From Washington Post reporter to crack addict

Ruben Castaneda speaks at D.C.\'s Politics & Prose. (WTOP/Alicia Lozano)

WASHINGTON — Washington Post reporter Ruben Castaneda was on the fast track when it came to both work and play.

He was a respected beat reporter at one of the country’s most prestigious newspapers at a time when D.C. was drowning in drug violence and political scandal.

Castaneda vigorously covered corruption within the Prince George’s County Police Department and was one of the first reporters on the scene when then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry was caught smoking crack with a prostitute in the Vista International Hotel.

But the very night Barry was taken into custody by FBI agents, and in the same hotel, Castaneda lit up with his own “strawberry” — a prostitute who trades sex for drugs — in a room nearby after covering the story.

That’s just one of the hair-raising anecdotes Castaneda candidly shares in his new book, “S Street Rising: Crack, Murder, and Redemption in D.C.”

“I first tried the drug on another reporting assignment, when I was working for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner. It was mid-September 1988, and I was a mile or so west of downtown [L.A.] looking for people to interview for an immigration story. A young woman, apparently in her twenties, caught my eye. We struck up a conversation — her name was Raven — and she offered me my first hit. I was 27, old enough to know better, young enough to feel invincible,” he writes in the the book.

Castaneda moved to D.C. in 1989 hoping for a new start. By that time, he was already spending too much money on drugs and alcohol and thought plunging into a prestigious job would sober him up. But he quickly realized that the crack epidemic was thriving in D.C. In fact, it was just as easy, if not more so, to score in the nation’s capital.

“For me, L.A. was the city of doomed romance, excessive drinking and risky crack use,” he writes in “S Street Rising.”

“D.C. beckoned like a new lover. I would be working in the same newsroom as Bob [expletive] Woodward, racing to crime scenes in the most murderous city in the country.”

It only took four days after arriving in the District for Castaneda to find his poison. He was working on a story near Thomas Circle and noticed about a dozen drug dealers brazenly selling in broad daylight. He met a new strawberry that day and promptly “fell down a trapdoor towards hell.”

Not only did he have a steady supply of crack less than a week after starting his new job, his job as a crime reporter gave him a legitimate excuse to visit that part of the city.

Throughout “S Street Rising,” Castaneda loosely ties his own demons to that of D.C.’s. Both were mired by drugs and corruption in the late 1980s; both came out of it transformed.

The neighborhood in which Castaneda used to buy drugs is now home to young professionals able to pay top dollar for housing. Similarly, Castaneda managed to clean up with the help of some very patient colleagues and has been sober for more than 20 years.

But before that could happen, Castaneda hit rock bottom.

By the summer of 1991, Castaneda was “spiraling out of control,” he says.

The dogged reporter in him worked overtime to cover crime and corruption, but the addict in him would spend entire paychecks on booze and drugs. When he ran out of money, which was often, he would reach out to friends and coworkers for extra cash. When that well dried up, he turned to family and friends in California, who were all too happy to wire money to the hardworking journalist.

One day, when Castaneda was feeling especially flush, he cashed an entire paycheck with a prostitute named Champagne. It was supposed to be a small celebration, but he ended up spending more than $700 in a single night.

“Even then, I still couldn’t admit to myself that I was an addict,” he says.

When December of that year rolled around, his behavior had grown increasingly erratic. No longer was Castaneda using only on his days off — he was getting high early in the day before coming in to work the night shift.

A few days before Christmas 1991, Castaneda arrived in the newsroom with “bloodshot eyes and covered in sweat” in the middle of winter. His editors knew something was wrong, and took him upstairs to stage an intervention.

It wasn’t enough.

“I really tried [to sober up], but I was one of those people that wasn’t gonna get clean until I got off the street,” he says.

So Post editor and close friend Milton Coleman drove Castaneda to rehab and waited with him until he was admitted. Three weeks later, Castaneda reemerged into the world, uneasy and unsure how he fit into it.

“Addiction keeps growing in your body when you’re not using,” he says. “I wasn’t the same addict. Every cell in my body screamed for more and more crack.”

Castaneda stayed clean for 77 days, and then relapsed after running into one of his old hookups. Ironically, it was Roxanne — a heroin and crack junkie — who told him not to give up and to seek help from support groups.

“She could have offered me a hit and I would have been doomed,” he says. “But she didn’t and I wasn’t.”

Castaneda stayed sober after that initial relapse, and went on to cover police misconduct in Prince George’s County until he retired from the Post in 2011. With the help of his former colleagues, Castaneda set out in 2007 to write the first draft of a magazine feature that eventually became “S Street Rising.”

With more than 20 years of clean living behind him, Castaneda still considers himself an addict, but insists that he was lucky to get out when he did.

“This book is about transformation,” he says.

“I wanted to write something that showed my story and the bigger story of what was going on in D.C. … I was incapable of writing a fairy tale.”

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