Rodney’s success story, in his own words.
I was born in Harlem, here in New York. I grew up in a dysfunctional family with three other siblings. I was made to feel less than them because I was the dark one; my siblings are half Hispanic. I got beat up. I grew up thinking I was the ugly duckling because I was dark. Christmas and holiday times came around and I wasn’t allowed to go over to their father’s house. They said it was ’cause I was too bad, but it was ’cause I was too dark. My mom said, “He’s part of the family, if he don’t go, no one goes.” When my mom wasn’t looking, they beat me up because they couldn’t get their gifts.
That was part of why I used and medicated. I started using late in life, when I was 27. I started using cocaine. With my drug of choice, crack, you didn’t see the devastation of it until years later, so I didn’t know what was coming. I never did heroine, no alcohol, just crack cocaine and orange soda.
I had fun in the beginning. I thought I was having big fun. I wish someone had been around to tell me, take heed; you’re in for something that’s going to devastate you from head to toe. I wish there was somebody who existed in my life back then.
I got two children. They’re adults. My son is 32 and my daughter’s 29. They’re in North Carolina with their mom. I raised them up until I was about 29. I went through a nightmare: a lot of guilt, a lot of crime. I’ve been through so much legal stuff because of the addiction.
I stole a lot of trucks, did a lot of burglaries. A lot of burglaries. Not home. Anyone reading this: if your home was broken into, it wasn’t me. I did commercial burglaries—until my name was put out there, then a lot of people knew who I was, so every time somewhere was broken into, I was questioned for it. I don’t wanna put in all the tough guy stuff. You can figure that out. You survive that long on drugs, you know there’s a lot of tough guy stuff involved.
The legal stuff I did was scrap metal business, and the wooden palettes: you can get those, recycle them, they give you $5 a palette; I’d get a shopping cart, stack them 15 high and go back and forth like that. But whenever you’re on drugs, you do something illegal to get money.
I started getting arrested, and I went to prison.
When I got out of prison, I got arrested again for the second time and was offered a drug program. I accepted it. And I thought the concept of the recovery was like brainwashing… Until it hit me one day, that what they’re saying just might work ‘cause I’d been beat up by the drug addiction; I’d been beat up bad. So I completed the program. While I was there, I gave the staff such a hard time, but I was one of the best when I graduated. I stayed clean for ten years.
But then I relapsed. I had no support system.
During this relapse, I got beat up, and the progression was much faster this time—really fast, devastating. Crack cocaine is a corrosive agent; it’ll eat up your body. I saw the deterioration little by little, so I told myself if I just slow down, not do it so much, just on the weekend… but you cant do it. I’m usually a 260 pound man I went down to 180 pounds. On a man with my frame. I looked bad. My face looked like a skull. A skull with a beard on it. I hadn’t seen a mirror in many, many, many, many, many, many months. One day I looked in a mirror, I looked in a mirror and almost cried, I almost cried when I saw myself. I couldn’t look too long.
There was a time I didn’t bathe, didn’t bathe for many weeks. I went to a store, I saw the ladies holding napkins to their mouths and noses, and I ran out of the store crying. Left everything there, and ran out crying. So I’m sitting there feeling sorry for myself, and I said to myself, this madness has gotta stop. Pretty soon a buddy comes up, and says do you want a hit, and I took it, and I was medicated again; and all the guilt and shame went away. But when you weren’t medicated, all those feelings came flooding back. When you’re medicated, you don’t feel so bad.
I got tired and gave up, and said I’m going to use for the rest of my life until I die, or until I got a long term in prison, and then the nightmare of using and being homeless will finally end.
I walked into an establishment and passed a note, hoping to get caught. The clerk gave me the money; I went outside, went to one of the little stands, got a frank and a soda, gave the guy a $20 tip, hailed a cab, got in, and was never arrested for it. That evening, I went into a New York City playground at about 3:30 in the morning, went to the center of the playground and asked God for help because I couldn’t do it myself.
Two days later, I was arrested.
I’m not a bad person. I got a good heart. But the craziness, the insanity of the addiction, made me do a lot of crazy things that I wouldn’t do. I wouldn’t walk into any place and hold it up now; I’d be scared to death.
I wrote the judge from Rikers Island and said: I’m too old for this, I’d like to try a long-term drug program again. So far, I’ve been doing good.
I completed the program and was transferred to transitional help. I needed $220 to lift the restrictions off my license. And I found Project Comeback. I thought it was just a job, but it had so much more to offer. With the workshops—things I didn’t know that I thought I knew. There was so much I learned about an interview, how to dress, how to act. When I came to ACE, I was frustrated with so many particular rules and regulations. All we were doing was sweeping streets, but then I learned that the rules were in place to teach us how to handle a real-life job.
I thought I would feel ashamed cleaning streets in a rich neighborhood like this, but I don’t. Most of the residents, they talk to me, they know me. It feels good to get up on that train, to get up early. I’ve been doing it for three months and I still feel proud.
I went to a graduation ceremony; it was great, really tearful, a lot of people came from the depths of homelessness and drug addiction. And I know I’m not the only one who went through this. I can imagine people wish that addiction was a person, or some kind of organic organism that you can destroy or kill or just get your hands on and just wipe it out. I don’t even have no friends; people who I thought I would call friends, they’re active addicts. I got no social circle. I gotta develop that and start over.
In the circle of recovery, they say that addiction is insidious, baffling and very cunning, to keep the grips on you. It’s as if it is an entity, and it knows what it’s doing. It’s not an easy thing, coming off something like that, but I’m not going back. I’m too old now to slip and fall and go back to that.
I like me today; I love myself a lot more today. I wanna live, you know. I wanna live. There was a time I didn’t care if I lived or died. There was a time when I just didn’t care.
I can’t wait to start paying bills. I know that sounds crazy but when you’ve been through addiction and homelessness, it makes you feel proud of yourself. You see that TV on your wall and you earned it; you didn’t do anything illegal to get it.
If anybody gets to read this, and they’re thinking about experimenting with drugs, I’ll tell them right now, they don’t know what they’re heading for. You think you’re feeling good, gonna have fun, but you’re heading for the pits of hell. If I could reach one person and deter them, I would say do not do it. Hang on to life. ‘Cause I threw mine in the garbage. I thank God because he gave me another chance. Before I started using, I was able to buy two cars, very expensive electronics, and I slipped up; it was like I spit in God’s face. I’d rather rot in hell than do that to Him again. I’m just so grateful.
Here in SoHo, I met some MTA employees that do basically the same thing I do, sweep and clean up; they have some community programs with young kids who are beginning to get in trouble and get community service. One of the people I know, she brings some of the kids to lunch, and I try to do my own “scare straight” program. I tell them the horror of prison and I tell them, “This is how it starts.” Tell them they’re heading for state time. I tell them what goes on behind the bars of the prison, and I tell them they don’t wanna do it. Prison is nowhere you wanna be. You young guys should be aspiring to go to school, stay in school. You see a lot of older black guys—a lot of men period—and they’re struggling; they can’t even afford a car, can’t afford their own place. The homeless shelters are filled. If you keep going the way they’re going, you’re going to end up like me.
I’m not greedy. My immediate short-term goal is to find housing. Well, employment first. If I enjoy something, I’m really good at it. I love driving. I read maps excellently. I wanna get back into that field, get back into the Teamsters, into the union. I have my license now, my resume is almost done, and I’m ready to submit it and fill out some applications. I’m sure Ill find work, because I’ve got some big-time experience trucking. I’ll make a decent living, get me a nice apartment, save some money and just live until I can retire.
I always wanted, if it was possible, to have a string of Laundromats in a residential neighborhood, and hire people who lived around there, provide jobs for some people who live in the neighborhood.
I wanna buy some property and get a home. I know the American dream is to have your own home. I know some people who have their own homes. I don’t envy them, but I admire them. Envy is a rough word. It implies you want just want what they have. I don’t. But I do want my own home.
I’m looking forward to meeting a nice companion one day. I know what it’s like to be in love, it’s a real good feeling. I’ve never been married, though. I would love to get married one day, to meet someone and really genuinely fall in love. I don’t know what that feels like. I would like to meet someone now, and stay together ’til one of us kicks the bucket.
If God will bless me that way, I’ll live the rest of my life righteous and good. I’m ready. I’m ready to live life on its terms