Uni is the most outspoken in the support group, coming off at times like a well-seasoned doctor. One day he notices a group member’s swollen ankle and tells him to elevate it. Another day, he makes a man lift his arms to determine whether he has a c6 or c7 injury. It’s not unusual for him to use the words “dawg” and “autonomic dysreflexia” in the same breath.
Listening to him, it’s easy to imagine Uni sitting in a college classroom or occupying an office with framed diplomas on the wall. Instead, he spends most of his days in a one-bedroom subsidized apartment in a building where the elevator door takes a few poundings to close and a man was recently shot in the head.
Still, it beats the alternative. After leaving the hospital, Uni spent eight years in a red-brick Hyattsville nursing home, one of 10 young men in wheelchairs sharing a communal bathroom and dining room with residents more than three times their age, some mentally gone and others on their way. There, nurses walked the white-linoleum halls in soft-soled shoes, and signs alerted residents who can’t leave the building that “The month is . . . The year is . . . The weather is . . . .”
In his apartment, Uni has a kitchen where he can make pancakes when he wants and a living room big enough to watch a boxing match with friends. Here, he has his own bathroom where everything sits within arm’s reach and his own bedroom where he can leave the television tuned to ESPN. And he does, except for when he plays video games, which he controls with his mouth, or watches “The Young and the Restless,” which he has followed since he was 8, when he moved in with his grandparents after his mother’s death from a drug overdose.
Uni could easily blame where he is on the failings of others — his mother’s addiction, his father’s abandonment — but he doesn’t. When Gordon asks the group where their lives took a turn, Uni says that throughout middle school he was in classrooms designated for the smartest students. He even played the flute in the marching band.
“And what happened?” Gordon asks.
“I went to Cardozo, that’s what happened,” Uni says. “Once you get to high school, it’s totally different because you gotta deal with older students, you gotta deal with other crews.”
He was charged as a teenager with driving a stolen vehicle, which he admits he did, and armed robbery, a charge he says was wrongly pinned on him and friends who were sitting on the steps of a recreation center more than half a mile away when the crime was committed. The latter juvenile charge was dismissed, he says, and his adult record shows he was found not guilty of a charge of marijuana possession.
But then there was the fighting. It got him suspended on the second day of his junior year. It’s also how he later met Ish, now 32, whose real name is Ismail Watkins and who was a student at the school. As both men tell it, one of Uni’s friends stole a truck belonging to one of Ish’s friend’s, sparking animosity that led to blows between the two groups in the hallway.