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A new memoir by former Washington Post reporter Ruben Castaneda replays some of the lowest points in D.C.’s recent history: a time in the 1990s when cops couldn’t seem to do anything about gun violence, when drug-related turf wars led to scores of innocent victims and intimidation killings of witnesses, when my neighborhood of Edgewood was known as “Little Beirut,” and when some children in particularly stricken neighborhoods avoided gunfire by sleeping on mattresses on the floor.
But the main reason you’ll probably hear about S Street Rising is that it’s a memoir from a man who reported on crime at the height of the crack epidemic while he was addicted to crack. While that’s true, Castaneda’s book follows multiple narratives: his own career trajectory, his life as an addict, the spectacular fall of Marion Barry, the professional dramas of then-homicide chief Lou Hennessy, and the coming-of-age story of a small community church located on a lawless S Street NW block.
Castaneda offers deep insight into policing strategies from the years when D.C. was known as the murder capital of America. But the high-octane crime scenes don’t always feel woven into the larger narrative, and his insider looks at the Metropolitan Police Department sometimes rely too heavily on jargon. The most gripping stories come when Castaneda’s own life hits bottom. The pace picks up when he describes his “carefully compartmentalized double life collapsing,” when he files an article about a homicide in the same neighborhood where he picks up “strawberries” (women who sell sex for crack or money). He celebrates his front-page story about a particularly adrenaline-filled night by getting drunk and high. But it all begins to unravel when Sherry, a sex worker with whom he’s rendezvoused, is found dead. Later, he nearly picks a fight with a gangster, misses his brother’s wedding rehearsal dinner after an all-night bender, becomes increasingly paranoid, and runs out of money to support his addiction.
There are several potent parallels in the storytelling. Barry’s cocaine conviction is the backdrop for Castaneda’s own downfall, and as Castaneda cleans up, D.C.’s homicide numbers decline. This overlapping trajectory could have been even more evocative had Castaneda not been cagey about his own life and family background. He withholds certain basic details about his parents until nearly halfway through the book, and refrains from turning his powerful reportorial and investigative skills on himself. How did he slip into addiction in the first place? How did he end up in recovery, racking up 16 years of sobriety? He repeatedly references 12-step support groups, and even mentions that his full recovery is, in some ways, exceptional, but he doesn’t let us in on what might have contributed to his resilience.
While the sum total of the stories doesn’t always feel cohesive, Castaneda gives an honest perspective on the motivations, paranoia, and self-denial of an addict. The book becomes a nice counterpart to Barry’s recently released Mayor for Life, broaching topics that Barry’s book won’t touch and explaining some of the now-councilmember’s behaviors during the same period of time. (And, actually, both men’s stories involve blow jobs: in Barry’s case, a disputed one; in Castaneda’s case, several retellings of having a strawberry go down on him while he takes a hit.) Beyond the sex, there’s a lot to savor in this memoir—even if it leaves the reader wanting more precision and self-reflection.