D. Watkins

D. Watkins stands for a portrait at Bocek Park in East Baltimore. (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore Sun / April 22, 2014)

By the time D. Watkins was in his early 20s, he had filled a shoe box with obituaries.

Kids he had grown up with in East Baltimore. Classmates, neighbors, guys from the corners. His uncle.

And, eventually, his older brother.

The brief paragraphs and grainy photos testified to lives cut short, lives touched by the drug trade: users, dealers, those caught in the crossfire. Watkins had 120 thin brochures from funerals, enough to fill a Nike box. They were the only printed records of the lives of people he cared about.

Watkins decided it was time for a change.

He quit what he wryly calls "the family business" — selling drugs — and enrolled in the University of Baltimore. Although he had graduated from Dunbar High School, he had read only three books in his adult life.

Now, less than a decade later, Watkins has read hundreds of books and is writing his own. He has received a bachelor's degree, a master's in education from the Johns Hopkins University and, last week, his second master's degree, from the University of Baltimore's creative writing and publishing arts program.

Along the way, Watkins, 32, has discovered that he is a writer. His unflinching portraits of the lives of poor, black Baltimoreans have gained him national recognition, a literary agent and talk of a book deal.

"I feel like I was blessed with a second, third, fourth, fifth chance at life," said Watkins. "My journey, my mission is to speak for people like me, people who don't have a voice."

Starting off early

Watkins grew up in a neighborhood called "Down the Hill." It doesn't show up in any city maps, but that's how he and everyone he knew referred to the swath of land between Johns Hopkins Hospital and Frank C. Bocek Park.

"That's where I honed my skills as a dirt bike rider, and that's where I learned how to sell drugs," said Watkins, who prefers not to use his given name, Dwight.

His mother was 15 when she gave birth to him; he was her second child. In published memoirs, he recounts watching her strut off to clubs clutching giant Gucci bags. He bribed his baby brother to stop eating lead paint chips.

Nearly all the men in his life sold drugs. They were complicated people, full of good and bad impulses, profiting off addiction but also handing out cash for groceries or school clothes.

"I came up in the crack era. I was one of the kids hanging out on the corner," he said. The dealers "were our heroes, We looked up to them."

After graduating from Dunbar, Watkins toyed with the idea of college, but the students seemed snobbish.

"I had no interest in that world. I didn't understand how important knowledge is," he said. "I was infatuated with street life."

So he sold drugs.

"At 18, I'd often slice the tips of my fingers up while shaving marble-size pieces of crack into smaller bits," Watkins writes in an article published in Salon last month. "I'd suck the blood off my fingers, rubber band the vials into a bundle, tuck them in my sock and then go off to my block around 8:30 a.m. to set up shop for my 10- to 12-hour shift."

As a drug dealer, Watkins abided by a code of rules he jotted down in a composition book. He didn't want to shoot anyone, and he didn't want to get shot himself. What he wanted was to make a lot of money.