Dave has a lot of practice confronting situations like this by now. He’s been working as a program coordinator at the Blessed Sacrament Teen Center in McKinley Park since August, so he’s around Darien and kids like him everyday. Some are like Darien, who dropped out of high school because he didn’t have the discipline. Others dropped out because their girlfriends got pregnant and couldn’t afford their time and money to both. Sometimes they come like Mike, and the Center welcomes them with a cautionary eye.
Dave will do anything to get Darien out of the neighborhood for even a night, so before acquiescing to Mike’s request to just chill, he tries to find an under-21 club they can all go to. Darien’s face lights up. Earlier in the night, Darien talks about retiring from the wild life at age 20, then complains that his under 21 year-old “bros” are too low key for him sometimes.
“These guys aren’t satisfying my rage fever,” he says.
“Life is a dance party. Sometimes we just can’t hear the music,” he continues.
Darien’s initial excitement wanes after a few minutes of searching the internet. He wants to dance, loves to dance, but doesn’t want to hang around a bunch of 18 year-olds after all. He likes hanging around Mike and Dave because they’re at least a couple of years older, and Mike has a brown bag in his hand tonight. He makes the executive call.
Dave is itching to go into the city but agrees to stay knowing Darien will be safe in his home tonight. He lives a few blocks from Darien in a converted convent with seven other recent college graduates participating in a year-long service program in Chicago, so there’s plenty of space for Darien. He prefers staying here at the Amate House because the couches are bigger than the one he sleeps on at home.
Dave suggests playing board games when the group files into the basement, but after a few rounds of Loaded Questions and a few cups of wine for a near-intoxicated Mike, the friends are restless and want to watch a movie. Dave turns the lights off and puts Darien’s favorite movie, “Pulp Fiction”, into the VHS. Darien moves to the back of the room where Dave can’t see Mike pouring him a cup of wine. With the physique of a malnourished giraffe, Darien is drunk by the time Vincent Vega takes a shot of adrenaline to Mia Wallace’s heart.
Taking advantage of the dark room and his blissful sedation, Darien crawls over to the girl he’s had a crush on for a couple of months now and asks her to get coffee sometime, but his breath smells like cheap red wine and his stained red, overlapping teeth give him a vampiric look, so she teeters on his question. She asks him about the revolution. He tells her he’s building an army of young people to overthrow capitalism and give power back to the people, but it’ll be a nonviolent revolution the way Gandhi intended. They’ll meet in secret locations to discuss their revolutionary ideas. So far only one person has joined the revolution, himself included. He asks if she wants to join. She says yes but reminds him she goes to college a couple of hours away, so she won’t be around for the meetings, and that coffee date might have to wait. A few days later, he tells Dave he’s falling in love.
Dave is annoyed when he turns the lights back on to find Darien intoxicated on the couch. Dave checks in with his other guests while Darien gets up. In the back of the room, Mike asks Darien to join him outside to smoke. Dave walks over. It’s time for Mike to go. Times like these, he feels more like a parent than a friend to Darien.
It’s mostly boys who frequent the Teen Center, and Dave’s made good friends out of them. He invites them to his house on the weekends and to get hamburgers at Portillos every Friday night, and they never say no because he offers to pay. It’s a small price to keep them from doing bad stuff, says Dave.
McKinley Park is a mostly Latino neighborhood that falls along the stretch of Chicago’s South Side neighborhoods known for high crime and gang involvement, so most of the kids who take advantage of the Teen Center are Latino and some used to be in gangs. Almost all of them have a story to tell about how gang and intimate partner violence have affected their lives. With the help of Teen Center Director Jim Kozy, they’ve turned their situation around. The Teen Center is home, so even though Dave’s only required to work until five p.m. every day, he keeps it open until the kids are ready to leave.
Even with so many teens to watch out for, Dave keeps both eyes on Darien. When Dave began his year of service at the Teen Center, Kozy asked Dave if he could put a little extra time into making sure Darien finishes high school and makes it to college. It didn’t take long for Dave to figure out why. As the only white boy who visits the teen center on a regular basis, Darien’s the black sheep of the group. He wears a black leather jacket, Ray Ban-look alikes, and skinny jeans that accentuate his twiggy legs. He sits on the computer researching philosophy terms that he comes across reading Nietzsche for fun, while the other guys play basketball or pool. Sometimes he plays the guitar even though the sound of dribbling mutes him. He watches documentaries on astrophysics and listens to the Blues. His favorites are Robert Johnson and Howlin’ Wolf.
“Son House got me through many a hard times,” he says.
This revolution he speaks of came to be because he needed some sort of intellectual stimulation after he dropped out of school. He’s not against recruiting kids from the neighborhood, but every attempt has failed for some combination of reasons, like they don’t know what capitalism is and therefore don’t know what they’re supposed to be overthrowing, or they don’t understand Darien’s very specific revolutionary vocabulary.
It’s unclear whether this language he speaks is so futuristic it borders incomprehension, or if it’s something regurgitated from Star Wars movies. In his perfect world, the Star Wars theme song would play for him all day.
“First thing. Open my eyes. Imperial March!” he says.
He’s settled for creating his own life soundtrack. He plays the harmonica wherever he goes and brings his ukulele, Goddard, around on special occasions. He starts each day with yoga, which he taught himself with the help of YouTube, and sends off his conversations with a peaceful “namaste.” He carries a pocket notebook at all times in case of profound thoughts, like this one he posted as a Facebook status: “Expect to pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that we can do, or any kindness that we can show to any fellow creature let us do it now. For we may not pass this way again. Namaste.” He scrolls down his wall to reveal another: “Kids these days swim in the sex, drugs, rebellion of adolescence and forget to dry off now and then.” Then another: “No one wins in biological warfare.” He scrolls down again: “Those beans were a bad idea for dinner. I’ll be back in a few hours. Ugh. The bathroom calls me.” At the end of the day, he’s retained some innocence.
Dave is only required to work during the week but wakes up as early as eight a.m. on the weekends to take Darien to the nearest community college and enroll him in classes. He has a unique potential he doesn’t seen in the other teens, especially not the ones still in Chicago’s failing public school system.
It sounds like a simple formula. Dave takes Darien to Malcolm X College, enrolls him in classes, helps him pass his GED by the time college classes start in the fall. But even though Darien prefers to spend his time with people like Dave and Oscar--a recent University of Illinois graduate who volunteers at the Teen Center--as opposed to guys like Mike, something pulls him back every time he makes progress. Dave arrives at Darien’s house at seven-thirty a.m. on a saturday so they can take the bus to Malcolm X, and Darien answers the door with his pajamas on and eyes half open. It’s his living environment.
Darien hasn’t had a bed for himself in years. Darien was relegated to the couch of his cramped, one-family house once his half-brother, Nick, got his girlfriend, Ashley, pregnant a few years ago. Then there’s Ashley’s mom and sister. Dave lists a host of other people who move in and out of the house like a motel room. Dave is happy to host Darien if it means getting out of that environment for a weekend, but fears Darien will become too dependent on him. His year of service ends on June 16, when he’ll fly back to New York to pursue his masters in social work at the University of Albany in August.
A few days before Dave’s going away party, he calls to say Darien passed his GED with flying colors. In between the astrophysics documentaries and Nietzsche readings, he managed to finish his credits online. A while back, Dave and Darien discussed the possibility of Darien flying to New York to live with Dave and go to college out east. Everyone was on board, including Kozy and Dave’s parents. Then Dave took a good hard look at what the next four years might look like and thought, just maybe, it'll hurt Darien more than it’ll help. They decided it's best that Darien stays in McKinley and goes to school in Chicago, so Dave will rely on regular phone calls to keep him on track.
With two weeks until he leaves, Dave's been walking a lot of laps around the lake by his house. It's a nice place to reflect. He goes alone when he wants to speak to God, but most of the time brings company. He thinks about Darien everyday. He doesn't doubt the difference he made, reminding himself of the story of the young girl who throws starfish into the ocean. A woman approaches the girl and says there are miles and miles of beach and starfish all along it, so she can't possibly make a difference. The girl pauses, throws another one into the sea and tells the woman it made a difference for that one.
This is an important reality of Dave’s work at the Teen Center. He touches these kids' lives for a year then leaves without a return ticket. He says he's ready to leave Chicago and return to his home and his girlfriend, but his work here feels incomplete because of Darien. He hopes for the best but understands the challenges Darien is up against, yet he's never met anyone quite like Darien so maybe he'll make it out of McKinley. For now, he waits.
Word Count: 1957
Intended Publication: Chicago Tribune