Prison Stories

Pokémon, Power, and Prison

For a nerdy kid, a Myspace post was the gateway to gangbanging

Credit: Fanatic Studio/Getty

AtAt nine years old, I was lame. I wasn’t handicapped in any way — just pathetically devoted to Pokémon and Yu-Gi-Oh!, which in my neighborhood, may have been an even bigger stigma than a physical disability. As a result, I was friendless. The majority of my classmates came from Forest Housing Projects, about 10 buildings, each 20-stories high, in the Bronx. I lived directly across the street, in a complex of five-story tenements called Albert Goodman. In Forest, eldest brothers and sisters often took responsibility for their drug addicted parents. In Albert Goodman, the majority of children had at least one competent parent — who, at minimum, could afford video games and trading cards — and I assume it was for that reason we were ostracized by our peers. By the standards of the Social Security Administration, we were all “poor.” But I suppose the distance between “five people in a two bedroom” poor and “I don’t know where my next meal is coming from because mom cashes in the food stamps for crack” poor is pretty vast.

I was lucky to be in the former group.

It was around this time that I discovered Myspace and a major revelation: With the perfect screen name, and a slight tilt on the brim of my Yankee cap in the profile pic, I could be whomever I wanted the world to believe I was. And I wanted the world — or at least the square mile that was my neighborhood — to believe I was “gangster.” 50 Cent defined it in “Heat”: “I do what I gotta do/I don’t care if I get caught… Motherf-cker, I’mma kill you/ I ain’t playing/ you hear what I’m saying?/Homie I ain’t playing.” In all actuality, I couldn’t even kill the Elite Four in Pokémon Silver. Looking back, maybe I was playin’. But my thirst for acceptance soon made the game real.

Back then, one could join a gang on the internet — and there were plenty of options, mostly designated with three-letter acronyms. I stumbled on a typical advertisement on the Myspace page for a group called S.I.O. (Swagger Is Outrageous — I know, corny right?) The rules for entry were simple: You had to show up for a meeting, and do some dumb shit like jump on other kids who weren’t “down” and snatch their Sidekick cell phones. Having thereby been deemed fit, you sent your flyest picture to be posted on the gang’s Myspace page, verifying that you were an official recruit.

Seeing an opportunity to expand my social circle, which was basically nonexistent, I seized the opportunity. At the appointed time, I was among the first in attendance. What I recall, upon my arrival, was a disorderly faction of scraggily kids, about 30 total, all appearing effortlessly evil. This was S.I.O. I approached them wearing my most menacing glower. If I felt any urge to retreat, the 50 Cent rhymes echoing in my head overcame my misgivings.

“Yo, what up, where you from?” The first to address me was a dwarfish kid, with freckles vandalizing his mouse-like nose.

“163rd and Cauldwell.”

Another kid approached me. I recognized him from the Myspace page as the gang’s leader. “What if we all just f-cked you up instead of looking for a vic tonight?” he asked.

I hadn’t even considered that. I looked him square in the eye and conjured a toughness that would’ve made 50 proud. “I’ll grab onto one person and f-ck him up,” I told him, adding, “I’m not scared to get jumped.” I meant it, too. In fact, the only thing I feared was remaining friendless, uncool, or bending my holographic Dark Magician Yu-Gi-Oh! card. He looked at me.

“Ha. Alright,” he said, finally. “You got heart.”

MyMy association with S.I.O. was short-lived, as each of its members moved on to bigger and better (ahem) gangs, but the experience set the template for what became a routine of f-cking up throughout my young adulthood. There’s a saying: “Be careful who you pretend to be, you may forget who you are.” But I was too young and impressionable to comprehend who I was, what I was becoming, and how I was getting there. By the time I realized how much of a failure the gang lifestyle was leading me to be, and how stunted my growth had become after my initiation at nine years old, I was 24, a member of a larger gang, and more destructive to myself and my community.

In prison, leaving a gang isn’t as easy as calling a meeting and saying, “Hey y’all, I resign.”

Understanding crept up on me slowly. Like most boys, I grew up believing my father was the coolest — even in his absence. He was a rapper, and if you Googled his name, the cover of his album appeared. He wore a red bandana and smoked what I always assumed was a cigarette, until I got older and started smoking weed myself. And his example influenced every bit of the man I wasn’t becoming. Fifteen arrests, 20 tattoos, four felonies, and one child — and, thankfully, one thousand books — later, the truth struck me in a series of small painful realizations. First, the world is bigger than Forest and Albert Goodman; and more important, I was setting the stage for my own son to become a failure as well. Over time, I also came to realize how much I’d enjoyed being a nerd, and how many meaningful opportunities I had dismissed in my youth, trying to repress a side of myself that should’ve been nourished.

Amid all the self-reflection that has come along with spending years in a prison cell, I now see one inescapable solution that will help redirect the course of my life: I have to “take a walk.” In other words, I have to stop banging.

In prison, leaving a gang isn’t as easy as calling a meeting and saying, “Hey y’all, I resign.” A gang is not a Fortune 500 company, but a legion of men, who, as boys, found refuge in their allegiance and rebellion against everything. Leaving the gang could mean wearing a scar from cheek to chin forever. But what scares me more is disassociating myself from a persona that took so long to build.

Aunray Stanford is a student in the NYU Prison Education Program and deputy editor of the Wallkill Journal. Email him at prison.education [at] nyu [dot] edu.

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