in Columns Published in the Asheville Citizen-Times

Putting Gang Trouble in the Rearview Mirror

Asheville Citizen-Times 5/10/2015 – Ted Alexander, Columnist –

Putting Gang Trouble in the Rearview Mirror

This bullet landed on the roof of Jackie’s home in Oakland. For once, no one was injured. (Photo: Special to the Citizen-Times)

Editor’s note: While the people in this column are real, their names have been altered to protect their privacy.

He was sitting on the steps behind the housing project when bullets ricocheted off the pavement and sparked against the dumpster next to him. The gunfire briefly halted, most likely so the shooter could reload, which allowed a quick getaway to safety.

He never knew why the bullets were directed at him, but eventually realized there was no reason. It just was. The night was hot and claustrophobic and the shooter was probably bored.

That’s what it was like to be a kid growing up in parts of Oakland, California, in the 1980s, a place where it was easier to score drugs and guns than obtain a library card.

He was being swallowed alive by a dead zone of swagger and gorilla pimpin’, where violent street gangs were segregated by race, defined by bravado and imprinted with premature deaths.

By fifth grade, he had learned how to rip-off car radios. At age 12 he was a member of the Ten-Second Gang, able to steal a car in less than a quarter of a minute. By 14, he carried a sawed-off shotgun inside his jeans, extended down one leg. The barrel reached past his knee, causing him to walk with a limp that was recognized throughout the projects. Any look from a stranger that he interpreted as disrespectful could trigger an all-out battle with bullets, chains and knives.

As a youthful offender, he was charged with eight felonies, including attempted murder and assault with a deadly weapon. He was tried as a juvenile and shipped off to a detention complex for underage convicts. He bounced in and out of similar facilities for a couple of years before being set free due to his young age.

We’ll call him Jackie. He lives in Asheville now. He’s my friend.

Two women and a child saved his life.

Their presence slowly influenced his personal choices, though there was no all-encompassing moment, no sudden revelation when he realized the error of his ways. Instead, over a period of time, small but meaningful incidents — pinpoints of light and awareness — gradually merged, creating a door for him to walk through.

The first chink in his warrior armor was his emotional reaction to his mother crying when she visited him in jail. Despite being single and working two jobs, she managed to spend time with him when he was incarcerated. One day — he’s not sure of the exact date — for the first time, he recognized her tears as a pronouncement of her love for him, and how his behavior was ravaging her American dream — the hopes and prayers of a first-generation immigrant.

He remembers thinking what a disappointment he must have been to the woman who devoted her life to her child.

He felt shame. And sadness for the pain he had inflicted. He remembers that after his mother left that particular day, he sat by himself in a corner, child-like, barely moving for two hours. He recalls his own tears.

Once he was released, the thought of his mother helped keep him from further jail time, but he still worked the streets — buying, selling and occasionally fighting.

A transplanted Easterner named Neeci appeared in northern California. On the second date, he picked her up in his lowered white Coupe de Ville, decked out with 29-rims and black-outs (tinted windows). She turned out to be different from other women who hung out in gang circles. She wasn’t impressed.

Slowly, as their relationship developed, her quiet ways, her sensitivities, offered a different slant to Jackie’s life.

He had a black belt and began teaching martial arts. He discovered he was good at it. He also worked his way into a full-time job as a computer technician.

And Karoline. Always Karoline. When Jackie saw his newborn daughter for the first time, she owned him. He was humbled like never before.

Neeci wanted to leave Oakland. The city scared her. Jackie resisted. Despite the gang culture and the daily violence, the projects were home to him. He derived comfort from the chaos.

Weeks later, his cousin was shot to death. On the same day, two young children were killed by gunfire. As if awakened, Jackie was suddenly fearful for his wife and daughter — concerned that their lives were in jeopardy.

He looked for escape. His mother-in-law offered inexpensive housing in Florida. His own mother encouraged him to move.

In the early morning hours, as Oakland slept, the three slipped out of the neighborhood in search of a new beginning.

Following a brief stint in Orlando, they moved to Asheville. Neeci had family in the area and Jackie liked the idea.

He tracked down a job and for the past several years has devoted his life to his wife and daughter.

He’s heard the call of the wild just once and returned to Oakland to visit. He stopped at a friend’s place. He saw AK-47 assault rifles wrapped in towels and lying on a backroom floor. Kids played several feet away. Later, as he walked the old streets, he said he felt small and insignificant, like a stranger, isolated and out of place. New gangs with new colors were forming. Street battles were escalating as the old neighborhood spun round and round, drilling itself a deeper grave.

He headed back east.

Today he works a 40-hour week, helps his daughter with her soccer game and gives a dollar or two to any homeless person he passes on the street. He laughs a lot. His family is thriving, and now his mother has joined them.

Oakland is a speck in the rearview mirror. He’s jumped off the merry-go-round.

He calls Asheville his second chance — the white-picket lifestyle, the fresh start he’d dreamed of.

His mother is with him for Mother’s Day, and she’s at peace.

He’s made it home. Bravo, Jackie.

Ted Alexander lives in Asheville. His first novel, “The Fall of Summer,” a 1960s coming-of-age story, is now on sale at Malaprop’s Bookstore/Cafe and other online and local retailers.
Ted Alexander’s second novel, “After & Before,” will be released this summer. Contact him at or

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