The Streets - October 2009

a column by Paulette Lewis


Encounters of the Gangsta Kind

You know the guys you see in BET-television gangsta music videos with permanent gold teeth that have real diamonds in them, wearing Cardi’s and tatted neck to toe, smoking a blunt and popping bottles? That would describe one of my best friends of all time.

When I met this guy I’ll call “Guns,” he was sitting in a car and wearing Cardi glasses under a Cincy-fitted hat, in a white T, bumping to his favorite gangsta rap music. He had a beer in one hand, a joint in the other, and a gun fully loaded on his lap next to his cell phone.

My first impression was “holy crap, I hope he doesn’t kill me.” He looked as if he’d jumped out of a music video, but I quickly learned who he was. “Guns” is a real-life gangsta. He doesn’t publicize how many people he has killed, with teardrop tattoos under his eye, or his profitable drug-dealing enterprise with fancy cars and houses. He is low-key. That’s how he is able to maneuver so well.

My emotions about him were mixed at first. I saw someone who, in a dark alley, would probably cause me to die instantly of a fear-induced heart attack; and at the same time, I saw someone so lost and broken he had given up on his own life years ago and was getting along day by day the way he had since he was 12 years old.

He was a friend of my bodyguard “G” and he lived in the most dangerous neighborhood in our city—downtown.  Locals call it “down tha way” (DTW). It’s the ghetto side of our downtown as opposed to the expensive lofts and five-star restaurants only a few blocks over. If there is a physical place in our city where the presence of Satan exists and evil thrives, it’s this community. So many dark and truly evil things go on there in the overnight hours that some might say it is not a place even a Christian should go. I had no idea until I went once in the day.  The businesses there were actually open, and “normal” everyday people came and went. It blew my mind. Parallel worlds do exist. If those people had any clue what went on there at night, I guarantee that they would never go back. 

It’s the perfect place for a drug dealer or an arms dealer, for that matter. You can “re-up” on the 1st, the 15th, the 30th of a month. Addicts even trade cars and furniture for their fix, so money isn’t the only option in a deal. Unfortunately, they will also trade their daughters for a night in exchange for their drugs. I’ve learned a lot about the business and how to “flip money” from being DTW.

Drug dealing, or “hustling,’” is truly a business. Dealers don’t pay taxes, but they pay employees called “Souljas,” and they operate with an incredible sense of accounting. They are great at math, money, numbers, quantity, and quality. They even engage in customer service to continue a good relationship with their high-end clients or “licks” as they‘re called. They use their money to feed their family, the block, and even donate to charitable causes (yes, I count buying Girl Scout cookies as a charitable contribution).

However, with this business, they put their lives and their freedom on the line and accept the risk that comes with it. One time, not long after I met “Guns” and some of his crew, I flew back to the block only thirty minutes after I left, and twenty minutes after a drive-by shooting injured four of the Souljas on his corner. Everybody knows I carry an impressive first aid kit, so they asked me to patch them up. I was appalled. I insisted that one of them, in particular, go to the hospital. He said, “Oh it’s alright. This is nothin’. It was just a .22 and it went clean through. I just need it cleaned and patched.”

Just a .22? I thought he was kidding. He wasn’t. It was like the third time he had been shot. I did the best I could with my limited experience in gun shot wound care and left him tons of dressing and anti-biotic ointment for changing it. Only a .22. As compared to what? A Desert Eagle? Oh, my goodness.

Honestly, “Guns” is lucky to be my age and still be alive. He’s pretty old to be in the game. I figured he wouldn’t live long after I initially met him and I honestly never expected the transformation currently in progress. Not in a million years.

Since I’ve known him, he’s done two bits in prison, he’s been robbed at gunpoint and shot at I don’t know how many times; but from the moment I met him, he was another one that took to me. He immediately showed me respect and wouldn’t tolerate anyone disrespecting me, getting near me physically, or even being around my car. People didn’t cross him and they left me alone. He was so serious; licks weren’t even allowed to approach my car and ask me for spare change and the transvestite prostitutes knew to keep on walking. His crew knew who I was and what I was doing there, but only a few were permitted to interact with me.

I remember from the beginning: I was told that I was not allowed under any circumstances to just show up unannounced or drive through, like I did in other neighborhoods. I had to call first—I absolutely had to follow their rules because of the danger element that existed there. They had to create a safe environment for me before I got there, and sometimes if that wasn’t possible. I had to wait to visit until it was safe. I didn’t understand how serious it was and how quickly their block could become a danger zone, so I ignored these instructions at first, and they had to scramble to find some security for me. That meant the boss—the big guy on the block—would get in my car until one of his Souljas could be pulled to “sit” on me.

I quickly began following their instructions and basically when I arrived, whether I had bodyguards with me or not, one of their own was assigned to me. Whoever it was usually just stayed close by my car and kept an eye on me and the activity surrounding us. After a few months, I was able to get out of the car and walk around a bit. Not far, but it was progress. Finally, as long as I was escorted by at least two of them, one walking in front of me and one behind me, I was allowed to go inside the building in which they did most of their business and chill with people for a while. This meant the block was getting to know me and trust me.

I even started taking one guy Whoppers once in a while because he would have me come into his apartment to wait for “Guns” or whoever I went to see and it never failed, he was eating a Whopper and watching his favorite movie of all time, “Striptease”. He was always so into it, like it was the Lion King or something. It was so funny to watch him.

I really had to spend a lot of time in their element at night since they come out when the sun goes down and work til the sun comes up. At any moment a business opportunity could come up. They had to physically be there to make their money and they weren’t willing to take off somewhere with me or go into the house and miss the cash they could make. They were making a lot of money every night. It was a very rare thing that I could pull them away from that, but once in a while “Guns” and a couple of his guys would come out to my house with me for a few hours of sleep and a good meal.

Whether good or bad, I got to know the people there and they got to know me and thankfully, recognize my car. Ironically, the undercover police and the narcotics division did too. I’m sure the police still think I am a lick trying to score drugs since I am the only white girl on the block at 3a.m. some days talking to drug dealers. I need a neon sign on my car that says, “Mentor to the ‘hood. Go away; I’m making your job easier.”

“Guns” and I got along really well, obviously. Once I got over my initial fear, prejudices and pre-conceived notions about him, I realized he was one of the few hustlers down there that was real and loyal. We started to trust each other. My loyalty and ability to be trusted by them were put to the test a few times and I had to enter new territory. I had to modify how I worked with these guys. They had to see I am real, too. Soon, I felt comfortable asking questions and “Guns” began answering some of them. I really wanted to be able to read and understand his tattoos. I learned a lot about him just from reading his body art.

The most interesting thing that really stuck with me covers the span of his neck from his chin to his collarbone. It’s in the Bible’s book of Hebrews and it simply says in large script, “God, forgive me.” For a while he wouldn’t explain that one. Finally, he said he had done so much evil and hurt so many people, he knew his own death would be very hard and that there was no possible way God would ever forgive him. That’s a hard perception to live with—believing you are doomed to hell. How do you overcome that belief? I began praying for his peace. He wasn’t raised with the comfort of knowing that God forgives us—many times before we can forgive ourselves, so he doesn’t understand this concept.

God works in his own ways, which we don’t understand. I know that God has kept “Guns” alive for a reason. I met him for a reason. We became close friends for a reason. He has a good soul despite what some people would think just by looking at him or his record.

Guns’ life began to turn around when he met an amazing woman that is determined to stick by his side. They now have two beautiful children (and I am the proud godmother!). I can see that his woman and his children are the rock and the strong foundation he never had before. It has catapulted him into a new way of living. He comes home every night instead of going to the club or pounding the pavement. He is working a legit job for the first time in his life and has learned to wait patiently for a paycheck. His kids absolutely love and adore him. He has a very special bond with his son and his girlfriend provides the love and balance and decency he didn’t even know existed.

His girlfriend, who is significantly younger, was raised a devout Muslim. She converted to Christianity in recent years, and she is my partner in prayer. Together we pray on his behalf that the Holy Spirit will come to him and bring him peace and that his heart will be warmed with the unmistakable love of Jesus. We pray that he comes to the realization one day that he is already forgiven and does not need a tattoo as more of a constant reminder of his sin and condemnation than his salvation.

For now, we stay in prayer and watch day by day as he lets go of the temptations and the ease of his old life, in exchange for the firm foundation and longevity of a new one. Not too many people that come from where he is from and have lived the way he has lived are blessed to be able to start over and have a second chance. The odds for his survival, much less success in our society, are stacked against him. Every day is an internal struggle for him and a battle to take the high road for the material things he needs for his family; but, if he just keeps on going, with his family, I know one day he will be truly free.



For more information on columnist Paulette Lewis’ work, or to schedule her to speak, email her at Paulette is an innovative gang interventionist.