SCHENECTADY They were obviously in a rush, since Judy Atchinson had just called them to see how soon they would be there, but the group of boys and men still managed to look casual as they walked down State Street.
Handholding parents led children in backpacks down sidewalks and men sat on steps smoking. Teens gathered in pockets at street corners, chatting excitedly about their day. This group stood out. They wore yellow and black sweaters, coats and sneakers — as many members of the Latin Kings do — apparently even on warm, sunny days. Up close, they had shiny silver grills covering their teeth and eager-to-obey expressions.
“Who wants to unlock the doors?” asked Atchinson hopefully. She’s not so great with keys, she admits.
Choice immediately took the lead, while the seven or eight others looked from Atchinson to Choice walking over to a side door to Atchinson again. They were there to clean the three-story brick building that houses QUEST, a Schenectady nonprofit that offers afterschool programs for kids. On Wednesday, the grand old building cast a cool shadow onto a long stretch of concrete steps out front.
Choice, a 33-year-old Albany man from South Carolina, appears to be the group’s de facto leader. Once inside the building, he calls out directions. You sweep. You mop. You vacuum the stairs. You take the second floor and you take the third. He’s already moist with sweat by the time he has a chance to answer why he and his friends have been cleaning the Schenectady nonprofit in their free time for the last month or so.
“We found out this was for the kids and it kind of hit home,” he explained. “’Cause we all got kids. But to see her doing what she’s doing. She donates her building, her time. She has a job and maintains a house. I mean, she’s doing a lot for these kids and I don’t see her getting too much help.”
They call her Ms. Judy. As executive director of QUEST, Atchinson has worked with staff members who were former gang members and children who were born into gangs. When the Kings first walked down the street to help her out, a group of kids told her they looked scary.
“They’re quite a sight,” said Atchinson. “When they walk down the street, there’s no hiding who they are or where they came from. They look tough. Metal teeth. Lots of tattoos. Lots of piercings. But they’re sweeties. They shake my hand and they want to show kids that they’re not terribly bad people. They just want to be a part of the community and they want our kids to be aware that you don’t have to wind up like they did.”
Nationally the Kings have a reputation as a ruthless street gang, involved with weapons and drugs, particularly in New York City, Chicago and Los Angeles. But not much is known about the Kings locally, except that the Amsterdam chapter was the focus of a 2012 drug raid and a handful of earlier arrests.
They looked far from tough Wednesday afternoon, as they pushed brooms and mops across a giant green and white tiled floor, scuffed from years of use.
They are young and old, skinny and big, kids who grew up elsewhere but for one reason or another wound up coming together as a tight-knit family in the Capital Region.
Darius Gonzalez is 19. Last week, he and the rest of the group (which depending on the week can include up to 14 boys and men) donated a basketball hoop to the children of QUEST.
“Before we came here, we was just goin’ like on each other’s streets and picking up garbage,” he said. “We like to volunteer for the community.”
As Gonzalez hesitated to describe his relationship with the Kings, William McMahon bent over to open a tiny door beneath a flight of stairs leading from the ground floor up to the first. Crawling into the space, he struggled momentarily to pull a Shop-Vac out.
“We’re family,” shouted McMahon from the tiny room, coming to the younger boy’s rescue. “We all became a tight-knit family a few years ago. We’re from all around the Capital District.”
He emerged with a smile, but eager to make a point.
“We’re just normal, everyday people,” he said. “If everybody looks out for one another, it won’t be so bad out here. The streets won’t be so bad. Alls it takes us is one hour out of our day once every week or every two weeks to come here and clean so the kids can have a nice spot to play all week long.”
Mcmahon is 28 and lives in Albany. He agreed to help clean up the nonprofit when Choice first called him a few weeks ago.
Choice, who wished to use only his street name for this article, said his group often walks block by block when it’s nice out, picking up garbage on the sidewalks and on front lawns.
“If nobody else is going to pick it up we’re gonna pick it up,” he said. “We’ve done around Mont Pleasant and the college area, especially when they have their parties. We just go out. If we feel like that block needs to be cleaned, we clean it.”
Choice only refers to the Kings as “a family,” and refuses to call the nationally organized Hispanic street gang a gang. Yeah, they can spot each other on the street when they see each other, he said, but it’s not what you’d think.
“It’s not about the colors,” he said. “It’s about us being human beings. It’s a glow. We see each other glow. When you get a better understanding of who you are and who people are as human beings, you get a glow within yourself. If somebody does something good for somebody else, they’re bein’ my family.”