I skipped lunch and drove my white 1989 Ford Tempo to Best Buy to purchase Biggie’s new double CD, Life After Death, the day of its release. I had money in my pocket from waiting tables at Baker’s Square, but it was supplemented with extra cash from my 18th birthday, five days before. I had spent most of my birthday money on my first tattoo, my childhood nickname – BINKY – in Olde English script, but I had intentionally saved enough dough in anticipation of this album. This was an essential purchase, barely two weeks after the assassination of The Notorious B.I.G., and it was important to me that I was the first of my friends to hold this album in my hands. My Tempo had a tape deck, but I’d previously purchased a cassette adapter, which allowed me to play CDs through my discman, so the moment I got back to my car, I used my car key to slice open the plastic that encased Life After Death and popped in disc one. I cranked my tinny factory stereo as loud as it would go without distorting into inaudible static and drove back to school with my windows rolled down.
I was a senior in high school, so I was permitted to park my car in the school parking lot, and as I turned in to park near the end of the lot, I skipped the CD back to track 3. A group of students smoking cigarettes just off school grounds recognized the beat of “Hypnotize,” the biggest radio single off the album, and bobbed their heads in recognition. My friend Leshaun, who didn’t smoke or drink but still spent a lot of time socializing with the burnouts, ran from the pack of stoners to catch up with me. He wanted, needed, demanded to hear “Notorious Thugs,” Biggie’s track with Bone Thugs-n-Harmony, who were easily the favorite rap group in our part of Wisconsin. I hadn’t yet made it through disc 1, and I hated to listen out of order, but I gave in to Leshaun’s request. I ejected disc 1, replaced it with disc 2, and pressed play. The opening piano track of “Notorious Thugs,” with the looping refrain of “It’s Bone and Biggie, Biggie, it’s Bone and Biggie, Biggie,” began, and we immediately knew we were listening to something very special. We listened to “Notorious Thugs” at least three times on repeat, gaining additional listeners by the minute, but eventually resigned to the fact that we had to return to class, or at least Leshaun and I did, while the stoners retreated to their hazy smoke circle on the outskirts of the parking lot.
After school let out, my guy Chris and I made our way to the Tempo, and immediately picked up where Leshaun and I left off, making our way, track by track, through Life After Death, as we rode to Chris’s house. I hadn’t planned on staying at Chris’s house for long, since it was a school night, but it was Tuesday, and our circle often referred to Tuesdays as “40 Night,” being that Tuesday was also Ladies’ Night at a local bar Chris’s mom frequented, which allowed us to partake in underage binge drinking, unsupervised, until his mom returned from the bar properly soused, too intoxicated to notice or care about her son’s inebriated friends. So as soon as Chris’s mom left for the bar, “40 Night” began with a couple shots of Chris’s dad’s Erk & Jerk and a joint of ditchweed. The 40s wouldn’t arrive until Pooty, who was 19 years old going on 35, scored us a carryout, so until then we occupied ourselves playing Turok: Dinosaur Hunter on the N64 and ribbing Chris’s little brother Matt, who was only in eighth grade but already smoked weed and drank beer, whereas I hadn’t started partaking until I began hanging out with Chris, less than two years before.
It was getting close to 7 o’clock by the time Pooty arrived, along with Eric, a recent addition to our crew, with a grocery bag full of ice cold 40s, and it was getting close to that time of the night when I would usually drive back to my grandparents’ house (where I lived after my mom’s divorce), to eat dinner and do my homework, but we had dipped back into Chris’s dad’s brandy a couple more times, and the 40s were looking extra frosty, so I decided to call home to ask if I could spend the night with Chris. I called my grandparents from the phone in Chris’s parents’ bedroom, a safe distance from the revelry in Chris’s living room. My grandparents didn’t like me sleeping at someone else’s home on a school night, but I didn’t ask often, so just like that, I was freed from driving home and joyfully twisted the cap off a 40 of St. Ides.
Chris and Eric chugged their 40s like they were in a drag race while I casually enjoyed mine – I still wasn’t much of a beer drinker – and Pooty refrained from drinking altogether. Matt, Chris’s little brother, wanted a 40 of his own, but he had to make due with a little malt liquor poured into a plastic cup, which I doled out from my bottle. At first, we sat around the living room, drinking and talking shit. We made fun of each other’s most obvious flaws. I, for instance, talked a little too pretty and never failed to say “please” and “thank you,” and was therefore deemed the “polite gangster.” When that got old, we listened to Chris’s parents’ stereo and teased Ginger, his coddled toy poodle. But as the alcohol got into our blood, we craved external stimulation, and Eric suggested we hit up a party out in the boondocks where one of his classmates from the local technical college lived. Once I knew that I was done driving for the night, I had begun to drink and smoke without concern for getting behind the wheel of a car again, but Pooty was stone cold sober, and so he offered to drive. He was low on gas though, an excuse I was all too familiar with, so he asked if he could drive my Tempo, and I reluctantly accepted. As soon as we finished packing up our 40s, and taking our open bottles along for the ride, we were headed to the cornfields, our commute narrated by The Notorious B.I.G.
We kept our bottles low in our laps while we drove through the city, but as soon as we crossed into farmland, we began drinking with open abandon, and carelessly tossed the empties out the window. I couldn’t say how long, exactly, it took to drive from Chris’s house to the party, but it was long enough for Chris and Eric to each finish their 40s and crack a fresh one, long enough to finish disc 2 of Life After Death and start up disc 1. I’ll admit I was more than a little nervous, allowing Pooty to drive my car so far out into the country. Part of me wished that someone (anyone but me) would decide we had driven far enough with no sign of a party, and that we’d just turn back around and return to the familiar comfort of Chris’s house, but just as I was working up the nerve to say fuck it, let’s turn around, Eric recognized his classmate’s house, which was surrounded by parked vehicles.
It looked like there were more trucks than cars, beat up, mud crusted pickups and jeeps, even a few ATVs, and the music that came from the party was Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places,” and my stomach sank with the realization that we were headed into a bonafide redneck party. Nobody else seemed to notice or care, or at least they didn’t say anything about it, so I kept my mouth shut, took a pull from my lukewarm 40, and followed Eric into his classmate’s house.
I was relieved when Eric was almost immediately recognized by his classmate, Rudy, and they warmly shook hands and pulled in for a quick hug. Eric knew a few other faces in the party, other classmates or friends or friends of friends, mostly HVAC or criminal justice students (aka future cops and mall security guards) but I couldn’t help notice the stares coming from many of the other partygoers. They were all rural and white, and predominantly dudes. Chris was white, too, and so was I, although I was often mistaken for Native American or Puerto Rican or Lebanese or just something other than Caucasian, and hence often welcomed as such, but Eric and Pooty were the only two black men in an overwhelmingly white party. Someone near the stereo switched the Garth Brooks to Snoop Doggy Dogg’s Doggystyle album, a move we’d encountered on numerous occasions, and Pooty laughed about them changing the music for the black people in the room. Whether it was meant as an olive branch, a microaggression, or frankly both, we all agreed the timing was impeccable. Pooty urged me to go get the new Biggie Smalls CD, to replace the one and only rap album in the party, and I took a short but welcome reprieve from the crowded party. A part of me–hell, more like all of me–wanted to remain in my Ford Tempo, where I could recline, alone in the dark, comfortably buzzed, while my friends hooted it up with the honkys, but I was still really getting to know Chris, Pooty, and Eric, and they me, so I was concerned with whether they felt that I belonged, and hence I left the comfort of my car.
When I returned, minutes later, Chris was laughing maniacally and pounding his chest, the thud of his fist against his dense pectoral audible over Snoop’s “Lodi Dodi,” while Eric, Pooty, and Rudy downed shots of Dr. McGillicuddy’s. After they slammed their empty shot glasses onto the kitchen table, I held up my copy of Life After Death, and Rudy practically squealed with joy. He snatched it without asking, gave me the type of hug reserved for lifelong friends, and bolted to the stereo, where he ejected Doggystyle, and pressed play on the first track of disc 2, “Notorious Thugs.” Even the rednecks loved Bone and Biggie.
Chris continued to pound his chest, only to switch to pounding on the kitchen counter, and the stacks of dirty dishes and empty beer cans jumped and rattled with each strike of his fist. This was something I’d seen him do at more than a few parties, or anytime he was drunk among groups of strangers, but the other party goers were obviously unnerved by his aggressive behavior.
“Dude, chill out!” a random male voice shouted from the crowd, and Chris broke into a string of “Fuck you!”s. The chest and counter poundings intensified. Eric took notice of Chris’s increasingly erratic temperament and lead him outside with the promise of a joint, and once he was out of sight of the party, the tension noticeably broke. I overheard a couple muffled threats of a fight and was thankful Chris wasn’t there to respond. I already loved Chris like a brother. Hell, I loved Chris more than my actual brother, and would blindly back him up if needed, but I seriously doubted our chances in a twenty-on-four-brawl.
The party swung back into gear, with Pooty spitting game to a blonde coed, Rudy engaged in a heated game of quarters, and me lounging in a corner near the stereo, laughing and bouncing along to “Ten Crack Commandments,” but without warning, the party emptied out of the house with the type of fervor that could only mean one thing-a fucking fight.
As I followed the party out into the front lawn, I immediately noticed two things: Eric doubled over in laughter, and Chris, blood running down his right eye, triumphantly beating his chest like a silverback gorilla. At first, I didn’t even notice the dude laid out in the grass, snoring on his back, until I broke free of the crowd, which kept a safe distance from Chris, who lobbed challenges and insults to any and all males in view. My first assumption was that Chris was bleeding as a result of the guy in the mud, but it turned out that the sorry bastard hadn’t even gotten a single lick in. He was just some random partygoer who had seen, or more likely smelled, what Eric and Chris were smoking, asked for a hit, got denied, talked a little shit, and got knocked out cold before he had the chance to walk away. Chris was bleeding because after he put the guy to sleep, he slipped in some residual early spring snow, and cut his face on a rock or chunk of ice, hence Eric’s laughter.
Pooty reluctantly left the side of the girl he was chatting up, and joined Chris, Eric, and I on the front lawn, in front of the party. He was never one to start a fight, but if he was in the mix of one, he would throw down with the rest of us, and we would often talk and laugh about the few times we were granted the privilege of seeing him perform cinematic flying kicks and punches, like he was performing for a camera, rather than fending off a real-life attack. The four of us stood in a loose line, waiting for the fight to come to us, but everyone just wanted us to go.
“Get the fuck outta here!” one of Rudy’s housemates implored, but we didn’t move. Chris responded by telling him to go fuck himself, and begged him to step out into the yard, but both sides were at a stalemate. I knew that if the party decided to make their move and rush us, we wouldn’t stand a chance, but they refused to step forward. They yelled at us to leave, and a few brave souls aimed their verbal barbs at Chris, for being the one who brought the shindig to an end, but no one dared take one step closer. And then Rudy stepped forward. But instead of coming out to fight, he walked to his car, popped the trunk, and removed a shotgun.
“Sorry guys, but you gotta go,” Rudy said. He wasn’t aiming the shotgun at us, but his intentions were clear. I don’t know what possessed me, but I felt inspired to call his bluff. I knew that when it came to an actual fistfight, I’d likely be the first of my friends to go down, but something about the thought of squaring up against a gun lit a fire under my ass. This was my chance to really prove to Chris that I belonged. Without thinking, I lobbed my empty 40 at Rudy. It flew clear of him by several feet, but he still feinted like it was headed right at him.
When he regained his composure, Rudy racked his shotgun, and Pooty dragged me back to my car. I’d momentarily forgotten that he was the one who drove us to the party, and I was relieved when he hopped into the driver’s seat without being asked. He may have had a shot or two of Dr. McGillicuddy’s, but he was the closest thing to a designated driver we had.
“He pulled a fucking gun on us!” I said in disbelief, stating the obvious, my idiotic actions finally starting to sink in. I didn’t know if Chris, or anyone besides Rudy, saw me throw the bottle, but it was enough to make me feel like I had proven my devotion that night.
“Aw, he’s not that bad,” Eric replied from the backseat, and I remembered that he’d have to see Rudy in class for the rest of the semester.
Chris had finally stopped pounding on his chest, and instead was holding a fistful of melting snow against his bloodied eye.
“Are you sure you can’t drive?” Pooty asked me. “I’m sorta fucked up.” And with that, he stopped the car in the middle of the road, opened the door, leaned out to vomit, and then proceeded to keep driving.
We were more than halfway back to Chris’ before I realized I’d left my brand-new copy of Life After Death at Rudy’s party, and there was no chance in hell we were going back to retrieve it.