When I was fifteen years old, the world was my enemy. And why shouldn’t it have been? It was 1996. Up until that point, the world had done its best to drag me, sometimes screaming, through metaphorical gutters of the worst kinds of waste. At that young age I had already been half-starved, covered in lice and fleas, abused in the worst kinds of ways. I was a victim, but also a survivor. The constant battling only made me harder, scooped out the soft spots in large chunks so what I was left with was a veritable chitinous exoskeleton, impervious to the outside world.

As a result, when I moved to the middle-class neighborhood in New Hampshire, filled with anxious folks living in high-end mobile homes and manicured lawns – I found myself hanging for a while with the wrong crowd. Both as a response to their reactions toward me, and also as a defense mechanism. I mean, hey – if they teased me about being poor and dirty, why not throw in some good-for-nothing friends, too? I didn’t want to give in to them, to let them have the satisfaction of pushing me toward what they thought was right and “normal”. I only wanted to make them hate me more. I’m stubborn that way.

And so I became a drug runner. It was sort of an accident, at first, but in the end it was something I chose to do on my own terms. Dana was the only black guy in our neighborhood, and probably the nicest guy I knew. But he found himself in the drug-running trade, and somehow even though I listened to White Zombie and he listened to 2Pac, we connected over music. He heard me singing the lyrics to “Real Solution #9” one afternoon on the train tracks when we were walking through a patch of woods we called “Hobo Jungle” and in his laid-back way he told me that it sounded like rap, or that it could be rapped in the right hands, like Tupak Shakur’s. He made me listen to “California Love” on his walkman. At the time, I hated anything that wasn’t alternative music or heavy metal. So I politely listened, but it didn’t gel with me until years later.

Dana invited me to run with him one day while we were walking to the school. He made jokes about being a black guy in a white neighborhood. He spoke in an exaggerated “white guy” voice as if he were on the other end of a Police CB radio.

“Please be on the lookout for a black man walking with a skinny white male. Fire on sight.”

I laughed, and took swigs from my cold can of Surge.

When he asked me if I wanted to run with him, he didn’t outright ask. He just said “Hey, man. Let’s go.” He started running. I tightened my backpack straps and started running with him. We went to the other end of the trailer park, to one of the run down homes where the undesirables hung out and hurt each other with kitchen implements when they were drunk or high. When we got there, he introduced me as “Joe Cool”. I had never had anyone call me “cool” before in my entire life, so I just sort of stood there while Dana exchanged a bag of drugs for a wad of cash. And then we were on to the next house, and the next. Running drugs, and running…literally.

Finally, when we were finished that day, Dana explained to me that he was going to bring the money to a guy named Beaker. I gawked at the name.

“Beaker?” I asked, laughing. “Like Beaker and Bunsen? The Muppets?”

“I don’t know who that is,” Dana said. “They call him beaker because he’s got a big nose.” He mimed a big nose on his face and laughed.

From that day on, Dana and I went on many other runs. I never fully committed,though, and as time passed, I saw him less and less. I never really knew where he ended up, but running with him (in all senses of the word) helped me shed the side of me that was a victim. Dana provided me a framework in which to explore the idea of camaraderie, and to experience friendship. Of course, it took a few more years of getting into more trouble; riding around and doing drugs, breaking and entering, and other bad things for me to figure out who I really was under that chitinous armor I had made for myself. But I finally did it. I finally broke free.

Dana, I believe, was the catalyst for that transformation. Dana, with his racial jokes and befriending of me without caring about who I was, what I looked like, or what I had ever done allowed me to open up to my eventual friends I made before I graduated. I like to think of my time running with Dana for Beaker not as something negative, but something positive – as weird as that sounds. The people who bought the drugs, they were busy escaping into themselves, and paying money to do it. I looked to do the opposite, and I largely succeeded in most respects. I can only hope that Dana eventually outran his chosen profession in much the same way I did, and in all senses of that word.