Adventures of a Crackhead Crime Reporter
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Adventures of a Crackhead Crime Reporter


Most of us at AfterPartyChat know a thing or two about writing while intoxicated. But holding down a job as a crime reporter for a top newspaper while sustaining a full-blown crack habit sounds like an impressive exercise in multitasking.

That’s the story Ruben Castaneda shares in his new book S Street Rising and in a recent interview with NPR. A California native, Castaneda came to DC at age 28 for a gig at the Washington Post. Unbeknownst to the editors who had just granted him his dream job, Castaneda was also hooked on crack and hoping to leave his addiction behind him in his home state. Of course, when you’re planning a “geographic” to clean up your act, you’re better off choosing someplace other than a breeding ground for your drug of choice.

Crack Madness

Back in the 80s and 90s, Washington, DC was just as obsessed with crack as every place else, if not more so. In the grip of drug slingers, the capital was overridden with violence and led the country in homicides. In his book, Castaneda describes the dealers’ total nonchalance as they paraded about in the open air in front of the abandoned Wonderbread factory on 7th and S. Not four days had gone by before he was buying drugs from the very same crew he was supposed to be covering for the Post.

Violence wreaked havoc on the S Street community. Castaneda couldn’t have picked a better spot to write about crime—or to buy crack. Getting his fix and scoop went hand in hand. One night he sped to the scene where four youths had been gunned down only to find himself paralyzed, too scared to get out of the car and be ratted out to the cops by his very own dealers. He lucked out—with six police cars on the scene, the dealers were nowhere to be found.

Like so many addicts, Castaneda struggled to maintain his double life for as long as he could. But eventually his coworkers caught on—as they do—and helped him get into treatment. He’s now been clean for 22 years.

Assessing the Damage

“It’s hard to tell how much better I might have been as a reporter, as a journalist, if I hadn’t been using crack, if I hadn’t been drinking large amounts of alcohol,” Castaneda told NPR. “But I tried really hard, and I worked really hard as a journalist. And I think I did some good work, until I couldn’t.” We feel you, Ruben.

But getting clean is only the beginning of recovery. The hardest part is facing the damage you’ve left in your wake. In 2008 Castaneda returned to the S Street neighborhood for the first time in years. When he was invited to speak at the New Community Church on Easter, he recognized he’d have to make amends to the entire neighborhood. After all, by funneling his WaPo paycheck into the pockets of crack dealers, Castaneda had helped support the violent reign of local kingpin Baldie, who has since died in prison.

But the congregation was thankful for his story and received him with open arms. Maybe it helps that the neighborhood has cleaned up its act too. Everyone loves a redemption tale, and Castaneda’s, with its gunfire, deception and moral shades of gray, has all the makings of a great HBO series.

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About Author

Erica Larsen AKA Eren Harris blogs at Whitney Calls and Clean Bright Day. Their writing has also been published on Salon, Selfish, Violet Rising and YourTango. They live in Los Angeles with their husband and their enormous cat.