Image: Mike Kane

By the time Mark Rivers graduated from Garfield High School he’d lived in four different houses, watched his father get hooked on crack and his mother sell it, become a hustler himself, and found an unlikely family in the neighborhood gang. He calls his chaotic childhood in the Central District his “storm,” but rather than use it as an excuse to spiral deeper into a cycle of violence that claimed some of his friends, he’s turned it into motivation. Today, at 30, Rivers has left the hustle behind and become an outreach worker with the YMCA’s Alive and Free program, serving as a bridge between at-risk youth and social services. Now he’s pushing positivity. The job isn’t easy, but his message is simple: There is another way.

 

 

At my dad’s house, first the phone went and then the water. I had to walk up from 32nd and Olive to 32nd and Cherry to my grandma’s house to take a shower. And then one day I came home and there was this cat I knew from the neighborhood sitting on my dad’s couch, and it made me think, “Is my house the crack house?” That’s what cats do in a crack house, they sit up in a house and get they drugs. I was in eighth grade. So I moved in with my Aunt Peaches. But I still had to sleep on her couch every night. I didn’t have no dresser or drawers that were my own. That was when I noticed that my situation was not cool.

It got to the point where I felt like, I’m not going to care about anything. If I care about what I’m supposed to care about—my mom selling drugs, my dad being on drugs—I would have been in a nuthouse somewhere. I guess I built this mechanism inside me where it was like, I can only worry about what I can control. 

Eleventh grade, that’s when I first started selling weed. I had a job, too, busing tables at Tony Roma’s. I wanted to make sure my bases was covered, as far as having money. If you have a legal hustle and you have an illegal hustle, you’ll always have money. If you get fired, you’re still selling weed. If you get jacked, you can still go to work.

I was from a gang, but I didn’t carry no rag to let people know. I was always a chameleon. I didn’t want people to know what I had going on, because that brings attention to you. My thought was, “Shit, if you know what I got going on, the police is going to know what I got going on.” 

I had this little brother, Allen Joplin. He would ride with me every day, and we would smoke weed together, just kicking it. But I would look out for him, too: made sure he went to school every day, made sure he went to his summer job. So he came in the house one day and he had a gun. We ain’t never carried guns. We’re trying to sell drugs. We don’t want to cause violence on the block, because that brings the police. So it kind of made me feel funny when he showed up and had the pistol. I’m like, “Man, be easy.” Sure enough, a week later I get a call. He’d been shot in the head. He was at a party and some cats from the South End were there. They get into it, and—pow—he bleeds to death in front of his friends. That took a toll on me. I called his phone a week after that, two weeks after that, just to make sure the shit was real. I think that’s what started my youth work. There ain’t nobody looking out for us.

You got to get these kids to see something different. We tell them you can’t do anything about your home environment because you can’t pick your parents. But you can do everything about the family that you start. So I say, “Let’s say you get a girl pregnant on the oops. Then let’s say you get a two-year sentence. That kid is about to have a year without his dad, and you’ve just started the same cycle that you came from.” That starts to get through to them.

Kid goes on the road for three months and I’m the only one he contacts—out of his mom, his probation officer, anybody. I’m the only one who can get through to this guy? That says a lot to me.

Tempted to go back? No. But what I have been tempted to do is be big again. I want to have big money again—but the right way. Because I understand now that it’s about longevity.

The stuff that they want me to teach these kids is making me a better person. It’s opened my eyes to some of the things that, mentally, I may be going through, such as residue from my childhood. Instead of having that numb feeling, I want to understand what I’m going through. I’m open to going to counseling now. I wouldn’t have been open to that before.

I thanked my mom for my storm. You know when a tornado comes through a town and tears down the houses? The people who survive, what they now have is the knowledge to build their house 10 times stronger. I went through a storm and I came out of it alive. Now when I build my household and the next storm comes through—whether that’s me losing my job or my daughter’s mom losing her job or me getting sick—my household’s going to be strong enough to withstand it.