Shorty's comeback | Feature | Chicago Reader

Shorty's comeback 

Kelvin Wallace has been given one more chance to prevail over the heroin addiction he's struggled with for decades. "A whole lot is riding on me getting this right."

"He has a gusto for life," Judge Larry Axelrood says of Shorty (pictured). "If he can convince a roomful of cynics that he's serious about changing, we're going to give him the opportunity."

"He has a gusto for life," Judge Larry Axelrood says of Shorty (pictured). "If he can convince a roomful of cynics that he's serious about changing, we're going to give him the opportunity."

Jim Newberry

Kelvin "Shorty" Wallace had been on an ugly run for more years than he cared to count.

In August of 2010, Shorty, then 49, was selling dime bags of heroin at Augusta and Keeler—selling so he could buy his own bags. "I had a customer, a white guy," he says. "I'd been knowing him for about a month or two, right? So we exchanged phone numbers. He come by one morning—'I need six [bags] right quick.' So I come outside and I serve him six.

"Later he called me and said he's in a hotel on Mannheim and something. He said he'd just got a settlement, and he was smoking crack with a whore. He said, 'I been smoking crack all day, I'm geeked up, I can't come out there, man—would you bring the shit to me?'" Shorty understood: his customer needed more heroin to tame his crack high.

The hotel was a Comfort Inn near O'Hare, in Des Plaines. "At first I tell him, 'Hell no, I'm not gonna come way out there,'" Shorty recalls. "And I hung up my phone, right? But he kept calling me back. He said, 'I'll give you $325 if you bring me ten bags.'" Damn, Shorty thought: $325 for $100 of dope! A warning bell was clanging, but Shorty wasn't listening. "I was fiending, man—the amount of heroin I did that day wasn't enough, I needed more." He had more heroin, but it was to sell and not to dip into. "I was working for some young guys, and they'd bust your head if you did that," he said.

"So I'm like, 'Well, shit, that sounds good.' He said, 'I'll pay for the cab—I'm gonna send the cab right to you.'"

Shorty was living with his mother in her small apartment on Kildare, around the corner from where he'd been dealing. "I thought he was bullshitting, right? Then, honk, honk, honk—I look out my window, there's a cab right there. So I jumped my dumb ass in there with the ten bags, and when we get to the hotel, he's in a car in the parking lot with another guy. He said, 'This is my friend, he's the one that got the money.'" Another tipoff. "But I'm fiending, you know, so I ain't thinking about it, and I get in the car.

"The guy gives me the money. Crisp bills! I'm talking about crisp! That's like giving a dope fiend raw dope. I could just imagine how much dope I was gonna buy. So I hurry up and give him the bags. Man, when I stepped out the car, it looked like I had killed the president, there were so many goddamn guns." Guns held, of course, by cops.

His customer "couldn't even look at me," Shorty recalls. "I said, 'You set me up for this shit—for ten bags?'"

Shorty was charged with delivery of a controlled substance. He spent the night in the lockup of a Des Plaines police station. The glassine bag he'd given the undercover officer was sent to a lab. It contained nine thumbnail-size bags, each of which contained a tiny aluminum foil packet, each of which contained an off-white powder. The powder tested positive for 2.5 grams of heroin. After a bond hearing in Skokie the next morning, Shorty was taken to a familiar place, the Cook County Jail at 26th and California. He already was dope-sick by then, and his vomiting and diarrhea went on for days.

On a May afternoon 20 months later, Shorty's in the living room of a nondescript brick three-flat on a dead-end street in south-suburban Calumet City—a recovery home for addicts enrolled in a program called "It's About Change."

A few days earlier, someone from a drug treatment agency had picked Shorty up at the jail and driven him to an office on the north side. Then Shorty's case manager had driven him here. Shorty was elated on the ride to Calumet City. He's been to prison a half-dozen times for drug crimes, and he knew he could have easily been sent away again this time. In 2009, however, a new Illinois law provided for the creation of special treatment courts for military veterans charged with nonviolent crimes. Shorty's brief stint in the army in the early 1980s was nothing to brag about—he was hooked on booze and pot when he enlisted, and by the time he was kicked out he was fond of quaaludes as well—but that tour still qualified him for veteran's court.

Shorty is five-foot-three and heavyset. Small ears make a large face look even larger. He has a head of gray fuzz, a thin mustache, and gapped teeth. He's animated in conversation, and his deep voice has two volumes, loud and louder. In a swearing contest with Mayor Emanuel, Shorty would win. He's especially partial to "motherfucker," which he often uses in referring to himself; his stories tend to be self-deprecating.

"He's charismatic and he makes you want to help him," says Steve Herczeg, the public defender who represented Shorty in veteran's court. "As confident as he is in the way he talks, he has doubts, too. He's very humble and understanding of his plight, and what he's cost himself in terms of time and liberty and embarrassment."

Judge Larry Axelrood, who gave Shorty probation and still presides over his case in veteran's court, says: "It's hard for a guy to come out of the lockup and win over a courtroom full of people used to dealing with convicted felons and drug addicts and alcoholics. But Shorty's special. He has a magnetic personality and a gusto for life. If he can convince a roomful of cynics that he's serious about changing, we're going to give him the opportunity." (Judge Axelrood spoke about Shorty and his case with Shorty's permission.)

Because of his previous convictions, Shorty would have been looking at a minimum six-year sentence even with a plea deal, if he hadn't been in veteran's court. "I caught a break," he says. If he'd gone to trial and somehow won his case "I would have got back out there and continued using, I know that for sure. And it would have been a matter of time before I was back in court."

The criminal justice system hasn't been the main thing dragging Shorty down. Heroin's been the culprit—along with, at times, cocaine, marijuana, and alcohol.

In high-poverty neighborhoods like those on the west side that Shorty grew up in, the struggle with drugs is a familiar one. Drug addiction may "cut across all classes," as we often hear, but the people who can least afford to be victimized by it are the ones most susceptible to it.

While some studies show a genetic vulnerability to substance abuse, Shane Darke writes in his 2011 book, The Life of the Heroin User, that the bulk of research implicates environment more than genetics. The debilitating childhoods that poverty often generates make it much more likely that substance abusers will have come from a disadvantaged background. And addicts are far more likely to have had parents who, like Shorty's parents, were themselves substance abusers.

Drugs offer the poor temporary relief from their misery. "Like all people in need, the poor look for what works, what is available, and what is accessible," Merrill Singer, a medical anthropologist at the University of Connecticut, writes in Drugging the Poor. "Drugs meet all of these needs. . . . That they also have long term serious health, fiscal, and emotional costs does not diminish their short-term benefits."

The costs are especially high for those who are disadvantaged to begin with and who can't afford private treatment if they do get addicted. Says Shorty: "People from poorer backgrounds, they can be white or black or any color—it just seem like when they get hooked to this shit, it tears them up more than it does somebody who got money."

The accessibility of drugs in poor neighborhoods makes them particularly alluring—and harder for addicts who live there to avoid them. Drug dealing was pervasive on the west side when Shorty was growing up, but it's even more so today, he says. "In the 70s and 80s, there might be one guy dealing on a block. Now every block, it's three or four individual sellers."

He says he regrets the dealing he did, because of the harm he knows that drugs have wreaked on his neighborhood. "You got youth seeing drugs as a way out. They think the way to get out of the ghetto is to sell poison to their own people. If you don't become a victim to the drugs, then you become a victim to the other shit."

Drugs, Shorty says, "got in our neighborhood, and we never got rid of them."

A dozen clients live in Shorty's recovery home, two to a room, along with a pair of house managers, who also are recovering addicts. Most of the clients are on probation or parole. All the beds are made, and the rooms, halls, and kitchen are immaculate.

"It's really structured here," Shorty tells me. "Anything you eat out of or wash out of, you have to take care of it immediately—ain't no laying back waiting till later. When I got here, the managers came off as hard-asses, like drill sergeants. The first day I wanted to tell them, 'Hey man, who the fuck do you think you're talking to?' When you first get in a program, you fight and wrestle with every fucking thing. You put up a lot of resistance, because you really ain't made your mind up yet. You're thinking, Am I just doing this shit to get out of jail?"

The recovery home is 27 miles from Shorty's Humboldt Park neighborhood. He's glad it's so far away, he says—he needs to keep his distance from his running buddies, and the temptations that come with them. If he returned to his hood now, he says, "I'd get stopped 50 times—'Where you been, Shorty, come here, man, let me hug you!' And you hug one of them guys, and you smell that alcohol."

He's been in treatment before, and learned a lot from it, he says, but not enough to stay clean long. Soon he'd be back to the same old same old, and police would catch him again with a bit of powder in thumbnail-size bags. But this time's different, he insists.

"I no longer have the desire to use drugs because of the pain they've caused me. My ass is raw and hurt. After I start bingeing, I find my way back to a police car. I'm tired of living a substandard life. I'm tired of my addiction always sending me back to jail. I thank God it hasn't killed me."

What's changing his attitude? Shorty brushes his head and smiles sheepishly. "Looking in the mirror and seeing these grays," he says. "And knowing that I haven't accomplished anything. The light finally came on about this."

He pauses, his face clouds, and his eyes mist. "And thinking about my two daughters," he adds. They're 34 and 26. He hasn't been close to either one, in part because of his addictions, and he'd like them to have a different view of him. "Every time they've seen me for the past 20 years, I'm getting out of jail or some [treatment] program. That scenario's got to change, man. A whole lot is riding on me getting this right."

A month later, on a weekday in early June, Shorty and I are having sandwiches and splitting a basket of fries at Lindy's, on Archer near Western. Shorty has an appointment this afternoon at Deer Rehabilitation Services, an agency at Roosevelt and Pulaski that provides counseling services for ex-offenders and probationers. Shorty says the sessions "help me understand drug-induced thinking and what to do about it. For instance, I've learned that I need to run my decisions by others, because the evidence has shown I'm not capable of making very good decisions myself."

He was up early today as usual, ironing a polo shirt in the basement of the It's About Change home at 5 AM, then showering and eating a quick breakfast. Residents have to leave the house by 8 AM—they go to 12-step meetings and look for work. They need to return to the house by seven every evening for a group meeting.

Shorty's usually out the door by 6 AM, headed to an early 12-step meeting in Harvey or a job interview or appointment in Chicago. When he's going to Chicago he walks seven blocks to Sibley Boulevard, takes a bus to a terminal in Harvey, then another bus to the southern end of the Red Line, then rides the el on into the city.

"I'm tired of living a substandard life. I'm tired of my addiction always sending me back to jail."

I picked him up this morning at the 35th Street Red Line stop, and we arrived at Lindy's before noon. There were only a handful of other customers then, all in gray uniforms—guards from the nearby Cook County Jail. Shorty's got on the pressed polo shirt, blue jeans, and sneakers. He says it feels good just being presentable again. When he was fiending, he wore the same clothes day after day and often didn't bother showering. "My mother used to say, 'Boy, go take a bath, you stink.'" Now "my mother and sister are looking at me in a different light. They're glad to see me. Everybody says, 'You be looking well.'"

He thinks he's benefiting from the 12-step meetings in Harvey and the meetings every evening in his recovery home. "Somebody's story is always exactly like yours," Shorty says. "It lets you know you ain't alone. Somebody else stole out their mama's purse, too." He's confessed his own misdeeds at meetings. "Admitting them helps you clean that shit out of your system."

Finding work is high on his agenda now. That's difficult, and not just because of the economic climate. "Most jobs, you have to pass a seven-year [criminal] background check," he says. He's optimistic even though he can't do that. "There are positions for ex-offenders out there—I just haven't found one yet. Only thing holding me back is where I live. If a job starts at seven, there's no way I can make it because the buses don't start till 5:50."

He pulls a copy of his resume out of his backpack. It says his objective is a manufacturing job that uses his skills as a machine operator and setup man. He has an associates degree in electronics engineering from 1985 and a certificate in computer technology from 2001. His work experience includes a year in which he made shims for a small metal-parts company; two years in a funeral home, where he maintained and cleaned embalming equipment; a month in telemarketing; and five months as a machine operator for a technical research firm. There are gaps during which he was incarcerated, and his work history only dates to 2007 for the same reason. A job counselor he met with noticed the gaps immediately and said they might pose a problem. Shorty said to himself that the gaps represented "the wreckage of my past."

The seeds for the wreckage were planted early. When Shorty was a child, his family bounced from one poor black west-side neighborhood to the next—North Lawndale, East Garfield Park, Austin. "We just couldn't keep apartments," he tells me at Lindy's. "We'd stay somewhere a year or two and then we'd have to move." He attended four grammar schools.

His mother raised Shorty and his two brothers and one sister by herself. She was a cook in school cafeterias, but after work she headed to a bar instead of home. Shorty, her oldest, went to grammar school with a key around his neck and food stamps or a few dollars in his pocket so he could get his younger siblings and himself something to eat afterward.

The family moved so often because his mother was gambling away and drinking up the rent money, he eventually realized. The drinking also brought out her temper. "She might whup your ass when she wasn't really supposed to," Shorty booms in the restaurant. He's either forgotten about the jail guards at the other tables or isn't concerned about them. In his mother's defense, Shorty adds that she was a "functional alcoholic"—she'd drink herself to sleep most evenings, he says, but the next morning "she'd take her ass to work, never missed a day. One thing I can say about her—she kept us together. We didn't have to be raised in no state facility or nothing."

His father, who visited occasionally, was an alcoholic too. "He didn't need no drinking partner—he'd kill a bottle by himself," Shorty says. "One hundred-proof [Old] Grand-Dad." Shorty had mixed feelings about his visits. On the one hand, he'd often bring Polish sausages and pork chop sandwiches from Maxwell Street. On the other, Shorty's mother was apt to tell him about some unpunished transgression by the kids "and he'd slap the shit out of you."

When he was 15, Shorty himself started drinking with friends in Columbus Park—usually the ever-affordable Richard's Wild Irish Rose. "You do goofy shit—throw rocks, wrastle." About a year after he started drinking "I got introduced to marijuana, and that's when I developed a problem." Soon he was smoking pot and drinking every day.

"Some of my friends, they wasn't crazy like me, they stayed away from drugs," he says. "I used to think that if I had both my mom and dad at home like some of them kids—" He brakes in midsentence. "But I ain't gonna put that on them neither. My people always told me to stay away from that stuff."

When he was 16, his mother married a man who'd recently been released from prison. Another alcoholic—and a leech as well, Shorty says. He didn't work and "caused my mother all kinds of problems with our money. Whatever she didn't give to him he'd steal from her when she passed out." He often monopolized the washroom, and one afternoon when Shorty walked in on him he found out why: he was passed out on the toilet with a needle in his arm. "That rocked my world right there," he says.

Shorty dropped out of high school his junior year. About that time, he and a young woman he knew from church had a baby daughter. He never considered marrying the woman, but "first couple years I tried to be a father," he says. He stopped by to spend time with the child, but soon he did that less and less. Maybe if he hadn't been busy smoking weed and drinking, he'd have been more responsible, he says.

click to enlarge "I'm a work in progress. The old me is still a motherfucker, and he be trying to creep back in." - ANDREA BAUER
  • "I'm a work in progress. The old me is still a motherfucker, and he be trying to creep back in."
  • Andrea Bauer

He worked a factory job for a year after dropping out, and a maintenance job for a year after that. He lost the second job when he passed out at work after drinking.

In 1981, jobs were scarce on the west side and he was unemployed. Then he ran into a friend who'd enlisted in the army and had returned from a tour in Germany. Shorty wanted to escape a neighborhood where so many people were, like him, getting high and going nowhere. He'd always liked the idea of wearing a uniform; in grammar school, he'd wanted to be a cop, a fireman, or a baseball player. So he enlisted.

But at basic training at Fort Gordon in Augusta, Georgia, he encountered "more drugs than I ever seen," he says. During a party a military policeman offered up his personal pharmacy—Christmas trees, pink hearts, black beauties (all amphetamines), and Lemmon 714 quaaludes. Shorty opted for the sedating Lemmon 714s, and soon he was taking them regularly. When he was on guard duty in the winter, "I could stand out there for three or four hours, I didn't feel no cold."

One evening he got in a fistfight at a bowling alley with a guy who turned out to be a criminal investigation officer. Shorty was searched after the fight and caught with an ounce of pot. He was kicked out of the army for assaulting a federal officer and bringing drugs into a military installation. He received the most severe form of administrative discharge.

"I really wanted to go to Germany," he tells me. "That was a turning point in my life. If I'd have finished the army, I think I'd be another uniformed person out there in the street now—a cop or something." He sighs and shakes his head. "I fucked it all up right there."

Upon his return to the west side in 1983, Shorty soon learned from friends that the price of narcotics had dropped while he was away. Powder heroin and cocaine, once as much as $50 a bag, now could be had for $10. "That's when somebody told me, 'Hey, man, if you snort this heroin, it'll keep your dick hard all night—you can fuck all night.' And sure enough, I could. I threw up, but after I threw up, I was high."

A day or two after his first bag, he snorted another one. He loved the mellow high. "It leaves you feelingless," he says. "You don't care about nothing." Soon he was snorting a few bags a week.

He had a clerical job then and managed to keep it a while. "I was working and buying my bags, I wasn't stealing." He says he didn't realize he was addicted until he'd been snorting for several years. After a few days without heroin he was having stomach cramps and diarrhea, but he didn't put two and two together. A friend told him he was dope-sick, gave him a bag of heroin, "and, bam, I was well."

This was in 1989. Soon the job was history. "I took my check one day and didn't go back to work." Instead he went to someone's basement and got his fix. Things quickly fell apart. "You can't work, you take the bill money and snort it up. This shit got you."

He started stealing "from whoever I could"—including his mother, who he was living with. "After you sober up a bit, you say, 'Damn, man, I did that to my own mother.' You know you're a creep. And then you have to come right back in the house like you didn't do shit." He felt so bad about himself that he'd often go out and snort another bag.

Like most heroin addicts, Shorty fiddled around with other drugs. When crack arrived in Chicago in the late 1980s, some of Shorty's friends began chasing its intense, brief high. Shorty tried it and found the high thrilling. But if any drug compelled a user to spend more than heroin did, it was crack. "So I was like, nah, I'll stick with heroin."

He'd snort powder cocaine sometimes when he was on heroin and wanted to be sociable instead of just nodding out. But stimulants like cocaine tended to make him paranoid. He says he never mainlined drugs. He didn't think about the risk of HIV or hepatitis, but he sensed that injecting was a bad idea.

He was right about that. Besides exposing themselves to viruses by sharing needles, IV drug users are also far more likely to overdose. But those who snort or smoke heroin can also overdose. Shorty guesses he's done so 15 to 20 times—that is, he's vomited uncontrollably, passed out for hours, or both. "After you get done throwing up, you be like, 'Let me get me some more,'" he says. "That's crazy, wanting more of something that almost killed you."

Besides stealing, Shorty supported his heroin addiction by selling drugs on street corners and in alleys. He had an arrangement with his supervisors that's been standard in Chicago for years: they'd give him a "jab"—13 dime bags of heroin or cocaine; when he sold all 13, he turned in $100, and the other $30 were his earnings. It usually took only an hour to sell a jab, and he could sell it quicker when white customers happened by, since they tended to buy more bags at once. Most of his customers, however, were African-Americans from the neighborhood, who bought a bag or two at a time.

By 1992, Shorty had advanced to a higher level of drug dealing: he'd been put in charge of the stash and the guns. Given that Shorty was an addict, this wasn't a wise arrangement. One evening that year, police got a call from a man in an East Garfield Park apartment who said he had a gun and was about to kill himself. It was Shorty.

He'd smoked up a fair amount of the stash, which was crack. His bosses had come by, and Shorty, knowing the mess he was in, had locked the door and the burglar bars. "They were throwing shit at the window—'Hey, man, come up outta there! We ain't playing!'" he recalls. He saw that they had guns. That's why he'd called police about his pending "suicide."

According to the report of the officers who responded, he held a cocked, nine-millimeter semiautomatic to his head and continued smoking crack while they talked him down. "I don't think I was gonna really shoot myself," he says today. "Then again, I don't know—I was so high." Eventually he placed the gun on the floor and let the police in. They found 420 packets of crack in the apartment—estimated street value, $7,300—along with a sawed-off shotgun and a revolver. Shorty eventually was acquitted of the drug charges and convicted of unlawful use of a weapon by a felon, and sentenced to three years. More arrests and convictions followed, culminating with the arrest in Des Plaines in 2010.

After lunch at Lindy's, I give Shorty a ride to his meeting at the agency on Roosevelt at Pulaski. As we drive north on California, Shorty says he doesn't think he should live on the west side again, and that even visiting is risky.

"Until I become spiritually fit enough to be around a person that drinks, or smokes cocaine, or does heroin, and not let it affect me, I have to stay away from them," he says. He regularly visits the Westside Health Authority, an agency in Austin that helps ex-offenders search for jobs. But he says he doesn't linger in the neighborhood afterward.

"I'm a work in progress," he adds with a grin. "The old me is still a motherfucker, and he be trying to creep back in."

The old Shorty already surfaced once since he's been in veteran's court. In April of last year, Judge Axelrood had Shorty released from jail to a recovery home in west-suburban Bellwood. Shorty soon found work as a machine operator in a northwest suburb. The recovery home asked Shorty for a portion of his earnings as rent. Shorty complied at first. Then he began stopping in his old neighborhood after work, which led to him drinking again. He quit paying rent to the recovery home, moved out, and moved in with his mother.

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.   

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