Born to Jackie Peace and Robert Douglas, Robert Peace grew up in East Orange, New Jersey, which borders Newark. His parents didn’t live together, and his father sold drugs. Rob’s father was involved in his son’s life, but Rob lived with his mother and her family. His mother worked long hours at low paying jobs and sacrificed to send Peace to private middle and high schools. When Rob was seven, his father was arrested and charged with murder, convicted, and sent to prison. Rob visited him often in prison until his father’s death there, when Rob was in his mid-20s.
After high school, Peace was sponsored by a bank executive to attend Yale University, where he majored in molecular biophysics and biochemistry, and worked in a cancer and infectious disease laboratory. Peace graduated in 2002, with honors. One of his roommates was Jeff Hobbs, the author of Peace’s biography.
The next fall, a new addition came to the Class of ’98 in the tall, pale, goofy form of Hrvoje Dundovic. He’d come alone from Pula, Croatia, fleeing the economic malaise that had gripped the country since the Balkan conflict of 1992. He was living with a host family in East Orange, an arrangement made through the St. Benedict’s alumni network. Having come from a suburban seaside enclave in a nearly all-white country, he could not have ended up in a more alien environment. During nights and weekends, he rarely went outside. At school, the cultural divisions were amplified by the fact that this was a particularly tight-knit class that had been together two years already. Three months into the school year, he had yet to hear anyone, including teachers, pronounce his name correctly (HIT-of-way). He did, however, join the water polo team. He’d grown up playing water polo, which was one of the reasons he’d landed at St. Benedict’s. His strategy to fend off homesickness was to listen to his Walkman all the time and lose himself in the songs he’d grown up listening to in his bedroom back home.
“What you got in there?” Rob, now one of the leaders of the varsity team, asked out of the blue. He nodded toward the music player.
“The Misfits,” Hrvoje answered in his thick glottal accent.
Rob motioned with his hands, and Hrvoje slipped off the headphones and passed them over. Rob’s eyes went wide with distaste upon hearing the screechy wail of Glenn Danzig, the metallic confusion that was the guitar and drums. “What the hell kind of music is this?”
“Prog rock,” Hrvoje. “Or some call it punk.”
“Damn, that is awful,” Rob walked away shaking his head and laughing.
Hrovje assumed this exchange would be the end of their acquaintance, but the next day Rob came back to hear more, Black Flag in the Walkman this time. Rob knew what prog rock was now; he’d looked it up in his Encylopedia Britannica the night before. He had memorized the dates, the important figures in the movement, the intellectual thinking behind the sound. From then on, the two of them sat together on the bus rides, Rob willing himself to develop an appreciation, if not a taste, for punk rock while he coached Hrvoje through the lyrics of his own favorites: DMX, Nas, Tupac. An image that would be remembered always by the team was Hrvoje, standing in front of the bus aisle while Rob goaded him on, both hands folded into hang-ten signs and jabbing at the air, singing Tupac’s “Hail Mary” in his Croat accent.
Rob, Tavarus, Drew, Flowy, and Curtis called themselves the Burger Boyz, because between class and practice they could typically be found at the Burger King around the corner. Rob never bought food for himself. Tavarus would spring for him on occasion, a culinary version of the kickbacks he still gave to Rob for shepherding marijuana business his way. Most of the time, Rob was content to suck on ketchup packets from the condiment bins, sometimes a dozen in one sitting. He told his friends that he did it for the salt, and he would segue into a chemistry-based explanation of the NaCl exchange necessary, on the cellular level, to drive the body through the workouts to which Coach Ridley subjected them. But his friends knew he was concerned money. They’d all been to his house, registered the austerity of it, the way the lights or the heat would be shut off from time to time. By now, they called Jackie “Ma.” Sometimes she would bring home surplus food from work, which was a long fall quality-wise from the homemade spaghetti and casseroles Mrs. Gamble made for them, but the boys were always gracious. The only other food option at Rob’s house were the rows of Oodles of Noodles in the cupboard, bought from the Price Cutter on Springfield Avenue.
They all were poor, but Rob seemed to hold his poverty closer then the rest of them, to feed off it like he fed off the ketchup packets: a nutritionless condiment that powered him through miles and miles of water. He didn’t joke about being poor the way most did; he didn’t outwardly resent it either. Rather, he carried it with him under vigilant guard: the one pair of shoes he shined obsessively, the earnings figures still recorded in the composition book beside his bed, the encyclopedias he kept dusted,the refusal to spend money on anything, not even weed, which he’d been procuring though Carl, whom Rob called his uncle, since had been the most constant male presence on Chapman Street since his father’s imprisonment. His friends figured that he contained whatever anxiety he felt because he alone knew that he would one day overcome it, and not even too long from now.
* * *
THE WATER POLO TEAM was strong their junior year, in the fall of 1996. Rob, now the lead butterflyer on the swim team, played in the “hole,” the basketball equivalent of a power forward. At five eleven with a barrel chest and short but muscular arms—as well as the ability to absorb and dole out punishment—he was naturally suited to the role. The offense ran through him as he hovered five yards in front of the opponent’s goal, shrugging off defenders who would alternately lock their forearms under his armpits to pull him underwater, dig their nails (unclipped specifically for the purpose) into the flesh of his neck, angle their kneecaps to take shots at his testicles underwater, where the refs couldn’t see. Rob, often deploying the covert elbows that his father once schooled him on, was adept at shrugging these defenders off so that he could pull in a pass, take a shot himself, or kick the ball out to Flowy or Hrvoje on the wings. Tavarus, small but quick enough to cover the full width of the pool, played defense along with Drew in the goal. A big part of their fame was the intimidation inherent in a team of muscular, razor-mouthed, dark-skinned (all except for Hvroje, who looked like a pale, skeletal specter among them) inner-city boys walking into the pools of the privileged majority, there to play rough and win games dirty if need be—and talk more than their share of smack while they did it. If parents in the stands weren’t complaining to the refs about their language, then the Gray Bees figured they weren’t talking enough. The team carried with it an unbridled quality, some primal mixture of arrogance and competitiveness and zeal.
They won their first tournament at Lawrenceville, near Princeton, and came in second next, at Wesleyan University in Connecticut. Ultimately, they would come two wins shy of winning the Mid-Atlantic championships, and Flowy would be selected to the All-Regional First Team. A referee pulled him aside one weekend and told him that if he was interested, he could pull strings to put Flowy on track for a scholarship to UMass. On the nights in motels between the games, the boys—with Hvroje now a part of their group—would drink and smoke, listen to music, and play spades deep into the night before playing their harts out the following day. During the week, they would practice until after six, watch game film at Coach Riley’s house until eight, go to Curtis’s house and study until ten, at which point Mrs. Gamble would drop each of them back at his home. When she’d first begun doing this, Flowy had asked her to let him off on South Orange Avenue, a well-trafficked thoroughfare, rather than enter the narrower, darker side streets of his neighborhood on 18th Avenue. She’d told him not to be silly, she’d lived in East Orange for over three decades and knew how to check her mirrors.
At school, they began working with college guidance counselors—even Tavarus, who in two years had raised his 0.7 GPA to 2.1. Flowy was extremely aware of the financial realities that lay between him and something like college—which, unlike St. Benedict’s, could not be paid for with a few hundred dollar’s worth of Social Security each month—but that referee’s voice made a resonant echo in his head: scholarship, scholarship, scholarship. Curtis, the only one whose parents had gone to college, was already listing party schools, particularly in Atlanta; Morehouse appealed to him. And Rob was thinking about Seton Hall, eight blocks from his home and his mother. His counselor told him that he should apply wherever he wanted to apply—that with Rob’s grades and his leadership accolade (not to mention a combined SAT score of 1510 out of 1600, placing him in the ninety-ninth percentile nationally), it couldn’t hurt to visit a few of the top-tier schools if only to see what they looked like. The school organized and paid for these visits, which would begin the following summer before senior year. Rob went ahead and signed up for the Ivy League tour; he didn’t take the prospect seriously, but he would travel anywhere given the free opportunity.
Junior year, as the Burger Boyz would remember it, ended with a party. Rob walked the mile to Curtis’s house, where Tavarus and Flowy Bmet up with them. They took a few hits of weed together and then all walked west as the sky darkened, their crew looking the same as any other group of young men trolling around East Orange that night. They said hey to anyone they passed, people they knew and people they didn’t. They smoked continuously and drank from brown-bagged bottles of Cisco wine, past the Seton Hall campus and into South Orange, where the wider streets curved beneath blooming cherry blossom trees and the green lawns were lit by yellow lights embedded in the mulched gardens. They ended up at Columbia High, the public school servicing this wealthy area. Rob’s friend from Mt. Carmel, Jason Delpeche, went to school here and had invited them to a dance. Drew met them in the gymnasium. There were supposed to be girls there. The Burger Boyz tended to do well with girls.
The next fall, a new addition came to the Class of ’98 in the tall, pale, goofy form of Hrvoje Dundovic. He’d come alone from Pula, Croatia, fleeing the economic malaise that had gripped the country since the Balkan conflict of 1992. He was living with a host family in East Orange, an arrangement made through the St. Benedict’s alumni network. Having come from a suburban seaside enclave in a nearly all-white country, he could not have ended up in a more alien environment. During nights and weekends, he rarely went outside. At school, the cultural divisions were amplified by the fact that this was a particularly tight-knit class that had been together two years already. Three months into the school year, he had yet to hear anyone, including teachers, pronounce his name correctly (HIT-of-way). He did, however, join the water polo team. He’d grown up playing water polo, which was one of the reasons he’d landed at St. Benedict’s. His strategy to fend off homesickness was to listen to his Walkman all the time and lose himself in the songs he’d grown up listening to in his bedroom back home.They landed at the next party and immediately became its center, cluster-dancing in slow motion under strobe lights, surrounded by girls, sneaking outside for hits of marijuana, feeling the excited beating of their own hearts as the culmination the last three years altogether, three years that had formed them somehow, without any of them being aware. In the fall of 1994, they’d been boys, followers of other boys. Now, in the spring of 1997, they were young men, leaders who had earned the right to strut the way they did. And there, ten, twenty years from now? On that night, they were confident, debonair,that they would rule the city of Newark.(The Short and Tragic Life of Robert Peace, Jeff Hobbs, pages 98-101)
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The Pied Piper of Hamelin (German: Rattenfänger von Hameln, also known as the Pan Piper, the Rat-Catcher of Hamelin) is the title character of a legend from the town of Hamelin (Hameln), Lower Saxony, Germany. The legend dates back to the Middle Ages, the earliest references describing a piper, dressed in multicolored (“pied“) clothing, who was a rat-catcher hired by the town to lure rats away  with his magic pipe. When the citizens refuse to pay for this service, he retaliates by using his instrument’s magical power on their children, leading them away as he had the rats. This version of the story spread as folklore and has appeared in the writings of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, the Brothers Grimm, and Robert Browning, among others.
There are many contradictory theories about the Pied Piper. Some suggest he was a symbol of hope to the people of Hamelin, which had been attacked by plague; he drove the rats from Hamelin, saving the people from the epidemic.
The earliest known record of this story is from the town of Hamelin itself, depicted in a stained glass window created for the church of Hamelin, which dates to around 1300. Although the church was destroyed in 1660, several written accounts of the tale have survived.