Portrait of the Hustler as a Young Man - Page 2

By Jeff Deeney 03/16/12

The short, fast life of Billy the Kid, a drug dealer who got in over his head in Philly's Badlands barrio.

The street memorial for a Badlands drug dealer photo by Jeff Deeney

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But to my surprise Billy showed up at the office the next day all smiles. “Yo, Mr. Jeff, man,” he said, offering me a hand to slap. “You was crazy yesterday on the phone talking about having me booked and shit. Ain’t nobody step to me like that before.”

As I slapped my hand into his and grabbed it, Billy smiled and said the magic word: “Respect.

My risky gambit worked; I almost couldn’t believe it. I squeezed Billy’s hand hard and said the word back to him: Mutual respect, the key to the hustler’s domain, slipped in the lock and started to turn.

Over the next six months I learned a lot about Billy. I learned that Billy left his dilapidated, low-performing public high school in ninth grade. After nine years of education, Billy still had never learned to read and could barely write. He was sensitive about this, and the embarrassment he felt when people asked him to read quickly transferred into anger, a possible reason for his bad behavior both in the classroom and later in drug treatment settings. Illiteracy is a common fact in the lives of Philly corner hustler kids; some of them might even hang around school long enough to be shuffled through twelfth grade and get a diploma that they can’t read. I pushed Billy to join a GED program but he bristled at the idea of reading the “baby books” that he would have to start with.

I learned about Billy’s trauma history, about the many brutal beatdowns he took in order to get and hold onto a space on a Badlands heroin corner at the age of 12 in order to help support his mother and six siblings. By 19, Billy had already taken three bullets, one to the chest that nearly killed him, another in the hip that he said he walked off like nothing, and a third that shattered his collar bone and that still hurt, causing him to flinch whenever he raised his arm above his head.

Once I had gained Billy's trust he started to share too much. With a haunted look he would tell me that there were things he did to other people, things he wanted to unburden himself of but knew that he couldn’t fully divulge.

Trauma wears on you; even the hardest cases feel it. Billy was old far beyond his years from carrying the weight of pain, shame and guilt that came with the hustle—feelings he could never show on the corner. Once I had gained his trust he started to share too much. With a haunted look he would tell me that there were things he did to other people, things he wanted to unburden himself of but knew that he couldn’t fully divulge.

“It goes back and forth out there, you know?” he said during one session. “Someone shoots you, you got to do something back to them. You can’t have dudes out there thinking they can just roll up on you like you’re a punk. That’s how things work around my way.”

“Billy,” I said, interrupting him. “You need to know that if you admit committing a homicide to me I’m going to be obligated to report it.”

“I hear you. But you know what I’m saying,” he said cryptically.

I didn’t know exactly what he was saying, but I had a pretty good sense. Billy wasn’t the only Latin hustler kid from the Badlands on my caseload. Following the threads of information I gathered from other clients who knew Billy from around the neighborhood, had worked corner drug crews with him or worked competing crews, I discovered that a turf war was currently raging in the Badlands and I suspected that Billy was caught in the middle of it. Billy wasn’t a big-time gangster; his unpredictable nature made him an unlikely candidate for advancement through the ranks of drug traffickers. But he was a very vocal and public neighborhood figure; if there was beef simmering between his crew and another you could bet he would be on the block all day and night running his mouth trying to escalate tensions rather than resolve them.

At the same time, I was surprised how sweet he could be despite his reputation for being a holy terror. He showed me pictures of his baby daughter who he doted over. He cracked wry jokes and exerted tremendous energy to make me laugh. He eagerly accepted my fatherly concern and empathy, which was clearly missing from his life.

To say that Billy had some humanity and was not entirely the monster he was made out to be is not to excuse his bad behaviors. I hammered him about domestic violence, telling him repeatedly that it was never acceptable to hit his girlfriend and assuring him that despite our new bond if I found out he beat her again I would take it to the police. Billy said that he wanted to learn to be a better boyfriend and a better father. He said that he was trying harder to control his temper; the medication from the psychiatrist I connected him with helped stabilize his mood.

In the meantime, the Badlands street war continued to unfold. One night Billy’s girlfriend’s brother, who was also Billy's friend and crew member, was in a bar where barrio hustlers kill time swilling bottled beer and shooting pool between dope corner sales shifts. A group of men wearing masks and shouldering automatic weapons ran into the bar spraying bullets. Billy’s friend was the target. The following day there was a pile of teddy bears on the sidewalk outside the bar, surrounded by a ring of flickering Virgin Mary votives.

Billy was crushed. This had been his girlfriend’s only remaining family member; without her brother she was alone in the world, a 16-year-old street kid who dropped out of high school to have a baby. Billy talked reckless; he wanted revenge. In group therapy other reformed hustlers consoled him, telling stories about their own fallen friends while cautioning him about making rash decisions.

Billy told me he was thinking evil thoughts.

“Billy, man,” I said, “I know you just lost a friend, and I am sorry for your loss, but we need to talk about you, because you are my client, and at this point I’m really concerned.”

“Nah, it’s all good,” Billy said. “You definitely don’t gotta worry about me.”

“Billy,” I said, “if you don’t change the way you’re living, and I mean change right now, I don’t think you are going to live to get off my caseload. I think you are a dead man.”

“It’s cool,” Billy said, actually smiling a little at the thought. “I got everything under control.”

The change-your-life-pitch can be a tough sell for a social worker to make to a dude as far gone into the hustle as Billy. What did the legit world offer him? An $8-an-hour factory job doing grueling work for the rest of his life? This lack of opportunity makes it hard even for those who want out of the hustler lifestyle to escape it.

Billy’s mom called me and told me that despite what he had told me, Billy didn’t have it under control. He was taking fistfuls of Xanax and chugging codeine syrup like water. He wasn’t taking his Depakote. He was running the streets with guns at night, high as a kite and shooting into the air. I explained that there was only so much I could do. Months before I had placed Billy in a halfway house to cool off and get away from all this street drama; he walked out against advice not long after. I had scheduled Billy to see the psychiatrist but he denied abusing any street drugs when he met with him, making it harder to properly treat his mental health disorder. I encouraged Billy’s mother to call the police if he was unstable and messing with guns, but she refused to.

Over the next couple of weeks there were a lot of murders in the Badlands. However, there are often a lot of murders in the Badlands; just last week two teens in ATVs got blasted with automatic fire from an AK-47. Sadly, this is not unusual, nor is it unusual for social workers to receive tragic news about their clients. But every time I read about another casualty in the paper when I hadn’t heard from Billy the day before, I nervously wondered if he would turn out to be the victim. 

Then one Monday morning, in my car on my way into North Philly to visit clients, I got a text message from a coworker: “Billy was shot and killed last night. Must verify with his mother ASAP.”

Billy had taken multiple bullets in the back and head. It looked like an execution—he was deliberately dragged to the end of a secluded cul-de-sac in a Badlands Section 8 housing project where there would be no civilians to witness the killing. Billy’s death had all along been a forgone conclusion, but when it finally happened, it hurt me nonetheless. I pulled over to the side of the road. I punched the steering wheel and cried. Then I pulled it together and rerouted for the office to call Billy’s mom for the whole story.

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Jeff Deeney is a social worker, freelance writer and recovering addict in Philadelphia. He is a contributor to the Atlantic and has written for the Daily Beast, The Nation, and The Marshall Project. Follow Jeff on Twitter.