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.”