The only things that remain of his past as a drug dealer are the physical indicators: pocked track marks in the creases of his arms, outlines of faded tattoos from decades ago, scars from the knife attacks of heroin-starved junkies or pushers trying to thrust themselves into his territory. He is a quiet older man with thinning hair, deeply emotional brown eyes, and a closely cropped goatee. When he slips a long sleeved shirt over his old wounds and body art, he looks as though he could be someone’s father or a church deacon, and indeed, he is both.
“It’s been a long time since I’ve talked about all of this,” says Bruce Patterson. He lets out a little laugh, appearing to be nervous at the thought of taking this difficult walk with me, his eldest daughter. I have wanted to take this journey with him for a long while and previously, he has put me off with empty promises. Now we are nearly out of time, his liver and body failing in the final stages of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.
He wipes away a thin sheen of perspiration from his face and head, a signal that he is in pain. “Where would you like me to begin?” he asks. I smile. I have only heard bits and pieces of his previous life before mom, before my sister and me.
“At the beginning…”
Dad was born on March 21, 1945 in Detroit at the Women’s Hospital. His parents were Celia and Charles “Pat” Patterson. He is the youngest of four and the only son. His eyes mist as he begins to talk.
“I can’t remember my Grandmother’s name. She was the only grandparent I knew. She lived with us in an upstairs bedroom and she used to read me stories. That was a nice memory. I think she was my mother’s mother. I wish I could remember her name.”
His early childhood seems hardly the beginnings of a notorious drug dealer who went by the street name of White Folk. I tell him of my thoughts.
“Things were normal for a long time. Then my father got sick when I was eight. He came home from work bleeding profusely through his nose and mouth. He had a stroke. I remember visiting him with my sister Barb in the hospital. He was never right after that. When he came home, he started getting mean towards my sister and myself, accuse us of being bastards. We had two older sisters who were grown and Millie, the oldest, took Barb to live with her on the East side,” he said.
“So you were alone.”
“I had no supervision. I was running the streets. My mother was concerned so she asked my sister Dorothy and her husband Jim to help. Jim came on a Sunday and explained that I was to live with him and that he would make a difference in my life. It was the first time I had any structure. Jim took an interest in how I was doing in school.”
He stops to take a breath, lost in his thoughts. This was the first I had ever heard of Jim. Dad seems pained by mentioning him.
“He probably seemed like a hero at the time,” I say.
“He was. I was in a school for difficult children. I can remember that my spelling was atrocious. Jim gave me spelling tests and made me write every word I missed ten times. We would work on our homework together. He went to Lawrence School of Technology. Sometimes he let me play with his slide rule.” This recollection elicits a laugh.
“I’ve never heard you talk of him before. What happened to Jim?”
“I was accused of sexual misconduct at school. A young boy from homeroom said he had seen me messing with two girls in a classroom. I knew it was not true, but I was scared to tell anyone. A few days later, a psychiatrist was called into the school to talk with everyone involved. That little boy was a liar, and the doctor figured it out. The principal called home and talked to Jim to let him know the matter was cleared up.” Dad swallows hard, averting his gaze from me as he stares at his hands, turning them palm side up and then back again.
“Jim was really angry. He wanted to know why I didn’t tell him. That put a gulf in our relationship. A few months later, he moved to California with my sister and I was back with my parents. I can’t remember now if they asked me to go with them.”
For several minutes, he is victim to these memories, haunted by Jim’s ghost. His eyes are lost to me as he looks beyond where I sit.
“What was it like, going back home?” I ask.
“I wasn’t home. Dad was in a nursing home, and Mom and I shared an apartment. One day, a man came up to the door and asked for someone who used to live there. I was about to turn him away when he asked if I would like to earn some extra money. He gave me several bottles of uppers. I sold them for a dollar each. The man came back a week later and I gave him his cut. I made $750.00. I had money so for the first time, I had friends.”
“How old were you? Did your Mom know?”
“I was about nine. My life was very compartmentalized, and I kept that separate. I never thought about using drugs at that age. I was entrepreneurial and wanted to make money. I was a child but I looked grown. At 10, I was over five and a half feet tall and had a moustache. An after-hours operator heard I was good and gave me money to buy Robitussin. I would put it in my wagon and pull it home to put it into four-ounce bottles. At a dollar each, I would still make over a thousand after expenses.”
He seems proud of himself, being so smart at such a young age. I marvel at his ingenuity. What would he have been able to accomplish if things had been different, if someone had taken him in hand and did not disappear?
“Why do you think you got involved with drugs?” I ask.
Dad explains he became involved with drugs because of the environment he lived in. Eventually, he connected with people who sold heroin and learned how to make heroin capsules. Throughout his teenaged years, this was his life.
“After dealing drugs, what made you decide to join the army?” At this question, Dad laughs, rocking back and forth, slapping at his knees.
“It was either that or go to jail! After basic training, I went to Fort Knox and then to Fort Gordon. It did not help me get my act together. I was stationed in Korea during the Vietnam conflict. It was beautiful and I loved it there. I wanted to be a radio operator but I couldn’t get a security clearance because of my police record so I worked in the motor pool keeping a log book of the vehicles.”
“Did you use in the army?”
“I used heroin habitually but could go periods of time without using. My friends would sometimes send me “care packages” filled with various substances. Drug use in the fifties and sixties was like a secret society. Nobody knew you used.”
It was hard for me to imagine this lifestyle, looking at him now, and knowing what I know about him. Throughout my life, I have observed him volunteering at homeless shelters, prison ministries, and helping struggling addicts through sponsorship with Narcotics Anonymous. How did he manage to pull himself from that other world?
“Did you go back to selling drugs after the army?”
“When I got back from the service I became involved with Egypt. She was an exotic dancer that sang with Bobby Blue Bland. She got me back in it. She was what they called high maintenance.”
“How did you feel about your life?” I ask.
“I felt fine. I did not realize anything was wrong. In fact, I thought it was pretty good. In March of 1967, I got a job at the Chrysler foundry as an interpreter of sorts. The management could not understand the black dialect. It was like a foreign language. I eventually worked my way up to a lead inspector. At the same time, I was actively distributing narcotics to the workers. They put in a drug treatment facility right in the Chrysler plant and passed out methadone. I worked there until the race riots that July.”
He explains that before the riots, it seemed that the poor whites and the blacks had a kind of camaraderie. He remembers that it was not uncommon to see a biracial group of youngsters running around together. It was not until after the riots that his neighborhood became segregated. I tell Dad that the Detroit riots are considered a major event in civil rights history.
“Bars and supermarkets were burned to the ground. The rioting lasted a week. It looked like a war zone. The apartment building I was living in on John R. burned to the ground. I was attacked by some kids who cut my scalp, face, and nose with a knife.”
The faded white scars on his cheek and the bridge of his nose are barely visible. He points them out to me. On his back is an eighteen-inch scar that draws a line from his left shoulder to his left kidney. As children, my sister and I asked about his scar. He never told us anything about it other than to live right and be good girls. Clearing his throat, he tells me now that a young street thug who barely looked twelve years old attacked him with a broken glass bottle.
Another time, a man trying to get into the drug market smashed Dad three times in the head with a baseball bat. Dad’s face crumples.
“Those young people were vicious. I needed 240 stitches with that attack. When that bat hit me, it was the most horrible sound.” He shudders.
Ruby, Dad’s first wife, marked the beginning of the end of his career as a dealer. He still speaks of her fondly. Although they were never legally married, he says he feels God brought her to him to help him get off the streets.
“Egypt traded me to Ruby for a ¼ ounce of dope. I was not working at Chrysler after the riots and the paycheck was gone, so Egypt, she was done with me. Ruby liked me a lot and I knew she would not get rid of me. She was the first woman that I felt really loved me. At 20 years older, she was my girlfriend, wife, love, and mother all rolled into one. She was a big player in the dope life and worked for the Big 6, a drug cartel in Detroit. We were together ten years.”
“If she was a major dealer, why do you feel she got you out of the lifestyle?” I feel a little uncomfortable hearing about this woman who is not my mother.
“Ruby was sick from using. She was dying of septicemia, her blood was poisoned from using dirty needles. There were holes in her arms and legs where the toxins in her blood came out. In her last days she told me she was going home to be with the Lord and that God had told her I would be dead or in a penitentiary in six months.”
For a few minutes, we stop as talking as tears run down his face. He clears his throat and I take his hand.
“How did you finally get out? What made the difference?”
“After Ruby died I saw the handwriting on the wall. I started wearing sunglasses because I scared people. They said my eyes looked like death. I left Detroit and went to Lansing because one of my sisters was there. I did not know where else to go, so I went to the social services in Lansing. They helped me find a small apartment and encouraged me to get involved with the Mission. The people at the Rescue Mission were very loving so I went there every day. A man, Pastor Sparks, talked about praying and I asked him if God would listen to someone like me who had done all I had done.”
“Did that seem strange to you, after everything you had been through?” I ask.
“No. I felt like my whole life had been leading me up to that point. I started praying for the first time in my life. I felt like a huge burden was lifted from me. From that point on, everything was different.”
My emotions overwhelm me. Whatever qualms I have with organized religion, it has clearly done much good in his life. He would not be the person I love without it.
“We’ve talked about much that was horrific in your life. What are the things that made you happiest?”
“Marrying your Mom, meeting you girls, and becoming a Dad to you. I was afraid I wouldn’t know how to be in a family but once we got married, it just came to me—how to do it right. Helping others makes me happy too, giving a hand to those trying to get out of the madness of the lifestyle, finding real friendship and fellowship in my life. If I could go back to my younger self, I would tell him to wake up. I kept myself pretty anesthetized because of all the violence around me. I wish I would have known the cost of drugs and alcohol back then.”
Even now, decades later, and years after getting clean, he will pay that cost with his life.
“So, having an ordinary life, being married, having a regular job, do you ever still think, how did I get here?” It seems like an impossible distance to travel.
“Every day I think about that, and I’m just so grateful.”
“You know Dad, that you’re a miracle.”
He shrugs his shoulders.
“I guess I am.”