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The Man Who Changed Everything

March 1, 2000 |
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Some heads were born to wear crowns. Some hands to push brooms. Most would say that Dale DeCarlos Barringer was destined for either the prison yard or the graveyard. One down. One to go.

It was at his bond hearing almost five years ago that I first saw him, this mere mortal who had waved a hand and turned my world upside down. Everything I'd ever done growing up a good girl in a good ghetto family was an effort to get as far away from the Dale Barringers of this world as possible. I'd made a point of not knowing who was dealing in our neighborhood, who was the $5 ho, who were the burglars, car thieves, and welfare cheats. On the '70s detective shows of my youth, everyone in the 'hood, presumably intuitively, knew everything about all the illicit goings-on. Not me. My white classmates at my white gifted school far, far from the ghetto maelstrom expected me to know these things, but I could only shrug. I wanted to know what they knew. What's in books? Foreign countries? What's room service like? The white kids wanted to know about cops on the take, since none were in their neighborhoods, but I most certainly did not.

Yet here I was, waiting to face the bogeyman I'd been avoiding my entire life. My 16-year-old nephew-that sweet child I'd helped raise since his birth-had been shot in the back, and I was here to look the son of a bitch who'd done it in the eye. Then, armed with a newly minted law degree and my best whitespeak, I was going to do everything in my power to send him to hell.

My sister Denise and I waited in the hot North Carolina courtroom as a hundred men, all black but one, shuffled in with their orange jumpsuits, cellblock cornrows, Kunta Kinte shackles, and pointless crimes to face the white judge and court personnel. Any one of them could have been Willie Horton's first cousin, and we shuddered as we tried to figure out which beast had shot our Deion. We had a name, Barringer, and an image of a hulking brute with a gun in his hand and not a thought in his head. We knew his excuses-no father, a club- hopping welfare mother, an exhausted grandmother, a passel of bastards, a substandard education, poverty, poor nutrition, hopelessness, weak leadership, the white man-and we knew they were all true. But so what? You still don't get to shoot people. Brother after brother hobbled forward for his 60 seconds on the only center stage he would ever know. Their English was a tangle of misused pronouns-"I be's" and "know what ah'm sayin's?" They'd never learned the striver's bilingualism I could turn off and on like a faucet. In every case, they pleaded their improbable innocence and begged for their freedom, pretty please, like old pros. A more depressing spectacle didn't exist-unless it was my nephew crumpled in the dirt. I fought my pity.

Our shooter was the very last one. He hobbled forward, blinking at the sudden bright lights like a confused kitten. Eighteen, but so slight that his jailhouse overalls bagged and doubled up over themselves under his belt and his shackles seemed to nearly fall off his wrists. He stared into the room, looking lost and uncertain. So did we. The man of a thousand nightmares, the scourge of the black community, the bogeyman incarnate-looking like a flustered newborn? Where did Willie Horton go? Surely this kid had wandered into the wrong courtroom.

"That's him?" Denise said.

"That's somebody's baby," I whispered, more to myself than to her.

I looked around the room for his family-his mother, at least, or a grandmother. But the only people to witness the disposition of his future were my sister and I, the two who most wanted to see him hang. How could such a youngster be facing attempted murder charges and have no one in the courtroom on his side?

We got what we wanted. Barringer hasn't know a day of freedom since his arrest in August 1995, and he says he won't until 2009 at the earliest. He spent the seven months before his trial in jail. My nephew spent them adapting to life in a wheelchair. I spent them trying to figure out how a child becomes someone who could shoot another child for no reason at all.

My sister Denise had Deion when she was 17, 11 months after the boy destined to shoot him was born. Furious as we were with his mother for getting pregnant-ours was not that kind of family-Deion was a joy, a sunshine baby, happy and playful all the time. The only child in a house of many adults, he was indulged and loved throughout his uneventful childhood. And although he never met his father-none of us did- my sister married when he was nine or so, and for a while he was happy as only a child can be to have a dad, a new kid brother, and a dog. Life became more difficult, though, as the rest of us moved out and my mother was left to help raise the two boys once my sister's brief marriage ended. Like many children of poor single mothers, Deion and his brother shifted residences frequently, but only between their mother's and grandmother's homes, and Deion had a comfortable room and his own things in each. He had a half-brother and enough blood relatives to fill a stadium-a stable family life. There were rules upon rules, and we demanded an old-fashioned respect from him that we almost always got. Still, he was a fatherless child growing up in a ghetto. Children and animals ran wild. The many multigenerational households bespoke adults who couldn't, or wouldn't, support themselves. Deion's little brother told me he heard shooting at night.

My sister, a hospital clerk attending nursing school at night, had no patience with my qualms when I urged her to move away. "Ain't nothing wrong with these people," she snapped, and I knew what she was thinking: We can't all go to Harvard.

Yes you could, I thought back, but that's another argument. So I encouraged my nephews to spend as much time as possible at their grandmother's, in her more solidly middle-class neighborhood.

As Deion grew older he became increasingly less inclined to stay at home, and we worried. Where was he going? Always the same answer-a polite "Nowhere"-as the front door closed behind him. Until he was 12 or so he really did go nowhere. Just down the street to see who was outside, or to the basketball court to shoot hoops alone. You could see him from the kitchen window, that being the rule, as he tried to find ways to amuse himself. It was never very long before he'd give up and meander back inside to watch his womenfolk sew or braid hair. By the time he was 15 his teachers were complaining. Nothing big, just a general smart -- mouthedness and the peer pressure to underachieve. (When the art teacher praised his drawings, he stopped doing them; the other kids thought that was cool.) So we had school discussions. We had condom discussions. I sent him SAT prep books and promised college ski trips for a B average. He remained polite and funny when around, but was around less and less, and went to school mostly to socialize and play football, a sport he was sure would be his ticket out. To help his odds he even changed his name in honor of the defensive back whose shoes he'd no doubt fill. Up until then he'd been Johnny.

Football is such a long shot, I scolded him again and again. What if you're crippled? You need a Plan B, keep your grades up, save your money. What if you're crippled? It was clear, though, that he thought me full of shit. Then one day some hood-rat stole his CD player and openly defied him to do something about it. We'd told Deion to leave his things at home. But who but a bunch of women would do that? Enraged and near weeping, he demanded to know what he was supposed to do about this, this public humiliation in a world where kids brought guns to school and settled scores with tire chains. He flung himself far away from us, and my frantic sister insisted I answer the question, so I did: Take it. Deion should just walk away and let the boy keep the player. He should be strong and outlive the loser. But in the end he didn't have to deal with that situation. The environment took care of that.

On the night he was shot, Deion and a friend were hanging out in the courtyard of his mother's apartment complex. They heard their friend Myron's car go by, blaring the radio as usual, and Deion waved and cut a few hip-hop moves just for the hell of it. It must not have been Myron, though, because there was no response from the car. Later, another friend joined them, and the three of them stopped to talk not far from the very kind of aimless crowd we'd warned and warned our boy to avoid. Deion had his back to the group, so when Barringer stepped forward with a pistol and demanded to know who had been dancing back there, Deion couldn't see the gun. The seconds it took to look over his shoulder and respond to Barringer cost him his legs and made him more dependent on his womenfolk than he could have ever imagined.

I was there when my nephew first accepted the fact that he'd probably never Walk again. Flinging away the bolsters that kept him upright in his hospital bed, Deion fell back into a spineless heap and melted, his noodled crippled legs splayed out grotesquely on the crisp white sheets. And for the only time during his ordeal, he cried. Then, less than a minute later, he swallowed it all and sealed off his face. And that moment-when the door closed in on his pain-was the moment I knew we had much farther to go than hospitals and doctors could take us. That's when I got a glimmer of what that gun-toting monster had really done.

For a while I'd tried to accept the prison sentence as closure. But then Deion would have one of those infrequent bad weeks and be bitter and withdrawn, and I'd want some goddamn answers. What kind of person does such a thing? What did he have to say for himself?

It took four years to get Deion settled on his own, and it took me four years to believe that I could sit across a table from the bogeyman and not kill him. Years of preparation, but only 20 minutes online and a few phone calls to find him, Dale DeCarlos Barringer, the man who changed everything.

Sitting in the cheap plastic chair at the cheap plastic table in North Carolina's Caledonia Correctional Institution, I was nervous-afraid, maybe, that I wouldn't be able to handle this after all. And that he'd recognize me from court and see through the lie I'd told to get here-that I was a journalist interested in his story. But when the moment came and he walked in, he looked right past me. I had to wave him over.

Awkward, we sat in strained silence as I tried not to openly stare. Here he was, that same frail, exotic boy who'd been so lost in the courtroom four years ago: Tiger Woods without a golf club. His head, neck, and wrists bobbed in the too-large openings of his jail uniform, and he grabbed at his drooping waistline, embarrassed by his lack of a belt. He seemed nervous, too, awaiting my lead. Finally I remembered my lines and began to patter on about the article I envisioned and thanked him for his participation. The ice broken, he began to speak, and I've not known an unconflicted moment since.

To his joy, I let him talk for nearly two hours. His hands flew, his prison brogans drummed beneath the table, he threw his head back and brayed in appreciation of his own wit. I found myself laughing at his braggadocio more than once.

He claimed to be innocent, of course. "The cops didn't even have their story straight!" he snorted, indignant. ''I ain't did no shit like that!"

The man who shot Deion had yelled at him for dancing in the street as he fired. "Who gon' shoot somebody for dancin'? Hell, I'd a gave him some love." The bogeyman boogied in his chair, pantomiming how he'd have partied down right beside his supposed prey.

That vision-him and my Deion: innocent equals-sent me spinning. So I came clean and told him. That I'd been at his bond hearing. That I'd been at the trial. That I knew no one had been there for him either time. That Deion was my nephew. And I watched his exuberance vanish. The narrow shoulders slumped, his head drooped, and he crumpled toward the table like an ice sculpture near flame. There is only one word for the emotion he was displaying: shame. And the weight of it seemed to snap his neck. But even then, when I most hated him, I was not sure what he was ashamed of. His entire life, I think.

I got up to get some Cokes, and when I got back he redoubled his efforts to convince me that he was not The One. I told him that I didn't want to hear it. My nephew would never walk again, and he deserved to be in jail. I just wanted to understand.

Our visits took on a rhythm. I'd bring Cokes from the snack room, and he'd grandiosely tell me what make and color rental car I was driving, how many times I'd gone into the trunk, and where I'd parked. "I got boys everywhere," he'd brag. Then he'd settle in happily, thump his Coke with a graceful finger and start talking about his favorite subject, himself. Always much too honest, he'd answer questions that were so detrimental to his best interests that I'd feel guilty for asking.

Still, though, after months of weekly visits and hours of conversation I find it impossible to establish a chronology for him. He prefers Foxx to Dale, by the way. He'll also answer to Babyboy. Or Corleone. That last would be because of the Italian father he has only met once and wasn't much impressed by. But there's no establishing a firm chronology for Foxx, because his life has no demarcations of the usual kind. No parents to speak of. No fixed address. No driver's license. No bank accounts or bills in his name. No graduations: He thinks he dropped out in the 10th grade, but can't be sure. Further complicating the chronological haze of his life is the fact that when he speaks there's an absence of almost any proper names or places: "First I stayed with my cousin, then with this little bitch, and right after that I got locked up but I wasn't in long 'cause it was bullshit and I was right back on it with my other cousin, no a different one, but I moved again 'cause my probation officer found me and..." is the way he might describe a typical month. His life is a headlong rush to nowhere, a run-on sentence with no periods to allow for things to change.

Until he was about five-around 1981-Foxx and his mother lived with her father. Then she got married and Foxx became a complication. He was shunted off with his four stepsiblings to spend long periods at his step-grandmother's house. By the time he was 13 or so, the siblings had returned to live with his mother and stepfather and he alone was left at the grandmother's, in a three-bedroom house with 13 people in it.

Foxx was light-skinned, almost Asian-looking, and the other kids in the house-all stepcousins of one kind or another-called him "white boy" and made him steal and beat people up. He had a best friend, though, who lived nearby and with him Foxx discovered role in life. The fighting and the stealing, coupled with his exotic looks, made him special. Plus, he has a certain flair-raised in another family he'd have been class president and prom king. Instead, he and his junior-high friends learned to get high and drunk every day, especially just before their crime sprees. One excursion found him and his boys rambling through someone's house "like rats," he says. Touching, toppling, taking. His accomplices grabbed cordless phones, little TVs, cameras-small, pawnable items of enough value to keep them high and popular for a few days more. All Foxx took was a child's game and a piggy bank. The crew howled at the ridiculousness of it, and his reputation for unpredictability was born. It grew considerably when he began to pocket the proceeds from the crack he was selling for some of the neighborhood dealers and then organized his posse to beat and rob the dealers when they came to collect.

Infrequently, an adult would try to stem Foxx's growing wildness. An "aunt" would try to talk sense to him or limit him in some way. An "uncle" would smooth it over. Once or twice Foxx was whipped. When he was, he put sugar in the offender's gas tank and smiled slyly while the man tried to figure out which neighbor kid was responsible. This is how he earned the name he's so proud of. Foxx.

When Foxx was 11 or 12, his mother's marriage fell apart and she left town, abandoning him to her ex-husband's extended family for good. Soon, however, the step-grandmother who had come to adore him died, and Foxx moved out. For the next several years Foxx made his way by hooking up with one woman after the next. "When you look as good as me," he says, "the bitches love you!" First he moved in with a 22-year-old he'd met in the neighborhood and ended up sleeping with her, her sister, and her mother before he moved on. Soon after, he moved to Los Angeles with a 24-year-old female crack dealer. Eventually he realized he was out of his league dealing in L.A., so he left after a year, never having learned his meal ticket's last name.

Back in Charlotte, he quickly found another older woman (his personal best was 42) to take him in, and was back pretty much where he had started. Sometime that year he learned that a 17-year-old girl from his old neighborhood was carrying what would be his fourth child. For a reason he can't explain, this birth touched his heart. So much so that he moved out on the woman who was supporting him and in for a while with one of his cousins, who lived just around the corner from his new daughter. He saved up for a Volvo and never stayed anywhere for long.

At that time, his life revolved around selling drugs and visiting his new daughter, which he did several times a day. Most of his work was accomplished at night, while babies slept, so he had the time to spare. He bathed and dressed her. He fed her. He rocked her to sleep. It was en route to one of his many visits to her that the police finally caught him holding and he went to jail for the first time. But first, he says, they took him handcuffed to a deserted alley and smacked him around. He rattled his chains and spat at them that he'd kill their fucking asses when he got the chance. Even so, he got probation and was selling again not two weeks later. That was 1993. He was 16 years old.

Foxx now says he has six children, all by different mothers, but he makes no bones about the fact that Lady is his favorite, the only one that he has even attempted to raise. "She special. She my Lady," he says, as if that explains it, and smiles at the memory of her.

For her mother, however, his tenderness was waning. She lived near his grandmother, and they'd known each other from the beginning of the childhoods they were still in. According to Foxx, his baby's mother was never satisfied, not since Lady came. She was so sensitive, like wanting him to be all hugged up on her after sex. Once she became a mother, he says, she wanted him out of thug life. But more than that, she wanted him to love her.

Of course, he did neither, and as I sit with her on the couch in her sparsely furnished apartment, I can easily see that Lady's mother is under a terrible strain. She's 22 now and struggling alone with a five-year-old. Her features do not relax until Lady bounces in to brighten the room. It's easy to see why Foxx couldn't resist this child; she's as charming as her father, TV-commercial beautiful, and as yet unbesmirched by the life she was born into. But her mother is tired. She is too dignified to say so, but it's obvious that she's always loved Foxx and knows it's self-destructive for her to love him still. That's why she doesn't offer any of the specifics of their relationship.

Foxx is much less introspective, though, and tosses off what she doesn't. There was the time she got out of the shower to find Foxx watching videos from the triple-X basement strip clubs he frequented with his ubiquitous camcorder. It was 5 a.m. and he had not yet been to bed; the date and time on the display were scant hours old. Or the time when she had to double back to her apartment minutes after she'd left and found Foxx fucking her cousin on the couch. His baby's mother also does not mention the time Foxx hit her. He was holding the infant Lady and making plans on the phone with the little bitch he had on tap for the night. Weeping, she'd lunged for him. He tried to walk away, still cradling his daughter, but she ran at him waiting and whacked him across the back of the head.

"You can't let a bitch just hit you like that," Foxx says with indignant astonishment, "not after everything I did for her when I could have any bitch I wanted!"

So he wasn't having any of her drama. He was doing her a favor just being with her and he was having too much fun to hear that noise. He was living large. He and his boys were babes in crackland, and no babymother was going to slow his roll.

When Foxx talks about his drug dealing he invariably cracks up. It's so funny. His customers, in particular, seem to have been a constant source of entertainment. He despised them, he says, and beat any who tried to hit the pipe in his presence, but he couldn't function without them. Buzzing around Foxx and his crew like mosquitoes, they'd do anything for free rock. Foxx would taunt them by flinging rocks into the woods, into traffic, on rooftops, and laugh as the addicts risked life and limb to chase down their high.

He could only throw up his hands in helpless mirth at my incredulity. "That shit was funny! You'd a laughed too."

Crackheads also provided him with an inexhaustible supply of cars, which they exchanged for rock, and acted as go-betweens with the whites who came to score. It was funny to Foxx to watch them skim half off the top. Funnier still was borrowing the white folks' cars while they fired up in the dope house and not returning them for days. He chortles with glee at the memory of frantic white lawyers coming to in the squalor of the dope house and realizing they were stranded in the 'hood.

Behind the laughter, though, an anger peeks through. Marinated in a round-the-clock stream of 40s and blunts, it must have made him savage on the street. In conversation it comes and goes. You see it when he talks about white people, whom he loathes. That would include his mother's current white husband and the many white hos who swarmed to him and the other dealers when he was out. His niggas knew better than to let them come around when he was there, because he'd make them very, very sorry. With equal viciousness he describes dealing with the kids who sold dope for him and tried to keep his money. Baseball bats. Aluminum, not wood.

"Why was it okay for you but not them?" I ask.

"You don't understand the streets," he'll say dismissively.

Foxx claims to regret none of this. He did what he had to and is proud of the way he raised himself and his babymother. Well. There was that middle-aged man he hospitalized for giving him a look as he sat on his car at the mall, radio blasting. He wasn't bothering nobody, so what up with that look, the one Foxx can't describe? "He ain't had no business gettin' in my face," Foxx says defiantly.

But some of the random beatings clearly haunt him, "like the time this dude at the gas station who was supposed to have blunts got an attitude and said he didn't have none. So I said fuck the dude, "Foxx remembers. The man's mistake was firing a parting insult at their backs. Bad idea. He tried to run, but Foxx "tripped the dude from behind"-much as he would soon shoot my nephew in the back-and started kicking him. The crew joined in and there was a Clockwork Orange frenzy. They chilled for a while after that.

In Foxx's world, you ask your boys to roll with you, they roll. You do the same for them. Had Foxx not been at the mall, he would have been rolling with his niggas the night they went out on a retaliatory invasion of some motherfucker's house. His homeys sent a little old bitch to the door, then kicked her aside once the door opened. Guns blazing, they rampaged through the house shooting everything that moved. Since this ingenious plan hadn't involved ascertaining the number or location of the many people in the house, some of the potential victims escaped, and some of his boys went to jail. Several got off scot-free, though, because no one snitched.

Would Foxx have participated? Shot whatever old person, child, or Maytag repairman was luckless enough to be on the premises during that mayhem? Would he even have objected to the witlessness of the plan? He will not answer. And what about the drugs? Did he sell to pregnant women? Children? Again, no answer.

As 1994 wound down, Foxx says, he was drawn to the guns he claims to have mostly avoided before. One night found him playing with his best friend's gun as they bagged product. Foxx faked loading and palmed the bullets, then he drew down on his nigga, who hit the floor in a hilarious pratfall. Foxx convinced him to play Russian roulette-or, as Foxx says, "rushing roulette"-a game that would occupy them more and more. Foxx says he progressed from playing with a friend and a pistol to playing alone, blind folded, with a 380 automatic. Cradling a lapful of clips, only one of them "lucky," he'd play his game pissy drunk and weep.

In January 1995 his mother reemerged, now that it was convenient, and they managed to make a grudging sort of peace before Foxx was sent off to boot camp for parole violation in March. When he got out in mid-June, he remembers, everyone laughed at his bald head. Drunk and high immediately, he was right back in the game. July 27 came, and he couldn't think of anything better to do than shoot my nephew for daring to appear young and happy in a world that felt like a coffin to him.

Paralysis may have saved Deion's life. He'd been winning the best girls and showcasing on dance floors; rivals were taking note. He'd had run-ins. It was clear he's been scared, but he was too angry and too young to walk away.

Since Deion was shot, life for his family both has and has not resumed normalcy. There is a surface calm, but murky depths swirl just below. Initially, Deion tossed the anger off like a magician's cape that abracadabra'd itself into thin air, and he adapted much too well, much too quickly, to life in a wheelchair. He was the star paraplegic in his rehabilitation class and rarely balked at anything. He maneuvers his chair with balletic fluidity and anchors his wheelchair basketball team. No matter when you ask, he's always "fine." But there are flashes of despair, moments you think he wishes he'd died out there on that pavement. And all we can do is gird ourselves for these periodic eruptions.

Foxx still pleads his innocence.

Sometimes I believe him. Sometimes I don't. There is some reason to consider the possibility: All Deion saw of the man who wanted him dead was "a lot of hair." His two friends described a "light-skin dude with a 'fro." Foxx was bald, or nearly so, at the time of the shooting and physiologically incapable of growing an Afro. In fact the only evidence connecting him to Deion is the anonymous caller who told police, "Dale Barringer did it."

On the other hand, Foxx never gave a statement and didn't take the stand. "Innocent people act innocent," the detective who investigated the case says. "They might have killed a hundred people, but accuse them of the one they didn't do and they scream to high heaven." The only thing we had to go on at the time was a mug shot proving that Foxx was already a criminal. The jury deliberated for three days. Between sessions the court personnel snorted at the very idea that Foxx had ever visited his daughter, let alone that he did so multiple times a day. That he'd been there changing diapers at the time of the shooting? Right. They dismissed his babymother too, this teenage welfare mom in her inappropriate T-shirt, short skirt, and bare legs. He'd threatened to kill her if she didn't lie for him. I was assured.

"How do we know that?" I asked. They just rolled their eyes at my gullibility.

Foxx claims he saw his public defender only three times during his seven-month pretrial detention; one of those times the man came to demand that Foxx take the plea my family knew nothing about. ''I think you did it," he says his lawyer says. "Anyway, their family will get you if you don't take the plea. He was right, after all. I did get him.

The last time I saw him, Foxx had grown into his genes and looked half white, not half Asian, and his prison uniform fit. Did he do it? It doesn't matter. Deion's crippled, and if it hadn't been this charge for Foxx, it would just have been another. Now Foxx lives in a place where the most frequent entry in the Relationship column of the visitors' sign-in sheet is "babymother." But never his babymother. He's been moved three times, each time farther from home. No one visits him anymore. No one but me. (Stumped, in the Relationship column I write "friend.") He feels like dying all the time, he says, so he kills time fantasizing about gathering seven females in a motel room. He'd get drunk and high (on cocaine as a special treat) then shoot himself in the head. That way, they'd be haunted and he'd be remembered.

"Colin Powell will be remembered," I tell him, both exasperated and sad. "You'll just be another nigger face down in the street. You already know all the ways to die; why can't you figure out a way to live, boy?"

He just looks at me, with that lost face from the courtroom.

A few Christmases ago, while watching old family videos, we happened upon footage of a 12-year-old Deion wearing a wild Rasta dreadlock wig and boogeying with all the grace and vigor of one of Master P's backup dancers. The room went quiet. We watched the segment in silence. Then someone hit rewind and we watched our Deion, whole, happy, and ignorant of his future, own the dance floor once again. Again, he kicked his heels up. Again, he spun on his toes. Again, he slid to the left. We rewound and rewound in the silence. Eventually, we handed him the remote and wandered back to a more subdued, but not sad, holiday. We're working-class. We accept reality.

Deion stayed where he was, wheelchair parked out of the way so as not to be a bother, and watched himself as he should have been. Then he turned the TV off and rejoined his family.

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