By Peter Duffy
In 1986, at the height of the crack cocaine epidemic in New York, Joe Reddick was an 18-year-old drug dealer fueled, he says, by “envy, jealousy and greed.”
Known by the street name of Black, Mr. Reddick set up operations in a small apartment building at 1839 University Avenue in the Morris Heights section of the Bronx. “When I look at it, I think about those days,” he said during an interview in a small park across the street from the building. “That was my office.”
It was also his inspiration. Mr. Reddick was convicted of federal drug conspiracy charges, and it was in prison that he thought back to his early days on the street and wrote several novels in the genre known as hip-hop, street or urban literature.
So far two of the gritty tales have been published under Mr. Reddick’s pen name, Joe Black — “Street Team,” a sober coming-of-age story about four drug-dealing teenagers, and “Squeeze,” an entertaining tale about a contract killer named Tommy Gunz. But the paperbacks, which were released by Hampstead Publishing while he was behind bars, have not sold enough to earn him a living now that he has returned to his old neighborhood in the Bronx.
After serving 15 years in prison Mr. Reddick, 40, has been free for 10 months and is struggling to acclimate to life on the outside. He was laid off from a job as a painter’s apprentice in December.
Now he has turned his attention back to writing. He is polishing a novel he completed in prison, “Movin’ Violation,” which he plans to publish in the summer with his own imprint. Then he will focus on two other novels and two movie scripts that are nearly finished. “And I have new books that are running through my mind,” he said. “I just have to find time to sit down and write.”
His literary career represents a striking transformation for someone who says he never read a book before being sent to prison.
Mr. Reddick, a high school dropout, devoted seven years during his late teens and early 20s to building a lucrative drug-selling business. From his base on University Avenue in the west Bronx, he expanded to several East Coast states, selling heroin and crack cocaine. He claims he earned “hundreds and hundreds” of thousands of dollars during that time, enough to purchase a new luxury car every six months and spend $3,000 to $4,000 a day on clothing, food and gifts.
“One month you would make $100,000, and the next $1,000,” he said. “That’s the way the game worked. But I knew that as long as I had drugs, I had money.”
The end came in 1992 when a woman he had hired to carry drugs from New York to North Carolina was arrested. She and several others agreed to cooperate with prosecutors and testify against Mr. Reddick. After a trial in federal court in North Carolina, he was convicted of leading a conspiracy to transport and distribute crack cocaine and was sentenced to nearly 20 years.
While in federal prison in Allenwood, Pa., Mr. Reddick first considered writing. Inspired by Jeffrey Archer’s 1979 novel “Kane and Abel,” which he picked off a book cart, he began writing tales about young drug dealers. He had a cellmate “who wouldn’t read any books,” he said. “So I started writing things on pieces of paper and he would read them. Every night he would ask for more pieces.”
After long hours at a manual typewriter in the prison library, Mr. Reddick produced a manuscript that was passed from inmate to inmate. “I would overhear people talking about it in the TV room and the line at the chow hall,” he said. Mr. Reddick was transferred to a federal prison at Fort Dix in New Jersey in 2000, and was encouraged by another prison author he met there, Michael G. Santos. Mr. Santos, whose latest book is “Inside: Life Behind Bars in America,” enlisted his wife, Carole, to help edit the work and commission a small print run of a few hundred copies of “Street Team.”
“I’m a white girl from north Seattle, about as far away from the Bronx as you can get,” said Ms. Santos, who now lives in California and helps manage the career of her husband, who is still in prison on a drug conviction. “Yet I loved the book because it was a story of relationships.”
As he moved from prison to prison, Mr. Reddick continued to write, and a fellow inmate at several institutions, Joe Maldonado, was often his first reader, discussing plot points and character motivation.
“I wasn’t someone who was into reading urban novels,” said Mr. Maldonado, who was serving 10 years on a drug charge and has since been released. “So he wanted my opinion. They’re good books.”
One of the novels, “Squeeze,” found its way into the hands of Susan Hampstead, an editor at Don Diva, a magazine popular among prisoners. “I just read it casually one day because I needed something to read,” she said. “And I couldn’t put it down. The humor captured me. I had read a lot of gangsta novels, and it was the first time I found comedy in that type of book.”
Ms. Hampstead was so impressed that she decided to form a company, Hampstead Publishing, expressly to publish “Squeeze” and republish the earlier book. Hampstead’s edition of “Street Team” was released in 2005 and has sold 9,000 copies; “Squeeze,” which came out in 2006, has sold 5,000 copies. The books are available from street-corner vendors, urban bookstores and the publisher’s Web site.
“He lived the life, and people can relate to that,” said Divine Harris, who sells Mr. Reddick’s and other urban-themed novels on a table outside the Prospect Avenue subway station in the South Bronx.
If his books have not cracked the best-seller lists — the most popular title in the genre, “The Coldest Winter Ever” by the rapper Sister Souljah, has more than a million copies in print — they have been read avidly by Mr. Reddick’s neighbors in the Bronx. After leaving prison in May 2008, he discovered that he was as well known for his books as his drug past.
“Everybody says, where’s Part 2 to ‘Street Team?’ Where’s Part 2 to ‘Squeeze?’ ” he said. At a cookout held in his honor three days after his release, he wore out his arm signing copies for scores of friends and neighbors.
During a walk around the neighborhood on a recent afternoon, Mr. Reddick acknowledged that much had changed since he went away. The crack houses are gone. The abandoned synagogue next to his old drug hangout is being turned into a Boys and Girls Club. The small park that was once a heroin marketplace is now outfitted with a new jungle gym.
He is different, too. He said he was determined to write about his past rather than relive it.
“I know the repercussions,” he said. “If I had known the repercussions from it, I would’ve never got involved.”