James’S mother battled a drug addiction so fierce that sometimes their living room did not contain a single piece of furniture. By the fourth grade, he was the one who dressed and fed his little brothers.
I can’t remember if his mother signed the family up for summer camp, or if James did. Either way, he made an impression. He had startling green eyes, a quick mind, and an even quicker temper. We hoped those eight weeks of reading, camping, and swimming would provide him with some of the childhood he’d been stiffed. But we didn’t kid ourselves that we could change the odds. We knew that his circumstances in the Mission Hill public housing development would shape his fate just as surely as primogeniture dictated the destinies of British nobles.
Two decades later, I wrote to James on his Facebook page: “Do remember me? I have often wondered what happened to you, to all of you actually, so now I am going back and searching for folks.”
“I defn remember,” James wrote back. “How r u?” We agreed to meet for lunch. But the day came and went without any communication. “I’m so sorry,” he texted me later. I suggested the following Sunday. “That’s Father’s Day,” he replied, reminding me he now had a son. We settled on Tuesday.
This isn’t the first time I have tried to find James. Thirteen years ago, I had asked around Mission Hill for him. I was told that he’d been sent to juvenile detention. More recently, he served 2½ years in Walpole for selling cocaine.
That profession reflects the grim economic reality for so many young, poor black men in cities. While low-income single mothers have gained ground in recent years because of the Earned Income Tax Credit and stricter child support laws, low-income single men have fallen far behind. The factory jobs that once provided a decent life for a man with little education have all but disappeared. Even for entry-level work, black men are at a disadvantage, according to Devah Pager, a sociologist who sent out actors to apply for jobs as couriers and telemarketers. She found that black men are half as likely to receive a call-back as white men with identical resumes. Stunningly, black men with no criminal records had just as hard a time finding a job as white men who’d just come out of jail. Data indicate that half of all black men in their 20s who lacked a college degree were jobless in 2004, around the time James would have graduated high school.
Had he managed to secure full-time employment at a minimum wage job, he would have made $8 an hour, or $1,280 a month. Thirty percent of that ($384) would have gone for rent to the Boston Housing Authority. Another $179 would have disappeared into state and federal taxes. That would have left about $720 a month to pay the heat bill, the light bill, the telephone bill, and all the rest. Even with food stamps, that’s hardly enough.
The wages for a street-level drug dealer aren’t much higher. According to a 1998 research paper by sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh, those wages amount to between $9 and $16 an hour, in today’s dollars. But that income is off the books, untaxed and excluded from the cost of public-housing rent or child support. A full-time street-level dealer might take home three times as much as a full-time minimum wage employee.
Tuesday came. I called James from work to see if lunch was still on. Someone else answered his phone.
“He’s coming alright,” the guy told me. “He talked about you. I’ll have him call you in a few minutes. He just went around the corner.”
At Fire & Ice, I ordered nachos and waited. An hour went by. Then two. What happened around the corner?
I ate lunch alone, looking at his Facebook page. I could detect no bitterness in it about the hand he’d been dealt.
“Not for nothin. I love where I came from,” he wrote. “Sometimes u gotta take ur surroundings and make wat u can.”
There was a selfie of him in Burberry shades.
“Being broke is a joke,” he wrote. “I never found it funny, thats why i count my blessings as much as i count my money.”
Another picture shows a Mercedes-Benz.
“I don’t brag,” he wrote. “I’m just being honest. All mine.”
He wrote about a job he doesn’t describe: “Running late . . . Hope my boss dont fire me.”
Did he have legit employment? Or was he still in the game?
He warned in another post that being in the streets 24/7 is “Russian roulette. Eventually your gonna crap out. We must make these days count and get out.”
I hope, for the sake of his son, that he did find a way out. On Valentine’s Day, he wrote about the satisfaction he gets from financially supporting his girlfriend and his little boy: “They want for nothing.”
The girlfriend, whom he promised on Facebook that he’d marry one day, looks like a nice girl. “Crazy about this boy,” she wrote under a photo of him. But other posts bore no trace of romance. She complained about hustlers who have nothing to show for it. She wrote with fierce pride that she’s caring for her son alone: “Don’t want to get out of bed . . . but I have to because I’m a mother and my son’s GOING TO BE SOMEBODY.”
Maybe it’s hubris to think that we could have changed things for James. Yet every organization I know that’s encountered his family carries a sense of collective guilt. Did we fail him? Or was it enough to add some good memories to a childhood that was too harsh and too short? You find silver linings where you can.
Weeks after he stood me up for lunch, I looked up his court file and found a letter he’d written to prison authorities. I winced at a few misspellings, but noted his perfect penmanship.