I was born on November 22, 1975, in the projects on the South Side of Chicago, and my earliest childhood memory is a smell: the piss that saturated the hall of the Ida B. Wells projects. Growing up, my house was always filled with smiling drunks, cussing visitors, and violent fights. I was a daredevil who could be heard sixteen stories up above the courtyard, laughing as my oldest brother frantically held onto my feet, so as not to let me fall to an early death. 

When I was 9 or 10 years old, we left the Ida B. Wells projects and moved into a brand new jungle — a Chicago neighborhood called Englewood. I was fascinated with everything my innocent eyes were seeing. Imagine crowded streets, loud music, and hustlers in suits leaning on shiny Cadillacs. It was like a competition for them: seeing who could draw the most attention.

We pulled up in front of our new home and I noticed that there was a patch of grass in front of the house — a huge difference from the concrete I used to scrape my knees on in the projects. The second thing I noticed was my cousin Tony smiling from ear to ear as I opened the car door and got out. 

My Auntie Evon yelled out, as if announcing to the world we had arrived, “You in the jungle now! Don’t start no shit, won’t be no shit!” she said looking in my direction with a smirk on her face. Auntie Evon was my favorite aunt, always cussing and fussing. She was loving. If she cussed you out, that meant she liked you. If she was super nice to you, that meant she didn’t trust you. 

My cousin Tony asked, hopefully, “So you here to stay huh?” I just nodded my head yes… not wanting to seem too overjoyed at this new living arrangement. Hell, it beat them pissy hallways by a long shot.

Englewood was this nomad’s paradise. I explored the jungle, riding bikes, going to movies with my cousins and newfound friends and learning how to talk to girls. I could run and play until the street lights came on. I was enjoying life like a normal 11-year-old. 

My dad was a handyman and a hustler. He and my mom grew apart after we moved out of the projects and split up. When I was about 11 years old, mom got with another man named Pepsi — an ex-pimp.

Pepsi was a cool guy at first, dressed nicely, and had his superfly flair about himself. He always had these slick sayings like, “I’m Pepsi because I keeps things Poppin,” or “Ain’t nothing going on but the rent.” He held a job as a short-order cook and hustled on the side.

I liked him until he quit his job and his drug addiction started to show. 

Pepsi said he didn’t want his woman working, because a real man supported his family. And slowly but surely, my mom stopped working as a beautician because of the shit Pepsi was feeding her. 

And before long we moved into Pepsi’s mother’s basement. Mom had a way of making any place look and feel like a home. She used curtains to make partitions, cutting the basement into rooms. Pepsi’s family even built a bathroom with a toilet, shower, and sink. 

Things were good until the drugs and fighting turned up full blast.  

At the time, my mom was a dark chocolate, smooth-skinned 5’5” brown-eyed model. She was soft-spoken, always smiling, and she glided as she walked. You could often catch her singing and dancing throughout the house and snatching me and Tony up, making us dance with her. She could make the gloomiest day feel like the sun was always shining. I miss those days.

Over the course of a year, I watched my mother get trapped in an abusive relationship, and get trapped in her addiction. I watched this dude and drugs reduce my mother from being an up-and-coming nurse into a docile non-working addict. I couldn’t understand how love worked, or at least, how their love worked. Pepsi proclaimed he loved her, and right after, he would beat and abuse her. I often felt that if that was what love meant, I wanted no parts of it. 

Living in a household ruled by addiction, there were many nights spent with hunger as my friend. I would open the refrigerator only to find some moldy cheese and an empty gallon of a milk jug filled with water. I saw my cousins who hustled selling weed and they had everything, so after a while, I started hanging with them. 

Before my 12th birthday, I was slanging bags of weed just to eat. I was already at rock bottom, so I could only go up from there, right? And also, Pepsi slang a little to support his and mama’s habit. 

I was about 12 the last time Pepsi beat up my mom. I came home from playing outside one day and Pepsi and my mom were arguing, I can’t recall why. But I do recall hearing the bone-wrenching screams coming from my mother as Pepsi grabbed her by the hair and punched her in the face repeatedly. My mom’s beautiful chocolate smooth face became covered in blood. I tried to break it up, but being every bit of 100 pounds, there wasn’t much I could do. I did get a tight hold on him, but somehow he managed to grab a five-pound ashtray and sling it at my mom, hitting her right in the lips. 

The fight ended just as abruptly as it started. My mom cleaned herself up and Pepsi sat on the couch like nothing ever happened. I was tired of all the fighting, and this time I felt I had to do something. All my aunts were out of town, so I took off running out of the house down to the end of our block where there was a payphone. 

I called my dad who stayed on the other side of town, and he said he would be there soon. My dad was always known as one bad dude. In my eyes, he was ten feet tall and had a persona that demanded respect. It was like every time I saw him, the pressures of the world got a little lighter. 

When my dad showed up, it was like all the air got thin in the room. I looked at Pepsi’s face and I could see he was scared shitless. I was for sure my dad was going to kick Pepsi’s ass, but to my surprise, they all disappeared into my mom’s room and got high. Crack won that fight. At that moment, I felt so alone in such a crowded world. All the people who I held in such high esteem were being picked apart by addiction.

My mom stayed wrapped up in her addiction for about four hardcore years until she found her way out of it by leaving Pepsi.

So as I reflect on it now, the gang life was kinda forced on me. In my world gangsters ruled. They had all the fancy cars, clothes, and women. It was a no-brainer as to what I would become when I was old enough to join a gang, and for me old enough came at 13.

My mom wasn’t against gangs or even the possibility of her son being in one. In those times most gangs were formed to protect the neighborhood. But with the introduction of crack cocaine, greed, turf beefs, and the government’s war on drugs, we’d soon see these things change the future of how things worked. The land transformed from a place where neighbors would look out for none another, to a place where survival of the fittest became common rule.

Don’t miss: “I Was a Witness to Murder at Age 10” by Paul Anthony Brown

I hung with guys 20-35 years old, hardly around my own age, all except for a kid named Creed. Me and Creed was the same age. We hustled and hung out, smoked weed, fought together, and even lost our virginity at the same time. He was like a brother to me. I mean even more so than my real brother. Me and Creed ran the streets like they were going out of style. With his moms and my moms on drugs, there was no such thing as a curfew. We stayed out all night some days and even hung in adult bars. 

Then one day, I got shot in a drive-by shooting. I was 13 years old. Yup, that happened to me. My cousin and I were walking back from a carnival laughing and making plans on what we’d do next. It was 90 degrees and we had on crisp white t-shirts that we had bought specially for the day. 

As we walked along the side of a building on Main Street, a car rolled up slowly alongside us and opened fire. Gunshots rang out as we tried to get away. I ran in one direction and my cousin in another. I felt the hot lead bite me in the leg. My heart pounded in my chest like it was trying to burst. As I ran, I was afraid to look back thinking they would catch me, so I ran and ran until I made it into a random building’s hallway blocks away. I stayed there for at least 30 minutes, thinking about what I would do next. I decided to go to my auntie’s house a few blocks away. 

Once I got there, I found an ace bandage and wrapped my leg up like I’d seen done in gangster movies. I didn’t dare tell anyone there what happened; I just got in my cousin’s bed and went to sleep. 

At about 2 AM, my mom burst into the room and snatched the cover off of me, yelling, “Boy, I heard you got shot. Let me look at cha.” Seeing the ace bandage, she poked at it and made me lie still. It hurt like hell. She removed the bandage and went to get some rubbing alcohol and peroxide before coming back in and patching me up. 

My mom said, “Boy, you gonna lay up in here and mess around, catch the gangrene, they’ll be cutting ya leg off.” I gritted my teeth barring the pain, but I felt like my old mama was back. My mom was on a road to recovery by this time and her care showed that. Even under the circumstances, we shared a bonding moment. It felt warm, regardless of the pain. 

Word got back to my family that me and my cousin got shot for no other reason than some dude trying to score points by shooting someone in a drive-by. It didn’t even matter if I was in a gang or not, the fact of the matter was I was shot for walking down the street in my hood. And to the guys behind the trigger, I was seen as someone from that hood.  

It turns out the guy who shot us was a 14-year-old kid who decided to make gang-banging his career. His career was short-lived. He was killed a year later in a drive-by shooting while walking home from school. 

Karma is real. 

Life changed for me after the shooting. I wasn’t scared, as much as I was paranoid. I no longer felt safe. I no longer walked down any street normally. It was like I was always looking for that same damn car to reappear. I no longer stood still for a car rolling down its window to ask for directions. I now always made sure something was between us, like another car or a tree. 

I felt like a soldier living in a war zone. I wanted to be on a level playing field so I armed myself with a .22 automatic I took from my Auntie Evon’s nightstand. The .22 was a crime with a pearl handle and small enough to fit in my pocket unnoticed.  

My city, Englewood, became the murder capital of the world. The streets were changing and drive-bys were at an all-time high. It seemed like death took up a permanent residence in the jungle, along with gangs, drugs, and poverty. I woke up one day to see that I had so many “rest in peace” t-shirts that I could wear one a day for a month and not wear the same one twice.

This went on until I was 16, as my world would change again. Death struck close again when I was chilling on my friend Creed’s porch. Me and Creed were inseparable. If you seen him, you seen me. We met while playing basketball one summer, and we’ve been tight ever since. I could still see his shiny caramel face. He had these slanted eyes that made him look like he was always high. He had an intoxicating laugh that made you want to laugh, even if you didn’t know what he was laughing at. 

We did everything together from going to house parties, fighting, even dating cousins. He was the middle child just like me, so that made us even tighter. His dad and mom dealt with addiction and that brought us closer as well. To me, he was more like a brother than a friend, and there’s not a moment that passes that I don’t wish he was still here.

One minute, we were on the porch, and I was talking to his sister through the screen door while Creed was standing behind me on the top step. And the next minute, I heard music coming from a car driving up the block, and I didn’t think nothing of it. A few seconds passed and I heard the blast from a shotgun ring out in our direction. I stood frozen as fragments of Creed’s brains splattered all over my face and clothes. I saw his body shake and finally fall over. 

Creed died at my feet with half of his face blown off. I can still feel like I’m standing there, and I want to rewind the time and change the outcome. My homey had a date with death and death kept his appointment. 

And — he died over a case of mistaken identity. The people in the car had got shot at by someone else who looked like him. 

I was 16 when Creed died. I wore a black hoodie for the next two years, just kinda on auto-pilot through life. Really walking around not caring if I lived or died. I masked my pain and stayed high off weed and drinking.

At the time my household consisted of me, my mom, and my older brother V. I had other brothers and sisters — the children my dad had with other women — to date, the total is 10 in all, 6 brothers and 4 sisters. I turned out to be the middle child.

Without Creed by my side, I felt like a wanderer. Any day I was able to breathe was a day to be celebrated. To try and drown out the pain and sorrow of seeing Creed die, I took to heavy drinking, smoking weed, and having sex.

I fell into fighting and got deep in the mix of street life. Again, loneliness visited me as my environment hardened me. Soon I was completely surrounded by poverty, addicted parents, emotional inconsistencies, and a lack of positive role models. 

The jungle opened up to me. Hustlers and gangsters became my role models. I spent nights lost in rain hustling. The same crack cocaine that once tore my family apart was now keeping me alive. This newly acquired money came with power and respect, and I found myself being a protector and provider for my family and the hoods I frequented. 

I was seen as a teenage kid who had heart and took no mess from nobody. The streets knew my name – I was Darkman. I was a cross between Triple X and Robinhood. I learned to appear out of nowhere, always at the right time. If you asked me how I did it, I couldn’t tell you. All I know is the street brings out a sixth sense in you. You learn to survive, adapt, and change with the times. 

As I sit here writing this I can’t help but smile. This was only my childhood. 

Fontaine Baker #391865


P.O. Box #351

Waupun, Wisconsin 53963