In a restaurant that valued presentation over portion size, and with a jazz singer crooning in the background, four people prattled on about a favorite topic of the middle class: finding reliable domestic help.
Chatter continued until one woman explained why she needed it: She was rearing alone the four children of a drug-addicted sister.
Suddenly, talk got real.
The man in the group had sole custody of his children because his ex-wife was a heroin addict.
A second woman bemoaned the financial and emotional burden drug-using older siblings put on her mother.
And I shared both the pain of watching a sister struggle against the quicksand of addiction and my failed efforts to save her son from a self-destructive legacy.
Our candor was unusual for people who did not know each other well, but our situation is more common than most would admit.
Drug addiction and its consequences are the silent toll on the black middle class, the reason so many are never able to put much money aside for retirement or for their children's future.
Many support siblings and their children as well as aging parents, undermining efforts at building wealth within families and communities.
It's past time for black professional groups -- such as those representing doctors, social workers, lawyers and journalists -- to demand or create more effective drug-treatment, prison-rehabilitation and job-placement programs.
While this problem is not exclusive to blacks, the inner cities bore the brunt of the crack and gun epidemics in the late 1980s and early '90s. Although crack babies and drive-by shootings no longer dominate headlines, drug use and its residue of dysfunction are ingrained.
Few would want to deal with this ugly reality; for middle-class blacks, it blemishes an image of success.
Protecting that image is important because we are often among the few blacks our co-workers or neighbors know. And there's the fact of professional life that some people want to see others tarnished.
An example of the anxiety this creates: Long before Anita Hill made her sexual harassment charges against then- Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, Washington's black bourgeoisie was all a-titter about his public acknowledgement that he was rearing the son of a sister with a drug problem. That made him -- and, by extension, themselves -- seem much too common.
Denial, however, doesn't work for those who need help nor for those expected to provide it.
Dealing with guilt is a crucial first step. A strange dichotomy exists in too many black families: Education is preached, but achievement somehow has an aura of sin.
So those who get ahead feel compelled to donate to relatives who chose not to get skills or education or just to put out much effort. Not doing so risks being labeled hostile to family and even to the entire race.
Personal responsibility is the answer for the needy, as well as the middle class.
We know this country's drug policy has been unfair, having imposed much tougher sentences on those arrested with cheaper crack cocaine rather than the more expensive powdered version.
We know those arrests are a key reason that more than a quarter of black men are in the criminal justice system.
We know that it's hard for people with criminal records to get a new start in life. And we know that the more self-sufficient men are, the more marriageable -- leading to fewer single mothers in poverty.
So, time to use all those connections and clout we tout to push better strategies to break the cycle of hopelessness that feeds addiction.
What if -- instead of just styling and profiling during this summer's convention season -- professional groups decided how best to use their areas of expertise to further this cause?
Business plans, policies, programs, politics, research, lobbying -- those are the tools and the power of the professional class. We should use the skills learned in the workplace to put programs in place so more people can help themselves.
And that would have the extra benefit of educating national and state leaders who still confuse the need for a hand up with a demand for a handout.
We are careful not to duplicate the efforts of other organizations, and as a grassroots coalition of prisoners and social reformers, our resources (time and money) are limited. The vast expertise and scope of the various drug reform organizations will enable you to stay informed on the ever-changing, many-faceted aspects of the movement. Our colleagues in reform also give the latest drug war news. Please check their websites often.