When his brother and neighborhood teenagers broke the law to get spending change, McKinley Briscoe found a job.
At 15, he supported himself by working after school. Today, McKinley, 22, is a clerk at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. He works nights as a bowling alley attendant and he saves his money, he says,hoping to go to college.
During those teen-age years, the police knew very little about McKinley Briscoe; they had no need to. They know quite a bit more about his younger brother Tyrone, who has been arrested five times for bank robbery since he turned 18 last July. One high police official has called Tyrone Briscoe a "one-man crime wave" and he himself has boasted of his exploits on television, although he adds that he is "innocent until proven guilty" of the adult charges.
"Bank robberies ain't no big thing," says Tyrone Briscoe. "If I wanted to make a bigger name, I'd do something bigger than that."
"I feel sorry for him," his mother says.
Both brothers grew up in a Southwest Washington housing project at 1200 Delaware Ave. called "The Sweatbox," a T-shaped red brick building with eight litter-strewn floors. The word "grim" is spray-painted in large black letters on a wall near the entrance Inside the lobby on a wall across from rows of kicked-in mailboxes is written in inch-high scribble: "If you don't have money, you don't have anything."
Both brothers never knew their fathers. Their mother was on welfare. Their story is that of two brothers from seemingly identical backgrounds who chose very different paths.
Although their paths separated, they had the same goal-to get enough money one way or the other to rise above the welfare-check-to-welfare-check existence that denied them the simple necessities and common luxuries others take for granted.
"Don't make me look exceptional," McKinley Briscoe said in an interview. "My incentive was the paycheck, and, like my brother, I am money-hungry too."
"You don't have to look on TV to see things you want that you don't have," said McKinley. "All you have to do is look out the [housing project] windows at the town houses around here to see what you're missing."
Tyrone and McKinley Briscoe grew up in a neighborhood where someone "always had to stay at home to keep it from being robbed," as McKinley put it. They grew up with street fights and gun battles, times of no heat and no hot water, and, sometimes, barely enough to eat.
"I can remember a time, at the end of the month but before the welfare check had come in, where all we had to eat for dinner was a package of frozen greens, some mustard and one onion," McKinley said.
"The bare necessities came hard," he said. "There were times when we had to wash out our clothes to wear to school the next day. If they were still wet when we got up, we had to put them on anyway. Sometimes we put them in the oven to dry and they got singed. But we wore them anyway."
"It was hard on my mother then, and it's harder now," McKinley said. "She has to pay the rent, has to buy food and when one needs shoes, the other needs clothes, another needs a coat and the ceiling is falling down."
He worries about his four other brothers and sisters living with their mother in another housing project, a two-story red brick shoe-box shaped structure sectioned off into apartments at 212 St. SW, just two blocks away from the Sweatbox.
In the living room of their four-bed-room apartment, a white plastic Portable black and white TV sits atop a large color TV that does not work. The room is simply furnished. A wrought-iron book shelf rests in a corner and two dark wood wood end tables flank a used gold-coloured crush is a bet couch. Above the couch is a framed painted portrait of their mother, Ethel Briscoe.
When McKinley unassuming but determined, speaks about his childhood, about the conditions his family still faces, there is a depth to he gaze that hints at feelings he can not put into words.
Both McKinley and Tyrone were raised by a mother who says she tried to shield them from the grim realities of living in the projects.
"I shut them off from other people as much as possible," said Ethel Briscoe, 40, who has worked as a maid and a cook, but who has been unemployed for many years. "But I couldn't keep Tyrone pinned down. That's what the problem was. I would take the (front door) key to bed with me to keep him in, but he would climb over the balcony to get out or come back in.
"McKinley and Tyrone are not muck alike at all," she said. "McKinley is educated. I depended on him. He was like having another adult in the house.Even when McKinley was about 4 years old I could send him to the store with my money and you couldn't cheat him.
"But Tyrone was uneducated. He could never keep up with the work in first, second or third grade," Mrs. Briscoe said. "He was slow to walk, slow to talked and he seemed to be getting into things the most."
About the time Tyrone began to get into trouble, his mother said, she was having her own personal problems and was not able to communicate with him at all.
"I never taught my children to be like that," she said. "I taught them that no matter how poor you are, you are just as good as a king or queen. Don't let color stop you. don't be destructive, but try to be a builder."
It didn't work with Tyrone," she said sadly. "All you could do is slap him."
Tyrone Briscoe remembers that "when neighborhood kids were thinking about sntaching pocketbooks, I was thinking about armed robbery."
McKinley said he was "no angel. I used to pull fire alarms. I used to shoot dice a lot.
"I would play cards for lunch money and take 10 cents and try to make 30 or 40 cents so I could get something, like an ice cream, that I couldn't get on the free lunch program," McKinley said.
Eighty percent of the kids in the neighborhood have been in trouble with the law once or twice," McKinley said. "But there were also a lot of good people who came out of there."
McKinley wears nice clothes now and he drives a new Oldsmobile Delta 88.
"I borrowed money to get that car," he said somewhat defensively. "I got the car because I owed ti to myself. You have to do things for yourself. It makes you feel better."
McKinley's day starts at 5 a.m. Driving to Walter Reed, he gets to work shortly after 7 a.m. even though his shift doesn't start until 7:45 a.m.
"He beats most of us in to work," said Briscoe's supervisor.
"Everyone knows about his brotherhs unfortunate problems," said Charles Defoor, chief of Briscoe's section. "But 'Scoe, as we call him here, has found some things out for himself and he's shown that he has pride in his work."
Several nights a week, Brisco drives to Silver Spring for a 5:30 p.m. to 10 p.m. job as a cook and counter attendant in a bowling alley.
By the time he gets home and into bed, it's after midnight, and the new days starts about five hours later.
Dressed in his Army khakis and wearing the triangular-shaped patch of a specialist 4 on his sleeve, McKinley leaned his stocky frame forward, sitting on the edge of a couch at the NCO club at Walter Reed.
"I don't know why I am so different," he said, shaking his head. "Maybe it was that first job that helped me get the shoes my mother couldn't afford. There were times when we didn't get birthday of Christmas presents. There were no white Christmases. It was that first job that boosted my morale."
His first job, at 15, was doing odd jobs at the National Wildlife Federation. He remembers several people there taking time to talk to him, to show him things he never saw living in Soutwest Washington. His narrow world began to expand.
"They took time with me, teaching me to type and about conservation," McKinley said. "They gave me an old camera so that I could experiment taking picures. It was right about then that I had reached a certain age when I wanted men's shoes and clothing-things my mother could not afford to buy.
"I remember when I was graduating from Jefferson Junior High, Mom gave me $70 for shoes and to put down on a suit for the prom," he said. "But I gave it back to her because I knew we could use the money at home. I decided not to go through the graduation ceremonies because I didn't have the $4 or $5 for the fee. When I told the principal why I didn't want to go to graduation, he found a man who took me to get the shoes and a suit."
McKinley said he understands why some people go wrong, why, when all else fails, they decide to take what they can get no toher way.
"When you are down and out on welfare, the agencies don't do anything to help you," he said. "If you manage to get a little part-time job, they take away some of your money or food stamps or both. You can't save anything to get ahead.
"The more you make the more they take, and you never can get out of the situation. It's enought to make a person want to rob a bank. People have the misconception that black people are lazy-that we don't have the motivation to get ahead. It's not tha, it's the pressures that beat you down. People read about all that crime. They should know that there is something behind all that."
McKinley says younger people, like his younger brother Tyrone, are wanting more things-clothes, shoes, cars and so on-at a much younger age. It was the pressure to get what everybody else had, including what he had, that he feels influenced Tyrone most.
"Tyrone attempted to work (about the same time McKinley started) but he was too young," McKinley said."Some people had patience, or else they could ask their parents for some of the things they wanted, but Tyrone could not."
"That first job gave me something to look forward to, it showed me a little light, that I still might be able to make it." McKinley said.
With a job, McKinley said he could take care of his own needs and also help take some of the financial burden of his four other brothers and sisters.
After the first job, McKinley went on to a part-time job at a tennis camp, stints as a short-order and grill cook at Holly Farms and McDonald's and at the Navy Yard Commisioned Officers Mess before enlisting in the Army at 19.
A teacher who taught McKinley retailing at Chamberlain Vocational School remembers she would scold him for being sleepy in class. It was not until later that whe learned the reason why-he worked at night.
"He was extremely sleepy and tired, he was sometines irritable when I told him to sit up," said Bertha Newman. "I really didn't understand his circumstances and he would never open up and tell me. I understand now that he had pride.
"I knew he was working at night, but I couldn't understand why he would put work before school," she said. "If I had known, I would have been more understanding. He had potential, but because of his absences, I didn't think he was doing all he could. He finished school and he is gainfully employed and that makes me very proud."
Briscoe said he "missed out on my teen-age years" because he always worked. He remembers having to quit football practice for example, because of work. He wonders if he ever would have made the team.
"You have to feel some sort of resentment about [having to work]. You become a little bitter about it, even when you realize later that it helped to build self-respect," he said.
"I let myself be my drive, I depend on McKinley Briscoe now," he said. "If I hadn't had the first job, I would have done something wrong with my life, there's no doubt in my mind.
"More attention needs to be put into looking at why people do what they do," he said. "The thing is preventiong [of crime]. Give people something meaningful to do and let them know that it's important. That adds to you and makes you feel you are important. If people would take the time to understand just how important jobs are, the city would be a lot better."
He paused, then stressed the importance of what he was saying with strong hand gestures.
"A person has to be able to say, look-a-here, I got something. I'm working."