David “D”

Sometimes a person doesn’t know what they don’t know. Sometimes a boy grows up in a tunnel, with a single path ahead of him, surrounding him, always closing in on him. Sometimes the tunnel is the only option.

David was born into poverty. His male role models were drug dealers. How could he be expected to hope for anything else?

This is David’s story.

* * * *

David was born and raised in North Charleston. His family – his mother, three sisters and three brothers – lived in a trailer park. His mother worked two jobs to pay the bills, but it didn’t occur to him that it was unusual. “Her working didn’t hit me till later on,” he says. “Then it’s like, ‘Damn, you got bills, you got seven kids to take care of!’ She had a lot of responsibilities, but you don’t see that when you’re young. You just want want want.”

David’s father was almost entirely absent; he saw his daddy once in Georgia but only for a couple of days. But that, too, was okay when he was young. “I used to get my mama a Mother’s Day card and a Father’s Day card,” he says. “That’s my mama and my daddy. She played both cards and was a strong black woman.”

His best memories are of riding around town on his bicycle. “There were about ten of us,” he says. It felt like they ruled the streets, those boys riding on a BMX with pegs or a Pacific Huffy, popping wheelies and goofing around. It sounds like a typical suburban childhood, right? Only there was a catch: the bikes they rode were likely stolen, or found, broken, and fixed. It didn’t occur to David that this wasn’t normal. It didn’t occur to him not to steal.

Nowadays he thinks maybe things might have been different if his daddy had been in the picture. Maybe, he thinks, his daddy would have told him not to sell drugs. Maybe he’d have suggested David join the army instead, but the reality is: all David’s male role models sold drugs. His mama’s boyfriend did. The guys he saw on the street did. The guys for whom he did odd jobs did. He says, “They all told me not to sell drugs. They told me to stay in school. But they showed me the lifestyle.”

“All that money,” he says. “That’s what drew me in. A pocketful of money.”

David’s first drug sale came when he was around 12 or 13 years old. He’d done an odd job for a guy who restored houses and had $40 in his pocket. Typically, he’d use it for kid stuff – the skating rink or things like that – but this time he made an investment. He bought some drugs and flipped them, bought some more and flipped those too. That was all it took. David was all in.

But with the lifestyle, of course, comes trouble, and David soon found plenty of that. His first arrest came when he was about 14 years old. He was low on cash, and he and some other guys had heard a neighbor had some bricks (drugs) in the house. Someone suggested David check it out, so he did. “I took some drugs out, some jewelry, and a mattress,” he says. He lived two doors away, and someone saw him struggling with the mattress and called the cops. He was busted, spent seven days in juvenile and had to attend a program downtown.

It was nowhere near enough to stop the burgeoning salesman, though, particularly when his mama bought him a cell phone soon after and “serving,” as he calls it, got a whole lot easier. This time he started with $80 in his pocket. He bought a half ounce of weed and a gram of crack-cocaine. He flipped for $200, then just kept going, going, going.

David’s next arrest came when he was closer to 17. He was tried as a juvenile again and was sentenced to five years (suspended sentence, meaning he didn’t serve jail time) and three years of probation. His mama got rid of all his drugs, flushing anything she found down the toilet, but David still had some “in the cut,” as he calls it. Hidden, really, so once again, he kept on selling.

It was the lifestyle that drew him in, and it was the lifestyle that kept him going. He loved it and was always pushing to get to the next level. Money came so easily, as did the girls, the cars, and the guns. “Drugs sell themselves,” he says. “I felt unstoppable. I thought, ‘They can’t catch me. I’m too smart for their ass.’”

And yet, he says, “Sometimes you fumble. You drop the ball. Things are going good but then you get locked right down.” There were other issues, too. Police, robbers, snitches. “When you’re in the game, you gotta look for all that. You gotta respect that.” You also have to look over your shoulder all the time and hope no one is waiting there with a gun.

As time progressed David, had children of his own – four total – and was always able to provide financially for them. But the arrests started catching up with him as well.

Today, he has two big charges on his record. He recently completed a (comparatively minor) two-year sentence on a trafficking charge, and knows that if he catches another charge, he’ll be looking at something major. “I’m facing my third strike,” he says. “You get 25-life on the third strike.” So he made a promise to his kids to do things differently, and he found Turning Leaf.

For the first time since he was twelve, David hasn’t sold drugs in over a month. “I feel naked,” he says. “But I have to adapt to it. You gotta crawl before you can walk. Right now I’m crawling, but I’ll be walking soon.”

Since starting at Turning Leaf, David has learned things he never knew he needed. The role-playing in class feels funny sometimes – new things often do – but it helps him figure out what do in situations that come up daily, like peer pressure. He has the support and connections now that he needs to keep himself off the streets, where he doesn’t want to be. “I ain’t walking down the street right now,” he says. “I’m still looking behind my back, though. I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it.” The damages done by a street life can be invisible and long-lasting.

Today, though, David has a new dream: a nice career, a family, getting married and spending time with his children. He’d like to take vacations, get out of South Carolina for a while, and plan to retire. “I’m new and improved,” he says “I’m ready to go forward in life. I’m a strong black male and I’m ready to show my kids that I’m different, that I’ve changed, and that I’m ready to enjoy our life.”

* * * *

You got this, David. Your new life is going to shine.

Story Captured by Leah Rhyne