How a Former Drug Dealer Survived Hepatitis C, HIV and Cancer and Overcame Addiction
Photo of Steve Daniels, courtesy of Tessie Castillo.
Photo Credit: Hadley Gustafson
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The scars on his face tell stories. Outside a coffee shop in downtown Winston Salem, North Carolina, Steve Daniels aka “Gator” sits straight and proud, eyeing the small tape recorder in my hand. I lay it down and press ‘record’.
“Let’s start from the beginning,” I say. “Tell me about your childhood.”
He frowns and purses his lips, perhaps reluctant to reveal a life of pain to an acquaintance less than half his age. A tall black man, handsome, but gaunt, a muslim kufi tops his gray-specked hair and he walks with the aid of a cane. People hush when Steve enters a room, not because he is famous, but because one look at the broken body and defiant jaw and they sense the presence of a veteran, not of war, but of life. Steve is a man who has survived hepatitis C, HIV andcancer, a man whose every move brings a spasm of pain, but whose proud eyes dare you to pity him.
At drug policy conferences where we occasionally meet, Steve stands out amidst the talking suits, the well-meaning people who’ve never taken a hit of a crack pipe in their lives, yet cry for reform. Drugs are Steve’s forte. He has snorted them, smoked them, shot them, sold them, and now, 17 years sober, he is here to make amends. Since leaving a life of drugs and crime, Steve runs an underground syringe exchange program in central North Carolina. From the back of his van he quietly distributes supplies to brothers on the street whose lives are still embroiled in drugs. He teaches about HIV and hepatitis C prevention and helps those who are willing get into treatment. Though syringe exchange is illegal in North Carolina, Steve does what he believes is right, and scoffs at any definition of himself as a hero.
“I do it because somebody’s got to do it,” he says with characteristic bluntness.
Outside the coffee shop, the occasional freight train shrieks past, rattling our table and forcing the interview to pause. As Steve recounts a life of crime and loss, the story floods out in so much detail that we can’t finish in our allotted time and have to reschedule another meeting. And then another. And another. In between interviews, he calls and texts frequently to add more to the story, things he’d forgotten to say. I ask him why he’s suddenly so open. He pauses before answering.
“All my friends and family are dead from HIV and hepatitis C. I’m the only one left alive to tell the story.”
Steve Daniels grew up in High Point, North Carolina. Son of an alcoholic, absentee father, his mother, grandmother and aunts raised him with strict lessons in independence and self-sufficiency. But they also taught him to serve.
“My grandmother grew vegetables and canned them, then gave them away to the neighborhood,” Steve explains. “To other black people, our family had a lot. From a white perspective, we were poor.”
Possessed of keen intelligence even as a boy, Steve did well in school and went on to attend Virginia Union University in Richmond with a major in biology. He planned to study medicine. But the freedoms of college had an irresistible allure for a mischievous young man and Steve was often on academic probation, in his words, for “actin’ like a damn fool.” Soon a thirst for new experiences took him on frequent trips into town.
“I used to catch the bus to downtown Richmond,” he says. “In North Carolina I’d never seen a drug dealer or a pimp, so I was curious when I saw these well-dressed guys leaning on Cadillacs. They had pretty women, nice watches and rings, alligator shoes. They looked peaceful to me and I told myself I wanted that.”