The hustle was real: From dealing to healing

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“Through the power of forgiveness and not holding onto hatred for what happened in the past, my blessings are plentiful,” writes CoyLaVan Harris Jr. 

by CoyLaVan Harris Jr.

I didn’t grow up like a lot of other children, but the difference was that I wanted more than most kids. My journey may be seen by some as privileged, because we had money, derived from the sale of drugs – no different from the families raised in this country during the Prohibition Era of the 1930s who amassed riches by selling alcohol, the beginning of generational wealth and pedigree for some. However, the drug war produced profoundly unequal outcomes in communities of color.

The hustle was real and code for being entrepreneurial in my family. I was lured by materialism that came with the hustle; the nice cars, flashy clothing and jewelry, fine women and all the money. Although I didn’t start as a runner for a local dealer and then get a direct line with the dealer, the dope was in my home. The garbage bags filled with weed, and later the bathtub filled with cocaine, and the liquor. It all came with a hefty price tag: the expense of the lifestyle and the cost of using.

The disconnect of who I thought I was based on who I tried to imitate – my daddy and my stepfather – was laid bare by three prison sentences and an addiction that took many years to overcome. I was born in Bayview Hunters Point, San Francisco, Calif., into a military family, my father a member of the United States Navy. My mom, a beautiful woman, loving but stern, who loved to cook and keep a home in perfect order. For the first five years of my life, we lived in shipyard housing.

After my father left the Navy, he became a cameraman for a local television station, drove buses for MUNI and was an entrepreneur. In the 1970s he and my uncle owned and operated the only Black club in the Marina District in San Francisco. There were pictures on the walls of local and national celebrities who visited the club like Stevie Wonder, Clint Eastwood, The Whispers, Nonstop LTD and many great bands.

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As a family we moved from Hunters Point to the Lakeview neighborhood. No sooner than we arrived, my folks split and my mom fell in love with my stepfather. He was big, tall, imposing and strong with a heavy voice that frightened me as a kid, because my dad was soft spoken. My mom, older sister and I moved to the Sunnydale area. My blended family grew when they got together to include one brother and two younger sisters.

Ironically, my dad gave my stepfather permission to discipline me. Even though my stepdad was strict, he was hardly in our home. He was a hustler who sold dope and came home once a week. He took us out of the Sunnydale apartments and put us in a house on Cortland. We had lots of nice things compared to other families that we knew.

In school, my reading and writing skills were not up to par with the other kids in my grade. I was frustrated at school not getting the help I needed, and at home with my mom’s anger at me because I was not able to catch on. I remember going to my mom with homework, and I’d mess up and she’d get mad and say, “You’d better remember that word we just went over.” Of course, I didn’t and she’d slapped the mess out of me. 

When I turned 12, I started stealing dope from my stepfather and selling joints in junior high school.

With the kids teasing me at school and then going home and getting beat for not knowing, I started acting out, eventually cutting school in the fifth or sixth grade. I would go home and watch television. I went to special education classes in eighth grade; my reading was really poor. 

When I turned 12, I started stealing dope from my stepfather and selling joints in junior high school. Living in a hustler’s home, weed was abundantly around, garbage cans full of it. By the time I got to high school, he finally caught me stealing his weed and sat me down to give me the rules of the game – “Don’t be your best customer,[learn] how to sell it and how to make a profit!” 

I had to buy my weed from him. He was strict on how I made money, “Don’t just f*** it off!” he would preach. All these years I was scared of him and when he sat me down to talk about the hustle and flow, I began to respect him more, wanting to be like him. 

I was very young and impressionable. I wanted to be recognized as a sharp dresser, buying clothes at Flagg Brothers, going to the games and talking with the girls. The billboards, lights, camera, action was in my DNA. I love live music and the performances. 

After school, I worked in my dad’s club cleaning up and even drove a limousine for my stepdad’s business. I remember driving Sly Stone and Chaka Khan to the Cow Palace in San Francisco to perform – it was a party! I saw so many performers in the Bay Area back then: Stephanie Mills, Frankie Beverly and Maze, the Jackson Five, Bloodstones, Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes, the Spinner, and even the Harlem Globetrotters and live Roller Derby.

I was in between worlds, good and evil. At 17, I caught my first felony and ended up serving four months in jail in Contra Costa County. Lesson learned and trying to follow the righteous path of my dad, I signed up for the Navy. That conviction held me back; I was rejected and it was a hurting feeling. 

Left to my own devices, I started selling cocaine, although not making money and losing profit due to not having enough drugs to sell. I remember my stepdad questioning me: “Why you not going up in quantities?” 

And, he showed me how to use a scale. “You can’t get high on your own supply!” Which leads to making bad judgment calls – advice I ignored and ultimately paid the price for.

By the late-1990s, my addiction problems resulted in my career faltering after it peaked, having accomplished some personal milestones; becoming a father, driving for MUNI and buying a home. My dreams deferred when I relapsed and ended up at an employer sponsored 30-day rehabilitation program, New Bridge. I got out of the program and went back to MUNI.

In 2001, I was arrested for domestic violence. While serving time I was forced with resignation or termination and ended up getting fired. I was released from jail and placed on probation with three years joint suspended. Still in my addiction, in 2002, I was arrested again for robbery in San Francisco, and because of that I had to serve the three years in prison, although I only served 22 months. It was in prison that I began to improve my reading and writing skills.

As soon as I got out of prison in 2004, I violated the conditions of my parole. I ran to Alabama and then to Florida. After being on the lam and still in my addiction, I caught a case in Florida that sent me back to prison for a year and a day. After completing my sentence and signing an expedition form, the State of Florida gave me a cross-country Greyhound bus ticket to Oakland, Calif., and $100. 

I arrived in California, went to see my parole officer, who wanted to put me back in prison for one year for violating the domestic violence restraining order. My legal battle and desire to remain free gave me the motivation to fight the case through a hearing and eventual appeal to the California Parole Board. Because I had signed the extradition form, the time I served in Florida was credited for California so they had to let me go.

I stayed with family in Vallejo, Calif., going back to the trades doing construction work, although I was still in my addiction. I pawned some family heirlooms and couldn’t get the jewelry back. I was so low, knowing that people loved me, were there for me, and I’d disappointed them yet again. Instead of facing the consequences and making amends, I ran.

This time, back to the seedy streets of San Francisco desperately in search of some real recovery. I was high, broke and homeless. Although, back then, you couldn’t just show up and receive help. You had to wait your turn and the list was long. 

While waiting to get into Walden House, I stayed in a shelter on 5th Street in the city. Every day, I’d go to check to see if a bed was ready. On Sept. 23, 2009, so close to recovery and the day before I was scheduled to enter treatment, I was arrested for selling crack to an undercover narcotic agent in San Francisco. The tables had turned, here I was in my 40s selling drugs for a 20-year-old. 

I fought this case since I was not on probation or parole. The authorities offered me seven years for criminal possession of cocaine, and it was highly possible a third conviction could land me back in prison. In December 2009, I received an enormous blessing from almighty and everlasting God. My case, along with countless others whose cases were connected to a former city lab tech who’d been caught stealing drugs out of evidence and using drugs, was dropped. 

It took a long time to get here – a lot of growth and acceptance on my behalf.

I found recovery in 2010 in the most meaningful way. It started in San Francisco with the Roads of Recovery program while I was in jail, and continued with Positive Directions Equals Change. I was introduced to this culturally centered, community-based organization through Randy Campbell who helped me get to the meetings and encouraged me to actively participate in my recovery. And, I’ve been participating ever since.

In 2012, after doing really great, I caught a case for petty theft that could have placed me back in prison. Thank God for grace and mercy. Since I was working, my employer vouched for me and Positive Directions Equals Change stood with me. I received a three-year court probation and one year work furlough. 

This allowed me to stay employed and active in my recovery through program participation. Though I was in a tough space, I did not use drugs or alcohol. I dealt with my situation. And, I didn’t run. I learned through hardship and struggle that I could live through any situation, without using.

After slipping in recovery, it took me quite some time to get and remain clean. It was those uncomfortable feelings when we sober up. I went from being a selfish emotional addict using and mistreating women to successfully loving someone – one of the highest achievements in life. 

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I am dependable and constant, yet spontaneous. I learned to acknowledge my feelings then focus on my actions. I am a provider for my family with a legitimate career path. When it comes down to important things – like recovery, health, family, happiness, being supportive and having a sense of well-being, being mega-wealthy just doesn’t matter.

Learning from Positive Directions members such as Cregg Johnson, Cedric Akbar, Charles Nicholson, and many more showed me a cut flower may look good, but cut off from the base, it will not last. I am forever grateful to the entire Positive Directions family who support me and who also challenge me to work through rough times. 

Through the power of forgiveness and not holding onto hatred for what happened in the past, my blessings are plentiful. I have a loving wife and we just celebrated our first wedding anniversary. I no longer attempt to control women, since the only one I can control is me. My confidence has grown and I was promoted four times on my job for being a great worker, dependable and an excellent team member. The virtues I focus on are understanding, patience, honesty, communication and compromise.

I have reconnected with my family and made amends. I have a relationship with my daughter who’s in college. It took a long time to get here. It’s a lot of growth and acceptance on my behalf. Today I have positive encouragement to overcome adversity, accept responsibility for my actions and never allow another person’s negative opinion of me to become my reality. 

If you or someone you know needs help for addiction or co-occurring disorder issues, please give us a call. Positive Directions Equals Change, a community-based organization in the Bayview, offers classes and support groups each day of the week. If we aren’t the best fit for you or your loved one, we will take the necessary time to work with you to find a treatment center or provider that better fits your needs. Please give us a call at 415-401-0199 or email our team at: The schedule is pictured and all are welcome.