I lived five years of my life in the streets all for the honor I found among thieves
For real change to come, we have to start telling the truth — the whole truth. Not just the truth that makes us look better and not just the truth that allows us to blame the world and its people.
American society as we know it is structured in a way that strongly discourages honest conversations about how we each got here. There is a battle upon the shore of progress. It is a fight to prove who is the most wrong and the most right. And, by God, you better end up on the right side of that argument, lest you be cast away further than the gates of hell.
I, however, did not acquiesce to this model. Furthermore, I see it as the Trojan Horse that it is — facilitating the destruction of equality while claiming to be promoting it.
I know with every shred of my being that we cannot change individually unless we get honest with ourselves as individuals. As an individual whose life’s mission is to share my story with the world — turning my pain into passion and my history into hope for others — getting honest with myself requires getting honest with you.
There are many drafts in my bucket that contain true stories from my life — stories that hold details about some of the horrible things I witnessed and endured in my younger years. Some of the most cataclysmic and poignant stories of my life sit in that bucket — not because I don’t see their value, but because of the fair hue of my skin.
I spent 5 years of my young life in the hood. I came to be an adult in the streets. I experienced hell there. I witnessed things more mortifying than most of you will ever dream of and more terrifying than any reality-based show on Netflix. I lost my soul to the ghetto. But I also found it again. And I found many other lost souls along the way. Most importantly, I know there are more out there — of all colors. I know that countless others are still lost.
Over ten years ago, I made a choice — a choice that I bet my life on. The bet was won, and my life was saved, but only under one condition; I must build my life on that choice, and that choice must be my mission until the day I say goodbye to this beautiful Earth. And so it was.
For over a decade, I have built upon my chosen mission — the bet that saved my life. Driven by all my pain, all my wrongs and all my suffering, I found the will to live in the name of one choice — the choice to choose life.
Hope for life and humans, in the face of hell on earth, and a dedication to choosing that hope over and over again — no matter what — that was the choice I bet on. It was a choice that I could never stop making and never will.
So I have traveled miles upon miles, given countless hours, studied tirelessly, shed thousands of tears, spent innumerable nights toiling away, and pieced together millions of words both written and spoken — all with one primary purpose. My purpose is the mission that I chose that cold day so long ago.
I chose to choose hope for humans. I decided upon life, love, and unconditional hope.
My greatest asset being the passion in my pain, I cannot continue my life’s mission without telling the stories of my life. And I bet my life on that mission, so that is what I must do.
Life gave me some sour-ass lemons. Actually, they were rotten. And the only way I can make lemonade out of those bitter lemons is to repackage them as messages of hope. But by doing that, even though it’s hard, I get to make some of the best lemonade on Earth. So in the end, the juice is worth the squeeze.
I hereby give that little girl, who was me, permission to be honest with the world about her journey and experience, unabashedly and unapologetically. I tell her to go in, eyes wide open, knowing that everyone won’t understand her and being okay with that.
Today is the day that I will publish my first essay that openly and honestly recounts some of my darkest and most politically charged experiences. But I won’t worry about using the right words or how the young girl that used to be me will be judged or condemned for her lack of politically correct thinking.
A politically correct and manipulative media is responsible for the false perceptions that most people have about urban and displaced communities.
Surely, a lack of knowledge and understanding about gentrification and urban displacement is the cause for its allowed continuation. I refuse to believe that the American people would allow such hell in corners of their own earth if they knew the malignant cesspools that lie just blocks away from the roads they travel daily. Cesspools that babies are born into by the minute — and that suck dry the human soul with rigor and ruthlessness.
No. If Americans knew that there are people in their own communities who have to sacrifice their soul in order to merely survive, they wouldn’t have it.
But they don’t know. They can’t. Why would they? If they have never lived there, they have no way of knowing. Because in reality, the streets are no Save the Last Dance. They are no Friday either. Not even Juice — not quite.
In reality, the streets are vicious, and they are oh so hungry. They will swallow up anyone who lives in them, no matter how beautiful or courageous a soul.
To those who have never lived in the hood
The people who make up what most of you know as urban communities and what I know as the hood are no different than you. They have souls just like yours. Born into this world in innocence, they are shaped, molded and oppressed by the shackles of their environment — a world inside a world, a world inside your world and mine.
The perceived cool sayings that people use in fun or to be hip are not just trendy sayings. Using ghetto slang as a sport or a false identity is making light of the dark reality that lies beneath these collections of words. They are dark realities that millions of people live in every day. They aren’t cute. They are deadly. They represent a life of futility, basic survival, and misery that more people should know more about.
You gotta either get down or lay down.
This has become a popular street colloquialism that you may have heard. But most people who fix their mouths to say it have no idea of what it really means. They are foreigners to the deadly dynamics of which they are making light.
This phrase is the entire reality of many people in our country — some of whom may live right down the street from you.
“Sell your soul or die,” the streets say. But not just any death. A brutal death — a death of hunger. And even worse, it’s not just you that dies, but if you have children you must watch them suffer too. You must watch your children suffer a slow and agonizing spiritual death, lest they — like you — be swallowed up whole by the system.
Before you embark upon this journey with me, I invite you to ask yourself a few questions.
What would you do if you faced starvation? What about torture? How would you survive if surviving was your only attainable goal for the day and even that goal was a far stretch? What if that was every day? What would you do if you had no way to feed your baby? How far would you go?
In what may be either ignorance or denial — but is certainly in the face of divisive conditioning — we look away from the underbelly of our society. Some of us never look at all. We hold our signs and donate to Black Lives Matter, all the while ignoring the reality of what is happening in our own communities.
For real change to come we must change the lives of our most oppressed people, and we cannot do that if we don’t even dare to enter their world.
So with all my hope and passion for humanity, I will take anyone there who wishes to go. But I can only show you through my eyes, for my eyes are the only ones I have.
I ask that you all forgive the imperfection of my eyes, in hopes that by shared grace we can build on the ghosts of our past to build a better future. And by forgiving the imperfection of my eyes, I hope that you will also forgive the imperfection of my words. For neither my eyes nor my words are perfect, but I share them with you anyway because they are the only eyes and the only words I have.
Why would a teenage girl raised in an upstanding community choose a life in the streets?
So we are at the only place to begin. We arrive at the big question — the big question that always comes first and everyone wants to know.
I share pieces of my story and shed light on the ugly parts of the streets. It makes sense that the first thing people want to know is why on earth I would go there.
This doesn’t make sense. You are telling me how morbid and disgusting the streets can be and how it is a deadly trap that many are born into and suffer their entire lives, but you weren’t born into it. You went there by choice. If it is so bad, why did you go there?
Trust and believe that I have been asking myself this question for over a decade. I have explored my soul endlessly in search of answers to this baffling question, and I will likely continue to do so forever. But I can share what I have found so far.
Assuredly, it was something beneath the surface that caused me to seek companionship, fellowship and camaraderie in the darkest corners of our society. And it must have been something deep and all-consuming to have the power it did. Whatever it was, it required courage and strength of will that I cannot express using the English language. It had to be all-consuming to have the power over me that it did — this innate desire.
People who have heard stories of so-called privileged people choosing to move their life to places of poverty may confuse these unbelievable choices with something more like a hobby or an adventure. But I assure you, as would anyone who has actually lived this life, that no hobby or adventure would bring about the strength of heart required to willingly live in such undesirable and sordid places.
No, in reality, the humans who make these allegedly unreasonable choices to willingly enter the streets are not doing it for fun. They are not doing it to be cool or live the life of Dangerous Minds or Honey. Those are just movies — not reality.
In reality, they are searching for something they are missing deep within their soul — something they cannot go on living without.
Have you ever yearned for something so deeply, on a soul level, that you would welcome death before going on living without it? That is why people choose to go live in the streets. Not because it’s fun.
The only question is what were they searching for — what was I searching for?
That is the kicker. We search without even understanding clearly what it is we are searching for or how we will know when we find it.
I am still searching for what I was searching for in those dark alleys — rather, searching for the knowledge of what I was searching for. And I may never be done searching. But I have found a few things I was seeking, although I have no idea of the weight their influence had over me. I am riddled with the suspicion that I will find more and it will be much heavier. All I can do is keep searching, wait and see. But I will give you all I got.
Honor among thieves
Of my findings on the searching of my younger years, I can think of one sentence that underlines it all.
There is honor among thieves.
More often than not, we use these words to infer that thieves have honor too — just a different kind, right?
What often goes unnoticed is that there is not only honor among thieves, there is an honor that in some way outweighs the honor that so-called good people possess. In fact, the honor of good people pales in comparison to the honor of thieves. This is, of course, incomprehensible. It brings about an uncomfortable level of cognitive dissonance.
But as untrue as this might sound and feel, there is a shred of something there that is honorable beyond measure— maybe something I can’t explain well in words. But I assure you that it exists, and I will do my best to articulate it. Because whatever that little girl who was me sought in sordid places, it lives in this shred of unparalleled loyalty and honor.
So-called thieves, or people who live well in the streets, may not have the kind of honor that so-called good people have. But they have an honor that is truer, more authentic and more intrinsic than the cash register honesty most Americans would call integrity.
Perhaps it is their daily feud with death and destruction coupled with their tribal instincts of survival that give good thieves an honor beyond parallel. You see, the moral compass of a thief is different than those who we call good women and men, but the strength of character with which the thief must uphold their honor is far more courageous than that of ordinary men.
To be an honorable person in the streets — or to be an honorable thief — requires a strength of character and a loyalty of which the good man can’t even dream.
So what is it about this honor that drew me into a world of degradation? What does this honor represent that I, an 18-year-old girl with her whole life in front of her, felt was worth risking my life and the lives of my loved ones?
There is an unbridled loyalty and dedication in the honor of the streets. There is a passionate and earnest commitment to a code and anyone who has honor in the streets does not break it — not under any condition. Not even certain death.
The honorable thieves may not believe the same thing as you, but they believe in honoring what they do believe a thousand percent, twenty-four hours a day and 365 days a year.
You cannot live in the streets with honor and not follow the code. But even more, you must follow it unconditionally. And that’s what honorable thieves do. They maintain their loyalty to this code until their last breath, knowing that their loyalty and honor may be the cause of it.
That’s it. The tip of the iceberg.
Loyalty, authenticity, community and love
I was young. I wanted to believe in something, and I wanted to believe that something with other people who believed the same thing.
I wanted to believe together, unconditionally, and I wanted the bond with other humans that such shared loyalty creates. I wanted community and connection and wanted it unconditionally.
I pictured how my life would look if I was surrounded by people who were loyal to each other and true. I felt fake, and I felt like I was surrounded by fake people — people with no real reason to live and nothing to fight for.
I felt like the people around me were shallow and mindless drones, just going on to check the boxes, being who society demanded them to be and, in turn, forcing those demands upon others.
I looked at my high school parking lot and thought of how much more it looked like a car lot than the car lots in our surrounding urban communities. I wished for doc martins and hated them at the same time.
You see, I wasn’t quite as rich as most of the other kids, and my parents couldn’t afford for me to shop at the Limited or the Buckle. In fact, I got school clothes once a year, and my grandmother paid for them. At least she could afford to take me to Kohl’s instead of just low-bottom Walmart.
I managed to get a hundred-dollar sweater once from the Limited, and I only wore it once, then accidentally washed it in hot, and it came out the size of my dolls. I cried. I never even got to wear it to school.
I did want to be one of them at some point — although somewhere along the line I changed my mind. Maybe it was after the sweater. Thank God for wool. Whenever it was, I stood back at some point, and I looked at these people I was trying to fit in with.
I looked at the shiny cars and the expensive sweaters and faces full of makeup. I sized up the rich show choir kids who I could never quite fit in with. I started to pay attention to a shallowness seeping through their veins and the feigned emotion pouring from their hearts. And it was then that I realized who I wanted to be. I wanted to be the opposite of them.
In social limbo, I made a few friends as my contempt grew. I thought it was contempt for them. But now I know it was contempt for myself — contempt for the person I had wanted to be in those days when I dreamed of nothing more than that lousy and uncomfortable sweater.
In my determination to never be that person, I dissected these ghosts of my high school, and I picked apart all of their flaws.
At lunch, I would watch them make fun of the outcasts and calculatingly leave them with nowhere to sit. In choir I would watch them laugh at the disabled students when they auditioned for the solo.
I knew what they would become. In high school, they would be the cheerleaders and the football players — the high steppers and the kings and queens of popularity. But they headed on into a sea of nothingness. Their shiny cars and expensive shoes would only take them so far. Their lives would stop at their picket fence and continue on repeat for eternity.
Twenty years later, they would still be in the same places telling the same stories with the same people. And eventually, their monetary and community riches would no longer be enough to sustain the fire that I saw already flickering inside of them. Then, they would either snuff out their soul and live the rest of their days in misery or suffer a mid-life crisis of some sort. I didn’t want that future.
More than anything in the world, I wanted not to be them — made of plastic. I didn’t want that future, and I resented them for making it the only option besides being an outcast.
So off I went in my bitter disgust to search for something real. Because if there was any way for me to define these non-humans it was to say that they were fake.
They were fake, and in the misery of their inauthenticity, they treated others poorly — others not as rich as them in money or social standing. And in their poor treatment of those others, the others were forced to wish to be them. For at least if they could be them, they would be the bully instead of the bullied.
I hated them for that and as I refused to do either — bully or be bullied. I hated watching some of the others, who I knew still wished they could be that which was destroying them. I remembered that feeling and it was awful. With everything I had in my being, I vowed to not become a part of such a shallow and heartless group of people.
If I would do anything in life, I would find something real — someone real. The last thing I would ever do is become a part of this community and relate with its shallow and materialistic people.
There weren’t many towns around my town. There was only one, and it was the town that held the gentrified communities. To get anywhere else, you had to travel through at least thirty minutes of cornfields. So my options were limited.
Sure, not all of the next town was displaced. There were people there who did not live in the streets. And I did spend time with some. So why would I end up in the most sordid parts of town?
Well, I was working a job, and I met people — people who lived in sordid places. I made friends with them. They were good to me. They were honest and real and funny. But what I loved about these people the most was that they looked out for each other. They accepted each other with flaws, and they were real with each other. And that, my friends, was a dose of what I had been searching for.
So I went and spent time with them. I went, and I went more, and more.
My first baby had just been born, and I now know that I was suffering from severe postpartum depression. Back then, though, I did not even know that was a thing. I didn’t realize what I suffered from until 15 years later. I was in an emotional pit of nothingness and clawing at whatever I subconsciously thought was going to fill that void. And I had no idea that I was doing it.
My relationship with my newborn baby’s father had become very abusive and one day, after I had been spending time with my new friends for a while, I left. I had nowhere to go, so I started sleeping in my car. It was an Arby’s that I worked at. It was connected to a Walmart, and I would park where the truckers did — at the back of the Walmart parking lot.
I made all these plans to get an apartment and be a single mom, but none of those plans ever came to fruition.
When I think of the night that I was sleeping in my car, and a friend of my mom’s happened to see me and knock on the window, I clearly recall weighing my options.
He told me it was dangerous to sleep in the car while it was running, which I knew but had fallen asleep when I only meant to run the heat for a few minutes. It was January and below freezing.
After he walked away, this feeling came over me. A feeling that I did not have to be there. I questioned myself and why I didn’t just find a family member to stay with. But I never answered that question, and I went back to sleep. Then I went on to sleep in my car until one of my new friends from the other side of the tracks offered for me to stay with them. And that was how it began.
I did go on to get the apartment I promised myself and my newborn child, but I didn’t stay there much. I never hung the pictures on the wall or even set up the closets or dresser. The apartment sat there, mostly, while I spent all of my time in my new places with my new people.
Because I was desperately searching for a way to save my soul and I deeply feared inauthenticity, I found something in those streets that beckoned me.
The friends I made there treated me differently than any friends I had ever had before. They treated life differently. My new friends didn’t take little things so seriously, and they were more realistic. They made me feel better about myself because they were themselves, and they wanted me to be myself too. They weren’t so hard on me. My new friends made me laugh, and they showed me new things. We had fun together. They let me into their family and in many ways, treated me far better than I felt my family ever had.
My new friends treated me like family and, to them, family was everything. Not just everything on four holidays a year — no, family was everything to them every day.
I loved the idea of having a family that wanted me to be myself and would be there for me unconditionally. I had just escaped a world I deemed as the shallowest place on earth, and the loyalty in the convictions of my newfound friends was an intoxicating dose of what I had been seeking.
Their lives were set up differently. They didn’t do things for show and go through the motions. They loved who they loved fiercely, and they would go to any lengths to support those people. I wanted that.
But just as there is an unmatched beauty of loyalty in the streets, there are also incomprehensibly insidious shadows of darkness. It was those shadows that I found myself under, eventually. And off I traveled, further and further into the abyss of darkness, crime and degradation.
In the end, I have not come up with a clear and concise answer as to why I chose the life of the streets for all those years. But I can tell you that once you find yourself in them, it is almost impossible to get out — whether you were born there or not.
If I was forced to reduce my reasons to a few words, I would only be able to pick the closest ones.
I was looking for authenticity, community and love. I was looking for loyalty and valor and the first place I found it was in the honor I discovered among thieves.
Written by Holly Kellums
Originally published on Medium.com
Featured image by ez_thug