By Mwandishi Mitchell
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 1988
The loud subway train boomed through the tunnel at a fast rate of speed.
"Next stop, Ellsworth & Federal," said the SEPTA orange-line subway conductor over the P.A. system. SEPTA is an acronym for the public transportation system in Philly. It stands for: Southeastern Pennsylvania Transit Authority.
"Like we don't know where tha fuck we're going!" I said loud enough for anyone in earshot. I was a smart aleck fifteen-year-old kid who thought he knew everything.
An old white woman wearing a terrible looking wig sitting across from me clutched her purse to her bosom. That gesture always infuriated the hell out of me. I was a young African-American male and hated when women of any color felt threatened by me as if I were some type of savage.
The train slowed down as it pulled into Ellsworth-Federal station. When the train stopped and the doors opened I said to the old woman, "Bitch! Don't nobody want chur fuckin' purse!" then walked onto the platform. I banged on the window startling her as the train resumed its route. Blue sparks shot up from the third rail as the train disappeared into a black tunnel of nothingness.
As I ascended the steps the foul smell of urine penetrated my nose. Trash was strewn all over the walkway. I followed behind the other patrons exiting the subway without a care in the world. Coming home from school was always better than going! Most of the time I hopped the turnstile or squeezed through a bent exit turnstile because I'd sold my school tokens. I laughed at the history lesson in school that day about forty acres and a mule. What the hell did I need with a mule? I had an iron horse!
My house was a two-minute walk from Broad & Ellsworth. I lived on the dead-end block of Carlisle Street behind St. Rita's Catholic Basilica. I stayed with my Gram, Pop-Pop, and cousin, Tyke.
God bless Gram. She worked so hard! She was up by 3:00 a.m. preparing coffee for herself and my older female cousin, Peanut. Gram had to be at work by 5:00 a.m. at a garment factory on 4th & Girard Avenue. Usually, she'd beat me home.
When I came through the front door there was Pop-Pop who was called "Horse" by all those who knew him. He'd be in his usual seat right in front of the television.
"Hey Pop," I'd say once inside.
He'd give me a blank stare and not say anything. I swear he hated me, but for the life of me I couldn't figure out why. Maybe because all the shit I thought I got away with, he knew I did. Mainly because he'd done it himself when he was my age.
Gram was in the kitchen preparing dinner. As I look back on it, damn, did she ever get any rest? To come home from work, just to go to work cooking for us! What a strong woman she was.
I shot upstairs, threw my books on-my bed, and grabbed my switchblade, rolling papers, Sony Walkman and Public Enemy cassette tape. My homies and I sometimes had beef with other neighborhoods so I had to make sure I had my knife with me. Then
I shot down the steps heading for the front door.
"C'mere, Dishi!" her voice halted me in my tracks, making me do an immediate about-face and head into the kitchen.
Gram's name was Elizabeth, and she was a beautiful red-bone with silky hair. Her hazel eyes could stop a Brink's truck. Being in her late fifties, she didn't look a day over forty. She wore furry slippers and a flower-print housecoat.
"Where you runnin' off to so fast?"
"Peters Street Gram. You know dat'z where I be."
"Anngh unngh, whut about chur homework?"
"Ain't got none. We got oral homework," I said lying through my teeth.
"Why do you keep hanging wit' 'dem boyz down on Peters Street?"
Why do pigs love slop? I said internally. "Gram, dey my friendz down there."
“You re headed for trouble. I'm not coming to bail you outta jail. Jus' so you know," she said while cutting greens on the cutting board.
"I'm not doin' nuffin', dough."
"Alright. You heard whut I said. C'mon in here at eight so you can eat. Put my pots away when you finish, too."
As always, what she said went in one ear and directly out the other. Shit, by 7:00 that evening Gram would be sleep, dead to the world on the couch to get her rest so she could be ready for work the next morning. I could come in at 11:00 and she wouldn't know!
When I got outside I pushed the "play" button on my Walkman, as Chuck D's bellowing voice sent chills through me:
I got a letter from tha government tha otha' day,
I opened, and read it, it said dey wuz suckaz!
Dey wanted me fo' tha Army or whuteva',
Picture me givin' a damn, I said neva'!
A young revolutionary in training is what I was. Fuck the establishment, fuck the status quo, and most definitely, fuck the police! I had a right to be hostile; my people were being persecuted.
By the time I got to the middle of Ellsworth Street, before 13th, the smell of Pete's Pizzeria made my stomach growl. The smell of fried onions and grilled steak coming from the exhaust fan was unmistakable. South Philly is the cheesesteak capitol of the world! I peeped in but none of my crew was in there. Pete's was one of our hangout spots. They had a "Double-Dragon" video game machine in there. At least five hundred quarters of mine went into that machine. A minute later I hit my destination at 12th & Ellsworth, making a left walking towards Peters Street. The whole crew was on the corner of 12th & Peters Street. All my homies: Jay-Tee was the oldest and basically the leader. His funny shaped feet made his sneakers lean to the side. Rome was second in command. He had a crazy girlfriend across the bridge in Camden, New Jersey. Ace was the comedian; he had jokes for days and could always make the best out of a bad situation. Rommel was the enforcer—250 lbs of heaviness, "Re-Run" incarnate! Terrence was the handball champ. He thought he was John McEnroe. Gerald was the first to get his driver's license and have a car to drive us around. Edison, the quiet one - silent but deadly! Tyke, my cousin, was a year younger than me. He was the hoop star. The first one of us all to get a full scholarship to a university for his basketball skills. The Pee-wees: Jamel, Jay-Tee's little brother. Kareem, Gerald's little brother. My three little cousins, Raheem, Minute, and Devon. Raheem had more hustle in him than all of us. He started running errands for "Skinny" Joey Merlino when Joey owned the café shop on 12th & Annin Streets (but that's another story). Lastly, "Fat" Kenny and his little brother Quadir-A.K.A. Dupot. They had moved into our neighborhood from North Philly, and they were more street-smart than us all.
They were all huddled around Dupot. From what I could see he had a new coat on. A butterscotch three-quarter shearling! A coat that in '88 cost every bit of $800. All eyes were fixed on Dupot.
"Damn, dat jawn iz phat Dupot. When did ju get dat?" I asked, as my hands were now feeling on the butter-soft leather.
"Yesterday, dope ain't it?" he asked smiling. His gold cap on his front crown tooth shone in the sunlight.
One of the old-head crack addicts, Spoody, came past us. He headed towards the projects on 13th & Catharine, notoriously know as "Saigon," We all knew he was headed to the projects to get his drugs.
"Yo, Spoody, I got sum' shit right here," Dupot said, pulling out a plastic bag filled with caps that had red tops.
My eyes widened in excitement. It wasn't the first time I saw caps before, not by any means. But it was the first time anyone in our crew had drugs for sale.
Spoody looked at the bag filled with caps. "Lemme get three for fourteen," Spoody said as he pulled the crumpled Hamilton and four singles from his pocket.
"Yeah, you can get dat," replied Dupot matter-of-factly.
Out of us all, Dupot had the best clothes and material possessions. The first one to have Gucci sneakers and a thick herringbone chain. I wanted the things he had because those material possessions brought admiration, respect, power, and most of all, girls!
"Dishi, you got papers?" Jay-Tee asked.
"You know it!" I replied.
Only the oldest of us smoked, took pills and drank cough syrup. We sat on the corner steps smoking weed and drinking 40 oz bottles of Coqui 900. My mind was focused on getting crack to sell. I wanted to come up. Later on that evening I pulled Dupot to the side so that I could get in his ear about letting me hustle. He told me he was going to see his connection in a few days and he’d let me know. A few days was too long to wait. I wanted money and prestige now!
Three days later I met Dupot on the corner of 12th & Peters Street. The block was a dead-end and Spoody lived in the last house. It was dilapidated and needed many repairs. But it was a place where we could go to cap up our drugs.
Dupot had a pretty good connection from his old neighborhood in North Philly. The connection was a member of the "Junior Black Mafia" gang, which wreaked havoc on the streets of Philadelphia in the late '80's to early '90's.
We went into Spoody's house and the smell of his living room was putrid! The kitchen was in the back and that's where Dupot and I sat at the kitchen table. Dupot pulled out a big plastic bag filled with crack cocaine from his coat pocket along with an eight ounce pharmacy bottle of cough syrup. From his jeans pocket he pulled out a couple bags of empty caps with yellow tops.
"A, Spoody, where'z dat scale I brought ova' here yesterday?" Dupot asked as
I waited to see what this experience was going to be like.
"Unda' tha sink. Whut chu got fo' me, dough?" he asked with his crack pipe in his hand. With his free hand he scratched his arms.
"Hold on a second, damn. Lemme weight this shit first," Dupot answered.
The hard crack looked like frozen cookie dough. Dupot sat the triple-beam scale on the table and weighed the crack. It amounted to 28 grams, which is an ounce. He weighed out seven grams and sat it to the side. Then he got a mirror and a razor blade that he sat the seven grams on. Dupot broke off a small piece and handed it to Spoody.
Spoody's hand shook as he put a smaller piece of crack onto the top of the glass stem that contained burned Brillo, which served as a screen. Spoody picked up the matchbook and removed two matches that were together from it. With the crack pipe in his left hand, and the matches in the right, he struck the matches using the striker that was on the back of the matchbook. Once the matches were lit, he held the stem at a 45° angle, making contact with the crack that was loaded at the top of the stem. A crackling sound could be heard as gray smoke filled the stem as he inhaled the potent smoke, holding it in for as long as he could. A huge cloud of smoke exited his mouth once he exhaled.
The feeling of euphoria once again took ahold of his body as he relished the effects of the crack working in his system, as the crack released thousand of neurotransmitters called dopamine. However, the feeling was short lived, as four to five minutes later the effects wore off. He threw another piece of crack on the stem and repeated the process.
"A'ight, shave it down like this Dishi," Dupot said while the razor blade moved back and forth shaving the once hard crack into powder.
I was a little nervous. I took the top off the pharmacy bottle and took a nice pop of the purple Promethazine VC. It immediately soothed my nerves as it went down my throat. I started shaving the crack down with the razor blade exactly as I was instructed to by Dupot.
We had "illusion" caps that were plastic and I don't know how they did it, but it magnified the contents inside of the caps making it seem as if more crack was in it than it really was. At the top of the capsule was a line to let you know how much crack to put in so you would have enough room to put the top on.
That day was the beginning of my hustling career. The day the lost boy became really, really lost.
I want to appear in front of that dumb stupid kid capping up crack like a Charles Dickens classic, an apparition, "The Ghost of Future Lost!" Try and talk some sense into him before it's too late. Tell him to finish school and pursue a college education. I want to tell him not be so caught up in the hatred of the forefathers' like Washington, Jefferson, Madison and the rest. Slave owners who considered him three fourths of a man when they wrote the Constitution. The men whose faces were on the very currency he was trying to acquire.
That kid needs to know knowledge is power and can empower him to be anything he wants to be in life. Knowledge doesn't dissipate. It always wants to be retained and used. Knowledge also understands that it has an enemy. An enemy that would seek out and destroy it like an HIV cell.
Would he even heed my warning? What if I told him that in a few years Dupot would be dead, shot in the head from a self inflicted coup de grace! Or believe that Gram was telling him the truth when she told him he was headed for trouble? But knowing him, he would ignore the warning from his older, wiser, self. You could tell that kid not to touch the stove because it was hot but he'd touch it anyway just for confirmation. Stupid kid, he wouldn’t let his brain develop into effulgence!
When I wrote this piece I wanted to give the reader some idea of what it was like for me growing up on the impoverished streets of urban South Philadelphia. I pray I painted a clear and convincing portrait. But it's hard to get every little detail when you're painting with a broad brush. For the most part, the memory is true and concise.
As a young teenager it was easy for me to be blinded by money and material possessions. The man speaking to you today knows the hypocrisy of that lifestyle. The man speaking to you today believes the continuous circle of selling drugs and killing his own people for profit is detestable! If I had to do it all again, like Frost, I would have taken the road less traveled.
Through my hardships I have become a better man. I've learned so much over the years. Change is an evolutionary process that continues day by day. But once again, I would've told the younger me this profound parable: Search for a beautiful heart and not beautiful things. Beautiful things aren't always good, but good things are always beautiful.
Mwandishi (in brown) with his cousin
Mwandishi Mitchell is a wholly actually innocent man, serving time at the State Correctional Institution of Graterford. After serving ten years of his wrongful imprisonment, Mwandishi realized that he had a talent in creative writing. Besides pursuing his career of becoming a prolific writer, he continues to fight in court reverently in pursuit of overturning his wrongful conviction.
Mwandishi Mitchell #GB6474
Graterford, PA 19426-0426