I was young then, and at the time, everyone around me saw jobs as, “That’s for the older people.” But whatever was going on that was quick money, I was involved in it. And being used to that planted me stiff to the point where this is what I wanted to do, and I ain’t wanna do nothing different.–Hareem
BY JEFF DEENEY Once a hustler, always a hustler? It’s a crucial question: can ex-offenders change their stripes? Can a habitual criminal be rehabilitated? There are passionate arguments from both sides; social service providers who work with at risk populations say the answer is yes, and that we can’t give up no matter how hard the struggle. Those in law enforcement and corrections tend to say the answer is generally no, and that tax payer resources dedicated to rehabilitation efforts are largely wasted. For Philadelphia, it’s a salient issue; the numbers of ex-offenders leaving prison and returning to the streets has swelled in recent years, and most of these ex-offenders will re-offend. The city is in the midst of a major violent crime wave. Can those who live a life of crime be brought back to the mainstream?
I present to you the findings from a fascinating study that was conducted in part in Philadelphia (some participants came from New York and Chicago), by a social research and policy think tank called Public/Private Ventures. According to their website, PPV is “a national nonprofit organization whose mission is to improve the effectiveness of social policies, programs and community initiatives, especially as they affect youth and young adults.” As a part of the study, “Leaving the Street: Young Fathers Move from Hustling to Legitimate Work,” researcher Lauren J. Kotloff interviewed 27 ex-offenders, former hustlers that had done their time and had gone legit. She lets the young men tell in their own words why they sold drugs and dropped out of society. The aim here is to better understand these men in order to formulate new strategies for preventing them from re-offending.
As I said, the results are fascinating. These are stories you don’t often hear, unfiltered and unembellished. What emerges is a picture that is far different from the thug archetypes found in rap music lyrics and television crime shows. Most hustlers don’t hustle full time. Many hustlers don’t like hustling. These men describe a life of ducking in and out of both legitimate and illegitimate work. They’ll get off the corners for a while and stock shelves, or flip burgers. Then they might need some fast cash for a family emergency, or they might meet a girl with expensive tastes. They want to buy nice things that they can’t afford for their children that their parents never provided them. So they head back out on the corners. They express a desire to get ahead in the legitimate world but know they don’t have the skills or education to do it. Some of the men were hardcore, full-time hustlers who would only work a real job if it didn’t interfere with them being on the corner. These men are closer to the archetype than others, but the picture is never black and white.
I’ll shut up and let them tell their stories. If you want to read the whole study, here’s a link to it (PDF, 46 pages). There were simply too many interviews to include, so if you like what you see here, download the file and give it read. Ray Jones at Impact Services in North Philly was a facilitator for the study. You might already know Ray from his anti-violence efforts with Men United for a Better Philadelphia.
My mom, she always took care of us. It was nine of us, you know, ain’t have no pops since I was probably like five years old. And there used to be a lot of violence going down in my house. That just pushed me off, you know. I spent more time in the streets than I did home. And I felt like it was, like, a whole lot better, and I ain’t have to see all that and stress out, and then I preferred to just be in the streets and chill with my friends than come back home or be in school. I was missing class, and I just stopped going. I didn’t see nothing, like what am I gonna get out of this? I’m going to school for nothing, man, that’s how I was looking at it. I just stopped going and decided to be in the streets and just hustle. I used to see some of my family, they used to be bagging up and everything. So it’s like I grew up around all that. And that’s why, it was already in me, you know. –Alfredo
The only bad thing I think I really ever did was sell drugs, you know, and that really messed up my life. And when I was younger, I didn’t look at it like that. [The projects] was my world at the time, and everyone in my world, this is what it was about, you know. I didn’t know anything about productive. And what really opened my eyes is when I was working in Texas. I think I was 21 at the time. And that’s when it really hit me: it’s another world out here. And ever since then I’ve been striving to get a piece of that pie, just to live right, you know. And I would be happy. I don’t have to be rich, you know. I just want to live a normal life, that’s all.
I was never able to fit in. I had low self-esteem, and you know, that’s when the gangs came along. I kind of felt I belonged to something. Then the trouble comes, with petty crime cases and misdemeanors, trespassing, you know. It wasn’t that I was really a bad guy, just, you know, hanging out with a group.
I don’t need to be making a lot of money, just to be able to say I’m doing something honest, you know. I could go places and spend money and not really be ashamed. Because [when I was] hustling, I had a lot of money, but I was ashamed to go certain places. I didn’t feel right going somewhere and pulling out knots [of money] and paying cash. When you’re working, you get the chance to get credit cards; and when you’re hustling, you go buy a car, you got to go all cash, everybody know what you do.
[Having a job] makes things a lot different because, you know, you’re able to relax, you’re able to live in peace, you know. Ever since I first really started hustling, I was never really able to live in peace. And just in those three weeks [that I worked] it was almost like a dream. But I would say if it was a dream, it was one of the best dreams that I ever had in my life.— Farad
I had started getting in trouble more, you know, to try to support him, cause it was like some of the clothes, [my girlfriend] wouldn’t let him wear them, you know, the clothes that was given [i.e., hand-me-downs]. She wanted him to have new stuff, so I had to get out there and do my thing…man, here it is now, I’m sitting in this jail cell thinking about what I was supposed to have been thinking about while I was out, you know, with my kids, thinking about my girl and if she gonna cheat on me, you know, things like that. Jail give you all types of feelings. They don’t give you no happy feelings unless you get some mail or unless you’re gonna come home. Other than that, you’re gonna be in there sad and hurt, and it’s like that feeling will tear you apart.–Guy
The only reason [I sold drugs], it was because I needed money. People wouldn’t give me [a job], so I’ll go get it myself then. And it used to be cold outside, talking about below zero, and I just stand outside and get the money that I needed. Other than that I won’t be [hustling]. You won’t even see me.— James
The things my grandmother wanted me to have, I didn’t want it. I wanted to be in style. I wanted to be with my friends, you know, all my friends had the latest things. I was getting the reject stuff, and basically I just wanted to fit in.— Chris
I looked at the guys in the neighborhood with the money and the cars and the jewelry and the clothes and noticed they got all the girls. I said, “You know what, I’m gonna be just like him, I’m gonna have that,” and you fall into it. (In prison) we used to just, you know, even when we wasn’t supposed to be talking, we used to talk. And we all used to plan, “Can’t wait until we go home,” and “I’m gonna get a job,” and “I’m gonna raise my kids.” That’s all we used to talk about.— Omar
I thought to myself, the chances of me going to the NFL or running track in the Olympics was very slim. So, instant gratification. I wanted results now, not go to school and obtain a degree, then my results come in 10 years. But now, 10 years is passed and I have nothing, so [laughing] maybe I should have went…the next thing you know I’m one of the best that work there. I always did overtime whenever they needed it, opened and closed the store. So it worked out except for I couldn’t leave [selling] the drugs alone. It was too easy. I mean I didn’t have to sit on no block corners, all I had to do was sit in the house, and if somebody paged me, I’d go out to the curb with like 12 bags of weed [to sell]. And I’m go shoot pool, somebody page me, and I tell ’em meet me outside. So it was too easy. I mean it was easy, that’s all.– Derrick
I’m not trying to brag or nothing, but it was like I was the light for the house and everything was, like, going through me, like everything. I mean, like money-wise and just family-value-wise. Like my sister going out on a date, her boyfriend, he got to come meet me first, stuff like that. I mean, like I used to pay my mom’s rent and everything, I mean, buy them cars. It’s really paranoid, constantly looking over my shoulder, counting the time after I serve a delivery to the time how long you think the police is gonna come up in front of you. I’m watching for them, watching for the stick-up man, watching for the man that’s trying to take my pat [money], watching for the guy that’s trying to beat me out some way or another, watching for the female that’s trying to beat you out some way or another. Either way I go, you’re always looking over your back or always watching.
I couldn’t stand visits, the leaving-part scene, whew, in the county [prison]. [My daughter] was like two-and-a-half years old when I left. And every time it was time for her to leave after a visit, oh man, she started crying. One time, I said, “Bye,” and I started walking away. When I got to the guard, they’re like, “Your daughter can’t come.” I turn around, she’s right there following me. I was like, oh man. I had to pick her up, take her to her mom. She was crying. That’s why I couldn’t stand visits. They made me miserable. Then I went [to a state prison], and it was almost two years I didn’t see ’em, almost two years. I tried to do both though (hustle and work), you know what I mean, cause I was still at the supermarket; when I would get off, I would go to the block [to sell drugs]. But it was just, like I’m wasting time at the supermarket, being there eight hours. And I would be on the block for an hour, get like $500, and this is [more than] what I’m making all week at this place. So I gave it a shot for like about a week, and I was like, I’m wasting time, and I left.— Carlos
With [my daughter], I was always the one where anything she wanted, she got it. She want a toy or a bike, you know, she can get it on the spot. Well, she used to get it on the spot. I know she’s spoiled, cause we used to go in Toys R Us just cause we was downtown, you know. If I wanted some sneakers, she [also] got some sneakers.— Wendell
Before, I wasn’t really into guns and all that, I ain’t really need ’em. And once I got into [selling narcotics], it was a whole different game. It was like you got to walk around in the summertime, 90-, 100-degree weather, with a bulletproof vest on and heavy guns. And I started thinking, like that could be me [who gets shot]. And there was a couple times, like my man be riding down the street, and somebody jumped from behind a car and started shooting. [My friend] had no choice but to start shooting back. So I mean anything could happen. Like I worked, I was never dumb about it. Like a lot of guys, they just go out there and do it [hustle], and that’s all they did. I [hustled], but I worked, too. And I still finished school. But it was like, to get what I want, I mean to keep a car, keep buying sneakers every two, three days and clothes and then go out every week, you know what I mean. Then on top of that, I was smoking a lot of weed, so I had to support my habit. And I was spending about $300 a day on that. — Anthony
It’s been 10 years since I left the house. I’ve had cars, clothes and all of that, a lot of material things, but I have nothing concrete, and I haven’t progressed too much further than when I left. I like to progress in everything I do, and I saw no progression in it, I saw no progression in it. If you decide to turn over a new life and try to make it legit, you’re gonna be lost, because you don’t have no idea, no structure. I didn’t know any workplace etiquette. Take, for instance, the STRIVE program. We come here every day nine to five, you have to be here on time. Say like with selling drugs, I could come out at eight at night and leave at nine if I wanted to. But when you step back into reality, it’s not gonna work. It’s not gonna work at the workplace.— Leonard
Shhh, my daughter’s so big already. I didn’t see her in real life, but I seen her in pictures, she looks so big, so pretty. I mean, me and her had a conversation [recently]; I was like, my God, I can’t believe I lost so many years. I mean, it was only like two-and-a-half years, but it seems like it’s been the whole eternity.— Alberto
I wouldn’t [hustle] if I had a job. But if I didn’t have a job, I had to find a way to have money and support myself. I mean, you do have to do something to get the money. You don’t want to do it [hustle], it’s like you’re forced. I mean you don’t have to [hustle], but at the same time, you got something in life that you do have to provide for, you got a family, you got yourself. So one way or the other, you gotta do something to get some money. Everybody can’t get their grass cut every day. Everybody can’t shovel snow when it ain’t snowing. Everybody can’t pick up garbage when there ain’t no garbage out there.I see a job as something for me to do every day. That’s my daily schedule. I enjoy myself at work. I’m motivated from work. It’s just gotta be something that I like doing. Even if it’s not, I would find something in there that I look forward to doing. — George
No matter how much (a legit job) paid, I liked the environment. I got to meet different people and see different cultures of life. I liked it cause I ain’t been around that many people for so long. And then it was just fun getting up every day and going down and go to work. — Juan
If I go to jail, what am I gonna tell [my kids]? Ain’t nothing left to tell them. They gonna see me behind a glass, and I don’t want them to see me like that. I’d rather want them to see me in a suit and tie, you know. I wanted to do the opposite of everything my father did, you know, which means be there for my son and not on the street, right? And what I mean by that, you know, getting up for work, letting your kids see you do all these positive things that’s supposed to be done in life, you know, not get up and see your parents fighting over drugs. No, I want to raise my child. When he grow up, he’ll see that his mother goes to work, his father goes to work. I want him to see a schedule. I want to teach him things that my parents ain’t never taught to me. –Hareem
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jeff Deeney is a freelance writer who has contributed to the City Paper and the Inquirer. He focuses on issues of urban poverty and drug culture. He is also a caseworker with a nonprofit housing program that serves homeless families.