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We Went to Vegas to Wring Joy From Heartbreak

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This trip — we conceived it on the Eight Trey text chain.

A.k.a., the Thread.

About the Thread — not a day passes that thread goes silent. None. The Thread is where we announce anniversaries, our kids’ milestones, the birth of a grandbaby. It’s where we wish one another happy born days and post clips of the celebrations. The Thread is where we congratulate one another on new jobs or business ventures or awards or championships or a retirement. It’s where we coordinate where to connect when we’re in the same city. The Thread is where we’ve arranged an occasional group Zoom call. On the Thread, we share clips of ourselves working out with captions like “getting it in.” The Thread is where we report the previous night’s shenanigans: who was on one or tapped out too soon or ghosted at night’s end. The Thread is where a few dudes profess possessing the best fighting hands in the crew.

On the Thread, we share funny TikTok videos and memes and tweets. We offer real-time and postgame sports analysis, along with commentary on personnel moves: “Blazers bidded against themselves for Derrick Jones”; “It’s a wrap” for Cam Newton; Dennis Schroder “going to have nightmares about that. what a dummy!” The Thread is where we post playlists of West Coast hip-hop — C-Bo, Celly Cel, Mac Mall, E-40 and the Click, MC Eiht — from the era we fancied ourselves some version of invincible.

The Thread is where we inform one another on the latest at home, meaning Portland, Ore., a place we call the Town: details of who got shot or stabbed or killed or jailed or released, and because the degrees among us are often scant in the Town, we also note the family tree (sometimes government names and monikers) of the imprisoned or paroled, the wounded or murdered. On the Thread, Canaan twice shook us all with word that his youngest son, a rangy youth we consider a nephew, had been shot.

Twice, too, the Thread is where we’ve shared the devastating news that one of us has died.

On Sept. 3, 2018, the day we lost Erin, Damon, whose birthday it was, posted: “Ya’ll keep Cowan in your prayers. He went back into the hospital last night … He’s in critical condition … He might need heart replacement surgery.” That was at 4:25 p.m. Not even seven hours later — 11:21 p.m. — Gene posted, “Everyone Cowan passed.” His widow later told us he died of an inflamed heart, caused by a severe reaction to his gout medication. He was just a few days shy of his 47th birthday.

Neal’s passing this year lacked even a brief forewarning of him ailing. Just a single text at 7:31 a.m. on Jan. 16. “Yo, I just got some credible information that Blass went into cardiac arrest and passed away this morning,” Pat wrote. That unfathomable news, followed by a chorus of grief and a trickle of dubious details. Neal, built like the Hulk and maybe the most health-conscious of the crew, seemed a safe bet for outliving us all, and yet here he was, dead at 47.

Following each passing, the Thread became a place to express our grief, to memorialize our brothers and, in time, to fathom ways to endure.

As much as anything, this July trip to Las Vegas would be a way of commemorating Erin and Neal, a means of wringing some joy from the heartbreak of losing them.

When I was young, the church folk were fond of admonishing me (seldom without my heathen lips upturned) to be thankful that God woke me that morning. Though no one has said it outright, this trip is an expression of that gratitude, of acknowledging the incontestable truth, that, with no warning whatsoever, whatever power we believe in could leave us sleep. Therefore — we damn well better appreciate one another while we still have the precious time. Therefore — what better time than the present to celebrate, with all the middle-aged abandon we can muster, the fact that we persist, at least for now. That we’ve got one more day to live.

Go figure, after being one of the trip’s early advocates, I’m the last to arrive in the V. While Vegas might be low on the list of places to nurture introspection, it offered ease of travel for much of the crew. What’s more, because the pandemic remains a global threat — can’t check the TV or interwebs without seeing reports of Delta’s high transmission rates and another burgeoning variant — this trip is also a way to, at once, pre-protest another lockdown as well as forge a new normal from the extant strange.

No sooner than I drop my bags, I scoot on over to Topgolf, where I find my dayones-dogs-aces-homeboys-patnas-brothers lounging on couches and chairs or leaning against a wall or checking the monitor that displays the last ball’s driving stats. A few dudes hover over a low coffee table laden with beers and juices and buckets of bottled water, with chicken wings and nachos and — kudos, please — even a salad. The bay is open-air, but everybody’s got a mask clutched in hand or flagging out of a pocket or strung under his chin. A handful of the fellas sport Portland Point of View (PPOV) baseball caps and shirts: a brand Duray founded.

Ceremoniously, I roam slapping palms in triplicate — the crew’s handshake — with every single person in the room, save my cousin, a surprise guest who ain’t in the crew and gets a “What’s good, fam?”

Somebody calls me up for a turn, and even though I’d explained on the Thread that I don’t do no golfing, I grab a club, hold it over a sensor until a ball rolls out and, beneath the specter of embarrassment, whiff three straight swings — misses that draw lightweight ribbing.

“Told y’all I don’t play golf,” I say, my ego’s diaphanous defense. But at last, I tink a ball into the near distance and, swift as anything, rebag my club thinking good riddance to this game.

Gene and Joe call out the distances on the monitor. And in what seems a violation of physics, Damon, who is one of the shortest and in all likelihood weighs the least of anybody in the crew, owns the day’s record for longest drive.

“Mitch, it’s your turn,” someone says, compelling me once again to the tee. This time, though, Duray offers me a tutorial: Here’s how to hold the club. Here’s how you stand. Here’s how you swing. And sure enough, I thwock the ball on my next few swings.

“Yeah, there you go, Mitch,” someone says. And for just a moment, I, a grownass man but the youngest of the crew, bask in the validation of my big bros.

What a difference a few decades makes.

It’s worth noting that the crew came of age during the advent of Crip-and-Blood strife in our city. (Pat’s cousins were among those convicted in Portland’s first drive-by killing.) No one in our crew gangbanged forreal forreal, but all of us were subjected to its dangers, all persuaded, for any number of reasons, into commiserating with one side or the other.

Because we were all known as athletes, we were exempted from much of the fray. Nonetheless, not a one of us could afford being pegged a punk.

Punks lacked courage, confidence, strength. Punks shrank from conflict and as a consequence got punked. Too much confirmed punking caused the hood to question your manhood, or worse, deem it took.

So we became hardened, hard, invulnerable. We often ran toward conflict just to prove a point.

That toughness worked as a sword and a shield, but it also, despite our closeness, made us harsh on one another, charged so much of our time together with aggression, an imperative to attack or defend. Which is to say, it left us sans the compassion we needed to be better boys to one another.

The deaths of Erin and Neal — and, I would argue, our aging, maturing — have cast some of those old pathologies in a questioning light. Erin’s funeral was the first time I’d seen anyone in the crew weep in public — behind dark shades or otherwise. It was the first time I’d heard any of us say to one another, I love you. Love y’all.

At Erin Cowan’s grave in 2019, a year after his death. From left: Patrick Strickland, Gene Williams, Antoine Stoudamire, Duray Thirdgill, Terry Tims II, Mitchell Jackson and Damon Stoudamire.

ROLL CALL. PRESENT:

Anthony Darnell Lowery (AD, Ant, A-Train). Soft-spoken and languorous semi-loner.

Canaan Chatman (Stretch, Camie, Baby Herb, Chilly C, Big Brotha Cane, Tree Top, K9). Quick-witted, knife-tongued and entrepreneurial.

Damon Lamon Stoudamire (Stoud, D Stoud, Stymie, Mighty Mouse, Biggie). A nonplussed former N.B.A. star who is disciplined, driven and fastidious as anybody.

Denmark Thomas Reid (D. Reid, BJ or Baby Jordan, DenDen, Markie, Dendark, Denny, Shot Doctor). Owns the memory of an elephant and charisma in spades.

Duray Serento Thirdgill (Third, Big Third, 33rd). A kindhearted lover who cheeses with his whole face.

Gene Lamont Williams (Big City, G-Dub, G, Russ, Lamont, Lamonte). A loyal, high-energy homeboy.

Joe Lee Rollins Jr. (Turnpike, JR, Rawlo, Qou Joe). The crew empath, dependably generous in his support.

Kenneth Leroy Warren Jr. (Dub, Kdub, Dubbeth, the Main Attraction, Heinekenny, the Average Black Man). The funniest dude in the crew and stoked to the hilt with stamina and ambition.

Mitchell Shunta Jackson (Mitch, MJ, Action, Lil Famous, Spree). That’s me.

Patrick Dwight Strickland (Strick, Strick9, Patches, PStrick, Fat, Patty P). A jocular leader whose composure leans stoic.

Terry Gene Tims II (TT, T, T Berry, T Bone, Boneyard, Bone). Always assiduous, reliable and iron-willed.

ABSENT:

Antoine Terrell Stoudamire (Toine, Stoud, Madgesdiq, ATS3). The crew’s cool bohemian maverick.

GONE BUT FOREVERMORE PRESENT:

Erin Lemar Cowan (Cowan, Jojo, Bowan, Mojo, Sherm). A loving and loquacious extrovert who was known for beaming his gold-toothed smile.

Neal Franklin Blassingame Jr. (Blass, Big Blass, Frank, Frankie). A herculean sometime ascetic who was ultradetermined.

As the lore goes, Strick’s older brother Ed (R.I.P.) christened the crew in 1993 — “So what are y’all, the 833 Crew or something?” — because almost all of us had pager numbers with an 833 prefix. The stories I could tell about the men who used to own those pagers:

When I joined a high school fraternity founded by Dub and a few other upperclassmen, and during pledge week, he hazed me with the hallway command “Mitch, do the running man with cool faces.”

The time Strick, then balling for the Oregon State Beavers, bought under-age me my first bottle of alcohol — Boone’s Farm — and trooped me tipsy to a college party.

The nights me and D. Reid rode in the back seat of Third’s or Toine’s Ford Escort, a woofer boom-blapping through the seat, as we bent corners downtown.

That time I bet Blass 100 bucks that I could do 100 push-ups and not only collapsed at 97 but had to be attended to by E.M.T.s.

All those weekends in our indomitable 20s when we’d meet at TT’s or Big City’s crib, prefunk with brews and weed; music and blather before caravanning to whatever club was crackin’. Haunts where we’d dance and drink and maybe mack, where on occasion we’d scrap alongside one another if someone ended up in a fisticuff, nights it was not uncommon for gunshots to hasten our exodus.

In those days, Strick would send out a text or page early Sunday that announced we were balling at Irving Park. (If you didn’t get the page/call/text, your status as a hooper was in question.) Back then, a superteam made up of members of the crew — they ran a press they called “the blender” — would hold court for what seemed an eternity.

At least half a dozen summers, we hosted boat parties on the Portland Spirit, often with an all-white dress code. We’d hold a meeting at Dub’s crib to determine investors, which most often was just us. We’d pay the rental, have fliers designed and spend weeks distributing them around the city. When it was said and done, we’d make a few hundred bucks apiece, if any, of profit.

Profit or no, though, we did it for the legend.

Members of the 833 Crew in Las Vegas in July. From left: Canaan Chatman, Terry Tims II, Gene Williams, Damon Stoudamire, Joe Rollins Jr., Mitchell Jackson, Patrick Strickland, Kenneth Warren Jr., Denmark Reid, Anthony Lowery and Duray Thirdgill.

Headquarters for the weekend is a suite on the 55th floor of the Cosmopolitan Hotel. To reach the suite, I trek through the casino. The hotel has posted signs mandating masks, but my empirical research affirms 60 percent compliance at best. Hella people chatting and laughing, hugging, touching — and are my eyes deceiving me, or is that saliva I see spraying from open mouths? With a whirling slot spin for a heart and Delta, Delta, Delta as a chorus in my head, I dodge my way to the elevators.

There’s a legion of liquor bottles and ample juice for mixers in the kitchen of the suite but not near enough bottled waters.

One by one the crew arrives. It doesn’t take long for somebody to spread some bones across the table.

“I’m in, I’m in,” I say, maybe too eager for the challenge.

The domino games are legendary in the crew, chances to test our minds and our mouthpieces.

“I’m a dominologist,” someone’s sure to bluster.

“My daddy from Domino, Texas. We put the spots on ’em,” somebody else will brag.

“Here go the rankings,” someone else will say, and then indubitably, shamelessly, rank himself No. 1.

Those who don’t play hover over the game, peeking at people’s hands, announcing the score, soundtracking big plays with loud-ass oohs and aahs.

If Cowan were here, no doubt, he would’ve called first game, would’ve been flashing the precious metal in his mouth with wide smiles and laughs and maybe boasting his hand to a sideline pundit. Cowan was a barber and kept his hairline shaped to perfect angles. If Blass were here — he never played bones — he’d be roosted on a couch or holding a corner and talking football, hoop or training in a voice so quiet the listener might have to lean in to hear him. Blass owned a workingman’s hands, thick with scuffed, ashy knuckles.

Cowan and Blass: one a convivial conversationalist, the other reserved and tending taciturn.

It’s a tremendous feeling when you realize that your domino win is im-plac-a-ble. Which is where I find myself at the end of a game. To memorialize my feat for posterity, I ask Turnpike to film it. He records me pulling my bones one by one in antagonizing slo-mo. “How much I need to go out?” I ask, knowing full well it’s five points. “Domino!” I shout, slamming the winning bone so hard it makes the others leap. “And I don’t want to hear no more lies about the rankings.”

“You can tell when somebody ain’t use to winnin’,” Dub quips.

Dub’s voice is a deep baritone with hints of his family’s Southern roots. It occurs to me that, no matter if I was blindfold and spun silly, I could name any member of the crew after hearing him speak a single sentence — that I could do it without error.

We caravan to headquarters after dinner. It’s around midnight at the Cosmopolitan, and still, pandemic, what pandemic? Though I’m masked, I remain spooked that Covid’s lurking. On a hotfoot trail through the lobby, I see young women teetering in tall heels, tight dresses and short skirts; see young dudes wearing dark shades and diamond-glistening as bright as a Vegas billboard; see people loitering near elevators and collapsed on couches. A crowd that drenches the casino in a joyous hum.

This is my umpteenth trip to Vegas, and even though I seldom gamble more than 20 bucks on the slots, I always appreciate the you-could-win-big energy. But tonight it’s as if everybody and their mama have decided to make this weekend, maybe this very hotel, a symbol of the release we’ve all sought. But there’s a part of me that’s covetous of this bold, ubiquitous YOLO, that wishes I could summon this brand of fearlessness.

There’s a fine line between doing what’s right for our personal safety and greater public health and forfeiting a freedom the rulers of the universe might never return to us. Keeping on the right side of that line — who can know for sure where it lies and whether we’ve crossed it — feels more precarious for us Black folks, a people who, let not a single soul forget, were deprived of self-determination (slave passes, slave patrols, Black codes, untold other means) for twice as long as we’ve been halfway begrudged it. Should Covid provide cover for the rulers to usurp a little more liberty from the masses, best believe, my peoples gone have it worse than most if not all others.

And yet, in the same vein that I suspicion the city’s gambling odds and legerdemain, I mistrust the carousing and seeming insouciance on display, wrongheaded or not; I count every maskless person as a proxy — I’ve lost all patience for the antivaxxers — for the endurance of this devastating pandemic. Plus, the wiser part of me knows that all this carpe diem business is better suited for those with brighter health outlooks than my brothers and me. Not only do Black men suffer the shortest life spans of any U.S. demographic group, but Covid is ceasing Black people in the crew’s age range at least two times the rate of white people of comparable age.

Come to find out, almost the whole crew is vaccinated.

But we loss Cowan and Blass.

We loss Cowan. We loss Blass.

We
loss
Cowan,
and
we
loss
Blass.

And any single one of us could be next.

Some of the crew pass blunts and prattle on the balcony. Down below, the hotel’s daytime pool party is coming to a bass-heavy, twilit close.

One, two, more, the crew shuffle back into the suite, leaving me and AD alone on the balcony. Of all the dudes in the crew, AD is the one I’ve spent the least amount of time with. He’s one of the oldest — we didn’t compete against each other in high school — lived farther away than most of the crew and was less present during the peak of our palling around.

AD reveals that, not too long ago, he discovered that the man who raised him isn’t his biological father. He explains that he didn’t find out about the paternity until after his biological father passed, and he adds that, as the fates decreed, his biological father was also the father of his childhood best friend. AD shares that his biological pops was furthermore the adopted uncle of our boy Dub. “It’s crazy, man,” he says, the hurt in his voice near naked. “Kenny knew my pops better than me.”

It’s striking that AD would share this confidence with me. It’s also an act that reminds me how much our mutual history fosters trust, of how friendships evolve over time, that there are deeper connections to be forged between us. Not to mention, it impresses upon me the Town’s finitude, how even in a tight crew, some of us are connected in ways we haven’t yet discerned.

Later, I ask Dub about AD’s biological pops. “Man, he was my hero growing up,” Dub says. “I seen that man wrestle snakes with his bare hands. Slap a grown man off his feet.”

We reconvene at the Waldorf Astoria, which is a regular old sleepwalk compared to the Cosmo. We’ve rented two cabanas, but as it happens we crowd into one, shift the chairs and a table and commence yet another domino contest.

Meanwhile, an attentive server delivers beaucoup orders of beers and vodka and tequila and lemon drops (that’s TT’s drink) and poke bowls and burgers and even a little roughage. Granted, a little excess is par for a vay-cay, but I can’t help thinking that having lost a year to Covid has turned us all a little bit more hedonist.

“That’s domino patna! Get yo ass up!” TT shouts, in his signature gruff. Well I’ll be damned — with a whole cabana full of witnesses, I’ve come in last place and given the game to T, twin failures that earn me ample badgering.

The pool sits a few steps away, but despite several of us having dressed in swim trunks, nobody so much as dips a pinkie toe in the water. Instead, we play cuts on a portable speaker, debate the greatest freestyle we’ve ever heard (my pick is Black Thought’s 2017 Funkmaster Flex freestyle) and relay the latest communiqués from the crib.

One of those is that a couple of dudes from our era were diagnosed with cancer, and a particular one prognosed in the dreaded fourth stage. The dour phrase calls up memories of Cowan and Blass, of the tragedies that inspired this trip in the first place.

For a moment that could stretch the length of this dry state, all other dialogue ceases.

“Y’all make sure you gettin’ checked,” someone says, piercing the silence. “Yeah, yeah, it’s serious,” someone else says. “Better do it. We at that age.”

And all present either nod or announce their accord.

AD and I are the lone two members of the crew staying in the Waldorf and the last to leave the cabana. AD mentions his biological pops again while I wait for the bill, and in an attempt to return the trust he put in me, I confide — the first time I’ve told anyone in the crew — that I discovered a troubling connection to Dub.

It happened about two years ago. I’d just returned from visiting, for the first time, an uncle incarcerated in an Oregon prison for two murders. Before visiting, I researched my uncle’s crimes, including the fact that the Oregon Court of Appeals had commuted his death sentence to life imprisonment. While in truth I was wary before my visit, my uncle and I had an amiable time together, more so a chat with a well-meaning elder than a strife-charged exchange with a virtual stranger.

No sooner than I landed in New York, I bopped to my barbershop for a cut. “How was your trip home?” asked Dub, who in addition to being my 833 brother is also my longtime barber.

“It was cool,” I said, and I mentioned that I visited my uncle for the first time.

“Which uncle?” he asked, and I said my uncle’s first name.

Dub, incredulous, repeated my uncle’s first name and added his last.

“Yeah, that’s him,” I said.

“Damn!” Dub said. “He killed my auntie.”

A big breath lodged in my throat, almost trapped the words. “Man, bro, I’m so sorry,” I said. “Bro, I’m so, so sorry,” I said, and wondered if what we’d discovered would forever alter the character of our friendship. Dub and me, the only two members of the crew who lived in New York, had grown closer than we were in Portland, maybe as close as any two members of the crew.

“Man, ain’t nothing for you to be sorry about,” he said. “You didn’t do it.”

But Dub’s assurance failed to assuage the immediate deep guilt I felt over the irrevocable truth that my blood kin had done the worst possible harm to his.

My story, as expected, shocks AD.

“Ain’t it crazy how connected we are?” I say, heartened that even the least close members of the crew can share such an intimate moment.

Big City has arranged a D.J. to spin at headquarters and a couplefew of the crew have invited friends. Me — I show up early and help push the couches and chairs against the wall, and check the bar’s inventory.

The D.J.’s setup seems like overkill for a hotel suite, but he plays slaps and accepts requests. People shuffle in and wander into a room or onto the balcony or laze on a couch.

My cousin (the one who isn’t in the crew) assumes bartending duties, even sets out a tip cup, the nerve. Big City escorts his homeboy around for intros. Meanwhile, I wander on the balcony. Down below the poolside club is a rage of thumping bass, darting pinks and purples and cheers — a set reminiscent of the years we too kicked it until wheels fell off.

Back in ’97, several of the crew, me included, visited Stoud in Toronto, where he was playing for the Raptors. On that trip, Big City, Cowan and Dub (who borrowed the handshake from a friend affiliated with the Grape Street Crips) inaugurated what’s known as the three slaps or the Eight Trey handshake. The three slaps, it might be evident, involves three flat-handed slaps (the louder the pop, the better) and sometimes a stylized grip. It’s our greeting but also proof — none of us will slap three with anyone outside the crew — that we consider you bona fide. It’s a handshake, yes, but also acknowledgment of a shared history, of the belief that, to some degree, our fortunes have been bound together. Because some of us have taught our sons to slap three with the crew, it serves as part of our heritage.

Historians have hypothesized that the handshake, which has been around for millenniums, began as a gesture to show peaceful intentions, that by extending their right hands, people could confirm that they meant another person no malice. Others theorize that the handshake was a gesture devised to dislodge weapons from the sleeve of a person who was bent on doing harm. Others propose that it was conceived as a symbol of good faith in oath making.

As a boy, I was taught to give firm handshakes and look the recipient in the eye. In time, I learned a shake was multitudinous. That it could seal a business deal. That it could keep the peace. (If you’d been beefing with a dude and shook hands, it symbolized the squashing of that beef. If you’d been beefing with a dude and refused to shake his hand, well, the funk prospered on.) Learned as well that a handshake between the right people had the power to foster an armistice.

In the cosmos I know best, a handshake is also tantamount to a man’s word, and for Black men, who’ve been deprived of myriad means of achieving worth in the world, our word assumes exponential value. To boot, the handshake (along with dap, the shoulder tap and the brief low-contact hug) is one of the few vetted forms of physical intimacy.

But Covid has turned the handshake into high contagion. And I don’t know about anybody else, but I ain’t been eager to risk death over a greeting, no matter how essential it may seem. Nevertheless, I also realize how much we — my 833 brothers and dudes like us — have lost, know that in a culture that encourages our aloofness and reticence, losing dynamic shorthand has been a certain harm. And because there appears to be little if anything to replace it, here we are with two choices: either take the physical risk or risk what its absence might do to our emotional and social health.

At headquarters, somebody kicks off a dice game. But of course. In no time, there’s an ambit of dudes kneeling, cupping bills, querying side bets, knocking the dice together with high drama.

Nina Ross, they call.

Lil Joe, they call.

They call, Fever in the funk house.

It’s obvious that ain’t nobody winning no whole lot of loot, but it’s also clear that this game is least about a come-up.

This is the stopped time before fatherhood and marriage; before steady jobs and mortgages; before grays stubbled from chins or speckled our heads and beards; before weight settled in our guts, before anybody’s hairline ebbed the way of a seashore.

Before I leave, I find each and every member of the crew and slap a poptastic three — feel a blessing, ballast and comfort in the touch of our palms. Love you, bro, I say. Love you, bro. Love you, bro.


Photographs from Canaan Chatman, Mitchell Jackson, Duray Thirdgill and other members of the 833 Crew.

Mitchell S. Jackson is the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in feature writing and the 2021 National Magazine Award in feature writing. He is the author of the memoir “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family” and the novel “The Residue Years.” Jackson’s other honors include the Whiting Award as well as fellowships from the John Simon Guggenheim Foundation, the Lannan Foundation and the Cullman Center of the New York Public Library. He is the John O. Whiteman Dean’s Distinguished Professor in the English department of Arizona State University.

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