That Time With Ualani

Drop the pizza and run? Try to fight? Quick thinking is needed when confronted on the mean streets of Dallas by a carful of possible hoodlums. Protect the girl at all costs. Defend her honor at your own personal expense. Even if you don’t make it, your story will be told by those who did.

My brother Cheo and our friend Ualani were walking back from Gordon Lindsay Tower to Cornerstone 105 with a group of friends from the campus youth group at Christ for the Nations Institute one night back in the early ’90s. What happened next was a story for the ages.

But first, a little background…

CFNI was, and still is, in the heart of a Dallas neighborhood known as South Oak Cliff. The neighborhood was originally built up and occupied by suburbanites way back in the 1960s, much like the North Dallas enclaves of Prestonwood or North Richland Hills, but a combination of urban sprawl and white flight turned South Oak Cliff into one of those areas just known as “the ‘hood” now, having lost its neighborliness.

The ‘hood where CFNI sits can be a livable place as long as you follow some unspoken rules and closely adhere to the explicit rules promulgated by the school — observe the curfew, ask for an escort by Security after dark, keep off the grass, and so on. The unspoken rules, however, fall under the category of “street smarts” and are more caught than taught, especially for the students who didn’t grow up in densely populated urban areas. Things like: don’t make eye contact with strangers, keep at least one hand in a pocket (no one knows what you might be holding), don’t wear flashy jewelry, and walk fast like you have somewhere to go. These are lessons learned from denizens of the streets that are passed down through oral history by those who survived their childhood and teenage years always looking over one shoulder when out and about. Dad used to tell us stories that would curl your toes and freeze the blood in your veins. And apparently that was the “lite” version, watered down for us kids. Thankfully, we never went through the trials that he did growing up on the mean streets of “Chocolate City” as he called it, meaning Washington, D.C. (he said the D.C. stood for “dark chocolate”) back in the ’50s and ’60s before desegregation and civil rights. He learned some hard lessons and grew up to become a stalwart pillar of society rather than a degenerate thug (which was a 50/50 possibility given his environment.)

We learned many lessons from Dad’s stories, but we couldn’t learn everything vicariously. Sometimes lessons are learned the hard way, like when my friend Kevin was hanging out with some friends at the McDonald’s which also was on same street as the CFNI campus. Kevin, a staff kid and avid basketballer, was wearing some new Nike Air Jordan high tops while hanging out with his buddies after an evening snack. A local hoodlum at the restaurant spotted the shoes and demanded them for himself. Reluctantly, Kevin complied and removed the shoes, handed them over and ended up walking home in his socks, shocked, ashamed and embarrassed. His compadres did nothing to assuage the crime and were equally ashamed and embarrassed. Once the story got out that you can get your shoes robbed right off your feet at Mickey D’s in South Oak Cliff, CFNI made new rules about frequenting the local restaurants. This played havoc with the area’s businesses, as the students provided consistent income to the two fast food places within walking distance as well as the local convenience store, Rami’s. But it was for the best. The Wendy’s down the street eventually closed after having been robbed so many times that it couldn’t stay in business. The drive-thru was located so close to the Highway 75 on-ramp that criminals could get a burger, fries, and the cash drawer without even slowing down. Drive-by lunch plus lunch money too.

So one evening Cheo, Ualani and a few friends were coming across the campus not too far from McRobbers, er, McDonald’s. Cheo was carrying a large pepperoni pizza acquired from the Gordon Lindsay Café which served the student body (literally – see what I did there?) on weekends.

Suddenly, a car pulled up next to them and the dudes inside rolled down the window on the passenger side.

“Hey man, is she with you?” the guy in the car shouted at Cheo, referring to Ualani.

Cheo was stunned and nearly frozen with shock and instant fear. His thoughts raced through his head like the drive-through robbers at Wendy’s, flush with a new score as they accelerated onto the US-75 on-ramp.

Oh God, what do I do? Cheo thought to himself. Drop the pizza and run like the dickens toward mommy and daddy’s place? Try to take on a carful of street thugs bent on possibly kidnapping Ualani and doing Lord knows what else? Campus security was too powerless to help, not known for quick response times, and basically made up of poorly-trained, unarmed international students from Africa or the Caribbean who couldn’t get other campus jobs. He was in a quandary and had only seconds to come up with a solution.

So Cheo resorted to what only his street-smart father could have taught him. A response that was more caught than taught, having heard the stories and the harrowing near-misses in Dad’s brushes with danger. He went with straight bravado, a stone bluff that belied the butterflies in his stomach at that very critical moment.

Yeah, she’s with me,” he lied in his best street-thug tone, puffing out his chest a little. Theirs wasn’t a serious relationship, in fact it might be a stretch to say they were even “more than friends” then or since, but the construct was moot at this point. For this moment and his purpose, she was with him and damn the torpedoes! Meanwhile, Ualani stood by, wide-eyed, also holding her breath at what might happen next. Chivalrous as it was, there may not be pizza night after all…

The young man in the car eyed them both intently, paused, and then uttered what Cheo and Ualani never expected to hear…

“Yo, respect,” he said, and the car drove away. That’s all. It was over. Cheo’s faux bravery, which was braver than he could have imagined, actually paid off.

Everyone exhaled a sigh of relief and they all returned home safely to enjoy hot pepperoni pizza. Ualani went home with her parents without further incident. Cheo told me the story later and I’ll always remember it with a smile. That time at CFNI with Ualani and the pizza and those guys in the car.

Yo, respect, Cheo. Well done, brah.

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