At midday in summer haze the basketballs are bouncing in a playground surrounded by a chain-link fence. From here, on a little hill behind Avon Elementary, Newark, New Jersey, stretches in all directions: the Gothic spires of abandoned churches, the dense brick towers of the projects, the ghost buildings boarded with plywood. Liquor stores, Korean markets, garages, vast tracks of vacant land, acre upon acre of weeds mulched with broken glass and needles and little vials and shell casings, blood dripped and dried brown on chips of brick and concrete, the rubble of housing and commerce and people.
Little kids dart across the asphalt playground, stumbling here and there on tufts of stubborn grass. Bigger kids on corners reach for pockets, shake hands. Women lean out windows, girls gossip on porches, old men hunker at salvaged card tables, drinking from paper bags. Now and then comes a pop-pop-pop and a rolling echo, the crack and thunder of far-off gunplay. No one pays it any mind.
That corner to the north is known for marijuana. Over there you get pills, over there heroin, over there crack, over there powder. The shadow economy working overtime, mutant enterprise blooming amid the ruins of a city that was the leading supplier of manufactured goods to the South before the Civil War. MADE IN NEWARK once meant patent leather and tools. Now it means kids like Raheed.
Raheed isn’t his real name. He wants to stay on the super DL, meaning he’ll talk; but only with his head down low, incognito. He wears a bandanna on his head folded and tied in the back. His short pants ride low on his hips, hang below his knees. He leans on crutches, eating his breakfast, a bag of chips.
Suddenly from up Avon comes the roar of engines, and two black Mustangs and a Honda crest the hill. People scurry across the street, girls laugh and point. The cars whiz past the schoolyard, each one driven by a boy barely tall enough to see over the steering wheel, each one full of boys, five or six or more, the Honda with two heads in backward baseball caps grinning up through the sunroof. Games cease on the playground. Kids run to the fence. The Mustangs speed through the intersection at sixty, bottom out with a clank, shed sparks, zoom off. The Honda hits the crosswalk, turns hard left, squeals and slides and then spins in the center of the intersection, tires screaming, leaving rubber, raising clouds of thick black smoke that envelop the car, waft off on the humid breeze.
“The Doughnut Boys!” shout the children. They clap and cheer. They do a little dance called the Doughnut, spin round and round and round.
IN AMERICA’S THIRD OLDEST MAJOR CITY, a new sport has been born. It’s called rustling cars. According to auto-theft statistics, Newark has the highest rate of car theft per capita in the nation, more than forty cars each day. Sixty-five percent of the thefts are perpetrated by teens and preteens, known hereabouts as the Doughnut Boys.
The Doughnut boys steal Hondas, Acuras, Mustangs, Trans Ams, four-wheelers and minivans: the same models you might see in a high-school parking lot in the nearby suburbs. They use screwdrivers to jack the door and punch the steering column. They override kill switches and alarms. Fifteen seconds, tops. High craft, handed down from brother to friend.
They’ll rustle up a car to drive to elementary school, in lieu of bus fare, to get out of the rain, for a date, a purse snatching, a cruise around town, a drug delivery, sometimes an armed robbery. They steal from garages, alleyways, curbs. Not long ago, someone stole the county prosecutor’s car from a schoolyard. He was inside addressing an assembly on the subject of stealing cars.
One kid steals a car, picks up some friends, drives to Newark Airport or the suburbs. The friends jump out and steal cars of their own. With the little ones, it takes two to drive. One gets the pedals, the other the wheel. Then it’s a race back to the neighborhood, where the fun begins.
Pull up beside a cop, flip him the finger, peel off. The kids know five-o ain’t allowed to race: High-speed chase is out-lawed. Race them anyway. Turn right, right again, bust the lights, weave the lanes, Mario Andretti. Dick the cops. That’s the object: Smoke ‘em. Humiliate ‘em. Fuck ‘em up. Chicken at sixty miles per hour, stolen Honda heading straight for patrol car. The cops always veer off at the last moment. Pussies. No match. Recently, the Doughnut Boys have added a new wrinkle. Ram a patrol car. See the air bags pop.
“It’s a big show,” says Raheed. He’s seventeen. He’s been down to juvenile, but now he’s back. He broke his leg the other night fleeing on foot from a stolen car. ‘It’s the most exciting thing going on in the neighborhood. It’s like the movies, you know what I’m sayin’? Car chases. Everybody like to see cars spinning and stuff. Everybody want to get in a car.
“When you down in the hood and shit, straight up, preachin’ high, we down here trapped off among ourselves. It’s like little kids in the hood throw rocks. Then they be stealing cars. Whereas in Short Hills, they might be playing golf. But this is the hood. These are the things that we do for activities. That calms ourselves. It’s a recreation‑type thing. Like, they got the playground open now. Tomorrow, boom, it’s Saturday. It ain’t gonna be open. What we gonna do then? You know what I’m sayin’? Fuck it. Let’s go get a car. It’s like -”
“Shut up, crook!” says a kid on a bicycle. His name is Rico. He’s ten.
“Fuck you!” says Raheed. He swings a crutch at Rico’s front tire. Rico holds his ground astride his bike, safely out of range. Fuck yourself,” he says. ‘You ain’t got nothin’ better to do than try to steal somebody else’s car that they done paid for.”
“Oh, you a good Samaritan,” says Raheed, you bike stealer little faggot‑ass motherfucker. Stop playing me out!”
“Shut up, nigga!”
“Shut up, punk!”
Raheed hops toward the boy, brandishing a crutch. Rico backs off slowly, giggling, taunting. A teacher appears. Ms. Perkins is the drug‑education coordinator for Avon Elementary. The city pays her to keep the playground open on summer afternoons. When her car was stolen she put out the word. Kids from all over were calling the cops with sightings of her white Sunbird. She got it back in a few hours. She puts a hand on Raheed’s shoulder. What’s up, gentlemen?”
OVER THE LAST YEAR OR SO, HUNDREDS of kids from Newark have been injured and arrested, and millions of dollars’ worth of cars have been stolen. Not long ago, a fourteen-year-old took out half a gas station pulling up to the pump. A pregnant woman was killed when the police fired into a stolen van. In late August, two teenagers on a 4:00 a.m. rustle were shot to death after encountering a pair of off-duty policemen. Cops have been injured, too. Herded to the curbs by teams of unmarked police cars and trucks, the kids have taken to ramming. Back and forth they bang, trying to break apiece of daylight for escape. As the kids become increasingly defiant - most of them are juveniles who will likely be released - the cops grow increasingly frustrated.
So it was this past June when Howard “Bucky” Caesar had the bad fortune to be caught driving a stolen black IROC Z Camaro belonging to the mother of a Newark police officer. Bucky was doing doughnuts at four in the morning when he lost control of the Camaro and slammed into the curb, breaking an axle. Already there had been reports of Newark cops hiding in the bushes at a local park, throwing rocks and bottles as the Doughnut Boys sped past in stolen cars. Now, when Bucky jumped out of the Camaro on the morning of June 9th to the jeers and catcalls of bystanders at the all‑night show, it was gunfire that the police were throwing down. Bucky was hit in the side.
Six cops were on the scene, some of whom weren’t assigned to the area. The son of the owner of the stolen Camaro arrived shortly thereafter. The police reported the shooting to headquarters at 4:41 a.m. The car was reported stolen at 4:42. Witnesses reported the police retrieving spent shell casings. In their reports, only one officer admitted firing shots. He and two others have been charged with failing to report the shooting and filing false reports. All six have been suspended. Bucky remains in stable condition after eight operations.
In a city that is a model of urban statistical cliché, Bucky Caesar grew up something of an anomaly, with a mother and father and two siblings at home. His dad was a janitor for the Newark schools. They lived in the ghetto because it was all they could afford, five rooms for $400 a month.
Their neighborhood around Twentieth Street was once known for heroin and pills. Later it would be crack, then guns, then stolen cars. “‘We didn’t need no VCR,” says Bucky’s mom, Martha Caesar. Everyone and everything was out there.
“I didn’t really feel scared, though” says Caesar, who has since moved. “I like the people down there. I didn’t like what they did, but we all stuck together as family. I lived on the third floor, so they couldn’t climb through the window, but I had no fear of anyone kickin’ in my door or robbin’ me, either. I had my husband and my kids. Mr. C. was like a father figure to everyone before he died, rest his soul. He’d get out there in the fire hydrant on hot summer nights with all the kids.”
As it was, Mr. C.’s younger son had problems of his own, beginning early on in school. There was the second-grade teacher who smacked him, family counseling, more acting up in class. By the time he got to high school, Bucky was classified as emotionally disturbed. “It made him feel like he was dumb and retarded,” says Martha Caesar.
Soon Bucky started stealing cars, and finally he found something he was pretty good at. In fact, he was out of control. One minute he would be out front with his friends. The next he’d be gone. What could Martha Caesar do? When she asked, Bucky said he did it for status, as if stealing the symbols of accomplishment of the middle class raised him up into it. What he couldn’t obtain, he just took and used and destroyed.
“You instill in your child what is right and wrong,” says Caesar. “But you can’t be out there twenty‑four seven. The word of God tell us to bring a child up in the right way, and when he get old, he shall not depart from that teaching. But it doesn’t say nothing about between the time you train him and the time he get old. He has to get some years on him, some wisdom to know what his parents tell him is true. God help him in the meantime.”
“HE A CAR THIEF:’ SAYS RICO, SPITTING out the charge, explaining the sudden flare‑up on the playground to Ms. Perkins. Every time he get locked up, he like “Pleassse, go get my ma!”
“That’s right, motherfucker,” says Raheed. “‘And you see I be out the next day.”
“I ain’t never been locked up,” says Rico. Standing there astride his bike, between Raheed and Ms. Perkins, he crosses his arms, cocks a hip, assumes a pose of proud defiance.
Ms. Perkins smiles to herself, lets the show run. Rico is one of her favorites. So delicate, with long lashes, yet hardy enough somehow to survive. Ms. Perkins has worked on that boy for four years. He’s like so many kids she knows. The children of lost children, little renegades on the loose. His mother’s never home,doesn’t care where he’s at. His brother’s a car thief. Rico isn’t so much a member of a family as he is a resident of a house. Maybe that’s why all these kids use the word stay instead of live when they talk about home. “I stay over at Clinton Avenue “ is how they put it.
Ms. Perkins comes from the neighborhood. She doesn’t like what she sees, but that’s how it is. She includes in her job description the role of surrogate parent. The government won’t do it. The parents won’t either. She’s spent four years trying to teach Rico things like decision making and refusal skills, responsibilities, goals and directions. She wasn’t sure she was getting through. Now, here on the playground, she sees a sprout on one of the seeds she’s planted. Just when you think they’re not thinking, they’re thinking, and you’re surprised.
“Why you want to steal those cars anyway” Ms. Perkins asks Raheed.
“Why?” repeats Raheed, folding his arms across his chest, striking a pose of his own. “Lemme tell you serious. We do to help society.”
“Yeah,” says Raheed. Because if it wasn’t for us, you wouldn’t have no hospitals and police. Word is born. We employ the fuckin’ police!” Raheed’s voice begins to rise, his words do a dance of rhythmic hip‑hop. He hobbles back and forth, a crippled rapper on an asphalt stage. A group of little ones have gathered to see the show, more of Ms. Perkins’s kids: Rashonda and Dwane and Hassan, Jennifer and Sade, Aliyah and Tony. They are four, five, ten years old. They hold basketballs and jump‑ropes, the sticky hands of younger cousins.
“Word is born!” says Raheed, playing to his Sesame Street crowd. “If it wasn’t for niggas like me, a lot of families be starvin’ ‘cause they husbands’ll get laid the fuck off, because it ain’t no crime. And what about insurance? The insurance companies be worth, like, billions of dollars and stuff. They wouldn’t be nowhere without us.’
“You oughta run for president,” giggles Rico. The other kids giggle, too.
“I thought of it, but I ain’t goin’ out like that,” says Raheed, talking serious. I don’t even know what the sense of voting in the first place. Ain’t none of them crackers for none of us.”
“You gotta be about yourself,” says Ms. Perkins. Being about yourself mean getting some education. You sound like you not stupid.”
“You got that right,” says Raheed. “I got friends that graduated outta high school, and boom, word is born! They working at McDonald’s. What’s up with that?”
“But they workin’“ says Ms. Perkins.
“So what,” says Raheed. I got my equivalency, too. I don’t want no job.”
“What about a decent job? Maybe like a computer programmer?”
“I don’t want no decent job.”
“So you to the point where you don’t want no job at all,” says Ms. Perkins.
“I never did want no job.”
Ms. Perkins puts a hand on her hip, gives Raheed a look, part patience and humor, part disgust. “What are you, about seventeen now, boyfriend?” Raheed nods. “Okay. Now I know what seventeen is like, so I ain’t gonna press the issue on that. But look. You got maybe sixty more years to live. What you gonna do with that time?”
“I wanna rap,” says Raheed.
“You wanna rap,” repeats Ms. Perkins.
“You wanna die!” pipes Rico. He giggles. So do the kids.
Ms. Perkins falls quiet. A light turns off in her pleasant, sunny face. She looks around her. Rashonda and Dwane, Hassan and Jennifer, Sade, Aliyah and Tony. Four, five, ten years old, basketballs and jump-ropes and sticky hands. And Rico, posing there astride his bike. Does he really mean it?” she asks herself. “Have I gotten through?” There are so many kids like Rico. So many more kids than time. In the middle distance, she can hear the piercing rubber squeal of a Doughnut Boy, another lost renegade soul spinning around in circles on a ghetto street in Newark. She wonders what will happen tomorrow. On Saturday the playground is closed.