Most of this essay is based on my observations and memories. Time doubtless has shaped the memories. My own cultural background and upbringing shaped the observations. Take it with however many grains of salt you wish …
They were three half-brothers. That might, mathematically, make a brother and a half—but not in this situation. They all shared a mother, but looked more different than alike.
People say my brothers and I bear a strong family resemblance. Not so Tone and Tee and Beazley.
In 1999 I was once again living with The Gypsy—my sister—compadre—partner in crime. Each of us was going through the dissolution of long-term relationships. We found ourselves needing to find a place to stay fairly quickly. A friend of a friend gave us the number of a landlord with an available unit in one of his duplexes in a Buckroe Beach neighborhood.
The landlord’s name was Terry, a squat, dumpy follow. One of his eyes was covered with a milky white film that made maintaining eye-contact problematic. I’m not good with eye contact, anyway. For years I have been compensating for hearing loss by watching people’s mouths, reading their lips. Terry’s dental hygiene made that difficult, too.
The house was no prize, but we didn’t need a credit check, so it fit our bill. Terry had a reputation downtown—in the courthouse, where he and his tenants regularly clashed—as a slum lord. Our duplex bore out that reputation. It was drafty. One of the bedrooms had no door. The place crawled with cockroaches which no saturation-bombing with commercially available pesticide did anything to alleviate.
At first we’d see the roaches scurrying off the cabinets whenever we entered a room and turned on the light. “Hi, Paul! Hi, George! Hi, Ringo!” I used to call to them. (Yes, I know cockroaches aren’t beetles. It still amused me.) Eventually they stopped fleeing and would just rear up on their hind legs and shake their tiny fists at us.
Unbeknownst to us, our new neighborhood had a reputation with the Hampton Police Department as riddled with drug activity. And nothing so innocuous as marijuana, either.
I tend to stay to myself when I move into a new neighborhood. I could easily be a hermit. Or the creepy old guy who never leaves his house except to drive children off his lawn. The Gypsy was the first to make contact with the neighbors. Sometimes she would introduce me to a new acquaintance from among the neighbors. Other times she just told me of her encounters.
An older couple lived beside us in the duplex: a black man and white woman in their 60s. Their lawn was carefully manicured with little patches of flowers planted here and there. Both units in the duplex across the street housed a large white women and her biracial child. The woman on the left was a young woman with an infant. On the right lived a middle-aged woman named Patsy and her young adult son. Philip was a high school graduate. He took classes at the local community college.
A circle of other young men often congregated around Patsy’s front stoop. These youths called themselves by names such as Toledo and Jay and Tee and Dread and Beazley and Billy. Most of these were not the names their mommas had given them. Sometimes the young men shot hoops using a portable basketball backboard which they rolled to the end of Patsy’s sidewalk. Sometimes they just sat, shooting the shit, listening to rap tunes, and waiting for a pager to vibrate or a car to pull up to the curb. Then one of the young men sauntered to the car, palmed a twenty from the driver, and passed him a small package.
Patsy didn’t approve of such activity, and the fellows usually confined such overt acts to a different porch, closer to Mallory Street, out of respect for her and Philip. The son hardly ever participated in those exchanges. He really tried to concentrate on school. But if his mother had an overdue utility bill or the like Philip was not averse to quickly doubling or redoubling some money with a little help from his friends.
There were possible scenarios in which I never met any of those young men. I was old enough to have been—without much stretch—father to any of them. Other neighbors successfully ignored them. There were young couples on the block, buying starter homes, who kept to themselves. Perhaps they telephoned the HPD on occasion, summoning a cruiser’s to plow through the eddies of dispersed contraband. There was at least one fervent anti-drug crusader on the block—a woman I knew through a 12-Step group—who hosted Neighborhood Watch meetings and scowled at the young men. She invited me to one of those meetings.
In a parallel universe I attended those meetings, I got involved, I kept my hands clean, I worked a good Recovery.
In this universe I moved in and out of that group of young men enough I might legally qualify as a conspirator in a criminal enterprise. Which sounds a lot worse than it actually was. I was barely a plankton in that sea.
I had a little red Ranger with a toolbox mounted behind the cab and every morning I drove my truck to wherever my job site was: Williamsburg or Norfolk or Chesapeake.
Gypsy worked food service—tending bar or waiting tables in the evenings—coming home with a pocketful of cash from tips, ready to party long into the night. She slept late. I hardly slept at all.
She had a highly developed nose for sniffing out where the party was and who had the potables. At the time, both food service and construction drew workers who enjoyed parties and were not at all constrained by legal prohibitions concerning which intoxicants they could consume. In addition to consuming mass quantities of beer and liquor, most of the people we knew smoked marijuana. We had come of age in the 1970s, after all. Sometimes stronger substances made the rounds.
It was in this context that Gypsy met our neighbors and expanded our network of friends and acquaintances who had the connections to enliven our parties. Both of us invited coworkers to our new home. The Gypsy just widened the circle.
The middle brother, Tee, was the first of the three whom I met. Tee’s complexion was darker than his brothers. He was also the smallest of the three—maybe 5’6” on a good day—but wiry. He had a narrow face and piercing black eyes.
Tee had a son who was still a toddler when I knew them. He often had the boy with him during the day. It was Daddy Day Care, but I give him credit for never uttering that dodge of paternal responsibility of calling it babysitting.
“Got any trees?” Tee would sometimes ask me, trees being marijuana. Sometimes I would, and we’d make an exchange of goods.
Tee trusted the Gypsy and me, for some reason. He kept pretty much to himself, and was unsure of other outsiders. Whenever I arranged a deal between him and one of my coworkers Tee asked, “Is he the po-lice?” Tee always pronounced that word with a long O and the accent on the first syllable.
“Is he five-oh?”
“No, no. He’s good.”
“You say he good for this? That’s on you.”
It was on me.
Tee never let me down; I never disappointed him. Some of my coworkers were not so trustworthy.
Tone, the oldest brother, was a big, burly man who wore a perpetual scowl. He also wore a NASCAR racing jacket.
“What’s with NASCAR, Tone?” I asked him. “You some kind of redneck?”
“No, yo.” He scowled and gave me a sidelong glance. “NASCAR where all the money is.”
Tone may have been a man of few words but he had a gargantuan heart.
Once Tone brought home a puppy, a pit bull that he kept on a tether behind a neighbor’s home. (From what I could tell, apart from X-Box games or personal bling such as diamond earrings, gold chains, grill for the teeth, the group eschewed accumulating possessions that might indicate income. They drove a variety of automobiles, registered in other peoples’ names and parked away from their residences. I don’t know if Tone kept his puppy at his friend’s for that reason or because his mother didn’t want it around her house.)
The cable, secured to a stake at one end, was long enough the puppy could run to the fence with a little slack to spare. The tether gave the dog free reign to run around the back yard. One night the rambunctious puppy leapt over the fence. He was still tied to the lead. He cleared the fence, but the cable was not long enough to reach the ground on the other side. The puppy hanged itself and died.
I do not seek to place blame imply my friend should have realized what he obviously did not take into account. I am certain Tone flagellated himself ever after for the oversight. How was he to have known?
Simple geometry might have alerted him to the problem with the cable’s length. But he did not anticipate the puppy attempting to or being able to jump the fence. “That hurt my heart,” Tone told me after burying his pet. It was the most sentimental I ever saw any of the brothers.
The youngest brother went by the name of Mr. Beazley, or just Beazley. He was the most gregarious of any of the group, a real teenager in every way, full of dreams of rapping. Sometimes he’d show up at the crib with his head in neat cornrows. Sometimes he loosed those knots and teased his hair up high all over his head.
All three of the brothers—and several others, besides—had an open-door policy with my house. I never locked the door, even when I was gone. The guys, from their vantage on Patsy’s porch, kept a close watch on my home. The only things of value that I owned were a brand new iMac computer and over one thousand books, but in all the time I lived there not once did anything disappear.
Sometimes they used the house for business purposes.
“I got the chronic,” they’d tell me. Sometimes they threw me a sample and asked me to rate it for them.
Most of these young men still lived with with their mothers. More rarely they stayed with their girlfriend at her mother’s house. Our back bedroom, on the other hand, was a private location out of the family home where they could package their product into distributable units. That meant breaking a large rock into what they called dubs, wrapping them in plastic, tying a knot in the plastic. Dub is short for double: twice the size of a single unit. For as long as I have been aware of goings-on with contraband in the United States a dime-bag or dime has been a pretty standard unit of distribution. A dime-bag of heroin is obviously smaller than a dime-bag of marijuana … or what we used to call a dime of pot. I think they that size call it a half-ounce, now, and it costs considerably more than $10.
(One thing that has always irritated me whenever I hear report about a drug bust—particularly those involving large amounts of any drug—is police estimating what the street value of the drug is. People without any experience of the underground drug trade hear “street value of $200,000” and think what an enormous profit that is and tsk,“It’s no wonder we can’t get rid of drug trafficking.” They don’t consider that the same person importing large quantities of contraband isn’t sitting in his basement dividing it into single doses, all of which he personally will sell on a street corner or playground. The media does their part to perpetuate that perception.
After dividing and packaging the product they moved it to a safe location. I never asked where. The less I knew, the better for everyone. Only once did anyone ask me to hold for him.
When they went out to move their product they often took only three or four of the small bags and wedged them between cheek and gum, like dip.
Of the three brothers I was closest to Beazley. He was all the time over at the house: hanging out, listening to music, cutting open a Philly Blunt cigar and replacing the tobacco inside with marijuana. Beazley turned me on to the music of Big Pun, who was the funniest rapper I ever heard.
A typical randy teenager, Beaz was always chatting up some young woman. There were times when I drove him to the Mall that he’d spy a sweet young thang and made me stop so he could get out and get her telephone number. He was successful more often than not. Despite a pregnant girlfriend he was always playing the field.
Beazley came by one day driving a new Lexus he wanted to show me. My friends always sported some fine automobiles—which, as mentioned above, were never registered in their own names.
Beaz was headed to his girlfriend’s house in downtown Hampton. This was his steady girlfriend, the one carrying his child. He asked me to drive. It was probably the only opportunity I’ll ever have to drive a new Lex.
On the way there, thinking to be helpful, I asked, “Has your girlfriend looked into WIC?”
“WIC?” Beaz looked at me with incredulity. “Why I want the gov’ment all up in my business?”
It was true enough that Beaz could take care of his own family. I never knew him to have less than a grand in his pockets. His response assured me he would do so.
Tee had moved his girlfriend and their son into his mother’s house. I never met their Mother, though I often picked up one of the brothers or dropped them off at her house. I guessed she must have been about my own age—and she surely must have guessed what they were doing.
Or maybe she just didn’t ask where their contributions to her household budget originated.
A couple months later Beazley was riding shotgun in my Ranger as I ran him on an errand. The Gypsy sat in back. Beaz was telling us how difficult it had been to pick a name for his newborn. “It was hard thinking of something that didn’t sound like everybody else baby name.” The couple had settled on LaQwan.
I repeated it to be sure I heard it correctly. “What’s it mean?”
“Mean? What you mean?”
The Gypsy laughed and leaned forward between our seats. She explained, “When white people have a baby they buy these books on baby names and read through them to pick a name. And for some reason what the name means is important.
Beazley looked at us like that was the craziest thing he had ever heard.
Just doing our part for increased racial understanding.