When sifting through my childhood memories, running numbers for my parents was the best time of my life.
Mind you, this was the early 80’s. In Texas the oil bust locked many people into years of economic struggle. An entire white, blue collar, middle class population was suddenly without means to make ends meet.
Not many black people worked the rigs in West Texas in those days. It was a white man’s gig and not very welcoming. Those that did were clever enough to use their money to become self sustaining, having clearly understood that they’d be first fired once the wells dried up.
Cocaine also flowed heavily between El Paso, Midland and the Metroplex (Dallas/Ft. Worth). Those same middle class folks were snorting their lives away while dining on fine steak and whiskey. Now, without the means to support their habits they moved away, hustled or drowned in self loathing. Many houses fell. Roughnecks became visible addicts.
I met quite a few as they swung through the South Side, to the Flats, my second home. Looking to score codeine, amphetamines, weed and cheap thrills.
The Flats sit right near the tracks. A collection of low roof buildings, dirt parking lots and broken streets. Several blocks of colorful juke joints, two black barbershops, a black owned pharmacy, stores and gas stations. All black, all the time.
I couldn’t wait to get home from school. I lived with my mother and siblings on the east side of town. Often a family friend would pick me up, and take me to Dorothy’s Place. My Mother would be there, having a beer with friends, talking about sports, the Stories, which were likely playing on TV, fashion and spades
For a time Pops owned a joint called the Dew Drop Inn, on the second floor of the only two story building left standing. Sometimes I’d go watch Pops gamble with friends in a smoke filled back room. Always full of questions, wanting to know how he did what he did. He’d kiss my head, stuff cash in my pocket and send me away so he could concentrate on his cards.
Mama did business wherever she sat her purse, always rocking the cleanest outfit, smoking them long ass cigarettes and sipping a drink.
I adored the attention from their friends, whom I considered to be my first real friends too. Giving me quarters for the juke box, asking me to do the latest dance. Or paying me for expressing interest in my own education.
Mama would send me to deliver scores. Maybe next door to Valentine’s barbershop, or down the block to the cab stand. Or around the corner to Price’s Bar.
I’d make the rounds, dropping off folded slips of paper and picking up folded cash. The vibe was always celebratory. The flashy cars, old heads dressed up and draped in gold. The world was always brand new to me.
There was always music, food, kind words and jivin’. I always made away from somewhere with a bag of chips and a soda, several dollars of my own.
Occasionally someone would not be able to pay me and would deliver an angry rebuke for me to pass on to my mother.
Some people didn’t think I belonged in the Flats at all, and resented a child’s presence in a grown up environment. They would refuse to do business with me.
Someone else would tell that person to stop being an ass hole, trying to threaten a kid. And so on. It was always handled. Of course had the message made it back to momma it would’ve been handled quite different.
This was a generation that wasn’t about that bullshit, as most of them survived Jim Crow, Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement. Momma packed a pistol. Pops carried also and kept a shotgun in the trunk of his car. I’m pretty sure everybody was strapped and not afraid to pop off if it got hot.
I can remember my clumsy ass stumbling into a guy I met through my Pops. Thinking I was trying to pick his pocket, he popped open a knife and sliced my palm. He was known to cut people and I should have known better.
It was of course a misunderstanding. He was a war vet still haunted by the ghosts of Vietnam and was extremely apologetic afterwards.
I knew who the shooters were, who’d done time for or was suspected of murder. None of that mattered to me. I could no more judge their journey than I could walk in their shoes. They had a right to live their own American dream.
Like with any social cluster there’s baggage, beef, resentment. Those arguments often spilled over into violence. Fights, even stabbings among peers were common.
But somehow or another it would get worked out.
Anything to keep the police out of the neighborhood.
Everyone wore their legacy or expressed it through colorful nicknames:
Back then I was known as Lil Pete, Pistol, or Petey Wheatstraw, the Devil’s Son in Law.
I had friends named Cross-eyed Eddie, Godfather, Charlie Brown, Bubba Coot, School Boy. Plus the old school assortments of Shirley Faye, Miss Dorothy, Miss Margie, Big Momma, Jewel, Popcorn, Shine.
Pimps, con artists, dealers, thieves, killers.
They were kind, funny and generous despite hard ships. They were my family.
I remember overall felling loved. Feeling a part of something many in that town just wouldn’t understand. You didn’t have discussions about the Flats with white people. And white people, when discussing the Southside, could only tell that it was a terrible place to be.
We liked it that way. This meant little to no interactions with white folks.
Everything was for sale
My pops sold speed. Occasionally I’d wake up to bricks of marijuana drying out in the oven.
The stack of Welch’s bottles by the fridge were not filled with grape juice but codeine.
And money. Always money. Stacks and wads. The Flats swam in it for years.
Everyone I knew was doing well because they kept the money flowing within the neighborhood. We ate our own food, provided our own entertainment, policed our own streets. We shopped at local grocery stores and butchers owned by people who in turn spent money in the hood on weekends.
It didn’t bother me that my clothes were often bought from the trunk of a car, or that local boosters would take orders from my parents for Christmas presents that were too expensive at store prices.
I always thought it ridiculous that my peers would push their parents to spend $120 on a pair of $120 shoes, when my folks got em for $30 and a handful of diet pills. Many of their parents knew what went down in the hood, but did not want their children exposed to the life. To the middle class black people I was a Flat Rat, and would likely turn into my parents at some point.
Funnily, me and most of my peers all eventually made the Flats our stomping grounds.
Those that didn’t have a side hustle worked hard around town being entrepreneurs, chefs, janitors, truck drivers, car salesman and bail bondsmen. They cultivated contacts within the judicial system, the middle and oil rich upper class and swapped information in the hood over a game of dominos.
Class issues aside, if you were black and latinx in Midland, Tx, someone you knew hung out or was strung out in the Flats.
I remember once when I was hanging out with my dad on a Saturday. He and his homies was playing cards and someone let them know that the cops were outside. They hid their money, and switched the conversation.
The police swaggered in with confidence. One asked, “What’s going on here?”
Mr. Glover leaned his lanky frame back, jheri curl just swangin’, said, ” Ain’t nothing going on in here punk! Just a bunch of mad, broke ass niggas playing cards.”
To which the cops were berated right out the door. Moments like that gave me joy, seeing cops lose their power when realizing that they couldn’t intimidate everyone.
Crack changed everything
Every economic model goes through a transformation according to the needs of the people.
New money saturated the Flats. Businesses changed hands, legacies got passed on.
I eventually moved in with pops on the Southside. By then crack had completely changed the landscape.
Whereas once you only saw a few younger people hanging out in the Flats, dope boys now manned the block, visible, flaunting their products and bravado while dodging police patrols.
And goddamn if a younger generation of white kids felt cool enough to come around looking for the same drugs their parents preached against, or indulged in.
At his new juke I ran numbers for Pops exclusively. I also transported boot leg beer, and learned how to dodge trouble.
I’d always been around the game but I shied away from the crack trade. Most of the dealers were my friends, cousins, brothers. So of course I hung out with, defended and cared about them.
I knew they weren’t out there for kicks. Many had taken on the role of primary provider for younger siblings, disabled parents or caretakers.
Often they’d end up selling the same product that had so effectively destroyed their family in the first place.
Crack burned through lives and family worse than heroin.
The OG’s couldn’t understand the young generations fascination with fast money, having forgotten that they were the models who shaped our perception of economics.
It was their fur coats, Cadillacs and diamonds on every finger that encouraged us to dream big. It was their lessons in bravado that made us rebellious when police came around.
All the OG’s knew was that more white people meant an increased police presence. This intrusion interrupted their income. They preferred the old ways, gambling, sex work, weed and alcohol. They preferred it when white people came through, made a purchase and left.
Many of the OG’s had forgotten how, in their youth, many of the same circumstances applied. They were a thorn in the side of someone who’d lived through Reconstruction or slavery and had no patience for flamboyant youth.
Individuals who had spent their lives with little, but still prospered, raised families, earned respect.
That the legacy is perpetual not because it’s all we know as a people. It’s what we’ve been given.
Making something outta nothing is a fuckin life skill, not a failure.
Pops eventually retired from full time hustling. Exhaustion, poor health, life on parole and a changing game had broken him. Momma hustled and worked, but eventually gave up hustling as well.
I of course took to streets to earn money for our well being. The idea of a job was a last resort. That meant tying myself to an unfamiliar economic model, taxes and white folks. Being broke. Getting caught was also out of the question. Incarceration was just reformed slavery.
Nevertheless I did get caught. I spent time listening to cats from other cities, other hoods like me tell similar stories. The Flats offered me a much better education than formal schooling ever did.
I learned about the history of my people, black resilience, pain and friendship. I learned that legacies are what you make of the lessons learned. Generational trauma is real, but can also be healed. I learned how to apply my hustle to any endeavor, when to hold, fold, or risk it all.
I can’t imagine a life without having grown up black. No shade to those who didn’t live the same experience as I did. When I say this, I’m speaking about the ever changing but always relevant lessons that reinforced my desire to stay black and die black.
It wasn’t the stereotypes that the wider world associates with being black. It’s the parts of us world envies, tries to suppress or outright erase. Our natural inclination to resist, survive, thrive. By any means necessary.
And if you ain’t black you’ll never get that.