To remember him as we met him, twenty years ago, is to know everything that was lost, everything that never happened to a boy who could surprise you with his charm and wit and heart.
At fifteen, he was selling drugs on the corners of Fayette Street, but that doesn’t begin to explain who he was. For the boys of Franklin Square — too many of them at any rate — slinging was little more than an adolescent adventure, an inevitable rite of passage. And whatever sinister vision you might conjure of a street corner drug trafficker, try to remember that a fifteen-year-old slinger is, well, fifteen years old.
He was funny. He could step back from himself and mock his own stances — “hard work,” he would say when I would catch him on a drug corner, “hard work being a black man in America.” And then he would catch my eye and laugh knowingly at his presumption. His imitations of white-authority voices — social workers, police officers, juvenile masters, teachers, reporters — were never less than pinpoint, playful savagery. The price of being a white man on Fayette Street and getting to know DeAndre McCullough was to have your from-the-other-America pontifications pulled and scalpeled apart by a manchild with an uncanny ear for hypocrisy and cant.
He could be generous, and loyal. I remember him rushing out before Christmas to spend his corner money on gifts for his brother, nieces and nephews — knowing that his mother wasn’t going to get it done that year. I remember the moments of quiet affection he demonstrated when his mother was at her lowest ebb, telling her gently that she was better than this, that she could rise again. And, too, I remember his stoic, certain forgiveness of his father, who moved wraith-like around those same corners, lost in an addiction he could never defeat.
“I really feel like he’s at peace now,” DeAndre said after Gary’s funeral, explaining that his father was too gentle for the corners, too delicate a soul to be out there along Fayette Street. His father was never going to be what he was. Not ever again. DeAndre said this with no malice, in a voice that was as loving as any words I ever heard him speak.
At first, he was content with the book we wrote about his world. By the time “The Corner” was published it was something of an epitaph for people who were already casualties. Not just DeAndre’s father, but Boo, Bread, Fat Curt, his cousin Dinky, Miss Ella from the rec center. The book was an argument that these lives were not without meaning, that they, too, were complete human beings in the balance. He liked that someone — anyone — thought the people of Fayette Street mattered.
In time, though, he confessed to hating the last line of the narrative, the one in which he is defined as a street dealer and addict at the moment after taking his first adult charge in a raid on a stash house on South Gilmor Street. There was a burden in that, and he grew tired of its weight.
“That isn’t the end of the story,” he complained to me years later. “You don’t know that the story ends that way.”
I readily conceded that he was correct, that the story was ongoing and that a new ending could and would be fashioned if he provided such. By then, his mother had cleaned herself up, moved the family to the county, doing her damnedest to shepherd his young brother, and all of his nieces and nephews to adulthood, to gainful employment or college admissions. The mother of DeAndre’s son had a master’s degree, in fact, and was thrice-promoted at the downtown hospital where she made a career. Even Blue, whose childhood home was the shooting gallery, had more than a decade clean and was spending what remained of his days counseling others out of addiction.
“If you give me another ending, Dre. I’ll write it. I promise. In a new edition, in a magazine article, anywhere I can. I’ll write that fucking story so hard.”
“Wait on it then. You gonna see.”
He went to work for the television shows, time and again lasting only as long as a paycheck or two. He enjoyed acting, and showed some poise, but the jobs that offered the chance at a real career — the behind-the-camera production work, the path to union wages and benefits — those couldn’t hold him. Several months ago, desperate to get out of Baltimore and to walk away from his ever-more exhausting addictions, he asked for one more chance. He would get clean. He would do what needed doing. And so, we rented him an apartment in New Orleans and a gave him a position with the security crew for Treme. His sobriety lasted until the first payday, and by Thanksgiving, ever more angry at himself and depressed, he asked me for a ticket back to Baltimore. New Orleans wasn’t working; there were corners here, too, and he was lonely. His plan, he said, was to see if he could get his job back at Mountain Manor.
It was there that DeAndre found some time to shine. He worked as a peer counselor for court-ordered juveniles in the Mountain Manor residences. He knew those kids, and he knew the street, and so, he actually had the skill set to bring some truth into the room. He lasted two years — longer than any other gig in his life — before he again faltered.
I saw him on Christmas. We embraced. New Orleans went unmentioned.
On his birthday in May, I got a text: “Hey, Dave. Wassup. I’m 35 today. Never thought I’d make it. How ’bout that?”
I texted him back: “Happy Birthday, Dre.”
By then, I knew he was again struggling, unable to outrun the demons. A couple weeks ago, there was a photograph on the Baltimore Police Department’s webpage: An unidentified young man photographed during the robbery of a Pratt Street pharmacy. He claimed to have a gun, but offered only a note. He wanted not money, but drugs, and he left with pills. The photo was DeAndre. Hollow-eyed, dusty — but, clearly, DeAndre.
Fran was horrified. This crossed a line in a way that was genuinely unlike her oldest son. He had lived his life doing great damage to himself, obliterating the bright-eyed manchild one dose at a time. In truth, I never saw a drug addict so unhappy to be high. When DeAndre was chasing, he was miserable and angry and ashamed, with every better angel of his nature buried beneath an ash-heap of resentment and self-loathing. When he sobered, you knew it immediately; DeAndre emerged, playful and self-aware and once again open to the world and other people. And always, in the past, the damage had been confined to himself and those who loved him.
This was new and ugly. Fran confronted him, telling him he needed to turn himself in to police, that he had gone too far, that he had truly lost himself this time. DeAndre pleaded for the chance to get clean first, to sober up before surrendering and going to City Jail. He did not want to detox in pretrial detention; he couldn’t stomach the thought of being sick in those spartan, unforgiving surroundings. Once sober, he would surrender, and he asked his mother to ask me if I would go with him to court. Ask him yourself, Fran told him. Can’t, he told her. I’m ashamed.
I told her to tell DeAndre that I would, of course, stand with him in court, but only if he surrendered himself. I told myself that even now, the end of the story hasn’t yet been written. Maybe this was a true bottom. Maybe some prison time could pull him from the spiral; nothing else seemed to work, after all.
Fran relented, drove him to Tuerk House, where he cleaned up for the last time and then discharged himself. He did not immediately surrender. Instead, a few days later, he took more pills until he fell over dead in a house in Woodlawn. This morning, when the police came to the county looking for him with a warrant, they learned that they were a day late, that DeAndre McCullough was beyond their powers of arrest.
If I close my eyes, the fifteen year old comes to me. His laughter, his wit, his foolishness and ridiculous rationalization mixed in equal measure with his goodness and honesty. I can forgive the addict who came to dominate that young life. I can let go of all the frustration and exhaustion that came with twenty years of faithlessness and hurt. I see, in the end, a man who was in great, unending pain. And I want him to rest now.
In spite of everything, I will miss him badly. I know because I’ve been here before. With Dinky. And Curt. And Ella. And Gary — especially Gary McCullough, the wounded father who in some awful way was a pathfinder for his wounded son. When you tell yourself you are going to write a story about real people, you say so in the abstract, without any real sense of the beings you haven’t yet met, without any measure of the real cost of addressing actual human realities.
Well then, amid all of the easy labels and stereotypes that will now certainly apply, let me offer only the following: I once had the privilege to know a boy named DeAndre McCullough, who at the age of fifteen had led a life of considerable deprivation, but who nonetheless was the fine and fascinating measure of a human soul. Everything after, even the very book that we wrote about his world, today seems like useless and unimportant commentary.
Be free, Dre.