This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 8 No. 3, "Growing Up Southern." Find more from that issue here.
TAMMY IS 17 AND JOHNNY JUST TURNED 20. They’ve been married for two years and live with Johnny’s parents. Johnny works a 40-hour week at American Threshold Company, where he runs cloth off a squirrel cage and cuts it with a skillsaw so that it can be made into those small rugged blue towels that car mechanics use. Tammy is a part-time lifeguard at the Little Red Play School. Gene, Johnny’s cousin, is 17 years old.
Johnny is well-respected in the group of 20 or so regulars that hang out at the mall, in the back section. Several other groups hang out in the front of the mall from other schools or sections of town — and everyone there knows who Johnny and Tammy are — but Johnny has the most power and esteem with the back section.
Johnny: Being friends is really what it’s all about. We'll come up here, circle around a time or two, show the car off.
We try to keep peace. But if we get out here and anybody starts any shit, we fight, ya know. We ’re not afraid of nobody or nothing like that.
Sometimes people come up here and they get too drunk and they say something about the car like they say it won’t run. And you go out and get in a drag race and they lose. Say they get mad cause they lose. So instead of giving you the money they owe you for racing ifyou won, they want to fight about it. So you end up getting into a fight.
Or somtimes someone comes around and hollers at her - and she’s my wife - hollers hey baby you want to do all this bunch of junk, and all like that, and I’ll jump their case for that, cause I don’t want anybody messing around with my wife like that.
Johnny: I ain’t been in trouble with the law no more. I’ve been in trouble too many times, been throwed behind bars too many times. I’ve been too damn bad, been a damn mean ass is what the hell I’ve been.
Tammy: But he’s straightened up a lot. I’m proud of him.
Johnny: I’ve straightened my ass up. I’m on three years probation. I’m trying to do what the hell’s right. I’ve got a damn job. I’m just around here partying normal, raisin hell. I’m try in to do what’s right.
I’ve been comin up here ever since I was 16, ever since I was old enough to drive. I’m 20 now. I’ll probably be comin up here till I’m too old to walk.
I dread to get old, man, cause I’m going to miss like hell up here.
See when you come up here every weekend there’s always different things you can do. But you got to be a survivor to find it. If you don’t find it, there ain’t gain to be nothin to do.
Gene: I’ve been on my own since I was 11 years old. I’ve carried a knife all my damn life.
I’ve been in trouble with my family and everything, gotten into fights with them and all this stuff, got ran out of the house. I’ve been raised in motorcycle gangs and all this other good stuff. And 1 always carry a knife and a set of brass knucks. I always have.
Well, I sold a set of brass knucks tonight. But I wish I hadn’t a now. But I got the blade and I ain’t worried about it. I ain’t never had to use the knife but one time, and I hope I don’t never have to use it again. But the first time I ever used a knife, it was all to hell. I’ll tell ya that right now.
I was in a beer joint and this guy walked up to me, said he was going to bust my skull. And the only choice I had was to use the knife or get my head busted. Now if a guy says he's goin to bust your skull and you ain’t but 11 years old. you ain’t got no choice.
A drunk woman, who looked like she was 25 or 30 years old. was screaming and kicking at Gene and Johnny. Finally her male companion, who also looked like he was 30, forced her into her car and took her away.
Johnny: She was mad cause Gene pulled the coil wire off so she wouldn’t go out and get herself killed in her car cause she was too drunk and she was mad at somethin. So she started pushing Gene around and drew her knife and I said, “You ’re going to have to cut me before you cut anybody.” And she started kicking me and I just grabbed the knife and took it away from her.
She said she was going to get a gun next. I said, “Well, the first person you shoot,” I said, “make it me,” I said, “cause you ain’t going to shoot none of my friends.”
Stuff like that happens about regular. It’s somethin every weekend. Either it’s a dude or a girl. You just got to stand your ground and hold on. If we get killed we get killed and if we don’t we don’t.
Alma Blount is a free-lance writer and photographer living in North Carolina. (1981)