I met Craig Trotta several years ago when he had been involved with The Doe Fund for a few years. He always impressed me with his professionalism and the way he carried himself. Little did I know how much he had been through in his life to bring him to this level of confidence and his sense of responsibility.
At a meeting of the East Midtown Partnership earlier this year, I ran into Craig after not seeing him for at least 10 years. He came up to me and re-introduced himself, saying he remembered me from earlier days working on the Upper East Side around 86th Street. He told me he now worked for The Doe Fund and has been working for them for many years. He is in charge of the hundreds of The Doe Fund’s “men in blue,” who clean over 170 miles of city streets and sidewalks every day.
It was so amazing to see him and to see how he has turned his life around. I wanted to know his story so I asked him if he would talk with me so that I could write his story. So on a cold, wintry day, we met at the Doe Fund Harlem facility and sat down.
When he came to The Doe Fund, he had been sleeping in a doorway in East New York, Brooklyn, eating out of garbage cans and washing up in fire hydrants. He was 37 years old at the time and had been getting high since the age of 15. He hung out with a group of guys who were making money stealing cars, buying shiny jewelry and attracting all the girls they wanted. He thought, “This is the life for me.” He dropped out of school in the tenth grade and set up his own drug ring, at first selling marijuana and after that cocaine. He also began using and that became a problem for his supplier and for other crews in the neighborhood. A guy from another crew got into a fight with him and he was stabbed and shot and left for dead in a vacant lot. Someone found him and took him to a hospital where he was on a respirator for two months and had three major surgeries. After six months, he was released, hobbling his 90-pound frame on a cane, away from the hospital and right into the arms of “angel dust.”
For years, Craig was in and out of drug rehab centers and in and out of prison. He stole anything he could to feed his habit including his own family’s possessions. They didn’t want anything to do with him and he spent his nights sleeping on the grass in his backyard as he had nowhere else to go.
His mother was diagnosed with cancer and said to him, “Craig, just do good. I am going to die and that is all I ask of you.” He continued his drug use and crime spree and was in prison when she died. He spent five more years in prison and when he got out, he had lost the heart to keep robbing and running. He started begging in the streets and wound up in the East New York doorway with his bag of clothes.
Craig decided to go to a Narcotics Anonymous meeting-not because he wanted to stop getting high but because he thought someone there would feel sorry for him and give him $5 for another bottle of crack. He ran into a man who had been one of his counselors in a rehab unit in 1981. He did not give him any money but gave Craig his business card and said he was working at a place called The Doe Fund—a nonprofit organization that could get him clean, working, and earning his way back to society. A couple of days later, Craig called.
Craig moved into the Doe Fund’s Harlem Center for Opportunity and, as he had learned to buff floors in prison, he immediately began working around the facility doing maintenance. After that, he was sent into the field as part of the Ready, Willing & Able street cleaning teams. His route was Lexington Avenue and he liked sweeping the streets because it made him “feel like somebody again” when he had just come from such a dark world. He was getting paid at the end of the week but he wasn’t buying drugs.
Soon after, The Doe Fund bought a bus to transport the trainees back and forth to their routes. Craig had obtained his CDL license back at one of the rehab centers and they asked him if he would drive the bus. He was amazed that they would trust him to drive the bus and be responsible for all those lives. For years no one had trusted him with anything. This made him realize that he had a lot of people believing in him and giving him a chance.
Craig found a mentor in one of the directors-the dispatcher, Nazerine Griffin. Whatever Nazerine did, Craig did, too. He followed Nazerine all around the building as he wanted to be like him. When Nazerine moved to a director position in the Brooklyn facility, Craig took over his job as dispatcher in Harlem. In January 2003, he was put in charge of the entire street cleaning operation.
He couldn’t believe it. “I was a guy who didn’t even know how to have a conversation,” he recalled. “All I knew how to say was ‘who’s got the drugs?’” Today he meets with city council members, community associations and representatives from the business community. He comes to work at 5 a.m. every day. “It’s not for the money, it’s for the gratitude I have to The Doe fund for helping me get where I am today and it’s because I love to see the guys in blue get there, too.”
Craig is married and has a son whom he is very proud of. He has a place to live and pays rent. He owns a car and he has repaired his relationship with his family. His father is 85 years old and couldn’t be more proud of Craig. He knows his mother is looking down and smiling because he pulled himself together and answered her dying wish: “Just do good.”
Nancy Ploeger is the president of the Manhattan Chamber of Commerce