Sunday, September 2, 2012

"The Corner" DeAndre McCullough Dies of an Opiate Overdose

I stumbled across an article in the New York Times this week that broke my heart. Feelings welling up inside of me, with tears building behind my eyes, I thought back to my own life, as I also thought back to the character I fell in love with the first time I read David Simon’s book, “The Corner.”  According to the New York Times, DeAndre McCullough died of a heroin overdose on August 1st.  But, according to David Simon, DeAndre took a bunch of pills, presumably opiates, until he fell over, dead.  So, I might just say DeAndre McCullough died from an opiate overdose.  Of course, the question of which opiate killed him is really not relevant to many of us, what is relevant is that another young life has been lost to addiction.

I often hear the outcry from readers when posting a story about the death of a celebrity.  Comments run rampant, asking why we would feature the particular death, was it simply because they were famous?  I heard the outcry, arguing that no one tells the story of the regular guy who died due to drug addiction.  But, DeAndre’s story is different from your typical celebrity story, in that DeAndre’s story is not the story of a famous person, but it is the story of the common man who died from his addiction.  DeAndre’s story mirrors the story of many of the youth that grow up just like him, and in a sense, the stories like DeAndre’s have become more commonplace on the corners than any celebrity story could even hope to become. 

Although I never actually knew DeAndre personally, reading “The Corner,” I still know that I knew DeAndre.  And I knew so many others, just like him.  Through David Simon’s book, I came to fall in love with the struggling DeAndre.  The kid who struggled with the same addiction I did, only he had been hit in the face with it from every angle, and almost every aspect of his life.  I came to know DeAndre intimately, much like any character in a well-written piece of creative nonfiction. 

David Simon was a Baltimore crime journalist, covering the drug-infested street and corners scenes throughout the worst areas of Baltimore.  His most famous book, “The Wire,” details both sides of the drug war in Baltimore, chronicling the police and the addicts, dealers, and other corner ruffians.  “The Corner,” in my opinion, was the better of these two books.  This book highlights the life on the corner, the life on the street in a poor, underprivileged black neighborhood in Baltimore. 

DeAndre was just a kid when David Simon met him, out slinging dope on the streets.  David recalls DeAndre’s humor and his jovial nature, at least when he was not using.  This 15-year-old kid had not started using when David Simon was first touched by something in this street hustling kid the world came to know as DeAndre McCullough.  This young man was the oldest of three kids, and he was the only one to remember his life before his parents fell into the mire of addiction.  Those old memories become snippets in the book, providing a stark contrast to the world DeAndre inhabits in “The Corner.” 

Like many others across the country, DeAndre witnessed his parents’ addiction each day.  His father was often homeless, or living in his sister’s basement, while DeAndre and his mother often bounced between homes and places to crash.  DeAndre did not get all the things he needed from his parents, who traded his childhood for their next high.  I thought about New Orleans when I first read Simon’s book.  I thought about all the people I knew who had addicted parents, or who were raised in the projects.  I thought back to the bleak world they lived in, unable to see beyond the corners, beyond the streets.  Although the stories from “The Corner” became famous when HBO created the miniseries, the characters remain real people, who still struggle with the reverberating effects of the corner, of the streets, of the projects. 
DeAndre emerges as the central character of the book, and his life gives us an accurate portrayal of so many lives in the inner cities all over America. As he watched his parents spiral in addiction, DeAndre also heard the call to the corner early on, as he was drawn to the money he could make selling drugs.  Anyone who has touched the dark world that drugs often inhabit can tell you that the lure to the quick cash often comes with a price.

 DeAndre began experimenting with the drugs he sold, taking them himself and eventually even selling them to his own mother.  As he began to face the struggles of growing up, becoming a teenage father, and surviving the corners, DeAndre also managed to become addicted to heroin.  From the perspective on the corner, DeAndre did not see another way to live.  And, like so many others who grow up on the corners, hoods, and dark alleys across America, getting high simply becomes part of the territory.    Getting high is the only escape from the reality that surrounds them. 

David Simon’s story changed it all for DeAndre McCullough.  Before, this young man did not even expect to live past the age of 20, but the release of Simon’s book gave DeAndre a new perspective on things.  By the time HBO created the miniseries, DeAndre finally saw another way to live.  So many of the youth that grow up like DeAndre are never even given the opportunity to see a way out.  So many of the kids who grow up, in the hood, with two addict parents, dealing drugs to buy things they want, never see anything different, and unfortunately many of these youth die young, or follow in the addict’s footsteps.  That is exactly what DeAndre McCullough thought he would do before David Simon became his mentor, changing his life forever.

When Simon first showed the book to DeAndre, the youth did not object.  He liked the fact that David’s work showed that someone cared about the people on the corner of Fayette Street, an epitaph to those who did not make it.  In time, DeAndre expressed that the hated the final lines of the book, in which he was defined as a street dealer and addict, while taking an adult charge for a raid on a stash house. 

DeAndre argued to David, “That isn’t the end of the story.  You don’t know that the story ends that way.”  Just like any creative nonfiction writer, David agreed the story was far from over.  When we write about real people, the book itself may have a definitive ending, but the true life it describes does not have a definitive ending- at least until the character is no longer a real person, and has since moved on into the realm of the dead.  And then, yes, the story is over. 

David contemplated DeAndre’s argument, thinking of all the people in the story who did have a different ending over time.  DeAndre’s mother, Fran, cleaned up and became an addictions counselor.  DeAndre’s first child’s mother earned a Master’s Degree, and even Blue, who grew up in a shooting gallery went on to become an addictions counselor.  Yes, David agreed the story was far from over, and I am sure he also thought about all the tragic endings.  Gary McCullough’s story ended when he died, as did so many other characters in the book, as did so many characters in my own life of addiction. 

David replied, “If you give me another ending, Dre.  I’ll write it.  I promise.  In a new edition, in a magazine article, anywhere I can.  I’ll write that story so fucking hard.” 

DeAndre replied, “Wait on it then.  You gonna see.”   Now, we see the ending.  There is a definite ending to the story, and unfortunately this is the ending of so many stories like this.  This is too often the ending for the story for everyday people battling with addiction, just like DeAndre McCullough.  And also, just like me.  Only my ending seems different, at least for now. 

In May, DeAndre sent David Simon a text message on his 35th birthday.  He texted, “I’m 35 today.  Never thought I’d make it.  How ‘bout that?”   But, just three short months later, DeAndre is no longer with us.  DeAndre is another casualty of heroin.   And DeAndre is just another example of the brutal world of heroin and the streets.  His story is becoming all too familiar around the various drug-infested corners of the world.

Personally, I have lost so many friends to their heroin addictions, some even on the cusp of success, or on the cusp of recovery.  DeAndre’s family laments because he was so close to creating another life for himself, another life unlike the one he had been raised in.  Of all of DeAndre’s childhood friends, several ended up addicted to drugs; four in prison, and three are dead.  DeAndre now joins the ranks of those three, and so many others across our nation. 

David Simon wrote a wonderful piece paying tribute to DeAndre, finally telling the ending of his story.  Simon tells us that while working to begin working on the HBO series, “Treme,” DeAndre once again contacted David for help.  He claimed that he needed to get out of Baltimore, and he pleaded for a chance to work on the set in New Orleans.  DeAndre promised to get clean and to do a great job in New Orleans.  David Simon got an apartment for DeAndre in the Crescent City, and the Baltimore corner kid flew down to New Orleans and began working.  DeAndre maintained his sobriety until he received his first paycheck, and his addictions again quickly became unmanageable. 

By Thanksgiving, an angry and depressed DeAndre lamented, asking David for a ticket back to Baltimore, telling him that they have corners here in New Orleans, too.  I think to myself about all the corners DeAndre may have visited in New Orleans, and I think back to all those familiar corners that I once knew.  I imagine DeAndre, smack dab in the middle of the scene in New Orleans, and I know just how luring that can be.  I think back, to myself, leaving New Orleans the last time, much like DeAndre, in a much hurried pace to get away from the addiction that had once again snuck up into my life. 

DeAndre left the corners of New Orleans, angry, sad, and depressed.  Much like I left those corners.  I did not walk away from New Orleans with hope of recovery in my head, or in my heart.  Instead, I hung my head in shame, consumed in the sadness of leaving this place I so desperately loved, and so desperately needed, yet was so desperately killing me. 

DeAndre returned to Baltimore, hoping to get his job back counseling juveniles.  DeAndre made a difference there, relating well to those who had also endured his own struggles of the corner and the hood in Baltimore.  Working as a juvenile counselor had been the only job DeAndre had managed to maintain, as he worked there for two years.  DeAndre left New Orleans, much like I did, running from the temptations that surround the city, hoping to escape our heroin addictions. 

David Simon claims he knew DeAndre was struggling again with his demons when he received that birthday text from him.  Then, a couple weeks before DeAndre’s demise, David saw a photograph on Baltimore Police Department’s webpage, that read, “An unidentified young man photographed during the robbery of a Pratt Street pharmacy.  He claimed to have a gun, but only offered a note.  He wanted not money, but drugs, and left with pills.”  David says the photo was DeAndre, even saying, “Hollow-eyed, dusty- but, clearly, DeAndre.”   

DeAndre’s mother, Fran, was outraged that her first-born son would rob the pharmacy, and she demanded that he turn himself in.  DeAndre begged for the chance to detox first, so he would not face a hellish withdrawal in lockup.  He claimed he would surrender once he was sober, then asking his mother one more favor.  He asked her to call David Simon, to see if he would appear at DeAndre’s court date, on his behalf.  Fran told DeAndre to call himself, and her son admitted he was just too ashamed. 

David reassured Fran he would appear for DeAndre, only if he surrendered.  David grappled with DeAndre’s situation, as I know many of my friends and mentors grappled with mine six, seven, and eight years ago.  David told himself that maybe this was DeAndre’s rock bottom, and maybe, just maybe DeAndre would give David that new ending to write.  David said, “Maybe some prison time could pull him from the spiral; nothing else seemed to work after all.” 

So many times, that is the case with addiction.  It seems that nothing can pull someone from the fire.  I have a dear friend who is grappling with her son’s addiction right now, and nothing has seemed to work for him, either.  I have been pulling a million solutions from my hat, and they all seem like they could work.  But, I read David Simon’s words about DeAndre, and I am struck with the image of my friend’s son.  I am struck with the image of DeAndre, coupled with all the images like this I have known in my life.  I think about my friend’s son, and I contemplate my various solutions, and I just pray, oh I just pray, that he, too, does not also end up like DeAndre.  I grapple with what could be the right answer to help this kid, if he is even really ready to be helped, and I fear the consequences of the wrong action. 

People who are not touched by addiction cannot understand how dire the situation can be, and it is often life threatening.  I think of DeAndre McCullough, who I fell in love with reading a book so many years ago, and I think of myself, and I think of my friend’s child.   I think of the dichotomy between DeAndre and myself.  We probably walked many of the same corners in New Orleans, and I know I walked his corners in Baltimore briefly.  Yet, DeAndre’s story ends in tragedy.  DeAndre’s story also began in tragedy.  And here I sit, clean and sober, crying for him, crying over the loss of his life.  And I wonder which side of the fence my friend’s son will end up on.  I wonder which side of the fence my friends who are still using will end up on.  Will they be like me?  Or will they be like DeAndre and so many others?

After his photo appeared from the robbery, DeAndre checked into a detox facility, cleaning himself up for the last time.  When he checked out, he did not surrender immediately.  Instead, he went home, and a few days later he took more pills, until he died.  The next morning, the police arrived in the county with a warrant, only to find that DeAndre would once again evade arrest.  DeAndre would not be going to City Jail, but instead DeAndre would be going much farther underground. 

Sadly, DeAndre’s story now has an ending.  David Simon can finally write that ending, and somehow, I think DeAndre would like this ending even less than the one he complained about earlier.  But, it is the ending, nonetheless.  And, unfortunately, it is the ending for so many others like DeAndre, and like myself. 

So, tears stream down my face, reading David Simon’s words.  They stream hard and fast, because I relate to DeAndre.  I know where he was, and I know what it feels like to be unable to control the pull of your addiction.  The pull of heroin is powerful.  It is the great escape, the great equalizer, and the greatest way to forget about all the chaos, madness, sadness, and hardship that surround us.  It comforts us when we are afraid, and it numbs what hurts.  It pushes these things out of our minds, these people out of our lives, as we sink into its blissful oblivion, miles away from what ails us.  But, sometimes, it also pushes us right into the grave.  And other times, it pushes us out of that deathbed. 

I got out.  I made it out, clean and alive.  I have come along, long way.  Yet, DeAndre’s story touches me, bringing me to tears because I do understand exactly how this young man met his demise.  I have seen it too many times before, and I know this will not be the last one I see.  Sometimes I wonder, how many of us really do end up surviving.  Because sometimes, it feels I am simply surrounded by the souls taken by addiction. 

DeAndre’s story also becomes a testimony to those who walk in his shoes.  The story of 15 year-old DeAndre McCullough, portrayed in “The Corner,” marks the beginning of a story that began over twenty years ago.  His story is not one of a celebrity, but instead it is the story of a regular kid who grew up on the corners, who grew up with addicted parents, and who grew up to follow in similar footsteps.  DeAndre McCullough continues to tell the story of the hood and the corner, right down to the last detail.  And my heart laments that we have lost another soul to addiction.  Tears stream down my face for DeAndre, and also streaming at the realization that this is not a unique story.  DeAndre’s story is the story of hundreds and thousands like him.  The details may be different, but often the end result is the same. 

Here I sit, five years clean, and I realize that DeAndre’s story could have been mine.  Hell, it still could.  As tears stream down my face reading David Simon’s words, I realize just how lucky I am.  Rest in peace, DeAndre McCullough.  If anyone deserves some peace, it is you, brother.  

1 comment:

  1. I too feel the pain after just learning of Deandre death. I remembering watching the corner and relating to their lives and stories because of my own opiate addiction. I may still be alive but so is my addiction. I wonder everyday has the ending to my story will read.