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.

""We were playing in the sandbox, living in the dream world, had our own bedrooms, two parents, a patio and an apple tree. And then we had to leave there and go live in the ghetto. Mama had some emotional distress. You can't use that from now on. And you can't listen to everything those people tell you. You go to therapy and you share, but you remember what is sacred in your heart.

""Don't forget,'" she added bluntly, ""you had 10 years of your kids' life when you was not straight. And you want them to let that go.'"

I've Been There

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.'"

On the way to BASIC, Nebbitt passed the International Jazz Club, and he used to peer in the window at James Barnes' studio, looking at abstract oils that had human faces in them. "Every day for three days, I left him a note. I'd say, "I would like to paint with you.' About the third note, he called me back. I started going to St. Louis University with him — sometimes we'd go to the studio there and paint all night."

Taking Barnes' advice, he took out loans and entered SLU as a fine-arts major. Meanwhile, he started teaching art to the children of BASIC clients. "When I did that on Saturday mornings, I felt that was the most useful thing I did in the world," he says. "On the street, we don't think we can make a contribution."

The feeling was so new and so strong, he switched his major to social work. That summer, he took a course in desert spirituality. Professor Belden Lane remembers Von Nebbitt as the one student who immediately grasped the theological symbolism of the desert, a place of utter aloneness in which everything is hard and dry, and God is nowhere to be found. "He was as wonderful an example of a wounded healer as I can think of," recalls Lane. "He could interpret the book (Lane's own, written during a time of great pain) even better than I can now."

Nebbitt talked about himself some in those class discussions. He avoided the shocking details, though, just as he would the following year, when he entered the master's program in social work at Washington University.

"I always raised tough questions," he notes, "because I'd lived that life. Gave me a good edge. We were all reading the same stuff, and here I'd come, and the others would say, "Was that in the readings?' When they asked how I knew, I'd just say I grew up on the west side in poverty." Then he'd cut up, toss some one-liner, bury a profound observation in silliness. "I'd always have to catch myself and say, "These people are paying $600 a credit hour, Von, and I don't think they're paying it for standup comedy."

He was punch-drunk in those days, studying fulltime and working fulltime, too, in his first real-job-with-health-insurance. He'd gone to the state and said, in essence, "I've done all the rehab, I've done the parole, now give me a damn job. I know something about your youth that you don't know. I've been there."

"The Wild West"

It's early Saturday morning and already hot, but Von Nebbitt and his old buddy Milton Ingram have been down to Soulard's bustling farmers' market. Now they're tour-guiding "out west" — the rough central region where the city meets Wellston, where both men grew up — got addicted — got bad — got out.

Out west, not a body's moving — even the air, heavy with humidity, just hangs in one place. "They doin' the last-night shuffle," Ingram remarks of the few residents in sight. "Tryin' to get the last trick in." He nods toward a woman sitting in a doorway. She's so high her head's lolling, but her knees are spread deliberately wide. "We been to the fruit market, not the meat market," he sings, perky with sobriety.

Together the men map the territory as Nebbitt drives. "Milton lived over by DeBaliviere, had to cross another group before you got to ours," says Nebbitt. "We were the 5800 block, about 12 of us, and you had another group right up here between Page and Martin Luther King. This is how we thought: Anybody that lived from Hamilton onto Goodfellow down to Wabada, he was OK. That's who we fought with, slept with, ate with. They were family. But if somebody didn't live in this area, he was not with us."

"If you knew people, you could float," chimes Ingram. "But if you were just walking around, you might have to pay tribute." The car slides toward what used to be Wellston's strip mall but now looks like Kosovo. "This is the central business district," Nebbitt says dryly. "I used to work up and down here as a little kid, shining shoes. It kept me from stealin'. When Wellston closed, nobody made the connection: Ain't no more money in the neighborhood." He turns into the bus loop, and a skinny, eager man called Baby hails the car. "Hey, Von!" The warm, staccato conversation ends with "Tell everybody I love 'em." "All right, baby," calls Baby. "Be cool."

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