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Whether free or incarcerated, whether law abider or outlaw, we all have this in common: We all make choices. In youth we make the critical choices that predicate the rest of our lives. During those precious adolescent years, we are caught between wanting to obey and wanting to learn on our own, often through trial and tribulation. Sometimes this lack of experience leads to a failure to understand the possible outcomes of certain decisions. Some end up trying drugs. Most that do start out with “gateway” drugs, as they are called, and for a plethora of reasons end up strung out on the hard stuff. It can happen to anyone, any kid, especially now What began as smoking a joint escalated by any number of means into heavier things: pills such as Ecstasy, a whole menu of pharmaceuticals; cocaine in powder or rock form; methamphetamines as crank or ice; and of course alcohol. This stuff gets eaten, snorted, and drunk, and before long, smoked or injected. Once “chasing the dragon” or “shooting up” is introduced, it’s game over. For the user. Walk a mile in their shoes… How much more or less, then, is the chasm between you and me? Between us and the condemned? That first shot of dope is a new lover. It is like being reborn into a crisp new world where you are the creator of your own cool reality. After that first high though, the real world begins to suck worse. There is a fiendish voracity to acquire more dope and relive that first, euphoric awakening. You can shoot your body weight; you can hit the pipe until your lips bleed chasing that first high, but it never comes. Reality turns on you, baring fangs that look remarkably like syringes. By this point, you are a full-time user at the employ of the drug, your uniform replete with Zippo, bent spoon, and empty wallet held with a trembling grip by hands with dirty nails and bloody cuticles. You are a zombie. You are a pincushion in long sleeves. You now stalk the Earth in search of more sacred supply. Any means to procure tickets on the “Crystal Ship” are quickly depleted. Before long, everyone but your Momma knows you as a dope fiend, druggie, or any number of terms that signals you have lost your identity to your drug of choice. You find you are always out of dope and coming down hard between hits. That’s when the jones-ing sets in and the “kicking” starts. Your bones feel like jagged glass trying to saw out of your skin with every move. Your legs spasm and twitch. Your muscles are wound with enough kinetic anxiety to power a small village. It’s worse than death, living like this. At least in death, there is hope for peace and rest. You are a prisoner on the prowl for your next fix. You steal from your family and from strangers, break into cars, houses, and businesses in order to score. It is not a leap to suggest that before long, the all-night convenience store glows like a beacon with neon dollar signs. On the night of June 29, 1996, Andrew Papke, then 19, was driving drunk through South Austin. He later admitted he had been drinking all day. His 1991 Acura collided head-on with a 1974 Volkswagen Beetle, instantly killing the young couple inside-19-year-old Daniel London and 17-year-old Bethany Earlyon their way home from a date. After the accident, Papke went sober and became active in Alcoholics Anonymous. At his 1997 trial, Papke replaced his attorneys who wanted to mount a vigorous defense. He instead pleaded guilty and threw himself on the mercy of the court. He received back-to-back 20 year sentences. In prison, Papke has worked as a chaplain’s assistant, studied for sociology and paralegal degrees, and become a dedicated advocate against drunk driving. In 1999, he began a series of meetings with Beth Early’s parents through a victim-offender mediation program. Papke’s release date is December 16, 2036. He will be 59 years old. A robbery goes down, and after a few ill-gotten bucks are purloined, you are on your way to a dealer’s motel room like a guppie out of water, gasping and flapping your way to a dirty puddle without a second thought, without a choice. Like air, you’ve got to have it. Later, after the county jail staff has detoxed you, the kid hidden inside comes out again. Your court-appointed attorney comes to visit and shows you what the prosecutors will enter into court as Exhibit A. It’s a videotape showing you shooting the clerk of that convenience store in the face, grabbing a few bills from the cash register, and leaving in a rush … not so much to avoid getting caught, but in effort to quickly get to the dope house and feed the monkey. The camera stillframes, capturing your wild, hollow eyes gliding past in grainy resolution as the you who is not really you departs the store without the slightest effort to conceal your identity. You were once a normal person. Now you are a monster, and you find yourself shackled on a bus bound for the Polunsky Unit in Livingstonthe Row. After reality sets in, you begin to look back to keep from facing the future. How did you end up in this place? How did you forfeit your life and take someone else’s for a drug? Were you left riding home on the school bus, only to walk into an empty house every day? Were there plentiful idle hours for getting into trouble while Mom and Dad were at work struggling to pay down the exorbitant interest on the family’s upside-down credit cards and mortgage? Maybe there was no Mommy or In all of us, there is a primordial urge to excel, even if in a glorified negative way. 10 THE TEXAS OBSERVER NOVEMBER 16, 2007