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Cracked
On the job, he covered the District's crack cocaine epidemic for The Post. But, all along, he was one of its casualties.

By Ruben Castaneda
Sunday, December 30, 2007

I should've turned and walked away when Carrie didn't answer the door. But I was on a mission, and my judgment at the time was less than sound.

Carrie was a lithe, blond Arkansan with a sweet demeanor and prom-queen looks. Instead of her, I was greeted by a large man wearing a dirty white T-shirt and bluejeans. He had a wild, uncombed Afro.

"What you want?" His eyes were bloodshot. His expression was suspicious. He was north of 6 feet tall and well over 200 pounds.

I checked the number on the door. The building was on Ninth Street NW, in the Shaw neighborhood. Carrie had said she'd be in unit No. 32 -- the same number I was looking at. "Maybe I've got the wrong place," I recall replying. "I'm looking for Carrie."

The man's expression softened. "Oh, you a friend of Carrie's? Awright then. She's inside, in the bathroom. She'll be out in a minute. Come on in."

He stepped aside and waved his arm like a car salesman inviting a mark into the showroom. The apartment appeared empty, save for a desk against the near wall and a worn sofa in the living area. His invitation hung in the air like gun smoke. A distant voice in my consciousness advised me to retreat. On the other hand, his explanation was plausible. And it was two days before Thanksgiving 1991. A little celebration was in order.

I took a step forward.

With stunning quickness, the man grabbed me by my shirt collar, yanked me inside the apartment and slammed the door shut. Before I could react, he gripped me by both shoulders, seizing the epaulets on my trench coat, and pinned me against the door. He called out a man's name. An older, reed-thin guy emerged from behind the sofa.

Keeping his hands on me, the big man looked over his shoulder and cried out: "Get the thing! Get the thing!"

The thing -- a gun or a knife.

A gun would be quick. A knife could be torturous.

"You don't have to do this," I offered.

Big man didn't respond. The older man shuffled toward the desk.

My eyes swept the apartment. There was a large window directly behind the sofa. If I could get free, I could break for the window and . . . What? Bust through the glass and swan-dive three stories to the asphalt below?

The older man reached the desk. He opened a drawer and pulled out a gun. It looked small, maybe a .22, I thought. He turned and stepped toward the big man.

I had to get away now. I rotated my right shoulder backward and wrested my right arm free. I balled my fist, reared back as best I could and slugged the big man squarely on his chin.

Big man took it like a pro. He didn't budge. He didn't blink.

Uh-oh.

My captor's beefy left hand went to my throat. His viselike grip said, "That's enough."

The old man placed the gun in the big man's right hand. The big man raised the gun and pointed it between my eyes, about two inches from my face.

I thought of my parents, and my sister and brothers, in California. What would they think when they got the news? I thought about the 2-year-old niece I'd never get to know. I wondered if one of the homicide detectives I knew would catch my case. I hoped that my editor would cover my death with a brief and let it go at that. What a stupid, pointless way to die, I thought.

"I want answers," the big man said.

In the moment, it didn't seem like the truth would help. The truth was that Carrie was my drug connection. She bought crack cocaine for me.

The encounter with the gunman wasn't the only scrape I had found myself in during that time. From 1989 to the end of 1991, while I worked the night shift covering the D.C. police and crime beat, I was an active crack addict and alcoholic. My use was not recreational. I was not a dilettante.

To feed my addiction, I routinely ventured into some of the same drug-plagued neighborhoods where I covered nighttime murders and nonfatal shootings -- violence that was usually fueled, directly or otherwise, by the crack trade. I made buys in dark crack houses and dangerous back alleys. I smoked my way to the edge of financial ruin. At the same time, I helped chronicle the bloody toll the drug was exacting on the street.

My first front-page story for The Post appeared in February 1990, when four young men were shot to death and two others were wounded during a gun battle in a small nightclub on the corner of Seventh and S streets NW. A police detective told me the two primary combatants were drug dealers. I was quite familiar with the block; it was one of my favorite locations to cop -- that is, purchase -- crack. As I arrived at the scene of the shooting on a frigid, snowy night, I scanned the area, hoping that none of the street's crack slingers, who would probably recognize me, were around (they weren't -- police had swarmed the corner).

In the waning months of 1989, and the first days of 1990, I -- like probably every other local news reporter at the time -- chased after rumors of then-Mayor Marion Barry's alleged crack use. By chance, I was the first Post reporter at the Vista hotel the night the FBI and D.C. police busted Barry smoking crack in a videotaped sting. I spent the night at the Vista, courtesy of The Post, which obtained a room in the hope that I might be able to score an interview or two with hotel staff. I didn't get anywhere with that, but as I watched the nonstop local TV news coverage of the stunning arrest, washing down my room service dinner with two stiff rum-and-Cokes, I did reflect that maybe I ought to think about tamping down my own usage.

Years after the fact, I realized that my passage mirrored what was happening in the parts of the city wracked by drug dealing and the concomitant violence. Some neighborhoods in the eastern half of the city seemed on the verge of being devoured by crack-inspired violence, with shootings over drug turf and deals gone bad begetting retaliatory attacks, which, in turn, sparked more payback. My addiction grew dramatically in 1990 and 1991; so did the street violence. In 1989, the city recorded 434 murders. In the two ensuing years, nearly 1,000 people total were murdered in the District.

At the time, I thought my job provided a physically and emotionally draining front-row seat to the bedlam. In retrospect, of course, I was wrong. I was in the thick of the chaos, a self-inflicted casualty in waiting.

Off and on during my long recovery, I thought about writing about what had happened, but something -- shame? lack of distance? -- held me back. Then, this past February, I had dinner with an ex-girlfriend -- a terrific woman whom I hadn't had much contact with since she cut me loose two years earlier. Seeing her had reopened the emotional wound, and I was feeling down. I wandered into the office of an editor friend and plopped myself into a chair to talk. The conversation meandered from my dinner that night into a broader discussion about the vagaries of dating. My friend advised me that complete honesty about one's past is the best approach with any potential girlfriend. I balked. Some women would perceive me as beyond repair, damaged, I said. My friend said, "Come on, how bad could it be?"

"You don't know what I've been through," I said.

But I sensed she was right. Then, a month later, I reached a milestone: 15 years without crack. It seems like two lifetimes. Finally, I have the distance I need to tell the story.

As a sunny afternoon gave way to twilight one September day in 1988, I canvassed a neighborhood on the western edge of downtown Los Angeles, working on a story for the L.A. Herald Examiner, where I'd gotten a job after graduating from the University of Southern California. At the time, the neighborhood was a mixture of no-tell motels, slum apartment buildings and fast-food joints.

On a landing outside a motel, an attractive young woman waved me over and, I thought, flirted with me. Eventually, she asked if I "partied," street slang for using drugs.

Why are you asking?

The woman said she had some crack. I could have a hit -- for free, she said. A savvy marketing move.

Sure, I replied.

I looked over my shoulder and saw that no one was around. The woman took out a glass pipe, about the size of a cigarette, with a copper-colored mesh filter at one end. She loaded a small chunk of crack, less than half the size of an M&M, onto the mesh. She produced a lighter, brought the pipe to her lips and the flame to the filter. She inhaled, and white smoke coursed through the pipe, which she handed to me.

The rush hit me in two or three seconds and literally knocked me back two steps. It was as if a euphoria bomb had exploded in my brain. Imagine the most physically rapturous moment of your life, multiplied exponentially, and you might get close to the feeling.

I wobbled but stayed on my feet. I looked at the woman. She asked if I was okay. I said, "Wow."

That was my first hit.

The crack wave was just hitting Los Angeles, sparking a surge of violence and pathology in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. Meanwhile, the District was becoming known as the nation's per-capita murder capital, as young dealers fighting over lucrative drug markets shot one another with increasing frequency. At the time, the drug was being described in almost mythic terms; experts were quoted in newspaper articles saying that anyone who took even one hit was instantly addicted.

I didn't take a second hit that day. I didn't need to. I felt like I could have floated home. The woman let me keep the pipe and the lighter, and she gave me a chunk of rock to go.

I waited three weeks before I took another hit. Again, the rush was intense -- though not quite as astounding as the first one. I was 27, old enough to know better, young enough to think I was bulletproof. I'd read my share of stories about the horrors of crack and concluded that I could never become an addict.

Here's the irony: I believe, looking back, that I was born an addict and an alcoholic, same as I was born with brown eyes. At a party during my senior year of high school in El Monte, the L.A. suburb where I grew up, someone offered me my first taste of alcohol. I downed the glass of wine in a matter of seconds. I expected to feel a buzz instantaneously, and, when I didn't, I quickly drank another glass. I killed three glasses of wine in about three minutes. During the rest of high school and then in college, I didn't drink often, but, when I did, it was with great fervor.

I hit my drinking stride during my early 20s, joining co-workers nightly at Corky's bar across the street from the Herald Examiner.

Now, I can say with great confidence that taking that first hit of crack was, simultaneously, the worst decision of my life and the luckiest.

Worst because I flung myself down a trapdoor to hell.

Luckiest because it hastened my reckoning. If I had never tried crack, I believe I would have continued drinking heavily for years. Maybe I would have caused a fatal crash while driving drunk. No doubt I would have eventually caused damage to my brain and kidneys. My first hit of crack put me on the path to destruction. But the way I look at it, it also saved me.

In August 1989, I accepted a job at The Post to work as a night police reporter. I was using crack and drinking heavily then, but I was still functioning at a high level -- producing good stories, playing full-court pickup basketball at a gym, paying all my bills. A few days after I accepted the job -- no drug tests required back then -- a couple of my Herald Examiner friends took me to a farewell lunch at Corky's. I downed three gin-and-tonics, hopped into my Ford Escort and began my cross-country drive. Among my possessions were my crack pipe and a $20 rock. Because I was coming to a big-time newspaper, I'd decided it was time to taper off and ultimately quit. Limiting myself to one rock for the weeklong trip seemed like a good way to start.

Just before I left for Washington, my first niece, Nastassia, was born, and I joined my parents and siblings at the hospital to visit the baby. My relatives took turns holding her as I awaited my chance to play the doting uncle. But the moment I touched her, she started to wail, almost as if she knew something.

In Washington, I rented a one-bedroom apartment in a converted Victorian rowhouse on 10th Street NW, three blocks east of Logan Circle. Today, the neighborhood is filled with gentrifying professionals, coffee shops and sparkling new condominiums. Back then, in addition to law-abiding homeowners and renters, it was rife with drug slingers, bandits, hookers, homeless drunks, and crack and heroin addicts. Perhaps subconsciously, I'd found a home that mirrored my life: a place being pulled in opposite directions by two divergent forces.

I was surrounded by small crack markets and was about to start a job that entailed a healthy pay bump from my Herald Examiner salary. You don't need a degree to do the math. I moved into my apartment on a Tuesday. By Saturday, I'd found two open-air crack markets within a five-minute drive. For a few months, I limited myself to one $20 rock, once a week. But then I discovered that if you bought two upfront, as opposed to sequentially, most dealers would cut you a small break and charge $35.

I had arrived in Washington not knowing anyone. Working the night shift was socially isolating, and the alcohol and crack only exacerbated my sense of loneliness. I knew that if I got busted holding or buying drugs, it would make news, and my life would be vaporized. Besides the work hours, my sense of shame and fear caused me to turn inward. It's easier to harbor a terrible secret if no one knows you very well.

James Frey titled his discredited memoir of addiction A Million Little Pieces, the implication being that his drug habit and alcoholism had shattered him into so many bits, like Humpty Dumpty. I think breaking into pieces would've been a relief to me; trying to live a double life was exhausting and harrowing.

As best I could, I shut off what was happening in my life when I stepped into the newsroom and went out onto the street as a reporter -- I wrote or co-wrote 94 stories for The Post in 1990, a good output for a night police reporter, and produced another 88 articles in 1991. But I was struggling, and there were moments when the two worlds nearly collided. One awful night, during a binge, I ran out of friends, acquaintances and relatives to hit up for cash. Desperate for one last $20 hit, I paged a detective I was friendly with. To my dismay, and relief, he didn't call me back that night.

I also became increasingly isolated from my family in Los Angeles, whom I visited a couple times a year. I'd stay at my parents' house for a week or more, but I'd be gone much of the time, bingeing. I could sense they were worried, but no one said anything.

I did my best to get close to my niece during my visits, but she kept rebuffing me. Once, my brother and sister-in-law brought Nastassia to a reception after a relative's wedding. Dressed in all white, cuter than words could describe, Nastassia entered the home wide-eyed, marveling at the festivities. I went up to her, my arms open. She seemed to look right through me and walked in the other direction.

By early 1991, I was drinking more heavily, often to lubricate myself before a foray into a drug zone. I was no longer spending $35 a weekend; I was shelling out $100 or more to use on my nights off.

I tried to stop myself. I threw away my crack pipe, which led to my learning how to fashion a pipe from a metal umbrella. Metal umbrellas are hollow -- break off a piece, stuff a wire filter at one end, and you're good to go. The downside is that the flame heats up the metal. I developed blisters on my fingers.

I went to my bank and signed a document limiting myself to $100 a day in ATM withdrawals, but I got around that by calling friends and relatives on the West Coast, telling them I'd lost my wallet and asking them to wire money. On really bad nights, I wandered into the newsroom and hit up co-workers -- some of whom I barely knew -- for $20 loans.

I was also becoming increasingly paranoid, a side effect of prolonged cocaine use. On some nights, I'd crouch at the bay window of my apartment, lights out, eyes glued to the street outside. I was certain the cops or the DEA or the FBI were preparing to crash through my door at any moment. I imagined I saw shadowy figures darting behind parked vehicles, walkie-talkies in their hands, guns on their hips.

On the worst nights, after I'd consumed two or three rocks, I'd hallucinate that I heard the phantom investigators scheming to take me down; their whispers would glide through the night air, slip under my front door and hover in my apartment, taunting me. At times, I thought I could actually see their words, black and white letters hanging in the air.

In the spring of 1991, I met Carrie. She was hitchhiking near downtown. I picked her up. She said she was headed toward one of my drug-buying zones. Somehow, I just knew. I asked her if she partied. She said sure. She reached into her jacket and pulled out her own pipe.

A new routine developed: I would drive Carrie to S Street or First Street NW, and she would hop out and make the buy; she knew her own slingers and could get deals here and there. I was increasingly worried about getting caught in a police "jump-out" operation, and I figured having someone else make the buy provided some insulation. Carrie didn't look like what most people think a crack addict would look like. Her skin was luminous, her blue eyes sparkled. Based on her looks, she probably hadn't been using very long. Sometimes we'd have sex, and I'd rationalize it by telling myself it was like picking up a fellow hard drinker in a bar, except the bar served crack.

The freefall accelerated. At the time, The Post issued quarterly "comp time" checks for days and hours worked beyond the normal workweek. Employees had the choice of taking the time or the money. I was on a frantic rat wheel, trying to stop using, failing, needing more cash. I always opted for the money. In October 1991, I received a comp check for about $700. I went home and fully intended to wait until the morning to deposit the check at my bank. I started drinking. I got into my car and drove, winding up at a check-cashing place in Adams Morgan. One, two rocks tops, I told myself. I ended up smoking through the night with a friend. Within 24 hours, all the money was gone.

By Thanksgiving week, I was broke, 15 pounds underweight and desperately trying to hold it together. Once, after working a rare day shift, I went home intending to spend a quiet evening watching television. After a couple of gin-and-Cokes, I decided to go out. I had exactly $23 in my wallet. Here's how deluded I was: I thought I could split a rock with Carrie and stop there.

I'd never been to Carrie's apartment, but she'd given me the address and said I could drop by whenever. When she didn't answer my page, I drove over to Ninth Street NW, marched up the three flights and knocked on the door.

So, this is the end, I thought. I looked down at the floor and waited for the darkness.

A moment later, cold hard steel slammed against my left ear.

"I want answers, and I want them now. Who are you?" I recall big man saying.

For a moment, I was confused. Then a light went on: Here I am in my work clothes, decent trousers, a white long-sleeved dress shirt, a trench coat -- big man probably thinks I'm a cop or a fed.

"I told you, I'm here to see Carrie. She cops for me over on Sixth. Take a look in my shirt pocket."

Keeping the gun pointed at my head, my captor released his left hand from my coat and reached into my pocket. He pulled out a glass crack pipe, residue from previous use clearly visible. He studied the pipe, then casually placed it behind his left ear, like a cigarette. He seemed a lot more relaxed now. I thought he needed a nudge, so I suggested he rob me.

"I've got money in my wallet. You can have it," I recall saying. He nodded. Slowly, I pulled out my wallet and opened it. The big man removed the bills. Then he stepped back, lowered the gun, pointed to the door and said, "Go."

I opened the door and stepped into the hallway. The big man said, "Hey, you got a car?" Yes, I replied. He said he knew a good place to cop. He said if I drove, he'd share some of the rock with me. I thought about it for half a heartbeat, said, "No, thanks," and raced down the stairs.

After that, I vowed to stay clear of crack through the next weekend; I didn't make it through Friday night. After a few stiff drinks, I drove out to one of my drug zones. Undeterred by the snow, the slingers were out. I made my buy, drove home, lit the pipe and took a hit. I stumbled to the bathroom. Staring at myself in the mirror over the sink, I admitted the truth. I'm an addict, I thought, and this has got me. It was a moment of despair far worse than having a gun pointed between my eyes.

During the previous three months, I had called in sick to work 10 times. That's a lot when you are part of a skeleton night crew of two editors and two reporters. That fall, I dragged myself in for my shifts, though I was in no condition to work because I'd binged on rock during the afternoon, then slammed down two or three gin-and-tonics to take off the edge. My eyes were bloodshot, my clothes were disheveled, and I often sported a day-old growth of beard.

In late November, Milton Coleman, then the assistant managing editor for local news, who had hired me, and Phil Dixon, then the city editor, took me aside one afternoon in the company cafeteria to ask what was going on. To many staffers, Milton was an imposing and, at times, intimidating figure, but he had always been fair with me. And I had unmitigated trust in Phil. He'd reached out to me and taken me under his wing when I started working at the paper, inviting me over for homemade chili and to watch World Series and basketball games. I believed that they really did want to help me, but, full of shame and fear, I low-balled what was going on. I admitted to drinking too much and some occasional cocaine use. I said I was overextended on credit cards. I said nothing about crack.

At Milton's suggestion, I agreed to weekly sessions with a counselor with the company's employee assistance program. I told the counselor I was attending support group meetings and that I was abstaining from alcohol and drugs. I didn't want to be duplicitous, but I was afraid to try stopping, because I was terrified that I simply could not stop. And if I couldn't, then what?

On December 20, 1991, I showed up for work obviously wrecked. I'd binged on rock and tried to bring myself down with three or four gin-and-Cokes. My eyes were glazed, and my breath smelled of liquor. I was told to go home and come back the next night.

The following night, Milton met me in the newsroom. He said we needed to go meet with the EAP counselor. In her small office, she dropped the bombshell: They'd made arrangements for me to spend the next three weeks in the rehab unit at Suburban Hospital in Bethesda. Milton was to drive me to my apartment to pick up some clothes and a toothbrush. I was shocked, and even then I tried to bargain myself down to an out-patient program, but the counselor and Milton were firm.

As I rode shotgun in Milton's black Toyota 4Runner, looking at the snow on Connecticut Avenue, two thoughts dominated: This can't be a good career move. And, I wouldn't bet 10 bucks it's going to work.

Early in my stay at Suburban, a counselor gathered about a dozen of us in a room. He explained that most addicts and alcoholics never seek help, and of those who do, maybe 15 percent will achieve long-term sobriety. Take a look around, he said. Odds are just one of you will make it. That got my attention. Later, at a support group meeting, a woman explained that she had tried and tried to get clean, and one day, "it just took." I visualized a hook slipping into a latch.

Phil visited me on Christmas Day. Three other newsroom colleagues also visited me during my stay. They had graduated from Suburban and were doing well.

I was released on January 10, 1992. I attended support group meetings and sailed along on what is known as a "pink cloud," a low-level buzz that sometimes occurs in the early months of recovery. The compulsion to drink and use was gone.

Until it wasn't.

In rehab, we were told that even if you stop drinking or using drugs, the disease of alcoholism and addiction is quietly doing push-ups, so that, if you resume, you don't pick up where you left off, but rather in a far worse place. I can attest this is true. Seventy-four days into my new life, I relapsed.

I was walking home from work one night when I ran into a drug contact near Logan Circle. Would I like a hit? I can't explain why I took it, other than that I am an addict. Afterward, my desire for more was fiercer than ever, way beyond anything I'd ever experienced.

I'm a skeptic when it comes to the concept of miracles, but what happened next made me think twice. I got in my car and drove to S Street NW. A solitary slinger was out. He said he was out of product, maybe he'd have something the next night. I went over to First and Rhode Island NW. No slingers in sight. Two of the busiest crack markets in the city, completely dry.

I went home and tried to sleep. The next morning, I woke up and felt the same -- I needed a hit like I needed oxygen. I rejected the idea of calling anyone in my support network -- I couldn't admit I'd done something so stupid after I knew better. I walked outside my building and wandered the neighborhood -- it would be only a matter of time before I ran into a dealer. My distress was obvious, because one of the neighborhood heroin addicts, a needle-tracked woman who hung out on 11th Street, asked me what was wrong. I'd walked by the woman numerous times, and we'd exchanged hellos. I sensed that she was intelligent, and she had kind eyes. On the verge of tears, I blurted out that I'd been using, and I'd quit, and I was doing great, and now I'd messed up, and I just wanted more.

She was calm. She said she'd been there. She said people relapse and what I needed to do was find a support group, admit what happened and start over. Simple.

I didn't have it in me to go to a group where people knew me, but I managed to find a 12-step group in Dupont Circle and, that afternoon, did exactly what she said I should do. I raised my hand.

A few months later, in late spring, Carrie came to my apartment. She had two rocks and asked me if I wanted to party. It was a stupid thing to do, but I asked if I could see the rocks. She showed me, but the horror of my relapse was still fresh, and I turned away. No, thank you, I said. I was clean now and trying to stay that way. Carrie wished me luck, then left. I haven't seen her since.

Not long after that, I visited my family in Los Angeles. During my stay, the verdict in the Rodney King beating case sparked riots. I threw myself into the story, absorbing a punch from a Crips gang member on my way to the street where motorists were being pulled from cars and beaten.

A couple of days after the riots calmed down, I took my 2 1/2-year-old niece, Nastassia, to a fast-food restaurant that had a play area for kids. She had yet to warm up to me, but I was determined to keep trying.

I opened the passenger door and let her out. Without a word, she reached up and grasped my hand.

Ruben Castaneda is a reporter on The Post's Metro staff. He can be reached at castanedar@washpost.com.

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