Steve would follow his mom's lead before he reached high school. The only difference was he stuffed his .22 revolver under his bed.
In the world of street-corner drug dealing, guns are tools of the trade. They are unremarkable household items, like a bowl or a spoon that a 7-year-old boy would use to slurp canned spaghetti.
Steve was 14 when he started peddling heroin dubbed "E.R," and cocaine stamped "Nike." He sold in a part of West Kensington he calls "the Letters," from A to F streets, the epicenter of Philadelphia's multimillion-dollar open-air drug empire.
He was arrested deep in the Letters on a rainy October day in 2011 at age 15. Cops caught him on Gransback Street near D and Indiana with a .45-caliber gun and a bundle - 24 packets - of heroin.
Steve, who has his mom's first name, "Maria," tattooed across the top of his chest, almost always had a handgun, either on him or nearby. Sometimes, he'd hide his piece under a car, slab of concrete or metal garage door a few feet away.
"For protection," he said, matter-of-factly. "You need it when you're trapping [drug dealing]."
Steve was just one more gun-toting kid nabbed by cops in a city awash in illegal guns.
In 2012 alone, Philadelphia cops made 80 firearms arrests of those younger than 18 and 516 arrests for young adults between 18 to 24, according to Police Department statistics.
"I would estimate almost 90 percent of kids get guns because they're dealing," said Ernie Ross, a street worker with the Youth Violence Reduction Partnership.
A judge sent Steve for a year to Glen Mills Schools, a reform school in Delaware County for lawbreaking kids. He was released in January, and Ross started to work with him.
When Steve first began talking with a Daily News reporter last month, he was on probation. He worked in landscaping and construction for $7.25 an hour - a job that Ross helped him land.
Steve said he wanted to start at Community College of Philadelphia in the fall and get a better job.
"There's no point being out there," he said as he walked up Indiana Street toward D Street.
"Every time I go to the Letters, I remember what it was like. It's hard doing that. You put everything in jeopardy.
"I'm not going back there."
Mom gets serious time
Steve was about 8 when cops raided his family home on Reese Street for the third time.
"The cops hit the door and said, 'Nobody move.' The drug-sniffing dogs came in. I was real scared," Steve said.
"I remember the cops telling my mom to stand up from the couch because the drugs were right there under her. We was all on the couch with her. Both my sisters and my brother," Steve said.
"When she got up, you could tell there were a couple of bundles," he said.
The cops missed one bundle of heroin that his mom, Maria Martinez, had slathered with mayonnaise and hidden in a wall.
"The dogs didn't find it," Martinez told the Daily News, sheepishly.
But cops did find a 9 mm and a .45 magnum in the house. Martinez said the .45 belonged to one of her drug baggers. She bought the "9" for $350 from one of the guys who rolled up to drug corners with guns for sale, like they were hawking knock-off Rolexes.
Martinez knew this raid would mean serious time. "She was crying. I was crying," Steve said. "She kept saying to make sure not to take my kids."
When cops put the cuffed Martinez in a police cruiser, her eldest son, Edwin, chased after the car.
Remembering his childhood, Steve said a lot of people always drifted in and out of their two-story, redbrick rowhouse that Martinez's stepfather had given her.
"I probably saw lots of dealers, but I didn't know who they were," he said.
Even so, his mom took care of him, he said.
She kept a clean home and always cooked dinner. One of his favorite meals was rice and salchicha washed down with chocolate milk in a bottle.
Martinez is now a 41-year-old mother of four with an inked, plumpish body and bleached Madonna-blond hair. She's friendly, and it's not unusual for her to address friends and strangers alike as "hon."
She lives in an immaculate three-bedroom apartment in a North Philly public-housing high-rise with Steve and his 16-year-old sister, Crystal, who has spina bifida and is in a wheelchair.
Edwin remains locked up at age 22. Martinez pointed to a photo of a heavily bearded Edwin in an orange prison jumper that hangs on the living-room wall.
"He just sent it to me," she said with the smile of a proud parent.
Martinez liked to believe her two sons wouldn't sell drugs even though she gave them the road map.
"As a juvenile I got locked up five times. Probably more," Martinez said. "I always used to get locked up."
She said she started selling cocaine at A and Somerset streets at age 15 because her mom liked to hang out in bars, leaving Martinez on her own.
"That's how I met the streets," she said.
Back then, she made $200 a day.
Martinez and the other female dealers at 5th and Westmoreland called themselves the "Orange Cap Girls" for the color of their crack vial tops.
"My life then was crazy. No peace of mind," she said.
At 16, she started bagging drugs before she became a "holder," storing dope in her basement.
She knew the life was dangerous. She'd been shot at four times. "Every corner has guns, spread all around," she said. "Always. They stash guns under cars, everywhere."
She took photos of herself laying on a bed surrounded by bundles of heroin, or holding Uzis or Tec-9s.
"Drugs - that was my life back then. I didn't care 'bout nothing but making money," she said.
She had two children with one drug dealer, two more with another.
The father of her two eldest children works as a janitor for a hospital, a job he got after being released from prison. Steve's father, who sold drugs at 5th and Westmoreland, has been locked up since Steve was 3.
"I've seen a picture of him, but I never met him," Steve said.
Martinez was at the State Correctional Institution at Muncy for three years.
"It was the worst," she said. "In Muncy, there was always fights . . . people stabbing each other," she said.
"When I got locked up, I said I'd never work legal. Nothing is stopping me," she said.
A tattoo on her right arm shows her mind-set back then. Underneath her name is "D4W" for "Down for Whatever," meaning, "Whatever happens on the streets happens," she said.
But she said something changed after being locked up for about two years. A teacher at Muncy told her she could do better and she owed it to her kids. She sorely missed them.
"Prison takes everything from you. Your life. Your dignity. Your kids," she said.
Martinez was in jail until 2005, then spent 1 1/2 years in a halfway house.
Her son Edwin started dealing a year before his mom returned home, said Steve, who lived with relatives while his mom was gone.
"I saw how [Edwin] got money. He came home with $400 a day. He took me there one time to the corner," Steve said. "That's how it started. He told me to watch for cops."
'We had the best dope'
Steve's street name was "Young Bull" because he was one of the youngest drug dealers in the Letters.
After Edwin got busted, Steve started selling drugs with one of Edwin's buddies.
"We opened a block by ourselves. . . . My mom thought I was working at some garage," he said. "There was a garage. I just wasn't working there."
He went through guns fast and furiously.
"The .38 got dirty. I let someone use it and he told me he shot someone," Steve said.
Steve let him keep the gun for $50.
Packing 200 pounds on his 5-foot-9 frame, with a bushy black beard, Steve looks older and more mature than his years. He is soft-spoken and candid with an air of confidence, as if he's created a self-protective shield.
He used that self-assurance and savvy to fool cops. He kept his stash of heroin in a Coke can. He cut off the bottom and made it a screw top. Other times, he ripped the lining of his basketball shorts to make a secret compartment for drug packets.
He hid extra batches under one of the garage doors along Gransback Street in the Letters. His lookouts typically yelled, "Monica" or "Bajando," to signal cops approaching.
"We had the best dope around - and the best cocaine. It was all on Gransback," he said.
And that, he said, made his rivals want blood.
"I didn't like trapping. I was paranoid all the time," he said. "I used to have to look over my shoulder every couple of seconds."
Steve said he's been shot at four times, never hit, just like his mom. He's seen six drug dealers gunned down, and one had his face sliced up with a machete.
"The worst one was the guy who got killed so bad, they couldn't identify his face. His whole face, you couldn't see nothing. It was gone," he said.
He knew that any day, it could be him. "I thought by 17 or 18, I'd be dead," he said. "I used to think about my funeral and how I wanted a party."
His scariest moment was when a rival drug dealer shot his boss with a 9 mm while Steve stood next to him, less than a foot away.
"My boss got shot twice in the stomach. Then he pointed the gun at me. I froze," Steve recalled. But the gun jammed. Steve ran.
A week later, cops spotted Steve on Gransback Street.
Steve recently took a Daily News reporter to the spot where he was busted. Gransback is a narrow street where tilted parked clunkers and minivans perch on the curb. Clumps of weeds flourish through gaps in beat-down sidewalks. On that day, a steamy breeze drifted through shattered windows of houses that were once homes.
"I was standing right here," said Steve, where behind him, ivy and weeds snaked through the diamonds of a chain-link fence. He said he had tossed the .45 over the fence as soon as he heard the squeaky brakes of a cop car.
Cops found the gun in the weeded lot.
The pull of the streets
While on probation, he was ordered to maintain employment, remain drug-free, abide by a curfew and apply to Community College of Philadelphia.
He was required to see his probation officer, Ronald Kwiatkowski, every Monday night at home and once a week for a drug screen.
"Steve did really well under supervision. He complied fully with what the court asked. He gave me no problem at all," Kwiatkowski wrote in an email.
"He kept all home visits and drug-screen appointments with screens being negative," he continued.
Steve was released from probation July 29.
By then, Steve wasn't as sure he could stay away from dealing in the Letters.
"There's a 50-50 chance I'll go back," he said, as he stood on Gransback Street.
He gazed at the empty corner. "I can't believe it's not open," he said, noting the absence of drug dealers.
"My job ends Aug. 9, and I'm still searching for jobs," he added. "But it's hard. I've put in 10 applications and haven't heard back."
Martinez, who is also looking for work, never asked Steve about his days in the Letters. "To this day I don't know what Steve was doing," she said. "I hate to hear that he was selling drugs. . . . I cried. I told him, 'How can you do this to me?' "
To that, Steve later retorted, "I don't understand how she can be mad when we learned from her."
In the last two weeks, both Steve and his mom have not responded to numerous phone and text messages from a Daily News reporter.
Steve hasn't shown up for his landscaping job, Ross said. If he had, he would have known that Ross was able to guarantee his job through December with a bump in pay - $10 an hour.
"I've been reaching out to him, but can't get a hold of him," Ross said.
"His whole family practically has been in and out of the [drug trade]. That's why I'm worried about him being out there. He's a bright kid. He's been accepted at Community College. That's an opportunity that he's blowing.
"I just fear that the streets will get him back."
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