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The Boston Globe

Road To Redemption; Ex-Addict Reaches Out To Drug Users On Streets

By Douglas Belkin, Globe Staff

23 September 2004
Copyright © 2004 Bell & Howell Information and Learning Company. All rights reserved. 

LAWRENCE--- She had brown hair and sad, dark eyes and on Friday night she was wearing faded jeans that fell somewhere between fashionably grungy and just grungy. To anyone who passed she looked like any other twenty-something woman on a busy street in a bustling city.

To Louie Diaz, she looked like a junkie.

"She's hard up," he said, as he approached her. "She's desperate and she's a little bit scared."

Diaz is 37, a compact Puerto Rican with meticulously close- cropped black hair and the self-assuredness of a guy who can get away with anything and for a long time pretty much did. He started his well-rehearsed patter while walking toward her.

"Hey, how are you doing?" he said in Spanish with a grin that managed to be both friendly and serious at the same time. "Do you need a little help? I've got a place for you to stay if you want to detox," he said, as a business card suddenly appeared in his right hand.

The girl listened for a few minutes and seemed to decide it was OK to trust him.

"Yeah," the girl said, "I'm going to call you. I'm going to call you. I need some help."

Diaz smiled, hopped back onto his bicycle, and started to pedal toward Oxford Street the heart of Lawrence's notorious Crack Valley hoping to redeem addicts who have been dismissed as irredeemable by just about everybody else.

"She won't call," he said, as he pedaled away. "She's not ready, not yet."

This is a typical Friday night for Diaz, a former drug addict with an evangelist's zeal for saving souls from the same addiction that almost took his own life. Diaz got clean six years ago, touched, he said, by a miracle while he lay on a bathroom floor in a girlfriend's apartment with a noose in his hands. He has been preaching the gospel of detoxification on the trash-strewn sidewalks and dimly lighted alleys of Lawrence ever since.

Once, maybe twice a month Diaz heads out on his bicycle on his own time and stops addicts and users, friends and prostitutes, dealers and runners, and asks them if they need a bed, a place to clean up, a shoulder to lean on. Most say they do, then never call. But occasionally one of them usually at the nadir of a cycle of despair will nibble and then bite. It's for them that Diaz pedals the streets, he said.

And it's for this outreach that Diaz was honored this summer by the Greater Lawrence Family Health Center for his work educating addicts to their alternatives.

"A lot of these people don't know the programs that are there to help them," said Alex Bonilla, who is with the center. "Louie is making a difference."

"I'm not trying to change the world," Diaz said. "I'm just trying to change one person's world at a time. I've seen it happen. It happened to me."

Diaz and his family moved to Lawrence from Puerto Rico when Louie was a baby. His father was a minister who bought his own home in Lawrence through the paychecks he earned driving a forklift at Gillette. He cleared the path for his children to take their place in the American middle class, but Diaz made other plans. By the time he was a freshman at Lawrence High School, he was smoking marijuana in the housing projects, hanging around with hoods, testing the limits of law-abiding life.

"I wanted to be bad," he said. "I was stupid."

By his sophomore year, he'd dropped out and taken a job alongside his dad driving a forklift at Gillette. He lasted nine months. Diaz, who has an almost frenetic energy about him and palpable charisma, soon took to the streets, stealing cars, breaking into businesses, scamming nervous out-of-town users out of their drug money.

At first the drugs were amazing. "I felt like Superman," he said. "I felt powerful and important. But it didn't last."

Within a couple of years, Diaz was hooked on heroin and the highs were replaced by days of just trying to get back to normal. He entered one detox center after another, was sent to prison after prison, swore to himself and everyone around him that this was it, he was getting clean, he was done with using. He'd always go back.

"It's like your own private hell," he said. "You hate yourself and you still can't stop it."

After a particularly terrifying stint in a Puerto Rican prison ruled by gangs, as Diaz described it, he came to the conclusion he would never get clean. In his most desperate hour, he tied a noose in his girlfriend's bathroom and prepared to hang himself.

"I knew I didn't want to go out like that but I'd come to the end of the line," he said.

In a moment of grace he speaks of in a hushed and reverent tone, he realized what his suicide would do to his mother. Something larger than himself reached out to him and he fell to his knees and cried like a baby and something changed.

"I don't know why I found the strength that night when all the other times I failed," he said. "But I did."

He calls what happened to him on that floor simply "the miracle." He offers no explanations. He has been free of drugs ever since.

When Diaz returned to the United States, he began working in detox centers trying to help addicts stay clean. He is now an assistant director at the Center for Addictive Behavior, a drug rehab counseling center, in Tewksbury. There, at his desk in a small office he keeps a file filled with obituaries of the clients he has worked with. They've been shot by dealers, stabbed by other addicts, and overdosed under bridges.

"These people aren't numbers," Diaz said gravely from behind his desk last month. "They had families who loved them. I kept these here to remind me what the stakes are."

On Oxford Street on Friday night, the dimly lighted neighborhood is filled with addicts walking around, going nowhere. A police officer pulls over in his cruiser, frisks two teenage boys and, finding nothing, lets them go. Cars with New Hampshire plates and white drivers cruise the black and Latino neighborhood, stop, make a U-turn, circle the street three and four times, looking for a dealer.

They're all users taking part in a tightly choreographed dance of addiction, Diaz said. He pointed out prostitutes getting in and out of cars. One young girl, no older than 20, walked away from an SUV, her eyes glassy. It was past midnight and getting cold, and she was wearing a T-shirt and jeans. She told Diaz she was down from New York. Her hands were empty but she insisted she was selling perfume. Diaz tried to hand her his card; she wouldn't take it. She said again she was selling perfume.

A middle-aged man, standing on Broadway outside an apartment building where he rents a room for $90 a week, said he was clean for 15 months up until three days ago when he knocked on a neighbor's door to bum a cigarette. The neighbor blew crack smoke in his face.

"You can't do that to an addict," the man said flatly.

He was trying to get back on his feet before his daughter realized he was using again and refused to let him see his grandchildren. He took a card from Diaz. "I'll do anything," he said.

Drugs are the root of many of Lawrence's crime problems, said Police Chief John Romero. "It fuels most of the other crime, the B and E's, the robberies, prostitution, it all goes back to drugs," he said.

The police have cleaned up some of the most overt abuse, Romero said. But in Lawrence the trade is largely decentralized. Rather than being controlled by one large cartel, dozens of splinter groups run their own businesses driving back and forth to New York to buy relatively small amounts, maybe half-kilograms, then quadrupling their investment on the street in a few hours.

"Heroin is cheaper than ever," Romero said. "We're winning some battles, but we're still dealing with it every day."

From Diaz's perspective, it's a battle that, at best, can be fought to a standstill. In the meantime, the body count continues to rise around him and the stakes are life and death.

By midnight on Friday, Diaz has handed out two dozen cards with his name and number. Maybe one person will call, he said. Maybe none. But he'll be back out here next month and the month after.

"That was me out there," he said. "I know what they're going through."

Then he got back onto his bike and pedaled down another dark street, looking for another soul to save.

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