Where Others Fear To Tread

V.J. Smith traded his gun for a Bible a decade ago. Now he runs the night watch on Central's troubled streets. The payoff? Amazing grace and a good night's sleep.

And for good reason. Smith sells his criminal background as an asset, reasoning that it affords him the intimate knowledge of urban street life needed to connect with kids like these. His checkered past, though, has made it hard for him to earn the trust of the Minneapolis Police Department; at the same time, his association with the police, with whom he regularly shares information gathered while on patrol, causes suspicion with the people he's trying to counsel here in Central, many of whom are wary of or downright hostile to authority in any form. MAD DADS is also a Christian organization, attracting volunteers anxious to save souls for the Lord. That zealotry might play well in church, but this street corner isn't church.

Just as Smith, Howard, and Fliehs are making moves to decamp to another of tonight's hot spots, an opportunity peeks from under the bill of a beat-up Yankees cap. Fliehs and one of the sidewalk gamblers exchange glances of recognition. She approaches the teen, rests her wrinkled white hand on his bony shoulder, asks how things are going. The kid shakes off his cool veneer and he allows a quick, silver-capped grin. Things are going okay, he says, and he has been trying his best.

"How many babies do you have at home?" Fliehs asks.

"Two," he answers.

Smith, overhearing, moves in. He gently encourages the young man to step up, take responsibility, grab a flyer and learn some skills. The response: "I got plenty of skills."

In that instant Smith decides to play it cool. "We've got ourselves one of those brothers, man," he says loudly to Howard. The teasing is meant to be friendly, but it stings all the same. "Knows everything about everything. Doesn't need any help. Has everything under control...."

The kid frowns and turns to avoid the hassle. Smith changes tactics again by gripping the boy's elbow, leaning in and lowering his voice to a murmur. "No, no, no. Now seriously, brother, take one of these flyers," he cajoles softly. "Go ahead. Just check it out." The kid considers the sheet for a few beats. Smith makes eye contact and nods solemnly, keeping hold of that elbow.

The flyer changes hands.

An hour later--MAD DADS long gone for the next corner--the kid in the Yankees cap is killing time at the corner of Lake and Chicago. Nodding slowly, he's showing Smith's yellow flyer to a friend as the two pass a joint back and forth under the blazing streetlights.

 

The first time I meet V.J. Smith he's serving orange drink to a room full of kindergartners whose parents live at Legacy Village in north Minneapolis, one of nine low-income housing projects run by the Legacy Management company for whom Smith works full-time organizing activities for residents. Today he's dressed in a midnight blue, three-button suit. The brown of his pinpoint shirt is tastefully set off by a brilliant red woven into a silk tie and matching breast pocket handkerchief. The last time we talk, Smith is decked out in a sky-blue sportcoat, buffed wingtips, and a patent-leather bow tie, with his handkerchief as white as his starched dress shirt. Smith's natty attire is a trademark, the tasteful wardrobe of a hustler turned DJ turned street-stationed disciple.

Consider, for a moment, the story behind a simple turtleneck. Smith's mother and father abandoned him by the time he was nine years old. For the next seven years, he was shuffled from one foster home to the next in Kansas City, Missouri. When he turned 16, he finally landed with a long-term family, and put down what passed for roots. The father of the house was decent to him, he remembers, and things were stable enough. Along the way, though, Smith figured out that he was being used.

"You see, that was when turtlenecks were really, really popular. Everyone was wearing them," he recalls as we sit down to talk in his office at Legacy Village, all the while fiddling with the flawlessly dimpled Windsor knot at his neck. "My turtlenecks would always slop way down on my chest. But I noticed that everyone else in my family, their turtlenecks stuck to their necks. And I realized they were going to Kmart to get my turtlenecks and they were going to places like Dayton's to get theirs. But they would take the Dayton's receipt to the county for a reimbursement, as if those turtlenecks were mine."

Fed up with the scam, Smith moved into a motel during his senior year in high school. To make rent he started taking crazy risks, breaking into houses, shoplifting, jacking cars, and mastering the ABCs of petty crime. His antics, his swagger, his talent for the grift caught the attention of a crew of local drug dealers, most of them middle-aged ex-cons who, after Smith earned his diploma, took him in as their protégé. Smith spent the next six years in what he calls the "college of dealing," where earnest students could earn a "masters in drugology."

"I was never part of a gang," Smith clarifies. "I was part of organized crime, where everyone works together like a business. We don't stand on no street corners, we don't wear no gang colors, we don't make no gang signs. We handle our business, we stay as inconspicuous as possible, and we don't play games on the streets with nobody."

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