In or Out Of the Game?

By Kevin Merida
Sunday, December 31, 2006

The corner is a staple of street life, that rare piece of real estate that can't be purchased. Occupy it, claim it, it's yours. Anthony Marcellus James is a corner celebrity, a paradox of menace and charm. He is leaning against a fence, next to a vacant lot, in the Brentwood neighborhood of Northeast where he once was feared, as he put it, by people who would whisper: "That's A.J. Man, you don't want to [expletive] with him. He kills."

A.J. worked hard to earn his reputation, beating three murder charges in the 1990s and helping to settle numerous scores. "I'm known for having ammo, supplying people with guns and ammunition," he says. He has become, by his own admission, part of the scorned but emulated class of black men who have spent their lives as gangsters, drug dealers, stickup artists, killers. No collection of black men has generated more attention, more anger, more tears. By 2001, nearly 2 million black men nationwide had been to prison. On any given day, four of five D.C. jail inmates are black men. Many operate in a "thug life" world of their own -- with its own codes of conduct, its own language and economics, its own vulnerabilities.

The sun is setting on this warm December day, the chill is rolling in. A.J. zips up his black leather jacket and hollers at a woman in three-inch heels on the other side of Adams Street. "I'm going to hurry up and get myself together so I can marry you!" But together seems a long way off. James is wearing an ankle bracelet containing a GPS tracking device that allows authorities to monitor his movements. "To me, it's degrading -- like on Animal Planet where they tag the animals," he says. His curfew is 8 p.m. He has no job, no car, no place of his own (he lives on this block with his aunt). He is 37 years old. A front tooth is missing, the result of a scuffle with police. His hand is stiff from being shot. His stomach is carved up from being shot. His arm is skin-grafted and mottled from being shot. Shot, shot, shot. Ten times in all.

After serving three years in federal prison for possession with intent to distribute the drug PCP, he was released in the spring. It was not his first tour. Now, he is "on paper," as ex-cons say, meaning for him three years of strict government supervision.

The toll from his lifestyle has him thinking: What else could I be doing? He finds himself between redemption and resignation, believing he can recast his life but not quite sure how to do it. In prison, he wrote a book, "Love and Bullets," a raw, autobiographical tale featuring plenty of girlfriend drama and frequent shootouts. It was so popular among inmates, James said, that he wrote a sequel, "Love of Bullets," which he followed up with a novel, "Bulletproof Love." The more he wrote, the more confident he became. He penned seven books in all and drafted a letter to a publisher hailing himself as the next Donald Goines, the career criminal and heroin addict from Detroit who churned out 16 books in five years and became a street-literature sensation.

On his best, dreamy days, A.J. thinks about being Donald Goines, and then writing thrillers like James Patterson, and then writing classics such as "The Godfather." On his worst, rebellious days, he thinks about no job, no car, no place of his own, and restrictions on his movements that are tough to abide. "There ain't no forgiveness," he says, and by that he means that the larger society doesn't really believe in rehabilitation or second chances. "If I can't work, I'm going to go out there and sell me some rocks. What else you expect me to do? I got to make me some money some kind of way."

A guy once told him something he still finds profound: The reason the guy smoked drugs, he said, was because he was afraid his life wouldn't turn out well. "You go to Georgetown, and see white people all chipper," James says. "And then you go to the neighborhood and our people are all mad. And the question you have to ask yourself is: Why?"

The sun has faded, giving the darkening sky an orange glow. The foot traffic on Adams Street has collected around James. There's the bearded street philosopher with the piercing eyes; the dancing boozehound they call Don Juan ("I'm a drunk, but I'm still somebody"); the scruffy white electrician who is wiring condo units in the neighborhood; the sassy woman they call Pie, whose sisters are Cookie, Candy and Puddin'. Pie is constantly barking at A.J. "If I was a man, I'd whup your ass." To which A.J. replies: "You better [expletive] with somebody less dangerous."

A big man eating a bag of chips walks up. "What's up?" he calls to A.J.

"The price of gold, the cost of living."

Big man puts his arm around James. "He's a fair man, a fair man." Big man knows A.J. grants favors.

The gatherers talk about how the neighborhood has changed -- the condo conversions, the Home Depot that doesn't hire enough locals.

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