By Kevin Van Valkenburg and Lem Satterfield
The Baltimore Sun
10:15 AM EDT, June 17, 2007
SOME MORNINGS, PERHAPS EVEN ON A morning like this one, James Berry III will lie on his mother's couch at 4 a.m., unable to sleep. The only light in the living room will be the flicker of the television. The thoughts inside his head will collide and carom off of one another until he cannot sit any longer.
He'll slip into his athletic shorts and a black hooded sweat shirt. He'll walk through the living room and pass the shiny silver and gold boxing trophies that bear his name. He'll open his front door, step off his porch and soak up the quiet, cool darkness of Ellerslie Avenue.
He does not like to run. But he will run anyway. He wants to strengthen his legs, prove he can take a punch in the late rounds and stay off the canvas. His coach, an ex-fighter with long arms and a smoky, dry voice, believes Berry can fight in the Olympics, that he has the talent to win a gold medal. But only if he gives himself to boxing without reservation or hesitation.
He is quick, he is fierce and he has heart. Already, he has won Golden Gloves state and regional titles at 141 pounds. He has learned, for the most part, to control his anger inside the ring. When he lifts his shirt, his abdominal muscles are the smooth, curved shape of river rocks, the kind that have been sculpted and carved into form by a century of movement and force.
He is 19 years old.
Berry runs because it helps him think. The streets of Baltimore are quiet at this hour, except when birds chirp, or a siren wails in the distance. Running in the dark, the temperature rises as his heartbeat quickens. On mornings like this, he tries to find the patience to be the kind of man people expect, and are begging him, to be.
He is stubborn. He can be difficult. At times, he has been foolish and selfish. He has sold marijuana, and has been arrested by police three times. He pleaded guilty to one count of drug possession. His reasons for dealing - he won't call them excuses - are simple. And they are also complex.
The simple version: He wanted money to buy new clothes - Air Jordans, Polo shirts. Money that would give him status, money he couldn't ask his mother for because most of her paycheck was going toward paying the bills. And he wanted it now. He was the kind of kid who could spend hours in a gym, sparring or pounding on a heavy punching bag, but he couldn't focus on a nine-to-five job. When he saw friends flush with cash, he wanted a piece for himself. It was materialistic, but the truth. Having a little money made him happy.
The complicated version: The Game, and the life that surrounds it, is in his blood. His mother was a drug dealer. His father was a drug dealer. His mother grew up in a household of drug dealers. The profession, like bad genes responsible for a fatal disease, was inherited from one generation to the next. For much of Berry's childhood, the sale of heroin and cocaine put food in his family's refrigerator. It paid for his clothes. It put a roof over his head.
It also came very close to destroying his family.
Getting in "The Game'
Seeing his mother's face each day is a reminder of the havoc drugs have wreaked on the lives of the people he loves. And yet he chose to stand on a corner not far from his house and sell marijuana. When his best friend, someone he looked up to for years, started hustling, Berry joined him. He knew right from wrong, and chose wrong anyway. He told himself he would be smarter and better than those who let it ruin their lives. He would only sell weed, and he would not use. People around him thought Berry was trying to be in The Game, but not of it. He didn't judge his parents for their past sins. To him, it was a means to survive.
When asked if he thinks he'll deal again, he pauses before he answers. He leans his head back, sticks out his lower lip until a half-frown forms on his thin, angular face. In a rapid mumble, he gives his best and most honest answer.
"It's what's around me," he says. "It's my habitat. It's everywhere I go. If there wasn't nothing else for me to get money from, I know in the back of my mind, I still got that to back me up if everything else [with boxing] falls through. I'm still struggling with it. I still don't have no money. Anytime I could slip back. It's hard because I know I got to keep my focus and stay on that straight path."
Boxing became his salvation, his way of dealing with anger. He was a fighter and had always been one, in some fashion, since he was 4 years old. That too was in his blood. For Christmas that year, his father gave him an inflatable plastic heavy bag, one with Sugar Ray Leonard's face on the side. He spent hours throwing haymakers, hooks and jabs at Sugar Ray, knocking him over, only to watch him spring to life again, wobbling like a buoy in the ocean.
The thirst he developed for standing toe-to-toe with another fighter only intensified as James grew into his long arms and his muscles developed, giving him power to complement his quick hands. Inside the ring, he looked emotionless, the blank expression on his face never changing. But he was fearless.
In New Jersey, on the day he won his regional Golden Gloves title, he charged forward against a larger, taller opponent, throwing sharp jabs and pounding away with his vicious left hook. Stubborn but strong, he absorbed heavy shots to the temple in exchange for position, and unleashed sharp uppercuts that snapped the other fighter's head backward. Only when it was over, when the referee raised Berry's right hand, did he show emotion. He fell to his knees, looked up at the ceiling, and very briefly put his hand over his eyes. He punched the air with his fist and held up his Golden Gloves trophy, feeling like anything was possible.
But was it? When he runs, usually circling the old parking lot on 33rd Street where Memorial Stadium once stood, Berry thinks about his parents. As he heads west toward Johns Hopkins University, he thinks about his mother, Yolanda, a former heroin addict. She's been clean now for nearly 10 years, and he tries to make her proud. He is closer to her than he is to anyone. Over the years, they've shared everything from laughter to a cell phone. He remembers, as young as 8 years old, holding her hand as they marched into burned-out, broken-down neighborhoods, seeking her next high.
He thinks, too, about his father, James Berry Jr., locked up in the state prison in Hagerstown, 85 miles away. Inside a tiny cell, the father's days creep by, his hours full of remorse. The son is not ashamed of the man he was named after, nor of what he did. He loves him. More than anything, James wishes his father could come home and start over. He wishes he could watch one of his fights.
Berry will run until the sun peeks out above the horizon, and until he is exhausted. His mind, though never truly clear, will feel less cloudy, less crowded. He sees it as a chance to reflect, to work through his thoughts, one at a time, until he feels at peace.
James Berry III - "Little Berry" to his parents and to his coach - will likely run again tomorrow. He'll run the 3 1/2 miles that separate his house and UMAR Gym, on the corner of North and Druid Hill avenues. The building that houses the second-floor gym overlooks a stretch of concrete as crooked and broken as the nose of a beaten fighter. It shares the street with a pair of bail bondsmen, two liquor stores, a pawn shop, a funeral parlor and a vacant row house that is decaying. Across the street, there is a church.
At UMAR Gym, Berry will spar, work out, and listen to rap music and the wisdom of his coach, Marvin McDowell. At night, it's likely he'll be unable to sleep. And so he will climb out of bed, open his front door, leave the safety and comfort of his quiet neighborhood behind, and sprint into the dark.
He will try to find the strength, on the streets of Baltimore, to be a better man.
Most mornings, perhaps even on a morning like this, James Berry Jr. will open his eyes well before the sun rises. He'll crawl out of bed and try to exercise, desperate to loosen his back. He knows that if he doesn't stretch and relax his muscles, the pain will cripple him. The 50-year-old Berry, known to Maryland's Division of Correction as prisoner No. 288-729, will sit patiently in his cell until the guards unlock his door at 7:30.
He is one of the lucky ones. In the 7 1/2 years he's been here, he's had a single cell to himself. He'll sit in his room, read the Quran and pray. He coaches a prison basketball team, organizes and attends meetings for former addicts, and sweeps and mops the floor of the prison's bakery. He tries to keep to himself, to steer clear of trouble. He writes letters. Letters on lined, yellow notebook paper in cursive script that is clean and meticulous. He wrote one recently to McDowell, asking him to please look after Little Berry. On the days his son fights, the father paces the length of his cell, sometimes for hours, trying to calm his nerves. Often, he won't hear the outcome of the fight until well into the next day.
A father's regrets, fears
To hear his story, one must travel through a metal detector, acquire a yellow plastic visitor's bracelet and receive a hand stamp visible only under ultraviolet light. Escorted by guards, Berry Jr. clutches wrinkled newspaper clippings that mention his son and finds a seat in the corner of a room full of convicts. He wears a white, baggy T-shirt that stops at mid-thigh and blue jeans. Like his son, he gestures with his hands when he speaks.
He thinks often about the events that brought him to Hagerstown, where he spends nights behind steel bars, in a building surrounded by 30-foot-tall fences laced with razor wire. A low-level, independent drug dealer for nearly 20 years, Berry is serving an 18-year sentence, the result of a 1999 guilty plea for first-degree assault, drug possession and handgun charges. The assault, according to Berry, took place while he was high. Initially, he was charged with attempted murder, but prosecutors dropped the charge when he agreed to plead guilty to the assault.
"I hurt somebody," he says, staring at the floor.
He says he'd like to explain further, but cannot. He cringes at the person he used to be. He was so despicable, he says, he and his friends used to brag about Baltimore's high murder rate.
"What kind of person does that?" he asks. After seven years in prison, he still doesn't know the answer. "All my life, I feel like I've failed everyone who ever loved me," he says. A white knit prayer cap covers his head. "The insanity of drugs took me places I never had to go. But I take responsibility for it. I knew right from wrong. ... Growing up, I was always so insecure about myself. I think that's been the cause of most of my problems in life."
He is tormented not only by his regret, but also by his inability to fix it. More difficult, he says, is the knowledge that he cannot be there to ensure that his son does not repeat his mistakes. On occasion, the son will visit, and each time the father gives the same sermon. Look at me, the father says. Is this how you want to spend your days? With someone's foot on your throat, telling you when you can eat, sleep and use the bathroom? You're too good for this. You have too much talent. I did this so you wouldn't have to. The son nods, says he understands. The father is skeptical. He senses that his son thinks he can deal drugs and not be a drug dealer. That and the money are why he won't leave it alone.
"I'm so scared for him, man," James Berry Jr says. His once-proud voice is now dry and raspy, a condition that he believes was caused by years of drug use. His beard, with the passing of each year, shows more gray. "I know he's the kind of kid who won't back down. They've got guns out there on them streets, and he only has his fists. Right now he thinks he can nibble a bit and pull back. I don't know. I'm just so scared for him."
The son was 12 when his father went to prison, already aggressive and looking for an outlet to his energy and frustration. Berry Jr. assumed, at the time, that missing his son's childhood would hurt the most. He was wrong. It is the present, with his son is on the cusp of manhood, that torments him more.
"I hate being here," Berry Jr. says. "But I'd spend an extra seven or eight years here if I knew he wouldn't get caught up in this. I just don't want this for him."
Their skin is different; the father's is light, almost like caramel, and the son's is dark, like his mother's. The father's nose, his chin, his hands - all bear little resemblance to his son. James Berry Jr. and James Berry III appear to share only a name. But their eyes, up close, are almost identical. Large, dark brown, intense. There is a hint of sadness in both.
"He's so deep and profound," the father says of his son. "Always has been. But he's got that rebel thing in him. He's never been a follower. He's always been a leader. He's aggressive, and The Game, it preys on kids like him. ... I know if I was home, he wouldn't be caught up in all this. I'd drag him off that corner."
Later, when the son hears his father's words, he agrees. But for different reasons.
"If he wasn't in there, I wouldn't have to be out there trying make it for myself," Little Berry says. "Financially, I know he'd take care of us. But he can't do that right now."
Berry Jr.'s past is not all sorrow and unhappiness. He says he worked hard to keep his family together after Yolanda Williams, the mother of four of six his children, wasted away in a spiral of addiction. Williams, in a separate interview, confirms this.
It was Berry who went Christmas shopping for the kids when Williams was too strung out to leave the house, or when she used money he gave her, intended for the gas and electric bills, to get high. It was Berry who enrolled the kids in school, then eventually sent them to live in New York for several years with his sister, Rose, while he tried to make Williams go through rehabilitation. It was Berry who gathered his family in the living room to laugh each Sunday, to sing along to Boyz II Men songs, to celebrate their love for one another.
"It was the happiest time of my life," Berry Jr. says. "I'll always remember how much fun that was. I would do anything for my family. I'd kill for them. But at the same time, I know I'm the one that hurt them the most."
Before he has to return to his cell, he carefully unfolds a letter his son wrote to him in sixth grade, shortly after Berry Jr. was locked up. It hurts to read it aloud, but he does so anyway.
"Dad: I love you from the bottom of my heart. I will keep my head up and look for the stars because I believe in miracles. Don't get in no trouble in there. Get knowledge and come home and teach me. I love you and will do anything to get you out of there. When you get home, please don't go back out on them streets."
Berry Jr. finishes reading. He folds the letter again and places it on his lap. Visiting hours are almost over. For several seconds, he does not speak. Sunlight pours through the window, but it stops several feet short of his chair.
His eyes are filled with tears, but he will not let them fall.
Mother: "I', an addict'
Most Sunday mornings, perhaps even on a Sunday morning like this, Yolanda Williams will sit in church and ask God to give her strength. The strength to stay clean.
It's been almost 10 years, she says, since her last high. But she still battles the urge to stick a needle in her arm, and suspects that she always will. Months ago, for the first time in years, she got the horrible, seductive urge that all former heroin addicts are familiar with. She could taste it in the back of her mouth. Her stomach did somersaults. It scared her. She couldn't understand. After all this time, why was her body still begging her to get high?
"I just went and prayed on it," says Williams, 39. "I went to my church on Mount Olive and prayed on it, every Sunday, until it went away. I talked to my neighbors about it, to my co-workers about it, and to my children. I'm an addict. I have to talk about it. It's part of my sanity. I don't care who knows. I couldn't understand why, after all these years, I was getting that taste again. Eventually it went away on its own."
Williams' voice, and her entire body, shakes when she tells this story. Tears slide down her face, until her daughter, Tanganyika, hands her a paper towel to wipe them away. Her son sits next to her, but his expression does not change. He stares straight ahead, chewing gum, staring at the wall. Berry has heard these stories before. He can remember going through much of it. It is difficult to listen to her relive so many painful moments.
Her round cheeks still bear faint scars from her days as an addict. At her lowest point, when she stopped caring how she looked and only cared where her drugs were coming from, she began to claw at her face with her nails. A nervous habit; she was constantly nervous. When her face scabbed over, she scraped and picked at the scabs. But the worst scars are the memories. And the shame that comes with them.
"Little Berry and I always been so close. He never wanted to leave my side," Williams says, still dabbing tears from her face. "Ever. So when he was real little, I'd go into the bathroom to shoot up, and I'd have to tell him, `OK, turn your back.' "
Sometimes, Berry Jr. would give his son money and tell him to go to his grandmother's house. Little Berry would give half to his mother. He knew she would buy drugs with it. He didn't want to see her in pain. There was nothing he wouldn't do for her.
Addiction's vicious hold
For as long as Williams can remember, drug addiction, and its fallout, has played a role in her life. Her mother, she says, dealt drugs. Her father used them. Two of her brothers, she says, were killed as a result of drug-related violence. She fell in love with a drug dealer, bore his children and got high from his supply. For decades, the Baltimore drug trade was a whirlpool, slowly dragging her or another family member into its deep, violent waters.
She stole, she lied, she took her kids with her into hellish neighborhoods where people walked around like ghouls, telling the kids to wait around the corner while she went to get drugs. She even staged a fake robbery at the house she and Berry Jr. shared, turning over tables, tearing apart her belongings and ripping down clothes from the closets, just so Berry Jr. wouldn't suspect she was the one who stole his money and drugs. When her family tried to send her to detoxification, she said goodbye to her children, who were to live with Berry Jr.'s sister in Montecello, N.Y. Williams slipped out the back door of the treatment facility seconds later, knowing it would be awhile before she saw them again.
It took a long time to get clean. But she can remember, vividly, when it happened. On Oct. 13, 1996, she says she was arrested trying to buy heroin on Towanda Avenue. She gave police an alias. After a night in jail, they released her. Less than 24 hours later, the same police officer arrested her again, she says. This time police ran all her aliases, as well as her real name. A probation violation, five years old, turned up. She was sentenced to a year in prison, and spent six months in Jessup. Prisoner No. 914346.
When she got out, Williams knew she had to stay clean if she ever wanted to get her children back. Little Berry missed her so much, he broke every rule he could think of, hoping his aunt would give up in frustration and send him back to Baltimore to live with his mother. Even when Williams had to stay in her mother's house, with no gas, no heat and rats slowly taking over, she didn't return to selling drugs. She knew she could make enough money by flipping a small package to pay the bills, but she wouldn't do it. Instead, a friend offered her a minimum-wage job at an optical center, and when she passed a drug test, she was hired.
Within months, Williams says, she did her job so well, she earned a small raise. Another soon followed. She got her kids back. Tanganyika had to be slowly won over, but not Little Berry. He needed his mom.
"I said, `If I'm nothing else in this world, I'm a mother. ... And I'm sick and tired of being sick and tired,'" Williams says.
She worried about her son, though. He was rebellious. He was obsessed with boxing, but he was getting into fights outside the gym, too. He was decent in school - bringing home mostly A's and B's from Douglass- and he was laid back and quiet most of the time. But he wasn't afraid of anyone. Drug culture, Williams understood better than anyone, turned boys like Little Berry into pawns.
When she heard he was selling marijuana - right up the street from her house - she confronted him. He denied it. "She knew I was lying," he says.
She wasn't outraged. She knew it was motivated by money, money she couldn't give him. Every time he turned on the television, he saw street life glorified in music videos. And she knew every person he'd looked up to had sold or been caught up in the world of drugs. Even his best friend had started selling. She tried to be rational and logical. There are better ways, she told him. Your father and I made those mistakes so you wouldn't have to. Do you understand?
He swore that he did, but he kept tiptoeing back. The first time he was locked up on a minor drug charge, she broke down in tears.
"Little Berry, he got that mentality that he a thug," she says. "And I want to save him from that corner."
Her son, still sitting next to her, says nothing. He loves her, and considers her his other half. Sometimes, he feels like he knows exactly what she's thinking. People say how much they look alike. Every night, he kissed her goodnight, even if she was already asleep. He knows she's right. He knows how much it broke her heart when he was arrested.
But he has nothing to say.
Coach is a fighter at heart
Most afternoons, perhaps even on an afternoon like this, Marvin McDowell will walk through a dark hallway, and slowly climb the 26 stairs necessary to unlock the door to UMAR Gym. Above the door, a video camera glares down at him, projecting his image onto a grainy black-and-white television inside his office. The walls and floor of the gym are cracked, the paint is peeling, the air musty. The windows reveal a neighborhood full of broken homes and broken spirits. But it is a place that feels like part of his soul.
When his fighters arrive, McDowell will fold his long arms across his chest and tuck one of his large hands under his chin. His fists are worn and weathered, the result of years lived and thousands of punches thrown. He'll sit in silence, purposefully ignoring, for now, the 11- and 12-year-old boys hungry for his attention. He'll watch Berry shadowbox from across the gym, then watch him hammer away at a leather speed bag shaped like a teardrop. He feels, most of the time, he is reaching him.
McDowell is a barber by trade, but a fighter at heart. He learned to box as a way to survive growing up in a neighborhood not much different than this one. Seven times he was a South Atlantic Boxing Association champion, and for several years he fought professionally. He was inducted, in 1996, into Maryland's Boxing Hall of Fame. But when his fighting days ended, after he had participated in countless nostalgic barber shop debates about boxing, he realized he needed to run his own gym. Not for ego's sake, but because he sensed that he could save some of the young men who were dying in the streets. Years ago, boxing set him on the right path. He believed it could do the same for others.
In time, his "No Hooks Before Books" program started to take shape. Kids could come to UMAR and learn the sweet science, but not until they completed two or three hours of schoolwork. Two city teachers, paid for with a grant from the city, served as tutors. Every kid had a folder to keep track of his academic progress. Dave Schorr, an accountant for the Bozzuto Group in Greenbelt, read a story about McDowell's program in the newspaper and volunteered his services. Schorr helped raise money through charity golf tournaments, apply for grants and establish tax-exempt status with the Internal Revenue Service. In time, UMAR's annual operating budget bloomed to $100,000.
All McDowell had to do was take care of the boxing. To help, he recruited an old friend, Dennis James, an ex-heavyweight and former addict with huge hands and a big smile no one could forget. When McDowell laid eyes on the 14-year-old Berry for the first time, he saw a boy with quick hands. He saw someone who wasn't afraid to get hit, someone who knew how to get leverage each time he threw a punch, bending low like a thick-armed stevedore about to jerk a heavy crate off the deck of a ship. He saw an angry kid who needed his guidance.
"He was an aggressive cat, man. A mean little cat," McDowell says. "And he did not like to lose."
Berry did lose at first. His first three fights were all defeats. But he kept returning, kept thundering away at the speed bag, learning to move his feet and learning that he could channel his aggression into strategy. His jab became lethal. His left hook, a refined, pernicious hammer. He traveled to tournaments, left Maryland for the first time, and made friends. Most of the boys, like him, had no father in their lives. He racked up victories, but he couldn't completely leave the streets behind.
In September 2006, McDowell arrived at the gym one afternoon and opened his mail. Someone had sent him a letter from the state prison in Hagerstown. The return address said: Mr. J. Berry #288-729.
"I'm writing to you because I have big concerns about 'Lil Berry as far as the path he might be headed in," the letter said. "I am speaking of the street life that could lead him to this life, behind these walls or worse. I get to talk to him, but not as often as I would like and not enough for my words to make a difference. (Feel me?) But I know he sees you just about every day and he respects you. Please speak to him about what's going on with him, and about what he wants to do with his life, and about how one bad decision could kill his dreams. ... I don't want this life for him."
McDowell didn't tell Berry about his father's letter. Instead, he pulled him aside one day and looked him in the eye. Give me this year, McDowell said. This is an Olympic year. You have the potential to fight in Beijing, maybe even win a gold medal. No one out there can stop you ... except you. Don't throw your life away on something foolish.
McDowell felt as though Berry took his message to heart. But he wasn't sure.
The day he was scheduled to fight for the Golden Gloves regional title at 141 pounds, April 2, he was also scheduled to appear in city court because he'd been charged with marijuana possession. His fight was moved at the last minute. A random stroke of luck. He went to court, pleaded guilty and went home with time served. The next day he won the regional title.
Two losses, one chance
It's an ordinary day, not unlike yesterday, not unlike what tomorrow will likely bring.
Berry is running again. This time, the sun beats down on his face. There is much to think about.
He had two chances to qualify for the U.S. Olympic boxing trials - one in Tennessee, one in Colorado. He lost in the first round of both tournaments. Both losses were devastating. McDowell worried initially that all their hard work was on the cusp of unraveling. The hours he'd spent trying to keep Berry focused would not be enough.
Drug dealers needed muscle, men who aren't afraid to use their hands, and every so often, one of them would drop by the gym and greet Berry like he was an old friend. Some were old friends, kids from his neighborhood, now hardened into grown men. Berry could never turn his back on them and didn't want to. It was never as simple as just walking away. There was no walking away. This was his life.
In Tennessee, McDowell had a long conversation with Al Mitchell, an ex-fighter from Philadelphia now running the boxing program at Northern Michigan University. The program is part of the U.S. Olympic Education Center, in the town of Marquette, on the southern shore of Lake Superior. Its mission is to train athletes with Olympic potential, as well as give them an education. McDowell pleaded with his friend.
I've got a kid who needs someone to take a chance on him, McDowell said. A chance to get out of Baltimore. He's a smart kid, a good student, but he needs an education. He needs to figure out a way to survive, with or without boxing. Can you help me?
Mitchell thought that he could, but first, he wanted to meet with Berry.
Listen, son, Mitchell said, it's not going to be easy. You're going to be up there in the snow and cold. We're in the mountains, away from everything. You'll be getting up early each morning to run and work out, and schoolwork is going to be hard. You're going to have to keep up your grades. If you don't get the grades, you can't box. But if you think you can handle it, there is a full scholarship waiting for you in the fall.
Little Berry didn't have to think about it. He accepted on the spot. He knew it would be difficult, that he might struggle being away from his family. But this, he realized, was his chance. Without boxing, he had no plans to attend college. A trade school was a more realistic destination. Now he had visions of himself as a businessman. The more he thought about it, the more it appealed to him.
"I know it's all for a greater cause," he says. "I know school can make things better. I know it can get me out of this town, get back on track and keep me focused."
And so today, like every day, Berry will run. He'll try to think as he moves his feet and sweats. Some days, he'll see the police cuff and arrest someone his age, and for a second, he'll think: That could have been me. He'll continue to run.
When he arrives at the gym, he'll begin his workout in front of the mirror by flexing his biceps. His large hands will knife through the stale air. Right jab. Left hook. Jab again. His combinations will dart and flicker, his fists changing directions like a dancing flame. He'll punch mostly in silence.
His expression will not change. He'll duck, bob his head, throw a quick jab, then step to his left and unleash a graceful and violent combination of punches. When he finishes, his hands will fall to his sides.
He'll stare at the image of himself in the dirty mirror and turn around. In the gym, men young and old will watch closely, eager to see what James Berry III will do next.
Sun reporters Jennifer McMenamin and Gus G. Sentementes contributed to this story.
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