He had packed his life story into a cardboard box and was heading for the door.
“Grandma, we gonna roll, all right?”
Tony Lewis Jr. yells up the stairs of this renovated house. Granite countertops, hardwood floors, modern fireplace — it looks completely different than it did when it was the beating heart of crime in Washington. You could say the same for the whole neighborhood around Hanover Place NW, near the NoMa-Gallaudet Metro Station. The street was once one of the largest open-air drug markets in the city, but now it’s out with the poverty and crime, in with the stroller-wheeling young professionals — whom Lewis can now count himself among.
“All right?” Lewis yells.
“Oh,” his grandma hollers back from her room. “You’re going?”
Lewis walks over to the stairs so she can hear him better. Twenty-some years ago, from this house, his grandma saw it all: Her son-in-law (Lewis’s father) became a notorious drug kingpin who helped bring crack to the District. The city’s murder rates soared while the Lewises lived the good life. Little Tony Lewis counted trash bags of his father’s money. Then came the arrest. The crackdown. The reform.
“Yeah, we’re going,” he calls out. “We’ll be back.”
He picks up the box filled with copies of his self-published autobiography, “Slugg: A Boy’s Life In The Age of Mass Incarceration.”
Grandma already knows the story. Now Lewis is trying to tell it to the world.
In 1989, an 8-year-old Tony Lewis was staring at a pair of Reeboks in the Mazza Gallerie’s Foot Locker.
“Dad, I want these,” he said, knowing it was all he had to say for his father, Tony Lewis Sr., to pull out the cash. The man had multiple apartments, Mercedes-Benzes and Porsches, Versace suits. He had never said no. Until this time.
“I’m not going to always be around to get you stuff, Slugg,” his father said, calling Lewis by his nickname. “Understand? I might not always be able to get you what you want.”
A few weeks later, his father was arrested.
The downfall is well-known to longtime District residents. It was a massive law enforcement operation that led to more than 30 arrests, including the man at the top, 24-year-old Rayful Edmond III. “Sources alleged that the combined drug network of Edmond and Lewis employs more than 150 people and brings as much as 200 kilograms (440 pounds) of nearly pure cocaine into the District in a week,” The Washington Post wrote after the arrest.
“Slugg” tells the story of Lewis’s father and what happened after he was sentenced to life in prison without parole. Lewis Jr., now 35, recounts how he and his mother lost everything, from cash to houses to cars. She developed a case of paranoia that led to a serious, ongoing battle with mental illness. Lewis felt as if he was without options and joined up with his neighborhood’s crew, called 1st and O.
The memoir doesn’t read like a sympathy-ask. In between tales of the senseless deaths of his young friends, Lewis is upfront about his own wrongdoing. He admits to playing a game called “hitting off the top,” where his crew would punch strangers in the face hard enough to knock them out — for daring to walk on the same side of the street where they stood.
“To get good writing, you have to go to dark places,” said K.L. Reeves, an Atlanta-based author who wrote “Slugg” with Lewis. “At first I thought, ‘I don’t know if he is ready to go to the places we are going to have to go.’ But he was.”
Today, the physical places described in the book are disappearing. Lewis still lives with his grandmother, wife and daughter on Hanover Place NW, the street that was once filled with people waiting in line for cocaine and the people selling stolen goods to those who could afford cocaine. They’d hawk VHS tapes, fur coats and diamond rings, while Lewis and others would watch for cops from the rooftops.
Now, a view from the roof overlooks high-rise apartments, government offices and a Hyatt Hotel. At 5 p.m., people with briefcases and Trader Joe’s bags head into the rowhouses that have been “flipped,” HGTV style.
“The paint colors, the trees, the pavement . . . everything. Everything is different,” said Lewis’s friend Emanuel Thompson, who goes by “Shakey” in the book.
People like him, or Lewis’s grandma, or his aunt who lives a few houses down, are reminders of what the community used to be. So too are the problems that persist: homelessness and drug use, specifically synthetic marijuana known as K2, or spice.
On a regular day, Lewis will be on the phone with a friend in prison (“To accept the call, dial 5 now”) then be chatting with his new neighbors, such as Phil Oh, a 32-year-old dentist.
Unaware of its history, Oh moved in next to the house where Lewis’s father grew up.
“My real estate agent was like, ‘Don’t move there,’ ” he said.
In the two years since Oh bought the place, nearby houses on the street have risen in value by as much as $200,000.
Lewis packs his books into the trunk of his cousin’s Ford Focus and they drive off. His third book signing of the weekend is at the Gryphon in Dupont Circle, a club with gold-foil walls, tufted couches and bottomless mimosas.
It’s the kind of place where Lewis hosts events that traditionally take place in some old high school gym, such as collecting coats in the winter or turkeys around Thanksgiving.
He has become a community-improving activist whom key players in the city respect and ask for help. His full-time job, at the Court Services and Offender Supervision Agency, is finding employment for people just out of prison. His free time is spent bringing philanthropy to places you wouldn’t usually find it, like clubs, and supporting children with incarcerated parents through his organization Sons of Life.
“He’s always up to something,” his cousin DeShanta Hinton said. “Always.”
“Slugg” makes it clear that this transformation from street to service wasn’t seamless. He started out in a side job for the city when he was 20, bringing roller skates and Razor scooters to parks in high-crime areas. That led him to a full-time job at the Kennedy Recreation Center. Lewis found himself telling his story to younger people: “Look, I get it. I’ve been there.”
“I couldn’t be a hypocrite,” he says. “I couldn’t tell kids stay away from drugs and gun violence and go to school and then not represent that myself.”
Now, driving past the homes of kids he’s mentored, they take a left off Hanover Place, past an abandoned lot, then past a house that’s been refurbished with barnwood and industrial metal accents. Like the streets that connect the old and new, Lewis sees himself as a bridge between the neighborhood’s past and present.
“See that Giant?” he says, pointing at a new grocery store out the window. “You can buy wine and beer while you’re shopping. We were in there like two weeks ago, and I bought a glass of wine. Then I see a guy from ’round the way that I know. And he’s like ‘Slugg, you crazy. You walking around here with that!’ ”
Lewis had to explain that this was not only allowed but encouraged in the new grocery store.
“It’s just crazy,” he says. “Like the guy who lives [in the apartments] above the Giant, he knows. It’s in there for him. So I’m like, I’m going to get me a glass of wine just to show other people that it’s okay.”
He sits quietly for a minute, looking out the window.
“But like, my homegirl, she just got killed right there on Memorial Day,” he says, talking about Tamara Gliss, who was shot one block from the Giant.
“And I just wonder, how did her death affect the people who live above the Giant? I don’t know what way it’s supposed to. But that’s somebody who died and they share a community.”
Lewis and his cousin arrive and park at the Gryphon. (“Hey, man, that’s Tony Lewis!” one bouncer says to the other.)
He sets up near the door, so people coming in the club for Sunday brunch pass by him on their way in.
He sells his life story for $15 apiece, and writes “Thank you for your support,” over and over again with a Sharpie.
“I know I’m going to have a lot of flashbacks reading this book,” one buyer tells him.
“Look at you now,” a few people say.
His fans ask Hinton to take photos of them holding the book.
He says “Thank you, thanks, man, thank you,” and can’t help but think about all the places he hopes this book, his story from riches to rags, and kind of back again, will go. To kids with dads like his. To classrooms at Harvard or Yale. To the desk of President Obama.
His phone rings.
He picks it up, holds it up to his ear, then presses 5.
“Hey, Pop,” he says. “I’m downtown doing a book signing.”