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The Oregonian: Mitchell Jackson's journey from drug dealer to novelist and teacher
Author: Jeff Baker, The Oregonian
Posted: September 9, 2013

Read the original story and watch a video here in The Oregonian. 

The gym at Jefferson High School is humming with activity on a summer afternoon. Pat Strickland, the boys basketball coach, is talking to a TV station about one of his former stars, Terrence Jones, who was charged with harassment after allegedly stepping on a homeless man's leg, and about one of his current stars, Silas Melson, who'll play for Gonzaga after graduation.

Melson, a 6-foot-2 guard, shows the TV crew how easily he can dunk. Isaiah Robinson, the 6-foot-9 son of former Trail Blazers star Clifford Robinson and Strickland's stepson, watches from the sideline. Strickland shoots the occasional jumper and keeps an eye on everything.

A few rows up in the bleachers, Mitchell Jackson is in his element. He teases Strickland about looking too young for his age and makes weekend plans with his old friend. He lets out an "ohh" of admiration when Melson slams the ball through the net. He brags about his knowledge of Jefferson's sports history. And over and over, he says how much he loves being home.

"I'm so pro-Portland," Jackson says. "A lot of people, they want to get out of here so bad that when they do they cut the ties and diminish the role that Portland played for them. But I feel like all my content is about being here. I never wrote anything about being in New York. I feel connected to this in a way that's like a lifeline."

Jackson grew up in North and Northeast Portland and graduated from Jefferson 20 years ago, when the neighborhood was a different place and he was a different person. He played basketball for the Democrats, started his senior year, but used some of the money from a Rotary Club scholarship to start dealing crack. Caught in a traffic stop with drugs and a loaded gun, Jackson did 16 months in prison, got out and went right back to Portland State. Now he has two master's degrees and has spent the last 10 years writing a novel and making a documentary about what happened to him back in the day.

Mitchell Jackson graduated from Jefferson 20 years ago, when the neighborhood was a different place and he was a different person. He played basketball for the Democrats and used some of the money from a Rotary Club scholarship to start dealing crack. Now he has two master's degrees and has spent the last 10 years writing a novel and making a documentary about what happened to him back in the day.

The book and the movie are called "The Residue Years." The novel is finally finished, which is great, Jackson's really proud, The New York Times loved it, called it "as moving as it is unbearable." Except Jackson's not done telling his story, the one he had to tell before he could tell any other. He keeps coming back, driving around, seeing how much the city has changed, holding the past and the present together in one tangled ball. He can't let go. He might never let go.

 

"The first thing that I sold was crack," Jackson says. "I couldn't sell it. There was too much competition. People would say, 'Let me taste it' and run off on you. It was just ... I was too meek for that life."

He was maybe 15 years old, he's not sure.

The place was Northeast Seventh Avenue and Church Street, known then as Crack Alley. Also near his great-grandmother's house, on Northeast Sixth and Mason. Lots of would-be customers ran off with his drugs or short-changed him.

"I was meek," Jackson says, and laughs.

When Jackson was little, his mother says he liked to play school. She went into his room one day and asked him why he wasn't playing outside with everyone else. They don't want to play school, he said, because I'm the teacher and we have homework.

Lillie Jackson told her son as gently as she could that not everyone likes school as much as he does and sometimes you have to do what the other kids want to do.

"Every summer he would go to the library before school started," she says. "He'd say to me 'Mama, I've got to refresh myself.'"

Lillie Jackson was 19 when she had Mitchell, her firstborn. They moved around a lot, he changed schools: "King, I think I went there the longest. Faubion. I went to Irvington, I think, for a second. I went to a school in Vancouver called Sarah J. Anderson, I think it's called ... Immaculate Heart, I went there ... Then I went to Fernwood Middle School."

And Benson High School, before a disagreement with the basketball coach brought him to Jefferson as a junior.

All along school came easy.

"I think I was pretty quiet," Jackson says. "I had a lot of friends. I think I was good at a lot of things but I wasn't really good at anything. I was studious. I did not like to read. I didn't dislike reading, I just didn't do it. I just got good grades. I always got good grades. I don't remember how I did it but I managed somehow. Maybe because at that time Jeff was the worst high school in the city."

He laughs again.

There's one house Jackson considers home, the one on Sixth and Mason, where he lived the longest and was happiest. It's at the heart of "The Residue Years," an autobiographical novel. The main character, Champ Thomas, is a Portland State student and a crack dealer who wants to buy the house back so his mother and younger brothers can have a place of their own and so he can recapture an idealized childhood that's slipped away.

Jackson leaves the gym at Jefferson and gets into a rental car. He's in from New York, where he's lived since he left Portland to go to graduate school in 2002. Back to do an interview for the documentary (with the woman who was with him when he got arrested), he's every inch the successful young Brooklyn writer, with big glasses, casually stylish slacks and shirt, and shoes that drew plenty of comments from his old friends at the gym.

The stories start flowing. One begins:

"I can't remember if it was this house or that house. My cousin used to live in this house and this was the first time I was in a drug raid ..."

Another one:

"I had just got robbed like a month ago so I had a gun but it was in my car and my car was parked about where that Lexus is. I was looking for my keys and this guy is pedaling on his bike and I get to the car door and the dude stops and says, 'I heard you was looking for me ...'"

And another:

"This used to be a bank right here, I'm pretty sure. If it is, that's the bank my stepfather robbed. What's crazy is, they used to live four blocks down here ..."

It's hard to say what's most incongruous: that Jackson, smart and successful, is describing such a violent past or that this seemingly peaceful, prosperous section of Portland was so recently home to so much drug-fueled crime. Calm waters don't reveal what lies beneath, of course, and North and Northeast still have plenty of drugs and all the violence and heartbreak that comes with them, but it doesn't take an old-timer to notice that things have changed.

"Oh, man. It was pretty bad," says Denmark Reid, who grew up with Jackson and was a basketball star at Jefferson. "Crack cocaine was everywhere. There were gang members selling drugs in the neighborhood. Not to say that doesn't happen now, but it was way worse back then. Everyone was doing it."

Drive down MLK or Alberta or Killingsworth or Williams and the signs of gentrification and renewal are everywhere -- new shops and restaurants, people out and about. Cruise through the residential streets and see houses fixed up, cars with kayaks on the roof, kids playing in well-tended yards.

"The city belongs to someone else, but maybe that's not that bad," Jackson says. "We had a chance to maintain it and we didn't and now we're displaced. Even before I moved to Jefferson, when school let out it would be all gang members and stuff. People got shot outside. Not often, but enough. I don't think that's going on so much anymore."

Reid, who says gang members told him not to deal drugs because he was a basketball player, embraces the changes.

"I think it's better," he says. "You can walk outside your house and not get shot. A lot of people moved out toward Gresham, and now they're having problems out there ... but now you can go to Alberta and drink a beer. You could never do that before. I think it's wonderful."

At Sixth and Mason, Jackson is nostalgic, standing in the middle of the street and remembering how he and his friends would play basketball all day at a hoop nailed to a telephone pole and steal plums from a neighbor named Miss Mary.

Not all the memories are pleasant.

Jackson points to a window and says he remembers watching from it as his mother went to a drug house around the corner. He followed her one night and couldn't get in, an incident he thought for years was a dream until he asked his mother and she said it was true, she told the dealers not to let him in.

"I was a late bloomer," Lillie Jackson says. "I didn't start using until after (my youngest son) was born. I was 29 when I had him, and I started using three or four months later."

Her drug of choice was crack. She did it for about 10 years, went to jail and to rehab a few times before shaking free. Mitchell Jackson and his two younger brothers bounced around a lot, living with one relative or another when their mother couldn't cope.

"It was unsettling, but also I think it gave me a kind of strength," he says. "I had to be a kind of brother-father. I had to get them ready for school, get them off and make sure they were doing their homework. ... To her, it just made her untrustworthy. She used to give me the money for the rent or groceries or whatever and say, 'Listen, I want you to hold onto this.' She couldn't trust herself. I would put it under my mattress or in my pillow or something and sometimes she would come back late and high and be like, 'Gimme the money for the rent.' I'm like, 'Nah, I'm not giving you that money,' and she'd say, 'I need it for this or that.' She used to con me a couple of times until it got to the point where I wouldn't give her the money."

"The Residue Years" is narrated in alternating chapters by Champ and his mother, Grace, who's trying to clean up and regain the custody of her younger children. She knows Champ is dealing and won't accept the money he tries to give her because it came from drugs. Her daily struggle is depicted with love and candor.

Lillie Jackson says she's read "The Residue Years" and has no problem with it.

"It's honest. It didn't bother me. A lot of it was not my story. It was somebody's story but not mine. Some of it was my story and some of it was some others that he invented.

"When your children get to be 30 or 40 years old, they started asking you questions about their childhood. 'Did this or that happen, was it a dream, what about this?' About four or five years ago Mitchell started asking me all these types of questions. I do have a pretty good memory for things that happened to my children. I think I do. I'm sure there's some things I don't remember. Drugs do cloud your memory."

Lillie Jackson says Mitchell is the star of the family, the one the younger kids look up to. Reid says he and Jackson were squares who lived for basketball with their friends.

So why did Jackson start dealing?

"I guess the simple answer to that is that I wanted some money," he says. "My adult answer is I had experience with people selling drugs to my mother."

Jackson smoked weed in high school but didn't ever do anything more than that. He kept his dealing life separate from his basketball friends, although they had to know something was up when he was paying for all the drinks and dinners when they went out and buying gifts and plane tickets.

"It's hard to tell a 19- or 20-year-old who's supporting his family and having some of the things that he wants that ..."

He stops and starts again.

"I never wanted to do what everyone else was doing."

But that's interesting because ...

"Because I sold drugs and everybody else was doing it. Yeah, I'm like a 100 percent contradiction."

Jackson started writing about his life in the Santiam Correctional Institution in Salem and kept at it after he got out in 1998, at Portland State and later at New York University's graduate program in creative writing. In New York he attended parties and made connections with a disarming combination of ambition and charm. He targeted influential people who could help him get ahead, such as editor and teacher Gordon Lish and John Edgar Wideman, a novelist who initially rebuffed Jackson's request that he serve as a mentor. Undeterred, Jackson wrote a story for Wideman's workshop about a young writer who was rejected by an older writer named John. Wideman reconsidered and his words of praise are on the back of "The Residue Years."

The book was accepted for publication in somewhat the same way. Jackson's agent, Liz Darshanoff, submitted it to Kathy Belden, the executive editor at Bloomsbury USA.

"I rejected it," Belden says. "It took me a long time to read it. The voice was very promising but there were problems with the structure. I was drawn in by the voice but it was easy to put down. I kept picking it up and putting it down."

Darshanoff asked if Jackson could come by and meet Belden.

"He was very personable and charming and he won me over," she says. "... He's the kind of person you want to give a chance to."

Jackson parks the rental car across from Irving Park and gets out. A light rain is falling and memories are washing over him. He lived in this house, he lived in that one, he was robbed here, he hung out there. It all comes back to basketball, though, basketball and friends. Waiting a couple of hours to get in a game when the courts were packed, dunking for the first time because the rim was low, just balling all day long. When Jackson writes, he says he envisions someone like Strickland or another of his Portland friends reading what he wrote and remembering how it was back then.

"This story is about my mother and I and our relationship but I think it's also a story about place," Jackson says. "This place is gone now but it's about the people here. It's a collective story, and I very much want to be considered a native son. That's important to me, for me to hold Portland up as something that's important, and for the guys that I grew up with to not have their experiences diminished or forgotten."

-- Jeff Baker