With plenty of time to make the 9 a.m. presentation, I honked the horn outside their brick apartment. Out they came, and had barely shut my car door before an unmarked white SUV was only feet from my bumper. It stayed there as I started driving away, toward the mayor's office.
The two young black men -- I'll call them Deoaunte and Ronnie -- knew who was driving the SUV before I did.
"Police," they said from the back seat.
Fifteen minutes later, we sat down in the green leather chairs in Mayor Ron Littlefield's conference room and stayed there for the next 90 minutes, listening to the just-released findings from our city's Comprehensive Gang Assessment, conducted by the Ochs Center for Metropolitan Studies and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga's Center for Applied Social Research.
The data is incredibly compelling. The words, gravely important. One national group is already calling it the most comprehensive gang assessment ever done in America.
But I couldn't shake the disconnect between these young black men in their Nikes who stay in neighborhoods where police drive unmarked cars at 8:30 in the morning and the suit-and-tie, green-leather-chair conference room. I kept looking over at Deoaunte, wondering what he thought.
"I wake up to gunshots," he said, "and go to sleep to gunshots."
It was as if these two young men were the personification of the PowerPoint presentation on the screen before them.
Take the word "gang." It appears 1,026 times in the 173-page report. But what does it mean? A bunch of black kids standing on the corner? Wearing red or blue?
"I define it as my family," said Deoaunte. "If I need something, they're there. When I'm out of work, and my little girl needs diapers, they give you some money. They give you a place to stay. Open arms."
I asked Deoaunte -- who's 21 and used to run in a gang -- to name his gang's values.
"Loyalty. Respect. Honor," he said.
Gang violence usually means shootings, robbings, stealing. But there's also this colder violence, like a country you can't leave, no matter how far you walk.
One of them gets locked up, then falls behind in child support. Released, he's now behind in his payments. He can't get a job, so he starts slinging dope. More entrenched in a dead end. Then he's harassed. Arrested. Back in jail. Around and around it goes.
I'm almost impressed with gangs, who've created a subculture of protection, pseudo-family and alter-economy in neighborhoods that lead our area in the matrix of nothingness: poverty, illiteracy, unemployment, broken families.
What do we expect to grow out of such soil? National Merit scholars? Daylilies?
After the presentation, I took Deoaunte and Ronnie to Wally's for lunch. With us was Skip Eberhardt, a man I've written about before, whose own life today is symbolic of the crossroads our city has reached. Eberhardt, with plenty of violence in his own past, is now doing all he can to get kids off the block and into honest work.
"They're crying for help," he said.
"Everybody I hang around, everybody wants a job," said Deoaunte. "Everybody says the same thing, 'I'm tired of the block.' Y'all want to stop it, give us some jobs."
During the presentation, Eberhardt's cellphone kept buzzing. It was like all the words of the assessment were made manifest in that phone.
"I had two kids call me," he said.
They were looking for jobs.
David Cook is the award-winning city columnist for the Times Free Press, working in the same building where he began his post-college career as a sportswriter for the Chattanooga Free Press. Cook, who graduated from Red Bank High, holds a master's degree in Peace and Justice Studies from Prescott College and an English degree from the University of Tennessee at Knoxville. For 12 years, he was a teacher at the middle, high school and university ...