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.

What are the prerequisites for even brief success? "You gotta be relentless," Nebbitt says. "Can't be sensitive. Have to be self-centered, not care about anybody else. Gotta have good business sense and a good reputation on the streets. Keep your word. And people got to know that if they try to rob you, you will do whatever you need to do. So a history of violence helps."

This from a man who now worries about imposing and brings extra water in case a companion's thirsty, routinely extending the kind of courtesy that reaches beyond habit to anticipate someone's needs. "When I thought I'd be sensitive," he explains awkwardly, "I medicated. When you have heroin, you don't feel, period. I didn't care who was being hurt. It numbed me out, made me think I was invincible, convinced me I could manipulate my way into or out of anything."

Invincibility ended when — after an especially good month running the streets, using heroin every day, undercover — Nebbitt started feeling run down. "I told my brother I was going to take a few days off, spend some time with Diane and the new baby. Told myself I needed to dry out; I'd been getting way too high.

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.'"

"So I went home to Diane, and that night, it woke me up about 3 in the morning. I was in a puddle of sweat, the whole bed was wet and I had this stench, like sewage, and I'm thinking, "What the hell is going on?' Diane was looking at me really strange — she said my body had been jerking and shivering while I was asleep. I tried to get up, and it was like my joints didn't have any lubrication in them, like I was 100 years old. I thought I'd just run myself down. Then the other symptoms started, the runny nose and diarrhea, and I thought, "And I got the flu!'"

Mims tried to feed him chicken soup, but he couldn't keep it down. "I didn't know what to do," she recalls. "He kept saying it was the flu." Nebbitt says he couldn't even sleep, "stayed there all night just woke. Next morning my brother called. He'd been using heroin for years, and he started asking me questions. I didn't know he was doing the Heroin Addiction Survey on me! I was answering yes to every question, and he started laughing, and I didn't see a damn thing funny that I couldn't stop shitting for five minutes. He said, "Man, you been fuckin' with that Boy?' (Heroin is "Boy"; cocaine's "Girl.") I denied it, said, "I just can't run around like I used to. I'm going to GNC, get me some vitamins.'"

Nebbitt's brother backed off, but not before he sneaked in a suggestion to try a matchhead (a small bit of heroin). "I was in so much pain I was ready to try acupuncture," Nebbitt says, wincing. He waited until Mims was out of sight, tried the matchhead — and knew instantly why they'd always called heroin Magic Tragic ("magic when you got it, tragic when you ain't"). Every symptom vanished.

"It was a great relief physically, but emotionally it was devastating, because I had to accept the reality that I was a fuckin' dope fiend, just the same as the guys and girls on the street that come to you begging."

Downhill Slide

When "the whole drug-dealer thing was in maximum effect" — car, clothes, jewelry, bankroll — Nebbitt did as well as the white guys trading junk bonds on Wall Street. The stress was even higher. "It's an uncertain happiness," he observes wryly. "You had to have a gun, always. I'd show up on the street and say, "I need a heater.' Somebody else, they'd send to Central Hardware. But if you know the language and you're in a nice car, with some jewelry.... You get yourself a heater, a burner, a strap. And at home, you sleep with it under your pillow.

"It's like the sword of Damocles hanging over your head," he reflects. "Ninety percent of the people out there are working against you — police, feds, addicts who want something, people who say they're your friends but want your position. Only very occasionally do you run into someone who is seriously by your side."

Heroin lifted the fear right off him. But the more he used, the lower his profits fell. "I wasn't on top of things. I should've been opening up new spots, finding new parts of town where I could put drugs. At one point I was narrowed down to just one spot. And I wasn't checkin' on the guys who were working."

One night, Nebbitt got caught with a group of guys out looking for revenge, their guns in a hidden compartment closest to where he was seated. All the weapons charges landed on him. He served time, then went to the prerelease center and arranged a fake job (paid somebody to give him a check stub from a dry cleaner's and, if someone called for him, say he was out making a delivery). Went back to dealing. Went back to prison. Started "rough hustling," stealing to support his habit. Wound up back in prison again.

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