Baltimore Author Discusses 'Living (And Dying) While Black' Author D. Watkins says that crack destroyed his East Baltimore neighborhood, and he explains how the real day-to-day of selling drugs is nothing like the movies. Originally broadcast Oct. 1, 2015.
NPR logo

Baltimore Author Discusses 'Living (And Dying) While Black'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/477910974/477959574" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Baltimore Author Discusses 'Living (And Dying) While Black'

Baltimore Author Discusses 'Living (And Dying) While Black'

Baltimore Author Discusses 'Living (And Dying) While Black'

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/477910974/477959574" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

Author D. Watkins says that crack destroyed his East Baltimore neighborhood, and he explains how the real day-to-day of selling drugs is nothing like the movies. Originally broadcast Oct. 1, 2015.

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. Today's guest, D. Watkins, describes himself as having beat the streets. He grew up during the crack and semi-automatic weapon era in East Baltimore, where the HBO series "The Wire" was set. He escaped getting killed several times, but his brother didn't.

He was shot to death during the period he was selling crack. D. Watkins managed to go to college after his brother's death but soon dropped out and became a crack dealer himself. He gave up the business before it was too late, returned to college, and now has three degrees, including a Master's in Education from Johns Hopkins University and a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing from the University of Baltimore, where he now teaches writing.

He's been a columnist for the Baltimore Sun and for Salon and published a collection of personal essays called "The Beast Side: Living (And Dying) While Black In America." He's just written a new book called "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir" about his life growing up on the streets of Baltimore. Terry Gross spoke with D. Watkins last October when his collection of essays was published.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

D. Watkins, welcome to FRESH AIR. You wrote a piece when you were 14 - this was for a history class - a paper for a history class. And it was called My Baltimore: The 15 Times I Was Almost Murdered. So you were almost murdered 15 times by the time you were 14?

D. WATKINS: Yeah, and, you know, I wish I could go back and find that paper (laughter). I wish - 'cause I would like to compare, like, the way I wrote back then to some of the things that I've been working on, you know, later 'cause I kind of feel like the same storytelling skill is still there. But, yeah, not just me, and it probably was more than that amount of times.

When you live in Baltimore city, especially coming up in the crack era, people dying is not a strange thing. Witnessing murders is not a strange thing, or being in a situation when you're on a basketball court and somebody starts shooting is not a strange thing. Some people can say that, you know, they've almost been murdered 15 times in just a summer.

I just wrote down a bunch of stories about things that I've saw and things that I've been through.

GROSS: Tell us one of those stories.

WATKINS: So one of those stories was - I had a friend - a really, really close friend - he's passed away now - but he was being bullied. He was being, you know, he was being picked on. He got beat down like three times by these same - by the same group of guys. And these guys, they were notorious in East Baltimore. They used to roll around in packs of, like, 35 or 40.

And they used to come through neighborhoods and, you know, I got beat up by them before. They used to beat us down. But, you know, my one particular friend, they beat him up, like, a couple of times - three or four times. And the last time, he was just - you know, he couldn't take it anymore. He was frustrated.

And we're, like, 12 and 13 years old around this time so one day - you know, we used to hang on this corner called Robinson Street - the corner of Robinson and Orleans Street - and we was outside, there was some girls outside, there was some people outside. And, you know, it was a regular summer night. We were having a good time. These guys bend the corner, you know, and they - so many of them.

And they walking down the block, and, you know, they spot him, and they see him, and they walk up on him. And, you know, there was about 10 of us so, you know, we swelled up and just stood up. You know, it's more of them than us but whatever, let's do this. And, out of nowhere, you know, I - none of us expected this. We didn't even know he pulled a gun out.

And he just started busting shots at the crowd. I, you know, well, he was behind me when he did it, so I felt, like, bullets pass right past my head. And, you know, I hit the deck. And he ended up shooting his cousin in the hand by mistake. And those guys - those same guys - they didn't pick on him anymore. But that was our most, like, one of the worst situations for him because after he did that, you know, it was no looking back.

He carried that gun like, you know, like that was his best friend. And it ended up being the way died.

GROSS: Well, he was shot after...

WATKINS: Yeah, he was murdered. He was murdered a few years later after that.

GROSS: So when you saw that happen, like, he had a gun to shoot back at the guys who were beating him up, and then he had to really, really protect himself after that and ends up being shot anyways, what did you take away from that?

WATKINS: He was one of my best friends, so it hurt really bad. I didn't become an advocate against gun violence at a young age because it happened, but I kind of - I understood - I understood him. You know, I understood where he was coming from and how, you know, how he felt like he had to act to combat that fear. Like, I got it. I understood it.

I didn't think that that was the best tool for me. I carried a gun as a teenager, too. But, you know, I would - like, I never - I never ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, you know, used it against another person. I might've flashed it a couple times but - to get myself out of a sticky situation - but guns has never been my thing. And some people are shooters and some people aren't. I'm not.

I don't fake - you know, I never faked that life. I never tried to pretend to be about that life. I was never into it. But it's kind of - when I was growing up in that crack era, it was something that you - you needed it.

GROSS: How did you get your first gun? You write in your book, "The Beast Side," that in your neighborhood it was easier to get a gun than to get a job. So how did you get yours?

WATKINS: So I bought my first gun from some dudes in the neighborhood that sold guns. It was simple. And I bought it for exactly that reason that we just talked about, to bluff my way out of situations. Half the time, the guns I had wasn't really loaded. And even when I went to the guys to get it, you know, it's crazy because it wasn't, like, a shock.

Like, it wasn't like, hey, what you want a gun for? It wasn't like that. It was more like, yo, what you need? Business as usual. And it's still like that. You know, the gun dealers change and, you know, the kid - it's different sets of kids coming up, some passing away, some going to jail, but the gun culture is the same. It's really, really, really easy to get a gun, and it's - you know, and it's sad.

GROSS: So you've mentioned the crack epidemic. What impact did the crack epidemic have on your family and friends? Did you know a lot of people who were addicted to crack?

WATKINS: It trashed my neighborhood. Everyone was looking for an escape. I'm old enough to remember, you know, before crack really hit. And once it did hit, it changed the whole dynamic of how drug culture worked. You know, back when it was just cocaine - powder cocaine and heroin, there was, like, a couple of dudes - older guys that used to run, like, whole regions.

So, you know, they would run - they would control four or five ZIP codes. And you had to buy from them that you were making little money, and it was more of a peaceful type of situation. But when crack came, any and everybody had the opportunity to be a boss, a kingpin. There were, like, 15 and 16-year-old kids on every corner making, like, $10,000-plus a week.

It was a brand new crew on every corner. And then when the crew on one corner felt like another crew was doing better, that's when gunplay started. So it changed everything because almost - you know, my friends and I, we joke about this sometimes but - it's like we almost, you know, don't know people who even - we couldn't - it was hard-pressed to find somebody who didn't have a father on drugs, a mother on drugs, both, or at least a father and mother who was strung out for a while before getting themselves together.

Everybody's parents were junkies, and all the kids were selling or using, and it was like a super escape. So it was an escape for the person that was, you know, putting it into their body, and then it was an escape for a person who was selling it and making money off of them. It's just, you know, we still - we don't talk about this, but we're still recovering from the crack epidemic now 'cause it's not as crazy as it was, but we're still feeling, like, some of the effects of that.

GROSS: What about in your family?

WATKINS: Yeah, my dad used for a long time, and then he got clean. And unfortunately, my brother lost his life. You know, he was out there. He was making money. He was one of those guys who - popular guy with a nice car and pretty girlfriend and all that. And he got gunned down over an unfortunate situation.

GROSS: He was selling crack or other drugs?

WATKINS: Yeah, yeah, crack.

GROSS: How old was he when he started dealing and how old were you at that time?

WATKINS: So he started really clicking around the time I was about 10 and he was 15.

GROSS: What did it look like from your 10-year-old perspective to see him?

WATKINS: Normal 'cause all the kids were doing it. It looked normal.

GROSS: And you saw him making a lot of money. How did that look to you?

WATKINS: As a kid, it was cool because, you know, I had a dirt bike and a street bike and, you know, some cool clothes and things like that. So from my...

GROSS: That he bought for you?

WATKINS: Yeah, so from my perspective, it looked cool.

GROSS: Did he...?

WATKINS: It looked cool, but he never ever, ever wanted me to sell drugs and never, like, tried to push that lifestyle on me. He used to tell me stuff like, you know, if I sell drugs, I have the opportunity to not sell drugs. If I sold drugs, I would be a clown. If I sold drugs, I would be a follower. Like, I don't really have to be out there, and, you know, he has a plan that he's working on.

But, you know, he not really ready to talk about that. But I don't need to do it. I need to go to school and try to figure out how to be a good student and things like that. He didn't - he said that both of us didn't need to be doing that, more or less. That's on him. And at first, I wasn't really with it because I wanted to be like him. You know, I was known as Bip (ph) or Dev's (ph) little brother.

That's who I was known as. That's what they called me. Like, I was in his shadow and I liked it, you know, because everyone liked him. So a lot of people liked me, so I wanted to be like him. And I used to try to come outside and participate in the drug talk. And his friends, they would laugh me off or I used to tell them that, you know, I can do stuff, too, and, you know, I can work and all that.

And they used to - you know, I didn't really understand. But as I got older and some of my friends started selling drugs, I got it. And it was the worst job in the world. It was like nothing that I wanted to do. Them dudes weren't bosses and they weren't kingpins. They were the guys putting in them long days. Some of the times, some dudes that worked, like, 15 hour days, outside all day, trying to sell a certain amount of vials, you know, before they can chill.

And I was the one playing basketball and riding my dirt bike and hanging out. And, you know, I was like, yeah, I never ever, ever want to sell drugs in my life, like, at all.

GROSS: So at the time when you were 10 and your brother was 15 and he started making money selling drugs and trying to prevent you from doing the same, is that when you were living together?

WATKINS: Yeah - well, no, actually - actually, no, we were living with my mom. And we actually didn't leave out until I turned 12.

GROSS: When he had enough money to have a small house.

WATKINS: Yeah, when he had enough money to get his own spot and then build his own thing, do his own life.

GROSS: So did the fact that he had money and was getting the money from selling drugs - did that make you feel any more safe or any more vulnerable?

WATKINS: It became normal. It became normal. He wasn't the guy - he wasn't the conflict guy. He wasn't the guy that was going to be out there shooting at people and, you know, starting trouble and trying to, you know, bang and take territory and things like that, from what I know. You know, I don't know the inner workings of his business.

But from what I know, he wasn't that guy. Even to this day, he has a reputation of being, like, a cool guy, somebody that everybody liked and had love for. And, you know, the coolness, you know, it's - the game is a monster. And that coolness, you know, eventually it didn't work, and it couldn't save him - can't save anybody.

Nobody's really safe, but through those years, I didn't really feel like - I didn't feel like - I didn't - I never felt like I was in danger.

GROSS: Your brother was shot and killed. What's your understanding of what happened?

WATKINS: I don't really - I don't really know. There's a couple stories out there. I don't know the full story. There was some rumors that it was over a girl and some kids went to war with this other guy because of that. And then it was some rumors about somebody wanted that block he had.

So there's a bunch of rumors floating around, but there's no - there's no direct, like, link to what happened. And no one has been arrested for that crime. I don't like to speak on things unless I really know what happened.

GROSS: Right.

WATKINS: So I try to, like - you know, I try to be fair to myself and to that situation. Like, you know, I have my own little theories, but, again, they're just - they're my theories, you know? But it's a lot of stories floating around. Most of them revolved around money.

BIANCULLI: D. Watkins speaking to Terry Gross last year. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2015 interview with D. Watkins. He's just written a new book, "The Cook Up," a memoir about his days growing up and dealing drugs in Baltimore.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So we were talking about how your brother was shot and killed when you were 17. You'd been living with him since you were 12. He'd been dealing drugs since you were 10 - crack. And so you realized you had to get your own place. You were graduating from high school. You ended up going to college.

You write in your book that your SAT scores were good enough so that they looked really impressive from somebody coming from your neighborhood, but you had a feeling if you weren't from, like, the ghetto that they wouldn't have seemed that impressive. But you got into Loyola.

And how did your brother's death - how did your brother being shot to death - how did that affect your thoughts about going to college and the level of importance of that in your life?

WATKINS: So I got into a bunch of different schools. I had some skills, and I had some people at my high school that worked with me and helped me develop when I really needed to get into college. And I wasn't going to go. I actually stayed home that first semester. And my friends, the support from my family and friends, they just pushed me to go.

And I didn't really know what I was doing, like, I didn't have a plan. I just thought that this is what we - this is how - from when I grew up, I was taught that it doesn't really matter what you go to college for. As long as you go, you'll be able to get a job and make a decent amount of money and be able to live, like, a good life with a quality wage.

So I didn't go in there with a plan. And then it was culture shock. You know, I was coming out of East Baltimore type of neighborhood where I lived in. Baltimore City's very segregated, so my old neighborhood was black. Everyone I played basketball with was black. If the people who used to go to church and all that, they were all, like, all black churches.

The only white people that you would actually come across is, like, housing police or a teacher or something like that. But for the most part, everybody else is a black person. So I was encouraged to not go to a HBCU. Some of my teachers and some of the people who I knew who was kind of, like, helping me out through this whole process was saying that you should go to a PWI because America doesn't look like a HBCU, even though your neighborhood looks like...

GROSS: OK, wait, wait. HBCU is a historically black university.

WATKINS: Yeah.

GROSS: What's the other acronym you used?

WATKINS: Predominantly white institute.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I hadn't heard PWI before, OK.

WATKINS: Yeah (laughter).

GROSS: Thank you.

WATKINS: So I was taught - I was told that, you know, the world is diverse, and you need to go to a place where you can interact with different types of people and things like that. And when I got there, it was just - it was culture shock. It was, like, my first time meeting, like, you know, what we would call, like, a frat boy. It was my first time meeting elite people, people who came from not the type of money I was coming from, but from real money.

And it was my first time meeting black people who looked down on other types of black. I didn't even know a black elite existed at this time. I thought, you know, if I see a black person, I was like hey, what's up, man. And, you know, they would look back like I'm not your man, and I was like whoa. And after a couple of months of being there, maybe, like, a month and a half, you know, I met a couple of people, but it didn't really work.

And I just - I dropped out, and I just felt more at home in the street and around street people. So that's what I decided to go ahead and live out what I felt like my destiny was.

GROSS: Which was selling drugs.

WATKINS: Yeah, because I felt like I'd been around drug dealers my whole life. Not just from my dad hustling and my brother being out there, like, really, you know, making money, working at it. But I had, like - I was trained. I already knew - like, I knew how to deal with police officers, I knew how to deal with people who snitched, I knew how to deal with, like, the war and turf and territory.

I had to - you know, I have a luxury of stories that I just absorbed from the block. Like, it was almost like - it was like a fish in water.

GROSS: So when you decided that this was your destiny, this is what you were going to - you were trained for, this is how you were going to make your money and you started to sell drugs, what were you selling?

WATKINS: Cocaine and crack.

GROSS: Not...

WATKINS: And a little bit of heroine. I had a little bit of heroin, like, but I didn't, like, I didn't bust it down and try to sell it off. I did some - I middleman some deals for some people and sold off what little I had left over.

GROSS: How did you get started?

WATKINS: So when my brother passed, he left some. He had a safe, and actually left some, enough to...

GROSS: Some money?

WATKINS: Some money and some drugs.

GROSS: Oh.

WATKINS: So it was almost like a starter kit. It's like a - like my - like my hood - my ghetto trust fund (laughter).

GROSS: Right.

WATKINS: He left some, and I discovered it, but I didn't know what to do with it at first because I was like, yo, do I really want to do this? Do I want to trash it? Do I want to take the money and, you know, start a company? But it's like, yo, what kind of company am I going to start? Like, I'm 18. Like, I don't - you know, I don't have a skill.

You know, I'm not really sure. And then I was like, you know what? I'm not doing the college thing. I'm not doing that. You know, I'm not - I don't really know what my place is, but I feel like I have this stuff for a reason, so I'm just going to - I'm just going to go all the way with it. And, you know, my friends are already doing it, and they could use the help.

And I could just do this for a while until I make a bunch of money and figure out what I want to do, maybe get out the city. And, you know, I don't really know. I didn't have a plan, but I felt like I wasn't going to be that guy that was working 18 hours a day that I saw when I was a kid, and I wasn't going to be that guy going to war with a whole bunch of other people.

I was going to - you know, I was just going to - I was just going to make a bunch of money.

BIANCULLI: D. Watkins speaking to Terry Gross last year. His new book about growing up and dealing drugs on the streets of Baltimore is called "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." We'll continue their conversation after a quick break. And we'll also have film critic David Edelstein's review of the new movie "Love & Friendship" and an appreciation of poet Michael Harper, who died last week at age 78.

I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2015 interview with writer D. Watkins. He has a collection of personal essays called "The Beast Side: Living (And Dying) While Black In America" and a new memoir called "The Cook Up." Watkins has Master's Degrees in education and creative writing and now teaches at the University of Baltimore.

He describes himself as having beat the streets. He grew up in East Baltimore during the crack epidemic. His brother became a dealer and was shot to death. Watkins went to college shortly after, but soon dropped out and started selling drugs himself - mostly crack and cocaine. After his brother was killed, Watkins discovered a stash of drugs and cash his brother left behind. He called it his starter kit to get into dealing.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

GROSS: So you had the starter kit - you found the starter kit, so to speak, in your brother's safe. Where was the safe 'cause you had already moved out of...

WATKINS: No, when we moved, we moved the safe.

GROSS: Got it, OK.

WATKINS: The safe - the safe was huge. It was like - like, heavy - more heavy than huge. It was, like, a 200-pound safe. It took, like, a bunch - a couple people to move that joint. Like, and I knew - when he passed, I knew there was something in there because, like, I just remember him throwing stuff in there.

I remember, like, at his time - at his, you know, at times when he had real big runs, before he had to dump his money off in different places, we used to have to, like, lay on our - you know, I had to lay on my back. With him - I got that from him - laying on my back to kick that safe closed, like, because it was so jammed up with, like - you know, street money's not like the money you get from the bank, you know?

Street money is like, you know, $10,000 might look like $150,000, you know, 'cause it's so bulky and used and fluffy. And, you know, it looks like a lot.

GROSS: It's small bills.

WATKINS: Yeah, small bills. So, you know, I knew, like, even from when I - first day I went to college, like, I knew there was something in that safe. I just had to be ready for what was in there. So that's why I wasn't really worried about money. I wasn't really worried about, you know, like, what I was going to do, you know, 'cause I already had some money put up from - that I got from him when - you know, that I was getting from him anyway.

Like, you know, he would leave - you know, he would - yo, here's a couple dollars, whatever, whatever. Like I already had a little bit of money stacked up. So I wasn't really worried about cash. I was more or less worried about what I was going to do. And once I decided to do that, I said, you know what? I'm just going to - I'm going to be the best at it.

GROSS: You'd seen crack really ruin the lives of people. You know, your father used crack. You said most of your friends had a parent who was on crack. And how did you feel about knowing you were selling something that destroyed people?

WATKINS: I used to have these thoughts to myself about how this is what these people want. I'm not putting a gun to their head. I wasn't out there making them do it. Yeah, I saw the effects, and those effects, like, they hit me in different ways, but I just felt like we were all just part of this whole big piece of nothingness. And I had to pick my role. I knew I wasn't going to be the person using it.

GROSS: How'd you know you weren't going to be a person using it?

WATKINS: Because I just - the crack - the crackhead, coming up, was, like, the bottom of the barrel in our community. Like, you know, the crackhead was a person who stole video games. The crackhead was a person who everybody used to laugh at. The crackhead was a person with no teeth. The crackhead was always the butt of everybody's joke, and I never wanted to be that.

They were - it was the most embarrassing role you can play in a community, to the point where - you know, the same way how a lot of society looks at me and doesn't really see me as a human, is kind of the same way, you know, we shift that - we shifted that energy onto them. You see how that works? It's, like, the hierarchy.

And that was never going - that was never going to be me. So, you know, I justified it by telling myself that, if I'm here or not, these people are going to be using it anyway. And I felt like I just - I hit this epiphany. I felt like this is what I was here to do. I thought this was my - like, my purpose, my mission in life. And, you know, my limited exposure and the opportunities I had, like, all pointed in this direction, so I just - I dove into it.

Like, I didn't have a plan on an exit strategy. I just had a plan on doing it until I - you know, and just see - whatever was going to happen was going to happen.

GROSS: OK, so you were good at selling crack. You sold it out of the neighborhood so the people in your neighborhood were no longer your competition. You were making money. Why did you stop?

WATKINS: A ton of reasons. Most of them - most of the reasons revolve around my friends and the situations that they were in. And they were being locked up. Some of them were indicted, and they weren't getting, like - some of them were nonviolent crimes, and they weren't getting, like, three years and all that. They was getting, like, 20 years and stuff like that.

One of my best friends - 27 years for nonviolent crime. So that was one. Two, my sets of friends were changing, you know? I was the last guy left. A lot of the dudes who I did business with, if they wasn't going to jail, they was dying. And it's just that whole idea of always being alone and knowing that selling drugs is not a team game. You don't link up with some childhood friends and build an empire.

That's television and movies. Selling drugs is one on one. You're always going to be alone, like, you know, because, at the end of the day, the business is - it trumps all of these relationships, and it happens over and over again. There's so many stories about this guy setting up his friend or this guy losing a friend or this guy stealing from his friend and so forth.

And I went from being - not really having - not really caring if I lived or died, to caring. And I knew if I wanted to live, I had to stop.

GROSS: So how did you decide that you were definitely stopping selling drugs and you wanted to go back to college?

WATKINS: I didn't want to sell drugs anymore. I bought a liquor store. You know, people tell these stories, oh, once you in too deep, you can't come out. The gangsters will come and kill you. No, 'cause you don't re-up. If you don't re-up, they won't sell it to you, somebody else will be there to take their place and the game - it doesn't stop. The game never stops. It never stops.

You know, the players change, but it doesn't stop. So I thought that if I can - if I could sell drugs, I could sell cocktails and cold beer, you know. So I bought a liquor store. I bought this bar called Stadium Hideaway. It was a cool little place. It was - it had a little carry-out in the front. And you get buzzed into the back, and it was a lounge and, you know, I did like fish fries on Fridays and, you know, ran a little business.

And I did that for a while and still, you know, the same pain and the same hurt and the same - some of the same feelings I felt being the person who operated as a illegal drug dealer. I felt the same thing as a legal drug dealer. It was the same thing. We had poker machines. People dumped all their money in the poker machines. People came in, and they drunk like crazy.

And, like, and it was just like it was almost like the same thing - like escape, escape, escape. So I got rid of that. I sold that and, you know, I stacked the money up, and I opened a little tag and title shop. And then I rode to the University of Baltimore and I went to school for history. And it was there where I, you know, I started to play with the idea of becoming a writer.

GROSS: Did you ever wish that you could put successful drug dealer on your resume because you thought you were really good at it? You made a lot of money at it and even though it's illegal, it was a sign that you could hold your own in a business - an illegal business, an addictive business - but nevertheless - did you wish that you could say, hey, I was good at this?

WATKINS: I mean, it is on my resume kind of because it makes it into everything else I do as a student. I didn't think the way the average student would think. As a writer, I'm not thinking - I don't think the way that a lot of writers think. When I'm writing out proposals and business plans, everything's strategic, everything has a point. Yeah, so I think it kind of - it makes into my life in different ways.

I'm not proud of that being my origin, but I understand that if I didn't go through that, I wouldn't be able to do the work that I do right now. So it kind of still - it gives me, like - it's on my resume when I speak to young people, and I tell them, like, yeah, I made these mistakes. I was in the street. I've done these things, and I'm here to tell you that it's an illusion, like - it's all a facade.

There's nothing glamorous about being a drug dealer, and nothing can ever come from it but hurt and pain. And you don't need to ever even think about trying it.

GROSS: You write in your book (reading) before I became a reader, I had no problem cracking a Hennessey bottle across the back of some guy's head.

WATKINS: That line sounds cooler when you read it (laughter).

GROSS: No (laughter). But it sounds a little different than what you're saying then because everything that you've described so far is more about not being, like - seeing the violence but not really being active and being violent yourself, but...

WATKINS: Yeah, I'm not an angel. But, you know - and basically when I write that line - and that's, you know, from a situation that happened - is it goes back to the failure to communicate. So I had gotten on - I didn't duck violence. That's - let me be clear on that. I don't identify as a violent person. I'm not a bully. And I don't look for trouble, but, you know, I definitely don't turn it down.

And a lot of the situations came from my inability to communicate. I got into some situations even in college with some other students. They didn't end up being super violent, but they got kind of nasty because of that communication barrier. So reading - becoming a reader opened up a lot of those things for me, not just my interactions with people outside of my community, but the more I read, the more I had a better understanding of people.

GROSS: So you graduated, and you not only graduated from Baltimore University, you went to Johns Hopkins University and got your Master's in education. And then you went back to Baltimore University and got an MFA - a Master of Fine Arts in creative writing. So you spent a lot of time in college.

WATKINS: Yeah, college was the safest place in the world for me. It was, you know - despite all the, you know - the weirdo stuff that comes along with it, it was a place where I was being challenged to think and learn and complete tasks and think and learn and complete tasks and be exposed over and over and over again every semester.

It became a place where I can just hide and get a lot of things that I didn't get coming up.

GROSS: Well, it's been great to talk with you. Thank you very much.

WATKINS: Thank you. Thank you.

GROSS: And good luck with your writing and your teaching.

WATKINS: Thank you. Thanks.

BIANCULLI: D. Watkins speaking to Terry Gross in 2015. His new book about growing up and selling drugs in Baltimore is called "The Cook Up: A Crack Rock Memoir." Coming up, film critic David Edelstein reviews the new "Love & Friendship" movie, and we remember poet Michael Harper. This is FRESH AIR.

Copyright © 2016 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.