The Redemption of Dave Rosenstein

His heroin addiction took him close to the abyss. But he fought back, rebuilt his life – and spent 45 years saving others and devoting himself to community service

09 Mar 2020 | 05:42

It was a terrifying phenomenon that took its toll on lives and families on the Upper West Side in the 1960s. Today, it’s largely forgotten.

Heroin use by teenagers, often the sons of middle- and upper-middle-class professionals, was dangerously in vogue.

One person who never forgot was Dave Rosenstein, who grew up in an apartment building on West End Avenue at 82nd Street that housed dozens of Holocaust survivors.

He remembered all too clearly for a simple reason: He was shooting up at the time.

“I was an addict,” he said in his last conversation with Straus News in February in which he asked this reporter to tell his story. “I was in a bad way, staring into an abyss. I didn’t want to fall in, and that was my only hope for redemption.”

It was a colossal struggle – going straight, one day at a time, always is – but over a decade, Rosenstein turned his life around.

Then, he dedicated it to saving others:

He helped people lead drug-free lives. Took them to substance-abuse meetings. Held their hands and took their calls 24-7. Studied addiction services at John Jay. Became a credentialed counselor. Urged churches and shuls to host meetings. Browbeat them if they charged rent.

Joined Community Board 8 on the East Side. Served for a quarter-century. Fought to make his neighborhood drug-free.

After a two-year battle with pancreatic cancer, Rosenstein died at age 75, after a four-day stay in hospice care at Carnegie East House on Second Avenue, on March 2 at 5:22 a.m. He left no known survivors.

The Trusty Louisville Slugger

An UWS native, Rosenstein in 1965 permanently resettled in the UES. He spent the rest of his life in a rent-controlled railroad flat – overflowing with thousands of books, hundreds of vinyl LPs and three turntables – in a fourth-floor walk-up on Second Avenue off 90th Street in Yorkville.

“He was a walking card catalog,” said Rita Popper, a friend, neighbor and fellow CB 8 member who accompanied him to Mount Sinai for his chemo sessions. “Those book weren’t there for show. If you had a subject, he had read about it.”

Old political posters, a neon flashing Budweiser sign salvaged from a local gin mill and stray rubble from the Jacob Ruppert Brewery, which once scented the East 90s with hops and barley, rounded out the pad’s ambience.

“His apartment was the quintessential home of the serious New York intellectual,” said Alida Camp, chair of CB 8, where Rosenstein served from 1991 to 1999 and from 2006 until his death.

And there was a relic from the bad old days: A baseball bat he kept close at hand.

“Dave looked out for everybody in the building, and he kept us all safe,” said Pat Werner, his downstairs neighbor and friend for more than 40 years who brought him breakfast daily when he got sick.

“The bat came from a time when people would break into the building from the roof and enter apartments through the air shaft so often the landlord put barbed wire on the roof and caged over the air shaft,” Werner recalled.

Added Jeff Gill, his across-the-hall neighbor since 1982, “Everybody knew he had that bat, I never saw him use it, but it kept the building secure.”

First Came the Demons

At first blush, 1960 seemed like a more innocent time. The teenage Rosenstein, schooled at Fieldston and Riverdale, would hang out with friends at Rudley’s Luncheonette and Sterling’s Bowling Alley, both on Broadway at 85th, and the girls all vied for his interest.

“I met him when I was 13 and he was 15, and he came strolling in to the bowling alley looking suave and debonair,” said Norma Marsh, his first girlfriend. “He was tall, dark and handsome. All the girls were drawn to him ... But he was shy, afraid of girls, couldn’t handle the attention.”

The romance lasted a couple of years; the friendship endured forever.

“I spent 60 years loving a man – not being in love, but I loved him all the same – and now, there’s a big hole in my heart,” Marsh said.

If life seemed wholesome, it was illusory: In his mid- and late teenage years, Rosenstein was hocking other people’s jewelry in pawnshops to support his heroin habit and shooting up in Riverside Park, Theodore Roosevelt Park, Straus Park, school playgrounds, even the upscale apartments of classmates.

“He got in pretty deep, and he stayed in for at least five or six years,” said Peter Marks, a childhood friend and fellow drug abuser who went to college in Maine and straightened himself out.

“We’d go to the pool room on West 96th Street and nod out,” he added.

Heroin was a death sentence for two of their friends. They all courted their own mortality. But Marks, a weekend user, and Rosenstein, a daily user, managed to return from the netherworld.

“It’s pretty amazing. He was able to clean himself up,” Marks said.

The Long Road to Sobriety

By the early 1970s, Rosenstein started to break with his demons. Methadone maintenance treatment for heroin addiction won federal approval in 1972, and he was one of the earliest users to sign up.

Within a year, he was off heroin. A few years later, he weaned himself from methadone.

After earning a BA in history from City College in 1975, he found work in public relations for the state’s Division of Substance Abuse Services, and in 1984, joined the board of the Lower East Side Service Center, which helps addicted New Yorkers lead drug-free lives.

For the next 36 years, until two months before his death, he grappled with chemical dependency issues – from a deeply personal standpoint.

“Dave was always willing to help another suffering addict,” said Joanne Dwyer, an attorney friend. “Whenever anyone was ready to go to a meeting of Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous, Dave was always there to take them.”

Added Valerie Walters, president of the LES Service Center, “He was open about being in recovery. It made him passionate because he could say, ‘I’ve been there, I know what addiction can do to people.’”

He broadened the nonprofit’s mission, advocating for educational services, job training, supportive housing for the homeless – “any service that would keep an individual fully functioning in society,” she said. “He was an amazingly committed board member.”

That was equally true of his CB 8 work, both Camp and Popper said.

In 2018, Straus News witnessed his impact first hand when he called to say that a newly opened deli was showcasing smoke-related products like hookahs, water pipes, vaping liquids, nitrous oxide, liquid nicotine and “Bob Marley Cigarette Papers.”

The items, essentially drug paraphernalia, filled the display windows on First Avenue at 91st Street, just around the corner from a middle school, fueling Rosenstein’s outrage: “They’re marketing products like it was candy for kids,” he reported.

So he went in and complained to the merchant. And by the time Our Town called the shopkeeper, he’d already agreed to remove most of the offending items.

Meanwhile, friends are asking, what happens to all those books? And that, perhaps, was Rosenstein’s biggest regret:

“He so very much wanted to keep living,” said Marsha Feris, his last girlfriend. “He’d look at his bookshelves and say, ‘But I have all these books I still want to read.’”

invreporter@strausnews.com

“He so very much wanted to keep living: He’d look at his bookshelves and say, ‘But I have all these books I still want to read.’” Marsha Feris, girlfriend of Dave Rosenstein