Recipe for a Better Life

In Shadow of Capitol, Two Men Seek the Skills of Success

Posted June 20, 2003 at 1:27pm

Jason Coley, a student in D.C. Central Kitchen’s 12-week culinary job training program, rubs his hands together with the anticipation of a man about to devour a porterhouse steak, imagining the day he will own his own catering business.

“I’ve been in a kitchen since I could walk,” chuckles the 20-year-old Coley, stretching out his lanky, 6-foot-7-inch frame in a black office chair.

But on this morning in early February, Coley still has a long way to go. As of today, both he and another student in the program — 51-year-old Carl Powell — are residents of Clean and Sober Streets, a drug treatment center on the floor above the kitchen, located a mere 10-minute walk from the Capitol at Second and E streets Northwest.

Sitting in the modest office space just off the kitchen, Coley talks about his struggle to turn his life around. After a troubled adolescence spent stoned on marijuana and in and out of jail, Coley says he’s reached the point where he no longer feels compelled to take his cues from any peer group.

“I just worry about myself,” he confides, staring hard at the bare floor. “The only person you can control is yourself.” [IMGCAP(1)]

For those like Coley, seeking second and even third chances, D.C. Central Kitchen is the place to be. Founded in 1989 by Robert Egger, the kitchen operates a number of programs aimed at using food to effect social change — turning about 1.5 tons of food left over each day from District restaurants and catered events into meals for the needy and transforming hundreds of leftover souls into cooks and service workers.

Egger says the goal is simple: Turn the very “idea of a food program on its head and make the men and women who were part of the problem part of the solution.”

Suburban Childhood

The descendant of a long line of the culinary inclined — a great uncle served a stint in London preparing la nourriture for Queen Elizabeth II, while his paternal grandfather once owned several barbecue joints in the District — Coley says cooking helps sooth an undercurrent of anger he struggles with despite his ever-present Cheshire-like smile.

To hear him tell it, Coley’s early childhood was rather sanguine, spent growing up in a spacious house on Treetop Lane in Lanham, Md. School came easy, and he was — he asserts — a voracious reader of 300-page books. “I didn’t like that short stuff,” he says. There were even family trips to Europe, the Gaza Strip and India.

By middle school, however, the normalcy Coley knew began to unravel. His parents, Lorna and Carroll Coley, were using “just about everything under the sun,” he remembers, and their marriage was crumbling under the weight of drugs. “My parents’ addictions left me with a lot of time to do what boys do,” says Coley, who smoked his first joint at 11. By the time high school rolled around, his father had moved out, and Coley was using marijuana heavily. While he says he and his younger brother, Dorian, made a pact never to try anything harder than pot, by the 10th grade he was addicted.

His first brush with the law came in November 2000, when he was arrested for stealing a D’Angelo cassette from a Kmart. Coley walked away with a slap on the wrist. The following month, he was picked up again, this time on more serious charges: using a .22 Beretta to carjack a 1998 Toyota Corolla.

“Man, I was high, and I didn’t care,” he explains, shaking his head.

Coley spent the next three months in the Upper Marlboro, Md., jail, before being released on pre-trial house arrest and returning to Largo High School.

“All together, I was looking at 50 years,” recalls Coley. But thanks to his public defender he received just five months of additional home detention and an order to pay $500 in restitution and get into rehab.

After his May 2001 graduation, Coley started to drift again. There was a job at the local Six Flags amusement park — from which he was fired at the end of the summer — then a stint as a waiter at Jasper’s restaurant in Greenbelt, Md., which lasted until his dismissal in January 2002. There was also a new probation officer, who didn’t much like what she saw. That spring, after giving her “dirty urines,” Coley was sent back to jail for a month. This time the judge gave him an ultimatum: “You have 30 days to get into rehab or you’ll be locked back up for four years,” Coley remembers being told.

At first he planned to ride it out. “I was going to go gangsta,” he says simply — as if it was the thing to do. But then one night, strapped for cash and wondering where the money to buy weed for an upcoming party would come from, he ended up earning it in a way which even now he’s reticent to discuss.

“I slept with a man and that made me realize I have a problem with drugs,” admits Coley, his eyes momentarily averted. “I was so disgusted with myself … I felt so dirty.”

Soon after, Coley picked up the phone and called Clean and Sober Streets, the live-in treatment program just above D.C. Central Kitchen. There, he met Ron Swanson, the kitchen’s coordinator of training and employment, who convinced him to join an upcoming 12-week job training program.

Clean and Sober

Carl Powell, a diminutive man with elfin ears and a toothless grin, hunches over a cutting board next to an enormous vat of sweet potatoes, so numerous he doesn’t even try to keep count. “All I know is I got to get rid of all of these,” he says, continuing to slice away at the orange mound.

For the first time in his adult life, Powell is both clean and sober. Last summer he was homeless, sitting on the corner of 14th and Harvard streets Northwest having drained his last bottle of beer.

“I just sat there on the street and realized I had nobody to get another beer from … so I checked into Clean and Sober July 8, 2002,” he recalls.

The child of a performer in a traveling circus and a Navy man (his parents never married), Powell was raised by grandparents in Rocky Mount, N.C. The last time he ever saw his dad he was in the sixth grade.

At 17, with little education to speak of, Powell joined the Job Corps, ping-ponging first to Ogden, Utah, then back to the Tar Heel State before making his way to Washington just as the 1968 riots engulfed the city.

“D.C. was wide open then,” he recalls, referring to the pimps and prostitutes who ruled 14th Street Northwest at the time.

By the mid-1970s, Powell was working at National Airport, driving cars for Avis car rental and drinking heavily. Then there were the drugs — marijuana, acid, crack cocaine. Powell also bounced from partner to partner.

“I strayed,” he admits, pointing off into the distance. And while he considers himself lucky to have avoided AIDS so far, a sense of loneliness pervades his days. “I ain’t got nobody I can talk to now … they’re mostly dead,” he says quietly one day during a midmorning break from the kitchen’s bustle.

A Day in the Life

Mornings for Coley and Powell begin at 5:30 a.m. For Coley, whose job it is to make breakfast for the other inhabitants of Clean and Sober Streets, it’s off to the basement kitchen to rustle up some grits and omelettes. Powell — whose goal it is to catch as many Alcoholics Anonymous meetings as possible — will try to make a 7 a.m. session.

Life in the center is uncompromisingly disciplined. Restrictions are handed out for the smallest omission, such as forgetting to wake up a fellow floormate to see that he gets the garbage out on time.

By 8:30 a.m., white jackets and black caps donned, the pair are usually out in the kitchen’s industrial-strength work space, taking orders from the likes of Chef Gary or Miss Dot.

They chop celery, memorize the five “mother” sauces, poach salmon and mix up fruit salads. Groups of volunteers from area companies and organizations are an almost constant backdrop, helping to prepare the more than 4,000 meals the kitchen sends out each day to local non-profit agencies.

Afternoons for Coley and Powell are usually devoted to the more practical aspects of the service industry — learning the basics of hygiene and sanitation needed for a food handler’s certification, as well as life and employment skills. “Many of them are emotionally immature,” explains Executive Director Cynthia Rowland. “They haven’t fully learned you can’t just yell at the boss.”

When the day’s kitchen instruction wraps up, Coley and Powell return to “the floor,” as they call their upstairs quarters at Clean and Sober Streets. Dinner — served at 4 p.m. — is followed by an AA meeting in the Narcotics Anonymous Room. On the wall of the room hangs a painting depicting a black man, his pants ripped at the knees, a green beer bottle discarded on the ground. Against the red brick of an alley wall, he reaches upward in the universal sign for mercy. It is in this room where Coley hides his cigarettes in the ventilation system, where addicts gather for the morning coffee and smokes, where they share what has brought them to this point and hopefully what will bring them back.

“I can’t believe it gets better than this,” enthuses the ever-ebullient Coley.

A Setback

On a cold, rainy morning a few weeks before graduation, Swanson, the kitchen’s coordinator of training and employment, sits in his cramped office and picks up the phone to dial Coley’s mother.

Ever since early March, when a drug test administered by Clean and Sober Streets indicated Coley was positive for PCP and methamphetamine, his behavior has lapsed into the erratic. While a subsequent test requested by D.C. Central Kitchen deemed Coley negative, that wasn’t enough for the treatment center, which operates on a zero-tolerance basis. No exceptions.

The kitchen, too, has a zero- tolerance policy, asserts Rowland, the executive director. An individual must be clean for 90 days before even being allowed to begin the program, she says. And if a trainee is discovered to be positive under the Roche Diagnostics test given on the premises, then he or she is sent to take a more rigorous Medtox test, as was the case in Coley’s situation.

Coley’s results came back clean. Good enough for the kitchen, but now he’s living with his mother in Lanham. And this morning, he doesn’t show up as scheduled.

He’s “sweet, but not functioning well,” says Swanson, noting that ever since Coley was kicked out of Clean and Sober Streets his progress has dropped off considerably.

During his seven years at the kitchen, Swanson, a former Episcopalian priest, has adopted a pragmatic approach to the inevitable disappointments that come with the victories.

“If they benefit from [the program], God bless them. If they don’t, hopefully the next time around they will,” he says simply.

Help Wanted [IMGCAP(2)]

Just one week before graduation on an uncomfortably humid Tuesday afternoon in late April, Coley sets off from the kitchen with classmate Crayton Penn to look for work.

Their destination: Harry’s Tap Room, a new restaurant opening up near the Market Common in Arlington, Va.

This is not the first time Coley has responded to a help wanted ad since arriving at the kitchen nearly three months ago. But his two previous attempts — at an IHOP and Olive Garden in Prince George’s County — have yet to produce concrete results.

“I ain’t heard nothing from them,” he says, as he heads toward the Judiciary Square Metro station off E Street Northwest, cigarette in hand.

Coley is nervous, but hopeful. He dreams of getting a job and moving out of his mother’s cramped apartment, having a place he can call his own.

“To be honest, I’d rather be chillin’ with my mans right now — either playing basketball or messing with the females around the way,” he admits.

“I’m trying to get my player’s card,” he grins. “You gotta have at least three [women] for that … I missed most of my good years. I was getting high and in jail and I’m making up for what I lost.”

At the Clarendon Metro station, confusion sets in. “Now comes the hard part, ’cause I don’t know which way to go,” Coley confesses.

A few false starts later, after consulting a page of classified ads ripped from The Washington Post, Coley and Penn are headed toward the intersection of Clarendon Boulevard and Fillmore Street.

A sign in a window directs them through a parking garage up some stairs to a waiting room.

“Now the heart starts jumping,” Coley offers shakily. Flashing a smile, he heads into the interview.

When Coley emerges 30 minutes later, the characteristic grin hasn’t dimmed one bit.

“She said her chef isn’t there right now, but she’ll pass it along,” he says of his application. “She seemed very encouraging.”

Coley leans against the railing and lights up a Newport 100. “A long cigarette for a long man,” he quips.

Graduation Day

Graduation day and the kitchen hums with preparations. Coley moves about wearing a hip-hop style, black-and-gray suit, his hair braided and pulled into a ponytail. There is still no word on a job, but Coley appears unfazed. If things don’t work out, there’s always Stratford University School of Culinary Arts in Falls Church, Va., or maybe he’ll sign up for an SAT prep class and go to college after all.

Powell hasn’t arrived yet, but the rest of the students gather in a semicircle in the multipurpose room for a brunch of quiche, French toast and home-fried potatoes.

“I’m definitely going to miss it,” Coley says, tucking into the quiche. “I love it down here.”

Of the 27 fellow trainees who started in January, 17 have made it through. As of today, 11 have permanent jobs.

“I’m going to be holding your hand with a big old stick behind me,” cracks Ernest Smith, the kitchen’s retention specialist who oversees the trainees’ post-graduation trajectory for one year after they leave.

“You’re like a GPS system,” shoots back Coley, who has dubbed Smith “po-po” — short for police — given his no-nonsense oversight of the trainees.

The moment has come to say goodbye. One by one, Coley’s classmates rise to express gratitude for what they have learned. Against a backdrop of Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and Rice Krispies boxes, there are tears and hugs and declarations of “I love you.”

When it’s Coley’s turn, he balks. “I came here by myself, and I leave with all of you in my heart,” he mumbles, before hurrying back to his seat.

After a quick rehearsal, the group heads out — many sporting ill-fitting suits and too-tight skirts — through the threatening rain to the Georgetown University Law Center, where the graduation ceremony will be held.

Backstage, in a hall outside of the Moot Court Auditorium, the trainees take turns rolling the cuffs of their personalized chef’s jackets. De facto valedictorian Kevin Coates takes it upon himself to ensure all of the “D.C. Central Kitchen” pins are properly pinned to their collars. Soon Powell arrives to calls of “Don’t you look nice.” Around 2:15 p.m., Chef Gary motions for the group to line up.

The first strains of Bill Withers’ “Lovely Day” can be heard from the auditorium. Shuffling and clapping, Coley and Powell emerge from the hall with the others just in time for Withers to declare, “The world is all right with me.”

Still Looking

While the kitchen boasts a phenomenal success rate — 74 percent of graduates find work and retain it — this time around, Coley and Powell are in the minority.

Two months after the program concluded, both — though officially employed as casual laborers with the kitchen’s Fresh Start Catering — are foundering.

As of last week, Powell, who still resides at Clean and Sober Streets’ treatment center, was down to his last $3. So far, though, he’s managed to stay dry. In a recent four-day period he’s attended 12 AA meetings, he says. “The more I go to meetings, the less I think about [alcohol].”

As for the job: “I haven’t done enough footwork. I’m kind of on the scared side. I haven’t worked for a while,” he says. “I’ve been trying to do it on my own and I need some help,” Powell adds, noting that he plans to get assistance from the kitchen’s retention specialist.

Outside of the sporadic job for a cousin who runs a party supply company, Coley has spent much of the two months “hanging” at his mother’s home. Though nothing permanent has panned out, Coley still has his dreams: He envisages enrolling in college, or culinary school, or maybe finding a steady position at a chain restaurant or even a roadside motel.

“Sometimes life is hard,” concludes the relentlessly upbeat Coley. “You’ve got to go through the hard stuff to get to the good stuff.”