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When his probation officer found out he'd left the recovery home, Shorty was summoned back to court. "Oh, man, Judge Axelrood, he was on the ceiling," Shorty recalls. He said, 'You mean to tell me, Kelvin, you left and you owed them money?' I thought he was gonna lock me up that day, but he gave me a break. He said, 'All right, Kelvin, you're gonna pay that money back, you're gonna go to this new recovery house, and you're gonna get your act together.'"
Shorty moved into the "Way Back Inn" in Maywood. Soon after he got there "I went back to my drug of choice—heroin."
Why? He was hanging with friends who were using heroin, "and I said, 'Hey man, give me a little bit of that.' And like they say, one is too many, a thousand is never enough. Before I knew it I was a full-fledged dope fiend again."
A drug test at the recovery home came up dirty, and he was kicked out. This was in mid-September. He was due back in court a week later for a check on his status, but of course he skipped that. "I wasn't gonna fuck up a good high to come to court so Judge Axelrood can lock me up and sober me up," he says. A week before Thanksgiving, police arrested him at his mother's apartment.
To his amazement, Judge Axelrood still wasn't giving up on him. "When I went back in front of him, it was like I was the prodigal son. 'I know you messed up, but I'm still gonna help you.' Damn."
Help him in jail, that is; Judge Axelrood wasn't about to let him out again just then. "That was good, though, because it cleaned me back up," Shorty says. "If he had let me right back out, I would have gone and got high." He was in the jail's drug treatment unit until he was released to It's About Change this spring.
Judge Axelrood tells me later why he didn't give up on Shorty when he relapsed last year: because he's learned from veteran's court that recovery from drug addiction is a lifelong battle, and that relapses are common. Axelrood points out that had he terminated Shorty's probation and sent him to prison, he'd get out again eventually—and then he'd still have his addiction to contend with, but without the services and monitoring he's getting now. "The cycle would never be broken," the judge says. "We're trying a different approach than incarceration."
He also sees "leadership qualities" in Shorty that he thinks are being wasted. "He could get to the point where he's not only sober but mentoring others, and be a tremendous force for good," Axelrood says.
Shorty thinks treatment ought to be more widely available for drug offenders. Most addicts he knows won't seek treatment unless they're forced to by the courts, he says. He doesn't favor legalization of narcotics. "That would be giving people a license to walk around in a zombie state."
We're on Roosevelt now, headed west. A group of young men in T-shirts are hanging out on the corner of Roosevelt and Francisco. I ask Shorty which he expects to be tougher: finding work in an ailing economy—especially with his criminal record—or staying clean. Without hesitation he says it's staying clean. "The addiction always comes back to you and says, 'Fuck this shit—let's just go get us one.' That's how I used to get rid of my problems, but they never went away."
Not that finding work will be much easier. He says he's been feeling pinched lately about his financial situation. His only "income" right now is $200 a month in food stamps.
Shorty was grateful that the cofounder of It's About Change, Anthony Dillard, paid for his bus passes the first month he was in the home so he could get to 12-step meetings and look for work. But that month has passed, and now Shorty's scrambling every week to come up with the $28 for the pass. His mother bought him one, and the next week his brother came through. "But he cussed me out—'I got kids, don't be asking me again,'" Shorty says. (His brother works as a vendor at sporting events.) Shorty used to play guitar at the Sunday service of a Pentecostal church on the west side; he says the minister there will pay him $25 for playing again, which he expects to use toward future passes.
He's waiting to hear back from a telemarketer he interviewed with recently. That job would pay minimum wage—$8.25. And he's about to interview with a small contractor for a laborer job that would pay a little more but for fewer hours. "I can't say I know how to do roofing, but I can haul them shingles up there. I ain't weak. Whatever they tell me—make some mortar, bust the sand open—I'll do it.
"I don't wanna die a dopehead or a dealer," he says. "I can still salvage something. I just have to keep reiterating this to myself until it sticks."
He acknowledges having felt tempted to drink once since his release last spring. He was on a bus, heading back to the recovery home, when a guy he was talking with pulled a bottle of beer out of a zippered bag and began drinking it. It was "one of those hot-ass days," Shorty says. "I'm looking at that beer going down his motherfucking throat. Watching his Adam's apple go back and forth. That beer look good to a motherfucker. That shit tried to make me get off the bus and go get one. It started to tell me all these excuses. I could get something to eat, cover my breath up, come back [to It's About Change] right before the meeting starts, sit over in the corner, and everything will be all right. Then I thought, you dumb motherfucker, you can't drink no beer. You better get you a cold pop."
Does he think he'll stay sober the rest of his life? Shorty says that's not a question he thinks he ought to focus on. "That's how I relapsed in the past. If somebody asked me, 'Are you ever using again?' 'Naw—I ain't never using no more.'" The sponsor he has now "taught me to get all that shit out of my head about ten years from now and 15 years from now. You fight your addiction one day at a time, one hour at a time, one minute at a time. The most you're asking God for is 24 hours. Get me through the day—and then tomorrow you start the process all back over again."
Shorty calls me a few days later. The contractor said he could use him for a couple of part-time projects. He starts in the morning.