100 YEARS: A JOURNEY TO END A VICIOUS CYCLE, CHAPTER III & IV, COPYRIGHT © 2015, MARK L BAYNARD, WWW.JOURNEY100YEARS.COM
My Single Parent Mother
Most of my very young years were spent between my mother’s house and my dad’s house, although I spent the majority of my time living with my mother. My mother was a single parent who worked hard for minimum pay to raise five children alone. While living with her, I attended school in the state of Delaware; I would visit dad in Alabama once or twice a year. My dad was more financially stable than my mother, but my mother was a very hard worker; for most of her life, she held two jobs. At the time, I did not see the value in her hard work, but I now respect and appreciate all that she did and how hard she worked for us. There were times when we would have her bath water ready for her when she got home from her first job of the day so that she could get ready for her second job. She would get in the tub, clean up, and head right back out the door. My mother was a very loving and caring person and I learned a lot from her. Even in her absence, she did her best to keep us well cared for and safe; we were not allowed to let anyone into the house while she was at work. She prepared us for certain tricks that some people may try, such as claiming to be a distant relative so we would let them in the house. One exception to this rule was Dexter; he was my brother’s friend and one of my mother’s favorites. There was also Terrell, a very good and popular dancer, whom my mother allowed to live with us for a while. My mother treated him like a son, and we treated him like a brother. I learned how to cook food and wash dishes, to respect my elders, and others.
Though my mother worked very hard to sufficiently provide for us, our household constantly struggled. I did not understand why we were financially poor; this conflict began to brew in my heart, and I started to blame my mother for our financial state. I understood that she loved us, and we were taught to appreciate the things which we had, but I did not want to be poor, and I was filled with embarrassment and shame. When I visited dad I noticed the very obvious difference between my parents’ finances situations; at my dad’s, there was minimal tension and challenges while at my mother’s, and life was very difficult. Others would tease us for the clothes that we wore; sometimes we didn’t get new school clothes at the start of school, and I often had to share clothes with my older brother. Sometimes we shopped at the Goodwill Thrift Store, or discount department stores such as Gaylord’s, but there were times when my mother could not afford to buy us school clothes. In these cases, we would get hand-me-downs or just wore the same clothes that we had from the previous year. I can remember the feelings of dread on the first day of school; everyone else would be in their new school clothes that their parents bought for them, and they would laugh at and tease us for wearing last year’s clothes.
While my mother was very loving and caring, she disciplined us by spanking us when we misbehaved. I quickly learned to not cry in the midst of physical pain, even though my brother and sisters would encourage me to cry, saying, “Cry Mark, cry.” I was more likely to cry over something emotional than physical. I once got my fingers closed in the door of my mother’s old Nova car. The door of that car had a small gap in the door panel; it did hurt my fingers, but there was no real damage done to my hand. I chose not to cry or make a noise because I did not want to get into trouble for getting my hand closed in the door.
When I first arrived in Wilmington, Delaware, I was able to speak both English and Spanish; while living in Spain with my father, the school I attended taught both languages, and whenever I went to the store for my step-mother, I had to speak Spanish. One year while in Spain, I had to wear a clown costume to a school Halloween party, complete with a traumatizing wig and embarrassing red nose; I currently strongly dislike clowns! I used to tell my mother the meaning of different things in Spanish, and she was always very excited that I was able to speak both languages. I would tell her what a television was in Spanish, and I also knew the word for a television that didn’t work (we had a television that didn’t work). At that time, I thought that I was fairly smart, and I did very well in my classes. I liked to help my teachers, and to learn new things. I frequently got notes on my report cards suggesting that I was the teacher’s pet. At the end of that school year, however, a traumatic experience took place; I did not realize it at the time, but I now see how this change contributed to my descent into darkness. My good grades allowed me the opportunity to be skipped ahead from the 1st to the 3rd grade and, while this seems like a positive thing, I had trouble learning to keep up with the older children, and to focus in class. I day dreamed a lot, and I struggled with paying attention to the teacher. My teachers soon realized that I still depended a great deal on them for assistance, and that I needed more attention than the other children. My teachers decided that I should be put back into my right grade, the 2nd grade, for the remainder of the year, but my confidence immediately started to decline at this point.
My mother was a very good mother in my opinion; she did not have any formal education but she worked hard at two very low-paying jobs from as far back as I can remember. She always put her children first. She was very stubborn, and would not accept any handouts simply because she was a single parent raising five children. When I was very young, she used to receive food stamps (back then food stamps came in the form of colored paper money, not a credit card), but this did not last long because my mother refused to accept assistance. When I used to go to the store with the food stamps, I would only go to the checkout line if it was empty; I was embarrassed by the food stamps, even though everyone in my neighborhood had them, too. There were times when I would head to the line and turn around if someone else was there. Shortly after this my mother started working two jobs; one of her jobs was at a nursing home where she cleaned up after the elderly, and her second job was at a country club where she cleaned up after other people. My mother worked very hard for many years. She taught us many valuable lessons, though I didn’t take many of them to heart until years later; she kept very few secrets from us in her efforts to prepare us for the harsh reality that awaited us out in the world, and was honest about life. She told us about the people who hung out on the street corners selling drugs, and I knew that I did not want to be that type of person when I grew up.
We ate Thanksgiving dinner at my grandmother’s house each year. Thanksgiving was a very big holiday for us; everyone would come together and visit with one another. All of my cousins and I always had fun being around each other, and every Thanksgiving we watched two great football games. We would watch the Detroit Lions play during the first game, and we would watch the Dallas Cowboys play during the second game. I was (I still am) a very big Dallas Cowboy fan who enjoyed watching them play on television. I would celebrate when they won, and some of my cousins would tease me whenever they lost. After the games on television, we would play outside, sometimes racing up and down the street.
One year my mother was very upset with some of the family and she refused to take us to our grandmother’s house. We were disappointed because we wanted to eat Thanksgiving dinner, and we did not want to miss out on the largest family gathering of the year. When news of my mother’s refusal to attend Thanksgiving dinner got around, several family members stopped by the house in an effort to convince her to come to the dinner. My mother ignored the knocking, and refused to open the door. She also instructed us to not open the door. Eventually, however, my mother gave in and allowed us to have Thanksgiving with the rest of the family.
All the lessons my mother taught us were backed by her examples. My siblings and I watched her quit smoking cigarettes, and then return to smoking shortly after. She eventually found the strength to quit for good, but this is one example of how she taught us to not give up. My siblings and I watched her frequently put her life on hold in order to take care of us. On pay day my mother would sometimes buy each of us a famous Italian G and P $2.00 sub. Today, they are still in operation in Wilmington, Delaware, and I have many fond memories of the incomparable taste and size of a G and P sub. Despite the fact that we were economically poor, my mother somehow managed to provide us with many good times. If there wasn’t enough food for all of us, she would do without so we could eat. I have seen a number of family photos in which my mother had spent her small wages to buy one of us a birthday cake. If there is a parenting award, then my mother would be a great candidate for it. We were taught the difference between right and wrong, how to take care of ourselves in the home, how to cook meals, and to treat everyone fairly and with respect. My mother preached adamantly against stealing and taking things that did not belong to us.
One year, my mother bought me and my brother a pair of metal skates. This was the first and only pair of skates that I owned. Whenever I rode those skates, they made a loud sound as the metal scraped against the concrete. While I never really learned how to skate properly, I liked and appreciated my skates very much. Many years later as an adult, we rented the skating rink for my daughter; I put on a pair of skates and realized that I still could not skate! I had to stay close to the wall and I could only go straight forward, no dancing, or turning, or anything else. Skating will never be my strong point, but I do thank my mother for those loud metal skates so many years ago.
During the holidays at my grandmother’s house, most of my cousins and I used to walk to her house on the other side of town in order to stay over during the weekend. Whoever called her first was allowed to stay. We would help out around the house and she would give us a few dollars. At that time, penny candy was popular and I would buy between fifty and one hundred different candies. Even later in life when she needed to use a walker and was in and out of the hospital, I really enjoyed sharing time with my grandmother.
If I were to describe the type of child I was, I would probably use such adjectives as “good” or “average.” Before any of the drugs or criminal activity, I was a fairly normal child; I spent a lot of time playing by myself, and had a collection of Hot Wheel cars that I used to have fun with. I would pretend that the cars were people, and I acted out things that I had seen or heard about. I would pretend that the cars attend parties, and sometimes make the cars get into fights; you could say I had an imagination typical for a young boy. Sometimes, out in the street, I played football games with myself. “How is it possible to play a football game with yourself?” you might ask. Well, I would throw the ball high in the air and run ahead to make the catch. I imagined I was a player on my favorite team, the Dallas Cowboys, and was playing against another team; most of the time my team would win, but once in a while I would allow the other team to win.
I also used to play football with my cousins and friends sometimes. They all liked to play “free for all” football, which is where someone throws the ball into the air and everyone plays for themselves. I never wanted to get the ball during these games because everyone would tackle the person who caught the ball. After a while, someone caught on to my dislike of the game, and they would throw the ball to me so that I would get tackled. I used to be afraid of heights, and I can also remember being afraid to walk across bridges, even flat ones. Throughout the city of Wilmington, there were a few bridges we had to cross whenever walking to the other side of town. Everyone else would walk straight across the bridge, and I would stop and hesitate. Despite the fact that I was afraid, my cousins and friends continued to walk and threaten to leave me. Eventually, I would get the courage to run across the bridge, but the process would be repeated on the way back and every following time.
One time, some of my cousins and I stayed the weekend over at my Aunt Shelly’s house. This particular aunt had very clear, and sometimes stringent, rules in her house. We weren’t allowed to play the radio, and with all of her rules, there wasn’t much for us to do. While playing in the backyard, we got creative. We were all growing pre-teens and wanted to show our strength. Our aunt had an old garage in the backyard that had an old door, and we decided that we would take turns locking each other inside. The goal was to see which one of us was strong enough to fight our way out. Well, I am not quite sure how, but one of us managed to break the door to the garage; needless to say, our aunt found out about our misdeed, and was furious! Not only did we damage her property, we mindlessly destroyed something that wasn’t ours. Inside, she told us to line up as she pulled out her belt; she placed one of my cousins in the chair face first and then sat on top of him. I knew that I had done something wrong, and I was terrified that my turn was coming soon. I knew that my aunt loved us and only wanted to teach us a lesson, but after that I was hesitant to do a sleepover there ever again!
As I got older, my grades began to decline significantly. When I was once making A’s and B’s, I was now also making some C’s and D’s. Once in high school I began to make a few F’s. My mother refused to accept my low grades, and she never deviated from her expectations that we work hard and try our very best. I did not want to try my best, however, because I didn’t think that I was smart; the incentive I once had to please my teachers had diminished, leaving me to merely go through the motions of life. Growing up in the ghetto had many challenges, but until my early teens, I blindly accepted the realities of being raised in a low income household. In school I received a free lunch card so I could order food, and in the summer, the city gave out free lunches in the park, compliments of the Parks and Recreation Department. They would serve things such as sandwiches, fruit, and milk; I enjoyed whatever they served, but especially loved it when they served chocolate milk. For me, my siblings, and friends, chocolate milk was considered a delicacy! The loss of incentive I felt only added to my discouragement and depression; I no longer wanted to blindly accept being poor, and the slope toward prison grew more and more slippery.
Parks were popular in the city for a couple of reasons. For one it was one of the main gathering places for teenagers; the Parks and Recreation Department offered a number of games out for us to play, such as checkers, chess, jumping rope, hula hoops, and basketball tournaments between different parks. When the free lunch truck arrived, those who volunteered to unload the food from the truck had first chance at any extras. There were some people who would follow the food truck from one park to another in order to get another lunch. During the day, local DJs would bring their music equipment and throw block parties, and everyone would stay for the movies that played at night.
There were a few main parks in the city that my friends and I would hang out at; Prices Park was a rather popular spot, perhaps because it had a free swimming pool that a lot of people would swim in. On the west side of town there was a park on 6th and Madison Street; many of the guys from that side of town hung out there. There was the 24th Street Park and the 30th Street Park, both of which were on the north side of town. The Brandywine Park was positioned more or less in the center of the city and while it was not the biggest park in Wilmington, its neutral location attracted those coming from each side of town. The Brandywine River runs through The Brandywine Park; often cars would park up and down the street and a steady flow of traffic would ride slowly through. Summer brought visitors from places like New Jersey, Pennsylvania, New York, Baltimore, and D.C. While individuals from a variety of areas mingled at the park, each side of town would usually congregate in a certain area. Everyone would drink beer and smoke marijuana, or just find a place to chill. My friends and I enjoyed these social weekend events. The crowd would probably start dying down around 6:00 pm and everyone would then head back to their own side of town.
Hanging out with my friends provided somewhat of a distraction, albeit temporary and periodic, from life at home. The blame I placed on my mother for our economic status created bitterness in my heart; this attitude led me to disrespect her. It started subtly and then became overt. I began talking back to her under my breath and she would ask, “What did you say?” I feared my mother and the consequences that came with my actions, and I did not want to get hit in the mouth, on the head, or anywhere else within her reach. I would reply, “Nothing,” but these interactions quickly escalated into cursing, and accusing her of loving my brother more than me. Spending time away from the house allowed me to ignore the feelings I felt toward my mother and subsequently minimize our interactions
Wilmington, Delaware, is a small city located in the heart of the northeastern coast of the United States. There are a lot of ghetto-type areas with row houses and one-way city blocks; though it is small, it has many of the elements of large cities, such as a high crime rate. A 2014 Newsweek article by journalist Abigail Jones named Wilmington, Delaware, “Murder Town USA,” and highlighted the examples of Wilmington’s reputation as being one of the most dangerous small cities for many years. Wilmington is surrounded by a number of other cities which, in many ways, makes matters worse. During my teens, I became very familiar with our bordering cities; around 20 miles to the north is Philadelphia. The Delaware Memorial Bridge leads drivers onto the New Jersey Turnpike who, within a short time, will then reach the cities of Camden, and Trenton, New Jersey. Also a straight shot up the New Jersey Turnpike are the cities of Newark, New Jersey, and Jersey City, New Jersey. New York City is less than two hours away, and Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and the state of Virginia are an hour and a half south.
Due to the close proximity of these larger cities, a lot of out-of-state people pass through Wilmington; local drug dealers have a variety of choices when it comes to finding a supplier or connection, and the city is subsequently central to heavy drug traffic. Drug dealers either pass through, or otherwise find their way into the city, perhaps to run from crimes committed in other cities or to rob one of the many drug dealers who reside in Wilmington. According to statistics given in 2012 by the Delaware Health and Social Services, HIV rates in Wilmington are comparatively high, with African Americans making up 66% of all known HIV and AIDS cases. The combination of all these factors creates a sad reality for this small city.
I was exposed to drugs and the street life at a very young age. Even before becoming a teenager I experimented with a little beer; a few of my uncles, all of whom held good jobs and worked hard all week, would get together once in a while and drink beer. I think that this was their way of repaying themselves for their hard work, and sometimes they would share their celebratory beverages with me. There were a number of times when my uncles would tell me, “No” when I asked for the beer, but my persistence usually paid off and they would sneak it to me. My mother would not have approved at all, and they would tell me that I better keep it a secret. I was cool with that, and I enjoyed the opportunity to be around those uncles and listen to them talk; I gained a lot of knowledge from them as they spoke about life, and old times.
My mother moved us in with our Aunt Angie and Uncle Jay. My mother’s family was close like that; she had previously allowed one of her brothers to move in with us, and we lived with our aunts and uncles on two separate occasions. When we moved in with this particular aunt and uncle, my Uncle Randall also came with us, which created an interesting experience. In that one household there was my mother, my uncle, my brother, my three sisters, my three cousins, and my aunt and uncle. My three cousins were: Edgar, Lil’ Jay, and Makel. We all got along with one another fairly well and there was only minor tension in the house; mostly I remember good times that we had while staying there.
My mother wanted very much to get her own place for us to live in, but at this time my aunt and uncle were more financially stable than we were. My Aunt Angie and Uncle Jay had a nice home on the north side of town, and they both had good jobs. They were able to buy things for my cousins like name brand jeans and clothing. In their living room, they had a floor model television that they later used as a stand for another television. I can remember watching Cornbread, Earl and Me on that floor model television. Sometime later, my aunt and uncle decided to get separated and she moved out, although I was too young at the time to really know the reason for their separation. After my aunt moved out, my uncle’s house became somewhat of a hangout for family; a few of my uncles would come over and drink beer and socialize with one another. My cousins started having more of their friends come over, and even after we moved out, I stayed the night there on several occasions when I wanted to spend time with my cousins.
There were a lot of good times, as well as bad times, in that house and I have many good memories of being with my cousins and friends. We had a few friends on that city block; there was Darnel, and he was really good friends with my cousins. There were the twins, Randy and Doelt, who lived at the other end of the block; Shaw lived in the next house. Even though Randy and Doelt were twins, they were very different from each other; Doelt was short and would later grow no more than five feet, while Randy was tall and would grow to be about six foot seven. Randy ended up going to college and earning a college degree, while Doelt chose to hang with the guys who sold drugs and ran the streets, and he eventually became a drug dealer, too. Everyone that I grew up with on that block, despite the various people they would become, was like family, and no one could mess with anyone.
When I was around eleven years old my mother eventually got approved to get a house; all of us were happy about getting a place of our own because we felt like we were moving on up, just like the Jefferson’s. Our new residency was in a housing project unit known as Riverside; even though we were in the projects, it was my mother’s own house and she was very excited to be able to provide a roof over our heads. My older brother and I had our own personal reservations about this move but we kept our thoughts to ourselves. While living there, I met a whole new group of friends. I met a guy named Marlon who was a little younger than I was, and I also got to know his sister, his mother, and some of his uncles. What began as a friendship between two normal teenagers who went out and played like everyone else would later transform into a woeful tale of two troubled young men.
Behind our housing project there was a hangout spot, and I started frequenting this area when I was eleven or twelve years old. Previously, the location was an old club and had since been turned into a social gathering spot. There was a juke box and a few arcade games inside, and my friends and I would buy things like soda or hot food and hang out. There was a corner store connected to the hangout spot which sold penny candy, chips, bread, milk, eggs, etc. During this time, our part of the projects was having conflicts with another part of the projects, yet few of us thought much of it; fighting was a normal part of living there. As well, no one thought much of the fact that even with all the fighting, those same “enemies” would stick together when warring against another community.
One particular day while at the hangout spot with friends, I decided to leave early. As I started heading home, I saw a group of five or six guys walking towards me, probably a block away at the time. There was a shortcut that I normally took, a path which cut through a section of the houses, and as I hurried along, I saw the group of guys cut through pretty fast, as if to cut me off. My instincts kicked in; I immediately realized they were chasing me, so I ran as fast as I could. I knew that if I allowed them to catch me, they would have all jumped on me. When I got near one of my brother’s friend’s house, I yelled out to him as I continued running.
Somehow I managed to lose them, and when I saw that the coast was clear, I walked back toward my house. As I approached, I saw a very large group of people congregating in front of my house; most of them were our friends from that area, but also in the group were the guys who had been chasing me. One of them said that he wanted to fight me and, while I really didn’t want to fight him, I was not going to back down. So we fought and, to my surprise, I got the best of him; at one point, when I had him on the ground, one of my younger sisters tried to hit him with a belt. My mother heard the commotion and came outside and told us to come in the house. I made like I was going to follow her, but paused on the back step; I should have listened to my mother and gone inside the house because the guy said, “You got that,” and reached and grabbed me and pulled me off the step. He hit me with his forearm and elbow, and my mother had to take me to the hospital that night because, while I was not that hurt, she was worried about all the swelling. Around a week later my brother and his friends went over to the other part of the projects, and my brother fought one of their toughest guys, and easily won the fight. After that it seemed that everyone got along well with one another.
By the age of twelve, I was very familiar with some of the things related to life on the street in the larger cities. I spent time hanging out with my cousins who lived on the north side of town, and I used to ride around with them and their friends. Despite the attention we drew to ourselves by overloading a car with a group of African American males, a bunch of us would pile in and drive all around. We would also chill out in one of the various parks throughout the city; most of them had basketball courts with the metal chain nets and metal backboards for us to use. Even as young as I was, it was normal to see holes cut or torn out in the fencing where people had attempted to make a quick getaway when being pursued by the police.
We did not have much money, but we always found a way to get high. I would ask a couple of my uncles for money and, collectively, I may get around $5.00 or so. We would all pitch in our money to get gas for the car, buy weed and alcohol, and maybe a slice of pizza. Several local pizza shops sold a slice of pizza for seventy-five cents or $1.00. My cousin would put $2.00 in the car for gas, and we would buy a bag or two of marijuana, and a bottle of alcohol. Often we drank Jack Daniels, Hennessey, or Jim Beam, and we would also sometimes buy cheap wine such as Boones Farms, or Wild Irish Rose. Two hours south of the city was a different kind of drug; in the Washington, D.C., and Baltimore area, there was a very potent form of marijuana called “love boat,” which had to be rolled into small “pin joints” as a result. A person would take one pull of the joint and pass it, and I heard many stories of how people would hallucinate while high on this particular marijuana. I was too skeptical to ever use it. We eventually graduated to sniffing cocaine, although it quickly became something that we did only on occasion, since it was more expensive. We would usually share a $10.00 or a $20.00 piece, but once in a while we were able to buy a gram. We would ask each other about the numb feeling that we got after sniffing coke.
Our local radio stations didn’t consistently play the music that I enjoyed listening to. The local DJs were the most convenient way to hear the music that I enjoyed listening to. Several of my cousins, as well as my Uncle Randall, were local DJs back then, and they did most of the parties in the area. My cousin Makel used to mix and scratch records really well and they would use pennies and nickels to hold down the needle. Once I went to the basement of one of my cousin Rock’s house; he had a lot of DJ equipment, and always played the music really loudly. The song “Numbers,” by Kraftwerk, was playing and that day is when I fell in love with both that song, and hip hop music. Kraftwerk’s music was universal because, while they were a European group, they also appealed to the hip hop audience. The group Soul Sonic Force made the song “Planet Rock” around this same time, and this further expanded my love for hip hop music. The music made by Kurtis Blow, The Sugar Hill Gang, Spoonie Gee, The Treacherous three, Run DMC, and Whodini, among many others, were all major influences in this love which I had for hip hop music.
Rock, actually a friend of my cousin Makel, was like family even though he wasn’t an actual relative; as far back as I can remember we referred to him as our cousin. He lived on the north side of town, and his grandmother lived next door to my grandmother on the west side of town in the Hilltop area. Sometimes I went to parties with them; I would sit on the stage, since I was too young to be there, and I would help the DJs by passing them records (I knew which records were in which of the crates). There was a very popular club in the north east section of the city called Studio East, and I became familiar with much of the local talent. The very first and youngest rapper that I learned of was Rapping Bee, a talented rapper who used to rap at local teenage clubs. He was probably around eleven or twelve years old, and he eventually went on to locally produce a few records in the 1980s. Years later, I crossed paths with Rapping Bee at the prison work release center; he was in his thirties then, and he performed a short talent show. He was working on several new songs, and I was very surprised that he was still writing music and rapping.
There was also Dark Devo, a rapper from the south side of town who lived in the South Bridge Housing Projects. He made a very popular record, and represented the projects that he grew up in; in the late 1980s his record became the famous anthem for our local housing projects. I grew up in the Riverside Housing Projects, and this was my anthem, too. Had these two local talents gone national, Wilmington, Delaware, could have been put on the map! Despite the crime and drugs, Wilmington had it all; there were rappers, break dancers, and a number of other talented acts including very good poets, several female fashion groups, and the East Side Steppers, who performed in many local parades.
Both inside and outside of the artistic community, there was a lot of violence. When they weren’t at the club or driving around, a lot of teenagers stood out on the street corners, and in the parks. City officials began to enforce no loitering laws and this resulted in more police presence. Teenagers were no longer allowed to stand in one place without officers telling them to keep moving. At this time, the term “bum rush” became popular; this term was used in one of Public Enemy’s songs, and it meant to force your way into a place or situation, such as a large group of people who would bum rush the door of a party and get inside without paying. Even though there were some very large bouncers at the door of the local clubs, people would still manage to bum rush the door. The word was also used when a large group of people physically jumped on someone. More than once I saw large groups of people bum rush the local 7-Eleven store. They would heat up sandwiches, make Slurpee’s, and take things without paying for them. The issue of bum rushing got so bad that the store eventually had to hire security. The officers would allow only two people inside at a time, and keep the doors locked until they had paid for their items and were ready to exit.
Another type of violence was what we called “beat-down.” While it was generally understood that fights between neighborhoods were not fair, there were times when people would instigate a one-on-one fight. As soon as anyone started to lose such a fight, others from their neighborhood would jump in “with the quickness.” There was an odd sense of unity within the community when it came to things like this, and the old heads would not allow outsiders to come into their hood and cause problems. Beneath the overarching cloud of badness, each community somehow maintained a sense of togetherness. Neighbors would borrow things like sugar, milk, bread, and sometimes eggs, from one another. Sometimes, in the absence of one household head, another would correct and guide the youngsters.
During the day, everyone would chill out in the park and then go down to the strip on the north side of town at night. Car loads of females would come from the other sides of town; everyone would park, and then just walk up and down the strip. Talking about it now, it doesn’t sound very exciting but back then it was the place to be, and the thing to do. Very large groups of teenagers would hang in the streets until two or three in the morning. Sometimes a crazy teenager would throw bricks at cars as they were driving by, and things ultimately got out of hand. The increased violence required officials to implement a curfew for teenagers, and police officers began to post up on the corners of each block. If anyone attempted to stop and hang out, the officers instructed them to keep moving. Sometimes the paddy-wagon would pull up at a street corner and officers would jump out and grab anyone within reach.
My previous challenges with education notwithstanding, I eventually graduated to high school. At that time, William Penn High School was the largest high school in the state of Delaware; three busses came to our housing projects, and the one I rode on was very crowded, with three people on most of the seats. Besides William Penn, students also had the option of attending one of the vocational schools, if they registered and were accepted. There were a number of trades that were offered to high school students; one of the schools even had a very good basketball team. There was a freshman who went to Howard High named Windful; he was from the same housing projects as I, but he went to Howard High in order to learn a trade, and to play ball. He played for the basketball team and, while he was not the only star on the team, he made stellar contributions. His team ran through the entire state that year, and won the state championship; the entire city supported this team and wanted them to win.
After their win, someone arranged for them to play against a team in Pennsylvania. Chester High School also had a good team, and welcomed the invitation to play against Howard High. The game was held in the Chester High School gymnasium; the game was sold out, and the gym was filled to capacity with Wilmington fans on one side, and Chester fans on the other. The game quickly shifted from a game to a battle between the two cities; even though Chester and Wilmington are two small cities, they are both very dangerous places. When the smoke finally cleared, Howard High came out the victor; the city of Wilmington had something to celebrate, and everyone said that it was a good and exciting game. One of the stars of the team later went to college and his name became popular in the city, taking his skills to the NBA for a few years. Windful, as well, was known throughout the entire city that year, though his life didn’t continue down the path of professional basketball.
High school may have been much more difficult for me had I not been joined by good friends. There were a lot of different people that I hung out with at one time or another while living in the projects but Purcey, however, who lived around the corner from where I stayed, had been friends with me for many years. He was taller than I, but that didn’t matter to either of us. During my teenage years we became close friends; he was a pretty cool guy to be around, and we had fun together every time we hung out. He would joke a lot, and we went all the way up through our high school years together. He later moved to the other side of town, and our relationship changed, but we continued to show love towards one another whenever we crossed paths. He later made some of the same decisions as I did concerning the streets and that lifestyle, and we didn’t know it then, but we would both serve time in prison.
Harry moved to the same housing project, too, from somewhere around New York City or North Jersey, perhaps Brooklyn. When I met him we quickly became friends; we were around the same age, and he later attended William Penn with me, as well. He had a complete New York style about himself; he wore a kangol – style hat, made popular by a young rapper named L.L. Cool J. Everything Harry did seemed to yell “New York City,” from his very particular walk to his selective choice in music. He had a lot of new music on cassette tapes, and he also had a boom box, the kind for which the batteries would quickly run out. He used to breakdance, and would sometimes sit his boom box down and perform, even spin on his head at times.
My friends and I were under the impression that getting high was cool. While were still very young, we were not naive; we knew that using drugs was wrong, and were aware of the many drug marches and slogans, such as “Just say no” or “This is your brain on drugs.” In and around our projects, we saw the drug marches that sometimes took place within the housing projects, but we also didn’t see much change come from all these efforts; after the marches were over, we watched as drugs were still sold and used within the community. There were a number of drug raids that took place, most of which would happen around election time; sometimes individuals on the drug task force would raid the projects and arrest a number of people, other times drug dealers and users would come right back out after some of the drug raids as if nothing took place.
By the time that I was fourteen years old, I was already involved in a lot of different things. Once I hung out with a friend of my cousin, Reague, who was from the north side of town. He was into the drug game, and he allowed me to hang out with him. On this particular day, we sniffed a little coke together before going to the William Penn Housing Projects, located in Chester, PA. Chester, like Wilmington, is a small city that has all of the elements of a large city. After sniffing the coke, we also smoked a few woolies together. Woolies are joints of marijuana in which you put a little bit of cooked coke. Most people would use brown weed to avoid experiencing an upper high and downer high at the same time. I had seen guys smoking coolies while standing on the corners, and I can remember the unique smell they emitted—it’s a very terrible smell that is difficult to forget.
Once we got to the William Penn Housing Projects, there was a large crowd of people mingling in the courtyard, perhaps fifty individuals or more. They were all selling drugs, and several people had large zip-lock bags full of powder cocaine, measuring it out to their customers by using a Slurpee straw or by breaking off pieces of the rock of cocaine. They would serve each customer based on the amount of money that person had. They had several empty bags which were of different sizes, small bags for grams and sixteenths, larger sandwich bags for eight balls, quarters, halves, and ounces. I watched as Reague picked up a very large zip-lock bag of cocaine from someone within one of the buildings, and I noticed how much respect he received from the others. I found this to be very appealing, and was oblivious to the amount of danger we were actually in; I knew that there was a degree of danger to the situation, but I felt that I was safe with him, even though we both could have died that night. We were surrounded by a lot of dangerous people who would kill at the drop of a dime.
Another factor that caught my eye that day were the number of Cadillac Deville’s that were parked around the project; I learned that hustlers would buy a Cadillac, and fix it up, adding a soft top to the vehicle to give the car a customized look. It was common to see a Corvette, Mercedes Benz, or another such clean vehicle parked around the projects. Later I would look back and realize that I learned a lot of what I knew about the drug game by hanging out with Reague. That evening, Reague dropped me off and went and got his hustle on. I was high and feeling good when I left him, and until now, I have never told anyone who I had been with that day, or what we had done.
For those who want to blame childhood drug use and delinquency on the environment within the low incoming housing projects should take a good look at my brother. We lived in the same house, in the same project; while I chose the streets, my brother chose to better himself. He started working as soon as he was legally able to do so, and each year he worked a summer job in order to help my mother. He worked at McDonald’s, for an armored truck company, and a variety of other places. He was always very respectful to my mother, and during his senior year in high school he did half a day at the high school and the other half at a vocational training school. Upon graduating from high school, he went to the military, and later he got married to his high school love. During his time in the military, my brother’s wife stayed with my mother; we had been raised in the very same housing project, and she was like family to us.
My brother and his wife soon had their first child together, a beautiful girl for whom my brother was very excited. He was a proud dad, and took good care of her; because he worked hard, my brother was able to buy things for his daughter and his wife. When my mother was able, she also helped him and his small family out a little. My first nephew was born a while later, and while my brother and his wife are no longer together, they have always maintained respect for one another. I love my beautiful niece and nephew, and my former sister-in-law will always be like a sister to me. My brother was always very independent, and focused on the dreams that he had set for himself; even when he was honorably discharged from the military he continued to maintain a consistent job. Had I been willing, I could have learned a lot from my brother about love, life, and dedication. But I wasn’t.
While I chose a very different path than my brother, he was always trying to help me better myself. At one of his jobs, he informed the manager that he was soon leaving for the military, and was asked to recommend a good worker. My brother wanted to be able to trust me with such a big responsibility, and since he knew that I wanted a job that year, he recommended me and a friend. His former place of employment was a diner where customers could watch a play and eat dinner at the same time. During the play, coffee was served, followed by dinner, then desert. My friend and I were hired as bus boys and were responsible for setting the tables, bussing the tables, and washing the dishes.
The manager told us that we could eat when we got a chance, but the dishes would stack up too quickly, and too high, and we were always too busy to take a break. The manager constantly told us to hurry up and do this, or hurry up and do that, and while we were busy washing dishes, they would call us to bus the tables. When we started the job, we were specifically told not to touch the tips; though we never did, the manager often asked us if either of us touched the tips. Of course, I always told him no, that I was not into stealing. After the second or third day, my friend convinced me that we were being overworked, and we devised a plan to quit and walk out. Before we could do so, however, I heard my coworker arguing with the manager, and then I watched as he quit and walked out. The manager quickly came to me and very nicely asked if I could stay and do the work. Despite the fact that he offered me a raise right then, I respectfully told him that I could not do all that work by myself because the dishes were pilled too high in the kitchen. He begged and begged, but I walked out and quit my job. I went to a phone booth and called for a ride, not thinking about how foolish I was, or how bad we made my brother look. Without a job, I returned to hanging out on the street.
Life on the street wasn’t all drugs and alcohol. I enjoyed the many festivals that were held throughout the year in Wilmington. Even today, the festivals are filled with large crowds, and there are new people to meet at each of these main festivals. I specifically remember the Italian Festival, the African American Festival, and the Puerto Rican Festival. The Puerto Rican Festival was held on the Hilltop area on the west side of town, home to a very close-knit Puerto Rican community. The African American festival was originally held on the east side of town, and this festival will always be significant because it represents the majority of the city’s population. Festivals are usually a time of peace in Wilmington, when everyone can come out and enjoy themselves. Often the theme is about peace and unity, and the vibe is always positive and friendly. The only difficulty within the African American community is that of preventing beefs from spilling over into the festival. The Italian Festival was held on the top of the hill on the west side, in the Little Italy section of the city, where there was a strong sense of Italian pride. Generally, this was a very quiet neighborhood in which the Italians lived, but it was not quiet during the week of the Italian Festival! There were venders who sold Italian food, musicians performing shows, and there were even carnival rides. Of all the festivals in Wilmington, the Italian Festival is the most multi-cultural; even though the majority of Wilmington’s population is African American, the Italian Festival is the biggest and the oldest.
When there were no shows or events to attend, my friends and I would listen to the radio. Wilmington had a local radio station that came on once in a while, and we would also listen to a station out of Philly, Power 99. We listened to Power 99 more than to our own local station or to the other New York hip hop or R&B radio stations. There was a radio personality on the Philadelphia radio station that I always loved to listen to; she was hot, and used to play the latest hip hop. Every Sunday she was on the air from 12:00 pm until 6:00 pm, and when she first came on, she would always say, “Start your tapes.” My tape stayed in the cassette deck with the record button pushed down and the pause button engaged. I stayed ready to get the newest rap music from the radio, and I had a lot of cassette tapes with music and the radio personality’s slogan on it. She would give all of the neighboring cities a shout out over the radio; I saw her once at the Spectrum in Philadelphia during one of the concerts. The spectrum is the old basketball stadium for the Philadelphia 76ers, and when I was young, it was host to a number of memorable events and performers, such as the Fresh Fest Tour, Run DMC, Whodini, Grand Master Flash, and others. I also saw L.L. Cool J burst out of a large radio at the Fresh Fest II.
There was a local party and concert promoter in Wilmington name Dane-Dane. His had a business with which he promoted most of the local parties. Some referred to him as the godfather of productions, and most of the parties and concerts in Wilmington during the 80s were produced by his production company. He was large in physical stature and weighed around 500 pounds, but his influence goes back into the 70s and he helped a lot of people during his career. He had his own faults, as we all do, but he provided an avenue for income to some who otherwise may not have had one. Some of my cousins were DJs at a number of events under his productions company, and my Uncle Randall did some work with him. Dane-Dane later passed on to his resting place of eternity, but his contribution to that era of hip hop made a memorable impact on me and my friends.
The Book is available on Amazon http://www.amazon.com/100-Years-Journey-Vicious-Cycle/dp/0986138002/ref=sr_1_1_twi_1_pap?ie=UTF8&qid=1437414094&sr=8-1&keywords=100+years+a+journey+to+end+a+vicious+cycle
Follow on Twitter @mark100years