The voice coming from the living room did not belong in our house. I peeked around the corner of the stairs and saw two men with guns, one against my mother’s head, one against Fletcher’s. One of the men looked at me. I dashed past them, running out the back door and across the field to get the cops. I hoped that since the men had noticed me, they would spare my parents. Many parents had been shot in the head lately.

The two officers, after being told the situation, carried on a casual conversation. Ten minutes later — it had been a one-minute sprint for me — the cops and I arrived at our apartment. There was no blood on the floor, no dead bodies. My parents told the cops everything was OK; they did not turn the men in.

I was no more than ten years old at the time. Experiences like that were common for me and other children. We lived in the West Dallas Housing Projects, about three thousand units squeezed onto a small piece of land. Made of bricks, they looked as if someone had taken a few old chimneys, molded them together, then cut out windows. They were fronted by small patches of dirt. Occasionally, there was grass. Most of the units had an upstairs and a downstairs. There wasn’t any carpet on the floor, just hard quarry tile, like that in a warehouse. All the walls were white — dirty, old, and crusted. Roaches and rats roamed throughout the night — in your icebox, your closets, your beds. Spider webs were in every corner. We had heat but no air conditioning. On long, hot Texas nights we usually tossed, turned, and sweated, waiting on an occasional breeze. If it was hot, and the cool breeze passed you by, you were in for a long night. Then the heat would wake you early in the morning.

I remember small neighborhoods of houses on either side of the projects. Families who were able to scrape up a little extra money moved from the projects into these houses. Most of them were old and ragged — holes in the walls and roofs, bad plumbing, no insulation.

There were also gambling shacks where people lost thousands of dollars. A lot of the old-time gangsters kept the card and domino games rolling through the night. Some of them, who used to be in the drug business, had established soul-food or barbecue restaurants. They served plates until one or two in the morning.

A white family ran a small grocery five minutes from the projects. They charged high prices and wore guns. The father was gunned down in a robbery.

The endless rows of cramped units were designed to house the maximum number of people in the smallest, most underdeveloped side of town. Most families were black. There were only two categories — the poor but not yet without hope, and the poor without any hope.

The first category was made up of those families with parents or a parent who worked steady, minimum-wage jobs, or were on welfare. They sacrificed and their children were able to dress in fair clothes, have school supplies, and eat hot meals. The latter group consisted of those who had given up — drug addicts, hustlers, burglars, and the like. Most had kids they didn’t give a damn about. They lived keyed-up on heroin, T’s, blues, and other dope.

I was born into the latter group.

I was so excited when he introduced me to personal hygiene. I took a bath with Comet and washed the tub out with soap. He meant vice versa.

I’ll never forget Pie, a boyfriend of my mother’s. He was in his early thirties, six-foot-one and heavily built. He moved in and became our father. I was so excited when he introduced me to personal hygiene. I took a bath with Comet and washed the tub out with soap. He meant vice versa.

Pie was nice. We had a Christmas with real toys that year. But my mother’s drug habit made him leave. We could have moved up to the first level with Pie.

Many more Pies would come and go. Every few months there was a different man in our lives. Some seemed sincere; others were out to take advantage of a weak, unschooled woman. We called every one of them daddy.

My sister was three years older than I. My brother was almost two years older. By the age of six I was a fast and able runner. I learned early to take off at full speed and hold that speed until the pursuer began to tire. Then I would let him get close enough to sense a capture. When he reached for me, I would suddenly slide to the ground and cause him to tumble forward. Jumping up and running in the other direction was my final move. Bullies like Biggun, with no real will or endurance, usually gave up the chase. When I was a teenager I saw films of African warriors on TV doing the same move. I used that move on a lot of people like Biggun, would-be rapists, kid snatchers, and troublemakers. I ran all the time.

After school, we generally played around the project buildings. Later, they built woodblock fixtures with tires hanging from chains — the type you see monkeys swinging on at the zoo. We wore those swings out, swinging our souls away late into the night, if it was one of those nights when our parents were high and didn’t come home.

Sometimes I sat out and watched the drug dealers. From morning until nightfall, men pumped drugs into the people. I could earn a couple of dollars from them by running across the field to the small store and buying cigarettes, sodas, or snacks.

There were always at least three or four dope dealers at each corner. They kept the dope they sold in medicine bottles and hid them in nearby bushes or cracks in the sidewalk.

Wheelchair David was one of the best-known dealers. His legs had been amputated at the knees. He wore a full beard; he looked like a wise father. There were always at least two flunkies with him. Food stamps, televisions, guns — anything of value — would be accepted for the dope.

Another well-known dealer was Crippled Jerry, a man in his late thirties. His left leg was flawed from birth, and he dragged it when he walked. A young black woman had rented a project unit for him, and that was where he spent his days. On several of the corners his workers sold dope. Jerry had money, a lot of money. He bought his twenty-one-year-old girlfriend a new Mercedes Benz. Every Christmas he bought all the kids toys and gave all the families hams. If you told him how old you were on your birthday, he gave you a dollar for each year. If he had not sold drugs to the families, they could have bought their own hams and Christmas toys.

Gunfights went on all the time. It was not unusual to see ten men jump out of cars with pistols and shotguns and roam the projects, looking for their victim. It was both scary and exciting as a kid to see this. I remember gas bombs, gunshots, and shattering glass. Children hit the ground the minute they heard a loud bang, as if they had been trained to do so.

There were parents who spent their days traveling back and forth to the corner, purchasing a pill or two of heroin and a syringe. Then they locked themselves in their bathrooms and bedrooms. They tied straps tightly around their arms to make the veins stick out. They sucked a cooked pill out of a bottle top with a needle. Maybe within this dreamful high they saw the once-proud kings and queens of Africa — saw their forefathers, great mathematicians, construct the pyramids. Maybe they felt the courage of a Marcus Garvey deep within them. Perhaps they experienced a few precious moments of freedom.


“Wake up, Jerrold and Junior.” There was no need to wake up, I hadn’t slept for half the night. I’d been too nervous. I forced myself out of the bed.

A pile of dirty clothes lay just inside the closet. I moved the broken door aside and sifted through the pile. Somewhere along the way, the principles of hygiene that Pie had taught us had been forgotten.

I left the house and walked to the corner. Maybe the bus would have a wreck. Maybe it would forget our street. But the big yellow machine rounded the corner. I was nervous as I boarded, nervous and embarrassed.

We were being bused to the heart of the white neighborhood. The buildings here were pleasant and new. There were a lot of pretty cars. We drove farther. Houses appeared, unlike any I had ever seen. They were new, clean houses, though not very large. Yet they grew larger and larger every minute. We came around a curve. I saw the biggest house. You could have placed half of a project block in its front yard. It resembled a castle, and had a long, twisted road leading up to its front door, then circling back out the other side. Who could have lived in that place?

The white kids I encountered later that day had risen to the scent of new clothes, fresh school supplies, and a hot breakfast. Their parents had made them brush their teeth and comb their hair.

The odds begin at birth.

I made friends with a few white kids. I’ll never forget Dean. He sometimes gave me money for my lunch when I was too ashamed to use the free-lunch ticket. They made the free-lunch kids go through one line, the paying students through another. One line was all black, the other all white.


Fletcher and my mother had been together for about a year. Fletcher was also addicted to heroin. He was a quiet, conservative man. I remember when he first introduced me to fishing. He took me down to the pond with two rods and reels and a bucket of worms he had dug up from his mother’s back yard. We sat amid the cattails. He pointed at a long water moccasin that was relaxing in the marsh. “Don’t disturb it,” he said.

He told me to watch the tip of the rod. Then I heard Fletcher say, “There he goes.” I turned to see the rod bent almost double. Then the line slackened. “There are carps in this lake as long as a man’s leg,” Fletcher informed me. I went on to catch fish so big we had to go into the water and drag them out by their gills. My mom enjoyed fishing also. She used the activity to combat her drug habit, though it never worked. I’d bait her hook, then throw the line far out into the deep, where she liked it. As long as I would bait and cast the line, she would sit there and haul in the fish. Those fish filled our bellies many nights.

I did not blame her for turning to the substance that helped her endure the tremendous odds against her. She never had a chance. When she was fourteen, her mom made her quit school and help take care of her seven brothers and sisters — clean, cook, and wash. When she was twenty, she moved into her first project apartment with three kids. It was her mother who gave her heroin as a remedy for a headache. “Here, take this and fail like the rest of us. You’ll never defeat these impossible odds anyway.”

I remember all her efforts to quit — the drug rehabilitation programs and halfway houses she attended. I remember how she wept over her failed attempts.

Every Christmas he bought all the kids toys and gave all the families hams. If you told him how old you were on your birthday, he gave you a dollar for each year. If he had not sold drugs to the families, they could have bought their own hams and Christmas toys.

If our mom was in a bad mood, it was best to stay clear of her. Kids were a means to release frustration. Out of all of those whippings, I hated the ones that awakened you out of your sleep. It was already hard enough to sleep.

Every kid I knew received those whippings. A lot of people were frustrated. Sometimes, up and down the streets, the kids yelled and screamed, “OK, Momma, I won’t do it no mo.” Some of them received their whippings in their front yards or in the middle of the street. As I had been, some children were beaten with extension cords, standing naked and wet.

My mother put me up to some embarrassing things. I disliked going door to door and asking if we could borrow sugar, butter, bread, flour, and everything else. We borrowed whole dinners. We never kept anything in the icebox for long, other than ice trays. We borrowed from a lady named Willie Mae all the time. I can’t remember a time she turned us down, except when she just didn’t have it.

She was an older woman, with two daughters in their early twenties and one son, Chris. Chris was five. Their house had junk stacked everywhere. An old-fashioned fan was in their back window. Miz Willie Mae was on welfare. She took care of Chris and her daughter’s little girl, Dirty-Red. Dirty-Red was four. Miz Willie Mae’s oldest daughter, Twinkle, was on drugs. She often brought tricks over to her apartment. Miz Willie Mae was too humble to complain. One of those same tricks bashed Miz Willie Mae’s head in with a hammer. Twinkle had run off with his money.

Eric’s parents sold drugs to make a living. When they turned in only half the money and couldn’t come up with the rest, two men shot and killed them. The killers shot at Eric, too, as he ran out the back door.

Tracy was lovely. Her mom was on heroin. At a young age, some kids encouraged me to pick a fight with her. I blackened her eye. She later became my girlfriend. We kissed only once. She eventually followed in the footsteps of her mother — a normal, natural thing to do.


When I turned eleven, a white man started visiting the projects, recruiting young black boys for his candy business. We were taught to recite a speech suggesting that this job was designed to keep kids off the streets. We were given a dollar for every box we sold. We sold the candy for $4.50. We turned the opportunity into a thriving enterprise, at least for broke kids like ourselves. We learned that if you smiled at people, looked them straight in the eyes, acted polite, kissed up to them, you could generally squeeze out a couple of sells.

We were always trying to find jobs. My brother and I would leave early in the morning and stay away all day, searching. Most places would not hire us. Occasionally we stumbled upon temporary work. My brother eventually landed a job at a service station. They paid him fifty bucks a week.


Down the street, I had another friend. I don’t remember his name, but I’ll never forget his brother, whom I talked to a few times. He was about twenty-two, dark, slim and wore a net cap over his small Afro. Entering his room, you suddenly fell into darkness.

The windows were covered by heavy blankets; dull, red light revealed the shadows of small tables and fixtures. The odor of reefer would drift above my head. Deep rhythms of funk bands played softly. With the room so dark that I had to remind myself I wasn’t alone, he talked to me about life. Awed and baffled, I sat and absorbed every word. He spent at least half of the day inside this small room. He had no worries, no concerns. Several pretty young women who desired his satisfaction loved him, fed him, and cared for him.

His impact on me was permanent.


In the front yard of someone’s apartment, a small group of men and women had gathered. Their faces were stern. All of the women wore dresses and the men wore suits and neckties.

A lady with stubby limbs held the microphone and sang, “Whatcha gonna do, whatcha gonna do when the world’s on fire.” Others had gathered to observe the singing and clapping. An old man stepped forward and began to talk. “The Lord can bring a change in your lives, if you’re hungry and worried, if you have bills to pay, if you’re on drugs — whatever the problem — the Lord can make a change.” When he asked if anyone wanted to try Jesus, I stepped forward. Nervous and ashamed, I was led off by a woman. She told me to ask the Lord to save me. I said, “Lord save me.” She shouted in my ear, “Save me Lord.” I said, “Save me Lord.” “Ask the Lord to save you.” “Save me Lord.” “Ask him to save you.” “Save me Lord.” “Now thank him.” “Thank you Lord.” By this time, she was spitting in my ear. I heard moaning and eerie, ghostly sounds coming from around me.

I was asked my name and told that I was now clean and saved. I needed to come to the church to learn and grow. The arrangements were made. I went back home, telling no one about my secret.

I soon learned about prayer, living holy, the end of the world, and the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. God loved me and did not want to see me suffering, hungry, and depraved. Without hesitation, I trusted God. I started going to the church every time they had service, maybe five times a week.

Some Sunday mornings, after the congregation had departed from the morning service, I sat on the church porch. I would wait there until the evening service began. I always sat in the first row, listening to every word. Word soon spread around our block that Jerrold was Saved. I joined in the shouting and testifying. Allowing the mood of the crowd to take me, I stomped my feet and wailed. I became well trained in the Scriptures. At this stage, I started witnessing to other people like the lady had done to me. I was happy to know that I could have a good, normal life — never hungry, always happy.

I only had to die before I received it.

After a few months, I turned my faith toward our house. God was going to take my mother off drugs. I knew he would do it.

I went into her room and opened the drawer where she kept her needles. I threw them in the trash. When she came home and found out, she slapped me around and turned over furniture. I told her that God loved us and wanted to help us. Since she was from a holy family, my words disturbed her. She went into her room and shut the door. I was determined. I sat at the top of the stairs. I stayed there all night so that she would not go out. Around three o’clock, she emerged from the room. She took a seat beside me. I told her how God was making me happy and that we wanted to do the same for her. We agreed that our whole family would go to church the next Sunday.

That Sunday, my mother, sister, brother, and I went to church. When the pastor asked who wanted to be saved, they all went to the altar. My mother wailed like a seasoned pro.

That evening, she told me that she would have to talk to the man for whom she had been selling dope. She thought that he might try to kill her if she stopped. I watched her walk out the door on the way to Fred’s house, wondering if I would ever see her again. I started out the door after her, then stopped. I stood in the doorway with that little black Bible, holding on to the only hope that I had ever known. That church had instilled a sense of possibility in me.

My brother was the first to stop attending the church. Then my mother quit. No matter how hard she tried, her peace of mind came only from the heroin. I kept going for a while, but eventually my church activities diminished. So many of the members seemed worried, deprived, and depressed. There were so many questions, so few answers. One day, I simply left, never to return.


I hated cigarette smoke and our house stayed full of it. We were sent to buy cigarettes, borrow cigarettes, and even to steal them. If there was no other way to buy aspirin, we were told to steal them, too. The cool words, “Do it for Momma” and “That’s Momma’s baby boy,” did me in every time. Kindness was so rare. I can recall making four trips a day to the store. If one store was out of cigarettes, I immediately knew to keep walking until I found a store that wasn’t, regardless of the distance.

It was best not to object or you would receive one of those horrible beatings or get slapped across the head. Wash out Momma’s panties. Do this for Momma, do that for Momma. Coming home from a do-it-for-Momma trip to the store, I was caught in a hailstorm. My head swelled where the ice had hammered it. My sister hated cooking for Momma. My brother and I started leaving the house early so that we wouldn’t have to slave for Momma all day.

I was called into the bathroom where she sat on the toilet. There was a stocking tied around her arm. She said, “Jerrold, I’m too nervous to hit myself. I’ll put the needle in place and then let you hold it. All you have to do is squeeze it.” She placed my hand on the needle with her nervous, shaking hand and said, “Do it for Momma.”


It had gotten to a point where on days that we ate, we had only a small serving of red beans and maybe some corn bread. Sometimes we had only mayonnaise sandwiches, ketchup sandwiches, mustard sandwiches — at other times, just plain bread. On the corner one day, this man told me how I could get my family something to eat. He knew some foreigners who had a lot of money. He was going to take their belongings, and would give me a cut if I would help carry the merchandise to his car. I said OK. He was a dope fiend and desperate for a fix. I was desperate for everything.

We arrived at the back door of apartment. He busted the glass pane above the lock and unlocked the door. We both crept inside. A big color TV was against a wall. We carried it to his car. He gave me five dollars.

I learned how to shoplift for food at the shopping center. My brother and I stole things that were easy to conceal — cans of sardines, small packages of rice.

We learned to go to the shopping center late Saturday nights. The newspaper companies dumped hundreds of papers on the sidewalk. We’d sift through the piles, picking out all of the TV Guides. Back in the projects, we would go from door to door selling our magazines for a quarter apiece.

I was called into the bathroom where she sat on the toilet. There was a stocking tied around her arm. She said, “Jerrold, I’m too nervous to hit myself. I’ll put the needle in place and then let you hold it. All you have to do is squeeze it.” She placed my hand on the needle with her nervous, shaking hand and said, “Do it for Momma.”

I wanted a bicycle so I could ride with the other boys who had hustled bicycles. Bad Baby was clever with his hands. He built bicycles from used parts. He also stole them. Carrying me on the back of his bike, we visited different places.

On one trip, Bad Baby took me across the Hampton Bridge. This was before Prescott, Bad Baby’s brother, was killed. He rode along beside us. They turned down several streets looking in each direction. We stopped at a corner. Bad Baby pointed to a bike lying in someone’s front yard. He said, “Jerrold, this is the only way you’ll ever have a bike.” I asked him to take me home. They sped off. I ran after them. Scared, I turned back around, hopped on the bike, and pedaled after them. They stood around the corner waiting for me. We hurried back across the bridge into the projects. Along the way, he told me that the people had plenty of money and would never miss the bike. He told my mom he built it for me and I kept it.

Bad Baby felt sorry for my brother and me. He shared his Thanksgiving dinner with us. He thought things would be better if my mom was reported. One night, authorities from Human Services came by. This funny-looking white man told my mother he was going to question me and my brother separately. When questioned, I told him we ate good every day and were doing fine. I had heard of these strange people from the state who came and took you away. After all, this was our home.

This memoir about growing up in the West Dallas projects originally appeared in Dallas Life Magazine.

Jerrold Ladd, twenty-two, attends college part-time and works as a reporter for the Dallas Morning News. He’s seeking a publisher for his autobiography, Within The Madness, from which this essay is excerpted.

Our thanks to Sun reader Stan Blazyck for bringing the piece to our attention.

— Ed.