Two guns in a gym bag

August 3, 2008

"If you're going to get in with outlaws and write about them, then you've got to be willing to break the law yourself." -- Mark Fleisher (mentor) D-Bo, a West Side heroin and crack cocaine dealer, hands me an old gym satchel, and starts rapping insistently on Jenny's front door. All morning Jenny's been slamming me with text messages, issuing a frantic series of "911" missives alerting me to her boyfriend's increasingly violent tantrums. Now here I stand next to D-Bo, the two of us here to "evict" Jenny's boyfriend, Darren, a reckless but profitable dealer of heroin and crack cocaine. Jenny and I hatched our "friendship" in a Cicero crackhouse. She's a self-titled "functional crackhead," a former exotic dancer who now works as an executive assistant to a cosmetics tycoon. Every evening, most mornings before work, and all weekend long, Jenny runs the crack circuit, usually traversing the same turf I occupy. She came out of nowhere...few autobiographical details. But she's got money, she smokes crack, she shares her money and drugs, and she helps "dysfunctional addicts" with their daily business. "Money buys love out here," a local dealer named Mike tells me, "and it buys forgiveness." He trusts Jenny, "but only about half as far as I can throw her." Whatever the case, the local gang leader has told me she's all right. When I'm out here on the streets, I defer to him on matters such as this. After all, his blessing is my protective shield. I am, in his eyes, a Black Soul. Jenny comes to the door, flings it open dramatically. She's crying. Darren smacked her a few times, I later learn. D-Bo and I enter the house. She's trying to tell us something in confidence, out of Darren's earshot. But we can't make sense of her words. We take her into the bathroom, where all she can manage to say is, "I want him out of here now. And I want my apartment keys and my car keys." Clear enough. D-Bo takes the lead. Out the bathroom, I'm tailing D-Bo to Darren's "business," a bedroom in the apartment set aside for storage and dealing of drugs. Darren's pissed. He doesn't want to leave. He's shouting, pounding the wall. D-Bo's in Darren's face, yelling at him to calm down. He grabs Darren in a half nelson, ushers him to Darren's business room, shoves him in there, tells him to sit the f**k down and shut the f**k up. He comes out to the hallway, where I'm standing, and grabs the gym bag from my hand. When he grabs the bag, I realize what's in there--a heater. A handgun. A piece. A life sentence. When he opens the bag, I see two handguns--a .45 and a .357. D-Bo grabs the bigger gun, and I'm left holding the .357. I see that it's loaded. I zip up the bag. Jenny sees D-Bo enter Darren's room, gun in hand. I'm thinking, "I'm f**ked, we're all f**ked." Jenny darts out the bathroom, her robe coming loose and exposing her body, which is naked from the waist up. She tries to storm the business room to stop D-Bo from hurting Darren, but D-Bo shoves her back into the hallway, where she sees me holding the gym bag sporting some obvious weight, like a pregnant alley cat. Her eyes meet mine, and I can see her next move. Jenny comes at me with hands groping for the bag. She wants the other gun, whose envelopment in the bag she has deduced. I back away while unzipping the bag, pull the gun out, and shove it in the back of my pants. I push her away, throw the bag aside, and guide her into a chair in the kitchen. It all happens in one unpunctuated motion. I'm too close to this situation. I'm just a writer. Why am I here? What am I going to do if D-Bo shoots Darren? I can't stop or even slow the salvo of questions battering my mind. So I focus on Jenny and try to calm her down. She keeps asking for the gun. Together we wonder what's happening in the business room. They've been in there for a while now. Time passes. Jenny's tear storm has passed; she has dressed herself in casual attire; cosmetics have been applied to her face. "What the f**k is goin' on in there?" she asks ... it's a rhetorical question, but she and I communicate almost telepathically with each other that the answer is obvious. Then she says it, "They're getting high...those motherf**kers are getting high together!" Now she's fuming. And beating on the business room door. Long and short of it: D-Bo went in there and tried to calm Darren, who quickly figured out the way to get himself off the hook and buy some extra time here at Jenny's: Get D-Bo high and then give him what he wants. D-Bo has been hurting lately. He lost his previous, lucrative "lick" (illegal money-making endeavor). Darren, knowing all of this, turns D-Bo on to some crack, a "bump" of heroin, and then cuts a deal with D-Bo to distribute Darren's narcotics in exchange for a hefty commission. D-Bo went into the business room with a purpose derived from friendship and love: Evict Darren to protect Jenny. Once in the room, his purpose changed as he discerned a way to satisfy the greater mission of self-preservation and self-advancement. Coming out of the room, D-Bo and Darren appear to be best buddies, long-time friends reunited after years of separation. Jenny's pissed, but D-Bo tells her, "This man really loves you. And he's doing his business. You can't just kick him outta here...he's got clients, he's got his s**t here ... you know, he needs time. But I think you all love each other. You really do. And you can work it out." D-Bo says all of this with a gun in his back pocket and crack and heroin in his front pockets. He says this as Darren's newest employee. We all know what's going on. Money buys love, it buys friendship, it buys forgiveness, and it buys loyalty. Most important of all, though, it buys betrayal. "If you want to understand what's going on with people's relationships on the street," a colleague once told me, "follow the money." But are "street people" any different from "the rest of us"? Can you take stock of your relationships and honestly say that they nothing to do with the distribution of either material resources (e.g., money, property) or symbolic resources (e.g., reputation, status)? Can you think of a time when you entered a relationship, did something good for someone, betrayed someone and the reason had to do with money?