Richie Parker felt confident about himself. He would match his wits against anybody. He felt comfortable with the people of 14th Street NW and with his ability to deal with hijackers and Mafia fences. This scene was all part of Richie's world, the familiar cement corridors along U and T Streets and 14th Street NW. an aging and decaying part of Washington that was still scarred by the destruction of the 1968 riots: an area of abandoned buildings, slum apartments, bars, small clothing stores, tourist homes where prostitutes took their customers, pawn shops, soul-food restaruants, and mom-and-pop grocery stores.
Here people lived by their wits and instincts, preying off merchants, outsiders, and each other. Here people constantly tested one another to sort out the weak. Everybody here seemed to be hustling for money like Richie; in street jargon, they wer "in the life."
Richie (not his real name) had not always been in the life. He had been raised in the neighborhood, but there was a time when he wouldn't steal. His parents had been so strict that when he first told a lie he thought he would go to hell. They had made much of the neighborhood off-limits, but what he saw as a child fascinated him. How could a person let himself get on dope? Look at the junkies, beaten down, out of it. In a stupor. Sitting on the curb.
Now, at age 26, Richie had lied and had stolen. He had been a forger and had sold dope. He had decided some time back that the system - the government, the establishment, society - only stood for the haves, the rich. It was geared against him. Since the system wasn't going to give to him, he would take from it.
He had started in this direction after dropping out of 10th grade from boredom - he was too intelligent for the classes, he believed - and joining the army. While he was stationed in Europe, the Army refused to let him go home on compassionate leave to be with his dying mother. He had once gone AWOL to be with her, and so the colonel wouldn't sign the paper as she lay near death. He was still in West Germany when she died.
Richie left the service an embittered man, and with his high school equivalency earned in the service, enrolled at Federal City College. This was supposed to be the institution of higher learning built by the District of Columbia to educate Washington's black people. He found it second-rate - teachers, supplies, facilities, books. Everything used. Hand-me-down furniture. A lot of black-awareness classes, but no substantial courses, in his view.
At the same time, the best job he could get was as a forklift operator, and that was just temporary. By now he was 21 and married. Without a high school education, he couldn't get a good job.
Richie began exploring the areas that had been off-limits to him as a child, particularly the poolrooms around 7th and T Streets, NW. Fourteenth Street was where the dopers hung out, the washed-out people too weak to make it in the life. Seventh and T was where the talent was. Soon pool was devouring him. He poured his energy into it, playing out of love and facination. If you hit a ball a certain place, it had to go a certain place. It was all in his hands. That was the way life should be.
At first Richie would run all the balls on the table. Then, when people stopped playing him for money, he realized that showing off was cutting into his winnings.So he went into strange pool halls and began intentionally missing shots during warmups. If he gave eight to five - that is, with him having to make eight balls to his opponent's five - he would wait for the other man to sink four balls before he put in his eight. That would give the victim the idea he could have won, that Richie had only been lucky, and that he should try again.
He didn't expose his game, only showed as much of it as he needed to. If his opponent pocketed seven balls in a game to eight, Richie would run seven, and then intentionally miss the eighth, yet place it in a position that made it impossible for the other man to make it.If he did, Richie would back off - no sense lockin' horns with a pro.
He was making between $60 and $70 a day at his peak. But after a while there weren't that many new people coming into 7th and T, and he knew he either had to move up or get out. He tried to move up and he lost $836 to the dude Monksey. So he drifted back to 14th Street.
There was very little to be made hustling pool there, among the dopers. Before long, he started using heroin.
The heroin filled the empty time. Like the others, he used part of a matchbook cover for a quill, spooning the heroin onto it, placing it to one nostril and holding the other, vacuuming it to the back of his brain.
Things soon started going sour with his woman. She was carrying the financial burden and he couldn't get a job, at least not the kind he wanted. He had to decide whether to make his living legally or illegally. He believed he didn't have any skills to offer because of his lack of training. Illegal activity, on the other hand, could get him a decent income. He began selling drugs and quickly picked up an arrest record.
Then in late 1972 his infant son died in what was supposedly one of best hospitals in the city.The staff failed to recognize the pneumonia, he believed. Another example of life's double standards for blacks, Richie thought. A white baby would have been given much better care.
Right after his son died, Richie began forging checks. He could make money that way - not from any person, but from the system. He would walk into a busy bank with a newspaper under his arm. Underneath the top page were sheets of carbon paper.
When someone at the work conuter needed a place to write, Richie told them to pay no attention to his newspaper. "Go right ahead," he would mumble while he fiddled with various forms. After the customer left, Richie usually had their name and bank account number imprinted on his newspaper, underneath the carbon. Using that information he could get blank checks payable on the customer's account: he found that banks gave out substitute check without question.
Any street veteran knew where to get good identification to back up credit card purchases and blank checks. One could go to the D. C. Department of Motor Vehicles with a stolen wallet, pull out the victim's Social Security card and two other forms of identification, and tell the clerk he had lost his driver's license. Within minutes, the veteran had a "replacement" license that matched his own photograph with someone else's name. Cost: $20.
In the banks Richie became a doctor or a lawyer. He knew he couldn't impersonate them in hospitals or courtrooms, but in the banks his act worked very well. He wore three-piece suits, walked erect and deliberately, and treated tellers with impatience. "I'd like $400 forthwith," he would say, believing he had impressed them with the legal terms. Sometimes he would drop a lawyer's business card.
Forgery paid like a good job. Richie found he could get as much money as he wanted, but settled for enough to take care of his family. He told his women he was an insurance salesman in North Carolina and hoped she bebelived that. She knew he was a good salesman.
In November, 1972, he got arrested. It was his own carelessness, he belived. He reached into the wrong pocket.
He had the ID and blank check for, say, Mr. Dobbs in his right pocket and, let's say, Mr. Smith in his left. He knew Mr. Smith didn't have any money because he had just withdrawn it all, but by mistake he presented Mr. Smith's check and ID to the teller. He couldn't very well ask for Mr. Dobb's money after presenting Mr. Smith's ID. So Richie asked what the balance was, hoping he could claim he forgot there was no money in it. To his surprise the teller said there was several hundred dollars in Mr. Smith's account. Richie decided to go ahead and remove it all again.
Only it was a trap. Police and bank officials had been alerted by the real Mr. Smith. They had tricked him, and Richie was upset. They had given him false information.
He was let out on personal bond pending trial. He was going to jail, he figured then, so he might as well get as much as he could while he was out. He went back to the banks.The system makes so much money . . . insure it, and get it all back anyway, he figured. "I'd like my balance, please" Richie announced to a teller.
She dialed a computer, and said that it was more than $15,000. Richie was stunned. None of his numbers had ever paid off like this. "Is this a persoal account or a corporate account?" the teller asked, curious at his hesitation.
Richie knew nothing about corporate accounts, but he figured this must be one because otherwise she never would have asked. "Corporate," he said.
"Are you authorized to sign for this."
"Yes," he said smoothly. "Of course,"
he teller counted out the money, 15,000 and some odd dollars, to the penny.
"Yes, that figure tallies with what I had in my files," he said, carrying it away in an envelope.