I'm not friendly with the white-shirted drug dealers who work the corners near my house yet, but at least they acknowledge me as a neighbor now, instead of looking me over as a prospective buyer or an undercover cop. It's not fear that keeps me away from them, I think, but rather cold, hard realism. Until they fall, those hardcore guys simply are not "get-able" for anything less viscerally exciting than street life. I hate to break it to all those Christian rappers out there, but loving God and loving people does not qualify in that category.
The fact that I don't walk up to those guys doesn't mean that I don't keep them in mind or pray for them when I walk by. On the contrary, I am fascinated by what goes on, and careful to notice if and when the kids we know start hanging around with the wrong people. And I am always on the lookout for Shareef.
I first saw him on a drug corner two years ago, when we moved here. Shareef is 16 now, but back then he was 14 and looked even younger. He always seemed more like the dealers' mascot than one of them, but he was a hard-looking mascot at that, and he was out there all the time.
Everybody told me Shareef was a bad kid, so it wasn't surprising that I only got to know him when he tried to sneak into one of our by-invitation-only dinner parties. I turned him away from that one, but, against my better judgment, I invited him for the following week and, to my great surprise, he turned up again, right on time.
As soon as I greeted him, he handed me his cell phone and told me his grandmother wanted to talk to me, to make sure he was welcome. We'd never met, but as soon as I confirmed his invitation, she spoke directly.
"You can feed him if you want, but don't turn your back on him for a minute, or he'll steal from you," she said wearily. "I don't care if it's a church, he'll steal or he'll get in a fight if you don't watch out. Understand, I love the boy