The story of Rodney Mason is one of a Newark too often overlooked, of a man left in a wheelchair by the city’s perils but then finding in Little League baseball a chance to help others — and himself. Jon Schuppe, a former Star-Ledger police reporter and now NBCUniversal correspondent, follows Mason as he climbs this tortuous path, starting with its first chapter and Mason’s upbringing in the city’s infamous Zion Towers.
If you drive south from New York City on the New Jersey Turnpike, Newark appears rather suddenly, about five miles out, as the highway curls across the Hackensack River, climbs a hundred feet above the Meadowlands, and cuts through a formation of volcanic rock called Snake Hill. Atop the cragged peak, the road bends westward, and you find yourself looking out over a vast mottled carpet of factories, warehouses, landfills, highways, and railroad lines. Plumes of steam dissolve into the air over oily mudflats and windblown beds of wheat-colored reeds. Up ahead, the three-mile-long black-steel skeleton of the Pulaski Skyway stretches over the Hackensack and Passaic Rivers, and to the right, at the southwestern horizon, along an S-shaped curve in the Passaic, stands the downtown skyline, a striking combination of art deco, Beaux-Arts, and modernist skyscrapers built in the city’s golden age, when Newark was the most industrialized city in America, producing just about anything Americans used, from curling irons and soap to sheet metal and celluloid. Catch the view late in the afternoon, with the sun hanging low over the Watchung Mountains and reflecting off the sandstone and glass, and you understand what it must have been like for twentieth-century travelers arriving in Newark for the first time, immigrants fresh from Eastern Europe and Latin America, and African-Americans from the Jim Crow South, stopping short of New York to stake themselves in a rough-and-tumble city with still so much to prove.
On the road toward Newark you pass piles of automobile carcasses, oil tanks, fields of empty Lego-like shipping containers stacked seven stories high, trucking bay after trucking bay. Soon the turnpike carries you under the rumble of airplanes descending into Newark Airport. A half-dozen apartment towers, each more than twenty stories tall, rise above a tangle of jug handles and overpasses. The towers stand on Elizabeth Avenue, a major municipal artery that begins at the edge of downtown, runs into the South Ward, and keels westward along the slope of Weequahic Park and traces the southern boundary of the neighborhood that shares the park’s name. The brick-and-steel towers are clustered around that sharp turn at the park’s corner, at the periphery of an industrial zone littered with scrap-metal yards, recycling plants, auto-glass works, and methadone clinics.
The towers were the result of an ambitious and ill-timed development blitz aimed at preventing Weequahic’s middle- and upper-income residents from fleeing to the suburbs in the 1960s. Billed as luxury high-rises, the buildings were supposed to bring modern living to a city desperate for revitalization. They boasted saunas, pools, recreation rooms, maid and porter services, marble lobbies, and easy bus access to downtown Newark and Manhattan. The key feature was an unencumbered vista of the 311-acre park, which featured a lake and golf course and was designed by the same landscape architectural firm that created Central Park.
It didn’t work. The upwardly mobile Jewish families who had migrated to the neighborhood decades earlier continued to retreat westward, a trend that hastened after several days of rioting in July 1967. They were replaced by striving working-class blacks from Central Ward slums, some of whom could afford the rent in the new towers or in the squat 1930s-era art deco buildings between them. But there weren’t enough middle-income tenants to keep the buildings filled, and the developers were forced to rethink their business plans. That included the backers of Zion Towers, a twenty-eight-story building conceived as a residence for elderly Jews. When the project was finally finished in the early 1970s, the sponsoring temple, B’nai Zion, and its partners applied for government subsidies and opened the apartments to a wider array of residents.
At the time, Clara Mason was a single mother of five children, facing eviction from a house down the street that had just been sold. A scrawny woman with angular features, a jutting lower lip, and light brown skin, Clara grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, and quit school at seventeen to marry a navy-yard worker thirteen years her elder. Many members of her family disapproved of the marriage, including an uncle who’d moved to Newark seeking work. He sent for Clara, offering her the chance to finish school and start over. She agreed, but her husband, James, followed her, finding work as a truck driver. She moved in with him and ditched her plans. They began having children, but James was a carouser and an abusive alcoholic. They separated, but he would still stop by from time to time. “It was like he would come around long enough to get a baby,” Clara told me, a scratch of bitterness in her drawl. “You know. One of them things.” James never stuck around long enough to play much of a role in his children’s lives, and he died in the early 1970s. Clara found work in an airplane-parts factory, then in a doctor’s office, supporting her three daughters and two sons on her own.
Desperate for a new place to live, Clara went to her pastor, who worked as a chaplain at a local hospital alongside a rabbi from B’nai Zion. Despite Zion Towers’ struggles, the building still boasted luxury amenities: mail chutes on each floor, juice and milk machines in the lobby, a recreation center, a playground. When Clara was accepted for a three-bedroom apartment on the tenth floor, at $167 a month, “I thought I was living in paradise,” she said. “I thought I was rich.”
The Masons were among the first black families to live in Zion Towers, and they weren’t exactly welcomed. Soon after they moved in, Clara stepped into an elevator and started riding it down with an older white woman who sneered, “I’m going back up and calling Rabbi Klein, because he told me when I moved in there wasn’t going to be any blacks coming in here.”
“You got something against blacks?” Clara asked.
“Yes,” the woman said. “They have too many babies.”
The rabbi often stopped by to inspect Clara’s apartment—more often than he did her neighbors’. After looking around, he’d say, “Miss Mason, I am so proud. You have all these kids and your apartment is spotless.” She thanked him, but she wanted to say, What do you think, that all black people are dirty? After that, Clara was afraid to let her kids play in the hallways for fear that she would get kicked out. But years later, she would recall the inspections fondly; they reminded her of a time when people cared enough to keep the neighborhood clean.
Clara made a decent living, but she developed excruciating ulcers that doctors blamed on stress. An ill-advised surgery removed parts of her stomach, but she remained in chronic pain and was unable to eat much. She was forced to quit her job and go on disability, but her government checks barely covered rent and groceries. Clara’s three oldest children moved out of the house, leaving only Rodney and Darlene.
Rodney, the baby, was a quiet, pensive boy. He kept to himself and did not give his mother much grief. If he did something wrong, all she had to do was flash him a stern look and he would burst into tears. He grew up tall, slender, and bowlegged, prone to long bouts of silence and a habit of biting his nails. He was obsessively hygienic; he refused to wear anything stained and took long showers that often made his sister late for school.
When Rodney was six, Clara showed him a photograph and pointed to a man she said was his father. He was thin, light skinned, with a mustache, and was laughing. Rodney wanted to ask Clara why that man was so happy, but before he got a chance, she took the photograph back and put it away. Rodney never saw it again, and his father remained a fuzzy snapshot of a memory. He was rarely spoken of at home; Clara only acknowledged her husband when someone else brought him up, and then she quickly changed the subject. If Rodney asked her about him, she would reach for a cigarette, light it, and shoot him a look that said, Boy, why are you bugging me with this?
But his curiosity grew. The other boys at Peshine Avenue School talked about their fathers all the time, and when he went to their houses to play, the men were always around. Rodney wanted what they had. “What was my father like?” he asked his oldest sister, Pam. “Did he look like me?” She replied brusquely. “Rodney, he was your father. Him and Mommy used to get into it, but he was a good father, and he died.” For years, that was about all anyone would tell him: that James was a drunk, that he beat his mother, and that he passed away when they were young. He learned to live with the unanswered questions but told himself he’d ask his mother about it again someday, when he was older.
Rodney spent most of his childhood outside, playing sports. Each building, and block, had its own baseball, football, and basketball teams and challenged each other to games in a section of the park they called “the battlefield.” Rodney became one of the neighborhood’s biggest and best athletes, and Clara signed him up for the South Ward Little League. He loved the regimen—the daily practices, the repetitive drills, the cookouts and parades, the adult men who seemed to care so much about helping him do well. He wore his first uniform—white polyester pants, candy-striped stirrup socks, tight powder-gray T-shirt with Braves in burgundy across the chest—to school on the day before his first game in spring 1976. He became a star pitcher and fantasized about making it big and coming back to visit the neighborhood, kids chasing after him like he was Muhammad Ali. With his success on the field came an aura of cool that attracted the affections of girls and the envy of boys. Many of the younger kids started calling him Brown Hornet—after the superhero in the Fat Albert cartoon series—because of his long face and stiff voice.
At home, Clara had increasing difficulty keeping the kids fed. They ate whatever was in the cupboard, which was sometimes just a can of beans, or cereal, or syrup sandwiches. Their neighbors saw what was happening and tried to help. One woman across the hall would go food shopping for them; others invited them over for dinner. Rodney didn’t like having to depend on others. He felt a growing desire to change things. Lying in bed with his stomach growling, Rodney would tell himself, I can’t go another night like this.
In the summer of 1981, when Rodney turned fourteen and was preparing to enter his freshman year at Malcolm X. Shabazz High School, he approached a man who sold joints in his building. Rodney asked if he could help out, and the man agreed, apparently figuring that he would make more money in the long run with an apprentice. He gave Rodney 100 joints, which Rodney sold for a dollar apiece, and took home $30 or $40. Soon, Rodney was selling 250 joints a day and pocketing $100. The money opened up his life, giving him not just the cash to join other kids at the pinball machines and hot dog joints, but also to buy groceries. He didn’t tell Clara where the money came from, and Clara chose not to ask.
Rodney was not only a weed peddler. He and his friends regularly took the bus to Plainfield, where they shoplifted jeans and shirts from Bamberger’s. He also began shaking down a neighborhood kid who worked at McDonald’s, demanding a cut of the boy’s paycheck and threatening to beat him up if he did not comply.
Rodney began to admire the neighborhood “old heads,” career criminals who worked the corners and sometimes shared their expertise with the younger boys. “Like any kid who grows up without a father figure, I was looking for that manly type,” Rodney told me. One of them let him sell some cocaine on consignment. After a few weeks of modest but steady sales, the old head gave Rodney a career-changing piece of advice: cut out the middle man and go into business for yourself. “Go uptown.” Rodney didn’t know where uptown was, so the old head offered to show him. They drove over the George Washington Bridge into New York, stopping at the intersection of Broadway and West 163rd Street, in Washington Heights. It was the center of a sprawling open-air drug market run by Dominican drug gangs who worked with Colombians to supply the entire Eastern Seaboard with heroin and cocaine—traditional powder, and a new form known as crack.
Rodney and his guide were inundated by calls from dealers and touts: “Yo, Papi, over here!” “Ay, Papi, what you need?” Rodney bought five grams of powder cocaine for $100. Then he went to a pharmacy and picked up dozens of glass vials and a container of Inositol, a type of sugar that was commonly used as a cutting agent. Back in Newark, Rodney sold the entire package in a few hours, without leaving his building, and cleared about $250. That night, he found a ride back to New York, bought ten more grams of coke, and sold half of it before bed. He finished the rest the following morning and returned to Washington Heights again. “From that,” Rodney told me, “I was on my way.”
Even as he was getting pulled into the drug business, baseball remained Rodney’s singular passion. He was turning into a powerful pitcher and had ambitions of making the Shabazz High School varsity baseball team, whose coach had recruited him in Little League. Rodney had all the tools to become a star: fluid motion, long stride, and good command of his pitches, which included a fastball with movement. He also possessed a certain quality that the coach didn’t think could be taught: a poise that allowed him to battle through the most difficult situations. Rodney tried not to let his money-making pursuits affect his prospects on the ball field, but soon that became impossible.
During Rodney’s freshman year, a boy got shot at Shabazz in an argument over a pair of sneakers. Before then, only the roughest street criminals carried guns. But a new era was dawning across Newark and the rest of urban America, fueled by crack. By dealing crack, young men found an easy way to buy things that otherwise would have been impossible to obtain. Their goal was to be “the freshest” on the block, the one with the biggest “dookie rope” gold necklace, the flyest sheepskin coat, the latest British Walker shoes, the sharpest fade haircut. Smoking a concentrated form of cocaine was more addictive than snorting it, and the customers, formerly respectable people whom the young men might have looked up to, people with nine-to-five jobs and tight families, got hooked and became, in street jargon, “fiends” who did whatever they needed to do to buy their next hit. At the same time, the crack trade gave rise to a secondary industry of “stick-up boys” who specialized in robbing dealers at gunpoint. Soon teenagers were arming themselves for protection and gunning after those who ripped them off. Authorities were caught flat-footed; the Newark Police Department’s narcotics unit was tiny then, with maybe a half-dozen detectives working days and another half-dozen at night. Between 1984 and 1989, Newark’s crime rate jumped by 41 percent, exceeding those of New York, Baltimore, and Philadelphia.
Elizabeth Avenue became an open-air drug market. That development coincided with an economic downturn in which many of the low-rise apartment buildings were lost to the city in tax foreclosures, then appropriated by squatters and dealers. The high-rises continued to operate, but with vacancy rates that forced owners to seek more federal subsidies. With the new money came requirements to keep rents affordable for low-income residents, which in turn triggered a turnover of the tenant rolls: poorer people moved in, and the remaining middle-class residents fled. Many of those who left blamed the rental subsidies for the neighborhood’s rapid decline. “People came in who didn’t value the community as much as we did,” one told me. “And the drugs. Some of the kids we knew as babies blended in with the new tenants and unleashed hell in that neighborhood. It became just like the projects.”
Security in the towers was minimal; they employed guards, but many either were addicted to drugs or let the dealers come and go as they pleased, occasionally even holding their guns for them. Halls and lobbies and stairwells were open to virtually anyone who wanted to cop or sell. At Zion Towers, Clara noticed an influx of children who ran unsupervised through the building, destroying property at random. They poured hot water and garbage into the mail slots, smashed the vending machines. One day, Rodney ran into the building’s manager after crackheads made off with the TV and videocassette player from the recreation room. The manager stood in the lobby, shaking his head, saying, “I wouldn’t let my dog live in here.”
Some apartments in Zion Towers became crack dens, where tenants rented out space in exchange for drugs. Rodney often went there to cut and package his cocaine because he could not do it at home; he was still, after all, only a teenager.
Rodney and Clara rarely spoke of his drug dealing. She knew where he got the money that filled the Pathmark bags he left in her kitchen, and the new sneakers and clothes he wore. But she felt powerless to make him stop. At least once, she walked in on him cutting and bagging his coke. “Get that shit out of here,” she hollered. As he got up to go, she told him, “Boy, I’m praying for you. Keep that up, and you’re going to go to jail.”
The only family member with whom Rodney spoke candidly was his sister Darlene. She understood his motivations and that underlying his cool posturing was the desire to provide for himself and his family. They knew it wasn’t right to feed drugs to their fragile community. Rodney told Darlene, “This is not what I want to do, but I’m tired of struggling. I’m tired of not having.”
“Me, too,” she said.
In the spring of Rodney’s sophomore year, the Malcolm X. Shabazz Bulldogs, after a string of losing seasons, were poised to compete for the city championship, led by a senior outfielder who was being scouted by major league clubs. Rodney’s fastball was clocked in the low nineties, and he became a key part of the starting rotation. Even the fiends who were losing their families and earthly possessions respected his commitment to baseball. “Yeah, Rock,” they greeted him when he returned home from practice. “Keep doin’ what you doin’. You gonna make it.” Rodney went 5-1 that year, and the Bulldogs ended up with a 15-9 record, placing second in the city league but getting knocked out of the state tournament in the first round.
After the season, Rodney returned to dealing full-time, paying crackheads $50 worth of rock to drive their car on supply runs to New York. He took the business seriously, like a real job. He usually started his daily shift by walking down the hill toward Meeker Avenue, where, along the way, one customer after another would approach him. The street seemed out of Night of the Living Dead, with drug-addled zombies outnumbering the clearheaded working people. He met his friends at the corner of Elizabeth and Meeker, where there was a constant flow of customers along a block-long strip of storefronts. This was the early days of hip-hop, and passing cars pulsed with the raps of Run-DMC, Biz Markie, Rakim, KRS-One, Big Daddy Kane. Amid the noise, Rodney would hang out and buy food while haggling with clients, a front in case the cops came. To keep his finances manageable, and his risk relatively low, Rodney never kept more than 125 grams of product at any one time. He made a good living this way; after “taking shorts” from those who couldn’t pay full price, he would typically end the day with about $900 in his pocket. Then he would step away from the street, going upstairs to his mother’s apartment for a nap. Later, he joined friends in the park to drink and smoke pot.
Rodney and his friends were curious about what kept their customers coming back for more, and they began experimenting by crumbling a bit of crack into their joints, concoctions they called “woolys.” Rodney told himself it wasn’t as bad as smoking crack straight out of a pipe; he had yet to learn the meaning of what Michelle Pfeiffer’s character warned in one of his favorite movies, Scarface: Don’t get high on your own supply.
The woolys kept him up night after night, dealing and partying all over the South Ward. He’d remain away from home for days on end, crashing in crack houses, breaking dawn in the projects. After one weekend-long bender, Rodney found himself on the streets at seven a.m. on a Sunday, strung out and exhausted. Instead of walking home, he trekked a mile to his mother’s church, where services were under way. Clara, thinking he was there to repent, saw him and cried, “Praise the Lord.” Rodney knelt to pray, telling himself, I gotta change. I gotta change. From then on, Rodney told me, he never did any hard drugs, just the occasional joint. He also stopped dealing, but he changed his mind when money got tight again. It required little effort to slip back into the routine.
By his junior year, Rodney had abandoned any pretenses about wanting to finish school or play professional ball. Every now and then, he would brag to his friends that he could strike out Mets slugger Darryl Strawberry, and they would dismiss him, saying, “If you keep hanging out in the streets, you’ll never strike anyone out.” Rodney rejoined the baseball team that spring but rarely showed up for practice. He started one early-season game against rival Weequahic High School but, winded from weed and cigarettes, he was pulled from the game in the second inning. He threw a tantrum in the dugout, and his coach threatened to kick him off the team. Rodney apologized and said he wanted to keep playing, but that didn’t last.
Clara pleaded with Rodney to graduate, so during his senior year he doubled up on classes and told his coach he wanted to return to the team. While waiting for a physical examination, Rodney got pulled into someone else’s argument with the school nurse, which led to an argument with the vice principal, which led to Rodney threatening to beat him up. Rodney was expelled. He tried to find another school that would let him finish the year, to no avail. He enrolled in summer school but blew off his exams. He applied for a GED course but dropped it after buying a forged diploma on the street. Every now and then, when he tired of dealing, or if there was too much pressure from police, Rodney would use that diploma to get a job—at McDonald’s, cleaning planes at the airport, hauling furniture for a moving crew—convincing himself that he could keep a foot in both worlds. He managed to keep his adult criminal record clean until he was nineteen, when he was arrested with a small packet of cocaine as he drove back from New York. The following year he was caught with coke in Newark. In both cases, he was sentenced to probation.
In 1988, three years after he was thrown out of school, Rodney’s mother talked him into enrolling at Essex County College, where she and his sister Barbara were already taking classes. He signed up for a program in which he would earn his GED and an associate degree, putting him on track to attend Rutgers-Newark, where he hoped to play baseball. Rodney received a $2,500 student loan for books and supplies, which he promptly cashed and took to Washington Heights. He continued dealing as he attended school. That lasted about a year, until September 26, 1989, when he was pulled over in a cab that was driving him home from Penn Station. Rodney saw the lights through the rear window and started stuffing his stash under the seats. The officers ordered him out of the car, slammed him against the trunk, and started searching him. Rodney wrestled free and took off running. He made it a few blocks before officers tackled him and fished two bulging bags of coke from his pants. He was twenty-two.
Rodney sat in the county jail for months, unable to make bail, while his mother enlisted friends at Essex County College to help him. Prosecutors offered him a deal that would put him behind bars for a year, but Rodney refused and his mother’s allies could not persuade prosecutors to go easy on him. On the eve of his trial, during which he would likely be convicted, Rodney told prosecutors he’d reconsidered, but their first offer was off the table; this time, they were not nearly as generous. A judge sentenced Rodney to five years behind bars, with a minimum of eighteen months before he could be considered eligible for parole.
He ended up at a work camp for nonviolent offenders in the farmlands of western New Jersey. Because he stayed out of trouble, he was accepted into an “intensive-supervision program” that allowed him to return home early. The rules were strict: he had to find a job, submit to drug testing three times a week, attend group meetings, keep a curfew. His mother persuaded the Zion Towers management company to hire him as a maintenance man.
Around that time, Rodney started getting stopped in the street by strangers who said they knew him. Their conversations were always the same: they asked how his mother was doing, remarked how tall he’d gotten, and told stories about playing with him when they were kids. “You probably don’t remember me,” they said, “but when you was a baby, your mother used to bring you around and you’d be playing with my brothers and sisters, and I used to be babysitting you.” Rodney was baffled by these encounters, but didn’t let on. He just nodded and said Okay, uh-huh, see you around. But as he continued running into these same people, Rodney started asking them questions, and they were happy to talk. They said his mother had spent a lot of time with their father when they were young. In fact, their father, they said, was his father—and his youngest sister, Darlene’s, too.
Clara had always claimed that her husband, James, was the father of all her children. She still refused to talk about him, though, and Rodney never asked. He remembered how nervous the subject made her. She didn’t handle stress well—she still suffered the aftereffects of stomach ulcers, was prone to depression, and practically chain-smoked—and Rodney didn’t want to make things worse. But this new information made him wonder. He told his sister Darlene about it, and she said the purported siblings had approached her, too. She’d asked Clara about it, and Clara had insisted it wasn’t true. But the more Darlene spoke to these people, the more she believed their story.
Rodney felt conflicted. He wanted to know the truth, but he didn’t want his mother to think he doubted her. He confided to a family friend, who confronted Clara. Clara wouldn’t answer, and the next time Rodney saw her, she looked wounded. “Why did you have to mention that?” she said. She began to cry. Rodney apologized and promised himself he’d never bring it up again. If she ever wants to tell me, she’ll tell me, he thought.
Rodney went on to earn his GED and got back into shape playing on adult-league baseball and football teams. One day, he came across a newspaper article about the New York Mets holding open tryouts. He sent an application and was rewarded with an invitation. His parole officer granted him a one-day leave, and Clara joined Rodney for the bus trip. He arrived at a minor league park in Albany, New York, with about five hundred other hopefuls. At twenty-five, this was his last shot.
When his number came up, Rodney took the mound and threw about fifteen pitches, including five fastballs that clocked in the high eighties, far short of the speeds he’d hit as a teenager, but impressive. A scout asked how old he was. When Rodney told him, he looked disappointed. “I wish you’d come out here when you were a little younger,” he said. Rodney tried to take it as a compliment and left to get back home before nightfall. A few weeks later, he got a letter saying four prospects at the camp had been offered a chance at a pro contract, and he wasn’t one of them. They invited him to another tryout, but Rodney didn’t go. At his graduation from the intensive supervision program, the judge congratulated him and urged him to stay straight. Instead, Rodney went right back to dealing drugs.