The Crack Smoking Crime Reporter Who Covered America’s Crack Epidemic
25 years ago, crack use was exploding across America. Cheap and readily accessible, the drug’s place in the national folklore was assured when President George H. W. Bush brandished a bag of crack rocks in an address from the Oval Office in 1989, opining: “It’s as innocent-looking as candy, but it’s turning our cities into battlezones, and it’s murdering our children.”
About four months later, Washington, DC Mayor Marion Barry was busted by the feds. They caught him (on tape) smoking crack in a hotel room—where he famously muttered “Bitch set me up!” in reference to the former girlfriend who cooperated with the FBI to bring him down. That same night, Ruben Castaneda, a recently-hired crime reporter for the Washington Post who was lucky enough to be on the scene at the Vista Hotel, got high on crack in a room paid for by the newspaper. He was an addict, and with his blood racing from having seen the most popular politician in the city go down—and no one at the hotel giving up any dirt on the bust he could use for a story—the temptation was too great to resist.
Before his Post editors helped him get clean and kick the habit, Castaneda led a complicated existence—reporting stories on one hand and surreptitiously scoring crack on the other. His new book about those years, S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in DC, recalls David Simon’s beloved HBO show The Wire with its vivid, textured portrait of urban life and territorial gang warfare. The key difference, as Castaneda likes to point out, is that it’s all true (even if Simon’s own time as a crime reporter gave his show plenty of realism).
I called Castaneda up to ask him about experiencing the crack epidemic first hand, and how he pulled off such an incredible double life.
VICE: You were a reporter in your hometown of LA at the now-defunct Los Angeles Herald-Examiner before being hired by the Post. Do you remember when you first heard about crack cocaine?
Ruben Castaneda: It’s hard to pinpoint, but I probably read an article in the LA Times or the New York Times about the impact crack was having in DC and in other cities around 1987 or 1988. Basically, that it was this incredibly powerful, addictive drug that was being sold in some of the tougher neighborhoods in the cities.
Tell me about your first experience with crack and what you think brought you to the drug.
I was on a reporting assignment on the western edge of downtown LA in a pretty tough neighborhood. This very, very attractive young woman caught my eye. She gestured for me to come over, so I put the reporting aside for a moment and went over to flirt with her. Now, I was already, at this time, drinking heavily. In fact, I had already gotten pretty toasted that afternoon at Corky’s—a dive bar—so I was pretty impaired in judgment. So when she offered me, very quickly into our conversation, a hit of crack, I was 27—old enough to know better but young enough to feel invincible. I was intrigued by the idea of experiencing something that I had read so much about. I’d read that crack cocaine produced this incredible high. In that moment, I dismissed any thoughts that this would throw me into addiction.
"Strawberry" was a term I hadn’t heard outside of rap lyrics before reading the book. Can you explain it to our readers?
A strawberry is a woman who trades sex for drugs. Crack usually, though I suppose it could be other drugs. I was introduced to crack by a young woman who turned out to be a strawberry—Raven—in Los Angeles. Getting a strawberry to make the buy for me very quickly became part of my addiction or compulsion. And it added to the excitement. At least initially, the sex was otherwordly. But there was another component to it in that by handing money to the strawberry—Raven in LA, Champagne or Carrie in DC—and letting them make the buy, I was insulating myself from any police activity. It was a way of protecting myself.
But by the last month or so, I didn’t even care about that. All I wanted was to get drugs—I made the buys directly. Didn’t care about strawberries, just needed more crack.
Sex was wrapped up in your crack use from the start, though. Did you have qualms about exploitation of these women working the street?
At the time that I was caught up in it, I did not reflect on that very much. The women who I was picking up for crack and sex seemed to be very much in control of their own destinies. We didn’t talk about our respective lives—these were transactional encounters. Now, later on, I did start to reflect on the fact that I was playing a role in their own addictions. I think it was June of 1991 when there was a story on the front-page of the Post about a group of women who had worked the streets. I saw a picture of a woman I had picked up to make crack buys for me. Up until that moment, I think I had mentally compartmentalized what I was doing as relatively benign.
The Bros of Fracking
VICE heads to North Dakota fracking territory to meet the new generation of young and wealthy directional drillers who are taking part in the politically loaded and controversial method of obtaining oil.
Photographer Zak Arcander on Butterflies, Raves, and Being Alive
What defines an American perspective today? What does an American look like and more importantly how does an American look? Our society privileges the self, it is a culture that valorizes consumption and idealizes “self actualization”. In short, we live in a society that dictates humans as agents of desire. It is from within this infrastructure that we struggle to create and foster communities. In a self-centered social order, where do we come together and what do we gather around? Although there may not be one succinct answer, all of us are looking for it. If there is a common subject within Zak Arctander
’s images, it is that of the pursuant gaze, a subject in a relentless search for the often intangible object of its desire. I sat down with Zak to talk about butterflies and being alive.
VICE: Tell me a little about your background.
Zak Arctander: I grew up in the northwest suburbs of Chicago, a place called Arlington Heights. I made skateboard videos throughout high school. My parents and my sister are all artists.
How did skateboarding videos lead you to the work you make now?
When I was filming/photographing skateboarding it was pretty similar to how I work now. The street was the stage for the drama; I was freezing and framing action. What is different now is I’m not so closely collaborating with the people I am photographing. They are mostly strangers that I encounter briefly.
It is clear from the images that your subjects are being captured in moments of telling inbetween-ness: not a decisive moment, but the fugue state between. There is a darkness that pervades the images, a darkness that seems to be located in relation to human desires. Are you ever disturbed by the images you create?
Disturbed isn’t a word that ever really crosses my mind. I have felt shaken. I definitely think about desire and how everyone is reaching for something outside of themselves. It sounds sort of ridiculous but when I consider what I’m after I still turn to Delillo’s phrase “magic and dread.”
Eric Garner and the Plague of Police Brutality Against Black Men
If you haven’t heard about Eric Garner yet, let me fill you in. He was a 43-year-old father of six who lived in Staten Island, and he died in the street on Thursday after as many as four New York police officers choked him and slammed his head on the ground. The NYPD told the Associated Press that they stopped Garner because he was selling untaxed cigarettes, something he’d been arrested for before. However, witnesses who spoke with local news website Staten Island Live have basically said that’s bullshit. Ramsey Orta, who was on the scene and shot a now infamous video that is making the rounds, can be heard in the clip saying that all Garner had done to get bothered by the police was break up a fight.
In the video, Garner denies any wrongdoing and asks why he’s being hassled. “Every time you see me you want to mess with me,” he says in an exasperated tone that most men of color across this country can relate to. Garner, who was 400 pounds and has been described by people who knew him as a “gentle giant,” suffered from chronic asthma and police claim his death was the result of a heart attack suffered during the arrest.
Police say that Garner made a “fighting stance” and resisted arrest. Which, based on the video clip, is complete nonsense, considering we can see him pleading to the officers, “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe!” before going completely silent as several officers pile on him.
The video of Garner’s death is disgusting, but I can’t say I was shocked or even outraged the first time I watched it. At this point, as someone who’s read and written about some of these stories time and time again—and who’s had firsthand experiences with the way cops treat black males—this kind of reprehensible shit is not surprising at all. After so many cases like Amadou Diallo and Sean Bell, you start to feel desensitized by the seemingly insurmountable injustice that plagues communities of color.
Two Would-Be Jihadists, Two Very Different Responses from the FBI
One is a 19-year-old citizen from Arvada, Colorado, named Shannon Maureen Conley. The other is a 29-year-old, Pakistani-born permanent US resident who lived in North Carolina named Basit Javed Sheikh. Both—entirely separately—planned to travel to Syria for love and jihad, according to public records, and both came under close scrutiny of the FBI and were eventually arrested.
But in Conley’s case, the FBI gave the would-be jihadist every available out. Overt agents who identified themselves as being from the FBI repeatedly cautioned her against going through with her plans to travel to Syria and join the Islamic State in Iraq and al Sham (ISIS). According to a sworn affidavit, they warned her she would be arrested if she tried to board a plane to the region, but to no avail. Few, if any, targets in federal terrorism investigations have been given such apparently blunt warnings from openly identified agents. “That’s a first as far as I know,” says Trevor Aaronson, author of The Terror Factory: Inside The FBI’s Manufactured War on Terrorism.
Sheikh, however, wasn’t so lucky. The FBI didn’t openly try to talk him out of boarding a plane allegedly to join Jabat al Nusra, the al Qaeda–linked militant group fighting Bashar al Assad’s regime in Syria. Sheikh has even gone so far as to claim that an FBI informant, posing as a nurse in Syria, engaged in a romantic relationship with him, and he was traveling to marry her. An undercover agent—as opposed to an openly identified one, like in Conley’s case—told Sheikh he didn’t have to go through with his plan, something investigators often do to prevent an entrapment defense. Both cases are currently in the pre-trial motions phase.
Garry Winogrand’s American Epic
Winogrand was a photographer of people, from rodeo performers in Texas to socialites in Manhattan to the regulars at Venice Beach. Humanity—or perhaps American humanity—in all its iterations and range of expression, was his subject matter.
Surveying Garry Winogrand’s American Epic
Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984). Coney Island, New York, ca. 1952. Gelatin silver print. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. Purchase and gift of Barbara Schwartz in memory of Eugene M. Schwartz. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
In order to enter the Garry Winogrand retrospective that opened last month at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, you exit the main auditorium into the south wing, where you are greeted by a long corridor of Greek art from the sixth through fourth centuries BC. It mostly consists of statues in various poses—some at war, some lost in thought, some proclaiming, some brooding. By the time you reach the Winogrand show on the second floor and begin to survey the work, it may occur to you that the Greek gallery provided something of an anachronistic prologue. Known for his routine of tirelessly walking the streets candidly photographing city life, Winogrand was a photographer of people, from rodeo performers in Texas to socialites in Manhattan to the regulars at Venice Beach. Humanity—or perhaps American humanity—in all its iterations and range of expression, was his subject matter.
Garry Winogrand (American, 1928–1984). New York, 1950. Gelatin silver print. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Fractional and promised gift of Carla Emil and Rich Silverstein. © The Estate of Garry Winogrand, courtesy Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
The Met is the third stop of the exhibition’s tour, originating at San Francisco MoMA. The project began when gallerist Jeffrey Fraenkel asked photographer Leo Rubinfien to help compile a large retrospective book of Winogrand’s work. Rubinfien agreed, but in his own words, “it was immediately clear you needed a museum.” So Rubinfien approached San Francisco MoMA Curator of Photography Sandy Phillips, who jumped at the idea of doing an exhibition, in which Rubinfien, who is not a curator by trade, would act as such. This iteration at the Met was reduced from the original SF MoMA show by Jeff Rosenheim, curator in charge of the Department of Photographs at the Met. It is the first Winogrand retrospective in 25 years, a virtual eternity for an artist of Winogrand’s renown, let alone an artist no longer living.
Why Do So Many Soft Drinks Taste Like Teletubby Blood?
I don’t drink soda very often. It’s not that I don’t like it; it’s just that after age 12 I never felt like having more than a shot of it every now and then. Soft drinks are designed for children with tiny, discerning pallets, unimpressed with the flavors provided by actual food. That said, some of the tastes in these beverages exist only inside of their cans and cannot be found anywhere else in the whole world. It’s like a Willy Wonka land of weird water, and who would be such a fool as to not sometimes dunk their tongue in the chemical concoctions and see what’s good?
I decided to veer away from the recognizable labels and see what life is like on the wild side of the soda pop biz.
15 calories per 12 fl oz/12 g sugar
Kill Cliff calls itself a “Recovery Drink,” or, rather, “THE Recovery Drink,” being conceptually healthy in that it is “naturally sweetened” and only 15 calories a can. I found it over with the Boar’s Head meats and cheeses, like maybe it’s strategically placed next to the high-end shit to make you think it’s good, a can of cola all on its own. The text on the side of the can claims that the drink was “developed by a former US Navy Seal” to “improve endurance and speed recovery.” It’s unclear who the Seal was, and why he thought “Kill Cliff” would be a good name for a revitalization beverage. They also employ the tagline “Test Positive for Awesome,” which is maybe closer to an AIDS joke than should be on a can of soda.
The first sip reminds me of if Sweet Tarts were a liquid and strained through a pair of men’s briefs after a short doubles’ tennis match in a domed arena. It’s all puckery and buzzing around the edges, and when it hits the back of the throat it immediately provides the feeling of having recently barfed. This post-barf expression kind of kneads its way back and forth across the tongue and palate like electricity. I take a second sip to cover up the first, and the buzzing strain appears again, redoubled. I kind of already have a headache.
As I get deeper into the can, my brain becomes warm. It feels like my head is flooding with acid, and I can only tolerate the sensation by drinking so fast I can’t taste anything. When I stop my head is spinning, and I feel full of gasoline.
I might recommend Kill Cliff to remove paint or to dissolve the bars on a prison cell, but as far as liquid designed to go inside my body is concerned, no.
Marley’s Mellow Mood (Berry Flavor)
165 calories per 12 fl oz/29 g sugar
Sniffing the edge of the can’s mouth before I take a swig, I get the full bouquet of chemical fruit fun, suggesting what I’m about to drink is again going to come from the “Sick Fake Candy” food group. So I’m shocked when the liquid hits my lips and the first thing I think is actually, Hey, this IS smooth! Maybe it’s the dead rock icon on the can with the marijuana colors that brainwashed me into this feeling, though more likely it’s how, compared to Kill Cliff, this shit is like white sturgeon caviar. More watered-down Hawaiian Punch than actual soda, there is also a delicate flavor similar to the air in a bong shop lurking just behind the first curve of berry. The mixture is confusing, hairy, seemingly as unsure of itself as I am of it, but at least I don’t want to do an immediate spit-take.