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I Went from Selling Crack to College — Thanks to the Work Ethic of My Poor Black Community

I came from a place where everyone hustled. The work ethic that helped me sell drugs also got me to college.
 
 
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A photo of the author, center, with his friends Darnell Baylor, left, and T., right.(Credit: Heezy Bear (heezybear.com))

 

My grandma Famma Gill worked her ass off. Her worn, plump, diabetic hands scrubbed crud off chipped dishes minutes after she finished a 10-hour shift. She washed clothes, took care of her husband, did unpaid church work and cooked for 17 of my cousins and me at times. I don’t remember her taking a day off. She was a hardworking homeowner in the inner city who clocked in every day until she died.

And even though she prayed for me daily in the midst of her task, I stilled ended up on the corner like most of the men in my family. I didn’t adapt to her religion, but I did inherit her work ethic.

At 18, I’d often slice the tips of my fingers up while shaving marble-size pieces of crack into smaller bits before shoving them into long glass vials that I rocked off for $6 a pop. I’d suck the blood off my fingers, rubber band the vials into a bundle, tuck them in my sock and then go off to my block around 8:30 a.m. to set up shop for my 10- to 12-hour shift.

My homie Lil Duncan with the chubby face, who was about four years younger, would normally be shutting down and on his way to school. He sold heroin and normally started around 4 a.m. (you gotta beat the sunset to slang heroin) and then closed in time to drop his little sister off at school and make his first-period class.

* * *

On any random night, midway through my shift or around the time Lil Duncan was reopening his, you could catch us and another 40-plus loudmouth, Niked-up teens and early 20-somethings in a circle on our east Baltimore corner. Crackhead Lenny and his wife, Loraine, would most likely be in the center, beating the shit out of each other like gladiators.

“Left hook, Loraine! Left hook, Loraine!” some kids would yell as she’d belt Lenny into a three-point stance or flat on his ass. Loraine liked to step back, Ali-style, and dance a little while waiting for Lenny to gather himself.

The crowd would thicken, and sometimes pudgy-pale cops would come by to watch and make side bets like, “Lenny, you’re goin to jail if I lose another 50 on you!”

I never gambled on junkie fights, but I’d always watch. Duncan couldn’t care less; he’d scrape the block for more sales. He’d serve your customers while you were goofing off and watching the match. Duncan had a relentless money-making approach, rarely joking, never killing time and only finding joy in hitting his sales quota, which changed daily, just like the staff on our corners.

* * *

“Dat nigga done! Dat nigga done!” was the usual chant when Lenny couldn’t get back up. I saw Loraine beat Lenny’s ass a thousand times.

I remember one time when Lenny had a “Rocky” moment — he lunged forward with an overhand right that connected perfectly with Loraine’s chin, and she swallowed the blow like a small pill and finished him off with two to the gut and a firm hook that stood him straight up before laying him out like school clothes.

She then picked him up as always and gently placed him on a stoop like an infant before claiming her prize — $20 worth of crack and some high fives from us. The guys on the block I hustled with lived for these fights, or dope fiend races, or drinking contests or anything else they could bet on, and most of these events ended the same. The losers trading money for cheap shots from the winners, as we all reported back to our posts.

 
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