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Hight Noon in the 'hood, continued

    It’s a predicament that Robert must confront on his own. He knows it, and his antagonists know it. They all know that the police are not the main players here, the ones to "get cool" with; rather, the "beef" is between Robert and the drug dealers. These are the people with whom he must now achieve a new understanding. They are testing his mettle, probing for weakness, to see if he is the same old Ruck (his street name). Much suggests to them that he is not. Above all, he is now on parole and thus must watch his step in dealing with people the way he would have dealt with them "back in the day," or the old days; moreover, his close association with Herman is something of a liability on the street.
   
Robert has been going through a gradual transformation, shedding his "old skin" and identity of Ruck and taking on his new identity of Robert, or Rob. His former street cronies constantly address him as Ruck, while the decent people of the community, people he is getting to know better, address him more consistently as Robert.
   
If Rob resolves the current tension and passes the test, he will be much stronger than he was before, garnering juice, or respect, and credibility from others he meets on the street. Bear in mind, Rob already has credibility and respect from many of the decent people who know him and what he has been up against; many are cheering for him, the celebrity of the neighborhood. It is the street element, specifically the local drug gang, that he must now impress. For his part, Herman understands that he must not fight this battle for Rob, that Rob must fight it for himself. After all, he will not always be with Rob. Choc is Rob’s main opponent in the contest for the corner in front of Ms. Newbill’s. He grew up and has been living in the area for a long time, and, as was indicated earlier, Rob helped raise him and introduce him to the drug trade. Choc’s mother still lives in the area, just a few doors away from Rob’s store.
   
Soon after taking control of the store, Rob confronted Choc about his drug-dealing activities. He said, "Listen, Choc, this has to stop. If you want to sell drugs, go somewhere else. You not gon’ do it here. Go sit on your mother’s step and sell. Don’t sell in front of my business." Choc responded, "Why you want to [keep us from selling drugs here]? You know how it is. I got to eat. I got to make a living, too. Why you want to be so hard?" Rob answered that he also had to make a living and that the drug dealers were hurting his business. They could sell somewhere else; they did not have to sell on his corner. Choc responded that this is where his mother lives: "I grew up here, so I can do what I want. I’ll die for this [corner], ’cause I got to eat. And ain’t nobody gon’ stop me from eating." Rob asked, "Is that how you feel?" Choc bellowed, "Yeah!" "All right, I’m gon’ talk to your mama about it and see if she feel the same way."
   
Many people in the neighborhood are aware of the present tension around the corner by Ms. Newbill’s. A beef has been created and infused with a certain social significance. People want to know what is going to happen next. Will Rob back down? Or will the boys back down? Either way, the result carries implications for the community and the local status order. Core elements of the code of the street are heavily in play: Can I take care of myself without going to the authorities? Do I have enough juice or personal power to do what I want? The metaphor of a chess game is not lost, as both Rob and Choc consider their next moves, with everyone anxiously looking on. Ostensibly, it is between them and nobody else. In fact, it is over who is going to rule the community in the long run—the decent folks or the street element. The struggle over the corner may be viewed as simply one battle in a war.
   
In trying out strategies for winning, Rob offered a scenario of what he might do in regard to Choc. He said, "I’m gon’ go tell his mother, that if I crack him in his head he won’t be selling drugs there. Now, there are three corners that he can’t sell on: where I got the fruit stand, where Ms. Newbill’s place is, and in front of the library or gym. He can go over to the vacant lot where the gas station used to be. I’ll tell him, ‘You can sell over there because my customers don’t come that way,’ but he knows that place is in the open, and Captain Perez [leader of the local police precinct] will get him if he do that. ‘You can’t sell on any other corner. But since you are gonna sell anyway, go over and sell on the vacant gas station lot.’" Rob knew that setting up business there would put Choc in the open so the captain could see him, and everyone knew that the captain was not to be trifled with.
   
Choc then sent five others of the local community to warn Rob, as a way both of getting the message back to Rob and of obtaining feedback on the situation and drumming up support: "Rob is gonna find himself with some problems" was a common sentiment. These five people, one by one, came back to Rob his first day on the job at Ms. Newbill’s and told him what Choc had said "that he will find himself in some problems." And they would inquire of Rob, "What’s going on?" or "You closing down drug corners, now!" or "Choc feels some type o’ way about all this [he’s mad]."
   
Herman and I were at Ms. Newbill’s on Rob’s first day as the proprietor of his new business there. Rob made us cheesesteaks and then came and sat with us. It was clear that he was not himself. He was somewhat agitated, and his street antennae were on high alert, as he glanced back and forth at the front door, studying everyone who entered. Suddenly he said, "Did you see that! Did you see that?" Herman asked, "What?" "She nodded her head, gave a signal to somebody," replied Rob. We looked up and saw an older woman standing in line to pay for some soap. She was facing the street. We noticed nothing out of the ordinary. But Rob was very concerned. He seems to have thought the woman might be alerting someone outside that we were here: if they wanted us, here we were. This turned out to be nothing.
   
People entered and left. One person after another warmly greeted Herman, including a man who planted a kiss on the side of his face, with obvious affection and appreciation. Herman answered politely, indicating what we were up to that day: "We’re having a Little League practice this evening at six. You got any equipment, a ball, a bat, anything?" The man answered affirmatively: "Yeah, I got something for you. How long you gon’ be here?" "Until you get back" answered Herman. The man then left the store and in about 10 minutes returned with a baseball bat and a ball. We were very pleased, for the youngsters with whom we were to practice this evening needed this equipment to start up their games.
   
Soon we received our food and soft drinks. People continued to enter and leave. It was clear that our presence was the support Rob needed. He relaxed, and we had easy talk for the next hour and a half, at which point we left. Every minute we were there, we were putting the word out that drug dealing would not be tolerated on this corner. Herman felt strongly that the young men who were coming and going were letting others know that we were there and that we were committed to being there. And that was what Rob needed on his first day at Ms. Newbill’s.
   
After one man left, Herman said of him confidently, "Yeah, he know Rob will hurt that boy [Choc], so why mess up Rob’s future by sending Rob back to jail for killing this nut. He’s putting Rob’s word out, that Rob is here to stay." The man was a crack addict named Johnny Brown, a mechanic—"the best there is when he can stay off that stuff." Brown is like a neighborhood courier who knows the latest about the neighborhood: "He know everything, including the shooting last night." He will also get the word to the neighborhood that another day has passed and that Rob has not been chased out. Everyone is watching, expectantly, taking in the drama. The atmosphere is something like that of High Noon, in part because there were shootouts on this busy, lucrative corner in the past. The stakes, financial and social, are high.

 


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Copyright 1999 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 10/27/99