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Hard Time

A Baltimore Writer Celebrates a New Life Off Drugs and off the Streets

Jefferson Jackson Steele

By Earl Byrd | Posted 11/27/2002

The chilling screams of a young con being raped reverberated down the tier that first night. My cell was cold and damp, but I thanked God for a single cell. I stood at my door holding the bars and looking out on Forrest Street, taking deep calming breaths, realizing that by daybreak the grapevine would have hipped cats from my street crew that I was down and I'd be under umbrella protection.

"Guard, help! Guard!" a frantic con screamed. I tensed, listening. His voice was filled with terror. He had tried to escape the horror of this dark drama by cutting his wrist. Death was preferable to life in a cage, until he saw his lifeblood dripping on the floor. He panicked and called for help.

This was me during my prime, 25 and at the top of my game as a player in a corrupt life centered around narcotics, when I was cut down and sentenced to three buffaloes running wild--15 years in the Maryland State Penitentiary.

"Shut the fuck up, bitch motherfucker," a deranged con in the next cell yelled. He couldn't concentrate on his art with all the noise. He was drawing a picture of Jesus on his steel wall with his shit. The guy with a brief death wish wrapped a shirt around his wrist and sat on the floor and cried.

I got on my knees and made the most important prayer of my life. I promised God that if I got out of this viper pit with my sanity, I would use my experiences as a writer to become a role model and help black kids avoid the pitfalls I had succumbed to in life. The next morning I wrote Judge George Solter. He ultimately sent me to a federal drug prison in Kentucky, and after serving a little more than three years, I came home, moved to D.C., and began a new life at a newspaper. But I'm getting ahead of my story.

I got turned out on the Avenue at 15 playing jazz alto sax in the Alhambra. If I couldn't get a gig, I would sit in and play for the sheer joy. I was aware that jazz was black history--syncopated West African sounds turned into the blues, ragtime, and the hip swing of Louis Armstrong, America's ambassador of jazz.

Music was my first love. If hip-hop had been out, I would have laid some tracks, dropped a record, and become a self-made millionaire, for I loved to talk shit. I learned early to be proud of our music and the old-style black hustlers, so unlike the thugs of today.

"Goddamn, Bird," Gangster cooed as I played in the Alhambra one night. Lights winked, cigarette smoke twirled in blue clouds, and ice tinkled in glasses. Short, stocky, and jet-black, Gangster laughed, flashing a gold tooth. He bit down on his cigar and said, "You sweet as Charlie motherfucking Parker, boy."

He took me outside during the next set. We sat in his customized Cadillac snorting heroin and cocaine. Outside in the windy night, a panoramic parade of players and hustlers passed by in the cold, indigo, neon-lit glow.

I nodded off for the first time into dreams of drug-induced euphoria.

Drugs were only in certain areas then, but the influx of heroin didn't stay in the red-light districts. The demand was too great. Driven by aggressive drug dealers, and people who wanted to experiment and experience the danger of the culture, heroin began to arrive in every part of the city.

For me, drugs were a greased slide into a roller-coaster life of ups and downs. Even when it seemed like fun, I was imprisoned, chained to the next fix. Yet during the worst of those times--and perhaps this is what ultimately kept me hooked--heroin and cocaine allowed me to cope, rationalize being a failure, condone living off my wits like a jaguar predator in the jungle.

One morning shortly after I arrived at the penitentiary, I met the legendary Tunnel Joe.

When I was a kid living in Baltimore's McCulloh Homes projects in the '50s, Tunnel Joe had painstakingly dug his way from his cell, under the barb-wired walls and gun towers, straight out of the joint into freedom. Took him three years. At night he dug, and every morning he carried the dirt into the prison yard in bulging pockets and scattered the debris.

I saw him on the yard one day. Old, bent, hands gnarled with arthritis, and a guard on each side of him. I went up to him and, in a voice that was as soft and respectful as I could make it, said, "Sir, I remember that glorious night you escaped. Everybody in the projects poured outside. I was a little kid and remember us standing there celebrating like Joe Louis had just won another fight. The white lady whose pocketbook you snatched said if she'd known it was you, Tunnel Joe, desperate, not trying to hurt nobody, just get some seed money, she swore she would never have told the police. For that week that you were free, you made all of us free. My grandmother fell in love with you."

I didn't tell him that she also cried when John Dillinger was killed. My grandmother just naturally rooted for the underdog.

He flashed a gummy smile and tears fell down his grizzled, white-stubbled face. I never saw him again. Later I heard that he made the ultimate escape. He died in his cell one night, quietly, peacefully, while he slept.

God, I wish I could put down the impact that man had on me. His brilliant feat of engineering said to me that a man--even a black man confined to prison--can do anything he wants in life. It was the message I had promised God on my knees to deliver to kids one day.

The telling of his experiences can't help but motivate even cynical and callus-toughened street kids' minds with the message that anything in America is possible where there is still life and desire for change.

Even escaping from prison. Even coming back from the dead into a bright new drug-free life. No longer a walking zombie, a shell with only enough consciousness left solely to search for that next fix of tragic magic.

I speak from painful experience. Recently, I celebrated my fourth year clean of heroin and cocaine. Took all my life to get that clean time. It came after Washington, D.C., Judge Bruce Beaudin let me cop to possession with intent to distribute cocaine five years ago. The Washington View magazine, where I worked, couldn't meet the payroll. Without savings because I was chipping a little heroin here and there, I got evicted and ended up in a shelter.

A rising young drug lord, Shorty Fat Man, who loved me like a surrogate father, gave me product to sling in America's largest nonprofit shelter, located in the shadow of the Capitol, down the street from where I'd worked as a police reporter, next to the D.C. Court where I found myself in front of Judge Beaudin.

The judge, familiar with my newspaper work, shook his head sadly and said he just didn't understand about drugs. I was a three-time loser and facing 20 to 30 years.

There is nothing sadder than dying in prison an old man. Ask Tunnel Joe.

He said he would put me back on the street if I got treatment and wrote him an essay. It was the final bit of inspiration I needed. That night I went to see Shorty Fat Man, and for the last time we walked through the dangerous courts and alleyways of the projects. Like any father, he wanted to assist his two sons in achieving the American dream. I told him to buy a liquor store in his wife's name and sell legal dope.

As we embraced and said a fond farewell, I also told him that the drama might darken. In the next act he might find himself in the penitentiary or, worse, the cemetery.

Round about midnight, I checked in to the veterans hospital. Told them I'd tried to commit suicide and needed help. And after a year, I came back to where it all started to fulfill that promise I had made to God in prison so many years ago.

Homeless, I started off by renting a room for the next three years at the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training in Baltimore. It is the best veterans facility in the country. They send men and women who have served in the military to college, treat them for drugs, and give them time to re-evaluate their life and set a new course for the future.

Right from jump street, I started writing a column for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. Since it was only $25 a pop, I didn't have to report it to welfare. It was humbling, but it paid my rent. Eventually, I stopped going to my therapist. All I wanted to talk about was how my man Tom Wolfe overcame the same thing I had, clinical depression, and wrote another award-winning book, A Man in Full. No matter that I lived in a shelter, I was getting paid for my writing. Tom Wolfe was my peer.

I left the therapist's office and never went back. For the first time I came to realize that what had begun in emulation of my jazz heroes like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, and Billie Holiday had led me on a less than merry chase. I thought drugs would raise my musical consciousness, but they only put me in a prison--even when I was out on the street.

Three months ago, I finally welcomed myself back home. I entered my own apartment, around the corner from where I spent my early teens, but I'm a million miles away.

I may not hit a home run every day, but I'm back in the game, doing my part. And if to secure our children's future each of us must teach one, then I'm doing my job in the most effective, positive way I know how--by writing.

Changing the lives of our children is an awesome responsibility. Crack cocaine and AIDS were the worst two things that ever happened to the black community. I can't stop AIDS, but I can teach about drugs, for that intoxicating culture has always been a dominant part of my life. And now that I'm drug free, I am deeply ashamed. There is an urgency inside my soul to make amends, and to help this world be a better place.

This much I know: Very few of the kids who desire a lavish lifestyle financed by drug money and inspired by a hip-hop culture of aggression and attitude achieve their dreams. Youngsters today want to be independent of a racist society that has never had African-American interests at heart. So with drugs as the perfect justification, they become outlaws.

Prison is an occupational hazard, the price one pays for an outlaw life of supposed independence. These kids don't understand that education is the key to freedom in America. Most hustlers, instead of buying out designer boutiques with fabulous women on their arm, struggle to buy groceries.

But once behind bars, the psychology of confinement kicks in. To justify this living horror, cons brag how they didn't buckle under racist rule. "I rather be a man in prison than live like a coward in the street," a sap might crack. "Damn right, I got paid. I was a motherfucker out there. And when I get out it's on."

It is this image--not the one of the beautiful black man who loves and guides his children and supports his family--that causes the collective grief. We have to change that.

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