Ruben Castaneda may be the nicest crack addict in the history of the drug. His worst transgression seems to be missing his brother’s wedding-rehearsal dinner: He couldn’t tear himself away from his pipe and the strawberry (as a young woman who traded sex for rock was known, back in the proverbial day). He also, in the grips of his disease, began to call people near and far saying he’d lost his wallet, and showed up for work disheveled and reeking of booze.
It’s that work that makes the story Castaneda tells so compelling. At the height of the DC crack epidemic, the author was a crime reporter for the Washington Post. He worked nights, and he was also a crack addict—sometimes covering homicides on the very street where one of the women who served as a go-between to his dealers had shelled out forty bucks for a score on his behalf only hours before. As anybody who’s done the research can tell you, powder cocaine has been known to induce paranoia after a long night. With crack, three puffs and you’re hearing people talk about you on telephone wires five blocks away—and they’re calling in helicopters.
The paradoxical setup that fueled Castaneda’s using life lends it an urgency that transcends the trademark one-downsmanship of many a quote-unquote “recovery” memoir. It’s true that the story behind S Street Rising is what we in Hollywood would call a perfect elevator pitch. More than that, though, Castaneda’s tale pivots on something far deeper and more engaging than the how-long-can-he-get-away-with-it drama of a runaway addiction on the front lines of the DC drug wars. At the heart of this book is a moral Möbius strip: No matter how badly he behaved, Ruben Castaneda was always trying to do good. Though bad, of course, is a relative thing when you work in a city whose mayor hits the pipe, whose murder rate is the highest in the nation, and where you can find any number of violence-plagued, third-world-poverty-level drug-ravaged neighborhoods five minutes from the White House.
Unlike most addict-memoirists, who douse the page with their personal messes like junkies writing their names in blood on the ceiling, Castaneda makes himself a character in the larger DC parable of power, crime, and urban blight. After establishing his substance-abuse bona fides early on, he aims for something nobler than personal expiation. (Though there is that.) Forget the usual shame-and-degradation fests so beloved by fans of narco-porn. The most fireworks you’re going to find, in the way of coke-fueled excitement, is this uncharacteristic blurt on the occasion of his first simultaneous crack-smoking and blow-job-getting experience:
The crack attacked my brain as Raven sucked me off. I held, held, held my hit. Raven’s head bobbed up and down. I exhaled and came at the same time, a beyond-belief, star-bursting, epic climax. My entire body convulsed with pleasure.
It turns out that these twin releases—crack and blow jobs—were forever linked in Castaneda’s using ritual. (That he may also be a sex addict does not occur to him.) As a guy who—not to brag—once made his living writing the fake sex letters for Penthouse Forum, I’m going to give Castaneda an A for “beyond-belief, star-bursting, epic climax,” because when you read the rest of the book, and confront his innate reticence regarding his personal life, you see what an effort this self-exposure must have taken.
Castaneda remains the old-school reporter, who’s most comfortable with the life stories of victims and perps, uncovering the poignant details of their existence, be it high or low, with a craft and compassion that puts him in the front ranks of journalists working today. And as a consequence, he also honors—for the most part—that venerable newshound ethos about not putting himself in the story.
This consistent reportorial soft focus on his own psyche and emotions serves to heighten the drama of Castaneda’s real subject: the diseased city itself, particularly one drug-soaked corner of S Street. Thus Castaneda offers himself not just as chronicler but as participant in the larger urban blight and recovery story of DC itself. It’s an elegant narrative strategy: paralleling his own decline with that of his adopted hometown. He weaves his personal torments and ultimate triumph around the exploits of the S Street open-air crack bazaar where he would trawl for coke. This was also, importantly for Castaneda’s story, the neighborhood where the quixotic but ultimately successful pastor Jim Dickerson started the New Community Church in 1984, just before the crack epidemic kicked into high gear. S Street is also home to Baldie, the avuncular drug kingpin whose own daughters attended after-school programs at Pastor Dickerson’s. An ex-con—ultimately busted with a trove of guns and cocaine in the house next door, connected to his own via an underground tunnel—Baldie made sure none of the slingers or customers disrespected the church.
The third strand of the saga is the story of Lou Hennessy, head of the DC police force’s homicide division at the height of the troubles, who did a brilliant job turning around the city’s murder rate. In another of the book’s countless ironies, Hennessy is forced out of his job when one of his investigations gets too close to a shady ally of Marion Barry’s.
For Castaneda’s part, the lurid features of his secret life and his high-profile professional career are hard to separate. Call it the crack trifecta: the personal, the political, and the street, which met and intertwined the night of a horrific quintuple murder on S Street, in December 1990.
Indeed, the real hard-bitten hero at the heart of the book is Castaneda’s good friend Hennessy, who is rewarded for his effectiveness as a detective by being smeared by one of Barry’s lackeys—police chief Larry Soulsby—and pushed out of his job. What Castaneda can do in the book that he couldn’t do in the paper is let fly his righteous passion for the injustice done to good men like Hennessy as a result of city-hall corruption—in some ways a bigger plague on DC, and certainly a more stubborn one, than the drug itself. Hennessy sums up the city’s predicament in a simple, devastating verity:
Before, it was mostly men who were getting hooked on heroin and other drugs . . . . The moms were left to raise their kids by themselves. But with crack, lots of women became addicted, too. You began to see a lot of grandmothers taking care of young kids because their moms were addicted.
Castaneda is scathingly honest, not just about his private habits but about the public’s less-than-stellar behavior in the face of all the numbing violence that filled his workdays. Of a shooting victim who was the mother of an eight-year-old boy, Castaneda writes, “Killings like that, in which the victim was a law-abiding person who had nothing to do with drugs or gangs, briefly generated public outrage. The vast majority of the city’s homicide victims lived lives that put them in harm’s way. Or they smoked crack and picked up strawberries.”
As its narrative strands weave more tightly together, S Street Rising becomes a powerful, propulsive, narcotically fueled cri de coeur for an entire city. Just as riveting are the asides and anecdotes spun out from the central plot, like the hilarious saga of two DC cops who flew to Tanzania to pick up a murder suspect named Mowatt: “The temperature in Tanzania felt about a thousand degrees. But Mowatt was still dressed like a D.C. gangster, in jeans, a long-sleeved Polo shirt, and Timberland boots. He spoke some half-assed Jamaican. The two lawmen asked Mowatt to pose with them for a photo.”
The one oddity—given the author’s full-throated passion in giving voice to the voiceless—is that he never investigates the lives of the women at the heart of his secret life: the “strawberries.” In the entire memoir, there are two pages about a girlfriend; that’s all we get of his personal life. What made the Ravens and Champagnes (they seem to pick their names out of the same hats as strippers) end up on the corner, servicing the likes of Castaneda? Did they themselves have kids? Childhoods? Dreams?
To his credit, the author confronts this blind spot. “I viewed my encounters with strawberries in purely transactional terms. In exchange for cash, which they used to buy crack for both of us, the women made the buy and provided sex. . . . I didn’t think much about them as people until I saw Stacy on the front page of the Post.” Stacy, as it happens, was one of the women Castaneda used to buy his drugs and suck him off. She was also one of seven women in that grim business who’d ended up in the Post as murder victims while Castaneda worked the crime beat.
Castaneda describes himself as the kind of guy who always looks like he slept in his clothes. I just hope, once S Street Rising becomes a film project, that the studio execs find an actor to play the Columbo-on-crack reporter who can convey the humanity, talent, and fearlessness it takes to spill out for public consumption all the shame-filled details of the undercover using life. I will only add, since the author mentions that after he got clean he went into therapy (post-traumatic crack syndrome?), that he may not need the shrink at all. In my own experience, once you’ve seen celebrities render the worst moments of your life nine feet high, you walk away feeling simultaneously exposed and free. Post-memoir, your secrets will never again be your own. A book this unflinching is every bit as cathartic for the reader as it is for the writer.
Jerry Stahl is the author of the memoir Permanent Midnight (Warner, 1995), made into a film starring Ben Stiller. He has also written six novels, including I, Fatty (Bloomsbury, 2004) and Happy Mutant Baby Pills (William Morrow, 2013).