Monday, December 26, 2005

Herbert's Heroes by BOB HERBERT

Dec. 22, 2005
Carlos's Way

Would it be baseball? Would it be the drug trade?

Growing up in the 1980’s and ’90’s in the notorious Washington Heights neighborhood of Manhattan, Carlos Carela, a good student and a fine athlete, found himself drawn, almost without thinking, to the easy money and seedy excitement of the narcotics environment that has flourished for many long years in the shadow of the George Washington Bridge.

People shopped for drugs in Washington Heights nearly as casually as people shopped for clothes in a mall. Drug dealing was a common way of making a living. “That was the reality of the neighborhood,” Carlos said. “It was what young men did, and I guess I was following in quick pursuit. You know, if you live in that environment, the drug dealer is not someone you fear. He’s not the cobra who comes out of the alley – he’s the guy you grew up with. He’s the person who, when you’re hungry, feeds your family.”

Carlos’s older brother, Andy – Anderson Ramon Carela – was a drug dealer, and the neighborhood guys more or less assumed that Carlos would follow in his brother’s footsteps.

As Carlos pointed out, “It was hard to resist if you’re 14 years old and somebody is offering you $400 to take a bag and just put it someplace, like a phone booth. If you’re caught, you’re a minor. You’re fine. You don’t look at it as a bad thing. You take the bag and drop it off, and then you go home and watch cartoons. The older guys would start noticing who the smart kids were. The ones they could depend on.”

The most normal thing in the world, said Carlos, was for young boys from a poor background to be tempted by the big money that the various drug crews were making. “You see people driving Range Rovers and pearl Lexuses and Mercedes, and then moving out of the neighborhood and buying homes in the Dominican Republic, and they didn’t go to college. You just kind of figure,
‘Okay, how can I step into that?’ ”

But Carlos also had other interests. He was a cracker-jack baseball player and he got good grades in school. He saw sports, or maybe some sort of academic career, as a possible alternative.

The wake-up call for Carlos came in the worst possible way. His brother Andy, who had never wanted Carlos to become involved in the drug trade, was shot to death in a park in the Bronx in October 1993.

Murder was nothing new to the neighborhood. “There were a lot of guys on the block getting killed,” said Carlos. “But you never thought it would happen to someone so close to you, someone you thought was invincible. And that was my reality check. I said to myself, ‘Okay, I’m not that smart. I can’t outsmart everyone.’ Because, you know, I thought my brother was actually smarter than me.”

The Carela family was in terrible trouble after Andy’s death. Carlos had two sisters, and a mother who was all but numb with grief and struggling economically. She cleaned office buildings when jobs were available and stared at the miserable prospect of welfare when they weren’t.

Carlos, 16 at the time, fended off neighborhood expectations that he would try to avenge his brother’s death. “People were saying, ‘Hey, man, they smoked your brother. You ain’t going to do anything?’ ”

What he did was play more and more baseball, escaping as best he could into dreams of a pro career. And he pushed himself to study harder.
The discipline and the hard work paid off in the form of a scholarship that enabled him to go to Vanderbilt University, an environment that was about as far from his Washington Heights neighborhood as he could imagine.
[Full disclosure: the scholarship was awarded by the Posse Foundation, a wonderful organization founded and led by my ultimate hero, my wife Deborah Bial.]

Homesick on the Nashville campus, and aware that he had made a decision that probably meant the end of his hopes for a baseball career, Carlos nevertheless stuck it out.

“That scholarship changed my life – forever,” he said.

He graduated in 1999, having majored in both human and organizational development and economics. The next thing he knew, he was working for Lehman Brothers and strolling onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange.

“I remember walking onto that floor for the first time,” Carlos said. “It reminded me of walking onto the field of Shea Stadium, or Yankee Stadium, like I did when I played on all-star teams as kid.”

For the past four years he’s been at Bloomberg LLP, in a department that manages institutional accounts. There was almost a sense of wonder in his voice as he said, “I’m here. It’s been an incredible opportunity and I’ve recognized that from the day that I walked in these doors.”

He’s 28 now, and plays a little semi-pro ball. At 6-3 and 235 pounds, he still looks very much the athlete.

Carlos also spends a fair amount of time talking to kids growing up in circumstances similar to his in Washington Heights. “It’s important,” he said, “that they not lose sight of the fact that they’re capable of much more than their environment would suggest. A lot of the time we allow ourselves to be defined by our environment, because we don’t know any better. Someone has to let the kids know that there’s an environment that is better than the one that is immediately accessible to them.

“Going away to Vanderbilt, to me, was my first exposure to that. I was like, wow, there’s a whole world out here.”

Carlos Carela had options, good ones and bad ones. He’s a hero in my book because he made his choices like a champion.

“I’ve done okay,” he said. “I’ve worked hard. I studied. But, you know, I wasn’t the brightest kid. Some of the brightest kids were among those who have been lost, like my brother.”


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