How do you think the neighborhood has changed?
For the worse. When we first came in the area there were no projects. They were all homes. And at one time we had nice hotels where all the movie stars would come in and stay.
When did you start seeing a major change in the neighborhood?
It wasn't all of a sudden, it happened gradually. Day by day, year by year you could see the change when people would move out.
Why didn't she name me no common name? Why'd my name have to be sentimental?
Because you're different. Your name is different and you're different.
What do you think about your mother?
Do you love her?
Yeah, when she not drinking I love her. She start drinking I don't.
I asked my father Chill what his best memories of my mother are.
Man, we had fun. Putting our feet in the water together. I was sober then. Once you start getting high, them memories are gone. They gone.
Why are you drinking?
I don't understand why I'm drinking.
Do you think you're going to stop?
Yeah, I'm going into rehab and take care of myself.
What do you drink?
I drink about two or three pints of wine everyday. But it ain't helping, it's killin' me. Don't people understand it's destroying you?
If it's destroying you why do you still drink it then?
That's why I gotta go into rehab, next week, I don't want to destroy my family. 'Cause I want my family.
Do you think you've been a good father?
Yes I have, to the best capability I could.
I have no further questions.
How many close friends of yours have got killed through the years?
I don't know. I can't count all of 'em. It's been a lot though.
You think it's around 50?
No, I don' think it's that many.
You think it's around 30 or 40?
Probably somewhere in that area, a little less than 30.
Do you know who killed or murdered these people?
I know who killed someone.
Who killed him?
I won't tell you who killed Vill.
I know who killed Slick.
I don't want to tell you that either.
Who killed him?
I ain't going to tell you that either.
In February, 1993, my friend and mentor Gary Covino called and asked if I would be interested in contributing a documentary to a series he was editing for public radio station WBEZ in Chicago. The series was called Chicago Matters, and examined issues of race and ethnicity around the city. We kicked around the idea of trying to do something a little different - maybe giving people tape recorders and have them record their own stories. I had just finished reading Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here, which follows the lives of two brothers growing up in Chicago's Henry Horner Homes, and decided to model the documentary, in spirit, after his work. Kotlowitz spent several years with his subjects. I had enough funding for about a week's worth of recording.
I decided to spend seven days with young people growing up in Chicago public housing, to equip them with tape machines and have them compose diaries of their lives, sound portraits of growing up in poverty. Two kids - friends, brothers, sisters - it didn't matter. I'd hire them as reporters for a week and give them a chance to tell their stories.
I sent out letters to social service agencies and high schools all over Chicago asking for help in finding subjects: young people living in fairly typical circumstances who were atypically expressive and introspective. I received a lot of callbacks from agency heads, community activists, teachers, and social workers suggesting young people to work with. If they sounded promising, I'd ask to have the kids call me collect. I talked to a lot of good kids and a lot of people who cared about them a great deal. "The courage these kids show is incredible," one teacher told me. "Nobody's listened to these children for years. Who wants to listen to a poor child? But these kids want to talk. They want to tell their stories. I have twenty-eight kids, and twenty-eight hands shot up when I told them about this project. They all immediately started writing their autobiographies for you. They all want to be heard!" Tough choices.
About two weeks into my research I got a call from Earl B. King, who runs a Chicago anti-gang program called No Dope Express Foundation. He said he had a 13-year-old I might want to speak with named LeAlan Jones. LeAlan got on the phone and started talking. He talked a lot. He was a smart kid. I liked hm. I asked if there was anyone else - a brother, a sister, a friend - whom he might want to work with. He called me collect that night from a pay phone in the Ida B. Wells (Chicago's oldest African-American public housing development) and said, "Here he is..." Another voice came on the line. He said his name was Lloyd, and he was about to turn 14. He was shy, with a sweet tone to his voice. Lloyd asked me some thoughtful questions about what I was up to. He said his mother had died, his father was an alcoholic, and his two sisters were raising him. "This kid's a heartbreaker," I jotted in my notes. Lloyd put LeAlan back on, and LeAlan put Lloyd back on. They goofed around. I was laughing. They were smart. They were funny. They were the ones.
I flew out to Chicago a week later. That first night I met with LeAlan and Lloyd in the living room of LeAlan's house and spent a couple of hours teaching the kids how to use their tape recorders. They picked it up quickly. We discussed whom they might interview and what questions they might ask. The next morning they were off. That afternoon they gave me their first batch of cassettes and headed out to record some more. I sat in my hotel room and listened. LeAlan's first tape began: "Good morning. Day 1. Walking to school. Leaving out the door...This is my walk every day, so I'm taking you on a little journey through my life. Yes, my life. Yeah..."
LeAlan and Lloyd recorded for a total of seven days. We each had beepers. They'd beep me when their tape recorders went on the fritz (once or twice a day); I'd beep them when I wanted to pick up cassettes. I spent the days listening to tapes and making notes. At night we would meet. I'd have them read the most recent transcripts of their recordings, give them notes, discuss any technical problems, talk about what they might do the next day. They would listen, shoot back with their own ideas, and try to end the meeting as quickly as possible so they could go play video games at the corner store.
It was a remarkable experience - sitting in my room in Chicago, listening to these stories unfold on tape. Day after day I was dumbfounded at the honesty, humor, and courage of the kids and their families. LeAlan and Lloyd were insightful, intensely curious, meticulous observers - a poignant mixture of little boys and adolescents wise far beyond their years. Every few days the kids would get on the bus and ride, "just to get a break from the ghetto," LeAlan told me. They'd talk nonstop. They had been doing it for years. LeAlan and Lloyd had discovered their own strategy for coping with the devastation all around them and staving off the boredom and depression: mop it all up and discuss it endlessly. Break it down. Look at it from all the angles. Quiz each other for details. Collect information. Laugh about it sometimes. Don't let anything slip by unnoticed.
So maybe it's not so surprising that they took to the task of creating a snapshot of their lives with such confidence and ease. I'd give them interview questions, and they'd come up with their own (invariably more interesting than the ones I had suggested). The kids would make notes on their tape recorders as to how the piece should sound, what music should be used where, which scenes they liked and which they didn't. Early on, LeAlan switched on his tape recorder and said that he'd come up with a name for the documentary: Ghetto Life 101. So it was.
The kids recorded the documentary in early March 1993. I cut the documentary in New York, playing sections of it for LeAlan and Lloyd over the phone. I drafted a script, basing it largely on diary entries LeAlan had made on his tape recorder before going to sleep. We revised it together. The boys recorded their narration in Chicago, and I mixed the piece in New York.
Ghetto Life 101 premiered on WBEZ in Chicago in May 1993 and was broadcast nationally on NPR's All Things Considered in early June. The documentary generated a small avalanche of listener and press accolades, as well as some controversy (most of which revolved around issues of a white producer working with African-American kids). It won more than a dozen national and international awards, including the Prix Italia, Europe's oldest and most prestigious broadcasting honor. That was the kids' favorite - probably because of the $10,000 prize we split three ways (as we did with all money generated by the production). Ghetto Life 101 was translated in several languages and broadcast worldwide.