On the seventh floor of One Judiciary Square, Calvin Woodland is on the phone, listening to a frightened senior citizen who wants to drive drug dealers off a troublesome corner in Columbia Heights.
The woman on the line says the dealers operate fearlessly day and night. Woodland promises to get the police on it. He assures her that the city is serious about cracking down on drug dealers. He doesn't mention that he used to be one of them.
To many, Woodland is a friendly staffer for D.C. Council member Jim Graham (D-Ward 1). Few know that Woodland spent years selling and using drugs. Woodland, by his own account, spent 12 years as a hard-core thug; reckless, angry, and hopelessly addicted. "I was using drugs, or trying to, every waking hour of every day," he recalled. "I had nothing to lose and I acted like it."
Now, seven years after intensive treatment for addiction, Woodland, 37, has a desk at City Hall and business cards that introduce him as Graham's assistant director of constituent services. Woodland has been clean, he says, since 1992. Court records show that the cycle of arrests ended long ago. And when he slips out each workday to a noon meeting of Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous, most people just think he's gone to lunch.
The difference between his two lives, Woodland says, is not just that he stopped getting high and got a job. It's that he finally figured out who was causing his problems. "It turned out all along the problem was me," he said.
Armed with this revelation, Woodland completed eight months of residential treatment and landed his first job at age 30 at an all-night gas station. He worked his way up through a series of jobs, eventually becoming a counselor for other recovering addicts.
About two years ago, he met Graham at a local AA meeting. Graham, then executive director of the Whitman-Walker clinic and a recovering alcoholic himself, said he was impressed right away with Woodland's natural gift for connecting with people. They stayed in touch, and when Graham decided to run for city council, he knew he wanted Woodland on the campaign.
Now Woodland is part of the political establishment, and people look to him for answers. But he carries his old life with him every day, like the blue-black prison tattoo hidden beneath his white dress shirts.
Woodland was raised in a comfortable, two-parent home on Alabama Avenue SE. His father, a professional boxer, was a powerful, charismatic man, practically a legend in the neighborhood. A self-styled community disciplinarian, he unceremoniously spanked any child he caught doing drugs or skipping school.
Almost from birth, young Calvin seemed as tough as his father. He seemed so impervious to pain, his father nicknamed him "Rock" at age 4. By age 8, his father had taught him to box. It wasn't long before he started to win.
Woodland said he didn't really like boxing, but he loved being a star.
"I always had the prettiest robe and the prettiest boxing boots," he said. "I loved the attention."
The more he scowled, and the meaner he looked, the more the crowd loved him. "I would practice looking mean in the mirror," he said. "I started to enjoy being a bully."
He was 12 when some neighborhood boys persuaded him to try their stash of Olde English 800 malt liquor.
"These kids could smoke cigarettes in front of their parents, stay up late, didn't have to go to school. I was in the house doing my homework, looking at them out the window. Their life looked more exciting than mine."
It wasn't long before he was looking at the neighborhood drug dealers the same way. "They had their own clothes, their own cars. They did what they wanted, when they wanted. I made up my mind, that was for me."
By his senior year in high school, he was addicted to powder cocaine, "smoking pot and drinking every waking moment of every day." At 17, he fathered a child. On his 18th birthday, he was arrested in a scuffle with a police officer who caught him cutting class outside Anacostia High School. The charges were eventually dropped, and he came home after two nights in jail to a hero's welcome.
"People were high-fivin' me," he said. "It was like graduation."
Woodland did manage to graduate from Anacostia, even though his once-good grades had plummeted. After that, the plan was to build an empire selling drugs and get rich.
"I could not understand how people got up every day and went to work and waited two weeks for a paycheck," he said. "I saw my mother come home from work every day looking tired and exasperated. Her feet hurt. Working just didn't look attractive to me."
For a little while, it looked as if his plan would work. Sure, he was using up a good deal of his own stock, but he was having a good time. His reputation as a fighter kept him safe from most competitors, and he earned the respect of his big-time drug suppliers.
He prided himself on being a step above the users he hung out with. He managed to keep his hair cut and his clothes clean. But soon his taste for PCP and, later, crack cocaine, became insatiable. Getting high and staying high was the main objective of every day.
Court records show that Woodland was arrested 16 times between 1980 and 1992. He racked up 37 criminal charges, including possession and distribution of cocaine, PCP and marijuana, robbery, prison breach, assault with a dangerous weapon, bail violations and contempt of court. Many of the charges were dropped or dismissed for lack of evidence. He was acquitted on three counts and sentenced on six.
Each time he was released, Woodland vowed to start over. He came home sober and in great shape from the Lorton gym. He wasn't going to use drugs, he told himself; he was only going to sell them. He was going to save money to buy a big house in the South. "I would do OK for about two weeks," he said. "Then someone would walk by in a pair of $400 boots, and as soon as I saw them, I had to have them, too. I could never save up more than $1,000."
Sooner or later, he would start using again. And it was only a matter of time before he woke up hungry, skinny and sweating in some burned-out apartment with no lights.
In June 1992, Woodland was back in D.C. Superior Court, facing eight to 24 years for attempted distribution of cocaine. It wasn't doing the time that scared him, he recalls, but the thought of getting killed in prison. He knew sooner or later his cocky pride would bring him to blows with the wrong fellow inmate.
From his cell, he wrote to dozens of drug treatment programs, asking for a place. Two days before sentencing, one said yes.
With a treatment bed assured, Judge Curtis Von Kann suspended the prison time and sentenced Woodland to treatment instead.
For eight months Woodland lived on the grounds of St. Elizabeths Hospital with 60 recovering addicts in a treatment program called Second Genesis. No drugs, no drinking, no fighting, no cursing, no sex. Every moment of every day was structured, with intensive therapy groups, 12-step meetings and public reprimands for those who misbehaved, spoke rudely or cut in line. Gradually, he realized his addiction to drugs and alcohol was only a symptom.
"It wasn't drugs and alcohol that got me in trouble. I was already in trouble when I started using drugs and alcohol. I had to figure out what it was about me that led me down this path," he said.
When Woodland ventured back out into the world, he left his old neighborhood and moved into a group house of recovering addicts on upper 16th Street NW.
He got a job as a cashier at a 24-hour gas station on Rhode Island Avenue for $5.50 an hour. It was the only place he could find that would hire an ex-con. "Many nights I stood at that gas station thinking, 'Here I done worked hard like a slave for two weeks, and by the time I pay my bills, I'll be broke.' " On the other hand, he told himself he was shouldering responsibility: People trusted him with their money.
In seven years, Woodland worked his way from gas station attendant to construction worker to shoe salesman to drug treatment counselor to director of the Belmont Recovery treatment program for homeless men. He went to Alcoholics Anonymous or Narcotics Anonymous nearly every day. He still does. Two years ago, he married a childhood friend.
But the climb up was not easy or clear. "My first few years clean, I was financially reckless. I spent all my money and never planned for anything. I would go out and not come home till I was broke," Woodland said.
That's when he realized he could be clean and still be in trouble. He had to master new skills: saving money, planning ahead, curbing his tongue, learning how to have real relationships.
Vanessa Reed had known Woodland since elementary school. They dated on and off for years. She knew of his addiction, but she never saw him doing drugs. But she knew he was angry and troubled. It took years, after treatment, before he opened up to her about his other life.
"When he was able to open up to me and tell me about what he had done and his regrets, I knew he had left that life for good," she said. "The anger that had been in him was gone."
She knew then she was ready to marry him. They recently celebrated their second anniversary.
Graham, Woodland's former AA sponsor, says Woodland's thug life was the real thing, and so is his ongoing recovery.
"Calvin is the genuine article," Graham said, adding he never had any doubts about hiring Woodland. "Calvin is honest, dedicated. It shows in his life," Graham said. "Those are the signs I look for."
Graham said their shared experience battling addiction makes him sympathetic to Woodland, but that isn't why he got the job.
"Calvin helps me connect to a portion of my constituency," Graham said. "He's born and raised in D.C.; he relates to people in an innate way. He's a very good person to have on staff."
Before the 1998 D.C. Council race, Woodland said, he had never thought about politics. But once he got in, he was amazed.
"I had never seen so much energy," he said. "In the last 48 hours before the primary, I think I got about six hours of sleep. We were running on pure adrenaline."
Graham said Woodland was "a tiger at the polls," working all day outside a polling station in a precinct that heavily favored Graham's opponent, Frank Smith. But Woodland wouldn't give up, shaking voters' hands for hours with an enthusiasm that couldn't be faked.
Civic association meetings aren't very glamorous, Woodland concedes, but he said he gets a kick from helping out. It's almost enough to make him forget about his old life. But he knows that his old self will never go away.
"That's why I do what I do every day, work out, say my prayers, go to my 12-step meetings," he said. "I know if I don't, I'll backslide, and any judge that takes one look at my record is not going to care that I've been clean for seven years. All he'll see is that long list."
Despite the boost he gets from helping the community at large, Woodland said he misses counseling. He gets a nagging feeling, he said, that there are young men out there who need his help. His own nephews, 14 and 16, are on the brink of a life of crime, he said, and he isn't sure his exhortations can save them. But he won't give up.
"The thing that helped me most was seeing other addicts, even people who were worse than me, living a better life," he said. "Most people don't think you can recover from your addiction. That's because you never see the people who succeed; they blend in."
When Woodland agreed to tell his story, it wasn't because he wanted to brag about his recovery. He had thrown 12 years of his life down a hole. That's nothing to brag about, he said. He just wanted people to know it can be done.
"It's a heck of a thing to see someone turn themselves around; people who intentionally commit crimes, living life day by day with no goals or plans, surviving on instinct, people really living like animals," Woodland said. "To see people pull out of that, it's amazing. It gives you hope."
CAPTION: Calvin Woodland, an aide to D.C. Council member Jim Graham, was arrested 16 times and served time in the Lorton Correctional Complex before beginning his recovery from drug addiction in 1992. "It turned out all along the problem was me," he says.
CAPTION: D.C. Council member Jim Graham, left, talks with aide Calvin Woodland. Graham calls Woodland, who is a recovering drug addict, "the genuine article."