One of the central concerns of Gang Leader for a Day is “hustling.” The term itself has multiple meanings and contexts. Most simply, hustling means whatever one does to survive in the projects. This can involve overt criminal activity, like prostitution or theft; grayer-area criminal activity, like the reselling of goods of questionable origin; or non-criminal odd jobs, like the repair or cleaning of old cars or electronics. Sudhir’s idea of hustling changes throughout the book – and he becomes much more understanding of it as a phenomenon when he realizes that he, too, has a “hustle,” like many people in Robert Taylor.
Various characters tell Sudhir that they make their way through hustling: Ms. Bailey, C-Note, JT, and Clarisse, each with different degrees of official recognition and power. For example, Ms. Bailey has an “elected” position within the project and uses her leverage to enrich herself and help families not served by the police or the housing authority. JT runs the local chapter of the Black Kings, and his hustles include the selling of crack cocaine and various “protection” rackets, which also (he claims) “support the community” and enrich him.
Against this backdrop, however, many people in the projects remind Sudhir that he, too, has a hustle. This is one of Sudhir’s lessons learned by the end of his research stint. Sudhir wants to make his way as an academic sociologist studying the economy and life of the Chicago projects. To do this, he sometimes has to protect his own interests in the face of other, competing interests. For example, Sudhir shares off-the-books job information with Ms. Bailey and JT, only to realize that the two use this information to ask for more protection money from project residents. Thus, Sudhir’s hustle does not always align with the best interests of those in the community he studies. In some cases, Sudhir must choose whether to prioritize his own research and career, or the stability and wellbeing of those around him.
In this way, Sudhir’s hustles, along with those of JT and Ms. Bailey in particular, demonstrate that “self-interest” and self-enrichment often come with a cost. Sudhir genuinely wants to help families in Robert Taylor, but he also wants to make his dissertation better, and to further his academic career. Ms. Bailey and JT really do want to help the community – but they also enrich themselves in the process. When Sudhir sees the positive and negative effects of his own hustles, he is more inclined, by the end of the book, to understand JT and Ms. Bailey’s self-interested behavior in context – to observe the real social good of what they do, along with the morally questionable side.
Hustling Quotes in Gang Leader for a Day
I hadn’t come for the crack; I was here on a different mission. I was a graduate student at the University of Chicago, and for my research I had taken to hanging out with the Black Kings, the local crack-selling gang.
You got blacks who are beating their heads trying to figure out a way to live where you live! Don’t ask me why. And then you got a whole lot of black folk who realize it ain’t no use. Like us. We just spend our time trying to get by, and we live around here, where it ain’t so pretty, but at least you won’t get your ass beat. At least not by the police.
You always take the sure bet in this game. Nothing can be predicted—not supply, not anything. The [person] who tells you he’s going to have product a year from now is lying. He could be in jail or dead. So take your discount now.
And we don’t just fight each other. We have basketball tournaments, softball tournaments, card games. Sometimes it’s just people in the organization who play, but sometimes we find the best people in the building ... so it’s a building thing.
Regulars like me, we hustle to make our money, but we only go with guys we know. We don’t do it full-time, but if we have to feed our kids, we may make a little money on the side.
He [JT] had no real sense of what I would actually be writing—because, in truth, I didn’t know myself. Nor did I know if he’d be upset with me for having seen him beat up C-Note, or if perhaps he’d try to censor me.
JT’s ambitions ran even higher. What he wanted, he told me, was to return the gang to its glory days of the 1960s, when South Side gangs worked together with residents to agitate for improvements in their neighborhoods.
Shorty-Lee was puzzled. He looked over to the three other BKs. They were toting spiral-bound notebooks in which they “signed up” potential votes. But it seemed that neither Lenny nor JT had told them there was an actual registration form and that registrars had to be licensed.
I was nervous, to be sure, but not because I was implicating myself in an illegal enterprise. In fact, I hadn’t even really thought about that angle. ... Only later, when I began sharing my experience with my advisers ... did I begin to understand—and adhere to—the reporting requirements for researchers who are privy to criminal conduct.
The next day I would wake up free of the hundreds of obligations and judgments I’d been witness to. But JT wouldn’t. He’d still bear all the burdens of running a successful underground economy...
I spent the next few weeks turning the information in my notebooks into statistical tables and graphs that showed how much different hustlers made. I figured that JT would appreciate this data at least as much as my professors would...
You didn’t have to get mixed up in this shit.
He must have heard that I’d helped drag Price into the lobby. I didn’t say anything. JT slapped my leg, asked if I wanted a Coke, and walked off to the fridge.
You think I don’t know who you [expletive] are? You think we all don’t know what you’re doing? If you want to play with us, you better be real careful. If you like watching, you may get caught.
You need to understand that the Black Kings are not a gang; we are a community organization, responding to people’s needs.
The pages of the ledgers were frayed, and some of the handwriting was hard to decipher, but the raw information was fascinating. For the past four years, T-Bone had been dutifully recording the gang’s revenues ... and expenses.
...perhaps the most unconventional thing I ever did was embrace the idea that I could learn so much, absorb so many lessons, and gain so many experiences at the side of a man who was so far removed from my academic world.