The Dealer Who Saved My Life

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Rites of Passage

Sometimes when I dream, I imagine the sky over Harlem is a lofty arc of stained glass. A dusted copper heaven streaked with gold and siphoned from Klimt’s aureate imagination. A profanely ornate firmament raining down with the cherubic drug dealers I grew up with in the 1970s. A legion of natty angels, felled by the hubris of fraudulent invincibility. One might envision them as the offspring of Icarus. I call them The Scramblin’ Kids of Harlem.

This specific thought occurred to me when I became aware of the recent Sean Combs documentary, “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: The Bad Boy Story.” The film, which premiered at the 2017 Tribeca Film Festival, chronicles the rise of Diddy’s music empire.

Bad Boy not only launched the career of Christopher Wallace — “The Notorious B.I.G.” — but it also transported an urban folklore from the streets of the South Bronx, Harlem and Bed-Stuy to the runways of New York, London and Paris. Not unlike Jean-Luc Godard and Jacques Demy with cinema’s Nouvelle Vague or Matisse and Derain with Fauvism, Diddy’s Bad Boy milieu of ghetto-fabulous grew into a global movement.

Unquestionably, Mr. Combs’s sensibilities in music and fashion have been imbued by his experience of growing up in Harlem. Although I am more than a decade older than him, I share a similar experience, as our formative years were sculpted in the same neighborhood, Esplanade Gardens.

A honeycomb of high-rise co-op apartments, Esplanade brought together African-American families from every socioeconomic stratum. I can fondly remember the fierce games of 21 on the basketball courts of I.S. 10 (currently known as the Frederick Douglass Academy), where I played against kids who not only attended Dalton and Hunter Prep, but also Brandeis, Julia Richman and my own high school, Charles Evans Hughes (now renamed the Humanities Educational Complex).

Though we all came from disparate walks of life, we were united in the efficacy of becoming constructive, productive and dignified young black men.

We also wanted to look good. Just like the Scramblin’ Kids.

Back in the day, I used to hear guys compare the process of milling raw heroin with the way eggs were scrambled. I’m not sure if that’s where the term derived from, but whatever the case, I wanted to dress like a Scramblin’ Kid. I wanted to rock a dope herringbone Pierre Cardin blazer without selling dope.

I admired the gear of the fashionable boy soldiers who crossed West 116th Street and Eighth Avenue as if it was their own personal Rubicon. The corner boy warriors who carried cargoes of ill-gotten gains in Sloan Super Market shopping bags and who knew there was no turning back.

These nickel-bag bombardiers wore designer labels like sartorial armor. The Scramblin’ Kids rocked Gucci and YSL in the bleachers of the Rucker tournament in the summer, and beneath silent snowfalls of winter adorned themselves in Roffe ski suits and Timberland boots as they supplied the roaring addicts.

I saw the Scramblin’ Kids as the Special Forces of Sorrow, and they became my collective template for the characters I would later create for the screen, like Nino Brown in “New Jack City,” Birdie in “Above the Rim” and Romello and Raynathan Skuggs in “Sugar Hill.”

I can distinctly remember one day in June in 1978 when I ran into two contemporaries of mine in front of the Kentucky Fried Chicken on 146th and Lenox Avenue. (Yes, I still say Lenox Avenue and not Malcolm X Boulevard.) They were resplendent, in the most incredible suits I had ever seen. When I asked one kid — I’ll call him Billy — what he was wearing, he laughed and said, “This is Armani. You don’t know nothin’ ’bout this.”

It was Billy who admonished me when I was trying to make a purchase at his alfresco coke bazaar on 129th and St. Nicholas. The year was 1976, and I was about to leave New York to attend my freshman (and only) year at North Carolina Central University.

I had tried cocaine as a Hughes High School senior, on a bathroom break during my psychology class. (We were reading Freud’s “Über Coca.” Go figure.) I didn’t like cocaine, but cocaine meant status for an insecure 17-year-old trying to fit in. It didn’t work.

Back to the street mise en scene: As I tried to purchase a $20 foil of “flake,” Billy made a beeline directly to me. “Yo, Barry, does Mrs. Cooper know you’re out here?” he yelled as he shoved his unsuspecting worker to the side.

Of course, my mom didn’t know her bookish but fast-talking elder son was in some abominable alleyway trying to score perico. I shook my head and Billy raised his voice: “Of course, she doesn’t, so get the [expletive] off my block!” If his purpose was to embarrass me, it worked.

I never went back to that block. Billy may have saved my life that day.

It was also Billy who, a few weeks after my “Scared Straight” encounter, professed his admiration for me. It happened after I saved up enough from my Neighborhood Youth Corps summer job to buy a pair of $105 Nino Gabriele loafers. (The brown color of the boutique’s distinctive plastic valise generated the name of the character that would make Wesley Snipes a household name.)

As Billy spotted me with the bag, he had a look of pleasant shock on his face. “Yo! I know you didn’t buy a pair of Ninos! You? You?!” Grinning as he inspected the box-fresh kicks, Billy gave me a hug. “Yo, I’m proud of you, Barry!” We laughed, but I knew Billy’s sentiments were heartfelt. He knew I worked an honest job to buy those Ninos — that badge of Harlem honor — as opposed to holding quarter bags of exit talc on 114th and Manhattan Avenue.

Tragically, Billy was murdered a few years after he chased me away from that street corner. The scene in “Sugar Hill” with Wesley Snipes’s Romello and Donald Faison’s young and fatally foolish Kymie is dedicated to him and that epiphanic moment in my life.

I do believe Billy and many of the Scramblin’ Kids would be proud of not only my accomplishments as a journalist and filmmaker, but also of the success of Diddy and other Esplanade alumni, such as Guy Wood and Troy Johnson, the creators of the wildly popular 5001 Flavors fashion label.

The Scramblin’ Kids of my Harlem youth are more than just a synaptic scrapbook of bleach-skipped Polaroids engulfed by fading memories. By GOD’s Grace, I learned some valuable lessons from them. The most important one was this: In order to be fly, self-confidence must be the battery that powers your jet pack.