“If you are a junkyard dog, you assume that that’s what life is: chained up, barking all day.”
Syracuse, New York, 1959
The young dark-skinned boy pulls his threadbare blanket more tightly around his shoulders and waits until his eyes have adjusted to the ink blue night, then crouches down closer to the wire fence surrounding the junkyard. “Come on, boy,” he whispers to the massive German Shepherd who prowls restlessly around the perimeter on the other side of the fence. “Come here. See what I got for you?” The boy stands to his full eleven-year-old height and recklessly lifts one hand above the wire border that separates him from the giant beast on the other side. “I brought this just for you, Pal,” he encourages. “Come on; take it!” Carefully, he swings his laden hand back and forth, like a wagging tail, hoping the critter will grab the chunk of meat and leave his fingers behind.
But the beast won’t play. By now, after so many nightly trips to the wire boundary, he’s familiar with this boy’s scent. Sure, he may be a bit confused, even tempted by the boy’s daily visits,
he knows enough to resist eating out of a stranger’s hand, even when it’s only a young boy with a brave heart. He knows, too, that the enemy doesn’t always wear a uniform. Sometimes, he quietly stalks his prey, edging closer and closer until you can’t tell the difference between your own kind and those who don’t belong. The dog knows this, so he dutifully growls, plants his paws against the fence, then bares his jagged teeth and ferociously snaps at the air just above his outstretched front paws. Disappointed, the boy places the meat inside the shoebox that he stores it in, then whispers a good night to his canine friend and retreats back to his makeshift bed, a pile of threadbare blankets and a well-worn pillow. Eventually, he sleeps, confident that the guard dog has his back, even if he isn’t yet eating out of his hands.
On the way there, though, he doubts. “Those older boys must be right. I’m no better than a chained up junkyard dog!” the boy mutters to himself as he approaches his blanket and dejectedly pulls it over his head. It’s been weeks now. Weeks of camping out next to Dog’s fence line; weeks of stealing scrap meat from the butcher’s back alley; weeks of patient coaxing and ignored commands, and still, he hasn’t mustered the courage to cross over the thin line that divides them and take what by now, he believes is his.
After all, doesn’t he deserve a bit of safety and comfort in his sorry-assed life? Doesn’t he deserve some protection and loyalty? He may be a skinny southern boy who lost his home, his granddad, and later his pa, but that doesn’t mean he has to make his way all on his own, does it? Feeling self-righteously indignant, the boy sinks down onto his make-shift bed and falls asleep plotting his next move, confident, now, that it’s just a matter of time before he’s able to cross that line in the dirt holding him back from what should be his, given how hard he’s worked at getting it.
“Junkyard dog.” That’s what the gang of neighborhood kids call the aging beast, and that’s what he is. The old man who owns the junkyard that holds bits and pieces of scrap metal and car parts had brought the dog back with him from the war and had ensured him a life-long safe home in exchange for guard duty. Though Master and Servant can’t convey this pact to one another in words, each understands the contract they’ve agreed upon and each does his best to live up to the bargain. Both man and dog know well what survival takes and know that loyalty, too, has a price. That’s why the old cur relentlessly paces the periphery of his territory; protecting and serving, just like his master did, long ago. He’s got no time for young boys with big ideas. After everything he’s witnessed in his ten years on Earth, he’s satisfied to remain on his own side of the fence, just as long as no one messes with his small plot of dirt and the man who owns it.
Until the Boy. Himself a survivor of the Jim Crow fields of South Carolina, the Boy is used to scavenging for what he needs and skilled at acquiring what might secure his assumed role as family provider, even though he’s yet to reach his teens. He’d had to learn quickly, having been forced to move to this northern Rust Belt after the Klan took his granddad’s life, then drove his family out of their sleepy Carolina town and once arriving in Syracuse, N.Y, having witnessed his dad being forced out of their subsidized housing unit, and eventually, out of their lives. Though not yet a man, this boy has teeth. He, too, is a Junkyard Dog, mean, feral, and hungry. And above all, cunning. Both Dog and Boy are street smart; both are survivors; both are loyal to those who nurture them in return for their protection, and both want more. Both can smell what thrives just beyond the fence’s edge, on the other side, where darkness cloaks mystery and dreams are bountiful.
“I’m gonna get that dog,” Boy boasts to his best friend. “That dog is mean and he’s strong. I want him!”
“What’re you talkin’ about?” his friend replies. “That dog ain’t gonna trust no young boy like yourself! That dog has one owner and that’s old Al. He ain’t gonna leave that junkyard, no matter how much chump you take from the butcher’s trash can!”
“You just watch,” the boy promises. “I’m taming that dog. Soon, he’s gonna be mine. I’m not hurrying to get him. I’ve got time. I’ve got patience, and damn it all, I’m gonna get me that Big Fella and make him mine!”
So Boy continues his courtship, using all the charm and craftiness he possesses. Each night, he beds down on the opposite side of the fence, safe in the knowledge that his friend is just a few feet away, even if separated by wire netting and steel posts. Each night he brings a new gift, a fresh piece of bounty acquired through skillful “shopping” at the neighborhood markets. And each night, Big Fella comes closer and closer to the fence’s opening and sniffs at Boy’s fingers before barking and snapping, then turning his back on the boy and retiring to his own battered bed, a pile of old rags in the junkyard’s corner.
Spring becomes summer. The night air is stifling, and Boy no longer needs a cover to protect him from the dark chill. What the Boy does need, though, is Big Fella. He needs him like Timmy needs Lassie; like Rusty needs Rin Tin Tin. And so he continues his ritual. Boy approaches Dog; Dog sniffs; Dog growls: Dog bares his teeth; Dog barks and snaps at empty air, then lunges his head against the fence; Boy pulls his hand back, meat and fingers still untouched.
Until one night, one fine summer night, the air smells different to both of them. This time, Boy no longer backs away from the lunging and snarling; instead, he holds steady, even going so far as to cut up pieces of raw meat with his pocket knife. Next, he uses his fingers to stuff the meat through the wire’s diamond-shaped openings and allows his worthy contender to closely assess the chunk of raw beef he’d “borrowed” from Walkman’s Butcher Shop on State Street. And this time, Dog doesn’t snap at those fingers; instead, he inches closer, sniffs carefully, then gingerly removes the meat without taking any of the fingers that hold it.
And it’s enough for Boy, who sighs contentedly, then murmurs quietly to his buddy as he snuggles under his worn blankets and eventually succumbs to sleep. “Good boy, ‘Big Fella,’ he croons. “Yea, you’re a mighty fine dog, aren’t you? And I bet those sharp teeth and sturdy hind legs are not nearly as big as your heart. Nope. I bet that heart is the biggest one around these parts!” Smiling, he prides himself on borrowing this line from Rin Tin Tin’s young owner, Rusty, and falling asleep, he dreams of Big Fella leaning into his own bony hips while walking alongside him, just like Rin Tin Tin does with his human friend.
And Big Fella? Well, he nuzzles his nose against the fence one last time, for he too, senses a change; then, instead of retreating to his pile of rags, he sinks down into the rough dirt just beyond the fence, perches his head upon his front paws, and watches over Boy until he can hear the young one’s even breath sifting through the wire’s openings. Only then does he stumble a bit uncertainly over to his own makeshift bed to sleep and to dream of small brown fingers and outsized human hearts.
“Boy, you went and ruined this dog with your nightly visits, your soft talk, and your prime meat!” The old man has suspected for a while that something is up with his dog and decides to arrive early to the yard one day, right after sun-up. Now, hands on his hips, the owner stares down while his answer lies sleeping peacefully in front of him. Feeling both indignant and a fool, he stands over Boy’s makeshift bed, fuming and sputtering as he yanks the young interloper up by his armpits. “How in the hell did you get on this side of the fence? And what the hell do you think you’re doing sleeping right alongside my guard dog, like he’s just some pussy waiting for a lick of cream?”
Boy raises his head cautiously, feeling equally as indignant and just about as foolish. “Well, why do you leave him out here all alone every night, if you don’t want nobody messing with him?” he defiantly replies.
“Are you just dumb, Boy, or are you out of your mind! This here is a junkyard
dog! Do you know what a junkyard dog is supposed to do? He’s supposed to guard this here junkyard so people don’t take to climbing the fence like you did and helping themselves to loose parts! Now, you’ve gone and ruined him for me. If a skinny little kid like you can tame him, he’s of no use to me! And if a bony runt like you can climb that fence and get away with sleeping next to my guard dog, he’s not a guard dog anymore!”
“Go ahead, then,” he nudges the boy closer to the Dog who now is stationed between Boy and Man, ears pointed up, tail on alert, head swerving from one to the other, as though no longer sure who’s boss. “I said go ahead, now. Get along home, and take this worthless piece of shit with you! Just don’t let me see you anywhere near my yard again, unless you’ve got some spare change you’re looking to spend. Now get going!”
Boy doesn’t waste any time gathering up his belongings. He’s too afraid the Man will change his mind, so he rushes over to the perplexed pup and gives him the command they’ve been practicing, “Come on, now, Big Fella. I got somebody I want you to meet before we go home!” The dog looks ahead to where the boy now stands, right on the other unlocked gate, then glances behind him at the man who’s been his caretaker for many years, then listens to his owner sigh before nudging him forward.
“Go ahead, Dog. Go on. You’ve got a new owner now who must need you more than I do to have gone to so much trouble to make you his own. Go on. Get out!” With this, he pushes the dog from behind and nudges him through the gate. Boy’s eyes meet the man’s and something silent but solemn passes between them before the boy reaches down and pets Big Fella’s scruff, bending to give him a hug, then calling him to his side where the dog dutifully remains, un-caged and unleashed, as they amble down the street and turn the corner.
Attica State Prison, Attica, NY, 1971
“Junkyard dogs! That’s all we are to them!” the prisoner yells out to his peers who are gathered in the courtyard’s center. “Just a bunch of worthless animals who don’t deserve the bare basics that other humans possess!” The yard is boiling over now; seething with pent-up frustration; with rage that comes of constant deprivation; with futility that breeds chaos. Though far from the middle of Manhattan, a mob of prisoners rushes across the intersection they call “Times Square,” located at the point where Yards A, B, C and D converge, the tall stone walls and iron gates surrounding all four still within their peripheral vision.
It’s early September, but the dying season is already upon those gathered here. They’ve already acted on a fellow prisoner’s cries as one of the guards drags him through hallways on the other side of the wall, beating and kicking him for the minor offense of throwing a can of soup in protest of poor treatment. They’ve already freed the inmate so he could eat breakfast; they’ve suffered the retaliatory jeers and pummeling fists and clubs. And in an effort to act on a system built upon unjust practices, they’ve finally crossed the thin blue line separating law and order from anarchy. Now, in an effort to reassert their humanity, they rush through the broken gates and storm the square, demanding basic human rights like more than one roll of toilet paper and one bar a soap a month and more than the most meager of meals each day.
Rain pours down from the sky. Helicopters buzz and swirl overhead, their blades competing with the rain’s torrential outbursts. It’s September 13th. After four days of deaf ears, tired bodies, and tormented hearts, the battle is wavering, but there is no going back to the other side of the line, not while troopers and guards swarm the rooftops, armed with shotguns, machine guns, and rifles. And not while the makeshift army of prisoners blindfolds hostages and threatens to slit their throats if demands aren’t met. Now, even the relentless rain is no match for the canisters of tear gas plunging downward and exploding amid men’s feebly covered heads and bodies before releasing toxic fumes that choke and blind those being held captive by their own desperation and by the rule of law that ignores their humanity and denies them justice.
Seven minutes. Seven minutes is all it takes for the law to pick off twenty- nine prisoners and ten guards on this gruesome day. Seven minutes that lead to hours of torture: to prisoners being forced to lie face down in the mud and feces; prisoners who are dragged, sometimes on hands and knees if they cannot stand, across broken glass before being tossed into solitary cells. And here, behind these walls, for the price of being caught with property he doesn’t own, Boy becomes a Man.
He stares with disbelief as pieces of flesh and drops of blood cling to his clothes; he presses his lips together futilely as he’s forced to drive his face into the muck; he cries dry tears as he’s dragged through broken glass and battering fists. And later that night, locked in a 9 by 12” cell, he tries to close his eyes to the horrifying truth that when it comes to protecting what they believe is theirs, humans are not much different than the animals they claim as inferior, except when it comes to the very trait that supposedly distinguishes them, their ability to reason, ignored when they consciously choose to harm another man.
Boy has long suspected this, but now he knows it’s true, and for the first time in forever, he bows his head and prays. His eyes lift toward the dank ceiling above and he imagines Big Fella up there perched next to Someone who knows better than all of those he’d witnessed in the yard this day. Someone whose shoulders shake with silent sobs at what humans might have been, and what they have become. Someone who sadly shakes His head at Big Fella’s feeble attempts to reach beyond those rain clouds in the sky to the diamond fence below; Big Fella, whose spirit must be howling plaintively, unaware of his Boy’s fate, but knowing, somehow, that something inevitably tragic has occurred.
And on this same dismal day, Mama, too, wails pitifully, while seated beside Man’s childhood friend as his car carries them both up a long hilly road in Upstate New York. In the distance, they see gun smoke and fire; newscasters speak of rigid spines and missed opportunities; small helicopters hover above impenetrable walls and men die in the dirt, along with their world-weary companions, Mercy, Justice and Humanity. No words pass between driver and passenger, for as they approach the battlefield that lies ahead, their hope for Boy’s future sinks with the setting sun.
But not so, the Boy’s. No, on this day, Boy rises from the mud, reborn a Man. Then humbly and deliberately, he drops back onto to his knees, offers gratitude to a God he has long doubted; and scours the scorched earth, sifting through remnants of rock, bones and burned flesh in search of his soul.
Faith and Hope Community Center, Syracuse, N.Y., 2019
No longer a boy and well beyond having to prove he’s a man, the seventy-year- old co-founder of a boxing gym and community center dutifully plods across the frontal green space adjacent to both its small playground and its concrete basketball court. Withevery step, he pushes the manual mower in front of him at an even pace, only pausing once to look up at the scorching sun, before resignedly shaking his head and muttering, “Shoulda known better than to lend our gas mower to that guy up the street. He says someone stole it? I’d be surprised if he didn’t go and hock it for some quick cash!”
Tired, but determined to finish the job before the youngsters arrive for their boxing classes, he continues his steady path all the way to the far fence, then turns and begins the journey back. Baking in the sun on this hot day reminds him of other journeys, unsteady ones that had tossed him backward with such great force he doubted he’d ever find his way home.
Now, one steadfast wife, seven grown children and twenty-odd grandchildren later, he is more at home in this northern rust belt city than he’s ever been before. A respected community leader; a former Golden Glove contender; an ex-con with both prison yard and street cred; a tough, but fair- minded boxing coach; and to many, a local legend. Some would call him a sterling example of not only reformation, but transformation. More skeptical than most, he prefers to think of his narrow escape that day in Attica as unfathomable good fortune.
“I don’t believe in no spooks in the sky,” he tells a friend who’d just interrupted his mowing. “But I do believe in the “god” that lives in every one of us, the one that gives us choices,” he adds, even while he glances down at the mower whose effectiveness can only be determined by whoever directs its progress. To Arthur Bobby Harrison, divine goodness must exist because its opposite can be found all around us. And he should know. He claims he saw the devil in man and witnessed his worst hell the day that Attica ignited when he watched what humans are capable of inflicting on those who don’t necessarily look like them or live up to their standards. Still, he made his peace with the breadth of man’s cruelty and corruption long ago.
Now, he finds his comfort in mowing the lawn, not in dwelling on helicopters that mowed down men; in the laughter and roughhousing of young girls and boys who play in the yard, not in revisiting the stench of mutilated men’s flesh in the prison yard of his past; in witnessing the sense of pride his young boxers experience when any one of them wins a match, not in recollections of his own futile street fights over who owns the block, when in truth, in his own words, “The Man” owned it all.
Now, he knows better. He knows that when he fought against those who looked like him, he was really only shadow boxing, each blow landing itself against one of his own ribs until he finally collapsed under the weight of all that anger he’d been carrying. No. The victories that matter now are the ones that pull kids away from the fragmented city’s neighborhood turf fights and into a common safe space.
As he likes to remind us all when we worry about the state of our city’s streets, “The highway they built split this city apart long ago; it diced it up and city and broke apart the communities that were in its way. Now, it ‘ll take more than talk to heal the hurt. You know, it’s just like boxing.” He pauses and winks, “If you want to bring people together, you need to teach them how to work out their anger in healthy ways, even if it means meeting your opponent on common ground. You know what I like to tell the kids when they complain that they don’t wanna mix with anybody from ‘over there,’ right?”
His companion nods, but that doesn’t stop Bobby from reminding him. “I tell ‘em that it takes all four corners of this city to build a ring.” This, from the man who watched, helplessly, as the devil did his work in a prison yard, that long ago day where unlikely allies from four different yards united in a desperate attempt to prove their humanity.
Almost fifty years have passed since that infamous day the sky turned black with smoke and the asphalt below turned a deep blood red, and in the time since, Bobby has built not only a stellar boxing program and community center but an unparalleled reputation within the community. Long passed the need to prove himself, he glances around at the aging structure that houses youth from all over the city, a city fraught with poverty, with violence, with hopeless fear and rage; its youth, the victims of chronic trauma brought upon them by the region’s failing economy and lost industrial jobs; by its history of racial segregation; and even by the highway that long ago decimated its neighborhoods and created its fractured communities. The building is his, now, his and his childhood friend Ed’s.
“Ain’t that something?” he marvels, still awed that they now own the very same building they were denied access to when they were the same ages as the kids who walk through its doors every day so they can escape the neighboring warzones.
Tired out by the efforts to cover his entire turf in one afternoon with just a burnt-out puny push mower, he stops to rest under the shady tree on a bench set way back against the property’s wire fence, so far back that you have to know it’s there to find it, and the elders who often occupy its wooden slats. It’s from this perch on hot summer days that he and his age-wizened friends keep faithful watch over those left in their care, while Jackson, the building custodian and chief cook sizzles up some dogs on an old gas grill for the little ones climbing the outdoor gym or struggling to toss a lay-up into the rusty hoop, those too young to box, but old enough to know that in this city, on this street, there’s always a safe place for them to call their own.
Arthur “Bobby” Harrison lives on the south side of Syracuse, NY where he and his family relocated in the early 1950s, after being run out of Darlington, South Carolina by the Ku Klux Klan. Bobby is a former National Golden Glove contender and a former Attica Prison inmate, having survived the 1971 Attica riots while incarcerated for a crime he didn’t commit. Nineteen years ago, he co-founded Faith and Hope Community Center in the very same building he was denied access to as a small child growing up in a segregated neighborhood.
Now seventy-one, Bobby still directs anti-violence boxing programs at the center, while serving as a credible messenger and community activist for at-risk youths from all parts of our rust-belt city. Bobby demonstrates his wisdom both in the ring and beyond it, through the lifestyle that he models and the stories that he shares. Personally, I’ve witnessed his testament to resilience every day that I walk into the center to assist with his valiant efforts to alter the trajectory of young urban lives.