8 Ball Chicks (Gini Sikes)

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  The first girl gang I encountered was in my adopted hometown of New York, a city that, in 1992, most cops would tell you didn't have female gang members. Loosely structured, short-lived corner crews and "posses," yes, but they'd point out these don't adhere to initiation rites, behavior codes, or symbolic colors. Ignoring the cops' dismissal, I acted on a tip and arranged to meet NFL, or Nasty Fly Ladies, a posse of high school girls whose turf was around Delancey and Essex Street, a part of Manhattan's Lower East Side known to police for chain snatching and strong-arm robbery. When I caught up with them, hanging out near a subway exit, the four girls looked too childish to be in a gang. Slouched against a wall, hands plunged deep into pockets of trousers so baggy that the crotches reached almost to their knees, they affected an exaggerated cool that only seemed to underscore their innocence. I had a lot to learn about appearances.

A hefty Latina girl with her hair in a high topknot introduced herself as Carmen in a voice so soft it was almost a murmur. She nodded toward the others: Tiny, Isabel, and Happy. Tiny took in my brown wool coat and hat and a smirk crept across her face. We locked eyes for a second before she quickly looked away. I didn't fit in here and we both knew it.

Inside a local Burger King, Tiny sat across from me. The littlest of the lot at five feet tall, she wore droopy pants and an oversized windbreaker, making her appear even smaller. On our way over, she'd bobbed and weaved behind me, aping my walk. "Tiny--she's the comedian," Carmen explained. "Her mouth's always getting us into trouble."

At sixteen, Tiny was sweet-faced with baby-fat cheeks, pouty lips, and smooth olive skin, except for the angry purple crescent on her right cheek. Another scar sliced her laugh line. She turned to reveal yet another that snaked below her ear. "They say they'll go away in about a year," she said, but this seemed unlikely. During a fight she was winning, her opponent surprised Tiny by flicking a concealed razor blade from her mouth. Her face burning, Tiny at first thought the girl had slapped her, only harder than she'd ever been struck before. She didn't realize she'd been cut from the side of her nose to just below her right eye until the girl jabbed at her again. This time Tiny knew. She frantically felt for the wound, blood seeping between her fingers. Suddenly, in self-preservation, she grabbed the girl's neck and, blinded by her own blood, began smashing her rival's head into the concrete until Isabel, hearing a siren, dragged her away. The girl had slashed Tiny's face eleven times.

Carmen rolled her eyes. "Tiny provokes fights." She sounded like a disapproving mother, complaining about a toddler misbehaving at daycare.

Tiny fixed me with a cold stare that wiped away any earlier impression of childish cuteness. "See, we smaller girls, we go for your weak spot." Her gaze moved across my features. "Your face. Your throat. Your eyes, so we can blind you. I don't care if you have more weight on me. I'll still try to kill you because, you know, I have a bad temper--"

Her words broke off. Outside a gangly redheaded girl sauntered by, then stopped. She peered inside the window, grinning oddly, then grabbed her crotch and thrust out her tongue. Tiny smacked the glass with her palm. "I'm going outside!" She started to slide out of the booth, but Carmen blocked her. "Not now." Her tone was firm. "We're talking."

I asked whether Tiny recognized the girl, but she shook her head. "Let me break it down for you: round here it's all about respect. Because people will disrespect you. Call you a sucker. And if you don't punch them in the mouth and say, "No, I'm not a sucker!' they gonna keep picking on you. Nowadays the fists don't work no more. You gotta have a knife or a hammer. Or a gun. 'Cause my homegirl got shot in the stomach. Lost her kidney."

Isabel listened, gently rocking her head. "See, we formed NFL to protect ourselves." She tucked her chin in slightly, as if she would rather swallow her words than say them, and watched the redhead's back retreat down the sidewalk. "Nobody's out there we can trust but ourselves. And we defend each other. Ain't nobody else gonna do it for us."

At times, though, the Nasty Fly Ladies ran with the Regs, a male gang from a nearby housing project. The girls were constantly on the lookout for "hos" and "hoochies" who wanted to sleep with their men--especially the Hill girls, named after a Lower East Side neighborhood.

It was a Hill girl who autographed Tiny's face. Tiny wouldn't submit to her boyfriend's demands to have sex in the park, so he found a fourteen-year-old Hill girl who would, inviting his friends to observe them surreptitiously. After Tiny learned about the outings, she attacked the Hill girl. "She was crying and begging, but she'd disrespected me in front of everybody. We started fighting and she pulled that blade out--" Tiny shrugged. "I just wasn't prepared. You can't tell when someone's got a razor in their mouth. Anyway, I didn't have no Vaseline."

Sensing my confusion, Carmen spelled things out. "First thing you do if you know you're going to fight is pull your hair back and smear your face with Vaseline. That way your enemy can't scratch you."

How does one learn to carry a razor blade in one's mouth?

Happy, a stunning full-lipped Puerto Rican girl who had busied herself biting the skin around her cuticles, suddenly came to life. "First time I saw a girl put a razor in her mouth, she was flipping it around with her tongue, not getting cut. I thought"--she placed one hand on her hip, languidly waving theother in a caricatured feminine gesture--""Oooh, that's for me!' So I got me a brand-new razor, put it in the side of my mouth and cut myself." She giggled. "A lot of blood! I waited for it to stop, cleaned the razor, and stuck it back in. 'Damn! Cut myself again!' I kept putting it in until, after a while, I got used to it." She returned to her cuticles.

I couldn't help wondering why Tiny directed her anger toward the Hill girl and not her ex-boyfriend. After all, no one forced him to go with this girl. My ignorance dumbfounded Carmen. "Round here, if you flaunt yourself in front of a guy, a guy's gonna take you!" she snapped. "His girl's gonna have to kick your ass to keep you away from her man."

"Round here," said Tiny, "pussy's pussy, no matter what. Pussy don't have a face."

Still NFL prided themselves on fighting guys as well as girls. Carmen fired up to provide an example. "One time the guys we were chillin' with tried to catch a herb." A "herb" means a victim, slang from an old Burger King commercial featuring a frail milquetoast character named Herb, who became a symbol for an easy white mark. "And Isabel was looking for a herbette, but couldn't find nobody. So when her boyfriend and all his homeboys jump this herb, she's trying to jump him, too. She goes up with a forty-ounce bottle and smashes him on the head. It goes ba-ding!"

"I guess I didn't hit him hard enough"--Isabel leaped in--"because it didn't break. He started screaming and then . . . he started blowing a whistle!" Isabel cracked up at the ridiculousness of this attempt to get help, her eyes welling with tears. "I was like, 'Man, make him eat it. Make him eat that whistle.'" I thought about friends on the Upper West Side who wear whistles on key chains or around their necks.

Though minutes earlier the girls insisted they formed NFL only to protect themselves, they now gave in to adolescent swaggering, seeing themselves as urban bandits.

"If I see you coming down the street and I think you have money, I'll rob you," Tiny told me in lurching rapid-fire speech. "Out here we only go for Chinese or white people. They got money. I won't rob her"--she pointed to an elderly woman outside--"because she's old." The others nodded, silently agreeing with this moral code. "But I'll rob her"--Tiny poked Happy--"as fast as I'll rob you. It don't matter. We do it for fun. Sometimes to get high or to buy something to drink. If we go out dancing, we catch a herb first. We can have money in our pockets and we'll still do it."

"Do you ever feel sorry for any of the people you rob?" I asked.

Tiny looked puzzled. "No. Because . . . no."

This cavalier disdain for physical injury--their own as well as others'--was one of the hardest things for me to understand about gang girls. But acceptance of pain is a key to the terror they hold over their enemies. Tiny, a child with the energy of a small hydroelectric plant, had a huge advantage over the average middle-class citizen, who hasn't been in a fistfight since adolescence. Beaten by her mother, boyfriends, and other girls, Tiny would risk injury for a wallet or for fun with barely a thought.

Their explanation of the brutality in their lives possessed an eerie quality of inevitability. "Two years ago they shot my brother," Carmen revealed. "He was a big-time drug dealer. He was in his car on 16th Street and they rolled up behind him. They just went bang, bang--six times in the head. That's when I got really violent."

As Carmen spoke, Tiny and Happy, who'd already heard this story, talked about Tiny's new boyfriend. But Isabel listened avidly to everything Carmen said, as if the two of them were in on the same secret. "They killed my boyfriend last December," Isabel now said solemnly. "We know it had to be more than one person, 'cause Steve would shoot you as much as look at you." For a brief moment, Isabel seemed to turn inward, staring at something only she could see. "But he never hurt me. His mother used to beat him, but he felt women shouldn't get hit. I guess because she used to get hit by his father."

Carmen leaned forward. "That's what I'm saying. My brother was very violent. You didn't have the money you owed, he'd put a knife in you and turn it both ways. He had no heart for anyone but his family. It was his business not to care."

I asked whether Carmen used drugs since her brother died. "You'd think I wouldn't, but I have. My family was all into drugs. When my mother used to get high on cocaine, little things would set her off. If I left dishes in the sink, she'd grab me and pound my brains out against it. She'd get so wild I thought she'd go overboard and kill me. You learn not to walk into your parents' scene when they're in there over the mirror. Or when your stepfather's shooting up in the bedroom."

Isabel shook her head. "They think because you're small you don't see. But you do."

Tiny jerked back into the conversation. "It's like the anger will kill you! Today I had a fight with my boyfriend and I pulled a knife on him. He tried to grab it and I sliced his hand. It doesn't matter when you have anger."

"We have gone crazy." Carmen looked down at her cigarette. There was a long, uncomfortable quiet. She crushed out the butt--she had smoked it all the way down to the filter--and toyed with the ashtray. When she glanced up, I gently asked her about their futures. To my surprise, they all eagerly contemplated the possibilities. When Carmen graduated--she was six months behind at a high school for business training--she hoped to study marketing at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Isabel, the girl who hit strangers with beer bottles, planned to be a nurse; she'd already enrolled at a junior college. Happy, only fifteen, intended to finish high school. Tiny thought she'd eventually study sociology or psychology. She went on to explain, "The violence, the robbing, all of this will stop when I find out I'm pregnant. Then I'll have something to live for. Right now it's just me and I'm taking care of myself. If I have a baby--" Tiny halted. Two men sneered through the window of the Burger King. "See what I mean? It never stops."

Their faces concealed behind dark glasses and hooded sweatshirts, the men swaggered toward the restaurant's entrance. The skinny redheaded girl who had taunted us earlier reappeared to join the men, along with another girl. Tiny spotted the redhead, yelling at Carmen, "Look! Man, you never listen to me!" The four entered together. The two girls hopped into a booth, but the men hovered around our table. Carmen and the others steadied themselves.

Finally Tiny addressed the intruders. "With all due respect, can you guys go?"

One of the men turned to his friend. "That scar-faced girl is cross-eyed."

Tiny heard him and hollered, "Crackhead-looking bum! Fucking faggot!"

The man leaned so close over the table that I caught the glimmer of a gold tooth in the back of his mouth. "I'll go home," he whispered, "get my gun, and when I come back, I'll blow you away."

The men returned to the redhead and her friend, who stared hard at our table. No one in Burger King noticed the exchange or at least no one was foolhardy enough to let on.

Happy and Isabel shifted nervously. Carmen slid over and put her arm around Tiny, but the girl drew away, gazing across the room in challenge. Through clenched teeth Isabel said, "Let's do something before it's done to us." She slumped lower in her seat. Not much, but noticeably. She asked Happy for a razor. I knew then they were not kidding.

Panic swelled in my own gut. I was worried about my bag, containing all my tapes and notes. I glanced out the window for a cab, but the streets were empty.

"Go on with your questions," Tiny ordered, not taking her eyes off the corner. I asked how having kids would change her life, startled by the strain I heard in my own voice. Would she move out of the neighborhood?

"No, I'd just ignore everybody. You roll your eyes at me, I'll keep walking. I won't fight over that because I have my child . . ." She noticed the girls at the other booth standing up. "Fuck you, too!"

Carmen started removing her rings, anticipating a brawl. "These are coming off. My mother's gold, know what I'm saying?"

I kept talking, believing if I acted as though nothing were happening, perhaps nothing would. I asked Tiny if she thought she would one day learn to ignore provocation, why not begin now?

"'Cause we have nothing to live for, nothing to lose. When I'm with them"--she gestured to her friends--"I'm rowdy. But when I'm with my boyfriend, 'cause he has two sons, I'm calm." This was the same boyfriend she'd pulled a knife on earlier that day. "His sons come first. But right now I am going to ignore that table for your sake, 'cause if we fight, you will get hurt."

I suggested we leave. The girls said nothing, but Carmen seemed dour at this loss of face. Outside they kept checking to see whether the men were following. I wondered if I could drop them off anywhere. "Where we supposed to go?" Isabel asked before answering her own question. "Nowhere." Then I was in a cab, headed uptown, saved by a pack of teenagers. I turned to look back at them, but already they had vanished into the anonymous landscape of Delancey Street.
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Excerpted from 8 Ball Chicks by Gini Sikes. Copyright © 1998 by Gini Sikes. Excerpted by permission of Doubleday, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.