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.

Smith says he was never arrested in Kansas City, so there is no official record of his transgressions. He does allow that when "someone messed with the group, things were taken care of." And, he reflects, as he rubs the manicured stubble of his goatee, he did some "bad, bad" things that included seriously hurting others. Whatever those bad things amounted to, they were enough to make Smith a wanted man by local authorities. In 1977 he threw his life into a car and traveled to the Twin Cities.

After spending a brief time collecting public assistance, Smith got a job at a now defunct clothing factory near the First Avenue nightclub in downtown Minneapolis. He soon convinced his boss to give him a discount on a new designer suit--a bright yellow vest and matching slacks. "It was cool, though," Smith says when he sees me chuckle. "I got a really nice deal." The outfit gained him admission to circles in which deals were struck not over street drugs and patter, but over vodka martinis and genteel conversation.

"One day I was hanging out on the corner and somebody told me, 'The way you talk, brother, you talk too slang for these folks here in Minnesota. They scared of you.' I really did, I scared people. I'd walk up to someone and start talking and they didn't know what I was going to do. I was a hustler. It was the only thing I knew. I decided the best way to learn wasn't to go to where the African Americans go. So I would put on that suit and go to the top of the IDS, have a few cocktails, and listen to how the businessmen talk. I studied the way they did business. I learned."

After graduating from happy hour, Smith set a new linguistic course, imitating his favorite radio disc jockeys, mastering the vocal dynamics, the up and down speech ribbons, the salesmanship. Then he started haunting local clubs, compiled a dance-record collection, and designed a business card advertising the services of "V.J. the DJ." The experiment went so well, he eventually spent a year spinning discs at KMOJ-FM (89.9), the Twin Cities' only station catering to a primarily black audience.

To augment his income, Smith says, he spent most of the Eighties dealing cocaine, heroin, and speed. "Near the end of it all, I had a friend who knew that I knew how to move merchandise. He told me he had five kilos and didn't know what to do. So what are you going to do? I was back in the business full time, watching money fall out of my pockets. And I had to look good. I had to be the baddest looking DJ in the land."

In 1987 Smith's run of luck ran out. An informant tipped the police to Smith's apartment in north Minneapolis, where he and his friend were storing their inventory. The officers used a battering ram to splinter the front door, and Smith, jolted from sleep, came out of his bedroom wielding two pistols. The rest is a blur; Smith remembers getting tackled, punched, kicked, and rolled on the floor. By sunup he was in jail nursing a broken rib and facing possession charges.

Smith used his one phone call to work a connection. He promised to plug a local attorney friend's services on the radio in exchange for counsel. He was released before nightfall and eventually sentenced to two years of probation. Still, Smith says, the incident was the wake-up call he'd been waiting for.

He left town for Oklahoma City in the hopes of getting his head together. There a friend extended an invitation to the church she attended. Why not? Smith went, and something about the preacher's sermon sunk in. Sunday services and a weekly prayer group became a habit for Smith, who over the following few months came to believe that divine intervention had saved him from ending up dead or behind bars.

Back in Minneapolis he volunteered for the Phoenix Group (a locally based nonprofit that provided housing in the Phillips neighborhood), Smith says, by way of "penance." He enrolled at the Minneapolis Community College, became president of the school's African-American Student Association and student senate, then spent four years working in plant maintenance for Northwest Airlines. He married his first wife Ruthie Boyd, began caring for her young son Steven, and was reunited with his own teenage son Imani, who had been living with his mother, one of Smith's many girlfriends ("I was a bit of a ladies' man," he admits, and a sheepish look crosses his face).

Still, something was keeping Smith up nights. At first it was the memory of that 4:00 a.m. police raid; since then his paranoia had only gotten worse. He had serious trouble sleeping, and he would wake up startled and bathed in sweat. In 1996, after he bought a house and moved his family into the Central neighborhood, though, the nighttime anxiety took a different form. He could hear the gangbangers rolling past his windows on Oakland Avenue and the gunshots going off in the dark; and he could smell the dope being peddled down the street. The life he'd left behind was taking place right outside his front door. He prayed about what to do. He lay awake for hours. He prayed some more.

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