When do we fight? When is it okay to be Hungry for War? Is it when the kneeling is not enough? What will ever change, when nobody cares about anybody but their own? Nothing. What will ever change, when nobody cares to learn? Nothing. So…. because this world will “fuck anybody who can’t fight back”. Son, when your cards are down, you have tried to listen, you have tried to Konform… you find one truth.
There is a time to fight. There is a time to care. Because the war is, and has always been, Money.
I walked the streets as a missionary, and the people saw the police and their blind government. I tried to listen. I tried to be that way. I toasted with my glass of Martinelli’s. I changed the time I woke up. I learned to not sit on guns.
We must learn to SEE people. ALL people. As PEOPLE. Or No Lives Matter.
Because when I went from the east side of Troost Ave, to the west, the time for listening was over. I was forced to question everything. And it became the Action Part.
“You those guys who play basketball over on the Midway? I think I saws yous over there the other day playing with JB?”By The Time I Get To Arizona
I looked up from the cheap table that I was sitting at. It was one of the metal ones, with cold legs that pinch your fingers and a faux plastic Smeagol gray top that my pen kept poking holes into as I tried to write. I put the pen down, again, and looked out the window on the green of Shawnee, Kansas. So different from my home in Arizona, where the shock of green is usually just a painful reminder of thirst. This place was so different than the other side of Stateline. The world of Troost was a third world country outside the walls of Moore’s Utopia, and the beautiful people in those palaces never faced the rising sun. Here, you did not sit on shotguns. Here, you did not have doors opened by cocked glocks. Here, games of two on two did not lead to baptisms in fountains.
On the western facing green hills of Johnson County, my Mormon dream still existed. But, being a Made Man has consequences. Gangsters can’t unsee. Gangsters can’t undo. Being a Made Man, was to embrace hypocrisy. It didn’t matter that the Garden of Eden was on the other side of Troost.
I looked back down at the letter that was not writing itself, punched through with inky holes. Her letter was underneath it. Stained with the dried stains of salty splatters. I read it once again, thinking back to the other side of Troost to explain the answer….. I couldn’t write.
I will marry a return missionary who served an honorable mission and never questioned his faith.
I didn’t read the rest. I think I did when I first opened it, but I don’t remember it, and I didn’t keep it. The Johnson County green was fading to the thick blanket of night. The sweat in Kansas City was so constant I missed the desert sun. Lightning bugs were flashing across the expanse of lawn across the street. They had a fountain big enough to baptise a black person in.
I smiled through the drying tears. Still a gangster.
Dear Janna, I finally scrawled across the top of the pierced page. Then you will marry an idiot or a liar. I don’t remember signing it.
Johnson County, Kansas
Being a Made Man on the other side of Troost Avenue was dangerous. It was a different world than I had ever imagined. It exposed deep, troubling truths I was unready to face, but the beauty of being a Mormon Gangster, is in the Inner City you don’t really have time to think about all of the exposed lies. You are busy doing God’s Work.
Troost Avenue was divided by a huge midway, a lush green expanse the likes that I had never seen growing up in Tucson, Arizona where we had medians filled with the bristeling leaves of the natural desert that surrounded the street. This huge median of Troost was filled with fountains. Basketball courts. Benches and shuffleboard squares. But most of the exposed concrete was covered in graffiti.
Two Black teenagers were playing a game of 1-on-1 with a leather ball that swished like a blade through the chains that ringed the goal. Their bodies glistened with sweat in the dank of the humid air. I finally understood what people meant by it’s a dry heat back home.
“Shit!” the lighter of the two yelled as he picked up the dribble when he saw us. His opponent glanced over his dark shoulder as he was already stepping to run. But Elder Hall was quick.
“Wait, wait, come on now, do we seriously look like cops?”
“Come on, all we wanna do is play some ball. How about some 2-on-2?” Elder Hall was a silver tongued hypnotist. His smile was easy. His soft crew cut made him look like he might have been seventeen. It really didn’t take much inspection to realize there was no way we were HUD, or FBI, or cops, or really anything but…. White Boy Mormon Gangsters.
“You serious?” the darker one said, but I wasn’t listening. I was contemplating melanin, and the vast degree of difference in Black people’s coloring. Mexicans in Arizona had no where near this degree of variation. Nor did the Natives that I had known. But I had never really known any Black people besides Tabitha’s mom and Ms. Richardson.
And the shields of privilege started to fall away as I was forced to face my own ignorance.
It was 4 to 6. Them. Hall was a good shot, and I could block out on the inside, but we were not two Black kids from the east side of Troost. We didn’t grow up in the Garden of Eden playing Basketball. It was time to make my move. Hall had trained me well.
“So you guys believe in Jesus?” the timid voice of insecurity that had been on display at the Wise Guy Dinner several weeks ago had already started to vanish. I had knocked on doors in the projects, trying to hunt down leads for baptisms, when the first thing at the door is the barrel of a pistol instead of a smiling face. The first time I almost peed my pants, but it happened all the time. And the Made Man started to develop a swagger that would eventually lead to the classroom.
“What?” the lighter teen said. His name was JB.
“Do you believe in Jesus? Come on, it’s not a hard question.” I hip checked JB hard towards the top of the key, and as he spun on the dribble to avoid the pick I was failing to set, Elder Hall stole the ball and made it 5 to 6 with an easy lay up.”
“Tell you what,” the slick Elder said, as he passed the ball back to JB at half court. “We are missionaries. That’s why we wanted to play ball with you today. We have found the court is a good place to talk about Jesus.”
JB passed the ball to me with a hard bounce. I caught it at the top of the key. “Jesus has changed our lives man,” I said, as I bounced the leather ball back and JB started to drive the middle. I blocked him out and he spun wide to the far side of the key. “Makes all the difference.”
“Difference in what?” JB asked.
JB stopped the dribble, and tried to pivot around Hall’s guard, but Mr. Slick was quick. I tried to stick to my man to prevent the pass. He didn’t talk much, but I could hear him breathing as I stuck to him, gracing his sweaty side with one hand and the other outstretched, waiting. JB lost his footing and slipped to the side off his pivot foot. “Shit!” he said as he passed the ball to Elder Hall at the sideline.
The Wise Guy trainer was in the zone, and he began his own particular kind of magic. The magic that had kept him in the Inner City for most of his mission. “Tell you what, wanna take a bet, and see if we can find Jesus here today?”
“Well, you have seen Clark over there can’t shoot, and you have us by 1. How about this,” he passed the ball to JB. “Check”. The boy looked back at him like he was some sort of alien and bounced the ball. Hall held it. “Tell you what. We play to 15. If you win, we take our cracker asses somewhere else. But if you see a miracle here today, and we win? You two are gonna find Jesus over there in that fountain.”
“Deal,” the other teen said. “Now play the damn ball.”
Years later, I would find that one of my favorite joys was teaching high school students the meaning of satire. I would explain not only what it was, but my overwhelming adoration for it as an art form. Sarcasm is nothing new. Sarcasm did not start with memes on social media. Satire has been one of the most powerful ways in literature to convey a message for a very long time.
And the beauty of serving a Mormon mission, is that I became a person who could weave vastly juxtaposed things together, like Hamlet and The Fresh Prince or Chaucer and Aerosmith….. to teach anybody.
The problem is that Satire requires an intelligent, well informed audience. It is usually very time sensitive, or topic sensitive. Think about the number of times that South Park Episodes are right out of the headlines! I have found myself often wondering how those guys watched enough news to be Extemp champions on my Speech & Debate team, and still produced the episodes fast enough to get them out when their inspiration was sill in the news.
So being a Mormon Gangster did not lead me closer to God. It did not lead me closer to my faith. Being a missionary in Kansas City taught me how to reach people. It taught me how to see them as people, to assess where they were at – and then sell them the Mormon Jesus. I was proud of it on the Garden of Eden side of Troost. But, eventually, all Made Men have to go and prove their stripes, and I was transferred across Stateline.
Teaching affluent white people, living in the as described best communities of America is very different than teaching people on the other side of the Troost Wall. Eternal perspectives and priorities are altered when you don’t even have a grocery story in your neighborhood. But honestly, I held the fascade together all right, even after the Dear John letter. Fact is, if you don’t expect one of those as a missionary you are even more stupid than I previously would have thought. No. The fury of my Faux MTC Faith faded quickly down on Troost. The daily regiment of continual all things Mormon cannot compete with the realities one is forced to see. My MTC faith did not know how to reconcile Elder Bitton calling me at the end of October 1993.
“Clark! How ya doin out there with all the Crackers buddy?” I could hear his gum smacking through the phone.
“It’s nowhere near as much fun as trying to give Books of Mormon to hookers in the hood.”
“Right! You got that right. Ain’t nowhere in the mission like Troost baby!”
“When you gonna get me back there?”
“Well, how many can you throw by Halloween?”
“What?” sometimes the Wiseguy could still surprise me.
“How many can you throw?”
“Bit, we aren’t even teaching anyone right now, man. I don’t have any baptisms lined up before Halloween.”
“I need you to dunk three before the first.”
“Bit! We are only even teaching one lady, and if she would stop wanting to talk about Discussion Four for weeks on end, maybe we could finally get her wet. But that’s all I got.” I tried to disguise the revolt that rose everytime I thought about teaching that woman.
“What’s her problem with the Temple?” His gum popped in my ear. “Just gloss over it and move on. That one is easy, you know that.”
Dammit Bit, it is easy to gloss over with Black people who don’t know enough to ask hard questions. That is a slam dunk, no pun intended. But with this lady, it’s not the questions.”
“So what’s her problem?”
“She knows too much.”
“Well, can’t you find any kids? If you don’t throw three by Halloween, we are gonna send you to the cornfields of Kansas.”
And I became a rat.
San Manuel, Arizona – January 1994
Anika sat on the coach, unsure of where to focus her eyes or what to do with her hands. Her younger brother Ivan had been my final baptism that December. I had become a silver tongued shoe salesmen with dead faith. She was exotically beautiful, a local model and concert promoter in Kansas City, but here in a lost corner of Arizona in a mining town she was completely out of her element. My mother was trying not to cry. Rick, my step-father came in from work, the anger trembling his entire body.
“What are we going to tell the people at church?” was all he said.
“I don’t give a shit. Just here to get my stuff and leave.”
Anika and I had stopped by my Papa’s in Neola, Utah on our vagabond run. We would stop by there again on our way back to Shawnee, Kansas where I would take up residence in her father’s basement apartment. Papa’s Place, and that Porch of all Conversations, was the safest place in the world to pause, and think about what I was about to do and what Anika had just done. Teaching became something I was really good at, because my mission taught me about People. And it taught that me that all People are beautiful, with amazing lives, and truths of their own that make their lives make sense. And that… made sense. It made a whole lot more sense than believing everyone had to be the same, right down to making sure we start genealogy companies to make sure we didn’t miss any.
Teaching the first Black people in my life that I really knew, playing games of basketball for baptisms, staring down cocked Glocks… all of that I could handle. What I could not handle was having to talk to a lady who had already been going to Mormon church for years; she had just never been baptised, and the only thing she wanted to talk about was the one mystery left.
The Holy Temple. The place that I had avoided like the plague in favor of baptizing dead people. Like a Necromancer.Fishers of Men
And I know what those deep mysteries taught about the people down on Troost that I had just come to love. And I knew that it would be years before they were even allowed to know what snake oil those two white missionaries had sold them.
A person that cannot live with hypocrisy does not a good gangster make.