One bitter night, in the rough end of New Haven, Connecticut, fifteen-year-old Vinny Ferraro and his friends were hanging out as usual by the projects, near the corner where Ferraro sold drugs—mostly coke, but also heroin, hash, and LSD. His father, a junkie and career criminal, had schooled Ferraro in the trade. “You’re the man of the house now,” he had told Ferraro over the phone from prison—meaning he was expected to sell drugs to support his mother, also an addict, and two sisters. In fact, Ferraro couldn’t remember a time before drugs or the constant, gut-gnawing menace and paranoia that came with the game: He’d first smuggled heroin into jail for his old man when he was ten.


Ferraro and his teenage gang ran these streets, ready to pounce on anybody who didn’t belong. Nothing personal, just territorial duty. That night, it was a homeless man. They fanned out and surrounded him before he knew what was happening. As the gang closed in for the ritual beating—fists, boots, and bats (nobody would bother pulling a gun on a bum)—their terrified victim looked directly at Ferraro and started pleading, “Please help me.”

“Help you?” Ferraro said. “Why should I help you, asshole?”

“You’ve got more compassion in your eyes than any woman I’ve ever met,” gabbled his prey. It was a crazy, “Hail Mary” line by any standards, but it hit Ferraro like an uppercut. He was unable to continue the beating.

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