AUBURN | Derek Titus has a few choice words for himself.
At 10, he was “a black male Cinderella.”
At 20, “a drunken dope fiend for a husband.”
At 30, “a damn monster.”
But it’s how the 45-year-old Auburn man describes himself today that brings tears to his eyes and a tremor to his lips: “A hard worker.” “Grateful.” “A miracle.”
Today, Derek is happy. He’s training to become a certified alcohol and substance abuse counselor at Confidential Help for Alcohol and Drugs. He’s a member of Lakes Church. He’s engaged.
That all happened because five years ago Monday, May 5, Derek got clean. Pocking his road to that moment, however, was a life of poverty, sadness and despair.
‘A BLACK MALE CINDERELLA’
Born in 1968, Derek grew up on Pine Street on Syracuse’s east side, the middle of five children. It was a “good, tight family,” he said.
When he was 6 or 7, the family moved to Westmoreland and East Fayette, which marked a major change of scenery, he said. Among his first memories, a week after the move, was seeing an older man get shot from the front window of his house.
As a boy, Derek wasn’t immune to the environment, either.
“My first week there I got jumped,” he said. “That was just the way the neighborhood kids got you into the neighborhood.”
Derek remained an A-student, hoping to be the first in his family to go to college, and then become an architect. With a laugh he calls himself a nerd — behind him, a Marvel “Avengers” blanket the color of mixed vegetables lends validity to his words.
Later, his mom and siblings moved to another home about a block away, leaving Derek with his great-grandmother. Many days he’d go to their apartment to clean and do other chores while his mom worked from morning to night. His brothers and sisters, meanwhile, got to go outside and play. Derek endured, hoping to earn his mother’s approval — eventually.
“She was real hard on me — probably harder on me, I thought, than the rest, because she just probably didn’t like my dad,” he said. “I looked just like him — God bless the dead.”
At the same time, Derek grew closer to other boys his age in the neighborhood. They all wanted more, he said. Despite being what he’d call well-off, Derek could see that his life didn’t quite match what he’d watch on TV. Even at his own school, he said, the children had cooler sneakers.
That’s when the resentment surfaced, he said. And at 14, Derek found relief in marijuana. He remembers his first hit vividly: A friend waved him up from the street to an exposed staircase in a half-finished building, where they sat and shared the joint in the cool air of a Syracuse spring.
“When I took that, I knew at that instance that my life was gonna change,” he said.
Looking back, Derek said, that joint wasn’t a gateway to more drugs, but something of much greater consequence.
“I became part of the dynamic of the neighborhood that everybody forgot. When they talk about a project, that’s what it is: a project. ‘Let’s put all these people in here and see how many kill themselves,'” he said. “And it’s not just a project for black people. It’s a project all over America.”
By the end of the year, Derek left home.
‘A DRUNKEN DOPE FIEND’
A cocktail of masculinity, hip-hop fashion and drug abuse pulled Derek deeper into the arms of the neighborhood friends with whom he was now living. He skipped school frequently, failing ninth grade. To fund his habits — flashy clothes, weed and 40-ounces — he’d break into cars.
“We’d rap and dance and all that,” he said, “but at the end of the day, it was about who was getting their hustle on.”
Derek saw glimpses of the lifestyle’s sharper edges, but kept his distance. Cocaine, crack, needles — anything that could hook him hard he stayed away from, he said. Feeling he still had a grip on his drug use, Derek decided to finish high school.
He was kicked out for stealing a teacher’s purse, and was sent to the Prescott School. Its stringency served him well. Derek relaxed his drinking and smoking, and started going to school more often than not. Helping stage a production of “A Christmas Carol” was a high point of his renewed scholastic focus, he said.
It didn’t last. Derek returned to crime, in more dangerous forms than before: Selling marijuana, carrying a gun. He’d do stints in jail for petty larceny, assault and truancy.
Source: The Citizen Auburn | David Wilcox | [email protected]