Thomas Coles is 17, a sweet-natured kid with a funky haircut and a thin frame. He likes basketball, rap music, movies and girls. He helps out at the local recreation center and volunteers to babysit for his 2-year-old niece. He dreams of going to college.
At Baltimore's Flag House Court projects, where so many boys succumb to idleness or drugs, Thomas is unusual. He once broke into cars and hung out on corners, but now he studies diligently to earn his B's and C's at Southern High School. He's taken a job scrubbing toilets, busing tables and mopping floors in a restaurant for pocket change. He cares deeply about making his mother proud.
Thomas' family is like many others at Flag -- poor and struggling. He shares a crowded apartment with his mother, sister and niece, and squeezes his 6-foot-2-inch frame onto the living room sofa each night. He gets little help from his father, a recovering drug addict living in West Baltimore, whom he sees no more than twice a year. "He's been clean about three years," Thomas says. "I'm proud of him. I think he knows that."
But Thomas was thrown a lifeline -- and he's grabbed it tight.
Four years ago, Thomas met David Miller, a teen counselor at Flag's Boys and Girls Club. Since then, Mr. Miller has introduced Thomas to a world invisible to many young people growing up at the East Baltimore housing project, a world of opportunity and promise. The two have gone fishing, visited local college campuses, played basketball, seen movies, shared books and talked for hours about African-American history and life.
"When I met Thomas, he was just another brother hanging out," Mr. Miller says. "But now he's making a transition."
With Mr. Miller's help, Thomas is determined to escape Flag. But such resolve can be fragile there.
"There are very few guys Thomas' age in this area doing anything positive," says his mother, Alice Lang. "They're either selling drugs or if they are not doing that, they are doing nothing.'
In his journal, Thomas does not chronicle young love, or sports exploits or any of the things that occupy the thoughts of many people his age. Instead, he writes about the poverty and despair, the lust for fast money and the mindless violence that strangle many young lives at Flag. Already, Thomas has witnessed the murder of his best friend and seen other buddies taken away to jail. Once, he got into a playground fight that the other guy wanted to finish two days later with a gun. And friends regularly ridicule his ambitions.
"They were talking that macho crap at the [Boys and Girls] club again," begins one entry in his journal. "When you control a man's thinking, you don't have to worry about his actions. That won't get us anywhere as a people. Instead of talking macho we need to talk about unity and trying to tackle some of the everyday obstacles we face in the community."
Those are no mere polemics, not coming from Thomas. He talks seriously about the need for young people at Flag "to think as we instead of me." But he knows that goes against the code of the neighborhood, which says everyone should look out for himself.
"Trouble is easy to fall into down here," he says. "The door is always open for that."
"Run the street"
Thomas likes to say he was born and reared at Flag, which is not quite true. He's lived at the housing project since he was 2.
When his mother moved in, she was a 20-year-old parent of two who had just ended a relationship with Thomas' father. A high school dropout who later earned an equivalency diploma, Ms. Lang hoped for a career. She took several community college courses in correctional administration, but never came close to earning a degree.
She says single motherhood and poverty always seem to intrude on her plans. For years, Ms. Lang has bounced between welfare and low-paying jobs. Most recently, she was working as an office clerk, but she lost that job last month. "I'm by myself and it's hard," she says, explaining that she stays at Flag, in a cramped $80-a-month apartment, because it is all she can afford.
Ms. Lang says she tried hard to be a good mother, but at times her own struggle for survival caused her to be preoccupied. When Thomas was very young, he would amuse himself with friends: riding bicycles and scooters along Flag's open-air hallways or playing football on the patchy lawns in front of the buildings.
By the time Thomas reached middle school, he says, his mother did not always remember to check his report cards, or even make sure that he went to school. "I used to be able to say anything. I could say the school burned down, and that's why I was home," Thomas recalls. "She wouldn't know."
As he got older, Thomas found more serious trouble. "We would go and beat people up for no reason at all, that was the crowd I was hanging with," he says. "I was not too interested in school. I would stay out late at night and run the street. I'd sleep in school. I wasn't into dealing drugs, but it was the next step."
Thomas was only 12 when the police caught him attempting to break into a car near the Inner Harbor, not the first time he had tried to steal. When the officers delivered him to his front door, his mother thanked them, then administered her own form of justice.
"I sat him down, I talked to him and I beat his behind -- not necessarily in that order," Ms. Lang says.
There were no more encounters with the police, but the family had other problems. Thomas had to repeat 10th grade at Southern because he spent more time with his friends than in class. His sister, Tijuana, dropped out of high school because she had a baby. (Now 19, she is in an alternative school working toward a high school diploma.)
About that time, Thomas met the man who would become his mentor. One day, when Thomas went to play basketball with the neighborhood kids at the Flag's Boys and Girls Club, he was introduced to Mr. Miller. The counselor talked about African-American history, about concepts of community, about plans for the future. Most of the boys were polite but did not really want to listen.
"When I first got there, no no one really accepted me," Mr. Miller says. "I was a new face. No one really trusted me. But Thomas struck me as one of the brothers who from the outset did not want to be with the crowd."
A Northwest Baltimore native, Mr. Miller, 25, once worked as a summer intern on the staff of Rep. Kweisi Mfume, D-Md.-7th, and he planned a career in government, or maybe politics.
But he decided to work with teen-agers after being shot outside a Maryland Avenue nightspot in 1989. A friend of Mr. Miller's, Donald Bentley, was killed in the incident. Mr. Miller says some teen-age boys just came up to his group and started shooting.
That someone would kill with no provocation, for no purpose, shocked Mr. Miller, and made him question what kind of culture )) produced the assailants. He decided that other young people were in the best position to help change things. "If our generation can't say something to the young people, who can?" asks Mr. Miller.
The counselor took Thomas on fishing and camping trips, outings intended to show him new ways to have fun. He also took the teen-ager to places where he could see black role models.
"We would do things like go up to Morgan [State University]," says Mr. Miller, who now works for the Baltimore Literacy Corp. "A lot of our boys have never seen a black man read a book. All they see is men hanging on the corner or maybe playing basketball. It is no wonder that they wanted to do the same thing."
Last summer, Mr. Miller gave Thomas a summer job at an East Baltimore day camp he directed. And he encouraged him to join a Rites of Passage program, which is designed to guide black teen-agers into adulthood by observing African traditions. The program requires members to keep a journal, propose business plans, and put the good of the community above their personal goals. The group, which Mr. Miller helps lead, meets in an East Baltimore church twice a week.
Thomas tries to pass those ideas on to the boys in his neighborhood. But, mostly, his friends dismiss him, joking that he sounds like a Muslim, which he is not.
"I don't talk like that to them too much," Thomas says. "When I do, they say 'there he goes with that Muslim stuff again.' "
"A good friend"
Thomas is not put off by his friends' comments because he believes he's finding an alternative to the culture of violence at Flag. He's seen the fatal effects first hand.
In March, 1990 one of his best friends, Ernest D. "Eddie" Tyson Jr., 16, was executed after being forced to kneel on the playground behind the high-rise building where both teen-agers lived. Eddie died less than 100 feet from his front door. Just minutes before the killing, Thomas had been playing basketball with him. "That is going to stick with me because he was a good friend," he says.
Thomas says drugs are the most obvious career path for many young people at Flag. "If I wanted to deal drugs, I could step out the door now and get involved," Thomas says. "I could talk to such and such and just say that I want to be down. They wouldn't ask me to fill out no application. They would just say 'when?' It would be as easy as that. There would be no waiting periods, no hassles. It would be very, very easy."
That lure is irresistible to many teen-agers at the project. Flag offers some diversions -- playgrounds, a Boys and Girls Club equipped with computers, pool tables and a nice gymnasium -- but nothing can compete with the money the drug trade offers. With the drugs, though, comes the danger.
During a 48-hour period in late February, three young men from Flag died in separate murders. On a Thursday night, Roderick "Rabbit" Green, 23, was gunned down at the corner of South Exeter and Lombard streets, in the heart of the Flag neighborhood. He had a criminal record that included drug and handgun charges.
Two days later, Douglas Leon Williams, 24, was found dead in the 100 block of S. Caroline St. -- just blocks from Flag, where he grew up. Police say the murder was drug-related. Later that day, police found the body of Jesse Mears Sr., 19, who had been fatally stabbed in a Monument Street apartment. Mr. Mears had been acquitted of several drug charges in recent years and was on trial on handgun charges when he was killed.
"We weren't close, but we were friends," Thomas says of the victims. "I try not to let this affect me. What I try to do, I do for them. It's like you have to play a psychological game. [Because] if you let it get to you, it will."
What Thomas is doing now is trying to work hard. A junior at Southern, he studies dutifully. He says he used to be ready to fight if someone looked at him the wrong way. Now, he walks away. For the past two seasons, he played junior varsity basketball. And after he graduates next year, he intends to go to college, preferably one that is historically black.
His mother, who wants her children to get out of Flag and be self-sufficient, is impressed with her son's achievements. Thomas' goals for himself now exceed his mother's expectations, but he credits her for teaching him and his sister to be independent and ambitious.
"No one is going to do anything for you, but you," Thomas says. "That's how I was brought up."
He helps out his sister with money and takes real interest in his niece, Brittney, buying gifts and baby-sitting for her. He also feels a responsibility for his mother.
"Basically, I think my mother is proud of me," he says. "I'm almost 18. I'm the man of the house. I don't have a job right now, that's a strike against me. But that's the only strike."
"Tired of being afraid"
For a while, Thomas worked after school at Corbi's Restaurant, in neighboring Little Italy. He earned $4.25 an hour. While he had the job, he said he gave his mother $25 a week.
Currently, he is looking for a summer or after-school job. He wants to take the courses needed to qualify as a licensed day care provider. "If I can't get the money for the courses or a job, I'll play some [summer league] basketball," he says.
Most days, his life settles into a busy routine -- school, studying, spending time with his girlfriend, and helping out and playing ball at the boys' club, one of the few places at Flag where he feels his values are reinforced.
There, he seeks out Gilbert "Ace" Brown, a Flag success story. Mr. Brown grew up at Flag, was a high school basketball star and went on to play in college. Now 27, he teaches at an East Baltimore elementary school and works part-time coaching and teaching at the boys' club.
Mr. Brown feels lucky to have made it out of the neighborhood. He says that things may have seemed bad when he was growing up, but they are worse now.
"In my time, there seemed to be more people pushing you to make it," Mr. Brown says. "Parents and older guys. If they saw you had a talent, they pushed it. Now, kids don't have nearly as many people to push them."
Thomas would like to follow Mr. Brown's example. "Everybody in the neighborhood knows Ace," Thomas says. "I look up to him because he made it out and came back."
Before Thomas can escape Flag, he knows he has to make up lost ground -- his years of loafing through school. If Thomas is accepted at a college, Mr. Miller hopes to help find a way to afford it.
"I'll make sure Thomas gets money for college, even if I have to dig it out of my own pocket," he says.
After college, Thomas wants to teach and one day open an Afro-centric school, preferably near Flag. Those plans amuse his neighborhood buddies. "They say, 'Ain't nobody going to let you run no black man's school. More power to you black, but that ain't me,' " he says with a laugh.
Even his mother has doubts, worried that Thomas won't be able to get money to fulfill his dream of college. But Thomas says he is determined to succeed. He says he want to help ensure that members of the next generation -- children like Brittney, his niece -- don't grow up with the fears he has at Flag.
"I'm tired of being afraid to take the trash out. You never know who's going to be standing there," he says. "Late at night, I'm afraid. Somebody might think I'm looking like somebody else. [And] you can lose your life over that."