Sympathy for the Devil

Six years ago, a St. Louis judge took a hell of a risk. He let Von Nebbitt go free despite years of drug dealing and stealing, weapons offenses and parole violations. One of them has learned a lesson.

When his own sons were born, Nebbitt had no crisis of conscience about baby-making. "I'd never really sat down and thought about it. It was just normative. That's what we all did, and we knew the mother was going to take care of them. If you're hustling good, you'll give her some money, but you're probably not gonna take them to the ball game." By the time his baby girl started talking and walking, things had changed. "That's when I knew I had to get it together," he murmurs, abashedly sexist. "I had to make sure that guys like me didn't get her!"

He now has custody of one of his sons, Kahlil (who's named after his parents' favorite poet) and the other, Von (his child with Diane), comes over all the time. Both are now 15; his and Cox's little girl, Salihah, is 6.

Cox trusts his recovery without hesitation; she always knew he wasn't cut out for street life. "Von would steal. But he couldn't steal. He'd put a big empty orange-and-blue Purex box in a shopping bag and stuff clothes in it. I said, "Stevie Wonder would catch you!' At the old Woolworth's on Natural Bridge, he got caught stealing fish. A big dope fiend, and he got caught stealin' little bitty fish."

Jennifer Silverberg
Jennifer Silverberg
Nebbitt with his mother, Ernestine Underwood: "I was getting ready for work, and he called and said, ®Mama, if you don't help me, I'm gonna die.'"

Now he teaches his sons about nature. And if the boys make a mistake, he has them write about it, relate a topic to the situation. Then he reminds them, "When you mess up and you come back in the house, you are dealing with an ex-con recovering addict with a fucking master's degree. Which one did you think you'd get something over on?"

Nebbitt's told the boys everything about his past, but says, "They've suppressed a lot. They used to say, "No, you weren't in that bad.' Now they're saying, "Daddy, for real?'" (Asked about his dad's past, Kahlil mutters, "I don't think about it a lot for real. I can't even remember now most of it. So I just try to forget about it." Do drugs appeal to him? "Naw. I used to smoke cigarettes, though, every once in a while. But I stopped, 'cause I'm starting to play sports and stuff.")

Nebbitt has noticed that, when he listens to rap music with his sons, he gets an urge to tell the old stories. How does he keep from glamorizing what, to young minds, might be illicit adventure? "Because I tell the whole story," he answers firmly. "I don't just tell the snapshots, I tell the end, too, when I was in prison having to take a shit in public.

"One morning in particular, I just wanted to be by myself. Didn't want anyone so close that if I moved my leg I'd be touching his. Didn't want people having conversations all around me. I just wanted some quiet, and I told myself, "Von, whatever reason you snort that dope — to make you feel better or be sexually better — you gotta stop.'" He pauses, then finishes with dignity, "I just didn't want to use the bathroom in public that day."

Now that Nebbitt's living, successfully, in what he calls "the square legitimate world," he speaks "about three different Englishes: The square legitimate Wash. U. intellectual stuff. Another language I talk with the young people, the hip-hop rap kind of talk where "wet you up' means a gunshot. And then, just the old street lingo, with the older guys. We didn't make up any new words, just used the old ones — "Dude, that's really messed up.' Where with young people, I'd say, "These cats whack. Or, "Man, that's skeet.' And at Wash. U., I would say, "Structural changes in the economy have made social conditions deplorable, and African-Americans are disproportionately over-represented in the group affected by these changes."

As a professional social worker with a past, he's got quite a few ideas about what the police could do: "They never said, "Why don't you guys get it together?' It was just "Lock their asses up.' Instead of chasing a guy off a corner, maybe see more than the behavior, establish some kind of relationship. Maybe have a house on every block where policemen can come in, drink coffee, get to know some of the younger kids and be involved in their life. Instead of just being the guy who comes in with a billy club, knocks your father in the head, handcuffs your brother, pushes your mother out of the way and ramshacks your house."

His past hasn't faded to pastel or turned into somebody else's life. "It's there. I have to watch my thinking, the way I interpret information. Sometimes I can find myself getting that hardcore, "I don't give a fuck' attitude. I call him Vonsky."

He's getting used to brushing Vonsky away, though, in favor of a more balanced reality. Underwood drills him on budgets and money management: "We talk about that just about every time I see him," the older man chuckles. "He's coming along pretty good. He's gettin' it."

And his achievements are mounting.

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