Ten years ago today, The San Diego Union-Tribune, my last newspaper, carried my front page story about Cupcake Brown’s remarkable journey from a life of street gangs, addiction and prostitution to graduating from law school. Writing this story catapulted me into a world of literary agents, college teaching, an MFA program and the world of nonfiction book proposals.
By Samuel Autman
High on a four-day crack binge, crouching behind a trash bin to light her pipe, Cupcake Brown saw the face of imminent death, her own, reflected in a storefront window.
Hers was the face of a trash-can junkie – eyes sunken, lips scabbed and burned, a once-beautiful face ravaged by years of heroin, cocaine, angel dust and the constant struggle to get high, to find money to get high and to stay high.
On Sunday, the onetime high school dropout will graduate near the top of her class at the University of San Francisco’s law school, having completed a journey from the gritty streets of a childhood in San Diego and Los Angeles. She says hard work and faith in God helped her.
And a boss and other mentors who didn’t turn away.
With no shoes on her feet, wearing a dirty green dress, Brown walked from the trash bin at 47th and Imperial Avenue to Sixth and B Street, to the law offices where she worked for Kenneth Rose and said: “`Ken, I am an addict and alcoholic. I just came in to tell you I need some help.’ ”
Rose says he remembers that day. Brown had been an exemplary administrative assistant, although she behaved erratically at times. Brown’s plea for help showed her as someone redeemable. Rose helped enroll
Brown in a drug and alcohol treatment center, a step toward her recovery.
She was born Cupcake Lavette Brown in Sharp Memorial Hospital 37 years ago. Her mother, Edith Long, was groggy after the delivery. Nurses mistook Long’s request for a cupcake to be the newborn’s name. The name stuck.
Brown’s early years in a small house at 30th and Franklin in Logan Heights are among her happiest memories. Tim Long, her stepfather and the one whom she called Daddy, recognized Brown’s penchant for argument. At 7 years old, she pestered him with questions on the validity of Santa Claus until, flustered, he conceded there was no Santa Claus. That’s when he told Brown she would someday make a good lawyer.
At 11, Brown lost her mother. Hearing a radio alarm clock blaring, she stepped into her mother’s bedroom to find her dead from a seizure.
Brown’s biological father, a man unknown to her, stepped forward as the legal guardian of Brown and her older brother. He placed them in foster care. The same year her mother died, Brown was introduced to marijuana and alcohol by neighborhood kids.
Over the next few years, Brown bounced from one foster home to another in San Diego, Spring Valley, La Mesa, Sherman Oaks, Thousand Oaks, Oxnard, Simi Valley and South Central Los Angeles. Brown alleges that in some of the homes she was physically and sexually abused but says she never complained to social workers because her foster parents were always present during visits.
To escape, Brown ran away. A prostitute told her she might as well start selling what her foster father had taken for free.
She hung out on the streets of Los Angeles. She joined the 8-Tray Gangster Crips gang.
“It was the closest thing to a family I had had since my mom died. If I was hungry, they fed me. If I was cold, they clothed me. I loved the camaraderie and devotion. I thought I wanted to die a gangster star.”
When she was 15, Brown almost got her wish. In 1979, a rival gang shot at her. She was hit by nine pellets from a sawed-off shotgun and two bullets from a .22-caliber handgun. Lying in a hospital, she vowed to God that if she walked out, she would quit gang-banging.
Brown kept that promise, but she continued using drugs and selling her body. In the midst of lawless living, she harbored a desire to practice law. But it seemed like a pipe dream.
Long, her stepfather, certainly thought so.
“She was just a little skeleton,” said the retired sheet metal worker. “Her clothes hung off of her. She didn’t care if she took care of herself. She didn’t take a bath. All she cared about was drugs.”
Even after landing a job in 1987 with attorney Rose, Brown still used. “I didn’t just put the crack pipe down and say I wanted to be a lawyer. It was a process.”
The journey began that day at the trash bin. Brown went through rehabilitation, stayed clean for 69 days and had one relapse. She has been drug-free since Oct. 15, 1989.
Joining Alcoholics Anonymous and taking classes at San Diego City College were turning points, she said. It took her five years to graduate with honors from City College in 1995. There she learned the art of studying.
But it wasn’t until her belated arrival in Larry Burns’ prosecution class at San Diego State University that her love for the law sprouted. Ordinarily, Burns would not allow students to remain in his class after missing the first few sessions. He relented, but he warned Brown that was her last break.
Burns, now a U.S. magistrate, said Brown got the highest grade in the class. She had always done the reading and could answer any question he hurled at her. He was impressed.
Brown told her teacher she wanted to go to law school but was unsure of herself.
“She feared she did not have the right stuff,” Burns said. “I told her, `You have a very incisive mind and understand opposing viewpoints on both sides. I think you are a perfect candidate for law.’”
After graduating magna cum laude from SDSU in 1998, Brown applied to the law schools of the University of San Diego, Santa Clara University, Southwestern University, Loyola Marymount and the University of San Francisco, which took a chance on her.
Carol Wilson, director of USF’s academic support program, said she saw more than just Brown’s entrance exam scores. “She had been through so much and was obviously a survivor,” Wilson said. “She showed commitment. She went through a treatment program and stuck with it. To stick out three years of law school, you have to be dedicated.”
Brown has an infectious, back-slapping laugh and calls most people “Sweetie.” A walk across the law school campus is full of hugs.
When she graduates on Sunday, she will have a large cheering section, including her stepfather Long and mentor Burns.
Brown held down three and four jobs a semester, took out student loans and had eight scholarships to help pay for law school. She has interned for Associate Justice Joyce Kennard of the California Supreme Court and U.S. District Judge Martin Jenkins. She has worked at two well-known law firms in San Francisco: Brobeck Phleger & Harrison, and McCutchen, Doyle, Brown and Enerson.
She will be a civil litigator and criminal defense attorney in white-collar cases for McCutchen after graduating.
“This is a remarkable story of the survival of the human spirit and what can happen when professional schools look beyond the numbers and see people who are marginalized and brutalized,” said Jeffrey Brand, dean of USF’s law school.
“Ms. Cakes” is her California license plate. Pictures of her mother decorate her Oakland apartment. “Cake’s Place” is written on her front door. Lady J, a purple parakeet, a gift from Ken Rose’s daughter, is her pet.
Brown frequently speaks to audiences at high schools, prisons and juvenile halls. Her message is simple: “If I can make it, anybody can.”
Sometimes she shares graphic details of her life so people can connect with her. She is working with law professor Peter Honisberg on her autobiography, tentatively titled: “A Piece of Cake.”
“I thought I would have to be a dope-fiend-gangster-ho for the rest of my life,” she said. “I never really thought I could become a lawyer.”
©The San Diego Union-Tribune