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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 Four
Wrestling With Recovery in a Changing Drug Culture

A crowd is milling around the bank of aluminum mailboxes that sits on a grassy island outside Rosa Lee Cunningham's apartment building. The midday sun is warm on this spring day in 1992, and my car window is open as Rosa Lee and I pull into the parking lot.

"Has the mailman come yet?" Rosa Lee shouts to her neighbors.

"No," comes the reply.

Ordinarily, the mailman's whereabouts don't generate much interest at the Southeast Washington housing complex where Rosa Lee lives. But today is the first of the month, the day when government checks are due to arrive.

Standing off to the side, surveying the scene, is a group of teenage boys who sell crack cocaine in the Washington Highlands neighborhood that surrounds the federally subsidized complex. They too are waiting for the mailman. As soon as the checks are cashed, they will begin their rounds, making new sales and collecting old debts.

Even before Rosa Lee reaches the door to her second-floor apartment, it flies open. Her 34-year-old daughter, Patty, sticks out her head. "Momma, have the checks come yet?" Patty says urgently in a loud voice.

"Patty, you don't have to shout," Rosa Lee says. "You know the checks don't come until 1 o'clock."

We step into the living room and the reason for Patty's nervousness becomes clear: Seated on the couch are two teenage crack dealers, known to me only as Two-Two and Man. Between them is Ducky, 32, another of Rosa Lee's eight children. All three are staring at the television, watching an afternoon soap opera.

Two-Two and Man have come to collect from Patty and Ducky. The teenagers know they have a better chance of getting their money if they show up early, before Rosa Lee and Patty have cashed their checks. I have seen this ritual many times since I began spending several days a week with Rosa Lee to learn how several generations of one family have lived with poverty, crime and drugs. Even so, Two-Two and Man barely acknowledge my presence.

Rosa Lee greets them. The boys nod, their facial expressions masks of cool indifference. They are dressed in hip-hop style: oversized jeans, baggy shirts, expensive sneakers and baseball caps. Rosa Lee has asked Two-Two and Man several times not to sell crack to Patty and Ducky on credit, but they ignore her. I once asked her why. "Because they know Momma is going to bail her children out," she says.

Rosa Lee and son Ducky
Photo by Lucian Perkins
Rosa Lee hugs Ducky and keeps him warm as she waits for her bus.
There is no hint of sarcasm or irony in Rosa Lee's voice, just a simple statement of fact by someone trapped in a drug culture she helped perpetuate. For years she sold heroin to addicts who would do almost anything for a fix; now her own children beg her for money to feed their habits. She herself is a recovering heroin addict who didn't quit until the fall of 1990, when an injection sent her into a life-threatening seizure. But Patty and Ducky haven't quit, nor have three of her other children.

It's the kind of environment that sociologist William J. Wilson has studied in his work on urban neighborhoods that have become dominated by what Wilson calls "a concentration of poverty." Wilson said it is "extremely difficult" for family members living in close quarters with drug users to come away unscathed. Rosa Lee and her family, he told me, reflect "the effects of living in neighborhoods that are overwhelmingly impoverished with all the opportunities for illegal activities, with limited opportunities for conventional activity."

Illegal activity swirls around Rosa Lee every day. She resents having to protect her adult children from drug dealers, but she always comes to their rescue. With some pride, she tells me about the time she saved Patty and Ducky from Two-Two's wrath.

It was Labor Day weekend in 1991. The checks had come early, on Friday and Saturday, because Sept. 1 fell on a Sunday. Before Two-Two and Man could find Patty, she had cashed her $252 welfare check and spent it all in a few hours. She paid Rosa Lee the $100 that she had borrowed for crack the month before, paid off several of the other dealers who found her first and then spent the rest on more crack.

So when Two-Two showed up Saturday afternoon to collect $30 from her, $80 from Ducky and $150 from Patty's boyfriend, Patty hid in Rosa Lee's bedroom and Ducky hid in the hall closet. "I want my goddamn money," Two-Two yelled, banging his fist on Rosa Lee's apartment door. "Mama Rose, I don't mean no harm. If we let them go, everybody will think they can do it. Would you rather I knock on the door or do you want me to knock them on their ass?"

Rosa Lee knew Two-Two and Man meant business. Though she called them "young'uns," they were tougher and less patient than many of the dealers she knew in the 1970s and 1980s, when she made a living selling heroin in Northwest Washington.

She didn't want to pay them out of her $422 monthly disability check. "I didn't see any way to make it through the month if I paid all my bills and paid off their debts too," she told me.

"All of a sudden," she said, "my mind started working." She decided to become a crack seller, just for the weekend. She asked Two-Two to introduce her to a crack supplier.

"What can I make with $300?" Rosa Lee asked the supplier, a man in his late twenties.

"You can double it," he said. Later that evening, Rosa Lee handed over $300 in return for 30 plastic bags of crack, each containing one "$20 rock." She then sent Patty and Ducky to round up customers.

As the supplier prepared the packages, Rosa Lee's 14-year-old granddaughter walked in. She understood immediately. "I don't want you to go back to jail, grandma," she told Rosa Lee.

Buyers trooped up to Rosa Lee's apartment until 5 a.m. She sold some bags at a discount and gave in to Patty's and Ducky's pleas for free samples. When it was all over, she hadn't made enough to cover her $300 outlay. She ended up paying off the debts out of her own funds.

"I could have made more if I hadn't given Ducky something now and then, and Patty something now and then," she said.

Exhausted from being awake all night, she washed up and got ready for church.

Since that weekend, Two-Two and Man have looked to Rosa Lee whenever Patty or Ducky can't pay up. This particular afternoon is no different. The mailman finally arrives, Rosa Lee agrees to cover the debts, the checks are cashed at a nearby liquor store and the money changes hands.

As soon as Two-Two and Man leave, Patty and Ducky are off in search of more crack.

CHAPTER ONE: 'Mama Rose'

At 8:15 one January morning in 1992, Rosa Lee slams the brown metal door to her one-bedroom apartment and walks slowly down the stairs to meet the government-run van for the six-mile ride to the city methadone clinic.

She steps out into a biting wind, but is glad to leave her crowded apartment. Inside, her sons Richard, Ronnie and Ducky are asleep on makeshift beds in the living room. Patty is in Rosa Lee's double bed, which they have been sharing for weeks.

Rosa Lee looks forward to this part of her day. At the methadone clinic, she sees old friends she has known since she lived at Clifton Terrace in the 1970s and early 1980s. They greet her with affection.

"Hi ya doing, Mama Rose?"

"Ya' looking good, Mama Rose."

"Nice to see you, Mama Rose."

"Mama Rose" is what they called her at Clifton Terrace. She likes the name and the respect it implies. She drifts to the back of a line that stretches down the corridor toward a counter encased in plexiglass. A sign on the plexiglass sets the rules: "Attention . . . Your methadone will be in 3 ounces of water. Please do not ask the nurse for less." Some patients believe the methadone works better if less diluted.

The line moves forward methodically, dozens of people from different neighborhoods and different backgrounds, all bound together by their addiction. Behind the glass, the nurse measures out the blood-red methadone into a plastic cup, places it on a revolving tray, then spins it so the patient can take the cup through the opening. The patients receive different doses, depending on their weight and how much they need to effectively curb their craving for heroin.

The nurse measures out Rosa Lee's dosage. Following the rules, Rosa Lee drinks it down as a nurse watches. The glass between them doesn't encourage conversation. The transaction over, Rosa Lee heads for the door.

On many weekday mornings, I meet her outside at the clinic, a modern two-story coffee-colored building at 33 N St. NE, and we ride two blocks to the McDonald's on New York Avenue NE.

The McDonald's is Rosa Lee's preferred spot for breakfast. She spends several hours there each day, chatting with other patients from the methadone clinic and "regulars" who hang out there. Her routine is the same: She orders Cheerios or the breakfast special of pancakes, sausage and scrambled eggs.

This particular morning, she settles on Cheerios. She tears open seven packages of sugar, dumps them in her coffee and then rips open several more and empties them onto her cereal. She can't stand to eat anything until she drinks her methadone, so this is her first food of the day.

A woman approaches. She hands Rosa Lee $3 in a folded lump.

"More Darvon sales?" I ask.

"Yeah," Rosa Lee says.

Darvon is a prescription painkiller that some methadone patients use for a cheap high. They like Xanax, a prescription tranquilizer, even more. Rosa Lee often has a supply of Darvon and Xanax to sell. She was prescribed both drugs after she injured her back slightly in a bus accident in August 1991. She has used the injury as an excuse for getting refills. As a Medicaid patient, she pays just 50 cents for the 60 pills that come in each prescription. She resells Darvon at $1 a pill and Xanax at $2.

She can't refill them too often without drawing suspicion, so it's not something that brings in a lot of money. But it gives her a certain stature with the McDonald's crowd.

Some days, she will bring in clothes that she has shoplifted to sell or give away. One time, she brought a toddler-sized yellow sweat suit that her sons stole in a burglary; she gave it away to a homeless woman who was there with her 3-year-old daughter. "I just felt guilty trying to sell it to her," she told me.

A few months after I began visiting Rosa Lee regularly in the fall of 1990, she told me that several of her McDonald's buddies couldn't understand why she was allowing me to write about her. "They told me, 'Stay away from reporters. They put people's business in the street.' "

I smiled and told her it was true. "We're nosy and intrusive. I want your permission to follow you for a long time. There will be many days when I will ask you about the same thing over and over again, and then come back months later and ask you again. You might end up cussing me out."

She laughed. "That's all right. You look like you could handle it."

Our relationship has evolved from those early days. I have tried to remain an impartial observer, but, inevitably, I have become a vital part of her life. Sometimes I am her driver, ferrying her to the methadone clinic or the welfare office. Sometimes I am her translator, helping her to decipher paperwork that baffles her because she can't read. More often, I am her confidante, listening to her painful recriminations about her life and her children.

Staying at arm's length is difficult. My refusals don't deter her from trying to get me involved.

"Mr. Dash," she says, tilting her head and softening her voice, "tell me, what should I do?"

"I'm not in it, Rose," I'll say.

" 'I'm not in it, Rose,' " she mimics. "Why do you always say that? I need your help. I don't have anyone else to talk to."

That's why she enjoys her McDonald's visits. There, she can escape her problems for a while. One day, as she ranted about her children's drug habits, she broke down in tears about how trapped she felt.

"Mr. Dash," she said, "I don't have no friends. The only friends you know I got is up there."

"At McDonald's?"

"McDonald's. That's all. And they're not what you call friends, but that's all I got."

CHAPTER TWO: The Cocoa Club

Most of the McDonald's crowd is a generation younger than Rosa Lee. Once in a while, though, she runs into one of her old heroin customers from the days when she waited tables at the Cocoa Club, a nightclub that once operated at the corner of Eighth and H streets NE. "That's way back," she says. "Not too many alive from those days."

"Those days" were the 1950s and 1960s. In the world that Rosa Lee knows, in the neighborhoods where she grew up, in the places where she raised her children, on the streets where she once bought and sold drugs, there are many people whose lives ended too early, cut short by too much heroin or too much alcohol or just simply too much misfortune.

One day at McDonald's, Rosa Lee pulls an old photograph out of her pocketbook. It is a Polaroid, and it shows a younger Rosa Lee, in her early thirties, dressed in a sleek black outfit, with matching pants and top. Behind her is the dance floor of the Cocoa Club.

The photo was taken sometime in the late 1960s by a regular customer at the club. Rosa Lee had run into the man recently, and he remembered the photo. He ran home to get it, and insisted that Rosa Lee keep it.

It is the only photo I have ever seen of Rosa Lee at this age; she looks smashing and vibrant. She looks as if she belongs.

She never planned to work at the club. As a teenager in the early and mid-1950s, Rosa Lee often went with her girlfriends to the Cocoa Club to dance and drink. The club's owner noticed her and asked her if she wanted to wait tables. It was her first job. She was 20, and had just given birth to Eric, her fifth child. The year was 1956.

The pay was good, and it was in cash, so she could hide it from the welfare office. She worked at night, leaving her mother to take care of her children. It was fun and exciting. There was live music and flashy customers.

One was a heroin dealer. Soon after she started working at the club, he took her aside and offered her a chance to make a little extra money: If she would sell heroin to customers that he sent her way, she could keep $25 of every $100 she sold.

She concealed the heroin, which was contained in small capsules, inside her bra. The capsules sold for $1 each, and customers usually bought three. "Friday nights was when I would sell them," recalled Rosa Lee. "Friday nights, I would sell hundreds in there. The owner never knew I was selling heroin, but he was always asking me why my tables would be full with customers when the other tables were empty. I told him, " 'Cause I take care of my customers!' "

The heroin business, she said, was nothing like the crack business today. She never treated her customers the way Two-Two and Man now treat Patty and Ducky. She thought of herself as several cuts above the "jugglers," the dealers who sold their heroin on the streets. She was a high-class dealer with high-class customers; they paid promptly and in cash.

She resisted the temptation to take a hit herself. She saw the powerful grip that heroin held on her customers, and it frightened her. Besides, she couldn't afford a heroin habit. By 1961, she had eight children to support. She took a second job at another H Street nightclub, the 821 Club, as a "shake dancer" -- slang for strip tease. Soon, she was engaging in prostitution with club customers.

"The men would ask if they could take me home," Rosa Lee said. "I'd come right out with it. 'Yeah, you can take me home. I got eight children at home. We need some money for food!' "

She also picked up additional things by shoplifting: shoes for little Patty, pants for one of the boys. She was caught occasionally, but the judge always gave her probation and sent her home. Then, in October 1965, her luck ran out.

She was arrested as she tried to steal an expensive coat from a Maryland department store. Two security guards spotted her as she went to the coat rack, took off her raggedy brown wool coat, slipped into the plush new coat and hung the old one in its place.

She pleaded guilty. On Christmas Eve, the judge sentenced her to a year in prison.

Her mother was sitting in the first row of spectator seats. "You're not going to forget this!" yelled Rosetta Wright, waving her right forefinger at Rosa Lee's face. "You hear me? Leaving all those goddamn children! You're not going to forget this!"

CHAPTER THREE: 'Are You Doing It?'

Rosetta took care of Rosa Lee's children for the eight months that Rosa Lee spent in jail, but Rosa Lee felt little gratitude. The tension between them was as bad as ever. Rosetta told the welfare office that Rosa Lee's prison term showed she was an unfit mother; this convinced Rosa Lee that Rosetta would like nothing better than to have custody of the children and the welfare payments that came with them. Their battles only deepened Rosa Lee's resolve to retrieve her children and move away from her mother's apartment as quickly as she could.

After her release, she returned to her waitress job at the Cocoa Club and resumed her heroin sales. Within a few months, she found a one-bedroom apartment on Bates Street NW, near North Capitol Street. It was small and roach-infested, but it meant that she was no longer under her mother's thumb.

The children, especially the older ones, remember these years as a time of constant turmoil. Between 1966 and 1968, they moved four times before ending up in a public housing complex in the Marshall Heights area of Southeast Washington. The apartments had one thing in common: All were located in areas known for illegal drug activity.

Heroin was available to anyone who wanted it, including teenagers. In 1967, Ronnie became the first of Rosa Lee's children to try it. He was 15 and in the seventh grade.

As he remembers it now, his best friend offered him a capsule at a party, suggesting that Ronnie snort the whitish powder. He had been searching for something that would give him more confidence, help him to overcome his fear of girls and to control an embarrassing stammer that took over whenever he was under stress.

"I tried some," Ronnie said. "It stopped my stammering." Within a few months, he and his new girlfriend were "skinpopping" the drug in their arms.

He tried hard to hide his addiction from Rosa Lee, but there was a trail of evidence: He needed money to pay for his habit, so he would sell household items or steal from Rosa Lee's purse. He skipped school often and finally just dropped out in the eighth grade.

Rosa Lee didn't connect any of this to a heroin habit. She had never paid much attention to her children's performance in school, much as Rosetta had never paid much attention to hers. Then, one day in 1969, she found empty heroin capsules and syringes in Ronnie's room.

"Are you doing it?" she asked him in a soft voice.

"Yeah," Ronnie said, ashamed. "You want me to get out?"

Rosa Lee shook her head. Ronnie was surprised by what she said next.

"She told me, just like she told me when I started smoking cigarettes, 'You got to take care of your own habits!' "

CHAPTER FOUR: 'Get Outta Bed!'

In the neighborhood where Rosa Lee lived in the late 1960s, word got around that she had heroin to sell. Addicts flocked to her apartment on 57th Place SE, a long street that ends in a cul-de-sac near the Prince George's County line. Some were banging on her door before the sun rose.

"Some of them would be shaking," Rosa Lee told me. "Some said their stomachs hurt. Some said their backs hurt. And they were always begging, begging, begging. They did not have the full price. I'd sell to them at a discount because I couldn't stand the begging and sniffling and wiping their noses. . . . I wanted them to come back. They'd pay full price when they came back that afternoon, after they had a chance to steal something or hustle up some money."

She sometimes let them use her bedroom to inject the drug. Her youngest children often were getting ready for school, so Rosa Lee told her customers to make sure the door was closed.

"After a few minutes, they come out of there completely changed," she said. "They were relaxed, not worried about anything. They'd tell me how good the dope made them feel. I was curious about what dope could do for me, if I could feel good all day. . . . But I was still too scared to try it."

It wasn't long before police also heard about Rosa Lee's business. That's when the raids began.

One night in 1969, the police battered down the door and the children woke up to find officers, their guns drawn, waving flashlights and shouting, "Get outta bed! Get outta bed!" Rosa Lee's youngest daughter, then 8, remembers she was so afraid that she wet her bed.

The police never found anything. Rosa Lee kept her stash at a friend's house nearby. But the raids continued, sometimes as often as once a month.

The younger children had no idea why the police kept breaking down the door. But the older children knew too well what was going on. "They raided us so often," Ronnie said. "We were so hot."

CHAPTER FIVE: Rosa Lee's First Hit

Rosa Lee's first drug use started with her desire to lose weight.

It was 1973, and the family was living in a four-bedroom apartment at Clifton Terrace. The police had battered the door at the 57th Place apartment so many times that D.C. housing officials grew weary of fixing it. In the summer of 1972, they ordered Rosa Lee to move. Rosa Lee said she gave $100 to someone in authority and her name went to the top of the waiting list at Clifton Terrace.

One day, Rosa Lee found out that Lucky, a close friend, was regularly injecting something called "bam," the street name for Preludin, an amphetamine-like stimulant. Lucky told her that bam helped reduce her weight by curbing her appetite.

Bam didn't frighten Rosa Lee the way heroin did. Lucky had been using it for months, and Rosa Lee hadn't noticed any change in Lucky's behavior.

Rosa Lee's weight had been creeping up. She asked Lucky for a hit. "Lucky wouldn't hit me," she said.

Rosa Lee asked one of Ronnie's girlfriends if she knew anything about bam. The friend, a school-crossing guard at nearby Eugene Meyer Elementary School, told Rosa Lee that she used bam in the morning before she went to her post.

Every morning for the next year, the woman brought bam to Rosa Lee's apartment. In the pre-dawn darkness, she would prepare the solution and inject Rosa Lee and herself.

"I liked the feeling," Rosa Lee said. "I could feel it all in my stomach. That's the first thing that shrinks. Your stomach. I would go the WHOLE DAY without eating, with a WHOLE lot of energy! I would clean up the whole house. Nothing was clean enough. I'd take two or three baths. I was on top of everything. In three weeks, I lost about 20 pounds."

By 1975, two more of her children had joined Ronnie as drug users. Bobby, then 25, began smoking opium while serving in the Army in Vietnam. And Patty, who had watched Ronnie shoot up when she was 11, became a regular user when she was 17.

Rosa Lee had plenty of opportunities to try something stronger than bam, but she still resisted. Then, at her 39th birthday party, she gave in.

It had been a difficult month. She was going through a breakup of a three-year relationship. At her party, all she could do was cry. Patty suggested "a shot of dope" might help her get over her pain.

After that October night in 1975, mother and daughter became daily heroin users. Rosa Lee was never able to inject herself. If Patty or Ronnie or Bobby weren't available, she went to a Clifton Terrace "oilin' joint," and paid $3 for someone to give her a hit.

For 19 years, she had resisted the lure of the drug she sold. Now, she fell to the same depths as the addicts who had knocked on her door and begged for a fix: Her eyes were red and watery. Her stomach hurt when the heroin wore off. Her body quaked and shivered as it waited for the next hit.

Over the next 15 years, nothing motivated her to stop. In 1983, she survived a misplaced injection that caused a bone in her neck to become infected, and went right back to using heroin. In 1988, she learned that she, Bobby and Patty had HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. She continued to shoot up. Then a series of seizures nearly killed her in the fall of 1990, and a doctor warned her that her next injection might be her last.

Now her life is a daily struggle to stay on methadone and stay away from the drug use that spins around her. Mostly, she succeeds. There is no evidence that she took a single hit in all of 1991; she was doing so well that the clinic invited her to speak to a group of addicts about her experience. That's why I am startled one day in early 1992 to notice that the back of her left hand is swollen and red. It looks like the traces of "skinpopping," a method of injecting heroin.

"What are you looking at?" she demands, hiding her hands in the folds of her winter coat.

"I'm looking at your swollen left hand," I say.

CHAPTER SIX: 'Would It Kill Me?'

Rosa Lee isn't pleased that I have noticed the tell-tale sign of heroin use, but she decides to tell me the story anyway.

Earlier in the week, she had been sitting in McDonald's with several of her methadone buddies. Everyone was chattering excitedly about the Christmas gifts they had received from their children. Everyone except Rosa Lee.

Most of Rosa Lee's children hadn't given her anything. "I couldn't say a word," Rosa Lee told me. "I just sat there and looked, and before I knew it, I went into the bathroom and started crying."

To cheer her up, one of her friends suggested they share a "billy" or two of heroin, the quarter-teaspoon package commonly sold on the streets of Washington. Ordinarily, Rosa Lee would have dismissed the idea. Not this time.

She wondered if it would be dangerous. "What would happen if I did some?" she asked her friend. "Would it kill me?" Her friend told her not to worry. Rosa Lee decided to risk it.

As soon as Patty heard about the plan, she was eager to join in. It would be like old times: Patty would give Rosa Lee the hit, then hit herself. Patty and the friend went looking for a neighborhood dealer.

A short while later, Patty sat on Rosa Lee's bed and stuck the needle in the back of Rosa Lee's hand.

"Momma, can you feel it?" Patty whispered.

Rosa Lee shook her head.

Patty was worried about giving Rosa Lee too much at once. She remembered Rosa Lee's first seizure, and the panic she felt as Rosa Lee's eyes rolled back in her head.

"Are you ready to take it all?" Patty asked.

"If you stay here with me," Rosa Lee said.

Patty pushed the rest of the milky liquid into Rosa Lee's vein. Rosa Lee waited for the familiar rush. But it never came. The methadone seemed to be blocking the high.

"I didn't feel anything I used to feel," she tells me.

"Why did you take a chance on dying?"

She wriggles uncomfortably in her seat. "I didn't see it that way, taking a chance on dying. I thought I might have a seizure, but I didn't think I was taking a chance on dying."

I remind her of the doctor's warning. She mutters something and averts her eyes. We spar for a few minutes, and it becomes clear that the conversation is going nowhere. She completes my next question before I can finish it.

"You really don't have a . . . ?" I begin.

"A good reason for why I took it?" she said. "No, I really don't."

Continue to Part Five


© 1994 The Washington Post Company

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