THE NEW YORK TIMES
By Matt Chaban
When Eric Gonzalez started working as a custodian on East 125th Street in Harlem for a local merchant’s association earlier this year, the hardest part was not hauling trash or sweeping gutters. It was dealing with the K2 addicts.
“They were terrible,” Mr. Gonzalez, 39, said recently over lunch at an IHOP on Lexington Avenue. “Mean, crazy, unpredictable. They’d be just sitting there one minute, raging the next.”
Highly potent synthetic marijuana, known as K2 on the street, has become a scourge in Harlem, dragging pockets of the neighborhood back to bleaker decades. The K2 users especially like to congregate under the Metro-North Railroad station, the area Mr. Gonzalez was assigned to clean.
He worked diligently, not wanting to lose his first honest job, but it was not easy. Not long ago, he would have fit in among those lost souls, as a drug dealer addicted in equal measure to the money and the narcotics.
Yet negotiating the limp bodies along the street gave him the resolve to work harder.
“I just want to keep going forward, not backwards,” he said. “I have too much to lose now.”
Drugs and crime were facts of life when he was growing up in the South Bronx in the 1990s. His mother worked hard to keep her only child away from it all.
His father was not around, and Mr. Gonzalez struggled at school, but he kept out of trouble and was accepted at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, with dreams of cleaning up the neighborhood as a police officer. In his first semester, his girlfriend got pregnant. Feeling an obligation to raise his son, Mr. Gonzalez dropped out of college to work but was unsuccessful in finding a job.
He turned to the only option he believed he had: Mr. Gonzalez approached a friend from the neighborhood, who offered him a bag of crack cocaine and a set of orders. With a firm work ethic and felicitous charm, Mr. Gonzalez excelled at dealing drugs.
“I got addicted to the lifestyle,” he said.
He developed a taste for nice clothes, with a sneaker collection that made his bedroom resemble a Foot Locker store. There were plenty of gifts for his girlfriend and his son, though not necessarily quality time. Long days on the street were followed by long nights at the clubs. Drugs were prevalent, and Mr. Gonzalez eventually began to indulge as dealing became more stressful and treacherous.
His work largely remained a secret from his family until he sold drugs to an undercover police officer. He was sent to Rikers Island, and officers went to his mother’s house to notify her.
“She was mad, and she was hurt,” Mr. Gonzalez said. “She never wanted this for me, but I didn’t know what else to do.”
The charges he faced were consolidated into one punishable by 30 days in jail; he was released after a month.
He promised his family he would stop selling drugs. But his efforts to find a job, including a failed attempt as a welder’s apprentice, fell short, and he slipped back into his old life. That secret, combined with a newfound paranoia developed in jail, made his dependence on drugs worse. When his girlfriend discovered he had reverted to his old ways, she left with their son and newborn daughter and moved to New Jersey.
It took the fatal shooting of one friend by another, in a 2011 dispute over drug turf, that finally made Mr. Gonzalez stop dealing. He entered a residential treatment program.
Three years later, he was ready to get his life on track and enrolled in vocational training with the Association of Community Employment Programs for the Homeless.
He did not have the money for a MetroCard to get him to the association’s offices in Manhattan. The Community Service Society of New York, one of seven charities supported by The New York Times Neediest Cases Fund, used $116.50 from the fund to buy him a monthly card.
It was still difficult finding full-time employment, so the association hired him in February to do janitorial work for the New Harlem East Merchants Association on East 125th Street, where he has impressed business owners, residents and students.
“Eric’s punctual and he works hard, which hasn’t always been our experience with the program,” said Nina DeMartini-Day, a local developer and an association board member. “He’s always trying to do something extra, even if it’s just carrying something up the stairs.”
The MetroCard had other benefits. On the subway one day, he met his current girlfriend, with whom he now lives in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, with her two teenage sons. Mr. Gonzalez is trying to keep everyone in line, including his own son, a freshman at the State University of New York at New Paltz.
“I just want to point them in the right direction,” he said. “They’re at that age where they’re all over the place.”
THE NEW YORK TIMES