and Warren Prince
the Homeless Speakers
born Boston, Massachusetts 1943
Prince enters each meeting with a giga ntic bag of empty cans. During
the discussions, he is articulate without dominating the conversation,
and he often serves as a mediator between members who express diverging
opinions. Prince is eager to volunteer for an interview. Together
we walk to Washington Square Park where he weaves together the strands
of his experience with contagious enthusiasm.
mother died when I was six months old. I think she was an addict
herself, but I never really knew. After that I was adopted by a
great aunt who was a very stern woman. She was an alcoholic, so
I was abused constantly. Hence I got a very bad temper. I got tired
of being beat for everything, and soon as I got to be fourteen years
old, I ran away from home. I never went back. Since then I've been
on my own.
could have gone to a reform school, but I didn't want that. I slept
on the streets a few nights, and then I found this space in the
back of an abandoned house in the ghetto part of Boston. Sometimes
I used to wait until my aunt left for work, and then I'd sneak back
into my house and get food.
got lucky. One day I went to a friend of mine's house, and there
was a guy there playing cards by the name of Paige Webster. He saw
that I was dirty, and he asked me if I wanted to do some work around
his house. I was a hard worker, and he knew when I cleaned his place,
I wouldn't go looking for no money. We started talking, and he told
me that when he was my age, he quit school, and he started pimping
though Mr. Webster was a pimp, he was a very intelligent man. He
didn't have any kids of his own, so he kind of took it upon himself
to educate me to the ways of the world. After a while he more or
less adopted me. In exchange for cleaning up his house and doing
jobs in the neighborhood, I got to live in one of his apartments.
Mr. Webster hadn't graduated from school, so he wanted to provide
me with that opportunity. I enrolled in high school, and Mr. Webster
had rules about what I could do and what time I had to be home.
He wouldn't let me get involved in his business endeavors, so I
didn't get exposed to the drinking and drugs. He was firm, but he
was fair. He taught me how to make something out of myself.
I could graduate, Mr. Webster went to jail for selling heroin. When
that happened, everything was gone again. By that time I had gotten
used to wearing decent clothes and feeling like something, so I
decided to go straight into the Marine Corps.
Marines was one of the greatest things that ever happened to me.
It teaches you structure and discipline and most importantly, mental
toughness. I learned to not let things get to me. It also taught
a sense of camaraderie. When people are counting on me, I don't
let them down. Even though what drugs did to me, I always had that
disciplined mindset somewhere inside the back of my head.
went to basic training in Paris Island, South Carolina, and in 1959
I got stationed in Navy Yard, Brooklyn as part of the Military Police.
That's where I met my first wife. She was a schoolgirl who used
to wait for the bus on the corner by my post. We started walking,
talking, one thing led to the other. She got pregnantI got married.
After we had our first son, we had another son, and then a daughter.
the early sixties I was transferred to Virginia. It was kind of
rough, because I was away from my wife and my children. Our battalion
was ninety percent black. When Martin Luther King was going to speak
at the first March on Washington, they wanted to send us there as
security in case there were riots. We just flat out refused to go.
It would have been bad publicity if they kicked us all out of the
service, so the brass just restricted us on the base.
a while it got to be hard being away from my family, so I decided
I didn't want to stay in the Marine Corps. I got out right before
Vietnam got heavy, so I don't have any combat experience. Thank
God. Getting out of was rough. I came out of the Marine Corps with
four years service, my GED, and an honorable discharge. The only
job I could get was working as a dishwasher at the World's Fair
in Queens! A dishwasher! That's what it was like to be black at
that time. I was disgusted.
I quit that job, I went down to unemployment, and they had a big
sign up for the social service test. I scored highly, so I was able
to find a job working as a hospital aide. After a few years of that,
I was hired by the Board of Education as a school security officer.
I didn't like that much. My next job was working at the Fineson
Institute for the Developmentally Disabled. I liked the job, but
there were a lot of kids who died after you became attached to them.
In '74 I decided that I needed to make some more money, so I started
driving a bus for the MTA.
buses is a seniority-based system. The guy who gets the worst job
is the one with the least time. When I first started driving, I
always got the routes going through the ghetto. The Q5 in Queens
was the worst. The kids would get on through the back door and raise
hell. People would spit at you. I used to have to carry a crowbar
on Friday night, because all the guys would be drunk looking for
a fight. One time I had a guy get on with a Samurai sword.
addition to the stress at my job, I also had a lot of turbulence
in my personal life. In 1979 I got another woman pregnant, and my
first marriage fell apart. It was a real stressful time for me.
That's when I started turning more to drugs to help me relax on
I first tried cocaine, it was basically a social thing for parties
or going out and watching a game. Back in the sixties, cocaine was
still illegal, but it wasn't the demon that it became in later years.
cousin Gene, who also attends the PTH meetings, is quietly observing
our interview. At this juncture, he decides to provide some input.
Gene: See, the federal legislation that formed the framework for the state policies
at that time was called the Harrison Narcotics Act. The only drugs
that would put you in jail for serious time were opiates. In the
seventies some Southern racist politicians in Washington got cocaine
attached. They said that Caucasian women under the influence of
cocaine released their innermost inhibitions and slept with black
men, so we urge you fellow congressman to pass this law to save
White Southern Womanhood. (laughs) Gene later tells me that he
acquired this knowledge from a course at John Jay University.
Prince: See, cocaine was never a major issue in the
black community until it became criminalized. Back in the old days,
you'd go to a party and people used to leave lines out on the table,
and it was no big deal. You'd go to the bathroom and come back,
and every grain was there. Once it became criminalized, it was something
to be protected. You only shared it with a few friends, and you
got mad when they didn't reciprocate. People became stingy with
it, and they horded it. That made the price go up. When the dealing
became more lucrative, the dealers had to protect their turf, so
that added a violent element. Around 1977 crack started showing
up. Once crack hit the scene, it multiplied the problems of cocaine
ten fold. Immediately it was all about money. When crack first came
out, guys could go and get it so cheap, some of the dealers would
even give you a little crack, just to get you started. That's how
I got started. "Come on, we're going to a party. Here, take
is so potent that one hit can turn you into an addict. It's not
a physical addiction. It's a mental addiction. When you take your
first hit of crack it's like the first time you had sex. You don't
want to let it go. You wanna stay there, but you can't. It's got
speed in it, so it shoots it through your system. See, if you snort
cocaine, you'll be high for hours. With crack, ten minutes after
you finish that bag you're looking to buy another one.
Pretty soon, I was doing crack to the point where it really
started to hurt my pocket. I used to get my paycheck on Friday,
and on Monday I'd be down at the credit union trying to borrow some
money. Eventually I started using it during the week, and that took
me further down the spiral. It got to the point where my boss at
Transit started to get wise. If he caught me I'd lose my pension.
Rather than deal with that, I just decided to step down.
I quit my job, I stayed with a few friends here and there. At first
there was always somebody who was willing to let me sleep on their
floor, but after a while I ended up spending some nights on the
subway or the street. I needed to find a way to maintain my habit,
so I started picking up cans. I did all right. See, even though
I was being totally controlled by my addiction, I still had a sense
of work ethic. Since I didn't have to worry about paying rent, I
put everything I earned toward getting the drugs.
I ended up having to check into the Atlantic Avenue Men's Shelter.
That place was like a prison. I couldn't deal with having to be
in at ten o'clock every night, so I decided to go back out on the
night I was in East New York, Brooklyn, and there was a guy who
was letting people sleep inside of cars for three dollars a night.
I saw that there was this little abandoned shack across Snyders
Street, and I asked him about it. He said that I could stay there
for six dollars a night. It needed a little bit of fixing up, but
all and all it wasn't bad.
I went out to collect my cans, I started picking up materials, and
little by little I made the place look all right. Each time I went
out, I collected extension cords. When I finally had enough to reach
the light pole, I opened up the box and plugged it in, then I buried
the cords in the ground so nobody could see it. To get my water
I'd take buckets to the fire hydrant. If I wanted to take a bath,
I'd heat the water up on a hot plate and pour it into an old bathtub.
When the wintertime came, I found an electric heater. Girls loved
coming back to my place.
around here in the West Village, the rich people are always throwing
good stuff out. One day I was walking down 8th Street with my shopping
cart picking up cans, and this girl just asked me if I wanted her
TV. I brought it back and plugged it in. A couple months later,
I was watching the news one night, and there was a story about this
lady who got shot up on 141st Street. It was my aunt.
our first session comes to a close, Prince formally introduces me
to his cousin Gene, his constant companion for the twelve years
that he was without a home. Prince is quick to assert his deep sense
is my right hand man. During those years, there were times when
my life depended on Gene. Not everybody has relationships that are
as deep as that.
Anderson, South Carolina 1939
real father died when I was eighteen months old. When I was three,
my mother got remarried to a guy who went overseas to Germany. During
the war, we moved up to Harlem so my mother could get a better job
in a defense plant and so I could get a better education.
the war housing stock was hard to find, so I was sent back to South
Carolina to live with my grandmother until my parents could find
housing in New York that would accept a kid. After eighteen months,
they found a place on West 140th Street.
Southern background made it kind of traumatic for me to come back
to New York. I was the only kid on the block who wore knickers and
Buster Brown shoes. At school I said yes ma'm and no ma'm to the
teachers. All the urban kids would make fun of me for that, but
after a while I learned to assimilate.
Back then, Harlem was a tight community. There were a lot of
relocated Southern blacks, and they brought the small community
spirit with them. If one parent saw another kid doing something
wrong, he'd tell the parents about it, and the kid would get what
he had coming. Today, the kids don't respect their own parents.
With all the gains we've made in civil rights, we've regressed in
the way we deal with our own issues in our own communities.
I started getting older, I started getting sucked into the street
culture of the time. When I started hanging out with street gangs,
my mother decided to send me back to South Carolina. I didn't like
the segregation down there and the lack of job opportunities, so
I decided to join the Army. I was only sixteen at the time, so I
saved up some money from my job at a grocery store and paid these
guys to go down to the recruitment office and swear that I was born
a year earlier. That was good enough for the recruitment officer,
because he was more interested in quotas than accuracy. I went into
the Army the day before Thanksgiving in 1955. I got my GED from
passing a test given through USAFI (United States Armed Forces
Army was a tough transition for an urban kid like me. I didn't really
adjust well to somebody telling me what to do at all hours of the
day. It was also only a few years since the Army had been desegregated,
so you had a lot of COs calling you nigger. It was always the black
guys who got picked for the hardest duties.
of my hustles to get extra cash was to spit shine the other guys'
shoes so that they could pass inspection. One night, we were getting
ready to go on weekend pass, and there was a white guy in my company
who demanded that I shine his shoes. Me and my friend Earl were
just on our way out the door, and we had dates lined up. As we were
leaving, the guy called me a racist name, and Earl took issue with
that. Next thing you know, the pistol went off, and the guy died.
I didn't see nothing.
The investigating officers determined that I must have
seen something. When I refused to testify, they put me in the stockade
as a material witness. My mother came all the way down from New
York to tell them that I wasn't of age, so I could get out on what
they called a minority discharge. Instead, when my mother went back,
they sent me to the disciplinary barracks in Fort Gordon, Georgia.
I did a year in there, and I came out with a dishonorable discharge.
made it real hard for me to get a job when I got out. The only place
that would hire me was a company that manufactured staple machines
on Junior Street in Brooklyn. After two years, my foreman found
out that I was dating an Italian girl that worked upstairs. I got
fired, because I was "conducting myself contrary to the company's
best interest." When I got terminated, the girl became a prostitute.
I became a pimp.
was it like being a pimp?
was enlightening in a way, but it was also degrading, enlightening
in the sense that I got a taste for what life was about in the streets.
I learned survival. It was just me and my girls against the world.
But I also found out that it's not a good feeling in your soul to
exploit another person. At the end of my pimp experience, I got
in an altercation with another gentleman, and I shot him on Atlantic
and Fourth, Palm Sunday, 1963.
When I went to Attica, God blessed me to be taken in
by a lot of older guys who had reformed their habits. It was like
the brotherhood that people have on the street, but on the inside.
They said that if I wanted to make it through my sentence, I would
have to be kind of righteous. They had like a creed. When I was
getting ready to get out, I said that I was going to get my girls
together and start pimping again. They laid it on me with the morality
and talked me out of doing that. It's hard to believe, but I got
reformed from pimping in Attica State Prison, while I was no name,
prisoner 25024. I made it out just before the riots.
prospects for getting a decent job were zero. I had a dishonorable
discharge, and I was on parole. It didn't make sense for me to work
a minimum-wage job, because I know I'm worth more than a few dollars
an hour. Another thing that I had to take into account was two daughters
that I had fathered through an extramarital situation. My mother
and my stepfather were raising them, so I needed to be providing
financial support. Eventually I met a guy who offered me a pretty
substantial amount of cash to transport cocaine from New York City
lot of people have this image of drug dealers as high school dropouts
with no intelligence. They don't realize that the qualities you
need are almost the same thing as being a commodities broker. You
have to understand your market. For example, say one of the key
guys in town hit on the number racquet and bought a lot of product.
That was the time to stock up on your product, because you knew
that he was going to try to get rid of it real quick. After that
you'd want to lay low so that you don't flood the market. Then,
when he runs out, you'd introduce your product.
was all about developing good business relationships. The more you
do business with the same people, the more they get to rely on your
patronage, so you get a discount. I was originally from New York,
so it was real easy for me to go into the city and make things happen.
My old neighborhood was Latino, Italian and Black. The Italians
that I knew would back me financially, and the Latinos I knew had
the commodity. It all came down to the question of trust, and the
credo that my cousin and I still live by today: Pay your debts.
police tried to pick me up a few times, but I had a good lawyer,
Jerome Rosenblum, a Jewish kid. He represented me a few times, and
we developed a pretty tight relationship. He lived in rich Westport,
Connecticut in a nice house, but every Sunday he used to come down
to where I lived in Stamford, Connecticut, the ghetto, to play handball.
He was always telling me that I needed to stop hustling and do something
Eventually the police started getting wise to me, and they
put me under surveillance. One day they saw me going to this park
to walk my dog, and they thought I was making a drop. I had a substantial
amount of money with me, so I had my pistol. When the cops came,
I restrained my dog and called up a friend of mine to take him away.
Then they locked me up for the gun. I did eight months in Bridgeport
Correctional Center waiting for my case to be processed.
was good that I didn't have any drugs on me, but I knew I couldn't
beat the gun rap. Jerome went to bat for me to get the judge to
make a stipulation. I pled guilty under the condition that the Department
of Vocational Rehabilitation would fund me as a part-time student
at Bridgeport College. Other prisoners had received work releases
before, but I was the first in the State of Connecticut to receive
a student release. I took a little bit of junk for that from the
other inmates, but I knew I was lucky to get it. For my whole life
I knew that I had the intelligence to make something of myself,
but I never got the right break. Now I was getting a chance to prove
you're dedicated to something that much, you can't help but succeed.
I sailed through nine credits at Bridgeport College, then DVR gave
me funding to go to Norwalk College. I hit the dean's list. When
my prison term was over, the Friends of Norwalk College sponsored
me to pursue a bachelor's degree in public administration with a
minor in criminal justice administration at John Jay University
in New York City. The scholarship would only pay for part of my
tuition, but I could borrow some money through the federal government,
and I had an aunt in Harlem who said that as long as I could keep
my grades up, I could stay with her.
Willie Brown, 108 West 141st Street, apartment 52. Aunt Brownie
was my real father's sister. She never had any kids, and because
my father died so young, I was her boy. She had a beautiful personality.
She was a good cook, and she had our family work ethic. She brought
Southern hospitality to that block.
was like a legend in the neighborhood. She knew The Cadillacs when
they were singing on the street before they made it. They used to
come to Maxwell's Bar and Brownie would ask them if they were hungry.
They'd say, "Miss Brown, we don't have any money." She'd
say, "I didn't ask you about your pocket, I asked about your
stomachs, sit down and eat!" Everybody thought that she was
their motherI used to get jealous, because I was saying, this is
went to John Jay for three semesters and I was doing well. As long
as kept my GPA up, I could continue to borrow money to cover my
scholastic expenses for a certain period of time. When Regan came
in, he cut back on that time period, and I was one of the ones who
got caught. I had more credits than what were required for an associate's
degree, but I was nine credits short of a bachelor's degree. After
I dropped out, I got a job as a tail man riding on the back of a
newspaper truck for Metropolitan News in Long Island City.
a few years before I moved into Aunt Brownie's house, her best friend
had died, and she was taking care of her daughter. The daughter
inherited eighty thousand dollars, and my aunt was the overseer.
This girl started getting heavy into crack cocaine, and she started
asking my aunt to give her money from the inheritance. When my aunt
wouldn't do it, she shot her dead.
Prince and Gene
Prince: There wasn't nobody in the entire block that
didn't know Aunt Brownie, nobody that didn't like her. She was an
angel. That's why when it happened, people couldn't understand it.
Gene: You could go to 141st today and ask
the old folks if they knew Brownie, and they'd sit down and talk
Prince: I had been so close with Brownie that
I knew I had to go. I felt a little bit anxious, because most of
my relatives knew how my life was going at the time. The reception
that I got was a bit cold. See, we come from a very respectable
black family. Anybody who stepped out on their responsibilities
was kind of looked down on. I've been clean now for four years,
and I'm only just recently overcoming that.
always knew that I had a cousin named Gene from looking at the family
Bible, but that was the first time we met. Automatically we connected.
We both had some problems, but we shared the common values of our
upbringing. We had a family bond, but more importantly, my intuition
told me that I could trust this man. At that point in my life, I
had lost touch with a lot of the people who were close to me, and
it was good to be able to have that sense of brotherhood. We got
talking, and Gene decided to let me move into his aunt's old apartment
Gene: In the wake of my aunt's death, one of the biggest things that I wanted
to know was how this drug, crack, could make this girl turn around
and kill. I guess I started smoking rock with Prince, because I
wanted to find that out. The more I smoked, I found out that it
wasn't a chemical reaction. It was something inside the girl that
made her do it. But by the time I had that realization it was too
got a notice from the Department of Housing to come down to the
courthouse, because we hadn't paid our rent. When I got up that
morning to go to court, instead of being concerned about my apartment,
I wanted another hit. Then it hit me, "Oh shit, I'm a crackhead."
Prince: That's exactly how the drug hits you. You wake
up one morning and realize you can't go anywhere until you get that
first hit. You wake up and you're like frozen. When you're doing
crack, there's nothing else that matters. The crack comes first.
You're not worried about paying no rent. When they put us out, Gene
and I moved into SROs (single room occupancy) at the Glenwood Hotel off Marcy Avenue
Gene: It cost eight dollars a night. Your
bed is a square not much bigger than this bench covered in chicken
wire. We walked up to our rooms, and we saw people beating each
other upside the head. They had prostitutes walking right through
the hallways. We walked by one room, and there was a guy laying
there with his door wide open with a spike still in his arm.
Prince: It was like OK Corral. (laughs)
When I first got there, I didn't even want to go to the bathroom
alone. I said, we better get ice picks, because we're gonna need
first night, we brought our own stuff (crack) with us, but as time passed, we found
out that this whole hotel was full of crack heads. The people who
ran it weren't ignorant to the financial opportunities of that situation,
so they were the ones who were cashing in. There were dealers all
over the place. I don't know if I should say this, but
Gene: Go ahead. He was busted for it anyway.
Prince: The guy at the front desk was dealing
the drugs. You gave him your money for the room, and you gave him
extra money for the drugs. Five minutes later, he'd come knock on
your door and there it was. They had permanent girls who lived in
the hotel that just went around getting money for sex. The place
was wild. Every night when you laid down, you didn't know if you
were going to get up or not.
Gene: One of our so-called friends ended up being a murderer. He strangled eight
girls in Williamsburg a few years ago. He was in all the papers.
He came into my room one night and asked me if I had some rope.
I didn't know he was going out to strangle some girl.
Prince: It was scary, but after we'd been
living there for a while, we earned our respect. I had a guy who
thought I had his girl in my room one day, so he went and got a
baseball bat and was knocking at my door. I pulled out my razor
and I said, "I'll whittle that baseball bat down till I cut
your fucking throat!" He never messed with me after that.
I settled into living in the SRO, I really started to make that
little eight foot by four foot space my home. People would get desperate
to get high, and they'd end up selling whole stereos for two hits.
I got a TV with headphones. I got a VCR the same way. Basically,
I didn't have to come out of my room. I even had a hot plate that
I'd cook on.
night we were sitting there looking at the VCR and Gene was tired
from picking up cans, so he decided to go back to his room. I took
a hit, and I put on the headphones. All the sudden I hear this crackling
noise coming from behind the door. Now I didn't want to be bothered
with what was going on outside, but the noise wouldn't stop. When
I opened the door, I grabbed the hammer that I kept hanging by my
bed and I opened the door.
the sudden I heard the guys down the hall yelling, "Fuego!
Fuego!" I said shit! That's fire. Some junkie was cooking up
his stuff and he left the flame burning. The whole place was nothing
but a tinderboxflames coming everywhere. I ran down to Gene's room,
and I'm knocking on this fool's door. You know what he's saying?
"Leave me alone I wanna sleep." I said, "You'll sleep
forever, you fool! There's a fire out there!" Gene wanted
to get the VCR. I said to hell with it, I'm saving my life.
Gene: The next day we came back into that place, and it was like a swamp. Firemen
had doused everything right through. It took two days so there wasn't
an inch of water on the floor. We had to get new mattresses and
everything. But after a week or so it was back to the same old story.
did you guys get the money to support your habits?
Prince: Here's something that a lot of people don't
understand. Even though we were crack addicts, we still had work
ethic. We worked the worst jobs. This one guy, Jewish guy, would
go to the hotel and offer you five dollars an hour to do the hardest
work you could find. He knew that he was dealing with crackheads,
and they would do anything to get some money. A lot of people still
hustle day labor at the Atlantic Avenue Shelter.
But me and Gene didn't work much day labor, because we knew
we could do better working for ourselves picking up cans. Three
days a week we would wake up at four thirty and take the train to
West 4th Street and start picking up cans in front of NYU. No matter
how cold it was, we were out here Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
People called me Can Man.
there an agreement with other canners about the territories and
Gene: Yeah, the agreement was, you come over here, you get your ass whipped.
Prince: We didn't let anybody move in on our turf. You've
got to understand that if you're going to be successful picking
up cans, you need good relationships with the people on the block.
You get to know what time the supers are taking out the garbage
from the buildings, and you help them carry it out to the street.
You get to know the police officers who patrol the block, and you
make sure that you show them respect and clean up after yourself.
The police always respected the fact that we were the ones working
for the cans every day. They saw us out there in the wintertime
hustling. Now when the summertime came, you'd have all sorts of
other groups moving in. The police kind of looked away when we had
to fight to protect that right.
One time I was helping one of the custodians take the garbage
out of the NYU dorms, and when I came back this guy was sitting
there stealing my cans. He was a big guy, and he thought he could
bully me. I said, "No, man! I carved this out for myself!"
He said, "Little mothafucka, I'll whip yo' ass." Like
I said, I carry a straight razor all the time. I jumped up in his
face so fast that he just ran screaming down the block to the cops.
The cops didn't do nothing, because they knew that this block belonged
to me and Gene.
much money were you guys able to make?
Prince: Two hundred dollars a day. I know what you're
thinking, but there was a little trick to it. Should we tell him?
Gene: Yeah, we ain't doing it no more.
Prince: We used to cheat the machine at Pathmark. We'd
take a UPC code and stick it inside and pull it back and forth.
We'd take eighty dollars worth of cans and turn it into two hundred
dollars. Then sometimes we'd take the same eighty dollars worth
of cans and carry them home. All we'd have to do was sneak around
the back. Sometimes we'd change the color of the bag. We were creative.
A drug addict is always very creative.
Gene: I was the lookout. I would stand at
the door, and if I took my hat off it meant a manager was coming.
If he saw my bald head, he'd stop running the UPC and start running
Prince: We did this seven days a week. Sometimes
we'd slip the cashiers five or ten dollars so we could cash the
tickets in. There was one security guard who we paid off with porno
tapes. (laughs) We corrupted the entire store. We did it
for five years before there were ever any problems. Nobody even
knew we were doing it. They just thought that we went out and hustled
cans like hell.
Gene: Now, being that Prince and I each had one hundred dollars or so of disposable
income everyday, that kinda elevated our status at the SRO. Everybody
knew us. We'd buy a whole cellophane bag full of crack vials for
two hundred dollars. We were doing fifty vials everyday from eight
at night to three in the morning.
Prince: Minus what we gave to the girls.
Gene: We got so good at our can hustle that it got to the point where we used
to take days off. Then we'd go down to the dealer and ask him if
he'd front us for the day.
Prince: That was unheard of for a crack dealer to work
on credit. It was five dollars a vial, and they'd advance us twenty
vials. See, we were very well known. Back in that time, gangs sold
all the crack. Since we were some of their best customers, they
all looked out for us and made sure that nothing happened. They
called us grandpa. "That's my grandpa, don't mess with him."
It was like we were royalty. We were raggedy, stinky, but in that
circle we were royalty.
prostitutes in the neighborhood knew us. When we came home between
eight and nine o'clock, they'd be standing by the door, saying,
"Pops, can I go with you today?" "Yeah, come on,
what the hell."two or three girls at a time. We thought we
lived like kings. The drug scene was fun then. I won't tell no lie.
At least on a superficial level, we were enjoying ourselves. In
the early years of my addiction, I felt like I had a good thing
Gene: The first two years were like that,
but deep down inside, you knew that you were messing up. The life
you were living wasn't real. You were there, but you weren't there.
You could chase that feeling away, but even if you didn't feel that
sense of emptiness in yourself, you couldn't help but see it in
the people around you. The women showed it the most. When girls
first came out, they were still still young and supple, but after
one year, they were all wrinkled and used up.
Prince: They go from a plum to a prune.
Gene: We've known six or seven prostitutes
that died of AIDS. It would come out as a rumor, but ninety percent
of the time, the rumor is based on facts. The Health Department
would get them, and then someone would leak it out. One of your
friends would see you with her and say, "Yo man, not her. She's
the girls were so creative that they would capitalize on the guys'
fear of catching HIV. A lot of times a girl would proposition you,
and then after she got your money and smoked all her rock, she'd
tell you she's got AIDS. You don't know if it's the truth or bullshit,
but would you take the chance?
Prince: One time, a girl came up to me and she said,
Prince, "I know you got money." She was shaking. "I
got to have a hit, but I can't do it, I got AIDS." Just for
that, I gave her ten dollars so she could get high. After that,
she'd tell on all the other girls that she went to meetings at the
Gene: When a girl tested positive, she couldn't sell herself no more,
so a lot of them started stealing.
Prince: I saw this one girl getting beat down by five
guys once for taking a TV. I felt so bad for her. We can break your
heart a hundred times with stories of what we've seen people do
when they're addicted to crack.
Gene: Like I knew a young kid named GG who was growing up on my aunt's block
in Harlem. He was intelligent in a normal state, but then he got
involved in crack, first as a user, and then as a dealer. One night
he got busted dealing on the stoop two doors from us. After he got
out, he sat on the same stoop doing the same thing. We came home
from work one night, and guess what happened. The same cop got him
on the same stoop. He swallowed a half-ounce of rock, and his heart
stopped. He was dead before they got him in the car. That's how
far the drug will take you from reality. When you're high, you don't
Prince: There were kids on my block who I used to give
nickels to to go to the candy store, and by the time they were fifteen
years old, they were carrying nine millimeters as a backup for the
dealers, saying, "Yo pop! Keep moving!"
Gene: I watched girls that my aunt used
to baby-sit, coming up to us after we came back from work saying,
"You wanna go with me, pop?" I've seen pregnant women
smoking it when they're going into labor. There's no end to it.
Prince: Around the mid nineties, things started breaking
down. By that time, crack started to become a real problem not only
in the black community but also for white people. Police started
busting people. A lot of shipments would get confiscated, so that
made the supply a lot more scarce. After that, two things happened.
The price went up, and the quality went down.
Gene: We were spending twice the amount of
money and only having half of the fun. Before we used to share with
the people in the SRO, but by that point it got too expensive. That
created a lot of tensions.
Prince: To make things worse, other people started finding
out how we were scamming the store with the cans, and they started
trying to do it themselves. After that, the stores started cracking
down, and we couldn't run that hustle anymore.
I had one night where I got robbed at gunpoint. By the
late nineties, I was getting to the point where I started to reevaluate
my situation. I started to see what I had become.
think the lowest point for me was when I saw my son on the E train
one day. It was about 5:30, and I was on my way down here with my
bags looking to get some cans. He looked at me, and he said, "Dad,
you need anything?"
said, "I'm fine, I'm cool." Denying it, but I was hurting
like hell. I was looking like a bum. Just to see the look in my
son's eyes tore me apart. He looked at me and reached in his pocket
and gave me twenty dollars and told me to go do something for myself.
I wanted to turn it down, but I just couldn't. That hurt. I was
also running into people that were telling me about my daughter.
She was getting ready to graduate from high school, and I wanted
to see it. I never did.
a while, it got to the point where I started feeling sick. I didn't
want to get high anymore, but I still needed to. I decided that
I was going to limit myself to four vials a day. For the first time
in all those years, I started praying to God to help me find a way
out of this.
Gene: Be careful what you pray for, because
you just might get it. (laughs)
Prince: January 25th, 1999, I was sitting in the SRO
at like eight o'clock. I had already done my four vials, but I decided
that I wanted to get just one more. I stepped out onto the street,
and there was a girl who asked me to go score for her. She said
if I could get her a vial she'd give me a hit. Normally we had a
rule not to do that kind of thing for strangers, but I was desperate.
When I came back with the crack, cops came out of nowhere and arrested
me. They got me for possession and sale, but they couldn't find
the marked money.
took me in and booked me. I was facing three to five. It blew my
mind. It was funny, because out of all the things I'd done, I got
busted for a single vial of crack. I stayed in that cell for three
days, and I prayed to God. I said, God if you can get me any way
out of this, whatever you tell me to do, I'm going to do it.
the third day, the lawyer came to me and told me that I had a chance
of getting into a rehabilitation program instead of jail. I could
have fought the case on account of them not being able to find the
marked money, but I still would have been locked up for a year.
I knew the first damn thing I'd do when I hit the street would be
to get high. I decided to accept the plea bargain. At the hearing,
Judge Jo Anne Ferdinand (I love her to death)* offered me the chance
to attend Bedford Stuyvesant Alcohol and Drug Treatment Program
on an outpatient basis. If I could stay clean, I wouldn't have to
go to jail. Hearing that was like a thousand pounds lifted from
went to the hearing with me, and when we got on the train home,
we had a talk. I said what we're gonna do is, we're gonna get some
money, and we're gonna get high as hell, then tomorrow, that's it.
That night I smoked crack for the last time in my life. From there
I started going to the program. There were a lot of people there
who were only half stepping about it, because they didn't wanna
go to jail. But not me, I was ready, and I was looking to make it.
morning they tested you with urine and breathalyzer. They also had
you take classes. The first thing the program did was to teach you
what the drug does, how it affects your body and your thinking.
Then they tell you how you can turn yourself around. You go through
this for six months.
being that this was an outpatient program, I still had to go home
at night to the same SRO that I had been living in for the past
ten years. I used to go to sleep at night shaking, because I could
hear people lighting up rocks in the next room. I felt like I was
going to lose my mind. I knew I had to have Gene behind me on this,
or I wasn't going to make it.
Gene: We had been drinking and drugging
every day for twelve years. Right after Prince got back from the
program, he told me, "You either give up the crack, or you
give up our relationship. If you're going to continue to smoke crack,
close as we are, you're going to cause me to fall back, and much
as I love you, you've got to make a decision. I love you to death,
but I'm not going to jail for you."
first thought was, I'm a human being. I like crack. Why should I
have to give up crack because he made a mistake? He knew that he
shouldn't have been messing with no strangers. That was one of our
rules. That's on him. For a few months after Prince got clean, I
was still sneaking out and getting high.
Prince: I always used to threaten to cut
Gene out of my circle, but I never could do it. Gene knew he was
messing up. I'd just say, "Come on man. See, I'm clean, and
I know how it feels. Let me tell you it's a hell of a feeling. I
know it's tough, but you're gonna like it."
Gene: One day I got on the train, and I was riding out to my aunt's house in
Queens where my welfare check would come. All I had in my mind was
getting my check cashed and getting me some more crack and a girl.
But then somewhere on that train ride, I started thinking about
what Prince told me, and how much he meant to me. He was the only
friend I had. Somewhere on that train ride I decided that the drug
wasn't worth it. I switched trains at the next station and from
that day on, I never looked back.
Prince: My experience with crack is that everybody says
they're going to quit when they get broke. The test is to see if
you can quit with money in your pocket. When I saw Gene do that
I knew he was going to make it.
don't think I could have made it without him. If I didn't have Gene
to talk to me and come take me for a walk when things got rough,
I think I would have ended up smoking that rock. At that point we
were fighting the battle together. It was me and him against the
Gene: Nobody in the Glenwood thought we
were going to make it. People were putting bets on when we were
gonna relapsenot if we were gonna relapse, but when. I had told
all of the dealers not to sell to me or Prince, even if we asked
them, but people didn't want to see us succeed. Seeing us get clean
made them more insecure about their own addictions.
Prince: I'll tell you a story. One night,
I was getting this feeling like I wanted to get high like I don't
know what. I was in my room shaking, Gene was out canning and I
was hoping he was gonna make it back soon. This girl knocks on my
door, and she's got seventy-five vials. She says, "Prince,
you wanna get high?"
I'm, "No, hell no!"
she says, "Can I just stay here and get high?"
said to myself, "If I can watch this girl get high, and not
get high with her, I can beat this shit." I sat right next
to her, and she started cracking it up. I watched the smoke go up,
and I could almost taste it. I kept saying to myself, "You've
gotta fight it, you've gotta fight it." That was like a turning
point. From then on, I knew there wasn't nothing to worry about
Gene: When that girl left, she was so high
that she left a vial of crack in Prince's room. Prince picked that
vial up and put it in a champagne glass on his shelf. He told me
that I better make sure that vial was still there every day.
Prince: That was to remind me that I had to
fight it each and every day. I had watched that girl do seventy-four
vials, so that one little vial wasn't going to beat me. I kept that
vial on that shelf for one year.
did you guys manage to overcome the psychological withdrawal?
Gene: We were always on our feet doing something. Every
day we were out there hustling cans like hell. We had also begun
to renew our relationship with our family, so we were able to spend
a lot of nights eating and talking. My aunt seemed to be able to
sense when I was fixing to relapse, and she'd invite me to stay
at her place so I wouldn't have to go back to the SRO. After a few
days, Prince would give me a call and tell me to get back to work.
"Come on, you ain't got no money and you laying up on your
aunt like that? You know we ain't about that freeloading shit."
(laughs) We kept busy.
Prince: At first our relatives were a little bit suspicious,
but after I had been in the program for eight months, they knew
that we were for real. I had renewed my relationship with my son,
and he convinced his uncle to rent me a room in his apartment.
Leaving the SRO was a great moment. I hadn't had that
much space in years. Then there was the fact that there wasn't any
noise. The first night I couldn't even sleep. There was nobody flicking
lighters, nobody banging on the walls, nobody fighting. NowshitI'm
so happy when I get in there it's sensual. Other than getting clean,
that was the best thing that ever happened to me.
When I first moved in, my uncle watched me like I was
a criminal. Every time my key went into that door, he was checking
me out. I can't really blame him, because he was watching to see
if I was going to go back. After my graduation, he cut me some slack.
Then about a year later, he invited me to a church function on New
Year's Eve. That was a real turning point, because he had been a
long time member, and he had credibility at stake.
made the Bedford Stuyvesant Program successful?
Stuy wasn't successful. I was successful. They've got some good
people working there, and I don't want to take anything away from
them, but a program isn't the reason why people get clean. You can
have all the programs in the world, but if you're not ready to make
that change inside yourself, it ain't gonna do no good. At the time
that I got picked up I was TIRED. I was sick of fighting all day
long to get enough money to get high, to get a place to stay, to
get something to eatthen waking up broke every morning. I was sick
of my family looking at me like a damn bum. I already had the motivation.
Getting arrested forced me to make that change. Looking back on
it, I think it was one of the best things that ever happened to
It's true to an extent that the urine tests kept me from
getting high, but what helped me out more than the program was Gene.
That type of relationship is something that you can't get through
Gene: After Prince moved out of the Glenwood,
I stayed there for a few more months. It was hard without having
Prince around. See, every day Prince went to the program. I didn't
have a program. Prince was my program. In the winter of 2001 my
aunt let me move into her apartment in Queens. Right now, between
me and the street, I'm bouncing between her and Prince. I just became
eligible for Section 8 Housing when I turned 62, and the people
at Picture the Homeless helped me get in the paperwork, so I'm keeping
my fingers crossed.
Prince: Since we've gotten clean, it's given us a chance
to do all the things that we missed out on for twelve years. Now
we do things that we never did, like now we go to movies and laugh
and joke. In twelve years that we were together day and night, we
never went to a movie. We'd always sit down when we were getting
high and talk about going one of these days, but we'd never get
to the movie, because we smoked up that money.
The best thing has been getting to know my family again.
In the twelve years that I was on the street, I never saw my grandkids.
Now every Sunday I'm on the phone with them, or I go out and visit
them. I had ostracized myself, but now I'm back in the loop.
I'm far from being in the situation where I want to be
at. I don't take any welfare money anymore, because I don't want
nobody to own me like that. I'm paying $250 a month for rent, and
I'm taking care of all of my expenses through picking up cans. It's
a struggle. I might end up back on the street again, but I'll never
be an addict. Actually, I don't think I'll ever end up out here
again. I fight too hard.
Gene: Sometimes when we're picking up cans
we run into dealers. They assume that every canner is a crackhead,
so they'll always walk up and say, "Hey pop, I got Red Top
I got Thai Stick."* We just laugh and push our money
further in our pocket and keep on going.
Prince: Sometimes it's hard to be canning, because I'll
see people I used to see when I was still getting high. It's hard
to talk to them, because you know that some of them are never gonna
change. Since I've gotten clean, I've had to totally change the
circles that I choose to associate with.
big part of that change came about five months ago. I was walking
around Washington Square with my bags of cans, and Anthony started
talking to me about how Bloomberg wanted to cut the recycling program.
Right away I liked his energy. Anthony invited me and Gene to the
next Picture the Homeless meeting, and we've been going ever since.
I'm hooked. I guess you could say I'm substituting one addiction
best thing about the meetings is that I get a chance to share my
experience with other people who have been in the same situation
or who are in that situation right now. In a way it's like my chance
to give something back. I'm living proof that you can pull yourself
out of the streets. I may not be a millionaire, but I can't tell
you how good it feels to see things start falling back into place.
I'm reinforcing my new lifestyle.
Gene: At this point in my life it's important for me to keep busy. I can't allow
myself the time to sit around and think about getting high. Three
days a week I'm down here working on something. We're on the steering
committee. We also do a lot of speaking engagements. Sometimes we've
been to two or three places a week. It's usually local churches.
weeks ago we were privileged to represent Picture the Homeless at
a national forum in Washington, D.C. about the criminalization and
dehumanization of the homeless. We were some of the only people
there who had actually been homeless, so people listened to what
we had to say.
Prince: They had to open up the folding doors
so we could get more chairs. People were sitting in the aisles.
That was a good feeling. We had people coming up to us from all
over the country shaking our hand. See that pin on my hat? The lady
who gave me that was from Alaska.
our schedule gets rough, because it takes away a lot of time from
our canning. Once in a while we have to miss meetings, because there's
a game at Yankee Stadium and we can't miss out on the money from
those cans. The last time we took a full day off from canning was
two weeks ago. Picture the Homeless sent us to an all-day training
seminar at Hunter College.
Prince: The reason why I keep coming back to Picture
the Homeless is that I'm one of the people that call the shots.
We're all experts, because we've been there. You can't ask for better
people to run a homeless organization. When we talk about the civil
rights violations or the corruption in government housing programs,
people are going to listen, because we've been there and seen it
with our own eyes.
Gene: My cousin and I shatter the stereotype.
The media gives the homeless a negative image to allow the city
to perpetrate quality-of-life violations. A lot of people have this
image of homeless people as being lazy. Even when we were homeless,
we weren't lazy. We shatter that. We're like shock troops.
I don't want to criticize anybody, but a lot of the people
who work for these other nonprofit organizations come from wealthy
families. They're heart is in the right place, but sometimes they
don't have the presence to get the message across. They go kind
of dry and say we need this, we need that. Prince and I tie in our
personal experiences to explain to them why we need it.
For example, I don't see why we couldn't have gotten
public housing when we were getting ourselves straight. Prince and
I were able to make it out of the Glenwood because we had a strong
support mechanism in each other. Other people in that situation
don't have that.
Prince: Another thing about this organization
is that it's action oriented. We're busy interacting with the community
on a personal level to get our message across. We're not just screaming
and hollering. We're pushing our message at the powers that be with
Gene: Now I don't want to name anyone in particular, but there's too many organizations
that are what we call poverty pimps. They're taking money from the
people, and they're not really doing anything. They're just trying
to get their picture on the news, and they're not making any change.
remember two years ago I was working as a janitor at One Police
Plaza as part of my WEP program.This community organization from
uptown put together a protest for Anthony Biaz at city hall. I was
cleaning up the command post when they called in for more backup.
The people in the command center were laughing at the protestors
saying that there was nothing to worry about, "All they're
gonna do is walk around the building screaming and hollering, 'No
Peace! No Justice!' Then when it's over, they're all gonna be paying
the city a dollar fifty for a token."
night made me angry, but it also got me thinking. A real political
action is about more than just repeating a slogan. It's something
that forces the city to do something. Think about why the Montgomery
Bus Boycott was successful. It was because it hit the city in their
pockets. We need to put together actions like that. Instead of people
walking around downtown hollering, maybe we could say, "Hey,
all the minimum wage workers aren't going to work today."
Prince: My last three years have been like
a resurrection. Now I've got a place where I can lay my head, and
I know I'm going to wake up tomorrow. I've got a whole closet full
of clothes that I can pick from, and I can come and go as I please.
My son has the key to my apartment. When Gene and I walk down the
street, people know us from our speaking engagements. That makes
us feel good.
do you see happening in your future?
Gene: Right now I'm really hoping that I get that Section 8. Once that goes
through I'm going to try to apply to some colleges, because I'm
only nine credits short of a bachelor's degree. In two weeks I have
a job interview with the Department for the Aging, and I'm feeling
pretty confident about that.
Prince: I'm starting to get paid for doing
civil rights abuse surveys for Picture the Homeless. I've also applied
for my vendor's license. Other than that, I'm going to be continuing
to go to speaking engagements. We'll go speak anywhere.
Gene: Long as y'all pay for the Metrocards.
Prince: If people would stop and talk, do you know how
much we could teach people? We got so much to tell that you'd never
be able to get it all down. And not only us, but you've got thousands
of other people in this city. If you really want to know what's
going on out here, you've got to stop talking about us, and start
talking to us.
and Gene leave to go watch the NBA finals with their family uptown.
If you want to hear more about Prince's rehabilitation you can watch
the documentary "Second Chance" released by A&E in
2000. If you want Prince and Gene to speak at your organization
or school, you can contact them through picturethehomeless.org.