Makes Me Wanna Holler

With President Clinton and practically every other politician in the country focused on the growing concern about violence, an extraordinary new memoir by Nathan McCall provides a riveting, first-person account of how even a bright young black man from an intact family can be lured into a life of crime. McCall overcame his own youthful history of violence, arrests and prison to become a reporter for The Washington Post. His book underscores the power of envy, frustration and rage in the making of a street criminal.

When we ripped off an ice cream truck in the early 1970's, it was just part of an extended binge, a reflection of a shiftless mind-set of stealing and hanging out that the fellas and I acquired as we grew older. Sometimes, we spent whole days standing on the side of the 7-Eleven, talking, gambling and begging coins from customers to buy cheap wine. Rather than go home and eat lunch and dinner, we'd steal food from the store, sending one dude inside to rip off bread, another to take bologna, and a third to pick up sodas. We even stole cookies and ice cream for dessert.

The main reason we hustled and stole so hard was to pick up money to buy clothes. Among the cats who hung in the streets, Cavalier Manor in Portsmouth, Va., had a tradition of slick dressers: Carbo Earl, Count, Kenny Banks, and others. Babes flocked to guys who ragged hard. When we were dressed in blue jeans or khakis, babes wouldn't give us the time of day. But when we were clean we got all the phone numbers we wanted. The different responses convinced us that we had to hustle because we had to have lots of nice rags to run our games.

My mother suspected I was doing things I shouldn't be doing. She'd see me leaving the house, dressed sharp as a tack in clothes she knew she hadn't bought. One day, as I was preparing to go out, she asked, "Boy, where you gettin' all those clothes?"

I played it off. "I borrow them from friends, Mama." She had no choice but to leave it alone. Sometimes though, she'd look me in the eye and warn, "Boy, you better be careful. You gonna learn one day that life out there ain't as easy as you think it is."

It seemed that everybody wanted to make money and escape Portsmouth, and most saw the military as their only sure way out. Frog went into the Job Corps, but Lep joined the Marines, and Bimbo, Greg, Nutbrain, and several others joined the Army. I wanted out, too, but I couldn't see myself taking orders and going to war. There was no future in it. When I thought about my life, it seemed there was no future in anything.

On the other hand, one white lady who taught English literature at my high school took a passing interest in me. I liked her class enough to go fairly regularly, make good grades, and read the stories she assigned to us. I think the teacher liked me, too. She pulled me aside one day after class and said, "You know, you really are a bright student, and I think you could make something of yourself if you took that dangling earring out of your ear, buckled your belt, and applied yourself more."

She might as well have been speaking French. I couldn't relate to what she was talking about. We couldn't connect. There was no common language. I wondered how I could "make something" of myself in the f--ing white man's world?

With much of the gang gone, I spent many evenings after school hanging with my buddy Shell Shock and looking for hustles. Sometimes I picked up hustling ideas at the 7-Eleven, which was like a criminal union hall: Crapshooters, shoplifters, stickup men, burglars, everybody stopped off at the store from time to time. While hanging up there one day, I ran into Holt, who lived around my way and often swung with the fellas and me. He had a pocketful of cash, even though he had quit school and was unemployed. I asked him, "Yo, man, what you been into?"

"Me and my partner kick in cribs [homes] and make a killin'. You oughta come go with us sometimes."

Holt had been hanging with a guy called Hilliard, who did B&Es, breaking and enterings. They did break-ins in Cavalier Manor during the daytime, when people were away at work. I hooked school one day, went with them, and pulled my first B&E.

It felt weird entering a stranger's home. As I rifled through those people's most private possessions, I felt a peculiar power over them, even though we'd never met. We got our haul and were headed for the door when Holt said, "Hold up! Hold up, man! I gotta take a leak!" He pulled out his meat and sprayed the living-room walls and furniture. After that, he always left some similar destructive signature when he kicked in a crib. I never understood why he did that. I guess it was his way of showing his contempt for the world. We sold our merchandise to Hilliard's fence and split the loot.

After I learned the ropes, Shell Shock and I branched out, doing B&Es on our own. We learned to get in and out of houses in no time flat. We unloaded much of the merchandise on a prominent Portsmouth dentist, who paid us in cash.

My main fear doing B&Es was not going to prison as much as getting caught by surprise in somebody's house. Years before, a guy in Cavalier Manor was shot to death by a woman who caught him burglarizing her home. I never forgot that incident, and I thought about it every time I went into a dark house.

In time, I started going with Shell Shock after school to look for other, more lucrative hustles. Several times, we went to the Virginia Beach oceanfront to rip off adventure-hungry white boys hanging on the tourist strip. We'd offer to sell them drugs, then take their money and dash. But Virginia Beach was too far from home, and the police presence there was too strong to make a regular go on the strip. Shell Shock came up with the idea of traveling to Norfolk in search of potential victims, who we called "vies." That's when we started sticking up.

We were both seventeen then, and our first hit came late one night on the main drag of a public housing project named Tidewater Park. We'd dated girls there once and knew our way around the 'hood. It was conveniently located near the tunnel leading to Portsmouth. We knew we could make our strike and shoot back through the tunnel and into our hometown. Some guys were walking down the street one night, and we stepped out from the shadows of a tree. "Yo, man, you got a cigarette?" Before they could respond, Shell Shock drew a shotgun, held it aloft, and said calmly, "Give it up." They fumbled through their pockets and handed over their wallets. We made them run in one direction, and we dashed in another.

That first hit tripped me out on a lot of levels. First, it was so easy: Two or three minutes. and we were done. Also, the hit marked a kind of crossover for both Shell Shock and me. All the s--- we'd done up to then, even the B&Es, seemed more like mischief than anything else. But when we stuck those guys up, we were deep into felony counIt was serious s---, and I knew it. At the same time, I didn't think about the consequences of getting busted. Nobody thinks about consequences because nobody plans to get caught in the first place. So we crossed over, and we did all right.

Sticking up gave me a rush that I never got from B&Es. There was an almost magical transformation in my relationship with the rest of the world when I drew that gun on folks. I always marveled at how the toughest cats whimpered and begged for their lives when I stuck the barrel into their faces. Adults who ordinarily would have commanded my respect were forced to follow my orders like obedient kids.

I'm your mama, I'm your daddy, I'm that nigger in the alley I'm your doctor, when you need. Want some coke? Have some weed ... I'm your pusher man ... --CURTIS MAYFIELD, from the soundtrack of Superfly.

IT SEEMED THOSE LYRICS, FROM CURTIS MAYFIELD'S ALBUM Superfly, were blasting from every radio and sound system in black America in 1972. In the movie, actor Ron O'Neal played Priest, a high-rolling, slick-dressing drug dealer who was on a mission: to earn a million dollars, enough money so that he wouldn't have to work for the white man for the rest of his life. He built up a sizable "family" of low-level partners, negotiated all the rip-off landmines in the 'hood, and stayed one step ahead of the rollers. In the end, he did what he set out to do. He made his money selling cocaine, kicked whitey's ass, and rode off into the sunset in his shiny Eldorado.

Almost instantly, Priest became a cult figure for brothers everywhere. Here was a film that gave us something rare in movies--a black hero--and expressed the frustrations of a lot of young brothers, who were so fed up with the white man that they were willing to risk prison, and even death, to get away from him. Perhaps for the first time in this country's history, young blacks were searching on a large scale for alternatives to the white mainstream. One option, glamorized by Superfly, was the drug trade, the black urban answer to capitalism.

Superfly influenced the style, thinking, and choices that a lot of young black men began making around that time. I know it deeply affected me. I came out of that movie more convinced than ever that the white man and I were like oil and water: We didn't mix. MY partner, Shell Shock, was on the same wavelength. He started thinking that maybe there was a future in dealing drugs. A few weeks after we saw the movie we were sitting around at his place getting wasted when Shell Shock outlined his game Plan, which was essentially a scaled-down version of the plan Priest had devised in the movie. "I know I can do it, man. Most of the white folks that got money did something illegal to get it. Look at how the Kennedys got started. They bootlegged liquor during the Depression, then went legit. Now they millionaires! All I gotta do is make enough money to start my own business, then I can quit the drug game."

It was shortsighted, far-fetched fantasy for sure. But to our way of thinking, it was no more far-fetched than the civil rights notion that white people would welcome us into their system with open arms if we begged and prayed and marched enough. As for the risks, dealing drugs seemed no more risky than working a thankless job at the shipyard for thirty years, always under the fear of being laid off. It was six of one and half a dozen of the other.

For a lot of guys, Superfly brought home the economic potential in selling cocaine. We never even knew much about snow until we saw that movie. Until then, most of the local dealers in Cavalier Manor sold only reefer. The problem with reefer was that it was bulky and cumbersome to carry around and conceal, and you had to sell large quantities to turn a decent profit. But the tiny, aluminum foil-wrapped packets of cocaine were easier to handle, and small quantities brought higher profits. With cocaine, a dude could make more money with less hassle.

IN THE FALL OF 1972, 1 BEGAN MY SENIOR YEAR AT A NEWLY built school called Manor High. I started that year gripped by fear. I suppose every high school senior feels some anxiety, but I was seriously seared because of what the year symbolized: my expected entry into the real world. Graduation would mean that I was one step closer to having to deal with the white man.

I was so uptight about it that I couldn't even concentrate on senior-year activities, such as planning announcements, picking class rings, and ordering caps and gowns. About the best thing that happened to me that year was that I cut into Elisabeth Miller. Liz was an adopted only child, and I'd known her since junior high at Waters. But we hung in different crowds; we'd never socialized or talked at length until that exchange. She lived with her mother, who sent her to charm school in preparation for a modeling career. She bad already begun to make a name for herself locally and had gone to New York on modeling jobs.

Liz and I began seeing each other regularly. We went bowling and dancing on weekends, had picnics in the park, and did things I'd never taken the time to do with other girls. Sometimes we just sat around each other's houses and listened to music and talked. I'd never really spent so much time just talking with a girl. Being around her made me feel and act more like a human being. I was so smitten by her that I stopped hanging on the corner so much. I stopped running women and focused solely on Liz, in school and out.

Early in the school year, the student government association voted to have the student body select a homecoming king along with the traditional homecoming queen during half-time ceremonies at the school homecoming football game. When Liz and I were crowned Mr. and Miss Manor, we stood there, side by side, beaming brightly at each other. It was the perfect fantasy come true-the first time since the days of spelling-bee competitions that I'd been recognized for anything constructive in school.

Less than a month later, the fairy tale fizzled. Liz came to me one day and said, "I'm pregnant." The meaning of what she'd said didn't immediately sink in. At first, I assumed she was pregnant by her old boyfriend, but then I realized that he was away and that she hadn't been with him in a while.

It was a wonder that I was surprised. in all those years of throwing down in bed with girls, I never took precautions. For the longest time, I thought the only way a woman could get pregnant was if she and a guy had an orgasm at the same time. Now I learned the hard way that that wasn't true. At age seventeen, I had a "crumb-snatcher" on the way. I willingly owned up to my responsibility. I told her, "I'll do what I have to do to help out." But I had no idea what that meant.

LIZ WENT INTO LABOR JULY 19, 1973. I WAS DOING YARD work when the call came from her mother. I dropped what I was doing and left for the hospital. It was one of those cloudy experiences where I went through the motions feeling numb inside.

Liz delivered a boy just after midnight. They named him Monroe, after his paternal grandfather. I had little say in the matter since I hadn't donated time and money to help Liz through the pregnancy. I was unemployed, with no prospects of finding a job. Liz's mother's military benefits covered the hospital costs.

When the nurses brought Monroe out, he looked like a red, wrinkled, seventy-year-old rubber doll. Although I smiled and held him, I felt no real connection to that young life. I didn't feel the joy I thought fathers were supposed to feel. If anything, I felt fear. How was I going to guide a new fife when I couldn't even direct my own? What could one child do for another child?

My life by then was getting very complicated. Shell Shock and I had cut back on our stickups after he began dealing drugs full-time, but I was still in the life. I'd become a father. And shortly after Monroe was born, I got accepted at all three of the colleges I'd applied to. I wanted badly to go to Howard University, to break from Portsmouth and try to make a new start. But my parents couldn't afford it. Anyway, it seemed selfish to go away to school and leave Liz to care for the baby alone. I felt there was no choice but to enroll locally at Norfolk State.

I signed up to study psychology. In the 1970s, everybody was majoring in the social sciences, especially psychology, sociology, and social work. I had no real interest in psychology. I picked that major because it sounded hip.

I bopped into this philosophy class a week late, with dark sunshades on, hat on backward, pants hung low, and slumped down into a seat in the back of the room. The professor, a tall, heavyset dude, the Reverend Elward Ellis, was lecturing. Ignoring me, he kept his eves on the other students and threw out a zinger without missing a beat. "Some of the best philosophers in the world hang on street corners," he said.

Boom. He got my attention then. I immediately sat up straight in my seat. I knew he knew something; I knew he had to have something on his cap to make a statement like that. From then on, be was all right with me. I had somebody I could talk to.

Ellis wasn't the only one to reach out to me that year. There was an English teacher who took a liking to me, and even a man from my neighborhood extended a hand. His name was Hugh Jones. He used to chase the fellas and me all the time when we were young. Mr. Jones had a niece at Norfolk State. I ran into him at a candlelight service for incoming freshmen. He acted so shocked and happy to see me on a college campus that I thought he was going to kiss me right there in front of everybody.

Still, all those folks who tried to help out weren't enough to bring me around. I was too steeped in the life to be easily turned around by a starch-collared cleric and a couple of do-gooders. Besides, my head just wasn't in the right place to take advantage of all they had to offer. There were too many things eating at me.

After that first year, which I finished on the honor roll, my motivation dropped. I'd go to some of my classes high, tripping off acid, then get paranoid and get up and walk out in the middle of the lecture. I didn't even bother to go to class half the time. With nobody to tell me what to do and where to go, I wandered aimlessly about campus and spent a lot of time gambling on the pool table and in card games in the student union building. Soon I was back on the streets.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1974, LIZ CAME to me and said she'd had a run-in with a cat named Plaz. She and a girlfriend were riding bikes past the 7-Eleven when Plaz, hanging around with some other guys, called her a name. "He called me a white girl, so I gave him the middle finger," she said.

That was bad news. Plaz and I had a history that went back several years, when he and those other cats barged in on Denise Wilson and me and raped her. I never got any get-back, but I never forgot it, either. I hated Plaz for that. If I thought I had half a chance of kicking his ass, I probably would have moved on him long before the run-in with Liz. He'd disrespected me. Something had to give.

One night, shortly after Liz's run-in with Plaz, she and i took Monroe to a carnival near Cavalier Manor. We were walking along, pushing him in a stroller, when Plaz and three of his boys walked up and confronted us. His eyes blazing, Plaz got within an inch of Liz's face, shook his finger at her, and said, "The next time you flash your middle finger at me, I'm gonna break it off. You hear me?!" Then he scowled at me, looked me up and down as if daring me to say something and turned and walked away,

I just stood there thinking, This nigga is gonna make me do something I didn't come here to do. Not only bad he disrespected me again, but he'd done it in front of my lady. I had to do something. That's when I decided to shoot him.

I told Liz, "Take the baby, put him in the car, and you two go on home."

As I walked in the direction Plaz and his boys had headed, I steeled my nerves. Whenever I wanted to do something really crazy like that, something I didn't have the natural heart to do, I had to run a head-game on myself. I had to shut down my mind. I had to block off all thoughts flowing through my brain to prevent me from talking myself out of it. That's the only way I'd be able to go through with it. That's what I did that night. I decided to shoot Plaz and I didn't want to change my mind. I couldn't allow that.

I had a shoulder pouch that I carried with me. In it were some drugs and a .22 pistol. I spotted Plaz and his boys milling around, talking with some other dudes they'd run into. I walked over to the crowd and said to him, "Yo, man. I wanna talk to vou."

Flanked by his boys, Plaz really got loud then. He pointed a finger at me and said, "Nigga, you better get outta my face 'fore I stomp your ass! I'm tired a' you and that bitch. . . "

While he talked, I kept my hand inside the pouch, gripping the trigger. Sensing that a rumble was about to jump off, people started crowding around. I saw my buddy Greg in the crowd, looking nervously at Plaz's boys, counting heads. I knew he would go down with me if it came to that.

Moving close enough for me to smell his breath, Plaz poked a finger in my chest and kept on selling wolf tickets. "I'll kick your ass ... !"

In one swift motion, I drew the gun, aimed it point-blank at his chest, and fired. Bam!

A tiny red speck appeared on the dingy white T-shirt he wore. He fell backward. His arms flew skyward and he dropped to the ground, landing on his back. As soon as they heard the blast, his boys scattered. Everybody around us ran for cover. I walked toward Plaz, looked into his eyes, and saw something I had never seen in him before. Gone was the fierceness that made him so intimidating all those years. In its place was shock. And fear. It was more like terror.

In that moment, I felt like God. I felt so good and powerful that I wanted to do it again. I felt like I could pull that trigger, and keep on pulling it until I emptied the gun. Years later, I read an article in a psychology magazine that likened the feeling of shooting a gun to ejaculation. That's what it was like for me. Shooting off.

I stepped closer and raised the gun to shoot Plaz again, when Greg came up from behind me and called my name. No, Nate! You don't wanna do that, man!" He carefully pulled the gun from my hand.

The distraction gave Plaz enough time to collect himself Holding a hand to his bleeding chest, he jumped up from the ground, dashed toward the parking lot, and collapsed between two cars.

The carnival grounds, meanwhile, had turned chaotic. People ran screaming everywhere. It was like one of those movies where a monster is trampling through a city and everybody is running, hollering, fleeing for their lives. It made me feel powerful and light-headed, seeing hundreds of people scattering because of something I'd done.

Only I was confused about what to do next. I didn't know whether to beat my chest and yell at the top of my voice, or shout some pithy, John Wayne-esque remark to be quoted when the shooting was recounted on the streets. I yelled, to no one in particular, "I hope the motherf---- dies!"

Greg asked me, "You got a ride?"

I said, "Naw."

He said, "C'mon."

We hopped into his car and drove off. When we got out on the main street, he said, "Where you wanna go?"

I realized I hadn't thought about that. Where do you go after you've shot somebody" In all the stories I'd heard, it was never clear what they did after they shot or maimed someone. There was nowhere else to go but home. I said, "Take me to the crib, man."

Greg dropped me off and I went into the house. Walking down the hallway to my parents' bedroom, I met my stepfather coming toward me.

I said, "I need to talk to you ... I just shot somebody." He was calm.

"Is he dead?"

"I don't know."

He thought for a moment, then said, "Let me get dressed. We gotta go to the police station."

DURING THE TWENTY-MINUTE RIDE TO THE STATION, NEIther of us spoke a word. The seriousness of what I'd done was dawning on me. Who knows what my stepfather was thinking? After all the run-ins we'd had, he'd known I was headed for something like this. Yet he didn't try to preach to me or say "I told you so." I actually felt glad to have him on my side.

We went downtown, and I turned myself in. It felt strange giving myself up voluntarily to the same people I dodged every day. After interviewing me about the shooting, a detective escorted my stepfather and me into a hallway and told us to wait on the bench. Sitting there in the quiet I felt so alone. There was no roaring crowd or group of running buddies to pat me on the back and sing my praises. It was just me, sitting there, suddenly powerless again, waiting to face the consequences.

After an hour or so, the detective returned to the hallway, looked at my stepfather, and said, "I'm sorry to keep you waiting out here so long, but Melvin Thompson, the guy your son shot, was rushed to the hospital. They're operating on him. They don't think he's going to make it. If he dies, we're going to have to charge your son with murder."

The word hit me like a sledgehammer. Murder?! On TV westerns, when people got shot they just tied a handkerchief around their arm and went about their business. Plaz wasn't supposed to die. I thought, Murder! If he dies, then that will mean I have killed someone. Murder?! I repeated the word silently to myself, over and over, trying to grasp its full meaning.

Then I got a sharp vision of who I really was. I realized I didn't want to be a cold-blooded, baad-assed nigger anymore. I wanted to erase the past few hours, to wipe the slate clean. In desperation, I bowed my head, closed my eyes-tight-and prayed to God to spare Plaz's life. "Please, God, don't let him die!Please. " I prayed so hard that a listener would have thought Plaz was my dearly beloved brother. My stepfather remained quiet. I don't know if he noticed me praying. At that moment, it didn't matter. I was too busy trying to establish a personal relationship with my Lord and Savior.

After several hours, the detective returned to the hallway. "I've got good news. Thompson pulled through. The doctors said the bullet barely missed his heart. Another fraction of an inch closer and he would've been pushing up daisies." I thanked sweet Jesus.

Oddly, I was released on my own recognizance. I guess it's an indication of how they felt about the value of black life that I wasn't even required to post bond. When I woke up that afternoon, I checked the newspaper and read a brief story about the shooting.

The gravity of what I'd done sank in again, but this time, I looked at it in an entirely different light. Now that I was certain Plaz would live, I felt hard again and I thought about the glory. I had toppled an old-head.

I got dressed, ate, and went outdoors to catch up with some of the fellas. While walking down Roosevelt Boulevard, I saw a car, filled with a bunch of old hoods, approach slowly. As it cruised closer, heads turned sharply and looked at me. It was some of Plaz's boys. The driver pulled over to the curb, and everybody in the car glared. They started talking to each other-debating, I assumed, whether to jump out and do me in.

Feigning confidence, I reached slowly into my pocket, as though gripping a gun, then stood there and met their gaze. My heart pounded hard. I knew that if they got out of that car, they'd stomp me six feet under. But no one budged. They talked some more, then the driver pulled slowly away from the curb and drove off.

For me, that brief, silent exchange was undeniable proof that I had arrived. I was a bona fide crazy nigger. Everywhere I went after that, guys on the street said, reverently, "Yeah, man, I heard you bust a cap in Plaz's ass." My street rep shot up three full notches. Anybody out there who knew me would think twice about moving against me without a piece. Anybody.

My parents got me one of the best criminal lawyers in Portsmouth. By the time I went to court a few months later, he'd worked out a deal with the commonwealth's attorney for me to plead guilty to a lesser charge of felonious assault rather than face trial for attempted murder. I went before the judge, claimed that I shot in self-defense, and got off light: thirty days in jail for assault, a $300 fine for possession of a firearm, and one year's probation. It helped that I was enrolled in college. The judge was so impressed with my college grades that he agreed to allow me to do my jail time on four weekends, meaning I had to do only eight days instead of the full thirty. I was thrilled.

ALTHOUGH I GOT OFF LIGHT ON THE RAP WITH PLAZ, LIFE got no easier to manage. The shooting, the trial, and the time in jail were just a few in a series of troubles that began pouring in. Even the honeymoon with Liz-began to dull. The responsibilities that came with parenthood were a bummer. Being a father seemed like a huge hassle, and I lacked both the will and desire to deal with it. So I started tipping out every now and then, hanging with the chicks who had no children. And I focused on practical matters that affected us all: namely money, which I never seemed to have.

Liz and I combined our funds-a couple of hundred dollars and bought a quarter pound of reefer. I broke it down into smaller bags to put on the street. With that done, I set out to build a clientele. I made the rounds and got the word out that folks could cop from me.

I quickly discovered that dealing wasn't as easy as it seemed. Selling reefer was a round-the-clock hustle that required more time and energy than I wanted to invest. Unloading a single ounce sometimes took up to an hour. Half the time, cats wanted to sample the stuff before they bought it, and even then they'd haggle over the weight.

Selling reefer also required more restraint than I could muster. I often got bored waiting for people to cop, and dipped into my manila packets to smoke some here and there. Some nights I would end up getting so high that I didn't feel like selling anymore. Once I got high, I got the serious munchies and couldn't concentrate on anything but food, music and sex.

Eventually, I gave up selling reefer, and tried selling chemical drugs-orange sunshine, mescaline, windowpane, purple microdots, quaaludes--that were easier to unload. Shell Shock's older brother, Ton, who was at college on a football scholarship, shipped home large quantities of quaaludes from Kansas, where he got them cheap. He was breaking rushing records in college, but he was still a thug. I paid him a dollar a hit for the quaaludes and resold them on the block for three dollars each. That went O.K., but I had to unload thousands of those things to make any real cash. That turned out to be a bummer, too.

I finally had to admit that I lacked the discipline to be a good dealer. Dealing drugs is harder than any job I've had, then or since. To this day, I laugh when I hear folks say drug dealers are lazy people who don't want to work. There's no job more demanding than dealing drugs. It's the only thing I've really tried to do, and failed.

One day I stepped out of the wintry cold into Shell Shock's house and greeted the fellas. "Yo, man, what's happ'nin'?"

A chorus of greetings rang out from Cooder, Shane and a few others who were lounging around in the den, smoking reefer. Shell Shock lifted the turntable top, and put on an album by Marvin Gaye called "What's Going On."

Mother, mother, there's far too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying. You know we've got to find a way To bring some lovin' here today ...

It was different from the romantic themes of most record albums. It dealt with a range of things that were going on in the country. Poverty. Racial unrest. The Vietnam War. The country was one big pressure cooker that seemed ready to blow.

The futility of my life ran so deep that it festered and churned inside me, quietly making gunpowder. I walked around feeling tense all the time. The only way I could balance the tension and the deep depression was to stay high all the time. Like the rest of the fellas, I had started getting high earlier and earlier in the day. Some of them had begun drinking and doing drugs the first thing in the morning. I knew I couldn't let myself reach that point. That's one step from being a drunk on a park bench. But I was close enough that it worried me.

My favorite song on the album was "Inner City Blues." It captured the depth of the desire I felt setting in. It was the only thing that came close to explaining the frustration churning inside me. It was the first time I'd beard someone put it all together in words like that:

Make me wanna holler The way they do my life This ain't livin' Naw, now, baby This ain't livin'

That's how I felt. I wanted to holler. Listening to that album and thinking about all my problems made me feel like crying.

AFTER ALL MY OTHER HUSTLES fell through, I went back to what I knew best. There were several stickup teams operating from the neighborhood. I hooked up with Nutbrain and Charlie Gregg, two old-heads who I figured knew everything there was to know about working the streets. Nutbrain and Charlie Gregg were as thick as thieves. They were thieves.

Over time I learned that it's hard to move slow with fast money. Each time I went out on a job, I told myself it would be the last. And each time after that, I found a reason to go out one more time.

That was the case when we hit the Sheraton hotel. We went out mainly because of Charlie Gregg, who was pissed because he'd missed out on a previous job. So Nutbrain came up with the Sheraton Hotel at the Military Circle shopping mall. He'd seeped it out and figured it would be an easy, big-money hit.

But when we got inside, nothing was set up like we thought it would be. The hotel lobby, usually empty and unguarded, was crawling with white people dressed in tuxedos and gowns. There was some kind of special event going on. A policeman stood around watching, as if he half expected something to jump off.

Nutbrain scanned the crowded room and said what Charlie Gregg and I were already thinking. "Let's go man. There's no happ'nin's here."

I took that as another sign that this was a bad night. But Charlie Gregg was set on making a hit. We went to a convenience store, bought some wine, and drove around drinking and looking for a quick pedestrian vic to roll. We drove onto Hampton Boulevard and a lightbulb came on in Nutbrain's head. "Yo, man, I know somewhere we can hit. Drive past that McDonald's down the street. Somebody comes in every night around eleven to pick up the money and take it to the bank. We can lay for him outside the door and take the s--- from him when he comes out."

It sounded simple enough. Still, I was uneasy. It wasn't the original plan. We didn't have time for the usual dry run of the getaway route, and the white neighborhood where we parked the car looked like a foreign land. I felt we should call it a night, but I didn't say anything. I couldn't punk out.

When Charlie Gregg turned off the engine, Nutbrain turned around and handed me the gun. "Nate, it's your turn to carry the piece."

He'd carried the gun and done most of the work the last time we went out. Despite the wine I'd guzzled to numb my fear, I was nervous. It just didn't feel right.

As we entered the side door of the McDonald's, a beefy white man carrying a small, white, plastic pouch came out of the employee entrance. Now! My intuition told me he was the mark. But instead of drawing on him, I froze, then turned and ducked into the men's rest room nearby. Nutbrain and Charlie Gregg followed. Once inside, Brain said, "That was the man! lie had the money in that pouch!"

The man had glanced warily at us, gone outside, and climbed into a parked van. I said, "Maybe we should get him while he's in the truck." Nutbrain poked his head out the door and saw that the man had started the engine. "Naw, he's about to pull away. We gonna have to do the store."

He said it like we had no other choice, like we couldn't just leave and try again some other time. Charlie Gregg nodded his approval, so I went along. After planning our move, we burst through a door that read EMPLOYEES ONLY. I flashed the silverplated pistol and yelled, "Nobody move!"

The workers, stunned, did what they were told. They left their cash registers, huddled in a corner, and stared, wide-eyed, at us.

As shocked customers ran out the side exits. Nutbrain and Charlie Gregg hurriedly emptied loot from the cash registers into food-carryout bags with golden arches printed on the side. I stood guard near the door, pointing the gun and looking around. I didn't feel in control. There was too much light, too much space to cover, too many people in those ugly brown McDonald's uniforms looking right at our uncovered faces. Out of the corner of my eye, I noticed the store manager trying to ease his way into a side office. I pointed the .32 pistol at him and said, "Freeze!"

Minutes later, he tried it again. I aimed the piece at his face, tightened my grip on the trigger, and tried to decide in that split second what to do. I swear I didn't want to blow him away. All I wanted was to get the cash and dash. But I made up my mind that if he moved again, I had to smoke him. I hated him for putting that pressure on me. I didn't even know him, and I hated the hell out of him. Intuitively, I sensed he was an Uncle Tom, one of those head-scratching niggers, willing to put his devalued life on the line to protect the white man's property. I looked him in the eye and warned, "Move again, and I'm gonna bust your ass."

Once Nutbrain and Charlie Gregg had cleaned the cash registers, we turned and ran out the side door and sprinted to the parked car a block away. We sped off into the night. Two blocks down the dark street, we ran into a dead end. I knew then we were goners. Charlie Gregg wheeled around, sped out of the cul-de-sac, and turned onto Hampton Boulevard. A few minutes later, he looked in his rear-view mirror and said, "The rollers [police] are behind me."

Nutbrain told him, "Just be cool. Maintain the speed."

I sat in the backseat, tensed, bracing for the bust. A police cruiser pulled closer and flashed its emergency lights. Then others came from nowhere and surrounded us. In the seconds while Charlie Gregg steered over to the curb and stopped, adrenaline rushed to my head. Panicked thoughts came at me, rapid-fire:

Burst out and dash! No! Shoot first, then run!

Finally, I heeded my strongest intuition: Sit still. You're busted.

After surrounding us, the policemen sprang from their cruisers with their guns drawn, pulled open our doors, and shouted, "Get out of the car! Get out of the car!" One cop grabbed me, pushed my chest flush against the side of the car, and clamped the cold steel handcuffs to my bony wrists. He shoved me into the backseat of a cruiser.

The emergency lights flashing overhead created a weird, dreamlike effect. Cars slowed, and motorists peered through their windows, trying to get a better look. Some cops waved them on and directed traffic, while others flashed lights inside and around the getaway car.

The police drove us back to the McDonald's, where the employees stood outside. They escorted the manager to the car I was in and asked him if I was one of the men who had robbed the store.

I glared into the manager's eyes, half hoping to intimidate him. He returned my glare, with a dash of contempt. "Yeah. He was the one with the gun." We drove off to police headquarters.

My mind did a sweep of all the landmarks in my life, the kind of sweep described by people who have had scrapes with death. It certainly felt to me like my life was over. I was twenty, halfburned-out on drugs, depressed, and hopelessly lost. At some point in life-long before I ever held a gun-I had lost control. I tried to figure out what had gone wrong, and when. I wished I could vanish, go back to a point in time when life seemed, well, hopeful. Strangely, I thought about my third-grade spelling bee. I was an honor student then and felt so full of promise. I had made it to the competition finals but was eliminated after misspelling a word; I think it was "bicycle." If I could go back to that night on that school stage, I thought, I would spell that word right and straighten out all the other things in life that had since gone wrong.

The bust made the papers, with a picture of the getaway car. My mother told me that a neighbor, seeing the photo in the paper, called the house to ask if the person identified in the photo caption was me.

On April 11, 1975, the court date, I was accompanied to court by Reverend Ellis from Norfolk State, my parents, and Liz. As I moved to join my lawyer at the defense table, Reverend Ellis gave me a biblical verse to recite to myself. I still remember it: Everything works together for the good of those who love God, for those who are called according to His purpose.

It turned out to be a very short hearing. Witnesses were there who could recount the robbery if called upon. The McDonald's manager and a couple of employees were also there.

At the prompting of my lawyer, I stood up, put my hands behind my back, and repeated my guilty plea. Without looking at me, the judge, an old white man sitting up high on his bench in his black robe, leafed through a file folder on his bench. Then he lifted his head and called me up front. "Do you have anything to say for yourself before I announce sentencing?"

Something about the tone and the nature of that question let me know this was going to be a bad day. I scrambled in my head to try to come up with something that might sway that man. I sensed that if I didn't come up with a helluva rap, he was going to lay some heavy time on me.

But it was impossible to say all that was weighing on my heart. I felt choked up inside, as if all the emotions and words had converged on my throat at once and gotten bottled up. Standing there, looking solemn, I mumbled some bulls--- about being sorry for committing the crime, then hated myself for even giving it that feeble, embarrassing try.

After he was sure I'd finished, he said, "Anything else?"

I shook my head and glanced at my lawyer, hoping he'd come in and help me out. The lawyer came up, stood beside me, and ran off a rap that was even weaker than mine.

The judge nodded at the lawyer, then looked at me and said, "I sentence you to serve twelve years in prison."

The words echoed in my head. Twelve years! I felt faint, like the room was reeling about me. I heard screams in the back of the courtroom from my mother and Liz, but was too weak to look behind me with more than a fleeting glance. I looked at my lawyer, who stepped forward and pleaded with the judge. "Your Honor, please take into account the fact that this young man comes from a decent home and has never served prison time before."

The judge was unmoved. "I'm sorry, but he has to learn that he can't go around putting guns to people's heads." He brought down his gavel. "The sentence stands."

McCall served nearly three years of his 12-year sentence before he was released on parole. He later graduated with honors from Norfolk State University with a degree in journalism. As a reporter, he has worked at the Virginian-Pilot, The Atlanta Constitution and The Washington Post. McCall, now divorced, lives outside Washington and is the father of three children.