I’ve always been a reactionary being. Ever since I was little all anyone who wanted to bring out the worst me had to do was attack my fragile little ego. See, as a teenager my macho bravado was that of a puffed up street level drug dealer. One who had a knack for scratching dudes down because I liked both street fighting and boxing. It’s like I had to constantly prove myself to others so they knew I wasn’t going soft and would never allow anyone to walk all over me.

It was exhausting. The slight tilt in my hat revealed my affiliation to everyone in the know and of course there were so many people from rival factions looking to prove themselves to their circles that I was constantly in scraps, and conflicts. I was stuck playing this alpha male with my chest out 24/7 and eventually suppressed every kind and decent part of myself out of survival. At least that’s what I told myself.

The truth is, I was terrified by my environment and would harm anyone or anything that pointed out those fears. When your home is a violent place and the culture that shapes you rewards toughness with acceptance and greets kindness with ridicule you kind of stop revealing those gentle parts of yourself. You start hiding those “weak” emotions and over time you sort of harden your face altogether. Gradually, your temper gets shorter and then eventually you stop smiling for good.

The tension in your shoulders becomes this unconscious thing that comes across as combative to decent people. Then, a few years pass by and you’ve stopped talking to cats outside your hood altogether. Your circle, the ones who were there from the beginning, are the only ones left and normal members of society naturally give you space whenever you do leave the area you live in. Your neighbors shake their heads and quietly whisper to each other about the sweet young man you used to be. Everyone knows that kid is gone though you are all that’s left.

This hardening of a man has a funny way of strangling our dreams within us as well. We start to forget we even had dreams. As a result, we start lying to ourselves about why we didn’t pursue our childhood goals. Oh they’re pretty lies to be sure but they are lies all the same. Lies we accept because they comfort us. Then we start making excuses for ourselves by mocking the people who didn’t succumb to the madness of life and followed their dreams. College kids become privileged youth with silver spoons up their asses. Thos preachers and teachers who try to encourage the light within others become food- to be preyed on by the strong. The world becomes this dog eat dog place as all of the insanity slowly becomes normal, ‘everyday facts of life.

We become men who cling to the images we’ve crafted for ourselves as our dreams are replaced by our egos. We identify with our Mob families and nod our heads at the rivals who survived into their 20s. Lil’ goons in training offer to wash our cars or run to the store for us just happy that we even know their names. It’s not difficult to think back to when we were just like them. Seeing the OGs with their egos so beautifully intact. All the men give them respect and the women gravitate towards their animalistic allure. Their cars are nicer and well maintained than the ones owned by the working class guys in the neighborhood. Even their clothes stand in a stark contrast so they stand out amongst the junkies in wrags and the worker bees struggling to provide for their families.

It’s easy to remember the ones you looked up to and wanted to be like when you were younger. You know, the ones your parents warned you about and told you would either be dead or in prison before they turned 25. You remember them now as you approach your earner pumping in front of the party store. He steps forward and locks hands with you concealing the cash he slips you with a well placed shoulder hug. Maybe you encourage him the same way your predecessors encouraged you, maybe you simply nod. Either way, you’re going to check through that paperwork the second you step back to the car.

Those same 10-12 year olds running around come up to you as you approach the store. You motion for them to follow you in as you hold the door open. You say, “grab whatever” and watch the excitement cross their faces as they grab little juice boxes and snack cakes and chips, whatever the craving. You wait patiently at the counter having casual conversation as they pile their snacks into the rotating window for the cashier to ring up. “Let me get two watermelon White Owls bro bro!” The clerk tells you the total. You nod and slide a hundred dollar bill through the money slot. “Keep the change,” you say with a wink as you hand the snacks over to the kids before exiting.

This is why the peoples perception of the neighborhood gangster is the way it is. Those kids think the world of the man who provides them with snacks and asks them menial questions about their school, or their day. Quietness kept, he knows the Mother of one of them and has been supplying her habit since he was the teenager standing outside the store, pumping directly to the custos. It’s the boys Mothers money he spent on the snacks knowing she’s not capable of doing so herself. Once the youngster finds out he’ll be ready to put in work himself.

See, I started selling hard drugs after my Father sold my 10-speed for a dime of cocaine and the gangster in this narrative, the teenager pumping out front, those little kids, and countless thousands across the country have this same exact story. We grow tired of watching the gas get cut off or seeing our parents literally smoke our grocery money. Many of us turn to dealing drugs because we don’t have to wait until we’re 16 to work. Then we get stuck hustling because the money is better.

This sort of desperation breezes through the slums polluting the lungs of all our inner cities occupants. The junkie and the supplier, much like the victim and the abuser, have the exact same psychological profile. Deep down everyone knows that this ghetto way of life is unfulfilling and mentally draining. The pain and misery hangs in the air over our heads like an ominous ghost beckoning us to come join them in death. We know there has to be more to life than this mundane hustle we’re all participating in. It’s obvious, but since we don’t know how to genuinely bring about change we all choose our own forms of escape. We all play the parts we picked and puff up our egos.

The gangster uses his status and wealth to mask his sorrows the same way the addict buries their pain underneath chemicals. Even, the blue collar Father who works his fingers to the bone uses his outrage at the hustlers and pimps as a way of offsetting his own feelings of frustration. Women who grew up barely seeing their Fathers tend to have overbearing Mother who pass on their poor taste in men. These women oftentimes end up chasing after the hustler who reminds them of their Father just to end up raising their offspring alone when he gets caught up.

Yet the ego still thrives in the inner city just like it does anywhere else. It still screams “LOOK AT HOW PRETTY I AM!”Did this young woman who dreams of being a nurse intend on getting knocked up at 17? Peep the little boy who wants to become a scientist puffing up his little chest when teased by an older teen. Do you think he can escape his environment long enough to do something different?

How do we rise above?


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