Dreamer 'n the 'hood

From a tiny food counter in South Dallas, Delvin Gray struggles to change the world

"He would say, 'Go to Bishop, man. You can get financial aid.'"
He was intrigued by the idea, but skeptical about attending a Baptist-supported school. Gray had never attended high school for any length of time and considered himself functionally illiterate. And he disdained the churches. "I had rejected those teachings of Christianity that if you are good something good comes to you, and if you are bad, something bad happens to you. That's bullshit."

He enrolled in Bishop that summer, anyway. He calls it "the ideal place to house an illiterate brother." He worked on campus and attended classes. He became a voracious reader, poring through works by Weber, Marx, and other philosophers. Despite the school's financial problems (Bishop would close in bankruptcy in 1988), Gray found a warm and nurturing environment. He got hands-on help from professors and encouragement from other students.

His grades improved steadily, but they were never his primary concern. Gray was busy planning RAP, orchestrating rallies, and demanding the university apply more money to students' needs. If the heating wasn't adequate or the water in the showers too cold, Gray would protest. "He was a community organizer," says Todd Wheelock, Gray's Bishop College roommate and now pastor of Briar Chase Baptist Church in Houston. "He always talked about the unity of black people, of black people doing something positive."

Gray transferred to Northwestern State University in Louisiana when Bishop folded. He earned his bachelor's degree there, but left in 1990 after his master's thesis--based on RAP's doctrine--was rejected.

Beset with frustrations and the old restlessness, Gray jumped in his Chevette and headed back to Dallas.

He worked for a time at a moving company, living alternately in an apartment in South Dallas, his car, and on the street. He found he didn't like working for other people; he didn't like folks telling him what he had to do and when he had to do it. "I started thinking I wanted to do business for myself," he says.

Old friends still chuckle about it today. "I remember him saying, 'I'll never work for the white man again,'" says Milton Tarver, who was also homeless.

Gray simply quit. There he was, on the street again, with a few dollars and a Chevy car, and no place to go. He swallowed his pride for a few weeks to work out of the labor pools, but he could only make enough money, it seemed, to get him back to work the next morning. He felt like a whore.

One day, he bought a $50 rock of crack cocaine. That first rock he practically gave away, believing crack addicts when they said they'd pay him back. They never did. He bought another $50 rock, parlayed that to $200 worth of rock, and when he sold that, he "re-upped" again. Delvin Gray, recent college graduate and neophyte activist, had become what he despised: a rock man.

For four months he lived the most sordid of lives in a seedy hotel room on Harry Hines Boulevard, known then as "Ho Row." He watched, fascinated, the very things he'd read so much about. "Everything I ever knew about social sciences, this was defining it," he says. Gray learned, among other things, that "a rock star [crack addict] doesn't live in any kind of structure at all. He is driven by his id. The chemical expands the id. The more you hit it, the more you desire it. It is the ultimate self-consuming drug."

Harry Hines prostitutes, most of whom were crackheads, gravitated toward him. He was handsome and sober and they trusted him with their money. And he had crack. He says they'd do anything for the rock. He knows, because he watched them do it.

But he never crossed that one line. He never used the drug himself--he'd seen the results.

Ironically, one of Gray's crack suppliers lived not far from where Community Kitchen stands today. He shakes his head as he says that.

Back then, he could make $1,000 a day. But one prostitute could sit there all day, smoking that crack. He'd make $1,000, and she'd smoke up $600 if he let her. Part of what was left went to the owner of the hotel. But he was getting over. He estimates that he grossed about $30,000 in the three months he sold drugs.

But the sordidness began to eat at him. "At first, I would rationalize it," he says. "I'd say if they didn't get it from me, they would get it from someone else."

But the reality was too stark, too disgusting for him to ignore. Soon, people who seemed at first to be recreational users were bringing televisions, stereos, VCRs, and welfare checks to him in exchange for crack. One guy, who he describes as a rich white guy, left the keys to his brand new Corvette while he went in search of money to pay for the drug.

Pushers had a sport in which they'd make addicts do obscene and dangerous things in exchange for crack. They once ordered a prostitute to perform oral sex on a dog. They ordered an addict to burn her own hair. The addicts, without fail, would comply. The pushers would giggle. What fun.

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