We hear it all the time. The square life – this rule-following, law-abiding life we ask Turn90 participants to lead – is boring. Long days at work, long nights at home. There’s no thrill, not like our guys are used to.
Because the streets move fast. They’re unpredictable. Exciting. Money comes fast.
But then, so does the chance to lose everything.
This is Melo’s story.
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Melo was born and raised in Charleston. His half-sister was 13 years older than him so by the time he was six, he was essentially being raised as an only child. His father was in the Marines, working at the Naval Weapons Station, and his mother owned a salon. They worked long hours, allowing them to keep food on the table and eventually move from an apartment to a four-bedroom house in the same neighborhood. It was an advance in living conditions if not geography.
By the time Melo was in middle school, he was allowed to spend afternoons on his own instead of at his mother’s salon. “I played with kids with lots of different backgrounds,” he says. “I learned a lot from them, how they learned their way in the world versus what my parents taught me. Some of them had parents in the streets, and they introduced that lifestyle to me.”
He took part in activities he knew his parents wouldn’t approve of. “I learned about selling drugs and manipulating people,” he says. “I learned about dangling the bait. By sixth grade, I knew my parents were looking at me, thinking ‘This is not the same little boy,’ because I wasn’t. I’d cultivated new skills, and I was effective with them. The streets became my mentor.”
Some of the things he saw were traumatic. “I saw parents beating on their kids,” he says. “It wasn’t like a spanking. It was being viciously beat, throwing blows, like they’re in the ring. I never imagined a father hitting his daughter, until the day I saw it. She was a friend and I wanted to help her. I felt like I had to do something.” Melo and another friend – only eleven or twelve years old at the time – took matters into their own hands. They “beat him up in the same way he beat her up,” he says, using baseball bats and other things. The man left the neighborhood and never came back. Melo’s friend was safe, or so he thought.
But then it happened: the father was the breadwinner, and without his financial support, Melo’s friend and her mother couldn’t afford the rent. They moved out and he never saw her again. “It was unexpected,” he says. “I thought I was doing something good, but it was actually detrimental. And after I thought about it, I realized…if me doing something good turns into something bad, I might as well just take care of me. Because good can come out of bad too, then, right?”
He began following the lead of his friends, dabbling in the marijuana trade by age 12. He was bringing in good cash for a kid, but soon he saw other kids with a lot more money. They got it from robbing people, and, as Melo says, “They made more money in a single move than I could selling drugs for a week.” He added robbing to his repertoire.
He learned even the streets have their own codes of conduct when, one day, an older dealer pulled him aside. “Young’n,” he said to Melo. “You don’t rob 9-5 people. Those people are working hard just like me and you. If you want to steal, the best thing to do is rob an institution. They’re insured.” From there, Melo began targeting stores. He was still in middle school.
Throughout his teenage years, Melo continued running the streets while also graduating from high school. His mother had ingrained in him the need to get an education, to have options to pursue in his life, and he never wanted the streets to be a full-time job. He went to vocational school and found a natural aptitude for massage therapy, impressing his teachers with his skill and work ethic.
But the streets had a siren call, and he couldn’t give them up. After all, a person needs options, right? The scales shifted over time – from street life to “square” life and back to street again. He dabbled in marijuana sales and robberies until he got caught robbing a Dollar General store. He was found guilty of strong-arm robbery, but since his record was otherwise spotless (he was good at not getting caught), he was given a 90-day boot-camp sentence and an important second chance. “I’m not going to waste it,” he told himself.
The scales shifted more toward the square life for quite some time. Melo was working as a massage therapist and dating a woman who lived outside Charlotte. When his girlfriend asked him to move to North Carolina, he used it as an opportunity to leave the streets completely. They married and began raising their two children. “It was a totally different ball game,” says Melo. “I was living the square life in Charlotte. The bills weren’t an issue, but the budget was different. Money comes much slower in the square life.” He noticed they didn’t go out much, and couldn’t take nice trips. Those were things he wanted, especially for his two daughters. He longed for South Carolina and the streets that helped raise him. They came back home. “It was frustration that led me back to the streets. I couldn’t afford to do all the things I wanted to do for my daughters. I planned to sell for six months, to save up some money and then find another solution. For that moment it sounded real good.”
A friend of Melo’s, a “jack boy” known for robberies, reached out to him with a plan to rob an armored truck. As it turns out, knowing how to manipulate others does not leave one immune from manipulation, and Melo’s friend knew exactly which strings to pull. “He asked me when was the last time I went on a vacation with my girls. It was like he read my mind. He told me, ‘You my brother. I can help you out. I’ve got a plan.’” And he did. He gave Melo the whole rundown, and when Melo looked at it all, it didn’t seem as crazy as he expected.
So they did it.
“The amount of money blew my mind,” he says. “It changed my life.”
Melo invested the money in the drug trade, becoming a mid-level dealer/supplier. “I was supplying the neighborhoods I grew up in,” he says. “It’s a rush, always, and I felt good about what I was doing because all I’m seeing are smiles around me.” His wife and daughters were happy with their improved financial situation but didn’t know where the money was coming from.
Things might have gone on like this forever, but another friend came through town and saw Melo’s life enhancements. He wanted the same. As Melo says, “I pitched it to him just like it was pitched to me. I asked him: are you willing to accept what comes with a job like this? Because it can go either way. We can get arrested or killed, or we can get away with it.” The friend was in.
Melo set to planning: surveilling the armored truck, planning how to rob it, and what to do with the cash. They robbed the truck and got away with it, until a person Melo trusted turned them in.
“While living double lives, I grew to understand never to have an expectation that someone’s going to have my back, to be loyal, or help me,” he says. “I’m always anticipating someone trying to deceive me, to betray me, even to lie to me. Anything opposite to that I appreciate. But I’ve also learned: fear is way more powerful than love.”
Catching a major charge was life-changing. The judge went lightly on him, due again to his relatively clean record. Melo’s sentence could have been up to 20 years, and instead he received 60 months. But five years away from your life is still significant. Melo and his wife divorced; she moved to the West Coast to start a new life for her daughters.
And Melo? He found the motivation to finally move away from the streets for good.
“When I was waiting for my sentence, I prayed. I said, God, if I can be spared, given under ten years, I swear I won’t indulge in any illegal activity anymore, and I’ll put all my energy into being an extraordinary man,” he says.
After his release, he was tested. Tempted. His old associates are still out there. Guys were sharing “business” propositions with him. “All those things sounded good,” he says. “But then I took a look at myself and reminded myself: it’s not worth it. I’ll do things a new way.”
Coming to Turn90 reinforced the work he began while still incarcerated. “In prison, you must think before you do because it can have severe consequences,” he says. “Turn90’s new thinking, self-control, and learning how to manage your thoughts confirmed what I was learning for myself. It gelled everything together for me. I can accept the rough patches and the smooth and all that comes with it now because I don’t have to look over my shoulder and worry if police are coming for me.”
When asked about his future, Melo grins. “You better wear your sunglasses because my future is bright. I know it’s bright. I have a checklist of goals, and many are already checked off. I’m going to retire in ten years. Business is no different than planning a heist or selling drugs, really. The same way I did surveillance, took notes, checks and balances to plan a heist, it’s no different than me understanding the market, supply and demand, etc. So now I just have to decide the most effective strategy and implement it.”
He’s also rebuilding his relationships with his daughters thanks to FaceTime. “Daddy’s getting himself back on his feet,” he says. “One of those many goals is spending time with my grandbabies, too.”
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Your future is bright, Melo, and your family at Turn90 will always be here. We will always have your back.