Text by Melissa Batchelor Warnke. Photos by Luisa Conlon.
It’s 6 am on a Sunday, and a group of men are sitting in a parking lot in the dark. They’re half of the Teen Challenge Choir—two dozen men and women in treatment for “life controlling issues.” They’re about to get in a big white van and head to the Cavalry Temple Church in Concord, California, about an hour north of the men’s home base in Oakland. It’s always cold this early, and Robin Davis, the choir’s oldest member, is wearing his signature black ski hat. Robin has a theory: “The month you’re born in, that’s the weather you like.” He was born in September, the height of a Northern California summer.
The van whips up to Concord quickly in the HOV lane, with practically nobody else on the road. By 8, they’re rehearsed and ready, chatting backstage as the congregation assembles in the pews. This is a megachurch in all the ways that matter: The slick, carpeted space holds hundreds of chairs, each one with a donation pamphlet stuck in its cloth seatback. The Teen Challenge choir performs, assembled on risers behind the church’s four resident stars, who move around the stage swinging their mics like American Idol hopefuls battling for a record deal with Christ. One man and one woman from Teen Challenge will give their testimonies, a two-minute summary of their life before (addiction, abuse, desperation) and their life now (peace, sobriety, God). There are services at 8:30 am, 10 am, 11:30 am; between each round, the choir refuels in the green room with orange juice, bagels and coffee.
Robin gives the same performance every time, standing in the back row, swaying and clasping his hands at his chest. Sometimes he closes his eyes. While the choir members sing, their black-and-white “before” photos, then color “after” photos, are projected on a large screen. Robin’s “before” photo is a solemn, dead-eyed mugshot from a booking four years earlier. In the “after” photo, he grins broadly. The audience goes wild.
Robin is 60 years old. He spent 49 of those years doing drugs, including crystal meth and crack cocaine. He served over 25 years worth of prison sentences across California, where he claims to have run drug rings on the inside. He lived on the street, in motels, or in parks on-and-off for 10 of the outside years. When Robin was dealing drugs, he got down to 140 pounds, earning the moniker Fresno Slim.
Fresno Slim, by all accounts, exploded out of nowhere. Robin grew up in a functional, middle-class family in Fowler, a little farm town outside of Fresno; his mom retired from the welfare department at the end of her career, his brother was a successful, now also retired, police officer. When Robin was 11, he went to San Francisco with his Future Farmers of America chapter. They bought some weed. They smoked some weed. Then the drinking came, then he started selling drugs, then he went to prison, got out, did it over. It went on like that for decades.
Robin often says that he has “nothing to show for his life”—no partner, job, children, car or home. But he’s got one thing now he’s never had before: Jesus. And Robin’s sober for the first time. He has been for a year and a half.
Robin lives at an all-male faith-based rehab facility in the middle of East Oakland, three hours from the center of his old life. The organization that runs the rehab, incongruously called Teen Challenge, serves people of all ages. Some are drug addicts, some are sex addicts, some have anger issues, and some are alcoholics (though only about five to 10 percent have a primary drinking problem, its pastor estimates; pills, meth and heroin are bigger here).
The East Oakland center is for men above 18; the “teen” is a reference to their founding charter. The program is run from a central command in San Jose, and its East Bay arm is helmed by Jay Patterson, better known as “Pastor Jay.” Pastor Jay used to be in the Army. He also used to be a drug addict. He got clean through Teen Challenge, and has stayed that way for 18 years. He believes in order and discipline. He calls the 40 or so men under his tutelage “students,” and he posts copies of their daily schedules in the dining room. He says his wife is free-spirited, that she painted her closet purple and green. He says he appreciates this quality in others. But he and his wife take different cars to church; he doesn’t like all that free-spiritedness to make him late.
Robin didn’t come to Teen Challenge because he was searching for the kind of discipline Pastor Jay deals out. He came because he’d been given the choice between eight more years in prison or rehab at a place in San Francisco called the Jericho Program. There is no God involved at Jericho; they believe self-esteem is the root of addiction. Anyways, it didn’t take. Robin skipped out on the program after 33 days and, when the judge finally found him, he should have sent him straight to jail.
But the judge sent him to Teen Challenge. And a funny thing happened. He found Jesus there—majorly found Jesus. For instance, when he gets a text message, the phone squeaks in a chipmunk voice “Woohoo, text message, thank you Jesus!” He signs every one of those text messages “God bless, respectfully, Robin D.” And he hasn’t had a drink, a cigarette, a hit of crack cocaine, hasn’t talked to an ex-girlfriend, hasn’t taken the Lord’s name in vain in 18 months.
Robin believes, and those around him believe, that he is a changed man, thoroughly saved. He starches his all-white uniform before he goes out to fundraise for the program. (Teen Challenge is a 501(c)(3), so it runs on donations.) He wears one of his dozen or so bowties: red, polka dot, green, purple, black, white. Robin believes his first role is to minister to people about what’s happened in his life. “I knew there was a God, I just didn’t acknowledge him. All these years, God’s had his hands on me. I was supposed to be dead; I’ve been shot, I’ve been stuck,” Robin says. “Through the grace of God I’m still alive, and now I’m living to serve him.”
But in 28 days, Robin will be released from the program. That means that he’ll no longer sing in the choir, that he’ll no longer give his testimony to church congregations, that he’ll be able to go to the movie theater, a favored group activity, on his own. He’s anxious about how he’ll handle this newfound freedom. “I was a true soldier for Satan. Thank God I never hurt nobody in a physical manner, but I knew how to talk, I wasn’t afraid to steal, I knew how to sell drugs, I knew how to sweet-talk the women,” he says. “My own way of thinking has always kept me behind bars.”
When Robin gets too deep into thinking about life after the program, he repeats his favorite Bible verse, Matthew 6:33-34: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.”
Today, up on stage, Robin’s singing the choir’s favorite song, a contemporary Christian jam called “Hope in Front of Me.” When they hit the chorus, the “after” photo’s broad smile spreads across his face.
There’s hope in front of me
There’s a light, I still see it
There’s a hand still holding me
Even when I don’t believe it
I might be down but I’m not dead
There’s better days still up ahead
Even after all I’ve seen
There’s hope in front of me
Nestled in the wire-fenced Teen Challenge Center compound on the corner of 90th and Bancroft is a modern chapel, a long flat-ceilinged room with a pea-green wall behind the lectern. Most mornings, after pulling their matching green duvet covers firmly around the edges of their bunk beds in the massive dorm upstairs, the “students” (those in the first 12 months of the program) come to the chapel to pray. There’s a television at the front broadcasting church service videos, which they congregate in front of. But now, the chapel’s being used for the staff meeting.
A staff meeting implies that trained professionals gather to talk privately about the clients. But everyone on Teen Challenge staff has graduated from the program and it’s more of a group check-in than anything else; part therapy session, part Bible study, part troubleshooting. Some staff members have been sober a year, some five years, but everyone’s both in recovery and leading the recovering.
Kevin, a big guy in his 40s, sits behind the lectern wearing a light pink polo shirt; he’s the center supervisor. Before they start the meeting, he gets a call from the mother of someone who has relapsed. This happens a couple times a day at Teen Challenge and, no matter who answers the reception phone, they say in the same level voice: “You’re going to want to talk to Kevin.”
A dozen or so staff members, including the “interns” (those in the last six months of the program), sit scattered throughout the pews. One runs the children’s outreach program, God’s Gang. Another leads the Bible study. They’ll be talking about how they’re doing, and how they’re feeling about how they’re doing: “The kind of shit that would get your ass kicked in prison,” as Joel, another intern, says.
Like everything else at Teen Challenge, the meeting is bookended by prayer. Many of the men have been incarcerated; one was charged with three counts of homicide, one suffered brain damage while using and has major memory loss. Some have been through the program before, and returned after relapsing.
Al, one of the staff’s natural preachers, talks about the glories of God. Robin nods along with the group, occasionally murmuring “Absolutely” or “Yes, God.” Robin’s there because he’s the top fundraiser. Six days a week, he sets a table up outside of any grocery store or pharmacy within an hour and a half radius of Oakland and asks for donations. Robin rakes it in. He gets privileges other people don’t get because he’s so good. He’s allowed to go alone to his sites, while most guys are sent in pairs.
Robin knows he’s doing well, and he knows the success rate is high for those who finish the program, as he will in a few weeks. But most people weren’t addicted for as long as he was. Whatever part of the curriculum those who relapsed missed, Robin says he doesn’t want to miss it.
“Thirty years in prison, and he’s still trying to find out what God’s will is for his life,” says John, a white guy with close-cropped hair and a red beard. He turns to face Robin, who’s sitting in the pew behind him; they laugh and slap hands. Some guys might be pissed, but Robin’s not. He’s good with the truth.
Robin’s wearing his black beanie again, which he sticks under a white Teen Challenge baseball cap when he goes out fundraising. “We usually don’t allow hats in honor of where we are,” Al says, referring to the fact that they live in a sacred place. “But Robin … sure, we all do things that aren’t perfect.” Al likes to drop digs like that, then smile and wait for them to zing their intended target. Robin mostly shrugs it off. When he first got to Teen Challenge, they’d argue constantly. But now, he says, Al’s one of the reasons he’s still here; he’s older too, and Robin believes he’s got the spirit of God in him.
It’s another 6 am morning, as all mornings are here, and Al and Robin are running the reception desk, where the residents line up to get their medications. Pastor Jay says Teen Challenge prohibits all kinds of psychotropic or mood-altering medications in order to prevent an “If I can’t get this, I’ll get that mentality.” A respiratory infection is going around though, so Al lets the residents behind the desk to pull out DayQuil, or allergy meds, or aspirin.
The rules of Teen Challenge are strict: Only one cup of coffee a day, no phone calls or emails for the first 30 days, Bible study tests, verse memorization, random drug screenings, a daily hour of chores, Christian music, Christian movies. The men operate under a program called “accountability,” which means that when they leave the compound, they have to take another resident along. If they’re visiting a church and have to go to the bathroom, the same rule applies.
Al’s usually in charge of waking up the students, going around to each row of bunks and announcing himself, but today he overslept so Robin did it. A few of the guys are now reading the Bible and taking notes in the fluorescently-lit cafeteria. By 7 am, the dorm is empty, each bed carefully made, row of clothes neatly hung at the end, and personal effects (a snowglobe, handwritten cards, bottles of body wash) are organized on the identical wooden shelves next to each bed.
By now, Al has calmed a frustrated student, who had one of his sodas snatched out of the fridge. Two men have already left for treatment at Highland Hospital, only to have returned, having forgotten their IDs. Others are raking leaves, washing cars, and loading up the vans with fundraising tables. Someone who fell off the wagon is seen off, pillow in hand, as he boards a car headed for the Teen Challenge San Jose center. Though the San Jose program is technically the women and family center, sometimes guys go there if they’re struggling because it has a different structure than the men’s center. “I’m glad they packed lunch for you, man, that’s good,” one of the students says. They’re pretty used to this.
Relapse is a reality at the center; according to internal statistics, they have an 86 percent five-year success rate for those who complete the residential program, but many drop out along the way. Robin estimates he’s seen more than a hundred guys leave Teen Challenge in 18 months. Some only make it through two or three days.
Pastor Jay says the primary reason students relapse is because they come for a couple of months, think they’ve found their feet, and leave early after convincing their families or themselves they’re well. Pastor Jay remembers a 19-year-old who was going along, praising God daily in chapel, but only did 90 days before his parents pulled him out. Three weeks after he left, his mother found him hunched over dead with a heroin needle in his arm. “I try to make them aware of this: It’s about your life, it’s not a game. That’s what’s at stake here,” he says.
Teen Challenge is a veritable movement, with more than 200 programs across the United States. They’re in Hawaii. They’re in North Dakota. They’re headquartered in Ozark, Missouri. The story goes like this:
A man named David Wilkerson read an article in Life magazine about a murder allegedly committed by a gang of teenagers. And then he heard the voice of God say “Go to New York City and help these boys.” The year was 1958, and Wilkerson was a country preacher from a family of country preachers in Philipsburg, Pennsylvania. He went, of course, in February, and by July, dozens of the gang members had converted to Christianity and renounced their former lives. He began a street ministry in New York City, started a few coffee shops, founded a Teen Challenge addiction center, and from there it grew. Wilkerson’s memoir, The Cross and the Switchblade, was made into a 1970 film starring Pat Boone. Meanwhile, he went on to be the founding pastor of the non-denominational Times Square Church. In 2009, Wilkerson predicted the end of civilization by way of a thousand fires, creating a wacky spectacle that complicated his legacy of accomplishment.
Wilkerson died in 2011, but his teachings remain influential in the East Bay center. Pastor Jay says the reason Teen Challenge has grown with such success is plain: It’s “the Jesus factor.” The program is structured around Bible instruction, principles of godliness, and learned humility. The students pray every time they get in a car, every time they eat a meal, every time they sing a song. Pastor Jay often says that relapse starts when you think you’re more capable than God. For the 18 months that the residents stay at Teen Challenge, they live in a mightily controlled, Christ-centered environment. Some, like Robin, are anxious about re-entering broader society, with its temptations and triggers, the oft-hastily-abandoned lives that still lie waiting for them.
In a sense, though, those temptations are already an arm’s length away. Teen Challenge East Bay sits inside an area that’s been dubbed “the Killing Zone,” with one of the highest rates of homicide in Oakland. In a recent officer-involved shooting, a man was shot dead a few feet from the center’s gate; bullets went through the door and trunk of a Honda in their parking lot. Pastor Jay says the center is “right where it needs to be,” even as he frequently sees teenagers smoking pot and people dealing drugs in broad daylight. The Biblical concept of being in the world, but not of it, resonates in Pastor Jay’s teachings.
They do have limited access to this world. The guys get “passes” to go off on their own; 24 hours after 90 days, up to a 48 and 72 hour pass in the last nine to 12 months. But Robin hasn’t taken his passes. He’s stayed at Teen Challenge and watched movies with the guys. “I’m trying to do the God thing,” he says. He’s seen guys relapse in their free days.
Here’s a list of things Robin thinks would trigger him to use: Seeing his ex-girlfriends. Going to Fresno. Hanging out with his old “associates.” Looking back.
Robin stands outside of a CVS pharmacy in San Ramon’s Diablo Plaza, an elaborate strip-mall compound that wraps around a parking lot. He’s wearing his ironed white painter pants, blue and white boat shoes, and, as ever, his cross necklace and bowtie. It’s 6 pm, dark now, and people are streaming in and out of the ocean of chain stores—Men’s Warehouse, Verizon, Chipotle—in a rush between work and home. A few kids glide by on their hoverboards.
Everybody at the center says that Robin has a knack for fundraising. Sure, a few shoppers scatter off, avoid eye contact, or pretend to be mesmerized by their phones, but most people he talks to come on over to his table, strewn with pamphlets about Teen Challenge and a wooden donation box. A community mortgage advisor wearing a pinstriped suit not only donates but tells Robin that he wants to volunteer with the center. (“I’m from the hood, so I know what we’re talking about. You walk the walk. You’re inspiring me, man,” he says, shaking Robin’s hand.) Robin even has regulars who give money every time they see him.
Another man runs across the street to donate, sticking a twenty in the box. A woman buys him hot chocolate. No matter whether they say “No,” “Yes,” or ignore him completely, Robin says “God bless you.” People’s eyes seem to twinkle when they hear it. Many say they don’t have money on the way in, but come back out with change.
In the beginning, Robin hated asking people for money. “I was in East Oakland, in a drug area, and I felt like I was begging,” he says. Then he went to San Mateo, a richer county, and started to see “the other side of fundraising,” that it was a way to pay back Teen Challenge for the program. (Admits are only charged a $500 admission fee, though for those in financial need or admitted on a court order, like Robin, the fee is waived). And it was a way to make pocket money; the guys keep ten percent of what they make.
Robin was a quarterback in high school and says he was better than his cousin, who went on to play for the San Diego Chargers. His own football career got derailed by drugs, but he still cuts the figure: 6’4” and strong, with wide shoulders. He stands for six or eight hours at a time while fundraising, even though he brings a folding chair. (He thinks that when people look down on you physically, they’re looking down on you psychologically. So he likes to change the perspective.) The only hint that Robin’s lived through anything is that a couple of his front teeth have fallen out. “When you use drugs and dope as many years as I did, teeth are something you don’t care about,” he says. “When they start hurting, pull ‘em out.” And those will be fixed soon enough; Teen Challenge has a pro bono dentist who’s making his dentures right now.
Sometimes Robin can make $400 in a day asking for donations. Today, he makes $217, pretty good for a CVS, he says. (Safeway is better. It’s higher flow, and people are more relaxed, but the fundraisers try to spread their targets around. His least favorite is Macy’s, where there’s not much traffic and too many different exits; one day he only made $77 there.) At Teen Challenge, they call Robin “the police” because of how strictly he enforces the rules. So he always calls ahead to book his stores with the management. He gets annoyed when other nonprofits fail to be as organized, and move in on his turf.
This is one of Robin’s last days on the job. Before the program ends for him in three days, Robin needs to talk to Pastor Jay about his exit plan. There are a couple of options. One lady he met two months into the program offered him a job working on his vineyard up north, but he says he needs to “take more time to get me right” before leaving Teen Challenge.
Also, wouldn’t working on a vineyard be a significant challenge for a person in early recovery? “Alcohol was never my thing,” Robin says. In high school, he used to eat jalapenos in order to make his mouth fiery enough that he’d be able to chug a beer to cool it off. He tried to hang, but if it wasn’t whiskey, he didn’t like drinking it. That having been said, he did manage to get busted for so many open container violations over the years that one judge called his car a “saloon on wheels.” He’d often drive around with friends in an illegal low-ride, taking cross tops, small amphetamine pills that can keep you up for a few days, smoking weed, drinking just to drink.
Robin plans to tell Pastor Jay that he wants to take the option called re-entry, which means he’d live at Teen Challenge for six more months, though his responsibilities would change. He knows Pastor Jay wants him to stay with the center in some capacity. “For a lot of guys, the pressures that they deal with are relentless if they go straight back out. It’s better to juggle two balls at a time instead of five balls on fire,” Pastor Jay had said a few weeks earlier.
The re-entry program generally includes working for Teen Challenge one day a week and finding a job on the outside. But Robin wants to fundraise outside different stores six days a week, nine hours a day, and keep half the money he raises. That half could allow him to buy a car, which he sees as the first step in self-sufficiency. He recently got his license back, after finishing weekly classes for a 2006 DUI charge he’d skipped out on, and already bought car insurance for the coming year.
When the Teen Challenge van pulls up an hour early, Robin’s reluctant to leave. He’d hoped to make more money—even though the temperature’s dropping, even though he’s been out there for six hours already. The driver tells Robin they’ve got to go because there is an issue at the center, and that’s all he’ll say.
“When Teen Challenge comes here, it lifts us all up,” a woman at Pleasant Hill’s Oasis Christian Fellowship says, pouring coffee from a drip pot. “When people told me it was hopeless for my son, I’d say it’s not hopeless.”
Her son is Derek, one of the church’s youth ministers. The other youth minister is his wife, Jihan. Both went through the Teen Challenge program, got clean, got married; they’re now expecting their first child. This kind of coupling has some precedent. The coeducational Teen Challenge Ministry Institute is jokingly referred to as the “Teen Challenge Marriage Institute;” several couples that have met there are still together in the Bay Area, and one currently lives at the San Jose Women’s and Family Center. Robin does not aspire to join their ranks. “It’s the farthest thing from my mind,” he says about dating.
It’s Sunday, and the Teen Challenge Choir is back on the church circuit. It’s different than Cavalry Temple Church, though. This is a mom and pop kind of place, holding maybe 200 people when stuffed to the gills, which it’s not. They hold a single service at 10 am, so the van sets off later and the choir lingers longer. And the staff is lighthearted; someone tells the Teen Challenge residents to put on their “super-saved smiles,” and Pastor Rob teases a congregation member for messing up an earlier sing-along by supplying a too-long-list of things she was thankful for. “It felt good in there,” one of the guys said later. “Like an N.A. meeting.”
Even at the most low-key church in the universe, Robin can’t relax. He completes the program tomorrow. It’s his final time giving his testimony, the two-minute account of his life. He says it’s his final time singing with the choir, too, though all the guys in the van disagree. (“No way are we going to let you go, man!” one tells him.) He’s nervous, he says. His face is uncharacteristically wan.
There are four Teen Challenge speakers today, because the audience is particularly rapt and warm and they just keep on going. One woman weeps quietly, talking about falling into heroin addiction after a childhood of too much responsibility and her mother’s shattering death. Another, who is now a staff member, says he got hooked on heroin and kept going back to it after years of holding a good job at a grocery store. And another intern, who had earlier been cracking jokes about pointing runners in the wrong direction at marathons, talks about being born out of rape, devolving into heroin, losing his marriage, losing custody, losing everything. Each story ends the same way: Jesus.
Robin’s testimony is nearly quaint in comparison. At the end, he repeats the saying that “Yesterday is the past, tomorrow is the future, and today is a gift: That’s why we call it the present.”
Standing outside the van in the church parking lot, Robin says that Pastor Jay has put him on the schedule for the coming week—when he’ll be officially finished with his internship—as a staff member. It’s not welcome news. Pastor Jay’s at another church today, and they haven’t sat down to talk about the details of Robin’s discharge yet.
Which means that Pastor Jay might not know that Robin’s goal was to fundraise 16 days a month, take half of the earnings, and pay $350 for room and board. Say Robin makes $250 on average per fundraising day—that plan would net him $1,650 per month. Over the holidays, he could make more. Staff members make only $300 a month, Robin says, plus free room and board.
“I don’t like people making decisions about my life without even talking to me,” he says, twisting his cross ring and staring into the sunlight. His voice changes registers, becomes strained. “I’ve got two to three opportunities from Christians outside of here, and there are other Teen Challenge Centers. I want to help these guys, but…” he trails off, shaking his head.
They load up, pray for the ride, turn on Christian radio, and drive home.
Back at the center, things are quiet. A few guys are watching a movie on the sectional in the living room. Robin sits behind the reception desk, visibly agitated.
“There’s an age difference. Some people have five to six years of their life to give to Teen Challenge. I find myself not in agreement with what’s going on, and it’s not good for me,” he says. “I’m just preparing myself for an exit plan. I can work, there’s no reason for me to sit here and let God do it.” Robin talks about starting an auto detail business, a hand-operated car wash, a yard service that incorporates artificial turf for the drought—anything with a low overhead. He could even go back to school, he says. Or work for one of the stores he fundraises in front of; he already has a rapport with the managers.
“I can’t get locked into Teen Challenge,” he says. “It’s not the way I’m trying to live the last little few years of my life.” He talks for nearly an hour, circling around many of the same points: that he’s done everything that was asked of him, that it feels like he’s done it all for nothing, that he lacks control. Finally, he presses the tips of his fingers together and rests his chin atop them.
“I’ll pray on it and get over it,” Robin says. “But just because I’ve completed the program, it’s still hard.” Martin, another intern, advises him not to assume anything before he meets with Pastor Jay.
Robin officially completed the program on November 23, and the stress of last week’s not-knowing has dissipated. He and Pastor Jay have found an agreement, not what he was hoping for, but something. Before, he would fundraise five days a week taking 10 percent of the earnings, and one day a week he’d take half. Now, he’s allowed to take 10 percent of the earnings four days a week, and two days a week he can take half. The other day is Sunday; he’s on the church circuit. Pastor Jay is a godly man, Robin says, and he trusts him completely. But he can probably only stay for a few months before he’ll need to set out on his own in order to accrue some savings.
When Robin completed the program, he didn’t know how to mark the moment. His official graduation ceremony isn’t until February. He called some of his family in Fresno. “I just walked around kind of confused,” he says. “I didn’t have the Teen Challenge strings on me anymore; I could just leave and do whatever I wanted to. But I hung out around here. Everything I’ve done in my life for the past 45 years has been negative. If I said I was going to the store, I was going to get a drink. If I said I was going to a friend’s house, I was going to a friend’s house to get high. I didn’t know what to do.”
His completion day was unremarkable from the outside, but internally, he was overwhelmed. “To be truthful, I cried, because it was the biggest thing I actually completed in my life,” says Robin. “I didn’t think I was gonna make it and, if I did make it, I thought I’d go out and start getting high again. It was surprising because it came up so fast. Then I didn’t want to leave and throw away all the hard work I’d done. I just thought about it during the day, and I broke down. “
And so he’s celebrating today, his first proper day off in over a year, by doing something that he hasn’t done without supervision in a long time—he’s going to the movie theater.
The movie Robin wanted to see is no longer playing, so he chooses “The Night Before,” knowing only that it’s a Christmas movie. It is a Christmas movie, but it’s also a Seth Rogen-helmed drug romp, an hour and a half down-the-rabbit-hole style advertisement for the holiday joys to be gleaned from mushrooms, cocaine, pills, weed, martinis, molly, whatever the characters can get their hands on. Robin howls along with the rest of the audience in the theater. (“If I was awake, it was a party,” Robin once said about his old life. When did the party stop being fun? “When I started going to jail,” he said.)
Robin has been a graduate of the program for ten days now, and he hasn’t used, but he is conscious about how thin that edge is. His bunkmate went out on a fundraising run last week and still hasn’t come back. A young woman he knows at the San Jose center—who gave her testimony at Cavalry, who sang at Oasis—is on life support after using heroin again. He’s looking at a photo on his phone of five guys with their arms intertwined, posing in the dorm. Four are gone now, he says, relapsed and disappeared.
“The thing that scares me is I don’t need money to start selling dope; people would give me two to three ounces of dope to sell. Now I think about how police aren’t on me, I’m not on probation, they can’t pat me down; all the things they used to do to me, they can’t do anymore. But that’s just Satan trying to paint a picture pretty when it’s not,” he says calmly.
One of the reasons Robin doesn’t take much time off is because all of his friends now are in Teen Challenge. He has one really close friend from before that he misses, a high-functioning meth addict with a family that Robin counted as his own. “I could call him right now, and he’d say, ‘How long does it take to get there? Three hours? Ok, I’m coming.’ If he needed to borrow money for gas to get here, he’d do it,” he says. But Robin can’t make that call, because that call means Fresno Slim, means meth and dope and everything else, means he lost a year and a half, means has to start counting all over again.
So Robin’s firmly focused on the future. In January, he’ll head to Fresno to clear his final charges in court. His eyes are open to the dangers of going home, but he’s at peace with it. He imagines telling the judge that he’s sober, that he has been since he was sent to Teen Challenge, that he’d been right to take the chance on him 40 years after his first drug-related prison term. To ignore the dozens of charges that followed it and the suggested sentencing, to think, ‘Maybe this guy is going to make it out alive.’ Robin can’t wait to tell the judge that he’s still making it. That he’s seen one, five, ten, and then dozens of guys fall around him, that he’s had to work harder than he knew he could for this. That he stays in the picture.