Dreamer 'n the 'hood

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

Delvin Gray watches as two stray mutts--one black, one gray--circle a trash can in a small South Dallas park beside a pond. Gray's six-month-old son, Julius, sleeps soundly in his lap. It is dusk now, and so quiet in the park, so peaceful, you can almost hear the baby's breath whispering past his lips.

But conflict is brewing. The black mutt--obviously top dog--rears on his hind legs and pulls the trash can tumbling down. Its contents spill out in the dirt--a half-eaten hamburger in a greasy wrapper, and a Sam's Fried Chicken box full of bones. The black dog frantically rummages through his treasure, taking inventory before he eats.

The speckled gray dog moves in to share the grub, but the black dog won't have it. He claims his scraps in the most visceral way, snarling and lunging for the neck of his little companion. He's relentless--tearing into the smaller dog, snapping and biting and clawing even as the mutt yelps in anguish and tries to beat a retreat.

The speckled mutt soon learns he can't even look at the food--or the dog--without risking a savage reprisal. He limps a few feet away, plops onto the ground facing the pond, and despite his hunger, pretends the burger and bones and black dog don't exist.

Delvin Gray views the scene dispassionately from a park bench. He sees the one-sided combat as more than two dogs fighting for food and turf--it's a ghetto parable, an object lesson from South Dallas' streets.

"There's a state where hunger takes precedence over every idea," he says. "If you continue to be hungry and not at rest, you will never see the options that life has for you because of your hunger."

To Gray, that hunger offers an explanation for the violent way of life where he lives--on a decaying street near Bonton, one of South Dallas' toughest housing projects.

"The reason why you find a lot of violence in the projects," he says, "is because people are crammed in so close together. If a person feels his territory is being violated, he turns and instigates violence."

Delvin Gray is always watching, always thinking. Call him the Ideal neighborhood philosopher, the dreamer of the 'hood, a militant humanitarian. At 35, the intense young man lives a peculiar existence in Dallas' southern core. A former convict, drug dealer, and pimp, he now runs a tiny walk-up café not far from the park. The cafe sits on Bexar Street in the beleaguered Ideal neighborhood, south of Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.

He hates the name. But that is what they call it. Ideal.
Yet to many, Bexar is synonymous with Dallas' urban decay, a ragged and hopeless reminder of decades of civic neglect. Most Dallasites will never see it; it is a place to avoid whether one is black or white.

But to Gray, it is a model--an example of all that goes wrong when a neighborhood isn't a neighborhood, when a community lacks a vision. It is also an opportunity, he says, to gain back what so many urban neighborhoods have lost--good jobs and good schools and happy, healthy children aspiring to contribute something to their world.

And that's his dream. Where others see poverty and degradation, Gray sees potential. Every bit of life in the streets offers a lesson, a hard-earned insight that might point the way out.

Gray gestures toward the drug dealers lurking on a Bexar street corner. To him, they're examples of entrepreneurial economics. They make good money, they expand their resources, and they hire bored neighborhood kids to carry out grunt jobs. And since there's little work to be had in South Dallas, the dealers have become the neighborhood's measure of success.

Gray, from his cafe, wants to change all that. "I want to see our people put back to work and get back their self-esteem," he says, offering his homespun philosophy. "Right now, this area suffers from a lack of community. It is isolated against itself. There are very few people who persevere at anything.

"My vision," he adds, "is to see the community stick to one thing and complete that. Whatever it is, it should deal with labor and children, because those two things build community."

Gray pursues his dream from the cafe, where he lives with his baby son and his girlfriend, Carolyn Stafford, in a single tiny room off the kitchen. He calls the place Community Kitchen, and for the last few years, it's symbolized his yearning for a community he's never had, one denied South Dallas' children.

The kitchen stands like an outpost on a desolate island. Its brick walls are daubed white; a painting of the African continent graces the northeast wall. Except for the television repair shop across the street, Community Kitchen is the only establishment on Bexar that doesn't sell alcohol. In fact, most of the businesses in this neighborhood sell spirits as their primary source of income--including brands manufactured and marketed exclusively for the inner city, such as Cisco, Cool Colt, and Coqui 900.

From the cafe, Gray devises home-grown programs aimed at inner-city youth and the poor. He nurtures his grand concept, the Reorganization of African People (RAP)--a pan-Africanist group dedicated to unity of the African diaspora. RAP's primary goal, he says, "is to give an African perspective in the social sciences, then to address the needs of inner-city people. It might take 100 or 200 people to fill that need. It might take one person to fill that need. It might require me to talk to a family for hours and hours. It might require me to pay someone's phone bills. Whatever it takes to build community."

RAP, he admits, has few members.
Most of the time at Community Kitchen, there's one man trying to pull together that elusive community in whatever way possible. And when he isn't cooking food for his customers, Gray is calling around to drum up support for his children's summer camp, planning karate classes for project kids, or writing his RAP newsletter, which he hands out to people he meets.

"Community and family are the things most important to this organization," he has written in typically unadorned prose in the newsletter. "Not profit for self."

In Community Kitchen's front window, Gray has placed books on Pan-Africanism, Malcolm X, and philosophy. In one section are photographs of members of the New Black Panther Party of Dallas. Elsewhere is a collage of obituaries--scraps of news on people who've died violently in the Ideal neighborhood. Their faces are black--very young and very old.

Under the obits, he's written a plaintive message in black marker: "See what we do to each other? It's hard, people. We live on death row." He's saved a spot on the window for his own death notice.

Community Kitchen sells hamburgers, fried chicken, and egg rolls, among other simple foods. Gray makes everything from scratch, spurning pre-packaged goods. The nachos come in generous portions: a pile of tortilla chips smothered with ground beef, cheese, and tomato chunks. Gray charges $4.21 for the dish, a steal--and certainly more appetizing than the colorless slice of baloney swimming in grease available at one of the corner groceries.

All of Gray's dishes are underpriced, which explains, in part, why Community Kitchen is not pulling a profit these days. "Last night, we made $29," he says with a shrug. Still, he tries to see beyond profit. He has to. "The kitchen was designed as a model," he explains. "This is what a business should do. It should contribute heavily to the development of the community, not be a liability. Not take your money and run."

Another reason the cafe struggles is competition. Even though Caroline and Delvin are the only employees, Community Kitchen stays open 12 hours a day, feeding a sporadic stream of customers. But queuing at the liquor stores starts early and goes on through the night. People are already waiting in line when the doors open the next morning.

Yet Community Kitchen fails to make a profit because Gray runs it like a charity--even when he knows he can't afford it. Every Sunday for almost a year, Gray gave away hamburgers and soft drinks to hordes of neighborhood folks. All day, he and volunteers doled out plates of burgers till the food or the line was gone--whichever came first. Most of the hungry people walked over from the nearby projects.

Gray started the feedings in cooperation with the New Black Panther Party, a small group of local militants who've adopted the name of the famed radicals from the '60s and early '70s. The group abandoned the project after a few months; Gray decided to carry it on himself. He's since severed his ties with the organization.

"He does it for the kids," says a neighborhood homeowner, Sheila Crawford, one Sunday afternoon. "But our little drug-using population shows up, too. He doesn't turn anybody away.

"Here you go," Crawford says as she pushes a few dollars into Gray's hand. She looks different than most of the others in the line, more middle class.

"It's free," Gray says brusquely.
She insists on the donation. "I like what you do," she tells him with a smile.

Crawford lives down the block in a modest frame home on Ghent Street. She'd watched as month after month, Gray gave away free food.

"The Lord will bless him," she says. "But I don't know how long he can continue without help."

Truth is, he can't. Gray halted his Sunday feedings in late September after tallying up how much he'd spent: $21,000. "It's not fair to Carolyn, it's not fair to Julius, and it's not fair to me," he explains. "Sometimes you get the feeling you're being pimped, but if it helps someone, it's a good cause. I just can't afford it right now."

But he can't help himself. Just the other day, a woman came up to the window. In her early 20s, she had the robotic twitches common to crackheads. Her hair was unkempt, her face swollen, eyes blackened. She smelled like sex. Someone had beaten her up--bad.

"Baby," she whined to Delvin as he came to the window, "I've just got beat up and raped. I ain't had no sleep. Honey, could you make me a little something to eat?"

Delvin hesitated. He was low on cash. He was sinking further into debt. But she was in a bad way, no doubt about it. He rustled together some nachos, piling them high on the plate. He passed them through the window.

The woman looked at the plate of nachos and recoiled. "I don't want this shit!" she shrieked. "I don't eat just any goddamned thing!"

She turned to passing cars and startled pedestrians across the street. "This mutherfucker's trying to sell me this shit," she yelled.

Delvin looked at the plate of nachos and saw another $4.21 disappearing. He might as well have taken the money out of the register and burned it. Furious, he cursed the woman, but she didn't even hear him. She walked away, grumbling about food and shit and standards.

It isn't the first time someone has come to the window and cursed out Delvin Gray. Homeowners welcome him, but he doesn't expect--and rarely receives--gratitude. This community stuff is a lonely business. Some of the men and women from the projects prove more than a handful, but Gray doesn't take it personally.

"A lot of them don't have the social skills," he says. Gray has been threatened, shoved, and screamed at. He's had his share of fights in front of the kitchen. He keeps a gun on the premises.

His girlfriend, Carolyn Stafford, gets tired of it all. She was brought up in the country--East Texas--and she's often intimidated by the things she sees, and wonders when they can leave. It causes friction in their relationship, because she's chained to the store--and his beloved community. When Gray goes on errands or networks with other black groups, she stays and runs the place. Sometimes, he takes the baby. But he rarely takes her anywhere.

Yet he won't even discuss moving the business. If he loses it, he'll be out on the street. He stays, he says, because so many others have not.

"South Dallas suffers from the educated people leaving South Dallas and not putting anything back into it," he says. "For me to come over here and suck the economy dry and leave, that is the most nauseating thing."

Sometimes, though, Community Kitchen feels like a prison. He calls it Cell Block 5309 Bexar. He writes about it in his newsletter.

One day he wrote: "From my Cell Block 5309 Bexar, I can hear the voice of those on the other side of town saying, 'see, those people in South Dallas are all worthless and shiftless in their ways.'"

And are they?
"Go to Minyard's," he answers impatiently, "And count the number of kids who will run up to your car trying to wash your windshield. They'll work for a decent wage. They want the same things you do."

One day, he says, he got in his beat-up Plymouth and drove a group of inner-city children through the Park Cities. "Ooooh, these are nice homes," one little girl said. "These are real nice."

Gray says he stays in Cell Block 5309 Bexar and takes the abuse because he wants to teach that little girl she can live in one of those homes some day if she works real hard. She's smart and clever and inquisitive. She can live wherever she wants. And since professional black people are virtually invisible in the Ideal neighborhood, Gray stays to be an example.

"Teaching our youth how to serve others less fortunate than themselves is the central theme," he says. "We all need to learn to serve others."

Gray's journey to Bexar Street was long and convoluted. Born to a single mother, his childhood--as one among 16 children--was difficult. Gray's mother was uneducated and suffered from emotional problems. "I look back at it now and I realize she was paranoid-schizophrenic," he says.

Although she tried to keep her family together, Gray's mother was not always there for her children. His childhood is filled with of memories of constant moving--from Waco to New York to St. Louis. The cycle repeated too many times to count. Mostly, they moved during his mother's paranoiac fits, to elude her unnamed fears. He and his little sister Harriet spent many nights playing in parks, waiting for their mother to return from work as a maid.

Gray rarely went to school, mostly because he was too tired from the night before. His mother never forced him to go, too preoccupied with her own demons. There was no structure in his childhood, no rules, and no expectations.

Gray was a bright child nonetheless, his sister Harriet Latimer, now 34, recalls. He earned a reputation for being good with appliances. Neighbors would bring them over, give them to Delvin, and the boy would fix them even though he had no training in electronics. Yet he didn't have any concept of future, or goals, or anything. "I think if my mother had been able to encourage him, things might have turned out very different," Harriet says today.

But she wasn't. Gray recalls one vivid day in St. Louis--April 4, 1968. He was nine years old. Two men stopped their car in the middle of the street in front of the house Gray's mother rented, removed the tires from the car, positioned themselves in the street, and began spraying the area with gunfire.

"I was running around and my mother was calling me to come in," Gray says. When he asked her what was going on, she said simply: "That boy died. That King boy got killed." That was it. She had no concept of King's message of peaceful resistance, no knowledge of civil rights. Gray would be an adult before he understood the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Every now and then, his mother would come home, full of fears, and give away everything in the house--the television, silverware, furniture. During these episodes, Gray was shipped back to Texas to live with his grandmother in a tiny house in Waco. He hadn't learned to read beyond a few words, and school became increasingly unimportant. He also began to act violently, fighting and bullying neighborhood kids.

By the time he reached junior high, Gray was breaking into homes and businesses. The first place he burglarized was a pool hall. He broke the glass window, climbed in, and robbed the candy machine. He returned a few nights later, but the owner was waiting for him. He landed in jail--and was in and out of there during the time he should have been in school. Finally, he robbed a store and went to prison for two years.

"I was real scared," he recalls. "I started reading as best I could, but I was illiterate."

For the first time, he says, he understood slavery. Guards dictated and monitored his every move. There was no freedom, none at all. He stayed out of trouble, and when he finally got out, he left Texas and headed for Los Angeles.

"I told myself I wanted to be a star," he says. But mostly he was ashamed of his prison stint and wanted to start over at a place where no one knew him. He had images of sandy beaches and glistening boulevards.

The minute he stepped off the Greyhound in L.A., though, he ran into the hustlers.

"Man, I got joints," one whispered.
Another had coke. There were hawkers selling gold chains, watches. One hustle after another.

Gray took his two pillowcases of possessions and sought out homeless shelters. He began living on the streets, eating at shelters, searching for work. He was 19.

Eventually, he landed a job at a fast-food restaurant in Huntington Beach. Most of the people he worked with were rich white kids who lived in apartments and drove fancy sports cars. He got a roommate and fell into that lifestyle, working and partying.

"I desired to be a part of that world. I wanted to be accepted. I was going to concerts--I was eating steaks rare! God, I can't believe I did that," he says now, shaking his head.

He looks back on those days with undeniable fondness. He lived a good life and made a lot of white friends. His time in Huntington Beach taught him "there are a lot better ways to live, that there is happiness and bliss and that all white folks are not fucked up. It saved me from the corruption of racism."

Yet he came to realize he was the only black person in the Huntington Beach area. The skinheads made sure of that, tormenting the restaurant manager and Gray. "Get that nigger out of town," they'd say, threatening to destroy the business and kill Gray if he didn't leave. Hungry for interaction with other black people, Gray obliged. He eventually found himself on a bus to Dallas, back in his home state.

When he got here, he didn't have any more to his name than when he'd first left Texas. He slipped into the system of shelters, free food, and agencies for the homeless. "I was very positive. I felt I could start fresh and use the shelters while I looked for a job," Gray says. But he grew quickly disillusioned by what he saw as a cycle designed to keep people homeless and remove opportunities for advancement. "Everybody had their cliques," he says. "[Shelter managers] hoarded stuff for them and their friends. I saw people taking food stamps for rents, I saw a lot of things."

Mostly, he hated the churches, which would make the homeless endure hours of sermons before they'd dole out sandwiches. He has particular antipathy for Dallas' First Baptist Church, which broadcasts its Sunday services on television. Gray recalls being invited along with other homeless people to share in Sunday services with the affluent congregation. Once there, he says, the homeless people were directed to a section of pews cordoned off by rope. He felt they weren't allowed to mix with the rest of the audience. (Gray may have misunderstood. Pat Stimson, a longtime First Baptist member and volunteer, says the church often ropes off sections for guests. They're allowed to mingle freely.)

During the broadcast, the cameras would alight on the group and the preacher would talk about the despair of homelessness. Then when the service was over, church officials gave them sandwiches and sent them on their way.

"They gave you no respect as a human being," Gray says. "I got tired of all that." He stopped going to churches and shelters. Instead he lived under bridges and in parks. People were drawn to him, because he was always writing (as best he could) in his journal and trying to help other homeless people. They were curious about this strange person with a strong desire to read and write.

Gray couldn't get a stable job because of his felony conviction. He worked in the city's labor pools, making $15 to $20 a day. He lived on the streets for many months. Then one day, he met Paul Rogers, a preacher and student at Bishop College. Rogers, impressed with Gray's intelligence and inquisitive mind, encouraged Gray to attend the predominantly black college.

"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.

It made Gray sick. The guilt began to build. Then one day another customer came to buy crack. Gray was standing at the window, looking outside. He noticed the woman's car was full of young children. They stared wide-eyed at Delvin. They looked like they hadn't eaten all day.

"And here she was, buying crack," he recalls. "You are in a world where nothing matters, and I was doing it out of blindness. I've seen it take people with good, sound backgrounds and just waste them away. I learned that no one is safe. A man will kill you for $10. If he wants that dope, he will go against that gun and he knows he can't win."

Finally, two adolescent boys offered him sex in exchange for crack.
That tore him up. Gray chased the boys away and began looking for a way out, to make amends.

"I said then, that if I ever got into a position where I had any say-so, I would try to develop something to rid us of what has transpired," he says.

Gray left Harry Hines and began living in his car again, this time with a prostitute. The woman told him about a place called Trinity Foundation. Perhaps best-known for its crusade against Robert Tilton, Trinity is a religious organization that runs several living co-ops in Dallas. Gray visited them, but despite the best efforts of Trinity members, he wouldn't leave his car to stay with them. He spent much of his time arguing with people in the organization, which he found to be overwhelmingly upper-middle class and white.

But he also thought Trinity's members were basically decent folks. They helped him get financial backing to start Community Kitchen. And Ole Anthony, the group's leader, saw something in Gray.

"Ole told me I was on a journey, but that I was just resting," Gray says. "I responded to that."

Trinity Foundation members helped him paint the kitchen and clean it out. They'd continue to help from time to time with the feedings and summer camps.

Gray continues to toil away at Community Kitchen, despite the setbacks, the lack of interest, the disappointments. His biggest frustration these days is the lack of participation in the summer camp, which he's been running for the past three years. He says the lack of interest is telling in a neighborhood gripped by crime and violence.

"We tell the youth of today to say no to drugs, not to join a gang, to stay in school, and whatever you do, practice safe sex. But what are their choices? What are they to say "yes" to?" he asks.

Last summer, he suffered a host of problems. Joe Pool state park--where he'd taken 100 kids the year before--had raised its prices and refused to waive any fees, saying the children were too rowdy the summer before. Most offers of help from black organizations and churches never materialized. And the parents, for the most part, dumped the kids off as though Gray were a cheap and convenient source of day care.

Gray managed to feed the children through last-minute donations by fast-food restaurants closing for the night. By and large, he paid for and ran the camp by himself.

He called his sister, Harriet Latimer, who lives in Dallas, for help. The two had re-established contact after losing touch during Gray's prison stint. Although she loved her brother, she'd always considered him angry and more than a little selfish. But she saw someone new at the summer camp, where Gray toiled alone, setting up tents, fixing food, and trying to corral 50 rambunctious children.

"I couldn't believe this guy was out here doing all these things by himself," she says. "I mean, there were so many kids. He had everything he could think of: shampoo, insect repellent. He had contacted businesses. And the parents didn't participate at all.

"It was deathly hot. I couldn't have done it," she adds. "When it started raining so bad, we thought it was going to flood. He knew just what to expect. He went from tent to tent, making sure the kids were warm and that they weren't scared. He would make sure everyone had eaten and was dry. The next day, he'd teach them how to fish and do karate."

Harriet was stunned.
"I couldn't believe this was my little brother. Totally selfless. I started thinking--if we only had men who would do that with their own immediate family. A lot of black men have kind of turned their faces away. It touched my heart to see that."

In Delvin Gray's mind, he has no choice.
"Some people do this stuff as a part-time job," he says. "African power one day, then they have their job the next. For me, I have nothing else, I don't know anything else. I will never work for anybody. So it is serving the community or die.

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