Overtown Street Fighter Big Red Hustles and Grows

And finds his way from lawless to legit.

A powwow of prostitutes and drug addicts is taking swigs from brown bags under the Metrorail in southeast Overtown when Big Red shows up. Tiny baggies and cigarette butts litter the patch of bleached grass, where the crew sits in lawn chairs, jabbering about the cops. Red, a hulking 52-year-old, hops off his bicycle and joins the party. He steps past Margarita, a boney woman with blood under her fingernails who has nodded off, and stands in front of a guy with missing front teeth. "Move," he rasps.

The toothless man quickly surrenders his plastic chair. Red unzips a small pouch, takes out a hypodermic needle, and stuffs it into his fanny pack. Then he disappears behind an abandoned building — only to resurface a few minutes later with a sack of onion puffs. He sets the chips, along with a container of blue juice, on Margarita's inert lap and smiles. "Can't nobody hustle like me," he says.

Big Red is a clever entrepreneur of the street. Just don't cross him.
Marco Kornfeld
Big Red is a clever entrepreneur of the street. Just don't cross him.

Around his waist, Red usually sports an old, leathery weightlifting belt. His hair is short, aside from a tail of matted dreadlocks, and his beard is beginning to gray. A muscular six feet tall, he seems — strikingly — larger.

On the lawless streets of Overtown, Big Red makes the rules. He's a savvy entrepreneur of the ghetto, a hustler with a hardened magnetism who makes folks with nothing want to follow his lead. People call him "a legend" and "King of the Swamp." He's not the kind of guy you'd want to run into in the middle of the night. Over the past 10 years, according to Red, he's been a hit man, drug dealer, and pimp. ("Only thing that made me king is cuz" — he says, pounding a giant fist into his hand as an explanation — "they used to call me Captain Save-a-Ho.") 

While Red has his own set of ethics and loyalties, he's earned street cred through his sense of humor and unflinching ruthlessness. His is the tale of the day-to-day survival of a crafty homeless man, the street economy he negotiates, and the long odds against someone with a criminal past trying to change his ways.

Red's real name is Howard Willard Jenkins. He was born December 29, 1955, in the small town of Richmond, Indiana. His nickname refers to his light skin tone. Although both of his parents are black, the color of his skin is more like a weak glass of Ovaltine.

Red's single mother couldn't afford to take care of him. So she sent him to live with friends in Chicago when he was seven. His adoptive parents — a teacher and the vice president of a life insurance company — changed his name to Howard Heffner. They were middle class but enrolled him at inner-city schools to toughen him up. They knew he would get flack for his skin, he says, and wanted him to face it early on. Back then he was "freckle-faced" and "kinda nerdy."

By sixth grade, he had been kicked out of school five times for fighting. "I wasn't like other kids. I had a knife collection," he says. "I always wanted to protect myself."

After graduating high school, Red dug graves for the Army in South Carolina and worked as a security guard at Chicago nightclubs. He tried working in real estate but was fired after calling a client "a little bitch."

By the end of the Eighties, money was tight, and run-ins with the law started to pile up. In April 1990, he began serving six years at the Ohio State Penitentiary for robbery and aggravated assault on a police officer. The way Red tells it, he was stealing a package of pork chops for a girl he liked. When cops came, he ran and a rookie officer was injured along the way.

In prison, he says, he took classes and earned a bachelor's degree in marketing from Ohio University. He was released in 1996 for good behavior.

The next year, he and a "crackhead" girlfriend drove his Cadillac to Panama City, where he was later charged with battery on three occasions. He was sentenced to a maximum of three months in county jail.

Six months later, he drove to Miami and checked into a cheap motel on Biscayne Boulevard. He'd seen Miami Vice — girls going to the market in their bikinis — and thought it would be the right place to start over. He worked as a janitor for a few years and applied to work for the Miami Heat. But there was "too much going on in the street."

A former lawyer who knew Red from those days — we'll call him Manny — says he thought Red was funny and charismatic, despite the fact that "his clothes were rotting off of him," "he carried around a knife on a stick," and he "traveled with a pack of dogs." At night, Manny would go to Overtown to buy crack, and he paid Red to serve as an unofficial bodyguard.

"He's the most dangerous person I've ever met," Manny, now clean and sober, says. "I think life threw him a curveball and he didn't know how to cope."

On the street, Red earned money by pimping, although he doesn't like to call it that. "Pimp is a bad word; I like to make her smart," he says. "If I get her a $100 date, it's $25 for me, you know."

He also made a quick buck "whooping" people for pay. If there was money involved, killing or jumping someone wasn't a moral dilemma. "A contract is a contract," he says. "If it's somebody you don't know, it's like nothing."

Though he was never busted for any of that, he had plenty of run-ins with cops, including prostitution, burglary, and trespassing charges, plus an alcohol violation. Two months ago, Red was arrested on NW Second Avenue for carrying four concealed weapons, two of which were firearms. According to the police report, he "was in possession of a .38 and .22 caliber handgun and he has been searching the street for bullets." When cops showed up, he "reached into a weight belt around his waist," pulled out a loaded gun, and threw it to the ground.

While serving 26 days in jail, Red wrote Circuit Court Judge Barbara Areces to request an earlier court date. "I do realize you have a rigorous schedule, but for the sake of my four dogs and three cats.... Please lend me your ears!" he wrote, signing off, "No felonies since 1990!" The case was dismissed because the guns, which he found in a dumpster, were more than 40 years old and didn't work, he says. "I had God on my side."

When he got out of jail in June, his dogs were waiting for him in the usual spot, underneath the Metrorail in southeast Overtown. One had given birth to nine puppies. In the spirit of the hustle, Red put up a sign advertising pups for $25.

Lately, Red's jobs are taking on less felonious forms. Next to his lawn chair, he opens a bag of glass stems and clean needles and holds them out. He buys them in bulk, sells them for $3 to $5 each, and carries around a big wad of cash to show for it. "They're brand-new. It's legal," he says. "It's an honest living."

He's got other gigs, too. After the sun goes down, he stands guard outside Jackson's Soul Food, whose owners pay him to make sure nobody messes with the place. He's also been fixing bikes and has snagged a few welding jobs.

Outside Jackson's, Chastity, a pretty girl with a gap in her teeth, has good things to say about Red. "People respect him big time," she says. One night, a drugged-out woman whacked Chastity across the back of the head with a fence post. Blood was gushing everywhere, she says. "Nobody helped me. So I ran to him, to Uncle Red, and he called me a paramedic."

Amos Allen, pastor at Apostolic Revival Temple, across from the yard where Red sleeps, calls him "a character. A good guy." Then he warns New Times not to walk around with him.

Under the Metrorail, on a recent rainy Tuesday, Red doesn't seem all that dangerous. He cracks jokes. He is sweet with his dalmatian, Snow White. And listening to his laugh, you could almost forget about the machete-size knife he carries in the basket of his bike.

Between chugs from a Busch tallboy, Red plays with the idea of putting life on the street behind him.

"See that store?" he says, pointing to a dilapidated building. A one-legged man sits in a wheelchair out front, sucking on a cigarette. "I got my eye on that. Gonna open up my own shop. Gonna call it Good Lookin' Red's Bike Shop."

It could be the ultimate hustle, he says. "I don't wanna punch no clock."

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