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Man With a Plan

How Nakethan Johnson Will Get Out of Cabrini-Green

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"My mother had no clothes when they came banging on our door," 12-year-old Nakethan Johnson is saying as he and his friends stride into the McDonald's at Wells and Adams.

"It was three white policemen. They just barged on in because they said they heard somebody shootin' outside. My mother had just gotten out of the bed, and they pushed her up against the wall. They tore the house up. Put a gun to my brother's nose to wake him up. They left without finding anything."

Nakethan describes life in the Cabrini-Green projects as "hell" and says he's determined to get out. "Happens all the time," he says about the police raid, while counting a fistful of nickels and quarters at the back of the line--his earnings from this afternoon's hustling of the Sun-Times late edition.

"I need a $3.77 Extra Value Meal, a hamburger-and-Coke special. But I've got to have enough for tomorrow's lunch at school," says the Jenner Elementary student. Nakethan has handsome features and raises his chin and looks slightly sideways at you during conversation, sometimes seeming impatient if you can't keep up with his rapid-fire explanations.

Soon he plops down with his bag of hot meat, white bread, and sugar water. His friends are Tonio, Richard, Carl, Keith, and Randy, Nakethan's 16-year-old brother. Every afternoon, between four and a little after six, they earn their money on Loop corners selling papers, then stop at this McDonald's to spend half of it on a quick meal they all agree barely lasts them till they get home to Cabrini.

Only Nakethan counts his pennies. "You got to have a plan, you got to have something to keep you busy if you're going to make it. You see, I know I'm going to be a lawyer when I grow up--right now I'm an actor," he explains matter-of-factly. The group finish their meal, Nakethan snatches up his eight unsold final editions, and they head back out into the thinning light of the Loop's financial district.

"Hah, ka..." Tonio's become a karate expert. He runs up the pavement and attempts a flying kick toward Randy's midsection. A spectacular miss. Richard joins in with a Bruce Lee stance and catches Tonio in the back with a halfhearted open-handed chop. The three of them laugh, then catch up with the others, continuing their battle up Wells nearly to Washington. It's just after 7:30, and few people are left from rush hour.

Nakethan watches the karate battle with interest only for a moment. He then steals off to try to sell the papers he's still lugging. Quickly, he jumps on a city bus and hands the driver a paper, waits for the quarter, then jumps off again as the bus pulls away. He must come close to recouping the money spent at McDonald's to carry out his most pressing short-term plan, tomorrow's field-trip lunch. He keeps counting his extra papers and making calculations.

"I'll need a loaf of bread to make me a little sandwich or two," he says. "White bread and salami--I've gotta have meat." A bag of potato chips and a pop will top off his meal.

When the group arrives at Mr. Submarine on Wells just south of Washington, Nakethan has rejoined it. "The girl we all have a crush on" is here, Nakethan whispers as he motions toward a young Hispanic woman behind the counter. Her name is Marguerite. Randy and Richard push to the counter and argue over the dollar bill they have between them. In their mock tussle they lose hold of the bill, which floats to the floor behind the counter, near the cash register.

"Yo, miss, that's our dollar. He dropped it," Randy says, though Richard's grin denies it. Marguerite and her fellow worker see this group every day and are familiar with their horseplay. The dollar on the floor is not a problem. Nakethan goes on ahead to the next corner to try to sell his last papers.

"Sunnnn-Timmmes final market." His words echo up through the vacant corridors, and he lands several sales. By the time the group is finished in the sub shop and catches up to him he needs only one more quarter. Tonio agrees to buy his last paper from him--more a loan than a purchase.

Nakethan has reached his short-term goal. He is content; he will be able to buy lunch tomorrow and begin planning for his next goal. As the group makes its way to the edge of the Loop, he talks about saving $15 for a T-shirt that will have his face screened on the front of it. He has already made the $5 down payment on it. Four more weeks before he's saved enough to pick it up.

The group has now arrived at the river, and the Cabrini projects rise in the distance on the other side of the bridge. A lake-bound boat full of sharply dressed African Americans chatting over cocktails and listening to a reggae band passes directly below. The group leans way over the gray steel to watch, and we can feel the music coming up through the girders. Just then, one of the socialites looks up from her champagne glass at the youngsters overhead. Instantly both groups, including the band, are laughing and waving at each other. The boat heads off and the boys' attention turns back to the journey home.

Nakethan explains about his current acting career and plans for becoming a lawyer. To do so, he says he has to stay in touch with several attorneys who have befriended him. He must also finish elementary school at Jenner, and after that attend high school, college, and of course law school. His patrons have promised to make him a legal clerk if he makes it that far. This is his big-picture plan.

It began with the Free Street Theater. "Anything to keep them away from this place [Cabrini]," his mother, Clara Johnson, explained later. She wanted Nakethan and Randy more involved in extracurricular activities, so both brothers were enrolled in the theater's "Kids From Cabrini" and Project! workshops. The height of their involvement came when they accepted supporting roles in a production of Project!, which took them to theaters around the United States and then to England for several months during the spring of 1990.

It was on this trip that an acting friend, C.J., taught Nakethan about making plans for his life and about budgeting his money. Nakethan would often give C.J. his $100 checks so that he wouldn't spend them on candy. It was also on the tour that Nakethan met his lawyer friends, who gave him his long-term career goal. Although the program's funding was cut and the touring ended, Nakethan and Randy still attend improvisation and karate classes on the weekends.

Clara Johnson says later that Nakethan was always a planner and a hustler. "His hustling begins like clockwork at 3:15 each day after school," she says, comparing him to Randy, who lacks assertiveness when it comes to cold-selling the papers.

The group ambles past Backstage at the Improv near Grand and the upscale furniture stores across from the massive Montgomery Ward corporate-headquarters building that marks the beginning of the north-side projects. Then it's over the river to Orleans Street. The Gold Coast sits on one side of it, and vacant lots and unnamed Lotto-selling liquor stores sit on the other.

The kids say their good-byes amid the neon-lit broken glass and rubble of the parking lot. Nakethan and Randy, careful to avoid the "war zone" alley a half block to the north, go to the elevator of their building, the 800 building, but it doesn't work. A dash up the pitch-dark cement stairway is the only way to get to the eighth floor. Halfway up we encounter six small children playing in the checkered light of the barred balcony. Randy stays to talk, but Nakethan keeps going and soon arrives home, to an apartment swarming with roaches. "Another day, another dollar," he says.

Though drug running for crack dealers is always a lucrative option, Nakethan says his plans--long-term and short-term--don't include going to jail. "And we got several uncles in the Vice Lords. They try 'n' talk to us about staying away from the Life. They help keep us straight and not do what they do." The Johnsons have lived in the projects since Nakethan was six, but he says that he and Randy have now reached the ages where they're prime targets for the gangs. "But they don't mess with us because we're known as 'Sun-Times boys.' They only want you if you look like you got nothing to do."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Charles Eshelman.

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