The Black Cloud
They took no notice, at first, of the $500 black Taurus and the dented pickup with the rusted trailer rumbling out of the rolling green distance. Not the ladies in flowered hats chatting in the big white party tent, nor the sportsmen gathering their helmets and whips. Not the tanned elderly men tethered to tiny purebred dogs, nor the white-jacketed waiters preparing pâté and tumblers of vodka, crushed ice and pink lemonade.
Faintly, at first, came the boom-cha-boom-boom. . .boom-cha-boom-boom. The $500 black Taurus and the dented pickup turned off the country road and cut through pastures framed by white fences—rolling thunder drawing nearer and louder until even the party boys on the picnic blankets near the playing field turned to see what was coming.
The rap music stopped. The two vehicles halted. Out tumbled a couple of black teenagers wearing 'do-rags, cornrows and gold stud earrings, a swarm of small black children, four yelping dogs, four hand-me-down horses, two iguanas, a boa constrictor. . .and a white woman.
September 19, 2004
The black kids sprayed in all directions, the horses clattered off the trailer and the dogs darted among them all, playing nip and chase. The white woman rubbed out a cigarette, raised two fingers to her mouth and emitted a whistle that froze every creature in her caravan. "Get your boots and whites on!" she barked. "Where's the hose, where are the buckets?. . .Son of a biscuit-eater, who's tacking this horse?. . .Tuck your shirts in!. . .Freakin' ragtag!"
The spectators peered from behind their sunglasses, their beers and their laced lemonades, their expressions no more strained than that of anyone watching a cloud of flies land upon his bowl of whipped cream.
America's only black polo team took the field.
The White Woman
The umpire rolled a wooden ball among them, and suddenly a posse of black kids from Philadelphia's worst streets, wielding mallets and riding 1,000-pound beasts, were going hell-bent-for-leather against a team of white millionaires.
There must've been at least one good reason why the white woman was obligated to advise opposing clubs before she arrived that her players were African-Americans. It just never occurred to her. Lezlie Hiner simply showed up with her kids, organized them with that foghorn bark and that ear-shredding whistle, relaxed them with a wisecrack and that laugh, that crusty eruption of who-gives-a-rat's-ass merriment over the mischief she was making in the world. "Play the man, not the ball!" she bellowed as her players roared past, 'do-rags flapping in the wind. "Push, push, don't be a wuss! Get the lead outta your ass!"
Don't be a wuss? Get the lead outta your ass? How did it come to this? How did a white woman end up yelling that to a tattooed, bearded, cornrowed, 6'1", 220-pound black teenager named Lonnie Fields, from a neighborhood called the Bottom, who actually had two lead bullets in his ass?
The Big Idea
She wore no makeup, no jewelry, no skirt or dress and no coloring on the gray strands in her loosely tied hair. She never mentioned her past or her private life. Some people in polo circles assumed that she came from wealth and lived in luxury. But almost no one had a clue where in hell she and her big idea came from.
She was pulling away from a barn just outside Philly where she boarded her horse 14 years ago, late and in a hurry as always, when she saw a poor black kid in the rearview mirror, the blacksmith's apprentice, yearning to go with her on a trail ride. She had a weakness for strays. Her relatives in Pennsylvania would play "Guess Who Lez Is Bringing to Dinner" each Thanksgiving, then watch the front door and hold their breath: Orphaned mutts. Three-legged cats. Hitchhiking roadies. Oh, yeah, remember the Peruvian jockey?
She took the black kid under her wing for four years, watched his grades improve and his personality bloom as she taught him all about horses. The art gallery she owned went under, then she drifted into sales at her father's record-storage company, loathed that cubicle life and got axed for insubordination by her old man's vice president. Perfect timing. She'd just gotten the big idea. What if she started a nonprofit organization that let her hang out all day with horses and the kids in America's rearview mirror? What if she could use a dozen castoff thoroughbreds as carrots to lure inner-city children into a life of discipline and responsibility?
In 1994, at 37, she hatched Work to Ride at the Chamounix Equestrian Center—a fancy name for an old barn in Fairmount Park where Philadelphia's mounted police had once stabled their horses. She moved into the barn on a $1a-year lease and took on 20 kids, many of them juvenile delinquents whom the city gladly dumped in her lap, and set them to work mucking stalls, pitchforking hay and feeding and bathing horses each day in exchange for riding lessons, weekend road trips, five-hour trail rides. . .and love. She had some notion of how to handle ponies and punks: Thirteen years as a racetrack hotwalker, groom and assistant trainer and four years as a psych major at the University of South Carolina had seen to that.
The idea was divine. The kids were hellish. One reported to Chamounix with a gun. Another, avenging a horse bite, scampered up to the hayloft and flung a fire extinguisher at the gelding. A half-dozen got a bang out of winging manure pies at one another.
One by one, the initial Work-to-Riders scrammed or got the boot. One stuck: Jose Perez, a silent, good-natured 13-year-old petty thief and graffiti artist from a North Philly hood called the Badlands. Joining him, forming the core group that would last, was Lonnie, then a hulking 12year-old who had flunked third grade, flung his math book at his fifth-grade teacher and been banished to reform camps for two summers before he drifted over to the stables one day from the nearby Pop Warner football field; his nine-year-old brother, Chris Perren, who loved Lonnie more than football and followed him to the barn; and Richard Prather, a dyslexic 15-year-old with 12 siblings and a frazzled reading tutor who delivered him to Lez.
Lez would shove a mongrel or two off the round table in her bare cinder-block office and sit the newcomers down to write a 300-word essay explaining why they wished to join her cavalry. By the time they were done mispunctuating the last run-on sentence and pledging to maintain a C average in school, they'd been inducted into the childless white woman's ragtag family and been branded by her forevermore as "one o' my kids."
Two years passed. The carrot worked. The powerless boys so dearly loved gaining power over half-ton beasts that they'd endure all the mucking and math classes. Lonnie began to surrender his machismo because it didn't work on a horse. They all learned to trot, then to gallop, then to fly.
But little by little the boys grew restless with half-day trail rides, equitation lessons and horse shows at Devon. Girl stuff. They wanted to hook, steal, slash, bump, bash. They wanted to play some ball.
They'd all tagged along to watch Lez play polo on weekends. They'd all begun borrowing mallets and playing polo on bicycles outside the barn. Now three black kids from the ghetto and a brown boy with a rap sheet and a Puerto Rican accent were looking at Lez, wanting to know why they couldn't play the sport of kings.
Nine hundred ninety-nine out of 1,000 40-year-old Caucasian females in the U.S., according to doctors, would have said to the four boys, "Are you freakin' nuts?" But then, 999 out of 1,000 40-year-old Caucasian females in the U.S. wouldn't have mud-wrestled for a $25 bar tab in Lugoff, S.C., 15 years earlier, either.
"Sure you can!" Lez replied to the boys, doling out mallets and leading them outside to see how much they'd swallow. The first few bites—that's all it took for her to realize that she'd stumbled upon the fattest, crunchiest carrot of all.
When she was reasonably sure it was reasonably safe to loose them on a playing field with stockbrokers and socialites, she loaded the boys, their secondhand mallets and the mares into her truck and trailer and headed off, three years before the turn of the millennium, to see just how much America could digest.
The Acid Reflux
Sure, the members of the Bucks County Polo Club knew the four boys. Nice kids, well worth the 20 bucks that the polo players paid them to hotwalk their ponies when Lez brought them along to watch her play. So nobody paid the boys much notice during the two-day polo clinic until the end, when it was time to play a match. Then Lez headed onto the field to play a chukker. . .with Richard on a pony at her side.
A chukker lasts seven minutes. A match lasts six chukkers. Four players on a side. Lez heard members grumbling. True, her boys weren't members of the Bucks County Polo Club, but this clinic was open to the public, and other nonmembers were playing in the informal match. She felt it building, the anger that had gotten her axed from her job for insubordination. But remember, she was a role model now.
The chukker ended. Richard left the field. Lez sent Chris in to take his place. A club member in her 50s with a Boston accent trotted her pony toward Lez. "Other people need to play in this match too," she announced.
Lez snarled and flung her mallet to the ground. The lady snapped at her, peeled away, then came back. Lez grabbed the woman's mallet and yanked. The woman yanked back. "You don't want the kids to play, and you're a f------- bigot!" Lez screamed. Holy cow! Two women at a polo match were about to fight!
Lonnie rushed to Lez's side, cursing the lady on the horse. Chris, Richard and Jose pulled Lez away.
The boys looked at one another in awe. White woman was for real. White woman had their backs. They knew two things that minute: They were going to play polo. They were Lez's kids for life.
The Deeper Agenda
There were so many new things her boys would need to learn if they were serious about polo. Pâté and goat cheese, for starters. Stuffed mushrooms served on silver trays under the party tents when the matches ended, for another.
"Whazzat?" Chris would say.
"Dunno," Lonnie would reply.
"You try it first."
Lez had to get crackin'. She and her gang had left the Bucks County Polo Club in a huff and joined Cowtown, a folksy New Jersey polo club run by a broad-minded man named Donny Aikens. The boys played four matches a month across the mid-Atlantic states during summers as teammates of Cowtown's white adult players, then played on their own Work to Ride team in three-man indoor polo matches against private high school teams along the Eastern seaboard from fall to spring. And groped their way through a parallel universe of Brandywines and Strasburgs where their kind only bathed horses, shoed hooves and served the brie.
"But what is brie, Lez?"
"Eat it, you'll like it! Take a no-thank-you bite, and if you really hate it, discreetly spit it into your napkin.. . .Elbows off the table!. . .Hats off your heads!. . .Napkins in your laps!. . .Son of a biscuit-eater, don't eat the whole bucket of shrimp!"
All this would come from the side of this Mother Goose's mouth as she maneuvered her gaggle of black geese through the white party tents after matches, her foghorn dialed down 75 decibels to protect her posse's pride, her reminders to chew with their mouths closed murmured in a Spanish phrase they knew: ¡Cierra la boca!
She took them to restaurants for dress rehearsals. Schooled them on salad forks and butter knives, yes ma'ams and no sirs, burps and biscotti. Cleaned up their vocabulary by pulling out a bottle of dish detergent each time they cursed, popping the cap and squirting their medicine into their mouths, a punishment so frequent that some boys could blow better bubbles with Palmolive than with Bazooka. Lonnie, Chris, Richard and Jose matured quickly under Lez's tutelage, but her jayvee squad was buck-wild, and yes, calamity occurred. Brothers Jabarr and Kareem Rosser plundered postmatch platters of crab legs so completely that it took the breath away from the entire buffet line. Glasses shattered. China chipped. Flower-hatted women gasped.
There were two ways to tame wild horses. Breaking them was the swifter way. Gentling them took longer, but in the end they could look you in the eye. Lez gentled her horses and her kids. Set boundaries and, when the kids crossed them, barked louder than her 145-pound Great Dane with one brown eye and one blue. . .but never put a thumb on their spirits.
Lonnie could bring his boa constrictor to matches in a pillowcase, Richard his iguana in a harness. They could say We be or Who was you wit'? if they wished. They'd just lose a quarter each time off the $5 a week she pledged to pay them. They could pull up to a polo club booming Wu-Tang or Biggie Smalls from the monster speakers rigged into the trunk of Lonnie's Taurus and plop their helmets atop their 'do-rags and brim-backward ball caps, no sweat.
What did white people think the first time a tattooed, bearded, cornrowed, 6'1", 220-pound black teenager approached their polo field? "You here to work?" they'd ask Lonnie hopefully.
"We're here to ride," he'd reply.
What did Lonnie think? "Damn, you people got some change. You people livin' like we dreamin'. Yeah, yeah, I see you lookin' at me, thinkin', Dude's a monster, looks like he's got issues, and I'm lookin' back at you, too. I'd break the silence by hollerin', 'Hey, how you doin'?' Then I'd show them who I was, as a person and on the field."
On the ride to a new polo field Lez would prepare them for the stares and whispers, direct them to stow away any anger until the ride home. Once she arrived, singlemindedness was her weapon. She proceeded as if there were no opposing forces, focused so resolutely on her kids that she blew right by the stares. She didn't care what anyone thought. The deeper agenda wasn't to change white people. It was to change her kids. To make them see, by going here, that they could go anywhere.
Well, almost anywhere. One day in February 1998, just a block from his house in a West Philly neighborhood called the Bottom, Lonnie stood up for his brother Chris during an argument with a neighborhood kid. The kid vanished, but his 67-year-old stepfather appeared in a station wagon and got out of it with a gun. Lonnie and Chris bolted. Lonnie tripped and paid for it, a bullet ripping through his rectum, bladder and intestines, leaving him on a colostomy bag and unable to walk for two months, nearly ending his 15-year-old life.
The white woman shook. The white woman cried. The deeper agenda was no longer to change her kids' lives. It was to save them.
It wasn't easy for a coach, never knowing who'd be available each game. Chris, out for tardiness. Jose, out for car theft. Lonnie, out with bullet holes.
Players too young, horses too old: They got clobbered those first few years, tattooed to the tune of 25–2, 27–5, 38–3. They couldn't negotiate polo's sudden stops and turnarounds, didn't quite grasp the rules and nuances of team play, had to overcome the fear of swinging a mallet at a small ball with one hand while hanging on to 30 mph of galloping horse with the other. Chris flew off his mount three times in a minute and a half at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. Worst of all were the shellackings by those smug, crew-cut cadets at Valley Forge Military Academy, the Work-to-Riders' cultural as well as geographic rivals, just a 20-minute drive from Philadelphia. The cadets bristled when the boys left their equipment, baggy pants and shirts scattered across the academy's spit-shined stables—and made them pay for it, every time, on the field.
Just wait, Lonnie vowed to his teammates. One day we'll bring down those rich military brats. Lez's boys got serious. They stood on milk crates to practice striking the ball with their long, crooked mallets. They stood on Philly street corners on summer days, baking in their polo outfits, asking for donations so they could afford the military academy's fee to practice once a week in a real polo arena, the cadets' arena, instead of on the old weed-choked Pop Warner football field near the barn.
They'd snarl at one another when some bevy of preppies from a $30,000-a-year boarding school—girls!—began flaying them during a winter interscholastic match in an indoor arena. They'd resort to cowboy polo, bumping and slamming or playing the ball instead of the opponent, ignoring Lez's shrieks and two-fingered whistles. Lonnie thumped one girl into the railing so hard that she screamed, "F--- you!" three times. Richard banged a young lady off the ball and discovered she wasn't a lady. "You're trying to kill me!" she howled. "I'll teach you, you bitch!" Funny. The white folks didn't have to gargle with Palmolive.
On the other side of the ledger, Lez's boys introduced two new moves to a 2,000-year-old sport that dated to Asian nomadic warriors—the crossover dribble and the shake 'n' bake—and one revolutionary way to elicit a pass from a teammate: Yo, yo, yo, over here! They loved the game so much that they didn't question Lez's sanity when she packed up her winless team and began driving south one April day in 1999.
Six hours later they were at the national interscholastic tournament in Charlottesville, Va. The cadets from Valley Forge were there. The other four teams looked at the Work-to-Riders from the corners of their eyes, and then, the minute they were out of earshot, freaked. Who were they? What were they? Why were they?
Of course they were allowed to play. The scarcity of scholastic polo teams meant that none had to win its way into the nationals. On the eve of the tournament, when the teams gathered for a break-the-iceberg dinner at the Boar's Head Inn, a 160-pound cadet from Valley Forge gazed across the table at Lonnie. "If my hair ever got nappy," he announced, "I'd shoot myself."
For one terrible moment, as everyone mulled the cultural as well as physical inadvisability of that remark, no one spoke. Lonnie tasted his embarrassment, felt his rage building. . .and clamped his teeth. He'd show those damn cadets on the field.
The Work-to-Riders got demolished by 20 goals in the first game and 17 in the next, sent packing without getting to play Valley Forge. Just wait, vowed Lonnie. One day. . . .
The extra practice at the military academy paid off. Within two years the Work-to-Riders were winning as often as they lost, and Lez's whistle now pierced the air to celebrate their triumphs as well as curb their anarchy. Other teams smelled the boys' dedication. Plenty of polo people—men such as the new Valley Forge Military Academy coach, Ted Torrey, and Lancaster Polo Club president Bob Lawson—were salt-of-the-earth sorts who welcomed the pepper of the earth to their sport, inviting Lez's kids to their fields and into their homes for overnight stays. The boys luxuriated in king-sized beds. They peered into closets that dwarfed their bedrooms at home. They rode in fox hunts and steeplechases, mingled with DuPonts and Weymouths.
The cadets kept beating them, but by margins slimmer and slimmer. The two teams began to congregate before and after matches, to take pointers from each other, to bust one another's chops. And would you look at that? Sergeant First Class Chuck Grant. . .playing polo in a 'do-rag!
A black kid could keep it from his friends and loved ones for only so long. Sooner or later they'd find out that he was spending his Saturday nights holed up in some unmarried white woman's three-bedroom gray stone house in Northwest Philly. . .studying videotapes of last week's polo match.
Lonnie, exasperated when his friends thought he was playing water polo, dug up a Ralph Lauren shirt and stabbed his finger at the logo. "That's a sport?" they asked. No one from their families or neighborhoods, except for Lonnie's and Chris's mother, Sarah, ventured into the parallel universe to see the boys play.
Somehow, the less everyone else knew, the better. Chamounix became the boys' secret garden, three acres of wooded hills and fields surrounded by thousands of acres of Fairmount Park. Sparrows and roosters flapped through the barn. A rope swing dangled from a nearby tree. A creek gurgled past. The boys would rise early every summer morning and cross the crumbling pavement on foot, by bike, by bus. Their barn chores came first, and the cosmic lesson that a man must deal with the dung before he gallops to glory. Then they were free to play polo or tag or Capture the Flag on horseback, to chase frogs and butterflies, to turn trash-can lids into sleds when the winter snows came. Only when November stripped the sycamores and maples of their leaves could the crowns of the skyscrapers be seen. Only when the boys stood in stillness could the expressway's hum be heard. Right there, in the heart of the big city, they could be Huck Finns.
But at dusk they had to leave the safe place. . .and go home. Lonnie and Chris would start walking. The first mile was fine, all grass and trees. Then they'd reach the corner of Belmont and Parkside, the end of Fairmount Park. "That first step into hell," Lonnie called it. "Gunshots, prostitutes, sirens, ambulances, crackheads. Your head would be back on a swivel."
Lonnie's swivel was never swift enough. A block from his house, six months after he'd been shot and just as he was about to get back in the saddle again, he walked past a man whose knife was busy making a jack-o'-lantern of another man's head. The victim, his lip hanging off, pulled out a gun, and Lonnie ran for it again—too late. The bullet tore through the slasher's shoulder and into Lonnie's bad-luck backside.
The Little Black Girl on the Little Black Pony
Shadows deepened beneath Lez's brown eyes. Duty began devouring all 18 waking hours of the day and all seven days of the week. Her friends warned her that she was grinding herself to dust.
She took the most troubled boys into her home to live for months at a time. She paid their families' bills. She paid Jose's tuition to a charter school to distance him from the crack dealers at his old school. She mucked and pitchforked in the morning, spent afternoons in the office contacting anyone who might donate to the cause or help arrange an exodus from the Bottom or the Badlands for her brood, then headed to school to pick up the first- and second-graders, the next generation of Work-to-Riders. At night she helped them study for math tests and build papier-mâché volcanoes for science, then drove them to their doorsteps, rolling into neighborhoods that would curdle a cop's blood.
Vacation? Three or four days a year, when her closet and drawers were empty, she'd tunnel into that underwear avalanche in the corner of her bedroom, haul it all to the basement laundry and call that an off day. Paycheck? She lived small, took virtually no salary and survived on the rapidly dwindling inheritance left by her dad, who died the year Work to Ride was born.
She got more than that nest egg from her old man. She got the freedom to middle-finger a middle-class life. He was a humdinger of a dad, the kind who'd buy his four daughters air rifles for Christmas so they could blast each other with Ping-Pong balls, who'd fly downstairs with a towel tied around his neck for a cape, flinging movie tickets and crowing, "Guess what? We're all gonna see Superman together!" He learned to fly without a cape in his 40s, after he and Lez's mother divorced, and he began using his Cessna to take low-income patients to faraway hospitals that specialized in treating certain injuries and diseases. Sure, his 16-year-old tomboy, Lez, living in the suburb of Willingboro, N.J., could get a horse and a job pumping gas to pay its boarding expenses, then live out of cardboard boxes and shovel crap at racetracks after she graduated from high school. Why not? Before she was born, he'd wanted her to be a boy anyway.
Lez took Dad's cue, followed her heart—too bumpy and zigzaggy a trail to bring along anything more than an occasional boyfriend, she'd long ago decided. Funny, the tricks life plays. Dad ended up with four girls. Lez ended up with nine boys. She had to find a girl to join the family, she decided in 2001, and the minute she saw that little 12-year-old ride by the barn on a little black pony, that tomboy with the scar curling across her left cheek, Lez knew she was the one. But the girl vanished before Lez could corner her, so for six months Lez searched for her, asking the black riders on Fairmount Park's trails and friends who lived in the nearby neighborhoods to put out the word: Find the little black girl on the little black pony.
Then one day, there she was, walking into the barn with a group of kids in an after-school program called HOPE Family Center. In? Damn right Mecca Liles-Harris wanted in. In no time she was sitting at the round table in Lez's cinder-block office, writing her galloping 300-word essay requesting admission: I know how I will feel out on that field running to hit the ball air flying in my face. When I came to your last polo game just watching little Bee play I wanted to play as I was saying in my head look at him go so fast.
Bee was Jabarr Rosser, the 10-year-old phenom Lez had incubated and hatched. A comical sight, with a helmet two sizes too big bouncing on his head, legs too short to reach his stirrups, a mallet twice as long as he was dragging at his side. . .suddenly poking the ball away from an adult, flying after it as if he were Velcroed to his horse, hoisting that long hammer to 12 o'clock high and letting the head drop with a clock hand's perfect sweep, rocketing the ball into the goal even before the Aw, isn't he cute? look had drained from the faces of his 40ish foes. Killer Bee, the astonished adults christened him.
Spectators began chanting, "Bee! Bee! Bee!" when the little varmint picked another pocket and pelted another pea. Horse owners shouted, "Lemme have that kid!" to Lez, and to be honest, sometimes she wanted to croak back, "You can have him!" He shattered her windshield playing polo on foot, put a couple of dozen dents in her truck and then one in her forehead. His grades went down the toilet, and his mouth did, too; his record 20 expletives on a weekend road trip left him literally foaming at the mouth.
Lez bounced him out of the program, the sweetest bounce a kid from the Bottom ever got. She put him on a plane in 2002, a 12-year-old flying off to live with Lez's pal Sissy Jones in Burleson, Texas, at the U.S. Polo Association's central regional youth training center. He soon became the youngest player chosen to the regional allstar team and got a promise of a polo scholarship to perennial power Texas A&M if he maintained a B average.
Lonnie, Chris, Richard and Jose had grown too old to play interscholastic polo. Mecca was the one Lez needed to replace Killer Bee. She was tough enough to play tackle football with the boys, sharp enough to clean 'em all out rolling dice or pitching quarters, feisty enough to bloody a lip when push came to shove. She took to her new sport as if she were Prince Charles's daughter; in no time she was a starter on the team.
It was Mecca, when the boys were rampaging through Lez's house during a weekend sleepover, who'd call them to task and captain the cleanup. It was Mecca, when Lez was barking up a tree trying to organize a half-dozen doughnut-crazed urchins for a road trip, who'd remember to pack the ponies' Pelham bits and leg wraps. She won the Best Comedian, Best Actress, Most Athletic, Most Courageous and Miss Citizenship awards in her eighth-grade class, got into Saul High School of Agricultural Sciences on Lez's recommendation because she wanted to become a veterinarian as well as polo's first African-American female pro. . .and go ahead, give the white woman a squirt of her own Palmolive if you must, but F---, Lez murmurs when she lies awake in bed at night, if only Mecca had taken that scholarship offered by that private school in California, if only she had fled. . . .
The White Carriage
Darkness had already reached the Bottom. A million things remained to be done after dropping Mecca off at her house following polo practice that day last October, so Lez was in a hurry. It wouldn't have made any difference if she'd waited and watched the girl walk all the way to her front door. She's almost sure of that.
The phone call came to the barn a day and a half later. Lez screamed and cried and banged her fist on her desk, then jumped into her SUV and raced to Mecca's house to see for herself. The place was taped off, crawling with cops. Mecca, her mother, Sheila—a nurse's aide in a nursing home—and her mother's boyfriend, Daryl Bynum, had all been shot in the head not long after Lez had dropped the girl off, then thrown in a pile in the basement, their dinner still on the table.
The rest of that day is still like a dream to Lez, and maybe it'll stay that way if she just keeps busy enough. The Work to Ride family gathered in the barn to cry and talk and eat and cry some more. Richard tried to muck his way through it, moving from stall to stall with his pitchfork until he found himself beside Beuda, Mecca's horse, and then he broke down. Chris wept and begged Lez, "You've got to get these kids out of Philly." Two of the youngest Work-to-Riders, Bee's little brother Kareem and Lonnie's little brother John-John, were haunted by nightmares that the murderers were chasing them, too. Lonnie walked around Mecca's neighborhood wanting to grab everyone he saw—to question them or to hurt them, he wasn't sure which—before he finally gave up and sighed, "At least she don't gotta live in this f-----up-ass world no more."
Theories buzzed through West Philly. The style of the killings reeked of a drug-related execution, some said. Others babbled rumors of a winning lottery ticket that had lured the murderers to the house, or of a case of mistaken identity, or of a jealous ex-lover wreaking revenge. But when the police showed up with questions, there were only shrugs and silence.
A half-assed activist. That's what Lez called her former self, the 25-year-old college student showing up at Rainbow Coalition meetings and holding up anti-Reagan signs at rallies. Now she was walking West Philly streets where there were no rainbows or coalitions, only poor black people as far as the eye could see, and holding a different sort of sign, a poster offering a $6,000 reward for information about a 14year-old girl's murder. Wishing to God she'd begged, borrowed or stolen the money to put Mecca and her mom on a plane three months earlier when the Thacher School in Ojai, Calif., offered Mecca the $32,000-a-year polo scholarship, because maybe if the girl had visited the place, she'd have overcome her reticence about moving so far away. . .and lived.
A white horse-drawn carriage took Mecca's white coffin in the procession from the funeral home to the church. Her riderless polo pony walked behind the coffin, bearing Mecca's helmet and her boots turned backward, and the Work-to-Riders followed on horseback and on foot. They were joined by three teenage girls—polo opponents from the posh Garrison Forest School on the outskirts of Baltimore, who'd driven two hours and brought $600 they'd raised for a scholarship in Mecca's memory—and a dozen members of Pennsylvania and New Jersey polo clubs getting their first look at the Bottom.
The cool weather came. Lez worked the stalls in the mornings, just her and the animals and the NPR voice from the radio hanging from a nail, and she told everybody she was O.K. Then in the afternoons, when school let out and the kids returned to the barn, one of them would burst into tears, and Lez would go to pieces.
The Bottom Line
The viennese bronze statues and the gargantuan winged horses stared down at her. The sound of her footsteps echoed off the Italian marble floors and died in the recesses of the massive granite building. Lez entered the Fairmount Park Commission headquarters. The joint gave her the creeps.
Her landlords, the people who'd given Work to Ride its $1-a-year lease 10 years earlier, smiled and nodded and asked her to be seated at their long mahogany conference table, then cleared their throats. They weren't there to talk about the girl who'd been buried five weeks before, or to reward Lez for all she'd done so that more Meccas wouldn't be carried off in blue body bags. They were there to evict Lez from the barn.
She'd failed to hold up her end of the agreement, they said. Money that should've been spent fixing the barn's roof and plumbing had been spent taking kids and horses to polo clubs up and down the East Coast. A program that had been expected to bring in hundreds of children a year for riding lessons and camps hadn't materialized because she'd devoted so much time to nine or 10 poor kids in a rich man's sport. The commission was under budget pressure from the city. Work to Ride would ride into the sunset come July 4, 2004.
Lez's heart felt as if it were pounding its way up her throat. Sure, everything that the park commission officials were saying might, in a literal sense, be true, but. . . .
Lez's heart was pounding in her head. Sure, she had started out thinking she would take in more children, but. . . .
Now it was pounding in her ears. Sure, she'd love to have enough money and manpower to fix the roof and the bathroom and the lives of hundreds of kids, but. . . .
Her mouth opened. She shouted. The officials' heads snapped back. Lez stormed out.
There was no more crying over Mecca after that. Lez balled up all her grief, compressed it into anger and let it fly.
A firestorm. That's what suddenly engulfed the park commission. Lez set her computer and phone lines blazing, pushed every button she could think of, called in every chit. The pashas of polo began hounding the park commission with calls to plead Lez's case. A U.S. congressman, a city councilman, a TV anchorwoman all did likewise, and then the rest of the Philly media caught wind of the story and bared their teeth, too.
An uneasy truce was reached. Lez would live up to her pledges, get the the roof repaired, the plumbing and wiring fixed, the barn painted. She'd somehow raise more funds to hire more staff to start more programs to bring more children into the barn. She'd sharpen her administrative skills, start spending just as much time doing paperwork as papier-mâché volcanoes. Work to Ride got another one-year lease on life.
The Other Bottom Line
Oct. 9 will be Recognition day at Valley Forge Military Academy. It's the day when the plebes at the school's adjunct college are honored for having survived the six weeks of push-ups and sit-ups and running and marching and spit-shining that prove they're ready to endure the discipline and responsibility ahead.
Lez will lead her brood into the stands at the parade grounds, and she'll look around at all that's been won and lost in a program that's hanging on for dear life. At her elbow will be Killer Bee, who couldn't follow the rules at the Texas polo ranch, blew his chance and got sent home over the summer. And Bee's 11-year-old brother, Kareem, who took Mecca's place on the team and helped lead it to its first victory over the academy, just a few months ago. And Kareem's twin sister, Kareema, who saw how fast and far a girl could go and decided that she wants to do what Mecca left undone. All of them peering at the cadets in their tight black pants, gray jackets, black hats and white gloves, marching toward them to the beat of the band's drums and horns.
It'll be so damn freaky seeing them in those uniforms, but when Richard and Chris march by—both of them on full rides to the $30,000-a-year college—everybody had better put his white gloves over his ears, because a sound unlike any other in the school's 76 years of existence will shatter the air.
Not to worry. In no time the black cadets' white mother will run out of breath, yank her two fingers out of her mouth and hurry back to work. Don't you know? Lonnie couldn't get a full ride. . .but he's dying to be a cadet too.