Tag Archive | "Youth Violence"

Dreams and Nightmares

Jonathan Calderon sitting on his mother's couch on a Saturday night, with a day pass from the treatment center.

Jonathan Calderon sitting on his mother's couch on a Saturday night, on a one-day pass from the VIP treatment center, determined to turn his life around and become a health care worker and a devoted father. (HAN ZHANG/BronxInk)

Jonathan Calderon woke up on a hot June morning, wrapped in a wrinkled red and black blanket, soaked in cold sweat. It was his fourth night and fourth day crashing on his friend’s small couch without heroin. He had no money and no strength to go back to the street. That’s when he logged onto Facebook on his friend’s phone. On the top of the news feed was a photo of his 7-month-old daughter, tilting her head in a smile. “Why am I here instead of being at her side?” Calderon thought to himself. In his 24 years, Calderon, a Mott Haven native, had spent 14 years using and selling drugs, and the last four years doing heroin. Drugs, he said, once relieved his loneliness. Selling drugs even lifted him out of poverty, temporarily. But now, all he had was two knife-slash scars in his arm and leg, four tattoos and a broken down body. Calderon realized that he was about to condemn his young daughter to a life with an absent father on drugs. But he wanted to be able to participate in her childhood. He decided that he had to stop letting heroin control his life. Calderon’s problem was not unique. Many of the city's drug users and their families had endured even worse. Last year, 782 New Yorkers died of drug overdoses. Of those, 420 deaths involved heroin. In the past four years, the city had seen a steady growth in the death toll of drug poisoning, according to a study released this August by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. More than a quarter of those deaths occurred in the Bronx. During 2012, among every 100,000 residents in the Bronx, 8.8 died of drug poisoning involving heroin. From 2012 to 2013, 16.6 percent of the deaths happened in Hunts Point and Mott Haven, the neighborhood with the most heroin-related deaths in New York City since 2010. In the country, an increasing number of young people started using heroin in the beginning of their adult life. According to the National Survey on Drug Use and Health, in 2012, 18 to 25 year olds accounted for 43.6 percent of illicit drug use. In 2012 alone, 156,000 persons started to use heroin, with the average age of initial use at 23. Grow Up Fast, Smoking Weed Growing up in Mott Haven to drug-addicted parents, Calderon had only met his father once and did not see his mother much before he was 12. He was shuffled between his relatives’ houses, feeling unwelcome everywhere. School wasn’t any better. He said he was bullied through elementary school to junior high, and dropped out of high school after only a few months. He didn’t remember having a toy, or going to the zoo, or holding his parents’ hands. He promised not to let this happen to his own child. “I had to grow up fast to defend myself in the street,” he said. He smoked his first hit of marijuana at the age of 11. “Gimme some of that or I’ll tell your mom,” he remembered telling his 14-year-old cousin. On his 12th birthday, he smoked his second joint with friends in a park near Westchester Avenue. The weed slowed him down and made him laugh. He liked it. By 13, he was smoking several times a day and selling it. Street-smart and an early developer, he was pulled in by a gang in the neighborhood. Surrounded by 18 to 20 year-olds who gave him money and taught him how to sell drugs and to put down street fights, for the first time in his life, Calderon felt embraced and thought that it was love. From a Pothead to a Pill-head One thing led to another, and at 17, Jonathan discovered “Opana,” a prescription painkiller that was able to freeze everything out for him. After taking the orange-colored pill, he liked to run around while the surroundings faded out. In this blurry world, he felt relieved from the pain and stress of loneliness. In 2013, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services warned that “crushing, chewing or dissolving” pills such as Opana ER “will result in uncontrolled delivery of active opioid and can lead to overdose or death,” and ordered the manufacturers to change the package labels, directing prescriptions only be given for “severe pain” instead of the formerly “moderate-to-severe pain.” For this reason, in 2012, Opana ER, the long-acting analgesic, adopted a new formulation that resists being dissolved. But back in 2006, when Opana ER first came on the market, Calderon didn’t know he could open up the pills and snort them. He only took “Opana” in pill form. The same year, his street business went to a new level. He started to sell heroin in small bags with a star stamped on it. At that time, Calderon said, all the heroin sold by local gangs had brand images stamped on the bags. The names were derived from a large range of things -“Blue Spider,” “Daddy Yankee,” “MySpace” and “Walking Dead,” to name a few. His left hand still bears a tattoo of a star and a dollar sign. In 2007, a bag of heroin cost around $10. A bundle of 10 bags cost $50 to $ 80. Sometimes, Calderon was able to sell about 15 bundles to up to 30 people in a day. A daily revenue of $500 was commonplace. On a good day, he could make $1000. The money flipped his whole life around, from a street kid with no regular home to an 18 year old with his own place. He paid monthly rent of $500 for a basement studio in a three-story building on Cypress Avenue. It wasn’t just the housing situation that changed. In a neighborhood where 41 percent of the population lived below poverty level, he often spent $150 on a pair of Levi’s jeans and $300 on Jordan sneakers. In fact, he had so many sneakers that he used to wear different shoes everyday for a month. By 19, Calderon had saved up $10,000. Not able to put the street money into a bank account, he dug a hole in the wall in his closet to store his fortune behind his True Religion jeans and Polo shirts. But the $10,000 saving was just a small token of what he had made. He spent most of them on clothes, liquor, cab fare. Some nights, with friends, he would spent $100 at nightclubs. He once squandered $1000 at Sin City Cabaret. Every morning when he turned on his phone at 6 or 7 a.m., it would ring non-stop because addicts in the neighborhood had been craving heroin all night long. After taking care of the business, he would swing by a store to get cigarettes, rolling papers and marijuana in the street. Then he went back home, put on some music, usually Rap or R&B. He liked Meek Mill’s “I Am a Boss” and Trey Songz “Already Taken” the most. And then he would start to smoke. Before noon he would have showered and put on some cologne and had his waist-length hair braided. He’d put on his dashing new clothes and sneakers, ready to show up on the street where he hung out with other gang members till midnight. Calderon enjoyed looking nice and being respected on the street. But sometimes his mind strayed from the non-stop chatter between gangsters about who had been beaten up or who had been killed. “I wish I was born in another country where there was no drugs or violence, living a normal life with my parents,” Calderon said. Live to Dose, Dose to Live In 2009, a girlfriend showed Calderon a new way of taking “Opana.” He started to crush it into powder and snorted it. This could create “legal high,” the same as heroin, but via prescription narcotics. From 2003 to 2012 in New York State, drug-poisoning deaths involving opioid analgesic increased from 186 to 914, reaching a peak of 940 in 2010, according to a study released by the state Department of Health. Most of the victims aged 45 to 64, the age group 20 to 44 being the second large. From 2003 to 2012, death toll of the later group grew almost five folds. Like many other drug users who started with opiod analgesic but then switched to heroin, the more accessible, less expensive substitute, at 21, Calderon started to use the heroin he had for sale, after he and his girlfriend ran out of “Opana.” One snort of heroin always brought him a rush of energy in his body and he would start to scratch-- “the good itch” --all over his body. He could feel the excitement breaking through his normal shyness. After the burst of happiness, Calderon would go into to a deep sleep that he would try to fight away. On a given day, he would snort up to ten bags of heroin. He followed the voice in his head, “Go get it. Go get it.” In about a year and a half, he used up all his savings. But the voice didn’t stop chanting. He started to sell things, like his jewelry and AirJordan sneakers, until he was down to one outfit, and one pair of shoes. Calderon began to cash in on his scrappy reputation on the street. Other heroin dealers loaned him 10 or 20 bundles. One person loaned him 50, expecting him to pay back $2,500. Instead, he snorted it all. That was the beginning of his trouble on the street. Once he was slashed in one arm and leg. The wound opening didn’t heal for two weeks. He was 23. By the end of 2013, Calderon was emotionally repulsed by heroin, tired of all the chasing, hunting and disappointing his family. But his body couldn’t handle withdrawal. In addition to the chills and the sweats, the fevers, compulsive vomiting and sometimes incontinence could drag on for days. He had to get high to feel normal. He was sick of it. “I don’t need my life back. I need a new life.” Calderon knocked on his mother’s door, after four days this June at his friend’s. “I need help, mom,” he said. Having always blamed herself for Calderon’s addiction, the mother instantly broke into tears and hugged him. The day after, she sent Calderon to detox at St. Barnabas Hospital, where he rested for about a week, getting health checks until all the remnants of heroin were removed from his system. Methadone was used to curb his cravings. At the end of the treatment, Calderon was referred to a six to nine months residence treatment program at VIP Services where he participated in group discussions and various therapy sessions during the daytime. Having stayed clean for more than three months, he started to go to classes at Eagle Academy to prepare for GED test. Beyond the test, he plans to be trained for a Primary Care Paramedic License with which he hopes to become a phlebotomist. “I think by handling people’s blood and urine samples, I could help people dealing with their problems,” Calderon said that he had wanted to become a phlebotomist since he was 17 or 18. His daughter is turning one in less than a month. Calderon is counting days – she may be one and a half year old when he finishes Primary Care Paramedic training, is out of the treatment center and on track for his new life. “In a couple of years, when she’s grown up a little bit, I want to get a half sleeve tattoo with her name and face on it,” Calderon said, by then he would have removed the star and dollar tattoo on his hand. He has his mother and grandmother’s name tattooed on his arm and neck. On his other arm was a tattoo from long ago that says “Dreams and Nightmares.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Bronx Tales, Featured, HealthComments (0)

Graffiti, girls, and bragging rights

This article is by Jennifer Brookland and Ryan Tracy.
Ashley Cardero, second from right, and Angelica Nitura, second from left, stood with friends by a memorial on Cromwell Street, not far from where 18 year-old Juandy Paredes was stabbed to death Friday night.

Ashley Cardero, second from left, and Angelica Nitura, second from right, stood with friends by a memorial on Cromwell Ave., not far from where 17 year-old Juandy Paredes was stabbed to death Friday night. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Juandy Paredes’s crew hangs out at 1164 Cromwell Avenue at night, or at the nearby park just north of Yankee Stadium.  They smoke, drink, and make too much noise. The cops come arrest people all the time for trespassing and being loud. In fact, the kids from this neighborhood say they see the same cop and the same ambulance on the corner by the park every night, waiting for trouble. Trouble breaks out a lot. In this stretch of Mt. Eden, thumping a few blocks away from the 4 train, graffiti colors the exteriors, kids with Spanish nicknames and tattoos fight members of rival cliques, and questions are met with “I don’t know anything,” by people who do. Next to guys in sweats with ear-buds tracing lines from their pockets to their ears, Angelica Nitura looks almost out of place in skinny jeans and a blue cardigan.  She talks about her favorite memory of Paredes, a 17 year-old kid they all called “Frko,” or fresh boy. It was on April Fool’s Day, and someone from another crew had taken a guy’s hat. Paredes stood up for the guy, fighting the kids who had taken the hat until they smashed a bottle over his head. Paredes walked angrily back to Nitura. “His whole side of his head is bleeding, like busted up, leaking,” said Nitura. “I like that he came back, after washing off all that blood. I like that he stood up for his friend. That was my favorite time.” Paredes’s crew calls itself the “F--- Your Life” group, or “F.Y.L.” for short, but insists it’s not a gang. More like a family where everyone watches the others’ backs. There are maybe 50 or 60 of them, all from the neighborhood. Today, laminated badges that they designed on computers swing from their necks showing pictures of Paredes and “4/16/2010,” the date he was killed a few blocks away at 167th and Jerome Avenue. They cross themselves and kiss their fingers in front of the memorial they’ve built for Paredes, a wooden table with tall plastic flowers under his picture, a Dominican flag, and a collection of candles with pictures of saints on them.
Juandy Paredes, pictured here in a collage made by a family friend.  (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Juandy Paredes, pictured here in a collage made by a family friend. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Their expressions are hard. But only four days after Paredes was murdered, tears come suddenly. Ashley Cordero is known by her friends as “Shine.” She has her brother’s name tattooed on her right hand, and swirls of color filling the gap between her shirt and her waistband on her left side. She breaks down thinking about the first time she met Paredes. It was July 14th, and she was eating Chinese food in the park. Paredes hung out there a lot because he loved inline skating, trying out tricks on rollerblades that were fitted with a panel on the bottom for sliding along curbs and rails. He told her she was beautiful and he was going to make her his. She offered to share her Chinese food. Now Cordero is planning the tattoo she’ll get with Paredes’s name and a pair of wings on her back. She and Nitura both feel guilty that he was killed, because they encouraged him to leave the building where they were chilling and playing with knives. It was getting too loud, the cops were bound to come. So Paredes left with two other teen boys and according to Cordero, went to the convenience store on the corner. Paredes was stabbed five times. Cordero said he flagged down a police van nearby and banged on its windows for help.  “I’m poked, I’m poked,” he told the cops. Then he collapsed. Paramedics attended to him there on the street, but he died before he arrived at Lincoln Hospital. The man charged with murdering him lives a nine-minute walk from where the mouthpiece used on Paredes lay full of blood in the street, up Jerome Avenue under the train tracks and past tables selling discount perfume and peeled oranges. At his arraignment at the Bronx Supreme Criminal Court on Tuesday afternoon, Hector Bautista looked much too young to be charged with second-degree murder. The pony-tailed 18 year-old stood silently when the judge denied his request for bail.
Juandy Paredes' friends scrawled graffiti on the wall across from his family's home  They had nicknamed Paredes "Frko," or fresh boy.  (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Juandy Paredes' friends scrawled graffiti on the wall across from his family's home. They had nicknamed him "Frko," or fresh boy. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Outside the courtroom, friends took turns defending Bautista, a basketball player who they said was a jokester with a good heart who had stopped attending high school. They insisted he was innocent of the stabbing.  But they admitted he was part of the conflicts that, fueled by graffiti, girls, and bragging rights, permeate the world of teenagers like him and Paredes. "They lived in different places. That's it," said a girl who identified herself as Bautista’s girlfriend but would not give her name. In the dimly-lit apartment on Irving Avenue where Paredes lived, cousins, uncles, aunts, and friends wore black, about to attend his funeral. They had heard about Bautista’s arrest, but wondered if police would be able to catch the other two teens police told the family were involved in the fight. The family was calm and poised on Tuesday.  Two unsmiling men went about filling a cooler with ice and bottles of water for visitors. Until, contagious as a yawn, a long, slow wail broke out from one of the dark-clad women. She lowered her head and balled her hands into fists. The high-pitched sounds of her crying spread to other family members and escaped into the bright sunlight outside, where Paredes’s friends had spray-painted white graffiti over the entire brick surface of the opposing wall. “If you stay for 20 minutes you can read it all. Then you’ll understand,” said Dualis, Paredes’s 10 year-old half-sister. Paredes’s room was covered in graffiti, too, blue and black scrawls painted by him or his friends swarm across the walls. “F.Y.L” appeared in several places, and on the ceiling, emblazoned with a heart was the name Brenda. The room was a disaster. A bare strip of mattress poked out from under piles of clothing that spilled onto the floor and made walking impossible. Boxes of his favorite designer shoes were stacked head-high. A heads-up penny lay near the doorway. “He would clean it every day but that same day he’d make the same mess,” said Dualis.
Graffiti and tags from his local crew cover the walls in Juandy Paredes' bedroom.  Paredes, 18, was stabbed to death on Friday, April 16.

Graffiti referring to Juandy Paredes' crew cover the walls in his bedroom. Paredes, 17, was stabbed to death on Friday, April 16. An 18 year-old member of a rival crew has been arrested but is denying the charges. (Ryan Tracy/The Bronx Ink)

Paredes used to play “tickle monster” with her on the bed, where they would tickle each other’s feet. They played board games like Monopoly and “Guess Who?” even though Paredes got so mad when she beat him that he swore he wouldn’t play again. Dualis said she usually won. A computer with a large silver-framed screen sat on a small desk in the corner, where light from the window illuminated the keyboard. Coralys Nunez, who was like an aunt to Paredes, and says he was creative, smart with computers and could “unblock” any website. He thought about being a game designer, if not a fashion designer. He got all A’s in school. But Paredes had dropped out of school. He just got tired of going, says Dualis. Even Cordero, who says she and Paredes were always together for the past nine months, didn’t know if Paredes had any goals. They just didn’t talk about that, she says. One of Paredes’s friends created a Facebook page in his memory. Brendalee Torres captioned a picture of her and Paredes kissing with expressions of grief and love, and also, a threat. “Whoever did this to you gonna get his, trust me.” Cordero says none of the crew has been killed before, despite all the neighborhood rivalries. But it’s almost as if she thinks Paredes won’t be the last friend for whom she will be forced to light candles. “The one person you don’t want to lose,” she said,” is the first one to go.”

Posted in Bronx Neighborhoods, Crime, Southern BronxComments (5)