Out of the depths

Continuing my climb from the life

Curtis Howard posed for a Reader cover photo in 2012

“San Diego Police! Hey you, come here a minute!”

It was September of 2005 and I often recall that dreadful encounter in downtown San Diego where a one-minute request turned into a three-year prison sentence.

As an OG (older generation) member of the Neighborhood Crip Gang of Southeast San Diego, I had spent the majority of my life in and out of jails and prisons for crimes that increased from small to serious over time. In my latter criminal stages I became a high-security inmate, landing in chaotic maximum security prisons such as Pelican Bay, a war zone where my fellow San Diegan friend Doc was stabbed and killed by a Sacramento inmate over a small debt.

With a criminal history like mine, this arrest downtown was nothing new to me. But what made it stand out from the rest was that it happened in my retirement stages. When I had been crime-free for the longest period of time since my first arrest as a teen. I thought I had it together and was finally out of the life for good.

At the time, I was working with an air-spray artist taking photos. We used his artwork as backgrounds. I would then print and frame them. Occasionally, people would hire me out for other jobs and that’s how I ended up downtown that night. I was meeting with an up-and-coming hip-hop artist in the Gaslamp District. She wanted photos for her album-release party.

After our meeting, I walked her to a car parked at Horton Plaza to finalize our agreement regarding times, dates, and payments. I bid her farewell, and that’s when things turned all bad.

I had been forced to park in the upper blocks of downtown because traffic is so congested in the Gaslamp at night. These upper blocks were a melting pot for gangs, homeless people, and drug activity. No gang claims this area as their territory, so it was a mutual stomping ground for everyone who often came to hustle or drink and get high. They generally hung out around 13th and Park between Broadway and Market, or on 16th between Market Street and Imperial Avenue.

Passing through, I ran into a group of familiar faces hanging out on 12th Street. One of these guys was a crack dealer and one was a user. I stopped to chat with them.

I normally would not have stopped in an area like this, but leaving the street life and gangs requires a certain diplomacy. You don’t announce your retirement; you simply do it, but when you run across people still in the life, you should always be cordial and if possible give them a few minutes of your time. I did more.

On my way out, the user asked me to score some dope for him. He knew that I was well liked and would get more for the money, so he used me as a go-between. I did it.

Then I got busted by the police walking back to him with the drugs.

Like a bag of chips

A lot of people who know this story asked why did I take such a risk, but where I come from buying dope for someone is like picking them up a bag of chips while you’re at the store. But not anymore. I learned to put up some boundaries. No more stopping to chat in areas known for having heavy police presence (hot spots) and no assistance in anything involving criminal elements no matter how simple it seems. Transitioning from gangs and crime is not as easy as just stopping. There are factors involved in pulling out of the lifestyle that can make you or break you. You can’t shun people as if you’re too good for them now, but then you must have boundaries. It’s like on-the-job training: you pick up on it as you go with very little room for error.

I was released in 2008 after completing that sentence for possession. I checked myself into a residential savings program for parolees, and I stayed until I obtained employment and saved enough to get an apartment. This apartment was located on Texas Street, right outside of Mission Valley, and I shared it with a female that I became involved with during my stay in the savings program. However, when we separated a few years later, I was forced to move to an area with more affordable housing: City Heights.

D-Con and Killer Shark

I was familiar with City Heights from my days as a gang member. In the mid 1980s we referred to it as East Diego (pronounced day-go). It was home of the East Diego Mob. They were a Crip gang that was allied with my gang (the Neighborhood Crips). We would often go to their territories to visit with them. They hung out at Highland Park, but their main headquarters was on 44th Street between University and El Cajon Boulevard. Since that time many of them had been locked up or aged-out of the life, so things had become very low profile in the area.

Curtis (far left, beige shirt) with original Neighborhood Crips 1982

Curtis (far left, beige shirt) with original Neighborhood Crips 1982

Incidentally, I had a friend who managed a four-bedroom house with rooms for rent in City Heights. It was on Landis Street. He told me that it cost $500 monthly, with cable, internet, and free laundry. I took the room as a temporary spot but immediately started searching for a place of my own. Living in that house was almost like jail to me, because I was still sharing close confines with strangers. I felt trapped, and I wondered how long I could tolerate this place and I was often traumatized at the thought of being trapped there.

Within a couple of months I met with a lady named Doris who managed a property right off Highland and Polk Street. It was a small property with two separate studios inside of a gate. The entrance was accessed through an alley cluttered with trash, stray animals, and homeless people pushing baskets. I would be sharing the property with others who would soon be moving into the back, I was told. Not an ideal setup for the average person, but under my circumstances it would be like a luxury condo.

I had a really nice conversation with Doris and she seemed to like me. I got a really good vibe from her, but then she said something to me on my way out that shattered my dreams.

“Okay, Curtis, I’m going to run a credit and background check and give you a call.”

My heart sank. I may get past the credit check, but the background check? Forget it.

I had already accepted the fact that I would suffer obstacles throughout life due to my past, but this one was very untimely and it really hit home. I returned to the “House from Hell” frustrated and got back on Craigslist immediately. I continued to send emails and make calls for places with openings but it wasn’t easy. I could only pay up to $800 monthly, so most of these places were outside of my range. It was like finding a needle in a haystack. I also knew that due to my budget, if I did find a place it wouldn’t be pretty, but I was cool with that.

Then one day I received a call from Doris. “Okay, Curtis, you checked out good. The place is yours.”

Unbelievable: Is she really trying to make me believe that I passed a background check? I wondered. She must have run the wrong application...or the property is a chairman for Crips Anonymous!

I moved in March 2013, and for the first few weeks I sat in my place worried that Doris was going to return and tell me that she had made a huge mistake. However, after several weeks passed I started to loosen up. I worked on a book I wrote about my experiences with gangs and high-profile convicts in maximum-security prisons. I pumped out the story into my laptop and then I contacted my homeboy D-Con, a former member of my gang who had served time in federal prison. He was now out of the life and managing a print shop, so I obtained his services to do the layout. D-Con also told me about a former OG West Coast Crip named Killer Shark who did photography and graphics. He said that Shark could do the book cover for me. I spoke with Killer Shark and he agreed. Ultimately, this entire project was written, illustrated, printed, and published by former Crips.

The release of this book, combined with my November 2012 cover story for the San Diego Reader, got me much exposure in my community. Many community organizations took interest in me, and I began to get invitations to speak or attend events and meetings centered on stopping gang violence, police brutality, and mass incarceration. This was now August of 2013, and things were beginning to pick up fast. Several colleges and universities purchased my books for their students at which times I accepted proposals for speaking engagements and book-signings. I spoke at several continuation schools for at-risk teens who were on probation or parole. I spoke and signed books at City College, Mesa College, UCSD, and the Jacobs Center. I met Mychal Odom, who was teaching at Mesa College, and professor Dennis Childs from UCSD. They opened several doors for me.

Curtis (tank top) with Mychal Odom (left side) in August 2013

Curtis (tank top) with Mychal Odom (left side) in August 2013

For the first time, I felt as if I was contributing something positive to my community after years of negative criminal behavior. I rode this wave into the end of that year. My struggle to lead a more comfortable life appeared to finally be coming together. Until....

Police presence

Shortly after the new year of 2014, I started to notice suspicious activity with new residents on the grounds I shared. There were a lot shady people coming and going throughout the day and late night. These were pit-stop visitors who would walk inside the gate then back out within the next minute. I identified this activity immediately but minded my business as much as I could. I also began to notice increased police presence in the alley, and then surveillance on the property itself. This surveillance went from light to heavy for about six months. In August of 2014, it got even worse because the police began to stop me.

One day, while I was walking to the store, a police car pulled up on the sidewalk to cut me off. It was on the corner of Fairmount and Orange Avenue. They jumped out the car as if I were a suspect in a serious crime.

I asked what the problem was at which time one of them informed me that I had walked against the traffic signal. He insisted that even though the light was green, the lower box for pedestrians was flashing “don’t walk.”

The lower box signal did say “walk” when I first proceeded into the intersection, so I sensed that there was more to stopping me than just that.

The officer looked me over and then he revealed the true reason for the stop: “What set you claiming?” he asked.

He was asking me which gang I was a member of, and he was trying to impress me by using street slang, but he failed by a long shot. He still sounded very much like a cop to me.

I advised him that I was not on probation or parole, and that I would only answer questions pertaining to the stop. I then handed him my identification.

He took my ID and called my name in for a warrant check. He then began to write the citation as he was awaiting the info.

I don’t know what information came back over the radio, but within the next few minutes there were three more police cruisers pulling up. They exited their cars and stood around me. Some were cordial, but as soon as I loosened up with one, he would ask me gang questions, forcing me to shut back down.

I was starting to become frustrated by such heavy police presence over jaywalking, but I kept my cool. Eventually, the officer returned my ID, handed me a citation, and I walked back home.

This encounter concerned me because it could be the start of something. Normally, once the cops make contact with a person who has a criminal background, they will randomly stop them again. And they did. I was stopped again a couple of weeks later at the same location. Different cops, same questions. They were hoping that they would catch me up to no good.

And then one morning they showed up on the property I lived on.

There were about ten police officers at my door with cruisers parked in the alley. This time I was upset and when I answered the door, it showed.

“Curtis, you’re okay” the officer in charge announced before I could speak. “We’ve been watching this property and today we made an arrest for drug sales and firearms. We’re going to be conducting a search of the grounds and you’re clear to leave or stay while we do this. It’s up to you.”

I locked up and left.

I walked out past the police cars in the alley to see one of my neighbors handcuffed in the backseat. Another neighbor was handcuffed in the back of an unmarked car with his head down. As I exited the alley onto Polk Street, I headed south without a clue as to where I was going. My feet moved forward and I simply followed them.

A couple of months later, in January of 2015, the manager came to advise us that the property was being sold and we would all have a couple of months to find a place to live.

That was awesome!

For the most part, I have lived in areas with gangs and high crime rates, so I’m always mindful of other people’s actions and how I could be affected by them. I also apply certain security measures. For example, if I’m walking down the street at night and someone is coming toward me, I instinctively try to get out of arms’ reach and keep my eyes on their hands as I pass. This security measure may be subconsciously related to prison as well.

One afternoon, I ran across an old friend at a bus stop. As we were talking, he suddenly looked over my shoulder, terrified, and darted to the side. His facial expression signaled that danger was approaching that I most likely couldn’t avoid, so I braced myself. I heard a loud scraping noise right upon me, so I turned quickly with an elbow smash. I could have ducked or dived, but I didn’t think it was something falling from the sky or an out-of-control vehicle. My instincts were geared more toward it being an assault.

I was wrong. It actually was a vehicle. A guy in his mid 20s on a skateboard. I leveled him.

His skateboard rolled out into the street as his body violently crashed against the bus-stop bench. To my surprise, he was smiling as I helped him up. He shook my hand and complimented me on having such quick reflexes. He then retrieved his skateboard and walked off, saying, “That was awesome!”

In March of 2015 I started my apartment search once again. This time I had saved more money to work with, but the same credit issues haunted me. I spent over $400 on credit checks and application fees before a guy named Mack finally gave me a shot at a place in a more quiet section of City Heights. I told him up front that although I had no evictions, I did not have excellent credit.

“Curtis, I’m a first-impression person guy, and I got a good vibe from you. As long as you don’t owe hundreds of thousands of dollars, I’ll be willing to work with you. You have good references and incomes, so when that checks out, consider yourself in.”

I have finally stabilized myself at this point. I purchased a reliable automobile to get around, and my neighbors are all very cordial. My book sales have dwindled but are still on the table as I look forward to a more affordable printing cost. My problems and concerns in the struggle of everyday life are pretty much the same as the average person at this point. Except for that every so often my past comes back to haunt me. But that’s life and it’s not easy.

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Comments

Thanks for your "de profundis" story, Curtis. Best of success to you. You've paid some heavy dues, and have elevated yourself. You show others that it can be done.

I just read this piece by Curtis Howard on my break at work. It reminded me of the kind of life my hispanic husband was born into, growing up in Logan Heights, with many of his friends and family members representing Southside, Logan etc. Reading this piece was inspirational to me because Curtis is a positive member of the community. Without his past lifestyle there would be no result of wisdom. Individuals who can relate to the struggle and temptations of young people living among gangs MAKE A HUGE DIFFERENCE when they share their stories and offer their mediation. My husband was positively influenced by people like this when he was trying to graduate high school but was tempted to drop out. His mentors who volunteered at the YMCA are still a part of his life today. I know for a fact- not a day goes by without someone asking my boyfriend to be involved in criminal activity. The struggle to make a future for yourself requires constant hard work, positive mindfulness and like Curtis Howard writes: BOUNDARIES.

Thank you for publishing this piece.

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