Hight Noon in the 'hood, continued

    Moments later Tip (a crack addict) comes in, approaches Rob, and asks, "Do you want me to get rid of him, ol’ head? I know you, ol’ head." In conversation the use of the term ol’ head is most often an address of respect, but may also be slightly derisive, depending on the social context. Although the address does not always go by age, anyone over 40 years old is considered to be past his prime and generally not as tough as the younger men. Reverent younger men may gently put such people in their place by calling them "ol’ head." Rob says of Tip, "I didn’t need his help. ‘Cause then Tip would have been on the corner. In other words, you can’t ‘ask a devil to get rid of a devil, because then all you get is another devil.’"
The code of the street says, in certain circumstances, that each person will test the next person, probing to take his measure, in order to know how to behave toward that person. The people who survive respond by showing their tough sides. If they can do that, they deserve to be left alone. Herman comments, "Rob is like a test-tube baby. He is an ongoing experiment, and we got to save this one." Herman’s role, as it has been all along, is to help Rob through the obstacle course toward civility and decency. Herman can often be heard from the sidelines, coaching, "Now, don’t go and bust the man in his face. There is always a better way [than violence]"—this is his constant message.
Because of his relationship with Herman—and Herman’s relationship with the police—Rob now and then converses with the local police, who recognize him when they see him on the streets. On one recent afternoon Rob encountered a policeman, who said, "How you doing, Rob?" The local drug dealers see this, too, and their reaction might be, "Aw, he’s rattin’ to the cops." This relationship with the police brings Rob respect and derision at the same time. His goal is to be completely on his own, to establish himself as a decent person in the community with the props of such a person, along with the props of the street life: toughness and decency, which are not easy to manage and to combine. But Rob must do so if he is to exist in the community with the status he would like. Without his knowledge of the code of the street, he would be in more peril. Possessing it is knowing to some degree what to do in what circumstances, and what not to do.
At this point Rob has figured out his next move with the drug dealers, but he does not know how it will work out. He is reluctant to bring Captain Perez into it, for doing so would hurt his long-term status and reputation on the street. Perez might come in with too much police power and authority, and that would lead the others on the street to say, "Aw, he had to bring in the police. Aw, he’s just a pussy, he went and got them to help him." Not to involve the police will give Rob more "heart" on the corner, on the street, where standoffs like this must be settled "man-to-man."
According to the code, the man goes for himself, takes up for himself, and calls on no one else to fight his battles. Whether he is successful or not in dealing with the situation man-to-man, the outcome will become known around the neighborhood, and his status on the street will be affected. To have to resort to the cops or anyone else is to be judged a chump, to have lost heart. He loses "stripes," or respect, because he cannot deal with the threat by the street code. Practically speaking, the police cannot be present all the time. Hence real and enduring protection depends on having a name, a reputation, and credibility for being able to defend what is rightfully one’s own, even to the point of engaging in physicality; in a word, the person must get with the challenger, get in his face, and deal with him.
What Rob did was to go see Choc’s mother and threaten Choc through her. Standing at the Little League field that evening, he explained to me that he told her that her son’s drug dealing in front of the store was hurting his business and that if it did not stop, he would be forced to "handle his business." "So I’m just lettin’ you know." "Don’t worry about [it], Ruck, I’m gon’ talk to him," responded Choc’s mother, Mrs. Harmon. "I’m just lettin’ you know," Rob repeated, "’cause I been knowin’ y’all for a long time. And I didn’t want to just move out like that, without talking to you first. He said he’s ‘willing to die for the corner.’" Unlike some other mothers, Mrs. Harmon did not deny her son’s involvement in the drug trade. She owned up to his dealing drugs in front of the store, expressed her own exasperation with it, and indicated she would handle it.
Telling Choc’s mother has turned out to be a deft move on Rob’s part because it increases the number of people who can work to defuse the situation. Choc’s mother has strong emotional reasons to prevail on her son. It also gives Choc an excuse for capitulating, for, even though he may feel manly and able enough to overcome Rob, he knows he is disturbing his mother. Now he can give in but still save face by telling his boys, "I did it for my mother." For the time being, Rob’s strategy seems to have worked. The boys have stopped selling drugs on Ms. Newbill’s and Rob’s corner. Things have cooled down.
To reiterate, Rob was seen by the boys on the street to be in a weak position both because he was on parole and so had to watch his step and because he had affiliated himself with Herman, whom they view as square, as an informer, as a policeman—"And they can’t do anything about it," says Herman. As Rob undergoes his tests, trials and tribulations, a chorus of old heads cheers him on. For although the old heads do not condone selling drugs, they do observe the code of the street: to be worthy of respect, to be convincing, to be credible on the street, is to display heart, nerve and manhood at once. Correspondingly, through his actions and words Rob let the dealers know in no uncertain terms that he is ready to do what it takes to be his own man, to put his own physical self in the gap, and to go back to jail if he must for standing his ground. On these issues the local old heads and Rob converge; they all understand that in this environment such an orientation is the mark of a "real" man, and here they refer back to the decent daddy in the person of "Mr. Johnson," who is for them the embodiment of decency and manhood.
Rob still confronts major challenges. The test he went through is only one among many he will face in the future. He resides and operates in a community in which most of the residents are decent or trying to be. But there is also a street element that is less decent, poorly educated, alienated and to some extent angry; finally, there is a criminal element that is not only street-oriented but often also in the business of street hustling and drug-related crime.
Rob has to navigate this environment, not simply as an ordinary person, not as a drug dealer, but as a legitimate businessman operating a carryout. That means that from time to time he has to meet with all kinds of people, some of whom are involved in scams, trying to shoplift, to sell him stolen goods. Every day will bring another test. He’ll be tried by drug dealers because his corner is so valuable; it represents capital. As an issue of urban turf, somebody must run that corner: either the police or the drug dealers. In this case, for the time being, Rob is running it. But a new drug gang could come to town, make dibs on this corner and challenge him. And this time he may not know the man’s mother.
Thus far Rob is surviving, and his capital has grown. His business is expanding. Word has gotten around that he’s serving food at a decent price and declaring that he’s not putting up with the drug activity on the corner. The neighborhood has breathed a sigh of relief, and now people visit the store in large numbers. One man likened the situation to "sunshine after the rain, and now that the sun is out, the people have returned." Rob likens it to there being "a new sheriff in town," and his presence signals a new day for the Stop and Go. Before the standoff between Rob and the drug dealers, many community residents, particularly the decent people, stayed away. But since he has won—at least for the time being—they have returned. The whole situation is public. Rob has in effect retaken the corner, and his accomplishment affects not just that corner but the whole neighborhood as well. For several blocks around, a sphere of influence has been created that Rob controls and the drug dealers are keeping out of. If the community could take back more such corners, perhaps some real progress could be made in shifting the balance of power from the street-oriented people to the decent people.
The task is difficult because Rob is navigating an environment of so many alienated people, some of them without hope, some of them ready to try to pull him down—for as he rises, they may feel a sharp drop in their own self-esteem. As he gains more legitimate clout, however, his influence spreads through the neighborhood and he becomes a role model for those who lack direction or have fallen into the street life: he has visibly pulled himself up and thus offers them a profoundly different way out of the street. His example shows this way can work.
Yet it is a fine understanding of the code of the street that enables Rob to survive the many physical standoffs that characterize ghetto street life. It is by deftly interpreting and abiding by the rules of the code that he is able to get through his days and nights, to manage the respect necessary to keep the drug dealers, scam artists and others at bay, or in line. At the same time he must function in the decent world as well, in the world of legitimate business practice—licenses, tax laws and the like. The inner-city success story therefore requires the ability to code-switch, to play by the code of the street with the street element and by the code of decency with others. Rob can do that, and in the process he works at setting an example for other young people. In addition, he is helping organize a Little League team and has plans for a Cub Scout den, the kinds of groups that build up the community’s institutions. Rob has thus become an old head for today, a present-day young Mr. Johnson—both creating opportunity and getting people to see the opportunity and taking responsibility for helping themselves.


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