The first time I had a gun pulled on me was a joke. Not to the guy with the shotgun; he was serious enough to park his Cutlass, snatch the shotty out of his trunk and point it at a crew of 11- and 12-year-olds in the street who hadn’t jumped onto the sidewalk fast enough when he beeped at us to move.

But it was funny to us when we saw the car approaching, funnier when we made plain that we had no plans to pause our stop-grab football game to allow him to pass through and hilarious when we all scattered after we saw the gun.

Maybe in the years since, I’ve laughed as hard as I did when I escaped to the alley between Mellon Street and North Negley Avenue that night in Pittsburgh, overcome with adrenaline and choking on saliva. But I can’t remember anything since being as funny as that was to me then.

Of course, the memory of this — the shine of the streetlights, the taunts at the driver, the screech of his tires, the pump of the shotgun — rattles me now. As do dozens other experiences from my childhood, each flashback an articulation of both the hyper-tenuousness of my life then and my obliviousness to it. It felt less like I was living and more like I was controlling a V.R. simulation with a joystick. And any situation, regardless of how deadly, could be escaped with an up-up, down-down, left-right, left-right, select-start. I was good as long as my fingers didn’t slip.

Black men and boys die from violence more often than anyone else in America. A study by the Violence Policy Center reveals that in 2016 the homicide rate for black men was 37 per 100,000 people — about seven times the national rate. I’ve become so accustomed to that possibility that I’ve found some comfort in it. I’m not afraid of dying from violence because I’ve spent my life seeing it, thinking about it, reading about it and sometimes even laughing about it. (Is it still gallows humor if your neck is in the noose too?) “Niggas get shot every day, B” isn’t just an oft-quoted line from Cam’ron in “Paid In Full.” It’s a mantra.

The only thing that’s changed is my response to it. The adolescent dismissiveness of that kid in the alley morphed into performative hypermasculinity in my teens — an intentionality with how I walked and talked and fixed my face and even kept my shoes untied. I couldn’t be threatened if I was a threat, you know?

I carried remnants of that performance into my 20s and early 30s, with alterations when appropriate. (I began tying my shoes.) I also found a new strategy that I continue today: prayer. I pray for people I know who were murdered. I pray for the now-dead students who sat in my classrooms during my two years as a full-time substitute teacher at Wilkinsburg High School — I cap the list at six because those are the only names I remember. I pray for Kenneth Alford Jr., whom I and every other ballplayer in Pittsburgh knew as Stubbo until he was shot in the neck in 2006. There are others; some I know only by nickname, others I remember only by face. Maybe if I remember these people and say their names, it’ll save me and mine.

I’m 40 now, and the deaths aren’t slowing, but the causes of death are changing. It’s been several years since a person I knew was shot to death. But just two months since one died of a heart attack. Three months since one died of cancer. A year since a ruptured aneurysm killed another. And today, when the threat of violent death isn’t as immediate as it was when I was 15, I’m finally, for the first time in my life, scared to death of death. So scared that the fear has funneled me into the absurd.

I usually learn of new deaths now through Facebook. A person I know will die, and people will reference it on their posts. The actual cause of death, however, can be harder to find on day one. When this happens now, my first move is to check The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s website for any information. If none’s there, I’ll Google the name. Hoping not just to find the cause of death, but that the person was killed.

I first noticed this compulsion four years ago, when I learned through Facebook that my old barber died. The sadness I felt was matched by a macabre desire to learn that his death was a violent one. (It was not. He died of cancer.) That feeling returned each time a relatively young person I knew died and I didn’t yet know the cause of death. And despite the reality that black women and girls are hypervulnerable to homicide, too (their homicide rate in 2016 was 5 per 100,000, triple the rate for white women and girls), I react this way only when it’s black men in their 30s and 40s like me, who performed some sort of hood alchemy to escape their teens and early 20s without becoming “R.I.P.” T-shirted.

I’m not certain why I do this, but I have a theory: I’ve learned to associate black maleness with early death. And because I’m so familiar with the possibility of violence, I’ve convinced myself that I can avert it. I can sense when the stillness of the street is a precursor to danger, like the moment before a storm hits and the air adopts a menacing tranquillity. I know the shuffle of someone carrying them tools in baggy jeans. I can feel it when the clamor at a nightclub shifts from festive to menacing. I know how to run. I know how to sit in public spaces (with my back facing a wall, so that I can see everything). I know how to park in lots (with the back in first, to make a quick getaway if necessary). I know how to look like I know how to fight. Of course, none of this matters if a stray bullet has my name on it. But I believe it does, and that belief has been a security blanket.

But how do you duck from a stroke? How do you run when cancer decides to chase you? How do you mean-mug a blood clot?

There are measures you can take to decrease the likelihood of dying that way. Doctors you can see. Pills you can swallow. Kale you can eat. But the same ecosystem of susceptibilities that heightens the risk of violent death at 17 just transfers that risk inside our adult bodies. We age out of bullets and into high blood pressure. And so, when I hear about another death, a part of me prays it was murder sometimes because the thought of a 37-year-old ex-teammate dying that way is less scary than an undetected tumor or a diabetic coma. I pray for murder sometimes because violence is a familiar phantasm — a ghoul you loathe, sure, but know well enough to maybe share a laugh with it at lunch. But this new terror? I pray for murder sometimes because dying any other way when you’re black and male and 29 or 41 just isn’t fair.

Two months ago, I was sitting in a Whole Foods parking lot and browsing Facebook when I learned of the death of a 39-year-old I’d known since we were in our early teens. We’d played with and against each other on basketball teams at the Homewood Y.M.C.A. and the Shadyside Boys & Girls Club, in high school, summer leagues, fall leagues and over-30 leagues. We were never close, but always cool. He was also active — still hooping and playing baseball and still coaching — and looked to be in good shape. The last time I’d seen him, I think, was at the LA Fitness in Bakery Square last year. Cause of death? Heart attack.

The Whole Foods visit is a part of my evening routine. I stop there when I leave the gym, mostly because their salad bar makes me feel grown. As usual, I’d backed into my parking space, so I was facing the store’s entrance when I read the news, watching the (mostly) white customers enter and exit. One was holding an avocado. I remembered that my doctor shared that they were a source of healthy fats.

I also remember now as I write this that there is a paradox of refreshing these sorts of memories in front of (white) people anxious to consume them. Do I attempt to alleviate some of this mess about black death by writing through it in public, as I’m wont to do when stuff needs working through? Or do I swallow it and pretend it isn’t gnawing at me, because I can’t let them see me — see us — sweat?

I don’t know. I do know that the need for quick getaways sometimes feels foolish when I’m at Whole Foods or dropping my daughter off at preschool now. But the familiarity of it makes me feel like “I got this. Makes me remember what I’ve escaped. Makes me feel safe. Makes me forget that I never will be.

Damon Young (@DamonYoungVSB) is the author of “What Doesn’t Kill You Makes You Blacker” and a founder of VerySmartBrothas.

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