Without parental guidance, teen learned self-reliance on street


September 13, 1992|By Scott Shane | Scott Shane,Staff Writer

The basketball game ends in victory for Andre Jennings' unit, and the boys are celebrating with pats on the back, high-fives, arms raised in triumph.

Andre marks the moment in his own way. He launches his wiry body into a series of spectacular backward flips and handsprings, once, twice, a third time, a fourth time, a fifth time, vaulting the length of the gym at the Charles Hickey School for juvenile delinquents.

"Where'd he learn to do that?" he is asked.

"In the street," Andre says. "Taught myself."

Self-reliance, an old American virtue, in this case learned perversely early. Self-reliance seems the only constant in this life adrift, in which the mooring of family has been supplanted by the shifting winds of the street.

At 15, Andre Jennings could be a character out of Dickens, whose tales of urchins in London's sooty, gin-soaked East End in the last century find their echo in the lives of children amid the dead-end poverty and drug-driven chaos of inner-city America today.

His first arrest, at the tender age of 6, was pure Baltimore, an ironiccounterpoint to the city's vaunted renaissance.

"I took a bag of crab potato chips from Harborplace," Andre says. "They'd just come out, and I wanted to try them. These two other boys, Travon and Pappy, they ran. But they got me and called the police and put the handcuffs on me."

Such a prank begins and ends the criminal career of many boys. But it helps if a parent is there to help turn a first transgression into a lesson. Andre's father, Anthony Whiting, moved out about the time the boy was born and says that within a few years he was too occupied by his drug habit to pay much attention to his son.

That left his mother. But about the time Andre was pinching the chips, he discovered that Francine Bradley was injecting heroin, beginning a spiral into addiction, theft and prostitution that would, by her own account, destroy her life.

Soon, Ms. Bradley was opening the apartment for a fee to other addicts. "People would shoot up right in front of my face," Andre remembers. "When I was 5 or 6, they'd ask me, 'Who's got good stuff?' I knew all about drugs."

Ms. Bradley's habit left Andre and his two sisters increasingly on their own. Before he started school, Andre had learned to kick a newspaper box in just the right spot to pop the lock. Hawking the whole stack of papers, he'd collect enough quarters for breakfast.

At age 6, he would break dance in a Fells Point bar, sometimes staying past midnight and collecting as much as $50 in tips.

"My line was always, 'Today's my birthday,' " he says. "When they heard that, people would give me all kinds of money."

As the years passed, Andre discovered a hundred hustles, legal and illegal -- squeegee kid, pickpocket, street acrobat, con artist, car thief, drug dealer. He offered full service at the self-service gas pump, charging startled drivers a quarter apiece. He plucked wallets from pocketbooks at Harborplace and pocketbooks from grocery carts outside the local supermarket. He learned to pick locks and pop ignitions. He swiped clothing from school classmates' lockers, donations from the church offering plate, and drugs from dealers' stashes.

"You can make money all kinds of ways," Andre says. "It's easy for a kid to make money."

Easy, perhaps, but a distraction from other business, such as education. Though he won a prize for reading and writing in first grade, Andre skipped school more and more often as he grew older. He missed, he says casually, "most of '88, '89, '90 and '91."

2& "But I'm still smart," he insists.

'Always disappointed'

Taken from his mother by the court at age 8 and placed with his strict, working grandmother, Dorothy Whiting, he found his material needs met. But Mrs. Whiting, rising daily at 4:30 a.m. to get to her job, could not quite fill the void where a family might have been. And even as Francine Bradley descended into the abyss of addiction, she kept Andre and his sisters, who had gone to live with their maternal grandmother, hoping.

"She'd say, 'I'll get married. I'll get straight.' She'd say she'd get us all back together," Andre recalls. "But I was always disappointed."

Andre began running away from his grandmother's house, in futile search of the vision of family dangled before him in his mother's nodding reveries. Inevitably his first stop was his mother's home of the moment, and often he brought her money -- poignant contributions to the drug habit that had dissolved the family.

"He used to lend me and my girlfriend money for drugs," Ms. Bradley says. "Maybe we'd be a few dollars short. We'd ask him for money, and he'd say, 'You haven't paid me back from the last time,' but he'd give it to us anyway."

Andre admits he was reluctant. "I didn't give her much," he says, "because I knew what she was going to do with it."

Last February, just after his 15th birthday, he landed in the Hickey School, now operated by a private Colorado company called Rebound.

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