, Jason De Parle
In a worn town house on the edge of Milwaukee, a father and son are lying in bed. A bag of
Pampers spills across the floor beside boxes of juice bottles and soda cans, stashed so the older
kids won’t drink them. Mounds of laundry flank the bed — clean to the north, dirty to the south
— as bare-chested men on TV chant about pistols and weed. ‘‘I been having this TV forever,’’
the father says with a yawn. ‘‘Bought it in, like, ’96 from a hype’’ —a drug addict. ‘‘Gave her
two bags for it. It was like 6 o’clock in the morning. She was fiending for a hit.’’
The father is six feet tall with a linebacker build, copper skin and soft hair, which until recently
he kept in a ponytail. He says that light skin and long hair, a lure for women, were among his
main assets when he worked as a drug dealer and pimp. So were quick fists. ‘‘You can pay me or
pay the doctor,’’ he used to say. His boxer shorts end just above a three-inch scar from a prison
knife and cover the gunshot wound in the groin that nearly killed him. His 2-year-old son
isn’t feeling well, but the hollering of the rappers on BET perks him up.
He raps in gibberish.
‘‘This guy I know, Blue, came over,’’ the father says, continuing the story.
‘‘He said a girl wanna sell her TV. She was in bad shape — skinny, crackish,
she wanted a hit bad. Actually, I don’t even believe it was her TV.’’ With a
built-in VCR, the set was worth more than $500. Finding the woman, he
offered her two $10 bags of crack. ‘‘That’s what I’d always say.’’ And if the
women with the bug eyes and bad breath argued, he would cut the offer in
half. It was a strategy that netted not only a cache of home electronics but
five cars. From the sunrise television thief, he earned more in 15 minutes
than he now makes in a week.
He yawns some more. He was on the job delivering pizzas till 11 p.m.,
then up half the night as usual, in the basement mixing raps. His pay stubs
come to Kenyatta Q. Thigpen, but in the basement he’s 40 Kal Yatt, wouldbe
star of the Killa G’s. Beneath the piles of laundry are notebooks filled
with his raps, which amid the standard paeans to Glocks and rocks, thank
God for the birth of his son. The son, Kevion, is starting to fuss. ‘‘You hungry?
Huh? You hungry, baby? C’mon, Teebie, let’s go get you something to
eat.’’ Ken sits on the bed, and the boy climbs up for a piggyback ride. Forty
and his shorty head down the stairs. It is time for Barney.
The child’s mother, Jewell Reed, left the house at 5:30 a.m. for her job at a
nursing home — she spent eight years on welfare but left the rolls long ago,
as soon as Wisconsin’s work rules kicked in — and her 15-year-old, Terrell,
with whom Ken has been feuding, is at summer school. Tremmell, 12,
Jewell’s middle son, has been sleeping past noon, so at 10, Ken and Kevion
have the house to themselves. Ken isn’t the father of the older boys, which is