Portrait of the Hustler as a Young Man

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

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.

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.

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.

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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.