Dizzying Downward Spiral | Bill Drew

When the tactical squad raided my basement apartment on 32nd and May in February of 1985, they discovered a baseball-sized rock of cocaine.  It was a final drama of a dizzying downward spiral.  I had spent over a decade immersed in movements for social justice.  Now I was an addict and an alcoholic.
The cops sledgehammered my safe, confiscated weed and rock, ransacked my political books, and made off with my triple beam scale.  My oldest son, Ricky, was barely a week old at the time.  My wife, recovering from a C-section, was cuffed and taken to the lockup at 26th and California.  I was picked up at work and taken to the 9th District to be charged with a Class X felony.  I was facing 6 years.

When I didn’t show up at my mom’s 75th birthday party two days later, my Waukegan family found out.  Mom said that it was as if someone had grabbed her by the hair and dragged her around all four corners of her kitchen.

After I got bailed out, my brother and two sisters hit me with stern questions.  How had I let my life spin out of control?  What happened to the other Bill, the one who was all about positive things for the community?  Would I step up and get rehabilitation?  Would I take responsibility for the family that I was starting?

It was a netherworld that I inhabited at that time.  I was the main pusher of grass and coke in a couple of bars on Morgan and Lituancia. I was in the taverns every night, able to get going each morning by snorting thick lines of coke.  My friends were former gang bangers, bar flies, addicts, hookers, and other chronic losers.  I was out of my mind with that white powder swirling in my brain.  The devious drug managed to convince me that <em “mso-bidi-font-style:=”” normal”=””>up was downand down was up.  I was running the streets and feeling a false exhilaration.

Being here on Morgan Street, I can almost talk to the long gone characters – Bobby Bloom was a coke addict.  He was a bartender at Bobs at 32 and Morgan.  Now dead from AIDs, I last saw him one morning as he was dragging a blanket and pillow about a block from here.  He was either looking for a place to crash or getting rousted from where he had crashed the night before.  Mech was the guy I bought my first pound of weed from and my first stash of coke.  He was a freelancer with lots of gang connections. He crashed into an overpass on the Kennedy after a day of Tequila and cocaine in the forest preserve.  His wife found parts of his bike and parts of his brain the next morning.  Bosco was Mech’s compadre.  They married sisters.  The last time I say Bosco was in front of El Guero.  He was in a wheel chair with his prosthetic leg on the side.  He asked me “How do you say ‘I lost my wallet’ in Spanish.  He passed not long after that.  John Simolous from Lituanica went out from an aneurism.  He loved showing me pictures of him with his Vietnamese girlfriend on R & R from the war in Thailand.  After he died his wife asked me how much he owed me for reefer.  I said, “Don’t worry about it.  John beat me on that one.”

Some nights I would make a triangular circuit, checking in with the night denizens of three boozy cultures.  I’d start out at Stanley’s, a shot and beer place in Bridgeport, where I had a regular clientele of other drug abusers.  Quite a few were descendants of the original Lithuanian community.  Others were white ethnics of one stripe or another, navigating the sticky floors and the nasty urinal.  They were hog butchers, day laborers, veterans, unemployed, hustlers, ex-cons, criminals.

My next stop would be Rudy’s, a projects bar at 39th and State.  For reasons I still don’t quite understand, I enjoyed the feeling of danger in showing up alone at a ghetto joint.  The place was usually overflowing.  Most of the drinkers lived in the Robert Taylor high rises.  It never was hard to get into a spirited talk.  I remember playing a type of “dozens” with a quick witted friend.  He pointed to my Miller Lite and said “You’re Light Bill”.  My response brought down the house.  Pointing to his Lowenbrau, I told him that he was “Low and Brown.”

I saw knives drawn, gang disputes, hustles and flows.  Who could forget the night Mr. T showed up with a huge pet snake draped around his shoulders?  Or the joyous juke box music of “Happy Birthday Martin Luther King” from Stevie Wonder?

Completing the third leg, I would stop at a Mexican bar in the Back of the Yards.  There I might run into some of my students from the English as a Second Language class that I was teaching a few blocks to the west.  Maybe I’d smoke a joint with Indalecio, a guy from Lagos de Moreno, Jalisco.  I had visited him on his ranch the year before.  Maybe I’d buy a watered down drink for a B-girl and talk nonsense in Spanish.

Sometimes I would make the circuit twice, getting plastered, varying one destination or another.  Heading home, my car was unsteady.  My brain was depressed.  That’s what alcohol always brings.  I was more comfortable in this realm of smoky darkness than among everyday people.   In this house of mirrors, I was shopping drugs.  My trademark political agitation was a thing of the past.

When the night ended at an after-hours joint, I had my white powder to keep me going.  Some nights my wife would call a bartender begging to speak with me.  Often I would ignore her.  It reminded me of how my mom used to put me on the phone to my own dad.  I’d beg him to come home from his stool at Club 18 so many years ago.

All the self-evaluation on rejoining my family took me only so far.  I rationalized that I had sacrificed so much for the movement in my 20s and early 30s, that I deserved to earn illegal profits and live that life.   I told myself that I would probably eventually find some job and work it till retirement.  For now I was trapped in the grip of addiction.  I was my own best customer, erratic, crazed, sexually impotent, and oblivious to the risks I was taking.

Now diagnosed with cancer, I’m setting out to explore the threads of motivation that ran through my life and made me the person that I became.  I need to make sense of a dangerous arc.  The same Bill Drew lived in times of idealism and exuberance, times of despair, and then re-generation. Finally I returned actively to my ideals.  The memoirs are primarily meant as a service to my sons, who are now entering manhood.  I want to recount the good with the bad.  (By the way you can read the whole thing at http://www.fortunateson.us.)

I hope my un-sanitized history can provide insights into the many factors that came into play as we lurched from the tumultuous ‘60s into an era of Reaganite conservatism. So many people today – especially the youth – are again finding themselves nose to nose against inexorable take backs. We find ourselves having to defend everything from our standards of living to our very civil rights.  Bleak is the future that my sons are facing.  I hope that my memories can give the next generation some hope and ideas on how to regroup and counter attack.

The theme of redemption is helpful in explaining five parts of my life: the imprint of an Irish Catholic upbringing, my period as an activist, a guy who went to jail for opposition to Vietnam, my descent into addiction and drug dealing, my 25 years as a bread winner, and my return to activism as I neared retirement. Though I am not in any way religious, redemption is a useful concept.  Though I do not believe in the doctrine of original sin, I cannot deny that the concepts of sacrifice and atonement live deep inside of my unconscious.  Sacrifice can be a good thing — especially when you need a second chance.

I close my last chapter with a quote from Bertold Brecht.  It says that your last breath can be a new start.  I like that because the memories and the results of all that we do – these live on.   We all face this day – not so much of reckoning but of remembrance and inspiration.  I part with “May you live forever and may I never die.”

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Bill Drew is an all American boy/old man.  His stops along the way — president of

the Immaculate Conception altar boys in Waukegan, a too-small football player in high school, a hot-headed anti-Vietnam protester at the University of Wisconsin, a guy who spent a year in jail for battery to a police officer, editor of a radical labor newspaper in Milwaukee, a crazed drug and alcohol abuser, a cracker jack database programmer, a husband married in to an extended clan of Zapotecs from Oaxaca, a McKinley Park community organizer, and a cancer survivor.

He brings a particular insight to his story telling.  He let’s the audience appreciate contradictory trends and emotions.   For him, there are no clear cut answers.  The story of life — those mysteries which we must pass down to emerging generations — comes alive with unexpected twists, gray areas, unresolved questions.  Irony, particularity, and humor allow listeners to look more deeply at their own legacies.

To read his memoirs go to www.fortunateson.us.


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