Cleveland Tough: Tales of Survival and Perseverance Episode 5 - Gangs and Prison

Carl Cook, at St. Herman's.  Photo by Brian Bull.
Carl Cook, at St. Herman's. Photo by Brian Bull.
Featured Audio

Today, ideastream concludes its series – “Cleveland Tough: Tales of Survival and Perseverance.”  This week, we hear from 48-year-old Carl Cook, a man whose father was a federal judge, and mother was a doctor.  But early on, Cook got caught up in gangs, drug addiction, and served time in jail….before turning to a life of helping the poor and homeless. 

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My name is Carl Cook, I got involved with gangs.

We were called the Alpha Aces, and we used to bang with a gang called the Survivors off St. Clair. 

That’s how I kinda got hooked on crack cocaine, uh, heroin.  Y’know, we started to sell it, then I started to use it.

On jail time as both a retreat and a performance

I was in the city county jail quite often. The key to survival in prison life is -- and I’ll say it kinda simply --  is wear a mask.  We have to be somebody we may not be.  We need to have that tough image, and that’s the survival instincts.  Got (into) a couple fights, but that’s just territorial stuff.  


Photo by Flickr.com's martin

Actually to me it was quite comfortable. `Cause I looked at it, “Well, this is a break off the streets for a minute, you know, to get myself cleaned up.”

The problem was, whether I did 8 months, 5 years, I still…when I got out, hadn’t worked on anything with inside of me. So as soon as I got out, I continued on using.

Minding one's turf with life and limb

My “walk” was central Quincy, Hough.  Very tough areas in the city of Cleveland.

The first shooting was because a drug dealer thought I did take his product.  Got shot twice in the chest, and I still have the holes up in my upper chest.   One of the bullets are still in my body, because it was too close to my lung, they couldn’t pull it out.

The stabbing was gang related.  A guy pulled out a knife and started swinging at me so I held my arm up and he just starts stabbing me in the arm, and I still have the wounds to this day.

A gentleman that I had robbed…his drugs, a drug dealer, chased me down.  And I was trying to get through this fence….and as they were driving down the alley, I was almost through the fence but my legs were sticking out. And they rode over my legs, and they were crushed. 


Photo by Flickr's Jimmy JOp

Went to the hospital.  My legs were so badly damaged, they actually blew up like balloons, turned black and blue.

One day the doctors came in, and said, “It’s just some kind of miracle because the antibiotics we are giving you are working.”  Their fear was gangrene was going to set into the bone and they would have to cut my legs off.

Hitting a realization

I ended up at the men’s shelter at 2100 Lakeside. I used to call it “Baby Lucasville”. Because everybody for the most part, is from prison.  But a fear came over me, I said, “Wow…this is just like prison.  I really haven’t gone anywhere.  I’m still running in place.” 

So I made a decision, 10-24-05.  That was my last drink, drug, in my life.  I mentored under (a) Muslim lady named Sada, and she started to teach me about the scientific parts about my addiction.  The endorphins, the different chemicals…that intrigued me. 

Before you know it, I was six months clean.

Beginning a new life through community service

After coming through the men’s shelter and outpatient treatment, I created a non-profit organization called Project Save in 2006.

I also work for St. Herman’s Focus Cleveland.  And I direct their food operations. 


Photo by Brian Bull.

We can feed up to 80 people for lunch, 125 people, for dinner.

I don’t want no trouble (laughs), none! I actually want to do good. 

Life’s like a rollercoaster, it goes up and down, up and down.  However, today I can ride the rollercoaster ride. 

I have a lot more acceptance, my anger is zero, so…I’m doing quite well in my life today.  

I’m just very grateful.

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WEB EXTRAS:

Cook on his upbringing and early struggles

My dad was a federal judge.  My mother was a podiatrist who had her own practice in Shaker (Heights) for many years.

I had a wonderful childhood.  My parents were both spiritual, and they wanted to instill that in us.  I had two sisters and one brother.

At a young age, I started to drink.  At the age of 8. My father lived the political life. He had parties, and they had bars for guests.  My parents never drank, but I found myself at 8 years old wanting to be like the mayor, or be like the judges.  As we were cleaning up, I’d be sipping here and there.  Then I found myself sneaking downstairs into the pantry, and having drinks with myself. 

And being one of the few – if not the only black family in Cleveland Heights at the time, everyone looked at us as if we were the Cosby kids.  They raised us with good spiritual values.  And I wanted to keep the stigma that I was one of the Cosby kids, and keep this long term of lies within myself. 

One of my struggles, was that I was diagnosed as dyslexic in the third grade.  And I found the bottle, used it as an excuse…to cover up my feelings.  I didn’t drink every day but I did hide a lot of things from my parents.  Alcohol was one of them. 

On getting deeper into drugs, and joining a gang

In about 1986, 1987…I got involved in gangs. We were called the Alpha Aces, and we banged with a gang called Survivors off of St. Clair.  Just territorial, different things like that.

The gang culture for the most part, I was actually one of the leaders, captains, in this game.  For the most part, backing out later was easy because I started using crack cocaine and my leadership was questionable. It was simple for me to get out the game, it was back in the 1980s when the crack epidemic was sweeping our neighborhoods and the inner city was changing because of the epidemic, in the poor neighborhoods. 

And through gang activity, that’s how I got  hooked on crack cocaine, heroin.  We started to sell it and then I started to use it.

The sensation of using heroin…it’s a two-parter.  With heroin, it’s a powerful disease.  Very addictive. For the most part, it’s the effect that it produces that I’m addicted to.  The effect of heroin is mellow.  Crack makes me more excited.  With alcohol, it gave me peace with myself.  I thought I could think, act better, do better, with drugs and alcohol in my life.

The feeling of addiction and how powerful this addiction is, well….one day I was smoking an “8 Ball” of crack, and I took me what we called a “blast”…and I said, “Wow. This is the way I’m going to die. This will be great.”

On living a double life

Everyone was going their way.  We’re in our early 20s, so we are structuring our lives. For the most part, most of us had been together growing up.  It was one of the blessings that I had. I lived two lives.  I could go up into the suburbs, where I was this goody-goody rich kid, like my parents wanted me to be.  Or I could come down onto 86th and Cedar, and be a hood.

At the age of 13, I ran numbers on Cedar, and then come back to Cleveland Heights. But I had to be mindful, because my parents warned me, “You shouldn’t go there to see your cousins.  They’re nothing but trouble.”  Yet I wanted to have my own selfish values.  I was selfish towards myself, others, it was all about me and only me.  If I couldn’t get it, I was going to take it.

I lived in and out of abandoned buildings for a number of years, that’s not so much the fault of my family.  It’s just that my family looked at children and siblings a certain way, and I had to go be a certain way at family functions.  Like one of the Cosby kids.  When I did go, it was also because I wanted money. So that was the perception.


Photo by Flickr's Greta Ceresini

On witnessing violence in Cleveland’s tougher areas

Oh yeah,  I’ve seen death in the street. Lot of murders.  A lot of trauma on the streets of Cleveland.  I’ve seen everything.  Drug overdoses...people with needles in their arms...just die.  The streets will chew you up and spit you out, if you don’t know how to survive on them.

Of those I saw who died, I’d say 60 percent were personal acquaintances. Relatives. I’ve had some friends who did survive.

On peer pressure to stay

There’s pressure from siblings and friends. 

They’ll ask, “Are you going that way?” 

I had to build on my defense.  Because you’re a “sucka” if you go to an AA meeting, or you’re a sucka if you get help for yourself. I had to get past that, I wanted to change, I wanted a positive purpose in life, not so much a negative purpose.

Because it’s about leadership.  Are you a leader or a follower?  I’ve always been a leader in my life for the most part.  And I wanted to leave (the streets) myself. So I had to struggle  again and again because of that peer pressure, peers who said, “You need to hang out with us, and be miserable.  Why should you be happy?” 

But I deserve to be happy. 

I’m going this way.

On his community service and outreach

These days I’m really on a quest of helping people improve the quality of their lives. 

After coming out of the men’s shelter and outpatient treatment, Luther Ministry wanted to hire me for my background in culinary arts.  I worked for Luther Ministry for 8 years.  And as I was working on my anger and addiction issues, I wanted to put a non-profit together to help people understand about prevention, etcetera.  So I built the non-profit Project Save in 2006.  It’s designed to try to prevent our men and women from coming into the homeless system. 


Photo by Brian Bull.

We’ve a furniture program, assist with birth certificates, try to do all things we can to help empower people.  I also work for St. Herman’s Focus Cleveland on the West Side.  Because of my culinary background, I direct their food operations.  I’m the case worker, and fellowship maker with Paul Findley.  I’m also the program director of a winter program for the homeless.  The target is outside people, those who live in campsites, or  abandoned buildings like I used to. 

My father passed away in 2003, he didn’t get a chance to see me sober.  Still, my father and I had a good relationship.  He had expectations on me, he wanted me to do law school.  He must’ve seen something in me.  I did culinary school instead.  My mother is still living.  To this day, I take care of her….as my mom took care of me because I was a mama’s boy.   

I don’t want no trouble (laughs), none! I actually want to do good. 

Life’s like a rollercoaster, it goes up and down, up and down.  However, today I can ride the rollercoaster ride. 

I have a lot more acceptance, my anger is zero, so…I’m doing quite well in my life today, I’m just very grateful.

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