, hearing Rob scream, “I haven't had a father since I was seven years old! What makes you think I need one now?”
This was the first time Coach Ridley had ever heard the kid mention his father. He replied, “I'm not trying to be your father, Rob. I just care about you.”
But Rob was already stalking out of the pool, his bare feet slapping the wet tiles. During his five years of teaching, Coach Ridley had never lost control of an interaction so completely. Rob didn't show up at water polo practice for the rest of the week.
At St. Benedict's, academics represented only a fraction of the faculty's responsibilities. Test scores were in many ways secondary to the task of instilling confidence in kids not primed to believe in themselves and confronting rampant emotional issues resulting from the loss of a parent, usually a father. The school's emphasis on sports went a long way, particularly rarefied sports like water polo, fencing, and lacrosse. The expansive counseling system was a fundamental part of the curriculum, as well as the teacher rotationâwithout overtime payâthat kept the school's doors open on weekends to students seeking a quiet place to work away from harried homes. But there remained limits to what infrastructure could accomplish, because the biggest mistake a counselor could make in addressing emotional problems was to call attention to those problems outright. In troubled cases, the key was to locate a tangential entry point, something like a back door through which counseling could be administered without the boy feeling as though he needed extra help.
The first telltale sign of difficulty at home tended to be academic: a disengagement with the classroom and subsequent falling grades. While heartbreaking to watch, this process presented a tangible opportunity to find that back doorâas had been the case with Tavarus freshman year, when the Maine retreat had successfully aligned his touchy consciousness with the potential he'd forgotten he had.
But there were the rare students bright enough to maintain highgrades no matter what they were struggling with internally. As Coach Ridley learned that early winter morning of 1998, Rob Peace was one of those students. All the anger Rob feltâat his father's imprisonment, his mother's weariness, his own poverty that tasted like ketchup packetsâonly seemed to fuel his merits as a scholar and leader, and hide itself behind those ever-rising attributes.
The following Friday night, while Coach Ridley was packing for a water polo tournamentâand trying to figure out who could play the hole position in Rob's placeâRob called him at home. He asked when the bus was leaving tomorrow. Coach Ridley, aware that Rob knew very well what time the bus left, told him to be at school by eight in the morning.
“Cool,” Rob said. “Cool.” Silence followed, but neither hung up.
“How are you feeling about the games tomorrow?” Coach asked.
“Strong. I think we can run the table.”
They talked for an hour, about game strategy against the talented ÂExeter Academy team, about the New York Giants, about random school gossip and events. They talked about everything except what they'd talked about earlier in the week.
Rob was on fire at the tournament, scoring multiple goals in each of their four games. They lost to Exeter in the semifinals but won their consolation game to take third place overall. And Coach Ridley never confronted Rob again about marijuana. He figured that here was a fundamentally good kid of spectacular mental faculty, and that if he could do as well as he did while relying on a little cannabis to metabolize his anger, then maybe it was best not to meddle, not now.
IN THE SECONDweek of their senior year, Rob was elected group leader, the president of all the eighteen color groups, each of which had its own president and vice president. He was in charge of the convocation each morning, resolving conflicts among the underclassmen, and, above all, disciplinary measures. One of his first actions was to make boots illegalin school. Because of the uniforms, many students utilized footwear as fashion statements. Sneakers weren't allowed, and so kids wore big construction boots with the laces untiedâjust like Rob had worn at Mt. Carmel. Rob decided that these boots were a distraction in the hallways and in class, with the heavy thumps they made and the fights they sometimes caused. He took plenty of flack for this policy decision, but he didn't care. The rule went into effect.
When he wasn't at school, he was with Curtis, whose father had died during the summer between junior and senior years: an assault of cancer similar to that which had taken Tavarus's father four years earlier. Alone or all together, the Burger Boyz reneged on their silent agreement to steer their talk clear of the hard stuff, and they wondered what beef God had with the fathers and sons of East Orange. Curtis's father, though sometimes gruff, had provided a beacon for the group, as well as a motivator, a constant stream of eyes-on-the-prize mentality. While thugs, junkies, and vagrants trolled up and down Smith Street at night, Mr. Gamble had always been home by six, available for help with homework or a verbal ass-kicking for any of the five boys who merited one. And now heâjust like Tavarus's father, just like Flowy's, just like Drew's, just like Rob'sâwas gone.
Losing a father was more than a singular devastating event. It marked the beginning of a struggle, a lifetime struggle made harder by the conscious awareness that it would always be so, that no achievement would ever nullify the reality of such an absence. The single thing that did helpâto cope with if not to overcomeâwas friendship, to which these boys clung fiercely.
Through all the various periods of tragedy during their four years together, Rob had yet to reveal anything about his own father. He visited Skeet once a monthâmore often if his sports schedule permittedâin secret. These visits encompassed more than a father and son divided by Plexiglas, striving to remain in tune with one another's day-to-day. Rob had in fact been spending a vast amount of time helping his father legally prepare for his long-awaited first appeal, which Skeet had beenengineering for five years now.
During the summer between sophomore and junior years, Rob and Tavarus had both interned at a real estate firm run by a St. Benedict's alumnus, mostly doing title research. They'd spent much of each day in the Office of Public Records downtown, cross-referencing tax maps with parcel numbers and property values and transfer deeds, making sure that there were no title irregularities capable of deep-sixing an acquisition (Newark real estate was characterized by its irregularities). The Essex County Law Library was just across Springfield Avenue from the Office of Public Records, and during lunch breaks Rob began spending time there, studying capital murder cases and all the various elements of his father's trial that, increasingly as he grew older, plagued him. Once his junior year of school began, he would finish his homework and thenâwhile his classmates watched TV or talked on the phone or sleptâspend a late-night hour with these dense tomes of legal jargon, filling up notebooks with any shred of precedent that might help. As a teenager beginning in 1996, Rob had taken it upon himself to do what the public defenders had failed to do in the fall of 1990: prove that Skeet was innocent. Through his junior year, the following summer, and the first semester of his senior year, in the midst of the trail hikes and early-morning lifeguarding and his group leader responsibilities and high school romances and his first college applications, Rob worked on behalf of his father.
And on December 2, 1997, midway through Rob's senior year of high school, he, Skeet, and a pro bono lawyer named Carl Herman filed a petition for postconviction relief. They argued that Skeet's constitutional right to a speedy trial, granted by the Sixth Amendment, had been violated. At the center of this strategy was Irving Gaskins, the man in whose home Skeet had been arrested and who had passed away a year before the trial. Gaskins had been interviewed at the time of the arrest, stating firmly that Skeet had possessed no weapon. But he hadn't been asked to give a formal deposition to Skeet's lawyers before his death, and so this testimony never came forth in the trial. Carl Herman blamed the public defenders for insufficient representation in this regard, as well asfor “severely prejudicing” Skeet's case due to the nearly yearlong period during which the office denied him representation following his initial arrest. Once Skeet had been granted representation, his lawyers had also opted not to file a “speedy trial motion,” which Herman argued further protracted the proceedings.
One of Skeet's public defenders from his trial testified during the postconviction relief hearing that December. Ironically, he did so on behalf of the State, making the case that he had represented Skeet more than adequately, that three years between arrest and trial was not uncommon for a capital crime and had been necessary in order to plan his strategy, and that Gaskins's statement, even if it had been recorded, would not have affected the outcome of the trial given that Gaskins would have spoken of what he had not seen (the murder weapon) rather than what he had. The lawyer argued that the long pretrial process had in fact spared Skeet's life, as it had granted the defense time necessary to “prepare a list of mitigating factors” and escape the death penalty.
But on that day, the presiding judge sided with Skeet and said, “Based upon the defendant's claim of a violation of his Sixth Amendment right to speedy trial, and as a consequence thereof, the indictment which charged him with murder and other offenses has been dismissed.” The judge stayed the decision for fifty days to permit the State to appeal, meaning that Rob's father was not yet an entirely free man. Nevertheless, ten years and four months after the murders of the Moore sisters, Skeet came home.
ROB ANDCARL STOODon either side of Skeet as they walked past the final guard station and into the main parking lot beneath an overcast Trenton sky. The redbrick wall behind and above them cast its long shadow over the rows of vehicles. They burrowed into their coats, walked quietly to Carl's car, and headed for the turnpike. Rob had spent many nights preparing to fill his father in on how Newark and the world had changed in the last decade: the Gulf War, Bill Clinton, the razingof four project towers by Mayor James, the breakouts of rap artists like Nas and Outkast and Tupac and the Notorious B.I.G. (he'd made a mix tape for the drive), the murders of the latter two. He knew his father thrived on asking questions, and he was ready to provide everything Skeet wanted to know, share all the information that time constraints had precluded during their half-hour visits over the years.
But Skeet's thirst for human data was limited to only one human: his son. School, sports, his friends, his girlfriendsâhe drilled Rob with rapid-fire questions, and Rob was startled. As a kid who had geared much of his life around the concerns of others, he was neither accustomed to nor comfortable fielding inquiries about himself. Rob grew increasingly quiet in the backseat as Carl bucked along South Orange Avenue. Skeet had lived his whole preprison life within a mile of this road, but he hadn't laid eyes on it in a decade. He didn't lay eyes on it now, craning his body instead to face his son, their too-similar faces just inches apart, breathing the same air, no more barriers between them.
The fifty-day stay the judge had granted loomed even now. Mr. Herman had left them with no doubt that the State would eventually file its counterappeal of the postconviction relief ruling, and when it did so, Skeet would almost certainly have to return to prison until the appeal was ultimately decided. They didn't know how long the State would take to prepare this counterappeal; they hoped that the approaching holidays would delay the motion, since lawyers had families, too. In the meantime, Rob was fueled by the prospect of reintroducing his father to the neighborhood the same way that his father had introduced it to him so long ago. All those hours in the law library, all those commutes to Trenton State, all those nights lying awake and alone in his bedâand here was the culmination: he and his father entering the house on Chapman Street together.
But the reality of Skeet's homecoming in no way resembled Rob's fantasies.
Skeet moved into the third floor, in a room directly above Rob's. Immediately, the house felt crowded. For the first few weeks beforeChristmas, Skeet didn't leave. He paced around, ate, read, and continued barraging Rob with questions. He seemed self-conscious about venturing out the way he'd once relished doing, reluctant to confront any of the dozens of neighbors he'd counted as his extended family.
“Everyone's been asking about you,” Rob implored him. “Let's take a walk around.”
“Uh-uh, uh-uh,” Skeet replied. “It's too damn cold outside.”
Day after day, his father kept himself surrounded by four walls nearly at all times. Maybe he needed time to acclimate. Maybe he felt vulnerable, disconnected, no longer the Man in this domain. Maybe his father knew that the second he ventured outside he would begin to attract old friends who were exactly the types of people he couldn't be seen around right now. Maybe he would also attract people who had known the Moore sisters, people not above their own brand of retribution. Maybe, after a decade in a cell, he needed those walls on all sides just to breathe.
Jackie kept herself busy and largely apart from the son and his father during these first weeks. She'd convinced her parents to let him stay there temporarily, at least through Christmas, for Rob's benefit alone. But she had no role to play between them, not anymore. Even if she did have one, Jackie wouldn't have had the energy to fill it. She was tired to a degree never before known to her. She'd watched her son's body grow strong from swimming, his mind oiled and tight from the rigorous curriculum he'd designed for himself (which now included college-level calculus and chemistry classes at Essex Community College). She sometimes felt that her own body had withered in inverse proportion, that her own mind had become diffuse and good for little besides calculating stew ingredients according to serving size. Her hair was graying, her posture was slouched, her knees were shot. She hadn't been able to save any money in four years and had relied on her parents' savings to get her through a few lean months. She'd taken Rob to school at five thirty for his lifeguarding job as often as she could. In her parents' Lincoln, she'd picked him up at Curtis's near midnight after study marathons. She'dskimped as little as possible when it came to his education. As much as she could, she'd tried to shield him from the strain this placed on her. The fact that her son was thriving, that he was on course for college, had sustained her. And now, on the home stretch of senior year that she'd always envisioned as a time of vital decisions and valuable reflections on the eighteen years of life she and her son had lived together, she was instead worried about Skeet. She worried about whether he would actually find another place to stay like he'd assured her. She worried about him eating more than his share. She worried about him distracting Rob from schoolwork, something that no one prior had ever been able to do. But she had never worried that having his father at home would make her son unhappy.
Skeet tracked the boy's movements obsessively. Anytime he left that monthâto hang with Curtis on Smith Street, to go to the mall in Union with a girl, to work out with Tavarus and Flowy at the poolâSkeet met him at the door, wanting to know exactly where he was going and with whom. And when he returned, Skeet would be there waiting for a detailed rendering of what he'd done while away.
Rob had been living more or less as an adult, responsible for his own time, for years now. He'd constructed his own social network, his own schedule, his own way of life. And he'd done all this with aplomb, ascending to the pinnacle of the St. Benedict's community as well as the precipice of a college education. Through it all, Rob had spent time every day for ten years wondering what it would be like to have his father back. Against the image of this father waiting almost desperately by the front window for him to show up (and Rob could remember waiting in that same place himself as a seven-year old), he was spending his days remembering fondly what it was like being his own man, with no one hovering or questioning or living vicariously through him.
Christmas arrived, and various extended family members came home from Georgia, Florida, and Ohio. The Peace clan, almost all of whom had begun their lives in this house, congregated there once more. Robhad organized the reunion himself, calling, cajoling, offering to help pay for airfare; he'd been obsessed with a family Christmas. Now Rob seemed to locate the happiness that he'd found so elusive in the weeks since his father's release. He cooked and passed around trays of food. He decorated the house. He invited Victor and his aunt over, and Victor would remember for the rest of his life the degree to which Rob resembled his father. Presents were relatively few, but Rob gave his parents both imitation-leather coats that he'd bargained for in the fashion district of Manhattan. Skeet held up his coat and nodded thanks, but no one saw him smile. It was as if he knew that he'd never wear it.
Just after the second semester of school began in January, the State filed its counterappeal to the postconviction relief ruling. As stipulated by the judge's prior stay, Skeet returned to prison. Once more, Rob walked with his father across a prison parking lot, this time to Essex County, to await another verdict.
NEAR MIDNIGHT, a sharp breeze rolled across Orange Park. The swing set creaked near the bench on which Victor and Rob sat. Victor couldn't recall seeing his friend cry in eight years of knowing him. Had their positions been reversed, Rob most likely would have told him to “quit being a bitch.” But Victor wasn't going to say that. His friend spent so much time being rough, hard, guarded, that this moment felt almost precious, and Victor wished he knew what to do or say.
They were sharing a joint, both leaning forward with elbows on knees. Orange Park remained a relatively safe place to smoke, because the police still didn't make regular patrols and because the boys knew by name all the young dealers who operated hereâhad grown up with many of them. They were left alone to work their way through this new problem, rare in the sense that it belonged to Rob.
In early spring of their senior year, college acceptance letters had begun trickling in to the school. Rob had been advised to apply to nine colleges: three “stretches,” three “good bets,” and three “safety schools.”He'd ultimately chosen to apply to six, in order to save Jackie money on application fees: Johns Hopkins, Yale, Penn, Columbia, Seton Hall, and Montclair State. Earlier that day, Rob had received his third response, from Montclair. The state school had offered Rob a full merit scholarship. The Ivy League did not award merit-based scholarships, only need-based. Columbia, in New York City, had turned him downâRob felt because that was the one application on which, in the financial aid attachment, he'd mentioned his father's status as an inmate. Johns Hopkins, his first choice after all the college visits, had accepted him but with only partial financial aid. He'd made the mistake of listing the house on Chapman Street as an asset, which had shaded his and Jackie's circumstances in ways he hadn't foreseen, as it had once done for his father in pursuit of public defense. For the general essay question, “Write about a challenge you have overcome,” he told the story of the storm on the Appalachian Trail and shepherding underclassmen down the mountainside at night.
Now, he was crying, trying to hide it, digging his index finger into his eye as if there were a bug in it.
“I don't know what I want to do,” he murmured.
“You have to go to Montclair, you go to Montclair,” Victor responded. “I know it's not anIvyand all, but it's not a bad college.”
Rob shook his head. “You know you want to fly planes, right?” Victor had been learning to pilot small planes throughout high school with a group called the Young Eagles, and he'd already accepted admission to Daniel Webster College in Nashua, New Hampshire, which had an aviation program. “But I don't knowwhatI want to do.”
“You're going to do whatever the hell you have to do,” Victor told him, and he ventured laying a hand on Rob's thick shoulder as his friend took a deep drag of marijuana and handed the joint back. “Just like you're doing now.”
Rob nodded. The problem was not as simple as money, though money was the most powerful variable in that it basically didn't exist. The otherelementâthe one drawing forth these tearsâhad to do with potential, of which Rob knew he possessed a vast amount but didn't know where to focus it. He excelled in math and science but remained passionate about books. He'd valued his real estate internship and the complicated minutiae that accompanied the property acquisition Âprocessâwith profits lying in gathering more information than competitors, in being less lazy. He'd been fully immersed in his father's legal battles, and despite the sobering undercurrents of his father's time at home he still held on to the exhilaration of his role in achieving that time. He loved gaining knowledge in any subject, and he was unnerved by the onset of this first consequential decision of his lifeâthe realization that from this point on, the choices he made would begin closing doors as well as opening them. He told Victor, though not in so many words, that he wished he weren't as smart as he was; he wished his horizon might be narrower and thus more easily navigable. Considering his academic pedigree, Montclair State represented a narrow horizon indeed. But that's where he was going to goâeven after Yale and Penn accepted him over the next two weeks, with aid packages similar to that offered by Johns Hopkins. He owed it to his mother not to take anything more from her; this debt was unspoken, and unknown even to Jackie herself.
The senior banquet was held in mid-April, in the gymnasium. On the same bowed floorboards on which the class had rolled out their sleeping bags during Summer Phase in 1994, the school arranged two dozen tables with linen and silverware. The cafeteria staff prepared steak, salmon, and Caesar salad. The students had been prepped for their best behavior: no slouching, elbows on the table, jokes. Colin Powell, then the secretary of defense, was the guest of honor. Louis Freeh, the head of the FBI, was there as well, along with an army of Secret Service agents. The banquet was a formal celebration for parents and an awards ceremony for students, but it was also a fund-raising event, a chance for the school to show off its finest to alumni donors and high-profile guests.
Charles Cawley, the MBNA CEO, sat at Table One with Friar Leahy, Mr. Freeh, and General Powell. He was bald, with thick white tufts of hair over each ear, his napkin tucked into his collar over a polka-dot bow tie while he sipped vichyssoise. Though he appeared in the flesh only once or twice a year, his was an everpresence among the students. From behind the scenes he had played a direct or indirect role in each of their lives.
As group leader, Rob gave the keynote address. He'd rehearsed at home with his mother, and his deep voice didn't falter as he spoke of this journey they were near to completing, the reliance they'd placed on one another along the way, the gift of manhood that the St. Benedict's tradition had imparted to them. He was striking to all: muscular, focused, commanding. But what struck Charles Cawley was not Rob's speech but Friar Leahy's introduction. The headmaster spoke of a boy who woke up at four-thirty six days a week to lifeguard at the pool, who taught himself to swim as a freshman and now was among the top ten butterflyers in the state, who led quietly and by example, who spent hours each week officially and unofficially working as a math tutor, who would have been valedictorian if a C in freshman art class hadn't knocked his grade point average down to a 3.97âthird in the classâand who had grown up with nothing and now had college acceptances to Hopkins, Penn, and Yale.
At the end of the dinner, Rob was polishing off his chocolate cake when he felt a hand on his shoulder. He looked up into Charles Cawley's face, stood politely to shake his hand and shrug off compliments on his speech. Then Mr. Cawley took a dinner napkin with a phone number scrawled on it from his pocket, and he pressed it into Rob's hand. He said, “You can go to college wherever you want.”
Rob glanced at Friar Leahy, who was watching the interaction with a knowing, contented expression.
“Thank you, sir,” Rob said, not fully understanding.
“Congratulations, son,” Mr. Cawley replied, and he returned to his seat.
A few minutes later, Victor found Rob in the bathroom. For the second time in a month, his best friend since elementary school was crying in front of him.
That night, Rob gave the napkin to his mother and told her what had happened. She figured he'd misunderstood something. Then she called the number the next morning and learned that Rob had been granted a blank personal check from Charles Cawley to cover all his college expenses, no questions asked.
She didn't have time to marvel or celebrate. She didn't even have time to confront her initial reaction, which was to spurn charity and politely decline, write a respectful letter to Mr. Cawley saying that this offer was too generous, and they would be fine making do on their own (she knew that Mr. Cawley was rich; she didn't know that, with an annual salary approaching $50 million, he was one of the best-paid executives in the country). Rob actually called Friar Leahy at home to express this sentiment, and the headmaster told him directly, a little harshly, even, that Mr. Cawley had chosen to make this offer, an offer he had never made to any other student in twenty-five years as a benefactor to the school. Rob had a responsibility to accept it, and to earn it. “Yes, Father Ed,” Rob replied.
His heart was set on Johns Hopkins. Jackie knew people in Baltimore, knew the city and its rhythms, knew that it wasn't too dissimilar from Newark. Its science program was top tier, and during visits Rob had appreciated that the boundaries between the university and surrounding lower-class neighborhoods were less clearly demarcated than they were at other urban schools like Penn and Yale. The student body, too, felt more diverse. Rob spoke often of “real people” with his friends, by which he meant people who struggled, like they all did. On the Ivy League campus visits, any sense of daily or long-term struggle had seemed airbrushed. At Johns Hopkinsâand maybe he was only imagining this because of the Ivy League stigma absent in BaltimoreâRob believed the average student had worked harder and sacrificed more to be there.
The April postmark date for the Hopkins acceptance and room deposit arrived. Rob and Jackie had the signed documentsâand the $500 depositâsealed in a yellow manila envelope, ready for her to drop off after work.
A dreaded day among industrial food service workers was the random health standards inspection by state regulators, which happened at the Summit Ridge facility on April 10, 1998. A group of five inspectors wearing white smocks arrived and spent the full afternoon checking the kitchen, the ingredients, the workers. Jackie received a mark for wearing a hairnet that didn't meet the code in the density of its meshing. As punishment, her supervisor made her stay to oversee the full three-to-eleven shift, though she'd previously arranged for two half shifts. She'd borrowed her mother's car for the post office run that day, and after getting off work at eleven fifteen she headed straight for the I-280 to Jersey City, where there was a post office that stayed open until midnight. But it was Friday night, and she got caught in a snarl of Manhattan-bound tunnel traffic. She made it to the post office ten minutes late. Jackie knocked on doors and banged on windows. Finally, she scribbled, “Urgent, please postmark for April 10th!” on the front of the envelope addressed to Johns Hopkins, slipped it in the mailbox, and drove home hoping that one day wouldn't make a difference.
Hoping wasn't enough to get her son to his first college choice. A phone call the following Tuesday confirmed that the folder hadn't been postmarked in time, and Rob had automatically been placed at the end of the waiting list. As a small consolation, they assured her that the room deposit would be returned immediately.
Her son didn't hold it against her. They spent a meal bitching about her supervisor at work, and then they began assembling acceptance materials for Rob's second choice, Yale University.
Robert D. PEACE
Nickname: Shawn, FOD, Ropert, Wideback
Activities: Swimming (1,2,3,4); Water Polo (2,3,4); Math League (3);Trail (1,2,3); Honor Code (4); Overnight (2,3,4); Senior Group Leader; Group Leader of DS (3); Lacrosse (1)
Favorites: Peace Family, CSP, Victor, DA BURGER BOYZ, real people, and knowledge
College/Future Plans: Attend College (unknown) and accomplish many things
The yearbooks had been published before Charles Cawley made his offer, but Rob appreciated the fact that Yale wasn't listed on his page. He was embarrassed enough by the way his mother had been telling everyone she knew where he was going to school. She'd even submitted the information to the community page of the East Orange paper, bought many copies, and posted the small blurb on the bulletin board at work as a subliminalfuck youto her supervisor.
“Ma, I'm gonna get curbed,” Rob said to her. She asked him what the term meant. He told her not to worry about the specifics, but to know that it wasn't something you wanted to have happen to you.
She said, “I've been quiet about my son for eighteen years. I can let people know you're going to college.”
“You don't have to advertiseYale, though,” he replied. “People are already talking shit.”
“Let them talk. And watch your mouth. Anyone busy talking about you isn't going to Yale I bet.”
But she saw how serious he was, and she stopped advertising to the extent that pride allowed her.
Her mother, Frances, was sick with the early stages of emphysema. At graduation that spring, known as “Walking,” Jackie sat in the back in case Frances needed to step away for a coughing fit. She listened to the valedictorian speak, less eloquently in her opinion than her son had spoken at the senior banquet. She watched her son walk in his broad-shouldered strut to receive his diploma.
Afterward, milling in the crowd, she began to see familiar faces flitting in and out of view: estranged siblings, old neighbors, Skeet's friends and relatives, boys Rob's age from the Orange High football team, people she hadn't spoken to or thought of in years. She needed a moment torealize that they were all there for her son, and another moment to understand that Rob, unbeknownst to her, had maintained relations with all these people, people she'd been too busy or tired to keep in touch with herself. He'd listed “Peace Family” first among his favorite things in the yearbook, and he'd made sure everyone he'd ever considered a part of that family was there that day, everyone except his father.
The summer of 1998 was the last hurrah, and Rob and his friends treated it as such. Flowy, whose scholarship aspirations had been quickly doused along with any hope of affording college (he did not even apply), took a few weeks off before a coach at St. Benedict's helped him secure summer work as a lifeguard for the Department of Parks & Recreation. Everyone else was going to college: Victor to Daniel Webster College; Tavarus to the University of GeorgiaâÂClarkson; Drew to Johnson C. Smith, a small university in North Carolina; Curtis to Morehouse. They took the bus downtown for nostalgic lunches at the Burger King by school. Rob got a tattoo, a sphinx on his right biceps. Victor had drawn the picture during a Fourth of July cookout, and Rob was sufficiently taken by the image to have it inked permanently on his skin. They barbequed in Curtis's backyard and, when his mother wasn't home, they drank a lot and smoked more. They talked about a future in which each of them would congregate here again, in the homes and blocks they knew, with four out of five of them holding college degrees. They would get jobs and then get better jobs. They would save money and buy property and then make profits to buy better property. They would sleep with many women until each found the woman who suited him, and then they would marry and have families and be true to those families. They would teach their sons to swim and send them to St. Benedict's, where Friar Leahy would lecture them about manhood at convocation each morning and Coach Ridley would run them through six-thousand-yard swims at practice each afternoon (ten thousand yards during holiday double sessions). They would be businessmen, landlords, leaders. They would take care of their parents and each other. They harbored little doubt that this future, this collective trajectory, would be earned and actualized. They felt that in light of all the struggles they'd endured, nothing ahead ofthem would feel very hard at all. Only time lay between now and then.
In August, as Rob was getting ready for one more Appalachian Trail hike with the underclassmen, Jackie gave him a piece of mail, with a Wilmington, Delaware, return address.
The letter began, “Dear Robert, looks like we're going to be roommatesÂ .Â .Â .Â ,” and briefly described a guy who was going to run hurdles on the Yale track team and major in English. He professed to be relatively clean, quiet, and excited about college (except for the quiet part, these were lies). In the letter, he suggested that they talk on the phone before leaving for New Haven, so that they might suss out who was bringing what to furnish the room. The letter was from me.
A week or so later, I came home from my summer job at a preschool for mentally challenged kids, where I helped with sports like kickball and floor hockey. I was turning around for track practice in preparation for the Junior Olympic Championships in Seattle that year when my mom, in the kitchen, shouted that one of my roommates, Robert, had called. She was cooking dinner for six, meat-starch-vegetables, as she'd done most every evening of my life. Above the kitchen table, more than a dozen photos of me and my siblings playing sports were arranged in a sprawling shrine. My little brother was watchingThe Simpsonson TV in the next room.
Later that evening, I called Rob back. Jackie answered the phone.
“Hi, this is Jeff, is Robert there?”
“Jeff who?” Her voice was curt, I felt, and bordering on suspicious.
“JeffÂ .Â .Â . Hobbs.”
“How do you know Shawn?”
“IÂ .Â .Â . think we're going to be roommates.” She remained silent, as if needing more information to complete the explanation. “AtÂ .Â .Â . Yale?”
“Oh yeah, yeah, yeah. You're the one that sent that letter?”
“Yes, Mrs. Peace.”
“Let me get Shawn.”
While I waited, I heard adult voices in the background, three or four, arguing about something. Then Rob muttered at whoever was there tokeep it down before he picked up the phone. “Hello?” That he was black was basically the first thing I learned about Rob Peace, evident in the first syllable of the first word he spoke. His voice was deep, as if created by a stone friction far down in a subterranean larynx. His speech had a viscous cadence, heavy ono's and lacking in hardr's, and he had a particular way of not responding to sentencesâof embedding long silences into our conversationâthat left me slightly uneasy.
The Orange, New Jersey, address meant little to me. My older sister's college roommate was from a nearby town, and she came from a wealthy Italian family; as far as I knew, all of northern New Jersey was affluent, siphoning fortunes out of Manhattan. I learned over the course of our conversation that Rob had gone to a prep school, he “played a little water polo,” and his favorite pastime was hiking the Appalachian Trail. Nothing he said shaded him as anything other than well-off and overeducated: a typical rarefied Yale applicant. And yet there was something serious behind his voice, contemplative and world-wise. I told him that my older siblingsâmy brother a Yale graduate two years earlier, my sister going into her senior year at Yaleâhad advised organizing beforehand who would bring what to the room to prevent overlap. Rob told me he had a TV and side table; I said I could bring a stereo and a few lamps. Neither of us seemed interested in prolonging the conversation; an inherent awkwardness existed in talking to someone whose face you'd never seen and with whom you would be living in tight quartersfor the next nine months. “Later,” he finally said and hung up.
A few weeks later, Rob spent a day making rounds to his friends' homes. He spent another day visiting his father in Essex County Jail, where Skeet was still waiting for the postconviction relief hearings to begin (the first hearing wouldn't take place for another eleven months). Then Rob loaded up his grandparents' carâTV, one large canvas duffel bag of clothes, backpack full of books, one side tableâwhile his mother sat on the porch keeping watch, as it was foolish to leave a packed vehicle unattended for even a moment. Rob embraced Frances and Horace. Then Jackie drove him the ninety miles to Yale.
After more than two hours they rounded a bend in the interstate, and New Haven, similar in scope and appearance to Newark, coalesced into view. They joined the slow stream of cars, packed with the material existences of more than a thousand other freshmen like Rob, and then stop-started along Temple Street, between the centuries-old alternately Gothic and Georgian buildings in which he would now live alongside the hundreds of already-arrived students now jaywalking around their car in flip-flops. They rode mostly in silence, both exhilarated by what this new commute signified and frightened of the pending moment, not far away now, in which they would have to say goodbye.
Before graduation in 1998, Rob won the St. Benedict's Presidential Award, the school's highest honor. Teachers such as Abbot Melvin (left) and Friar Leahy (background) were beyond proud of how far the student had come in four years, and how far he was set to go from there.
Class of Oh-Deuce
Rob studying at his usual spot in Yale's Pierson College dining hall during exam week.
IENTERED MY NEW HOME, a quad on the fourth floor of Lanman-Wright Hall, with both of my parents trailing behind me. My dad carried a small table, my mom an armload of new sheets. Dad was in a lousy mood; the four-hour drive from Delaware had been followed by thirty minutes jockeying for a parking spot near the eastern gate of Old Campus, the gorgeous, sprawling quad in which most Yale freshmen livedâand now he had to contend with the stairs. After listening to him swear and honk as if the hundreds of other packed cars had no right to be there, barging in upon Jackie and Rob was jolting. They were just sitting in the common room, almost submissively stillâresigned, even. For a moment, the harried commotion that accompanied twelve hundred eighteen-year-olds moving into a single building over a four-hour time window ceased entirely, replaced by the feeling that we'd interrupted a moment whose gravity lay far beyond me.
His single duffel bag had been tossed on the floor in the left-hand bedroom, and a small, bunny-eared TV was lying on its side in the common room. Random handprints marked the film of dust coating the blank gray screen. Rob wore jeans and a T-shirt, and his close-cropped hair made his face look very young, which belied his deep voice as he shook my mother's hand first, officiously, and said, “Pleasure to meet you, Mrs. Hobbs.” Then he shook my father's.
“Chuck Hobbs,” Dad said. He appreciated a firm handshake, and I could tell he approved of Rob's grip. I had no idea what weight might liewithin that grip on Rob's part. My Dad was handsome and fit, and when he wasn't trying to park a car he was gracious and kind. Whereas Rob's father was an inmate, mine was a surgeon. Dad's primary advice to me in preparing for college was to take easy intro classes the first semester. (“Christ,” he said, “I took some philosophy course my first semester of college, thinking it'd expand my mind or something, and it just about killed me.”)
To Jackie, Dad said, “How are you doing today, ma'am? Bad traffic?”
“Wasn't much,” Jackie replied, a little glumly. She had gray in her short hair, a slight underbite that gave her a miffed expression, and very little interest in engaging with the Hobbses even as her eyes seemed to probe each of us.
Rob nodded in my direction and said, “'Sup.” We performed a half handshake, half hand slap gesture at the level of our waists. I put my bags on the floor, not sure whether etiquette called for me to move into the room Rob had already chosen or wait for our other two roommates.
In the self-centered context of my arrival at college, I never thought to wonder where Rob's dad was. I was too eager to peek into the bedrooms and confirm that the rumors of their dimensions had been true. Everyone downstairs was comparing them to prison cells. With measurements of seven by twelve, they were actually larger than the six-by-eight cells at Trenton State.
My mom was heartened that my rooming situation would include some diversity, and she became overly chatty with Rob: “Have you thought about what classes you're taking?” “So you playÂ .Â .Â . water polo?” “I guess all these stairs will keep you boys in shape!” Rob humored her politely. After a time, she occupied herself with measuring all the windows for curtains she was planning to make on her sewing machine and bring with her on Parents' Day in two months. My dad and I plowed through a half dozen trips to the car for clothes, school supplies, lamps, and tables. Each time we entered the room, Rob and Jackie seemed to be in the same curious state of doing nothing, not even talking. When the transfer was finished, Dad and I were both sweaty and stiff, and he waseager to beat the traffic home. He shook my hand and made a quick exit so as to hide reluctant tears; my mother embraced me, letting her own tears flow, and left as well: both parts of the ritual I had witnessed in this same dorm between them and my older siblings and so understood well. We felt nostalgic and perhaps a bit gloomyâthis moment was a milestone that represented aging for them and the removal of childhood cushions for meâbut not traumatized. We all knew that life hadn't actually changed all that much.
Once they were gone, I realized that Jackie was now sitting on the windowsill overlooking a stone courtyard. Below her, a herd of students milled around, introducing themselves with a breathy, manic energy, exchanging hometowns and entryway assignments. Some were dressed in a style akin to business-casual; others wore PJs. Almost all were white and cheery and well-heeled, some veterans of mass move-ins after four years at elite boarding schools. Music played from speakers facing outward from someone's window: Guns n' Roses' “Sweet Child o' Mine.” Jackie had barely moved all afternoon and had yet to appear anything other than impassively observantâjudgmental, even, and I felt compelled to perform for her somehow, to show that her son would not be living with just another wealthy legacy kid (though I was both wealthy and a legacy). I offered to get her some water, to remove bags from a chair so that she could sit, to make a pizza run. She declined each outreach: “Nah, nah, I'm all right.” Rob, too, seemed to be studying our surroundings and the people newly inhabiting them, the subtle negotiations already taking place over bunk assignments, bathroom stations, and furniture arrangement, the wide-eyed marveling over the bedroom sizes. He must have been thinking about Summer Phase at St. Benedict's, his 140 classmates with their sleeping bags in the Hive, tasked with memorizing one another's names by week's end.
Our other two roommates arrived. Dan Murray was a white guy from Seattle, his father a doctor like mine. He wore preppy clothes and carried a plastic water bottle with him at all times. He spoke very fast and in a high voice, such that it was impossible to understand him at first.Ty Cantey was “blackasian” (black father, Japanese mother) and he ran the four-hundred-meter hurdles, my event. He hailed from San Jose, California, where his father was a NASA engineer. A nearly flawless physical specimen, with chest and arms chiseled like a Greek sculpture, Ty had me intimidated before I even set foot on the track that year. The reasoning behind our “random” rooming assignment was clear: Ty and I were together because we both ran track, Ty and Rob were together because they were both African American, and Dan had been tacked on as a white suburban kid like me to fill out the quad. Ty and I ended up sharing one bedroom, because we figured we'd be waking up early for practice and track meets together. Dan and Rob took the other room. Unstated but thickly understood was the fact that the “right” thing to do was to mix our races. Rob and Ty both claimed the bottom bunks; Dan and I politely ceded them. Dan had gone on the weeklong FOOT trip, an Appalachian Trail hike for incoming freshmen. Ty had participated in PROP, an orientation retreat for minorities during which they'd stayed at a nearby camping ground and played games like capture the flag. They had both already made friends, had begun to construct social lives here in a way that Rob and I hadn't. They flitted in and out of the dorm while Rob and I mostly stayed put, neither of us ready to join the fracas outside.
Rob set himself up in the room silently but directedly, never asking permission or guidance on where to put things. For decoration, he pinned two pictures to the wall. One was of him and his mother at his St. Benedict's graduation. The other was of him, Curtis, Tavarus, Drew, and Flowy standing over a smoky grill in the backyard of 34 Smith Street, making “East Side” hand gestures: the right hand extended palm in, fingers splayed except for the overlapping middle and ring fingers to form a warped E. With their baggy jeans, ribbed undershirts, and skullcaps, they looked like a gang. As I spent the late afternoon organizing my desk with tchotchkes and pictures of family, he walked his mother downstairs to her car. Their goodbye, which took place among the honking lines of expensive foreign cars still coming and going, must have lastedforty-five minutes.
THE FIRST WEEKof college, in my recollection, was a collective celebration of freedom. By day, this took the form of endless ceremonial speeches, extracurricular bazaars, and focus groups on sexual education. By night, more than a thousand eighteen-year-olds, many of whom had never truly “partied” before, engaged in some serious binge drinking. The shared bathrooms began to exude a vomit stench onto the stairwell landings. We lined up outside entryways and frat houses waiting for our rations of stale keg beer. We crowded into Yorkside Pizza and Rudy's Bar hoping to not be carded, which we always were. It was as if all of these kids had spent so long working so hard to get here that the reaction to actually being here was to become idiots. The RA fixed a paper bin filled with hundreds of multicolored condoms to the bulletin board in each entryway; the bins were empty by the following morning, prompting a sign that readONLY TAKE IF YOU ARE ACTUALLY GOING TO USE THEM!Kids sectored off into giddy groups that seemed preordained: the Manhattanites, the Midwesterners, the Californians, the Northeastern boarding schoolers, the internationals. Already coursing through the freshman class was the confident recognitionâfostered in no small part by the universityâthat we were the elite, and these four years would be our passageway to flourishing in whatever arena we chose, and in the midst of that passage we were entitled to celebrate our status freely, often sloppily.
Rob wasn't sloppy. When he was in the room, he methodically paged through his Blue Book, the three-inch-thick paperback of course listings, with an almost menacing seriousness. He spoke in mumbled monosyllables as we gradually furnished and decorated: “Huh,” “Yeah,” “Cool.” Sometimes I would pass him in the courtyard, sitting on a bench or a stone pillar smoking cigarettes, usually alone.
The Yale student body, much like St. Benedict's, was divided into groups within the group in what was called the “residential college system.” Though almost all freshmen lived on Old Campus, our social lives were tagged to one of twelve colleges situated around the university, each with its own distinct architecture, dining hall, library, and “master”âa designated professor who lived in a home affixed to the dorm, there to provide guidance and oversight. We were in Pierson College, a Georgian building that wrapped around a grass courtyard on the northwest corner of campus. The first time the one hundred members of the Pierson Class of '02 congregated together, we were on the slate patio outside the dining hall. Rob stood on the fringe, wearing baggy jeans, Timberland boots, and a “skully,” a tight, thin piece of black nylon fabric in the shape of a stingray, the wing tips of which he bound at the base of his cranium. He was smoking a cigarette, his back turned to us. The classmates who hadn't met him yet clearly figured him to be a dining hall worker or part of the maintenance staff. He did nothing to dispel this notion. In fact, he seemed to take pride in it. Like his mother on move-in day, he harbored little interest in interacting with the rest of us. Though I'd made an effort to be friendly enough, I kept my distance in those moments. An uncle had advised me not to get too chummy with my roommates early on, because it was easier to become better friends than to extricate yourself from someone you didn't like.
In a way that at the time felt natural but perhaps a bit too deliberate, I thought having a black roommate was fortunate. Though my high school was demographically the opposite of Rob'sâ90 percent whiteâI was a national-caliber hurdler and had spent my summers traveling and rooming with mostly black runners at Junior Olympic meets. As a result of many long, cramped van rides, I had a familiarity with popular hip-hop artists of the day, I was conversant in certain strands of street lingo (“That'stight!”), and I knew how to play spades. Overall, I considered myself quite the “honorary black man,” a title with which my old teammates had laughingly graced me. In the dining hall, I would seek out Rob and sit with him. To the extent that I could, I tried to subtly intimate how well qualified I was to be his pal, dropping small hints as to my comfort level among urban black males, omitting oroutright lying about certain details that might undermine the claim. I told him I'd grown up “near Philly,” when in fact I had grown up in an Âeighteenth-century farmhouse on fifteen acres of rolling rural hills in Chester County, thirty miles from the city. I consciously failed to mention that I'd attended private school beginning in prekindergarten, and that my parents, who had been married for almost thirty years, had invested their entire lives (not to mention their finances) into taking care of their four childrenâremoving all uncertainty from our formative years. The two Labradors, the trips to Florida each spring, the sports camps, the annual late-summer mall trips for new school clothes, the pool behind our houseânone of these flourishes of my life seemed to come up. Whether out of sensitivity or amusement, Rob never clued me in to the fact that, despite a few track meets, we hailed from different worlds, different families, different perspectivesâdifferent everything. I would learn that on my own, over the course of many months and never at my friend's behest. In the beginning, we were able to laugh over the fact that I was a white guy who ran sprints and he was a black guy who played water polo. Our friendship coalesced slowly, very slowly, from there.
“What's your dad do?” I asked once during those first days.
He finished chewing and swallowing his foodâRob filled his tray with massive heaps of sustenance, heavy on protein, and he lowered his face very close to the plate while eating, such that he was always looking up from beneath his fierce browâbefore replying, “He's in jail.”
“Oh,” I said. “Oh, sorry. I didn'tâ”
He shrugged and glanced away. “It's all good,” he said, and then, unprompted, “Manslaughter.” I asked nothing further.
As he'd done in high school, he kept to himself the fact that the State of New Jersey's counterappeal to Robert Douglas's Sixth Amendment ruling began in earnest that October with another back-and-forth of motions to begin hearing arguments. The first hearing would not be held until the following March, and the process would stretch on into June, effectively encompassing Rob's entire freshman year of college.
MY OLDER BROTHERhad spoken of it when he'd first left for Yale in 1992: how the black kids ate and hung out only with each other, how some kind of racism, or reverse racism, coursed through “their” social dynamic. Twelve years old at the time, I'd nodded energetically at his keen cultural observation, wondering what it would be like to live out there in the “real world” (Yale, at the time, seeming to me as such). Six years later, my white classmates and I noticed pretty much the same thing. Yale intentionally fills its dining halls with long, narrow tables intended to spur discussions with new people during mealtimes. But once two black classmates sat down at the end of the table, and were joined by three more, and four more after that, from a distance their conversations tended to be loud, a little profane, punctuated with tics of diction and dialect not our own. These groups seemed to cordon themselves off from the majority, and if a white kid ventured to sit there, he looked conspicuously progressive, performing for the rest of the dining hall as if to say, “Look at me! I'm sitting with the black kids so I'm definitely not racist!”
This self-segregation, and the self-consciousness it engendered in the white kids, was most evident at lunch and dinner, but it extended to classrooms, libraries, and particularly weekend parties. Though rarely spoken ofâcertainly not by whitesâthe dynamic remained a quietly understood aspect of this strange new milieu in which we lived. In college we were asked to become part of (and most of our parents paid small fortunes for us to become a part of) a manufactured civilization, a city-within-a-city that trumpeted a long list of lofty ideals inscribed in Latin on the stone archways. As freshmen, we wanted to take ownership of our new place within this structure, to begin leaving our mark as the Class of 2002. At the same time, we emulated the upperclassmen and their established social pretexts, begotten from the upperclassmen before them, and we succumbed easily to pressureâacademic, of course, but social even more so. White students went to frat houses, one of five popular bars, outdoor quad parties; black students did something else,of which we knew little except that rap music was most likely playing very loud.
The beginning of our first semester entailed much desperate scrambling: we scrambled to choose our classes, most with at least vague notions of future majors; we scrambled to find extracurricular groups to be a part of (sketch comedy troupes, film societies, social activist committees, etc.); we scrambled for friends and social lives thatâthough we weren't necessarily aware of it thenâwould define us for the next four years. We were inclined to engage with cultural presentations like drama school plays, guest lectures, and singing groupsâto immerse ourselves in “the Yale Experience” colorfully advertised in our orientation materials (these inclinations would fade quickly, as all we really wanted to do was get decent grades and find free drinks; “Thursday is the new Friday” was a de rigueur expression). We sought out the adventures that, we all assumed, would form the basis for conversations at our tenth reunion in fourteen years: “Didn't we onceÂ .Â .Â .Â ?” “Remember that time when weÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
Above all, we did our best to defineâand in most cases redefineâourselves. Jocks, intellectuals, humorists, student leaders, partiers, stoners, debaters: an electric feeling manifested that here, now, any one of us could be any person he wanted to be. No one knew what anyone else had been like in high school, and during the fall of 1998 we walked to classes and to parties and to meals on a blank slate. These first weeks were an ephemeral, transitional time, a collision of nervousness and self-consciousness and ambition and independence and confusion and bravado that sparked a collective blossomingâand in some cases, wiltingâof twelve hundred teenage identities.
I had no awareness of this then (of course I didn't, even though I lived with two black men and spent four hours every afternoon training with my racially mixed track teammates), but a deeper transition affected people of color in this dazed context. Before course selections and extracurricular sign-up sheetsâbefore bags could even be unpacked in roomsâblack students had to situate themselves withintheir own race. The process was complicated, conflicting, usually silent, highly fraughtâand wholly invisible to their white classmates, most of whom had never actively had to consider the role of race in their lives, most of whom tended to see black culture as monolithic. Hence the “black tables” in the dining halls, viewed by the people sitting there as a filial group of like backgrounds and interestsâWest Coast or Caribbean Islands or Brooklyn, sayâbut viewed by those watching from afar as inherently exclusive. Others were seen as “acting white” when they sought out the majority-centric opportunities (an expansive humanities curriculum, a capella groups, or, as in Rob Peace's case, the water polo team). A latent variance also existed within the demographic, among black students of affluent backgrounds, lower class, and all the gradations in between. Rob, being both black and poor, was in the minority of the minority. Of our class, 12 percent were black. Of that subset, 20 percent had grown up at or below the poverty lineâabout thirty classmates who could relate directly to where Rob had come from. And since he'd come from a city where he had been in every way a member of the majority, the transition was unsettling, and it must have inspired some level of resentment.
However, Rob was incredibly skilled at not showing how he felt.
He was also skilled at concealing who he was and who he wanted to be. In high school, he had been all things: an athlete, a leader, an academic, a partier. In college, he went about his days so very quietly, slipping in and out of the room with a head nod and a “'Sup,” his canvas book bag slung over his shoulderâthe same book bag his father had bought him for Oakdale, scuffed and threadbare, which he'd taken everywhere in the neighborhood to Newark-proof himself. At meals, he usually sat alone near the entrance, at a small round table just behind the station where Jacinta Johnson, one of the dining hall ladies, swiped our ID cards. Jacinta was an overweight, light-skinned, red-haired African American woman in her forties who had a grandmotherly aspect. Rob usually kept a textbook open in front of him but he talked to her over his shoulder, and he made her laugh a lot. When I sat with him sometimes,his reserved demeanor and the open textbook elicited the question, “Is it cool if I sit here?” as if I might be intruding on intensive study or simply a desire to be aloneâwhich was a desire that I myself valued highly, as solitude could be hard to find in college. He would shrug and say sure, and his dialogue with Jacinta would continue as he paged through the textbook and I opened a paperback from a Shakespeare's tragedies or romantic poetry class,King Learor Wordsworth. During that time, I didn't know him well but I appreciated the quietude that surrounded him. Any other table in the dining hall carried the threat of having to perform for new acquaintances, to prove how clever or worldly or socially connected you were in the context of conversations about foreign policy, Ptolemy, the best bars on campus. With Rob, there was no judging, no need to hone any aspects of personality or tout knowledge. I could just sit, read, maybe joke about our roommate Ty's weird sleeping hours and weirder culinary routines (he would eat half a dozen microwave soy burgers at midnight, run five miles, and then go to the library until seven). An added benefit came with knowing that no one else would venture to sit with us, both because Rob always chose the smallest table and because our classmates still kept their distance. I hailed from a small school and a small town, and the social onslaught had been intimidating. Rob provided a buffer of which I, selfishly and without truly asking if I was welcome, took advantage.
Then he met Zina. I wasn't privy to their brief courtship, or really to any part of Rob's social life. From my perspective, one day our dorm room was what any dorm room shared by four eighteen-year-old males was: a shambles of clashing furniture and clothes and books, but habitable and generally peaceful. The next day, this girl was camped out on our futon (which she'd folded out into bed mode, such that it took up half the common room) along with half her possessions. And she was not just any girl. Everything about herâher towering bun of coiled hair, her skirts that ballooned around her sprawled legs, her various moisturizers and conditioners, her high and ceaseless voiceâÂconsumed space and oxygen. She was a senior from Jamaica, and though she hadan off-campus apartment she took up residence on the fourth floor of Lanman-Wright Hall, such that she seemed to be there at all hours, even when Rob was not. I observed from this too-close vantage point as, over a span of less than a month, they succumbed to the dating tendency common among college studentsâthey behaved as though they were married.
I'd already observed this among others in our class: with college just weeks old, a few couples had formed who ate breakfast together in their sweatpants while reading theYale Daily News, clasped hands while walking across the quad between classes, held court during dinner as if this were their home and they were hosting a society party, studied in adjacent library cubicles, and planned their weekends solely around each other. I could easily see why this happened; we were on our own for the first time, and people wanted to feel like legitimate adults. And then, in almost every case, the inevitable parting happened, impelled by the realization that they were not in fact adults, that codependence actually impinged on these precious four years of freedom. For those on the outside looking in, the subsequent breakup always presented good fodder for speculation (as the newness of college began to wane that semester, so did the compulsion to discuss “serious” topics, replaced by that old reliable: gossip).
Rob and Zina were different, carrying something more consequential in their dynamic that precluded gossip and left one only to watch, often bewildered. They fought all the time. As in a marriage, their fights began with little things (our messy room, him not calling when he said he would, etc.) that escalated into big things (suspicions of cheating, he being fundamentally an asshole, she being fundamentally a bitch, etc.). Because Zina had neither pitch control nor self-awareness about being overheard, Dan and Ty and I were privy to these fights with an intimacy none of us desired (I soon began to study in the library). They sounded scripted, like the domestic arguments policemen overhear in TV procedurals before they burst into a project housing drug den.
“Robert, you just smoke and eat your face off and don't do nothing,”she yelled at him. She was in her spot in the common room; he was in his bedroom, with a door closed between them.
“Shut up, I'm trying to read.”
“You're not reading! You're just sitting there all fucked up in your pigsty room!”
Rob said what I, overhearing from my top bunk, had been wanting to say for quite some time (Zina nagged me about the mess, too): “You think the room's too messy, get the fuck out and go back to your own room.”
And so on.
I asked him once, with carefully premeditated phrasing, “What do you and Zina do for fun?” Meaning: Why are you with this woman?
In response, he showed me a leather jacket he'd been wearing latelyâreal leather, and the only possession of his that he seemed to take good care of, always folded and hung. I hadn't realized that it had been a gift from Zina. He said, “She's a real woman, not like these other Yalie bitches.” Then he laughed and brought out the Facebook (this was before Facebook.com; the Facebook was a paperback room listing of the entire freshman class, with head shots, that boys spent hours combing through with highlighters to note those they would like to sleep with, realistically or not). Rob had marked a handful of pictures, not for himself but for me. The “Freshman Screw” dance was coming up that weekend, in which one's roommates arranged your date for the night. “Which one you into?” he asked.
I looked over his listings and happily saw that he'd taken the task seriously, and the girls he had in mind for me were by and large attractive. After I ranked them, we huddled over the book together for the benefit of our other two roommates. Rob had it in his mind to “screw” Ty by setting him up with a less-than-desirable face.
Rob and Ty got along well. They were both taking intro biology together, the precursor to premed classes. Like Robâlike almost all the students now surrounding usâTy was a fantastic student accustomed to straight A's in high school. Unlike Rob, he was tremendously competitive and pulled all-nighters with a particular pride, intent on being at the top of the class. Rob, who was laid back about schoolwork, had no problem with Ty's academic approach. Rob's problem had to do with the “thug” persona that Ty nurtured with near-equal intensity. He wore a heavy jacket withFUBU(an acronym of “For Us, By Us,” alluding to black people) printed in huge red letters across the chest, and he came to be referred to as “T-Money,” or, as he signed off on his emails, “T$.” He talked “hard” and seemed to loop every other story about high school around to some fight he'd been in, some girl he'd slept with, some bad neighborhood he'd hung out in. Ty had grown up in the suburbs and spent money freely. He bought new clothes frequently to the point that they burst out of our shared closet and onto every hangable ledge (including theFUBUjacket, which Rob told me cost upward of $300, noting that the “For Us” part of the slogan did not apply to poor black people), and he ate a lot of take-out food from the overpriced delis on Elm Street, because the dining hall foodâÂalready paid for in his tuition, roughly $25 per dayâwas unappealing. He considered himself quite the ladies' man, kept his shirts ironed and his Tommy Hilfiger cologne stocked. Obsessed with his physique, his desk was rowed with industrial-size containers of GNC products like creatine and whey protein powder; he sometimes lifted weights in the Pierson gym at three in the morning. He was friendly and funny, but he was all but incapable of daily chores like laundry, bathing, disposing of half-eaten soy burgers (squirrels began sneaking into our common room for leftovers). Rob, who had been responsible for his own household since 1987, didn't like it. So when Ty was pounding his chest about someone who'd “punked” him and who had a “beatdown” coming his way, Rob just laughed and said, “T, we both know you ain't gonna do shit, so quit fronting.”
This word “fronting” was important to Rob. A coward who acted tough was fronting. A nerd who acted dumb was fronting. A rich kid who acted poor was fronting. Rob found the instinct very offensive, and in college he saw it all around. He felt as though people were in a constant state of role-play before teachers, before each other, even before Jacinta in the dining hall (some students would pass her briskly as if in training for futures filled with ignorable service workers, while others would stop and chat with perky but manufactured curiosity). When he spoke contemptuously of this, about midway through that fall, I was surprised. For the last two months, because of how he carried himself, I'd figured him to have nothing more than marginal interest in all but a few of his peers. I learned that he tracked the people surrounding him with the observational intensity of the novelist I aspired to be. And he was not above judging them, often harshly.
“It's like nobody's real here,” he said, to Zina, late one night. Ty was at the library. I was in bed with the door closed. Rob and Zina were in the common room, curled together beneath a blanket. “It's like you can't have a real conversation with anyone.”
“You're real, baby,” she told him and made a cooing sound as the sheets rustled and the futon creaked.
“You, too,” he replied.
I didn't overhear any more, because I'd buried my head under the pillow in the event of imminent lovemaking. But I thought about those words often, along with other more oblique references to what he saw as a fundamental flaw in the social construct we now inhabited. I didn't know then the degree to which surviving his childhood had necessitated his own brand of fronting, the many different masks he wore on Chapman Street, at St. Benedict's, in East Orange; I didn't know about the Newark-proofing he had mastered. I'm certain that, if presented with this question, he would have argued very precisely that what he did growing upâwhat he still did when he went homeâhad not been fronting at all. He would have argued, and I would have believed, that his various manifestations of self represented the height of authenticity, that he was each of those people. “I'm not fronting,” he might have said. “I'm justcomplicated.”
PARENTS'WEEKEND CAMEa few weeks before Thanksgiving. As we scrambled to clean our room and fabricate the impression that we were in fact self-sufficient and responsible adults, Rob stowed a few books and clothes into his backpack.
“You making a break for Zina's place?” I asked.
“No, Newark,” he replied. He pronounced the city name very fast, and with no accented syllables: “nwerk.” I'd grown up near Newark, Delaware, which we called NEW-ark in our hybrid tristate dialect, a tic that Rob considered a sacrilege. (“Nwerk-nwerk-nwerk,” he'd spent the fall drilling me. “Say it three times fast, try not to sound like such a honky.”)
“Your mom isn't interested in the big football game?” I asked jokingly.
“She has to work all weekend,” he replied, not joking.
In a kind of reverse commute, as thousands of parents descended on the campus, he took the Metro-North southwest along the string of Connecticut commuter towns, through the Bronx, and into Manhattan's Grand Central. Then the subway shuttled him to Penn Station, where he boarded the Path train to Newark, and Flowy picked him up. The transit took about two and a half hours, and he would make it dozens of times over the next four years.
They smoked marijuana at Flowy's apartment for a bit. Flowy had performed well enough lifeguarding that the job was secure for the following summer. Between seasons, he was working for a landscaper blowing leaves. He'd rented an apartment with his girlfriend, ÂLaQuisha, on a marginally safer street a couple blocks from where he'd grown up, near Vailsburg Park. The building was filled with loud neighbors and hallways that were busier at two a.m. than two p.m. But on the fifth floor, he had a nice view east toward downtown. From above, East ÂOrange looked quite peaceful, particularly on autumnal evenings like this one. He asked Rob how school was going, and Rob rolled his eyes. “You know,” he said.
“How the hell do I know?” Flowy laughed. “I don't go to no Yale U.”
“The work isn't much harder than St. Benedict's, but the people”âand he paused to make one of hispshasoundsâ“the people are hard to take. Sometimes I just have to check out.”
“How do you have time to check out at a school like that?”
“That's the thing,” Rob said. “At St. B's, we hadnotime. Between work, lifeguarding, school, practice, film, homework, home shit, any spare time we had we just used it to sleep. Remember?”
“True. I remember sleeping on stairs, sleeping on the bus, sleeping on the benches by the pool.”
“Exactly. But in college, you don't have but three, sometimes even two hours of classes aday. Food's cooked for you, all the food you wantâand boy, Ikillthose buffets. Rent's paid for. Utilities, too. No family around to see. You can only study so much”âRob would get straight A's in a schedule that included advanced calculus, 200-level physics, and a religious studies class in Buddhismâ“and the rest of the time is just that,time. I've never had that before. So you know, I'll go to my boy's house, smoke out a bit, just chillÂ .Â .Â .”
They talked about their families and friends for a while, how Curtis by all accounts was the king of campus at Morehouse, but Tavarus and Drew were both struggling academically and, in Tavarus's case, financially. Tavarus had spent months assembling a package of loans to pay for college and now was looking at the interest rates and decades-long payment plan and wondering how a college education could possibly be worth it.
“How're you making it work?” Rob asked Flowy. “Food, rent, all that?”
“Hustling on the side, a little bit,” Flowy said. “You know.”
“You got a good connect?” Rob asked. A “connect” was a bulk supplier who provided marijuana to small-time dealers like Flowy, selling it to them for less than they could sell it for but assuming less risk. “He's cool?”
“Yeah, he's good people.” And then Flowy thought of something. “People must smoke up at Yale, right?”
“Hell yeah,” Rob said.
“Could be an opportunity.”
Rob began thinking as well.
Flowy offered to drive him to Chapman Street, two miles away. Rob opted to walk. Dusk had fallen, and Flowy watched from the window as his friend trudged off slowly through the hood. He was wearing the leather jacket that Zina had given him, and Flowy thought that was a mistake, something the young punk dealers making the first cash of their lives would do to flaunt it. Others would see the leather and think he had money on him. He wondered if Rob had grown so accustomed to his new surroundings, the poshness and security that Flowy imagined often while triangulating heaps of leaves in front of high-rise apartment buildings, that he'd lost that acute awareness of the details necessary to stay safe. But he didn't say anything. Rob, more than most, could take care of himself.
Yesterday Rob had walked about the same distance from our room to Science Hill for biology class: past Sterling Memorial Library and its four million books, across the marble stones of Beinecke Plaza with its sculpted memorials paying tribute to Yale students lost in both world wars, beneath the forty-foot golden dome of Woolsey Hall, past the university president's mansion on Hillhouse Avenue toward the modernist twenty-story building around which were clustered eleven different science labs, each of them larger than St. Benedict's. Today, he walked through the network of dealers who governed Vailsburg Park, along Central Avenue, a few blocks from where the Moore sisters had been killed, and then to Chapman Street. Along the way, he passed small houses, tall project towers, struggling businesses gating their doors, and poor people going wherever they were going, heads angled down. And with every step some sector of his consciousness must have wondered how he'd gone from this world to that, why he'd gone, for what larger purpose. He was stoned, and perhaps this softened the impact of his feet, the impact of these questions. And maybe it also stoked the idea that there was money to be made at Yale, which would carry none of thehazards that it carried on the streets he was walking.
He made it home without incident and watched TV with his grandparents until Jackie got off work at eleven. The two of them ate dinner together at midnight, pork chops that Rob had bought on the way home and cooked with rice. He knew that she'd cried for the first two months he'd been away. He'd spoken to her on the phone nearly every night, short murmured conversations that he took into his bedroom with the door closed. I'd been affected by the way he said goodbye as he emerged: “All right, Ma, you're my heart,” with an earnestness that belied his demeanor. This made me feel guilty for all the times I'd hurried off the phone with my own mother (still working on those curtains, asking for further window measurements), saying briskly, “Later, Mom.”
While the rest of us toured our parents around campus that weekend, energetic with pride as we key-carded our way through the gated archways leading into catered buffets and ultimately congregating at the football field for the weekend's game, Rob sat on the porch and smoked cigarettes with Jackie before making the rounds of old friends. He stopped by St. Benedict's to have lunch with Friar Leahy and observe an off-season water polo shoot-around, giving in to the impulse to bark commands at the players. His Ivy League association caused him to be treated by former classmates, kids he'd led on the Appalachian Trail, as a conquering hero. After that, he visited his father at Essex County and, most likely, got up to speed on the appeal situation. By that time in early November, Skeet was still standing by while Carl Herman submitted the long succession of preliminary documents, many of them recycled from the successful PCR hearing. They were accustomed to the administrative lag times by now, but the waits carried a more expansive kind of anxiety than either of them had before known; in Skeet's and Rob's eyes, the man had been freed, his conviction overturned on no less an authority than the Constitution of the United States, and yet here they were again, battling the legal army of a state-sponsored apparatus that seemed intensely focused on keeping him imprisoned.
My own father had been sending me letters, which arrived in my postoffice box each Thursday. He'd made this effort for my two older siblings during their first semesters at Yale. Dad was not the most emotive man, and he wrote these messages on small yellow Post-its, a few illegible sentences along the lines of,Hope your classes aren't too bad and practice is going well. Grandma came over for dinner on Sunday. Mom made lasagna. Hang in there. Dad.Attached by a paper clip would be a small news article from the local paper about my high school football team. As the weeks went on, the meaning of these letters evolved from nostalgic to something more powerful. They became the primary, tangible reminder that home still existed. While I moved through the trials and tribulations of this much-hyped college experience, the inconsistent loops and falls of my dad's handwriting still took minutes-per-word to decipher and my mom still made lasagna when Grandma came over. The world might be big and layered, but my life within it was small, secure, rooted in old simplicity.
Marijuana, I believe, served the same function for Rob: a bridge, spanning far more distance than my own, between the world he'd come from and the world he found himself in. I had no idea how much he smoked, and just like he had in his mother's house, he hid it well. He smelled more thickly of chlorine from water polo practice (the initiation for which had found him wearing a toga in the middle of the Commons dining hall, singing “Express Yourself” by Madonna) than he ever did of weed. He never smoked in the room. Scents could not cling to his leather jacket. He seemed zoned out fairly often, crouched over a textbook with the TV on and music playing loud, but I just figured that was a quirk: in order to focus he needed to create an excess of noise to shut out. Track practice was year-round, so Ty and I were catching the three o'clock shuttle bus out to the athletic complex a mile from campus, where we spent the fall running endless wind sprints across a grass intramural field, known as the Flats, that stretched a quarter mile toward a hillside of fiery autumnal leaves. We trained for two hours and then took the bus back to the campus gymnasium to lift weights for another hour, then had dinner before returning to the dorm aroundseven to work. These were four hours every day during which we were completely checked out from the campus, loosening our bodies from our mindsâand four hours that, I later learned, Rob spent getting high with a new group of friends who lived off campus, doing pretty much the same thing.
People called it the Weed Shack: a two-story clapboard house on Temple Street, two blocks west of campus proper. Sherman Feerick, a junior, was the leaseholder, and four or five others lived there with him. Sherman had grown up in Montclair and been a football star. He was an intelligent talker, and he talked nonstop. When he'd first met Rob, he'd said, “So you're the new one,” meaning the single token poor African American male Newarker admitted to Yale each year. The two men were drawn to one another, the way Newarkers living outside Newark tended to be. Their shared knowledge of the very particular milieu made for a strong bond, and so did the fact that Sherman consumedâand soldâweed. After his conversation with Flowy about possibly selling on campus, Rob ran the idea past Sherman, out of a respect more than a desire to have questions answered. Rob told him that Charles Cawley sent the tuition checks directly to the school, but that didn't account for books and lab equipment, which approached the level of his entire high school tuition. He told him that his mom was in bad shapeâtired, poor, and now alone. He shrugged casually and said he could use a little money. And Sherman, rather than feel like his own earnings were threatened, began steering a little business Rob's way, just like Rob had done for Tavarus in high school. He schooled him on how to stay under the university's radar, which was practically effortless as long as you weren't stupid.
Rob became a fixture in the Weed Shack's living room, where a bong or a joint was perennially lit and shared by whoever happened to be hanging there. Those sunken couches and scavenged chairs provided a safe haven for students to get stoned and say what they really felt about Yale, about Yalies, about the Yale Experience. Their criticisms could get acidic, coalescing into a kind of groupthink thatâfor Sherman, at least,looking back years laterâwent far beyond what the actual reality merited. That a Yale education was a rare and coveted gift remained always a part of the big picture, but few things were easier for a group of young men to lose sight of than the big picture. Some of their grievances were common to the point of clichÃ©: the school tailored itself toward rich kids, legacies, phonies; the financial aid packages were basically for good PR and entailed more paperwork than any 300-level class; the social hierarchy in place was more vapid than high school; the professors outsourced the actual teaching to TAs a few years older than the undergrads while they focused on their own research. Other complaints were more nuanced, invoking deeper, historical elements of the minority condition. PROPâthe minority orientation week that Rob had not attendedâhad included seminars on how to take notes; “Like we need to learn how to hold a pencil,” Sherman said. The Af-Am House was hidden on a small footpath on the edge of campus, tucked away behind the Art & Architecture building on York Street, smaller and more remote than the cultural centers for Asians, Hispanics, Jews. The university proper refused to give any official sponsorship to the annual Af-Am Week, in which black students from all over New England came to campus for a long weekend of lectures and parties. This place, they collectively opined, was racist.
Rob, by all accounts, had never thought much about race. While he had painstakingly devised methods to navigate the different groups of people in his life, almost all of those people had been black. Uncharacteristically for the average black student coming to Yale, he'd never contemplated, let alone practiced, the fine intricacies of living in a socioeconomic atmosphere not his own. New friendships with people who railed against those intricaciesâloudly, profanelyâhad him thinking about race very much. Typical of Rob Peace, though not of Sherman and the others, he did so intellectually rather than angrily.
“Say a white boy takes a wrong turn and comes to my hood,” he once said. “Now he's in the minorityânobody wants him there, unless it'sto rob his assâand more than anything he has to think about how to protect himself, how to get out. There's no weaker situation to be in than that, and this boy isn't getting anything productive done until he's out, back among his own people. But we take a wrong turn and end up at Yale, for the first time in our lives wedon'thave to worry about protecting ourselves. And we were all able to get enough shit done to be accepted hereâso imagine what we can do when you take all the crazy hood shit out of the equation and we can just focus on the business at hand. So what if it's annoying as hell? Instead of sitting around here bitching about it, maybe we just accept that it is what it is, and know that we have the capacity to get way more from them than they'll ever get from us.”
He took a mighty pull from the bong and sat back, eyes closed, exhaling a hypnotic plume of smoke into the air above him.
A weeklong Thanksgiving vacation was coming, which he would spend in reunion with the Burger Boyz. He would also meet Flowy's connect so that he could bring back a few ounces of weed to sell in eighths to his classmates during the harried weeks preceding final exams. This he would do quietly, away from his own living space and invisibly to his roommates.
AWINTER EVENING ATYale could have a spectral quality. The untouched snow in the center of the Pierson College quad tamped the urban noise while brightening the halos cast by half a dozen gas lamps. On the bells of Harkness Tower, the Guild of Carillonneurs played the1812 Overture. The students had for the most part retreated to their rooms, and each of the few hundred windows embedded in the brick faÃ§ade emitted a warm light suggesting comfort, focus, and industry within. As I walked the thirty yards between the dining hall and entryway Dâstill faint from a track practice that had left me dry-heaving beneath the bleachers in Coxe Cageâit was easy to forget that we weren't actually existing in the New England of colonial times, when these structures had in fact been built.
Our sophomore dorm room was less tranquil, looking as though a bomb composed of dirty laundry, CDs, and aluminum take-out food containers had detonated. I flicked on the lights, and Rob materialized out of the dark. He'd been sitting in a wooden chair in the far corner, head bowed, one hand hanging over his broad chest while the other picked at his frayed, newly grown cornrows. The room was thickly perfumed with incense. In a charged flurry one night a few weeks earlier, we'd written some of our favorite verses in permanent black marker on the white walls. One of my contributions had been the last line of Tennyson's poem “Ulysses”:To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.Above it, Rob had written a stanza from a Ludacris song that detailed havingsex with a woman on the fifty-yard line of the Georgia Dome. Rob sat just beneath those lines, his exhalations audible and weighty. His dining hall uniform was unbuttoned over a ribbed sleeveless undershirt. His face was angled down and away but his body resembled a dark, clenched fist.
The second half of freshman year had passed uneventfully. We'd cemented our friend groups, grown accustomed to the academic cycle, and in some ways come to see this place as our home. Rob and Zina had broken up, and my initial urge to celebrate had been tempered by how truly depressed Rob had become in the weeks after. He'd begun working in the Pierson dining hall for $8 an hour in the spring of freshman yearâstarting in the dish room, same as Jackieâand when I came to eat he would take a break to sit with me behind Jacinta until she told him, smilingly, to get his ass back to work. While I had gone home for the summer to the same job I'd had in high school, Rob had remained in New Haven for the first half to work on the custodial staff during Yale's reunion weekends, and then he'd spent the second half at home with Jackie and his friends. In June, Skeet's postconviction relief had been overturned when the judge sided with the State's counterappeal, and Rob had stood by while his father was transferred to Trenton State once again, a year and a half after Rob and Carl had walked out with him in December 1997.
These labors, duties, paychecks, and heartbreaks were six months of Rob's life, and I knew little about most of them. What I did know was that the tentativeness with which I had first regarded him had faded, if not into total comfort then at least close enough. I knew that Rob had also, beginning with fall reading week and progressing through the winter and spring of freshman year, become one of the leading drug dealers on campus.
By this time, midway through our second year, I would typically come home to a mirthful tribal circle carved out of his bedroomâa safe haven for misfits and trendsetters alike to pass around a joint and download their days, Rob presiding with his trademark grin and barbed bonsmots. Never before had I found him as I had now: alone and miserable and sitting wide-awake in the dark.
“Yo, Rob,” I said. He barely raised his reddened, watery eyes. “Everything cool?”
He mumbled some ambiguous syllable.
“You want the lights back off orÂ .Â .Â .Â ?”
With true, unadulterated vitriol, he replied, “I just hate all these entitled motherfuckers.” He was talking more to himself than to me, as I was more or less one of those entitled motherfuckers. In other words: the majority of the Yale student body, clusters of them now passing back and forth in front of our first-floor window with their books and winter coats, the Ivy League version of the hustlers walking Chapman Street at night.
He picked up a physical chemistry textbook from the floor and began to read. And I retreated into my bedroom to spend a few hours in the Congo with Marlow in search of Kurtz. Aside from the audible friction of a page being turned, Rob gave little suggestion of life unfolding in the next room.
After a time, the chemistry textbook thumped closed and the TV came on: one of his beloved kung fu movies. I put my own book down and deferred the essay I was to start writing tonight in order to join him. He was watching a bootleg VHS ofSnake in the Monkey's Shadow, which he'd brought back from his last trip home along with a gallon-size ziplock packed with dry marijuana and orange rinds. The filmâgrainy and nonsensical, definitely not worth the $2 he'd paid for itâlightened his mood to the point that he asked me if it was okay for him to smoke. I nodded, and he lit up. He looked older and rougher when inhaling a joint, pinching it between thumb and index finger with the live end cupped in his palm, breathing in with fast intensity and out with painstaking slowness. Apropos of nothing, he said, “So you wanna know what happened?”
The incident had occurred in the dining hall, where Rob worked five nights a week. A group of guys on the crew team (that associationimplying that they were white, rich, and had landed at Yale by way of elite New England boarding schools) had stood up to leave without busing their trays to the window ten paces away. Rob had told themâÂcourteously, he wanted me to be sureâto take care of their trays so he could wipe off the table, which itself had been left a crumby, puddled mess. The guys had mumbled something about being in a rush and kept walking, leaving plates heaped with half-eaten food for Rob to dispose of. They probably hadn't realized that he was a student. They failed to say thank you to him or any other staff workers on their way out.
Each rendered detail accumulated in the telling and restoked Rob's ire: the disrespect, the avoidance of eye contact, the smirks, the preppy clothes, the slovenly mess, the food haphazardly wasted, the fact that these guys had no doubt forgotten the interaction the moment they'd passed by Jacinta and exited the dining hall to begin their nightsâa keg party at the Zeta Psi house, presumably, since it was Thursday and that was what the crew team did on Thursdays. And Rob, in his starched white uniform and with a hairnet over his cornrows, had stood over the remnants of their dinners and watched them leave. Beneath the tall portraits of prominent alumni, the dining hall was bright with talk and laughter, rendering him helpless to do what he wanted to do, what most any of his neighborhood friends from Newark would have done: pin each of them facedown on the hardwood floor and stomp the backs of their heads until their teeth popped outâ“curbing,” a process he had refused to explain to his mother but that he described in detail to me now, including the satisfying squelching sound of teeth relinquishing attachment to gums. I didn't ask whether this portrait came from firsthand experience. He couldn't even call them what later, to me, he would: motherfuckers. All he could do was bus the three trays, so that Jacinta or Roslyn or Jimmieâhis colleagues and friends, full-time dining hall employeesâwouldn't have to. Then he'd put his fist through the wall in the dish room. He showed me the resultant swelling in three knuckles. I asked if he'd get in trouble for that, and he replied that one of the cooks had promised to patch up the hole with plaster before themanager showed up, so Rob wouldn't get fired.
I thought the story ended there, but Rob kept going, protracting these events into the future: his desire to find the guys, get them off campus, and carry out retribution away from the faculty overseers, blue-lit emergency phones, and campus police who maintained the pervading atmosphere of complete safety, even invincibility. Though he didn't say so in words, he seemed intent on proving, to himself and to them, that no one was invincibleâthat, Yalie or not, anyone could and should be held to account for the kind of person he was. I got the sense that where he'd grown up, this wasn't a matter of etiquette or debate.
“YouÂ .Â .Â . can't do that, Rob,” I said, and he looked at me chagrined, his face saying,Why the hell not?My answer: “I mean, you just can't.”
“I know, I know,” he finally said. “What, you thought I was serious?”
In fact, I had known he was.
I was still struggling to equate the irritating but unremarkable encounter he'd described (I had doubtlessly forgotten to bus my own tray once or twice, though I didn't admit that now) with the profound anger still coursing through him, a few hours and a few joints later. I felt guilty for being unable to do so, for lacking the empathy required to connect a careless prep school slight to a fundamental flaw in the social construct in which we lived. All I said was, “That sucks, dude.”
He shook his head and smiled for the first time that night, a smile approaching the broad, remarkable grin that had come to characterize him on campus. He knew I could never understand, and he was kind enough not to hold my sheltered obliviousness against me. This had become the rhythm of our friendship at Yale: he would share with me the smallest fragment of his world and then step back into the whole of mine.
We watched the movie's climactic fight, a murdered ninja sensei being avenged by his protÃ©gÃ©. My mind drifted back to my English paper and the track meet this weekend and some girl who wasn't emailing me back. His mind went somewhere else, a place I couldn't access, a struggle rooted in a youth he never spoke of, a struggle he seemed to feelâwith a possessiveness closely related to prideâwas hisalone to bear.
HE DIDN'T HIDEhis drug dealing anymore, and he conducted much of it in our room. A few times a night there would be a knock on the door, and a student would murmur, “Hey,” and slink past me into Rob's room, where he would execute their commerce via the lower right-hand drawer of his desk. If the buyer was a friend, he or she might stay and smoke with him. Some nights these gatherings would grow to four or five people who fit themselves in as best they could, sitting hip to hip on his bed, on stacks of textbooks, on the heavy black trunk in which he kept his bongs, weed, and ledgers. I didn't know where he hid his cash or how much he actually made, only that cash was all he used to buy anything (though he bought very little). One of these purchases was a desktop computer, which a grad student had dug out of a lab closet and sold to him for $200. We'd come to college during the time when everyone began owning computers. For those who couldn't afford one, Pierson College maintained a dark, usually empty room of desktops in the basement, known as the “computer ghetto.” Rob had spent many hours down there, and he was proud of his new machine; he cleared space for it on a desk in the common room and said we were all welcome to use it. He quickly found that the model was at least six years out of date, incapable of supporting basic word-processing programs, let alone Excel and the Internet. When he also learned that the grad student, who had made it out to Rob as though he were buying it from the biology department, had actually pocketed the money himself, Ty and I spent a full afternoon talking him out of the inclination to beat up the guy. He ended up propping the computer in our nonfunctioning fireplace, as some sort of totem to his naÃ¯vetÃ©.
With this computer screen watching like our version of the eyes of T.Â J. Eckleburg, the mixing of people from all walks of life that university pamphlets displayed in glossy photos but was rarely observed on campus manifested itself in his stoner circles. Blacks, Hispanics, grungy kidswearing hemp hoodies and beards, thespians and athletes, an Australian with long blond hair who was famous for walking around barefootâthey all gravitated toward Rob Peace's room, the place where judgments were few, laughter was steady, and weed was always available.
“Don't you worry about living with a drug dealer?” friends would often ask. Coolly, as if I had the faintest clue as to what I was talking about, I would shrug and smile and say, “It's just Rob, it's what he does. He must need the money and he would never be dumb about it.” Honestly, I was more worried about the way he cracked his joints every afternoon after water polo practice in a disturbing ritual: he would drop his bag and stand in the middle of the room, then point his face to the ceiling and arch his back grotesquely, such that his torso was nearly parallel to the floor. Starting with his top vertebrae, the bones popped one by one down his spine. He would twist at the hips, and the left socket would sound off, then the right. He brought each arm across his chest and pulled with the opposite hand to accomplish the same with his shoulders. Knees, ankles, elbows, wrists, and for the finale, the machine gun pop-pop-pop of his fingers. I wasn't worried about him getting busted for marijuana. I was worried about him dislocating his hip or ending up hunchbacked. Since he never seemed to spend any of the money he made, I figured he must be using it for tuition, or saving up for graduate school, or helping Jackieâwhom I hadn't seen again since we'd moved in a year and a half before but whose aloofness still stayed with me.
The four of us had decided easily to stay together as roommates after freshman year, an agreement consummated with guy-ish head nods and shrugs. But Ty had a serious girlfriend, Adanna, the daughter of a wealthy Los Angeles gastric surgeon who specialized in stapling stomachs (Rob called her “Predator” for her long, thin dreadlocks, and gently mocked her wealth). She had drawn a single room in the lottery, so Ty effectively lived with her. Dan had fallen in with a popular crowd, kids who found a way to party each night of the week and were fond of saying, “Ninety percent of what you learn in college happensoutsidethe classroom.” And so, in our dorm room, Rob and I tended to be alone,quietly coexisting for the most part, sometimes talking about girls, football, food. “Buuuuuullshitting,” he called what we did, fondly, and we did it all the time. Though we spoke about nothing much at all, this was how I learned about the football games of his youth, the afternoon with his father listening to a Yankees game on a stranger's front stoop, Jackie and his grandparents and Victor, and the deep role that marijuana played in his life: “I smoke a blunt, and I can hang out or study or just chill,” he said dazedly, “and it's like nothing matters, not even time, and for a couple hours I can justbe.”
He once looked up from across the room and said, “You know what I like about you, Jeff?” Having been curious about this for some time but somehow afraid to ask, I asked. “Because it's aaaaall good with you. You just read your books and write your stories and don't give a damn.” A low-level pride coursed through me upon hearing his observation. In a world where defining yourself felt unnecessarily complicated most of the time, I thought that being “all good” was a pleasingly simple way to do it.
By virtue of proximity, I felt more involved in his life than I ever would have predicted during the first months of college. When he and Zina had broken upâafter my initial relief had subsidedâI'd consoled him with comments like, “She's about to graduate anyway; the long-distance thing never worksÂ .Â .Â .” (The incident in the dining hall was the second time he'd put his fist through a wall; the first had been at an Af-Am House dance party, when he'd seen Zina grind-dancing with a senior, flaunting herself in front of him.) We'd chosen our majors at the same timeâmine was English language and literature, his molecular biophysics and biochemistry. Because of friends on the track team as well as Rob, I felt relatively in sync with the black community and would regularly show up at the Af-Am House dances to be schooled on how to move my hips from side to side without overinvolving the shoulders, how to lose or at least soften my white man's overbite and the irresistible tendency to snap my fingers with the beat. Those friends called me “Da Jeff” and, like Rob had once done with Hrvoje Dundovicon water polo bus rides, goaded me to belt out the lyrics to songs like “Shake Yo Ass.” I was a source of amusement and happy to dance (literally) in that role. Although there was something disingenuous about me being thereâlike a benign joke we were all in onâI found it far easier to loosen up in that situation than I did with more preppy classmates, among whom existed a pressure to align with a specific kind of humor and overall social affect. The black students of our year anointed themselves the “Class of Oh-Deuce,” and from time to time a call-and-response chant would break out during a dance party, with one person yelling,“Oh-WHAT?”and the rest of us responding,“Oh-DEUCE!”over and over, with vitality and pride.
I didn't smoke marijuana at all at the time. I was so obsessed with trackâwith literally and metaphorically running around in circles for hours each dayâthat I didn't even permit myself caffeine. Never a part of Rob's stoner group, I lived unassumingly on its fringe. As I began to recognize the faces and names of his more regular customers, we all developed a low-key rapport, sometimes even pausing to converse for a minute or two in the common room before they entered Rob's room to get what they'd come for. I was quickâfar too quick, not to mention self-righteousâto judge these people as “wastoids” (though Rob seemed to smoke more than any of them, I somehow never included him in this blanket mental term). But I never dug any deeper than the shallow surface; I never pulled back far enough from my seemingly comprehensive breakfast-classes-lunch-practice-weight-room-dinner-library-sleep schedule, as well as my own perception of how they spent their free time, to consider that each of themâjust like Rob, just like me, just like any one of my friendsâpossessed a nineteen-year-long story that had culminated in them being here, now, at Yale, buying pot from my roommate.
Raquel Diaz was almost as colorful in dress as she was in attitude, befitting her hometown of Miami. (Her Puerto Rican family pronounced the Englishysound asj, and when she'd been accepted to Yale the house erupted with exclamations of, “Raquel is going tojail! Raquel is going toJAIL!”; she struggled not to project undue symbolism onto the dialectical mishap.) A dense tangle of long, reddish-brown, tightly curled hair burst from her scalp at all angles. She was the kind of person around whom you had to be careful about the opinions you expressed, because if she disagreed, she would let you know it. She was like a beautiful tropical bird, all smooth placid feathers one moment, and the next a quick-striking chaos of talons and beak. She'd met Rob during the second or third night of college, when she found him stoned to the point of passing out while her friend, a beautiful future actress from Morocco named Lyric Benson, performed something like a belly dance above him. Raquel's father, a Cuban opera singer and Santero, had stormed out of their home when she was six months old, following a fight with her mother. He'd never returned. Her barrio upbringing had been rife with anxieties similar to those Rob had experienced with a single, poor, minority mother. Like Rob, she had controlled these stresses by excelling in sports and academics. However, unlike Rob, Raquel was temperamental and unpredictable, and at Yale she found few socially acceptable means by which to vent her various frustrations. Increasingly as college wore on, she vented them to Rob, often in the boiler room two stories beneath the college's ground floor, where they met to share a blunt after dinner a few nights a week. While the heavy machines around them pumped heat to a few hundred students above, she found in Rob Peace a strange blend of an older brother's strength and a sister's sensitivity that she'd never encountered before: someone with whom she could just chill and worry less about the tuition installments her mother might not be able to send, and exchange gripes about the people around them without judgment. They were at Yale. They had “won.” But they both learned the hard way that “winning” didn't mean they wouldn't encounter problemsâproblems that some herb and good company went a long way toward resolving.
Daniella Pierce grew up in a biracial family in Oakland, Californiaâshe and her mother were white, her father and her two siblings were blackâand she'd gone to a predominantly black public high school. Inthe auditorium on their first day of freshman year, the principal had instructed the students to look at the person sitting on their right and left and understand that one of them would not graduate. This had proven to be the case. She'd left for Yale a few weeks after her high school boyfriendâblackâhad gone to prison for dealing, and she brought that conflict, among many others, with her. She wore baggy clothes, spoke with urban intonations, and went out exclusively with black menâÂincluding Rob “for a minute.” Academics were particularly hard for her, and she spent most days feeling unfit to be a part of this student body. She was majoring in psychology, but no matter how many hours she invested, no matter how much extra help she sought, she felt destined to struggle academically. Like many students accustomed to being the smartest kids in suboptimal high schools, she came to Yale and for the first time felt stupid. Also like many students, pride prevented her from seeking out the infrastructure of tutors the Yale system had in place (ironically, the affluent kids from prestigious high schoolsâthose who needed it the leastâoften took the most advantage of these utilities to sharpen their already-honed academic skills). But then, while stressing about a test late at night and seriously considering transferring to a California state school, two strong hands would land on her shoulders and begin gently massaging her muscles, and that deep, assuring voice would say, “It's cool, Daniella, it's cool.” And in those moments, with Rob standing behind her, she could permit herself to believe, if only fleetingly, that it was.
Perhaps the most frequent presence in Rob's room was Oswaldo Gutierrez. He'd grown up in Newark's predominantly Puerto Rican North Ward, in a small, chaotic home owned by his grandparents and populated by transient uncles and cousins. He was slight in stature, but he had a sharpness to him somewhere in the hard-to-pin layers between his wiry physique and elusive personality. Though he was always polite to me as he ducked beneath my arm that held open the door, he seemed to keep an invisible fence raised around him, complete with a sign that read, “We're fine, but we're not the same, so don't get tooclose.” Oswaldo was, in a word, guarded. An uncle who worked for a Colombian drug cartel was paying his tuition. The disparities between the house he'd grown up in and the towers he now lived in clung to him constantly. He found himself angry all the time, judging his classmates and what he saw as their blithe existences, their wide-open futures that didn't involve taking care of a sprawling, violent, dysfunctional family. In Rob, he found a man who harbored many of the same feelings but was able to do so seamlessly (at least outwardly so), with a smile and some profane but harmless shit talk over a blunt.
Rob had many friends. Danny Nelson was technically his boss in the dining hall, a slight student from the Bronx who walked around campus with his earphones in, often alone; from a distance he looked to be shuffling along gloomily with his head pointed straight down to the ground, but up close you could see that he was actually dancing in a kind of fox-trot, with a subtle smile aimed at no one. Yesenia Vasquez was Oswaldo's girlfriend and an aspiring poet. Nick Crowley, our hall mate freshman year, played on the lacrosse team. Rob had friends from the water polo team, friends from the Weed Shack, friends from his science classes. Alejandra, Cliff, B.J., Arnoldo, Linda, Maria, Chris, Josh, Candace, Anthony, PabloÂ .Â .Â . so many names that I eventually ceased keeping track. In contrast to the unnervingly quiet kid with whom I'd first shaken hands in Lanman-Wright Hall, Rob had become something of a beloved presence on the Yale campus, and not simply because he sold drugs and hung out. He had a natural curiosity about the stories of those around him paired with a brain that was quick to draw insights from within each of these stories. And Raquel, Daniella, and Oswaldo were the people who became most intimate with his own story. With Raquel, he would talk about family. With Daniella, he would talk about classes. With Oswaldo, he would talk about home. With each of them, he would talk about Life: where it was now, where it needed to get, and how to bridge that gap, which sometimes seemed gaping. They'd made it to Yale, but once there they were all surprised to learn that they hadn't Made It, not yet.
I respected the fact that these friendships with Rob were far deeper than my own, and I made it a point never to intrude. I was attuned to the worth of each one, and I felt that, if I were to make an overt effort to take part, I would be thieving somehow. But still, as time passed and I watched their various bonds strengthen, I felt jealous.
I didn't have any real grounds to feel that way, especially since, as a friend, Rob saved me twice sophomore year. The first time was on Halloween. Through a friend who played the flute in the Yale Symphony Orchestra, I'd gotten a job as a “bouncer” at their annual midnight Halloween show. The atmosphere was more like a Kiss concert: Woolsey Auditorium became a throng of drunk people in elaborate costumes, bodies hanging over the balconies, all waiting anxiously for the curtain to rise on the symphony (it says a lot about Yale that this was one of the most anticipated social events of the year). My job was to make sure no one snuck in the side door to the right of the stage. A hundred ticketless students were outside pounding to get in, and I had to make sure no one went out those doors, either, because if they pushed them open, the inflowing tide would prove impossible to stop. Fire code violations would surely follow. I took this responsibility seriously, standing in front of the door in a black T-shirt, with my arms crossed and a dour expression intended to convey impassability.
For most of the night, I politely turned back errant and inebriated students, who regarded me as some meddling asshole before turning to seek another exit. Then a tall, muscular guyâanother heavyweight rowerâwalked toward me with some momentum. I sidestepped to block him. “Sorry, can't go out this way.” He ignored me and juked the other way. I blocked him again; this time his chest collided with my still-crossed arms. He backed up three steps and barreled toward me. From high school football, I knew how to lower my center of gravity, the way Rob once did in the street. We thudded together and I gave no ground. Suddenly his fists were thumping against my chest and shoulders, and I returned in kind, exhilarated by my first collegiate fistfight. Because he was so drunk and I wasn't, I performed adequately, at onepoint connecting an almost-uppercut to his jaw. He ceased bothering with punches and tackled me instead, and we tumbled through the door I'd been enlisted to keep shut, down five concrete steps, onto Beinecke Plaza. We stood, gathered ourselves. I hollered, “Get him outta here!”âbut to little effect, because he'd now been joined by two rowing teammates and all three were bearing down on me while the kids who'd been pounding to get in stepped back, amused, reducing my thoughts to,Oh fuck, this is going to be embarrassing.
Then they stopped. The two newcomers put their hands on my combatant's shoulders and pulled him away, and they headed off while he gave me the finger and slurred a few profanities. Thinking my firm countenance had something to do with their retreat, I puffed out my chest, feeling quite the badass. Then I heard Rob behind me: “Damn, son, didn't know you had it in you!” From the balcony a few moments before, he'd seen the initial altercation and hurried down. All he'd had to do was stand behind me, feet set and fists clenched and with what I imagine now to be a taut grin on his face, to send the crew guys packing. He helped me close the door; the incoming stream ceased upon his appearance.
“Thanks,” I said, pain beginning to settle in the kidney area.
“You know I got your back,” he replied. The following week, the flutist who'd recruited me left a fruit basket for my efforts.
The second time Rob saved me had to do with a girl. She was a freshman on the track team; her father had in fact run track with mine at Yale in the late '60s, and so my mom had prompted me to check in on her during the first week of school. I remembered her vaguely from track team reunions when we'd been children and was surprised to find that she was very beautiful. We saw each other at the track every day, went to a lot of the same partiesâshe was half black and so could hang out with both demographicsâdrunk-kissed one night, and began dating. I felt very much in love and so fell into the pattern I'd once smirked at in which I tried to pretend that we were married, or at least engaged. This behavior carried on blissfully (I thought) through the firstsemester: weekend trips to Manhattan to stroll hand in hand through Central Park, clothes left in one another's bureaus, sweet “I love you”s whispered across the pillow while listening to Sade ballads in her bed at night. Then in January, after a friend told her, “Jeff Hobbs, he's likemarriage material,” she quickly dumped meâdivorced me, I felt, as I fell into a pathetic spiral of self-pity. The breakup was the hardest thing I'd ever experienced in my life, the saddest and most all-consuming.
Rob hadn't seemed to think much of it; maybe he'd made a “Fuck dem hos” comment here and there to “get my head right.” Then, a few long weeks later, he'd found me at two o'clock on a Saturday night in our common room, having just composed a long, driveling email to her with which I was quite satisfied:What we had was so specialÂ .Â .Â . you'll never find another guy as good as meÂ .Â .Â . blah blah blah.Rob looked over my shoulder and understood the gravity of the situation, in terms not so much of my feelings but of my dignity, which at the moment was nonexistent. Before I could hit Send (my finger reaching for the button, convinced this bunk would bring her hurrying back that very night), he physically pulled my chair away from the desk. “Nah, nah, nah,” he said sternly. “You want to share your feelings with someone? Share them with me.”
And I did. For forty-five minutes, I outlined the complex (I thought, again) feelings churning within me, waxing on about the family I wanted to have with this girl, the nice home we'd have in Chatham, New Jersey, where she'd grown upâChatham being one of the posh commuter towns ten minutes west of East Orangeâand the three children we'd raise who would all run track for Yale, and this entire idealized future I'd constructed in my head. He indulged me with patience, sincerity, sans laughter, despite the urge he must have felt to laugh. I asked him if he knew what it was like to have a woman you loved inhabit every single one of your waking thoughts, and most of your dreams. “Yeah,” he replied soberly. “I do.”
He kept nodding with appropriate sympathy, even as he informed me that I was acting like a girl in every way. Then he said, “Jeff, you'rea good dude, too good to be bothering with this bullshit.” I nodded glumly. “I'm gonna fix you up with someone, someone fine. Stay tuned.”
He did, and that helped, and I slowly recovered from what had seemed at the time to be a cataclysmic, irreparable heartbreak. (Epilogue: I did end up hitting the Send button after Rob went to bed, and needless to say the email did not accomplish what it had been designed to. When Rob learned this, he fell onto the couch and laughed his ass off.)
MOLECULAR BIOPHYSICSand biochemistry was not for the faint of heart. Embedded within an expanse of various sciencesâchemistry, geology, engineering, astrophysics, etc.âMB&B garnered, on average, twenty-five students per class out of five hundred to six hundred total science majors. For premeds, the most common major was intercellular, molecular, and developmental biology (IMDB), which was basically an elevated extension of high school biology. For those planning on medical school, a primary goal of these classes was to get good grades, good MCAT scores, and acceptances to good med schools. Students and advisers designed curricula around these ends, and so most students steered far clear of MB&B and its many dizzying prerequisites: advanced calculus, theoretical physics, physical chemistry (commonly known to be the hardest course of all the Yale sciences), as well as each of the core classes that the IMDB majors took. Those who majored in MB&B were either smart and confident enough to know they would get A's anyway, or sufficiently interested in the subject not to worry about their GPAs. Rob was both. His classmates at Yale, as his classmates had at St. Benedict's, knew him as a guy who would sit in the back of class, often looking stoned or simply bored, taking notes but rarely speaking. Then, when the time came to take a test or give an individual presentation, he would “kill it,” making the others wonder what they were doing wrong.
Because of its immense difficulty, MB&B was in some ways free of the hypercompetitiveness that prevailed in the various premed tracks. I'd gotten a small dose of this freshman year when I took intro biology. From English classes, I was already well accustomed to students talking tediously regarding their keen insights intoThe Canterbury Talesor Pope'sThe Rape of the Lock, leaning back with legs crossed and eyes pointed upward as if divining their words from on high. But I'd never before experienced the thickly layered pressure of a Yale science lecture hall, during which a few hundred students craned forward while writing every word uttered by the professor, sometimes recording on MP3 players as well. The atmosphere was stifling, more uncomfortable than the chairs in the lecture hall, which themselves were particularly narrow and lacking legroom in order to accommodate the masses. You could almost sense a shortage of oxygen in the air, as well as a collective constriction of the lungs consuming that oxygen. These students felt that their futures were at stake in each class and each test, and one missed word, one minute less spent drilling the textbook pages, could mean the difference between Harvard Medical School and someplace lesser, like, say, Vanderbilt. (As a result of this experience, the only other science class I took to fulfill graduation requirements was Geology 101, otherwise known as “Rocks for Jocks.”)
Rob didn't give any ground to the anxiety coursing through the students around him. He simply went to class, did his work, got A's. That he did so while smoking (and dealing) copious amounts of marijuana only made him more of a marvel; he wasn't just smart, he wascool.Rob would have said that the weed and the grades were directly related, because being high helped him study free from the nervousness that racked his peers. He chose the MB&B track mainly out of curiosity; he wanted to know how things worked, and MB&B spanned everything from the most intricate proteins within the human body to the workings of the cosmos over billions of years (think Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking designing a college major together). The choice of major spoke to what Rob had put last on his high school yearbook list of favorites: “knowledge.” He liked to say, almost dreamily, that there were more chemical interactions taking place in the human body each second than there were stars in the universe.
He and Oswaldo started a small study group together, more or less a science club. Once a week, as Rob had done with the Burger Boyz in high school, he, Oswaldo, and a few others gathered to talk about science. Unlike in high school, his task here was not to catch his friends up but rather to immerse himself in what interested them and to discuss the long-term applications of their schoolwork, whether it was med school or a PhD or working in a lab. They talked about the financial repercussions of each optionâparticularly vital to Rob and Oswaldo, both of whom carried with them the expectation of providing immediately for their families upon graduation. Med school had the biggest long-term upside, but the amount of debt one had to take on in the short termâmidâsix figures for a top schoolâwas intimidating. A PhD program led to a teaching career, but that meant living in the petty, racially complicated world of academia forever. Lab work was perhaps the most intellectually fulfilling, but options were limited, as was the prospect of making any real money. Because they were just sophomores when they started the group, the life talk could remain cozily abstract; they still had plenty of time to figure it all out. Mostly, they reveled in having a safe environment in which to fully celebrate their nerd-dom, which for all their livesâon the streets of Newark certainly, but also in unexpected ways at Yaleâthey'd been compelled to camouflage. As word of the study group leaked and more students began trying to join, kids Rob didn't know as well, he began to disengage from it. Early junior year, he stopped coming altogether.
At the same time, he began working in a lab at Yale Medical School headed by a famed molecular chemistry professor, performing research under the guidance of two PhD students. He began as a lab assistant: sterilizing beakers, recording data, getting coffee. Because of his disciplined promptness and curiosity, he quickly graduated to running his own low-level experiments, primarily in crystal diffraction. His work mostly involved trial and error, and he failed more often than he succeeded in achieving the desired results. His experiments dealt in the scope of atoms; one too many or one too few, and the reactions fellapart. But unlike most other realms of his life, in a lab with sufficient funding he could always go back to the beginning and try again, which he did with a determination that had the graduate students above him fearing for their jobs.
Social life, academics, lab workâthe days and weeks and months and, ultimately, the years passed with an increasing fluidity. Whether he identified with his chosen university or not, the truth was that Rob Peace was a Yalie, and he seemed to grow more comfortable with his status as such. At points along the way, we sometimes wondered how much money he was actually making selling weed. Hundreds of dollars a month? Thousands? More, maybe? We couldn't keep track of the customer traffic coming in and out. We did know that Yale students would pay whatever he asked, no haggling. We knew that every other weekend he would make a trip to Newark, sometimes just for the day, and return with two gallon-size ziplocks of pot in his backpack to carry him through until the next re-up. (He was always in a good mood upon his return, as if nourished.) We knew that each night he spent fifteen minutes or so with his ledger and, as he'd done with menial jobs during childhood, kept careful track of money he'd made, money he expected to make, money he needed to outlay. We knew that he'd quit his dining hall job and worked in the lab for free. We knew that he sold pot to townies, grad students, and even professors in addition to classmates. We knew that his business seemed to steadily ratchet upward from month to month, and that this was the main reason he lobbied us to move into an apartment junior year, a two-bedroom still paid for in tuition as university housing but located in an apartment building across the street from Pierson College proper, outside the gates and so technically “off campus.” What we didn't know, we didn't ask and instead made assumptions: he must be sending money home to his mother, he was saving for graduate school, he kept everything on the DL, or “down low,” he knew exactly what he was doing.
Oswaldo felt differently, and he didn't keep his opinions from Rob the way most everyone else did. Unlike many of our classmates whobought from him, Oswaldo didn't see anything “cool” or “thug” about dealing drugs. Dealing, to himâand as it had been to Rob's fatherâwas a practical matter of economics, of calculating and compensating for shortfalls. As such, you had to be smart. And a smart dealer didn't work out of his Yale dorm room. He didn't carry ziplocks of weed in his backpack across campus. He didn't prop the entryway door open with a phone book so that he wouldn't have to get off his lazy ass to let customers in. Oswaldo had been dealing, tooâafter his cartel-associated uncle was put in prison, his assets were frozen and thus unavailable for tuition payments. But Oswaldo was quiet about it. He worked off campus and in small quantities, just enough to help out. He also maintained a work-study job in the library. Oswaldo was flummoxed by the fact that his friend could be so quiet, almost embarrassed, about his academic acumen, yet so damn loud and proud of his status as a premier campus drug dealer.
“I've never met anyone so smart but so fucking dumb,” he told Rob.
Rob just shrugged, laughed, and replied, “Don't worry about me.”
Less skeptical were Victor, Tavarus, and Flowy, each of whom visited a number of times. Victor came the most often, busing down from Daniel Webster two or three times a year. His older brother, Big Steve (when he got up from the couch, the springs failed to rise with him), would come up from New Jersey. They seemed like smart guys, kind, easygoing, and nonconfrontational. They did not fit the mold of the stock characters I imagined him hanging out with on his Newark trips (where I envisioned the re-up transactions occurring on dark, barren sidewalks in the middle of the night). They were always smiling and laughing, usually over a blunt and a 1.5-liter bottle of E&J. They carried no cynicism or condescension regarding Yale; they seemed, above all, proud of their friend for being here. They would listen to music in the room with little interest in recruiting girls to join, always inclusive of me and Ty. (Dan left our quad after sophomore year; considering that he lived physically in the bedroom where Rob kept his stock and entertained his friends, I didn't blame him.) Rob told them that I had“pull” with girlsâan utter lie that I gladly played along with. Their visits were just like any visits between high school friends on a college campus: booze, weed, empty pizza boxes littering the floor beneath bodies passed out on the couch. Big Steve typically vomited at some point, and because of his immense size it could be difficult for him to make it to the bathroom in time. The pizza boxes, it turned out, did not make for adequate receptacles.
One night sophomore year, they returned to the room swearing and hyped up with rage. Rob had a large black welt on his forehead.
I asked what happened. “Some fool just hit me in the street, turned tail, and ran away,” Rob growled.
“Don't know. Wasn't a Yalie.”
“Why'd he do it?” I asked, thinking of my own comical fistfight, knowing that I was incapable of producing a bruise like that on a man while visualizing the kind of person who could.
“Thought I was someone else.”
I believed this story of mistaken identity, and I participated in their collective anger.
“We should find the guy,” I said, thinking that was the thing you said in this situationâbut definitely not thinking that the three of them would put their coats back on and head for Victor's car to troll the streets of New Haven, looking for retribution. Unlike Tyâunlike most anyone I'd ever knownâRob wasn't in the business of chest-thumping. Words, for him, meant deeds. Otherwise, he would just be fronting.
“You coming?” he asked. The writer in me wanted to go, as here was an opportunity to cross boundaries somehow, as well as prove to my friend that I was “real.” But the sheltered college student was terrified of the prospect manifesting in their narrow, glaring eyes. Very rarely, real violence had infiltrated the campus. There'd been a gang-related shoot-out at the intersection of York and Chapel Streets the year before. Every few months a student walking alone at night on the edge of campus was mugged or even beaten. There'd been a heavily publicized stabbingdeath a few months earlier, along with bulletins that warned us to walk in groups after dark, know where the blue-lit emergency phones were, stay on campus at all times.
I did go with them, pride ultimately trumping good sense. In Victor's old Lincoln, we drove widening concentric circles around campus. That there was no way we'd ever find this guy became quickly apparent (a relief to me), and yet hours passed quietly, elongated, each of us peering out at the deserted streets and darkened, crooked clapboard houses in which most of the population of New Haven, aside from the five thousand Yale undergrads, lived. Rob would slow the car when we passed small groups of men on the sidewalk, studying each of their faces until one of them invariably turned and spread his arms and said, “The fuck you want?” At around three thirty, long after what we were doing had become more of a ritual than an actual undertaking, I murmured, “Hey, Rob, doesn't seem like we're gonna find this asshole. Maybe we should just head back toÂ .Â .Â . campus?” He gingerly fingered the welt on his head and replied, “Yeah, getting low on gas anyway. Motherfucker.”
On that night and on all the less eventful others, I was envious of the degree to which these three men knew each other, their shared history and easy way of spending a weekend together, as if no time at all had separated these visitsâand the understated yet automatic way they had one another's backs. I had never had a male friendship like that; I couldn't even conceive of how to build one. Though I didn't understand this at the time, the fact was that it hadn't been built. Like the organic compounds Rob worked with in the lab, their friendship had evolved over time, experience, and an inexorable atomic pull. They called each other “brother,” and in the context from which they came, a brother was someone who would die for youânot as a verbal phrasing meant to suggest a deep kinship but in actual fact should the need arise.
Tavarus and Flowy were more guarded when they came, just once, during Af-Am Week of junior year. Their offishness may have had to do with their circumstances at the time: Tavarus had just dropped out of college and was back in Newark, living with his brother in a run-downapartment above and beneath Section 8 recipients and neighboring a significant drug den. He was trying to get his foot in the real estate business, building off that high school job doing title research; his poor grades and dropout status from two years of college did not aid him. Flowy had torn two ligaments in his knee when he'd slipped lifeguarding, and he hadn't worked in a month. They were both in one of life's ebbs, unsure about anything, wondering how they'd been riding such promising trajectories at St. Benedict's just two and a half years before. They must have experienced some reserve in seeing Rob with his towers of books, his spacious, paid-for apartment, his thriving business, his white roommate with the crew cut and Yale Track & Field T-shirts, his stable of female friends who happily came by to spend three hours rebraiding his cornrows just for the pleasure of his company. With melancholy faces, they spent the afternoon in our living room, arms folded and shoulders hunched as if they'd been called into the master of discipline's office at St. Benedict's. They were polite enough, but no effort of mine could extend a conversation past two or three exchanges. Flowy spoke in a quiet mumble without spaces between his words, and with something like a southern twang. I couldn't really understand him anyway.
Because of Af-Am Week, parties were happening everywhere, and the racial mix of crowds on the quads was, for this long weekend, evenly split between white and black. I stayed in to read, and I was in my underwear, brushing my teeth, when they returned and Rob said, “About to be a couple people rolling through,” as he picked stray clothes off the couch. Flowy and Tavarus, as opposed to earlier, were now giddy and active after the four hours they'd spent out. They cycled through the CDs fanned across the top of our stereo, some of which were mine, albums by the Wallflowers and Faith No More that rarely made it onto the air in our room. Suddenly “Throw Dem Bows” by Ludacris, a hard-driving song with its own dance that I knew and liked, was playing at full volume.
The door was open and people were streaming through, and not just a couple as Rob had advertised: a dozen, then two, then three, untilthe apartment was jammed, mostly with strangers from other schools. Daniella Pierce was the only other white person. I was still in my underwear, more or less hiding in the bedroom Ty and I shared. Rob, Tavarus, and Flowy were in the middle of the room, “throwing bows” with the bass line like a black urban version of the chicken dance. To them, this moment must have recalled that party at Columbia High School, when everyone had followed them to the dance and they'd felt like the absolute center of the world. I tried to hang out, but the situation was overwhelming, short on familiar faces, and with all the noise and crowdâthere were probably another forty people outside the apartment building waiting to get inâI had no doubt that the campus police would show up eventually. And if the campus police were to show up in our room, smell the weed inside, enter and look around, open Rob's lower right desk drawer or his black trunkÂ .Â .Â .
For the first time, our room didn't feel safe to me, and it felt less so when Rob caught me as I was leaving, gestured toward my laptop on the desk, and said, “You probably should put that away if you want it to still be here tomorrow.”
The cops did show up, I learned the next day. Rob had known they would, but he'd also known (or so he claimed) that all they would do was disperse the crowd outside, tell him to turn the music down and keep the front door of the building shut. Any further action would have caused undue racial tension, which had happened many times before during Af-Am Week, and which (or so he claimed) Yale was in a constant state of trying to avoid.
He was so happy during those weekends with his boys, carefree and kinetic, exhibiting a pride that was rare to observe in him and elevated by the pride his friends had for him. His attitude in their presence resembled mine during Parents' Weekend, eager to show off the life he had carved out of this place and his ownership of that life. And while he played down certain aspects of Yaleâthe girls were generally unattracÂtive, the guys were stuck-up, most of the parties were “lame as hell”âhe relished the brief windows he was able to give the East Orange set into New Havenâor “New Slavin',” as he sometimes called our adopted city.
But the happiest I ever saw Rob in college wasn't when his friends visited. He traveled to Costa Rica during the summer after sophomore year. In addition to his custodial job cleaning up campus after graduation, the lab work that continued into the summer, and a month on Chapman Street with Jackie, he'd gone to visit a friend, an international student at Yale. When school began again, I asked him how the trip had gone. He folded his hands behind his head and looked up toward the ceiling, not smiling exactly but with a far-flung expression, a shedding of anxiety so total that he might have been a Buddhist monk at the door of nirvana. He told me about smoking a blunt alone on a black sand beach on the Pacific Ocean. “I hiked through three miles of jungle to the beachÂ .Â .Â . the sand was so soft, sofine, volcanicÂ .Â .Â . the water blue like you've never seen blue beforeÂ .Â .Â . skyÂ .Â .Â . mountainsÂ .Â .Â . and I rolled a blunt and just sat there, for hours, aloneÂ .Â .Â . and it was so damn peaceful.”
That trip inspired a passion for travel that would underlie the rest of his life and in college lead him to begin planning a postgraduation trip to Rio de Janeiro, which research and word of mouth had led him to see as the perfect balance between urban and scenic and cultural pleasures. The first thing he did, two years in advance, was begin taking Portuguese classes so he could speak the language.
But before that trip, he had to graduate. The certainty of that event was shaken severely when the master of Pierson College called Rob into his office to address the not-small matter of the drugs he'd been selling.
Drugs:The unlawful possession, use, purchase, or distribution of illicit drugs or controlled substances (including stimulants, depressants, narcotics, or hallucinogenic drugs); the misuse of prescription drugs, including sharing, procuring, buying, or using in a manner different from the prescribed use, or by someone other than the person for whom it was prescribed.
This entry in Yale'sUndergraduate Regulationsfell under the list of infractions punishable by expulsion, as ruled by the Executive Committee, a group of seven faculty members and three undergraduates responsible for the “fair, consistent, and uniform enforcement of the Undergraduate Regulations.”
As Rob entered the Pierson master's office in February of his junior year, he was fairly certain that he was walking into an arraignment of sorts, which would be followed by a conjoined trial, judgment, and sentencing under the committee. Whereas his father's conviction had taken three years, he figured his would take in the vicinity of three weeks. Then he would be gone.
“The block is hot.” The expression was used in the drug trade, meaning that the police were sniffing aroundânot to an extent that should cause panic but a warning to be alert. Rob had said these words, lightly, when I'd found him rifling through his belongings a few days earlier. His black trunk was open in the middle of the room, and he was packing it with bongs, bowls, one-hitters, weed, ledgers, and cash as his pet python, named Dio, meandered lazily around the mulch carpet of its glass tank. He'd bought the two-foot reptile in the fall. Every week or so, I woulddrive him to a pet store ten minutes away for snake food: a live mouse. I'd watched Dio's very first feeding with Rob and Ty, like a live Discovery Channel show. Rob dropped the mouse into the tank, and the snake let it exist for a few minutes, just hanging out behind a small log while the rodent frantically pawed at the glass wall. When Dio did decide to move, the act happened fast: a quick, precise strike that kicked up mulch and ended with the mouseâa white, adorable little thingâwrapped tightly in two coils of Dio's body, asphyxiating, one of its eyeballs loose from its socket. The actual ingestion that followed was grotesquely prolonged, Dio's jaws dislocating to encompass five or six times their normal span, the mouse passing through them in slow, millimeter increments. Rob watched the entire process silently, hypnotized. Afterward, the snake didn't move for days as the lump inched down its body by way of peristalsis.
“What are you doing with all yourÂ .Â .Â . stuff?” I asked, speaking of the black trunk being packed tight with drug paraphernalia.
“Taking it to a friend's.”
He didn't seem too worried, certainly not enough to make me worry. The relocation of incriminating items was just precautionary. This had happened once before sophomore year, and the police had never come. No one came this time, either. What did come was a letter, with a red warning stripe on the envelope and a message three sentences long:
You are hereby required to meet in the Master's office tomorrow afternoon at 4 pm. If you have standing obligations, a note can be acquired from the Master's office excusing you. Please be advised that this is an important matter, and failure to appear will result in immediate disciplinary action.
So they knew about his dealing, and the fact that he'd received a formal letter rather than an email suggested that they meant business. Most likely a customer he didn't know well had been caught smoking and betrayed the source. Or maybe Oswaldo had been right, and Rob had beentoo cocky, had just assumed that because he'd never been in trouble, he never would. Either way, he was out.
The master's office was directly across the street from our apartment building, no more than twenty steps away. After walking hundreds or even thousands of miles through the dangerous streets of East Orange in the course of his life, after spending dozens of hours on Metro-North trains with a backpack full of drugs, those twenty steps must have been the most anxious of Rob's life. What would he do once he was expelled? He would have to tell Raquel, Daniella, Danny, and Oswaldo, friends who had depended on him to get them through their own harried Yale years. He would have to tell Jacinta in the dining hall, who knew what he did and had constantly warned him to stay safe. He would have to tell Charles Cawley, to whom he'd been sending his transcripts following each semester, with handwritten notes describing his experiences and continuing gratitude. He would have to tell Jackie and subject her to yet another phone call at work during which she would learn that the most important man in her life had failed her.
He must have been thinking about these conversations as he entered the office and waited in one of the three wooden chairs, alongside students there to drop a class or apply for a part-time job. Then the receptionist told him to go in.
The master of Pierson College was a short, bald Slavic literature professor. He was considered one of the “coolest” masters, both because of his patient manner that had helped uncountable numbers of students endure the various pressures they felt Yale placed on them, and because of the annual Jell-O wrestling match he took part in on the Pierson quad. The dean of Pierson College was a petite woman with a sharp German accent, whose job it was to handle things like class schedules, academic conflicts, and discipline. Both had always been kind to Rob and checked in with him often over the yearsâtoo often, he sometimes complained, as if they felt he needed extra attention for some reason. Rob slung his backpack over the chair and sat. He said hello to each of them politely and waited for his due.
The meeting lasted twenty minutes, and Rob said very little. The administrators took turns speaking about the seriousness of this infraction, the short- and long-term consequences, the fact that Rob was such a talented guy, so intelligent, so much better than what he was doing. The master focused on the emotional aspect of it, the disservice Rob was doing himself, the opportunity he was squandering; the dean spoke about the institutional side, the Yale ideals Rob had betrayed, the damage it could cause both other students and the university itself. Rob didn't deny anything. He didn't cite financial strain as an excuse. He didn't explode with self-righteous indignation as he had done with Coach Ridley. He nodded his head and kept saying, “YesÂ .Â .Â . YesÂ .Â .Â . YesÂ .Â .Â .”
In the end, they asked him to give his assurance, under the honor code of Yale University, that he would stop dealing drugs entirely. “Yes,” he replied one more time, and he thanked them for their guidance and discretion. He finished by saying, “I'm sorry.”
They let him go. There would be no Executive Committee hearing. There would be no police. There would be no expulsion. And Rob went straight to water polo practice, for which he was thirty minutes late.
Rather than dampen Rob's growing air of untouchability, this brush with authority only elevated it. “It looks bad for the university if someone like me goes down like that,” he told Oswaldo the following night, with a grin and a shrug. “They don't want to mess around with it.” They were in Oswaldo's room in Trumbull College, a Gothic building next to the library. Oswaldo was flustered, bordering on angry. Exactly what he had warned his friend would happen had happened, and yet here was Rob in his leather coat, acting like the Man when he should have been preparing to present his transgressions before the Executive Committee.
“Get the fuck out of my room,” Oswaldo said. “I have to study.”
“Damn,” replied Rob. “Chill. I'm gonna keep it on the down low for a minute.”
“I can't deal with your dumb shit anymore,” Oswaldo said. “You do dumb shit and you know it's dumb shit but it's the same dumb shit you grew up around so you do it anyway. I'm done.”
Oswaldo was dealing with his own shit, in fact, shit that would land him in a white room in Yale's Psychiatric Institute a few weeks later. His brain had begun to crumple under the weight it had to bear: his spiraling family in Newark; his affluent, oblivious classmates whose constant whining about how hard their lives were made him want to turn a gun on them; the daily financial planning involved in keeping up with his tuition payments and the growing debt load in his name; the ever-approaching moment when graduation came and he would be faced with trying to keep his life moving upwardâand all of this before he even cracked a textbook to study for his 400-level psychology curriculum. Fantasies of turning a gun on the people around him evolved into turning a gun on his forehead, and suddenly he found himself walking around a nether region of New Haven in the middle of the night, struggling to recall his own name let alone what he was doing here, in the grip of a full-fledged psychotic break. Luckily, his girlfriend had sensed that something was wrong, notified his dean, master, and campus police, and they were able to find him.
Rob visited him in the psychiatric ward almost every day and sat across a table from him in a monitored room for as long as he was permitted, excursions that were similar to a prison visit in purely physical ways: the security checkpoints, the cameras affixed to the ceiling, the bolted metal doors, the space between you and the person sitting across from you just a few feet and yet signifying so much more. Rob would look at his short, rail-thin friend, the friend who had always counseled him wisely if not patiently, and whose counsel he'd refused to take. Now that friend was twitchy and not making much sense at all. Rob would just nod and give him a general update of what was happening on campus and say, “Trust me, you're not missing anything.” His staidness paired with the ability to not treat Oswaldo like a psychiatric patientâsparing him both the hesitancy of speech and overenthusiastic bursts of innocuous information that visits from other friends entailedâwas its own form of therapy.
Raquel Diaz firmly believed that “going crazy” was a luxury of the wealthy, because poor people like her had too many responsibilities tobother with mental health episodes. Though her consciousness was frayed just as Oswaldo's was, she didn't permit herself to seek help. Her grades remained stellar, but her mother couldn't afford the tuition anymore, her classmates seemed to find new and original ways to enrage her, and her boyfriend of two years had had his own psychotic break and had recently been stalking other women and trying to become a rapper. So she took her junior year off to work as an au pair in Italy and then visit China, an opportunity that the college master helped her secure. The hiatus from school was intended to salvage her brain, reassemble her finances, and place some much-needed distance between herself and this campusâto regain a level of perspective that would see her through graduation. Her friends and roommates let her know that this was a shortsighted decision that would delay her life by a full year, remove her from close friendships, and waste so much of the work she'd already put in. When Rob showed up, she was filled with self-doubt and overwhelmed with the task of packing up her room at the end of sophomore year. They spent a full day organizing her possessions, with Rob lugging her furniture down to the basement storage rooms. Throughout, he told her not to worry about what anyone else was telling her, not to worry about anything at all except getting herself right.
“You do what you have to do,” he said more than once that day, and she did, knowing that while she was gone Rob would continue doing what he had to doânot only in terms of dealing and consuming marijuana, but also by carrying whatever burdens he had to carry alone, and walking with order and strength, and striving to help those around him do the same.
AT THE ENDof junior year, Rob began receiving cryptic emails from phony Hotmail accounts.We are watching you. We know where you are and we are coming. Be prepared. Tonight is the night when it will happen.Rob wasn't alarmed, paranoid, or impelled to think that he needed to start watching his back again. In fact, he was amused, because the emails meant that he was being “tapped” for a secret society initiation.
The most famous society was Skull and Bones, referenced in the biographies of both Bush presidents and movies both highbrow (The Good Shepherd) and lowbrow (The Skulls). There were many other societies: Wolf's Head, Scroll and Key, Mace and Chain, Book and Snake, Berzelius, and on and on. Each was composed of twelve seniors chosen by the class preceding them. The oldest societies occupied heavily gated, windowless, sepulcher-like buildings dotting the campus. Being tapped for any society, particularly the older, more secretive ones, was considered an exclusive honor, like a badge that said you had made an impression on this campus during the previous three years. Admission was quietly coveted by many. I, for one, was surprised when Rob went ahead with the initiation for the group that had chosen him, Elihu, named after the university's founder, Elihu Yale. A secret society was in essence yet another version of the manufactured friendships that Yale was, in Rob's view, constantly foisting upon its students. My roommate had always felt, loudly at times, that he had his real friends and didn't have time for facsimiles of friendships. As such, he was not primed to give a shit about another construct asking for his time. Maybe he was curious. Maybe, in a pragmatic way, he was thinking ahead to the future career contacts such an association promised. Maybe he had become more of a Yalie than he'd ever admit.
Initiation was protracted over three weeks in the spring. The specifics varied from society to society, but they typically involved seniors wearing masks and dark robes walking across campus like so many Grim Reapers to perform minor hazing rituals that took place in various chapels, with an almost celebratory emphasis on the cultishness of it all. Like learning the school songs at St. Benedict's, Rob had to memorize verses written on papyrus scrolls that detailed the history of Elihu, the school's third-oldest secret society. He had no trouble doing this, mumbling the words with an exaggerated detachment from the proceedings, a contrast to peers who did the same thing with trembling, anxious, humbled whispers. Then came Tap Night, when the campus erupted with a few hundred inebriated students assigned tasks for the night: breaking intoclassroom buildings to steal chairs, climbing campus monuments to sing songs in their underwear, etc. Rob was asked to lie on his stomach in front of the library and challenge any passing campus police to an arm-wrestling match.
“Nah,” he said. He'd grown up in a neighborhood in which policemen were constantly checking him out, and in which policemen, in his eyes, had set up his father for life in prison. “You can't get me to do that.” In the end, they couldn't.
The following week, he and the eleven other new members of Elihu were invited to the society-owned property, a Federal-style house on the New Haven Green, to drink and receive their pins, with hoods and masks removed. Every Thursday and Sunday night throughout senior year, this group would meet here for a few hours, the goal to open up fully to people who otherwise would have remained merely acquaintances or strangersâto actualize, in a way, the Yale experience in which so many different people of so many different backgrounds were “tapped” to live in these cordoned-off city blocks together. Rob seemed more interested in the fact that he would now have access to the house, which through generous alumni contributions had its own housekeeping service and was kept fully stocked with high-end food and booze year-round. The newly tapped members each owed $100 to the treasurer, Laurel Bachner, a Manhattanite from the Upper East Side and a Dalton School alum. Rob's check bounced initially, and he seemed to forget about it after that. She was nervous about confronting him; an inherent discomfort existed between a rich white girl approaching a poor black man regarding money he owed. She'd never known anyone in her life who couldn't keep $100 in the bank. He'd already made a few cracks about her spoiled upbringing, and she was prepared to cover his dues herself to spare them both the confrontation. Just before she did so, Rob stopped her on campus and slipped her the money in cash. “Sorry about that,” he said. “The bank changed my account number for some reason. That was why the check bounced.”
The Elihu retreat at the end of that year took place at the New York Governor's Mansion in Albany; a senior member of Elihu was the governor's daughter. Oswaldo, recently out of the psychiatric ward and doing his best to catch up on his classes before year's end, still took a moment to pull Rob aside. “Don't be a fool,” was his advice, meaning: don't bring a bunch of weed, don't drink too much, and in general don't get all messed up. Rob was going to theGovernor's Mansion, and Oswaldo felt that he needed to treat the experience with respect. Rob was representing their kind of people, and if he “got stupid,” he would only be reinforcing stereotypes. In the wake of his breakdown, Oswaldo had become hyperattuned to the way he, and people like him, were perceived. For his first three years at Yale, he'd been frustrated by these perceptions, feeling that they were inescapable, allowing that caged feeling to overwhelm him. The perspective granted him by two weeks of near total isolation had led him to believe that heâand in a much bigger way, Robâhad only propagated the ignorance of their peers. Because theydidget stoned all the time, theydidget angry, theydiddress like thugs, theydidtalk shit about a college education that might set them up for fulfilling lives, theydidset themselves apart. For Oswaldo, the issue had ceased to be a philosophical and historical one, and instead had come to revolve around a simple goal: to graduate from Yale without making that task harder than it needed to be. After all, that was the point of collegeânot freedom, not alcohol, not relationships, but toobtain a degree.
After sitting in FDR's wheelchair that was on display in the museum sector of the Governor's Mansion, Rob ended up doing all three of the things that Oswaldo had warned him against, and Saturday night of the retreat found him passed out on the pool table, an empty bottle of the governor's whiskey clutched in his hand. With that, his initiation into the secret society, perhaps the most rarefied and exclusive component of Yale, was complete.
MY HEAD WAS WEDGEDbetween the tubular metal arm of our futon frame and the windowsill of a second-floor stair landing.
“Pull,” I grunted, “don't push.OW!”
“Sorry, my bad.” Rob laughed, and then the pressure eased off my skull.
We were moving into the dorm again, early September of senior year. For what would be the last time, we were rummaging through the basement storage rooms for our scuffed and dented furniture, hauling each item up the shoulder-width basement stairs and then angling it around the landings, smashing our fingers and torquing our elbows and laughing throughout. We were in the grip of a too-conscious awareness that everything was suddenly a “last.” The last New Haven fall with leaves all afire, the last coed intramural football games, the last tailgates, the last naked parties (one Yale staple in which Rob did not take part), the last time we would all be catching up on our summers, which at this point many had spent in internships related to their chosen career paths. Beginning with the transport of furniture, we began to embrace these “bright college years” with an energy that hadn't existed before the light at the end of the tunnel began flashing so closely, beckoning us while at the same time warning us to turn back.
We'd been back in school for a little over a week when the Twin Towers fell. I was buying toothpaste at a CVS up Whalley Avenue when I heard the urgent newscast over the radio behind the cashier, not totally following what was happening. A half hour later, in the dining hall for lunch, some students were crying. Others were shaking their heads, bewildered. Still others were already intellectualizing the event. Another fifteen minutes passed before someone actually told me that the World Trade Center had been reduced to rubble, and the Pentagon had also been hit. The master walked solemnly from table to table, asking students if their families were all safe. My two older siblings lived in Manhattan now, and my parents happened to be in the city while my dad attended a surgical conference. Phones were down but I was able to email my brother in his SoHo office, where his window had given him a clear view of the bodies plummeting from the upper floors. Between the first and second towers falling, my dad had volunteered to board abus filled with doctors from the conference, heading toward the site to set up a triage center. We didn't learn until the evening that the bus had been rerouted to Chelsea Piers, but that very few patients came in due to the severe nature of the event: the majority of affected people were either psychologically traumatized but physically unharmed, or else dead. There wasn't much in between.
Ty, Rob, and I gathered in our half-assembled room to watch the news, the endless replay of the second building turning to smoke. Ty kept talking animatedly about the goddamn terrorists, how we should kill them all. At one point a plane flew low overhead, its engine reverberating through the dorm, and Ty's girlfriend screamed mortally and tried to climb under the futon. Rob sat forward, elbows on knees and hands clasped between them. He said very little that I can remember. Then he stood and we went together to the candlelight vigil held in front of the library, during which the president of the Arab Society gave a powerful speech. Afterward, Rob went off alone, I assumed to the Weed Shack or Oswaldo's or somewhere comfortable for him to speak his mind about the day's events, or maybe just to study, which was what I did.
He went to Anwar Reed's house. Anwar was a “townie.” He'd grown up in New Haven and now lived with two pit bulls three miles east on State Street, one of those downtrodden regions of New Haven that students avoided. Anwar hustled; that was how he and Rob had met. He was also quiet and kind, low-key, and never made fun of Rob's association with Yale, whose ornate structures had always towered in distant but clear view, seeming to mark the capital of a foreign country. Anwar was planning to join the army, and Rob went there to talk about the day's heavy consequences on Anwar's future.
Unbeknownst to me, from the beginning of freshman year Rob and Oswaldo had been drawn away from Yale via their friends on the dining hall and custodial staffs, outward into the city of New Haven. Rob considered these excursions a much-needed dose of reality, the social equivalent of an antidepressant. Anwar's yard had a view of East Rock, particularly striking at sunset when the last rays enriched the limestonefrontage. He hosted a lot of barbeques in that yard, where the grill was sandwiched between a stack of cracked flat tires and a rusty wheelless wheelbarrow. Inside the small house, a threadbare beige couch and a mattress in the bedroom were the only furnishings. Ash stains branded the hardwood floor. The pit bulls curled up together in their cage in the corner. Anwar had steered some business Rob's way over the yearsâ“making movements,” he called it, like Skeet and Carl hadâand whenever he did so Rob had slipped him 20 percent of what he'd made. “Kickback,” Rob would say.
The look and feel of places like Anwar's, the cadence of the language spoken, the familiar topics of conversationâthese elements combined to make Rob and Oswaldo feel like they hadn't, in fact, forsaken their roots. Jacinta, in their dining hall chats, constantly warned him to be careful. “You can say things to kids here and it doesn't matter, they won't mess with you. With that boy Anwar and all them, you have to watch what you say, protect yourself. It's not the same.”
“Always,” Rob would reply, eating at his usual spot behind her card-swiping station.
After 9/11, Rob could no longer carry a backpack of marijuana through the upgraded security of Penn Station and Grand Central. He bought a car, a low-riding, decades-old, two-door Toyota on its last legs. I couldn't imagine the vehicle having cost more than a few hundred dollars. He felt that the engine had just enough juice left to get him down to Newark and back a few times, sufficient to see him through the year. Whenever he had trouble with it, which was often, he took the car to Flowy. In the years since high school, Flowy had fashioned himself into an expert diagnostician of car engines.
Though the subject came up weightily in most of our classes, the real-world consequences of the World Trade Center remained largely unknown to us (as, in retrospect, they did to the highest levels of government). But the tragedy brought forward, with an unusual gravity, the transition we were on the verge of making. What had happened had happened in the real world. The attack had immediately, savagely altered the lives of real people, people who went to work every day,owned houses, had families, and geared their lives around something other than “expanding their minds to actualize their best selves,” as Yale president Richard Levin had advised us to do at our convocation ceremony three years before. Not every Yale student came from a sheltered background, but we were all undeniably sheltered here. No matter how important an English paper or a math exam or a football game felt, the realization emerged that none of these activities with which we filled our schedules truly mattered, that soon we would leave this place with whatever GPA and other achievements we had managed to obtain, and reality awaited. Gone from our lives would be the snowball fights on quads, the food prepared daily for us, the keg stands at Sigma Alpha Epsilon, and course loads designed such that there would be no classes before noon. Very soon, our decisions would have consequences, our lives would include danger, we would experience sadness and loss and disappointment on a scale heretofore unknown. With the weight and moment of 9/11 still coursing through the culture, we felt unprepared.
We hid these fears the most effective way we knew howâby returning to the idiotic behavior that had marked our first weeks on campus. Rob was not above taking part. His stoner circle widened and gathered more frequently, sometimes lasting clear through a weeknight during which no studying was done. The car gave him more flexibility to go to Anwar's house, and sometimes on a whim to Mohegan Sun, an Indian casino an hour north. I tagged along once, and sat rigidly in the passenger seat as he drove that beater car through the densely wooded freeways of central Connecticut, pushing seventy, Outkast blaring. I'd never been to a casino, and after he gave me a two-minute tutorial on how to play craps and blackjack, I proceeded to lose $80 with alacrity and ease, at which point I removed myself from the table to observe. Rob called me a bitch, as he'd called me many times before, with affection. And I was perfectly content to spend most of the night watching him play hand after hand of blackjack and sink himself deep. His low-hanging smile belied the studiousness with which he played, contemplative about every one of his hits and splits, and more so with each $15 hand he lost.He kept throwing money on the table, always with a smile and a loose flick of the wrist. But the fingers of his left hand danced along his chips incessantly; I knew he was keeping track of every dollar in the ledger in his head. He maintained an easy dialogue with the dealer. “You had to go and give yourself an eight,” he said, slapping his palm on the table after a twenty-one on the dealer's side. “Didn't you?Didn'tyou? Now why you gotta do me like that?” She was a middle-aged Asian woman, accustomed to indulging the clientele in a professional way that preserved the invisible rampart between them. Over the course of her shift at his table, Rob drew her in to the point where that barrier dissolved, and she was clearly rooting for him, almost ashamed when she drew a blackjack, beaming when Rob doubled down and won. Whenever the dealers changed, Rob gave the departing a warm goodbye and immediately began charming the next.
We'd left campus around eleven. I'd opted out of the gambling by one. Then three, four, five in the morning passed us by, and Rob played on, chain-smoking cigarettes, drinking rum and Cokes. I nursed White Russians and took a few walks around to people-watch and try the slot machines. An isolated casino in the middle of a weeknight had a weight to it, a desperation beneath the pale lights and chirpy dings of the machines. The few people there seemed to have come down from Boston or up from New York City, and they appeared to have little more to hope for in life than a decent winning streak. Upon returning to the table (my own hope being that Rob might want to leave soon), I paused to watch him from a distance of maybe twenty yards. He looked very much woven into these surreal surroundings. The friend whom I'd come to view as a kind of icon, who for three years had never once given in to the real and manufactured anxieties coursing through the rest of us, now just sat there alone, focused only on the hand in play, seized by the hope that the hand would be good enough. During fleeting moments, between haughty exchanges with the dealer and the table slapping and chip gathering, he could look serious and worn. We left at six in the morning, just in time to beat commuter traffic into New Haven. We drove mostly in silence, with Shaggy singing “It Wasn't Me” on theworn-out speakers, both of us in that woozy yet strangely sober state of having spent an entire night awake and active.
I smoked with him for the first time that semester, not long after that excursion. He'd offered many times over the years, and I'd demurred offhand, until these exchanges had become a kind of rehearsed joke.
Then one evening during November of senior year, he was rolling a joint. As typically began our back-and-forth, he raised it toward me and said with that grin, “Come on, Jeffrey, it'll chill youout,” to which I was expected to say something like “I'm cool” or “No thanks, man.”
“Okay, sure,” I replied.
He blinked his eyes and hollered, “Whatthefuck?”
“Sure, I'll try.”
Rob called to Ty, who ran into the common room. They made an event out of what followed, giving me the rite of passage that Rob had never experienced as a kid taking his first toke. The only problem was that I had never smoked anything before and didn't know how; my first attempt left my mouth tasting like ash but didn't reach my lungs.
“Nasty,” I rasped through the dissociative tingle in the back of my throat.
“What about a bong?” Ty suggested.
“A bong would just about kill the kid,” Rob replied, and then, to me, “Come here.”
He made me sit on a stool directly across from him. He put the joint in his mouth and directed me to place my face in front of his, maybe four inches apart. “Now, just breathe in and don't stop,” he said. I complied, and as I did so he pulled fast and deep off the joint and in a gentle, steady exhalation streamed the smoke back over my face. The trick was called “shotgunning,” and it was effective. Immediately my lungs filled to capacity with Rob's breath, laced with THC.
“Now hold it in,” Rob said. “Hold it a minute.”
My track-trained and untainted respiratory system was quite powerful, and I was happy to impress him. I was also instantaneously stoned. I'd expected to feel something like the peace Rob himself exhibited when high. Instead, I just became dizzy and began giggling at every sound Iheard while a low-level paranoia fixed itself to the rear of my brain. A grin locked itself onto my face so tight that my cheeks ached for days. I was passed out not more than thirty minutes later. The next morning, while I dug at my dried-out eyes, Rob slapped me on the back and said, “You were funny as hell last night.”
“Do I owe you any money?” I asked.
“For, like, two half hits?” He laughed. “Nah, it's on the house.” (His tone implied that this would be the last freebie.)
“I guess I thought it would be more mellow or something,” I replied.
“It's like your running. You just gotta train and you'll get there.”
My running, which had consumed every afternoon and the bulk of my weekends throughout college, had gotten me little more than a recurring hamstring pull that had long since nullified all my lofty hopes for record setting. The injury had also made me something of a basket case, logging each nutrient that went into my body, obsessing about sleep, living in terror of “speed-endurance” practices, and overthinking races to the point where my muscles would tighten and the bad hamstring would twinge and my mind, rather than focus on the rather simple task of running forward as fast as possible, would collapse into uncertainty as my opponents ran on ahead. These stresses accounted for probably half of my waking thoughts for three years of my life. So, though my first pot experience was more or less pathetic and I wasn't impelled to retry anytime soon, loosening up a bit felt like a positive thing to do. More positive still was the experience of sharing this small, vital aspect of my friend's life.
After a time, we all seemed to calm down and focus once againâÂparticularly the premed students staring down the barrel of the MCAT. In many ways, this test was the culmination of all the studying, lab work, and anxiety that had accompanied their chosen career path: five hours that would decide what caliber of medical schools would consider them. These students disappeared for days at a time to study, take Kaplan courses and practice tests, and seek out any datum of information that might give them an advantage over the thousands of future doctors withwhom they would be competing that day. These students resembled parents of infant triplets: bleary-eyed, beaten down, weakly managing to put a positive spin on the undertaking. Ty would score 44 out of a possible 45, placing him in the hundredth percentile nationally.
Even the science majors who were not planning on medical school tended to take the exam in order to at least retain the option, but Rob did not. When asked about what he wanted to do with his degree, he would change the subject to Rio. He didn't plan this trip so much as dream of it; he seemed to believe he could simply board a plane, bank over the ocean and land among those hills, then wing it from there. I wondered about his seeming lack of post-Yale motivation, and yet his “chillness” aligned so naturally with who he was that I never questioned it, and certainly not aloud to him. “Rob will figure it out,” those of us who knew him would say to each other. “He always does.” None of usânot even Oswaldo Gutierrezâknew then what we know now: that he had netted just over $100,000 selling marijuana at Yale. A small portion of this he'd already given to his mother in installments akin to the money he'd once left on the counter, small enough that she didn't question him when he told her it came from the dining hall job he'd quit long before. He'd spent $10,000 or so on school supplies and summer travel. He set aside another $30,000, also for his mother, that he could give to her when he had a real job and wouldn't have to bend believability to explain where it came from. The remaining half, “fifty large” in Rob's parlance, was to pay for Rio and float him through the next year, at which point he was confident that he would in fact “figure it out.”
I'M STILL NOTsure why, but my entire academic curriculum senior year revolved around the literary “search for the father” motif. In a prestigious class taught by the literature scholar Harold Bloom, I wrote my final paper on Odysseus and Telemachus, arguing that while the son searched for the father, the father was really searching for himself. (Professor Bloom gave the paper a C-, with a single commentscrawled on page 1: “This isn't Homer, it's Hobbs!”) My senior thesis on James Joyce'sUlyssestriangulated Stephen Dedalus, his biological father, Simon Dedalus, and his surrogate father, Leopold Bloom, in an attempt to parse through the symbolic importance of blood. My final project in the creative writing tie-in to my English major was a novel, written quickly and quite poorly, about a carpenter in northern New England who, in the wake of his son's death, sets off to locate the father who abandoned him, encountering thinly veiled characters plucked from theOdysseyalong the way. None of these projects was original in the slightest, and indeed the subjects had been explored more deftly by innumerable writers before me (meaning: my work was entirely derivative). Combined, they probably totaled 150,000 words, and on these words I worked hours each night, usually with Homer or Joyce or both open beside me.
“How do you just sit there and write shit?” Rob asked. A popular new Nelly CD was playing. Rob's musical tastes seemed to have softened over time, and in the room I'd been hearing fewer freestyle-based, full-throttle gangster rappers like Ludacris and more melodic, overproduced songs like the one we were hearing now, “Ride Wit Me.”
“I don't know,” I replied. “I just like words, and kind of figuring them out.”
Rob knew that I aspired to be a novelist. And without having read any of the lousy short fiction I'd produced over the years, and without telling me as much, he had confidence that I'd be able to do it, certainly more confidence than any jowly, prattling English professor or jaded, overcompetitive creative writing student. The ugliness of the creative writing track evidenced itself in everything from the sample stories you had to submit for entry into the most notable authors' classes to the way every one of those professors smugly advised us during the first class to “choose a different career” and the shared understanding that if you could not speak fluidly at length about Raymond Carver's canon, then you would never succeed. On a fellowship application, under a “career plan” entry, I'd written, “Write books of a mythical nature.” The selection committee had practically laughed me out of the room.
Rob's confidence was communicated with a simple look that said,If you want to, and you don't, then that's on you.
“How the hell can you memorize every fact in every textbook?” I asked him in reply.
“Not about memorization,” he said and looked up thoughtfully. “It's like, you look at that stereo, or a clock, or whatever, and you would want to write a paragraph describing it. Me, I look at things and want tofigure it out.Like, take it apart, see what's inside it, know how it works, learn the science behind it.”
“You're like that with people, too,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“You're really curious about people's stories. Like you're always trying to âfigure everyone out.'”
“I suppose,” he replied.
Later in the same conversation, he asked me why I was so obsessed with theOdyssey.He'd read it in high school and knew the story and themes, but he'd found the text stiff and inaccessible.
“Just all the father-son stuff,” I replied. “I think about that all the time.”
“I guess it comes from stuff with my own dad.”
“He seems like a real cool pop.”
While struggling to find a way to explain the grievances I had over my father (unfounded, self-gratifying grievances to be sure, being as my father was steady, generous, and devoted to his children almost beyond reason), I remembered where Rob's own father was. Skeet was mentioned so rarely in our roomâmaybe three times over four yearsâthat forgetting was easy, and remembering made my search for words all the more treacherous.
“He just doesn't show or say much about what he feels. He's kind of internalized. And I care more about what he thinks of me than pretty much anyone else. So, y'know, it's something that's on my mind a lot.”
“Yeah, I see that,” he said, situating his textbook in his lap and pointing his face toward it again.
“Do you think aboutÂ .Â .Â . that stuff?” I said. “With your dad? I mean, I know it's a lot different, butÂ .Â .Â .Â ?” Immediately, I regretted these words.
“I guess,” he replied. “I don't really know the man, so it's different. Mostly, I think about my maÂ .Â .Â .” The conversation tapered off.
Spring term brought with it a flighty, giddy feeling. Final exams still had to be dealt withâbut we werehere, we hadmade it.Now all those “lasts” were truly occurring: last snowfall, last “P is for the P in Pierson College” chants, last Spring Fling concert on Old Campus. Ty and I realized that, although Rob usually came to our home track meets, we had never seen him play water polo. He had been voted captain by his teammates both junior and senior yearsâa rarity on any sports teamâbut our knowledge of his sport remained limited to the team photo we found laying haphazardly on the coffee table one afternoon. In the picture, he stood left of center with his chest puffed out in a line of otherwise pale bodies, his face set to convey toughness.
We drove to a tournament at Middlebury College one early Sunday morning, both of us hungover from the previous night. We wandered around the pretty campus until someone was able to direct us toward the pool. We joked about the skimpy swimsuits and rubber helmets for a minute, then half slept through a game before Yale played. Seeing Rob in the water brought us out of this stupor. We were so used to him being subdued and removedâso used to him being stoned, in factâthat to see the energy he possessed in the pool reminded me of a predatory animal, like his python, Dio, once a mouse was dropped into the tank. Our eyes were locked on him, waiting to see what he would do. He did not possess the languid, long-limbed aquatic grace of Olympic swimmers; his strokes were short, choppy, inefficient. But hemoved, and when he took the ball he placed it bobbing in the water between his arms, controlling it with his chest and head as he swam the length of the pool. When preparing for a shot, his kicking legs held half his torso out of the water, the ball cradled in his palm still higher above his head and making rapid half rotations back and forth as he sought the right angle. We couldhear the smack talk ten rows up in the bleachers:“Nah! Nah! You ain't got shit!”when he was defending a ball holder;“Here it comes, bitch!”when he was keen to score. He released these gems in a low yet resounding hiss, his teeth bared, his grin scary. That he was the only black player, from what we could tell, in the whole eight-team tournament only heightened the thrashing quality to every movement he made, every word he used to intimidate. He played with his elbows bent and often deployed toward a forehead or jaw. When he was whistled for a foulâwhich was oftenâhe'd raise his arms out of the water in mystification, like a petulant NBA player. From above, Ty and I egged him on, fully absorbed in his joy, which was total.