The younger Tony Lewis, left, still lives on Hanover Place NW. Here he jokes… (Photos By Bill O'leary )
Tattooed across Tony Lewis's right biceps is a teenager's declaration of loyalty: "Like Father Like Son."
Father and son share the same rounded face, stocky 5-foot-7 frame and a name recognized instantly on some of the toughest streets in the District. Whereas the older Lewis is serving a life sentence in a federal penitentiary in Maryland, the younger one works for the federal government, helping people with criminal records find jobs.
Two men with one name grew up on the same block, but what "Tony Lewis" meant on Hanover Place NW during the peak of Washington's 1980s drug wars and what that name means now are two very different stories.
In 1989, Hanover Place, a one-block dead end just off North Capitol Street, was an open-air drug market. The sidewalks teemed with people looking to buy crack. "Little Tony" Lewis, then 8, and other neighborhood children made playhouses of the vacant buildings and served as lookouts, running through the streets shouting, "O-ler-ray," when they saw the police coming. Lewis still doesn't know what that word means -- it's pig Latin for "roller," which is street slang for the police cruisers that came rolling through the drug markets -- only that there was no shame in yelling it back then.
A common joke in those days, he recalls, referred to the view from the corner, a glimpse of a gleaming white dome: In the Capitol, they make the laws. Here on Hanover, we break them.
One of the main people breaking them was Lewis's father.
The older Tony Lewis was a legend on Hanover Place and beyond. He was the partner of the District's most notorious drug dealer, Rayful Edmond III, whom authorities described as the city's largest cocaine importer, bringing in millions of dollars of Colombian cocaine each week from Los Angeles.
On poverty-ridden streets where even a battered car was a luxury, Lewis and Edmond drove BMWs, Porsches and Jaguars. They wore designer watches, flashed gold-inlaid hubcaps and traveled on a whim to Vegas, New York and Atlantic City. Money coursed down Hanover, and it was no secret who was behind it.
The name Tony Lewis in those days inspired both fear and a perverse form of respect. Lewis gave money to needy families and took kids on field trips to Six Flags or Atlantic City, but he wouldn't take along children who dealt drugs. Yet he wasn't careful to hide what he did. At his trial, a witness testified that she saw $3 million in cash strewn around Lewis's house.
"He was Sonny Corinthos," says Jerome Plunkett, who grew up in the neighborhood, referring to the mob boss on TV's "General Hospital." Boys along the street wanted to be Tony. "They wanted to make a name for themselves."
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The boy known as "Little Tony" remembers being escorted into a Virginia jail cell, where he saw his father, seated and crying. It was 1990, and he had never before seen his father cry. He's never seen him cry since.
"In retrospect, I know that always played a role in me," says the son, now 29. "That was my idea what prison was like. It breaks you."
It wasn't until later that he realized that his dad had just been sentenced to life in prison for his role in a drug distribution network that authorities said generated more than $2 million a week at its peak. "I can remember him saying, 'I'm not going to be home for a while,' " Lewis says. "He also told me from the beginning, 'Be strong.' But it's like, what does that mean? And I created in my little mind what that meant."
It meant that as a child, Tony fought to prove himself on the streets, playing tough. It meant, as a teenager, attending Gonzaga College High School, the elite Jesuit boys' school on North Capitol Street, even though he couldn't relate to most of the students. "None of my classmates came from where I came from," he says.
It meant, as an adult, taking a series of government jobs, accepting a paycheck that amounts to a tiny fraction of what his father once raked in. In an old picture in a family album, his father leans on the hood of a new BMW. The younger Tony Lewis drives a beat-up Oldsmobile and uses a cellphone with a shattered screen.
What got the son to a place that his father would never reach was the hardened determination of his aunt and grandmother, a school that opened another world to a kid whose male role models were mostly dead or imprisoned, and a neighborhood that was becoming home to a much greater variety of people.
The younger Tony Lewis still lives with his grandmother, Jabella Hinton, on the block where he grew up, a few doors from his aunt, Von Deleah Williams, and across from the rust-colored townhouse where his father was raised. The street is in transition. Unemployed men hang on the corner outside the liquor store as young professionals walk to work in business suits.
"A lot has changed, but a lot has stayed the same," says the younger Lewis, stepping past yellow police tape dangling in an alley, left over from a shooting. "A lot of guys I grew up with, they're not here, and they died right here."