He’s handsome, with a smattering of moles that dance across his nose. His hair is always perfectly slicked back, and his smile spreads fast and wide. He often can be seen working at the Bell Shelter, or chatting with friends outside under a jacaranda tree.
Keith Burston is a dapper man. If appearances are any guide, the surprise about Burston isn’t that he grew up in the world of Motown in his Detroit neighborhood, a nephew of the great Smokey Robinson. The aching surprise is that he ended up an addict who lived for years on the street.
Things, he says, are changing for him. “I’m ready to stay clean, move ahead with my life,” Burston says.
Burston, 58, is always articulate about his feelings. When he worked at GrowGood farm in the Transitional Employment Program, he often compared his work to his life, talking about the miracle of growth or the value of being outside.
“I didn’t know what I was getting ready to take part in,” he says. “I am blown away out here.”
“Keith has incredible sincerity and a sly sense of humor, as well as deep thoughtfulness. He would always surprise me with inspiring and heartfelt insights at our weekly meetings, connecting his journey through life with the rest of the natural world he saw on the farm,” says Katie Lewis, the farm manager.
“At one point I said I would buy a ticket for his speaking tour, and I mean it! I also enjoy Keith's songs, which he would sing while he worked--lots of Motown, obviously,” she says.
When Burston got (“crawled,” as he put it) to the Bell Shelter, he was in bad shape. Someone on downtown L.A.’s skid row told him he was about to die. But he says life began to turn “the moment I got here.”
“I was at my lowest point, but my highest point in terms of surrender,” Burston says.
He’s also become attached to God. “I always kept the Lord in mind, but I was afraid to praise God. I didn’t feel worthy. I didn’t feel worthy of anything,” he says.
Working at GrowGood, Burston says, helped his recovery. “I really like to be on time, do what’s asked of me. It’s good for my self-esteem.”
He also spends time working on his music, often with his brother Darrell Littlejohn, a father of 11 and a four-time cancer survivor who lives in Pasadena. In 1973 they came together to Los Angeles, with a music dream. The pair still perform sometimes for a Sunday brunch. And Burston is working to make a documentary film of his life.
Burston’s mother died when he was just 10, and the youngest of 10 children. His sister, Gerry, moved in with her family to help raise the boy. It was his mother’s brother who became famous as Smokey Robinson, and they – along with Aretha Franklin – all lived in a music-soaked neighborhood of Detroit.
“People on this side of the street did music. Cats on that side of the street did murder,” is how Burston describes it.
It was after he came to Los Angeles that he began taking drugs, particularly cocaine. He found himself at parties with famous people from the music world. People warned him against coke, he says. “But I got caught in it.”
And drugs took him down. “All the opportunities I was given,” he says with a sigh, including an appearance with Robinson on “American Bandstand.”
Over the years, Burston worked at various jobs, from Direct TV to a printing shop.
“I went from the streets to the program. Jail to the program and work,” Burston says, 10 programs in all before he came to the Bell Shelter. Throughout, he says, his family has been supportive, giving him the message: “We know you can work and stay clean.”
Burston has found some keys to getting through each day clean, including exercising his spiritual and physical muscles. “I have to get up and pray and get centered. My day starts with prayer and meditation.”
Another thing he needs? “I need to stay around people who know me. Because isolation is one of the things. There’s nothing like being a room with a lot of people and feeling alone,” he says.
Burston spent three years on the streets. “I began to turn to bad behavior,” he says, and his thoughts turned dark: “I’m never going to be clean again. I’m going to die, so let me be here and get it over with,” he says. “But I learned I wasn’t a street person. I didn’t want to die.”
Now he marvels at how bad things got: On 9-11 he was out getting high; he didn’t know the World Trade Center attack had happened. And there are sadnesses: He has a daughter – “she was Daddy’s girl” -- he has not talked to in a decade. And he doesn’t know his teenage grandchildren.
So how does GrowGood help?
“What does gardening have to do with recovery? I couldn’t figure that out for months,” Burston says. But over time, the mindfulness exercises in Jayne Torres’ Food for Life program, spending time in nature, working on growing food all began to make sense. He loved seeing seeds he planted grow.
And there’s this: “I’ve done something to help someone else. People eat our vegetables and they depend on it.”
by Mary MacVean