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.

Same thing happens on the next block. Clearly, people out west know that Nebbitt is "out," straight, working. Yet they don't back away, or tempt or taunt or begrudge. It's more like they're relieved, maybe a little proud.

"Now I go out and I just mess everybody's high up," he grins. "I got enough respect in the 'hood that they won't tell me to go away. I don't stay long on any drug set (actual buying and selling), because I don't think I can explain it to the police. But I'll go on Theodosia (his old street) and see the sisters and ask 'em where their babies are. And I'll buy food — I won't give somebody money to get that hit that's gonna kill him, but I'll go to White Castle in a New York minute.

"I never had anybody try to get me back," he adds, "except my old partner, once, because he couldn't believe I'd changed. Came down from Chicago with a spiel about how good he was doing. That was the week I got my acceptance letters from grad school. I said, "Man, you ain't gettin' it.'"

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.'"

He honks, yells, "What's up, Sam?" and turns onto a peaceful, startlingly well-kept street. "These people wanted their block back, and they got it. We'd be tryin' to sell them drugs all the time, and they would religiously call the police on us. After I got out, I thought, "Man, we must've been crazy — these people got nice property. If I lived here, I wouldn't want no drug dealers on my street, either.'"

He turns down Theodosia, where the few houses still standing are as cracked and hollow as the addicts on the stoops. "Some serious slumlordin'," murmurs Ingram. "Most houses on that other street are privately owned, but these are rental." Nebbitt brakes and points. "See that boarded-up window? My grandmother lived right there when my mom and my aunt moved in." Another emaciated man approaches the car, smiling but nervous. "I'm just doin' this shit 'cuz I want to, Von," he blurts without preface.

"Well, then why don't you stop, man?"

"Goin' to, on my birthday. July 4, I'm gonna get some independence."

"Then I'll be here on July 4."

"I'm just cruisin' now — I ain't no schizophrenic, I ain't out there bad."

"That's what they sayin'," Nebbitt tells him bluntly.

"Man, I can do better than this, you know damn well."

"I'll be out here July 4."

He pulls away, and both men are silent for some time. "He is mentally ill," Nebbitt says later, "and that'll be his biggest challenge. But there's a chance for anybody."

He slows the car outside one of the first drug houses, its facade crumbling, its painted white "CONFECTIONERY" still legible, its stairwell open. "People probably use it for smokin' crack now, or for a cubbyhole," says Nebbitt. "For some reason, we kind of set up shop around here." Another long silence. But the next block looks brighter, and the mood in the car lifts. "This is coming back up — I'm glad to see that, man."

Farther on, white churchfolk are hammering for Habitat for Humanity, and Ingram — now a public-health worker — nods a solemn greeting. It's hard to believe he's got a past — until he starts explaining "the thrill of the negative" for a young man living out west. "You gotta get out here, or you don't have no braggin' rights. And that's how you're makin' your bones."

Nebbitt nods. "We believed in the American dream," he grins wryly. "Took penitentiary and death chances to get it. We just hadn't accepted institutionalized ways of getting it. Nobody I saw, growing up, ever went to work in the legitimate world." He steers out of his old territory. "Over here, they didn't have no sense of criminal camaraderie," he remarks, hitting the syllables with heavy irony. "If something come down and they don't hit a lick, that's on you. Out west, we hardly ever killed each other. We couldn't afford to lose any soldiers."

He turns back onto Kingshighway, glances at his watch and speeds up, explaining over his shoulder, "I've got to work today."

The Square Legitimate World

Nebbitt's now planning a program for African-American males in the eroded, drug-dealt ghost town called Wellston. "I feel to blame for conditions on the west side," he murmurs. "My waywardness was a major contribution to how it looks today." Surely the area was already disintegrating? "Our drop in the bucket made it worse," he says firmly.

If he were the one judging criminal offenders, how would he decide who to take a chance on? "I would probably be really risky," he answers instantly. "I would probably take a chance on almost everybody that was referred to me. On everybody who would listen."

What if a young man were heading down his old path? "I'd probably use a little personal disclosure," he grins. "Then I'd show him the benefits of living the other way, expose him to a lot of opportunities, expect things of him. I'd show him that black men do other things than deal drugs and exploit women and make babies and stand on the corner getting high."

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