Why you should care
Because all around you, duffel bags are changing hands.
Malik Wade 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 step out of the elevator, glance to my left, glance to my right. The chandelier-lit lobby is still. I say a casual hello to the concierge and slip the two doormen $5 each. It’s 1998, and there aren’t many 6-foot-3 black men walking the halls of this Minneapolis apartment complex — except for NBA point guard Stephon Marbury — so I go out of my way to make nice. Once outside, I walk the perimeter of the building, again scouting my surroundings. After five years on the run, paranoia has become part of my DNA.
It’s minus 5 degrees outside. The blowing night wind feels like razors hitting my face. I climb into my Dodge Intrepid rental and, again, circle the block, whip a U-turn and pull over. When I’m confident no one is trailing me, I inch away in the dark. The Feds aren’t the only ones to be worried about.
Originally from the foggy streets of San Francisco, I fled the City by the Bay five years earlier when the court issued a warrant for my arrest on drug and weapon charges. It was the peak of the crack epidemic, and my early teenage days selling $20 rocks at the Sunnydale housing projects led to much larger sums, direct connections with Mexican suppliers and deals across the country. Now, at 27, I bounce among furnished suites everywhere from Los Angeles to Canada to Pennsylvania. But no matter the city or whether you’re doing business with blacks, whites or browns, the game is always the same.
And even the threat of life in prison isn’t enough to keep me from playing. Time after time, the lure of the greenbacks and a need to feed my hollow ego reel me back in. The whisper that rings in the ears of so many black boys who grew up in ratty Jordans and single-parent homes only gets louder the longer I hide in my high-rise: “What do you have to lose?” Maybe part of me even wants to get caught. At least then I wouldn’t be living in limbo. Then I’d be able to call my family.
So here I am. Soon about to walk away with $200,000. In a pair of handcuffs. Or not at all.
But there’s no room for second guessing.
Driving down the thoroughfare that runs parallel to the University District, it’s the usual burst of adrenaline. My heart pumps faster. My foot presses a little harder against the gas pedal. My thoughts race. The phone rings. “I will be there in a few minutes,” says the voice on the line. “I will meet you at the R … ” Click. He should know better than to say anything specific on the line.
The Feds eventually found me two years later, in another Minneapolis apartment, when I called my dad, who had a trap-and-trace on his phone. There were three rentals under my alias at the time — one to keep the drugs, one to keep the money and the last to lay my head. To blend in, I would sometimes dress as a postman or claim to run a recording company. How long you last in this game depends on how well you can manipulate, but no matter how good you are, everybody gets caught. I ended up pleading guilty to conspiracy to distribute in excess of 500 grams of cocaine and carrying a firearm during a drug-trafficking crime, which came with a 14-year sentence. It’s been about three years since my release.
On this day, though, my disguise is sweatpants and a hoodie. The rules of engagement had been set hours earlier, as we worked out the details over ribs. This wasn’t the first time Detroit T had bought from me; one of my old connections had introduced us. He knew the drill. The money is to be wrapped with rubber bands in stacks of $10,000. No ten-, five- or one-dollar bills. Everything in a black duffel bag. And — most importantly — no new faces.
There’s a shared understanding that we’re putting our lives in each other’s hands. You don’t trust the other person, but, then again, you do — otherwise you wouldn’t take the risk. It seems like everyone’s connected through someone — a homie, a cousin — so maybe there’s a subconscious sense of security. Nine out of 10 times, these deals take place at someone’s house, their girlfriends and kids in the next room.
Still, dudes from Detroit have a reputation. They’ve killed for a lot less.
And it was a nighttime meet, which was normally off limits, but my slide down had already started. Being on the run that long takes a toll on your mind. Five years in, I was emotionally and mentally rickety. In a veiled attempt to hide my vulnerability, I had warned that if anything went wrong my people had a file on him with pictures of his face, house and license plate number. It was a power move, a bluff to make him think there was a crew that had my back. The whole thing was all a well-rehearsed act. Don’t talk much. Stand up straight. Ooze confidence. It’s the art of the deal.
I get to the meeting spot early to scope an escape route, just in case. We’re meeting off a commercial street near the college campus. There’s a Barnes & Noble and rows of single-story, red-brick shops and restaurants hidden behind awnings. There are people around, but they mostly hurry from their cars to the indoors. It’s approaching 10 p.m.; places are starting to close up. The snow-ensconced, icy streets won’t make it easy to exit quickly, whether by foot or a high-speed chase. I circle the block a couple of times, looking for Crown Victorias, guys sitting low in parked cars. All is clear.
Ultimately, my route takes me down a short alleyway that most people pass without ever noticing. The passage ahead is empty, except for a few dumpsters and black sludge. A few moments later, a navy-blue Tahoe pulls up on my left. The truck isn’t familiar, but when the tinted window rolls down, it’s Detroit T. We nod. He tells me to get in.
What’s my gut saying? It’s too dark. I can’t see inside the car. But I can’t look unsure. These guys smell fear. So I pop my trunk, grab the duffel bag containing nine bricks of coke and jump in the passenger side.
Fuck. There is someone in the backseat. It’s a familiar face — his cousin I’ve met before — but still. We are in an alley, not a person in sight. They could put one in the back of my head and dump my body in the freezing, filthy street. No one would even notice until morning. I fake a phone call to “my organization.” All I say: “It’s good.” We exchange duffels without checking their contents. It’s too late at this point. Early in my career, a pistol would have been in my waistband, but I stopped carrying one after the indictment. There were two previous gun charges on my record, and another would have just meant more time. After this many years, I know that if they’re gonna get me, there’s nothing to be done about it now.
Another nod, a handshake, and it’s out the truck and back into the Intrepid. My chest loosens. I take a deep breath. He waits for me to pull away first. It’s a sign to my invisible “people” that everything is good. Driving away my thoughts race. Is the bag stuffed with rolls of newspaper? Were the Feds videotaping my every move? Soon, though, the anxiety gives way to adrenaline. There’s no high like greed and arrogance.
These days, meditation is my drug, but it took years in a cell to learn to sit still with myself. Instead of chasing street glory, my quest has become for knowledge. And now I’m trying to hustle in the Silicon Valley world of entrepreneurs, which, perhaps not surprisingly, requires many of the same skills as slinging. It’s all about being able to bullshit. In the end, whether it’s pitching my nonprofit or selling crack, it’s about money and esteem. But it’s a lot harder to find that confidence from the bottom of the food chain.
Back at the apartment, I feed the money into a counting machine, which turns over every bill in a matter of minutes. It’s all there. Usually, by this time my head’s on the pillow, but now I’m thinking about what’s for dinner. Steak. Fettuccine Alfredo. Just as I start to put everything away my phone rings. “I like the product. When can we do it again?”
Video by Melanie Ruiz