Friday, July 19

In defence of violent neighbourhoods

When my father left our home, I looked for his replacement in local gangsters. I was a pillow-soft kid – quite effeminate truth be told – but it was worth an attempted transformation for all the riches the lifestyle promised. 

I was raised in Otahuhu, during the 70s and 80s, and Black Power leader Abe Wharewaka’s white limousine would often glide past us as we walked to school. We would whoop and cheer. Sometimes we’d catch his outline through the tinted window waving at us and we felt anointed. His ride may as well have been a spaceship to us dirt-poor kids, post the closure of Southdown meatworks. Sure, there were other examples of material comfort in our ‘hood – old white people with beautifully kept homes and immaculately manicured gardens (Fencible Place in Otahuhu was named Auckland’s prettiest street on more than one occasion). These folk clearly weren’t short of a bob. But the white limousine was ‘Don Corleone’ shit. In fact, ‘The Godfather’ first played on New Zealand television (in two parts over two nights) around this same time and was also a major influence on me. Not to make high-art. But to get involved in organised crime. 

As it turned out I didn’t end up working for the Blacks. I became attached to a string of independent gangsters and bounced around various gangs, doing a lot of the shit work while thinking I was ‘connected’. 

As an example, when a motorcycle repair store on Station Rd had its windows blown out in a hail of gunfire, my friends and I swept up the glass for a payment of a cap of hash-oil. We were often paid in caps. They were the bit-coin of 80s South Auckland. 

Another time we were sent to retrieve the scant possessions of a patron from the flat he had had to split from in a hurry. The front door ajar, we entered to find a Māori version of Lou Ferrigno (television’s Incredible Hulk) seated on a tall stool in the middle of the living room. His head was bowed as if he was about to break into a tender ballad on a variety show. The room around him had been completely trashed. And I don’t just mean a broken mirror and furniture turned upside down. The wall mirror had been, quite literally, rendered sand. The couch and chairs were a collection of matchsticks and shredded fabric. The gentleman on the stool must have been in a destructive rage over an eight-hour period to do what he did. 

My blood chilled. 

We’d walked into Hannibal Lecter’s cell. 

I started to back away from the front door, but my friend behind me marched inside, ignoring the chaos around him, shook big Lou’s hand and told him we were there for Eric’s stuff. Lou’s eyes widened upon hearing the name, a Doberman alerted to a disturbance. I suddenly saw a vision of myself, rendered sand. And then Lou seemed to deflate a little and gestured with his head upstairs. We filed up the staircase. I read this as a reprieve that could be withdrawn at any moment, so hissed at my friends not to fuck around. 

Everything our sponsor owned was in that room: bedding, a stick of deodorant and a few porno mags. That was it. I remember thinking, “Maybe crime doesn’t always pay”. But neither does art, as I’ve since learned. 

There was a 20” RCA black and white television on the floor beside the bed with a cracked screen. We figured it belonged to Eric, but it was broken so we didn’t know whether to take it or not. Figuring Lou had enough of a mess to clean up, and he was the last man we wanted to trouble with any inconvenience, we scooped it up.

We got back to the gang pad and unloaded. Eric, who had been extremely casual – throw-away even – when offering us this job, rushed out to meet us. He asked eagerly if Lou had “tried anything”. We replied that he hadn’t. He’d been very cool.

“I thought he would have murdered you guys.”

We then got the backstory. Eric had interrogated Lou as to why he hadn’t paid the rent that week. It was Lou’s responsibility after all, and Eric had certainly handed him his share. Lou protested that he had paid it. The tell-tale ounce of marijuana on the coffee table in front of him said otherwise. Eric – hungover from a party the previous night – was in no mood to keep arguing, and started up the stairs with the parting shot that he expected Lou to do something about it. Lou did. He waited about 20 minutes, then went upstairs into Eric’s room and dropped his black n white television, screen down, onto Eric’s sleeping head. A groggy Eric had managed an escape, but the contents of the flat weren’t so lucky. 

Lou was a psycho. Famously so. He once had a heated argument with a girlfriend, so to let off steam traveled to the East Tamaki Tavern in Otara, marched in, and bellowed, “I want the biggest, blackest c**t right here, right now”. He was instantly rushed by three or four gang members, leaving a few of them with bones poking through flesh. He did time for that adventure. Eric knew exactly what Lou was capable of, so sent us kids into this Lion’s den. 

We were all given a cap of hash-oil as payment and went away to smoke and reflect on our close shave. Lou resented being accused by Eric of spending the rent money on pot. And yet, he clearly had spent the rent money on pot. So, why the shtick with the TV? Because Eric had assumed him of being a thief too quickly. Too easily. This was the slight committed against him. This was the absurd, but not uncommon rationalising you could often encounter in this world. And for this slight, Eric, and Lou’s own belongings required mulching. The only thing that likely saved us from a life-altering beating that morning would have been Lou’s exhaustion. 

This day wasn’t in anyway exceptional. And neither were Lou and Eric remarkable people in the Otahuhu of my youth. We often felt in existential threat, from characters so extreme that were an actor to play them, most directors would question their size and believability. These almost daily encounters developed a nose for danger, and handy negotiation skills – an ability to talk, and find common ground, with anyone. 

But these scenes were screamingly funny too. They say tragedy plus time equals comedy. I would say in my South Auckland, and any violent neighborhood, there is no temporal separation: like a Kafka story, these episodes were nightmarish and hilarious, all at the same time. Being constantly off-kilter by these tonal cocktails meant the outcomes of encounters were rarely certain. This developed a strong philosophical side in many of us. You’d be surprised at how many gangsters are handy philosophers and actively enjoy pondering life’s deepest questions with friends.

People claim they want to feel life more deeply but then balk at the thought of putting themselves in harm’s way. But to live is to risk harm – emotionally, spiritually, and physically. The safe space, and much of woke culture, promises something akin to a cryogenic freezing of the soul, which those accustomed to control (the wealth class) are conditioned to expect. You cannot help but live in the moment upon opening the door to a crumby flat and discovering you’ve stepped into a level of Hell. For this reason, we should praise our violent neighborhoods. Because nothing is more invigorating, and personally extending, than danger and uncertainly, and nothing is as dulling as safety.