Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dateline: Downtown

Dan Roche

I have an ethical conundrum. A quandary. A Gordian knot of riddle and woe, if you will. Consider this.

Say you are in a munificent mood and someone asks you for a dollar. It is fairly obvious that the person asking has severe substance abuse issues. You give the person the buck, knowing that they may well use it to procure their drug of choice. Are you then practicing generosity, or are you simply enabling their addiction?

Here’s where this is coming from. Every day at my work I sit along Summer Street downtown and watch the street and sidewalk traffic pass by. One day, two young ladies, a tall redhead and a slight brunette, both obviously quite messed up on some evil stuff, walked past. Man, were they ever messed up. Eyes cast down in the junkie droop, stumbling, swaying, you know. I watched in pity as they hazarded dazedly down the sidewalk. It’s one of those times you can’t help but wonder: What would their parents say? Sigh.

The redhead met my eyes, pulled over and asked, in just barely comprehensible English, whether I had any money I could spare “for the bus”. I thought for a second and said “you’re not getting on the bus. You need it to get jammed up, don’t you?” An impolitic comment? Rude, perhaps? Sure.

But it also shocked her out of her buzz. She tried to argue, but the words had a difficult time coming out of her mouth, poor thing. She went over to her friend in an effort to get her to yell at me, but to no avail. She came back and said no, they were both in a methadone clinic, in fact, and were taking a bus home to Medford. This was a possibility, but I wasn’t born yesterday. There are no methadone clinics along Summer Street, but there are spots where you can pick up anything else you may need.

Look at what you’re doing to yourselves, I said. You’re destroying your lives. It’s the same speech every junkie probably hears twice a day and once more before bedtime: your habit isn’t easing your pain but exacerbating it. It’s killing you. You’re young, smart, get into a training program or go back to school and do something with your life. Good advice, right? And it feels good to give it. But it doesn’t really help matters. People are going to do what they’re going to do.

So I felt a little silly reciting it to them. But, whether you think it’s patronizing or narrow-minded or not, it is also the truth. A friend of mine is a substance abuse counselor, a PhD who lectures at Harvard. For years he’s been watching people get AIDS from shooting up and monitoring cases of early-onset Alzheimer’s from drug-related brain damage in thirty-year olds. Addiction is a disease, one with debilitating effects, and my friend has been there. He spent seven years in jail for a drug deal gone awry, and he is a self-described ex-junkie ex-con from Heath-Bromley who will take you out quick, one time, if you ever mess with him. He doesn’t do self-pity. When the redhead was arguing with me she told me “you don’t understand the pain I feel”. It stopped me short and had its desired effect; it shut me up.

It shouldn’t have, though. Later, when I was thinking about the incident, I imagined my friend’s take. “No,” he said to her in my head, “I can’t understand your pain. Nobody can but you, and you don’t either, or else you’d be dealing with it more productively. Likewise, you can’t understand my pain. I’ve seen things that would make you sick. Does that give me an excuse to go out and bang up a fat bag of dope? Yes, it does. And I don’t take it. Why? Because it’s an excuse, not a reason.” It’s a speech he delivers frequently, and a very effective one.

Long story short, I ended up giving them each a dollar, knowing that in all probability they weren’t going on the bus. And sure enough, I watched them wait until they thought I wasn’t looking anymore, turn around and saunter right back up Summer Street, away from the busses. There was an element of “get the problem out of my face” involved in my reaction to them, as there often is when you throw money at a situation. I felt impotent. I just didn’t know what else to do or how I could have helped. I want to believe that on some level my argument, while it might not have “worked”, at least sparked something in one or both of them that will eventually cause them to give up their present lifestyle. I doubt it. But man, the things we do to ourselves…