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Rosa Lee's Story: The Series
The Washington Post, Sept. 18-25, 1994
By Leon Dash; Photos by Lucian Perkins

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5
Part 6
Part 7
Part 8

Rosa Lee & Me: What One Family Told Me -- and America -- About the Urban Crisis (Oct. 2, 1994)
The Readers React (Oct. 2, 1994)

Rosa Lee Cunningham's Obituary (July 8, 1995)

Part One
A Difficult Journey

If 53-year-old Rosa Lee Cunningham was bothered by the crowded, chaotic scene in her Southeast Washington apartment on the morning of Sept. 5, 1990, she wasn't showing it. She didn't have time to worry about her "grown-ass" children, as she often calls them, and their daily bickering over money and drugs.

Even if she had wanted to stay in bed, she couldn't. Stomach pains awaken her every morning by 6:30, an enduring reminder of her years as a heroin addict. The cramps linger until she can get to the city methadone clinic for the 55-milligram dose that curbs her craving for the drug.

She doesn't mind getting up early. It gives her a little extra time to make herself look nice. She favors bold earrings, necklaces with gold crosses and colorful paste-on fingernails, which she chooses to match the stylish pantsuits that she likes to wear. So she is dressed and ready for our interview long before I knock on the brown metal door of her apartment, part of a low-income housing complex near the District-Prince George's County line.

There are so many people living with Rosa Lee that I never know who might answer the door; this time it is Bobby, the oldest of Rosa Lee's eight children at 39.

He leads me to the living room, his home for the past few months. It is 9 a.m., and the day is bright and sunny, but the shades are drawn in the two-bedroom apartment, leaving the room in shadows. Ducky, 30, exhausted from a night of cleaning ovens at a Kentucky Fried Chicken outlet followed by several hours of smoking crack, is sleeping on the sofa. Patty, 32, emerges from the bedroom she shares with Rosa Lee; I ask why she looks so grumpy, but she just grunts and says she doesn't feel like being cheerful. Her 17-year-old son, Junior, is asleep in the same bedroom; he's been living at Rosa Lee's for several months, ever since his release from a group home for juvenile delinquents.

Rosa Lee's other daughter, 29, occupies the second bedroom, along with her three children, ages 7, 11 and 13. She's just completed 11 months in the D.C. jail for cocaine possession. She is trying to overcome her drug addiction and find a job; later, she succeeds and asks not to be identified in this series of articles.

Rosa Lee at the window
Photo by Lucian Perkins
Rosa Lee Cunningham pauses to reflect while in the hospital at Howard during March of 1994. For four years Leon Dash, investigative reporter for the Post, chronicled the lives of Rosa Lee and her family for this series.
That nine people from three generations could get along in such cramped conditions is a tribute to Rosa Lee and her housekeeping skills. She's a compulsive cleaner, often jumping up during conversations to snatch a dirty dish or straighten the Disney figurines that she keeps on the glass table in her living room.

Rosa Lee is a safety net for most of her children. Bobby, Ducky, Patty, Ronnie and Richard live a kind of nomadic existence, bouncing from friends' apartments, to jail, to the street, to Rosa Lee's. All five are addicted to heroin or cocaine. On this particular day, Ronnie, 38, is staying with one of Rosa Lee's brothers; Richard, 36, is in jail on a parole violation.

Rosa Lee's two other sons, Alvin, 37, and Eric, 34, don't need her safety net. They have jobs, families and homes of their own. They don't use or peddle drugs, and they despise what drugs have done to their mother and their siblings. "I'm tired of you living off Momma," Alvin often yells at Patty and Ducky. "I'm sick and tired of you worrying Momma about money and drugs."

Despite their frustration, they respond to Rosa Lee's calls for help, whether it's to take in a grandchild suddenly left homeless because his mother has gone to jail or to help Rosa Lee with one of her many medical emergencies.

My interviews with Rosa Lee and her family grew out of a reporting project exploring the interrelationships among racism, poverty, illiteracy, drug use and crime, and why these problems sometimes persist from generation to generation. I first met her in 1988 in the D.C. jail, where she was serving seven months for selling heroin; a jail counselor who was aware of my project had suggested that I talk to her. "She was arrested for selling drugs to feed three of her grandchildren," he told me.

As Rosa Lee answered my initial questions, it was apparent that her life was an intricate tapestry, each thread reflecting issues that have absorbed and frustrated experts on urban poverty for years. She grew up poor on the fringes of Capitol Hill, the daughter of North Carolina sharecroppers. At 13, after getting pregnant, she dropped out of school without learning to read. At 16, she married to get away from her mother. Within months, she moved back to her mother's after her husband began to beat her. Most of the men she met, including the five who fathered her children, came from the same poor D.C. neighborhoods where she lived; some of her pregnancies were the result of a desperate but futile attempt to hold on to the men.

She raised her children by herself, supporting them as best she could by waitressing in nightclubs, selling drugs, shoplifting and working as a prostitute. Uncertainty and instability became a fact of everyday life: Since 1950, when Bobby was born, Rosa Lee has moved 18 times, always within the District of Columbia, twice to shelters for the homeless. Since 1951, when she was first arrested for stealing, she has gone to jail 12 times, serving a total of five years for theft or drug convictions. Now, some of her children were cycling through the D.C. prison system, repeating the pattern set by their mother.

The more I learned about Rosa Lee and her family, the more I felt that spending time with her offered a chance to get beyond the stereotypical notions that seem to dominate discussions about poverty in America. Some friends and colleagues doubted that I would learn much that was new. But I had written extensively about the District's poorest communities since the late 1960s and had found that I learned the most by forgetting what I thought I knew and immersing myself in the subject as deeply as I could.

Poverty is a phenomenon that has devastated Americans of all races, in rural and urban communities, but it has disproportionately affected black Americans living in the nation's inner cities. As someone who grew up in a black middle-class family in Harlem in New York, I have always been perplexed by the differing outcomes of African Americans who had migrated in massive numbers in the first half of this century from fields of rural poverty in the South to cities across America, looking for factory jobs and a better life. How is it, I wondered, that many children and grandchildren from migrant families had prospered against considerable odds while some, like Rosa Lee, had become mired in lives marked by persistent poverty, drug abuse, petty and violent crime and periodic imprisonment?

All of them carried out of the South the debilitating history of racial oppression and segregation. Once in the city, they still faced pervasive racial barriers in employment, housing and education. Many managed to overcome these roadblocks, while others remained locked in desperate circumstances. Why did Rosa Lee and six of her children take one path, while her sons Alvin and Eric took another?

When I asked Rosa Lee for permission to spend time with her and write about her life, she was eager to cooperate. "I'm not saying I'm going to change," she told me. "But maybe I can help somebody not follow in my footsteps if they read my life story. There have been some good times. Some real good times. But it's also been rough. Lord knows, it's been rough!"

I told her I was skeptical that her story would reach those who might follow in her footsteps.

"That's all right," she said. "You never know who you may help. You write it like I tell it."

Her children were more wary, but they eventually agreed to talk with me too. So in the fall of 1990, two years after we first met, I began to make regular visits to her apartment. It was the beginning of a relationship unlike any other in my 27 years as a Washington Post reporter.

CHAPTER ONE: A Survival Network

Rosa Lee and I are sitting on a couch in her living room on this warm Sept. 5 morning in 1990, trying to decide what to do. Bobby has left us alone to talk, Patty has gone back to her bedroom, and Ducky is still asleep on the other sofa. I had planned to take Rosa Lee to the methadone clinic and then to a restaurant so I can interview her for several hours in relative quiet. Rosa Lee has other ideas.

She wants to go to the Pepco office so she can talk to someone about restoring the electricity; it's been off since June 12 because Rosa Lee has fallen behind in her payments. Patty has been cooking meals on a neighbor's stove, and she's tired of bringing the food back and forth. And now that summer's almost over, it will be getting dark sooner and they will need the lamps again.

Rosa Lee pulls from her purse a set of tattered, rolled-up papers, slips off the rubber band and leafs through them. They are her most important papers -- her apartment lease, medical records, Medicaid documents and bills of all sorts. Rosa Lee hands me the pile. I find the electric bill, and we drive to the Pepco office on Martin Luther King Jr. Avenue SE.

Rosa Lee is eager for me to come with her. My suit and tie, she believes, might give her greater authority with the bureaucracy. I tell her that I'm a reporter and can't get involved in her affairs. But I see from her puzzled expression that she doesn't understand what I'm talking about.

It's hard to imagine Rosa Lee having trouble getting someone's attention if she wants to. She has learned how to bring smiles or tears to her long, handsome face whenever it's necessary. Her hips are broader than they once were, but her 145 pounds settle easily on her 5-foot-1-inch frame, and she likes to boast that her narrow waist still turns heads. Her hands are firm and strong, the result of washing countless baskets of laundry on a scrub board when she was a child.

I wait in my car while she goes inside. Half an hour later, she comes out with a Pepco employee. Rosa Lee has told her that a "Mr. Dash" is waiting outside. And the somewhat exasperated clerk tells me that Rosa Lee doesn't understand the bill. The clerk explains the situation: Rosa Lee owed $528 when the electricity was cut off. She had applied for emergency aid, and the D.C. Emergency Energy Office had paid $150 and the D.C. Department of Human Services had paid $238, but Rosa Lee needed to pay half of the remaining $140 to get the electricity back on.

Rosa Lee says she doesn't have $70. We drive downtown to the D.C. Energy Office, but an official there says Rosa Lee isn't eligible for another emergency grant until 1991.

Over lunch at a Chinese restaurant, another crisis emerges. Rosa Lee needs a refill for medication she's been taking and she can't find her Medicaid identification card, which allows her to pay 50 cents for a prescription.

Suddenly, she begins to cry.

Through her tears, she tells me that she has the AIDS virus, HIV. So do Patty and Bobby. Rosa Lee says she doesn't remember exactly when she found out -- six months ago, maybe longer. So far, she says, none of them has the disease.

She doesn't know for certain how they got the virus. But they fit the profile of those most at risk for HIV: All three have shared needles while injecting heroin. And all three have engaged in prostitution.

"Why didn't you tell me you were HIV-positive?" I ask.

"I was afraid to tell you," she says. "Because I felt you wouldn't come around me."

No, I assure her, I have no intention of staying away. She seems relieved.

Several questions pop into my head: Is she still shooting heroin? Are Patty and Bobby taking precautions with their sex partners? But Rosa Lee is so wound up, so emotional that I decide to save them for another day.

We drive to a pharmacy in Northeast, where the pharmacist knows her and has a record of her Medicaid card. He agrees to fill Rosa Lee's prescription for AZT, a medication that sometimes delays the onset of AIDS. A monthly supply of 100 pills costs $147.95, so she could not possibly afford them without Medicaid. She shares them with Patty, who has let her own Medicaid eligibility lapse.

When we finally return to Rosa Lee's apartment late in the afternoon, she asks me to look through her papers to see if she is behind in her rent. I realize that she is drawing me into her survival network, but I offer to sort the thick sheaf of papers at home.

The next night, I return them, divided into oversized envelopes with bold, printed capital letters to help Rosa Lee recognize the words: WELFARE, MEDICAL, RENT, PATTY, BIRTH CERTIFICATES, and so on.

Patty, Rosa Lee and I sit on the bed in Rosa Lee's bedroom. A crucifix is on a table next to her bed; often, when she is upset, she holds the crucifix close to her chest as she prays for relief or forgiveness.

Patty points to an envelope marked RICHARD. "What does that say?"

"Don't you know your own brother's name?" Rosa Lee says in disbelief.

Patty shrugs. Her reading skills, it turns out, are no better than Rosa Lee's.

They decide to draw up a plan to straighten out their tangled finances, and they ask me to write it down. Patty, who hasn't received welfare or Medicaid benefits for eight years, will reapply. Rosa Lee's situation is more complicated. She has been receiving $350 a month in welfare and $280 a month in food stamps for herself and two of her grandchildren; now that her daughter is out of jail and caring for her own children, Rosa Lee will lose some of that income. So she's going to find out if she's eligible for other assistance.

It sounds good, but it's impossible to ignore this fact: Welfare payments and food stamps don't begin to account for all the money that comes and goes in the apartment.

CHAPTER TWO: The Torn Photo

"Mr. Dash," Rosa Lee says one day in early October 1990. "Why is it I can't find a place with no drugs?"

She is standing in her living room, her hands spread in a gesture of frustration and resignation, her voice competing with the sound of an afternoon soap opera on television.

Rosa Lee visits Ducky
Photo by Lucian Perkins
Visiting her son Ducky at an abandoned building, Rosa Lee suggests he come back home. She had put him out after he spent his paycheck on drugs and had no money to contribute to the household.
Within a week of moving into a federally subsidized housing complex in Washington Highlands in March 1990, Rosa Lee ran into several drug dealers she had known for years. As broken ties were renewed, heroin and cocaine began to flow into her newly renovated apartment, just as they had flowed into her apartment on Blaine Street NE in 1989 and into various apartments on Clifton Street NW for years before that.

In recent months, she tells me, she has cut back her drug use to an occasional "speedball," a mixture of heroin and cocaine that she lets Patty inject into her hand. "The dope {heroin} I don't need," she says. "It's that 'caine. The 'caine gives you a rush. It stays with you a little while, and it makes you want more. You want that rush again. If I go get a $10 bag of 'caine and shoot it all by itself, ZOOM!"

She says these infrequent lapses don't make her an addict, but I don't think she's being candid with herself. For the first time since I became a regular visitor six weeks ago, her eyelids have drooped noticeably during our conversations and she constantly rubs the backs of her swollen hands. When I ask her about these symptoms, she insists she hasn't gone back to full-time drug use.

By now, Rosa Lee is comfortable with me, putting up with my tape recorder and agreeing to let a Washington Post photographer, Lucian Perkins, accompany me on some of my visits. Her background could not be more different from mine: When Rosa Lee was struggling to take care of eight children in the early 1960s, I was a teenager attending high school in Manhattan. When she was serving her first prison term for theft in 1966, I was earning a college degree at Howard University and working for The Post as an intern. When she was selling heroin on the streets of Northwest Washington in the mid-1970s, I was writing about the devastating effects of heroin trafficking on some of those same streets.

She doesn't understand why I ask so many questions about her childhood and her family, but she does her best to remember details that are important to me but not to her. She knows that her grandparents, Thadeous and Lugenia Lawrence, picked cotton in North Carolina before coming north sometime in the mid-1930s, but she doesn't know much else.

In fact, she has no keepsakes, no mementos, no record of her parents or her grandparents -- except for a single black-and-white photograph of her mother and grandmother that somehow has survived over the years. When I first saw it, it was lying loose atop a bureau in Rosa Lee's bedroom, unframed and unprotected, its edges torn, its emulsion cracking.

Her mother, Rosetta Lawrence Wright, dominates the photo, much as she seems to have dominated Rosa Lee in her youth. Rosetta is sitting on a chair that is too small for her large body, dressed in what appears to be a white uniform, probably something she wore in her job as a domestic worker. She dwarfs her own mother, Lugenia, who is sitting in an overstuffed flower-print chair that seems to swallow her slight, almost frail body.

The memory of her mother, who died in 1979, stirs feelings of anger in Rosa Lee, not tenderness. There was the time, Rosa Lee remembers, when her mother accused her of stealing a welfare check out of the mailbox. Rosa Lee was about 9. She ran to her grandmother's house, a block away. "She came around to my grandmother's house and whupped me. I mean really whupped me! ... The next morning the mailman brought the check. My mother didn't say nothing. She just got mad at the mailman."

Most of Rosetta's other children don't share Rosa Lee's view of their mother. They remember her as a woman working hard to keep her family together under difficult conditions. "She taught me, 'If you want something, work for it!' " said Jay Roland Wright, one of Rosa Lee's seven brothers. "I've always lived by that."

Jay Wright is 15 years younger than Rosa Lee; her memories go back before he was born. As a little girl, she says, she became devoted to her father, Earl Wright, an alcoholic who died when Rosa Lee was 12. Her father doted on her, but he also took his fists to Rosetta, much as Rosetta took hers to Rosa Lee. "He'd go upside her head, bam, all the time. He'd be drunk. She'd take it dead out on me. I never did nothing. I was too scared."

We look again at the photo. Rosa Lee has no idea when it was taken or why she has it. She knows only that her mother and grandmother are sitting on the screened-in back porch of her grandmother's house at 204 17th St. NE and that her grandmother bought the house in the early 1960s.

This seems curious. Buying property is a sign of prosperity, not poverty. How had Lugenia Lawrence scraped together enough money to become a homeowner? And why, two generations later, was her granddaughter Rosa Lee a permanent resident of public housing, with drug dealers never far from her door?

CHAPTER THREE: Sharecropping Days

Ben Wright is Rosa Lee's older brother. He also is the family historian.

"You have to ask Ben," Rosa Lee would say to my questions about her parents and grandparents. "Ben is the one who knows about that."

For years Ben had organized family reunions, large gatherings that brought together descendants of the Lawrences and the Wrights, four generations that trace their roots to fertile farmland along the northern bank of the Roanoke River in eastern North Carolina and the tenant sharecropping system that served as the backbone of Southern agriculture until World War II.

The reunions brought together relatives from up and down the East Coast. Branches of the family have put down roots in New Jersey, Philadelphia as well as Washington, and many have secured a foothold in working-class and middle-class communities. Rosa Lee had little in common with these more successful relatives, so after attending two reunions in the 1960s, she stopped going.

She kept in touch with Ben, but their relationship had soured in recent years. When I asked Rosa Lee why, she was uncharacteristically vague, hinting that it was Ben's fault. Later, Ben told me that there was nothing vague about their falling-out: He told her that he would never set foot in her apartment as long as she was dealing drugs.

When Rosa Lee was jailed in New York on a theft charge in 1964, Ben bailed her out. But when she started shooting heroin, he drew the line. Ben's world -- good job, steady income, retirement benefits -- had no place for Rosa Lee.

So when Rosa Lee and I knock on the door of a trailer at the D.C. Department of Public Works storage yard where Ben worked, I'm not sure what to expect. It is a raw, cold day, and I can feel the bite of the wind as I explain my project to Ben. He listens, looks at Rosa Lee, and then invites us to come inside to talk during his lunch break. Over the next several months, Ben and others provide bits and pieces of the family history.

Ben Wright was Rosetta and Earl Wright's first child, born on the first day of summer in 1932, the year the Great Depression forever changed the lives of the Lawrences and the Wrights. Rosetta was 15 at the time, and living with Lugenia and Thadeous on the cotton farm where they worked as sharecroppers, about four miles south of the market town of Rich Square, N.C.

Thadeous was the second generation of Lawrences to sharecrop on the property, known as the Bishop and Powell plantation. By the time Rosetta became a teenager, she had already helped with several cotton crops. The countless hours she spent in the fields changed her body and shaped her soul, and taught her the importance of discipline and stamina. She developed quick, powerful arms and a tough, stern demeanor -- a younger version of the grim, brooding woman in the photograph in Rosa Lee's bedroom.

There is no available record on the Lawrence "share" in 1932, no way to know whether the family earned enough to repay the white landowner for the money he had advanced them over the course of the year. According to family lore, Thadeous had a hidden source of income that kept the family from falling into debt: a moonshine still that he kept going even after the family moved up north. "My grandmother said my grandfather did a lot of bootlegging," said Ben.

Many sharecroppers, however, remained perpetually in debt, unable to make their share, yoked to the same landowner year after year. Most could not read or write, add or subtract, so they had no way to challenge the landowner's tally at harvest time. It was a harsh life, made even harsher by the effect the Depression was having on the cotton farms around Rich Square. The price of cotton dropped from $500 a bale to $25 a bale. Joe Purvis, who owned the land where the Lawrences were farming, was forced to close down the farm after the 1932 harvest. So when a Maryland tobacco farmer came through Rich Square looking for sharecroppers, the Lawrences decided to leave their friends and relatives and the land they knew so well.

They packed their meager belongings and headed with their four children to Maddox's farm in St. Mary's County, Md. Rosetta, her infant son Ben and her new husband, Earl Wright, joined the Lawrences on the journey north.

Ben and his brother, Joe Louis Wright, vividly remember the stories that his mother and grandmother told them about their harsh life in Southern Maryland. They had almost no money. Meals frequently consisted of whatever they could pick or trap. "They were eating a lot of muskrat and watercress," Joe Louis said. Watercress grew abundantly in the clear springs nearby, and muskrat was then a popular Southern Maryland dish that the family never got used to. "My mother would say, if she ever got a job and made any money, she was never going to eat another muskrat," Joe Louis said. "Had to eat it, because that's all they could trap."

After the 1935 tobacco harvest, like thousands of other sharecroppers during the 1930s and 1940s, Rosetta and Earl Wright gave up rural life and headed for the city. The Lawrences stayed behind with 3-year-old Ben, afraid that the boy might starve if his parents couldn't find work in Washington. Within a year, they too moved to the District. Their sharecropping days were over.

CHAPTER FOUR: Segregated City

Washington in the 1930s was not a land of opportunity for black migrants from the South, especially poor sharecroppers. It was a segregated city, but within the black community was a well-established and educated middle class that traced its roots to the freed slaves who stayed here after the Civil War. Over the years, these local black families had built an extensive network of churches, schools, theaters and other institutions. It wasn't a closed society, but neither did it reach out to embrace the rural migrants.

Some of the more fortunate newcomers had friends or family here to help them through the resettlement. Others, like the Lawrences and Wrights, were on their own. Finding a job, any job, was a challenge. Most of the government jobs then open to blacks -- the clerks and messengers and cafeteria workers -- went to middle-class blacks who had connections or education. "Those jobs were very competitive," Portia James, the chief researcher at the Anacostia Museum, said when I asked her to put the family's history into perspective. "Those weren't considered regular working-class jobs. Those were considered highly desirable jobs."

Like hundreds of other rural black women who migrated to Washington, Rosetta became a domestic worker. Earl found work as a cement finisher for a paving company. This fit a familiar pattern, according to Elizabeth Clark-Lewis, a Howard University professor who has interviewed domestic workers in her study of the period. "The middle class was not standing waiting for these people with open arms," Clark-Lewis said. "Very few men could come in and get a government job." For most poor, rural women, she said, "domestic work was the reality."

Thadeous and Lugenia found work too, but it was Thadeous's bootlegging that kept the family afloat. He would disappear for several months at a time; only later did Ben learn that he was going to North Carolina to tend the still.

Rosetta and Earl settled in the neighborhood just north of the Navy Yard, within a mile of the Capitol, renting a series of houses that had outdoor toilets and no electricity. Rosa Lee remembers the smell of the kerosene lamps they lighted each night. As the family grew -- Rosetta gave birth to 22 children, 11 of whom died before reaching adulthood -- Rosa Lee became accustomed to bedrooms crammed with too many people and living rooms with no place for private conversations.

Ben has no way to prove it, but he's certain that Thadeous's moonshine sales provided the money that enabled Thadeous and Lugenia to become homeowners. The house in the photo, the one on 17th Street NE, turned out to be the third of three houses owned by the Lawrence family.

Thadeous and Lugenia bought their first property, a decaying two-story, wood-frame house on the outskirts of Capitol Hill, for $1,400 in 1949. Four years later, they bought a second house nearby for $8,000. The seller gave them a mortgage so they could make the purchase.

The first house went to Rosetta; two years later, however, the city condemned the property and Rosetta's family had to move.

Thadeous died a few years later. Lugenia lived in the second house until the city claimed it for the Southwest Expressway, paying her $11,500 in compensation. She bought the third house, and when she died in 1985, she owned it free of debt. An appraiser estimated its value at $56,000.

In her will, Lugenia directed that the house be sold and the proceeds divided among five grandchildren. Rosa Lee was not among them. I asked her why. "Because I was an addict when she died," she said, and Lugenia was determined not to squander this asset that had taken a lifetime to build.

The house wasn't sold immediately. Instead, the grandchildren decided to use it as collateral to borrow $55,000, which was divided among the five grandchildren after expenses. That satisfied the conditions of the will, and left one granddaughter with the house, a monthly mortgage payment and a place to live.

But it didn't work out as planned. Within a few months, the granddaughter fell behind on the mortgage payments. In late 1987, Lawan Wright, Rosa Lee's youngest sister, moved in after serving a two-month sentence for drug dealing. For the next two months, Lawan says, she used the house to sell crack.

The mortgage holders decided to foreclose. So in February 1988, Lugenia Lawrence's house passed out of the family's hands for good.


It is Wednesday afternoon, Nov. 28, 1990, and Rosa Lee is stretched out on a bed in emergency room 63 at Howard University Hospital, telling me about the seizure that has landed her there. Actually, she's not telling me much, because she blacked out and she can't remember exactly what happened.

The room is cool, and she has pulled the blankets up to her chest, exposing only the shoulders of her white hospital gown and her drawn, tired face. She looks awful.

This is her second seizure in two days, her third in six months. The doctors don't know the cause of the seizures, so they have been putting Rosa Lee through a series of tests, which don't bother her nearly as much as the telephone calls from Patty and Ducky to settle minor squabbles. "Why are they worrying me, Mr. Dash, while I'm in the hospital?" she says.

The doctors suspect that Rosa Lee's drug use has something to do with triggering the seizures. On Monday afternoon, Rosa Lee and Patty shared a "billy" of heroin -- a small bag that sells for about $20. Immediately afterward, she had a mild seizure that sent her to the emergency room but didn't require a hospital stay. Still, she seemed shaken enough by the experience that I thought she would stay away from heroin for a while.

Not shaken enough.

On Tuesday afternoon, she and Patty bought another heroin billy at an "oilin' joint" for heroin addicts on Georgia Avenue. Patty gave herself a hit, then Rosa Lee. As they went outside to hail a taxi, Rosa Lee suddenly went limp and her eyes rolled back in her head.

Patty struggled to keep Rosa Lee from falling, and heard a man shouting from across the street. It was Alvin, her brother. He was on duty, driving a Metrobus north on Georgia Avenue, when he saw Patty trying to hold Rosa Lee. "Get Momma to the hospital," he yelled from the driver's window of his packed bus.

Patty, still high from the heroin, maneuvered Rosa Lee into a taxi. At the hospital, Rosa Lee's doctor, Winston Frederick, was furious. "If you suffer another one of these seizures, we may not be able to bring you back," she remembers him saying.

When she goes home on Dec. 10, she vows to herself that her heroin days are over. But home is still the same apartment in Washington Highlands in Southeast, where Bobby, Patty and Ducky spend much of their time in pursuit of their next high.

CHAPTER SIX: Rosa Lee's Christmas

"Boy, what a night," Rosa Lee says, settling into the front seat of my car on Christmas morning 1990 for a trip to the methadone clinic.

Recovering drug addicts don't get holidays off. If Rosa Lee wants her daily dose of methadone, she still has to make the cross-town trek from her apartment in Southeast to the clinic on N Street NE, not far from the Capitol. On the best of days, it's a 30-minute trip requiring two buses; the holiday bus schedule makes it an uncertain journey that can last more than an hour. She's still weak from her hospital stay, so I have offered her a ride.

When I arrive at 8:30 a.m., Rosa Lee is ready as usual, but everyone else is asleep, including her grandchildren. Unopened gifts lay waiting under an artificial tree decorated with plastic yellow garlands, candy canes and colored glass bulbs. Patty is stretched out on a living room couch, her left forearm bandaged in white gauze.

As we drive through the deserted streets, Rosa Lee explains why everyone's so exhausted.

It all started with Ducky's paycheck. Late in the afternoon, Ducky brought home $270 from his job at Kentucky Fried Chicken, gave $150 to Rosa Lee for his share of the rent, food, cable TV and utilities and left to buy crack with the rest of the money.

Ducky owed Patty $20, so Rosa Lee gave it to her, setting off a chain reaction that lasted all night long. Patty spent the $20 on crack, smoked it and wanted more. She begged Rosa Lee for another $20.

"I just gave her $10," Rosa Lee says.

As soon as the $10 was gone, Patty was pleading for more. Instead of saying no, Rosa Lee asked Patty to buy her some ice cream and handed over another $20.

A few hours later, Patty returned with one of her regular "tricks" -- men who trade her drugs for sex. Selling sex provides Patty with a steady source of drugs, and other things seem secondary, including the risk of spreading the AIDS virus.

The "trick" prepared a mix of powdered cocaine in Rosa Lee's bedroom, gave himself a hit and offered some to Rosa Lee. She said no. "I didn't even hesitate, Mr. Dash," she says. "I was so proud of myself."

After Patty left, Rosa Lee fell asleep with the TV set on. About 2 a.m., she heard someone banging on the door. It was Patty's boyfriend, Howard, demanding to know where Patty was. Rosa Lee didn't know.

At 6 a.m., Ducky woke Rosa Lee to say that Howard and Patty were fighting in the hallway. Ducky pulled Patty, strung out from smoking crack and drinking liquor, into Rosa Lee's apartment. Patty's left forearm was bleeding. She told Rosa Lee that she had cut herself with a knife during an argument in Howard's apartment.

Two paramedics arrived and bandaged Patty's arm. Moaning that she still loved Howard, she cried herself to sleep as Rosa Lee held her.

As I drop Rosa Lee off at her apartment, I try not to think about what awaits her inside.

"Merry Christmas, Rosa Lee," I say softly as she opens the car door. "I'll see you next week."

"Merry Christmas, Mr. Dash."

Continue to Part Two


© 1994 The Washington Post Company

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