A Story of Skid Row
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Pops was a drug lord, and for fifty years he dealt primarily in heroin.
I'm just going to go ahead and kill him.
Even if you're living the high life with loads of drug money.
Pops, a 71 year old man with a brace on his leg due to a broken toe, leans back in an office chair in front of me as we talk. His real name is Nick P Sidebottom, and he used to murder people. He had been a villain with the flair of Richard Hickock from In Cold Blood. The feel is similar: a charming man in rural middle America committing small crimes that land him in jail, which only steels him for more serious crimes, all the while meeting friends on the inside that fuel unlawful ideas. And though he was no mild mannered Walter White, he sure does look like him now: an old bald man sitting in an office in the Union Rescue Mission, off Fifth and San Pedro in downtown Los Angeles.
Pops was a drug lord, and for fifty years he dealt primarily in heroin. How did such a man find himself in Skid Row for two years, sleeping on a dorm room bunk bed and handing out hygiene products in a shelter? The man was looking for a redemption that only total humility could bring. Let me tell you about Pops.
Redemption from what? Consider this story. When he was only twelve and a half Sidebottom was caught with a stolen car in his hometown of Billings, Montana. The police took him to court and he landed himself in the reformatory (juvenile prison); while incarcerated he was bunked with both someone else his age and a nineteen year old who was suicidal. Sidebottom knew how to help the teenager commit suicide, and so he did. He tied a noose out of bedsheets, wrapped it around the teenager's neck, and he and the younger bunkmate hoisted the teenager onto a peg made for hanging clothes; the peg pressed into the back of the teenager's head so that he couldn't escape. The two young kids watched as he slowly ran out of breath and died. Nick and his bunkmate were charged with murder.
Pops has more fantastic tales than he admits, but even the ones he does are powerful. In the criminal world, even back to when he was a child, he was known as Animal -- a name originally used by his mother to call him back home when he'd be outside night, barking at the moon with the dogs. As a young boy he was beaten regularly by an alcoholic father. "He liked to bounce me around a lot. I had a sister that was two years older and he'd never touch her, but he'd knock me around and knock my mom around." Unfortunately for Sidebottom, this was the 40's and 50's. "The teachers and everything would see the bruises on me, but back in those days there wasn't much they could do about anything."
The stress was enough for him to start sniffing gas at around age seven for some reprieve; barking at the moon after getting high off gasoline fumes was part of that. As these stories tend to go, the father was not a pure monstrosity, but probably a man wrapped in disappointments from the world and from himself, to the world and to himself. "On weekends he would treat me good," Pops said. "Take me out hunting, taught me how to use guns, how to make knives -- he was really excellent. But even then, once he got drunk he'd start knocking me around." He eventually decided something final must be done.
"We were hunting elk up in the mountains; I was eleven. I'd be doing the shooting. We got out of the car waiting for the snow drift to get cleaned up, and I must've made a noise or something because he turned around and backhanded me. I sat there that day on one side of the ravine and him on the other side, and I put my scope on his forehead. I thought: I'm just going to go ahead and kill him. Get out of this mess. But then I got to thinking about my mother, so I didn't kill him. We got home, and two days later I took off." He never saw his father again.
And so began Nick P Sidebottom's long descent into Animal.
In the year and a half as a runaway he lived in a whorehouse, where he got his first taste of heroin from the workers there; they took him in and gave him a back shed to live in until he was caught with the stolen car that put him in the reformatory at age twelve. After the stolen car and murder charge, he was sentenced until twenty-one. Being a reformatory in the 50's, it wasn't very advanced in prison technology. He escaped he thinks about twenty-four times, went back into Billings to cause trouble, and would get picked up again. When he was fifteen he escaped and by chance met a forty-three year old who ran away from a chain gang in Florida, Bill Cribby. "You ever rob a bank?" he asked Animal. They went around the area; Pops mentioned Montana, Wyoming, the Dakotas, and Utah, robbing banks and never getting caught. At nineteen he stole then governor of Montana Tim Babcock's brand new Imperial: those lavish iconic cars of high living you see in old movies, complete with guns and supplies. He was caught again, of course, and with this new charge added onto his record, he was moved to The Old Montana Prison.
According to Pops, at nineteen he was the youngest guy to walk in there at that time, around 1962. The place was a degenerate facility, notorious for being overcrowded and having substandard living conditions from its construction in 1871 to its retirement in 1979. Pops attests to that. "You had to fight for your life in that place." Many of the incarcerated were lifers, so they had nothing to lose by being unruly.
Animal had a friend die there, due to murder or neglect by authority. Either way, Animal attacked guards so wildly that he was thrown in solitary confinement for eighteen months. He talked to himself, invented languages, practiced fighting with his mattress, sat in silence, and most importantly, stewed in his hatred for uniforms.
He got out in 1968, and by then knew a few names to get him into the drug trade on the Mexican border. He moved to New Mexico, married a waitress he met in a diner, and became a bonafide drug lord.
"Make any money?" I ask. Pops leans back. "Oh yeah, lots of money." He moved a thousand pounds of pot, three kilos of coke, and two kilos of heroin every month, distributing to places like Chicago and Madison. He became intensely addicted to heroin, so much so that his other heroin buddies would be put off by the overuse.
The tales could go on for volumes, but suffice to say, your imagination is likely close to the truth. Sidebottom had kids, landed in jail again, had more girlfriends, married again. He had found God in prison, so he took his second wife and toured the whole country -- every single state, along with Mexico and Canada -- impromptu preaching. It was an honest push to change his life, and he made businesses doing home medical care and construction on the outside. (though, he couldn't shut off Animal. For the construction business he would always demand cash only and wouldn't report it for taxation.) Whenever he rolled into a town with drug buddies he knew, he would talk to them about it. I'm taken aback by this. Wouldn't that be the best way to trip on some bullets, showing former drug dealers and murderers that you've gotten out of the game, gotten soft?
Not so, says Pops. Former cellmates, business partners, and even police officers were just amazed at the change. A prison guard who had known him while he was incarcerated said that the whole time he was in jail, he never once saw a smile on his face. Seeing one when he talked to him was enough of a shock to believe a change had happened.
But these stories tend to go dark more than once, and here we are. Sidebottom and his second wife returned home from that three month grand tour to their home in Tulsa and slept; the next morning he walked across the street to a heroin dealer and injected hedonism into his veins once again. "To this day I don't know why I did it," Pops says, eyes glassed over and his face reddening. He left his wife and dealt drugs in the Los Angeles area from the 1980's until 2009, when suddenly he felt the same sentiment again, but this time toward moving back to Christianity.
July 13th, 2009, 3am. Animal was still dealing heroin and was living, quite literally, right next to the San Gabriel Police Station; an alley was all that separated him and the law. He was crying some nights out of despondency. The weight of his life was pressing down on his old shoulders. One night, while watching a televangelist on TV, he got "a word from the Lord: it's time to get in". He couldn't ignore it, and he interpreted "get in" to be getting into a rehab program. He had the money to go to any program he chose, but someone had told him of the Union Rescue Mission in Skid Row and it stuck in his mind.
He walked down to the bus stop and waited until 6am when the buses started running. The three hour wait, for a drug addict facing going clean, was agonizing. He passed the time talking to God and to his mind, talking himself in and out of waiting. Finally the bus rolled up and Animal rode down to the Union Rescue Mission to enter into their Christian Life Discipleship Program.
The program is one year and requires about 1,700 hours of work, ranging from counseling to math. Animal was detoxing from his heavy heroin use, but he was too ashamed at first to tell everyone of his past, and too afraid they wouldn't let a criminal of his calibre into the program. He lied and said he sometimes abused alcohol to get in. "I'd lay there and just sweat. It was miserable, terrible pain. My arms would be cramping up, my legs, I'd be vomiting." An old friend who had found himself in the mission at the same time, Marty, asked why Animal would put up with it. Why not go to a hospital and detox properly? "I want to feel this," Animal said. "I want to feel every minute of it. Because I don't want to go back. I want to remember this."
He was a poor student, still hanging onto grudges and a tough guy attitude, so he didn't attend class or go with the program very much. "I would pretend to have Alzheimer's; I'd bend over and walk real slow." He may not have gotten through the program at all if it weren't for Marty. Marty asked Animal to make a pact: we're both in this until we pass. Don't give up on me, and I won't give up on you. That human, street-style bond was something Animal could understand, something he could allow defining his path in life. It took two years due to his behavior, and some convincing from the higher ups, but he passed.
There were a few close calls. At one point, he heard that a man had raped his friend's daughter when she was young. He lost control and was going to hunt for him with a knife, but Marty caught wind of it and gathered a group of workers from the URM to stop him, take away the knife, and calm him down by talking it through. The kind approach really worked on him. "I've been given so much love; there's nothing but love from these people." After those two years he moved into a small loft in MacArthur Park, and uncharacteristically found himself with no big deals, no guys to rough up, no territory to defend, and no drug itch to scratch. His life for over fifty years was gone. So, what to do?
He made a profile in case his estranged kids would want to talk, and while he was on there, he went sleuthing. His dad was still alive, but he either blocked Pops or deleted his account altogether, because Pops can't find him anymore. His second wife, the one he went on the cross country tour with, was killed in a car wreck sometime in 1994. His oldest son died at the age of thirty-five due to severe asthma problems paired with aggressive steroid treatment.
One day he got a message from a girl named Tina:
Tina: Is this Nick Sidebottom?
Pops: Yeah, who's this?
Tina: This is your granddaughter.
He talked to her for awhile over Facebook and text messages, until the mother, Pops's youngest daughter Sandra, gave him a call. They had a tearful reunion in Tucson last August; his youngest son came as well. Pops kept wondering: what should I say? What do you say after so long? Nothing that he came up with seemed right. In the end, standing at the Tucson airport in tears, he asked for forgiveness. His family said okay.
He eventually got in contact with his first daughter, Michelle, who seems to be the darling of Pops's heart. They've talked over the phone and both want to see each other, but Pops is simply afraid. "I'm not ready for it yet," he says. "Why?" I ask. In an instant his eyes well and his throat tightens, making his pronunciation slightly incorrect. "It's really hard. This was my first child." Michelle seems to have dodged the difficulties of being a Sidebottom. She never got into drugs and loved to read as a kid, and now lives in Montana with a husband and two sons. The last time they saw each other was 1980, when she was about thirteen years old. The time and importance of their relationship has built up in Pops, and he's not quite sure how to manage it.
According to Pops, his mother and father never once hugged him or said "I love you". Perhaps we've forgotten and that sounds hyperbolic, but the early 20th century was still in the grip of behaviorist psychologists like John B Watson, who recommended to never kiss or hug your child, or anything similar; they should be treated as tiny adults. It's what happened in those days. That, along with an abusive father, gave him a pretty shaky start in life. "Nothing was right," he comments. "I just went along with the game and got more screwed up. It was all about that rush." But he's been clean since June 2009, and it's June 2014. A five year streak ain't too bad.
Now Pops is retired and spends time at the mission some days to help out. He still looks for a rush, a fight, but nowadays it's protecting workers from unruly homeless and the occasional unruly person in the program. When Pops dies, his only hope is that "People will remember me as a man of God." He struggles with even that, however. "I go to sleep sometimes at night, and I think: 'Father, why couldn't I get saved when I was seven years old? Why did I have to go through all this shit, and all this pain, and all of this misery, hurting people and stuff. Why did I have to go through that? I don't understand. But, he's the one with the wisdom. But it really pisses me off." I ask if he's ever gotten an answer to those questions in all of his praying. "No!" he laughs. "You're on your own."
Skid Row can be an ending, a bottom people fall to. But sometimes, it's exactly where you need to be.
Cody Brooks, Contributing Writer: A Caucasian local born and bred in Hawaii, I have gotten used to being in the middle of things — ideologies, politics, race, culture, whatever. Though I rarely know where I stand on a topic, I have come to be quite good at that. I have done an odd variety of things, from saving people in the surf as a lifeguard, to studying philosophy in New Zealand, to fronting a band in Los Angeles. Do not let the preceding lead you astray, though. I have vehement opinions on nearly everything that I will... (more...)