FRESH OUT OF JAIL, CRUISING THE BACKWOODS of his East Texas youth, Freeway Rick was hungry. For a veggie burger.
“A what?” the Dairy Queen girl said.
“A veggie burger,” Freeway Rick said. “Just like a hamburger, but without the meat.”
The Dairy Queen girl, a white teenager with dishwater hair, scrunched up her nose. “I don’t know,” she drawled. “Nobody’s ever asked for one of thay-ehm before.”
Freeway Rick smiled patiently, running a hand through the tidy mop of dreadlocks he had grown behind bars. He was lean and compact, petite even, no more than five feet seven and 145 pounds. “Take a hamburger bun and put everything on it, you know what I’m saying?—lettuce and tomatoes and onions and pickles and cheese—but just no hamburger. A meatless burger. I know you can do it.”
The Dairy Queen girl kept shaking her head, as if this were the weirdest thing ever to happen in a temple of the Belt Buster and the Blizzard, especially here, deep in the bogs of Smith County. But to Freeway Rick—a native son who grew up to become one of America’s most notorious drug dealers, rising from the street curbs of South-Central Los Angeles to the Fortune 500 of crack cocaine—it was just another stop on his road to reinvention, another chance to retool his gospel for success. “People make choices that they don’t even know they made,” he said. “They let their environment control them, instead of controlling their own environment. Right now, I don’t eat meat. I’m exercising my choice.”
His veggie burger arrived. He liked it so much he ordered another. “See, we got to reeducate ourselves,” he said later in the car, launching into what would become a familiar monologue. “When I was selling drugs, I never sat down and analyzed what I was getting into … if it’s benefiting you or not benefiting you or if it’s pleasurable right now, is it gonna be painful in the future? I was lured by a false mirage. Something that looked like it was there, but it wasn’t really there. I was going after something that was nothing. But everything’s changed. I’m not the same person no more. I’m in control of my life now, you know, choosing the roads I go down. People that don’t know me now, in five or ten years when they meet me, they’re gonna say, ‘He never sold drugs; I don’t believe this is the same guy.’ Because that ain’t what they’re gonna see in me. They’re gonna see this businessman, who walks around with his suit and tie on, you know, who speaks proper. I’m gonna be one of the hottest commodities around.”
It was 1994, and I had just met Ricky Donnell Ross, better known by his quintessentially Southern California moniker: Freeway. The day before, L.A.’s most mythic dopeman had walked out of the Smith County jail, free on parole. Now we were sitting together in the back of a black Cadillac, knees and elbows occasionally knocking, while his brother drove us around the tiny farm and lumber communities between Tyler and Kilgore—the town where Rick was born into a family of sharecroppers and servants 34 years before. It was his homecoming. It was my first trip to Texas. I was, then, the gang reporter for the Los Angeles Times, working on a series about the ravages of crack. Rick, whom I had known by reputation, was one of the main characters—a tireless entrepreneur who, for the better part of a decade, had literally put ton after ton of cocaine on the streets of America. He slashed prices, gave the stuff away, even fed it to one of the mothers of his own children. No other drug dealer of his generation was considered more prolific: elusive, cunning, ambitious, shrewd, a multimillionaire by the time he was 25. Yet as toxic as Rick’s enterprise was, there was also something transcendent about it—a stepping-stone to the power and wealth that his Bible-trusting parents never believed they could or should attain. Here was a product of the Piney Woods, born under the reign of Jim Crow, transported to Watts on the eve of the 1965 riots, herded through an urban school system that failed to teach him to read, who then refused, in the most defiant way possible, to accept his station in life. In a few short years he went from illiterate dropout to CEO of his own coast-to-coast conglomerate, turning a $250 investment into a $1-million-a-week empire that would have made Horatio Alger proud had it involved widgets instead of cocaine. Freeway Rick was a living testament to the drug trade’s economic logic. Less an immoral thug than an amoral capitalist, he was intent on seizing his share of the dream, by any means necessary. Instead, he got busted in 1989, losing five years of his freedom and—he insists—practically all of his ill-gotten gains.
To greet him when he got out of jail, well, that was like scoring an interview with the devil himself—a journalistic coup, I thought, worthy of a flight from L.A. to Tyler. In the weeks before he was to be paroled, I tried to get word to him, bouncing from one source to another—ex-druggies, Bloods, Crips, friends of friends—until finally I met a former member of his crew who passed along my name and number. Rick called collect to say that yes, he would talk. As I stood waiting outside the Smith County jail, I knew I wasn’t the only one trying to score.
His agenda, my agenda, our perceptions of each other’s sincerity and motives—those questions have haunted me ever since that soupy August afternoon four summers ago, when he walked through the jailhouse doors and smoothly twisted my hand into a soul-brother shake. From that moment, we became joined, launched on a journey that, I suspect, has yet to reach its final stop—from author and subject to seducer and betrayer, friends, enemies, the white professional and the black convict, fellow seekers on an