By Lawrence Lanahan
6:53 PM EDT, July 14, 2014
Here's one story about the West Baltimore corner of North Monroe and Mosher streets: On May 21, three people were shot: one in the head, one in the chest, one in the leg.
Here's a better story about that corner. One day, a teen known as Q-Ball was walking with his brother and a friend when a skinny white boy named Alan emerged from a rowhouse and said, "Hey, do you all wanna destroy a microwave?"
“This guy looks crazy,” Q-Ball remembers thinking, “but here’s our chance to get destructive, to destroy something.”
The trio went into Alan’s backyard, grabbed some pieces of wood, and went to work. When they were done, Q-Ball gave Alan a high-five. He winced and looked at his hand. There was a cut straight across his fingers.
Like most young men from West Baltimore, misfortune had found Q-Ball often. Over time, misfortune can transform into anger, and anger always finds a way out. Q-Ball didn’t like turning his own anger into other people’s misfortune. The microwave was willing to take some of Q-Ball’s anger away. A little blood was a small price to pay.
Alan’s hand was smeared with red. “I guess we must be blood brothers now,” said Q-Ball.
Alan Willingham-McLain, 24, and several young men from the neighborhood are packed up in Alan’s kitchen sharing a pot of chicken, rice, and bell peppers. As with all community meals here, each person fixes a plate for someone else. Above the sink behind them, a plaque reads, “FAITH makes things possible—not easy.”
It’s been over two years since the microwave-bashing, but Q-Ball is still here. His real name is Ernest Wilson. At 19 years old, he’s still tight with Alan.
“When he turned 18, I’m like, ‘We’re calling him Q, not Q-Ball,’” Alan said, laughing. “That sounds more like a man’s name: Q.”
Not many houses have mission statements, but in Alan’s living room there’s one scrawled on a whiteboard in purple and orange marker. It says that 1917 Mosher is an “intentional Christian community,” serving as a “safe and empowering space” for young men who want “more than what the corner has to offer.”
“I guess the reason why this lifestyle is important to me,” Alan said, “is because I fear the world will never see the amazing leadership inside of people like Q if society keeps on this track where we just isolate ourselves from people who hurt and who are different and keep opportunity away from them.”
Q keeps his hair thick and wears stylish outfits with brightly colored flames and camouflage. As I sat listening to his life story, his feelings registered very clearly on his broad face. His demeanor is so calm, though, that it’s difficult to notice those feelings changing. One minute, you see gleeful gratitude in his face. Look again and it’s mournful regret.
Q tries to keep himself in places where opportunity is most likely to cross his path. He helps lead a youth group at New Song Community Church. He is training to become a leader with Young Life, a Christian mentoring program working with students from Calverton Elementary/Middle in Southwest Baltimore. He wants to attend Baltimore City Community College in the fall. But as a young man in West Baltimore, there’s something else just as likely to cross Q’s path: the odds, which are against him.
“Yesterday I went swimming, and someone stole a bookbag that had my ID, my social security card, and birth certificate,” Q said as he sat at Alan’s kitchen table. “It seems like every time I’m on track, something will always take me back. My cousin, she got shot in the face two weeks ago. And a man I looked up to as a role model got killed back in February.”
On February 23, police found Phil Carr Jr. on the ground in Park Heights, shot in the head. “When I found out about that,” Q said, “I kinda went through a downfall.”
Carr had helped Q’s family get through his great aunt’s death from breast cancer in 2010. “We were all down and depressed, and when he came along, we were like, ‘Aw, that was the problem: We was missing the fun,'” Q said. “I kinda looked at him as a father.”
Q’s great aunt, Mary Ellen Bell, had raised him from the age of four. She became like a mother to him. When Bell died, Q was 15, and he went to North Carolina to live with his father. School and sports began to stress him out, he said, and after a few months his father got locked up. That was actually a bit of a relief—they’d had many conflicts. But then his mother called from Baltimore: Q’s sister was ill.
“When she told me that, I snapped,” Q said. He began feeling suicidal, making sketches in a notebook rather than expressing his feelings to anyone else. When one of the sketches fell on the floor and someone saw it, Q called his mom. After nearly a year in North Carolina, it was time to come home to Baltimore.
Back home, he remained depressed and turned to marijuana and alcohol. “When I was going through them times,” Q said, “a lot of people was talking to me like, ‘Hey man, look, you starting to change, you starting to pick up an attitude, man. You mean. You acting crazy.’”
In his senior year of high school at Knowledge and Success Academy, a public middle/high school in West Baltimore near the county line, Q said he came to his senses. “I asked the Lord for a sign to help me out, and I got a dream with my aunt,” he said. “She kinda got on my case!”
Q started pulling himself together, but at the end of the school year, he failed the state assessment necessary to graduate. The school gave him a “bridge project” to meet an alternative graduation requirement, and he pulled an all-nighter to finish it. A day before graduation, Q said, a vice principal told him he’d be graduating. He wouldn’t walk the stage, but that didn’t diminish Q’s enthusiasm. Ernest Wilson, class of 2012—most of his family had dropped out of high school.
“I just started running through the hallways like ‘YES! YES! YES! YES! YES!'” Q said. “It felt like I broke a family curse.”
Q doesn’t spend too much time at his mother’s house these days. There are too many people packed in there, and someone always seems to be awake. But he still tries to spend time with them. Sometimes he’ll take his little brother and cousins for a walk downtown, getting home as late as 5 a.m. “We sit at the edge of the harbor, watch the water flow for a couple hours, just chat,” he said.
Q is just as likely to be found at Alan’s house. “I end up sleeping here most of the time,” he said. “I can sleep a good 16 to almost 20 hours. It’s a comfort zone. It’s very positive here. If I hadn’t met Alan, I do not know where I’d be at right now. I probably would have just given my life to the streets."
One day in March, Q left his mother’s house with a stun gun on him. He says he got it after being chased by a wild dog. “My mom said put it back, but I didn’t listen,” Q said. “I didn’t listen to her for once, and I got locked up.” Q says it was his first arrest.
At his court date, Q said, authorities tried to pin an outstanding 2009 handgun charge on him. “It was someone with the same name as me,” he said, “just four years older.” He showed them his ID, he said, and they threw out the handgun charge.
After a teacher and church leader testified on his behalf, Q received a year of unsupervised probation. A woman pulled him aside as he left the courtroom. “She said, ‘God is watching over you, and you are very lucky today. I hope this opens your eyes.’”
Q didn’t recognize her. “That’s an angel,” he said. “Ever since that day, I’ve been trying to keep calm, do what I have to do.”
Alan and other mentors have helped Q through setbacks like the stun-gun charge, his friend Phil’s murder, and the loss of a job in May. A few weeks ago, a couple of the men with the Baltimore Young Life program helped Q land a job interview at the Baltimore Convention Center. Alan gave him a ride downtown. Q interviewed with two chefs, who then walked him to another interview.
“They told me, ‘Look, if we wasn’t gonna hire you, man, we wouldn’t be walking with you to this lady’s office.’ I was like, ‘Oh my goodness!’” said Q. “I felt like I got a burden off my chest.”
Q says that when he starts the job, he’ll be cleaning, but that they’ll likely cycle him through different jobs, including in the kitchen. “I told them, ‘You put me on the grill, I’m not getting off it,'” he said.
During a recent power outage, Q and some family members were sitting on their stoop just a few blocks south of Sandtown.
“Two police cars rolled up, talking about, ‘If you don’t live here or ain’t 18 or over, you can’t sit out front or be around here,'” Q said. “They talking crazy—‘We’ll lock you up and take you down right now.’ I said to them, ‘You cannot do that. We sitting in front of our own house not disturbing anybody.'”
Q doesn’t like to bite his tongue, but he tries not to say too much when police come around. “If I say something out my mouth or any type of movement,” he said, “then they can lock me up.”
With a new curfew in effect, there is no shortage of opportunities for Q to interact with the police. He also has to negotiate the corners. Q says he gets respect there, even though he’s not living the life.
“They always say, ‘Keep it real, keep it 100,'” Q said. “That means don’t try to be someone you’re not.” For Q, who is worried about what the next generation is learning from his own, that means offering young people an alternative to the street. Late one night, he said, he saw a 15-year-old boy asking a 26-year-old to help him buy a gun.
“He was like this: ‘I’ll get you a gun, but don’t be stupid with it,’” said Q. “I said something like, ‘You really want that gun, or do you want to hit the books?’”
The boy said he wanted to do both: a way out of the streets, but protection while he was still in them.
“I’m like, ‘The only thing keep you protected is to go to school and hit the books. You sure you’re ready to pick that gun up? Once you pick that gun up, it’s hard to put it down,'” said Q.
“The other dude was like, ‘Yo, on some real stuff, he’s speaking the truth to you right now,'” he continued. “He’s giving you the same thing as me—a reality check.”
Reality, Q said, is coming down on him hard these days. “I’m at that stage when it’s all gonna come hit you,” he said. “Dealing with school, trying to get a job, trying not to get in an argument with your mom 'cause you don’t want to get kicked out. And you might get locked up, too.”
With his new job at the Convention Center, Q knows it’s more important than ever to stay in the path of opportunity and out of the path of danger. But there are a lot of police and a lot of corners on the way from Sandtown to downtown.
“You have to play smart,” said Q. “Any wrong move can be your last.”
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