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"Y'all niggaz line the fuck up. Everybody gonna get served, just hold ya head." The corner managers barked their instructions and the fiends did as they were told. That's just the way it went in the hood.
Darius, also known as Rio, stood against the project building puffing his Newport, dark eyes constantly scanning the block for police. Rio was a handsome young cat. He was about six-foot-three with pretty raven-colored curls decorating his crown. The girls at his high school would always mess with him, saying he was a dark, pretty nigga. But he felt he was just him.
By most standards, Rio was a good kid. Smart, well educated, and soft-spoken. He was respectful to his elders and fair when dealing with people on the streets. From speaking to him, you couldn't tell that he was an on-again, off-again field lieutenant for the local drug czar. The title he held was a 'manager.' What a manager did was just make sure that things went smoothly while he was on shift. It wasn't a glamorous job, or even the highest position in the chain of command. But Rio was content to do his little part. It was just to keep money in his pocket or food on his table, until he could secure a legit job.
Rio spotted his man, Shamel, and moved to greet him. Shamel was a short fat nigga with a lazy eye. His lips were too big for his small face and often hung down when he talked. Shamel's razor-bump-ridden, brown face bore scars that were the result of fights on the streets as well as in the system. Shamel might've been ugly, but he was a bull waiting to charge.
Niggaz in the streets gave him his space. He was Rio's right-hand man.
"Sup, my nigga?" Shamel asked, placing his fist over Rio's heart.
"Another day on the grind, kid," Rio said, returning the gesture. "The block is a li'l slow this morning. Ma fuckas act like they don't wanna get high."
"Walk with me, yo?" Shamel said as he started off toward the ave. Rio looked at the dwindling flow of addicts and figured, why the hell not? After finding someone to relieve him, he strolled with his man to the ave.
The after-school program was letting out, so 104th and Columbus was flooded with little kids running back and forth. Rio and Shamel posted up by the courts on 104th between Columbus and began the day's politics.
"What's new, player?" Rio asked.
"Ma fucking same thang different day," Shamel said, lighting a cigarette. "I just came from seeing one of my baby mamas and shit."
"Who you was laid up wit, big-boy?"
"Man, Meeka crazy ass. I ain't been wit her like that since Shawn was like two, and he's five now. Fuck is that telling you?"
"Man, but you be leading them bitches on."
"How the fuck you figure, Rio?"
"Because, you still fucking em. You say you don't love em anymore, but you still answering them four a.m. phone calls when them sack-chasers ring you."
"Fuck you, Rio," Shamel said, blowing out a smoke ring. "Pretty ma fucka, always think you know some shit. We can all be like you and Trinity. Leave-it-to-Beaver ma fuckas."
"Nigga, don't hate cause my boo-boo down for me. Trinity is my A-like and I'm hers."
"What the fuck ever wit that ABC shit. You know what I mean. These bitches is too full of game for my taste."
"Then stop raw dick'n em."
"Whatever, nigga. What that block like?"
"It's a slow go, dick. But I cope wit it."
"Fuck that. Y'all niggaz be out here twenty-four/seven any weather clicking. You might as well get a job for all that. A nigga like me," Shamel said, beating his chest. "I'm gonna get my marbles regardless."
"Fool, you make your living by force, mine is by choice. We don't put a gun to nobody's head and make em buy this shit. Ma fuckas get high in the hood cause they want to."
"Same shit, punk. We both doing dirt."
"Ah," Rio said, shrugging his shoulders. "We make the best out of what we have."
The two friends popped a little more shit and watched the day go by. Rio and Shamel had been friends since grade school. Rio was a grade over Shamel and used to tutor him in the after-school program. People used to make fun of Shamel and call him stupid, when he was actually quite the opposite. Shamel was a wiz with numbers, he just had a problem with reading and writing. The problem wasn't stupidity, it was dyslexia.
"What's on for the night?" Rio asked.
"It's Thursday, kid," Shamel said. "You know niggaz is probably gonna roll through Vertigo. What up, you trying to go?"
"Nah, not tonight."
"Yo, Rio, you need to get off that bullshit. You don't never go nowhere anymore. Fuck is you a hermit or something now?"
"Nah, I'll probably chill wit Trinity tonight."
"Let me find out you sprung. Nigga, it's wall to wall pussy in the club, yet you content wit the same ol' cracker. What up wit you, Rio?"
"Y'all niggaz just got the game fucked up, Shamel. Wit me it ain't really about how many bitches I can fuck. I been through all that shit already. I can be content wit one girl, cause me and Trinity is like that. She's more than just a lover, she's my friend too."
"Fuck outta here," Shamel said spitting. "You expect me to believe that shit?"
"Believe what you want, kid. It is what it is wit us."
Their conversation was interrupted when a Benz truck pulled to the curb. The Benz was forest green with 22-inch chrome rims. All the windows were tinted, totally concealing the occupants of the truck. But everyone in Douglass knew who the vehicle belonged to.
The driver stepped from the truck, first giving a brief look around. He was a fifty-something slim cat, with skin the color of a moonless night. His processed hair shone like a waxed floor in the afternoon sun. A passing breeze pushed the jacket of his gray suit open, just enough to expose the butt of the 9 in his belt. His birth certificate read James Woodson, but the streets called the five-foot-five man Li'l J.
Li'l J went around to the other side and opened the door for his boss. The man who stepped from the truck was an even six feet. He had brown skin with salt and pepper hair. His royal blue suit was custom-made to fit his lean frame. With both his fists flooded with diamonds, he looked more like a retired movie star than a drug lord. His name was once Teddy Brown, but now he was known as Prince. Lord of the crack game.
Li'l J started in Rio's direction with Prince bringing up the rear. Something about Prince always made Rio uneasy, but he tried not to show it. He didn't want the big man to think he was some starstruck punk. But still, an air of greatness clung to Prince like a second skin.
"Sup, li'l nigga," Li'l J said, giving Rio a pound. "What it look like?"
"Ain't nothing old-timer," Rio said. "I'm just trying to make a dollar like everybody else."
"I hear you, kid. Fuck you doing round here?" Li'l J asked, directing his attention to Shamel.
"I know you ain't bringing that bullshit round here."
"Damn," Shamel said in an annoyed tone. "Ain't nobody doing nothing. Why don't you be easy, J?"
"What?" Li'l J said, reaching for his pistol. "I know you ain't getting smart? What you say?"
"I ain't say nothing, man." Shamel said in a submissive tone.
"Punk ma fucka. I know you didn't," J sneered. "Why don't you take a walk, kid? Prince wanna holla at ya boy."
Shamel wanted to say something slick, but thought better of it. J might've been getting on in years, but he was still a dangerous cat. One day Shamel would have a surprise for the old bastard, but not today. Shamel slapped his man five and bounced.
"Was that Shamel?" Prince asked, strutting over.
"Yeah," J said, watching the big man depart. "That was him."
"Why you hang wit that kid, Rio?" Prince asked, concerned. "Fucking thief. Niggaz like him is only destined for the penitentiary or the grave."
"Maybe," Rio said in a serious tone. "But nine times outta ten the same rewards wait for most of us who play the game."
"You sure is a philosophical ma fucka, Rio."
"Hey, I can't help the way life is. I just call it like I see it, Prince."
"Sure ya right, kid. Come on and walk with me."
Prince started off toward Central Park West with Rio at his side and Li'l J bringing up the rear. They strolled past the end of the projects and across Manhattan Avenue. The walk from Columbus to Central Park was like walking through an evolutionary scale. Where the projects ended, walk-ups and little town-house-like structures began. The town houses ended making way for the luxury apartments. It was like stepping into a whole new world in a few short blocks.
Prince stopped near the mouth of the park and took in the scenery. White folks were walking their dogs, riding bikes, and doing all sorts of outdoor activities. All carrying on as if they were oblivious to the fact that there was a crack-infested housing project a block away.
"Look at this shit," Prince said, motioning toward a young white couple strolling through the park. "Strangers in a strange world. Few years ago you wouldn't have seen no shit like this. This whole area was black and Spanish. Now we got the 'Caucasian invasion.'"
"I feel you," Rio said, lighting a cigarette. "Hood don't seem the same, do it?"
"Hell, nah. Man, we had all this shit in the smash, now the crackers done took over."
"Can't really blame the white folks, Prince. Like you said; we had all this shit in the smash. The thing is, we let it slip away like everything else. Look at Harlem. We had a good run wit that and ain't do shit but fuck it up. Black folks act like they ain't used to nothing."
"Li'l nigga, don't you go trying to tell me about the civil rights. I was around in the sixties, remember?"
"Yeah, back in the day we had a li'l more pride bout our shit. Now ma fuckas act like they don't care bout nothing. They just content to do without. But not ol' Prince. From the day I left that damn shit hole in North Carolina, I made myself a promise. No matter what I had to do to survive, I'd never go without again."
"I hear you on that," Rio said, sitting on one of the wooden benches. "A nigga trying to get his weight up."
"Bullshit," Prince said,elbowing Li'l J. "You hear this, kid? Rio, you ain't really trying to be on top of ya game. If you were, you would've accepted my offer."
"And a generous offer it was, Prince. But this shit ain't for me."
"What you mean it ain't for you? Nigga, you'd rather be out here getting part-time money, instead of trying to climb the ladder?"
"It ain't like that. I just don't wanna be a hustler."
"News flash for ya, kid. Every successful person in the world is a hustler in one way or another. We all hustle to get where we need to be. Only a fool would sit around and wait on another man to feed him."
"I hear where ya coming from, Prince, but I ain't hard to please. I'd be content to get a decent li'l gig and a crib of my own. As long as I ain't starving and my bills are paid, I'm cool."
All Prince could do was shake his head. He had been trying to get Rio back to working for him full-time ever since he came home from lockup. But every time he propositioned Rio, he would always go into his speech about getting a nine to five. He had been on countless interviews with no luck, but Prince still tried him every chance he got.
Before Rio went away, he was getting heavy in the game. The kid ate, slept, and shit money. That's the main reason Prince had taken a liking to him. Rio would be the first nigga on the block and the last nigga to leave. Everyone thought that when he came home, he would be right back on the grind. But Rio had changed while he was away. He wasn't a coward, but he was much more serious about his life and not wasting it. Some people took this as Rio going soft, but Prince knew better. The kid was just growing up.
"Rio, I'm gonna give you some advice," Prince said. "You're a good kid, but you got low expectations for ya self. All through school you got good grades, even managed to get ya self a li'l degree. But where has it gotten you? Yo ass ain't no closer to a plush pad on Park Ave. You still out here playing corners like the rest of these ma fuckas."
"In due time, Prince."
"Due time, my ass. You better wake up and smell the green. Only a man willing to take his destiny into his own hands is ever gonna make something of himself. Food for thought, hear?"
Prince made more sense than a li'l bit. Rio had indeed finished his education and tried to take his life a step beyond the expected. But so far he didn't have shit. Rio had gone on at least seven interviews in the last few months. All of them turned up dead ends. Ever since he took a fall, people began to treat him as if he had the plague. No one wanted a convicted felon working for them. Sure he had a degree, but it was from a two-year school. Nowadays, that wasn't even good enough. He had high hopes for an interview that he would be going on that week, but part of him expected to be passed over. Becoming a member of the working class was beginning to look dismal for him. So he had to hustle until things changed. If they changed. Rio wanted more from his life, but fast cash was the order of business.
"Anyhow," Prince continued, "let me tell you why I came down so I can get from round you sorry ma fuckas. I'm having a li'l thang tomorrow night, at the Cotton Club. My son Truck is finally getting his stupid ass outta the clink. Let's hope he can stay out this time. It's by invite only and you invited."
"Thanks, Prince," Rio said, shaking his hand. "Is it all right if I bring people with me?"
"Yeah, it's cool. Just don't bring none of them hood niggaz you hang with."
"Why you always gotta rank on my friends, Prince?" Rio asked, frustrated.
"Cause you too smart to be running round with assholes. You better listen to an old-timer, Rio. Cut them hard luck niggaz loose."
"I hear you, Prince."
"Don't just hear me, listen, too. Them niggaz is trouble waiting to happen. Here," Prince said, peeling off five hundred dollars, "take ya li'l girlfriend out, or buy ya self something."
"I can't take this from you, Prince."
"See, that's what I mean by you being stupid. You never turn down free money. Now get up off this hot-ass block. School Boy can finish out ya shift."
"A'ight, Prince. Thanks again."
"No problem, kid. I expect to see you tomorrow night. Bring li'l Tiffany wit you."
"Her name's Trinity. And I just might do that."
"Whatever, Rio. Just have yo ass there." Prince nodded at Li'l J and they made their way back up the block. As Rio watched the duo leave, he couldn't help but think, Prince sure has it together. Rio promised himself that one day he'd be holding his own paper. It was hard eating from the hands of another man, but sometimes you had to do what you had to do.
Copyright 2004 by K'wan Foye