S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, Redemption in D.C.

The Baltimore Post-Examiner is proud to present an excerpt from Ruben Castaneda’s first book – S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, Redemption in D.C.  During the height of the crack epidemic that decimated the streets of D.C., Castaneda covered the crime beat for The Washington Post. The first in his family to graduate from college, he had landed a job at one of the country’s premier newspapers. But his apparent success masked a devastating secret: he was a crack addict. Even as he covered the drug-fueled violence that was destroying the city, he was prowling S Street, a 24/7 open-air crack market, during his off hours, looking for his next fix.

The book is available for purchase at Amazon.

Check out Ruben on NPR.

Chapter 1: The Show

I should have gotten out of the car already. I should have been working the crowd, scribbling notes on the mayhem while looking for someone to interview.

But I couldn’t bring myself to get out of my beat-up Ford Escort, pulled up to the curb near the intersection of 5th and O Streets Northwest.

9781620400043_500X500It was the afternoon of December 20, 1990. I was a twenty- nine-year-old night police reporter for The Washington Post. I’d joined the paper fifteen months earlier and was anxious to make my mark, willing to do whatever the bosses asked. I routinely raced to combat zones to cover drug-crew shootings, even if the trips didn’t yield many bylined stories. Single or even double gangster killings were usually relegated to the briefs column. But this assignment was different: Kids shot in a drive-by as they were walking home from school just before Christmas. Other Post reporters were at the scene, and chances were good that one of us was going to get our name on the front page.

Marked Metropolitan Police Department cruisers, lights flashing, were parked at odd angles in the intersection. Two TV camera jockeys recorded the aftermath of the attack. A group of spectators was clustered behind the bright yellow crime-scene tape, gawking at the bloody clothes and shell casings scattered on the street and sidewalk. Your typical crime scene, in other words—but one that looked as dangerous to me as a sniper’s alley. One of those spectators could recognize me, pick me off as I stepped out of the car. For the moment, doing my job wasn’t important. Staying safe was.

There were men and women of all ages in the crowd, along with some school-age boys and girls. I locked in on the faces of the teenage males and young men. I had to be sure that none of them knew me—knew about me, that is.

The shooting had taken place just four blocks from S Street Northwest, where once, sometimes twice, a week I drove my girl Champagne to make crack buys. Champagne was a “strawberry”— a streetwalker who traded sex for drugs.

All the S Street slingers knew Champagne. And all of them knew me and my car, at least by sight. I’d become such a regular customer that some dealers called out, “Hey, amigo!” whenever they saw me.

Most of the S Street dealers no doubt lived in the neighborhood. What if some of them were among the rubberneckers behind the yellow tape? Would they say anything if they saw me approach a cop with my notebook out? Would one of them try to shake me down in exchange for his silence? Would he tell his boss—whoever he was—the dealer who was running the street? If the S Street kingpin found out that one of his loyal customers was a Washington Post reporter, what would he do with that unlikely nugget? Would he use the information as a bargaining chip if the cops tried to take him down?

If the story of my tawdry double life leaked, local TV news would be all over it. It could be weirdly ironic enough for the national networks, too. Post executive editor Ben Bradlee would probably summon me to his glass-walled office and furiously curse at me before firing me, I imagined.

I sighed, disappointed with myself for not having come up with a good, or at least plausible, excuse to dodge the assignment, after
an editor had called me at home and asked me to clock in early.

I usually thrived at crime scenes. My street instincts were good. Most reporters went straight for whatever police or fire officials happened to be on hand. I worked the edges, talking to the people others overlooked. Civilian witnesses were my priority. I’d talk to them before they vanished or were scooped up by the cops. I’d usually speak with police later, since they weren’t going anywhere.

A few months earlier, I’d covered a killing at a blue-collar apart- ment complex near the Maryland state line. A man had been fatally stabbed inside one of the units. Outside the building, a police commander talked to a couple of detectives. Thirty feet away, a cluster of Latino men and women watched the police in silence.

I wandered over and talked to them in Spanish. A couple of the men described what had happened. Two guys had been arg ing. One of them pulled out a knife. He stabbed the victim and ran. They gave me the name of the culprit. When a detective headed toward the building, I cut him off and asked if he had a suspect.

“No,” he said.

“Would you like one?”

That detective turned into a good source.

But this afternoon, my instincts were useless. I sat in my car and stared hard at one of the spectators. He was wearing a black knit cap and appeared to be in his early twenties. He looked vaguely familiar. Where had I seen him?

I closed my eyes and rubbed the bridge of my nose. I couldn’t stay in the car forever.

Had I smoked myself into a corner? Was I about to become an embarrassing footnote in the national crack epidemic?




One thought on “S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, Redemption in D.C.

  • Beasel Brothers
    July 3, 2014 at 7:20 PM

    Great piece of reporting. Great summer reading. The Washington Post had a gem in Ruben.

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