Moore and his friend Justin have spent the day in Manhattan, window shopping for sneakers that they can’t afford. The two boys bonded as soon as they met; they have the same haircut, know each other’s neighborhoods and families, and—most importantly—are two of the only black kids in their school. Despite having graduated from the New York public school system herself, Joy was worried about the prospect of sending her son to public school, thinking it would be too dangerous. Joy works three jobs to support the family and sends Moore to Riverdale, a university-like private school whose alumni include John F. Kennedy. She hopes that this will allow Moore to “escape” his own neighborhood in pursuit of a brighter future; however, this plan does not succeed.
Joy’s decision over whether to send Moore to Riverdale shows how difficult and uncertain such decisions can be. On the one hand, Riverdale offers safety, resources, and opportunities that could transform Moore’s destiny. Although he has strict rules at home, there is nothing Moore’s family can do to mitigate the effects of attending a dangerous, poorly-equipped school. On the other hand, attending Riverdale alienates Moore from his community, which in turn has a negative, isolating impact on him socially and psychologically.
Moore and Justin walk home, the smells of Jamaican, Chinese, and Puerto Rican food wafting through the air. The smells, graffiti, and words mixed in English and Spanish now “feel like home” to Moore. They meet up with a couple of friends, one of whom asks them how they like their “white school.” Moore is embarrassed and tries to change the subject, but the other kids press it. Eventually, Moore tells them about his recent suspension for fighting, exaggerating the story to make himself seem more tough. The boys, however, realize that Moore isn’t telling the truth and begin laughing. Moore is only saved by the distraction of an elderly, bad-smelling panhandler who comes over asking for change. Moore explains that even though “drugs were not new to the Bronx,” crack has totally transformed the community, tearing apart families and causing a drastic jump in the homicide rate. Although the boys laugh at the panhandler, they know he represents a dark and dangerous reality.
By this point in the narrative, Moore feels a sense of inclusion in his new neighborhood; the sights and smells are familiar, and he has a “crew.” On the other hand, he is kept in a position of permanent outsider because he attends Riverdale. This passage reveals the ambivalent relationship Moore and his friends have to the Bronx. On the one hand, they are proud to come from a “tough” neighborhood, as shown by the fact that the boys tease Moore for attending a white school and exaggerating the story of his suspension. On the other hand, they seek to distance themselves from the less appealing sides of their neighborhood by laughing mercilessly at the panhandler.
Moore and Justin head home, and Moore mentions the rules of the street: don’t make eye contact, don’t smile, stay aware of where the drug dealers and police are “at all times.” They talk about Riverdale, and Moore reflects on how he doesn’t fit in, confessing that he is constantly trying to hide the fact that his family is so much poorer than the families of other students. Moore usually goes to play in the other students’ neighborhoods rather than inviting them to his, but on one occasion Moore’s Uncle Howard suggests that he invite some friends over to play baseball in the park, sensing that this might help Moore feel less like he is living in two “mutually exclusive worlds.” However, after only 15 minutes a fight breaks out between the Riverdale students and the kids from Moore’s neighborhood.
At this point, Moore’s life is dominated by a stark contrast. During his time at school, he desperately tries to hide his difference from the other kids, whose lives are filled with expensive possessions and lavish vacations. Back home, meanwhile, he must seem tough and intimidating simply in order to stay safe on the streets. As a result of this contrast, Moore feels that he doesn’t belong anywhere; in both these environments, he is seen as not good enough. Meanwhile, Uncle Howard’s well-meaning attempt to bridge Moore’s two worlds ends up proving the irresolvable conflict between them.
Plagued by a constant feeling of alienation, Moore’s academic performance suffers. Justin encourages Moore to study harder in order to avoid probation. While Moore gives excuses, he is reminded of the fact that Justin comes from a very similar background yet is receiving top grades. Moore confesses that Joy is threatening to send him to military school, but doesn’t really believe she’ll follow through with it. He notes that in Caribbean households, boys are “often indulged like little princes.” In addition, his mother rejects all forms of violence, so the idea of her sending him to military school is somewhat absurd.
Moore’s relationship with Justin evokes the central question of the book: why is it that some people thrive in adverse circumstances, while others struggle to cope? Both Moore and Justin must deal with issues of alienation, racism, fatherlessness, and inequality. Yet while Moore uses this as an excuse for his poor grades, Justin is inspired to succeed—a fact that is reflected in his academic performance.
The narrative jumps back to Wes, who has moved neighborhoods once again. Kurt Schmoke has recently been elected the first African-American mayor of Baltimore; a graduate of Baltimore public schools, he went on study at Yale, Oxford, and Harvard, but is heavily criticized for suggesting that the drug epidemic should be classified as a “public health problem” rather than an issue of crime. Wes’s family is a perfect example of the devastating effects of drug crime. At 18, Tony is living in the Murphy House Projects and has recently been shot during a drug deal gone wrong. Wes has been forced to repeat the 6th grade, which Mary worries is the first sign that her son is headed down the same path as his brother.
The key issue within Kurt Schmoke’s desire to reclassify the drug crisis as a “public health problem” is the question of whether drug use and crime is a “choice” in the conventional sense. Many people argue that the decision to use or sell drugs is exactly that—a decision—and that people should take responsibility for this illegal act. Others cite research indicating that people are driven to sell and use drugs through poverty and lack of resources—a view supported by the example of Tony.
Wes feels envious of Tony’s new, expensive clothes, and begs Mary to let him buy some. Mary replies that Tony may have a flashy wardrobe, but he is also in hospital as a result of being shot. Walking in the neighborhood, Wes spots a young boy wearing an expensive ring and headset. It is “the coolest thing Wes had ever seen.” He asks a group of kids wearing them where he can get one, and they respond that he will be paid to wear one and look out for the police. Wes understands that this means he will be part of “the game,” but reassures himself that he is not actually selling drugs, just keeping lookout. When Wes grows up, he dreams of being a pro football player or rapper. In the meantime, Wes doesn’t see much harm in wearing a headset for money.
Wes doesn’t want to get in “the game,” but the game is all around him, encouraging him to join. And outside of drugs, Wes’s life contains few opportunities for success. He has failed the sixth grade in a city with a 70% dropout rate, and though he dreams of being a rapper or football player, this is more of a fantasy than something rooted in reality. The only examples of affluence, glamour, and autonomy around Wes come from people who sell drugs. Is it really fair to blame Wes for wanting to get in on “the good life” in the only way he can?
A few months earlier, Wes had been planning to skip school and have a cookout with Woody and their other friends. After Mary leaves for work, Wes searches for change in her bedroom, only to accidentally find some of her marijuana. Wes brings it to show Woody, and they decide to smoke it with some older kids. The group smokes, drinks malt liquor, and stops for Chinese food; Wes begins admiring a girl across the street, only to be told that he is looking at a trash can. When he comes back home, Wes tries to play it cool but Mary and her boyfriend both realize that he has been drinking. Mary tells him that she hopes his queasiness puts him off drinking; yet despite the aftereffects, Wes enjoys the sensation of being high. He resolves to don a headset and make some money.
This is another major turning point in Wes’s life. Although he is aware of the dangers of entering the drug game—his older brother is, after all, in the hospital as a result of being shot—Wes can’t resist the temptation to steal his mother’s weed and see what it feels like to get high. This decision leads him to make further destructive choices, including getting involved with selling drugs. However, it is arguably unfair to judge Wes too harshly for this decision. Drugs are all around him, and it is normal for teenagers to experiment. Is it realistic to expect kids like Wes to abstain completely?