What kind of place is that, they ask. Is there a cover?
There's no charge to enter. But the steps to the door are steep.
Above is a large, dim room, packed with people. Women laugh. Young daughters dance in giddy circles. Men sit at round tables, talking low and playing spades. Cigarette smoke hangs heavy in the air. On the stereo the Chi-lites croon, "Have you seen her? Tell me, have you seen her?"
Presiding over the party is Reginald Epps, a man of middle age wearing a ready smile and an apron. He stands behind the bar chatting with customers and selling Austin crackers, glass ashtrays stacked in front of him like checkers.
The place has the electric energy of a secret speakeasy. Yet here the drink of choice is coffee, from a little urn on a sugar-flecked table. Those here have given up their old poisons, and at last they want no more.
Epps knows how it is. For 11 years he was addicted to crack cocaine. Eight years ago, homeless and penniless, he sought treatment in Richmond and ended his addiction. But the process of recovery never ends. The 12-step program followed by members of Narcotics Anonymous similar to that of Alcoholics Anonymous may take years or even decades to follow. "We only get better," Epps says. Never healed.
In those years and decades of getting better, many former addicts find themselves lonely. "You get bored, sometimes," Epps says. Your life stagnates. "It's go to work, come home, watch TV, make a meeting, go to sleep." The same thing the next day, and the next.
Bars and clubs are treacherous ground. "A lot of people drink," says Vanessa, a former addict who comes to Club Serenity. "And once they drink they go back to the drugs." She requested that her last name not be published.
Alcohol wasn't Epps' problem. A beer never assuaged the need for crack. But he understands its allure. "You ever looked at a Corona, when it's sitting there?" he asks. It's a beautiful thing, all amber and curvy. That bright sliver of lime. Water beading on the bottle. "It's hot, summertime," Epps says, imagining it. "Oh, man."
Epps imagined too his fellow recovering addicts hiding from a city filled with temptations, sitting at home and flicking the remote. They'd forgotten how to have fun, he says, without a joint or a stem or a pipe in their hands.
"What could be done?" he asked himself. Club Serenity was the answer.
Four years ago, Epps bought a two-story building on Brookland Park Boulevard and turned it into a drug-free hangout. He painted the walls red and black and brought in booths, tables and a massive television so guys could keep one eye on the football game as they played cards.
Word spread throughout the city's many Narcotics Anonymous meetings Epps attends a meeting about every day about the new club. People started coming.
Wednesday is spades and pinochle. Thursday is open-mic poetry night. Saturday is karaoke and comedy which, Epps cracks, are pretty much the same thing.
Despite the full house on a Sunday night, Epps wishes more people would come. His efforts to get the word out are limited by Narcotics Anonymous policy, which says meeting groups "ought never endorse, finance, or lend the NA name to any related facility or outside enterprise, lest problems of money, property, or prestige divert us from our primary purpose."
"Number six," Epps says, indicating the list of 12 traditions that hangs behind the bar in the club. "Number six. So I got to be real mindful of that." The traditions, separate from the famous 12 steps, are the guidelines by which NA meetings operate.
"Club" is a shallow word for all that goes on in Epps' upstairs room. "This is a meeting place," Epps says. It's a safe haven for both people in recovery and those who want to avoid temptation in the first place. People come not only for entertainment but also for support, for conversation, for company.
"Once I got clean, it was, like, nowhere for me to go," Vanessa says. She found Club Serenity and discovered that people there shared her story. Now she shows up "whenever the door's open," she says.
"I believe this is one of the reasons I stayed clean," Vanessa says. "This club."
Many people this night echo her words. The club saved them, they testify. The club kept them clean.
The club and Reginald Epps.
Epps is a gruff, shrewd man of 52. He doesn't like people prying into his business. It is not easy for him to surrender his story.
Epps grew up in Norfolk, where he married and later divorced. Crack snared him when he was a 33-year-old single father, well past the years of youthful temptation.
He'd just lost custody of his beloved 6-year-old son. His ex-wife had asked him to take care of the boy when she started a new job, he says. Four years later she asked for him back and a judge ordered the custody change. "They took my world," he says. "They took my reason for living."
He found a new reason when he tried crack.
He "took the smoke in and then, vooom," he says, pantomiming the act. "Good gracious alive, man, that's all right." Crack lifted him up, dissolved his worries, made him want to party. And he did. He bought plenty, even gave it away. He had money then. But it didn't last.
Epps spent his savings. Lost his home. Lost his friends. Eleven years later, he had nothing but a bike, a pipe and $2 in his pocket, he says at least to start with. "Cigarettes were a dollar-98 cents. That leaves me with how much?"
He lived in an abandoned house in the Campostella area of Norfolk. One day in 1997, workers came to board up the windows and kicked him out. "Once you've been evicted from an abandoned house, I mean, you've been evicted," Epps says, laughing heartily.
The police caught up with him and found drug paraphernalia in his pocket. But Epps got a break: They charged him only with blocking traffic on a bicycle and released him.
He had nowhere to go. He was a penniless 44-year-old man. "I don't have but one decision to make," Epps realized then. He could keep on doing, keep on using. Or he could surrender. "And I chose to surrender."
Epps likens it to getting an "ass-whupping" so bad you can only curl up and scream, "I give up!" He went to a drug treatment center and made it through his first 30 clean days. After that, he sought a long-term program to keep himself straight. There was none available locally, they told him. But there was one bed, one chance, at a treatment center in Richmond. And they bought him a one-way ticket.
Epps spent 16 months at the Richmond center, called Human Resources Inc. It's a private nonprofit agency at 15 W. Cary Street that offers treatment for all kinds of drug addiction and has served almost 8,000 clients since 1970. People seeking treatment may apply through any local Community Service Board, which can subsidize the cost of the program, or apply privately.
The counselors there were exactly what Epps needed, he says, "just to have someone to be able to talk to regularly."
But his craving did not easily subside. "Have you ever lost a lover?" Epps asks, staring intently at his listener, "because your drug of choice becomes your lover."
You adore your drug above all else. You spend all your time with it. You obsess over it. It commands your constant devotion. And when it's gone, you grieve.
Epps hardened his heart against his treacherous love, that "cunning enemy of life," as Narcotics Anonymous calls it. Supported by his five children and his significant other, Beryl, he hasn't used for almost nine years.
But simply staying clean wasn't enough for Epps. "He's always been a motivator type of guy," says Linda, a seven-year recovered addict who knew Epps in his Norfolk days. "I don't want to use the word hustle, but that's what he did."
"How I started was like this," Epps says. He got a job as a cashier at Community Pride, making $5.50 an hour. "I was really inspired by Johnny Johnson," Epps says of the supermarket chain's founder, who worked his way up from bagging eggs and milk to owning a mini-empire of local grocery stores. Watching Johnson walk in the store refueled Epps' hope of making something out of himself. "If he can do it, I can do it too," he figured.
So Epps restarted an enterprise that had sustained him in Norfolk: selling single-stem roses in Richmond nightclubs.
Sounds like a penny-ante operation. But Epps knew from experience he could make hundreds a night. "I do the stickup," he says: You're asking the guy, but you're really asking the girl. If the gentleman declines, he looks cheap. Five dollars, is that so much to pay to make her smile?
"You could make a good living, selling roses," he says. But Epps wanted more than a life of petals, paper and plastic.
He applied for a part-time job at a coin-operated laundry. He didn't get the job, but the owner told him about a Laundromat for sale on Leigh Street, in Carver. The business had become a headache for its owner, Epps says. Machines broke, vandals scrawled, people demanded refunds for quarters they'd never put in slots.
Epps offered to buy the business not the building, just the right to run things. The owner agreed. For $1,200, the Laundromat was Epps'.
He fixed the machines and kept the place clean, and it started making money. The rose money was more than enough for Epps to live on, so he saved everything he got from the grocery store job and his Laundromat. Three years later, he bought the building outright. Then he purchased another Laundromat on Clay Street, then another.
The building that would become Club Serenity went up for sale in 2001 and Epps bought that too. He bought the ice cream shop down the street. He bought houses, rehabbed and sold them. "I was smart enough to know that money is a tool," he says, just like a hammer to a carpenter.
Epps hopes hard to see a renaissance on Brookland Park Boulevard. "When I came here, this was a ghost area," he says. Many people still think of it as such, a shriveled North Side artery long ago choked of blood. Motorists speeding through may notice nothing more than a super-abundance of barbershops and beauty salons.
With Epps as guide, however, it becomes easy to see the new life sprouting on the old street. The first door he knocks on belongs to a program called Born to Be Great II, which recently moved into two adjacent storefronts. The nonprofit offers school-aged youth practical job training as well as the use of computers, art supplies and a fully equipped recording studio.
Epps proceeds down the street, poking his head in every open door. In September, Community Transport Inc. moved in, a company that provides a taxi service, primarily for senior citizens, throughout the Richmond area.
"Clara?" Epps says, as he enters Michaela's Quality Bake Shop, which moved here in early October.
"Hey, Reggie," says the young woman behind the counter as she grabs three glazed doughnuts from the glass case.
A rainbow of handbags and custom-designed hats occupies the shelves of La Neal, a boutique that opened just this month across the street from Club Serenity. Next to that is Branches of the Vine, a little storefront church that has a "sidewalk prayer slot" in the front window. There's the new Sooky's Unique Gifts/Bait and Tackle Shop, and L's Café and Catering, a little restaurant opened in September by Lakesha and Levelle Thompson. Their wedding portrait hangs over the counter. Lakesha was raised in the North Side, she says, and thus it was an easy decision to return to the neighborhood to start a business. "Know half the people out here already," she says.
Epps looks at all these entrepreneurs, and the handful of other stores that are being fixed up for future tenants, with satisfaction. "It will never be a Carytown," he says, "but it's coming back."
He intends to restart the Brookland Park Merchants Association, so storeowners' concerns can be heard by the city. Litter is left on the streets, he says, and the police presence isn't strong enough to make customers feel safe. Already, however, the city has installed new streetlights, and there's a municipal program that reimburses store owners for some of what they spend on renovations.
Epps himself plans to redo the old-time candy-pink interior of one of his properties on Brookland Park Boulevard, the 50-year-old James' Home Made Ice Cream shop. He has big plans for the club as well. Although it's now open only in the evenings, Epps hopes someday he can keep its doors open night and day as a permanent refuge for people in recovery.
He envisions opening the bottom floor, now used for storage, as an employment and counseling center. Even one nonviolent felony on an addict's record makes finding a decent job virtually impossible, he says: "Who's going to trust me behind a cash register? Who's going to trust me with their kids? Who's going to trust me to be a nurse?"
The club costs $1,400 per month to operate, Epps says, between the mortgage and bills. The proceeds from 75-cent cups of coffee and packets of crackers don't go far toward helping him break even. He dreams of a day when the club can be self-supporting, but making a profit doesn't really matter, he says. "In some kind of way it all comes together," he says. "It pays itself back. That's all the pay I need, just to see someone back there who's new in recovery."
Stories of precipitous falls and soul-lifting recoveries flow freely among the Sunday night crowd at Club Serenity. Stories of former incarcerations, of parents who turned a blind eye to the problems, of children lost to addiction and found again.
"I woke up one morning and I knew I had enough," says one clubgoer, Toleta Carter.
She'd just left a 16-year-long relationship, she says. Most of those years were spent using drugs. She'd always denied her problem, she says, thinking: "I'm not an addict. I work. I hold a job." But the bills weren't getting paid, she says, and her children weren't being fed.
That October morning brought a revelation: "I knew God wanted something better for me," she says. "I didn't know what."
Carter resolved to get treatment. She found that in order to get enrolled in a public program, she had to lie and say she was homeless. So she did. It was "the hardest three months of my life," she says. But she held on for her children. "Because if I didn't take care of me," she says, "there was no way, no way, I could take care of them."
She's been clean for four years, she says. "And I'm on my fifth step." Which is: "We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs."
For many people, she says, the toughest step is No. 4: making "a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves." That means dredging up all the mess and pain from your past, she says, and forcing yourself not to blame others for what happened. Not your boyfriend, not your father, not your mother.
She worries about her children following the same road she did. Her own childhood held no hint that she'd be seduced by drugs someday, she says: "I was this nice, little, pretty girl in pigtails." So she teaches her children as best she knows how, all the while knowing it will be up to them to make the right decisions. "I can't hold on to them and say, 'This is not going to happen,'" she says.
Carter is now a sterilized-instrument technician at a local hospital. "Once you've lived the life of an addict, a little blood will not bother you," she says wryly. Her co-workers don't know about her past. "Some people stigmatize you for being an addict," she says.
Not at Club Serenity, though. The clubgoers are a close-knit community, Carter says. Some once knew each other as addicts. "Once we get clean, we meet up at the end," she says.
Carter says she wants to tell her story so people will maybe understand. "People need to know," she says. "Because we are successful people. We made bad choices. That doesn't make us bad people."
That's the gospel preached by Epps. Sure, everyone has a choice "don't get me wrong," he says to make the right decision. But when a young man's choices have been taken away, he says, it's hard.
Think of a family living in a house in North Side, where winter winds blow through cracks in the windows and the furnace is empty of oil. "Dad is in the pen because he had to sell crack cocaine to support his habit, or his family," Epps says. Now his 15-year-old son is the head of the family, and he's desperate for money. Maybe the kid next door is taking care of his mother, just bought a new car. "He's doing great. But he's slinging rocks around the corner."
So the 15-year-old starts dealing. A year later, he gets caught. Two years later, he gets out of jail, an 18-year-old with a felony. What chance does he have then?
Epps says he'd like to see more young folks at Club Serenity, talk to them and stop them from making the same mistakes he did. But "it's hard to be young and in recovery," he says. The 12 steps seem too slow and arduous. "They believe they can figure it out another way to do it," he says.
The young couple who stand on Brookland Park Boulevard that Sunday night, curious about Club Serenity's spotlighted sign, hesitantly ascend the stairs an hour later. They stand together in a corner, watching the older folks laugh and mingle. After a while, they disappear. S
Club Serenity is located at 107 W. Brookland Park Boulevard. For questions about the club, call Reginald Epps at 564-8002.
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