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THUG LIFE: Hustle And Flow

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I was young then, and at the time, everyone around me saw jobs as, ďThatís for the older people.Ē 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 ainít wanna do nothing different.–Hareem

jeffdeeneythumbnail.jpgBY JEFF DEENEY Once a hustler, always a hustler? Itís 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 canít 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, itís 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. Accordingthug_life-front.jpg to their website, PPV is ďis 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.Ē As a part of the study, ďLeaving the Street: Young Fathers Move from Hustling to Legitimate WorkĒ researcher Lauren J. Kotloff interviewed 27 ex-offenders, former hustlers that had done their time and had gone legit. She letís 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 donít often hear, unfiltered and un-embellished. What emerges is a picture that is far different from the thug archetypes found in rap music lyrics and television crime shows. Most hustlers donít hustle full time. Many hustlers donít 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 canít 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 donít 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 didnít interfere with them being on the corner. These men are closer to the archetype than others, but the picture is never black and white.

Iíll shut up and let them tell their stories. If you want to read the whole study, hereís 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, ainít 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 ainít 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 didnít see nothing, like what am I gonna get out of this? Iím going to school for nothing, man, thatís 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 itís like I grew up around all that. And thatís 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 didnít look at it like that. [The projects] was my world at the time, and tupac2tweaked.jpgeveryone in my world, this is what it was about, you know. I didnít 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 thatís when it really hit me: itís another world out here. And ever since then Iíve been striving to get a piece of that pie, just to live right, you know. And I would be happy. I donít have to be rich, you know. I just want to live a normal life, thatís all.

I was never able to fit in. I had low self-esteem, and you know, thatís 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 wasnít that I was really a bad guy, just, you know, hanging out with a group.

I donít need to be making a lot of money, just to be able to say Iím doing something hon≠est, 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 didnít feel right going somewhere and pulling out knots [of money] and paying cash. When youíre working, you get the chance to get credit cards; and when youíre 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, youíre able to relax, youíre 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] wouldnít 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,thuggun.jpg here it is now, Iím 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 donít give you no happy feelings unless you get some mail or unless youíre gonna come home. Other than that, youíre gonna be in there sad and hurt, and itís like that feeling will tear you apart.–Guy

The only reason [I sold drugs], it was because I needed money. People wouldnít give me [a job]óso Iíll 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 wonít be [hustling]. You wonít even see me.– James

The things my grandmother wanted me to have, I didnít 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, ďYou know what, Iím gonna be just like him, Iím gonna have that,Ē and you fall into it. (In prison) we used to just, you know, even when we wasnít supposed to be talking, we used to talk. And we all used to plan, ďCanít wait until we go home,Ē and ďIím gonna get a job,Ē and ďIím gonna raise my kids.Ē Thatís all we used to talk about.– Omar

thug2.jpgI thought to myself, the chances of me going to the NFL or running track in the Olympics was very slim. Soóinstant 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 Iím one of the best that work there. I always did overtime when≠ever they needed it, opened and closed the store. So it worked out except for I couldnít leave [selling] the drugs alone. It was too easy. I mean I didnít have to sit on no block corners, all I had to do was sit in the house, and if somebody paged me, Iíd go out to the curb with like 12 bags of weed [to sell]. And Iím go shoot pool, somebody page me, and I tell íem meet me outside. So it was too easy. I mean it was easy, thatís all.– Derrick

Iím 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 boyfriendóhe got to come meet me first, stuff like that. I mean, like I used to pay my momís rent and everything, I mean, buy them cars. Itís 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. Iím watching for them, watching for the stick-up man, watching for the man thatís trying to take my pat [money], watching for the guy thatís trying to beat me out some way or another, watching for the female thatís trying to beat you out some way or another. Either way I go, youíre always looking over your back or always watching.

I couldnít stand visits, the leaving-part scene, whew, in the county [prison]. [My daugh≠ter] 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, ďBye,Ē and I started walking away. When I got to the guard, theyíre like, ďYour daughter canít come.Ē I turn around, sheís right there following me. I was like, oh man. I had to pick her up, take her to her mom. She was crying. Thatís why I couldnít stand visits. They made me miserable. Then I went [to a state prison], and it was almost two years I didnít see íem, 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 Iím wasting time at the supermarket, being there eight hours. And I would be on the block for an hour, get like $500, and this istupac3.jpg [more than] what Iím making all week at this place. So I gave it a shot for like about a week, and I was like, Iím wasting time, and I left.– Carlos

With [my daughter], I was always the one where anything she wanted, she got itÖShe want a toy or a bike, you know, she can get it on the spot. Well, she used to get it on the spot.Ö I know sheís spoiled, cause we used to go in Toys R Us just cause we was down≠town, you know. If I wanted some sneakers, she [also] got some sneakers.– Wendell

Before, I wasnít really into guns and all that, I ainít really need íem. 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 thatís 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

Itís been 10 years since I left the house. Iíve had cars, clothes and all of that, a lot of material things, but I have nothing concrete, and I havenít 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, youíre gonna be lost, because you donít have no idea, no structure. I didnít 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, itís not gonna work. Itís not gonna work at the workplace.– Leonard

thugz.jpgShhh, my daughterís so big already. I didnít 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 canít believe I lost so many years. I mean, it was only like two-and-a-half years, but it seems like itís been the whole eternity.– Alberto

I wouldnít [hustle] if I had a job. But if I didnít 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 donít want to do it [hustle], itís like youíre forced. I mean you donít have to [hustle], but at the same time, you got something in life that you do have to provide for, you got a fam≠ily, you got yourself. So one way or the other, you gotta do something to get some money. Everybody canít get their grass cut every day. Everybody canít shovel snow when it ainít snowing. Everybody canít pick up garbage when there ainít no garbage out there.I see a job as something for me to do every day. Thatís my daily schedule. I enjoy myself at work. Iím motivated from work. Itís just gotta be something that I like doing. Even if itís 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 ainít 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]? Ainít nothing left to tell them. They gonna see me behind a glass, and I donít want them to see me like that. Iíd 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.Ö And what I mean by that, you know, getting up for work, letting your kids see you do all these positive things thatís 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, heíll 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 ainít never taught to me. –Hareem

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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.

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2 Responses to “THUG LIFE: Hustle And Flow”

  1. Phawker » Blog Archive » EDITORIAL: Who Breaks A Butterfly Upon A Wheel* Says:

    […] EDITORIAL: This is a fool’s errand, we know, but in the name of decency, fairness and The Golden Rule, we are calling on the local media to exercise some measure of restraint in reporting on the drug and criminal justice problems of the brothers Reid. And no, we’re not just talking about the kind of restraint that keeps you from getting sued, but the kind of restraint that comes when editorial decision-making is attached to journalistic ethics — not just ratings aspirations. As we type this, Philly.com has just splashed a top story about the pills allegedly found in Brett Reid’s truck last week when he was very publicly hauled in for DUI and violating his probation. The headline screams 200 PILLS FOUND! — and yet, when you read the story, there’s a quote from Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor saying, “I think some of them are (prescription), maybe all of them.” This is not journalism, it’s poking a stick in someone’s cage. (You want a good drug story, a story about how drugs are actually impacting the life of this city? Go here and here, there’s a million of ‘em. They will, however, require a little more shoe leather than standing in front of Andy Reid’s house and tsk-tsking as you read the lines the DA has fed you into the camera.) C’mon, people! He’s just a kid struggling publicly with what is obviously a very serious drug addiction. There is far too much blood in the water for what is at best a sand shark being portrayed as a Great White — just because it’s easy and his dad is famous. […]

  2. Phawker » Blog Archive » EDITORIAL: Who Breaks A Butterfly Upon A Wheel* Says:

    […] EDITORIAL: This is a fool’s errand, we know, but in the name of decency, fairness and The Golden Rule, we are calling on the local media to exercise some measure of restraint in reporting on the drug and criminal justice problems of the brothers Reid. And no, we’re not just talking about the kind of restraint that keeps you from getting sued, but the kind of restraint that comes when editorial decision-making is attached to journalistic ethics — not just ratings aspirations. As we type this, Philly.com has just splashed a top story about the pills allegedly found in Brett Reid’s truck last week when he was very publicly hauled in for DUI and violating his probation. The headline screams 200 PILLS FOUND! — and yet, when you read the story, there’s a quote from the eminently-quotable Montgomery County District Attorney Bruce Castor saying, “I think some of them are (prescription), maybe all of them.” This is not journalism, it’s poking a stick in someone’s cage. (You want a good drug story, a story about how drugs are actually impacting the life of this city? Go here and here, there’s a million of ‘em. They will, however, require a little more shoe leather than standing in front of Andy Reid’s house and tsk-tsking as you read the lines the DA has fed you into the camera.) C’mon, people! He’s just a kid struggling publicly with what is obviously a very serious drug addiction. There is far too much blood in the water for what is at best a sand shark being portrayed as a Great White — just because it’s easy and his dad is famous. […]

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