Hustling for the Good Life | News Feature | Indy Week
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Hustling for the Good Life 

What's it take to live large in the projects? Ask "Janet."

It's midmorning on a sunny but cool spring day, and "Janet" has just popped the cork on a bottle of chilled champagne. She does it with finesse; not a drop spills. "I used to bartend," she says offhandedly. But her brown eyes twinkle; she's glad you noticed. At a formal dining table that occupies most of her kitchen, Janet pours the bubbly into flutes, tops it off with a little orange juice, and serves up buttery toasted bagels. Between nibbles and sips, she grabs a pen and writes the date and both your names on the cork. Later, she'll add it to the dozens displayed in a curio cabinet. "I'm a memorial-keeper," she explains.

That's plain to see. In her small apartment crammed with plush furniture, flowering plants and hi-tech electronic equipment, family pictures cover every available surface. Janet eagerly tells the family stories behind the knickknacks, the china cabinet containing rose-patterned dishes, the demitasse cups, the relish trays.

Nice things and fond memories aside, what Janet treasures most are her two teen-age daughters. At 34, she's a young-but-strict single mom who runs an orderly household. To stave off the "boy-crazies," Janet closely monitors her kids' schoolwork and keeps them plenty busy. Two sets of custom-made golf clubs rest against a coat-closet door. When the girls aren't practicing their swings, there's choir practice and dance lessons.

And if cleanliness is next to godliness, Janet's a shoo-in for a heavenly achievement award. No scuff marks on her waxed kitchen floor, no dust on her tables, no wrinkles in her drapes. A mild insomniac, Janet sleeps only four hours a night. "I've got a lot of energy," she says briskly. "You can usually find me up at 4 a.m. doing laundry, dusting or something."

While she runs a tight household ship, things run amok outside Janet's home. Taking out the garbage, she has to sidestep rats. Her next-door neighbors are prostitutes and crack addicts. A small grocery with a backroom brothel sits just up the street. Police cruisers are commonplace, slowing down--but not stopping--drug trafficking.

Janet lives in public housing in East Raleigh, and has for most of her life. Like many of her fellow residents, she works part time and relies on food stamps and Medicaid to make ends meet. But Janet is quick to set herself apart from the pack.

"A lot of people here haven't been anywhere and aren't going anywhere," Janet says. "We have different standards. I'll sit on the porch and drink beer and play cards with them, but they don't want to go to the beach." Janet seeks more out of life--and in some ways, she gets it. "I have a good lifestyle," she says.

But what it takes for her to live this way is not for the faint-hearted.

If hustling were an art form, Janet would be akin to Picasso. The tall, lithe woman has worked as a bartender, babysitter, file clerk, janitor and, nowadays, a counselor for at-risk teens. While she's worked hard over the years, Janet's also wily. She's dabbled in the illegal drug market, run food-stamp scams, and utilized the services of "boosters," or professional thieves.

"Hustling is just a part of life," Janet says matter-of-factly. She believes low-income people must be "creative" if they want to live well. "White people hustle--what's the stock market?" she asks. "Whether it's legal or whatever, it's hustling."

For now, Janet's dividends are holding steady. Because she's caring for a daughter with a medical disability, Janet doesn't work full time. She falls far short of the $13.17 Wake County public officials say it takes for a mother with two kids to be self-sufficient. Janet makes $7 an hour in her counseling job, working only about 30 hours a month. She pays $112 for monthly rent--including utilities--for a two-bedroom apartment. In addition, Janet gets $90 a month in food stamps, and a total of $200 for child support.

Like an accountant with a spreadsheet, Janet rattles off her "other" income. She makes roughly $200 a month styling hair, and has a boyfriend with a steady job who gives her an occasional $50, $60, $100 for household extras. She also gets a food-stamp "bonus" averaging $150 monthly, courtesy of two crack-addicted neighbors who sell off portions of their monthly allotments.

In all, her income for a family of three is approximately $1,000 a month.

"Mind you, I'm not eating Food Lion products," Janet says proudly. "I'm eating lamb chops and ribeyes. I drink Ocean Spray," a gallon of which sits on the top shelf of her fridge, right next to a six-pack of Heineken beer. "If someone offered you a Heineken or a Budweiser, what you gonna take?" she asks.

"I like having comfort, and I didn't just acquire my tastes, it's been instilled. My mom always taught me to want the best in life."

A career secretary, Janet's mom raised her in public housing and still lives in a nearby low-income community. But despite their surroundings, her mother tried to purge Janet of the notion that living amid poverty meant living poorly. "I didn't want for anything," she says.

Janet wants to do the same for her own kids--and she remains convinced that a good life can be had in public housing. "If I lived out there where I had that $800-a-month rent and Lexus car payment, how long would it take me to go somewhere?" Janet asks rhetorically. "How could I do it and get my kids [clothing brands like] Nautica or Timberland?" Reflecting on a recent trip, Janet further illustrates her point. "I could get another place and survive, but would I have that $500 or $600 in my pocket for a weekend in Atlanta? No!"

So Janet lives in public-assistance limbo--not totally dependent on the system, but unwilling to break free from it.

"I choose not to struggle," Janet says, waving long, bejeweled fingers. And while she says hustling "isn't easy," she feels like the system "owes me something."

How's that? "I pay my taxes like everyone else."

Long before she paid taxes, Janet knew how it felt to have creature comforts. As a young child, she stayed "dressed up all the time, with satin ribbons in my hair. When I'd go out to play, my mom would put a pan of water nearby because I never wanted my hands dirty."

But at an early age, Janet learned that having a dressy lifestyle sometimes meant getting your hands dirty in another way.

"Pinky was boosting back then and that's where all my clothes came from," says Janet, referring to her older cousin. "She'd sell the clothes to my mom, who was going to an office every day, looking good. Pinky didn't pick up anything cheap because she'd sell stuff for half-price. So why steal something that was $10?" So while she knew certain activities were illegal, Janet also learned they could have practical advantages.

While Janet's home life brought its rewards, school was a different matter. As an adolescent, she dropped out of high school because, she says, "it was boring. Half the time I'd already read the books. I wasn't challenged." In the mid-'80s, while in her late teens, Janet went back to school to earn a GED.

With her degree, Janet landed a job as an office file clerk. She enjoyed getting a steady paycheck--almost as much as she enjoyed hanging out with her boyfriend, Terry, who was 10 years her senior. A month into their relationship, Janet got pregnant.

At first, 19-year-old Janet, Terry and the new baby stayed with Janet's mom. But it wasn't long before four became a crowd.

"I used my contacts to bypass the waiting list for public housing, and Terry signed an affidavit saying he was giving me $60 a week so I'd qualify for rent." The Raleigh Housing Authority didn't know Terry was actually a live-in dad with a well-paying gig as a hotel bartender. Rent break aside, Janet says, Terry prided himself on being "a 100-percent provider."

Within a year, Janet was pregnant again. Despite the expense of caring for two babies, Terry relished his role as father-provider. He didn't want Janet to work--and he didn't want more public assistance. "While the girls were young, we never got food stamps or Medicaid," says Janet. "Terry wouldn't allow it. Once, when the light bill was due and we didn't have the money, he took $10 and went to join a poker game." Hours later, Janet says Terry "came back with $1,500. That's how he did things; he'd get his by any means necessary."

Terry liked playing "Big Daddy," but he also drank heavily, snorted cocaine and partied to excess. Sometimes Janet joined in, partaking "socially." Supporting those habits, plus two children, required a lot more money than Terry's hotel salary and tips could cover. Soon, through contacts he'd made at work, Terry got connected with Cuban and Jamaican drug traffickers out of Florida, and started dealing cocaine. Janet knew the risks. She also knew the money would provide the good lifestyle she'd "been accustomed to."

In the late '80s, while the couple still lived in public housing, they started to enjoy the high life. "I remember counting $250,000 once by hand while sitting in bed," Janet recalls. Some of it went to suppliers. But there was more than enough left over for the family to take trips to Topsail Island and Disney World, and to buy a boutique's worth of designer clothes. Flipping through an old photo album, Janet points to pictures of Terry wearing a $300 sweater and a pair of $600 crocodile shoes.

As the drug business flowed, Janet and Terry's little two-bedroom apartment became filled with big-ticket items: a big-screen television, a $12,000 mother-of-pearl table, an antique grandfather clock and brass animals "big enough for my kids to sit on top and pretend they were riding."

While the kids had nice things, Janet says she tried to shield them from the drug transactions and late-night parties that helped to pay for them. The girls stayed busy playing in their room or visiting family, she says.

But it was hard to shield this high living from the neighbors. "Here we were in this public housing development, and you could see the big-screen TV in our window and hear that clock chiming halfway down the street," Janet says. Though unabashed about being able to afford such extravagances, Janet knew "something was going to happen" if they stayed in the apartment. What's more, she faced the prospect of an inspection by the housing authority. Soon, the couple did what many of their neighbors dreamed of: They got out, renting a house in Knightdale.

Free from the fear of forced entry, Janet and Terry added a Chevrolet Blazer, a backyard swing set and a 6-foot aquarium with $140 tropical fish to their domestic bounty. Still, all was not domestic bliss.

"Terry was a control freak," Janet states. While money wasn't an issue--Terry kept his regular job in addition to dealing drugs--she says he held her on a tight rein. "He'd give me $400 to go shopping, but I had to show him receipts for what I bought," she spits out. "If he gave me $200 for groceries, he'd come home and look in the refrigerator. I'd ask him for $20, and he'd ask me, 'What you gonna do with it?' And here I was, cooking breakfast, lunch and dinner for him. Terry wasn't an 'instant' person," she says. "You cut up potatoes for French fries, no Ore Idas."

Money issues aside, Janet says Terry's behavior had worsened. While he didn't beat her, Janet says Terry's abuse was "verbal and terrorizing--he'd wake you up in the middle of the night," while stoned, "and start in about finding somebody else's cigarette butts in the ashtrays."

If Terry seemed paranoid, it was partly owing to the fact that he'd been working all day and getting high all night--a cycle that repeated itself for days on end. A turning point in the relationship came one morning when Janet noticed her youngest daughter needed diapers and Terry--and his wallet--were out on a binge.

"I'd gone into this quarter jar we used to keep," Janet recalls, her mocha-brown face clouding over. "I'd just dumped it on the bed when Terry came in. He was delirious from lack of sleep." But Terry's eyes bulged at the sight of Janet's financial trespass. With a flick of her arms, Janet shows how Terry "popped the bedspread real hard, making it rain change in that room."

What ensued was an argument that escalated to the point where Janet grabbed a knife from the kitchen "just to scare him. I wanted to get out of there with my children, and I knew he'd try to prevent that." By the time it was all over, Terry had "fallen into" the knife and was rushed to the hospital where, in his delirium, he claimed not to know what had happened. Police took Janet's statement, but wrote it off as a domestic dispute. No charges were filed.

Later, when things had settled back down, Janet says Terry would needle her about the incident. "Sometimes he'd start threatening to go file charges against me, but I got tired of that," she says. "I told him, 'Look, if I wanted to kill you, you'd be dead.' "

By late 1992, Janet had realized that the good life with Terry wasn't so good after all. "I had to take control of myself," she says. "It was like, 'This man has your mind turned around and you don't know who you are.'" To regain control, Janet needed her own money. She started babysitting and cleaning buildings, but still, Janet says, Terry "wanted to take my money to help pay bills--so what little I had he still controlled."

What started as two-day walkouts soon lasted weeks, then months, until finally, the couple split for good. Terry kept almost all the goods. Janet got the kids.

For a while, Janet and her daughters lived with her grandmother in a small house near downtown Raleigh. Janet says her grandmother, along with other family members, was willing to help her because "they knew what I'd been through with Terry, plus I had these young babies."

While trying to put the past behind her, Janet basked in the warmth of a grandmother who, she recalls, had "always baked a cake for every birthday and gave a gift for every occasion" during her childhood. That treatment extended to Janet's own kids. "She always gave something to my children--a pair of socks on sale, a stick of gum from her purse. She was just a giving person."

But less than a year after she'd moved in with her, Janet's grandmother died of lung cancer at 63. "Her death was overwhelming for me," she says, as if it happened weeks ago, not years.

Janet landed an apartment in East Raleigh--the one she still lives in today. Though accustomed to being a stay-at-home mom (whose kids, by then, were in elementary school), Janet was determined to be a good provider. "In the money" or no, she'd have nice things.

Janet worked with a vengeance at first, joining office-cleaning crews and bartending at clubs where she did double-shifts. "I'd work the bar at night, get home at 4 a.m.," she says, "then I'd go back to work at 10 a.m. to supervise the set-up crews." Relatives babysat her kids.

The work netted Janet $500 to $600 a week tax-free, but she didn't like being away from her kids so much. "When I was home, it was rushing to wash clothes and cook," Janet explains. "There was no quality time, and it was draining me." So she quit, taking babysitting jobs until she found a position that paid above and below the table.

While distributing food stamps at a social service pickup site, Janet was one of many clerks who took part in an organized scam. Food-stamp recipients picked up their stamps on different days, according to an alphabetical listing. But, she says, "if you were a letter 'T,' and you couldn't wait until next Thursday, you could get them early--for a small fee" of roughly 10 percent.

"Everybody knew about it," Janet says, "even the security guards." The scam worked like this: Letter "T" would get word to a security guard or clerk that she needed her stamps early. Once "cleared," she'd go to a window where distribution clerks like Janet would count out, say, $400 worth of stamps--$40 of which, by prior consent, would somehow "slip" under clerks' keyboards. "I knew my agenda each day," says Janet, "and who I was going to serve that would benefit me."

The job ended in 1998 when the state switched to the EBT (Electronic Benefit Transfer) card, which works something like a debit card. "They said it would eliminate paper and fraud," Janet scoffs. But while state officials might have halted the kind of in-house scam Janet describes, they can't do much to change the lengths drug addicts will go to in order to feed their habit. On either side of Janet live two women addicted to crack cocaine, and both are quick to sell portions of their stamps in order to cop drugs.

"From Nia, I pay $10 for $30 [worth of stamps]; from Connie, I pay $25 for $50," says Janet. Simply put, she pays the women one amount, then borrows their cards to purchase the amount agreed to. It's known as "flipping," doubling or tripling your money, your drugs, your food. Using Janet's stock-market analogy, it gives a big boost to the underground economy of households like Janet's. Sadly, such dealings also put an added strain on neighboring households.

Janet says she "doesn't feel good" about taking food out of the mouths of Nia's and Connie's children. But, she says, "I've gotta put food in my kids' mouths. Besides, if they didn't sell it to me, they'd sell it to somebody."

With that, Janet flings open kitchen cabinets and talks about smart shopping. "You can go to the store and see rich people writing $15 checks every day for cottage cheese and peaches. I use coupons and an MVP card," she says. "I go to Sam's and buy the 120-load [boxes of] Downy and Tide."

Janet's neighbors apparently have other customers besides her. Their cards, unlike Janet's own, are marred with scratches from overuse. "It shows the different lifestyles between people," Janet says, looking at the cards side-by-side. Her tone is neither cold nor sympathetic. She's grown used to seeing folks in her community do one of two things: Sink or swim.

Aside from stretching her food-stamp dollars, Janet uses other means to keep her household above water. She still knows boosters who, for a small fee, will sell her things like a $240 pair of handmade Italian shoes--a major luxury for regular working stiffs. Displaying a new pair of Via Spiga leopard-fur mules, Janet shrugs casually. "I've always had the best," she says, "and why shouldn't I?"

It's not that Janet shouldn't have the best, of course. It's the way she gets it, she's reminded, that some folks might object to. "You can't judge people," she responds, pointing toward the ceiling. "That's the judge."

Until Janet meets her maker, she'll likely keep hustling in order to have the good life. She talks about going a different route, saying "I want a job--full time, stable with benefits. That's what I need to move from here, and it's not farfetched."

But while she talks, her eyes lose their usual fire. Legit, full time work is obviously unappealing--especially since Janet has neither the job skills nor the academic credentials to command a good salary. At the same time, Janet knows that work as a part-time counselor will only get her so far, requiring continued ingenuity to maintain--or improve--her lifestyle.

Pondering the future, Janet says that in some ways the pressure to provide is easing up. "My kids are getting older; they're getting out of being dependent on me." When weekends come, the girls are usually off visiting relatives and friends. "A lot of times, I'm sitting here looking stupid by my damn self," she says and laughs sarcastically.

So what about her friends? "None around here," Janet states flatly. "Family is it." But she says that--along with the creature comforts that give her a measure of stability--keeps her satisfied. "I am here by choice," Janet says, sipping her mimosa. "The way I see it, I got the best of both worlds." EndBlock

  • A seldom-heard perspective on life in the projects.

More by Afefe L. Tyehimba

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