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.

That's when he found out he was smart: "On the placement test, I scored pretty high. The teacher told me she wanted me to help the other students. I said, "Hey, I want to get some help, too!' But it did make me feel a little better about myself." Nebbitt's older sister, Edna Taylor, had prayed in relief every time he went to prison, because he was safe and he'd be forced to "sit down and be still, and read, and open up his mind. Because that's how he was when he was little — quiet, a nature child, loved plants and lizards and snakes."

In prison, he earned the associate's degree, and when he hit the streets again, he had some reservations about going back to dealing or using. He got a real job, hauling steel in a factory. Then he went to visit an old friend who happened to be a dealer, and walked in while the guy was mixing and capping heroin. "He poured some on a plate and slid it in front of me, and even though I hadn't had any in three years, I really wanted it. I got high, and I went to see a young lady I was dating, tried to keep myself sober-looking, but she knew immediately, kind of turned away instead of embracing me. I thought, "Damn, is it that obvious?'"

The next ghost to taunt him was a guy he'd known since childhood. Fresh out of prison, this guy kept talking about how much money they could make dealing. Sick of emptying dumpsters of steel for minimum wage, Nebbitt slid right back into the old life. But it didn't fit so smoothly. "I knew I had a little bit more to offer the world. So I had a lot of internal battles."

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.'"

The conflict dissolved when he started smoking crack. "That's when I knew I was on borrowed time, prison or death. I used to practice how to pull off as fast as I could, closing the car door in the same second, so somebody couldn't catch me in between and shoot me. You're living for the moment. Don't hear a lot of people in the 'hood talking about their retirement plan or their IRA.

"Sometimes I think I was suicidal, doing the things I did," he muses, "hoping they'd take me out of my misery. But nobody ever did. I started stealing, playing tricks, telling people I wanted to buy drugs and putting out fake money with a $20 on top. I thought, they catch me, they gonna peel my potato (shoot him in the head)."

Around this time, he was "given," by one of the guys who worked a street corner for him, a girlfriend from North St. Louis, a "bonnie" to drive or hold his gun. But that never touched his relationship with his "square girlfriend," Jackie Cox, to whom he returned when his relationship with Mims ended. ("I loved him — still do — but I didn't want my children to see what was going on in his life," explains Mims. "I thought somebody was gonna call me and say he got shot dead.")

Cox, who worked as a stenographer at a state agency's office in the county, hid in the bathroom when Nebbitt shoplifted. "I remember nights sitting outside drug houses crying, always trying to convince Von of how smart he was," she sighs. "When we first met, I was 16 and he was 19, and I kept telling my family how wonderful he was, and they kept saying, "No he's not!' I told my mama he didn't eat pork, and she said, "He'll eat whatever the hell I fix.' But we used to read poetry together. How many people do you meet read Kahlil Gibran?"

In December 1992, Cox pressured Nebbitt into a detox unit. Cox's sister had been in rehab, but Nebbitt had "always thought it was a lot of bullshit. I thought her sister was still usin' and had just found a really good way to keep people off her ass." Still, he dutifully endured the brief program, then "went right back to living with Jackie on the North Side. Didn't last two weeks before I was high. Of course, I didn't go to any meetings, either. Didn't try to get a sponsor, didn't go for aftercare, didn't do any damn thing. I think I called somebody once, from a pay phone, on my way to get high."

By that July, he was "as thin as I could get, feeling really pitiful, sorry for myself, lower than a worm." He started not coming home for two or three days, taking Cox's car so she couldn't go to work. He spent hours suffocating in airless crackhouses, the windows kept shut so the drugs wouldn't blow, the people staring, pacing, checking the windows, some of their drug-hyped paranoia actually justified, because any minute the cops might kick through the door because somebody there just killed somebody.

"He scared me, from the reaction to the drugs," recalls Cox, "but he was never violent or mean. Just weird, crazy stuff, always filled with fear. Thought I'd stolen his drugs, thought I was sleeping with some guys in the drug house."

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