1968 A Year of Living Violently

The following essay was submitted as my final project for English 404 Creative Nonfiction Spring 2022.

In 1968, I was nineteen, living in the Bronx. I couldn’t feel how deep was the water around me or know I would almost drown in it. My mind and life were mired in an ocean of depression and anxiety. The turmoil was lurking on the horizon. Youth were challenging the world order. War was everywhere, in faraway lands, on American streets, in our souls. The war in Vietnam continued to eat the young even as we protested across this country. The champions of a peaceful revolution were assassinated. Racist forces held their ground against the forward movement of American history. The old voices told us to believe that America was exceptional. Racism, sexism, income disparities, and class warfare were only aberrations. They called us communists, rabble-rousers, and traitors. According to them, we were the real danger to America. They sicced police violence down on us. Bodies and blood flowed like a flash flood across America’s urban landscape. I battled for survival inside the cyclone, where my life would be defined by two lies: a “normal” life during the day and a dope fiend at night.

It was not what I dreamed 
when I was a kid 
looking into the future 
or what my mother and father 
had wished. 

Amid the violent chaos, 
a quiet but deadly menace 
stalked the Bronx. 
Its campaign for death
swept me up. 
Manhattan Beach, CA Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I pushed back against the waves of depression with long subway rides from the South Bronx to Greenwich Village to seek camaraderie with other anti-war compatriots. There were the secret Thursday shopping excursions into Manhattan with my girlfriend Chicky, who hid the relationship from her family. We swore we were in love. The Fridays with my boys at Saint Anselm Catholic Youth Organization. We would shoot hoops and pool and then run off to Carlos’s basement apartment to smoke weed and listen to Red Foxx and Moms Mabley comedy albums. However, despite my worst efforts, my life was besieged by a growing heroin habit, the petty crimes to feed it, and the inevitable drug overdoses. I was scared, confused, and angry, and sure I would be doomed to six feet under.

In the dope world,
everyone lies and cheats. 
It’s the bargain with the devil. 
imported from some foreign country 
smuggled across thousands of miles 
hidden in suitcase bottoms 
to apartments full of naked women 
mixing it with baby milk powder 
or rat poison 
into a glassine bag 
so you can buy 
from a man with no name 
in some dark hidden hallway.
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

I was old enough to go to Vietnam, but I wasn’t ready to die in a faraway land. So, I bluffed my way out with a military service deferment only in a war or national emergency. But, the powers in Washington, D.C. couldn’t or wouldn’t admit there was a war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, my friends were disappearing from the hood—drafted to become the wounded and dead bodies that kept piling up in field hospitals and black bags 8,637 miles away. Young people, the fodder for the war machine, lost faith in the Vietnam conflict and the illusion that America was exceptional. At home, another battle raged on between my father and me. Even as the bleak reality of the war filled the evening newscasts and newspaper headlines every day, my father declared America was winning. I only saw death and hopelessness. In protest, I burned my draft card at a UN rally.

Abandoned apartments 
became shooting galleries 
like the one
off Willis Avenue 
where a violent moment, 
a drug overdose, 
played out 
like a bad crime movie 
that would not stop.
It was my daily dance with mainline, 
straight into the central vein. 
Slumped in a broken down 
upholstered chair
that had seen a more peaceful, 
relaxing time.
My hands smeared 
with pain and blood, 
surrounded by the smell 
of alcohol, weed,
a grease-stained brown shopping bag, 
a trail of dead food, 
half-empty beer cans,
and desperate dreams.
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

It was the year of cities burning. New York, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington, D.C. I wanted to join the urban guerrillas committed to tearing it all down. I was no longer willing to sit on the sidelines watching televised pandemonium. I left a Wall Street trading job to enlist in the South Bronx social justice army to battle over community control of public schools. The New York City Teachers’ Union closed the city schools against community control, the largest strike in the city’s history. Community groups, parents, and teacher allies vowed to battle the union and the Central Board of Education in the streets and schools. The days were filled with marches, school board meeting takeovers, and Black and Latino parent mobilization to fight for local control.

There is a ritual.
There is always a ritual 
when preparing 
for the violent death
that is sure to come.
Don’t worry about sterile. 
Ignore the dirt on the stairs
to the apartment, 
the old blood dripping down its walls, 
or the smell you swear is 
“Man, did someone shit up in here?” 
This is not Good Housekeeping certified.
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

The cops lined up military-style in a straight-line shoulder to shoulder on that Friday, September 13, in front of JHS 52, with their shiny badges and nice crisp uniforms. Their police hats tipped just right on their lovely crew-cut white heads. Their job was to keep the threatening hordes of black and brown mothers and their children from conjuring up a new life and future beyond the South Bronx and public housing and run-down tenement buildings. The parents were there to open the school for their kids. They could pledge allegiance to the flag, grow up to be successful Americans, and move to New Jersey, Long Island, New Rochelle, or Connecticut. It could happen. It’s the American Dream. Instead, they were destined to work low-paying jobs. You could find them at the greasy spoon in El Barrio, shuffling clothes racks down 7th Avenue or sorting through boxes of vegetables at the Hunts Point Market. 

injecting directly into my vein 
was the only way 
to enjoy the fruits of the opium poppy. 
I pulled out the eyedropper
 and a small needle 
ready to shove heroin
Smack, H, Chiba, Junk, Skag, Dope 
 into my body.

An old bottle of murky water 
the rusting bottle cap 
on an equally rusting coffee table
leftover from the last fool 
who overdosed while 
crying for his mommy, 
“Don’t take this ride on the mainline home.”

I’m choking from the stink 
that’s floating around me. 
I needed to get high 
with my last five dollars 
until payday Friday.

The police megaphone announced there would be no trespassing that day. Not on their watch. The spotlight turned onto one constable, a defender of the social order, the vanguard against disorder. A young, fresh-faced stalwart for a way of life, an ax handle in his hand. This ax handle, typically 32 to 36 inches long, was not the usual official policeman’s nightstick. The longer ones worked best for big timber and splitting wood. The shorter lengths were superior for smaller timber and general utility work. The latter was also best for beating those black and brown people who thought they could trespass onto public property as if they were taxpayers. On this day, the American Dream turned into an American nightmare. The one defender of the social order would use that ax handle as he saw in those news reports from the south. They knew how to use the ax handle properly. Swing and never miss.

Into the bottle cap 
I so carefully squeezed 
one, two, three drops 
of unclean water.

The water slowly mixed 
with the off-white specks of heroin. 
Cooked it with a match 
underneath the cap 
until it blends into a muddy liquid.
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

The picture in front of me was vivid, living in my nightmares for years into the future. Swing baby, crush some heads, some Friday daydreams. Swing that ax handle like it’s 1968. The angry spittle foamed from his face and those of his comrades. The message was clear. The ax handle would crash through some heads and bodies to teach them a lesson. “Don’t fuck with us. We’re the man. We are the power.” No amount of black and brown mothers with their innocent children at their sides could stop them. Not one. It was madness run amuck. They went after the first black guy they saw, swearing that he was the Black Panther Party. As if they all looked alike. Brown hands reached out to stop the arrest. Nightsticks and the ax handle blocked the charging crowd. I grabbed a blue uniform. A club and an arm then wrapped around my throat choking me. My eyeglasses crashed onto the sidewalk. My breath escaped from my lungs. Two arms became four become six as I was lifted and hauled to a waiting police car.

My belt wrapped around my upper arm 
looked for the central vein 
that cried for the high.
And the muddy water sucked up 
through the thin needle
from the rusting bottle cap 
through the weeks old cotton ball 
up into the eyedropper 
back down through the needle 
and down I plunged 
and the rush of warmth
that turned to panic
while my soul was
falling and falling and falling.
And I realized
this is not a trip home or into paradise.
No one would save me here.
Manhattan Beach, California Photo by Antonio Ruiz

Those guardians of society proved they would do anything to protect their American Dream. The war for social justice continues until this day.

Suddenly, I was falling out 
out of the apartment
down broken stairs
spilling out into the street
where I heard heavenly music 
crashing with the sounds of sirens, 
what my father would later call me 
in the emergency room,
I’m shrieking, 
I’m alive,
I’m alive. 

Reckless in Sodom and Gomorrah (Part Two)

The following essay, a work in progress, is not fiction. It was written for English 404, Creative Nonfiction. P.S. I have been sober since September 11, 2011 (the date is coincidental).

Part One HERE

“Folly is a child of power.” ― Historian Barbara W. Tuchman

The Capitol Building (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

My recklessness began in 1980. The Columbian Cartels controlled the drug traffic into Miami. The Cocaine Cowboys ran rampant in the city, leaving shootouts and dead in their wake. Out of that chaos, someone I met began smuggling gallon-size plastic bags full of cocaine rocks up from Miami into Washington, D.C. Along with those drugs, there were unlimited amounts of alcohol, sex, and rock n’ roll, with some jazz, salsa, and soul music thrown into the mix. Less than two miles from the White House, I began living a lifestyle of debauchery and self-destruction.

A Reckless Time (Photo by Art Jones)

I was a sixties boomer who remembered the free love days of my generation and the seventies disco era and now saw them slamming into the early eighties with a bang. To quote Tony Montana in Scarface, I was on top of the world. Well, at least the local world of Washington, D.C., beyond the halls of Congress, the White House, and federal agencies. There was money in my pocket. I was patched into a network of professionals who worked for the local government of Washington, where the residents had no voting representative in Congress and often referred to D.C. as Congress’s Plantation. We still plowed ahead, making laws, fighting the man at every turn, led by a charismatic figure who had cut his teeth in the Civil Rights era and was known for getting things done, Mayor Marion Barry.

Old Haunts (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

Someone described us as the Young Turks, the future leaders of Washington, D.C. We proudly called D.C. Chocolate City. A city of nearly three-quarters of a million people who were predominately Black and other people of color. But we were no gang. We were respectable, local government and Congressional staffers, government and private lawyers, and lobbyists. My friends and I did not fit the stereotype of drug users and dealers on street corners or alleys. We wore jackets and ties to work, casual wear to the bars and restaurants along Pennsylvania Avenue on Capitol Hill, a stone’s throw from the center of American power. I deluded myself into believing that power equaled invulnerability and permission to test the boundaries of what was allowed. I was thirty-one when I began working in the office of the Mayor of Washington, D.C. I was living high and fast. It was all about working hard and partying harder, without restraint, with no limits. Reckless. Hell, this was the time of my life.

I don’t remember the moment I went from inhaling cocaine like it was air to selling it. I remember that I was partying like Sodom and Gomorrah, breaking every night. I began doing private deals with friends, sharing the wealth of drugs that came my way. I knew laws were being broken. Right there, in the nation’s capital. I feared not getting high more than getting caught. It wasn’t like we were slinging dope out in “bad neighborhoods.” This was white powder cocaine. It put a few extra bucks in my pocket so I could party some more. This was my twisted thinking. It’s not like I was smuggling tons of cocaine from the Columbian Cartel. Okay, there was some smuggling going on from Miami. But I’m talking a couple of ounces here, some grams there. Party weight.

The White House (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

In the middle of my drug recklessness in Sodom and Gomorrah, President Ronald Reagan declared a “war on drugs” on October 14, 1982. He called illicit drugs a direct threat to U.S. national security. I was probably at a party when he announced the war. Shoveling cocaine up my nose and laughing that it was all harmless fun. Except, I was falling deeper into addiction. It was only a matter of time before I eventually found myself crying in a fetal position on my best friend’s laundry room floor in his apartment building.

Washington, D.C.
I so miss this city (Image by David Mark from Pixabay)

A second federal subpoena arrived. This time it was specific what the Feds wanted. “Any and all correspondence, receipts, letters, notes, and canceled checks blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.” In the middle of all that mumbo jumbo, there was a name. A familiar one. The focus of the investigation was a fellow government worker, someone with whom I’d had a brief friendship. I called her asking for a meeting.

We met in a slowly gentrifying neighborhood at a favorite lunch spot in downtown D.C. She sat across from me and, with no prompting, spilled the truth. Through my slowly steaming anger, I heard words like affair, buying drugs, giving it to you know who (never mentioning his name), and something about we should never see each other again. She apologized, got up, and left me with the truth and pain.

Washington, D.C.
The Tidal Basin (Image by Patrick Gregerson from Pixabay)

My life became a rolling nightmare of lawyer meetings, DEA interrogations, deal-making, promises to snitch to avoid prison time, and a grand jury appearance. My fast, reckless life in Sodom and Gomorrah had crashed, and I didn’t think it could worsen.

On April 18, 1984, the phone rang in my Commission office. Putting the receiver to my ear, the voice at the other end was familiar. “Good morning, Antonio, it’s Joe Pichirallo, Washington Post.” He wanted a comment about a ten-count indictment that morning against my former friend. I could hear something about my being an unindicted co-conspirator in count ten of the indictment. “Would you like to explain?” Every part of me began to shut down. At that moment, I suddenly realized that I would forever be known as an unindicted co-conspirator in a federal drug case.

The air in my lungs was sucked out. All I could gurgle out was a lame “No comment.”

Reckless in Sodom and Gomorrah (Part One)

The following essay, a work in progress, was written for English 404, Creative Nonfiction. I often wish the essay was fiction.

“Folly is a child of power.” ― Historian Barbara W. Tuchman

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

I first saw the two pairs of shoes. They’d seen better days. When I looked up, two white men were in my office doorway in downtown Washington, D.C. I immediately knew they were the messengers of death. The one with the tan raincoat flashed an identification wallet—a badge and a picture id card. Drug Enforcement Administration. Wearing a crumpled-up brown suit, the other man handed me the subpoena, an off-white 3 ½ x 8 ½ sized folded paper. At the top, in large letters, was printed “United States of America vs.” Below it, in caps, SUBPOENA FOR THE GRAND JURY. “You’ve been served,” the man said, and then, they were gone.

My memory of what happened next in October of 1983 is faded now. However, the emotions of that moment jump up now and then. I remember fear, panic, resignation, confusion. I looked around to see if my Commission staff had seen the men arrive and leave. Probably asked myself, “How did I let this happen?” What a dumb question, I would have thought in response.

A Reckless Time (Photo by Art Jones)

Looking out my large, paneled windows at the Martin Luther King Jr. library across the plaza, I sat down at my desk. The federal subpoena, still folded, lay in my hand. I looked down and unfolded it.

There were those words again: THE UNITED STATES vs. Below it on a separate line: In RE: Possible Violations of 21 USC 841, 844, 846. I had no idea at the time what those numbers meant. My lawyer would later tell me. The federal government was investigating me for conspiracy, distribution, and possession of drugs. Then, he ticked off potential prison sentences if convicted. I stopped counting at thirty years.

I couldn’t think of any words to console me. All I kept hearing rattling in my head were cliches. It was time to pay the piper. The chickens had come home to roost. Don’t commit the crime if you can’t do the time. I knew life was a maze of choices and that I had taken a wrong turn somewhere. At thirty-four years old, I was stuck in a corner with no way out. There was no going backward. All that was behind me was the previous four years of being reckless in Sodom and Gomorrah. A time of endless sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll. I looked down at the subpoena and suddenly felt the rush from that past life come to a screeching crash.

Image by David Mark from Pixabay

It’s no secret that ingesting copious amounts of cocaine and alcohol can lead to desperate paranoia. But damn, Drug Enforcement Administration was surveilling me. The Assistant United States Attorney for the District of Columbia did seek a subpoena against me. And the Chief Judge of the District Court approved it. All of them were demanding a reckoning. They wanted to know why a mildly successful mid-level government official allegedly facilitated selling drugs to the alleged mistress of the Mayor of Washington, D.C., Marion Barry.

To be continued.

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