I can't use Chico's full name because he thinks he'll be killed for talking to a newspaper columnist. It's a small big town, Baltimore. Everybody knows everybody, or everybody knows somebody who knows somebody, and particularly in the miserable drug life - guys selling dope, or guys sticking up guys selling dope - it's all this kill-or-be-killed stuff among homie familiaritas in sales territories that have become even more compact under O'Malley-era police pressure.
Chico is in no immediate danger; he doesn't sell heroin anymore. He just needs anonymity to honor a blood oath.
He's "Old G," meaning an "old gangsta," at 30-something a senior gang member who's eager to say goodbye to all that. You can retire from, but you can't get out of, drug gangs. It's not like you reach a certain age and they let you burn the tattoo off your skin, publish a memoir and go on Oprah. Once "in the blood" you're always in the blood, and that means you keep your mouth shut about the family business.
So why did Chico dial 410-332-6166 to talk to me?
He needs a job.
He's back in Baltimore, after nearly a decade in Maryland prisons.
In that time, he got his GED - having never finished high school in West Baltimore - read a lot of books and he got a barber's license. He has no interest in being a barber; he took the course in prison because it was the only program available to him at the time.
"I have 24 college credits," he says, "but that's all I got because they cut the college courses out."
(In 1994, with the baloney-progressive Bill Clinton in the White House and middling Democratic majorities in the House and Senate, federal Pell grants for prisoners were abolished - despite clear evidence that college courses behind bars substantially reduced recidivism rates among inmates who received the benefit. At the time, some 25,000 inmates in U.S. prisons were getting about $35 million in Pell grants, according to federal records, and that amounted to only two-thirds of 1 percent of the total program in 1994.)
The other day, as Chico and I drove past the big downtown football stadium where the Ravens play, he expressed surprise at the site. "That wasn't there when I went away," he says.
This man, reared by a single mother in public housing projects, got an early start in the drug life. He bought his first gun at 15. Arrested with it, the state put him for a time in the now-closed Charles H. Hickey Jr. School with other juvenile delinquents. At 17, he was arrested again - on drug distribution charges - and the state sent him to an adult prison for five years.
"There's a whole group of guys, from the Hickey School, who I know, and who I saw in prison," he says. "It was like we were in the same class."
Some of them were in the same gang. Chico's affiliation with the gang continued in prison in the 1990s and through 2005, as he served several more years for drug distribution. He says Maryland corrections officials were savvy to this and, as a result, moved him to several state institutions during his near-decade of incarceration. It kept him away from his "family" but not the family business.
Chico says he managed to sell heroin inside the walls; it was a lucrative enterprise. A gram of heroin, smuggled inside by a courier, sold for three to four times its street price in Baltimore.
Chico got out of the drug trade, he says, a few months before leaving prison. Now, back in the city and living with his fiancee, he says he's determined to keep from selling heroin here again - no matter how quickly profitable a return to that career might be.
Since Chico's release from prison, there was a drug-related killing in the once-industrial, half-abandoned neighborhood where he lives. The victim was a low-level dealer.
"Most everyone I dealt drugs with back in the day are dead or locked up," Chico says. "You have to be young and stupid [to deal drugs] now."
Still, if Chico can't produce an income soon, if he gets bored and frustrated, he could relapse into the dealer life.
Fact: Half of all Maryland inmates released from our prisons this year will be back inside within three.
I'm glad Chico decided to tell his story - if only to make clear the threat of recidivism for even the most earnest, motivated-to-move-on ex-offenders.
But what was the point of keeping a guy like this incarcerated - at $24,000 a year in taxpayer cash - for close to 14 years if the state wasn't willing to rock his world, break his gangsta mindset and prepare him for a return to free society? All we did, through most of Chico's time in prison, was warehouse him with other criminals.
So it's 2006, and Chico doesn't know where to go, where to look for a job. He assumes most mainstream employers are going to turn him down because of his record of narcotics felonies, and he's correct to make that assumption.
Not that I mind, but this "Old G" is calling a newspaper columnist for a job when he should have had one lined up before the state released him.
The only person to offer him employment so far has been a drug dealer.