Over the weekend I had a startling revelation: I’ve become desensitized to violence. By that, I don’t mean I’m violent. Short of a fight with a girl when I was in seventh grade, I’ve never been in a physical altercation. No man other than my father has ever laid a hand on me, and short of another time when a once-good friend jumped in my face, I’ve never been the direct target of any real physical harm. But it occurred to me on Monday when I was running from a fight that broke out at the West Indian Day Parade that violence has always loomed, that it looms more often than I should find tolerable.
When I was 15, I went to a friend’s graduation party in his family’s pool house. The band was playing, the party was rocking — 300 people in a space meant for 50 — and some friends and I were dancing on a table to avoid being smooshed against the sweaty crowd below. I don’t know what happened, but suddenly fists were flying, the crowd was scattering, the band stopped playing, girls were screeching, and I was standing there stuck on stupid staring at it all. A guy I knew was on the floor, crouched in the fetal position in the middle of a group of … boys, really, kicking him wherever their steel-toed boots landed. A guy friend snatched me off the table and tackled me to the floor to keep me safe.
Skip ahead. It’s December 31 and I’ve borrowed my best friend’s cousin’s ID to get into the Taj Mahal, a warehouse-like go-go club where Junkyard Band is bringing in the next year. I get the inkling that I probably shouldn’t be there when the security woman checks the underwire of my bra, and then asks me to cross my legs and bend over in case I’m carrying weapons. Maybe this is standard procedure. I don’t know; it’s my first go-go. I’ve only heard JY on tape from PA Palace, so there is no turning back. At some point, I notice that the band has incorporated the refrain “one fight, good night” into each song because fights, stabbings, and shootings are so prevalent. D.C. is the Murder Capital, and the city lives up to its hype.
Nothing bad happens inside, but when we exit at 2 a.m., it is lit up like Christmas on the street outside the club. White and red lights flash from the plethora of ambulances, fire trucks, and police cars lining the street. Four of five people have been shot. We hear the news by word of mouth and say only, “That’s crazy” before heading to IHOP on Benning Road to trade tales from the night.
Fast-forward. I’m living in New York. It’s Saturday night and my friends and I are bored out of our minds. We call around to find out what’s poppin’ because we’re industry heads and don’t go to clubs on weekends. That’s for the bridge and tunnel crowd and people who don’t know better. We actually pay to get into some party on the West Side. I’m wearing a blue tee that reads “I Love Black People” and end up chatting up a well-known actor because he likes my shirt. There’s a familiar pop, pop, pop. I can’t remember when I learned to recognize the sound, whether it was that time I visited Hampton with my god-sister or partying at Eastern Shore’s homecoming. But I know what it is distinctly when I hear it. The music abruptly halts as the whole room scatters. My girl and I are huddled together in a corner with our friend, a guy, blocking us. I can smell the gun smoke.
We finally make our way up the stairs, when the speakers drop the beat to the song of the moment and everyone turns around to head back to the dance floor. There were shots, but no one fell. The party goes on. We look at each other with wide eyes and move to the side headed up and out while the rest of the party descends back to the main room.
Eastern Parkway; I’m 30. My then-boyfriend is from the Caribbean and insists on going to the West Indian Day parade. I haven’t been in years — too many people and I’ve learned to loathe crowds. But I go along with it. It’s still early and there are women with toddlers and strollers. This is supposed to be a family-friendly event. Boyfriend tried to teach me and my American friends how to jump and wave to soca. We buy coconuts and pour in flavored vodka to get the effect of watery piña coladas. My guard is down as we walk through the thick of the crowd.
We’re almost to Franklin — the hub where all of the trains from the city let out — when there’s that frenetic movement that denotes a fight is underway. I turn to run, grab my friend’s hand, and dash with her in the opposite direction. I want to hop the fence to keep going, but I’m not sure she’ll make it. I crouch to the ground, pulling her with me, and the then-boyfriend throws himself on top of us as a shield. We stay that way until the screams die down and people start walking calmly and carefree in the direction we came from. He decides we have to go home (as if that wasn’t our obvious next move) because he can’t guarantee he can keep us safe.
Two years later. I’ve just left a private dinner to celebrate a football player’s birthday. He invites the entire party — all 30 of us — to party with him afterward at one of those clubs that A-list celebs are seen popping bottles at in the pages of US Weekly. My girl, Bonnie, and I are people and bottle watching, looking at all the sparkling bottles headed to the tables. Something ain’t right, though. “We should leave in 15,” I suggest to B. She says, “No, 10.” I nod.
Three minutes later, I’m making amends with some athlete who once sent me naked pictures of himself when I hear the pop, pop, pop. I duck and look up. Like the whole club is still standing. Jesus. Was I the only one who heard that or am I the only one who’s paranoid? I’m getting ready to stand when…. Pop. Pop. Everyone else finally drops, all at once.
The lights go on. There’s a stampede for the door. Some girl in a mini-dress falls on the steps and gets stepped on, literally. Some guy I’ve met before, but don’t remember where, has me and Bonnie pressed up against the wall, shielding us to make sure we don’t get trampled, too. When the fury finally dies, he steps aside to let us out. There’s glass and spilled liquor all over the floor. I walk carefully in platform heels across the top of a row of banquettes and that’s when I spot them: two men, one clearly dead, the other moving just enough to know he’s alive. They’re on the floor, one draped over the other. I expect my stomach to lurch the first time I see a dead body outside of a funeral home. But it doesn’t. I stare, the same way I did on that table when I was 15. I wonder where the blood is. I don’t see any. Somebody behind me says, “Watch out for that glass, D.” So I do and make my way to the exit.
Demetria L. Lucas is the author of A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. ABIB is available to download and now in paperback. Follow her on Twitter at @abelleinbk.