Growing up in DC

Graphic by Bruna Costa

CONTENT WARNING: Substance abuse.

My early years were spent in D.C. in a quiet little area in Northeast called Ivy City.

We lived directly next door to the Receiving Home for Boys and my mom would constantly admonish us, “If y’all keep acting up, you’re gonna end up next door.”

My younger brother and I never ended up next door but one of my older brothers did. There were six of us kids, though four lived with their father in Northwest.

I was always an excellent student and a very active and enthusiastic church member. I always rose to leadership roles in the Cub Scouts, Boy Scouts, and extracurricular activities at school. Little did I know my life was about to make an abrupt turnaround that would lead me into a lifestyle far removed from that quiet innocence.

My father left us when I was about 12, and my behavior and attitude changed for the worse. I began acting out at school and my behavior at home became unbearable for my mom, who had to start working outside of the house to support the family. After a while I became incorrigible. My mom sent me off to live with my older brother, who was living alone in an uptown rooming house with two older adults. His father had recently passed. At 13 years old, when my friends were still riding bicycles and playing with G.I. Joe action figures, I was about to enter into a world from which it would take me years to escape.

Life in that house was different from anything I had ever experienced. Drinking and drug use was the norm all day, every day. Rules and discipline were nonexistent. I dropped out of school but would return years later to attain a GED and one year of college.

I spent the majority of my time drinking, smoking marijuana, and hanging out in the pool room. In those days, the pool room was a 24-hour operation. My brother was a well-established pool shark and, let’s just say, a “magician” at cards and dice. For the most part, we would be able to pay our modest rent with the proceeds made hustling at the pool room. But in those times when we would come up short, my father would kick in with the needed funds.

I would spend countless hours at the pool room and the gambling joints uptown, learning the ins and outs of street life. I learned to shoot pool fairly well but never developed the needed courage and skill to manipulate the dice and cards as my brother did. I remember him spending upwards of $50 on a pair of his “magic” dice or cards.

Many times he’d work his magic and we’d live high on the hog. But I also remember one episode where his magic was, should we say, “discovered,” and he ended up in the hospital for a couple of days. The hustlers, pimps, gamblers, and prostitutes took a liking to me and were always willing to teach me more and more about survival in the hood.

When my brother was drafted around 1969 and 1970, I was forced to move in with my father. He was living in a small dilapidated rooming house off of 14th Street in Northwest. I remember clearly those nights when he would have female guests and I would have to hang out on the front porch, or sleep in the hallway when the weather was bad. After a while, he did move us into a raggedy two-bedroom row house in one of the roughest neighborhoods in Northwest, Ledroit Park. We lived on a little three-block street situated in the Howard University area adjacent to where Howard University Hospital stands. It was that neighborhood that my life devolved into a lifestyle that would prove to be toxic and devastating to me and all whose lives I touched.

I remember I had to fight the first day we moved in. I had already learned to drink, and smoke cigarettes and marijuana. Before long I moved on to harder substances. At the age of 15, I took my first shot of intravenous drugs. Heroin. I overdosed three times before I was 20 years old. I shot dope for more than 10 years and finally kicked cold turkey after four days of agony, sometimes wishing I’d just die. I never shot heroin again, but did a wide variety of other substances. Through all my years of substance abuse, alcohol was always a constant. I learned that behavior from both my parents, who drank for the majority of their lives.

Through many years of struggling to survive in a world where the streets were my mentor, my teacher and my advisor, I’ve always resorted back to my “street sense” to get me through life’s tough situations.

It’s only been through divine intervention, God’s grace and his unmerited favor, that I’ve come to understand that the ways of the street, all those ill-conceived notions, which for so long steered my life, were myths directed at keeping me away from my higher power, whom today I choose to call Jesus Christ.

I’ve learned that any life lived without the guidance and direction of our almighty Father is doomed to oblivion, pain, and suffering. Just ask me — been there, done that, got the t-shirt.

Issues |Community

Region |Washington DC

information about New Signature, a Washington DC tech solutions and consulting firm


email updates

We believe ending homelessness begins with listening to the stories of those who have experienced it.