By: Troy David, Contributing Writer
On October 31, 1984, Halloween Night at 7:00 pm, gunshots rained on the streets of the middle-class neighborhood of Mount Airy in Philadelphia, PA. I was just 17 years old at the time. My mom worked as an Executive Secretary and my dad drove a truck. I had recently taken pictures for my high school graduation and yearbook. Christine, my sister, and I liked school. I was on the school track team. Outside of school, I held a part-time job at a Chinese restaurant. Up to that point, people viewed me as industrious and responsible, a model citizen destined for a bright future.
But people, including my loving family, could not view the hidden issues that plagued me.
I was a dorky boy. And as with many adolescents today, I was plagued with what I call “subtle low self-esteem” and social anxiety, which damages self-confidence. It was a time of status passage: a formative stage of social identity. I was figuring out ways of being. It’s a period of flux for young boys that is so subtle most parents rarely recognize it in their kids until something drastic happens, such as a suspension from school involving drugs, a charge of bullying, or worse, and arrest for some violent criminal activity. And bewildered parents exclaim, “How did my son get involved in that? “How could he do that?” I didn’t raise him that way!”
Such was the voice of my mother.
As my parents’ control over me waned, I underwent a social shuffling process that would affirm, test, and even undermine much of the socialization I received at home.
Many of the young men in my neighborhood were hard-core, entrenched – “cool guys”. They were mostly 18 to 21-year olds who didn’t have the conservative and religious background that my family represented. They didn’t have to go to church once or twice a week, nor be in the house at 6 or 7 p.m. in the evenings. They weren’t required to have their homework completed before going outside. I was.
But whenever I did have time to hangout with them, I felt out of place. They didn’t talk about church, school or sports. They talked about who was the toughest; who could fight the best; who was at the party last night; who got the most girls. And most of all they bragged about who had the most “bread” (money) from getting a “vic” (victim). Often, they would sarcastically ask, “How long are you going to hang out with us, Troy? We know you have to go to church, or go in the house early.”
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I would respond, “I can hang out.” Although, I really couldn’t. But I was going to find a way to fit in. I was going to become “cool” and “thorough.” Moreover, I wasn’t even “adept” yet – with the street lingo to communicate with them. I wasn’t tough (a fighter), as they all were. So I joined a boxing gym. I even started sneaking outside to hang out with them when I was supposed to be at home.
I thought I needed to show them that I could be like them. Proving myself to them required that I “get money” (rob someone). And although I knew robbing was wrong, my compunction departed in the face of an overwhelming desire to fit in. I wasn’t thinking about right or wrong. I only wanted to emulate the old-heads, to earn their respect.
One might ask, “Why wouldn’t a young man emulate his father if he’s present, as mine was?” I did emulate my father in work ethic. I found jobs and worked hard. But in other areas of a child’s life – emotional mindset, social environments where kids congregate (i.e., parks, malls, schools), the dominant influences are sophisticated old-heads. They are fastened to everyday teenage thinking, norms and styles most important to teens. Important things, such as popularity and respect, present a young man with a favorable image among his peers. Unfortunately, many good parents tend to be detached, and unaware of the need young men have for these things, as my parent were.
Consider this: According to the United States Supreme Court, in their ruling in Miller V. Alabama, which forbade a sentencing scheme for juveniles mandating life without the possibility of parole:
Youth is more than a chronological fact. It is a time of immaturity, irresponsibility, impetuousness, and recklessness. It is a moment and condition of life when a person may be most susceptible to influence and to psychological damage. It’s “signature qualities” are all “transient”. . .[along with the] failure to appreciate risks and consequences.
Youth may not be able to extricate themselves from situations no-matter how brutal or dysfunctional, including peer pressures. They are more vulnerable, to negative influences and outside pressures, including their families and peers; they have limited control over their own environment and lack the ability to extricate themselves from horrific, crime-producing settings. And because a child’s character is not as “well formed” as adults, his traits are “less fixed.”
Thus, hard-core “cool guys” or old-heads (as in my case), manipulate the neediness and impetuosity of juveniles. They encourage them to do wrong. And although this in no way justifies bad behavior, it does show how youth are susceptible to villainous individuals not unlike the ones I met who represent negative socialization: drug dealing, robberies, other violence.
Moreover, they use neighborhood schools as staging grounds to campaign for respect. On display are their status symbols indicating one’s social standing: expensive clothes ($150.00 Michael Jordan Tennis Shoes), jewelry, and new cars. These things bestow a certain amount of twisted self-esteem and respect. Young men wearing Timberland Boots, for example, with their pants below the waist, reflect bravado, gangsterism, and cockiness. They are individuals whom fragile and unassuming young people, as I was, think are cool.
Consequently, many young people are lured into the clutches of entrenched young men – dedicated to the counterculture of criminality. They serve as a mediating influence under which young people such as myself had to rearrange personal orientations in order to be accepted by them. And this is what I did.
Thirty-one years ago, Halloween Night, my mother said to me, “You can go outside, but stay seated on the front steps of the home.”
“Okay, Mom.” I replied. But after I sat on the steps for about 15 minutes, a car drove up. Three older guys (old-heads) were in the car, who were known in the neighborhood as being cool and good fist-fighters. I, smothered in subtle low self-esteem/social anxiety, thought if I was seen with them, people would think I could fight too. People would respect me. Girls would like me, and I would become one of the cool and thorough guys.
“Yo, Troy!” one of the old-heads called from the car. “Come on, get in! We’re going to go looking for girls.” I didn’t want to tell them I had to stay on the steps – that wouldn’t be cool. And I didn’t want them to laugh at me.
I looked back at my mother’s bedroom window to see if she was looking. She wasn’t.
I got in the car with the old-heads. I was nervous, mostly because I was afraid if my mother found out I wasn’t where I was supposed to be, I would be chastised. The longer I was in the car, the more I began to feel a bit of deluded courage and audacity, no doubt from the energy stemming from the old-heads, which slowly removed the uneasiness I originally felt when entering the car.
After driving around for 25 minutes, J.C. (the driver) said to Lamont, the old-head I knew the best, “Get your young buck to do it.” He was referring to “get money.”
Lamont looked at me and said, “You wanta do it?”
He said, “Get money.”
I said, “No, I’m cool,” as the uneasiness for doing wrong returned to me.
The old-heads said, “Come on, Troy! “You scared?”
“No, I ain’t scared.” I replied. For ten minutes they pressed me, and I finally said I’ll do it.
Although I said I wasn’t scared, I was scared. Moreover, I was scared of being seen as a punk or coward, as they would have no doubt labeled me if I did not capitulate. Thus the uneasiness of what I was about to do once again departed. I wasn’t thinking about consequences for what may or may not happen. I was in flux.
J.C. said to me, “When we pull up at Vernon Road, there’s a store across the street, a Korean man (store-owner) will come out with a brown bag under his arm — with money in it.” Here, he said, “You’ll need this.” Reaching under his seat, handing me a gun. “Put it to his side.” I didn’t know whether the gun had bullets or not, and never checked to see. The gun, I thought, must be to scare the owner into giving up the money. Up to that point, I never held or even seen a gun, except for on TV. Once again, uneasiness and fear returned.
I was really scared, and wished there was some way of backing out of what I had just agreed to do. But as absurd as this sounds, I wanted the old-heads’ respect.
This night seemed darker than others, as the owner and two employees exited the store. I walked up behind the owner and put the gun to his side. “Give me the money.” I said. The “brown bag” was tucked under his arm, and he slightly resisted letting go of it. I tugged at it, and pressed the gun into his side. He released the bag. As I turned around to run away, I noticed out of the corner of my eye, the owner pulling out his gun. Turning instantly, without thought, I fired several shots into the ground to keep him from shooting me.
I took off running up the street, and the owner pursued me – shooting. He was closing in quickly. And without stopping, with the flick of the wrist, as if I was in a relay race reaching back for a baton, I fired the gun in the air towards the owner, hoping to hold him off. Finally, after running, dodging and ducking into drive-ways, I lost him – and the money.
“Thank God,” I thought. I’m alive, and l‘m home.”
Once in the house, I headed towards the basement where I knew no one would be. I vomited and was sweating profusely. After catching my breath and cleaning myself up, I went back outside to get some air.
Forty-five minutes had passed since the incident. And the old-heads showed up asking, “Where’s the money?”
“I lost it when I was running,” I replied.
“Give me the gun,” J.C. said. “You know someone got killed.”
I thought he was joking. I didn’t believe it. How could this be? I had fired the gun only into the ground and in the air, while I was running away.
As time passed into the night, I heard chatter from neighbors and news reports that someone had suffered a gun shot wound to the chest – walking home from work. The victim’s lungs collapsed; he drowned from excess blood in his lungs. I can’t describe the fear I felt.
The next day, I had to go to school. I was riding on the bus, the kids were looking at me in disbelief; it was apparent they knew I was involved in the robbery.
Later that day, I learned from friends that the old-heads had been picked up and questioned by police the night of the incident.
I wasn’t known for being involved in criminal activities, but the old-heads were. They told detectives where I lived and that I was the one who robbed the owner and killed someone.
A few days passed, and I thought maybe I wouldn’t get in trouble. How naive I was. On November 2nd 1984, twenty days before my eighteenth birthday, the police drove up in front of my house. Ironically I was sitting on the steps.
“Are you Troy David”, the officer asked. “Yes,” I replied.
“You’re under arrest for murder.”
I was transported to the police station and questioned. Detectives informed me that the old-heads told them everything that happened. The detectives said, “We don’t want you, we want those who gave you the gun.”
I didn’t believe the old-heads “ratted” me out. Foolishly, I held that belief for some time.
0nce I was in the notorious Philadelphia County Jail (Holmesburg Prison), I was offered a deal from the prosecutor (10-20 years) to testify against the old-heads. But I had already been threatened by other inmates that if I testified, I would be killed.
The judge, prosecutor, my attorney, and my parents pleaded with me to testify against the old-heads to save myself. But none of them knew what I was up against in Holmesburg Prison.
Eighteen months later, I was convicted of robbery and second degree murder. And sentenced to prison for life — without parole.
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