Boobie had just found his first temple: a dojo. He stared through its window, nine blocks from home in Bedford-Stuyvesant, then slipped inside and stared for four hours more. He was spellbound by the structure—by the crispness of the karate uniforms and the mats and the motions and the verbal exchanges between student and master. It could never happen here, what had happened twice at home: the police barging through the door, toppling furniture, ransacking closets and drawers in search of stolen goods while his father stood silent, head bowed, hands manacled.
Those hands were where the thunder in yours originated, Zab. You never knew your grandfather because he died two years before you were born. He was a foster child who entered the New York Golden Gloves as a teenager and found out, with those hands, who he was: a welterweight champion. Then the Korean War came and took him with it. He returned to Brooklyn with all sorts of souvenirs: a Purple Heart, a Silver Star, scarlet welts on his face, a metal plate from a bullet he'd taken in the leg, a bellyful of shrapnel from a grenade...and a chestful of bitterness. Your grandfather's hands ended up jimmying locks, popping windows, emptying cash registers.
Now and then Boobie got to see him, in the visiting room at the state penitentiary in Walkill, N.Y. The same question always burst in the boy's head when his eyes met his father's: Should he hug him—or run?
Boobie craved order. He kept his bed and floor so immaculate you could dine off them, pressed a crease in his pants that could cut you, another sort of disguise: Where there's Johnson's Wax and hospital corners, there's always rage. He'd bust a bottle over the head of a guy 60 pounds heavier who barreled over him playing basketball; he'd end up punching and kicking and gouging boys on the sidewalk every other day. But damn if the guys he'd fought with the evening before wouldn't come to his door the next morning to walk with him to school. Your dad had that charm.
You know how it is, Zab, growing up where you and your dad did. You have to choose. Guys would turn you into their slave if the stench of fear froze you, if you didn't fight. A kid in the cafeteria flung milk on Boobie one day. He threw up his fists, but the kid's two pals jumped Boobie. He had no chance. Never, never again.
He got home from the dojo that first night at 10 p.m. His mother and her broomstick were waiting. Three days later he snuck out to the dojo again, paid a guy five bucks for his uniform pants. He begged his mother, promised his grades wouldn't slip. She relented. He became relentless: one and a half hours every weekday, five hours on Saturdays, sets of 300 sit-ups and 75 push-ups, until he had joined the school's elite corps, the Demo Squad.
Boobie had received the gift of his daddy's lightning hands, but what would he do with them? The dojo solved that, placed them at the service of a sensei, made Boobie part of a pack pledged to purity of body and mind. The members of the Demo Squad helped one another perfect each movement, went out together to eat and talk. "Yo, either you're part of something, or you're part of nothin'," Boobie would say. "If you're part of nothin' in Brooklyn, yo, anything can happen to you. Like your ass gettin' 50 bullet holes."
When your dad was 16, a bully at his high school, a boxer, threw a punch at him one day in the hallway. Boobie slipped the punch, spun and exploded a back kick in the bully's face. His head struck the wall, then the floor—out cold. Boobie was wearing platform heels that day. He was suspended for two weeks, but that was fine. No one seemed itchy to fight him anymore. He could walk anywhere, anytime, and control his fear.
That same year, 1971, he heard a young man at the dojo speak of a black religious movement that he belonged to. Boobie had rarely been to church. He admired the man's proud carriage, the vast knowledge of God and of man's origins that he seemed to possess. He accepted an invitation, walked into the B'nai Zaken Sons of the Ancient synagogue—one of roughly 10 Israelite congregations across New York City—and learned something startling: He was much more than the son of a convict. He was a descendant of God's Chosen Ones, the original 12 tribes of Israel, the fruit of a glorious family tree. Soon he could cite, thanks to his new mentors, the evidence in the Old Testament that suggested the Chosen Ones were brown-skinned or black, a race warned in Deuteronomy that straying from God's path would cause it to be scattered across the earth as other nations' slaves. Well, hadn't that happened? Hadn't they brought it upon themselves, and now, if they banded together and revived the ways of the tribe from the days when God first smiled upon them, couldn't they regain their rightful power, their sacred standing? With a nod of his head it could all be his: an identity, a structure, a haven from the streets, a clan with its own language and uniform and code of conduct, a tribe so much larger and tighter than the Demo Squad.
Boobie drank it in, to that bottom of the chalice. He began studying Hebrew, studying the ancient passages and psalms, thrilling to the Torah's tales of betrayal, revenge, redemption and grace. No longer would he eat pork, any sea creature that lacked scales or scavenged, any fruit without seeds, as the Old Testament dictated. He grew his hair halfway down his back and coiled it into braids. His mama was aghast.