It was heartening to hear that Rainey wasn't aboard rapper 50 Cent's "Get Rich or Die Tryin'" wangster train. But the idea of Rainey, and other young people like him, striving to get a diploma that will at best net him a minimum-wage job--well, I figured I'd fake the funk and be happy for him. After all, a job packing groceries beats doing hard time or "retiring" altogether. And, if Rainey was managing to keep his head up, I wanted to know how--and what the stars said about his future.
However, right from the start of our 40-minute conversation, it was clear that Rainey's life doesn't tend toward blueprints or tidy ideals. Like many of his peers, he lives one day at a time--he is neither expectant of nor resigned about his future. His story reveals why trying to stay straight is no small victory for many young people. It also reveals, at least to me, a sad disconnect between young people who have been branded by bad breaks and choices and the interested adults who reach out to them, only to find these kids somehow out of reach.
"Howudoin'?" Rainey greets me, folding his gangly 6-foot-4 frame into an office chair at the Malcolm X center one Tuesday morning. Like any self-respecting young urban man, Rainey wears baggy sweatpants, a baggier baseball jacket, a Nike headband over neat cornrows, and like-new Nike sneakers. "I got a pair for every day of the month--that's my addiction," he says. After a few wears, the sneakers get thrown into the back of a closet, "unless somebody don't have no shoes or something like that. Then I might give 'em a pair."
Rainey supports his shoe habit with $50 a week he gets from the center, plus the money he makes hustling at odd jobs ("nothing illegal," he reassures). These days his pockets are a lot lighter than when he dealt drugs--which got him locked down before the age most kids finish high school; he is currently on probation. "Back when I was doing my thing, having two Gs in my pocket felt normal," Rainey says. "It was nothing. It's only when you don't have money that you clutch onto it. . . . Now I look for sales."
Rainey sees a GED as a way to stay off his old Pennsylvania Avenue stomping grounds. He's also trying to find a job, but trying to enter the work force with a criminal record is not an easy task. "Man, nobody will give you a chance. I musta filled out 100 applications," he says. "They treat you nice, say they'll call, but then you don't hear nothing."
This last bit is said with a dismissive shrug--a gesture that Rainey makes often as he talks about letdowns he's faced in the course of his relatively short life. Turned over to the foster-care system at age 8, Rainey remembers "running back and forth [around town], trying to see my mother. I been in group homes, and I was always running away, but my mother was in the streets doing her thing." His father? "I don't have no father," he says. "Well, you know how when a baby is first born, they see things blurry? I saw my father one time when I was little, so it's like that."
Rainey's mother died in 2000, from what he either doesn't know or won't say. He shrugs again at the rumor that she might have died of a heroin overdose. He estimates that she was 33. Talk of Rainey's mother leads to a stream of connected memories, such as being severely mistreated in foster homes and turning so violent that he'd have "blackouts," after which he would come to and find someone near him laying beaten or choked. His life, he says, made it so that he "just couldn't maintain being in school." At one point, he was prescribed medications such as Zoloft and Ritalin, but Rainey learned how to hide the pills beneath his tongue. He also learned how to "be down" on the street, because he says had to if he wanted money and respect.
But as he discusses that topic, a switch suddenly goes off for Rainey: "I don't want to talk all that," he says. "I ain't really with it no more. I just stay home and play videos."
In a few months, Rainey's girlfriend and her doctor say, he will play big daddy to a baby boy. He vows never to marry. "I'm not feeling all that," he says. "It's bad enough when you get a baby's mother, but at least you can leave when you want to. I don't have no freedom as it is." Still, Rainey insists that he wants to be a good father, despite not having one himself. "You do for your child what your people didn't do for you," he says, eyeing his watch and tapping his foot.
At the end of our talk, I couldn't help feeling that, while he had been honest and more candid that he'd intended, Rainey couldn't afford the luxury of optimistic dreams--which was my scant premise for requesting an interview. Instead, Rainey told me he would simply "do what I gotta do--maybe run a little family business or something. I mean, I don't need to get rich as long as me and my people are alright."
Here's Looking at You (5/19/2004)
...I've gradually discovered that my heart's got issues when it comes to whatever place I call home.
Sappy Anniversary (5/12/2004)
Suburban flight isn't the only reason many schools have resegregated almost organically, especially in cities, like Baltimore, with vast "minority" populations.
Efforts to snuggle closer to the Big Dawg seem more doable--not to mention, if heaven awaits, more worthwhile.
812 Park Ave.
Baltimore, MD 21201