Wednesday, July 4, 2018


Here's an "Independence Day" commentary I wrote in my first year as a columnist for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Believe or not, this piece, which I thought was well-reasoned and rational, elicited calls for my termination, hundreds of complaints and a couple of death threats. In reflection, it's just as pertinent today as it was some 15 years ago.

By Sylvester Brown Jr.  
Originally Published in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Thursday, 7/3/2003

"NO MATTER THAT patriotism is too often the refuge of scoundrels. Dissent, rebellion, and all-around hell-raising remain the true duty of patriots."-- Barbara Ehrenreich, author, columnist

Friday is Independence Day. It's a day of celebration, fireworks, brats and longnecks. For many, July Fourth is one big patriotic bash. For me, it's a day of somber reflection and mixed emotions. I'm all for a party but I have one pesky little caveat: I need to know why I'm partying.

Black people had nothing to celebrate on July 4, 1776 -- the official day enacted by Congress. Black "independence" came nearly 100 years later with the passage of the 13th Amendment. But hey, independence is independence, right? While some celebrate freedom from the Brits, I can celebrate freedom from the shackles. Or can I? My problem is finding a guilt-free party on the Fourth. See, I tend to gravitate toward a pretty rebellious bunch. I can't help it. I admire people who challenge injustice, those who want to change the world for the better. But their idea of a party Friday will include shutting down the Metro or demonstrating somewhere else.

Many of my friends challenge U.S. foreign policy. Critics call them "unpatriotic" for opposing the war and "un-American" for criticizing U.S. firms that have profited from it. Does their stance disqualify them from a celebration of patriots?

Like I said, I've always been drawn to discontents. That includes the patriotic rabble-rousers of days gone by. America's radicals are as much responsible for the freedom we enjoy today as anyone. I wonder how many people realize that local dissidents like Eric Vickers, John Chasnoff, Lizz Brown or Bill Ramsey are following an honorable tradition?

It may be easy to dismiss allegations that public dollars are squandered on new educational initiatives. It might be comfortable to ignore charges that minorities aren't getting a fair share of tax-financed construction projects. But wasn't it a response to unfair taxation that led to the Boston Tea Party in 1773? Angry colonists dumped chests of tea into Boston harbor to avoid payment of a British tax. The punitive British response became the catalyst for America's independence movement.

Activists have climbed the Arch and blocked highways to make a point. History has shown us that patriots have risked even more. In 1770, Crispus Attucks became the first casualty of the American Revolution. He was shot and killed in what was later described as the Boston Massacre. In 1776, the British hung Nathan Hale as a spy. On his way to the gallows, Hale uttered words that still inspire activism: "I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country."

Organizations affiliated with the local American Friends Service Committee mounted many demonstrations before and during the Iraq war. The group was founded by Quakers. Among them was William Penn, who was responsible for helping his brethren escape persecution in England. Convinced that religious tolerance could never be achieved in England, Penn founded Philadelphia in 1682. He called the city his "Holy Experiment" and encouraged women's rights and religious freedom. Penn was jailed several times, lived as a fugitive and died a pauper for his beliefs.

History gives many more examples of patriotism that go against today's popular definition. Today's activists have nothing to apologize for. Patriotism comes in many forms. Some celebrate what the country is, while others celebrate what it has the potential to be.

So party on, St. Louis activists. Fire up the grill and hoist a brew, my fellow Americans. Friday is your day, too. On Saturday, go back to shaking things up and challenging the system. History's patriots would expect nothing less.

Monday, June 18, 2018

The North City Food Hub: Let's Go Crazy!

Dearly beloved, I’m writing today to talk about this thing called life. It’s an electric word, “LIFE,” it means forever and that's a mighty long time, but I'm here to tell you…there's something else…
My humble apologies to the late, great genius, Prince, for sampling the words from his song, “Let’s Go Crazy.” Prince’s lyrics serve as a perfect segue for this commentary about life. What gives me a great sense of comfort is the simple notion that we come into this world with the sole purpose of making life a little bit better than the way it was when we were born. This philosophy allows me to compartmentalize the things I can’t control like an immoral, unqualified, orange dictator who seems content on resurrecting the spirit and mission of Adolph Hitler.
As a black man, a father, writer and a nonprofit director, I know I can’t stop the regurgitated madness that surrounds us, like the current rise in racism and down-right, guttural hate. But, I can, in a small but significant way, write about it and try to teach young people, who look like me, how to do their part to make the world a little bit better for their siblings, their peers and themselves.
I have spent a lifetime as a journalistic voyeur of sorts. I've written about the ills that disproportionately impact my people but I haven't really done anything concrete to address these conditions. I have tried to use the experiences and influences of an impoverished, black youth with an amazing, never-give-up, Mama, to blow up stereotypes. I’ve tried to get readers, who have not lived my life, to explore the possibilities that we have more in common than not. 
It took me more than 30 years, but I have concluded that I can’t fix stupid. The impact of more than 400 years of racial oppression and conditioning is still strong among many and I’m not going to be able to change that in my lifetime or, sadly, my children’s lifetime.

What I can do, what I have done, is create something, I believe, that will help my race do-for-self and become self-sufficient no matter what turbulent wave of racism or hatred consumes us from coast-to-coast. 
Yes, my little contribution is the Sweet Potato Project (SPP).  I stubbornly believe that black folk must go back to move forward. We must return to that time where we had no choice but to depend upon and support ourselves. We can no longer rely on government or the benevolence of sympathetic whites to save us. Oh, they can help but we must commit to save ourselves. That means we must build new systems (educational, economic and judicial) that will replace or thwart those designed to keep us oppressed, depressed and locked into a dependent, childlike, helpless mindset.
In my last commentary I wrote about engaging and activating young people in community ownership. I talked about the progress on this front, by politicians, individuals and organizations in North St. Louis. Here, I want to elaborate on a new organization I also mentioned, the North City Food Hub (NCFH) and invite you to explore the possibilities with us.
On Thursday, June 28th, the NCFH and its partner organizations, which includes SPP, will host its official grand opening at its headquarters at 1034 North Sarah Street, St. Louis, MO 63113. With initial funding from the Department of Agriculture (USDA), the agency was established with a mission of making a local food system (hub) where individuals, particularly North St. Louis residents, can access resources aimed at increasing their income potential and turning food business ideas into fruitful economic realities.

“We’re looking at ways to address food insecurity while simultaneously improving personal incomes through growing of fresh food and food production,” says Milldred Mattfeldt- Beman, NCFH’s project coordinator.
During Thursday’s event, NCFH will outline its classes in legal assistance, land-ownership, “good agricultural practices (GAP)”, culinary education, food safety, business plan development, food production and much more. The agency will also unveil its 3,000 square feet food preparation and storage space which includes a shared-use kitchen where residents will receive technical assistance, training, oversight and guidance through the food production business.

“We’re looking at ways to address food insecurity while simultaneously improving personal incomes through growing of fresh food and food production.” - Milldred Mattfeldt- Beman

NCFH has partnered with St. Louis University and local nonprofits such as the Ville Collaborative, Hosco Foods, Good Life Growing, LLC. And Annie Malone Children & Family Services.  Through this unique collaboration, these nonprofits will offer additional services to the youth and adults we currently serve.  
This small but substantial endeavor compliments the affordable housing and urban gardening work that’s already being done by organizations like Better family Life, Inc., Gateway Greening, Friendly Temple Church and aldermen seeking innovative ways to bring new businesses and robust economic activity back to long-underserved and impoverished neighborhoods.
Personally, I’m ecstatic about the possibilities. My students and other North St. Louis residents now have a one-stop shop to help them gain education in accessing land, growing food, getting legal advice and small business assistance, making food products and professionally bring all this to market in and outside their own neighborhoods. 
For me, I see a way to activate young activists, so they can make their neighborhoods a little bit better than the way it was when they were born into them. Let’s give them land, give them subsidies for new, affordable homes, give them small business loans to open storefronts, urban farms, farmer’s markets, coffee, T-shirt and art shops in one designated area of development.  And, yes, I said “give.” Heck, we’ve been gifting billions to already rich developers for decades. Let’s try a new, bold, innovative approach. Let’s invest in our young so they can give us a mighty return.
The NCFH gives us a rare shot at reclaiming, remaking and reinvigorating what’s ours. Let’s take this small risk, this grand opportunity to see what can be. Let’s get to that “something else” Prince spoke of; Let’s go Crazy!

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Getting Millennials and Low-income Residents Activated and Engaged in Community Ownership

     Seven years ago, the Sweet Potato Project was founded with a mission to inspire young people to use food as an entry into entrepreneurism. I discovered early on that training kids to grow, harvest, package and sell food and food-based products is an admirable endeavor but the full possibilities won’t be recognized unless the practices were mainstreamed in their neighborhoods.

What does this mean? It means that community-wide environments must be created where vacant land is available to low-income, youth and adults; where systems are established that help ordinary people grow and bring fresh food to market. This must include providing low cost or no cost training that will help them professionally produce, package and distribute marketable, food-based products in and outside their neighborhoods. It also means a collective adoption of the idea that food, as an engine to economize, revitalize and stabilize their neighborhoods.
This may seem like a tall order but, believe it or not, it’s happening, albeit in a seemingly disjointed, unconnected and fragile way. 
Let me explain. A few years ago, a visionary by the name of Melvin White introduced a bold idea to revitalize MLK Blvd from Wellston to East St. Louis and across the country. Every year on Dr. King’s birthday, White’s plan received national recognition. It was a cause celeb for Washington University and Harvard graduate students. For the life of me, I couldn’t understand why black aldermen along the MLK strip refused, for the most part, to get behind a plan that seemed to be marketing gold.
Melvin White founder of Beloved Streets of America

One of White’s most adamant opponents, 22nd Ward Alderman Jeffrey Boyd, endured public scrutiny for installing decorative lights along MLK Blvd. Strangely, reporter Elliot Davis on his FOX 2 News segment, “You Paid for It,” scrutinized the $1.2 million in tax dollars spent to install, as Davis put it, “fancy lights along abandoned, wrecked street.”

Elliot Davis interviews Aldermen Jeffrey Boyd about decorative lights on MLK Photo courtesy of FOX2 News

I don’t understand why Davis made a big ta-do out of the issue. These types of lights have been installed in several up and coming predominantly white neighborhoods, like the Cherokee and Grove strips. The decorative lights along MLK have brightened the area, adding a subtle layer of safety. I saw developmental potential highlighted, especially the phenomenal work of Friendly Temple Church and other mixed-income housing developments along MLK.

I didn’t hear much about Melvin White’s plan this year. My guess is that, like so many other black visionaries, he became frustrated with the backwards thinking, infighting and inaction among black politicos. If Boyd were big enough to adopt White’s vision, the lights would have been part of a bigger, more palatable economic development movement in North St. Louis.

Malik Ahmed, president and CEO of Better Family Life, was joined by community partners on May 1 to announced revitalization efforts in four St. Louis neighborhoods: Photo By Wiley Price / Courtesy of the St. Louis American
The project’s stated goal is to reduce the number of abandoned and vacant buildings and lots in North St. Louis and beautify neighborhoods with affordable houses. Malik Ahmed, BFL’s founder and chief executive, said he wants the project to attract “millennials and others in the area.”
This is a powerful move but could’ve had an even bigger impact if it was aligned with a collective, community-wide strategy to improve one segment of town at a time. How many millennials could we attract if we not only provided affordable housing but free land to grow food and subsidies to open storefronts along Page and/or MLK Blvd? What an innovative way to bring in young people who are truly vested in one designated area of revitalization.
I could get into the recent rifts between newly elected “progressive” white aldermen and a few elected black aldermen but that will be a topic for another commentary. I mention it here because, at some point, we must challenge these politicians to get past their beefs and enact the same sort of incentives in North St. Louis that’s been used to boost the Central Corridor, the Central West End, the Cortex District and other already wealthy white neighborhoods.
Here, I want to stay focused on the positives that can lead to real, healthy and lucrative development in long-ignored black neighborhoods. As I’ve stated many, many times, food can be that economic motivator that replaces lost industries in urban areas.
. Let’s be real, everybody eats. Growing, packaging and distributing fresh food and food-based products to consumers, public schools, grocery and convenience stores and public institutions can be a huge boom for low-income people. What dreams may come if everybody-consumers, restaurants, bakeries and more-all bought food that was professionally grown in North St. Louis? What would be the job and small business increase if a line of food, like Del Monte, was manufactured and distributed from the inner city?
The North City Food Hub partners include the Sweet Potato Project, Good Life Growing Inc., Hosco Foods, St. Louis University, Annie Malone Children & Family Services and City Market Cooperative.
I’m ecstatic to report that the Sweet Potato Project has joined a group of local food entities that have come together to turn these challenges into possibilities. The “North St. Louis Food Hub (NCFH)” is dedicated to creating “local food systems” specifically in North St. Louis. This summer, it will offer classes in land ownership, urban agriculture and culinary skills. Technical assistance will also be offered to help people develop business and marketing plans and become certified in “Good Agricultural Practices (GAP).” 
Good Life Growing, LLC is a member of the North City Food Hub
Photo by Wiley Price / Courtesy of the St. Louis American
NCFH will open its “shared-use kitchen” in the Greater Ville area in a couple weeks. This is where our students will turn their produce into products. It’s also where anyone can develop food products under the guidance of trained chefs (for a small hourly fee) and even earn “Food Safety” certificates. NCFH will also host classes to show people how, what and when to grow. It has partnered with or established places where urban farmers can sell their produce.
I’m a naively optimistic, big-picture kinda guy. Despite the seeming disconnect, division and political stagnation, something powerful is percolating in North St. Louis. The challenge is to pull these things together and present them in an empowering, collective narrative. Be it on MLK Blvd., or Page Ave., the Natural Bridge strip or somewhere near O’Fallon Park; black folk must choose and focus on one neighborhood. Then we can replicate the model in another neighborhood and another and so on and so forth. Because St. Louis has invested in white neighborhoods for the past 20 years, we already know that tax incentives and other government incentives can be used to improve black neighborhoods and spur small business growth.
The local food movement is spreading across the country. Those with the means and resources have been capitalizing off this for years. St. Charles developer, Paul Mckee, has already secured federal funds to grow, market and distribute fresh food near the looming NGA site. Many in the growing food market see African Americans as consumers and benefactors of fresh food. The NCFH plan, for example, seeks to empower them as entrepreneurs and landowners.  
The first step, however, is to get black people to buy into the possibilities of “doing for self” with a little government help. For me, with initiatives such as NCFH, I have a way to immediately put land in the hands of young entrepreneurs so they, too, can economically benefit from fresh produce. I see a viable pathway to get other millennials and low-income residents activated and engaged in land and community ownership. Growing and selling food and food-based products is a sound way to monetarily incentivize community development.
Let’s challenge our young and show them a workable way to put action behind their passions. Let us put aside our petty political differences and push an unique 21st Century agenda. Let us take a refreshing, collective approach to building affordable homes, land ownership, innovative entrepreneurism and neighborhood revitalization through the growing, packaging and distribution of food.  After all, everybody eats!


The North City Food Hub will hold its grand opening celebration on June 28th at 1034 North Sarah, St. Louis 63113. For more information call 314-258-2571 
or Alayna Sibert / Operations manager at 314-954-7090 

Saturday, March 24, 2018

Birthday Musings: “Yes, it was My Way”

And when I die 
and when I'm dead, dead and gone, 
There'll be one child born and 
a world to carry on, to carry on

“And When I Die” by Blood, Sweat & Tears

My birthday was Thursday. I’m sixty-one. Damn!

I’m not trying to sound morbid but lately, I’ve been thinking about my last days on this planet. Life is a precious but fragile thing so, I’ve been contemplating what I’ve accomplished, what’s left to do and what I want to leave behind.

If I do kick off soon, please know it’s been a wonderful journey. Within the past six decades I’ve received incredible gifts in the guise of relatives, wives, lovers, children, supporters, friends and readers. Owning my own magazine (Take Five), writing for the Post-Dispatch and starting the Sweet Potato Project has provided me with a spiritually lush life of challenge, purpose and gratification. Writing from the heart all these years has been my doorway to many wonderful, long-lasting relationships.  I did my personal best to make the world a little bit better than when I entered it. I have been blessed.

There’s so much more I want to do before the final curtain. I’ve always known how I want to spend my last days on earth. It’s a Walter Mosley/George W. Bush/Jimmy Buffet type scenario. I my mind’s eye, I see myself in a warm place near water, writing fiction and painting pictures.

To get there, I gotta make some some stuff happen-quick like. The Sweet Potato Project, interacting and inspiring potentially young entrepreneurs who share my hue, working to build a sustainable, replicable, urban agricultural project in North St. Louis fires my soul and keeps me jazzed.  

Yet, I wonder if I’m the guy to bring it to full fruition. Raising enough money to operate the program, grappling with operational deficiencies and trying to convince politicians and people with clout and resources that this is a viable way to create a long-term economic engine in the city is more than a notion.

But just when I think it’s time to call it quits there are signs that we’re close to the finish line. I have a few students eager to own land and grow food. Across the country, urban agriculture is now viewed as a positive, productive means to revitalize disadvantaged neighborhoods. Politicians like Alderman John C. Muhammad have introduced bills aimed at putting vacant land in the hands of poor people. State Rep. Bruce Franks has introduced a bill aimed at instituting trauma curriculum in schools where kids deal daily with crime, violence and poverty in their neighborhoods. This is a huge concern of mine that I address in my soon-to-be-published book, “When We Listen.”

This summer, a collection of nonprofits representing the North City Food Hub (NCFH) will offer classes on land-ownership, writing business plans, food-growing, culinary certificates, and will open a professional shared-use kitchen in the Ville where anybody who wants to develop a food-based product can do so with the help of trained chefs. There is indeed progress on this front.

My goal is to get SPP to a place where it can operate without me. Oh, I plan to always be its champion, its spokesman and spend time learning, listening and being a part of young people’s lives. But, honestly, I’m tired of the struggle. The project needs to be under the stewardship of an organization that’s better than me at fund-raising and the day-to-day operations of a strong, viable nonprofit.

I’ve come to the conclusion that my first love, writing, supersedes all my other endeavors. For the past six months, I’ve been mostly researching and scribing. I have three books in motion, the last is a work of fiction. Doing this has been economically challenging but, it feels right. In total, the works speak to my passions, my love and concern for our city, politics and progression. Unrestricted writing has allowed me to deploy my real-life experiences, my woes, joys and dreams in real and imaginary formats.

I cherish the fact that I’m still a na├»ve dreamer, even in my early 60s. I still believe that the power of love, compassion and humanity will ultimately defeat greed, tyranny and restricted thinking. I hold on to the notion that genius has no color-code and I’m encouraged by the creativity, resiliency and tenacity of our youth. I want my grand exit underscored by the fact that I left something tangible behind that my children and/or another generation of dreamers-those not willing to live lives in vain-will utilize and push forward in their own unique and wonderful ways.

It’s funny. As a youngster, I used to draw. Up until my mid-twenties, I pursued a life as a painter, cartoonist and political satirist but, writing was always a part of that. As a kid I used to make my own comics that reflected the things I was experiencing in life-poverty, bullying, girls and fighting evil. There was something fascinating about creating something new and unique. That aspect of creativity transcended into my actual life efforts.

I’ve only had two “real” jobs in adulthood, Laclede Gas (12 years) and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch (six years). Everything else I did was of my own making-Take Five Magazine, When We Dream Together, a multi-media website and the Sweet Potato Project.  I was miserable at the gas company and the daily newspaper. I simply don’t do well with institutional racism or down-right white superiority thinking. My own projects have been economically and emotionally-straining but, Lord, so fulfilling.

I’m not itching to die but life is promised to no one. Mine, so far, has been one of living, learning and loving and I desperately want more. I’ve been blessed to paint on canvasses of my own making. Writing has been my way of coping, connecting and interacting with opposing and supporting souls.

I want to thank everyone for sending me “Happy Birthday” wishes this week. It's been an absolute pleasure sharing this journey with you. The Blood Sweat and Tears tune above speaks to my hope that young people will carry on where I leave off. But “My Way,” popularized by Frank Sinatra, perfectly sums up my feelings about my life and humble accomplishments.

For what is a man, what has he got?
If not himself, then he has naught
To say the things he truly feels and not the words of one who kneels
The record shows I took the blows and did it my way.
Yes, it was my way




Thursday, March 8, 2018

The Dope Man is Dead

"Everybody's misused him
Ripped him up and abused him

Another junkie plan
Pushing dope for the man
A terrible blow
But that's how it goes..."

"Freddie's Dead" by Curtis Mayfield

I am in mourning. 

The neighborhood dope dealer has been murdered.

I know it’s a strange thing to write. To most, the reaction to the death of an illegal drug peddler is “good riddance.” I might have felt the same way had I not come to befriend the neighborhood dope man.

About a year ago I moved back to the city, the place where I was born and raised. I’m going to be very vague in this story because I don’t want to bring unwanted attention to my neighborhood or my neighbors. Let’s just say I live in the heart of “Da Hood.” It’s a typical low-income, black neighborhood where poverty is palpable and the sound of gunfire is somewhat routine. It’s an area where life is dangerously beautiful. It’s where mothers, fathers and kids take buses in the wee hours of the morning and the dark of night to work or school. The neighborhood overflows with fast food joints, churches and convenience stores owned by Middle Easterners who serve salty chips, candy, cigarettes, cell phones, liqueur and cheap, greasy food for a stranded demographic. It’s an amalgamation of stubborn, elderly homeowners who band together to watch out or protect what’s theirs from sometimes wandering young people.

Like a ghetto version of Game of Thrones, the back-yard mechanic, the nosy, porch-sitting griots, the night-shift worker with the mid-70s Cadillac Coupe Deville, all serve as neighborhood watchmen. They are the observers and verbal warriors who keep tabs on the wildlings and walking dead.  

Like a ghetto version of Game of Thrones... the neighborhood watchmen are the observers and verbal warriors who keep tabs on the wildlings and walking dead. 

I soon learned that the dope man, let’s call him “Zeke,” my next-door neighbor, was a Jon Snow-like character. Zeke was indeed the Lord Commander of this hobble of diligent, urban Night-Watchers. They all seemed to know him, like him even and, in a bizarre way, depend on him to help manage the mess of which he was a participant.

I learned the dangerous dynamics of my block very quickly. My first weekend there was accentuated with the sound of rapid-fire gun play down the street. I waited until the burst of bullets stopped before peeking through the blinds. There, brazenly walking toward our four-family apartment building, like Chuck Connors from the old Rifleman TV show, was Zeke, the dope man, with an automatic weapon at his side. 

There, walking toward our four-family apartment building, like Chuck Connors from the old Rifleman TV show, was Zeke, the dope man, holding an automatic weapon. 

I saw him on our front porch a couple days later and asked what happened that day. He feigned ignorance until I told him I saw him with the gun. Someone had followed him home after an altercation at a nightclub, he admitted. They shot at him and he returned fire until they sped off, he nonchalantly explained.

Initially, Zeke eyed me suspiciously. He was courteous but cautious with me. One day I was sitting in my car looking at my social media feed on my phone. I have old eyes, so I hold my phone in front of my face instead of looking down at it. The dope man pulled up in his dated luxury car. Walking to our building, he jokingly accused me of taking pictures of him. I laughed but something in his probing gaze told me he was only half-joking.

Let me say up front that I never saw Zeke actually dealing drugs, but all the signs were there. People knocked on his door at all hours of the day and late, late night. The visits were short, like someone picking up a call-in order from the local chop suey place.  

Zeke introduced me to the neighborhood watchmen. Some of the elders spoke highly of the him without directly referring to his illicit trade. They told me how the block had improved due to his efforts. He was the one, they said, who put a stop to break-ins and robberies on the block. To my utter surprise, Zeke told me how he worked with police to get them to respond quicker to complaints of crime or vandalism.

Once Zeke found out what I did for a living with the Sweet Potato Project, he became more friendlier and protective. He never confessed what he did, but he told me about his stints in prison and how much he valued life on “the outside.” As if we had something in common, Zeke bragged about the young men he tried to help by employing them at his “construction company,” washing his or other neighbor’s cars or having them cut grass or pick up trash on the block.

Oftentimes, weed-smoking or beer-guzzling youngstas hanging out in front of our apartment greeted me with a “what’s up OG (Old gangsta)?” It seemed, because I lived next to the dope man, I was given a modicum of respect.

 It seemed, because I lived next to the dope man, I was given a modicum of respect.

I guess Zeke surmised, probably because I lived next to him, that I wasn’t exactly rolling in cash. Whenever he saw me sitting in my car or entering my apartment, he’d reach into his pocket and ask, “you need anything?” I declined his offers, but I was touched by the sentiment. 

Zeke told me he had a house somewhere in the city. He allowed some "wildlings" to occupy his apartment above me. He gave me his phone number and told me to call if they ever got out-of-hand, which they did. One day, I heard someone kicking in the front door of one of the units. I called the police. They asked my name and said someone would be there soon. They never showed up. So, I called Zeke. He immediately came, talked to me, inspected the property and matter-of-factly stated, “it’s handled.”

About a month later, the owner of the Coupe Deville, called me over as I was taking groceries into my apartment. “You heard about Zeke?” he asked. "No,” I answered. My heart sank as he detailed how Zeke had been shot and killed somewhere in North St. Louis. It was a drug deal gone awry, he reasoned. As we were talking, an elderly lady in an old, gray Pontiac pulled up beside us. “Ya’ll heard about Zeke?” she shouted from her car window. My neighbor seemed to know the lady. He told me she was related to Zeke. He gave her his condolences. She shook her head, fighting back tears. “I loved him, but he was livin’ that life. It was bound to happen,” she said before driving off.

“I loved him, but he was livin’ that life. It was bound to happen.”

That brief exchange, made me love my neighborhood even more. I adore being smack dab in the middle of the ghetto life of my youth. As a writer, the way poor people manage to laugh, love, live and cope among the chaos helps me connect with the generational path of poverty, resiliency and creative survival techniques of my people. Sadly, death is an expected part of this life. Sometimes the lines of existence, of “right and wrong” are blurry. Sometimes the bad guys do good things. Sometimes “don’t ask, don’t tell” is all part of maintaining that sacred, delicate balance of survival.

Zeke played a valuable but complicated role in our real-life melodrama. Comfort and a sense of safety came from him and my elderly neighbors, the watchmen. I know they have my back and I have theirs. We all suspected Zeke was “livin’ that life,” but, in a bizarre way, he was the nucleus of our efforts to keep madness outside our doors, even though he was a contributor to that insanity.

A couple days ago, I again heard the rapid fire, “briipp, briipp, briipp,” of automatic weapons somewhere down the block. The gun play seemed to go on for at least ten minutes. No police showed up. During a lull in the noise, I again glanced through the blinds. As I did, a strange, sad thought seeped into my mind:

“The dope man is dead.”