If you didn’t know him, you wouldn’t want to meet Evan ‘Bullet’ James in a dark alley. If you did know him, then you certainly would. Tough looking on the outside, with multiple tattoos, and a history that would make most people shudder, with a heart of gold and a determination and mission to heal the wounds in others that had ripped him asunder.
His remarkable transformation from a star athlete to a gang member and drug addict to a recovery specialist is inspiring. He tells his story with enthusiasm,
“The journey began when as a young man, my parents divorced in New York City and my father brought me out to LA. I had God-given athletic ability. My father played for the Detroit Tigers. I became a basketball player and led the city of L.A in scoring two years in a row. A coach saw me play over the summertime, and said, “I want you to put our small school- Newbridge High School on the map. I did that and got a lot of accolades.”
James seemed to be on a trajectory for success, until the story takes an unexpected turn.
He relates that his father was a boxer in the Army and taught him “to be tough and not back down.” Robertson Park was across the street from Newbridge. It was the home of The Playboy Gangsters which was a Crips gang. The cousins, aunts and uncles of his best friend “Mikey” who was the point guard on the Newbridge team, were part of this gang.
He says, “I didn’t back down and knew how to fight. I was from New York City and carried myself in a different way than a lot of white guys. This was an all -Black gang. My father was a single dad and working a lot. Hanging with these guys and climbing up the ladder and getting involved at rumbles at other schools and being kind of respected was more important than cutting frog legs and making brownies at this artsy craftsy school I attended. I got scholarships to Tulane in New Orleans and Louis and Clark in Oregon but unfortunately wound up playing Junior College ball in San Diego, due to my gang affiliated behavior.”
Less than what he and his father had planned for him, he continues, “I quit the team and came back to L.A. and became a pizza delivery boy, started smoking pot and became expert at taking a few slices out of an extra- large pie and still made it look like there were 12 pieces; when I got the munchies real bad, I’d eat whole pizza and tell my boss I got lost. One day, I met up with a guy named Damien who looked like he was wearing a Mr. T starter kit. He was a PBG (Playboy Gangster) and started selling rock cocaine. He asked me if I was scared to try it. It was such a button he pushed, that I felt I needed to prove myself. He put it on my bong and I took a hit. All the pain I felt from my mom taking off, losing my scholarships, and disappointing my father went away. I found something that made me feel whole and safe and comforted. I went to any lengths to regain that feeling.”
October 27, 1987 was a game changer for James. The pivotal moment took place in, of all places, a gas station bathroom in Hollywood, California.
“I weighed 150 pounds and my lungs were torn up from months of smoking cocaine. I looked into a fractured mirror over the sink and wanted to die. I walked onto Sunset Blvd. and begged cars to hit me and put me out of my misery. I looked up and said to God, “If you aren’t going to let me die, then please help me.” I approached a church and saw people smoking and drinking coffee. I remember this man with a speech impediment who approached me and said his name was John Finger and reached out his hand and said, “Hey Brother, this is an NA meeting, why don’t you come in?”
That was the last time he ever got high (29 years clean). He didn’t feel like he had the right to disrespect the magnitude of that moment and observed that the hand of God had intervened and Finger’s speech impediment reflected the bumps in the road he had faced.
Questioning that conundrum about whether an addict can ever claim to be recovered or if it is a life-long process, he responds, “I don’t debate that one way or another. I don’t have a strong opinion. At meetings, I say “My name is Evan and I’m an addict.” We as addicts sometimes go to great lengths to try to separate ourselves from others. It is about EGO-Edging God Out. For so long, I wanted to buck the system and severely suffered from Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Now I want to go with the flow.”
He defines addiction as, “A spiritual malady along with chemical imbalance. When I take a drug into my body, the drug takes me. For a long time, I knew there was a God, I just thought He forgot about me. I failed to recognize the small things in life.”
He finds that it helps to have a routine. “I am a behaviorist. I tell recovering addicts, “Get up daily, exercise, go to meetings, find a sponsor, help others, connect with Higher Power, find a vocation, go to school, do an honest day’s work.”
He knows that “There are certain amends I will never be able to make based on my actions in my addiction. How I carry myself in society today and my efforts is the best I can do to make a universal amends.”
James has turned his determination to action in the form of an A & E reality show called Extractors. He speaks of its origin, “About 20 years, ago, my late father became enamored with my recovery and my work in the field. Together we wrote a show called the Interventionist and pitched it to a network who turned it down. A show called Intervention was then picked up. My father died soon after. I never gave up because of my commitment to my father. The purpose was to have a vehicle for families who couldn’t afford to get help, and it would offer a unique service. I pioneered what I called Extreme Intervention. We go to motel rooms and alleys and meet addict where they are.
Sadly, he expresses, “The show didn’t get its legs there. Now, it is back to the drawing board trying to find a new home for it. As long as I have breath, I will do what it takes.”
His impassioned mission is to, “Save all these kids out there, since right now, these parents have no hope.”
TAPS (Teen Adolescent Placement Services), the umbrella organization with which he is involved, offers counseling, advocacy, crisis intervention, parent support and access to inpatient treatment for troubled youth. He is sometimes dismayed, but not disheartened, even though he describes it as, “Underfunded, running on fumes and unknown. It is the only non-profit in the world who does what we do. We hoped that the reality show would help kids and raise awareness. We have 60 cases of families who need these services.”
What James does would terrify most people since it is not predictable.
He claims to “have no fear, because we have been successful 1283 out of 1283 times. Our mission is a spiritual one. Even though the situations are dangerous, we know God has our back. My team and I have this fast and furious mentality. Now with experience under our belt, our approach is more ‘James Bondish’ and more surgical. The methodical nature, picking the right time and not try to puff out our chest, my oldest friend and I sometimes get into conflict. I remind him that we are not back on the street with gang against gang. we are de-escalators.”
The most rewarding part of what he does?
It may sound very corny, but when I put my head on my pillow at night, I feel like a man whose mission is a noble one and the idea is to rescue troubled youth and almost 30 years ago, it was impossible to be that way. It is something my son Jaceon would be proud of.”
During the interview, I could hear the six-month old being joyously expressive in the background.
James has upcoming event on November 12th, 2016, called "Midlife Gangster Redemption Song: The Life and Times of Bullet James" which he has been presenting for nearly three years. “I have travelled the country to perform it at different venues. I am often asked to speak at NA meetings. After one meeting, this Hollywood Producer kind of guy approached me and said it should be a one- man show. I thought my sponsor would disagree, (since anonymity is supposed to be one of the tenets of 12 step programs) and he didn’t. I started working on material. It is a fundraising mission for TAPS. I don’t mean to sound like a guy with his hand out.”
Sometimes things don’t pan out as he anticipates. “I flew across country and was told I would be reimbursed but wasn’t. It is becoming nearly impossible to balance altruistic belief systems and take care of myself and my family.”
One of his biggest motivations is his sister Valerie who died due to heroin addiction, after getting infected with a dirty needle. “Every time I save one of these young girls, I think of her. She is deep in my heart.”