The Streets - October 2010

a column by Paulette Lewis


"The Fridge"


“Ms. Lewis, he said he wanna meet you.” One of my Urban Success girls had a new boyfriend and was overwhelmed with excitement about him. I had already heard about this guy, (I like to do my homework), so I was a little less enthusiastic. As we pulled into the projects where we were meeting, a crowd of about 50 young people were blasting music, dancing in the parking lot, shootin’ dice, working on their cars, drinking in the hot sun and just hanging out. As I backed into a space and parked my car, the biggest guy there walked over to my window. Of course. I am a cop magnet and a boss magnet. I just naturally attract them. It’s a gift.

I knew two things the minute I laid eyes on this guy: that he was the boss and that he was trouble. Turns out, I was only half right. He walked up to me, introduced himself, and extended his hand, (a very significant gesture among gang members – always, always, always shake their hand if they offer it). He was 6’3”, about 300 pounds, had several visible tattoos, a red bandana tied loosely around his neck, a go-t beard, diamond-embedded golds in his mouth, a huge rock in one ear, an R.I.P. headband wrapped around his forehead, and he was wearing a matching R.I.P t-shirt.

It was particularly hot this summer and like a lot of guys, he had a white rag that had been drenched in ice cold water on his head to try and keep cool. It’s a very intimidating look and is often misunderstood as being threatening by people who, just like me, don’t understand why they dress like this.

(Finally, one day it dawned on me to ask about it. It’s amazing what you will learn if you just ask. Asking a “dumb” question is always better than looking like an idiot and to my surprise, the kids I work with are usually happy to have the opportunity to educate me. The insights I’ve gained from my “dumb” questions made it possible for me to work with them successfully and develop the relationships I have.)

We talked for a minute and my girl, whom I consider a sister, got out and walked over to him. I changed my mind about leaving her there though. I told her it wasn’t a good idea and he lightheartedly said, “Aww…Ms. Lewis, you don’t trust me to take care of her? She’s good with me. You got my word on that.” Only time will tell; but at that time she was coming with me. Somehow, her new beau ended up coming with us, too. Not what I had planned, but o.k.

“The Fridge” gave me the creeps and reminded me of a really “grimy” boss I knew from downtown, so, unfortunately, I treated him the same way. I didn’t want to get to know him and I sure didn’t want my sister dating him. He, on the other hand, thought we hit it off really well and told my sister that we would be great friends. Yeah. He also asked her if I had a “beef” with anyone and offered to beat up the people that bothered or disrespected me. What a sweet offer.

The way I work Urban Success – my mentoring organization – is basically out of my car. I cruise through different neighborhoods to check on “my kids” to see that they are staying off the street and out of trouble. I ride all over the city for hours a day just connecting with them. This way I can let them know I’m available if they need help with homework, a meal, or a bad day. And if something happens, it’s easier to respond if I’m close by. (My dad always says I know the city so well I put cab drivers to shame.) Providing immediate on the spot intervention has turned the tide and completely changed the outcome of many confrontations. It is extremely effective. If I’m too far away, and can’t get there in time, prevention isn’t an option. I have to focus on damage control and clean up which is five times the work and can quickly make a simple situation uncontrollable.

I started to interact with “The Fridge” mostly because of my sister spending time with him and the fact that she was usually riding with me, so we ended up going to a lot of places together. We incorporated his crew members’ neighborhoods into my daily stops. I learned way more than I should have about his crew. I probably know more of his crew members personally and have more of their phone numbers than any other gang I work with simply because of being around him so much as he worked with them. He was the boss so he was always present. He also vouched for me so they accepted me without question and let me tag along and observe things other outsiders would never have been privileged to see.

His crew began consuming my time because I quickly realized their intensity. Their numbers were so large and members were spread out city-wide, ranging from 15-year olds to 21-year olds. It’s a symbol of importance, strength and fame to be known as one of the crew, so kids are continually interested in joining them. This crew was the one on the local news starting riots at school functions or in someone’s neighborhood, shutting down the clubs, engaging in shoot-outs, acting crazy, and causing most of the violence in our city.

I saw a golden opportunity.

I stepped back and watched how “The Fridge” did things. He’s older and he is an outstanding leader. He’s wise. He’s fair. He’s funny and soft spoken. He doesn’t get mad easily. As he told me once, the crew is about money and females. He loves his crew and would do anything for any of them. I saw how his partners – he is one of three bosses of the crew – worked with him and the love and respect the members have for him. When he said something, they listened. He praised them for good things and made sure they were going to school, working a job, and taking care of family.

One day as we were riding around, I asked him why the violence was necessary. He looked at me with an extremely surprised expression. He asked, “What do you mean?” As if it should be obvious to me. I explained that it’s not ok to me, for us to pull up to a group of hostile kids in the street and have two guys take their shirts off and start throwing fists, until they end up on the ground in a wrestling match. They get up bloody and hurt. The person that lost always gets up mad if he’s conscious and that leads to a desire for retaliation. Riots break out. The fight rarely ends when and where it began these days and is generally followed up with a shooting.

He said, “That’s how we get down.”

O.k, let me try again. “Isn’t it possible to lead by example and be the bigger person by just letting simple things go and talk out the bigger issues instead of putting kids’ lives in jeopardy? You guys are wearing the R.I.P shirts and paying for funerals, not me.”

He thought for a minute, “Yeah, I see what you sayin’. You right, though. But we get challenged all the time. We can’t be perceived as weak. We got ta show our strength.” He kind of chuckled and said, “Ms. Lewis says don’t hurt or kill anything.” Yupp - that’s my motto. You wouldn’t believe how many people call that a new concept.

Slowly, as he observed how I worked with my kids and broke up the tension, I noticed his approach change. When we arrived at a situation, he no longer encouraged his crew to inflict as much damage as possible to the other guy; he would get the facts and try to diffuse the situation. The guys didn’t know what was happening at first, but they backed him up anyway.

Occasionally, somebody came at him reckless and he wanted to fight, but I’d get right in his way. A time or two I got snatched up out the middle and the fight proceeded, but most of the time I could talk him down. I remember one time he really wanted a piece of this guy and I was in his face telling him not to do it; he turned around and punched the stop sign behind him so hard it actually spun around. Whoa. I had completely underestimated him. That was terrifying. I had no idea how much strength he had and how much he holds back when things get crazy.

I kept on and kept on and have interacted directly with probably 85 percent of his crew. I’ve seen more activity in the streets working with them than with any other single crew I’ve ever worked with. Their numbers are staggering. They are organized and focused. They call me their mentor and when I’m around they try hard to do the right thing and make me proud of them.

The whole crew has settled down quite a bit in their coming of age and are doing more to keep the peace than to break it now. Just the other day, I called “The Fridge” and both of his partners and explained a situation I have going on that directly involves all of them and someone they haven't gotten along with for several years. I asked them to stand down. If they have a problem with this guy I am working with, please start bringing it to me and see if I can handle it before someone handles him.

They all agreed to do that for me. A favor or a miracle – I don’t care. This guy is safe while I need to do what I need to do for him. Their word is literally their life. I trust it.  I am so proud of them and so blessed to be able to call and ask for big favors like that. Huge life-saving favors like that. They joke that I am the only white girl that knows what goes down in the hood or is going down in the hood – and can stop it. But it’s not a joke. It significantly impacts my work and I would never experience the success and progress I do without their cooperation which comes from the strong relationships I’ve formed with them.

Fortunately, for me, “The Fridge” was right. Today, we are the best of friends. He is someone I heavily depend on to help me with all aspects of Urban Success but especially to make peace. He and his crew have repeatedly assisted me with various tasks, especially the battered girls’ safety and protection program and community outreach activities.

Looking back, he was an unlikely ally for me and someone I feared for awhile. Getting past the threatening exterior, like an animal in the wild, he is a good-hearted person who will ultimately encourage the people that look up to him to make better moral decisions and walk away from trouble when they can.

From where things started to where they are now, it has been an incredible journey for me. Seeing them grow out of their violent tendencies, and being allowed to influence them and have them accept my guidance as well as his has been a blessing.

“The Fridge”, as a founder of this particular crew and someone who is feared city-wide, opened the door and paved the way for me to get inside and stir things up in a positive way with a twist of biblical principles, morals, and street sense that they could respect and work with. We work really well together and will continue to for years and years to come.




For more information on columnist Paulette Lewis’ work, or to schedule her to speak, email her at Paulette is an innovative gang interventionist.