OCTOBER 22, 2014
THE DAY BEFORE I finished reading Ruben Castaneda’s memoir I left my office at Howard University and walked to the neighborhood he described in his book.
It took me about 15 minutes.
I walked down Georgia Avenue until I reached Florida Avenue, where I made a left and went two blocks to 5th Street. From there I walked down to S. Today, S Street, like many parts of Washington, DC, has been changed by the rising tide of gentrification, gentrification that has taken place only after the death of many young black men.
In 1989, Ruben Castaneda left the Los Angeles Herald Examiner (where he had worked for six years) and took a job as a night police reporter with the Washington Post. He quickly found himself in the center of a city hit hard by the crack epidemic. In the first chapter of S Street Rising, Castaneda reveals that he too is addicted to crack. His book pulls you into the world of addiction as Castaneda reveals the risks he took seeking to obtain drugs, as well as the guilt he felt after the ecstatic high was gone.
In December 2007, Castaneda wrote an article for the Post Magazine about his personal battle with crack, and this launched the full-length memoir. The structure of S Street Rising, however, keeps this book from being just another story of addiction and redemption. Castaneda weaves together multiple narratives, surrounding his story with those of others whose lives have been affected by the drug wars. He combines his skills as a reporter, in other words — even as the newspaper industry was imploding — with the memoirist’s art — at a time when self-revelation was becoming part of many people’s daily lives on the web. Castaneda took a risk by writing about his own life in this way, although on the other side of the equation was the increasing popularity of the memoir as a genre, along with the rise of social media, and what we might call the death of privacy. This is the complicated backdrop for S Street Rising.
Standing on S Street in 2014, I thought of all the ghosts. Castaneda was a witness to a second Civil War — blacks against blacks fighting over rocks. In 1989, when he arrived from the West Coast, there had been 434 killings in Washington, many the result of gang wars caused by fighting over drugs and turf. It was a city in which Mayor Marion Barry was also a drug user and a victim of the times. Between 1986 and 1988 the police undertook Operation Clean Sweep, arresting 40,000 street dealers and buyers.
As the city fell apart so did Ruben Castaneda. He lets us feel the craving one gets for crack and sex. Money is suddenly used for nothing else. There is no stopping until one stops oneself. Castaneda is having problems at work and is eventually forced to enter a rehab facility in Maryland. Here we find a turning point in his life and story — a brief telephone conversation with his father provides him inner strength to get his life back on track. It would not be easy; there would be temptations. Castaneda writes with real honesty, and avoids the trap of letting the trope of the hero overcoming adversity shape his narrative.
It remains complicated. I was moved by the exchange with his father. However, I was surprised he didn’t thank him in the acknowledgments, although the book is dedicated to his parents.
As a journalist, Castaneda is focused on the bigger picture. This is a book written by a reporter and not a blogger. Castaneda wants to know what is happening to a community and why. He is attracted by people trying to do good, people who have faith in their fellow human beings. Thanks to Castaneda we know about Lou Hennessy, a veteran police officer, fighting a bureaucratic system along with a drug war. We also learn the story of pastor Jim Dickerson, who opened New Community Church on S Street in 1984. His story provides the moral center for Castaneda’s memoir. Dickerson teaches a faith built on personal transformation; he decides to build a church among the junkies and hookers who populate the street. He owes his success, ultimately, to Baldie, the neighborhood drug kingpin. In his focus on Baldie and these other struggling human beings, Castaneda helps us see beyond the stereotypes we might have of folks simply standing on corners or sitting on the steps of stoops. Baldie is responsible for many of the bad as well as many of the good things that happen on S Street.
Ruben Castaneda’s tale of his own fall and rise is made powerful and urgent by his documentation of the lives of others who attempted to make a way out of no way. The closing chapter of S Street Rising is unforgettable. Many years after the crack epidemic, Castaneda returns to S Street to speak at New Community Church. He talks to the small congregation about how he became a crack addict and purchased his drugs on S Street. He knows that by buying those drugs he was one of the people responsible for turning a decent neighborhood into a combat zone. His tone of humbly seeking redemption is one that makes this memoir a book not simply worthy of reading but deserving of high praise. How many of us can so openly confess our sins?
After all the murders, and the sadness, what is left to forgive? What have we, the living, learned? Ruben Castaneda has written a book in which one can feel the soul of a man. So many of us remain fragile, and afraid of honesty. But we must continue to be believers. On other streets, in other cities, the drug war is still being fought. Somewhere there is another Ruben Castaneda not yet aware of his mistakes. We must have faith that one day he, too, shall rise.
E. Ethelbert Miller is a literary activist and writer. He is director of the African American Resource Center at Howard University. The author of several collections of poetry and two memoirs, he is often heard on National Public Radio.