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The clock says 5. Above a dish rack stacked with black-and-white dinner plates, above a small sink and a window shaded with deep green vertical blinds, is an old-fashioned, schoolhouse-style clock, round with big numbers and circled in brown trim, moving through the minutes, the hours, the days, the months, the years at Natalie Wiggins's house at 401 NW Fifth Ave.
Today, Natalie's second son turns 18. Eduardo is six feet tall, rangy at 160 pounds, with braids that hang in his face and a dazed look as if he just woke up and found, to his chagrin, that there are other people in the world. Eduardo is the quiet one, Natalie says. When he was young, the relatives predicted Eduardo would be a doctor. He brought home A's and B's. Now that he's grown, Natalie's not so sure where her son's life is headed. Eduardo's father, Perry, is supposed to bring by a cake, but he hasn't shown up yet. Natalie shakes a load of chicken legs and wings in a brown paper grocery bag to dust them with flour.
In front of the house, the crew has gathered. They call themselves the '80s Babies: Booty Head, Can't Get It Right, Corn Bread, Dan, Dee, Eduardo, Falcon, Germaine, K.P., Keem, Love, Mando, Marcelles, Mo Boy, Butch, Oreo, Pedro, RoRo, Tony, and Trey. Teetering on the edge of adulthood, they are a close-knit clan of young black men who revel in the goofy camaraderie of a private and macho culture. They profile in the thuggish style, teeth capped in gold, pants loose and slipping down past their butts to display wild-colored boxers. Since junior high school, the Wiggins house in Hallandale Beach has been the stomping ground of this informal bad boys' club. Today, Eduardo's white 1984 Oldsmobile sedan is jacked up in the driveway, and a couple of the guys are helping him change a tire. Armando, Natalie's 16-year-old, is sitting inside his burgundy Delta 88, bass thumping on the car stereo. K.P., Can't Get It Right, Corn Bread, and Butch pack the passenger seats.
"They're all out there today," Natalie says, peeking through the kitchen window before shaking the extra flour off the chicken pieces and placing them on a paper towel. She is a warm, vibrant, attractive 37-year-old, big in the right places, with an easy, confident smile and a mischievous daredevil glint in her eye. "Since it's Eduardo's birthday, I'm letting them have their little fun." Natalie pauses a moment for dramatic emphasis. "Then I'm going to chase them off."
She drops the chicken into a frying pan half-filled with oil. The sizzling grease for a moment drowns out the booming bass from Armando's car, the living-room television tuned to BET, and the religious music blasting from Josephine Edwards's small gray bungalow across the street.
If the boys stay outside too long, Natalie predicts, Edwards will call the police. The 54-year-old grandmother of 18 estimates she's called the cops on the '80s Babies at least 24 times in the past six months. Edwards claims there are sinister forces at work in the Wiggins house -- underage girls sneaking inside after Natalie goes to work, drug deals, and gambling.
Indeed, the group came onto police radar screens last year because of frequent and violent fights between the '80s Babies and black youths from Hollywood, Dania Beach, and Carver Ranches. In January, a group including Edwards met to talk about what they termed an escalating "gang war." A week later, Hallandale Beach police and Broward County sheriff's officers descended on the crew gathered at the Wiggins house. Several were arrested, including Eduardo.
It's not the kind of attention the '80s Babies need, Natalie complains. Throwing all of them into jail isn't going to help. Natalie understands the neighbors might be fed up. Before the January 25 raid, she had 20 to 25 kids out there, day and night, seven days a week, sitting around on cars, shooting craps, dealing cards, playing music... and talking, talking, always talking.
These boys should be working, she says, enrolled in college or training for a vocation instead of hanging out at her house. They're men now. "It's too much," she wails. "Don't you think they'd get tired of seeing each other after awhile?" she asks, wrinkling her face up in mock horror.
Natalie has tried to be a good mom to her kids. The results, though, don't match the dream. Maybe she's been too indulgent. Maybe the neighborhood is the wrong place to raise kids. Maybe the world's just gone crazy. Three of her sons have dropped out of school. One's been busted for drugs. And there are gang fights. During one of them, bricks were thrown through her front windows. Then there was the raid. "Sometimes I regret I ever bought this house," she confides. "I'd just like to move." And when Natalie says that, she means move without her three oldest sons coming with her.
Natalie grew up nearby in a cluster of apartments on NW Third Street. Every street had a nickname, and hers was called "Cornbread Alley" by local blacks. "I hated it," Natalie says. Her mother, Eula, worked as a maid to support the four children. The only girl in a house full of older boys, Natalie's natural spunk helped her hold her own. In school, she was an average student. Natalie's one goal, says her cousin and best friend, Betty Crawford, was to have a whole house full of kids when she grew up. "And I got it," Natalie remarks ruefully.