In 1985, Earl Massey was living out his version of the American dream.
The four-bedroom, Pomona home he co-owned with his fiance had a swimming pool in the back and three cars in the driveway. Mr. Massey had overcome a poor upbringing in the segregated South and an abusive, alcoholic father to become a six-year veteran firefighter and owner of his own landscape business.
By 1987, Massey was living an urban American nightmare.
Jobless, his home in foreclosure, he and a handful of homeless colleagues dodged police by day and holed up in his home at night. They tore off the inside paneling to burn for heat, and flushed water-disconnected toilets using pool water. The rundown pool attracted scores of frogs which they sold to local kids for 50 cents each.
The income went to support the habit that had claimed the proceeds from Massey's three cars and other possessions: crack cocaine.
"I literally gave up everything for it," says Massey today, who refers to himself as a "cocaine addict in recovery."
The high produced by smoking the then-new, cheaper version of concentrated cocaine - known as "rock" or "crack" - was so euphoric, he says, that within four binges, he was hooked.
"It became all I wanted to do," he recalls, recounting the details of a three-year saga that left him in a cardboard box on Skid Row - having spent an estimated $60,000 to $70,000 for the drug. Even then, his weight lowered to a skeletal 115 pounds, he says: "If I hadn't eaten for three days, and someone offered me a choice of food or crack, I would take the crack."
Stories such as Massey's have come in the tens of thousands since the crack epidemic hit his Los Angeles neighborhood in the early 1980s. But they are being revisited in the wake of recent allegations that the drug dealers that introduced crack in these neighborhoods were connected to CIA-funded contras fighting in Nicaragua's civil war.
Despite CIA denials of any connection, and other evidence showing crack cocaine was being used here prior to 1980, the allegations have given community leaders hope that they can put a face on the scourge that escalated dramatically around 1983. The spotlight has also galvanized attention on ways for these communities to rebuild.
Because Massey's story mirrors the other factors that took so many like him down - unemployment in the wake of a deindustrializing city, racial and peer factors of street cool and self-esteem - it holds clues to help others avoid similar snares. Some analysts say it also may help to explain recent federal surveys showing that teen cocaine use doubled from 1992 to 1996.
Despite recent falloffs in the rate of increased usage, studies put the number of regular cocaine users nationwide at 7 million, with heavy users totaling another 1.7 million. In 1983, 1 in 11 federal prisoners was incarcerated for drug crimes, according to the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. By 1992, the number was 1 in 4.
Massey found a way back from his crack addiction after years of wandering and sleeping on the streets. And after 14 months in a recovery program, he has taken the offensive to keep others from falling prey to the same temptations. Four years ago, he founded the Surviving In Recovery Program, which regularly counsels addicts as well as those who have quit but are in danger of relapse.
"It wasn't until my rehabilitation that I found why you can't just tell kids, 'Just say no [to drugs],'" Massey says. "There are so many factors contributing to drug use besides just temptation for good feelings," he says.
"Earl is a perfect example of why a society cannot afford to just write off or throw away people who are addicts," says Karen Bass, director of the Community Coalition for Substance Abuse, a coalition of about 100 organizations. "With the help of a community-based recovery program, he has been able to turn his life around and give 100 percent back to the community."
On an afternoon's drive through South Central Los Angeles, Massey explains the key facts he feels most casual observers don't understand about the cycle of cocaine addiction.
"Most addicts have a problem with self-esteem, a whole host of problems between themselves and friends, lovers, authority figures," he says. "Initially they see drugs as a way of making all those things disappear [so] ... they don't have to deal with them."
And the lure of crack is particularly potent. "More so than just about any other substance, the pharmacalogical properties of crack give a hyper sense of thrill and other pleasures in which the user does not have to participate to achieve," says Doug Anglin, a drug researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In his own case, Massey says his family's itinerant life in the South during the 1960s made him the perfect candidate for experimentation and addiction. In Ohio, Nevada, and Texas, his family was among the first to participate in forced integration of schools. Harassed by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, he says blacks were shunned even by major-denomination churches.
"Even though you fight it and know it's wrong, you internalize all that hatred over time," he says. Massey says his father was alcoholic and both verbally and physically abusive.
"I grew up learning that drinking was not only permissible but OK in the extreme," Massey says. "Moving from that to any substance which delivered you from your problems was just a matter of degree," he says.
Unemployment for Massey, and thousands of others here, was a contributing element as well. Driving along Alameda Boulevard, Massey points out dozens of abandoned plants and warehouses which used to be steel and aluminum factories, aerospace and defense contractors, and auto plants.
Laid off from his firefighter's job in part because of injuries, Massey, like many others, began looking to crack cocaine first as a way to make money, not get high. Fortunes were being made in a matter of weeks by dealers who could make crack quickly, using only a glass tube and some baking soda. The intense - and fleeting - high meant customers returned quickly for more.
"You had dozens of men and kids out of work, hanging out on street corners everywhere, and a guy comes up and says you can make a couple of grand in a few night's work - it was a powerful inducement," says Massey.
But he says he got hooked before he could set up shop.
A recreational user at first, Massey was soon using crack four days a week, then every day. Friends, family, coworkers, and churchmembers were increasingly shunned.
What came next for both Los Angeles and himself, Massey says, was a "spiral into fantasy-insanity." At parks, open fields, and even busy intersections, crack was easily accessible to all.
"All you had to do was drive up and lift both hands, a signal that you are looking to buy," he says. Sellers would walk up to the window and show a palm full of different size rocks. The buyer would choose a "rock" for about $20.
Sellers often linked up with prostitutes who got their customers turned on to crack and also traded their own services for the drug. "One of the untold stories of crack addiction in L.A. is how it helped spread HIV, primarily in the black population," Massey says.
To underline how he lost touch with reality, Massey recounts how his home was raided by police, who handcuffed, kicked, and strip-searched several smokers one night before displaying them in spotlights for their neighbors.
"The cops left in anger because they didn't find any drugs," Massey recalls. "A normal person would've taken the whole episode as a wakeup call. We got more drugs and celebrated."
For nearly four years, Massey got up every day and did nothing but smoke crack - an $800-a-week habit. He sold his van, Datsun 280Z, Buick Skylark, and motorcycle. He let crack dealers use his house in exchange for cocaine. Others would steal food to give to Massey in exchange for board at his house, which languished in foreclosure proceedings for several years.
A defining feature of his early drug days, Massey says, was his increasing inability to distinguish truth from lies.
"In the crack world, the more ability you have to lie with a poker face, the safer you are from buyers, dealers, gang members," he says. Those who were true to their word were most often taken advantage of and killed, he says. "I began to tell lies so often that it became part of my life."
As time went on, the crack lost its impact. It no longer produced the euphoric highs of the early days, but served as a mild palliative to ease the pain of not being on cocaine.
"By then, crack merely got you back to an existence that you perceived as normal but to everyone else was just a walking zombie," he says. "You know what you should be doing, but can't ... you feel paralyzed emotionally and mentally."
Before landing at Skid Row near downtown L.A., Massey saw friends stabbed, shot, and murdered over drug deals gone sour. Finally, evicted and homeless, living in a succession of cardboard boxes, Massey says he surrendered in self-disgust. "I was eating a free Easter meal at the local mission when I looked down and saw my plate filling with tears," he says. "I knew if I continued, I would die."
After several fits and starts, Massey, enrolled in a local rehabilitation program with the help of a friend. After a 60-day period of physical detoxification, Massey was counseled daily in both group and individual sessions.
The 12-step program used in Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous led Massey to consider a larger, spiritual power and introduced him to the Bible.
"I had never in my life identified a spiritual center within myself," he says. "I began to understand why addicts who are ignorant of their spiritual side are so prone to addictions of every kind - chemical, or money, or whatever."
Reading and praying, Massey says he spent the next 14 months learning how to live all over again. "I had to go back and learn how to socialize, how to develop relationships."
Massey says he had some advantages over others in his program: solid schooling, a strong employment record, and distance from the area where he had spent time using drugs.
"One key for addicts is to change playground and change playmates," he says. "Some never learn this and easily relapse back to their old ways."
In better health and with his head clear and, Massey said his appetite to understand and further correct his behavior became voracious.
Paying back the community
When he completed the program, Massey wanted to create his own, drawing on his experience and synthesizing that of others in the crack subculture.
"I also felt responsible for putting something back into the community I had ripped off for so many years," he says. Holding that there are hundreds of former addicts in high places, he says most want to remain anonymous.
"The recovery stories are never played up in the media, because these people won't come forward," he says. "Surviving in Recovery" attempts to shatter the widely-held myth, "once an addict, always an addict," he says.
The nondenominational group has a large speakers' bureau of people who tell their stories at churches, schools, public hearings, and youth groups. More than 100 engagements are scheduled, and a board of directors is seeking grants. Massey works part-time in other jobs to keep the group going until more funds can be found.
"We deal with all the psychosocial issues that go into substance abuse," he says. The program of Nancy Reagan in the late 1980s ["Just Say No" to drugs] and Bob Dole's campaign, "Just Don't Do It," both lay out a position, he says, but only scratch the surface of what teenagers need to understand to achieve that.
"The entire consumer society tries to focus you on false factors of self-esteem: money, sex, power. We say there is an inner core that is separate and free from that."