"One of the girls wouldn’t give up her real name. Finally we told her flat out, ‘We’re going to go down, book all of you.’ Well, they can’t smoke in jail at Las Colinas anymore.”
San Diego, Meth Capital of the World. Great setting for a gripping drug story. I should probably list some biases. I have the typical drug biography of a 46-year-old, white, college-educated, middle-class, suburban-raised boy. Which is to say, I abused the shit out of drugs from the time I was 18 until the age of 35. Despite my efforts, I avoided serious legal problems because, being a nice, white middle-class boy, it never occurred to me to live in a rock-poor neighborhood that was specifically dedicated to drugs.
“I like meth better than coke, and I’ve done almost every kind of drug there is. There’s something about staying up a lot. There’s something about going fast."
All that is over, but not because of any Kitty (“Stop me before I swill Drano”) Dukakis recovery program or any long, dark night of the soul. It ended one night when I wanted a joint, so I began calling what would become every person known to me within a 20-mile radius. Not one personhood had any dope. It was ugly confirmation that we had taken another leap into middle age, had gotten busy with families, jobs, kids, mortgages, and drugs just... sort... of... slipped ... away.
“See, when you do crystal methamphetamine, it gives you a good feeling, keeps you wide awake. You stay up all night into the next day. I’ve stayed up for a couple weeks at a time."
Which is what usually happens to most people, if you’re ordinarily lucky, if you don’t get arrested often enough to do serious time, don’t do irretrievable harm to. your body, don’t find that special, special drug and get yourself addicted.
Chris enters the squalid cabin. Floor is hidden beneath two feet of clothes, sheets, bed rolls, food remnants, empty Hi-Ho cracker boxes, broken appliances.
The actual living of it is one thing; the writing about drugs is another. Drug stories are formula-driven (wretched addicts', overworked police, crowded jails), and whatever else life is, life is not formula. I remember well the media campaign during the ’60s. Mostly it was anti-pot, anti-LSD. Years of it, every goddamn newspaper and magazine in the country running drug stories. People jumping from windows, savage murders, experts trotted out, we were at the end of the world. It was almost always lies. Had nothing to do with the experience I was having or anybody I knew was having.
“Tweakers either rip off people or they go through alleys, go through dumpsters hoping to find something valuable to sell to their connect. It’s an all-day affair, an all-night affair."
So when the cavalry charge of drug stories started making the rounds a few years ago, I turned away. Since I was no longer using drugs and neither were my friends, I couldn’t verify any facts for myself and certainly wouldn’t believe anything I saw in print.
The dirty little secret is, no writer ever got criticized for writing a drug story (people like to read it, editors like to assign it, co-workers will tell you you’re doing something important for the community, cops and public officials will return your phone calls). The second dirty little secret is, you can’t come out in public and say, “It’s probably going to be all right, you’re going to do drugs for a while, and it will pass.”
“Most of the time when I was doing meth, we were always eating fast food, because you don’t want to cook. Your kitchen’s always a mess, you know; everything is in shambles."
Even though that’s the way it is, nobody wants to hear it. And you open yourself up to something you really can’t defend. You can’t make a case that drugs are good for people, that crack and meth and smack and coke haven’t fucked over countless families, and that, in general, things are not a hell of a lot more dangerous out there in large part due to incessant drug dealing and drug consumption.
Find inevitable 7-Eleven, stake out number one tweak house. Eighty minutes later, wave over resident perp as he ventures onto sidewalk. “Hop in. Let’s get a beer.”
The moment you start discussing drugs, here comes some poor creature who will tell you how drugs have ruined his life, and it’s true. You will not hear, much less see in print, a contrary viewpoint. We won’t hear white, middle-class couples, parents of four,
homeowners, PTA activists who have passed through, making the rounds of talk shows, saying, “Yes, drugs were fun. We used them for 24 years, and you know, we couldn't be happier.
Tens of millions of people in this country use drugs without going over the edge. If you can hold the rest of your life together while you’re doing your drugs, nobody is going to bother you, barring a fluke. The drug war is and has been waged primarily on minorities and the exceptionally stupid because that’s where the easy game is.
If police start sweeping suburbs and condos, you might have to get to the grit, because those people will bitch, and bitch loud. Start down that road, and we may have to discuss whether we want drug laws that tens of millions of people refuse to obey. Might have to consider how we can intelligently manage the fact that our society is drenched with drug abuse, yet our primary treatment plan is to jail America’s underclass. Twenty-six percent of all black males between the ages of 20 and 25 are in prison or on parole or probation. When you get a number like that, it no longer speaks to those pathetic bastards doing time but accuses and shames the rest of us.
Fixing the “drug problem” will mean confronting a very large holding tank of auxiliary issues — education, jobs, housing, health care — each one demanding the expenditure of significant amounts of public monies on people who don’t look like us or dress like us or talk like us. That’s not going to happen because most of society isn’t serious about drugs and neither are most journalists.
Among the authorities, there are very few bad guys doing business. They’re swamped; they’re doing their jobs; they’re putting their collective finger in the dike, just like we told them to. The problem lies where it usually does, with us, the great American public. We are crushing a generation of blacks, Chicanos, poor whites by this half-assed effort to deal with a complex human affliction, armed with slogans, an utter lack of courage, a stone-cold refusal to face reality, and a simple-minded, vengeful desire to imprison anybody who makes us feel uncomfortable. The way we deal with “drugs” can justifiably be labeled racist.
That said, I begin my first drug story, a task I’ve successfully avoided for many years and one I greet with all the enthusiasm of advanced chest cancer.
Two p.m. Waiting at the wrong entrance of the San Diego Police Department’s Eastern Division for officers Chris Stewart and Wally Clow. The pair operate as a SNARE unit (Selective Neighborhood Action Request for Enforcement), which, in the way of jobs, through the contacts they’ve made on the street, has funneled itself into a methamphetamine beat. Their turf is roughly (east-west) La Mesa to I-805 and (north-south) I-8 to Home Avenue.
A passing cop shoos me around to the other side of the complex. Wally and Chris drive up in a black and white, we introduce ourselves, shake hands, I get in to ride along for the day, spill coffee over the crotch of pants.
Chris Stewart is six feet two inches tall, 32 years old. Son of a cop. Grew up in Glendale, joined the Navy as a hospital corpsman. After discharge he learned through a friend that the San Diego Police Department was hiring and signed on. He’s been an officer for five years. Stewart has an elongated, oval, youngish face, one is tempted to say boyish, which is not to say soft. There’s a line of determination, almost like a shadow that crosses and recrosses his face.
His partner, Wally Clow, five foot ten inches, 57 years old, with a Zorro mustache. Clow is a reserve officer, which, over the years, has evolved from someone volunteering to do paperwork to a person with all the rights and powers of a policeman but required to work with a sworn officer. The position is voluntary and unpaid. Clow has been doing it for ten years, racking up 2400, 2600 hours of donated time per year. Reserve officer Clow retired from the Navy as a lieutenant commander, holds a PhD in human behavior and a black belt in karate.
We drive south on I-15, heading toward El Cajon Boulevard.
“How does it begin, the first encounter between cops and tweakers?”
Chris. “Well, citations, pawn slips, any police contact that is formalized with any piece of paper goes into the ARJIS system [countywide data base]. You can lie all you want, but there are certain similarities or things that are constant. For instance, you can’t lie about your age or what you look like physically, so I can make some assumptions.
“If I get you out here, and you’re into dope and show a history of that with tracks on your arms, and I talk to you, and you say, ‘Yeah, I used to live on the beach,’ I’d run your name. If the name doesn’t work, run part of your name, run just the last name, run your physical. I can go all the way down just by writing ‘white male, six feet, this age group, this part of the beach’ — going through every name. Say your date of birth is 5/9/63. That doesn’t work I’ll try 9/5/63. Your name doesn’t work? Well, maybe first and middle names are switched, maybe last name is switched. I’ll try those.
“So you start firing away and you just keep juggling all those different bits of information until you pull a booking photo, you confront the guy and come up with something. Usually, even if they’re a good liar, you can get them within the first half hour if you work at it. If they’re very good, you’re probably going to abandon the project. You just make a note of it, and someday you’ll get him on something.
“I used to spend hours at it. To me it was a personal thing. It was like, ‘I’m gonna get you, you son of a bitch. I’ll track you here and there.’ I don’t do that as much anymore.”
Wally, riding shotgun, shifts in his seat. “That’s what we did with one kid who was a really good gamesman. Living on the street, no question about it, transient, had the smell, the whole thing, long hair, whatever, and really playing a good game. He was living in this pad, the cops were coming around, he knew he was hot.
“We talk to him, he blows us off, gives us a bunch of shit information. So we wait for him; he’s crossing against the light, this gives us a reason to contact him. He’s left a place of safety crossing against the light. Now he’s got no ID. So we take him down, and he is just hard core, and he’s just playing with us, he’s just having fun. We’re having fun trying to ID him, he’s having as much fun playing with us. So we print him, send him up to CAL ID.
“That takes one to four hours, if you average it out that’s two hours. So we go, ‘Well, is it worth it?’ We talk about it, because we may never see this guy again, he’s living on the streets. We let him go. Bingo, here comes back the prints, he’s got a $25,000 warrant for a stolen vehicle, and we ain’t seen the guy since.
“Great gamesman. Moved out of our territory. So it’s a game, it’s kind of a fun game. If the crook is good at it, you can’t get mad at the crook. They got to do their stuff. I don’t blame the guy, the son of a bitch is going back to prison for two, four, six years. Shit, I’d lie my ass off too.”
Police contacts with civilians begin with names, go to computers, return to the officer in the field. In order to make that work, you’ve got to start with a good name, which is why cops hate it when suspects refuse to “give it up.”
Chris glances into the rear-view mirror, cases the neighborhood, makes a right turn off University onto 30th Street. “We were busting a house. There were four girls. One of the girls wouldn’t give up her real name. Finally we told her flat out, ‘We’re going to go down, book all of you.’ Well, they can’t smoke in jail at Las Colinas anymore.”
Wally breaks in. “That wasn’t it. I was letting the other one smoke. See, I punished the one because she was playing with me. Okay, there’s four women in there. We’ve got three of them under arrest. So they’re all going, ‘Ah, can we smoke?’ And we usually are very fair; people smoke, you know; one at a time or whatever, we’d unhandcuff them. So I go, ‘No, she’s screwing with me. I ain’t gonna let you smoke.’ Then all these girls jump in her shit, saying, ‘You’re screwing with Wally now. He ain’t gonna let us smoke, that’s not right. We ain’t gonna be able to smoke in Las Colinas either.’ And so they'all got on her case. So she goes, ‘Okay, I’m so-and-so.’ I run her, she’s got a felony warrant, she’s going back to prison. Going back just for the cigarettes, ’cause the girls got on her; but hey, everybody got to smoke. When they did, everybody was happy. They’re happy. We’re happy. We laugh. It’s crazy.”
Radio sputters, records, tattles on humanity. Chris asks his partner, “He said 54th Place, didn’t he?”
“Fifty-second Place, I thought he said.” “Oh, 52nd Place.”
“That’s what I thought he said.”
“I don’t know 52nd Place.”
“Well, I don’t know what we’ll do.”
Wally. “That cigarette stuff is an act. It’s also kind of a favorite of mine. I go into little acts. I went into a house one time, and there was this person lying to me. I know he’s lying to me. So here it is, 6:15 in the morning, I ain’t had a second cup of coffee yet. So I go, ‘This is making me crazy, man. I’m getting crazy.’ So they’re all looking at me, and I start jumping up and down and screaming and yelling. ‘This is bull, man. I’m going out of my mind here.’ Got right into my little tantrum act. Pretty soon the person gives up their right name. So the next time we go there, the same liar is there, and there’s some other liar in there, but this time we hear, ‘You’d better tell Wally who you are. He’ll get crazy, man. He gets really nuts.’ So it’s all a game. It’s fun.”
Wally tracks oncoming traffic, scans both sidewalks, asks Chris, “Do we even know where we’re going, or are we gonna be late for this 1017?” (End of shift meeting with . their sergeant to go over the day’s reports.)
I ask, “Why do people ever give their right name? Why don’t they just say, ‘I have nothing to say, officer,’ and that’s it?”
Wally. “Some do, some don’t. Most people that we deal with seem to like to talk. I think a lot of people talk to us because of personal rapport.”
Radio spits something about a truck driving on grass inside Colinas del Sol Park. Chris turns left, left again.
Wally. “I knew we shouldn’t have come in here.”
Chris. “Relax, it’s just a ticket.”
“Ah, the guy is wanted for murder or some shit, and I’m going to be late. It’s a bunch of gang bangers. Fucking radio.”
“No it isn’t. It’s just a guy and his kids.” “A guy and his kids? Good.”
“It’s all right, we’re all right.”
Wally. “We come here and it’s all professional.”
A Hispanic, middle-aged man is driving an import pickup truck over the curb, onto the park’s lawn. In the truck’s bed are half a dozen kids, coolers, four folding beach chairs. The driver is instantly profiled as regular family guy and presumed good citizen. Chris stops, approaches driver. “How’s your day? Good picnic? This all your kids?” Wally and Chris warn him, bid good evening.
Wally. “Listen to this,” motions to radio. “Anonymous report. Hispanic male has Hispanic female on the ground across from 3533....”
“It’s a rape in progress.”
During this tour, Chris and Wally plus two cover units arrive at what they believe to be a meth house. We’re here because of citizen complaints. It is believed that one occupant is a fourth waiver on her last day of probation. (When a person receives probation, often as a condition of probation the individual is required to sign a form that waives his constitutional rights against search and seizure and allows police officers to search his possessions while he is on probation.) We make two quick turns, drive along west end of an alley near University.
Alley is first cousin to mid- ’60s Venice, California. Older, slightly raunchy houses, lots of parked, banged-up maroon Chevy sedans, small pools of motor oil spot the cracked concrete surface. Beyond a red-painted board fence is a shack/garage, shack to left, garage to right. Between them is an eight-foot passageway that wends toward the rear of the main house.
Unseen dogs bark, police enter through gate. Six police officers round up an equal number of suspects from shack and yard. Chris enters shack alone. Inside is one shirtless, bleached-blond, 20-ish male.
Chris instantly picks up, empties shotgun.
Male suspect offers, “I got a right to defend myself.”
Wally calls from outside, “What have we got in there?”
Chris. “It’s a shotgun. It’s legal.”
Wally and the other officers order three men, two women against outside shack wall. Wally, face-to-face with bearded male, “Do you have a driver’s license?”
Outside, three men two women line up against shack wall. Forty-year-old bearded male wearing a Redskins-Broncos Super Bowl T-shirt, another 40s male with tattoo “Ride to Live, Live to Ride.” Women in shorts and T-shirts. Officers begin work. “What’s your date of birth? What’s your social security number? How tall are you? How much do you weigh?” Hot, crowded, fiery sun. Everyone perspiring. “Have you ever been arrested? Traffic? No felonies? Possession? Under the influence?”
Buzz, buzz, mumble, mumble. Perps (cop slang for perpetrators, commonly used for anyone who fits physical profile of a crook — that is, dirty, disheveled, tattooed) and cops talk business talk. Chris calls out to Wally, “Okay, here’s your serial number. Run that while you’re out there. I’m going to look around real quick.”
Wally radios the shotgun’s serial number, DOBs, names, resumes, interrogating woman perp in passageway.
Wally. “We’re going to confirm it right now, but I confirmed it this morning.” (Confirmed that woman is on probation, is a fourth waiver, subject to search.)
Chris enters the squalid cabin. Floor is hidden beneath two feet of clothes, sheets, bed rolls, food remnants, empty Hi-Ho cracker boxes, broken appliances. Tall, shirtless, tanned perp watches through hooded brown eyes like a street cat sizing up a strange back yard. Chris points to a lump of debris, asks suspect, “Is this separate? Yours is over here right? The reason I ask is, there’s a scale in there. I want to know if it’s yours or somebody else’s.”
Perp looks away, responds, “Scales and shit ain’t mine. Wish the motherfucker would have gotten all his shit out of here. Now I got to take the heat on this shit.”
In the passageway, Wally confronts five-foot-six-inch, blue cotton shorts, short black hair female perp. “Now you’re going to stop playing games. You’re playing games with me.”
Tremorous voice, “No, I’m not.”
“I’m gonna find your stuff, and I’m gonna find the dope, if you want me to put it that way. You have to stay somewhere, and you have to have belongings.”
“I stay sometimes on Bancroft Street.” “Okay, then we’re going to Bancroft Street and search that place, and we’re also going to search your belongings here. You told me you live in the front house. That’s where I’ll take a look.” Wally addresses line of perps, “Who lives in the front house?" Then returns to female, “We’re going in the front house, I’ll guarantee you that.”
One of the male suspects, handcuffed against the wall, expels an angry sigh, “Nobody out here lives in the front house.” Wally. “She told me she lives in the front house. Somebody back here said she lived in the front house.”
Wally. “You’re screwing with me.”
Tearful reply. “I’m not.”
“You’re playing word games. I asked you where you lived, you said in the front house, now you’re denying it, now you live in the garage.” Woman whimpers, “No, no.” Wally continues, “You’re screwing with me. All you got to do is show me where you live and where your possessions are, and that will satisfy me. That man just said you live in here too.”
Male perp standing against wall says to Chris, who’s outside now, “This is fucked up. Your partner is screwing with her.” Chris. “What’s he doing?”
“Pushing about where she lives.”
Chris calls out, “Wally, that’s covered. That’s a mute issue.”
Chris. “They’re just crashing here, and it’s no big deal.”
Wally. “All right.”
Perp calls out, “Hey, Caroline, I love you”; says to Chris, “Thank you, man. Come back again, you’ll probably do better,”
All these people have outstanding misdemeanor warrants. There’s a call requesting transportation to the jail. Suspects will be photographed, fingerprinted, sign a promise to appear in court, and be back home within four hours.
Later, Wally explains what he was after. “You see, that girl was screwing with me. I knew she was a fourth waiver, right? I made a mistake there, I shouldn’t have told her that she’s a fourth waiver subject to search and seizure. That keys her. I shouldn’t have given her that piece of intelligence. I should have said, ‘Where’s your stuff at? Precisely, where’s your stuff at?’
“She probably would have said, ‘I live over here, I’m living in that thing. Okay, here’s my stuff.’ Now I can go through her stuff. But today she tried to screw with me because she said, ‘I’m living in the front house,’ then she wasn’t living in the front house, then she wasn’t living here, then she’s living in the garage, then da, da, da. So she’s dicking with me. We could have put her in jail. She would have spent the rest of the weekend in jail. Females, they book for misdemeanors.
“But we left a nice taste in her mouth at the end when we let her go downtown to take care of her tickets, avoid jail. It’s,
‘Hey, we did a nice thing for you. Could have put you in jail, da, da, da.’ Both the girls are going, ‘Yeah, we really appreciate that.’ So there’s still a good rapport there, even though I made her cry initially. Now it’s, ‘Hey, these guys are all right, they play fair.’ ”
Just at sundown. Driving west on Lincoln into enormous flattened sun that squats precisely on the center of the road.
Wally. “I can’t see nothing when we’re going this way,” swivels facing the back seat. “This neighborhood here is full of crooks. See how it profiles. Lots of stolen vehicles, lots of thieves, dope. This particular part of town has seen, historically, a lot of biker activity, lot of methamphetamine. We’ve done that house over there on a warrant search several times.”
We drive past a police community storefront, where cops use the bathroom. Propped up against locked gray metal doors lie two bums, upper bodies covered by deepening shade. Even though it’s summer hot, both men wear ragged tan jackets, blue jeans, and work boots.
Wally. “We ought to move them.”
Chris. “Ah, they look comfortable.”
Wally. “Some jerk cop is gonna come along and jerk them around.”
Chris drives on. “We get wind of a lot of stuff. That’s what’s sad about patrol. I’ll hear about something, but I’m also reacting to the radio, and I don’t have time to do anything. So I’ll ignore it or I’ll forget about it. I had a state prison escapee tell me some news months ago, but I didn’t know where he was living. You hear so much, and it may be bullshit or he may be on the top ten. That guy turned out to be top ten. That happens a lot with patrol, and a lot of it is because you don’t have access to the investigative units as closely as sometimes you need to or they’re swamped with their own case loads.
“You have to remember that the patrol function is a deterrent to crime by being a visible deterrent and the reactivity to the radio. It’s a service-orientated thing. We have to be available for those calls. Even the bullshit calls that drive us crazy sometimes. We have to be there. We can’t be off running around doing investigations. And that’s why a patrol division has to dedicate a certain amount of resources to pro-active work [seeking contacts, developing cases], because it just doesn’t get done on this level, and it needs to be addressed. So that’s kind of the essence of this unit; that’s what we ended up being.
We still do patrol things, but we’re not a reactive patrol, we’re more pro-active.” In many ways this kind of police work seems to be just another retail business, and these perps are valued customers or at least needed customers.
Chris and Wally have lined up meth users for interviews, people who have either been busted before or are suspected of significant drug abuse. We enter several meth houses, each time preceded by a cheery “No arrests today. No bust today.” We’re in living rooms laden with bottles, pizza cartons, burned coffee tables, mounds of cigarette butts, heaps of fast-food wrappings, two or three males slouched on ripped couches hunched over skeletal knees, single female hovering against far wall, shuffles and scuffles emanating from back rooms. Arrange to come back later for interviews.
Chris makes several phone calls, schedules a meet with an ex-meth dealer down what is becoming a well-trod alley, couple of blocks south of El Cajon Boulevard. Here, on neutral turf, perp and cops exchange congenial greetings.
Perp climbs into back seat. We begin Sunday drive out I-8.
Ask perp, “What’s the deal with tweakers and dumpsters?”
Dark hair, pockmarked, sallow round face, frightened brown eyes. Gruff voice exits from barrel chest. “It’s what they do. One time we went to a dumpster over here off of Park Boulevard. Some guy must have expired or something, but there were all these suits in there, Stacy shoes, high-quality stuff. Like $300 or $400 shoes, you know. About ten pairs of them' and in one of the coat pockets was a gold chain, 14-karat gold. There was a real nice watch also, stuff like that.
“Tweakers either rip off people or they go through alleys, go through dumpsters hoping to find something valuable to sell to their connect. It’s an all-day affair, an all-night affair. I be a connect many times to these people. It’s sad because that’s the only means of existence they have. They eat out of dumpsters, they clothe themselves out of dumpsters. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot of nice stuff being found, but it’s a situation tweakers can’t get out of because the goddamn addiction is so strong. I mean, I thank my lucky stars I was able to get out of that.”
“How long did it take to quit methamphetamine?”
“That I knew that I was off, that I had no willing desire any more? A couple months.
I spent a lot of time with my son, my wife, things that were reinforcingly positive for me. I’ve got two years of law school in. I want to finish my law school, go back to Western State. Went from ’79 to ’80. Got some good grades.
“I’ve always been involved with drugs. Drugs took my life and just destroyed it. See, I figured I wasn’t getting any younger, and everything was falling apart, going thorough my fingers, or going up my nose. Basically, that’s what it does, destroys your family life, destroys everything. If you’re an addict, you’re not just destroying yourself, you’re destroying your household.”
“How did you kick it?”
“I got a pretty strong mind. In my lifetime, I have been able to do things that I’ve set out to do. But that was the hardest thing I’ve ever fought, and I’ve fought some pretty strong motherfuckers, I’ll tell you. When I was doing that shit, I was stabbed, shot at. One time I rode my bicycle up to my old lady’s. She was in her garage. We were going through a separation phase. Anyway, I rode up on my bike, and I was bringing some goodies and stuff like that, and she was arguing with this Cuban guy who was one of the Mariel boat people. So they were arguing a little bit, and I was getting off my bike when he pivoted and
stuck me with a blade about six inches long. Stuck me right here, about a quarter inch from the heart. I thought I was dead.
“I was shot on 46th Street. That was basically routine, wasn’t intended for me. It was over some disgruntled customer. I just happened to be in the area where they were doing it. But the stabbing was intentional. It's a bad lifestyle.”
“So what is the meth lifestyle? What did you do when you were loaded?”
“Most of the time when I was doing meth, we were always eating fast food, because you don’t want to cook. Your kitchen’s always a mess, you know; everything is in shambles. You ever try to walk into a tweaker home? You can’t. You have to crawl over boxes and everything. They tear into their drawers, they tear into their boxes, everything is spread around on the floor. Take Karen; she had a nice house, had some nice stuff, but I’ll be damned if you could walk in. As soon as you walked in the front door, there was no way you could get through. The best thing you could do is call her up.
“One thing that crystal did for me though, it helped me stop smoking pot, ’cause I was smoking a lot of pot when I was living in L.A. Moved down here and started using the tweak, and I didn’t have a desire to smoke marijuana. The heavy drinkers are still drinking; they never stopped drinking. The alcoholics are still alcoholics. That’s a hell of combination to have. I maintained myself pretty well, most of the time. You got to use your wits. Unfortunately, the wits factor gets so dull it makes it harder.
“The majority of my customers were street people. Had two or three of them that held good jobs, but they’re no longer around, got popped or run off to Mexico.”
No eye contact, my companion stares straight ahead, speaking by rote. Have vision of attending parole board hearing listening to rap on why this man should be granted early release. “Is it fairly safe? If you wanted to deal meth as a career, would the odds be that you would get popped or that you wouldn’t?”
“Yeah, you’ll get popped. Eventually. If you start dealing, high-rolling, you’d have to be constantly moving, you’d have to be relocating yourself. Because word of mouth, it spreads. There’s a lot of infiltration by authorities out here, and yeah, you will be known. So as soon as that happens, you better get the hell out.”
We drive around, drive around, listen to tales of abuse and reform. Eventually we return to rendezvous alley, our man politely bids good day, exits police car.
Driving east on El Cajon Boulevard past Illinois, a no-shirt, dirty-blond hair, dirty jeans, bearded 30-year-old male shuffles the sidewalk.
Wally. “Look at this guy’s tattoos right here. Look at the hand print. That’s a unique one. I’ve never seen one like that.” Chris. “There’s so much meth going on, and it’s weird, some people want to have ethical codes, you don’t do a bad dope deal type thing, you don’t do rips and stuff like that.”
Wally. “The cooker gets a bad batch, you shitcan that batch rather than sell it off. Some don’t have that high a qualm, they’ll sell a bad batch. There’s creditability anywhere, there’s good and bad, good dealers and bad dealers.”
Chris and Wally have driven by, pointed out, several tweaker households, households that they’re watching, daily. Occupants know they’re being watched, it’s part of the routine of life: get up, take a shower, grab the corn flakes, put the coffee on, look out the kitchen window, see police. One house in particular was billed as a major dealing center. Two days later, I’m tapping on oversized front door. A wiry, slight built, tight-faced, gray-haired woman in her late 50s, wearing a cotton Baptist summer dress, answers. We sit at either end of three-legged mahogany dining-room table, sip instant coffee. All the policemen I’ve met know about this house. “How long have they been coming by?”
Stem, Midwestern twang. “It’s been two years. The first time we had a really big problem, the police came looking for car thieves. They tore down the front door, they shot my dog, which my daughter was holding at the time. That’s the first time. At that time, there was five people in the house.
“You see Jim, my husband, has been living in this house since he was four years old. When he was a kid, his parents had signed up at the USO for Navy guys in case they needed a place to sleep. So basically, when people started coming over here, we didn’t stop to ask them if they had any drugs or anything. If they needed a place to sleep or something to eat, we gave it to them. Then we started having more problems with the cops because of the people that came over. It got to one point where we had cops in the alley lurking. We had three cops that walked up and down the street here that would stop people outside. It was usually in the daytime but sometimes in the evening. It got to the point where people would pull up in front of my house, and they wouldn’t even get out the car before die cops would get them for under the influence. This was ’87, early ’88.
“I had a letter from the assistant D.A. I was looking for it the other day, and I cannot remember where it is. Televisions. People just kept bringing them over and letting Jim see if he can fix then!. Right now we have TVs everywhere. I got a ton of them here.”
I survey the dining room, living room, kitchen, one end to the other. Don’t see a single TV.
“Anyway, the cops would come over here every day to see how things were going. We’ve never refused to let the police in this house. They’ve always been able to come in and look around, whatever they had to do.
“We met here with the assistant D.A. and my father-in-law, who owns the house, about drug activities and stuff. They gave us some pamphlets about drugs to hand out. I was very amazed at the amount of people who picked them up and took them and were really interested in them.
“Then we had another meeting with the D.A. and two police officers for about an hour. Afterwards, they sent us a letter, thanked us for our cooperation, said we was going to be left alone but that a case was still pending. Within a year’s time, if they want to make charges again, well, they can do that. And so we didn’t start having any real problems again until recently, the last three months. The assistant D.A. asked my father-in-law for a meeting, because they were going to shut my house down as a nuisance. So that’s how the meeting came about, and 1 guess they were going to fine my father-in-law, so they came down and met with us about it.”
Sunlight filters through bare windows, showcases dust, thick sheets of dust, all rooms, all directions. “Why didn’t you just tell everybody, ‘Don’t come over. Period’?”
“I’d tell people not to come over, the cops are at my door, but it still didn’t stop them from coming over. It slowed them down for a long time, but we still had people coming over. There was 20-some complaints in a month’s time, from the neighbors, supposedly.”
Sitting on the shoulder of a red overstuffed couch, wearing stylishly ripped cutoffs and a yellow, tight T-shirt, is a tall, long-legged 17-year-old. She sits in a full lotus, combing long, wet, blonde hair. “When we first moved here, us three girls used to sneak out at night, go out through the windows, sit on the porch. The cops would show up saying there was a disturbance or something. My parents never woke up. We were never loud enough for our parents to wake up, so why would the neighbors care? I mean, neighbors were just listening, watching. This neighbor right here, she knows my dad and grandad, and she used to leave notes to my dad on the , van saying, ‘The girls left at this time, came back with so-and-so.’ ”
Mom. “There have been a lot of known car thieves come over to this house and, uh, people that do drugs you know, but they have never, never found drugs in this house.”
Daughter. “Not in the house; some people outside the house.”
Mom. “Yeah, outside the house or whatever, but they never found any drugs in this house, and so why they call it a drug house is beyond me.”
Daughter. “Because of the traffic.”
Mom reflects. “Yeah, it has changed. These two police officers that come over here now are like the, what was it called, the first team. They was the ‘we can’ group. ‘We can shut you down if we want to.’ They tried their darnedest to shut us down, didn’t they?"
National City next four exits.
Pleasant country ride, east on Otay Mesa Road along the border, past Brown Field. Maquiladoras on the right, farm land to left. Attempting to locate Alta Road, give up, wave down late-20s, stunningly dressed, gorgeously made-up woman driving new Toyota. “Excuse me, do you know where Donovan prison is?”
Towers. One, two, three towers, prisoners sauntering about, languidly looking through 14-foot wire fence topped by razor wire.
Here to interview inmate Thomas Carver, doing time for possession of methamphetamine. Escorted through prison grounds by Lt. John Sandlin into minimum-security section. Arrive at what looks like an elementary school all-purpose room, announce ourselves to guard/room monitor.
We take seats in adjacent patio, on white patio chairs, like Ozzie and Harriet waiting for afternoon snacks, wait for thd prisoner to be retrieved from his duties. In ten minutes Tom arrives. He’s a black-mustached linebacker of a man in his early 30s.
“I’ve only got three more months. The original sentence was nine months on a three-year term. I violated my probation. I got two more years. I have 312 days’ credit, so it’s a total of eight months’ time, three years’ parole after that. That was the whole deal. I figured to max out my time. State of California didn’t like me to do that.
“Where did it start? Where were you born?”
“I was born in L.A. in 1958. I got three sisters, two younger, one older. My dad was a Greyhound bus driver; my mom’s done a lot of secretary work, part housewife, part secretarial. Both my folks are still alive.
“Lived in L.A. until I was 17, Norwalk. I moved to San Diego in ’74. I never did any speed in L.A. I took downers and smoked pot. That was the reason for my parents’ moving here. Better environment.
“School was a real downfall for me. I don’t spell at all. I write letters, misspell words, and have to apologize for it. I don’t know if that’s dyslexia or just lack of motivation. I didn't go to school for the better part of high school. I did a lot of cutting through the ninth or tenth grade, got loaded instead. So when we moved here from L.A., I tried to go to Poway High School, and they wouldn’t let me in because of my grades. I went to continuation school, graduated there. It wasn’t bad. You get enough credits and they give you a diploma. No graduation ceremony. You stand there, they take your picture, and that’s about it. About 12 to 15 in my class. Graduated in ’76, or ’77.
“Back then I smoked a lot of weed. I got into coke before I got into speed. I did coke to the point where, you know that song, ‘Dancing in the Dark’? He’s got that place in the song, ‘I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face.’ Well, I went and looked in the mirror, and I saw a monster. I’d been using coke for about a year at that time, and I’m talking about a full vial every day.” “What did you do for money?”
“I tried to work 6 months out of 12. I’m an ironworker. Between selling drugs I’d work iron work. I got in the ironworkers’ union in 1979, started out at $13.65 an hour. It was good money back then. I’ve been kicked out of the union twice being delinquent in my dues. Started doing drugs, get to spinning, space it out.”
“How did you take up meth?”
“I got fed up with coke. It was scary. I didn’t like myself. I don’t know if it was just getting old or it had taken its toll. My body got to where I’d look in the mirror, and it just looked like hell. That was after two years. Around ’84 I went back to work for a while. I kind of slacked off on the drugs and went back to drinking and then got into crystal about ’85. Got busted in ’87. I was snorting it back then. I would snort it or put it in my coffee.
“Coke goes to your muscles and gives you a numb feeling, where speed just snaps, gets you going. With speed you’re up for days, five or six days. Meth is much harder on your body than coke. Your teeth fall out.”
Jesus, health warnings. The world has become one gigantic health alert center. My back hurts; in fact, my teeth are aching. Carver is still talking.
“I started slamming [injecting] it. That was right before I got busted. That’s why God put me there. I went to jail in September of ’87, got out in March of ’88.
“When I first slammed it, I was at my partner’s house. I wouldn’t do it myself. I always had somebody else do it. That-a-way, if you have somebody else do you, the chances of you doing it constantly are rather slim. Once you do it yourself, it’s all over, you’ll never go back. I’d done coke that way before so it really didn’t bother me, but I was really disciplined about it, you know. When I felt good with myself, I might slam once every two months. And then I got into selling it, and I got td where I was doing it myself on top of it. (jot to where I was shooting up four times a day, five times a day sometimes. Just to get that rush, get that rush.”
“Where do you get needles?”
“Through different people. I had a friend who had a friend, got them by the box. And I traded my speed.”
For the thousandth time I wonder why people talk to reporters. What makes someone voluntarily tell utter strangers things they would never consider saying to their mothers, daughters, lovers? I look into deadly sad eyes, ask, “Sounds like at least part of the time you held a normal job, lived a normal life.”
“I can walk with either life. I golf. I can go out on a golf course and join a threesome, and it’s cool, but they don’t know what kind of a person I am. They don’t know what I do or anything like that. But I’ve always hung out with your wino and bum type, your street people. They seem a little more real or something.
“I used to ride my bike during what I used to call ‘the bewitching hour,’ when the bars shut down at two o’clock. I’ve always had this fascination; I’d like to take a picture of San Diego from the sky at night just to see how many lights were on. You’d be surprised how many people are awake at that hour. I call it the bewitching hour because the only thing up between, say, three and five, are cops and cabbies, so chances are if anyone else is up that late, they’re tweaking.
“I tried to stay low profile and low key so I wouldn’t go to jail. An ex-girlfriend told on me. When I was arrested, they knew exactly what they were looking for. I stopped golfing for a long time, was just starting to pick the game back up. I’d go out to Mission Bay Golf Course and hit balls around. I was leaving the golf course, saw the cops sitting there, but I was already committed. Soon as I pulled out, they searched my trunk for something like two hours before he found a thing. I mean, the man tore it up. He found weed and Valium but he wanted crystal. I’d been busted prior to that, but no charges were pressed until after I got busted the second time, then they brought up the old charges. I wound up getting 30 days concurrent with the time I was already doing.
“I did time from September of ’87 to March of ’88 for possession of a controlled substance. After I got out in ’88, I was going through an AA program, and so on and so forth. I got a conscience okay, and I couldn’t see going to the meeting and then going out and drinking and doing dope. That would have been real hypocritical. I really don’t like hypocrites that much. So I stayed clean for all this time. I’d do two meetings a week, and I was working downtown, and I ran into somebody that I’d known for years, and he just got out of jail. I’d slammed dope maybe one time since I got out, but I went on a roll after that. I shouldn’t have spent two minutes with that guy, but my will got weak."
“What’s gonna change when you get out this time?”
“I’m gonna try to pull Vegas again. I really lost touch with my family through all the dope using. I run from everything that's good for me. As far as contact with my parents, I lost touch with them for years. Might call Mom once a year, and I sent her one letter since I got out of jail in ’88. I have a lot of family in Vegas, and I’m going to go up there and try and get family orientated again, do me a drug program, hit the AA, give it a shot.”
“What was the fun part about meth?” “Staying up, although I can’t honestly say that there was any real fun parts to it. I can’t even say the thrill of breaking the law. I’ve had it explained to me in several different ways. You know, you stay up so long, your mind never sleeps. Even when you’re awake your mind dreams for you. So you stay up for days on end, your mind still has to have that dream time, and I think that’s where the hallucinations come in.
“I’ve seen some wild shit. I think the wildest one was when I was going to a buddy’s house driving down 1-15, and all of sudden I look over to the side and I saw big giant helicopters, and I looked in front of me and big giant soldiers were marching on the freeway. I thought, ‘It’s time to take a nap, Tom.’ ”
“How would you describe a full-grown, committed tweaker?”
“Well, they’re awesome for having people follow them. They come to your house, ‘Somebody followed me here.’ I go, ‘Oh, okay. Take this and get the fuck out of here.’ The thing is, if the cops want you they’ll come get you. Tweakers are notorious for thinking cops are following them. I never let it bother me. Hallucinations, I never let them bother me because I knew what they were. I think the trippiest one I saw, I was driving back from Alpine on the freeway, and I saw big giant eucalyptus trees growing right out of the center of the roadway. I was telling a story about that, and a partner of mine saw the exact same thing in exactly the same spot. Naw, there’s a lot of eucalyptus trees right in that area, and I often wondered if I didn’t see the aura of trees that actually might have been there at one time. I believe everything has an aura. You take a leaf and cut if off, you can see it.”
“So what did you guys do when you were loaded?”
“They’d all want to go dig in a garbage can somewheres. That’s straight up. I think it’s to occupy their time. Tweakers have 24-hour days, but they still don’t have enough time in the day. Tweakers are real good about tearing things apart. You don’t really do anything that’s positive. You can take them into a brand new home, come back the next day, and it’s all tore up. Take apart radios, do anything.”
“How did you get busted this time?”
“After I ran into that guy, I started running around downtown. I used to ask God, ‘Why? Is there a lesson for me to learn here, or is there a lesson for me to teach someone else?’ I firmly believe in God. I don’t go to church, I go to church in my heart. I believe that he watches over me.”
“Downtown, what were you doing?”
“Just tweaking. Living. At first I was staying up on Columbia Street. Had a nice house up there. Wound up losing it. That’s when I was thinking about going back to Vegas. I was fed up with myself. I’d work good for a long time, like six, seven months, then I miss a day. Then next week I miss two days. I worked for Fontana Steel doing real good. When I go to work I go there to work.”
“So you just went on a run, didn’t show up on the job?”
“I finally just dropped it. Every time I call my boss back, I usually would get so fucked up from doing speed and not eating enough that I wouldn’t make much sense. And I would call work, ‘Hi, Ralph, you gonna give me my job back?’ And he would always give me my job back. When I got out in October, he told me, ‘If you go back there, don’t bother calling me again.’ So I’m going to show up in the office this time. I don’t know, I don’t know if he’ll give me my job back or not. I’m hoping he will.”
“How would you rate meth as a drug?”
“I like meth better than coke, and I’ve done almost every kind of drug there is. There’s something about staying up a lot. There’s something about going fast. It’s addictive but actually, if you’re a junkie, you’re not addicted to the drug, you’re addicted to the needle. It’s like smoking coke. That shit is a monster, a real monster. It’s almost as big a monster as a needle is.
“I feel that I grew up in an era of drug addicts. I’m 32. When I was growing up, early ’60s, early ’70s, you started getting our boys coming back from Viet Nam. Pot became real big. It went on from pot to LSD; your hippies, your flower children, they were all into drugs too. So I think it was an era. I got two nine-year-old nieces that write to me. They’re growing up in a computer age, I grew up in a drug era.”
“So now that you’ve done a couple turns in jail, how do you like it?”
“I was wanting to go to jail. When I got out last October, was with a lady, figured, give it one shot, ’cause she used too. And I did some right when I got out, and that was to take away the itch. I went back to work. She got pissed because I got loaded, so she came home loaded one night, which ticked me and was a good excuse. All you need is a good excuse, anything will do. So I went out and used, and the next thing you know, we’re doing it together, and I could feel myself going downhill. Going back to the same old thing. So I started picking parking boxes in downtown San Diego. Go pick the parking meter slots, like where people stick in their dollars. You know, if youVlon’t do it right, somebody’s going to get your money. A lot of money to be gotten in those boxes.
“I knew the cops were following me that morning. I was just tripping around. I wanted to go back to jail. Going to jail is my reprieve. I look forward to prison. I cut everybody loose that I’ve associated with this past year. I cut them all loose. I needed to go to jail.”
Downtown, on C Street, enter Vegas-shopping-center casino-style foyer, up an elevator to the third floor and the offices of the San Diego City Attorney. Through door with sign announcing Staff Only is the daytime home of Scott Taylor, head trial deputy. Taylor is 33 years old, USD law school, with the city attorney’s office since 1988. Taylor prosecutes the little guys, the misdemeanor users.
Walk into small office with outside view. Legal notebooks, paperwork scattered, brown metal cabinets, files marked by date. Scott leans back in a white cloth chair behind government-issue, four-by-three-foot wooden desk. On the wall is a map of the world, a New York Giants football banner, and a framed cartoon picked up at the Festival of Animation in La Jolla. I look across to a double-breasted blue suit, blue paisley tie, black wing-tip shoes, and a face that is open, honest, and also one that has been somewhere.
“What happens to an everyday citizen who’s arrested for being under the influence of meth?”
“Okay, you know about diversion? On a misdemeanor, under Penal Code Section 1000, a person who is arrested for drug charges can divert. It’s a relatively minor program. They go to drug classes. Now the people that cannot divert, they can’t have had a prior diversion in the last five years, can’t have had a felony conviction in the last five years, and can’t have any other charges associated with the misdemeanor. The reason diversion is important is that Health and Safety Code Section eleven-five-fifty [being under the influence] is mandatory 90 days in custody. A straight eleven-five-fifty, never been in trouble before, they can divert one time. That's in the court’s discretion. Sort of one bite at the apple. I guess the assumption is that the person just experimented for the first time, they cut them a break. If convicted you have to attend certain classes; and within the two-years of diversion, if you don’t get anything else, then the case is dismissed.” “Okay, say it’s the second time around, and the only charge I’ve ever had is simple under the influence of meth, I went through diversion, and three years later I get popped again for under the influence.”
“You can’t divert again. You’re going to be able to cop to the charge and do 90 days. You don’t have to do the full 90. In the county jail, for every two days you do, you get one day good-time credit. So on 90 days, you do 60 actual.”
“So now we’re back again for the third time, same charge. I got no other charges, all I do is use meth.”
“Our offer is going to be — this is sort of a rule of thumb that our office uses — any felony convictions, we’re going to add 30 days to our offer; any prior drugs convictions, we’re going to add 30 days to our offer; any open drugs charges, we’re going to add 30 days. ’Cause a lot of times, we’ll have somebody that walks in with four eleven-five-fifties. With four under the influence of meth, we’re gonna say, ‘Plead guilty to two, we’ll dismiss two.’ In that situation, when somebody comes in on a third case, we’d say, ‘One diversion, that’s an extra 30; second conviction, extra 30,’ and so on, depending on what the circumstances are.”
“Is it conceivable I could do this for the rest of my life if I only got arrested every two or three years using meth?”
“You’d only get a year max.”
“No matter how many times I was arrested for under the influence of meth?” “Being under the influence of a controlled substance is a misdemeanor.”
“Is that something that you run across commonly? Like, here I am for the fifth or sixth time?”
“I had a person today, the guy was copping to a lesser included offense of robbery. The judge calls me down and says, ‘I notice this guy has open charges with your office.’ I pull up the guy’s raps, and I notice that he’s got one, two, three, four, five open eleven-five-fifties. He’s got a shoplift, another case that was a dismissed eleven-five-fifty. This guy’s got five open eleven-five-fifties, all under the influence. We deal them, sentence him to court. He copped to three of the cases including the theft, and we dismissed the other three.
“The bottom line is what we’re doing upstairs. See, we issue cases upstairs. The way the process works in our office, the police department sends a police report to us. We have issuing deputies on the fourth floor that look at the case and ask themselves, ‘Are the PCs [probable cause] there? Got a blood test back? How are the symptoms? Show cocaine or meth? Okay, it looks like a good case, here’s the witnesses, let’s issue it.’ Then we file a complaint as a result of that.
“Right now our policy upstairs, because of our budget situation, is, there’s two ways that a person can be charged. Either we file a complaint, the person signs a promise to appear when they’re arrested or when they get out of jail, typically on an OR or via bail. We file the complaint, they show up at court and get arraigned. Or we don’t file a complaint in time, or they are sent to detox and they get out and have to be notified that you have to appear in court. We don’t do that anymore; we dismiss those cases, the ones where we have to send a notify letter out. We won’t even issue those cases anymore. We just don’t have the money to do it. So in a lot of those cases, people are just walking away. A lot of times we’ll have this guy, and the only reason he’s around is because he got popped for a felony, been convicted of it, plead to it. He comes in, and we’ll have trial set. These are people with five, six, seven eleven-five-fifties. I’ll go down there, and it’s like I feel like stupid to bring this guy to court for nothing.”
(As of July 1, the city attorney’s office received a substantial increase in its budget and has hired 20 new deputies to assist in screening the 6000 cases a month that come in. Current policy requires that all persons who have not signed a written promise to appear in court be notified.)
“There are over 640,000 outstanding warrants in San Diego County. With a number like that, doesn’t that mean the police won’t even bother arresting misdemeanor people unless it’s in connection with something else?”
“Well, a lot of times they take them to jail because, I mean, it’s a continuing violation. You can’t let the guy go loose .when he's still under the influence of the drug. Drunk drivers go to jail, domestic violence go to jail, or anything that really involves violence; but for the most part, a person under the influence of a controlled substance is gonna go down to the jail and be booked, and probably in four to six hours they’ll be back on the street. And then they don’t show up for their court cases, an arrest warrant is issued. We don’t go out and try and serve those, it just goes out to limbo.
“You see, if they’re arrested for being under the influence of a controlled substance, they have to take them downtown for a blood test or a urine test. But if they just picked them up on a misdemeanor warrant, unless they were doing something else, I would guess most of the time they don’t even pick them up. Or if they do they bring you down to the station, you sign a promise to appear, you’re out the door.
“And that just keeps on going?”
“Oh yeah. Nobody is serving the warrants. I mean, we don’t have enough jail space to keep people in jail just because they don’t show up for their court dates or have outstanding warrants. I think a lot of times police know a guy is a fourth waiver, they know he has outstanding warrants, it’s a good reason to stop somebody. By the same token, these people have so many open drug cases against them we really don’t have the place in jail to put people. As a result the drug problem is sort of a joke.”
“In what way?”
“Well, just in terms of we say it’s 90 days in custody, and we take it seriously; by the same token we don’t have the jail space. And there isn’t any kind of drug treatment.And we have all these misdemeanor warrants.”
“Do most people cop to an under-the-influence charge?”
“Under the influence of meth, it’s very difficult from a defense side to take that to trial, because you have a blood test that says you have meth in your system, you have a trained drug officer who says, ‘I walked up to him, noticed he had enormous pupils, he was paranoid, scratching, fidgety, kept talking really fast.’ I mean your average jury, all you have to do is put the blood test in front of them and they'll say, 'That's good enough for me.' But then you have all this other stuff, the symptoms, and we'll bring in an expert from NST, the Narcotics Street Team, and he'll testify as to what they'd expect from somebody under the influence, what kind of symptoms they heave, and it just so happens that that's the same symptoms the officer saw. It's very difficult to put on the defendant who's going to stand up--almost all of them want to stand up--and say, 'I don't do drugs. I've never taken drugs.' Well, they're dumb.
“I’ve gone on a few ride-alongs with the police. If they want to pick up everybody under the influence of drugs, clearly you’d have to take semi-trucks, just load them in. We don’t have the jail space. I’ve been with a friend down in Southeast who takes me to a few places where you drive down the street at 35 miles per hour, there are people who walk right out in the street and flag you down. They don’t even care who you are, they don’t look first to see if you’re a cop; they just walk right onto the street, have something in their hand, and they’re screaming at people in passing cars. It's amazing.”
“Do you have the sense that things are getting worse or better or the same?”
“Seems like it’s getting a little better only because of public consciousness. For example, take the idea that under the influence of drugs is 90 days minimum in the county jail. They don’t have any kind of drug treatment, so what is that person going to do? Person is probably doing drugs in the jail, but even if they don’t get ahold of it there — and my understanding is that there’s a lot there — as soon as they’re out, they’re back in the same situation. They haven’t had any treatment or any kind of education. Let ’em sleep on the floor for 60 days with a bunch of people probably using drugs too.
“The thing is, you have to get busted in order for me to see you. Now who’s getting busted? Well, it’s the person walking along the street in high-narcotics area. It’s not going to be a person who has money. The money people buy it from someone else. They aren’t walking along the street down at 30th and Imperial. They aren’t walking down the street here at 5th and Market.They aren’t selling their butts up on El Cajon Boulevard. The high-drug areas where the people hang out, those are the people that get busted.
“The average person that goes into their house and uses meth, people who keep to themselves, don’t see me. It’s once you get over the edge and start hanging out in that kind of an environment where you don’t care, those are the people who get arrested. Where it’s past the point of just normal living using drugs, just living for drugs. Those are the ones we see. We don’t see the college students that much. We don’t see the person who holds down a job, does meth in the morning or afternoon or something. We just basically see the heavy users, because they’re the ones that shuffle down the street, down on Market Street, officers driving by, probably they don’t even want to pop anybody, but it’s just so obvious, they have to.
“It sounds cynical, but it’s how the criminal justice system works. If you just can’t hold it together, if you are so messed up by your drug of choice that you have to go to the worst area and be^ public about it, then you’ll probably be busted; and that’s what we’re going to deal with.
“Is that the right way of doing it? No, I don’t think so. The law is, you can’t be under the influence of meth; but the bottom line is, you can’t be under the influence of meth in public. The person that doesn’t look like they’re using meth — I mean, you do need probable cause to stop people. So if nobody provides you with probable cause, you’re probably not going to be arrested. The people we see are the broken taillights that are weaving down the road. But for the most part, just being under the influence, no, we don’t see them, and it’s not fair, but isn’t that the same way for other crimes? It’s just stupid criminals, criminals who have gone over the edge emotionally. I’m sure the DAs would tell you that the ones they arrest are the stupid ones. The person who still has it together, they aren’t going to get arrested.”
It took a week. Stopping by dead-end, bombed-out, stench-racked tweaker households. Every day, two o’clock in the afternoon, greeted by blurry faces, squinty eyes, tattooed biceps, matted beards, speaking through cracked doors, “Yeah, we’ll talk tomorrow.” Next day, next day, next day, next day.
Okay, try it another way. Find inevitable 7-Eleven, purchase half a dozen newspapers, three 16-ounce coffees to go, drive, park, stake out number one tweak house. Eighty minutes later, wave over resident perp as he ventures onto sidewalk. Filthy tanned face, cold-sore-scabbed lips, rampaging black beard, leans next to car window.
“Hop in. Let’s get a beer.”
We drive six blocks to a Mexican restaurant, enter, order two Buds. I look across the booth into glazed brown eyes. “Let’s begin with your first arrest.”
“I’ve been on probation since I was nine years old.”
“Since nine? How old are you now?” “Twenty-five.”
“When do you get off probation this time?”
“I don’t know. I’m a violator right now, so when I go back. I’m going to do 90 days. And when I get out, I got three more years’ parole to do.”
“How do you know you’re a violator?”
“ ’Cause when I got out of prison, I didn’t show up at the probation department. It’s an automatic violation. But see, if you show up and then not go through with it, your parole, you get six months. If you get a dirty test for doing drugs, don’t find a job, or decide, ‘Well, I ain’t gonna see my parole officer no more,’ then that’s six months. Because you’ve already reported once. But if you just don’t go see him from the day you get out, it’s only 90 days. If you don’t feel like you’re going to make the parole — which I didn't, I just don’t bullshit myself that way — then the police catch me, right? It’s only 90 days instead of six months.”
“What do they do about the parole?”
“Well, I do the 90 days, and I still got that three years’ parole to do.”
“Can you do the same thing all over again? Do the 90 days, not show up, wait to be caught; do the 90 days, not show up, and so on.”
“Right. But they’re getting down on that, and they’re going to change it to where they can keep you the whole parole period.” Waitress comes by smiling already-worn airline stewardess smile at age of 19. Would we like to order dinner? No.
Companion bums a smoke; I ask, “You know that house where I met you? Isn’t it terrifying living in that place? Cops come by there all the time.”
“I don’t like it, but I don’t like sleeping on the streets either. And the only other alternative is to go out and do a burglary, ’cause I can’t get a job or nothing right now, ’cause I’m on parole. You need a social security card or something like that. Plus, I got an old lady and a dog. I knew they’d raided that house once; yeah, it is pretty scary.”
“You said you were nine years old when you were first arrested. What was it for?”
“I climbed through a garage window. Wasn’t even a garage, it was a shack behind this auto parts place. Me and my brother went through it, and the police caught us, took us to juvenile hall.
“I was sent to Rancho del Campo for burglary. That was the first time. Pretty harsh. They gave me six months. I got out when I was ten, on juvenile probation.
Since then it’s been just like a revolving door. I’ve spent half my life in jail.”
“What was your second bust?”
“I think it was auto theft. I did six more months in Rancho del Campo. I was 11 and a half.”
“How did you steal the car?”
“It was easy. I’ve never stole a car without having the keys. I got an older brother who’s two years older than me that’s a hell of an influence. I mean, we got in a lot of trouble when we were little. We were just having fun, not out to make a buck or nothing. Cops got us on a wrong turn signal. We acted shaky when they pulled next to us at a stop light.”
Waitress returns again, chirping across the length of the room. Relentless. Order another round, ask, “Where did you grow up?”
“My dad worked for the City of San Diego 21 years. My mom left me in the airport when I was a little kid. I ain’t seen her since. My dad raised me, my brother, and my two sisters.”
“Was he any good?”
“I don’t know. Me and my brother are on parole, both my sisters are grade-A students. One’s a nurse ready to graduate this year. I don’t see her. I see my little sister, talk to her, whenever I’m out of prison. Stop in for 15, 20 minutes. She grows up in between the time I’m gone.
“I’ve been in and out on different charges. I can’t even remember the years that I’ve been in jail. That ain’t a sob story.
They say that CDC is the California Department of Corrections. It isn’t, they don’t rehabilitate you or whatever. They just put you in there, and when you’ve done enough time, all that time is dead; you can’t, what do you call that, help yourself, then they just cut you out on the streets and give you $200 and tell you to start over.
“I was 13 when I got out the second time. And the only reason I got off juvenile probation is that I turned 18. Then two weeks later, I got busted for first-degree burglary. That started the adult.
“I did county time. I did three years of county time, and that’s the most you can do. The most at one time is two; but I mean, if you get sentenced like to a year, then you get another year for another thing, another year, then you got to go to prison because you’ve already did three years of county time.”
“What state prison did you go to?”
“Soledad, and Chuckwalla, that’s the new one they built out by Blythe.”
“Where would you rather do time, county or state prison?” ‘
“State. Soledad, Folsom, San Quentin. Because in the county jails there’s nothing. There’s nothing there, no books, no nothing for anybody to do. So all there is is drugs, violence, fighting, taking stuff from people, stuff like that. That’s all there is to do in there. You go to Soledad or San Quentin, there’s people in there for life. They got a different attitude about it. They’re going to be there for the long run, they’ve gotta make the best of it. They got a set program. A guy goes to work, does his work, comes home, sits in his cell, with a cell that’s got only two people instead of living in the tank with 250 people. San Diego County jail is overcrowded as shit. I’ve been in a couple riots and scared the living hell out of me.” Waitress returns from quick perimeter patrol, inquires if everything is fine, if we want dinner. Shake head, make earnest request, “Please go away.” Turn back to all-American boy.
“What have you learned in prison that’s been helpful to you?”
“I don’t know. I’ve learned nothing in prison that would benefit me on the streets. I’ve only learned stuff in prison that would benefit me in the jail system. Like respect. What people would call politics. If something would happen, a situation, how to handle it right. Say something racial happened. A black guy stole something from a white guy. White guy wants to go stick this guy or whatever, and deal with it, and get his stuff back. He doesn’t do that because he’s got to get some good clearance.”
“What would happen to the white guy who said, ‘The hell with that, I’ll just do it myself?”
“The whites would deal with him, because the blacks would say, ‘Hey, you take care of yours, we’ll take care of ours.’ It’s like politics or whatever.”
“Are you pretty used to it now? Most people would think, ‘Jail. I’ll never make it.’ ”
“Jail is very familiar. It ain’t frightening no more.”
“Was there a moment when it became not frightening?”
“At first there’s that fear of going inside and not knowing what you’re looking at, not knowing what to expect. But see, when you’ve been getting in trouble as long as I have, all those people that I’ve done time with as a juvenile are all in adult centers.
So I can walk into any prison in the state of California and see somebody I know. It’s a comfortable feeling.”
“What’s the hardest thing about doing time?”
“When you get out, everything is still going to be the same. Nothing is changed.”
“Do you see any way out of it?”
“Not right now.”
Call for another round, decline dinner for the fourth time. My companion glances at his beer, registers disgust like a child presented with alfalfa sprouts instead of birthday cake and ice cream.
“What do you think? They stop you for littering, they stop you for riding a bicycle in a merchant zone, eventually they’re going to get you. How do you deal with that?”
“It could be for anything. I just hope it ain’t for a new charge. And when they do stop me, I hope it’s for jaywalking or something like that instead of jumping through somebody’s window trying to get some money.”
“Ever think of getting out of San Diego, going to Iowa or someplace?”
“Everybody I know says that. ‘I’m going to go up north and stay out of trouble.’ I got three friends that have done it and succeeded, got their shit together, and they come back to San Diego and lose it all. They had a house, they had a couple cars, old lady, everything. Had their act together. Figured they’d take a break from the stuff up there and come down to San Diego, and in a matter of time, they always lose everything.
“See, the reason they didn’t have anything is that they were busy having fun, which it really isn’t. It’s just, you know, when the drugs are gone, you gotta go out and get more. It is fun when you’re doing the drugs; when you don’t, it ain’t fun. They figure, ‘Well, I’ll go back to San Diego. I’ll do a little bit of drugs, have some fun, but I’ll put a limit on it.’ But there ain’t no limit. It just keeps going, runs into the ground.”
“Tell me about meth.”
“See, when you do crystal methamphetamine, it gives you a good feeling, keeps you wide awake. You stay up all night into the next day. I’ve stayed up for a couple weeks at a time. You just got to do more and more of the drug the next time you do some. If you were to do a quarter-gram the first time, the next time you would do a half-gram. A quarter-gram is $20.”
“Has that changed much in the last year or so?”
“Yeah, it has. Used to be 25 a quarter. I have no idea why it’s changed. This is supposed to be the crystal methamphetamine capital of the world, and it isn’t, believe me. Meth is everywhere, but the quality of methamphetamine isn’t there no more. There’s no good crystal around.
It’s like, all I used to do is crystal methamphetamine. Until the last year or two, we all either snorted it or shot it. Then people started smoking it.
“Meth use is dropping, and it’s surprising because it used to be there whenever you wanted it, and the quality was excellent. Most people that do meth do it for the rush; and when there ain’t no rush, it’s time to stop snorting, because who wants to stay up for a week on end just to stay up? You know that Cheerios commercial where the little guy is running up the hill, and he goes, ‘Tee-tee-da-tee-da-tee’? That’s what it’s like. You just get burned out, and pretty soon you go to sleep. It’s uncomfortable because you get slow and stupid, you ain’t thinking right. That’s why people wig out after they’ve been up so long. I had a friend, stabbed his old lady to death couple years ago, then shot himself. That comes from staying up way too long.”
“Is there much of a community of meth users?”
“There used to be. Ain’t no more, at least not in San Diego. Stopped two to three years ago. There used to be a real tight circle, and life revolved around that. Now those people aren’t around no more, there ain’t a circle. There is of heroin, and there always will be. Now meth is recondensed; that means broke down and cut, put back into rock form to fool people. You can test it. You take baking soda and water, mix it together, put it on a mirror; and you take the crystal, put it on the baking soda and water, and if it all dissolves, then that means it’s good. But the cut, whatever they use to cut the drug with, will remain on the mirror.
“They’re using inositol or niacinamide to cut their drugs with these days. Then they got vitamin B-12, Epsom salt, a lot of that too. I have recently started doing heroin even though I’ve grown up to hate it, everything it stood for, and what it did for people. I got out of prison this time, and there was no good crystal methamphetamine, so I started doing heroin because the quality was there. I ain’t give up on meth. Once it starts getting good again, I’ll go back.”
“When you walk around the street, can you tell who’s loaded on meth and who’s not?”
“Only certain individuals, because some people drag it into the ground. When you do crystal methamphetamine and stay up as much as you do, you don’t eat, you start to look shabby. I know people that can eat right after they do speed. Me, I’ll stay up for a couple days, smoke a lot of pot, go to sleep. When I wake up I’ll go to a smorgasbord.
“You’ll stay up five days, four days, go to sleep, wake up. You’ll go on another run for four or five days, and then after that four or five days, you might not want to do any for a couple days. But then you never know. Might get done eating and then figure, ‘I want to get high.’ ”
“What was the most fun about meth?”
“Instant response. The rush, slamming it, the rush. Lasts about 15 minutes. And the high is all right. Keeps you wired until you start coming down. I’d do the things I would normally do. Work on the car, go in the bedroom and screw for a while.
“Meth used to be a drug to have fun with. A friend would come over to the house, and we’d all sit around and get high. It ain’t like that anymore. It’s kind of like a business thing, to make money with. It ain’t there for fun anymore.”
“First time you slammed, were you scared?”
“Yeah, the first time I slammed drugs was with cocaine. I was like 16. Had a friend do it. Then about sjx months later, I slammed crystal methamphetamine, and I’ve been doing that ever since, until I got out of prison this time. Took a couple years before I stopped being frightened by it.” “How do you get needles?”
“Diabetics. If you have a friend who’s a diabetic or you know a friend who knows a friend who’s a diabetic, that’s one way of doing it. Connections usually have them for good customers. I always kept bleach at home. You just soak the syringe in bleach. Just get a cup, put some bleach in there, hot water, 10, 20 minutes. Bleach kills whatever’s on the syringe. You could use a needle for a couple weeks. All depends on how much you work it. Some people sharpen needles on matchbook covers.
When you’re using a glass of water to slam with and put the syringe in there to draw the water up, sometimes you hit the bottom of the glass. That barbs the point, so you use the matchbook cover and ‘choo, choo, choo,’ takes the barb right off the needle.” “Sooner or later you’re going back to prison. The way it looks now is that you’re going to be in and out for the rest of your life. Do you think about that?”
“I try not to think of the future. I try and put the future out of my mind. And I try and think in my mind, ‘One of these days, I’m just going to get sick of it, and something’s gonna happen, and everything’s going to be all right.’ ”
“What do you think about when you’re in jail?”
“When you’re in jail, all kinds of thoughts go through your head. You got a clear mind, you get an attitude, ‘Well, I’m going to go out and conquer the world, kick ass and take names, get a job, family, and stay out of trouble.’ So the first day, you get your $200, and you ain’t got a job, you ain’t got a place to stay, so what do you do, where do you go? To your parole officer, who’s going to hand you a stack of papers and tell you, ‘I want you to do this, this, this, this, this, this,’ just hit you with a bunch more problems that you got to deal with, let alone get a place to stay and a job and a way to support yourself? And if you’ve been getting in trouble all your life and stealing to get by, you’re not just gonna stop one day and go to work.”
“What do you do for money?”
“I do burglaries.”
“What kind of stuff?”
“If I was in a house, I would look for jewelry, firearms, money. They’re small, better than taking a big TV out of the door. When you look at a house to burglarize, you don’t know what’s in it. I look at the layout. If I felt nobody was home, and the neighborhood was all right, and it looks like I could do it and get away with it, then off I go. You can make four or five hundred dollars a day in just one house. All depends on what you get and how you sell it.” “Could you ever tell from the outside of the house what you might find, or was it always a surprise?”
“It’s always a surprise. Outside, the house could look like a mansion, and when you go in there’s nothing in there. Most bizarre place I’ve been to looked like an ammunition dump. In the bedroom there were two dressers, with three drawers in each dresser, and they were just filled with handguns, stuffed with handguns, .45s, .357s, .38s. I opened up the drawers, and I went to the next bureau and found the same thing; and then I opened up the closet, and the guy had racks of automatic weapons, just racks of them, and boxes of ammunition just stuffed up there, and I thought, ‘He’s with somebody. He could be with an organization.’ I figured if he had that many guns in the house, he had to have one on him, so I didn’t touch nothing, jumped out the window.”
“Are you loaded on heroin right now?”