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S Street Rising
Posted on Jul 11, 2014
By Daniel Stashower
“S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C.”
Washingtonians of a certain generation are fond of recalling where they were on the night of Jan. 18, 1990, when D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was arrested for crack cocaine use and possession during an FBI sting operation at the Vista International Hotel on M Street. The initial shock soon gave way to a kind of collective voyeurism, especially when the media got hold of the murky surveillance video of Barry’s former girlfriend Rasheeda Moore coaxing a crack pipe to the mayor’s lips. Soon, the mayor’s bewildered expression of disbelief as federal agents led him away—“Bitch set me up”—had been enshrined on a T-shirt.
Ruben Castaneda has better reason than most to remember where he was that night. Castaneda was a crime reporter for The Washington Post, and by lucky chance he happened to be on the scene as the story broke. He quickly booked a room at the Vista, establishing a command post where he could track the unfolding story and grab interviews with hotel guests and staffers. And then, he recalls, after a long night of working the story, “a crazy idea came to me.”
By this time, crazy ideas had become something of a specialty for Castaneda. As he relates in “S Street Rising,” a tense, unflinching chronicle of his own descent into crack addiction, “I was reckless, compulsive, and I made bad choices.” Although the hotel had been crawling with police officers and drug enforcement agents earlier in the evening, Castaneda saw no reason he shouldn’t pick up the phone and call a “strawberry,” a streetwalker who traded sex for drugs. Moments later, he was reaching for a crack pipe and a lighter in the comfort of his hotel room, just as the mayor had at the beginning of the night. “As I resumed watching the coverage of the Barry arrest,” he recalls, “I lit up and inhaled.”
The incident highlights the wrenching conflict at the heart of Castaneda’s memoir. By day, as an ambitious young reporter for the Post, he covered gang murders and other crack-fueled violence during the worst years of Washington’s reign as the “murder capital” of the United States. By night he made the rounds of drug “slingers” on S Street, buying crack and sinking deeper and deeper into addiction. “Had I smoked myself into a corner?” he wonders at one stage. “Was I about to become an embarrassing footnote in the national crack epidemic?”
Castaneda tells his story with admirable clarity and a notable lack of self-pity. For all his demons, it’s clear that he loves his work. He revels in the excitement of chasing down a hot lead, and he’s especially good at capturing the chaotic urgency of the crime beat:
“A friendly lieutenant was standing by one of the squad cars.
“ ‘How many down?’ I asked.
“He gestured with his fingers: six victims.
“Six people shot? Hello, front page.”
Castaneda also gives a persuasive account of “the deep sense of denial that’s an integral part of being a junkie,” which allowed him to pretend that all was well even as his life collapsed around him. “Reporters were assigned to keep an eye on the disgraced mayor or his house around the clock,” he tells us. “The irony of riding a crack high while conducting surveillance on a mayor who’d been busted for possessing the same substance was lost on me.”
Soon enough, Castaneda’s “tawdry double life” draws an intervention from concerned colleagues at the Post, who usher him into a rehab program at Suburban Hospital. “You’re addicted at the cellular level,” he is told. “There’s a bed waiting for you now.”
Mercifully, Castaneda soon learns to devote himself to recovery with the same energy he’d once spent chasing highs. After a major stumble in the early days of his sobriety, he sums up his internal conflict with brutal precision: “I wanted to be clean. I wanted to smoke half the crack in the city.”
Castaneda fleshes out his narrative with a pair of interlocking stories that shed additional light on D.C.’s drug culture and neighborhood turf wars during the 1990s. The first centers on a dedicated police captain named Lou Hennessy, whom Castaneda convincingly portrays as “one of the best men I’ve ever known,” and his innovative efforts to curb the city’s murder rate. The second focuses on a charismatic pastor named Jim Dickerson, who sets up a church in the middle of a drug zone on S Street—“This must be where God needs us,” he declares—and gradually comes under the protection of an enigmatic crack dealer named Baldie. These stories give a broader sweep to Castaneda’s portrait of a city in crisis and eventually circle back to shed fresh light on his personal struggle.
If there’s a complaint to be made, it’s that Castaneda doesn’t know when to wrap things up. He inexplicably plows ahead long after he’s brought his various storylines to a natural stopping point, losing focus as he wanders away from the title’s promise of “Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C.” By the time he starts wringing his hands over whether he’s going to get a raise, most readers will have checked out.
For the most part, however, “S Street Rising” is a gritty and utterly convincing street-level portrait of a dark chapter in the city’s history, reflected in the dark mirror of Castaneda’s own addiction. “The disease never rested,” he tells us. “It was a monster that could be driven into hiding—but never killed.”
Daniel Stashower’s most recent book is “The Hour of Peril: The Secret Plot to Murder Lincoln Before the Civil War.”
©2014, Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group
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