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Eastman rehearsed Paige's lines with him as the two drove over the Williamsburg Bridge to an audition space in Chinatown. It was Eastman who later gave Paige his first check from the movie—it was for $2,700—and remembers Paige hugging him.
"That kind of affection is not demonstrated ordinarily by people like him," Eastman says.
He didn't have to do much to sell Paige to the film's producers. Fuqua says that he was convinced Paige was right for the part of Man Man as soon as he saw him audition. While he auditioned others, the director tells the Voice that he kept coming back to Paige, whose picture he'd put up on the wall. "You think you can act?" he remembers asking the young man. Yes, Paige replied confidently.
Fuqua was impressed. "He is a kid who obviously comes from a violent world. . . . He just fit the bill. He had no fear in his eyes."
Paige had actually grown up in Park Slope, known more for strollers than for gang-bangers. He and his five younger siblings were raised by their grandmother, Bettie Paige, in a neat apartment in a historic apartment building on Sterling Place. Zaire's mother, Stephanie Ayeni, was around only occasionally.
"She was still young and running around thinking about the party life," Paige says of his mother in interviews at Rikers Island. "So I think that's why my grandmother felt that it was in her best interest to take custody."
Paige's grandmother, Bettie, is a clerk at the city's Department of Environmental Protection, and she ran a tight operation. "I was overbearingly strict," she says.
Bettie's grandson, however, had trouble in school, moving from P.S.282 to P.S.11 and then to the Hanson Place Seventh-Day Adventist School in Fort Greene, which both she and her grandson refer to as "Catholic school" despite its Protestant affiliation. "I put him in Catholic school because I wanted him to have opportunity, go to college, and be around more affluent people," she says of the Hanson Place School, which is just three blocks away from where the murder occurred years later.
Zaire was smart and social—an easy talker and a natural leader. As a child, he earned a brown belt in karate. He attended church regularly. He was also a serious collector: He preferred Marvel Comics, and laminated his collection of basketball cards, with limited editions of NBA players like Penny Hardaway, Michael Jordan, and John Stockton. When he became a teenager, he worked at the local Met Food and Pathmark, bagging groceries to earn money for the newest Nike sneakers. Bettie calls her grandson a "man-child," because he was athletic and loved to explore. Every day, she recalls, he would eat a raw egg that he kept hidden in his dresser drawer. "Men took to him," she says. "He was the kind of boy that a man would have loved to raise."
In eighth grade, Paige was expelled from the Hanson Place School for stealing a female student's wallet. "I was just attracted to money," he admits. "I always used to get in trouble in school so they were always attempting to kick me out." His grandmother, who was paying his tuition, was so upset that she sent him to stay with his mother in Brownsville.
Paige, who hadn't known much beyond the world of Park Slope, says that it was then, at 13, that he was introduced to a different life in Brownsville: "staircase smoking, cutting classes, and, you know, doing the regular teenage stuff, feeling on girls and flirtin'," he says. "It was just a whole new environment."
Working at his godfather's flower shop and attending Acorn High School, Paige split time between his old life in Park Slope and his new one in Brownsville. He made friends, discovered an affinity for rap music, and chased after girls. "I [saw that] the girls wanted to have sex with the dudes that was cutting classes, dudes that was smoking weed. I just ended up falling into that atmosphere."
After being caught stealing a phone from his godfather's flower shop at 13, Paige turned to small-time hustling. "I started selling weed and doing petty robberies, like snatching something from somebody," he says. "Didn't nobody turn me on to it because I had my mind made up that I needed money."
Paige began hanging out with Crips members, and his mother says she saw him changing. "Suddenly, it was like, everyone wanted to hang out with 'Za'," she says, using the nickname his friends use. Paige began hanging out in front of the bodega at Riverdale Avenue and Legion Street, a notorious drug corner. He started to make music videos and appeared in a series of battle-rap video installments made by local production companies called "Smack Videos" and "The Product."
Eastman saw Paige's growing popularity and power. "I know Zaire from when he was a kid," he says. "I knew what kind of talent he was, and what kind of phenomenon he was, as a street entity—a street superstar. Ultimate power in your environment—that's what this is. This is a country inside of a country." Friends and family also say that Paige was generous with his money.