By Michael E. Miller
By Allie Conti
By Keegan Hamilton and Francisco Alvarado
By Jake Rossen
By Allie Conti
By Kyle Swenson
By Chris Joseph
By Michael E. Miller
Chris says he'll never forget the first time he walked up to Lauderdale Lakes Middle School. He was a gangly 13-year-old kid in the sixth grade with no self-esteem. That day, as always, he was wearing a baseball hat pulled low so he didn't have to see anybody, and nobody could look into his eyes. That was the way he liked it.
As he, Max, and Christine walked up to the front door, a man's voice boomed over a loudspeaker: "Take the hat off!" They all looked around but saw no one. Then a sheriff's deputy appeared. "No hats, no [gang] colors, no chains, no symbols, no sagging [pants]," the deputy told Chris.
"It was like, welcome to Florida," Chris says. "I knew right then I wasn't in Washington anymore."
He took off his hat, revealing a haircut he would later deeply regret -- a Mohawk. And he noticed right away that he didn't look the same as most of the kids. "In Washington there were hardly any blacks at my school, and now I was at a school that was almost all blacks and Hispanics," he says. "And the whites who were there were trying to be black. When I came here, school wasn't about learning anymore. It was about surviving."
His white head became a favorite target for bullies. "I made the mistake with the Mohawk, and so I got smacked in the head all the time," he says. "I remember the first day on the bus, a huge black kid named Dwayne smacked me so hard on the back of the head that it left a print. I just took it. That nigger would have crushed me.
"The ones my size, I would step up to them. They would make me get off the bus to fight. And I remember drilling this one kid. I hit that kid like you wouldn't believe. I never thought it would feel so good, but it did. I guess because I had taken all that physical slapping and pushing and intimidating."
But Chris says he's no racist. His worst enemies are black, but so are his best friends. He says he uses the word nigger to describe not a skin color but an attitude. "A nigger is an ignorant person," he avers. "It's nothing black, nothing white. I'm a nigger, too. I'm ignorant as hell."
After a rough 12 months in Florida, he spent a year in Las Vegas with Max and Christine, then went to live with his mother in Ollala, Washington, a wet, dreary, working-class town full of loggers, boat-yard laborers, and construction workers. "It's depressing there," he says. "It rains all the time. Seattle is the suicide capital of the country. There's nothing to do there but smoke weed."
And smoke weed he did. He also dropped out of high school during his freshman year. "I was a bad kid for a while," he explains.
Last year he made the final move of his tumultuous youth -- back to South Florida. His life has improved here. He doesn't wear his hat pulled down low anymore. He's no longer a shy, scared kid. He has made friends and had fun. "I love it here," he says. "There's repercussions of living here, but I love it. There are all different kinds of people here. We're the most fucked-up species on Earth. You get bears, deer, monkeys, and they seem to get along pretty good when they're by themselves. But us, nobody acts alike. Everybody's different, and that's what I like."
Chris recently left Max and Christine's place in Fort Lauderdale and moved into his first apartment near Young Circle in Hollywood. The previous tenant, his landlord told him, was a crack dealer. To pay his $125 weekly rent, Chris works for $7.50 an hour installing floors. The apartment has a small bedroom as well as a kitchen with a mini refrigerator and a two-burner hot plate. His first grocery-shopping trip was a disaster. He bought hamburgers, eggs, and hot dogs but didn't realize until he got home that he had no frying pan and no money left to buy one. It's typical of his hectic life, he says. Nothing seems to go smoothly. His car is constantly threatening to break down, and his girlfriend has another boyfriend. He can't even sleep without disturbance. Every night he hears banging on the wall in addition to the grunts and moans of sex. It's his next-door neighbor, a gay man. "The thing is, it's always a different guy," he laughs.
Chris finds amusement in his hardships, even in the violence. He doesn't know why he seems to be a magnet for street-fighting punks. "I guess they think I'm weird," he says. "It seems like I'm either the most hated person around or the most liked, depending on the day." Drugs are prevalent here, he says, and he's partaken of his share, including "X-rolls," pills containing a mixture of Ecstasy and other narcotics. He's been in a few fights, often when he's "rolling" on those drugs. But he has a way of deconstructing the violence, using it as a social tool. One time, for instance, he argued with two guys on the beach. He doesn't remember the cause of the debate, but he recalls asking where they were from.