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