Eighteen years ago, on occasions when a methamphetamine-addicted Dennis Morgan needed a place to crash, he found a spot next to the trash can alongside what used to be known as Big Al’s Tire & Brake, an automotive shop on a noisy stretch of Fair Oaks Boulevard in Carmichael.
Now he owns the place.
Morgan harbors no doubt that factors promulgated by the divine guided his path toward a turnaround. What they did, he said, with an assist from his public defender, is steer him into what was then Sacramento County’s fledgling drug court program.
Last Monday, Morgan, 58, came back to the downtown courthouse to give the commencement speech to the most recent class of drug-court graduates, “letting them know that when they walk out the door, to continue doing what they’re doing,” Morgan said, “to let them know that just because they graduated from drug court, the disease isn’t going to turn around and say, ‘Hey, we’re done.’”
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In an interview outside the shop he has since renamed DJ’s Auto & Tire, Morgan said it’s the exact moment when their addiction tells them it’s over that it becomes most dangerous.
“The moment you walk out that door,” he told his audience, “the first thing your head is going to tell you is, ‘You know what? You can use. I can use and they’re never going to catch me.’ It goes through the mind of everybody who graduates drug court and walks out that door.”
Morgan said he ignored the voice in his first day out of the program and found a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. When the meeting was over, the voice wouldn’t be quiet, so he located another meeting. Upon its completion, he looked around for a third.
One day at a time since 1996. Morgan said he has not had a single relapse, not when he worked changing and stacking tires at Big Al’s, and not in his 10 years as the owner of the business.
The still-recovering addict’s determination to work hard and stay clean so impressed Al Shaw, the owner of the old tire shop, that when he died in 2004, he left the business to Morgan.
His continuing sobriety and success led the Sacramento County Probation Department to invite Morgan to deliver his address to the most recent graduation class from drug court.
“Dennis inspired the group that the drug court program can create enduring change,” Sacramento County Chief Probation Officer Lee Seale said in an interview. “For Dennis to come in, they can see that in him, that the treatment program they are part of in drug court, it’s going to stick with them for the rest of their lives.”
Morgan’s hands wore the black stain of used tires as he talked about his life of recovery. He looked at the space where he used to sleep at night – next to the trash receptacle at the side of his shop.
“This is my bottom, right here,” Morgan said, sitting on the hood of the car and laughing, thinking back to the lowest moments in his life on the streets, “on the side of Big Al’s.”
He recalled his construction of the shelter he fashioned with old tires, with permission from Shaw, who later upgraded Morgan’s living arrangement by dropping off a camper shell for him to sleep in.
Along with a place to sleep, Shaw also gave him an opportunity to work, even in the depths of his addiction, Morgan said.
Meth led to multiple arrests and six criminal filings against Morgan in five years, from 1991 through 1996, including two felonies. Shaw still stood by Morgan, and when Morgan finally got his break in the drug court, Shaw on occasion broke speed limits to make sure he made it to his sessions on time.
“I wasn’t seeing any change in myself,” Morgan said, “but Al was seeing a change in me. He was saying that the program was God’s gift to the world.”
Morgan will never forget how he got to drug court, which was right about this time of year in 1996.
“It was Thanksgiving, Christmas – I’d always get locked up,” Morgan said.
And he was behind the glass in the county jail when his son, who was then about 10 years old, paid him a visit.
“I asked him what he wanted for Christmas, like I was going to be some kind of big shot and bring him something for Christmas,” Morgan said, “and he said, ‘I want my father home for Christmas.’ And I had what we call a moment of clarity. And I went back to my cell, hit my knees, and I made a promise to my kid and God and myself, that I was done.”
As Morgan came to a court date just before Christmas, he said his public defender visited him in jail and said, “’I’ve got your arrest record here. Do you realize how much time in the last 10 years you’ve been locked up? And do you realize these are all drug charges?’ And he goes, ‘Do you want to do something about it?’”
The lawyer told Morgan about drug court and how his criminal proceedings would be suspended and later dismissed if he completed a treatment program and stayed clean, which Morgan said he did, with no relapses during the 10-month program and not a single one since.
It helped to have Al Shaw in his corner, Morgan said, giving him a job while he worked out the details of his life.
As for the shop, Morgan said he’d had his eye on buying it even back when he was buried in meth.
“My mother had passed away and she left me a lot of money,” Morgan said. “I went up to Al and I wanted to buy the place from him, and he wouldn’t sell it to me, because I would have run the place into the ground, and he knew it. And he was right. The money I got from my mother’s inheritance, I blew it in six months.”
When Morgan got clean, he didn’t have to pay Big Al a nickel. The man just left the shop to him when he died.
“He asked his kids, ‘Do you want the shop?’ Morgan said. “But they’re all successful – they have six, seven-digit incomes. They said no, so he said, ‘OK, I’m giving it to Dennis.’”
The place doesn’t look like much, with old tires stacked up on one end and a cluttered office in the middle and the other end serving as the main work space. But it pays the bills and it allows Morgan to work every day with the same kid who wanted his dad home for Christmas those 18 years ago. Jason Morgan, 28, is now his partner in D.J.’s.
“Peace of mind. Satisfaction,” was Morgan’s reply when he was asked how much the shop was worth. “People who have been coming here for 20 years still come back.”
The same place that served as the cornerstone of his sobriety, Morgan now offers as a haven for other people in recovery as well as those who aren’t quite there yet.
“There are addicts out there who come here,” he said. “They’ve got things going on, and they want a safe place to come and sit. There’s people who don’t know there’s another way to live. I open my office to them. I keep (drug-program) schedules for them, and I keep them on the counter, and anybody who walks in can pick up a schedule and make a decision on their own.”
“I was using out in these streets,” he said. “And I see people out in these streets today that are still out there from the time when I was using. I have people coming into the shop saying, ‘So-and-so sent me over here, and they said maybe you can give me a hand,’ and that’s what we do.”
Call The Bee’s Andy Furillo, (916) 321-1141. Follow him on Twitter @andyfurillo.