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andre's story

HOST: Our final story is from Andre Vaughn. He is twenty-one years old and grew up in the Bronx. A former armed robber, Andre became the student leader of the Youth Portraits program and received the first ever radio fellowship at Sound Portraits Productions where these stories were produced.

ANDRE: What's up, ya'll. This is Andre Vaughn. But most people call me Redd because I have red hair. Actually, I've had a lot of names in my life. This is the story of how I got those names...and how I gave them up.


I grew up in the Bronx. I didn't know my father at all, but my moms was like my best friend. She had her own name for me: Carrot Top. We were poor, but we had a close family...until I turned nine. That's when my mom got addicted to drugs. My older sister Dawn was fourteen-years-old when she figured it out. She walked in on my mom smoking crack.

DAWN: She was in her bedroom. You know, you don't -- when you're doing things, you don't hear a person coming, so I just opened the door and I saw her smoking the pipe. I stood there, and she dropped it and she closed the door on my face. After that it got worse. You get addicted to the drugs, and you can't stop. So as much as she got addicted to the drugs she about forgot her kids.

ANDRE: She used to be out all the time, and we would literally like have to go around in the building to try to get somebody to give us food or something like that. I went to my uncle and told him. Instead of giving me the money, he took me on a robbery with him.


It all started out with a phone call. He was like, "Listen. I got something for y'all down on 115th St. It's a numbers spot." And we just left the house. It was like real work. Someone called us for something, and we went to work.

We walked in. We never wore a mask, because if you wear a mask, you look like you are about to do something. So he turned around and pulled out the gun and started patting the people down that was in there. So I came in, went under the desk. The money was stacked, so when I went to grab it, it fell over. So I'm in there picking up every dollar. So when we came out the building, I was standing there with my uncle, because we never ran from a robbery. So we walking and a group of people was looking at us, and they was coming after me, and I wasn't going to let them get me, so I just shot into the crowd and ran.

The first thing my uncle said to me -- he talked to me like I speak to my bosses now whenever I do something right. He was like, "Yo man, you handled yourself well. That's good. That's going to take you places." And I made a career of it after that.


(To sister) Do you remember when I first started getting in trouble?

DAWN: I remember around Christmas holiday everybody had all these expensive gifts, and I knew you didn't have a job and you wasn't even in school. So I knew right there. I said, "Yeah, I know what he's doing." I told you to stop, but I have to say I appreciated the things that you were doing -- food in the refrigerator, put clothes on our back. Maybe I didn't come down on you enough about how you was doing and how wrong it was.


ANDRE: As the things I was doing in the street got dirtier, so did my names. I went from Redd to Dirty Redd, then Grimey.

We robbed stores, token booths, sometimes we robbed drug dealers, too -- the guys that was out there hustling and selling drugs, we took their money, too. I was young at the time, and I had these big-time dudes, you know, like they're looking up to me because I have a gun in their face and now I'm like a god to them and they're telling me about their kids, you know? "I don't want to leave my daughter. My daughter needs me." And this was like a big-time dude around that block, too. So I made him take his clothes off, and I made him walk outside. It got to point where it wasn't about the money anymore; it was about the rush.

Wet works is when you rob somebody you know, and, um, you don't want them to, like, seek revenge or nothing, so you have to do something to them. I robbed a drug dealer. We took the money, and we took his work, too, which is his product. We took him in the back of the room and shot him in both of his knees so he knew not to come back after us.

(To sister) How did you feel about what I was doing, deep down?

DAWN: I was scared for you. I watched the news every night scared. I thought either you would wind up dead or you'll be in jail for a long time.

ANDRE: Where were you the first time you had seen that I had gotten in serious trouble?

DAWN: The first time you got in serious trouble was the first time you got -- you went to jail. For some reason, that night I knew you were in trouble because you were gone all day all that night and I didn't hear from you until like three o'clock in the morning. And when that phone rang I knew it was you. And when you said you got arrested I knew. I said, "Oh, my god. He's going to go away for a long time."


ANDRE: The first time didn't really matter, because all I had was the life I was living. And I always knew that either I was going to get caught or somebody was going to shoot me or something or whatever. You know, you don't expect to live a certain age when you're doing things like that. Twenty-one is a milestone.

By the time I got out of Rikers, my moms had stopped smoking crack, but the drugs had messed up her body and she was dying.

My mother was in the hospital. She was on the respirator. She wasn't breathing at all -- no movement, no nothing, she was just there. They left the decision up to me and my sister to see if we wanted to pull the plug on her. And that night she passed. She knew that the decision was hard for us, so she made the decision herself.

We went to talk to the funeral parlor, and he was like, "Well, you know..." He can't do it without the money. And we didn't have nothing, not a dime. So he kind of in a way did us a favor. He did her up, dressed her up, and put her in a coffin and let us come see her. Actually it wasn't like really even a coffin; it looked like a box to me. And we went in there. We saw my mother. We stood there for about an hour. My little sisters was there. They put their earrings on her. And we left. That was the funeral.

I had like a numb feeling. I wouldn't even leave the house. I just sat there for two weeks straight, until one day my cousin brought over a girl named Ebony.

EBONY: Let me see...You had on -- did you have on your khakis that day? I think you had on your khakis. And looking cute with your Hawaiian shirt. And what shoes did you have? Was it the Wallabees back then? The Wallabees, right? I know. Looking so cute.

ANDRE: Do you remember what you felt after the first time we went out?

EBONY: I felt like I didn't want to go home. I just felt so comfortable, like I had such a good time. I didn't even want to leave that world. It was like a totally different world when I'm with you.


ANDRE: We stayed up all night just talking. I didn't think it was possible, but I started feeling better.

EBONY: You lose the main woman in your life that you love to death. You lose one, and then, you know, two weeks later you gain another one. There go the pain. Everything happens for a reason.


ANDRE: Being with Ebony changed me. I got a job and gave up the robberies. No more violent stuff. But giving up my old ways was harder than I thought. I stole some credit card numbers, and exactly 364 days after I got out, they locked me up again.


EBONY:I felt a lot of emotions: I felt hurt. I felt upset. I felt betrayed in a way. I felt a lot of negative feelings, basically.

ANDRE: How long was I locked up for?

EBONY: Eight long months. It was just straight hell.

ANDRE: They classified me as a violent prisoner.

I was in a padded cell, my walls was rubber, and I never ever got more than an hour of sleep, because every fifteen minutes they would pull my slot open and say my name. And for them to know that there was nothing wrong with me I had to answer them, just for them to know that I'm still alive or I'm still all right. And they did this every fifteen minutes.

I felt numb. I mean, even if I gave up hope, it would have been nothing I could do because I still would have been in that cell. You know, there was nobody to love. Everybody I loved was basically on the other side of the world.

I spent all my time writing letters to Ebony. She kept each one.

EBONY: Every day that I received a letter, I would turn it around and I would write the date. And I would look at the last letter I got; if the number was four, this letter was five. And I would put in the rubber band. Back in my plastic bag, into the shoe box, and into the closet you went.

The letters was -- that's what really kept me stable. Those were always the highlight to my days. I would always grab my letter, go in my room, go to my bed, laugh, read it about at least two times and sit there and stay up to maybe sometimes three, four in the morning and still get up within two hours, because I'd stay up writing you.

ANDRE: I wrote almost one hundred letters to Ebony. She reads each one on the anniversary of when she first got it.

EBONY: Two years ago I received a letter. It was from Andre Vaughn.

(Reading letter) Ebony, It's crazy late. I'm the only person with my light on. And the CO asked me why do I have the light on and I said, " Because I'm writing my babies," and he said, "Who, Ebony?" How in the hell did he know that? That's because he's the one who takes the mail out, so he knows your name. I thought I was going to have to cut his head and piss down his neck. No, don't mind me. I'm just trying to practice my violent phrases. Because what kind of thug sleeps with his girl's picture under his pillow? What kind of thug listens to the slow jams station at night? And most of all, what kind of thug would be up two something in the morning talking about how he's not a thug? But you know what I am? I am a thug. I'm a thug in love. That thug shit goes right out the window when I'm around you. I can't help it. My whole attitude just changes. And that's the best part. I love my babies.


ANDRE: Do you remember when you got this?

EBONY: Yeah, I remember when I got all of these letters. It was the big highlight of my day. Got the letter, went straight to my room and sat right on my bed Indian-style and just laughed.


ANDRE: Do you remember the specific day that I came home?

EBONY: Yeah. June 18th. A nice summer day. I just felt a joy of relief. All I knew is that I wanted to see you. And my first reaction was just to hug you and hold you. I had to embrace you one very, very long time.


ANDRE: I know people might think I'm this super-predator or some monster, and back then I was this monster, sticking up everything from a train station to mom-and-pop stores. But it's just that I'm not like that now. It's not one thing. It's so many things that's just like -- it's jail; it's the missing the people; you knowing that your life is going nowhere. It's all of these things, like, rolled into one. It's like they all got to hit you at one time, and that's really going to make you want to change your life around. The person I was back then would never do what I do now. And the person I am now would never do what I did back then. That was Dirty Redd. My name is Andre now.


ANDRE: Now, I didn't ask you this at the beginning, but can you tell me who you are to me?

EBONY: I'm the woman in your life -- the only woman. I'm your companion, soul mate. Soul mate -- I like that.

ANDRE: Thank you, Ebony. Okay, one more question: I love you; do you love me?

EBONY: Yes, I love you. Silly, see? I like -- I like things like that. When it's been three years, it still hasn't stopped. "I love you, baby." You know, little beeps on your beeper throughout the day. "I love you." You know, those are just all little signs. I feel a lot of people out there could learn a lot from us. Not to brag or anything, but they could learn a lot.

HOST: Andre lives with his girlfriend Ebony in the Bronx. He now has a full-time job with Friends of Island Academy working in high schools around the city.

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