Saving throwaway lives

Once he was just another junkie looking for his next blast. Now he's the founder of eight halfway houses, helping Baltimore addicts find redemption.

January 24, 1999|By M. Dion Thompson | M. Dion Thompson,Sun Staff

ADDICTION'S MADNESS made him snatch the dealer's gold chain. Now he was paying for it, lying face up on a northwest Baltimore sidewalk, five .32-caliber bullets in his gut.

A police officer stood over him, his laughing face looming against the night sky. The cop bent down to draw a chalk line around his bleeding body. The officer wouldn't mind seeing him go. He'd been nothing but trouble, a throwaway junkie.

He called out for someone, anyone, to go get his brother. No sense waiting for the cop to call an ambulance.

He could have died on that sidewalk, or in the hospital where he spent two months recovering from the gunshot wounds, or in the abandoned car where he lived, or any of the times he overdosed during 30 years of heroin addiction. But Israel Cason did not die.

And because he did not die, Baltimore has eight more halfway houses, all set up by Cason without a dime from the government, all set up in the last year and a half, all performing daily the near-miracle of salvaging throwaway lives. An extraordinary task in the best of circumstances; a herculean task for a newly recovering dope fiend.

City Hall honored Cason last August, declaring the 29th "I Can't We Can Day," after the name of his program. At last count, 87 men and women were in the program, all holding to one simple rule: "Change you must, or die you will."

Courts recommend addicts to the program. "It's one of the better halfway houses, definitely, in Baltimore City," says probation officer Cornelius Woodson.

Cason accepts the accolades, puts the City Hall plaque on the wall, and keeps on moving. To him, "It's about saving souls."

"I know what it took to save my soul," he says. "It wasn't people. It was divine intervention. See, I'm supposed to have been dead. I been shot up, cut up, stabbed up. OD'd over 20-something times -- way over. I can't even count the times. I mean, I stayed in a ambulance."

You look for signs of his heroin addiction -- he's clean just three years -- and find none in this 6-foot-3, robust 47-year-old. Ask him about his mission, the country's drug policy, the needs of recovering addicts, and he drops his usually upbeat mood.

"I don't condone nothing that deals with substance abuse," he says. "I just deal with total abstinence. Giving out needles, putting people on methadone. That's not going to get it. The people that's doing that, they're playing the devil's advocate."

A lifetime passed before Israel Cason could speak those words.

Back from the wilderness

The sister who helped raise him says this was bound to happen. Sitting in her Greenmount Avenue restaurant, Sheila Cason, "Miss Shug" to all the world, says, "I say, 'Impo. You were out there in that wilderness because God wanted you to lead them on in. This is your calling.' "

Looking back, it's easy to talk about divine intervention. Events lend themselves to such interpretations. But that's hindsight.

He was born Oct. 21, 1951. Pearline Cason delivered him on the first floor of their home at 210 E. Lafayette St. He was the seventh of 11 children. Pearline and Presley Cason were a strong, churchgoing couple. She was a seamstress; he worked in a brickyard. They called Israel "Imp," or "Impo," because he was always getting into things.

He grew up shining shoes, turning cartwheels, cutting up for white folks who tossed a few coins his way in the segregated Baltimore of the 1950s. Later, he rigged phone booths to steal change and broke into freight cars with his childhood buddy, Earl Blue. A yard bull shot him in the leg on one of those forays. He told doctors the wounding was an accident.

For fun, neighborhood boys would load a revolver with one bullet, give the barrel a spin, then fire at each other.

"That's the kind of neighborhood it was," says Blue, 46. "If you wasn't on your p's and q's, you'd get swallowed up, incarcerated or in the graveyard."

Cason was smart. He spent sixth grade studying French and algebra with the white kids in Waverly. He arrived at Clifton Park Junior High ahead of the class. He could stay out all week, show up on Friday and ace the test.

A huge, abandoned house became his other school. People sniffed glue, shot dope, smoked marijuana. When an older brother enrolled at prestigious Baltimore Polytechnic High School, Israel studied and made the grades to enroll, too. He just wanted to show everyone he could get in.

"I didn't want to go to school there. It was nothing but white boys there. You had to wear a necktie," he says. "But I went. Put a tie on, and my Italian knits."

School couldn't hold him. He wanted an addict's "mug broke-down" look and disengaged attitude. Junkies seemed the essence of ghetto cool.

"I used to watch the guys who got high," he says. "I wanted tracks. It looked real slick to me. I wanted the big hands. I wanted the abscesses.

"I know it sounds crazy now. You start experimenting, and this becomes your family."

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