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George Pollock

State Kid
Issue 19
Head of the Family

Billy should have felt right at home in Granite City School. It was a regular foster-child
graveyard. This is what he had learned about the prison's alpha wolves:
Kali Muhammad was a career foster child. When he was five, Kali's father had been shot
and killed on the front stoop of their tenement. His mother soon gave in to alcohol and
drugs. Kali and his five brothers and sisters were taken by the state and placed in separate
foster homes. Now 16, he had been at Granite City School for nearly three years, having
been sent there after having beat his umpteenth natural child to a bloody mess.
Angel Santiago became a foster child as a newborn baby. He was born in prison where
his mother, a drug addict and prostitute, was serving fifteen to twenty years; she had been
an accessory to the armed robbery of a bodega in which the clerk had been killed.
Although her boyfriend, probably Angel's father -- he couldn't be sure -- had pulled the
trigger while she had been waiting in the car, she had been convicted along with him as a
“co-venturer.” Angel had been taken from his mother the morning after his birth (though
it's considered cruel to separate puppies from their mothers that quickly).
Placed in foster care, Angel never saw his mother again and he never learned what
happened to her. He never found out who his father was. He spent his childhood going
from one foster home to another. When no foster home could contain his rage, he was put
in Granite City. That was three years ago. He was now 15.
Durk Coogan had not been a foster child. On his journey to Granite City, he skipped that
apparent requirement. His violent father took turns beating Durk and Durk's mother. The
father's idea of family fun was taking Durk out drinking with him. He got life for
stabbing to death a man in a bar parking lot after a drunken argument. Durk's mother
unraveled to unspecified mental illness, which made it impossible for her to hold a job.
Durk and his mother got evicted from their apartment. They moved in with Durk's
grandmother where the three of them shared a single room whose rent, paid weekly, took
some 60% of the grandmother's social security check. Durk was arrested for robbing a
liquor store with a gun his father had given him. He had been in Granite city a year. He
was 15.
How did Billy come by such details? Let's say that, much like a neurosurgeon, he
delicately insinuated himself into troubled and tender areas inside the heads of Kali,
Angel, and Durk -- and operated. At first, the three responded to Billy's delicate probes
with warning growls. When he tried to touch them on the shoulder with a comradely
hand, they slapped it away. It was like trying to tame wild, status-conscious predators, but
without the whip and chair.
Like any good beast master, though, Billy came to know intimately his animals' moods.
Anything slightly out of the ordinary, even a twitch, was enough to make Billy say, better
back off for today. None of the three made a serious move to kill him. His soft-spoken
and friendly ways, which were alien and confusing to the other inmates, made him seem
more soft in the head than a serious threat. Though he had won a rep as a guy who “spits
on death,” and though, as a result, he had gained some relief from harassment, no one
saw him as a contender for leadership.
Hard-core, hate-filled gang leaders have formidable defenses. Weeks went by of surly
silences, during which time the three gang leaders rebuffed -- very roughly -- every
attempt by Billy to break through to them. But, slowly, cracks in their defensive walls
appeared in the form of grunted, sub-literate replies to Billy's attempts at conversation.
Without the gang leaders realizing it, replies of an actual word or two slipped out from
between clenched teeth. Next came a few words without Billy's prompting. As weeks
became months, these few words slowly developed into sentences; and then all three --
They told Billy of long-buried, never-expressed feelings.
Billy listened as if his life depended on it -- which it did.
Kali spoke of the rage he felt at how the foster parents treated their own kids like royalty
and him like dirt. Billy said, “That's their problem, Kali, not yours. You deserved fair
treatment then and you deserve it now -- and you will get it, I promise.”
Angel moaned, “Why me? Why me?” as he talked about the awesome fact of never
having known his mother or father, the thought of which caused him to throw up. Billy,
his own psyche suffering from gaping wounds, put a hand on Angel's shoulder and said,
“Angel, my heart breaks for you. I will do whatever I can to make up for your terrible
loss. That I promise you.”
Durk said he wanted to kill his father for what he had done. Billy said, “Durk, I know
how you feel, believe me. But what your father has done to you and your mother is done.
Leave it, and be out from under this heavy weight, which can only cause you more pain
and keep you a prisoner. Leave it and I promise you will walk lightly and some day fly
with the birds.”
Feelings rose and spilled out. “Nobody come see me here, man,” Kali said. “Not my
brothers, not my sister, not my uncles, not nobody.” Angel said, “I got nobody, man. No
mother, no father, no nothing. To the world, I'm dead, jus' not buried, tha's all.” Durk said,
“I don't want no visitors, 'cept one, my old man, so I can drag a blade across his sorry-
assed throat.”
Billy, who himself had not received a visitor, said to each: “I'm not going to lie to you.
Being locked up knowing that nobody cares is a hell beyond all hells. But I tell you this:
you are not alone. I take you as my brother. To me, you are now family.”
These were clarion words that demanded notice even in a world where all talk is cheap.
Though spoken by a new inmate -- as well as a stealth pretender to power --the dead aim
of Billy's words, and the confirmation they gave, and the shared destiny they promised,
penetrated the wounded souls of teen-age prisoners with nothing else to grab onto.

For refined tastes, Billy's offer of instant family-hood might seem more than a touch
overwrought. But in Granite City society where only more is more, and where anything
less is spat upon, and where the gangs already provided a sense of family, Billy had to
reach high and he did.
While nobody was looking, he came up with a better gang -- with himself as leader.
Naturally, this being earth not heaven, there was self-interest here. After all, Billy had
desperate needs himself. Without doubt or hesitation, he accepted that his first obligation
was to himself and that -- first, last, and always -- he himself would be the means of his
own deliverance.
However, if in the process of ensuring his own survival, he spoke the words that others
could seize upon; and if he gathered power as a direct result, should the kid be
condemned? Would it be realistic to expect purity of heart from a despised child of
Hades' dark den?
Proceeding without illusions, then, we can say this much: he gave freely of attention
when he himself was starving for it; he listened to the anguished words of other prisoners
when he ached to bare his own soul to someone, anyone. Unlike conventional or
professional empathy, Billy's sentiment flowed from his core. In his relations with other
inmates, he somehow managed a genuine, vertuosic sublimation of self for other.
In Granite City's society of fear, anger, and hopelessness, this was sensational stuff.

Kali, Durk, and Angel dispensed protection and petty favors, but did not offer the one
thing that every prisoner desperately wanted -- to be heard. Throughout the prison, Billy
Stone set himself up as the only supplier of this precious service. Billy's generous ear
attracted attention-deprived inmates like vultures alighting upon fresh carrion. Jostling
each other aside, they clawed their way closer to the sweet, unheard of opportunity to talk
and be heard.
Saying little, Billy fixed attention on every elaborating soul. He listened gravely and
deeply, never interrupting except to ask a question, letting the story roll, always asking
for more. He made every speaker feel important. Through silence, eye contact, a talented
ear, and schmoozing the rank and file, Billy Stone made friends -- and gathered power in
little dribs and drabs.
Budding politicians and power brokers take note: Power, it seems, can come to those who
patiently listen, absorb, learn -- and then bestow confirmation and hope.
As time went by, Billy came to know more about the inmates of Granite City School than
anybody else -- and that included Director Carson and the staff, whose interaction with
inmates was mostly limited to giving orders. He had developed a relationship with almost
every inmate, except for those in the “shoe.”
The shoe was short for the Security Housing Unit which held inmates deemed too
dangerous to mix with the general population. It was a prison within a prison in which
inmates were confined to cells 23 1/2 hours a day, were given food and every other
necessity of life through slots, and took their daily half hour outside in the recreation
yard, alone.
Before they could be taken out of their cells, they had to push their hands through the slot
and have them cuffed behind their back. They were always escorted by three guards, two
on either side and one following behind. As much as he didn't want to believe it, Billy did
not think that he, nor anybody else, would be able to reach the shoe inmates; they seemed
stripped of humanity by hate and hopelessness.
Many in the general population also had serious mental or emotional deficiencies. Billy
came to recognize these unfortunates by their sharp elbows in the omnipresent lines, by
their inability to follow simple directions, by their distressed need for gratification now,
and by their utter lack of comprehension of where they were and why.
Yet, to Billy's great surprise, all but one or two of these handicapped brothers in bondage
could not only be reached, but also won over. Just like their more “normal” fellow
inmates, they responded to positive human contact. With disturbed inmates lost in
unknown faraway worlds, Billy was not able to go much beyond a kind word, a touch on
the shoulder, a smile -- but these gestures were invariably acknowledged in kind.
To some inmates, he would give a tangible gift, such as dessert from his tray or a funny
hat made from a newspaper and it was always accepted with surprise and pleasure. A gift
to one of these unfortunates, any gift, was enough to win a loyal follower.
Many inmates, despite being Billy's age and older, were no more than children. Like
children, they were keenly sensitive and entirely egotistical, with all life and meaning
centered in themselves. They told Billy how much they liked playing trucks or watching
cartoons on TV. Childlike, their eyes grew big and their faces lit up when Billy noticed
“My name is Billy, too,” he said to his namesake, Billy Ruggieri, who was 13 and had
trouble recognizing letters of the alphabet.“There are two Billys here, you and me.”
Eyes dancing, Billy Ruggieri repeated,“ Two Billys, you and me, two Billys.” Billy
Ruggieri was not used to being spoken to directly. When Billy did so, the boy flashed a
big smile and giggled with delight. “Two Billys,” he kept saying.
“Yes,” Billy said, smiling at Billy Ruggieri who was never smiled at. “You and me. You
and me. I like trucks too.”
Billy found a picture book about trucks in the library and one day the two sat on the
library floor while Billy read aloud to a transfixed Billy Ruggieri. From that time on,
Billy read regularly to him while he squinted at the words and struggled to sound them
out. Billy Ruggieri took to following Billy around like a puppy -- though a very large one
-- and became the first to join him at his previously solitary corner of the dining hall.
When Billy first began reading to Billy Ruggieri, others hung back watching curiously.
After many days of this, a few inmates edged closer. Johnson Johnson -- his real name
and only legacy from his abandoning parents -- and a huge, powerfully-built black boy of
14, brought him a picture book about sports heroes. While Billy read the book aloud,
Johnson Johnson sat entranced on the floor of the library.
Although no one had ever heard Johnson Johnson say any more than one or two angry
words, and although he always kept sullenly to himself, he was soon telling Billy all
about his favorite players. The newly sociable Johnson Johnson became the second to
join Billy at his corner spot in the dining hall where he and Billy Ruggieri competed for
Billy's ear.
By virtue of Johnson Johnson's size, strength and intense loyalty to Billy, he soon
assumed unspoken duty as a fiercely protective bodyguard -- something of obvious value
in a place like Granite City School. The behemoth of a boy made it clear that no one was
messing with his friend Billy Stone, the only friend he had ever had in his whole life.
With Johnson Johnson at his side, Billy rumbled around the school like a tank,
invulnerable, with fearsome offensive power.
Others migrated over to Billy's corner section. His intensely loyal new comrades
accompanied him everywhere. Billy became virtually untouchable, which Kali found out
one day when he and his Black Knights confronted him in the recreation yard.
“Yo, Stone,” Kali said. “You don't show no respect, man. Understan' what I'm sayin'.”
Johnson Johnson and Billy Ruggieri immediately stepped between Billy and Kali.
Several others lined up behind Billy. The swift show of strength left Kali and his Black
Knights seriously out-muscled.
Billy stepped out from behind Johnson Johnson and said, “Kali, brother, we're family.
Come. Let's talk.” He put his arm around Kali. “Please accept my apology. I have only
respect for you. Now, what can I do for you?” The two walked together; their respective
supporters following warily.
Durk challenged Billy in the showers, with the same result. Angel sprang an ambush in
the library, but couldn't get anywhere near Billy. With both, Billy immediately tended
wounded pride with the soothing balm of apology and deference.
Their challenges had come too late. Without Kali, Durk, and Angel realizing it, a quiet
revolution had taken place, resulting in a major shift in the prison's balance of power:
away from fiefdoms operated by them and toward one powerful leader -- Billy Stone.