Extracted from Lessons of Redemption by Kevin Shird
It was a freezing cold February night. My breath froze to a mist as soon as I exhaled. Exposed fingertips would become numb within minutes due to the brutal night air. Even the stray dogs that roamed the alleyways sought shelter on this night. Everyone stayed inside except for me, Dajuan, and Howard. We were sitting on Howard’s front porch on Linnard Street in West Baltimore, contemplating what to do next. If you were as foolish and scatterbrained as these teenagers were on this cold night, the answer was easy. I hadn’t become a full-fledged criminal yet and there was still a chance for the young kid to be saved, but I was running out of time, running out of dime and still there was no sign of grounded adult role model appearing in my life. We were only hanging out in the streets, despite the frigid temperatures, because we had nothing more constructive to do.
Sitting before us was a Lincoln Continental, fresh off the showroom floor and shining from bumper to bumper. I looked up and down the street to see if anyone was watching but the coast was clear. The driver had run into a residence on the street, presumably to make a quick visit. He had been foolish enough to leave the car in the middle of the street with the engine running and no one inside.
With Howard and Dajuan, acting as my lookouts I casually walked over to the car, opened the door, and climbed into the driver’s seat. My heart was pumping furiously. I was relatively new to driving—being only 17-years old—so I struggled with even the simple task of getting the car out of park and into drive.
As I slowly pulled away, I could hear the owner of the car yelling, ‘Stop, stop, stop!’ In the rearview mirror, I could see him running up the street after his stolen possession. He was an older gentleman, instantly regretting his decision to leave his car with the key in the ignition. I was having a difficult time maneuvering the huge car around the corner as I drove ever so gently. It was like navigating a boat on treacherous waters. I hit three parked cars as I weaved and wobbled my way down the street with no destination in mind. I hadn’t planned this out. I was just doing it for the rush. I traveled about six city blocks before I stopped. I knew I couldn’t go any farther without getting into a serious accident. I walked back around the block where my accomplices were waiting and I told them what happened. Howard was reluctant to participant any further—he had realized the owner of the vehicle was visiting one of his neighbors—so this was just a little too close for comfort. Dajuan returned with me to the car. Once we got back to it, Dajuan devised a plan. His idea was to take the valuables from the car instead of going for a joy ride. He was more experienced than I was in the art of car thievery. I told him that we had better move the car a little farther away because we were only a few blocks from the scene of the crime. Neither one of us was excited about relocating this monstrosity. I was somehow elected driver, and after striking another car or two, I eventually made it to our impromptu chop shop—a deserted street corner a couple of blocks away. We were very familiar with this part of the neighborhood. If for some reason we had to make a quick getaway, the graveyard that faced the alley was a route frequently used for this purpose. Normally, once you made it to the graveyard, you were safe because any further police pursuit was virtually impossible.
Quickly we began removing just about everything from the vehicle that wasn’t bolted or glued down. It may sound strange that two kids just looking for something to do would not only steal a brand new car, but loot it. I hadn’t given any thought to what I would do if we had found anything of value inside of the car. I felt like I couldn’t back down especially since I had started the adventure. That’s what can happen sometimes when a young boy grows up without a positive male image to show him how to really be a man.
The truth was that we were amateurs, so removing car stereos and engine parts was out of our league. The first place we searched for valuables was the trunk, but we were disappointed, finding only a fishing rod and a couple of other inexpensive items. We then concentrated our efforts on the interior of the car.
Dajuan started with the front seats—including the glove compartment—and I began with the back. Whoever owned this car wasn’t a very neat owner. The back seat was full of empty soda cans, newspapers and all types of things that didn’t belong in the back of a car. Dajuan had completed his looting of the front seat of the car, but captured only a watch and an empty soda bottle. I was completing my part of the search when I spotted a brown paper bag on the floor. I reached inside and grabbed what felt like paper. I tilted the bag over slightly to catch a gleam of light from a nearby lamppost. All I could see was lots and lots of cash. Dajuan was standing behind me when I exited the car and showed him the brown paper bag.
‘What’s in it?’ he asked.
‘Money,’ I calmly replied.
His eyes lit up as he looked inside. We had hit it big! The bag also contained checks and other pieces of paper. We took the bag to Dajuan’s house to divide our newfound wealth. On the way there, all kinds of thoughts rolled through my head about where the money came from. Was this money from a drug dealer or something? And if it was, since when did a drug dealer accept checks for drugs? Had we walked into the middle of someone else’s deal and messed it up? With so many unanswered questions, I didn’t know what to think but other thoughts crossed my mind too: I could buy myself a brand new pair of sneakers.
When we arrived at his house, his entire family was home, so we went directly down to the basement and locked the door. Dajuan had some really grimy uncles and cousins living with him at the time. If they had found out that we had this money, they would have robbed us for sure.
With the basement door locked, we spread the money out on the table and began counting it. I had never seen this much money before. Close to $2,000! A large portion of the money was in one and five dollar bills. There were some checks as well, and we also noticed that the pieces of paper were actually small white envelopes with something printed on them. I could remember seeing these white envelopes when I was a little child. They were tithe envelopes used in church, and most of them were full of money. The driver of the car we had stolen was probably a pastor or deacon, and the money was probably the collection from that night’s church service. We weren’t pleased when we realized that the money in our possession belonged to a church. We had intentionally committed a crime by stealing the car, but we never intended for our first robbery to be the tithes from a neighborhood church. That definitely wasn’t cool.
Life gives you choices, some easy, some hard. This was a turning point in my life that led me down the wrong path. We could have returned the money. We could have just put it back in the car and left it somewhere. Nobody even needed to know it was us who had stolen it. And even if they had known it was us, I don’t think they would have pressed charges if we had given it back. But we didn’t. The lure of all the goods that money could buy was just too strong for us.
The next day was Saturday, so Dajuan and I decided to go on a shopping spree to ease our guilt for committing such a despicable act. What else would two young teenagers have done with the money but blow it on useless material possessions? I sold my soul for two brand new pairs of Nike Air Jordan’s. I wasn’t used to spending money this way. Growing up financially deprived, I had never had the ability to do so, until then. It felt good having some money in my pocket and being able to buy whatever I wanted.
Dajuan had devised another plan for some of the money: invest it. He suggested that we buy a quarter pound of marijuana. He said that we could sell weed on his block and at school, making ourselves a fortune. At the time, marijuana was a highly sought- after commodity on the streets. Many in the city were smoking and choking on the illegal vegetation, and the guys at school selling it were making money faster than they could count it. All of these guys had cool gear; they were also respected by everyone, and the girls were all over them. When you’re a teenager, these seem like the most important things in the world. In just one week, I evolved from a petty car thief who just got lucky to a weed-selling knucklehead.
Dajuan’s family was into just about every illegal activity you could conceive. One of his uncles was a cocaine dealer, another sold guns, and a third was a house burglar. He had another crazy uncle who had recently headlined the evening news for shooting someone dead. It was easy for those guys to get their hands on just about anything on the streets. We gave one of his uncles just enough money to buy the drugs for us to launch our illegal enterprise. I really had no idea what I was getting myself involved in.
It was three o’clock in the afternoon and school had just let out. This time of day was always a madhouse. Dajuan and I were anxious to get down to his uncle’s apartment because his uncle had arranged for us to get our first quarter pound. Most kids our age were waiting to get a letter in the mail admitting them to a prestigious college; we were out looking to start an illegal drug business. What a contrast in thinking.
Most kids aren’t running around saying to themselves, ‘I want to be a drug dealer one day.’ The decision to travel down that road is more complicated than most people understand. I wanted to be a football player, I wanted to be a fireman, I even thought about becoming a lawyer. I wanted to be all the things that society believed in, trusted and admired. If I had ever said, ‘I want to be a drug dealer when I get older,’ within hearing distance of anyone in my family, I would be knocked in the head with a bag of common sense. I’ve even met hustlers who would tell you, ‘Listen, kid, you don’t want to get involved in that stuff. Become a musician, or anything else but a drug dealer.’
Everybody knows it’s wrong. Everybody knows it isn’t the career path to take. Even in the movies the drug dealer never rides off into the sunset. If he doesn’t get killed first, someone he loves does, or something else tragic occurs. There is never a happy ending for the street hustler who appears untouchable; he ends up buried at the local cemetery.