On July 30, Little D, Gemini, and a handful of proud young people graduate from the ECC. Back in November, just days after Bill’s death, they were inducted as corps members. The scene now is more joyful and laughter fills the ECC’s Riverside Center. Graduates wait for their names to be called, while incoming corps members prepare to be sworn in. They slump in their chairs as much as the graduates sit up straight in theirs. It takes three tries for ECC board members to inject life into their voices for their swearing in. Finally, when Gemini walks up to accept the Most Outstanding Corps Member of the Year award, the new members sit up and applaud.
Gemini moves and speaks with a confidence she didn’t have when we met eight months ago. She’s more comfortable wearing clothes that actually fit. She talks less about the guys she meets and more about the real-time steps she’s taking to improve her life. In the weeks between finishing her hours and graduating, Gemini hasn’t taken the break that Little D and some of the others have, and the juggling’s not easy. She’s been kicked out of school for missing too many days and “that’s nobody’s fault but mine,” she says. But she’s made herself a budget, continues working for the ECC as a paid intern, and has stayed clean.
Gemini’s younger sister sits near me and keeps a close eye on Gemini’s sons during the ceremony. She’s told me of her senior-year activities, the high-school-graduation ceremony her entire family attended, and her imminent departure for a college in the Midwest. Gemini and Little D have been dreading her leaving as much as her success pleases them. At one point, Gemini talked of taking a vacation road trip, her sons in tow, to see her sister at college. The Midwest is a long way from an Anacostia riverside ceremony and, after it ends, I tell her she’ll be missed. She’ll miss Gemini and Little D, too, she says, but can’t wait to get out of there.
Little D and Gemini are all smiles and wearing more makeup than I’ve seen in eight months of Subway, Starbucks, and Five Guys meetings. They’ve flipped their hair and strapped on heels that wobble when everyone moves outside after the ceremony. One of the inductees has taken quite an interest in Little D and, though no one tells me at the time, they’ve become an item. While I’m there, at least, she rewards every third or fourth comment he makes with a giggle, but otherwise ignores him. He tells me of his love of writing, and that he wants to be part of this column. Within two weeks, he’ll be arrested again, his ECC career on hold temporarily.
In mid-August, Gemini and I sit down with two new corps members. Both are young men, and, just like everyone else in the program, they have been incarcerated, but for very different periods of time. Twenty-year-old Kevin (his name has been changed to protect his identity) served a weekend for snatch robbery and has otherwise lived with either his mother or grandmother his entire life. Eighteen-year-old Christopher (again, his name has been changed) served a much longer period of time and now lives in a group house. Christopher tells me he only needs three hours of sleep a night, and Gemini chimes in, “That’s ’cause he sleeps at work.” They chuckle. I ask if that’s the case and Christopher looks away from me again. He’ll only look back when I’m not talking to him.
Many of the other young men size me up. They won’t say a word at all, let alone in front of a tape recorder, for any number of reasons. I remember Bill having to live on his own—just as he was trying to sort out work and growing up—and how he wanted me to think it was no big deal.
Kevin knew Bill. “The day it [his getting killed] happened, we were in the same store. It was a bad thing,” he says.
“That’s what you call a bitch, man,” Gemini chimes in. “He [the shooter] could’ve fought him instead … I tell my son all gangsters are in jail or dead.”
I glance at Christopher in case he wants to add something. Before he can signal one way or the other, though, Gemini’s talking again. She’s now a sort of manager at the ECC, and Kevin works on her team. This new role, along with everything else going well in her life, sits well with her, but makes it hard for anyone else to get a word in.
Kevin sneaks in some details about his past job, working as a deck hand on a tourist boat that cruised up and down the Potomac and Anacostia rivers. He dropped out of high school in 10th grade and the ECC will help him obtain his GED. Beyond that, though, he doesn’t have any college plans at this time. “I like working with my hands,” he says. Gemini jumps back in, assuring me he’s one of the best on her team.
Christopher squeezes in a few nods and words. When other corps members stop by to get something from the office we’re using, he walks out with them and never comes back.
A week later, Gemini’s sorting out her son’s kindergarten possibilities. She wants to enroll him in a charter school and, from all I’ve seen, he’s got the smarts to excel if a place can be found for him. Little D’s also scrambling with school logistics, hoping to get enrolled in either nursing or culinary school within the month. It’s hard to follow why school enrollment’s gotten so derailed, but the ECC is helping her with the paperwork and follow-up. I ask which she’d rather study, and Little D’s answer comes quickly. “Whichever one comes first—it don’t matter.”
Beyond sorting out school, Little D’s life seems fairly calm for the moment. She’s been dating a guy for almost three months now and has settled into a new home with her family. Finally, weeks before turning 19 years old, Little D has her own room. “It’s good,” she tells me. “Peace and quiet.”
Later on, Kevin and I sit on a bench overlooking the Anacostia. He talks about how life has changed since the Washington Nationals’ new baseball stadium opened a few blocks away. One big difference is the number of police in the area. “They know my name,” he tells me. “I always keep my ID on me. That’s an important thing … There’s so many people that die from mistaken identity.” Kevin can name several and doesn’t want to be one of them.
“There’s no way you can do anything in Southwest and get away with it since the stadium went up,” he tells me. Eyes on the river, he recounts a weekend arrest, triggered by his sitting outside his home with an open container. “I had to pay 35 to get out. Even before I got in the car, I asked them [the police], ’Don’t y’all sit on the porch, drinking?’ They didn’t answer.”
This was a quick lockup and a minor charge, easily cleared. His record has remained pretty clean, despite working for a drug dealer at the age of 15. “My first piece of money was $50. I bought food [for the family] and tennis shoes. I told my mom I got it from gambling. She was upset and said I didn’t need to do that, that I could get a job.”
After a year, that’s exactly what Kevin did. “Once you get to a certain point in that lifestyle, someone will try to kill you. I didn’t want that lifestyle. Before it got to that point, I just stopped.”
“Just stopping” may have been easier for Kevin than for others because of his family’s support. His mother and grandmother have worked throughout his life. His grandmother is a lunch lady in most of D.C.‘s schools and her presence at his schools, along with his mother’s regular churchgoing and community ties, surely helped him see a world beyond the drugs/gambling/drugs-again cycle that sucks in so many.
His love of shoes continues, though. “I like to shop. I’d buy a lot of tennis shoes before I buy electronics.” Kevin’s current shoe count is around 20 pairs. When I tell him he’s already got double the pairs I own, he shakes his head. His goal is a hundred.
By the time we leave the ECC deck, his fellow corps members, Christopher included, have gone home, and Gemini is somewhere in the district juggling. All’s quiet in the ECC center.
Kevin begins the walk home. The lights at the stadium to his right will soon come on, and police cars are cruising nearby. Within a block, or maybe two, a cop will surely greet him by name.