Portrait of the Hustler as a Young Man - Page 3

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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As soon as she picked up the phone I knew that it was true from the raging cacophony of sobbing family members that she had to yell over to be heard.

“I heard about Billy,” I said. “I wanted to express my condolences.”

Condolences!” she yelled, starting to cry. “You were supposed to save my son. What did you do for me? You did nothing for me.” She was sobbing hysterically. “You did nothing for me! You let my son die!

I hung up the phone and sat for a long time staring at the wall. It was the first time I remember feeling like I couldn’t do social work anymore.

Billy’s funeral was a sight to behold; the line to view the casket stretched from the church down a full city block of Lehigh Avenue past the entrance of a neighboring hospital. There were rows of double-parked, jet-black, tinted-window Pontiac Chargers, Mercury Grand Marquis and Ford Crown Victorias all sitting on chrome rims the size of old-time wagon wheels; their trunks were popped so the throbbing beats of Billy’s favorite hip-hop tracks could be heard blocks away. The air was thick with blunt smoke; grief-stricken hustlers wearing hoodies emblazoned with air-brushed images memorializing Billy fired up weed in his name even as a small phalanx of police, their squad cars parked with lights flashing, sat observing the crowd for any signs of gang tensions.

The wait to get into the church took more than an hour. In line I overheard a mourner joke that Philly heroin addicts trying to cop dope were up shit’s creek today because every dealer in the Badlands was here to pay his respects to Billy. Inside the church the noise was deafening as the howling crowd pressed forward to get near Billy’s coffin. I was shuffled quickly past, allowed only a moment to pay respects. It was an open casket; the funeral director angled a baseball cap over the top of Billy’s face to hide the part of his head that was no longer there.

It occurred to me then that this was what Billy had wanted all along. He didn’t mind dying as long as he went out big. He’d become a legend, his name ringing in cries across North Philadelphia like a fallen mafia don’s. He had said he wanted to live to see his nine-month-old daughter grow up, but ultimately there was no reason to live great enough for him to refuse the call of the streets that demands fealty until death (or jail) from those hustlers who are true to its code.

Billy’s murder was never solved. Many Badlands killings never are; knowledgeable sources in the neighborhood tell me that when The Owner wants somebody put down, he’ll call for an assassin in Puerto Rico to fly in to do the hit then quietly disappear back to the island. I assumed Billy’s death was just another volley of gunfire traded in the turf war in which he was enmeshed, but in the immediate aftermath there were whispers in the Badlands that Billy was done in by his own crew. Maybe Billy was so reckless that he came to be considered too much of a liability. Maybe Billy crossed The Owner. There are no answers.

For weeks after Billy’s murder it seemed like every car in the Badlands had its back window etched in soap with memorial messages remembering Billy. Then the soap washed off. The elaborate memorial of teddy bears and votive candles at his murder site was eventually dismantled. The only thing left of Billy’s street legacy is a smudge of spray-painted blue graffiti reading “R.I.P.” where he was gunned down. But even that is already fading away.

Jeff Deeney is a Philadelphia social worker and a writer who is in recovery. His column, "Street Beat," runs biweekly in the The Fix. He is also a contributing writer for The Daily Beast.

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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.