Why you should care

Because it all starts with one drug deal. 

The author served a 14-year sentence in federal prison on drug and gun charges. Released three years ago, he now runs the Scholastic Interest Group in San Francisco, which mentors student athletes in underserved communities.

I pushed through the double French doors of the old Victorian downtown building and stumbled onto Duboce Street. It was an overcast April day in San Francisco. Once outside, my knees buckled, sending my 6-foot-2 frame lumbering to the curb. It felt like I’d been knocked unconscious and was just coming to. Was this really happening? Did I really just learn the one thing I fear most? At 22 years old, it was all over. My time was up.

The day before, my lawyer had called, saying he needed to speak immediately. It was an emergency. I was in Seattle “networking,” so I cut business short and jumped on a plane the next day. It wasn’t hard to see what was coming down the pike. Still, that didn’t make it any easier when defense attorney Tony Tamburello finally sat me down in his dimly lit, mahogany-accented office. A short, stout and intimidating man, he didn’t waste time with pleasantries. As he talked, my mouth grew dry.

The feds had indicted me on conspiracy to distribute cocaine and using a gun in a drug-trafficking offense. Worst-case scenario: life in prison.

The charges came out of Pittsburgh. For the past several years, my focus had been on expanding my sales territory across the country, which led to the acquaintance of a guy in Pennsylvania, whom we’ll call Eric. He became somewhat of a business partner — I supplied the coke, he supplied the customers. But after a shakeup with the cops, Eric, who knew my real name and home city, got spooked and started talking to the Feds. A year later, in March 1993, two of my close buddies were arrested. I happened to be in another state, so instead I got a phone call.

After a few minutes of sitting on the curb dazed, the adrenaline kicked in. I jumped up and started walking down the street, going until I reached my mom’s office in the Financial District, where she was a secretary. She didn’t cry or say much, either because she was in shock or didn’t understand the significance. After leaving there, I made some calls, and, by 5 p.m., my plane was taking off back to Seattle. Beyond that, I had no idea what was next.

***

My very first deal came on a Saturday morning in 1986. I was 15, a sophomore in high school. At 6 a.m. — before my mom was awake to ask what was going on — I took off on my beach cruiser to the Sunnydale housing projects, just a few blocks away. A small bundle of white crack rocks in a Ziploc bag was tucked tightly against my scrotum. Approaching the dilapidated housing complex, the streets were deserted. The closer I wheeled, the more nervous I became. Over and over, like a fighter getting amped up for his first foray into the ring, I repeated the words, “You can do it.”

My mom raised my two sisters and me in subsidized housing; it was a never-ending struggle to keep up-to-date on the bills. Eviction notices showed up, phone lines were cut off. I’ve been 6-foot-2 since the age of 13, so there was always this self-imposed feeling that I should be doing something to help. The least I could do was feed myself.

Malik Wade stands in his former neighborhood.

The author now meditates four times a day as he makes a new life for himself in San Francisco.

Source Melanie Ruiz/OZY

This was during the height of the crack epidemic. The streets of San Francisco were flooded with snow, or cream, as we called it. Especially in low-income, urban areas, white powder was hard to escape. The prospect of slinging had always been there, as it was for every young Black boy in my neighborhood. And back then, dealing wasn’t territorial; there weren’t gangs that claimed certain corners, like you see in The Wire. It was a free-for-all. Almost all my friends dealt, and, at some point, my cousin and I just started too. It seemed almost inevitable.

Within moments of getting off my bike, a beat-up-looking car came speeding toward me. Inside was a white couple. Bingo! The only white people who wandered around here were dope fiends or undercover police. The car pulled to a stop directly in front of me. The two looked disheveled, like they’d been up for days; the guy had long, stringy hair and sores on his face. I walked around to the driver’s side as the man rolled the window down. I pulled my sack of rocks out and placed a couple small pellets in his hand. “How much you spendin?”

“Forty dollars,” the driver said, but as he spoke, he whipped out a Chrome 357 magnum, pointing it at my chest. I dropped the bike and ran.

But once I was safely behind the apartment building and had gotten my nerves under control, I decided to stay. The next few deals went smooth. They were small, $20 transactions, some to people in cars, some on foot. After several hours of loitering on the street corner and wandering through the projects, I called it a day and went home with a few hundred dollars in my pocket. Beat flipping burgers.

After that first sale, I was hooked. That’s the allure of fast cash. At 15 years old, my mind was filled with visions of making millions. After basketball practice, I would head back to Sunnydale or the Geneva Towers housing projects, where I’d roam for hours. Within months, it became common to make up to $1,000 in a single day. Soon I upgraded to a pager and started working on demand, rather than casting lines hoping for a bite. Six months later, I’d saved enough to purchase my first brick of cocaine, which went for about $15,000. It wasn’t long before I was “going to the store” to pick up a brick once a week. The day of my high school graduation, there was $106,000 cash stashed in my locker. Once school was over with, my 18-year-old entrepreneurial mind decided it was time to take my business nationwide.

***

First destination on my list: New York City. And I had a plan. It started with heading to the club to pick up a chick, but I had to choose my prey carefully — it had to be someone who was easily manipulated. I’d take her out a few times, make her think she was special, then have her introduce me to her brothers and cousins, who would in turn introduce me to their inner circles. After that, I would carry the drugs from West to East (using methods that unfortunately can’t be divulged here). One of the guys I met on that first trip became somewhat of a business partner. Next we went to Pittsburgh. Then Louisville. And finally on to Los Angeles.

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San Francisco, where the author learned of his indictment

Source Harald Lange/Getty

You’d think, making that kind of money, it’d be high livin’. Really, most of my time was spent waiting for the pager to beep and, in the meantime, going out to eat. Tens of thousands spent on food and street craps and neither left me with anything to show. All that risk for nothing. At the time, the thought of getting caught hardly entered my mind. Even after the cops had gotten me on three separate gun charges. There wasn’t a lot of room for much else with all the adrenaline, arrogance and greed.

And for three years, I got away with it. Toward the end, though, I started getting careless. The Feds quietly followed my trail for almost a year, the investigators collecting a mounting heap of evidence to build their case. When they turned Eric, it was over. Not long after my two close friends called from Pitt County jail, my lawyer would break the news of the indictment.

Sitting on the curb in downtown San Francisco, with cars and people passing by oblivious, I thought about the life I’d chosen for myself. I was a good athlete and decent student, but it didn’t seem like there was much chance either of those would take me far. There wasn’t a single adult man in my life who’d made it going the straight and narrow. A boy growing up in second-hand clothes dreams of beautiful women and fancy cars. But here I was, with hundreds of thousands of dollars stashed in apartments sprinkling the country and facing the possibility of spending the rest of my life in a 5 x 10 cement cell. It was either that or spend my days on the run. In the end, I chose to tie my shoes and stay in the race.

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