Why they sell poison, and why many can't stop

FOUR MEN - one in his 40s and tired of going to jail, one who just barely escaped the bullets that killed his best friend, one under pressure from police and family to change careers, another who left the streets six years ago to work toward a middle-class life - all agree: Many who sell drugs in Baltimore will never stop, unless arrested or killed, but many more would prefer another way to make a living. If there were more decent jobs and more employers willing to give a felon a second chance, there might be fewer dealers competing for corners and this city might be a less deadly place.

These four - two of whom will be named, and two who spoke on condition of anonymity because their lives are still so close to the drug trade - were among 10 men who contacted this columnist after Thursday's open letter to the dealers of Baltimore.

With homicides continuing at a depressing pace and the FBI reporting an overall rise in violent crime for the first time since 1999, the letter asked those involved in the drug trade, the engine that drives the violence, to stop killing, if only for the summer, and if only to see what might happen. Those willing to end their criminality altogether were offered an opportunity to present themselves for employment through this space.

Of the 10, one had already moved on and found a job; the rest said they were unemployed. Two claimed they were still selling the poison to city and suburban customers. Others said they didn't want to deal anymore but were frustrated in finding a legitimate job because of their criminal backgrounds. Such is the complex challenge of breaking the cycle of drug dealing that infests the toughest, poorest neighborhoods in Baltimore.

Theodore Anderson

Twice since 1975, when he pleaded guilty to second-degree murder, Anderson held jobs for several years. He was 15 when he stabbed another young man in a fight - he says it was self-defense - and went to jail for eight years. After prison, he found a position as a deliveryman for a Baltimore furniture store and kept it for seven years. For another five, Anderson worked for a company that reconditioned steel drums.

But the soft-spoken Anderson acknowledges that too much of his life has been spent in prison. Now 44, he says he can't do another stint. "I have four children," he says. "I got to find some way to help with my family."

Anderson was incarcerated until April 2004. He says he forged prescriptions for OxyContin and Percocet, powerful painkillers that are often sold illegally. Until he was caught, Anderson says, he received $100 for each successful forgery. A street dealer then sold the pills at significant markup.

He's been through detoxification and now wants a job. He's applied to a dairy, a scrap yard and a stationery company but has not been invited for an interview and blames his criminal past.

Anderson earns a few bucks doing odd jobs, but that's it. Asked if he's tempted to return to the narcotics trade, he says, "That's not the solution. I finally figured that out. I can't do jail time anymore. It's not doing my family any good."

Sean

This man, 26 years old, did not want his full name in print. He says he's still too close to his former life as a busy heroin salesman, and he's lucky to be alive. He was on the street with his best friend - "my home boy" - one night in March 2004 when gunfire erupted. His friend died from multiple wounds. Sean was grazed in the attack. He says the experience changed his life.

"I been to the birthday parties of all my home boy's kids," he says, "and they all call me `god-daddy,' and they were all at the funeral. ... Since my home boy was killed, I've been chillin'. ... I've been on the streets sellin' since I was 14 and what do I have to show for it? Nothin'. I'm tellin' you, I seen a light when my home boy died."

Sean, who has an extensive criminal record, lives with his mother. He has a daughter he sees on weekends; he says she's another reason he resolved to stop dealing.

Others, he says, aren't as strong and will keep going back to the corners.

"People think we [sell drugs] to just come outside and be tough or hard. We do it to survive. Right now, there isn't much food in my mother's house, you know? That's why I'd have to do it."

But he says he's not going to. He wants to find a legitimate job - "Almost anything, but not cleaning toilets" - while he attends a technical school in South Baltimore.

"I have to start over," he says. "I'm just done [with drug dealing], done with the whole thing."

Donyell

This man, 29 years old, isn't done. "I'm still hustling, till I get a job," he says. "But it's getting hard out there. The police are picking up names, making it very hard out there, putting a lot of pressure on us."

(Like Sean, he did not want his full name or photograph used with this column. )

For a time, Donyell had a $9.60-an-hour job cleaning floors at a hospital. "I put my all into it," he says.

But what happened to this job?

"I lost it," he says. "I had asthma problems and I missed too much time."

So he returned to selling dope.

Donyell is a soft-spoken guy, disarmingly pleasant, almost serene. You might never take him for an drug dealer with two weapons convictions. Why does he continue to sell?

"I live with my mother and I got two kids," he says. "We got to eat."

But he claims he'd rather support his family with a real job again. He'd like to be an electrician. He figures he needs between $400 and $500 a week.

"It's time for me to step up to the plate and show our young ones that [drug dealing] ain't cool anymore," he says. "And one time before I leave this world I want to hear my mother say she's proud of me, instead of shakin' her head and asking, `Why you keep selling that poison to your people?'"

Taj Shaw

Shaw, 28, started selling the poison when he was 13, and stopped when he went to prison for the last time. Released six years ago, he got married and fathered two children. He and his wife, a city employee, bought a house in Northeast Baltimore.

"You got to understand how hard it is for guys to find a job out here," he says.

Shaw had some luck, according to the resume he handed me yesterday. For most of the last six years, he worked in kitchens at three institutions in Baltimore, one of them a private club.

But whenever he applied for higher-level, better-paying jobs, he says, his criminal background haunted him.

So, a few months ago, he decided to go into business with his older brother, Gary. They did a little catering, employing Taj's cooking skills, and then started S&S Landscaping, utilizing Gary's experience in groundskeeping. Yesterday I found the brothers out in the heat, cutting grass and whacking weeds at homes along Frankford Avenue, sweating it out on a muggy morning in Baltimore.
 

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