Dec 11, 2020, 05:57AM

Up and Down the Recovery Escalator

Paying tribute to an amazing friendship and mourning another couple of lives lost senselessly and needlessly.

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Names have been changed and a few minor details withheld to avoid identifying and/or incriminating the individuals discussed.

I first met Shaheed about five years ago, when he would’ve been 12 or 13. I’d reached a point in my drug and alcohol use where it was no longer possible to maintain a facade of normalcy; my long-term relationship had fallen apart due to my addictions and some other, unrelated financial pressures that were exacerbating and exacerbated by my loosening grasp on the last vestiges of stability. I lost the three jobs I’d been working (one full-time, two part-time) one after the other, with a horrific auto accident in between, and alienated those closest to me and became a stranger to myself. But it’s important to note and remember that every surface you hit in your downward spiral isn’t the floor, and I had a ways to go yet before I reached the hard, craggy, jagged bottom.

I met Melvin through a friend and, when that friend got locked up, started seeing more of him because he was a reliable contact for coke and dope and, as I’d learned during my previous exposure to him, he played fair. Shortly after I started going through him for most of my addiction needs, his wife moved out of their house, fed up with a number of factors, most of them reminiscent of the ones that had led to the dissolution of my own relationship.

Melvin was then about 50 and had grown up in and around Church Hill, played football and basketball in high school and got a scholarship to an HBCU in the Tidewater area to play football, but, he told me, he hadn’t adjusted well to college life and found it difficult to focus on his coursework with all that was going on at the campus. So not long after getting to the school, he opted to return home and pursue a variety of low-level jobs, as well as deepening his involvement with the city’s then burgeoning crack-cocaine trade, which he’d smoked a few times in and after high school. From there, his story had played out the same way so many have done: worsening addictions leading to lowered job stability and, finally, loss of a decent job, followed by mostly petty crime and short- and medium-length incarcerations, resulting in the modern Scarlet Letter of the felony conviction, rendering him unemployable at many jobs for which he was otherwise qualified, all the while his addictions chugging along and consuming more of his time, energy and life.

Despite his sporadic jail and penitentiary terms and substance dependencies, Melvin maintained a good relationship with his first wife and their daughters, and remarried and became a good stepfather two his two stepkids. Later, he babysat regularly for some of his many grandchildren.

Around the time I was first getting to know Melvin, his daughter and her children had gotten evicted from their home and moved into his house. It was a large place, built in the 1920s in the old Church Hill district, five bedrooms and two bathrooms, with a sizable basement and attic; Melvin (who’d been, with his second wife, live-in caretakers to his diabetic, double amputee father) and his siblings had inherited it from their deceased parents, who’d both had good jobs with pensions and had the sort of monthly mortgage payment that seems difficult to believe is real these days. The house was in bad need of some repairs, but overall it was a good arrangement.

I can’t claim to know the full details of what caused Melvin’s daughter to move out and don’t think I would “spill all that tea” even if I could, but one doesn’t have to use too much imagination to reach the conclusion that seven children and their young mother living with her father, who is addicted to substances and “middles” to support himself and his habits and who has friends and customers coming over at all hours, while the daughter contributes only intermittently to expenses and herself has a habit of running out whenever the mood strikes her, often without explanation, was an unsustainable living arrangement. And so Melvin’s daughter left with the five youngest of those seven (she also had an 18-year-old daughter who was out on her own) to live elsewhere, while the oldest two sons, Raheem and the aforementioned Shaheed, stayed at Melvin’s.

I had a tendency in my time of using to become friends with dealers and middlemen. Often I’d start out with the intention of just getting friendly because it’s always better to be on good terms with someone who holds the keys to the boat that can get you off “Frog Island,” as we called being sick. Somewhere along the way, though, either via some form of chemistry or just continued exposure and the resulting familiarity, guards would be let down and we’d get to be real friends who counted on one another in times of need and gave freely without hesitation. Two friendships like this stand out, but the one with Melvin is the closest I’ve experienced to real solidarity outside of blood relations, to the point where we began referring to one another and each of us introduced the other to new people as our brother. Sometimes we played it for a laugh (“Y’all are brothers?” someone would ask uncertainly. “Yeah, can’t you see the resemblance?” one of us would respond.) But we both believed it, and I couldn’t even begin to recount the number of times we’ve given the other his last dollar, or how many times one of us would split the tiniest bit of dope with the other in an effort to stave of sickness. To this day, though our circumstances have changed immeasurably for the better, I’d give him the shirt off my back if he needed it and I know the same is true of him.

Raheem was an outgoing kid, occasionally to the point of being overbearing. If I was looking at something on my phone while sitting on the couch, Melvin in the bathroom getting sick, both clucking while we waited for the dope man to show up, Raheem wouldn’t hesitate to come over and sit next to me and ask what I was looking at, even position his head so he could see for himself. If it was something he knew about—sports or maybe a new movie or game—he’d weigh in, sharing his opinion and asking mine and arguing about why I was wrong and he was right. It was often sort of annoying, but I was glad he was comfortable enough around me that it wasn’t all awkward, tense silences, if for no other reason than being dopesick is an anxious enough experience without adding weird interpersonal disquiet to the mix.

Shaheed, just under two years older than his brother, was quieter, both because of shyness and because he had a severe stutter. I haven’t known many people with stutters or speech impediments, but I understand that excitement and nervousness can play a part in worsening them, and this seemed to be the case with Shaheed: he could talk more easily with his brother and Melvin, but when he’d say something to me or some other person he didn’t know well, he’d really labor over it, sometimes to the point of giving up completely and then just remaining silent. I never heard or saw Melvin become impatient with Shaheed over this, and was impressed with his ability to remain calm in this and most other guardian-type situations regardless of how sick he may have been at the time (and there were many mornings where both of us were “all in pieces,” as we referred to the constantly sniffling, yawning, watery-eyed, runny-nosed, restless legged, shambolic state of starting the day dopesick).

At some point, Melvin’s nephew by marriage, D, began to run his drug-sale operation out of the kitchen. He’d done it out of a more traditional trap house, but that had fallen apart. In agreeing to let D sling out of his house, Melvin was clear that his house would not be a “trap” and that people wouldn’t be smoking up and shooting up in the living room or anywhere in the house. People could come to the door and come in and sit down in the living room while they waited to be served, or go into the kitchen if D and his friends preferred, but they wouldn’t do their shit in the house and they wouldn’t hang around out front of the house or “just be actin’ crazy,” as he put it. D agreed, and he and two of his friends began spending most of their time in the kitchen, with at least one of the trio in the house pretty much around the clock.

I’ll note here that for whatever other criticisms one may make of all this and exposing children to this sort of thing, in addition to what I described above, neither Melvin nor I ever did anything in front of his grandkids and neither D nor his friends ever let them see drugs or told them what was going on. Melvin and I spent most of our time in the basement listening to music and talking while we did our stuff down there (and usually in the bathroom down there, in my case, since I required a greater degree of privacy to shoot up than Melvin). Melvin was also concealing his crack habit from D et al, which added an extra wrinkle of privacy and, occasionally, humor, as I’d show up empty-handed on some afternoon, go downstairs with Melvin, and he’d give me some money to go upstairs to pay D for a piece of candy that I’d then return downstairs to split with him. I can’t imagine D didn’t have at least some inkling of what was going on, but Melvin always managed to keep it out of his face and, on the many occasions where he was given some work to sell, he always paid the proper amount for it, so there were never any problems on that end.

Once D and his friends were at the house, it got somewhat easier for Melvin (who was being compensated not only with drugs but helped, though probably less than he should’ve been all things considered, materially with household expenses) and me. Melvin had already shown I could depend on him, and vice versa, but D and co. got used to me too, and would throw me a little extra for whatever money I had to spend, and would overlook my being short more than they did with others. This is all just good business, perhaps, but on many occasions they’d also order pizza or prepare huge “swoles” like guys in jail and prison do and make sure I ate, knowing I was really scuffling and not eating regularly. At one point D told me that if I needed help paying a bill or if I wanted to try to get off junk that he could help me, and he did, in fact, pay my cell phone bill on a few occasions and got me a supply of Suboxone that I neglected to use at one point. On any number of days when I’d been out flying a sign in the cold without much success I’d call Melvin and tell him my situation and he’d say matter-of-factly, “Come fuck with me,” which was his invitation to come get well and then do whatever I needed to do from there.

I tried not to be overly dependent on generosity, not just because I didn’t want to be seen as a pest, but because I didn’t want to be one; in better times, I’d stuck my neck out for friends who took a foot when I gave an inch, done favors for people and been fucked over in kind. I was also conscious of trying to preserve some semblance of reciprocity in these relationships since I’d so fucked things up with friends and family previously.

Through all this, Shaheed was still there. Raheem had gone to live with his mother again; their older sister had come to live at Melvin’s and was working a steady job and contributing to household costs. Shaheed was coming out of his shell and his stutter seemed to be improving. He talked a lot more freely and joked with everyone there, to the degree, even, that his grandfather thought he was getting overly “grown;” that is, being too familiar with and nonchalant about laughing and kidding with D and his friends and me. He corrected him, sternly, saying that he was “still a kid” and should have a certain measure of respect for adults. He was also sure to try to keep him on a fairly regular schedule despite his having been put out of school for the semester before coming to live there. “You ain’t on vacation,” he’d remind him when it seemed the boy needed it, and made him help with yardwork and other chores.

On some occasions, Shaheed would either want to or would be sent to the store at the bottom of the hill or the small grocery across the field behind the house, and I’d usually be asked to accompany him both for safety and to buy any product that might be age-restricted. We talked pretty regularly on those walks, often about mundane things—sports, the weather, what to put in the swole for which we were buying ingredients, etc.—but from time to time he’d ask things about my background or about issues he (or “a friend”) was having. He was a very nice kid and, I realized, sort of lost, as many kids his age (he would’ve been about 14 then) can be. I asked if he was planning to go back to live with his mother when he could go back to school and he was adamant that he didn’t want to and was planning to stay with “Pop-Pop” and enroll in the school nearby as soon as he could. When that came to pass, I’d occasionally help out with homework when he asked. Another time Melvin and I played D and Shaheed in a series of two-on-two games at the blacktop across the street, which was fun.

As positively as I can still view some of these memories despite their context, I must point out the obvious and say that things weren’t always so rosy and all sorts of bad shit happened at the same time. One of D’s friends had what he described as a “crazy bitch” (in reality, a woman he’d been cheating on) keeping tabs on him and showed up late night/early in the morning on a couple of occasions to cause a commotion, bringing the police around after she threw a bottle at the house. Another time a new neighbor down the street called the police because they noticed a car loitering out front of Melvin’s house for longer than they thought it should have. Then there was drama about counts being off and D got mad and thought one or both of his friends (who were also subordinate to him in their operation) was stealing from him and got pissy with “Unc” (Melvin) and said he should’ve been paying for some of the shit he’d been getting, leading Melvin to cuss him out and the two to nearly come to blows. This sort of overlapped with a point where the water got turned off and D et al were dragging their feet on whether they would help him get it turned back on (more than $500 to do so), which he said they should since they were using plenty of water in their time there.

Things invariably worked out, but ultimately one of Melvin’s younger sisters, with whom he had a strained relationship, made a move to sell the house out from under him. Church Hill is among the many old neighborhoods city-, state- and nationwide that are “revitalized,” as more financially powerful individuals and interests buy up properties, fix them up and sell them to middle- and upper-class people, pricing out the poor and working class people who’ve lived there for years. Ostensibly Melvin’s sister and the other siblings who enabled her had gotten an “offer they couldn’t refuse,” and ended up selling the property to someone who later tore the house down and built two new ones on the lot. Melvin ended up moving back in with his estranged wife, putting his and most of his parents’ belongings in a storage facility; eventually he wasn’t able to keep up with the payments and most of his/their stuff got sold and/or repossessed by the storage unit’s owner to recoup expenses.

In the interim I’d completely bottomed out (a story I’ve touched on elsewhere) and gotten into treatment, while Shaheed had to go back to living with his mother when it became clear Melvin wasn’t going to have a house to live in and wasn’t yet sure what his next move would be (and his wife’s place was too small to accommodate Shaheed regardless), and changed schools again. D and company had sort of fractured after some of the drama I mentioned above, with one of his boys getting out of the business completely, the other moving on to a new arrangement and D setting up shop elsewhere after a couple of close calls with the police.

Shaheed went to juvenile detention for an indefinite sentence not long after all that. The initial charge had been relatively minor, but his behavior had gotten erratic at his new school and back under the same roof with his mother and other siblings; he got into a number of fights at school and had a number of suspensions. He talked to Melvin regularly and asked if he could come back and live with him, which Melvin said wasn’t possible at the moment but when he got his own place he could live there. “When that gonna be?” he’d ask, with Melvin always answering truthfully but vaguely, “I dunno. Soon, I hope.”

Without oversimplifying a situation with no easy answers, or putting blame on any one person—because I don’t think any one person can or should absorb the blame—this was a kid in desperate need of some sort of guiding male force in his life and who, due to circumstances beyond anyone’s control, was foundering in his new environment. Once he got to juvenile detention, it just got worse and worse. His sentence could’ve been as short as just a few months, but he wasn’t getting along with the other kids (most of them with their own series of complicated problems that no one in position to address them has any real interest in solving, of course) and was fighting constantly, racking up disciplinary infractions and getting time appended to his sentence. Then when he went before the judge for a hearing, he lashed out at being given extra time, swearing at the judge and screaming at his court-appointed attorney. More time.

Shaheed ended up staying in juvenile detention for roughly 18 months, up through most of this year. He told family members of deplorable conditions within the facility, involving guards sick with the COVID virus coming to work regardless, inmates not being sequestered properly after exposure to other inmates who’d tested positive and displayed symptoms, an appalling lack of nutrition (no surprise to me, having been in a number of jails myself and having tasted the food myself), overcrowding, red tape regarding talking to counselors and attorneys, visits being necessarily restricted due to the pandemic, etc.

Finally, Shaheed was released over the summer and was allowed to live with Melvin and his wife at their new home, turning 18 shortly thereafter. Melvin got into an in-patient treatment program and has, at the time of this writing, over four months clean after almost 40 years of addiction. He’s now working an outpatient program and attending meetings and has a regular job. His wife has been employed in a manufacturing facility for a couple of years now and secured Shaheed an interview, which went well, resulting in his being hired.

Unfortunately, as is so often the case in real life, it seems there’s not going to be a happy ending to this story, at least not for Shaheed. Just a few days before he was scheduled to start working at his grandmother’s place of employment, he went to stay with an aunt in another part of town and went out with some friends, staying out all night. The next morning, Melvin and his wife got a call from the local police station from Shaheed, informing them that he’d been arrested. While they were taken aback, the real gut-punch came when they learned the charge: Murder in the First Degree.

I’ve talked to Melvin since all of this happened (he was the one who initially told me the story, with his wife then getting on the line to share some further details and say happy holidays and wish me well in recovery) and know a few more details than I can say here, but none of them are satisfying as any kind of “answer” for why this happened or even what exactly did happen. It was a shooting with others involved, and everyone is either not talking or telling different stories, and as likely as not the one who can tell the most convincing and convenient story will get a more favorable deal while condemning his buddies to very long sentences. One young man is dead for no good reason and another’s life, in dangerous waters for the past few years, is dashed on the rocks.

Melvin’s doing some soul searching and questioning how things might be different if he’d insisted on bringing Shaheed to live with him and his wife earlier, despite the cramped conditions, or going back and thinking what if he’d put his nose to the grindstone and focused during his brief stint at college rather than giving up and coming back home, or what if he’d just gotten serious about getting clean earlier. I’ve told him that this is the kind of shit that beats people like us when we’re doing good: tying ourselves in knots and beating ourselves up over things we can’t change no matter how much damage we inflict in the process, wondering how things might be different if we’d gone down a road that will never again be open to us no matter how much we wish it could be. I told him it’s not his fault. I hope he believes me.


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