Portrait of the Hustler as a Young Man
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Billy the Kid was born for the hustle; raised in a Puerto Rican family in the heart of Philadelphia’s infamous heroin zone, the desperately impoverished Badlands barrio, he used to say he’d never known anything but the streets. “I been out here since I was 12 years old,” he’d brag. “The fuck else I know but selling dope? I musta sold to every dopefiend in this city.”
The barrio seems vast and unknowable to outsiders who avoid going there because it’s long been the most violent neighborhood in Philly, but it’s a relatively small square of the city, a densely packed honeycomb of two-story brick row houses where most families know one another. It’s not all hard drugs and bad vibes; amidst the blight there are restaurants with mouth-watering piles of pulled roast pork on display under heat lamps in the front windows, and whole blocks with walls covered in the blazing colors of complex, abstract graffiti murals. Many blocks have dedicated captains that keep the street roped off to make a safe play space where kids can get free lunches in summertime.
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But other blocks consist of abandoned warehouses converted to cavernous shooting galleries that serve long lines of terminally ill–looking addicts who flock here daily to partake of the never-ending supply of potent dope. A telling sign of how things work in the Badlands, last year an abandoned high school known for housing addict squatters was set spectacularly ablaze, creating a raging four-alarm fire that briefly captured the region’s attention. A year later the school’s burned-out shell still barely stands, a gargantuan eyesore that takes up an entire city block. The land under it is worth so little that even just demolishing the school is too expensive, so it sits neglected, waiting for collapse.
The block captains and community activists hate it when you call their neighborhood, officially Fairhill, the Badlands; they consider the nickname a sensational slur. However, some young neighborhood kids in the dope game like the name so much they get it tattooed in swirling script on the side of their necks and the back of their hands. Badlands ink constitutes a crucial piece of hustler identity, commanding respect from peers whose ’hoods don’t have as hard a rep.
Thousands of people have been shot in the Badlands over the years that the drug war has raged. Multiple law-enforcement initiatives with names like Operation Sunrise, Operation Safe Streets and Prevention Point have targeted the neighborhood’s drugs and violence, periodically flooding dope corners with cops who crack skulls until the streets quiet down. The worst parts of the Badlands have the feel of a poor-world nation city under martial law.
But no matter how hard the cops crack down, the dealers always return; the market never really shuts down. It’s not uncommon for social workers passing through the neighborhood even in the quiet morning hours to see bike cops taking advantage of the city’s loosely defined and Constitutionally questionable Stop and Frisk program. They grab Latin kids at random as they walk past, saying they look suspicious, throwing them against the nearest wall and rifling through their pockets for guns and drugs.
The drug game is considered one of the few viable money makers here where fewer than half of the local kids graduate from high school, many don’t speak English, and the local manufacturing economy that might once have hired unskilled labor died decades ago. Many settle for less risky ventures like selling barbecue and bottled water in the streets in the summer, but it’s hard to raise a family on that kind of chump change. Local kids, often under pressure for financial support from their own moms, seek out The Owner.
Billy’s chart landed on my desk. A hopeless case, I was told, a real hard ass. When I checked my voicemail that morning, there was already a message from Billy’s mom screaming that she wanted her son taken to jail because he was a terror and a menace.
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Every dope block in the Badlands is run by a dude simply known as The Owner. The Owner has connections in Puerto Rico or to Dominican traffickers in New York for bulk dope. The Owner is never seen out on the block with the unruly neighborhood knuckleheads he rounds up to distribute bags of drugs in rubber-banded stacks called bundles. He doesn’t drive a flashy car that would draw the attention of the Narc Squad. When the Narc Squad comes they’ll scoop up who they can but they’re always looking for The Owner.
That’s the question the Narcotics Officer is going to ask you when he pulls you off the stoop where he’s been watching you do hand-to-hand drug sales all morning, as he’s got you flat on the sidewalk, grinding his boot into the side of your skull: “Who’s The Owner? Tell me who The Owner is, punk. You wanna go to jail? Tell me where The Owner lives and I’ll let you walk.”
Nobody tells the Narc Squad where The Owner lives because they know they won’t be locked up long if they stay quiet. The Owner always pays the bail of a boy who doesn’t snitch.
These are the corners Billy the Kid came up on. He was tall and lanky, with skinny spaghetti-noodle arms that weren’t much use for fist fighting so it only followed that he messed with guns. The baby face that conferred his nickname was deceptive. Time on North Philly streetcorners passes in dog years; Billy was only 19, but 19 is when names get made in the Badlands, when hustlers graduate to bigger things after years spent standing in front of bodegas on freezing winter nights selling dime bags or sweating it out on the run from the cops in the thick August heat. At 19 if you’re cunning and ruthless enough, you might get to organize your own crew, working directly with The Owner as a manager, and start laying in major dollar figures.
But Billy had an Achilles’ heel; he was too wild and defiant, even for the Badlands, where a certain absence of self-preserving instinct can be an asset.
A lot of people had tried to help Billy over the years, but Billy wasn’t about being helped, and he let you know this in no uncertain terms. His bad attitude was worsened by the erratic mood swings that came with his bipolar disorder, and the Depakote the doctor prescribed him was little help when Billy piled Xanax, codeine syrup and lungfuls of potent blunt smoke on top of the psychiatric medication.
Therapy—no surprise—wasn’t Billy’s thing. A well-intentioned drug counselor in a therapy session challenged Billy on his anti-social behavior; Billy stood up, grabbed the chair he was sitting on and threw it at the counselor’s head.
That’s when Billy’s chart landed on my desk. A hopeless case, I was told, a real hard ass. I was warned that Billy was perhaps homicidally dangerous and that I should watch my back around him. When I checked my voicemail that morning, there was already a message from Billy’s mom the previous night screaming that she wanted her son taken to jail because he was a terror and a menace. In the background I could hear the sound of Billy beating his girlfriend.
I called Billy’s mom back and told her to put Billy on the phone.
“The fuck you want,” Billy said. His voice was dead level, its tone ice cold.
“I want to know what the fuck that was on my voicemail.”
“Who the fuck you think you are? You’re a fuckin’ punk bitch.”
“Check it out, young bull,” I said, lapsing into Philly street slang. “That bullshit on my voicemail might have flown with your other social workers but it don’t fly with me. You’re going to get your shit under control.”
“You talkin’ shit to the wrong nigga, you gonna get got, boy.”
I rose out of my chair, standing at my desk while still holding the phone to my ear. “What did you say to me?”
“I said you gonna get got, fool. I know what you look like, nigga. Me and my boys is gonna come down there, but we ain’t gonna get you at the office. Naw. We gonna follow you to your car, we gonna follow you back to your crib, and we gonna get you where you sleep.”
“Motherfucker, don’t you ever threaten me.”
“Yeah, what do you think of that, bitch? Talkin’ like you hard—now you scared, ain’t you? Now you thinkin’ you fucked with the wrong motherfucker.”
I held the phone away from my face and yelled into it. “You fuckin’ punk, you don’t scare me. I’ll have you arrested, I’ll have the DA charge you with everything they can think of and you better believe I’ll come to court and witness against you, too.”
“You’re a dead man! You’re a dead man!”
I could hear Billy still screaming homicidal threats as I slammed the phone back in the cradle.
Now that I was off the phone I had second thoughts. I started to think I might have seriously fucked up by intentionally going out of bounds professionally and stepping to Billy street-style. But then, I figured, when you work with hard offender types sometimes you might have to go to that place to confront them. Honestly, I was scared shitless by what I might have uncorked in doing so. That night I kept a nervous eye on the rearview as I drove home to see who might be tailing me.
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.
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.