– Dennis Barton with Susan Celia Greenfield –
Dennis Barton was homeless for fourteen years. Now he is the Coordinator of the Speakers Bureau for the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing, a peer educator for Planned Parenthood, and a spellbinding public speaker. I met him in the fall of 2009 when I volunteered to be a mentor for one of the Assembly’s Life Skills Programs. Dennis was a group facilitator, and the minute I heard him I wanted him to be my friend.
This spring, Dennis asked me to help him write down and elaborate upon the life story he has delivered to hundreds of live audiences. For three days, we met in my apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, the same neighborhood where Dennis now has his own apartment. Dennis wrote some of the story by hand, dictated other parts to me, and I asked questions and typed.
Dennis calls me “newsy,” a word that combines “nosy” and “news.” It is both an affectionate insult and a compliment. In his case, I am glad because I am smitten by his words.
~ Susan Celia Greenfield
My Life Story
You know something about me, tragedy kind of rolls off. I look at my life as one big freaking adventure—the good and the bad. I have been stabbed, shot, homeless, incarcerated, and addicted. But I had a decent education. I had a loving mother, and today I don’t live on the street. I have three daughters and five granddaughters—all these women and girls that love me and that I love. I have a God that I love and that I know loves me. He watched over me through all my trials and tribulations.
I was born in the South Bronx in the early 1950s and raised by a single mother. Dad, whoever he was, was pretty much gone before I was born. There was a picture my mother had of a well-dressed man by a car who I think might have been my Dad. I could never confirm this. When my mother was angry with me, she’d say, “You are just like your father.”
I did have an older brother, who was seventeen years my senior. By the time I came along, he was going along to make his way in the world. But my brother always came home, especially around holidays and birthdays. As I got older, Junior (as we called him) would throw me on his back or on his shoulders, and off to the movies we would go to see John Wayne, Audie Murphy, or one of the other cowboy stars. Junior sure loved his Westerns and so did I. My brother taught me all the things a man-child should know growing up in the South Bronx. He taught me how to fight and how to stand up for myself. So Junior was the role model in my life.
My mom was one of thirteen children, the daughter of sharecroppers in the rural south. She had only a third grade education, but a work ethic that taught me and my brother that you earned whatever you needed or wanted. My brother was also born in the South in the 1930s. Then my mother came North in the great migration, seeking a better life for herself and her child. Her favorite saying was that when she came to New York there was a big sign in Grand Central Station that said, “This is not Gimme New York. This is Get out and Get it New York!”
My mom had the same hopes and dreams that every parent has. I would grow up and get a good education, perhaps go to college, get a job and raise a family. To that end, my mom gave me all the love a single mom could give. She always tempered her love with discipline. I got hugs when I was good and did well, and spanked when I was bad. Early in my youth I was sent to church every Sunday so that I would have a good foundation. I was taught to respect my elders, to stay out of gown folks’ conversation, to say “please” and “thank you,” to say “yes Sir and Ma’am” to grown-ups. I didn’t get away with any of that crap I see children getting away with now. If I even thought to talk back to Mama or any grown-up, I had only to think of “the belt” that hung behind the front door.
My mother worked in a factory in the South Bronx for some fifteen years. The factory made novelties for women, things like powder puffs, rain hats, and padding for bras. I remember one year, my mother lost the tip of her index finger in a cutting machine. She took a few days off and then went back to work. She had to feed the family. After it healed, she still had a little piece of a nail on it. And not for nothing, years later, all my children were scared by that finger. “Grandma got the finger!” they’d say.
Early in my life, my mother started to teach me independence. I learned to cook and prepare my own meals. I took out the garbage every day of the week. On Saturdays it was my responsibility to clean the bathroom. After I finished, down to the courtyard of the building I’d go to see my friends. Down there we’d play punch ball, stickball, and cops and robbers. In the courtyard, my mom could keep an eye on me because we had a window facing it.
My mother was great at making me toys. In the spring and summer time, Mom would take me and all the kids to the roof and we would fly kites. One time I tore my kite, so my mother took the remaining sticks and made me a kite out of the clear plastic from the cleaners. I had the best kite on the block. I had the best slingshot too—the “Dennis the menace special.” My mother went out on the fire escape where there was an overhanging tree. She chose a good, sturdy branch with a fork, brought it inside, took an old bike inner tube, and the tongue from an old pair of shoes and made me a slingshot. It shot beans from one end of Southern Boulevard to the other. My mother made tractors out of wooden sewing spools. She put a piece of wood on a piece of clothesline and I would spin it around my head and it would make a whistling sound. She called it a “zooma.” Mama made lots of thing. She could knit and crochet and also do many of the household tasks that were generally considered “man’s work.” Near the end of her life, my mom spent hours making quilts by hand. Those quilts were passed down to my daughters.
By the time I got to first grade I could read. My brother left his high school history books on the coffee table, and I used to look at the pictures. He would sit with me and sound out words. I knew all about the pyramids. I knew all about Hitler by the time I was in first or second grade. I remember my brother showed me a picture of Atilla the Hun, and he said, “You know what they say about Atilla the Hun? That the grass never grew where his horse tread.”
My brother died of tuberculosis in 1966. He was about twenty-nine or thirty. He worked as a plumber, and he was always in there fixing these coal-fired boilers. For all these years you might say he was working as a coal miner. And the fact that he was smoking and drinking didn’t help. My brother came home one Saturday, and he was sick. He spent the rest of his life, which wasn’t very long, in Van Etten Hospital. By the time they caught the tuberculosis, one of his lungs was gone and had to be removed. His liver was cooked from drinking. My last memories of my brother he was in the hospital with a tube up his nose and bloody gauze to hold it in place.
Somehow, I also contracted a spot on my lung, and I was treated for tuberculosis for a year. I had to take all these horse pills. So for my birthday that year, my mother bought me a ten-speed from E. J. Korvette’s in the Bronx. Around the same time, Mom loosened up and allowed me to join the Cadet Corps and the Boys’ Club. I had my first drink of wine and soon moved on to rum. It was not long before I smoked my first joint.
My mom found tobacco in my pocket one weekend when I was staying at my aunt’s studio apartment in Harlem with my five cousins. They called my mom “Bert” and I called my aunt “Auntie Bill.”
The phone rang. My Aunt Bill said, “Boy, your Mamma done found some tobacco in your pocket. Is you smoking?”
I said, “Yes Auntie.”
She asked me, “You got enough to buy a pack of cigarettes?” Cigarettes at that time were forty cents.
And I said, “Yes Auntie.” She reached under her bed, pulled out a carton of Kool cigarettes, gave me a pack, and said, “That will be the last pack I’ll ever buy you. You’ll buy your own from now on.”
Aunt Bill got back on the phone and said, “Bert, leave the boy alone. He got enough money in his pocket to afford his habit. The boy smokes.” My cousins all looked at me jealously.
In the fall of 1966 I started Theodore Roosevelt High School, right across from Fordham University. My first year there became one big party. Drugs were prevalent in the ghetto. You could get a bag of heroin for two dollars. And that meant all you needed was lunch money to get heroin. I was smoking weed, I was drinking and sniffing heroin, I was partying after school. I wasn’t the most popular kid but I was hanging out with the popular kids because I was cute, and all the girls liked me. I didn’t know it at the time. Had I known! Boy!
During Easter vacation, on a nice spring day, I was riding the bike I got after my brother died. I came to the top of a hill in Crotona Park. This older guy asked me for a ride, I told him “no.” He grabbed the seat and told me to get off the bike. Again I told him “no.” And as I tried to ride away, he pulled out a knife, still holding the seat, and began stabbing me. He would stab me approximately fifteen times in the chest, back, sides, arms, even once in the butt, before someone scared him off, and I lay bleeding in the grass. A young couple sitting on the bench ran to get the cops, while an old lady sat there and watched over me. The cops arrived and put me in the back of the car and rushed me to Fordham Hospital. All the way in the car, I kept repeating my mother’s phone number at her job—CY2-2500—and my mother’s name. It is funny. I can remember my mother’s work phone number, but I can’t even remember our home phone number at the time. When I got to the hospital, the doctors worked feverishly and inserted a tube to drain the internal blood. I was awake the whole time. I was wearing a gray sweatshirt. It turned from gray to crimson red, like the color of your couch, Susan.
I recovered by the summer. It was 1967, the “Summer of Love,” the height of the Vietnam War, the height of the hippies, and the height of the Civil Rights Movement. You had the Black Panthers, Martin Luther King, the Nation of Islam, and Malcolm X. There was black pride. There was a yearning for equal rights. We started to take on our black identities. Oh boy did I have an afro. We knew white folks was white folks and black folks was black folks. We knew there were inequalities and things weren’t always fair. We knew that we were looked down on. But we found ways to get around it.
I got to Theodore Roosevelt High School during the first years of open enrollment, meaning that children from the South Bronx and Harlem were able to go there. Before that, Roosevelt High School was mostly white. The white students weren’t really feeling us; neither were their parents, nor, I dare say, were some of the teachers.
The dean was white, and I think he had it in for all those new minorities that had come to the high school. In my second year, I was in the bathroom with my fellows, smoking cigarettes, when the door burst open. It was the dean. Behind him was a cop. I took the bag of pot that I had in my pocket and threw it in the toilet. The dean had the cop search us. Finding nothing on us, the cop let us exit. As I reached down to pick up my coat and my books, the dean yelled, “Search his coat!” Way down in the corner of my pockets were two roaches, which today wouldn’t even matter, but to the dean it was all he needed.
I was the only one in the group taken to jail. I spent the night in the precinct. I was hungry. I was cold. I was scared. At my arraignment the next morning, there was Mom and my Aunt Bill sitting on the bench, right in the front row. The dean was there too. There was no real evidence to hold me, so they released me in the custody of my mom. By then I was too old for her to beat me.
This was my first arrest, but it wouldn’t be my last. Within a year the dean would have me standing in front of a judge again, this time for possession and sale of heroin. That would be my first trip to Rikers Island. When I arrived at my cell with a set of sheets and two rough wool blankest, relief washed over me. My cellmate was Bosco, a homeboy from Freeman Street. We had known each other since we were kids. Rikers Island, or “the Rock” as we called it, was scary, but one thing you didn’t do was show fear. Bosco and I had each other’s back when we went to the chow, the yard, or the TV room. On lock-in we’d play cards till lights out. Mama would come to visit and put money in my account so that I’d have cigarettes from the commissary.
After about three and a half months, I got probation. When I went back to register in high school, the dean saw me and tried to kick me out. But my probation officer called the ACLU, and the next day the dean had to take me back. He made it seem as if he was doing me a favor, but the truth was, he had no grounds to kick me out. A few months later, I dropped out on my own.
After you have been arrested, you know what they tell you—that you can’t get a job, that your life is pretty much over. I asked my Mom if she would sign me into the army. She told me, “No. You ain’t going to no damn army.” They wouldn’t take me anyway because of my probation. So you know what? I never did go to Vietnam. Who knows what would have happened if I went to the army at the height of the war.
During the 1970’s, I moved from adolescence to manhood. I married and moved away from home. Two months after I was married and a month before my first daughter was born, a “junkie robber” cornered me in a hallway with what looked to be toy gun and demanded money. I punched him in the face, we tussled, and he shot me. The gun was a .22. The bullet was so small that even at close range, there wasn’t any blood around the wound and it wasn’t until I felt the warmth in my stomach that I realized I had been shot. By then my attacker had fled. I was taken to Van Etten Hospital, the same hospital where my brother died a few years before.
When I was released from the hospital, my wife Gwen and I moved in with my in-laws in Queens. A few weeks later, we were blessed with a beautiful baby girl, one of three that I would father, though not by the same mother. When I was well enough, I found a job in New Jersey through a family friend. After a while, Gwen and I got a fifth-floor walk-up apartment in the Bronx, around the corner from my mother. You would think a fifth floor walk-up would keep the grandmas at bay. Not these hearty Southern raised souls. Both grandmas were up those stairs, without breaking a sweat, to tend to and spoil whenever they could.
Then I was laid off my job, and we were forced onto public assistance for a while. This took its toll on the marriage and within a year Gwen went home to her mom with the baby. By 1974 I had a job as a security guard. During this time, I met Sharon, the mother of my second daughter. Sharon wound up living in the same building as my mother during her pregnancy. In the mean time, I was living two blocks away with another woman. In 1975, on my birthday, my second daughter was born. I tried to do what I could for her, but it wasn’t much.
By 1978, I was working in a Hunts Point poultry processing plant. At first I unloaded the products from the trucks and restocked the boning and cutting tables were the girls worked. Flirt that I was, I struck up conversations with the girls. There was one girl Lynn that I was especially attracted to, and I made sure she knew it. The mother wit and work ethic that I learned from my mom and the street smarts that I learned from Junior always served me well. Soon I was off the loading dock and on to the work floor, getting recognition for my efforts. When the company moved into larger quarters, I was made a supervisor and given my own operation to run. Naturally I took Lynn with me. I was not about to leave her to the wolves in the boning room.
After a long courtship Lynn and I moved in together and things were going well. But drugs were readily available at Hunts Point and cocaine was flowing in 1979-80. One Saturday morning, I left home to get a haircut. I stopped to buy some cocaine. I never did get the haircut because I kept on going back for more cocaine. During the last trip to the coke-man, I got busted for attempted robbery and possession. This was my first felony arrest, and I was facing some serious time.
When I reached court the next morning, my mom was there in the gallery. Mom was used to it by now. Whenever I got in trouble, they would bring me from the bullpen to the courtroom, and Mom would just look at me—it wasn’t a smile, but it was an acknowledgment. “I am here.” I was slowly turning her hair from brunette to white.
They read the charges, and I was facing seven and a half to fifteen years. My mind was spinning. I started praying because that is all I knew to do. It was too late to cry. What was done was done. They say that you make those foxhole prayers when you get in trouble. I wasn’t sure that God would be able to help me. All the crap I had done in my life. But faith told me that he would be there for me. I always knew that God was a forgiving God.
Eventually, I was sentenced for two to six years. Susan, you know when you are in prison, you are always in danger. There is always a high level of stress, but I had heard enough stories to know what to do. Mind my business, do my time, don’t let myself get trapped. It is about not showing fear. Letting people know that if you want to fight, we are going to fight, and one of us is going to die. It is like when you meet a mad dog on a street. If you don’t show fear, you don’t get bit. It is not always about being the biggest, baddest dog in the group. Sometimes it is just about being the smartest guy.
While in prison, I got my GED and I applied for educational release. I was allowed to go to Bronx Community College. I would leave prison each morning at seven a.m. and go to school, and I would not have to be back until ten p.m. at night. I started working in the admissions office as a file clerk and within ten months I was hired as the provisional assistant director of admissions.
After parole, I went and lived with Lynn in the south Bronx, like four blocks from the prison. Old habits started to kick up. I started drinking and smoking pot again. During summer school, I met Billy, and we were fast friends. During breaks in class, we would go sit in his car and smoke weed. We’d come back to class blistered. Billy was a Vietnam vet, and toward the end of the summer, we’d be hanging out on most weekends. It got so that our respective girlfriends were always calling each other looking for us. Billy liked to fish and hunt and things that I was never exposed to.
It was around September of 1982 that Billy found out he had contracted AIDS. This was a time when there wasn’t much really known about AIDS. And Billy was really scared. He confided in me, and I had to go home and pray. I asked God what should I do. At that time, there were rumors that you could get AIDS from anything as innocent as sharing a Coke bottle. Somehow God revealed to me that I should be a friend to Billy. I did a little research and found that you couldn’t get AIDS from sharing knives or spoons or plates or toilet seats. And nothing really changed between Billy and me. We’d go fishing, we’d ride around in his car, looking for girls and just having a good time.
Billy died around 1983 and it greatly affected me. For the first time in my life, I had a real friend, a hangout partner, somebody who we would laugh and joke and chase girls. By the fall of 1983, I was in violation of my parole. After ninety days incarceration, and a four-day trip up to Orleans, New York, I came home to Lynn. I didn’t have a job and I had left school. That was me, never finishing what I started.
My parole officer recommended me to the neighborhood work project that rehabbed old buildings for the city. I cannot tell you the exact day that I became homeless but I do remember the first time that I smoked crack when I was working as a construction supervisor in Brooklyn. Crack cocaine was a different animal from what I was used to with heroin or weed. With crack your appetite for it quickly became insatiable, even more so than powdered cocaine. After trying it once that day I quickly went through just about my whole paycheck from the day before. That night, broke and disgusted, I walked from Brooklyn to the Bronx trying to think of ways to tell Lynn what had happened, but then realizing that she would already know. She had seen this pattern play out before
My crack use really escalated and things started to fall apart. Lynn and I were at odds. I found out she was expecting a child—my third child, her first. Lynn kicked me out and I was between my mom’s house and the street. I stopped seeing my parole officer. Once again I was incarnated, this time for three and a half months. After I got out, I was given a new parole officer. At our first meeting, he told me, “Listen, just call me in three months when your parole is up.” He didn’t care.
Okay, now here’s where we get to the gravy and the meat and potatoes of it.
This is where homelessness begins. It was about 1984. I started collecting bottles and cans in order to make money. At nights I was sleeping in parks, hanging out with other crack-heads in abandoned buildings. For the next fourteen years I would be living on the streets of New York City. I didn’t want to expose my mom and my children to what I was doing, so I branched into other areas of the Bronx because of my shame and also for their safety.
There were many days I was hungry. There were many days I was cold. But somehow with my addiction, all I thought about was where to get the next high. The crack addiction really takes over everything. In them off moments when you do think of family, your addiction rears up and reminds you, “It’s time to go hustle for more crack.”
There were dangers that I and other homeless folks faced on a daily basis. Aside from being bitten by rats if you slept on the street or in an abandoned building, there was always the danger of being attacked by gangs of youths who thought it was fun or just had a disdain for homeless people. God must have been with me while I was on the streets. Once, while sleeping in a park, I awoke to the kicks and punches of one such gang of youths. Fortunate for me, these kids were cowards at heart and I was able to fend them off and escape. Sometimes homeless people are preyed upon by other homeless people. Many homeless folks shy away from the city run shelters for fear that their few meager possessions will be stolen.
Hygiene ceased to be a priority. Some days I smelled so bad on the subway that I would have the entire car to myself. Once while I was trying to get on the subway without paying an undercover cop caught me. I just knew I was going to be arrested. But when the cop got close and smelled me he said, “Get out of here. You stink!” I smelled so bad I couldn’t even get arrested.
At first, my only hustle was to collect bottles and cans. And usually I was able to collect at least thirty or forty dollars a day. It was hard work because you had to go between supermarkets. They limited the amount you could recycle. However, I did find a supermarket on 207th street in Manhattan that would take twelve dollars at least once a day. Across the street was another beer warehouse, where they would take twelve dollars. So each day I was sure to make twenty-four dollars toward my crack habit.
I spent a lot of time in that neighborhood in the 80’s and 90’s. They were selling crack and cocaine like it was going out of style. In an alley near the beer warehouse, a group of us homeless folks started building shacks out of the wooden pallets they used to load boxes on to trucks. I actually built myself a three-room ranchero, with cardboard and a tarp for a roof. I had a foyer, a living room and a back bedroom. My electricity came from the street lamp outside. I even had a TV that I found in the garbage. After about three and a half months, the city sanitation came in and cleaned us all out. I was sorry to see my stuff go but my next thought was where to get another bag of crack.
One day, while searching for bottles and cans and scrap metal, I happened upon a super of a building who was cleaning out an alleyway where the garbage was kept. He was knee deep in garbage. With my broken Spanish, I went up and asked him if he needed help. He turned around and looked at me and said in broken English, “Look, I can’t pay you very much—about eight dollars.” Within about an hour we had all the garbage bagged up and put out on the street for collection and the alley swept and clean. He asked me to wait for a moment, went in the building and returned about five minutes later with another ten dollars. He said, “You did such a good job that I went and asked my wife for ten dollars. I want you to come back on Monday at four p.m. and help me take out the garbage again.” Meanwhile, the super next door who saw what happened asked me in Spanish, “Can you help me also?” That Monday when I returned to that block I helped both supers take out their garbage and clean out their alleyways. They paid me a few dollars each. And then, to my surprise, another super on that block asked me if I would do the same.
On the days when I wasn’t working for the supers, I would collect scrap metal from abandoned cars, which there were a slew of in the South Bronx. I didn’t steal cars, but if I saw one that had been abandoned, for whatever reason, and the plates were missing, it was fair game. I took radiators, alternators, and if there were two or three of us together, we would flip the car on the side, and we would take the transmission. All of these were saleable to the auto shops on Jerome Avenue.
For the next thirteen or fourteen years, this was my life. I worked my way around the neighborhood supers who paid me to sweep in front of their buildings, take out their garbage on collection days, and sweep and mop their hallways. In doing so, I got to know the tenants and the people in the neighborhood, who in turn would ask me to do favors for them, anything from washing their cars, to taking out the garbage in their apartment at night. Some would even give me money and send me to the supermarket to shop for them. People would give me keys to their house.
Basically, a lot of them trusted me. And for the most part I was trustworthy. Again, I have to thank my mom and my upbringing for all of this. There is an old saying: “You can kill more flies with honey than you can with vinegar.” Be nice to people and they will be nice to you in return. In some ways, I saw God working with me in the actions of these people.
I was known to most of them as “Moreno,” a name I chose myself. I didn’t want to give them my real name. I was in a mostly Hispanic neighborhood. And so, when they asked me my name, I chose “Moreno.” I owned it. And they would remember it.
People were really kind and nice to me in this neighborhood. Once when I was sick, a woman I helped with groceries and laundry heard me coughing. She said to me, “You are sick. You can’t stay outside like this. Come I will make a place for you to sleep in the foyer of my apartment.” She allowed me to take a shower, prepared me a hot bowl of soup and gave some cough medicine. She then prepared a place on the floor of the foyer so that I could rest for the night. In her actions, I saw the love of God.
Some of the supers let me sleep in their basements on cold and wintery nights, or else on their roof landings. One lady, who managed a building on Grand Ave, called me upstairs after I had taken out the garbage. She said, “It is going to snow, and I’m concerned about you.” Jackie allowed me to stay on her rooftop. She said, “All I ask, is that you keep it clean, and if the inspectors come, make sure they don’t know you are there.” Hector the super had a pigeon coop on the roof, so I did double duty as a guard for his pigeon coop. Within a week, I set up house on the roof landing. I had a beach chair that turned into a bed, a small bureau, and a file cabinet—with my “stuff!” as George Carlin would call it. I ran wires from the light fixtures to have electricity. I stored my clothes in the elevator shaft, so they were always in safekeeping.
But one thing that I asked Jackie to store for me was a charcoal grey suit that someone gave me and that I would never sell for crack cocaine. My mom always told me, and these are her words, “Boy, you better have a black suit when I die. I want you presentable at my funeral.” I wrapped this suit in plastic, along with a pair of shoes that I found, and I asked Hector and Jackie if I could store them in the basement for safekeeping.
Maybe this was a premonition, because a year later my oldest daughter put out a word, “Go find my father.” It was about four o’clock. I was taking out the garbage when a man who had worked with my brother-in-law from my estranged first wife came to me and said, “Dennis, you need to call Larry. Here is his number.” When I called Larry, he informed me that my mother had passed away. He gave me my daughter’s number, and I called her, and within an hour, she was in front of Jackie’s building on Grand Ave. When I met my daughter, I was disheveled, dirty and in need of a haircut and a shave. I went in the basement and got the suit and caught the cleaners before it closed. I said, “I’d like to have it pressed,” and I paid for it with the money I was going to spend for crack.
We got in the car with my daughter and her husband and went and found a barbershop that was opened late. I got a haircut and a shave. My daughter went home after giving me directions to the funeral home and the time of the funeral the next day.
Early the next morning, I asked some tenants in the building if I could use their shower. And I told them why and they said, “Of course.” This is the goodness in people. This is God in people. I took a shower, got dressed in my suit and shoes and shirt. As I walked through the neighborhood, people going to work, they looked and said, “Who is that? Moreno is that you?” They could hardly believe that this homeless bum could clean up so nice.
At the funeral were my nine-year-old daughter Nicole, and my twenty-something year old daughter Tannia. It was she and Lynn that made all the arrangements for my mom. Lynn had been real close and had virtually taken care of my mom in her later years. I think Lynn was the daughter my mother never had.
Had I not made it to the funeral, I would have been a basket case today. I have many acquaintances that were out on the street smoking crack. When they got the news that a family member had passed—a mother, brother, sister or whatever—that person was usually dead and buried, and my acquaintances had missed the funeral and everything. I know that God watches over me.
You would think that this would be the catalyst for me to change my life. Well, it didn’t happen right away. It would be another three years before my life would really change, and I’d be working my way back from homelessness and addiction.
November 29, 1999. That night I was helping a super clean out a boiler room. The super and his girlfriend also sold crack. I came outside to smoke a cigarette. Just then a young lady walked up and asked us if we knew where she could get some crack. I looked at the super and asked, “Do you know her?” As a crack-head, I had learned to be wary of the under-cover cop. The super looked at me and said, “Yeah, I seen her before.” So, she handed me ten dollars. I went into the building to super’s girlfriend and bought ten dollars worth of crack. When I came back outside I handed it to the young lady. I went down the basement, and five minutes later, the police ran in and told me to put my hands up against the wall, that I was under arrest for sale of crack cocaine.
They didn’t find anything on me when they searched me so I was pretty confident I wouldn’t do hardly any time. At most, I figured this would be a thirty-day misdemeanor. As I got to the bullpen that night, I looked around and realized I was the oldest man there. The young guys were saying, “Hey pops.” “What’s up Gramps?” “Hey old G—” (for “Gangster”). I think it was right then and there that I realized I couldn’t do this anymore. I was smart enough to know that if I didn’t get some help and try to help myself, I would die on the streets, a homeless crack-head, or even worse, I would die in jail.
When I got to the dorms on Rikers Island that night, I did what prisoners usually do. You take a shower, clean yourself up, find your bunk, and lay down. I didn’t have any money in my account. I didn’t have any way of contacting anyone. I was on my own. So that night, I called on the only one I knew could help. I didn’t try to make any deals with God. I simply asked him to guide me and do his will. And that was the beginning of my recovery.
I would spend the next few weeks on Rikers Island and then be transferred to the Vincent Bain Correctional Facility on Hunts Point. This was a prison barge, used by the city to house inmates. The boat was cleaner and more roomy than Rikers Island, and if had to do time this is where I wanted to stay. So I signed up for the substance abuse program they ran. Again, God was looking out for me. When I met my counselor that Monday, I found out she was the sister of a friend I knew when I was a teenager, and actually, I was her niece’s Godfather. Ms. G. worked with me for the next eight months on the barge. I got a job in the mess hall and I attended groups during the day to address my addictions. This was the first real drug program that I had ever been in.
In Feb. 2001, I saw the parole board, and the question was asked, “Mr. Barton, if we were to let you go, what is it that you would do?” Being used to parole hearings, I knew exactly what to say. I said, “If the board lets me go, I will seek and maintain employment and will continue with drug treatment.” They conferred for a few minutes, and then one of the board members said, “Good luck Mr. Barton, you’ll be going home soon.” Home? Where was home?
Six weeks later, I arrived at Bellevue Men’s Shelter for older men, right in the heart of New York City. For the next two years I was a resident there. The unit was kept clean, mainly by the residents. I shared a room with seven other men and had an East river view from the window next to my bed. On the fourth of July we had the best view of the Macy’s fireworks show in all of New York City. After 9/11 a temporary morgue was set up in the lot under my window. Around this time I found out I had contracted HIV. This really wasn’t a surprise to me. In the last months before my arrest, I shot heroin periodically.
Next door was Bellevue Hospital where I went for the substance abuse program. For two years, I worked the program and worked on myself. I was really popular and used my skills to become president of patient government. I even got my teeth fixed. But more than that, I was given a counselor. I even had a therapist for a period. I was able to talk about being in the grips of addiction and about how futile that life was. I always knew this, but talking about it brought it to the surface.
I was also introduced to the Education Outreach Program run by Catholic Charities. This is a life skills program for homeless and formally homeless people. I completed the program in May 2003. Since graduating, I have mentored several other program participants. I now serve as Vice-Chair on the Board of Directors of the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing.
Two years after arriving at Bellevue, I was able to move out and into a small studio apartment on the Upper West Side in Manhattan where I still reside today. I was reunited with my three daughters five granddaughters. My daughters have welcomed me back into their lives with open arms. I regularly attend church and in 2007, I was ordained as a Deacon in the Collegiate Church of New York. I now work part-time in the Education Department of Planned Parenthood of New York City, as a peer educator, facilitating workshops on parent- child communication.
God has been with me and has blessed me through it all. Thanks be to God.