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SHOWS FOR YOUNGSTERS AND THEIR PARENTS TOO : HBO's 'Crisis' story of life in a teen's fast lane is a sad wake-up call

August 07, 1994|N.F. MENDOZA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Eddie Matos remembers his last dance well.

Only days after a spin with his girlfriend, he was shot in the back by a rival drug dealer, paralyzing him from the neck down. He was 16.

Matos' story, of a teen-ager who began selling drugs at 13, is the subject of this month's Lifestories: Families in Crisis, P.O.W.E.R.: The Eddie Matos Story.

From his room at the Goldwater Memorial Hospital on Roosevelt Island in New York, Matos, who must breathe from a respirator and talk on the phone through a remote he operates with his teeth, discussed with a reporter his experience and HBO's version of it.

"I'm hoping kids will see the show, and ... realize what happens," he says. "This is my story and this is what happened to me when I got involved with guns and drugs."

Matos had a difficult inner-city childhood, as did most of the other 150 kids in his ward paralyzed as a result of violence.

When he was an infant, his father left for Puerto Rico, leaving the boy with a mother facing her own demons. Alcoholism and drug addiction led her to prostitution and, finally, death; she was found with her throat slashed. Matos, then 13, had to identify the body.

Shuffled around between family and friends, his last real home was with his mother's best friend, who asked Matos to leave when he got involved in selling drugs. Despite encouragement from teachers who found him bright and promising, Matos succumbed to the get-rich-quick lifestyle of drug-dealing. His $1,500 a week was what it was all about, he says. "Everything then was about money. That's it."

Then he was shot. Pronounced dead at the scene of the shooting, Matos was kept alive by paramedics and awoke a quadriplegic.

"I wrote a letter to the mayor (of New York) telling him about some kids who were killed at my high school," he begins. "And from that letter I appeared on the MacNeil/Lehrer show (on PBS) and then started the P.O.W.E.R (People Opening the World's Eyes to Reality) group." Matos and others like him began to speak in schools against guns and drugs.

"When you see them talk at schools you can see the huge impact they have. They arrive in a minivan, all in their wheelchairs with respirators," says producer Howard Meltzer. "They can really only talk to kids within their vicinity, but with this show they're hoping for a larger audience. There's a plan for tapes to be made for schools and community organizations."

Matos, him who appears at the end of the program, delivers a similar message to the one he gives in school: "Drugs made me a big man on the streets of East New York. I had cars. I had respect. I had power. But that power was an illusion. That wasn't real. This is real: This chair, this respirator, these arms and legs that don't move any more . . . That's real. And it didn't have to be this way. I made a bad situation worse by the choices I made . . . You're responsible for your life. ... Don't do drugs and don't do guns."

Matos knows his story has tremendous impact. "But you know what got them?" he says, referring to the public reaction to his MacNeil/Lehrer appearance. "They showed me dancing. Like right before I was shot, there was a video of my girlfriend and me, just twirling around. Then they showed how I am now."

As with any film biography, there may be some discrepancies with reality. Matos was disappointed in the way his character (played by Alexis Cruz) talked. "He uses a lot of profanity," he says. "I mean, I swore and stuff, but not as much as they used."

Matos would have liked to have spent time with Cruz, "to get him familiar with me." A planned meeting didn't work out. Still, he says, "most of the movie is me."

Meanwhile, Matos is ready to leave the rehabilitation hospital, where he's lived for four years, and find a new home. "I just don't want to go home just anywhere. I guess I may be choosy. But I really want to find a home."

"Lifestories: Families in Crisis, P.O.W.E.R.: The Eddie Matos Story" premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on HBO and repeats throughout the month. For ages 10 and up.

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