D. Watkins thought he'd cook crack and market it for the rest of his life. He thought that, in his words, he'd "hustle, pitch, get rid of, jug, sell, move and slang drugs forever."
He thought that the corrupt cop, who Watkins says in his new memoir hated "all minorities in general and probably even white people with tans," would be a permanent part of his life. He was sure he'd always be tight with Hurk, the childhood friend who as a young boy named the cockroaches in his crib, and Dog Boy, the pre-teen who worked as the crew lookout — one of the few jobs he could get after suffering brain damage from years of eating lead paint chips.
Watkins ran an organized and efficient organization. He sold a product that people wanted, and he made an absurd amount of money doing it.
In "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir," which will be published Tuesday, Watkins reminisces about the lessons that he learned as a kid from his beloved elder brother, Bip:
"Selling drugs seemed legal where you lived and he taught you how to be extra careful because bodies dropped every day — big dudes, baby girls, OGs [original gangsters], fat aunts, city workers and all. Bullets ain't have no names, and he taught you that. He taught you everything."
Watkins will talk about his book May 17 at The Baltimore Sun Book Club.
Some readers already are familiar with Watkins' descriptions of life in his East Baltimore neighborhood. Perhaps they've read his essay collection published last fall: "The Beast Side: Living (and Dying) While Black in America." Or perhaps they've come across his commentary in such publications and websites as The New York Times, Rolling Stone and The Sun.
These readers know that Watkins stopped pushing crack long ago, graduated from college, earned a master's degree, and now teaches writing at his alma mater, the University of Baltimore.
But though bits and pieces of Watkins' story have spilled over into the essays, "Cook Up" is the first sustained literary reflection about the forces and folks who shaped him. (As he did in the essays, Watkins uses pseudonyms or nicknames for most of the real-life people portrayed in the memoir.)
In retrospect, what seems remarkable isn't that Watkins dropped out of college and took over Bip's narcotics empire after his brother was gunned down in a drug dispute. Young D.'s "inheritance" was $70,000 in cash and two bricks of cocaine and heroin. Following in Bip's footsteps might also have been Watkins' way of grieving. If he could re-create his brother, perhaps Bip was in some way still alive.
What's remarkable is that Watkins resisted the pressure from his peers to become violent himself. Despite his heartache and rage, he never went after his brother's killers. When it began to seem that his new trade would leave him no choice but to physically attack his rivals, he got out of the business. Watkins also began to suspect that he'd end up quitting one way or the other — either by choice or by catching a bullet.
"At my core, I don't want to hurt people," he says. "Some people are killers and some aren't, and I know that I'm not. I don't want to throw people out of windows. I lost a lot of friends, and I would never want to put anybody else through what I went through."
He hopes his memoir will help readers understand how discouragingly easy it is for people in some neighborhoods to get drawn into the drug trade.
"People adapt to their situations," he says.
"I was just a regular kid. All that 'super-predator' stuff is [nonsense.] I knew soft dudes who sold drugs and UPS workers and single moms. The corner is the only place that's always hiring. If you can't get an education, what are you going to do? If you've been to prison and can't get a job, what are you going to do? You're going to find some way to get money."
Even now, when his writing career and public profile are on an upswing, Watkins knows that while he might have left the drug business, the drug business hasn't necessarily left him.
"If something were to happen to me today, that's just the way it is," he says. "You and the people who love you go through pain and trauma. But when you're on the streets, it's just part of the game."