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Summer Reading: New Books With a Jersey Connection -- 'A Chance to Win'

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.

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