O.G. rings me in the a.m. to say he’s just touched down in Phoenix. It’s the day before he said he’d arrive, and while there was a time when I’d treat the seeming opacity of his plans as par, the call’s a minor surprise. He asks for my address and tells me he can drop by as soon as he grabs his rental car. “Cool,” I say, as if the call ain’t ramped my pulse, as if my crib is presentable for guests. It isn’t. So I shoot out of bed and get to cleaning and straightening the first floor, going so far as to light a candle. It’s been umpteen years since I’ve seen O.G. — Lonnie’s his name — and God forbid he judge me anything less than hella fastidious.
When Lonnie rings the doorbell about an hour later, the sound jolts me. He stands a foot back from the threshold, looking into an iPhone, his used-to-be-clean-shaven face is stubbled white. He’s dressed casual in an Adidas hoodie, sweatpants and sneakers, all black, and wears tinted wood-stemmed glasses. There’s a letter-size envelope tucked under an arm and a white mask in his hand.
We shake hands, tug each other into a quick embrace, and I lead him into my living room. He sits on a stool pushed against the patio door, and there’s six feet of distance between us — for Covid, but also for the space that a man nurtured a certain way should grant a man of his ilk.
“Man, I’m fully vaccinated and boosted,” I say.
“I’ve already had it twice,” Lonnie says. “I just wear the mask to be respectful.” His voice hasn’t changed.
Still — the low-volume West Coast, Southern-rooted drawl that demands patience and stricter-than-average attention.
Still — the clean and sheened bald head.
Still — the slim build, though it’s now accented with a slight paunch.
Still — the bearing of a man who’ll bet long odds.
Our quick catch-up is insufficient for what’s got to be a decade since we last spoke. For months during the pandemic, I’d been thinking about Lonnie’s role in my life. Lonnie was a paragon of a hustler (we called them “ballers”) in my hood, my main supplier during the strife-soaked stretch, in the mid-90s, when I sold more dope than at any other point, a man who by tacit and explicit means, mentored my dealing, and who, truth be told, inspired my admiration and stoked my fear.
All these years later, I had wondered what he remembers of that fraught era. Had wondered too about his life before we met, as much enigma and myth to me as anything else. Had grown concerned with how he’d gotten along since we lost touch — his health, his pockets, his spirit.
Time. It’s been a bullet. When Lonnie and I first met, the sight of a single gray hair in my scalp was near inconceivable. Now I’ve got a beard flecked more gray than black and get aches from sleeping, to say nothing of the protests my body makes when I stand, walk, run, jump. All to say, Lonnie don’t know much about this version of me, the writer who has published four books (three rooted in autobiography, one of which includes a character based on him), short fiction and countless essays, who has received acclaim and awards for my work. Lonnie knows little of the dude who’s now a distinguished professor with more than 20 years in college classrooms — a period much longer than my time as a drug dealer. Lonnie knows next to nothing about the almost two decades that I called New York home, nor of my travels to the Caribbean and Africa, Europe and Australia, Southeast Asia and the Middle East. He’s unfamiliar with the Mitch who has children of his own, with the middle-aged man who often feels an unrecoverable distance from the world of my youth.
A week or so earlier, I’d begged a good cell number from one of Lonnie’s former partners and hit his line. Halfway through that convo — with the assurances that I’d handle whatever he shared with care, that I’d do my loyal best not to ask him anything that would compromise street ethics or risk his freedom — I waried the question of whether he’d let me write about him. Over the phone, I heard long breaths of silence before, for reasons I might not ever glean in full, he said yes.
There’s time enough elapsed between me and the years I sold dope that I don’t feel the lure of it, but not enough distance to erase the rush of it, the feeling of seizing a life from what was given to me. Of the many things Lonnie represents, one of them is a tether to that world, is irrefutable proof of my tenure in it, the days I owned the mettle, ambition, grit to, as we say, get it how I live. One of the many things our reunion represents is this crucial question: After all these years on disparate paths, how different are we, really?
Extreme and sudden loss connected me and Lonnie. On July 31, 1995, my then-girlfriend, Buffy, was in a tragic car accident. She and several family members, including her mother and young son, were riding in a van headed for Oklahoma when a cousin fell asleep at the wheel and crashed into a median, and several of its passengers were ejected. Buffy’s mother was killed at the scene. One of her cousin’s injuries left her in a coma and on life support, from which she was soon removed. Buffy suffered critical injuries, as did her son Jamal.
Lonnie is Jamal’s father.
The day of the accident, Buffy’s best friend rushed breathless into my summer job and shared the news. At the time, I was a little more than two weeks shy of my 20th birthday (Buffy was eight years older), a community-college student and a part-time, small-time crack dealer. I caught a Greyhound to Utah and found my way to the hospital where the family had been helicoptered. That was where I met Lonnie.
The Lonnie I recall sported a polo shirt or button down tucked into his belted slacks, a Rolex, and hard-soled shoes. He wore his face and head clean-shaven and a scent that whiffed of affluence.
Lonnie was a legend in the hood. Well known for his prowess as a drug dealer. Revered for gambling gargantuan bank. Infamous for instilling the fear that equals respect. He was also rumored to have fathered more than 20 kids, a level of paternity that sounded fantastical, an urban myth he let persist because it affirmed his boldness. We treated that number somewhere between jaw-dropping disbelief and wide-eyed astonishment. Come to find out it was fact.
Lonnie in front of Edison Middle School, South Central Los Angeles, in AugustCredit…Wayne Lawrence for The New York Times
A time or two before our meeting in the hospital, Lonnie stopped by Buffy’s crib late at night. While I lay anxious in bed, Buffy rummaged through her closet, shuffled downstairs and handed him whatever it was he wanted. “Who was that?” I asked. “That was Lonnie,” she said, and, feeling insignificant, I inquired no more.
Those devil’s-hour exchanges were on my mind in Utah, during that traumatic span when Lonnie would post up in a waiting room with his arms folded and his face stoic, would sit quiet while the family assigned blame or bickered over medical decisions, when he spoke with doctors and nurses, all of whom seemed to pay him particular deference. Lonnie was a model of the manhood I’d been taught to value, an ideal more impressive because I knew several men his age who relied on sob stories and pity or petty crimes to get by, who served revolving jail and prison bids, whose drug habits had wrung them frail, taxed them scatter-toothed.
One thing was clear even then: Lonnie and I were bound to each other. There was his son Jamal, the 5-year-old boy both of us loved, a boy with brain trauma so severe that he never spoke another sentence nor took an unassisted step (Jamal, whose smile was a balm for me right up until he passed, at 17). There was the woman who’d cared enough about Lonnie to bear him that boy, a woman I loved, who lay in the I.C.U. unit with a wound in her side from a lacerated liver that doctors would teach me to pack and bandage.
If Lonnie ever wept during the ordeal, I never saw it. It was as if he’d resolved to keep his grief to himself, to live as proof that revealing any emotion save anger was a sign of weakness, that a man’s sorrow was always-ever a private affair. It was a way of seeing and being that I’d also been taught and that is part and parcel to hustling, a trade that by the mid-90s, Lonnie had plied long enough to earn the honorific of a young O.G. — what, too, could’ve been my fortune.
Fifteen the first time I tried to sell dope. One of my homeboys fronted me 60 bucks worth of double-up (that’s six $20 pills, for the unversed), and with that meager start-up tied off in a baggie, I snuck out my bedroom window one night and hotfooted to a hot spot: Picture a dark few blocks with ample crack users crawling up in hoopties or darting in and out of shadows on bug-eyed missions to cop the most potent dope and/or a bulk deal and/or a neophyte hustler they could scam. (“Let me taste it,” they might say, then put a pill — that’s what we called crack shards — in their mouth and either bolt or bite off a piece and return it lesser.) That first night, I was green to every aspect of curb serving and too meek to succeed among the furious competition. In fact, my night-one ineptitude forced me into what might have been the world’s fastest retirement.
In high school, I was an honor-roll student — even won the Scholar Athlete Award my senior year with a 4.0 G.P.A. — but I was also the eldest son of a woman who had been battling a crack addiction since my last year in grade school. And while I yearned for Dream Team Olympic jerseys, the latest Jordans and scratch for the movies, I also wanted to demystify the world of which my mother had become a denizen and prove myself something other than its serial victim.
Right after I graduated, I spent the money I received from a small scholarship on an ounce of dope and willed my way to a measure of triumph. Went from hand to hand on the corner to serving smokers in a dope house to cruising around in my souped-up Honda Accord hawking double-up or a few ounces or less to other dope dealers. Progressed from loafing here and there with scant dollars in my pocket, to swaggering to and fro with a bankroll swelling my sock.
That come-up would fund Nautica and Polo; Hilfiger and Versace and DKNY; Nikes and Timberlands and Kenneth Coles; a yellow-gold herringbone bracelet and necklace set. It ensured I had the ends to pay my mother’s rent or utilities or grocery bills. To buy my brothers’ school clothes or spot them lunch money. To grubstake other family in need. To lend or give money to my homeboys or, on occasion, cover the whole crew’s tab at a club or restaurant. To, a time or two, let the assistant coach of my junior college basketball team hold a few hundred till the following payday.
But most of all, selling dope made me feel like a man, secure, capable and sometimes even someone substantial in the hood, which, back then, was all the world that mattered.
I’d been hustling for about two years at the time of the accident. When we got back to Portland from the funerals in Tulsa, I moved in with Buffy, to serve as her primary caregiver while she healed and help care for her daughter, a precocious 6-year-old (Jamal was still hospitalized). It was my first time living with a woman and, soon enough, those increased duties disabused me of my last little bit of insouciance.
A drought had forced me to live off funds that were meager from the giddyup, plus more depleted from having been unable to hustle while in Utah. Meanwhile, my regular plug had gotten arrested by the feds.
Faced with the specter of going broke, I rang Lonnie and coded my predicament.
“Yep. Yep. Yep,” he said, in his signature drawl. “Come on down and see me.”
Lonnie’s right-hand man answered the door of a restaurant he owned on M.L.K. Boulevard and led me into the basement. I’d stuffed enough in the sleeve of my coat to cop an eighth of a kilo, down from the quarter kilo I was buying before the accident. Lonnie reached into a duffel bag sitting at his feet and pulled out a booklike package wrapped in plastic and electrical tape: the first kilo I had seen in real life.
“Take this and bring me mine off the top,” he said. He said it calm too. As if he’d been uttering the same command all his days. As though he’d divined something in me that I couldn’t see for myself.
What I should’ve done, forreal, forreal was refuse it. Was concede I wasn’t ready for that level of involvement. Was confess my wariness over assuming that much indebtedness to him or anybody else. Was admit I didn’t own near enough clientele to move 36 ounces with any kind of speed.
All I should’ve said died silent in my throat. Every worry but what I owed him.
“They go for 20, 21k,” Lonnie said. “But since you family and all, I’ll let you get it for $19,500. Bring me mine off the top.”
With legs that could measure on Richter, I quaked back upstairs, out of the restaurant, and into my grim fooltastic future.
Peep: ain’t no manuals for going from peddling near penny-ante amounts of crack to moving a whole kilo on consignment. What I did was find a couple of benevolent ballers who tutorialed me on how to cook. Found a woman who lived in the suburbs who, for a fee, let me cook and store my dope in her apartment. Announced to dudes whom I’d bought small amounts of dope from prior that if they wanted an eighth or quarter or a half kilo, they needn’t look any further than me. Connected with a couplefew hustlers in Vancouver, Wash. — where I sold dope while attending my first junior college — and advertised that I had weight. Found a dependable crackhead (an oxymoron almost always) in Vancouver, who, in exchange for free dope and low-percentage profit sharing, sold ounces for me.
Here’s how it went during the couple of years that Lonnie and I did steady business: Once I had his loot, which meant I was down to my last few ounces, I’d ring him to re-up, and we’d exchange at his restaurant or somebody’s crib or sometimes in the parking lot of a grocery store. Circa the time I was Lonnie’s franchisee, I bought a two-tone Rolex, big diamond studs and other jewels. Bought a Lexus GS 300 and a ’64 Mustang I intended to restore but never did. Spent ignorant amounts on high-end fashion.
Doing business with Lonnie made it harder to quit. For one, it transformed the way people perceived me in the hood from a “hooper” to a “baller,” which turned dope dealing into a more critical part of my esteem. For two, it kept me on the hook to him for thousands. For three, there was always someone indebted to me, too. Dudes who weren’t trying to hear nothing about me being ambivalent, or worse, abandoning the business.
The hood considering me a baller increased my risks. And that danger was more acute on account of my intent to be fair, ethical, moral — no stretching my dope with acetone, propane or extra baking soda nor shorting customers grams; no plotting how to strong-arm somebody else’s dope or stash.
Let me tell it, word spread that I was doing bigger business, and that news coupled with a reputation for decency (or maybe it was the jacket of a punk), helped make me a mark who was robbed three times.
An aborted crime — a home invasion — might be most suggestive of the degree to which Lonnie’s and my life were linked in those days. Thank God for the neighbor who heard the Boom-Crack, Boom-Crack kicks at our back door and spooked off the would-be robbers with a shotgun and a threat to call the police. Buffy, her kids and I could all have been killed.
The next time I copped from Lonnie, I told him about the incident. He didn’t seem rattled. He mentioned the name of the gang member who masterminded the scheme and told me there were rumors that I’d been keeping kilos (a gross exaggeration) and large amounts of cash in the house.
He also asked me how I wanted to handle it — a question I received as a provocation.
What does it imply about my supposed ethics that I still wish death on those dudes — and the ones who later succeeded in robbing me? What does it mean that, while the danger of that era emphatically and lastingly revealed the limits of my commitment to hustling; that while I’ve seen firsthand the tolls that taking a life can have not only on a victim’s family and the community, but on the person who commits murder, that while I’m familiar with that extensive fallout, a part of me mourns not having been more bellicose, more brazen, more bent on retribution? What does it mean that I wish I hadn’t just sat outside the house of one of those guys with a gun in my lap, but that I’d summoned the courage to shoot bullets through his windows, regrets the fact that I never, not once, took it to the max? What’s revealed by the truth that, in certain instances, I’m not quite sure which is worse: being a killer or being a punk?
There was a period when the danger felt omnipresent. So much that I, a dude who has always disliked guns, began toting a Glock 19 almost everywhere, and that included palming it as a plain-view threat as I walked the few paces from my car to the house some nights.
For a while, the threats felt worth the rewards. Every time I survived a trauma, I felt battled-tested, tougher, forged, more like the indomitable dudes — Lonnie a model among them — who seemed never to shirk from the fray. Not to mention, each time I paid him what I owed, I felt encouraged, competent, as close to favored as I might reach.
However, a concomitant effect: the longer I hustled, the more times riding dirty I fortuned police contact without an arrest, the laxer I became. The more I hazarded that I could be one of the rare hustlers who escapes suffering the life’s usual upshot.
On the night of March 9, 1997, the police pulled me over for a seatbelt violation. The officers shined their flashlight on my pistol, drew their guns, barked me out of my ride and in the slowest of time-lapse, found a baggie laden with dope under my seat. Crack cooked from what I’d been consigned by Lonnie. “We know it’s not yours,” one officer said. “Just tell us whose dope it is, and you can make this a whole lot easier on yourself.”
But I wasn’t about to snitch on Lonnie, nor anybody else. On June 13, 1997, Judge Henry Kantor accepted my plea of 16 months and remanded me into state custody. In what seems both unlikely and the utmost of plausible circumstances, Lonnie had caught a case of his own and went to prison that same month.
There were no metamorphic epiphanies for me in prison, but I did pledge to never return, did determine to cleave myself from identifying as a drug dealer. Since the nexus of Lonnie’s and my relationship was business, it felt wise to let the distance stretch between us. In practice, it meant that I never sought out his info to exchange letters, a common practice between friends doing concurrent time in different prisons. It meant that I didn’t look him up when I paroled and leaned instead into my life as a student, into the nascent dream of becoming a writer.
That Lonnie was locked up when I touched down seems now to have been fortunate for me, for who knows how I would’ve handled the temptation of having an active and trusted plug during those lean months when I pawned my Rolex and diamonds and didn’t have the funds to pay the tickets. Who knows what I might’ve done during those near-destitute days I took title loans on my Lexus, a car that, when my finances got supertight, I drove with lapsed insurance. Who knows what would’ve happened had Lonnie been free and selling work around the time I started a news internship at Portland’s CBS affiliate for $6.25 an hour. Call it my luck that Lonnie was still doing a bid during the 1998-99 school year that I finished my B.S. degree at Portland State University — because had he been on the bricks and moving weight, I might’ve gone back to backpacking dope around campus to hit licks between classes. Call it serendipitous that Lonnie paroled a half year or so before I applied to the P.S.U.’s graduate creative-writing program, one of the most consequential decisions of my life, not least because it testified to the endurance of my will to become a writer.
In the intervening 20 years, Lonnie and I saw little of each other, the last time I recall being at Jamal’s funeral in 2007. By the time he caught a drug-conspiracy case in 2010 and was sentenced to 13 years in prison, I was settled in New York, dead set on living a literary life. Maybe I wrote him twice while he served his fed time. Maybe I mentioned my dream, which at the time still seemed preposterous more often than it didn’t.
The same day Lonnie had me anxious by popping up a day early in Phoenix for our first meeting, he drove several hours outside the city to attend the junior-college basketball game of his youngest daughter. While I thought we’d agreed on my riding with him, he didn’t call when I figured he would, so I presumed he made the drive alone.
Presumed, because I don’t ask, and Lonnie don’t offer no details — elision I understand as either an artifact of our old life or fundamental silence, a wariness I remember without fondness. Shoot, George W. Bush was in office the last time I was on a call with someone who might be, emphasis on the might, meting out particulars of their whereabouts to keep themselves safe or free.
Lonnie rings me two days after the game to ask where I am. When I tell him at Fashion Square mall in Scottsdale, he tells me hold tight, that he’s headed over to find an outfit to wear at a birthday gathering for one of his brothers in L.A.
He meets me in the food court, his woody cologne heralding him, his mask the stark white of baking soda. Lonnie’s fitted in a black polo shirt, luxe track pants at an inseam that leaves his ankles naked, low-soled sneakers and more tinted wood-stemmed glasses. He carries a giant blue Louis Vuitton backpack slung over his shoulder. He strikes me as a mature man of means, one meticulous about his appearance, which is a version of the public self to which I’ve aspired.
We stop by the Hugo Boss store. The saleslady wears a glitter cloth mask, long glitter fingernails and a blond dye job that’s tinted her scalp. She asks if we’re brothers or father and son, and her question makes me wonder whether anyone meandering this mall suspects us a former drug kingpin and his old small-time client reconnecting.
Lonnie checks clothing sizes but not a single price tag. He asks me what I think of his choices, and, while I’m quick to call myself a grown man to the nth power, his weighing my opinion feeds a deep need to feel useful, to be valued by men who are older and, in essential ways, wiser and more proven. Lonnie settles on a dress shirt and shorts and, as I’ve not seen anyone do in all my days, has the saleslady steam the shirt before hanging it in a garment bag.
One of my old writing mentors used to say, “How you do anything is how you do everything.” Seeing Lonnie’s fastidiousness reminds me of that maxim, gives me the sense that I’m witnessing how he has spent way more time on the bricks than behind the walls, how he has been spared the luckless but oft-quotidian fate of an early grave.
The saleslady asks Lonnie if he’s in their system, and he smiles and recites his government.
“Oh, yeah, there you go,” she says.
And with that simple answer, the woman knows a fact about Lonnie that somebody who has known him for ages might not.
Not long after I met Lonnie, I heard rumors: that he once had somebody beaten with a hanger for stealing from him. That he shot a dude (he confirmed this) for threatening him at his club. That he could and would finance the handling of whatever his beef compelled. The specter of Lonnie’s violence served as insurance, and please believe, it had to have serious, serious merit for it to indemnify him as well as it did. It was common hood knowledge that Lonnie gambled big bankrolls with high insouciance. No one I knew heard tell of Lonnie being the prey of the wolves who stalked the after-hours, who pulled pistols, demanded the cash and jewels of all present, then had them strip and toss their clothes and shoes into a circle while they absconded. No one I knew heard tell of Lonnie being a mark of any sort.
Witnessing Lonnie do something as average as grab an outfit, meander a mall and crack jokes, makes me wonder if he’d rather be known by his street handle or the government he confirmed for the saleslady. Seeing him here makes me question the constancy of his kindness (word is he used to stuff cash in the pockets of addicts down bad around the neighborhood), how wide has been the gap between his benevolence and his vengeance. The extent, if at all, to which time has softened him — whether his having reached his 70s makes him more dangerous or less so. Observing him here makes me wonder when and where and why he allows himself to be other than a man who maneuvers a world that rewards the most cunning, most brash, most violent.
One of my favorite short stories is Edward P. Jones’s “Old Boys, Old Girls,” about how a man imprisoned for murder navigates his time behind the walls and his re-entry into the world. In prison, old heads mentor the man on how to survive, counsel that includes the man letting his cellmate know “who rules” by whooping on him. “You gon be here a few days,” advises one of them. “So you can’t let nobody [expletive] with your humanity.” That line points to a profound paradox of prison life: that what defines humanity outside prison walls makes one a target for predation inside of them, circumstances that transmute humanity into toughness, aggression, apathy. The hustler’s world is governed by that same sad paradox, is often a place where one must prove their supremacy — and do it by force.
There’s a part of me that believes it my ethical duty to question Lonnie on the details of how he’s lived under the strictures of that paradox. But I feel beholden to my promise to not imperil his or anyone else’s freedom. And I feel beholden to honor (and heed the consequences of breaching) the code, much of which is tacit. Writing about Lonnie affirms my commitment to seeing the humanity in those that others condemn. That’s not me dismissing violence, but it’s an aspect of resisting the lure of self-importance, of believing I’m a modicum better than who and what I come from. While I won’t broach the most dramatic measures Lonnie has taken to secure that sense of what makes one human, I fordamnsure should question how conflating a harmful idea of manhood with humanness has impacted me. And along with all the above, a constant imperative: Write the fullest truth about what and who shaped this man’s multitudes.
Heralded by First-era Black hustlers, those forged when the white folks who’d begrudged your people legal freedom began scheming them out of what W.E.B. Du Bois called a “brief moment in the sun.” Hustlers resolved long reveling beneath our hot star. Defied the forces dragging them back toward bondage. Necessaried themselves into being. And given the cruel injustice of Juneteenth, the last of those pioneers had to have been from Texas.
July 9, 1951, in Honey Grove, “The Sweetest Town in Texas.” Arrived wailing into this world as the fourth in a brood of eight. Natured into the Jim Crow South. A childhood defined by “Negro” elementary schools. By “Whites Only” water fountains and restaurants. By warnings against looking white folks in the eye. By the never-distant peril of a noose over a sturdy branch. Your family joins the millions who Great-Migrate out of the South, settling in South Central in 1960. In L.A., your dad manages the dry cleaner of a white man, then opens a drop-off dry cleaner of his own, a Black-owned business your mother manages.
You. Born. Made.
Your dad drafts you and your siblings into helping him at work. To bend hangers into shape. To clean lint traps. To model enterprise and sow diligence in his seeds. By third grade, though, that project has competition — the minor figures you’ve started clocking by shooting dice, playing a coin-toss game called Get Like Me, a coin-pitching game called Lag to the Line.
Around the time you enroll in Edison Junior High, you add selling joints, matchboxes and five-dollar lids of reefer to your growing repertoire of hustles. You catch your first case at Edison, and they let you and your juvenile co-Ds off with probation and a mandate: Earn passing grades. You also learn there’s little to no reprimand for hustling from your parents.
Your dad will ask one of his homeboys who hustles to mentor you.
You. Born. Made. Nurtured.
Mentorship that includes gambling — forever your “first love” — whenever and wherever you can. Which often equals overtime at the gambling shack a hop-skip from your family’s house. You admire the old hustlers who frequent the spot, who flaunt processed hair and long pinkie nails, who adorn themselves with yellow-gold chains and rings set with fulgent diamonds, who finger-steer the neighborhood in clean rides and keep a superbad broad on their arm.
To become an equal, you “prop” bus riders out of their loot with three-card monte, book horses and run numbers, sell hard drugs and pills. You quit Fremont High School in the 12th grade, (no class of 1968 diploma, college or career teaching history for you) because, well, your calling demands devotion.
You, who was nurtured into it, prove you ain’t “scared to go nowhere.” You paperchase in St. Louis, Texas, Oklahoma, Vegas. You hook-or-crook your way — shooting dice, playing pool, winning at cards and pimping — from L.A. to Miami with a patna.
Crack phenomenons L.A. in the early 1980s and slows your regular hustles. It also tempts umpteen hustlers, you among them, into recreation that becomes a habit. It takes six years as a “functioning addict” for God to answer your plea: steel me.
You move to Phoenix on the word of a patna, and sweet it is till you catch “bogus” dope charges. You beat the case but decide to get the hell out of dodge. You choose Portland, a city that, though you’ve yet to visit, in the 1980s, has proved prime for sending the women who work for you to boost clothes and thieve jewelry.
In the Rose City, you open a nightclub and an exotic shoe store, businesses you put in somebody else’s name.
You. Born. Made. Nurtured. Tested.
You pare your hustles to gambling and distributing kilos upon kilos of cocaine. It’s an enterprise that tempts you into relapse, use that peaks to an eighth of a kilo of crack a day.
Years into this trial, you doze at the wheel and rear-end a car, a wreck that, praise be to God, spurs you clean.
1997 — a watershed. One time catches you riding a motorcycle with a pistol, which leads to a 33-month sentence. Despite being a felon in possession of a firearm, this is somehow your first bid.
You hit the bricks in 2000. You live your nature. Return to the life for which you’ve been bred.
You hustle so humongous that, when the Feds convict you on drug-conspiracy charges in 2009, a local paper christens you the “Portland Cocaine Kingpin.”
Obama-era legislation and credit for completed prison programming cut your 13 years to time served of nine.
You hit the streets once more in 2016.
You who fathered a brood of 24.
Who are born, made, nurtured, tested.
If burying a child is the most devastating thing a parent can do, then Lonnie may know more grief than anyone I know.
A minutes-old daughter to a rare disease. A son to murder. Jamal to a life cut short by injuries from the accident.
The next time I see him, it’s at a memorial for Jalon held at his family’s home in South Central L.A. Jalon was murdered in Portland in May 2021, at age 33.
It’s a balmy spring day, and when I stroll up, Lonnie’s posted on the porch in a T-shirt, shorts and flip-flops along with an older woman I don’t know and his longtime partner, all of them chatting. Lonnie’s family home is turn-of-the-century bungalow. There are trimmed elder and rose bushes and tall snake plants; a neat-cut lawn; a porch made of terra-cotta tiles; a wrought-iron- and-brick fence — a well-kept but modest home bustling with Lonnie’s beloveds.
We line up to eat beneath a tent in the driveway. Burners warm the covered dishes, and plastic seals the cold dishes along one side of tent. Near the head of the tent, Lonnie’s daughters have set up a shrine for Jalon. There are framed pictures of him as a smiling baby. A picture of him with a full beard. A picture of him dressed in a suit (a cropped version of this photo ran with news stories of his murder) beside his mother. The photos sit atop silky blue material accented with blue and clear crystals, a pair of white candles and blue letters that spell out JROC — Jalon’s street name. Vases filled with blue and white carnations serve as backdrop.
You can’t not notice how much Jalon favored Lonnie.
“Out of 33 years, I’d say he did 18 on the street and 15, I think he was locked up,” Lonnie tells me, solemnly. “He did a seven and an eight. He got out and did only a year on the street and went back.” He pauses. “The most you can do is spend as much time with them as you can.”
The mood is somber, but the adults trade smiles and laughs and reminiscences. A handful of kids have been frolicking on a rented bouncy castle and a water slide behind the tent, and once in a while, one of them dashes around the gathering in a wet bathing suit. One of Lonnie’s youngest grandchildren, a precocious toddler nicknamed “Grandma,” darts in and out of the house, till one of the women on the porch reprimands her. She leaps into Lonnie’s lap. Lonnie shifts her onto his knee. “Now what’d I tell you about running in and out the house,” he admonishes, sounding like every grandparent in the history of grandparents.
Grandma’s answer gives everyone on the porch a good old laugh.
An older Mercedes S.U.V. pulls up carrying a carload that includes one of Lonnie’s sons and a grandson. The grandson, who couldn’t be older than his early 20s, wears jeans, Air Force 1s and a pair of gold chains with JJ pendants. At one point, Lonnie teases his grandson about having to buy him something. “I don’t need your money,” the grandson pipes, digs a thick bankroll out of his pocket and flaunts it.
Who knows if the grandson is hustling. But his flex makes me wonder about the extent to which he sees Lonnie as a role model. If Lonnie would front his grandson work like he did for me when I was around that age. Whether Lonnie would dissuade his grandson from hustling or tutor him on how to do.
When Lonnie started selling dope, the advent of “mass incarceration” and Nixon’s “all-out offensive” on drugs were still close to a decade off. Police use of wiretaps became limited by the Crime Control Act of 1968, which regulated warrants for them. Furthermore, the crack epidemic and its attendant proliferation of gun violence was two decades away. Now the game includes a drug 50 times stronger than heroin, surveillance intensified by the Patriot Act (and the most sophisticated tools in the history of policing) and players using guns made for war. Which is in part to say, Lonnie’s lived through enough epochs of drug dealing to know the immense extant dangers for his posterity. Would this make his warning more or less valid?
Lonnie’s kids recruit me to take a photo of them with their father. They arrange themselves for the picture, and if I’ve ever seen more siblings gathered in person (there are nine), I don’t remember it. There’s an intimacy among them all, even if many of them don’t share a mother. Lonnie beams, an anomaly.
The last time Lonnie was sentenced to prison, the judged chastised his paternity as the “height of irresponsibility.” No way I argue that view, but I have wondered if Lonnie’s fathering so many children has been a hedge against insignificance. And if so, how dissimilar is that impulse from the hope that my writing can beat back a fate of inconsequence for me. Lonnie is at heart a gambler, exhilarated by the chance to best odds. How far off is his long love from my ambition to become a writer — the first big chance I took that wasn’t tempered by the fear of losing. My first all-or-nothing risk. What if Lonnie’s staggering lineage paternity is an attempt to secure his legacy or to leave pieces of his better self behind, each of which are also aspirations I hold for my work? What if his desire above all has been existential, the impossible dodge of death?
Lonnie introduces me to a handful of folks throughout the day, greetings that seem intended to collapse the distance between us. The first few times, he refers to me as Buffy’s ex. To the pastor he describes me as somebody who spoke at Jamal’s funeral. The last time, he calls me Jamal’s stepdad.
Almost a year and a half after Lonnie and I reconnected at my crib in Phoenix, I wait for him at Rowley Memorial Park in Gardena, Calif., amid the crowd of the annual Slauson Village Society Reunion. The Slausons began as an L.A. street gang in the 1950s, and the park is full of old Slausons and some of their former rivals — Gladiators and Businessmen, etc. — full of what I learn are seasoned dope dealers and gamblers and pimps and armed robbers as well as the women of their world. Beaucoup people here are somebody’s grandparent and several wear their trials out loud. The gathering is a big picnic, but it’s also a celebration of having bested crucibles, a testament to reconciliations and long truces, a chance to prove one’s place among their peers.
These are Lonnie’s L.A. contemporaries, folks that add meaning to his life.
The organizers have turned a covered picnic area into a shrine: have leaned against concrete park benches large plywood displays featuring dozens of funeral programs and pictures of community members who’ve passed. Some of the obits note sunrise and sunset dates with 60, 70 and 80 years between them. Others mark much shorter lives.
Across from the picnic area, attendees have turned a grassy field into a bazaar of fake jewelry and knockoff designer sunglasses, of hats and hard-soled shoes, of off-brand electronics — all of which are displayed on fold-up tables or spread across sheets on the ground. There’s a table selling T-shirts as part of a funeral fund-raising drive for the daughter of Bird, who’s a founding member of the Slausons and the chief organizer of the gathering.
On a paved area a few paces from Bird’s table, a large speaker booms oldies — James Brown, Barry White, the O’Jays — while joyous attendees two-step with a partner or by themselves. Elsewhere, others chitchat while lounging in lawn chairs positioned beneath tents or play emphatic dominoes or spades games at fold-up tables or serve or eat food and drinks from foam cups. In the distance, kids kick themselves into high arcs on the swings, zip down a slide, arms raised, glee each other around a playground.
Lonnie strolls up, carrying a covered tin pan. He greets me, excuses himself to drop the dish across the park and, just like that, he’s a gleaming white T-shirt and bluejeans among the hundreds-strong crowd.
An older man with a camera hung from a strap around his neck moseys over and shares that he heard from the photographer for this article, who accompanied me here, that I’m writing about someone at the gathering. The man explains that he has been photographing the reunion and asks the name of the person I’m here to cover. When I say Lonnie, he shakes his head.
“Hmm, that don’t ring a bell,” he says, looking puzzled. “Does he go by another name?”
“Yeah,” I say, and mention one of Lonnie’s other handles.
The man’s voice peaks at hearing it. He will tell me that, at a previous Slauson gathering, he watched Lonnie tend with utmost care to a friend who passed out. That Lonnie once paid him to shoot the prom pics of a boy in the neighborhood because the boy’s mother couldn’t afford them. He leans into me. “Please don’t take this the wrong way,” he says, then informs me Lonnie’s “like a God around here.”
No lie, hearing dude describe Lonnie that way rouses the complicated regard I feel for him. Rare are those who, for any reason, earn that kind of deference. Nonetheless, the comment also stresses how small “around here” is, how circumscribed. It implies that most of Lonnie’s accomplishments don’t rank out there and shouldn’t, that out there a multitude would argue that Lonnie’s lived a life that makes him anathema.
And me? More than good sense allows, I still wonder whether I’m capable of surviving the streets, whether I own the toughness they demand, if I could live once again by my wiles. Still — I wonder how safe I’d feel in a nightclub, strip club or after-hours full of active gang members. Still — I question my comfort among an ambit of gamblers shooting two dice or 4,5,6 in an alley or somebody’s basement. Still — my dogged desire to feel assured that, if for some unfathomable reason, I found myself doing another bid, I could endure whatever time a judge had gaveled.
Foolish as those thoughts are, they’re a vital part of my umbilical to home, a tethering synonymous with affirming again and again and forevermore that I am the man I think I am.
On the way to my hotel, I imagine Lonnie clapping me on my shoulder and telling me he’s proud of me, that he admires what I’ve become. Who better to imagine what I could’ve been?
Most of the hustlers I know claim feeling happy for those who escape the life with little to no scathing. But there’s no gainsaying that plenty are envious of those same ex-hustlers (though I’m not quite sure if an ex-hustler ever exists).
A huge part of what has drawn me back to Lonnie is disbelieving him among the ill willed who’d wish me back into the teeth of that world. He’s been around it long enough to observe who’s built for it and who ain’t. To recognize a heart too tender for the requisite wrath. But has he told me flat out that he’s proud of me? If so, I don’t recall it. Plus, for him to feel the pride I most desire he’d need more facts than that I’ve written a few books and some essays, would need to possess more than a notion of the work it took to become someone for which I had no intimate models, something the streets didn’t rate. And to be real, why would he own any more than cursory awareness? Had I kept hustling, I would’ve known next to nothing about a literary life myself, nor cared an iota about that ignorance.
The most impactful writing encouragement I’ve received is: “Jackson. You got an ear.” While it may seem simple, bordering on shallow, my old mentor’s praise pushed me to train my ear, an ambition that required interrogating the roots of that talent. It didn’t take long to gather that my ear for language had been tuned on the language of home. Before long, I discovered that that language was inseparable from my experiences, that therefore staying connected to them was critical to my art. Writing about Lonnie is a part of that crucial need, an aspect of keeping touch with what ushered me to the page in the first place.
About a week after the Slauson gathering, Wayne Lawerence, the photographer for this article texts me an unedited black-and-white photo he took of me and Lonnie at the park. We’re seated on one of the concrete benches near enough that our knees touch, both looking straight into the camera; both hoary and stern-eyed. To my eye, we don’t look nothing like blood, but on everything I love, I see kinship in our carriage, in our attempt to mask the suffering we’ve caused and endured, each on his own, in the trials we faced those potent stretch of years our destinies were yoked.
Wait. On closer look at the picture, there’s a tiny bit of space between our knees. It’s hard to see, near impossible to see. But it might be a chasm.
Mitchell S. Jackson is the winner of the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for feature writing and the 2021 National Magazine Award for feature writing. He is the author of the memoir “Survival Math: Notes on an All-American Family” and the novel “The Residue Years.” Wayne Lawrence is a visual artist in Brooklyn and Detroit whose work is focused on community and purpose. His work is in the permanent collection of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.