In the fall of 1993, the Missouri Board of Probation and Parole conducted a pre-sentencing investigation of Nebbitt and recommended six years in prison on the heroin charge. "This defendant has an extensive arrest history spanning at least two states and over 13 years," wrote parole officer Paula J. LeGrand, noting an "ingrained pattern of behavior which has not been deterred by legal consequence.... It should be noted that the defendant committed the present offense while he was on parole for illegal possession of cocaine, a conviction stemming from his Dec. 11, 1988, arrest which, it should also be noted, was itself committed while the defendant was on parole for unlawful use of a weapon.... This defendant appears out of control."
St. Louis Circuit Court Judge Thomas Frawley duly highlighted every comment quoted above except the last sentence.
Then he released Nebbitt on probation.
To this day, Frawley's not exactly sure why he let Nebbitt go, except that he was older than most drug-crime defendants 27 at the time and articulate. He'd earned an associate's degree in prison, with a startling 3.861 grade-point average. He'd recently enrolled himself in drug rehab. And he seemed the liberal's dream to have finally gained some insight.
"It is the judgment and sentence of the Court," Frawley began, then broke off. "Mr. Nebbitt, I hope what you've told me isn't just words. I'm going to suspend imposition of sentence and put you on probation for five years."
Stunned, Nebbitt thanked him three times, promising fervently, "I won't let you down."
Frawley crisply issued a list of rules: "You're going to have to go to BASIC (Black Alcohol Drug Service Information Center, a nonprofit treatment and education program) six times a week. If they kick you out of the program for any reason, they're kicking you into my lap. Is that square?"
Frawley further stipulated that Nebbitt live with his parents; undergo intensive supervision and random drug testing; attend stress-management classes and two 12-step meetings a week; and do community service. Then he built in a 30-year backup sentence if Nebbitt violated probation, and told the young man to go show the prosecutor, and everybody else betting against him, that they were wrong.
The parole officer, LeGrand, refuses to comment about the confidential file but she must have exploded. "This defendant reports experiencing even more arrests than were discovered through computer checks," she'd written. "He says his longest job was a seasonal position as car washer for Supreme Auto Wash." When Nebbitt scored high for drug risk but low for aggression on the Missouri Substance Abuse Questionnaire, the parole officer recommended that his score "be upgraded considerably, given the history of violence which is not only reflected in his arrest history but also admitted by him in conversation."
LeGrand's logic was circular prison hadn't taught him anything, so therefore he was incorrigible and should be sent to prison but it was hard to argue with her flat conclusion: "He seems at high risk for re-offending."
The next item in Nebbitt's file is a May 17, 1994, parole report from Officer Gary R. Jerrison, stating that, to date, Nebbitt had "done a remarkable job in turning his life around." Then there's a November 1994 letter from Nebbitt to the judge, saying he'd organized a fundraising art auction for BASIC and had been under the tutelage of an artist who'd encouraged him to return to college. "I no longer desire to paint myself into a corner," he ended.
March 27, 1996: Early discharge from probation. Still living with his parents, Nebbitt was now working at Barnes Hospital, attending college and applying to graduate school.
The last item, dated May 14, 1999: A commencement announcement from Washington University's George Warren Brown School of Social Work, addressed to Frawley. "It has been six years since I stood before your bench feeling lost and afraid," Nebbitt wrote in the enclosed letter, "and I have gotten a lot done in that time.... I still believe that the day you looked me in the eyes and told me that I had what it took to make it is the day that my potential was released. I could never thank you enough for seeing in me what I had not yet seen in myself." It was signed "Von E. Nebbitt, M.S.W."
Stealing Gumby at the Strip Mall
Straight for six years now, Nebbitt has a full-time job organizing programs for kids in public housing, and he's applied to several doctoral programs in social policy and social development. Friends and family say he's stayed warm and real instead of adopting a stiffly righteous persona, he simply transformed himself from a popular, easygoing drug dealer into a popular, easygoing reformer too honest to repress his past. Still, he's nervous about baring his life in the media. "You look at that pre-sentencing report, it's gonna portray a monster," he warns. "I was the sort of person no one really wanted in society. I was sick and tired of the cycle incarceration, try to do a little hustling, get strung out on drugs, incarceration. But I didn't know what the hell else to do. And this was the critical piece I had just fuckin' burned all my bridges out in the street. I'd gotten bad on the crack and the heroin, and I was pretty much doing whatever it took to get it. Guys who'd trusted me, I was burnin' them. And in the alternative market, people get killed for that."
In other words, the game was up. He'd gone into rehab thinking he'd buy himself some time, clean up and a dark corner of his brain whispered regain some trust on the street. But the longer he was straight, the more he bought into it. Slowly he felt a self re-emerge that he hadn't known since childhood.
"It didn't start out bad," he explains. "Started out pretty good. Up to maybe age 5, I had both parents, and we lived in a nice house, had a bicycle and a fish tank." His dad drank the peace away. After the last big fight, his mom took the three kids; left the well-kept, whiskey-fumed house; and went to live with her mother in the ghetto. Von's aunt had moved home, too, with seven children. Her husband would overdose on heroin in the alley. Von's dad would lose his job, his car, his home and his mind, dying delirious in the attic of his sister's house.
"I started kindergarten out west, around Goodfellow and Martin Luther King," continues Nebbitt. "At that time, the Wellston shopping center was up and running. That's where I started my delinquent career, stealing Gumby at the strip mall." He'd bend the green rubber figure into his pocket and head to the schoolyard, where his older brother hung out with the other "big boys. They'd be smokin' weed and drinking, and they'd let me puff a bit and drink a bit. And I started likin' it."
So how do beer and pot make an 8-year-old feel? "Made me kind of not feel," he replies. "Not care about the situation at home."
Home was now 11 people crowded into a hot, rundown bit of house in what even a little boy could see was "a terrible neighborhood." But that wasn't the biggest problem. Von's mom, having left her alcoholic husband, had gone to work in a nightclub and started drinking herself. "She'd always said things were messed up because my father drank," recalls Nebbitt. "Then she started coming home zonked. I remember one time, she'd got another boyfriend and come home just to get clothes. I just wanted to kind of hang out with her. I can remember walking down the alley crying, following her." He shakes his head. "She was movin' kind of fast at that time.
"I did a lot of stupid things, too, though, that probably influenced her drinking," he adds quickly, slicing into the mood. "Smoked weed, sold it, later had guns in the house. That was not cool. She said to stop, but I figured she was doing her thing, and didn't care much what I did."
Today, Ernestine Underwood is remarried, sober, churchgoing and contrite. "For a while I was kind of lost there," she admits quietly. "I went out into the world for a while. Von used to get so mad at me. He hated it when I drank." Years later, she married an upstanding bread-baker named Milton Underwood a man Von had first met when he was 14 and respected immediately. "He never approved of anyone I dated until then," recalls Underwood. "One day, Milton was over helping us lay carpet, and Von said, "Mama, who is that? Are you two ... together?' I said, "No, we're just friends.' And he said, "That's somebody I really could call Dad."
Almost Like a Reunion
Today, Nebbitt says Milton Underwood "taught me everything I know about being a responsible man." Unfortunately, Underwood wasn't yet his dad during "the crazy years" at O'Fallon High School. "I went to get high and peddle joints, or sleep," says Nebbitt. The only class he never cut was art. The only teacher who ever cared enough to challenge him was Miss Payne, the social-studies teacher.
Were the others intimidated by the young, sleepy-eyed dealer with the tight group of friends (most now dead or in federal prison)? "I don't think I scared 'em," he says slowly. "My mother taught me how to respect, so I never cursed or anything. I think they just figured some were going to fall through the cracks and I was one of them."
He learned to shoot in alleys and practiced in the basement, firing into big thick pieces of wood. "It'd always go through and bust the bricks, but my mother at the time she wasn't at home." Next, he and his friends from the neighborhood "broke out a window at a costume-jewelry store. Wasn't even real jewelry. We'd steal just to have money in our pocket." Nebbitt, a gifted artist since his toddler days, also stole stained-glass windows out of somebody's garage, deciding they didn't need something that beautiful in their garage.
Junior year, one of the older guys he admired, now a drug dealer, bought seven cars at a repossession auction and gave him an Audi. Shortly thereafter, Nebbitt dropped out of high school and started dealing in earnest T's and blues, a mix of stimulant and a morphine-based pharmaceutical. The action sped to a blur.
"We didn't believe in stopping for the po-lice," he recalls, hitting the first syllable hard. "It got to be a game: Pull over, never cut the engine, but let them walk up to your car before you skid off. That'd give you a half-block jump. We'd throw fake pill bottles from the window, and they'd stop to get 'em. Right turn, right turn, right turn, and then swerve the car to block the street and get out and run.
"They always took the car, but we'd run to a pay phone and report the damn thing stolen. Mostly it was in a girlfriend's name anyway." If the police caught them, "they'd go back and count every stop sign, give us multiple tickets. One job I applied for, you needed a valid driver's license, and I thought, "Oh, man. "How did you get 15 tickets in one week?"' When you're runnin' from the police, you don't stop."
In June 1981, the game changed: Nebbitt found himself under arrest, suspected of one of the murders popping around him like a video game. The warrant was refused for lack of evidence, but he ended up on probation for carrying a concealed weapon. Shaken, he and the older guy he'd hero-worshipped in the 'hood, who was also in trouble, jumped bond and headed for Tampa, Fla.
Nebbitt was arrested again in Florida, caught red-handed driving a stolen car filled with stolen blue jeans. Charged with grand theft auto and grand theft in St. Petersburg, he spent a month in the local jail, and then they surprised him by releasing him on bond. "Guess they didn't do a real good check showing that I had charges pending in St. Louis."
Not sure where else to go, he came back to his mother's house in St. Louis, stayed low, started back hustling and made a lot of money. Then he surprised the Florida judge by showing up for his court date. He returned to St. Louis on probation, turned himself in and ended up serving only a couple of months. "So I was back in St. Louis, 20 years old, free again, made it out of all that stuff."
The illusion lasted almost a year. And then he tried to buy tires from a guy who'd stolen a car. "I'm so stupid, I told him to bring the car over where we were," he groans, "instead of going over there and getting the tires. We were out back looking at the tires, sayin' how nice they were I was gonna pay for them and the police came." Nebbitt's friends ran, but he just stood there, innocent for once. He was charged with tampering and sent back to the workhouse.
"There's this gigantic room with 50 people," he recalls. "You don't have any defensible space. There's a lot of fighting, and at first I was really into that, the stupidity of it." It'd sound better to say he fought because he was scared, but he wasn't. "Most of the people I grew up with had been in jail before me. People would say, "Oh, that's so-and-so, he from out west.' You don't have to be raped or let anybody squeeze you for money, because somebody from out west is gonna ride with you. And when you come in, you are greeted: "Hey, what's up, Von?' It was almost like a reunion."
Nebbitt came home from prison on Halloween 1982, and his first child was born that night. He was 21, snorting cocaine regularly and dealing for a living, and his son's mother, Diane Mims, had accepted the fact. "I brought the money home," he shrugs. "I don't think she really liked what I did, but she never said, "Don't bring that money into this house.' Neither did my family."
From T's and blues, Nebbitt moved to heroin and cocaine. His old partner "was in federal prison, or I would have hooked up with him in a heartbeat because he wouldn't have killed me. Any time you got that in the drug business, it's important." He found an old high-school buddy to hustle with, and they worked the streets themselves for a while. Then they hired a few guys and started moving up, and Nebbitt started snorting heroin. "When we mixed it to sell, we'd just put a little bit aside" uncut, pure, giving him what's called a "dealer's habit." He would've denied it; he was convinced he wasn't addicted. Still, he hid the using carefully: "I didn't want it to get on the streets that I was using heroin, because then you are not going to be as effective or efficient as a dealer."
What are the prerequisites for even brief success? "You gotta be relentless," Nebbitt says. "Can't be sensitive. Have to be self-centered, not care about anybody else. Gotta have good business sense and a good reputation on the streets. Keep your word. And people got to know that if they try to rob you, you will do whatever you need to do. So a history of violence helps."
This from a man who now worries about imposing and brings extra water in case a companion's thirsty, routinely extending the kind of courtesy that reaches beyond habit to anticipate someone's needs. "When I thought I'd be sensitive," he explains awkwardly, "I medicated. When you have heroin, you don't feel, period. I didn't care who was being hurt. It numbed me out, made me think I was invincible, convinced me I could manipulate my way into or out of anything."
Invincibility ended when after an especially good month running the streets, using heroin every day, undercover Nebbitt started feeling run down. "I told my brother I was going to take a few days off, spend some time with Diane and the new baby. Told myself I needed to dry out; I'd been getting way too high.
"So I went home to Diane, and that night, it woke me up about 3 in the morning. I was in a puddle of sweat, the whole bed was wet and I had this stench, like sewage, and I'm thinking, "What the hell is going on?' Diane was looking at me really strange she said my body had been jerking and shivering while I was asleep. I tried to get up, and it was like my joints didn't have any lubrication in them, like I was 100 years old. I thought I'd just run myself down. Then the other symptoms started, the runny nose and diarrhea, and I thought, "And I got the flu!'"
Mims tried to feed him chicken soup, but he couldn't keep it down. "I didn't know what to do," she recalls. "He kept saying it was the flu." Nebbitt says he couldn't even sleep, "stayed there all night just woke. Next morning my brother called. He'd been using heroin for years, and he started asking me questions. I didn't know he was doing the Heroin Addiction Survey on me! I was answering yes to every question, and he started laughing, and I didn't see a damn thing funny that I couldn't stop shitting for five minutes. He said, "Man, you been fuckin' with that Boy?' (Heroin is "Boy"; cocaine's "Girl.") I denied it, said, "I just can't run around like I used to. I'm going to GNC, get me some vitamins.'"
Nebbitt's brother backed off, but not before he sneaked in a suggestion to try a matchhead (a small bit of heroin). "I was in so much pain I was ready to try acupuncture," Nebbitt says, wincing. He waited until Mims was out of sight, tried the matchhead and knew instantly why they'd always called heroin Magic Tragic ("magic when you got it, tragic when you ain't"). Every symptom vanished.
"It was a great relief physically, but emotionally it was devastating, because I had to accept the reality that I was a fuckin' dope fiend, just the same as the guys and girls on the street that come to you begging."
When "the whole drug-dealer thing was in maximum effect" car, clothes, jewelry, bankroll Nebbitt did as well as the white guys trading junk bonds on Wall Street. The stress was even higher. "It's an uncertain happiness," he observes wryly. "You had to have a gun, always. I'd show up on the street and say, "I need a heater.' Somebody else, they'd send to Central Hardware. But if you know the language and you're in a nice car, with some jewelry.... You get yourself a heater, a burner, a strap. And at home, you sleep with it under your pillow.
"It's like the sword of Damocles hanging over your head," he reflects. "Ninety percent of the people out there are working against you police, feds, addicts who want something, people who say they're your friends but want your position. Only very occasionally do you run into someone who is seriously by your side."
Heroin lifted the fear right off him. But the more he used, the lower his profits fell. "I wasn't on top of things. I should've been opening up new spots, finding new parts of town where I could put drugs. At one point I was narrowed down to just one spot. And I wasn't checkin' on the guys who were working."
One night, Nebbitt got caught with a group of guys out looking for revenge, their guns in a hidden compartment closest to where he was seated. All the weapons charges landed on him. He served time, then went to the prerelease center and arranged a fake job (paid somebody to give him a check stub from a dry cleaner's and, if someone called for him, say he was out making a delivery). Went back to dealing. Went back to prison. Started "rough hustling," stealing to support his habit. Wound up back in prison again.
That's when he found out he was smart: "On the placement test, I scored pretty high. The teacher told me she wanted me to help the other students. I said, "Hey, I want to get some help, too!' But it did make me feel a little better about myself." Nebbitt's older sister, Edna Taylor, had prayed in relief every time he went to prison, because he was safe and he'd be forced to "sit down and be still, and read, and open up his mind. Because that's how he was when he was little quiet, a nature child, loved plants and lizards and snakes."
In prison, he earned the associate's degree, and when he hit the streets again, he had some reservations about going back to dealing or using. He got a real job, hauling steel in a factory. Then he went to visit an old friend who happened to be a dealer, and walked in while the guy was mixing and capping heroin. "He poured some on a plate and slid it in front of me, and even though I hadn't had any in three years, I really wanted it. I got high, and I went to see a young lady I was dating, tried to keep myself sober-looking, but she knew immediately, kind of turned away instead of embracing me. I thought, "Damn, is it that obvious?'"
The next ghost to taunt him was a guy he'd known since childhood. Fresh out of prison, this guy kept talking about how much money they could make dealing. Sick of emptying dumpsters of steel for minimum wage, Nebbitt slid right back into the old life. But it didn't fit so smoothly. "I knew I had a little bit more to offer the world. So I had a lot of internal battles."
The conflict dissolved when he started smoking crack. "That's when I knew I was on borrowed time, prison or death. I used to practice how to pull off as fast as I could, closing the car door in the same second, so somebody couldn't catch me in between and shoot me. You're living for the moment. Don't hear a lot of people in the 'hood talking about their retirement plan or their IRA.
"Sometimes I think I was suicidal, doing the things I did," he muses, "hoping they'd take me out of my misery. But nobody ever did. I started stealing, playing tricks, telling people I wanted to buy drugs and putting out fake money with a $20 on top. I thought, they catch me, they gonna peel my potato (shoot him in the head)."
Around this time, he was "given," by one of the guys who worked a street corner for him, a girlfriend from North St. Louis, a "bonnie" to drive or hold his gun. But that never touched his relationship with his "square girlfriend," Jackie Cox, to whom he returned when his relationship with Mims ended. ("I loved him still do but I didn't want my children to see what was going on in his life," explains Mims. "I thought somebody was gonna call me and say he got shot dead.")
Cox, who worked as a stenographer at a state agency's office in the county, hid in the bathroom when Nebbitt shoplifted. "I remember nights sitting outside drug houses crying, always trying to convince Von of how smart he was," she sighs. "When we first met, I was 16 and he was 19, and I kept telling my family how wonderful he was, and they kept saying, "No he's not!' I told my mama he didn't eat pork, and she said, "He'll eat whatever the hell I fix.' But we used to read poetry together. How many people do you meet read Kahlil Gibran?"
In December 1992, Cox pressured Nebbitt into a detox unit. Cox's sister had been in rehab, but Nebbitt had "always thought it was a lot of bullshit. I thought her sister was still usin' and had just found a really good way to keep people off her ass." Still, he dutifully endured the brief program, then "went right back to living with Jackie on the North Side. Didn't last two weeks before I was high. Of course, I didn't go to any meetings, either. Didn't try to get a sponsor, didn't go for aftercare, didn't do any damn thing. I think I called somebody once, from a pay phone, on my way to get high."
By that July, he was "as thin as I could get, feeling really pitiful, sorry for myself, lower than a worm." He started not coming home for two or three days, taking Cox's car so she couldn't go to work. He spent hours suffocating in airless crackhouses, the windows kept shut so the drugs wouldn't blow, the people staring, pacing, checking the windows, some of their drug-hyped paranoia actually justified, because any minute the cops might kick through the door because somebody there just killed somebody.
"He scared me, from the reaction to the drugs," recalls Cox, "but he was never violent or mean. Just weird, crazy stuff, always filled with fear. Thought I'd stolen his drugs, thought I was sleeping with some guys in the drug house."
Next, Nebbitt got shot trying to get crack with no money ("You know crack dealers they like you to have money," he inserts dryly) and couldn't risk getting medical treatment. "If you're connected, you've got doctors that will see you, but otherwise the guys have to nurse you back," he explains. "It's amazing, but they do take good care of you. You won't get chicken soup, but they'll check the wound." Nebbitt's best connections were at pharmacies, so he got some antibiotics, "kinda washed (the wound) out, snorted some heroin for the pain and limped around the house." The minute the wound healed, he got himself arrested again, for possession of heroin.
The turning point was a rain-slick highway. Already high on heroin and crack, Nebbitt was wanting more, and he took his girlfriend and baby with him to get it. On the way downtown, right where interstates 44 and 70 meet, the car hit the median and spun. Nebbitt remembers getting his baby girl out of the car and immediately heading back across the dark viaduct, through a strobe of headlights, to find the drugs he'd dropped in the process. "Jackie was hollering and crying, "What are you doing?' but I didn't care about my life, I just wanted to find the drugs. Didn't even understand what she didn't understand about that."
Cox still shudders, remembering that night. "He went to get drugs from a cousin, and I'm so naive, I'm thinking we're just seeing cousins. We were in a little orange Datsun and my baby was in the back, asleep, and we spun around and hit that metal piece in that little bitty car. I could see all these cars speeding by like God just held out his hand and said, "Go on by them.'"
Sobbing mad, Cox started walking, but Nebbitt says he convinced her to get back in the car, which was "torn up but still running. We made it home. I was high out of my mind, didn't realize the seriousness of it." Long pause. "The next morning, I got up and saw the car."
Scared shitless by the realization that he could have killed them all, Von Nebbitt called his mother. "That's the first time I really asked anybody for help," he adds. "August '93."
The Fifth Alias
Underwood says that day in August was the happiest day of her life. "I was getting ready for work, and he called and said, "Mama, if you don't help me, I'm gonna die.' So I called in to work and went to him, and we started making phone calls."
Anticlimax: A man who doesn't have health insurance or independent wealth isn't eligible for a residential program. And a heroin-and-crack addiction isn't cured with drive-through treatment. After calling every program in the phone book, Nebbitt and his mother made a desperate decision: Nebbitt would become his cousin, Tony Davis, who received Medicaid.
The arrangements went smoothly. Then, the night before he entered residential treatment, an old dealing buddy came by, offered drugs and asked him to kill somebody the guy thought was turning state's evidence on him. Nebbitt's "no" closed the door to his former life. But at the time, he didn't realize it.
"My thinking when I went in was not correct," he confesses. "I wanted to regroup, but I didn't want to totally stop. And I had a lot of resentments: Blamed my girlfriend, said she wanted me to stay on drugs so she could run everything. Blamed my friends for making it available to me. Never looked at I was the one goin' to get it from them, and Jackie needed to run the damn house because I was worthless."
His big sister saw the rationalizations coming. "I used to tell him he was lucky because he had intelligence," muses Taylor. "Other guys on the street can't even dream high. But then when he was strung out so bad, he had too many answers. I told him, "You living like a fool. Maybe if you quit being so smart, you might get some help.'"
After sleeping through the first day of rehab, Nebbitt refused the pain meds and toughed it out. "I kind of wanted those days not to be high, so I could remember them. And those pills were worse than the heroin for sedating me. My parents called and said they'd come to see me, and I didn't even remember."
What did penetrate was the voice of a young woman, a relapsed crack addict who dogged his steps every day, drilling him to "read this book, look at this, do this." Turned out he'd been in prison with her brother, who'd gotten murdered right after he got out. "She gave me this address for round-the-clock meetings and gave me this man's name. "You expect me to just go in this building and ask for this guy I don't even know?' I took his name never intending to do any of it. But it was on my mind."
At the end of his five-day stay, Nebbitt went to his parents' house instead of heading back to the high-risk North Side, where Cox lived. ("I'm not sure she would've taken me back anyway," he confesses.) That evening, the phone rang: It was the young woman he'd never expected to hear from again. "She went right to work on me: "Did you call those people? I know where a meeting is in 30 minutes you got access to a car?'" He hung up and didn't go. She called back. "Why are you still there? The meeting's starting." Sighing, he asked his stepdad to drive him there.
"I listened to the people tell their stories and thought they were all lying. Had no drugs for 12 years? Everybody I knew was on drugs. I thought, why would they come to a place like this just to lie? Only people I believed were the ones like me, who said they'd just gotten out of rehab a day or two ago."
During the meeting, Nebbitt recognized the man his friend had described, gathered his nerve and approached. "He told me to write this big list of everything I was powerless over. I'd just gotten control of using the bathroom the day before! So I took him the list and he said, "That's not enough; write more.'"
Meanwhile, Nebbitt started hanging out at the recovery club. Says it was because they played a lot of dominoes, and he loves dominoes. But meanwhile, his "clean time" was lengthening. "I was also attending the day treatment program at Alexian Brothers," he adds, "but fraudulently. They were saying, "The way to stay sober is to stay rigorously honest,' and I was saying, "I'm going to be honest my name is Tony Davis.'"
He started liking the people in the program, caught himself starting to sign his own name a couple times. The tension broke when he went to see the parole officer for the pre-sentencing investigation. "I'd been clean for maybe 40 days, and I was really thin-skinned. Every time I brought up a topic in my life, I'd cry, and she'd look down at my file like I was this master criminal and then look up at me crying and try to figure it out. So I told her about the detox. She said, "Well, we need to get this information so it can be part of the investigation,' and I said, "Uh ... I don't think it can be part of this investigation.'"
When he explained, the officer said, "You're going to have to tell these people the truth, and if they file charges, you're going to have another case. And you're going to get a bill."
The next morning, Nebbitt walked into the billing department of Alexian Brothers and blurted, "I lied and used my cousin's name, and I've come to tell the truth so I can get a bill." The woman looked at him in disbelief, recovered, printed out the bill and, with it, handed him an application for financial assistance. The detox was entered into Nebbitt's record. Alexian Brothers later forgave the bill. And the parole officer gave him a card for treatment at BASIC, which turned out to be "a great experience. They were black-male-centered and hardcore, and that's what I needed, because I was a big manipulator."
The manipulation's necessary, he now realizes, "to keep that entire reality alive keep people not knowing, and get the drugs. See, if I set up a date to hang out with you, I have to be in on the planning, because if I let you do it, I know you are not gonna fit two visits to the drug house in there. Not gonna go over to Kenny's and get two buttons and then after the movies go to the crackhouse."
By now he'd also contacted his public defender, Earlyne McCalister Thomas who'd had his case for months and told her his real name. "He said his conscience got the best of him," recalls Thomas, who's now in private practice. "I just said, "OK, anything else I need to know?'"
The two became good friends, with Thomas soon offering extralegal advice about girlfriends and life strategies. When she saw how shaky Nebbitt was about his upcoming sentencing, she asked him, "Do you ever go to church and depend on God?" He answered, straight-faced, "I believe in God; I just don't think the state will show any mercy." So Thomas took him to her church, West End Mount Carmel Baptist.
"The minister taught about putting your foot on Satan's neck instead of just letting him do what he wants with you," recalls Nebbitt. "So I went down and made my testimony, and when I finished, all the fear and intense worry (he pronounces it "weary,' doubling the meaning) had lifted."
"The day of court, though, it revisited," he adds ruefully. "They put us last on the docket, so I sat in that courtroom from 9 until about 3 p.m. in sweaty-hands fear, knowing this was the moment." The first few cases he watched, Frawley sent the offenders to prison, one for 10 years. "This guy's kind of hard-nosed," he thought queasily. "But he was patient, he did hear people, so I did think at least he would give me voice."
That afternoon, he walked out of the courtroom provisionally free. Recovery would now be his all-consuming project and goal. He never became a professional recoverer, though, never took the past and wove it into a new all-consuming identity. His sister wouldn't let him.
"When he was going to therapy, he'd come to me and say, "Edna, they were saying that because Mama was drinkin' and she was not there.' I said, "Von, this is life. Our mama got married young; she got divorced; she was running and she couldn't handle it. But she loved you. I'm sorry you didn't have her bakin' brownies and goin' to PTA, but what she had to go through ...
""We were playing in the sandbox, living in the dream world, had our own bedrooms, two parents, a patio and an apple tree. And then we had to leave there and go live in the ghetto. Mama had some emotional distress. You can't use that from now on. And you can't listen to everything those people tell you. You go to therapy and you share, but you remember what is sacred in your heart.
""Don't forget,'" she added bluntly, ""you had 10 years of your kids' life when you was not straight. And you want them to let that go.'"
I've Been There
On the way to BASIC, Nebbitt passed the International Jazz Club, and he used to peer in the window at James Barnes' studio, looking at abstract oils that had human faces in them. "Every day for three days, I left him a note. I'd say, "I would like to paint with you.' About the third note, he called me back. I started going to St. Louis University with him sometimes we'd go to the studio there and paint all night."
Taking Barnes' advice, he took out loans and entered SLU as a fine-arts major. Meanwhile, he started teaching art to the children of BASIC clients. "When I did that on Saturday mornings, I felt that was the most useful thing I did in the world," he says. "On the street, we don't think we can make a contribution."
The feeling was so new and so strong, he switched his major to social work. That summer, he took a course in desert spirituality. Professor Belden Lane remembers Von Nebbitt as the one student who immediately grasped the theological symbolism of the desert, a place of utter aloneness in which everything is hard and dry, and God is nowhere to be found. "He was as wonderful an example of a wounded healer as I can think of," recalls Lane. "He could interpret the book (Lane's own, written during a time of great pain) even better than I can now."
Nebbitt talked about himself some in those class discussions. He avoided the shocking details, though, just as he would the following year, when he entered the master's program in social work at Washington University.
"I always raised tough questions," he notes, "because I'd lived that life. Gave me a good edge. We were all reading the same stuff, and here I'd come, and the others would say, "Was that in the readings?' When they asked how I knew, I'd just say I grew up on the west side in poverty." Then he'd cut up, toss some one-liner, bury a profound observation in silliness. "I'd always have to catch myself and say, "These people are paying $600 a credit hour, Von, and I don't think they're paying it for standup comedy."
He was punch-drunk in those days, studying fulltime and working fulltime, too, in his first real-job-with-health-insurance. He'd gone to the state and said, in essence, "I've done all the rehab, I've done the parole, now give me a damn job. I know something about your youth that you don't know. I've been there."
"The Wild West"
It's early Saturday morning and already hot, but Von Nebbitt and his old buddy Milton Ingram have been down to Soulard's bustling farmers' market. Now they're tour-guiding "out west" the rough central region where the city meets Wellston, where both men grew up got addicted got bad got out.
Out west, not a body's moving even the air, heavy with humidity, just hangs in one place. "They doin' the last-night shuffle," Ingram remarks of the few residents in sight. "Tryin' to get the last trick in." He nods toward a woman sitting in a doorway. She's so high her head's lolling, but her knees are spread deliberately wide. "We been to the fruit market, not the meat market," he sings, perky with sobriety.
Together the men map the territory as Nebbitt drives. "Milton lived over by DeBaliviere, had to cross another group before you got to ours," says Nebbitt. "We were the 5800 block, about 12 of us, and you had another group right up here between Page and Martin Luther King. This is how we thought: Anybody that lived from Hamilton onto Goodfellow down to Wabada, he was OK. That's who we fought with, slept with, ate with. They were family. But if somebody didn't live in this area, he was not with us."
"If you knew people, you could float," chimes Ingram. "But if you were just walking around, you might have to pay tribute." The car slides toward what used to be Wellston's strip mall but now looks like Kosovo. "This is the central business district," Nebbitt says dryly. "I used to work up and down here as a little kid, shining shoes. It kept me from stealin'. When Wellston closed, nobody made the connection: Ain't no more money in the neighborhood." He turns into the bus loop, and a skinny, eager man called Baby hails the car. "Hey, Von!" The warm, staccato conversation ends with "Tell everybody I love 'em." "All right, baby," calls Baby. "Be cool."
Same thing happens on the next block. Clearly, people out west know that Nebbitt is "out," straight, working. Yet they don't back away, or tempt or taunt or begrudge. It's more like they're relieved, maybe a little proud.
"Now I go out and I just mess everybody's high up," he grins. "I got enough respect in the 'hood that they won't tell me to go away. I don't stay long on any drug set (actual buying and selling), because I don't think I can explain it to the police. But I'll go on Theodosia (his old street) and see the sisters and ask 'em where their babies are. And I'll buy food I won't give somebody money to get that hit that's gonna kill him, but I'll go to White Castle in a New York minute.
"I never had anybody try to get me back," he adds, "except my old partner, once, because he couldn't believe I'd changed. Came down from Chicago with a spiel about how good he was doing. That was the week I got my acceptance letters from grad school. I said, "Man, you ain't gettin' it.'"
He honks, yells, "What's up, Sam?" and turns onto a peaceful, startlingly well-kept street. "These people wanted their block back, and they got it. We'd be tryin' to sell them drugs all the time, and they would religiously call the police on us. After I got out, I thought, "Man, we must've been crazy these people got nice property. If I lived here, I wouldn't want no drug dealers on my street, either.'"
He turns down Theodosia, where the few houses still standing are as cracked and hollow as the addicts on the stoops. "Some serious slumlordin'," murmurs Ingram. "Most houses on that other street are privately owned, but these are rental." Nebbitt brakes and points. "See that boarded-up window? My grandmother lived right there when my mom and my aunt moved in." Another emaciated man approaches the car, smiling but nervous. "I'm just doin' this shit 'cuz I want to, Von," he blurts without preface.
"Well, then why don't you stop, man?"
"Goin' to, on my birthday. July 4, I'm gonna get some independence."
"Then I'll be here on July 4."
"I'm just cruisin' now I ain't no schizophrenic, I ain't out there bad."
"That's what they sayin'," Nebbitt tells him bluntly.
"Man, I can do better than this, you know damn well."
"I'll be out here July 4."
He pulls away, and both men are silent for some time. "He is mentally ill," Nebbitt says later, "and that'll be his biggest challenge. But there's a chance for anybody."
He slows the car outside one of the first drug houses, its facade crumbling, its painted white "CONFECTIONERY" still legible, its stairwell open. "People probably use it for smokin' crack now, or for a cubbyhole," says Nebbitt. "For some reason, we kind of set up shop around here." Another long silence. But the next block looks brighter, and the mood in the car lifts. "This is coming back up I'm glad to see that, man."
Farther on, white churchfolk are hammering for Habitat for Humanity, and Ingram now a public-health worker nods a solemn greeting. It's hard to believe he's got a past until he starts explaining "the thrill of the negative" for a young man living out west. "You gotta get out here, or you don't have no braggin' rights. And that's how you're makin' your bones."
Nebbitt nods. "We believed in the American dream," he grins wryly. "Took penitentiary and death chances to get it. We just hadn't accepted institutionalized ways of getting it. Nobody I saw, growing up, ever went to work in the legitimate world." He steers out of his old territory. "Over here, they didn't have no sense of criminal camaraderie," he remarks, hitting the syllables with heavy irony. "If something come down and they don't hit a lick, that's on you. Out west, we hardly ever killed each other. We couldn't afford to lose any soldiers."
He turns back onto Kingshighway, glances at his watch and speeds up, explaining over his shoulder, "I've got to work today."
The Square Legitimate World
Nebbitt's now planning a program for African-American males in the eroded, drug-dealt ghost town called Wellston. "I feel to blame for conditions on the west side," he murmurs. "My waywardness was a major contribution to how it looks today." Surely the area was already disintegrating? "Our drop in the bucket made it worse," he says firmly.
If he were the one judging criminal offenders, how would he decide who to take a chance on? "I would probably be really risky," he answers instantly. "I would probably take a chance on almost everybody that was referred to me. On everybody who would listen."
What if a young man were heading down his old path? "I'd probably use a little personal disclosure," he grins. "Then I'd show him the benefits of living the other way, expose him to a lot of opportunities, expect things of him. I'd show him that black men do other things than deal drugs and exploit women and make babies and stand on the corner getting high."
When his own sons were born, Nebbitt had no crisis of conscience about baby-making. "I'd never really sat down and thought about it. It was just normative. That's what we all did, and we knew the mother was going to take care of them. If you're hustling good, you'll give her some money, but you're probably not gonna take them to the ball game." By the time his baby girl started talking and walking, things had changed. "That's when I knew I had to get it together," he murmurs, abashedly sexist. "I had to make sure that guys like me didn't get her!"
He now has custody of one of his sons, Kahlil (who's named after his parents' favorite poet) and the other, Von (his child with Diane), comes over all the time. Both are now 15; his and Cox's little girl, Salihah, is 6.
Cox trusts his recovery without hesitation; she always knew he wasn't cut out for street life. "Von would steal. But he couldn't steal. He'd put a big empty orange-and-blue Purex box in a shopping bag and stuff clothes in it. I said, "Stevie Wonder would catch you!' At the old Woolworth's on Natural Bridge, he got caught stealing fish. A big dope fiend, and he got caught stealin' little bitty fish."
Now he teaches his sons about nature. And if the boys make a mistake, he has them write about it, relate a topic to the situation. Then he reminds them, "When you mess up and you come back in the house, you are dealing with an ex-con recovering addict with a fucking master's degree. Which one did you think you'd get something over on?"
Nebbitt's told the boys everything about his past, but says, "They've suppressed a lot. They used to say, "No, you weren't in that bad.' Now they're saying, "Daddy, for real?'" (Asked about his dad's past, Kahlil mutters, "I don't think about it a lot for real. I can't even remember now most of it. So I just try to forget about it." Do drugs appeal to him? "Naw. I used to smoke cigarettes, though, every once in a while. But I stopped, 'cause I'm starting to play sports and stuff.")
Nebbitt has noticed that, when he listens to rap music with his sons, he gets an urge to tell the old stories. How does he keep from glamorizing what, to young minds, might be illicit adventure? "Because I tell the whole story," he answers firmly. "I don't just tell the snapshots, I tell the end, too, when I was in prison having to take a shit in public.
"One morning in particular, I just wanted to be by myself. Didn't want anyone so close that if I moved my leg I'd be touching his. Didn't want people having conversations all around me. I just wanted some quiet, and I told myself, "Von, whatever reason you snort that dope to make you feel better or be sexually better you gotta stop.'" He pauses, then finishes with dignity, "I just didn't want to use the bathroom in public that day."
Now that Nebbitt's living, successfully, in what he calls "the square legitimate world," he speaks "about three different Englishes: The square legitimate Wash. U. intellectual stuff. Another language I talk with the young people, the hip-hop rap kind of talk where "wet you up' means a gunshot. And then, just the old street lingo, with the older guys. We didn't make up any new words, just used the old ones "Dude, that's really messed up.' Where with young people, I'd say, "These cats whack. Or, "Man, that's skeet.' And at Wash. U., I would say, "Structural changes in the economy have made social conditions deplorable, and African-Americans are disproportionately over-represented in the group affected by these changes."
As a professional social worker with a past, he's got quite a few ideas about what the police could do: "They never said, "Why don't you guys get it together?' It was just "Lock their asses up.' Instead of chasing a guy off a corner, maybe see more than the behavior, establish some kind of relationship. Maybe have a house on every block where policemen can come in, drink coffee, get to know some of the younger kids and be involved in their life. Instead of just being the guy who comes in with a billy club, knocks your father in the head, handcuffs your brother, pushes your mother out of the way and ramshacks your house."
His past hasn't faded to pastel or turned into somebody else's life. "It's there. I have to watch my thinking, the way I interpret information. Sometimes I can find myself getting that hardcore, "I don't give a fuck' attitude. I call him Vonsky."
He's getting used to brushing Vonsky away, though, in favor of a more balanced reality. Underwood drills him on budgets and money management: "We talk about that just about every time I see him," the older man chuckles. "He's coming along pretty good. He's gettin' it."
And his achievements are mounting.
"Each time he do something, it gets bigger and bigger, my chest does," his mom beams. Does the joy feel fragile, does she ever worry that the triumph's temporary? "No, I don't believe he'll ever go through anything like that again," she says quietly, "no more than I would."
Nebbitt hopes she's right. "It can get really good if you work toward it," he volunteers. "I didn't know, when I was younger, that it could really be this good.
"I wish I would've tried this first."