October’s Damn Good Read: Eager Street: A Life on the Corner and Behind Bars by Arlando Jones

Tray Jones wanted to be big on the block. What he discovered was a drug underworld both unforgiving and unapologetic.

Eager Street: A Life on the Corner and Behind Bars by Arlando “Tray” Jones, 298 pp. Apprentice House
Eager Street cover

Arlando Jones, by many measures, was like any other guy growing up. He hung out with friends. He played basketball. He chased girls and tried to impress them with borrowed pick-up lines. But Jones—Tray, as he was known—grew up in 1980s East Baltimore, a neighborhood strangled by crack cocaine, a substance so diminutive it’s almost foolish to accept that it wreaked havoc on America’s inner city, and predominantly black, communities. By age 12, Tray dealt cocaine on Eager Street, having matriculated from weed dealer to stick-up boy to corner boy. By 16, Tray was serving the first year of a life sentence in Maryland’s correctional facilities, doing time for a murder that, to this day, he insists he didn’t commit.

Eager Street: A Life on the Corner and Behind Bars is Tray’s retelling of his adolescent life as a drug pusher and crew lieutenant in 1980s Baltimore. Written entirely in prison, Eager Street unabashedly describes the gritty details of thug life: ‘freak bitches’ prowl street corners, looking for heroin and crack and willing to trade any number of sexual favors to get their product; boys no older than 15 peel off bills from rolls of cash totaling five thousand bucks or more; Nike, Adidas, neck jewelry, and big pay days become status symbols for roves of junior high dropouts; and intimidation, often through the barrel or butt of .45 caliber pistols and Uzi submachine guns, serves as the means to protect your crew’s territory against encroachment by other sellers. All the while, Tray steadily accumulates wealth, position, women, and respect.

“The neighborhood was embracing us. The girls were adoring us, and the police took notice of us, although they did not bother us,” Tray writes. “We were empowered. We belonged to something that awarded us esteem.”

When parents or capable guardians are absent in a child’s life, at what point does it become, if at all, society’s responsibility to demonstrate to its youth that they are more important than criminal activity and the trappings of such a life?

Yet, to distill Eager Street into nothing but its real-life glimpses at criminal activity on the streets—removed from overused The Wire quotations all too often heard when speaking about drugs, crime, and Baltimore—is to miss entirely the fundamental question at the core of the work: when parents or capable guardians are absent in a child’s life, at what point does it become, if at all, society’s responsibility to demonstrate to its youth that they are more important than criminal activity and the trappings of such a life? This is the nurture-versus-nature story that has been repeated for decades: Does one’s environment shape and mold an individual, or are people born with predispositions toward good or evil, and any straying into the world of evil is something utterly voluntary and controllable?

We have Tray’s version. There was the father he never knew, killed by police, he says. There’s his alcohol-abusing mother, rarely involved in her son’s life. (Tray thinks she died in 1978 or 1979.) His Aunt Kim, ravaged by her heroin addiction, dispenses what little parenting Tray ever receives, and even this is typically done in violent spasms of whippings and beatings. Behind the façade of a brash young hustler hides a confused, lonely boy, incapable of making sense of the world around him and longing for some semblance of purpose and place.

“I simply wanted to be a big nigga on the block—instead of an inconsequential, unnoticed, frightened little boy,” Tray writes. “I wanted to stand out in the crowd and be recognized as popular and worthy of attention and affection—and love.”

But in the streets and alleyways of Eager and Durham Streets, recognition meant big chains and loose women; love meant having value as a drug dealer. Minus any sort of positive, older male mentor figure to steer him away from the streets and into a school building, Tray was free to determine his own moral constitution, “built upon criminal codes of conduct.” Disrespect, as Tray defines it, was not tolerated. When a rival crew refuses to stop dealing narcotics along Eager Street, Tray and his associates mow them down in a hail of gunfire, killing two. Shortly after, Tray barely escapes a reprisal attack that leaves his car riddled by bullets.

In a letter from prison, Tray laments a childhood seemingly taken hostage by malignant influences and abandoned by anyone able to pull him from the drug world: “If I wasn't a child abandoned by society, then there's no such thing. Societal institutions (i.e. churches, juvenile justice facilities, schools, etc.) let me believe that my best course in life was that of a drug-pusher and murderer. I was allowed to believe, sans significant challenge, that it was okay for me to be a street level drug-dealer. Someone should've told me that I was worth far more than the value I attributed to myself.”

When I visit Tray now, any resemblance to a teenage thug is long gone. In prison since 1985, Tray’s life follows a markedly different course. He earned a degree in applied psychology from Coppin State University in 1992. He readily states, in both Eager Street and in person, that writing his memoir was both cathartic and transformational—a reflective piece that assisted him as he moved away from a conditional, utilitarian interpretation of love, bent on doing some crew leader’s bidding. Tray’s conversations of corner wars and crack have been replaced with meditations on politics and literature. He still talks about women. But the young hustler that once roamed city streets with a .38 snub nose pistol today occupies space on a stainless steel bench. The kid who used to don designer jeans and Nike sneakers today wears Jessup Correctional-issued sweats. Tray has lived, and left behind, his life on the corner. Today, Tray continues living the rest of his life behind bars.

Looking for something damn good to read? Consider these titles:

John Adams, by David McCullough: A biography of one of the United States’ greatest historical figures.

The River of Doubt, by Candice Millard: The true story of what happens when a former president travels down an uncharted tributary of the Amazon River.

Andrew Zaleski

Andrew Zaleski is a freelance writer and the Digital Media Editor for Urbanite magazine. He hopes to work as a magazine writer and, eventually, editor, as well as live in Cape Town, South Africa, for an extended period of time. Read more about him at www.AndrewZaleski.com.