(The Future Tenderloin Leader Becomes An Activist/Therapist)
My life changed with the death of President Kennedy and Martin Luther King’s dream. New blood busted on the scene of Harlem. The so- called Hippie movement had arrived. They began knocking on doors telling people to stop paying rent, organizing people against the schools. They were looking for Black organizers. They came to my door. I thought they must be the F.B.I. or the C.I.A. The only white people I ever saw in Harlem were the police, landlords and businessmen. But none of them looked like the hippies and, anyway, I didn’t need anybody to tell me not to pay my rent. I was always behind. I didn’t need anybody to tell me that the system had my balls in a sling so I rushed out of my house before somebody thought I was an undercover stool pigeon. The hustlers get very uptight when they see strange’ looking whites (Blacks too) coming out of your apartment. But one day a Black dude who I knew told me I could make money if I would become an organizer. His father told me that all the white women had money and that everybody was rich.
He carried me to my first meeting at a Black man’s apartment with the springs coming through the chairs and 99 of his babies running all over the place. Whites and Blacks (young) were sitting around talking about the revolution.
The name of the parent organization was the Northern Student Movement which was created after the Supreme Court’s decision to desegregate all schools (May 17, 1964). The organization I was about to join was called H.A.G. (Harlem Action Group). It was an appropriate name. Harlem looked like a Hag in the’ day, but a Queen at night. All my instincts came alive for the first time in my life. I had found a reason for living. My life changed in a very radical way. I drank less. I became more involved with my realities. People around me were talking in new terms. Every day there was a strategy meeting and I began to organize the schools and developed rent strikes. I marched in the peace movement. I became an intrical part of the riots.
I opened my own cleaning and waxing business and employed the people in my neighborhood. I went to Africa, England and the Bahamas for several months and on my return I decided to work with drug abusers. I had been off drugs for four years.
I finally decided to go to the hospital and introduce myself to therapy to rid myself of alcoholism. Before going to my first group I decided to learn the rules of the therapeutic game.
I had spent years in the “pen” reading the masters. I chose Carl Rogers’ “Client Oriented Therapy” to lead me to the promised land just before going into the Group. The nurse gave me a double does1 of medication (Thorazine-Valium).
In 1963 the medical and legal field was trying to decide whether alcoholism was a disease or a legal sickness. The president had just declared that it was a disease.
My job was to convince the hospital that I had a disease so could legally stay in the hospital and be treated (I had been warned that they would not let me stay). So I had decided to play real crazy but the medication would not allow me to think. I couldn’t keep my head up or my eyes focused. I knew that I was playing a losing game and I could see them smiling at my answers to their profound questions. I wanted to cop a plea. Help Help!
I wanted to scream out, to no avail. I was trapped. They finally sent for the attendant to lead me out of what they called staff conference (20 psychiatrists).
A Dr. Anders decided that he would accept me as his patient. The long and short of it all was that I stopped drinking. Most importantly, the most important event in my life was taking place – I was now involved in the world of therapy. I was truly amazed that talking and listening were such powerful tools. Part of the deal was that I had to pay, based on my financial situation. If I progressed and made more money, I in turn increased my payment to my doctor. My hurt’ and my pain was deep, my need to get over was great. I wanted peace at any cost and I began to work hard in therapy. I must have cried a river after I began to trust Dr. Anders.
My pain was connected with my mother and father, reform school, the Alley, my sister, my brothers, and all the women I had tried to live out my frustrations with. It was connected with not having children, my distorted image of what I thought a man was.
When I finally reached the point where I had to make some real decisions, I cried first. I had to leave a woman I had lived with for 18 years who had played out the mother role. Secondly, she couldn’t bear me any children and I wanted children very much. No. 3, I had to move to an apartment by myself and pay rent. No. 4, 1 had to find a job and take care of myself totally. No. 5, no beer, no wine, no whiskey, no drugs. I must at last stand on the stage of life, naked, alone.
The mere thought of this venture was terrifying, frightening but I wanted to get it over with. I kept saying to myself, how am I going to tell Sarah. She was truly a mother and a friend.
My doctor asked me if I thought I owed Sarah anything and my answer was yes. His answer was cool, “everybody gets what they want from a given relationship, nobody owes anybody anything, all relationships balance themselves out.” I went home to Sarah and we both cried and I walked away determined to win my place in the sun.
In 1964-65 I met the Rev. Steve Chinlund at Exodus House and con-vinced him that I would make a good ex-addict worker and went to work for less than a hundred dollars a week. At that point in my life I met a very rich young lady who had given me $50,000 to open a restaurant. But I had decided that being an ex-addict worker was more important and I began my new role in life. I learned to run group meetings, to run marathons, probes and one to ones.
After about a year of working in the streets I was allowed to work and developed a prison program at Green Haven Penitentiary. Let me explain something that is very important
Being a clean ex-addict is not qualification enough. Being an ex-con is not qualification enough, but it helps. It helps to be able to put yourself in the other persons place and empathize. To be aware of a thousand therapies and techniques is good. But to be with someone in a human way is more important than all the tools in the world. My experiences were important and I used them to my and the clients best advantage.
I remember my first trip back to the penitentiary as a free man. I couldn’t believe that I, Leroy Looper, was willingly going back to prison to help someone, plus I couldn’t believe that the prison authorities were going to let me in, hut they did.
I had great concerns.
How was I going to deal with my negative feelings towards prison guards? How was I going to convince the convicts that I wasn’t a rat or a cop? Was I really ready? I could hear my footsteps resounding on the concrete floor walking down that long hallway. At last I had returned home. I began to look for myself in every hallway, in every face. At last we reached the orientation room where we met the guards who we would be working with. Steve carried the ball while I tried to hide my discomfort and my hatred (hatred for whom?).
While orientation was in process I made up my mind that I could and would do my job and not blame those people for past incarcerations. Once I made up my mind the stress and tensions began to lessen. Dealing with the convicts was not hard because we identified with each other, plus all I had to do was to be honest. I’m not saying the job was easy. I’m saying that it was easier as long as I dealt with honesty I was on safe ground. I worked at Green Haven for over two years.
During 1966 Dr. Ramnariz became the first commissioner for drug abuse in New York City. He summoned all the top ex-addicts and professionals in the field and set up a training center to train other people to come into the field plus to create a new program that would compliment all existing programs in New York City. I was summoned with all the great and near great and I was truly proud to be one of the chosen few.
He created five levels of training, number five being the highest. I became a number five. I was sent to East Harlem to run family groups with relatives of addicts. The group’s basic function was to educate the family, business people and the total community to the problem and the possible solution.
Harlem was Black and diverse and nobody wanted to go and deal with the magnitude of the problem. Dr. Ramariz said that the Black Moses (me) should be the one. I hated the title of Black Moses for many reasons but why I really hated the title was because deep down inside I really liked the image of marching on the black waters of Harlem and saving my people.
So I decided to take my restaurant money ($50,000) and set up Reality House. It was a painful decision to make as giving up $50,000 was not easy to do, but I did it. To be a God is very expensive! For the first time in my life I was bound by all kinds of people. People who I considered beyond my reach trusted me, loved me, and thought I was a beautiful person. People from every walk of life embraced me and thought me worthy of their friendship. $50,000 was a small price to pay for such glory!
I began to use my organizational skills to surround myself with the very rich and powerful. The very best of the paraprofessionals. The cream of the professionals.
Then we opened up our doors on 145th Street and St. Nichols Avenue. The weight of my creation was heavy. People’s image of me and their needs was becoming a burden and I was beginning to feel like a phony. I still did not feel deserving of love and position. In my secret heart I felt that I really needed the people more than they needed me. I began to feel that I was manipulating people’s sickness for my own self -aggrandizement. My power and position was built on sickness. I was maintaining several relationships at the same time and secretly taking a few drinks to shape up the hollowness that was within me.
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