A young, beautiful, dark-skinned woman, her hair in cornrows and her arms wrapped around her pregnancy, sits at the end of a park bench, silent and depressed, and for good reason: She's married to a 25-year-old drug dealer who suffered brain damage in a beating last spring, and he faces prison this fall. You can understand why she might want to avoid the conversation at the other end of the bench - the one between the father of her unborn child and the newspaper guy. The woman turns her back slightly and stares at the dry grass at her feet.
"She's having a tough time right now," her husband says, his mouth moving oddly, as though a dentist's Novocain hadn't worn off.
His name is Drew, and his mother asked that we publish neither his last name nor his current address. It's not a matter of embarrassment, she said, but of safety. In June, someone beat Drew into unconsciousness - into, one doctor predicted, a personality change - and left him for dead at a motel on Pulaski Highway. Details are few. Drew can't remember what happened, except to say, "Something with a friend, and he went to get a guy."
Things are clearer about the decade leading up to the beating.
In the decade leading up to the beating, Drew was a cocaine dealer, hustling in lower Park Heights or wherever the business took him, deep into the culture of dark corners and young men killing each other. He had dropped out of school as a teenager and started selling coke. He did little else. Though estranged from his family, he sometimes would ask his mother to bring food to a building in Hampden or an abandoned rowhouse in Park Heights, wherever he was staying.
"He was living crazy," his mother says, and she still doesn't understand it.
"I didn't raise my son in some drug-infested area where there were dealers right outside your door. I raised him mostly in this area [
] and for a while in
. ... He's never seen his mother do anything but work for a living. I've been a bus driver for seven years, and I was a correctional officer before that. I raised two other sons, and they're doing fine."
For the longest time, she didn't want Drew anywhere near his younger brothers, and told him so again last spring - the day after Baltimore police came to her Pikesville apartment with a fugitive warrant.
They were looking for Drew, of course. Charged with possession of cocaine, he had failed to appear for a court hearing. "I told the police he wasn't here, but they searched the place anyway," his mother says. "Later, I told Drew, `I can't have this. I can't have police surrounding my house in this nice neighborhood. I'm trying to raise my other sons here.'"
Sometimes, on those occasions when Drew would drop by her apartment, his mother found herself staring at him, filthy from the street, in dire need of a shower.
"I would look at this child I gave life to - ravaging my refrigerator like he hadn't eaten in forever - and wonder, `What happened?' The things he told me about, things he'd seen and survived, people getting killed. .... He wasn't afraid to be out there. But he is now."
He is now because of the beating.
His mother doesn't know much about it; no arrests have been made, and she doesn't expect any. She just accepts it as the kind of violent event that occurs in the life of a drug dealer. Drew spent about a month in intensive care at Johns Hopkins before being released to his mother; he lives with her now, the first time in years that they've shared a domicile.
"Drew almost died," his mother says. "When the police got to the motel, they found him on the ground. I didn't think he'd ever be well. They said he had brain damage. I prayed to God for his complete recovery. I was so happy he was alive, but I was so afraid that he wouldn't be the person I knew."
Turns out, he's not.
The brain damage has had a profound effect, and Drew is no longer dealing drugs. "He has a fear of the streets that he never had before," his mother says.
She found him a job busing tables at a Pikesville restaurant that apparently has a tradition of hiring ex-offenders. Drew started Tuesday, and his mother and grandmother were excited for this little victory.
But it may be short-lived. The drug charges against him are pending.
"I have to go to court on Thursday," Drew says.
What did his public defender say would happen?
"She said I could get five years, even with a plea."
Maybe the judge will give Drew a break because of the beating. Maybe the judge will see that enough damage has already been done, and with a job and family support, there's hope for Drew to get out of the drug life for good.