Janet Cooke, Washington Post Staff Writer
September 28, 1980; Page A1
Correction: The following article is not factually correct and is
a fabrication by the author. For a detailed account of how it came to be
published by The Washington Post, please see the article by Bill Green,
then the newspaper's reader ombudsman, published in The Post on April 19,
Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious
little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling
the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.
He nestles in a large, beige reclining chair in the living room of
his comfortably furnished home in Southeast Washington. There is an almost
cherubic expression on his small, round face as he talks about life --
clothes, money, the Baltimore Orioles and heroin. He has been an addict
since the age of 5. His hands are clasped behind his head, fancy running
shoes adorn his feet, and a striped Izod T-shirt hangs over his thin frame.
"Bad, ain't it," he boasts to a reporter visiting recently. "I got me six
Jimmy's is a world of hard drugs, fast money and the good life he believes
both can bring. Every day, junkies casually buy herion from Ron, his mother's
live-in-lover, in the dining room of Jimmy's home. They "cook" it in the
kitchen and "fire up" in the bedrooms. And every day, Ron or someone else
fires up Jimmy, plunging a needle into his bony arm, sending the fourth
grader into a hypnotic nod.
Jimmy prefers this atmosphere to school, where only one subject seems
relevant to fulfilling his dreams. "I want to have me a bad car and dress
good and also have me a good place to live," he says. "So, I pretty much
pay attention to math because I know I got to keep up when I finally get
me something to sell."
Jimmy wants to sell drugs, maybe even on the District's meanest street,
Condon Terrace SE, and some day deal heroin, he says, "just like my man
Ron, 27, and recently up from the South, was the one who first turned
Jimmy on."He'd be buggin' me all the time about what the shots were and
what people was doin' and one day he said, 'When can I get off?'" Ron says,
leaning against a wall in a narcotic haze, his eyes half closed, yet piercing.
"I said, 'Well, s . . ., you can have some now.' I let him snort a little
and, damn, the little dude really did get off."
Six months later, Jimmy was hooked. "I felt like I was part of what
was goin' down," he says. "I can't really tell you how it feel. You never
done any? Sort of like them rides at King's Dominion . . . like if you
was to go on all of them in one day.
"It be real different from herb (marijuana). That's baby s---. Don't
nobody here hardly ever smoke no herb. You can't hardly get none right
Jimmy's mother Andrea accepts her son's habit as a fact of life, although
she will not inject the child herself and does not like to see others do
"I don't really like to see him fire up," she says. "But, you know,
I think he would have got into it one day, anyway. Everybody does. When
you live in the ghetto, it's all a matter of survival. If he wants to get
away from it when he's older, then that's his thing. But right now, things
are better for us than they've ever been. . . . Drugs and black folk been
together for a very long time."
Heroin has become a part of life in many of Washington's neighborhoods,
affecting thousands of teen-agers and adults who feel cut off from the
world around them, and filtering down to untold numbers of children like
Jimmy who are bored with school and battered by life.
On street corners and playgrounds across the city, youngsters often
no older than 10 relate with uncanny accuracy the names of important dealers
in their neighborhoods, and the going rate for their wares. For the uninitiated
they can recite the color, taste, and smell of things such as heroin, cocaine,
and marijuana, and rattle off the colors in a rainbow made of pills.
The heroin problem in the District has grown to what some call epidemic
proportions, with the daily influx of so-called "Golden Crescent" heroin
from Iran, Pakistan, and Afghanistan, making the city fourth among six
listed by the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency as major points of entry for
heroin in the United States. The "Golden Crescent" heroin is stronger and
cheaper than the Southeast Asian and Mexican varieties previously available
on the street, and its easy accessiblity has added to what has long been
a serious problem in the nation's capital.
David G. Canaday, special agent in charge of the DEA's office here,
says the agency "can't do anything about it [Golden Crescent heroin] because
we have virtually no diplomatic ties in that part of the world." While
judiciously avoiding the use of the term epidemic, Canaday does say that
the city's heroin problem is "sizable."
Medical experts, such as Dr. Alyce Gullatte, director of the Howard
University Drug Abuse Institute, say that heroin is destroying the city.
And D.C.'s medical examiner, James Luke, has recorded a substantial increase
in the number of deaths from heroin overdose, from seven in 1978 to 43
so far this year.
Death has not yet been a visitor to the house where Jimmy lives.
The kitchen and upstairs bedrooms are a human collage. People of all
shapes and sizes drift into the dwelling and its various rooms, some jittery,
uptight and anxious for a fix, others calm and serene after they finally
A fat woman wearing a white uniform and blond wig with a needle jabbed
in it like a hatpin, totters down the staircase announcing that she is
"feeling fine." A teen-age couple drift through the front door, the girl
proudly pulling a syringe of the type used by diabetics from the hip pocket
of her Gloria Vanderbilt jeans. "Got me a new one," she says to no one
in particular as she and her boyfriend wander off into the kitchen to cook
their snack and shoot each other up.
These are normal occurrences in Jimmy's world. Unlike most children
his age, he doesn't usually go to school, preferring instead to hang with
older boys between the ages of 11 and 16 who spend their day getting high
on herb or PCP and doing a little dealing to collect spare change.
When Jimmy does find his way into the classroom, it is to learn more
about his favorite subject -- math.
"You got to know how to do some figuring if you want to go into business,"
he says pragmatically. Using his mathematical skills in any other line
of work is a completely foreign notion.
"They don't BE no jobs," Jimmy says. "You got to have some money to
do anything, got to make some cash. Got to be selling something people
always want to buy. Ron say people always want to buy some horse. My mama
say it, too. She be using it and her mama be using it. It's always gonna
be somebody who can use it. . . .
"The rest of them dudes on the street is sharp. You got to know how
many of them are out there, how much they charge for all the different
s---, who gonna buy from them and where their spots be . . . they bad,
you know, cause they in business for themselves. Ain't nobody really telling
them how they got to act."
In a city overflowing with what many consider positive role models
for a black child with almost any ambition -- doctors, lawyers, politicians,
bank presidents -- Jimmy wants most to be a good dope dealer. He says that
when he is older, "maybe about 11," he would like to "go over to Condon
Terrace (notorious for its open selling of drugs and violent way of life)
or somewhere else and sell." With the money he says he would buy a German
Shepherd dog and a bicycle, maybe a basketball, and save the rest "so I
could buy some real s--- and sell it."
His mother doesn't view Jimmy's ambitions with alarm, perhaps because
drugs are as much a part of Andrea's world as they are of her son's.
She never knew her father. Like her son, Andrea spent her childhood
with her mother and the man with whom she lived for 15 years. She recalls
that her mother's boyfriend routinely forced her and her younger sister
to have sex with him, and Jimmy is the product of one of those rapes.
Depressed and discouraged after his birth ("I didn't even name him,
you know?My sister liked the name Jimmy and I said 'OK, call him that,
who gives a fu--? I guess we got to call him something, don't we?'") she
quickly accepted the offer of heroin from a woman who used to shoot up
with her mother.
"It was like nothing I ever knew about before; you be in another world,
you know? No more baby, no more mama . . . I could quit thinking about
it. After I got off, I didn't have to be thinking about nothing."
Threee years later, the family moved after police discovered the shooting
gallery in their home, and many of Andrea's sources of heroin dried up.
She turned to prostitution and shoplifting to support a $60-a-day habit.
Soon after, she met Ron, who had just arrived in Washington and was selling
a variety of pills, angel dust and some heroin. She saw him as a way to
get off the street and readily agreed when he asked her to move in with
"I was tired of sleeping with all those different dudes and boosting
(shoplifting) at Woodies. And I didn't think it would be bad for Jimmy
to have some kind of man around," she says.
Indeed, social workers in the Southeast Washington community say that
so many young black children become involved with drugs because there is
no male authority figure present in the home.
"A lot of these parents (of children involved with drugs) are the unwed
mothers of the '60s, and they are bringing up their children by trial and
error," says Linda Gilbert, a social worker at Southeast Neighborhood House.
"The family structure is not there so they [the children] establish
a relationship with their peers. If the peers are into drugs, it won't
be very long before the kids are, too. . . . They don't view drugs as illegal,
and if they are making money, too, then it's going to be OK in the eyes
of an economically deprived community."
Addicts who have been feeding their habits for 35 years or more are
not uncommon in Jimmy's world, and although medical experts say that there
is an extremely high risk of his death from an overdose, it is not inconceivable
that he will live to reach adulthood.
"He might already be close to getting a lethal dose," Dr. Dorynne Czechowisz
of the National Institute on Drug Abuse says."Much of this depends on the
amount he's getting and the frequency with which he's getting it. But I
would hate to say that his early death is inevitable. If he were to get
treatment, it probably isn't too late to help him. And assuming he doesn't
OD before then, he could certainly grow into an addicted adult."
At the end of the evening of strange questions about his life, Jimmy
slowly changes into a different child. The calm and self-assured little
man recedes. cThe jittery and ill-behaved boy takes over as he begins going
into withdrawal. tHe is twisting uncomfortably in his chair one minute,
irritatingly raising and lowering a vinyl window blind the next.
"Be cool," Ron admonishes him, walking out of the room.
Jimmy picks up a green "Star Wars" force beam toy and begins flicking
the light on and off.
Ron comes back into the living room, syringe in hand, and calls the
little boy over to his chair: "Let me see your arm."
He grabs Jimmy's left arm just above the elbow, his massive hand tightly
encircling the child's small limb. Theneedle slides into the boy's soft
skin like a straw pushed into the center of a freshly baked cake. Liquid
ebbs out of the syringe, replaced by bright red blood. The blood is then
reinjected into the child.
Jimmy has closed his eyes during the whole procedure, but now he opens
them, looking quickly around the room. He climbs into a rocking chair and
sits, his head dipping and snapping upright again, in what addicts call
"Pretty soon, man," Ron says, "you got to learn how to do this for
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