To Gain

“I grew up on the crime side,

The ‘New York Times’ side;

Stayin’ alive was no jive….”

People often get my husband twisted due to his appearance. His complexion and suave face lead them to completely unfounded assumptions about who he is and his journey. It could only be smooth sailing for a high yella pretty boy, taken to be as soft and sweet as cotton candy.

He doesn’t bat an eye when people say these things; he’s used to it. I get more agitated than he does! I mean, seriously, jokes about light-skinned men being less manly? That’s low-hanging fruit and not witty. It’s giving 1985. But those who know my husband and where he came from don’t make that assumption.

Hubby was born and raised in Harlem’s notorious Polo Grounds housing projects. There was nothing soft or easy about that place. If he were the gentle, pretty boy that strangers mistake him for, he wouldn’t have survived his neighborhood or the era.

By the time Brian entered puberty, the crack epidemic was at its height in the United States. Hoods nationwide were drowning in drug money from enterprising dope boys. Urban life destroyed the previous generation of males in his family. Vietnam had consumed them, along with the criminal justice system, Harlem’s streets, or some combination thereof. But when crack exploded, it took Harlem to a new, terrifying level of chaos.

These were the days when street legends like Alpo Martinez, Rich Porter, and AZ Faison ran Harlem. You’d see dope boys dripped in gold and diamonds, driving in luxury cars with the booming system that LL rapped about. These were Brian’s wonder years. He and his peers had to get wise quickly. He developed a sixth sense for danger and learned to guess when something was about to pop off, and the hammers would come out.

Decades later, Hubbyshowed me around the neighborhood. A proud Harlemite and survivor, he took me to legendary sites. There was the Rucker, the basketball court shouted out in countless hip-hop songs. The location of popular basketball games that attracted NBA players was where Alpo had his Brooklyn rival Domencio Benson brutally murdered in 1991. The real-life dramas of 1980s Harlem later surfaced in movies like New Jack City and Paid In Full.

When I visited Harlem in the 2010s, it had evolved again. It was no longer the same Harlem my spouse’s paternal grandparents met when they arrived from the South during the Great Migration. But it also wasn’t the nightmare it became in the 1980s. Former NYC mayor David Dinkins initiated the effort to clean up and revitalize Harlem, which has paid off. After all, 125th now hosts Whole Foods and Starbucks.

When I walk through Harlem now, my breath still catches when I look at its magnificent brownstones. I’ve remarked on their unique beauty to my spouse multiple times. But the memory of Harlem’s wild days of the 1980s and 90s lives on in the minds of those who experienced them. Even my daughter, who is not a fan of Manhattan, was so hypnotized by Harlem brownstones that she asked if we could buy one instead of a house in Westchester County.

“If only,” he told her. At the low end, brownstones go for $1.5 million now! But the crazy thing is they were much cheaper in the 80s!”

“Exactly. HOW much cheaper” I asked, intrigued.

“Through a HUD program, you could buy a brownstone for as little as $1”.

I could not be hearing him right. Wait, you said $1.00? Like 1 United States dollar, I asked, incredulous.

“Yes, ma’am!”

I was dumbfounded. I thought about the legendary drug lords of Harlem that I’d heard of from the 70s and on. And I couldn’t wrap my mind around it.

A question formed in my mind, and it lingered with me. With all the capital that poured into the hands of dope boys in Harlem, why didn’t they make LASTING money moves with those funds? The question applies to dealers outside of New York as well.

I think of all of the former street dudes and their fates:

Catching federal cases and spending their life in prison

Meeting a gruesome, bloody, premature death;

Or dodging both, making it to middle age and walking the streets with nothing to show for their hustling days.

I experienced the crack epidemic as a child of an addict. But I can attempt to be objective and remove my personal story from the time. So, I wonder if those who sold crack: what was the point? I don’t ask this out of a plea for racial solidarity. Even from a purely self-interested perspective, it doesn’t make sense. They didn’t even set up their wives, mothers, and children. They, and the rest of us, went through all that destruction, bloodshed, and loss- and for what? For a few to briefly gain the world for a few years, we all lost something priceless, a loss we continue to feel four decades later.

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A native Seattleite and East Coast transplant, I have been interested in politics, religion, and race from the day I saw “The Autobiography of Malcolm X” on the bookshelf belonging to my BFF’s mom back in 1991. While my zealotry has thankfully diminished with maturity, I remain the deep thinking, passionate, and humble woman I have always been.

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