We were introduced to Meldon Lewis — a lifelong Detroiter who once tried out for the San Antonio Spurs and now lives at the recovery center the Mariners Inn — by artist Rashaun Rucker, who interviewed him for a project earlier this year. With the holiday season approaching, we met Lewis at his apartment at the Mariners Inn to listen to his story and hear about what he's thankful for.
Metro Times: Hello, Meldon. Can you tell us where you're from originally?
Meldon Lewis: Over on the east side, by Swanson Funeral Home. I grew up down by Belle Isle. I'm 62 — I was born in 1952. [Detroit] was something different than it is today. I had brothers and sisters; I had people. I was brought up, you know — mother, father. We were very religious-minded. One thing I did was I always wanted to play basketball. Had an older brother that always kept a hoop up. He and I would put it up on the pole, and me and a few friends would get out there and play — day in and day out. Altogether there was 11 of us. And right now today I talk to my mom every day.
MT: She lives here in Detroit?
Lewis: Yeah. She's still standing. She's 86 years old. That's my girl. There's nobody else but her. That's who I'm always with. I go pick her up for the meeting. I do NA and AA meetings. It's the best I've felt in years.
MT: How long have you been addicted?
Lewis: I came in, I came in back in March. I didn't know I was that bad.
MT: Was that the first time you had ever sought help for addiction?
Lewis: It was the first time I really took it to heed, in all my years. Usually I'd go somewhere and it seemed like I never got the gist of it. I'd come and try to do it and then I seem to kind of stop and go back to doing the things I'd been doing. And it just so happened it seemed like I started getting sicker, health-wise.
MT: Was that what kind of inspired you to make a change?
Lewis: Yeah. And then I was tired, too. I was tired. My people knew I could do better. I knew it was. If I'd have known what I know today, I would have never got high, never picked up a drink or smoked a cigarette. I stopped all that back in March.
MT: What drugs?
Lewis: It was crack and alcohol, basically. I never thought I was a drinker, but when I dropped it I'd had enough. It wasn't like I was out there every day drinking, but when I did it was gone. I was never really no hustler for it, but when the money came it was gone.
MT: You mentioned basketball earlier. Did you ever pursue that professionally?
Lewis: I had some professional tryouts back in 1979. I had one with the San Antonio Spurs. I met a lot of good guys that was on that team, guys that I still see today that are coaches.
MT: What did you do after that?
Lewis: I came back to take care of my family. I was working at a methadone clinic. I passed out the medicine and made sure that the house was taken care of. At that time I wasn't using.
MT: So seeing all that, and working with people who were using — that didn't deter you from using later on?
Lewis: It had got to the point that I started hanging out in the streets and worked with some of the [Harlem] Globetrotters. Seeing a guy — I'm not gonna remember. He was an ex-Globetrotter. We would go upstairs and he was cooking cocaine. That right there started me on. It was the downhill in my family life because I started hanging out in the streets then.
MT: How old were you at that time?
Lewis: Probably about 25, 26. I think at that time my sons and daughters, they were 12, 11, 7, and 3.
MT: What kind of services do they offer here for people at the Mariners Inn?
Lewis: Meetings. Learning how to get your life back right. There's about 90-something guys that sleep in the basement. They got cots for themselves and if you don't got no clothes, they got that for you too. Some in it because they're hiding — everybody isn't there for the right reason. But if they stay here long enough, they might hit something that will help them save their life. You can stay there about 90 days, or some might stay four months, depending on their situation, because each person got a different thing that they're doing. You can stay there, especially if your conduct is right. If your conduct ain't right, they'll still give you a few chances to come in and come out. But they ain't gonna keep giving you those chances.
They're always doing something for you. You go to Cedar Point, and they put money in your pocket. We call it the "Cadillac" of all the treatment centers around.
MT: Do you have an apartment here now?
Lewis: Yeah. If you don't have good conduct, you can't stay. It depends on how long you've been here. They say this place used to have a reputation. It used to be the Purple Gang's hideout. One of their mansions. I watched the old movies. You got big, nice-sized rooms here.
MT: Is there anything that you think that most people don't understand about shelters like Mariners Inn or understand about people who are homeless?
Lewis: You know what? I used to not like that word — "What do you mean ... when you say homeless?" It seemed like that was a bad word, to be homeless. But you got a lot of people out here that lose their places through whatever. Then you got some that, because of the way they want to live, they lost their place. Now, I say I was homeless because I lost my place, but I always had places to go. Got too many kids, their mom — but I got tired of them looking at me and at nighttime ready to hit the streets. Homeless is a person's state of mind. Like I say, everybody don't have to be homeless because there's help out here. There's help out here for a person to come up out of the streets just like we doing it. There's help for a person to come up out of the streets and find a place to live. They just gotta want to do it. And they gotta put some work into it.
The Mariners Inn is located at 445 Ledyard St, Detroit; 313-962-9446; marinersinn.org.