ruben castaneda

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 DCrecalls 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?
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.

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I read a book, yo! I heard about @RCastanedaWP‘s S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C. from a Twitter post by @Questlove. I think there was a link to a book excerpt and I was hooked right away. 

From Booklist: When D.C. mayor Marion Barry was arrested for smoking crack, journalist [Ruben] Castaneda was in that hotel’s lobby, phoning in the details to the Washington Post, where he’d recently landed a job, moving from L.A.’s now defunct Herald-Examiner. What Castaneda also brought to D.C. back then was his own crack addiction, and it is a nonchalantly and honestly detailed part of his memoir. While he’s running down the stories and writing them well, he is also getting wasted. D.C.’s S Street is where the drug-selling action takes place, and Castaneda parallels his story with that of pastor Jim, who promises not to rat on the dealers but invites them to church, and that of honest, tough homicide cop Lou. There are scenes in this book that depict people acting in ways that are as low as one can humanly go, but they are related matter-of-factly, almost impersonally. There are also instances of incredible goodness, but the good guys don’t always win. Castaneda’s page-turner, told with easygoing charm and great skill, is an unstinting unveiling of who got away with what and when and how Castaneda followed the action and found himself. –Eloise Kinney

I actually visited Washington D.C. in the summer of '86 and again in the spring of '88. I was on a high school band trip the first time, so most of my memories are of parades, monuments and tour buses. But the trip in '88 was with a college friend who had an aunt who worked as a nurse in D.C., so I saw a bit more of the city. My friend’s aunt would drop us off in the morning and we would explore D.C. for the day and take the Metro home to her house in Virginia in the evening. On one walk to find a cool place to eat for lunch I recall stumbling on boarded up buildings and saying, Uhhh, I think we made a wrong turn. I was too young, sheltered, and naive to understand the nature of the crack problems at that time, so it was interesting to read this book and sort of fill in the gaps in my own memory. A really raw and interesting read from a journalist who lived through it. Great stuff. Thanks, Ruben and thanks Questlove!