Origins II: Langston “FD” Hamdi
Editor’s Note: We are currently running excerpts from Philip Becnel’s new satirical novel, Freedom City. In it, he envisions a fascistic post-Trump America. But, fortunately, a band of merry monkey wrenchers sets out to bring down the bastards.
This week, we offer chapter 2.
An aside, if you want to see more of Freedom City, without waiting for more excerpts here, you can purchase the complete text from a variety of online retailers, some of which you can see at this site.
Gazing out the window of the W3 bus to Anacostia Station, Langston Hamdi, affectionately known as “FD” (pronounced “Ef-dee”), twenty-five, artist, skin like polished walnut, dreadlocks like an aloe plant—a stoic, bright, hulking young man—brooded over his mission of revenge. When his brooding began to feel too much like hatred, FD pulled a permanent marker from his bag and began to draw on the back of the seat in front of him.
The hatred was always there, like the whiff of urine in certain alleys. But nothing in the world—not Nana, not music, not alcohol, not weed, not Prophesy, not Anijah, not D’Andrea, not Darrisha, not even Solette—nothing eviscerated, at least temporarily, the ever-present undercurrent of hatred more than the simple, selfless act of beautifying his environment. Starting at the bottom, he drew a canister that resembled a bullet and then a long, sloping “S,” ending midway up the seat.
“If art doesn’t make us better, then what on earth is it for?” his father often said, quoting poet Alice Walker.
No man had had as big an influence on FD as Bilal Hamdi: father, husband, musician, philosopher, troublemaker, and hustler—now two years deceased—a victim of lung cancer caused by his long-time day job: abatement worker. His father’s death had upended FD’s world, causing him to drop out of Howard University, where he majored in Engineering. It had been Bilal who had given Langston his nickname, which stood for “Full Deck”—as in, “That boy there’s playing with a full deck of cards.”
This was in contrast with many others in the Woodland Terrace public housing complex who had been dealt something less than a full deck. Many of the boys FD grew up with were now dead or in prison. Most of the girls his age already had kids old enough to refer to him as “Uncle Ef-dee.” The smarter ones had moved to Maryland a long time ago. But FD, like his father before him, stayed put—a monk with a Metro card and some talent whose feet brushed poverty, addiction, oppression, and violence, but whose legs and torso somehow managed to walk above the pitiless water that drowned everyone around him.
Many disaffected young men, and some women, scribbled on various surfaces with a Sharpie Magnum, but FD preferred a more refined marker, the Sharpie Chisel, which had a much narrower tip and gave his art more detail. With practiced skill, he sketched out the familiar face: prominent lips, nose, balding dome, careless beard, and downward sloping eyes. He had to stop there. Drawing his father’s eyes always brought FD to the verge of tears. To him, those eyes were the embodiment of love, and like drawing anything ethereal, it was difficult to make them look as perfect as he could see them in his mind.
The W3’s path took FD west, down Morris Road, zigzagging over to Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue and the heart of Anacostia. His phone rang—the same unfamiliar 703-number: a Virginia number. He refused the call and switched off his phone completely. He had heard of people getting caught doing stuff because their phones tried to log into wireless networks near the scene of the crime and ended up leaving a trail.
Gentrification had not touched Anacostia as it had the parts of D.C. west of the Anacostia River, though speculators had long drooled over the area’s obvious potential. The bus passed an overweight mother pushing a stroller and talking on her flip-phone. She wore glittery flip-flops and a tube top, her stomach jutting out on all sides. A group of older men congregated outside a barbershop were laughing at something. One was holding his sides. A young couple whispered to each other near a wall, on which was spray-painted the self-righteous, repugnant face of President Mike Pence. Above it was the declaration, “Fuck Racism.” The mural was FD’s work, and around it were his people.
But he was heading east today, out of the city. With a few lines he connected the sloping “S” of the oxygen tube to his father’s nose and used a fingertip to strategically smear some of the ink around the eyes to give them depth. He then stowed his marker, slung his backpack over his shoulder, swiped his Metro card, and was soon underground heading to Branch Avenue Station. From there he would take the Route 30 bus to Clinton Fringe, in Prince George’s County, Maryland, where lived one Officer John G. Meyer of the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD).
Ironically, Officer Meyer was at that moment on patrol near FD’s home, which was three blocks from the MPD’s Seventh District Station. Therefore, Officer Meyer wouldn’t be home again until sometime after 6 a.m. the following morning, when his shift ended. FD had made sure of this.
It had been a month earlier when Officer Meyer and his squad of jump-outs—adrenaline pumping, guns drawn—had stormed into the courtyard behind FD’s apartment, where he lived with his eighty-year-old Nana. Like every night of the week that FD could remember, the courtyard was filled with people, some smoking weed, all talking and joking. And like on many nights, the police barged in on the party, barking orders, frisking people, shining flashlights in the corners. FD had been through this a thousand times. He watched the scene from the safety of his backdoor stoop, a joint in one hand, an iPhone filming the spectacle in the other. His unflinching attitude and the fact that he was documenting the scene clearly irritated Officer Meyer, who marched over to FD, red-faced, yanked him out of the doorway, and unceremoniously threw him to the ground. Rifling through FD’s pockets, Officer Meyer found three ounces of weed inside a Ziploc bag.
FD was arrested for possession with the intent to distribute. Possession of up to two ounces of marijuana was legal in D.C., provided it was only smoked on private property. FD had been in his doorstep, which was private property—but Officer Meyer had claimed on the arrest paperwork that the weed was plainly visible in the courtyard, a public area, at the time of the stop. Worse, as the arrest had happened so quickly, FD had been unable to lock his phone, and the video he took had mysteriously disappeared. The lawyer he retained, some hotshot recommended by the real neighborhood drug dealers, assured FD the case had a good chance of being dismissed at the next motions hearing, since they had gotten an “alright” judge. But that still left the matter of repaying Officer Meyer for his flagrant violation of FD’s civil rights. Nothing stokes hatred quite like having one’s nose rubbed in the urine-imbued humiliation of injustice.
At the Clinton Fringe stop, he walked south for a quarter mile on Branch Avenue and took a dirt path that led through a patch of woods on the outskirts of Officer Meyer’s neighborhood. FD knew the way because he had previously been there to retrieve his phone from the undercarriage of Officer Meyer’s shit-brown Chevy Cavalier (“Find My iPhone”: the poor man’s GPS tracker). The neighborhood was mixed, working class, and rural. There were cars on blocks and dogs on chains, and many of the yards were strewn with plastic swimming pools, trampolines, and children’s bikes. Meyer lived alone—or at least it appeared he did. His lawn was unkempt, more dirt than grass, no toys, no dog shit; the blinds were dusty; and there was no second vehicle.
FD knew that as a young black man he would draw attention walking alone, and so he walked with purpose, his chest jutting out with the confidence of someone who belongs there. He imagined his father in a hardcore band, pounding on his bass guitar in front of a mostly-white audience of teenage punk rockers. He belonged there; I belong here. It was late enough that there was nobody on the street. A dog barked at him from a window. FD ignored it. He followed the streets to Officer Meyer’s blue clapboard rambler, strode across the yard, and glanced at the neighbors’ houses just long enough to ascertain that nobody was outside. He then kicked open the front door with a single blow from his size 13 boot.
Inside, he closed the door and stood still. His heart was beating Bad Brains-fast. That was what had inspired his father as a kid to become something different: seeing the Bad Brains—before there was even a thing called “hardcore” music—perform in the courtyard at Woodland Terrace. FD was not even born when the Bad Brains came, but his father had told him the story a thousand times, how the whole project stared at the band like they were crazy—which they were. However, that night Bilal Hamdi decided to break from the mold, scream at injustice, and make his own music.
FD listened for any noise that might indicate he had drawn attention to himself. In the silence of the night, the explosion of the door bursting open had seemed deafening, but he knew it would quickly be forgotten, provided nobody had seen him. After two minutes, hearing nothing inside or outside of the house, he decided it was safe to get to work, but he waited longer still, to let his eyes adjust to the darkness. He donned his gloves, opened the dingy blinds to let in the moonlight, and went about searching the house.
Officer Meyer’s laptop was beside his bed. It was a P.C. This was convenient because FD could remove the hard drive and bypass the password, whereas most Macs are encrypted. He slipped the laptop into his backpack. In a kitchen utility drawer he found a thumb drive and an old phone. The battery was dead on the phone, so he couldn’t tell if it was locked or not. He tossed it and its charger in his bag. He looked in the freezer, where he found a police-issued body-worn camera, a bottle of Jack Daniels, and an envelope containing eight hundred dollars in cash. He stuffed the cash in his pocket, poured the whiskey down the sink, and put the camera in his bag. He returned the empty bottle and envelope to the freezer.
A thorough search of the house turned up two more thumb drives, a digital camera, a massive collection of pornographic DVDs—mostly of the girl-on-girl variety—and a chrome .357-magnum revolver. FD kept the electronics and the pistol, and as an afterthought swished Officer Meyer’s toothbrush in the toilet before replacing it on its holder. He then looked out the window to make sure none of the neighbors were out on their porches. When he was confident the coast was clear, he stepped out the front door, closed it as best he could behind him—the wood of the doorjamb was split in two—and used an alcohol wipe to clean his boot print from the door. He then walked casually back to Branch Avenue. He had fifteen minutes to catch the last Route 30 bus back to the Branch Avenue Station.
FD couldn’t wait to see Officer Meyer again at the motions hearing in a couple days. He would have no idea it was FD who’d broken into his house. Perhaps, FD thought, there might even be something on the electronic devices that could help his attorney get the case thrown out.
An hour and thirty minutes later, the W3 dropped him off on Langston Place in Woodland Terrace. Although the street was named for the poet Langston Hughes, it had been for this street that FD was named, not by his father but by his mother. It was where FD’s grandfather, his father’s father, during the 1970’s, had changed their family surname from Washington to Hamdi. The family had not remained Muslim past his grandparents’ generation. FD walked up Ainger Place, passing a fourteen-year-old lookout named Junior, who was perched in his wheelchair.
“Sup, Uncle Ef-dee?”
“You got a DVD player?”
Junior nodded. FD handed him one of Officer Meyer’s DVD’s: “Squirting Stories, Vol. 9.”
“Don’t tell anyone where you got it.”
FD heard the party before he turned into the courtyard. A thumping bass, laughter, a hundred people congregated, young and old, the smell of weed, past a pit-bull on a chain, kids feeding it pieces of a biscuit, hood-rats jockeying for his attention, several obligatory gangsta hugs: this was home.
He slipped into his Nana’s house, closed his bedroom door, and dumped the contents of the backpack onto his mattress. The gun bounced to the floor. He hid it in the same hole in the wall where he kept his bankbook and then began removing the hard drive from Officer Meyer’s laptop. FD knew about computers from working at Best Buy, and he had a collection of SATA drives for just this purpose. He screwed the hard drive into the SATA and plugged it into his own laptop. Within twenty minutes he found a Word document with a list of passwords, plus Officer Meyer’s Outlook backup and web history.
FD switched his phone back on. It was almost 3:30 a.m. He had two more voicemails from the same 703-number. But he only had three hours before Officer Meyer would arrive home, discover the break-in, and start changing his passwords. FD had a long night ahead of him. He put in his ear buds, turned up the volume, and got to work.