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Urban Legend

"I would have betrayed all the opportunities I've had if I didn't give something back," says Newark's newly minted mayor. "Inner cities are the last great challenge to this country." (By Steve Hockstein -- Bloomberg News)

"I was like the vice president for a while there, moving around to undisclosed locations," he says, chuckling for a moment. "But you know, I don't want to hear about it anymore. At some point, I shut it off because I have faith both in my security and the larger universe, that I'm here for a mission and it's not to be taken out by a gang member in the next few weeks."

When Booker talks about "the universe" he means God, whose name he often invokes in speeches. It's just part of what gives him a choirboy aura. He doesn't smoke or drink, he rarely swears and does not eat meat.

Plus, he lives amid poverty, in a semi-notorious Newark complex called Brick Towers. It was the scene of a 24-hour drug bazaar when Booker moved in back in 1998 and the target of one of his first crusades as a community activist. He was encouraged by an elderly resident and local dynamo named Virginia D. Jones.

"He kept calling me and calling me, asking for my help," says Jones, who was one of three people holding the Bible at Booker's swearing-in. "I said, 'Why should I help you? Everyone else I helped was a turncoat.' "

Because of their effort, Brick Towers is better off these days, but it's still not exactly paradise.

"I pay $600 a month, which seems like highway robbery at the moment," says Booker, "because I haven't had heat or hot water since November."

Wait. The new mayor of Newark hasn't had a hot shower since November?

"I boil water. First I used pots, but then a friend of mine came over one day and she said, 'Have you ever heard of a camp shower?' And now there's this sack that hangs in my apartment" that provides hot water.

'The Greatest Challenge'

Briefly Sickening Cory Booker story No. 2. (No. 3, if you count the boiled water story, which you probably should.) Booker is 3 years old. His father has driven with him to Newark for a dental appointment. Cory sees a man painting his house, then gets an idea.

"He said to me, 'Dad, let's paint the whole place,' " says Cary Booker, talking at the same public-safety forum few weeks back. "Newark was really dark in those days. He wanted to paint it so it would look better, be a good place to come to visit. I said, 'No, son, we can't do that.' "

Like other Booker stories, this one seems made up. What are the odds? Newark's 6-foot-3 prince of the city eager to spruce up the place before he's old enough for kindergarten.

But Booker senior and his wife weaned both of their sons -- there is an older brother, Cary Booker II -- on African American history and an ethos of civic-minded sacrifice. Husband and wife both took jobs with IBM in Washington, through an initiative to expand the company's ranks of black executives and salesmen. When the family relocated to Harrington Park, a north Jersey suburb, they had to join forces with the state's Fair Housing Commission and outmaneuver a real estate agent who tried to shunt them from the all-white neighborhood where they wanted to live.

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