`I WASN'T keeping up with the latest styles.'' That's 16-year-old Markeice Smith's excuse for his foray into the world of drug dealing.
``My family gives me what I need, like the house and food,'' he explains, ``but not the material things like name-brand clothes and shoes. I wanted Reebok [shoes].
``All my friends were doing it; they were making $80 a day just standing on the corner'' near the public housing complex he lives in with his mother and father, he says.
He stresses that he never used drugs.
Markeice, handsome but shy, lasted about a month dealing. He describes the experience as a combination of repulsion - ``I saw what the drugs do to people.... Most of my customers were female'' - and fear (``you're watching your back all the time'').
``I never really thought of my getting killed... but when my mom found out, she was shocked and said I could get killed and asked me to quit. The next day I was really scared.''
So he turned to theft to make the money he felt he needed.
``Getting caught wasn't going through my head,'' he says of drug dealing and theft. ``I thought the police wouldn't pay attention to me because they have more important things to do.''
But he was caught.
At the time he was 15 and he was given probation and the opportunity to wipe his record clean by going into a youth work and counseling program.
That, in turn, led to a patchwork of small, part-time jobs: peer counseling, distributing literature on sexual disease prevention, and work in an art store. He makes between $100 and $150 every two weeks.
Now a junior at Eastern High School and training at vocational school to repair office machines, Markeice is obsessed with finding a better job. But he meets a lot of closed doors.
``I put in all these applications in all these places, wherever the sign says `Help Wanted' ... Sears, Peoples Drug Store, McDonald's, Safeway, Giant [supermarkets], Hardee's ... they always say `I'll get back to you in two days or a week,'' Markeice says.
``I think it's because I'm 16 years old and I live in a drug-infested neighborhood. They think I'm bad news,'' he concludes.
``I've got strong parents; they're always telling me it takes patience,'' he says. ``I feel as though if you hang in there with good will eventually something will happen.''
Meanwhile, the easy money is always beckoning near home. ``There's a guy who asks me all the time to sell. He says, `You wanna shake for me? I'll pay you good; I'll pay you half. Man, don't hustle for nobody else.'''
Does Markeice think he'll ever leave the ghetto where his family is surrounded by drug dealing and violence?
``My future's good,'' he says, adding a sobering qualifier that comes from having five friends shot dead in the past year, ``if I live that long.''