By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
Richie's wasn't the only family he knew with drug problems. He'd seen three neighbors die. One lady was so addicted to crack that she hocked her oxygen tank. He remembered that real clear. When she overdosed, she left behind a child younger than Richie.
Richie can also describe in detail how you test the purity of crack and list the other drugs his parents favored.
But even though he was surrounded by the chaos of crack addiction, Richie's most vivid memory was peaceful. He remembered that when his parents smoked rock cocaine, there was a momentary lull.
"My dad got real calm. Later, he'd go to sleep and then wake up and want to eat. My mom would talk more than usual, her eyes would roll and she'd be, like, lightheaded. She did not get mean. She was actually nicer. When she wasn't on it, she'd be mean until she got it. People would give it to her, just to calm her down."
But even inside the tranquil stupor of crack, the potential for terror lurked.
"One time my mother almost died," said Richie. "She took a really deep hit and slowly began shrinking into [the floor like] a pancake. She passed out for a long time. I put a paper bag over her face and pushed it back and forth, trying to get some air into her. I poured warm water with salt down her mouth. I don't exactly know why. It's just what I'd been told you do. When she tasted that, it kind of brought her around."
When she wasn't high, Richie's mom, Barbara Blandon, could shame a shrew.
"She'd always yell at us because us kids complained we were hungry. She'd send us to the Circle K to buy Ramen noodles, which are like, what, 25 cents?"
Though there was seldom enough to eat, and his parents were always looking for that next hit on the pipe, Richie preferred life at the apartment with his two sisters and brother over school.
Like a pintsize contestant on Jeopardy! whose category is "SCHOOLS," Richie can rattle off the names of the learning institutions he's attended in his short life: Garfield, Shaw, three schools in Avondale, Emerson, Edison, Phoenix Prep Academy, Phoenix Welcome Center, Pappas, Clarendon, J.J. Elementary, another at 15th Avenue, Monroe and Intelli School. A white boy surrounded in inner-city schools by blacks and Mexicans, Richie listened to rap music and tried to fit in. And flailed.
Fistfights punctuated his smart-mouth bragging. His hoodlum bravado merely hid the fear.
Esther Gould first took the Blandon family under her wing in January 1994, after meeting 14-year-old Helen Blandon as part of a mentoring project sponsored by the Phoenix Community Alliance. Eleven months later, Richie wrote to Esther:
"Dear Esther . . . I am having big problems today. The boys who jumped me on the 14th of November are back in my face today telling me that they are going to jump me agan [sic] but they did not say wen [sic] so I am keeping my eyes open to wach [sic] out for myself. Because I am very skaird [sic], and don't know wat [sic] I am going to do . . . I am making shure [sic] that I stay by the grownups at all times so nothing will hapen [sic] at all to me. But they can jump me on the bus so I have been walking for about a week."
Though she meant well, Esther was helpless. She had no experience with either violence or drug addiction, the bookends of Richie's life. Left to his own devices, Richie responded to the danger in his life by acting wild.
He climbed up on roofs and dropped cinder blocks just to watch the destruction. From the I-10 overpass at 16th Street, he launched rocks onto cars--until a trucker got out of his cab with a gun and chased Richie and his buddies for blocks.
"We were so freaked out," said Richie.
Naturally, the kid groomed himself for the protection and family of a gang.
"I used to be really crazy and go looking for trouble. That's the kind of people the gangs want. They knew I was the kind of person who would get into trouble and do stupid stuff."
Instead of fantasizing about playing for the Phoenix Suns or the Los Angeles Lakers like a normal 11-year-old, Richie talked about the gangs he might join at his school, the downtown Phoenix Academy, which despite its fancy name is nothing more than a public school on the wrong side of town.
"There was the Ninth Street gang, VHHB [Vatio Hispanic Home Boys], East Coast Crips, West Coast Crips, Doble, 21st Street, 24th Street, West Side City, Duppa Villa and WBP [Wet Back Power]. I guess I was closest to the guys in West Side City."
When Esther defended Richie to school officials and demanded they help him, she heard, Forget it lady. He's no innocent Urkel. Richie sniffs out trouble even when he's got a head cold.
Before Richie could convince a gang that he was worthy of being jumped in, his life and his family slammed into a tree.