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Natalie Wiggins wonders whether her mothering will be enough to launch Fernando, age 13, and Raven, age 10, into a responsible and productive adulthood
Natalie Wiggins wonders whether her mothering will be enough to launch Fernando, age 13, and Raven, age 10, into a responsible and productive adulthood
Colby Katz

Not Kid Stuff

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.

Natalie met Perry Mayer when she was 16 years old. He was grown -- 25 years of age. They both worked at the Diplomat Mall -- she in a drug store, he in one of the department stores. It was storybook stuff. "He looked at me, and it was like a light sparked," she remembers. Later that year, Natalie became pregnant with Perry's child. She stayed in school throughout the pregnancy and after the birth of Rolando in 1981. She graduated from Hallandale High School in 1982.

Through the births of Eduardo in 1984, Armando in 1985, Fernando in 1989, and Raven in 1991, Natalie stayed crazy about Perry. She came of age with the desperate hope of a woman whose man won't commit. After the birth of Raven, now age ten, Natalie gave Perry an ultimatum. He had one year. Then she wanted to get married or it was over. When the year was up, Perry said he still wasn't willing to marry his sure thing. It was hard; she wavered, but Natalie knew she had to move on.

She'd been doing the lion's share of raising the boys anyway. "Perry would come by and conversate with them," she says. "But he wasn't involved the way I thought he should be." Finally reached at his dentist's office, Perry promised to call back but didn't.

Natalie says she raised her kids by the book. She began taking parenting classes when pregnant with Rolando and continues taking a weekly class today. After the birth of each child, she temporarily went on welfare. Then she found jobs -- as a telephone operator, church secretary, data entry clerk for Atlas Pen and Pencil, and clerk at South Florida State Hospital. She thought working set a good example for the boys. In 1992, she took a temporary job as a teacher's aide at Colbert Elementary School (which her children attended), earning $5.55 an hour. They were a close family, she remembers. Her employer was impressed, and she was offered a permanent position that July. "It is a pleasure having her," Principal Kathleen DiBona wrote in May 1992. Natalie also worked in an after-school program at the Hollywood YMCA. "That way, I could have my children with me," she says. Natalie stayed in the school system for ten years, working her way into her current position as a community liaison for Watkins Elementary, earning $13.50 an hour.

She made mistakes too. In 1992, she cashed a series of welfare checks she shouldn't have received, totaling $2917. She had failed to report income from the YMCA. She was charged with felony welfare fraud in 1995. She pleaded no contest and was placed on probation for five years. The court ordered her to pay $93.62 a month in restitution. It was tough. "I struggled," she says. But she paid it back.

In 1995, Natalie moved her family one step closer to the American Dream -- into a house of her own in a middle-class black neighborhood on NW Fifth Avenue. The four-bedroom place was one of five Habitat for Humanity homes built on the street. Natalie hammered nails and painted walls of other Habitat houses on the street. The construction represented more than just her dream. It represented hope for the northwest community, which had weathered its share of the crack-cocaine epidemic in the early '90s. All of the homebuyers had grown up poor in Cornbread Alley. Now, they were first-time owners, investing sweat equity in return for no-interest mortgages.

It was a good time for the Wiggins family, despite Natalie's arrest. Rolando was the quarterback and Eduardo played defense on a Hallandale Optimists' youth football team. Natalie was involved as well, volunteering as the team secretary. Soon, the boys' sports pals began dropping by after school to toss a football and play video games. It got so there were 10 to 15 extra kids at the house every day. Natalie was happy to have them. "I called my house the after-school program," laughs Natalie. "But at least I knew where my children were."

She put up a basketball hoop, and the extra kids became part of the Wigginses' extended family. "She was the mother to the whole neighborhood," Betty Crawford observes. Some of the boys didn't have parents engaged in their lives. Natalie filled the gap. When report cards came out, she would cook something and have a little celebration. The boys would bring their grades for her to review. "I guess that tells you something if they were bringing me their report cards," she asserts.

Love, who asked that only his nickname be used in this article, was one of the youths welcomed into Natalie's home. (Sensitive that outsiders regard the '80s Babies as a criminal street gang, most of the young men who hang around the Wiggins house hesitated to talk to New Times, despite Natalie's urging.) Rolando and Love became friends at Colbert Elementary. They played football together on the Optimist team. After steadfastly refusing to talk, even about Natalie, the burly Hallandale High football star blurts out, "She's my god mom."

Recently, Natalie helped Love fill out applications for college. He expects to receive a football scholarship soon. "Whenever I had a problem," Love says, "I would come to her."

"I adopted him," Natalie adds. "When was it, Love, about ten years ago?"

"Yep," he answers, catching himself, clamming up, and turning his attention back to a plate of chicken and rice.

"He's one of my success stories," boasts Natalie.

On a recent weekday in late February, Natalie is home from work. At noon, she rousts herself from a nap to answer the knock of a New Times reporter. Eduardo is in one of the back bedrooms. Rolando is sound asleep in the living room, laid out facedown on one side of an L-shaped sofa. Natalie settles into the well-worn sofa's other wing and talks about her children. She doesn't know quite how to help her three oldest boys. "He tells me he makes his money gambling," she says of Rolando, shaking her head and looking over at her comatose son. The boy stirs and squints sleepy-eyed at the visitor. "You can get up and go in your room if you don't like it," she admonishes.

In his first year at Hallandale High, Rolando did well. He played quarterback for the football team. He was good-looking, popular, a star. "The coaches loved him," Natalie says. "Everybody loved him." But in tenth grade, Rolando's grades slipped when he began skipping classes to hang out with his pals. The coach told him to improve his grades or he couldn't play football. Natalie says Rolando took the admonition seriously. He loved football. "He was even doing homework," she recalls.

One day, the principal caught Rolando, then 16, skipping class and booted him out of school. Natalie pleaded his case before the Broward County School Board, but Rolando was expelled. The same fate befell several of Rolando's friends, including Tony Edwards, who now works full-time at Atlas Pen and Pencil. "I went to school," Tony says, offended at the suggestion he skipped. "I just didn't go to class." Natalie tried to persuade the school board to allow Rolando to attend another high school. When that failed, she badgered Rolando to earn his GED through adult education. Four years later, he still blames her for not securing his return to Hallandale High. And he refuses to consider adult education. "That's for losers," he says.

Natalie warns Rolando that if police bust into one of the little gambling dens he frequents, he'll go to jail. But he just shrugs her off. He has money, she says, pointing out Rolando's and Eduardo's front teeth, recently capped in gold. She also heard through the grapevine that Rolando bought his girlfriend a Coach handbag. "Where'd he get the money for that?" she asks. "You don't make that much money gambling. You lose more than you make. But if he's doing anything else, he's sneaky about it. I haven't seen it."

When the boys were children, Natalie says, the younger ones followed Rolando's lead. When he left school, she worried. "I thought, 'The others will go too,'" she says.

It was an accurate prediction.

Eduardo was kicked out of Hallandale High when he turned 16, also for skipping. Natalie withdrew Armando from school this year because he had stopped attending. "I can't leave my job every day to run behind him to make sure he gets to school," she says of Armando. "I would get him up at 5 a.m. and get him on the bus. Somehow, he would find a way to get off the bus."

At the beginning of the school year, Armando bought his Delta 88 with $500 his parents had given him for school clothes, even though he didn't yet have a driver's license. Natalie scolds him for driving without a license or insurance. Hallandale Beach police officers stopped Armando four times in January and February. He racked up 11 traffic charges -- for driving without a license, driving on a suspended license, speeding, inadequate insurance, and failing to stop properly at an intersection. "I'm going to drive real slow," the wiry 16-year-old promises his mother as he runs out the door singing "Ten-Twenty-Li-i-ife." Natalie's resolution sometimes falters, as on another night when she gave Armando $10 to pick up one of the boys' friends who needed a ride home from work.

Natalie feels her power over her sons eroding. Admonitions don't work anymore, she realizes. She's counting on a few hard knocks to bring her children to their senses. "Sometimes, I just let them fall on their faces," she says as Armando jumps in the car and takes off. "They're so hard-headed." Since Rolando is now 20 years old, Natalie says he's old enough to make his own choices. She can only give advice -- which she provides as a running commentary from the sidelines -- or kick him out of the house. Rolando has never held a steady job, Natalie complains. He enjoyed working as a roofer. But usually he works for a while and then quits, complaining that "punk jobs" are beneath him. "I don't know where they get their laziness from," she says of her sons. "They act like they're going to live here with me forever."

She talks about booting out the oldest boys but has mixed feelings. If she can, Natalie wants to help them negotiate this time between childhood and adulthood. But she sees them drifting. The kids who hang at the Wiggins house, like Love, seem to pay more attention to Natalie than her own offspring.

A few minutes after Armando leaves, he's back with his girlfriend in tow. His car conked out a couple of streets away, and he shouts for Eduardo to help him get it going. After a few minutes, the 18-year-old emerges from his bedroom, sleepy-eyed. A few steps behind, a high school-age girl, M., walks past Natalie and toward the front door, staring straight ahead. Natalie had shooed M. away this morning, told her she couldn't spend the day at the house when she was supposed to be in school. When Natalie lay down for her nap, the girl sneaked inside. "I won't be back here no more," M. says glumly as she walks out the door. Later, Natalie explains that M.'s father has threatened to report Eduardo to the police.

Eduardo, the quiet one, has been in the most trouble. Last year, Natalie caught him hanging out on nearby Foster Road in a spot where drug dealers ply their trade. She says she stopped her car on her way home from work and hollered at the men gathered there, threatening to call the police. "That embarrassed him," she says, self-satisfied. She hasn't seen Eduardo there recently, but that may be because he's keeping a low profile these days.

In November 2000, Eduardo was arrested for cocaine possession and distribution. In August 2001, he was charged with destroying evidence. Adjudication was withheld on those charges. And then on January 28, 2002, he was arrested for cocaine use. He has not gone to court yet on the latest charges.

Now, Natalie's youngest son, Fernando, a 13-year-old with a small-engine obsession who fiddles with go-carts, has begun skipping school too.

Without much else going, identification with the '80s Babies provides what the older Wiggins boys lack -- a font of meaning and respect. They may have gotten kicked out of school, but with the '80s Babies, they still rule. They may not have jobs, but they still have their friends. They may not have goals, but in the company of the '80s Babies, the good times keep rolling. And if someone gives them a hard time, they always have the homeboys to catch their back.

The '80s Babies name started innocently enough as a tag of neighborhood and generational pride. But as it has become known, it has brought grief -- in the community, with police, and with kids in nearby Dania Beach, Hollywood, and Carver Ranches.

About three years ago, a group of the guys from Hallandale Beach, including Armando and Eduardo, got together with some youths from Miramar, Fort Lauderdale, and Hollywood and rented a bus to go to Adventure Island in Tampa. Wanting to distinguish themselves, they had T-shirts made with their pictures and the tag '80s Babies. The name was chosen because they were all born in the 1980s. "It was the adults that called us that," Tony explains. "We just took it up." When the other kids on the bus asked what the '80s Babies were, Tony says, the guys jokingly replied that it was a rap group.

Pretty soon, word of the '80s Babies got around, Rolando says. When he would go with his crew to the movies in Hollywood, a group of kids from that town would circle around them, shooting dirty looks. If girls they knew had a problem with boyfriends, they'd invoke the name of the '80s Babies, intimating that they had special protection. "It's the girls that keep things stirred up," Rolando says.

Their reputation as thugs really took off after Hallandale Beach's Martin Luther King Jr. parade in January 2001. Some of the guys wore their shirts. They walked through the crowd gathered on Hallandale Beach Boulevard in a group, shoulder to shoulder. Kids started following them, thinking there was going to be trouble, remembers Sgt. Dwayne Flournoy of the Hallandale Beach Police Department.

Toward the end of the day, perhaps pushed by the crowd's expectations, the '80s Babies and some kids from Hollywood rumbled at Oreste Blake Johnson Park, first with fists and then with baseball bats. The incident was mentioned in an April 2001 Sun-Sentinel article in which Hallandale Beach police said they were keeping an eye on an emerging gang.

For Natalie, the MLK parade fight was just one skirmish in an all-out war. It started before the MLK confrontation and gathered intensity, she says, until it seemed that every weekend, cars pulled up with kids from Dania Beach, Hollywood, and Carver Ranches challenging her sons and their friends to fight. They came armed with baseball bats. Fights erupted at parties. Cars were run off the road. Kids walking down Northwest Hallandale Beach streets were jumped and pummeled. A Hollywood teen pulled a gun on a neighbor walking his dog one evening last year. Natalie became conversant in the names of the '80s Babies' adversaries -- the 'Bout-'t-Jits, Liberia, the Ghetto B's, and Carver Ranches Park, also called CRP. "I spent many a night watching out the window," she says. The situation seemed out of control.

Shortly after the MLK fight, a girl sympathetic to the '80s Babies called Natalie's house to say the Hollywood boys were on their way. Raven remembers she was watching Nickelodeon when a line of about 15 cars eased down the street. Many of the kids were just spectators, Rolando points out, tagging along to watch the action. When the car doors flew open, the Hollywood boys jumped out brandishing baseball bats and Mace cans. "They're girls," Rolando mocks. The insults flew back and forth. A couple of the Hollywood kids picked up bricks from a neighbor's yard and hurled them through Natalie's front windows. "The homeboys were swinging golf clubs," Tony recalls. Someone smashed the windows of Rolando's car with a baseball bat. Raven just screamed. "I was too scared to move," she says.

Asked the origin of the fight, Rolando has a simple answer: "Girls."

All of the '80s Babies approached by New Times had one point to make: They aren't a gang. They may get raucous, and they may rumble if provoked. "You don't hear about us going over to Hollywood and starting anything," Rolando says. "They come here."

"We ain't no gang," Tony insists. "We're just a bunch of guys hanging out, enjoying each other's company." And Love insists such fights between Hallandale Beach and Hollywood are nothing new. "This has been going on since before we were born," he says.

Sgt. Flournoy, to some degree, accepts this argument: "I don't believe they are a street criminal gang," he opines. "Have associates of theirs been arrested? Yes. Are they operating in concerted behavior with each other? I don't believe so. They are associates, and they have come under this name." In a way, just calling themselves the '80s Babies has brought trouble their way, Flournoy points out. "By grouping themselves, they have become targets of groups from other communities," he says.

In January, after a Dania Beach girl was fired upon while she drove through Hallandale Beach, a group of South Broward mothers called a meeting. They took the name Women of War and vowed to put an end to the feuding among their children. Natalie heard about the January 16 summit hosted by the Women of War and was relieved other mothers recognized the seriousness of the problem. "I'm tired of it, to tell you the truth," Natalie says. "I've been dealing with this for years."

The meeting was featured on television and in newspaper accounts in the Herald and the Sun-Sentinel. Natalie was portrayed as the worried mom, talking about her '80s Babies. Also quoted was neighbor Josephine Edwards, who learned of the meeting from a flier that had blown into her yard. Edwards spoke to the group about the havoc wreaked by the '80s Babies and talked privately with police.

Although she went to the meeting hopeful, Natalie now regrets appearing with the Women of War. The news accounts contributed to the perception that the '80s Babies are thugs, she believes. That was confirmed for her a week later, on January 25, when Hallandale Beach police, assisted by members of the Broward County sheriff's gang unit, descended on the '80s Babies' "known hang-out" -- Natalie Wiggins's house. Butch, a 19-year-old friend of the Wigginses, ran from the scene, according to a Hallandale Beach incident report, and was arrested for resisting arrest without violence. As he fled, officers saw Butch make a "throwing motion." Later, police found a loaded .22 caliber revolver in the back yard, according to the report. The 15 or so boys hanging in the Wiggins yard at the time were ordered to the ground and searched. As Officer Christopher Boyd patted down Eduardo, he felt a lump in his shirt pocket. Police cited Eduardo for possession of tobacco by a minor. Rolando's car was towed.

On a recent Saturday, Armando was arrested for giving a false name to police. When questioned at a nearby field as he watched some kids race go-carts, Armando told police his last name was Mayer.

Natalie blames Edwards and the Women of War for the increased police scrutiny. "It should have put the focus everywhere," she says of the Women of War. "And instead, the focus is just going in Hallandale. You haven't heard about a gang raid going to Dania or the gang force going to Carver Ranches. No, they came to Hallandale."

But since the raid, Natalie has been shooing kids away. "As soon as I let one in the yard, all 20 will be back standing out there. They can't do that anymore," she says. "Now that they're big and grown up, it don't look so good anymore."

About 7 p.m. on the day of Eduardo's birthday, after the boys had their fill of chicken and peas, Natalie made a sweep outside. "OK, go home," she shouted. "It's over."

More recently, her vigilance has waned. On a Saturday in March, several boys lolled around on Eduardo's car. Other kids drove up and stopped to talk. And as the crowd swelled, Edwards stood on her bare concrete floor, watching it all, disgusted. She's collected evidence of the drug activity in dated envelopes -- tiny colored plastic baggies about the size of stamps. A couple of them appear to contain marijuana residue. "They got a dope business going on over there," she says. "They work in shifts." Edwards was out praying in her yard one morning when she saw the 5 a.m. work crew report in. "One group comes in, and the other leaves," she says. "Those kids are doing despicable things."

Edwards says she knows all about thugs -- her son is in prison serving 17 years on drug-dealing charges. "They like to play bad," she says of the '80s Babies. They ain't Boys N the Hood or New Jack City. They want to portray that, but they ain't it."

As a taxi stopped in front of the Wiggins house on a recent day, Edwards looked out the door. It was a drug deal in the making, she said triumphantly. "See, they just waved him on.... They'll meet him down the street."

Edwards is waging war against the '80s Babies. She employs tactics that the U.S. military used to flush Manuel Noriega from the Panamanian papal nuncio in January 1990. She cranks up her cassette player or gets on her electric organ and hammers out "Oh, How I Love Jesus," bellowing out the words.

Natalie's take on her neighbor? "She's the devil," she says of Edwards.

"I've found out what they don't like," Edwards confides. "They don't like country-western, and they don't like religious. I fight fire with fire."

Sgt. Flournoy doesn't dismiss Edwards's view entirely. "She may be right on the money," he says. "I don't know. We aren't right there across the street like she is, but so far, I haven't seen evidence of it."

For a short time after the Women of War meeting, Natalie says, the feuding subsided. But on a recent weekend night, three cars moved through northwest Hallandale Beach real slow and then looped around and came back. Rolando recognized the cars. They were from Hollywood, he told Natalie.

There was more trouble two Saturdays ago. Eduardo, Love, and Tony drove their cars to a party in Carver Ranches. Near an empty field, they saw a group of guys running toward them. Bricks rained on the cars. Eduardo peeled out, chased by a white van that tried to run him off the road. Tony's car was damaged by a brick. Love tried to make a U-turn, and the driver of the white van came after him. Safely back at the Wiggins house, the '80s Babies gathered in the yard expecting trouble. Natalie was out on a date and didn't learn about the incident until she returned home.

Nothing happened on NW Fifth Avenue, but a group of the same boys in the white van from Carver Ranches surrounded a Hallandale Beach youth on NW Fourth Avenue, forming a ring with baseball bats, Eduardo and Marcelles say. A boy from Hallandale Beach and one from Carver Ranches fought. "It's all starting up again," says Natalie.

Natalie wishes she could find her sons a mentor, perhaps from Big Brothers, Big Sisters, but she knows they're too old for that program. She's wanted to enroll Eduardo and Armando in Sheridan Vocational School. But she knows trying to force it won't work; they would probably attend class a few times and then quit. "I can be patient and keep trying," she says. "But they have got to want it for themselves."

When her sons were young, Natalie had the power to bend the boys to her will. Now, they're making their own decisions. In her parenting classes, the teacher says parents wade through adolescence. Kids lose their heads, stray off the path. But if you've given them a good foundation, they'll eventually turn around. Natalie's hoping for that. She thinks of the charismatic motivational speaker Les Brown. Wasn't he a troubled teen? She's hoping her boys have a Les Brown-style epiphany.

She knows her children's path to adulthood is fraught with temptation. Up on Foster Road, the drug dealers promise quick money. So do the gambling dens. Natalie points out how Raven runs to the television when BET airs the Ashanti video "Foolish." She shakes her head as Raven turns up the volume and watches mesmerized. A Mac Daddy dripping in jewels flashes thick packs of money stuck in the waistband of his expensive suit. The babes fawn over him. "Look at that," Natalie exclaims. "That's what they think is cool. That's what they want.... They live in a fantasy world."

The values represented by that fantasy repel Natalie. And she knows American society isn't as forgiving of black boys who go a little wild in their youth. The thug style her boys adopt reads scary to the middle class as it reads silly to her. Her children are passive when it comes to defining or defending themselves against anyone but their rival street warriors. "Labels, labels, labels," shouts Rolando as he dashes out the door the day of Eduardo's party. All Natalie has right now is hope, leavened with humor and a little cynicism. She reported two weeks ago that Eduardo had gone to Sheridan Vocational School on his own to sign up for the GED program. "I'm waiting for a three-point turnaround," she says. "I'm waiting."


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