The Gents

Stunned silence is not a term generally used to describe the aura inside of a soccer mom minivan driven by a social worker, seats filled with 8 teenage boys (Lyle on middle row floor, Steven in the way way back), arriving at the Boston Garden to watch the Celtics take on the Denver Nuggets. But the term perfectly describes what descended upon the Honda Odyssey after Miguel’s shocking utterance.

“Yo, what city is this in?” he asked with the same genuinely inquisitive tone I might have used to ask “who’s the point guard for Denver?”

The stunned silence lasted about three full seconds, a long time when you think about it. Seven other Gents, and Miguel too actually, and one social worker, sat quietly and considered the question. I remember looking up during those three seconds, as we pulled into the underground parking garage, and seeing a massive green and yellow neon sign on the side of the arena: “BOSTON GARDEN.” To say that Miguel got roasted for a prolonged stretch starting with the fourth second would be a massive understatement.

“Look at the sign bro! BOSTON Garden fool! BOSTON! What the fuck city you think this is — New York?”

Tyrone, not surprisingly the first to speak, addressed the friend he basically considered a brother. He pretty adequately expressed what everyone in the van was thinking. Miguel, who knew the moment the question had left his lips that he had committed an epic blunder, tried some damage control.

“No chill, chill, I meant like where is this? Like what hood, where in the city is-”

But it was too late. Way too late.

“Yo gents, what city are the Denver Nuggets from?” “How fucking dumb are you bro?” What kind of car is this Honda Odyssey?” “Miguel, you need help my man.”

The first rule of The Gents is that you get roasted pretty much every time you open your mouth. The second rule of The Gents is that you get roasted pretty much every time you open your mouth. Even when making a valid point about why Chance can rap circles around Lil Uzi Vert. And Miguel, with his penchant for malapropisms, was on the receiving end of most of the verbal abuse. Like the time I brought in a buddy who plays professional poker to teach The Gents the vital life skill of Texas Hold ’Em. After an hour of lessons and open play, we were ready for our first live hand. I’d wager that this will go down in history as the worst hand of poker ever played. Insane bets, inappropriate folds, ludicrous trash talk, and blatant cheating all culminated with Miguel being the last to reveal his cards. With a boastful shit-eating grin he aggressively slapped down his hand on the table. Antoine was showing a straight, Cedric two pair, and Reggie a full house.

“Gimme those chips bitches! They’re mine! All mine.”

Again with the stunned silence. He had a pair of 3’s. I loved watching his wonderfully expressive and soulful face through all the phases of the process: realization he just said something dumb — eyes get slightly bigger and rounder, lips close at lightning speed, head swivels as if suddenly interested in the time or the gum stuck to the table. First wave of abuse — eyes narrow, lips purse, shaking his head just perceptibly. Second wave of abuse — nostrils flare, deep exhale, brow furrows. Then finally, just as I ready myself to jump out of my seat to break up a potential brawl, the smile. The shiny white teeth appearing and restoring tranquility and brotherhood.

“My b.”

The moments of levity, which seemed to materialize with roughly the same frequency as our breathing, were interspersed with occasional flashpoints of deeper connection. Each of the eight boys was a Gent for a reason. Yes, I had handpicked the members and they in fact had known each other for years, some having even been kindergarten classmates. But there were other unifying threads that uniquely qualified them to be in the group. Most of the boys did not live with their fathers or even have a relationship with them that could be called meaningful. Most of them lived in public housing and subsisted on a single income from their mothers that fell woefully short of meeting all but their most basic needs. Most had a long history of struggling mightily in school. All were on IEPs and had been placed in special education classes for years. As if these challenging circumstances weren’t enough of a burden, the Gents had also experienced more than their share of additional hardship.

Tyrone’s father had passed away a year ago, after suffering the progressively horrific ravages of end-stage diabetes. He came dangerously close to losing his mother the next year when she suffered a serious health issue and ended up in the ICU at Mass General, where she worked as an orderly. Cedric’s family had been evicted from public housing for non-payment of rent. His well-meaning but overwhelmed and under-resourced mother unable to navigate the systems that could and should have made this scarring outcome preventable. Homeless by anyone’s definition, he and his family spent years bouncing around several living arrangements. Reggie’s challenge was more outwardly apparent — a complication at birth, he was a twin — had impacted his development. He used crutches. His mobility and cognition compromised from his earliest moments. He emigrated from Haiti at 12. Reggie struggled socially, feeling isolated and trapped within his grindingly limiting routine of home, school, home. Transport by van. Video games and tv playing an increasingly outsized role during his out of school hours. This year he had faced the additional burden of his twin sister battling a crippling depression which resulted in multiple long-term hospitalizations.

Of course, in my one-on-one talks with the boys, and less often in group settings, the age-old insecurities, angst-producers, and emotional albatrosses of adolescence poked their heads out from under the armor of testosterone-coated machismo. Two of the boys teetered on the brink of obesity. A soccer coach’s cruel comment to Antoine after he finished last in wind sprints. Or my own blunder of ordering 2x not 3x t-shirts with the Gents logo for Big Eddie laid bare their pain and disappointment with their bodies changing in a direction they didn’t want to accept. In incremental steps, Steven, a handsome, popular, and gregarious middle child with 6 “S” named siblings, began to disclose the anxiety that lay at the root of the negative student behaviors which to that point led many to read him as willfully intransigent, apathetic, and lazy.

The school year flew by, as it does, and the Gents all sensed that their high school careers wouldn’t be the only things ending in May. Our biweekly meeting schedule had been routine for months, but the frequency with which I received off-week texts — “we meeting tonight?”, “yo, when’s our next meeting,”- revealed their mixed feelings about the group’s inevitable parting. I knew it would be important for the Gents to have some sort of culminating element to the journey we had been on together. I had pitched the idea of an overnight camping adventure on the Harbor Islands. I brought my own children there every year and cherished the memories of our weekend adventures exploring our own idyllic urban island. Let’s just say the Gents were more into CVS than REI, the idea was hastily shot down. In fact, they had been scheming and caucusing without me.

“Chicago! We’re going to Chicago.”

My brother Theo had planted this seed during a special Gents dinner over Christmas break. Apparently, it had germinated.

As I emailed and texted with Theo’s assistant to plan the trip’s logistics, I couldn’t help but think back. At our second meeting I asked the original seven if they would consider adding a final 8th Gent. Reggie needed the group, and I think the group needed him. They didn’t hesitate.

“Reggie’s our boy, he’s in.”

A first icebreaker to get them talking. Over Chinese food, I asked them to tell me their middle names and the meaning behind them. Steven nervously chuckled, fidgeted in his seat, avoided eye contact. After much coaxing, he spoke.

“Alright, check this, it’s Native American, it’s kinda hard to pronounce, it’s like, another language.”

He then proceeded to enunciate his middle name. The other Gents and I thought he was choking on a boneless spare rib. We’d never laughed so hard. When I revealed my middle name — “Philip, he was my grandfather but I never got to meet him….” — Miguel raised both of his arms triumphantly over his head and let out a whoop like he had just sunk a buzzer beater.

“That’s my middle name too!”

There were things I only found out later, like that when Lyle drove half of the Gents to our dinner at a Brighton steakhouse, he possessed neither a license nor a permit. Or that CVS’s in Chicago sell beer, and they remain open past the hour when social workers are asleep in their hotel rooms.

Cut to the tarmac at Logan. Miraculously, we are all on board. I had assigned four different Gents the task of waking up Steven on time. But it was yours truly who had accidentally thrown away his boarding pass with his Dunkin Donuts cup after clearing security. For many of the Gents, this would be their first ever flight. Tyrone, one seat behind me, kept squeezing my shoulder (really hard) and repeating, “Yo, I’m shook! I’m shook!” The truth was that I was shook too. Almost shaking with a feeling that had percolated all year but was now bubbling up and over my surface. It was love. Love for these eight young men individually and collectively. The engines started to rev, the plane moved forward, we were ready for takeoff.