David Cook: Dreams of a gang member

David Cook: Dreams of a gang member

August 26th, 2012 by David Cook in Opinion Columns

David Cook

Photo by Ashlee Culverhouse/Times Free Press.

Josh is 25. He started smoking dope when he was 13, never graduated high school and last week was in trouble with the law, again.

He's got a "G" tattooed next to his left eye, a "D" next to his right. The letters, almost like tears, represent Gangster Disciples, a Chattanooga gang.

His eyes contradict the tattoos. His eyes are not aggressive -- he rarely makes eye contact -- and carry a weight, a depth in them. Even a goodness and kindness.

Next to him is a young man nicknamed "Queal." The 20-year-old is wearing a white T-shirt, pants sagging, hair braided in small dreads that point straight up, like black stalagmites. He sings while he's riding his bike up the street.

Between them are Ronald, 24, who says he can make $500 a day slinging dope, and Quon, 18, who trumps that.

"I just broke into somebody's house the other day to get three TVs and a Playstation," said Quon.

He sold it off for about $1,000.

"In 10 minutes," he said.

When we talk about gangs in this city, we imagine black males like this. The dope. The tattoos. The guns.

What we don't imagine is how quickly they'd leave it all for one thing.

"Jobs, man," said Josh. "We need jobs."

Each of them said there's one solution -- like a vaccine -- that will get them off the streets: a legitimate job.

"When can I start?" asked Ronald.

"I don't want to have to keep looking over my back," said Quon.

"It gets old doing the same thing every day," said Queal. "Eventually, we'll get robbed or killed."

We're talking on the front porch of Skip Eberhardt, who lives on Rawlings Street, a block or two off Dodson Avenue. Eberhardt can point in any direction -- north, south, east, west -- toward a spot where someone has been shot. Violence is as common as the blowing wind.

Eberhardt, 62, wrecks the perception that I have -- and perhaps you, too -- that these kids would rather be making $1,000 a weekend slinging dope than flipping burgers at McDonald's for $9 an hour.

"Ninety-five percent of these kids would rather have a job," he said.

Eberhardt knows this dead-end life. He knows what a midnight bullet sliding through a chamber sounds like, the weight of a bag of rock in his pocket, and the color of blood as it drains from a body.

"Half these kids don't even know what I did," he said.

But years ago, Eberhardt started carving out -- like chipping away the rock wall of a prison cell -- an honest life. A job. A degree. Now, like a street version of Saul who became St. Paul, he's trying to save these kids' lives.

He calls Bojangles'. McDonald's. Roofers and plumbers. Folks he knows and those he doesn't. All to get these kids a job.

Last year, there were 25 homicides in Chattanooga; police estimate half were gang-related. As of Friday afternoon, this year has seen 55 shootings and 12 homicides.

Eberhardt's goal: By next summer, twice as many people employed than shot. Twice as many jobs as dead bodies.

"If we had a dozen businesses willing to do this," he said.

There's a risk, hiring them. But what is the larger risk of simply responding to the violence with handcuffs and jail?

"Everybody wants to better their life," said Josh.

It is raw, the razor's edge that these young people walk. Talking with them is like trying to distinguish a sunrise from a sunset -- their life is either just beginning or close to ending.

As he stared down at the concrete front porch floor, I asked Josh what a long and happy life would look like.

"I can't even imagine it," he said. "I may not even live to see tomorrow."

That's why he'd take the Bojangles' job. Not just for the safety of knowing the police -- or somebody across town -- aren't after you, but because it's a passport, a half-crazy promise that maybe, just maybe, some kind of life is out there.

"They're crying, man," said Eberhardt.

If they won't walk away from the violence, the blood is on their hands. But if they're willing to work -- to try -- then the responsibility shifts somewhere else.

To us.