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Monday, Oct. 1, 2007 | Just after noon, a truck rumbles away from the intersection of Euclid and Imperial avenues in southeast San Diego. Three men stand in the back, bracing themselves against the turns and bumps of the large white truck with blue sunroofs.

For Marcus Dunlap, Darryl Charles, Jr., and James Calloway, the truck has pointed them in a new direction.

They grew up here, within blocks of this intersection. Now, with some friends locked up, and others on their way there, these men work. They cook and take orders in the on-wheels version of the Chicken Shack, a favorite fried chicken restaurant in the Diamond neighborhoods. The truck is a fixture at construction sites, the YMCA and community events, serving the restaurant’s famous fried chicken, gizzards and catfish.

Darryl Charles, Sr., dreamt up the restaurant and its mobile version. He employs kids he knows through his sons; others are referred. That leaves room for tension — gang-related tension. In these neighborhoods, kids naturally progress from Little League to Pop Warner to gang-banging, Charles says. For this reason, the young men don’t generally work in the storefront; that could leave them sitting ducks for the kind of violent attention Charles wants to help them avoid.

“I don’t have them sitting here for a whole day, in my store,” he says, “because I don’t want people knowing where they are.”

But they work next to each other, serve and cook food together. As they fit into Charles’ dream, they start to dream for themselves. They say they’ve felt some constraints growing up here, some limits to what people think they can do. But they’re starting to dream without apology.

And because they’re being taught to dream, their lives evidence a real hope for change, not the kind of lip-service, anti-gang groupthink that drove Charles, Sr., and some of his friends away from task forces and committees.

“We’re businessmen now,” says Travis Stocking, Charles’ friend and business partner. “We’re not ex-anything. Most ex-people can only tell their stories.”

On this day, the truck pulls into a construction site where an excavation company is widening Chollas Creek. Dunlap and Calloway immediately jump out the door and take orders from the workers, shoving the order slips through the window to Charles, Jr.

“I do the cooking, mostly,” he says inside the truck, sizing up the crowd of workers and dumping five scoops of flour into a metal bowl. He reaches a gloved hand into a large white bucket of seasoned, raw chicken pieces and pulls them onto the counter.

He’s 21. He’s worked for his dad, who owns the restaurant, for six years. For about eight months, his father banished him because he was hanging around the wrong people, he says.

His dad has owned the restaurant since 2001, the truck since 2003. He involved his own sons in preparing and serving food there from the start. And then their friends joined in. So did guys who belonged to the same boxing club as they did — the Gladiator club on 43rd and Alpha, owned by Stocking, who joins the crew for the day’s lunch run.

As soon as the orders are taken, Calloway climbs back into the truck and helps Charles, Jr., with the cooking. The young men dip pieces of meat in a whitish gravy looking sauce, then plop each piece in bowls of flour and cornmeal. They lift the lid of the fryer, dropping the pieces into the boiling fat. As the meat cooks, they open a grease-spotted brown bag of French-fry potato pieces and pour them into the fryer.

Soon, the meals are ready. They place a few pieces of chicken or gizzards in a cardboard container, fill up the rest with French fries, and pass them out to the workers. Side panels on the truck flip down to reveal ketchup and tartar sauce and sodas, where the construction workers season their food and begin to eat.

With all of the meals passed out, Dunlap, 20, leans one elbow against the truck near a painted cartoon of a chicken, and tells a visitor about his music. He has 36 poems written, he says. His life story seems nearly a perfect bridge of the tension in the rap world — west coast vs. east coast, black vs. white, gangster vs. soul. And when Dunlap speaks, he’s a bit like a marketing analyst who’s assessed his own appeal as a biracial artist with feet in all of those worlds. He also sounds a bit like a dreamer.

“If you rap and only your neighborhood can relate to it, then what’s the point?” he says. “The world isn’t one thing, so how could I rap about one thing?”

From his birth home on Imperial Avenue and 54th Street until he was 14, Dunlap lived in San Diego. Then his mom and grandma, who are both white, moved him to Virginia, and then back to San Diego when he was 18. It wasn’t until he lived in Virginia that began to feel connected to black people, and had a chance to try out his rap — outside of the shower.

“It was hard for me to get a hold of my culture,” he says. “I started messing up a lot, getting in trouble, getting locked up. But the love I started feeling from black people… You know, I hadn’t sat in a circle of dudes and rapped before.”

Back in San Diego, Dunlap met his dad just last year, along with his four siblings. Sometimes Dunlap writes poems inspired by violence. Sometimes it’s about his heart. His moniker: GAMBLE, for “GodzArmyMustBattleLifeEternally,” an acronym he scrawls in a nearby notebook. This week, the Chicken Shack is catering for E-40, a successful rapper from the Bay Area, for his show at 4th and B. Charles, Sr., has Dunlap scheduled to work the show, and Dunlap’s face betrays his excitement despite a nonchalant tone when he talks about meeting the star.

“That’s just been my dream forever, to have a voice and to have somebody listen to my voice,” he says.

Standing with a couple of construction workers in the warm September sun, Stocking and Charles, Sr., say they have their own stories, the wrong-road stories of violence and drugs and the wrong kind of friends. But sometimes, telling kids those stories isn’t enough.

A couple of other Chicken Shack employees are in jail right now, the elder Charles says.

“Just because something happens to them, you know, we still have to be here to help them,” he says. “We’ve still got to love them. They’re still our kids. And we can’t just turn our back on them.”

He continues.

“It’s easy to be in jail,” he says. “It’s hard to be out here, paying your own gas and electric. There’s a better way, a way to be productive.”

And so they’ve launched an entrepreneur program for some of the kids they know through their businesses. The kids need to think beyond today, they say. Only a dream can pull them out of the magnetizing life they’re used to. Of course, they’re battling some incredible forces.

“You’ve got your friends to deal with, and they might be hardcore bangers,” Stocking says. “Where we’re from, around here, it’s not just overnight.”

Please contact Kelly Bennett directly with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or send a letter to the editor.

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