It’s not hard to spot the drug addicts at my local public transit center: They all wear the same uniform of dark, dank and disheveled and they’re almost always asking for money. So I knew as I walked toward a couple pacing by a bench, that they’d probably have a request. But I walked toward them anyway, because there are only two decent benches at that particular stop and the other was occupied by a 40-something man who rants incessantly about “the goddamn liberals.” On this particular day, I felt I could tolerate addicts better.
I sat down and pulled a newspaper out of my backpack, a common cultural signal meaning, “I’m otherwise engaged and not interested in conversation.” (It also signals: “I am a dinosaur because I still read a printed newspaper.”) The woman, dressed in a baggy black tank-top, torn basketball shorts and flip flops in spite of the chilly weather, ignored my reading and asked if I had some change while her friend approached other people.
I lied, saying I didn’t, because on this particular day my should-I, shouldn’t-I judgment scale tipped toward pragmatism instead of mercy: It is a fact that money given to any panhandler in my city has a 99.999 percent chance of being shot into a vein, snorted into a nasal cavity or poured down a throat on a river of alcohol. I didn’t want to participate.
When I didn’t give her money, the woman walked away. My guilt over lying sat down next to me, stretching out his legs, shaking his head and muttering under his breath in condemnation. He made it impossible to focus on the latest Stormy Daniels story, which is saying something.
A few minutes later, the woman’s friend came over to me, two dollar bills dangling from his hand. I knew I couldn’t lie again; I was already having to figure out a confession schedule for the first instance.
“Hi, ma’am,” the man said, “would you have a dollar to make bus fare for me and my girlfriend?”
“Maybe,” I said, digging into my backpack. I was frustrated at him, frustrated at me, frustrated at the situation that has led to us having a heroin problem right here, fed by the opioid crisis. Lord knows I’m already cranky enough because I lost my girlish figure; I don’t need any more irritation.
But I pulled the dollar out of my wallet, and handing it over, I asked him what he did for a living. It was a test, and I knew it was, but I couldn’t help myself. When he said he was unemployed, I asked if he was using.
“I’m not going to lie ma’am. I am.”
“Well,” I said, handing the bill over, “it will really, really, really piss me off if you use that money to buy drugs.”
“This” – he waved the money in the air – “will be for fare, I promise you. But, just telling the truth ma’am, when we get back to the East side, we’re probably going to go looking for drugs.” He sat down with a thud next to me on the bench and shook his head. “I wish it wasn’t so, but it is.”
And he told me how he was a construction worker and how he fell off a ladder and he got opioids as pain killers and before he knew it, he couldn’t stop, but the doctor cut him off and so he turned to the street version, but it was too expensive. That led to heroin because it’s about half the cost of black-market opioids.
“I never thought I’d shoot anything into my arm,” he said. “Never thought I would. Guess that goes to show you, never say never.”
I told him he could make a different choice, that addicts get clean every day, that instead of going to his dealer, he could go to the Salvation Army and they’d find him a rehab center.
“You can make a different choice,” I pleaded. “Please make a different choice.
“I know I could. I just don’t think I can. They separate you in rehab means and my girlfriend won’t make it out on the street without me. We have to do it together, ma’am, and she’s not ready.”
Their bus pulled up and he offered his hand. “I’m Eric. What’s your name?”
“Renée,” I said, shaking his hand.
He smiled. “That’s my daughter’s middle name,” he said. “Thanks again for the fare. I won’t forget what you said.”
I watched them board their bus and a few minutes later I boarded mine, my irritation at the whole situation walking down the aisle with me. I snapped open my paper and read a story about Trump’s plan to fight opioid addiction by doling out tougher criminal punishments and moved onto another about elderly chronic pain patients being unable to get their meds because Medicare is cracking down on pain prescriptions due to the addiction crisis. It was all so depressing I decided to read an advice column about horrible in-laws.
A couple days later, a different bus, a different route, I saw Eric and his girlfriend again and they looked completely different. They were dressed in simple but clean clothes, their hair combed, their eyes clear. They were smiling and she was filling out some forms. My first thought was that their healthy look came from getting a fix; my second was that my first thought was pretty snotty.
I choose a bench pretty distant from where they were to wait for my bus. Eric saw me and came over. He thanked me again for the fare and told me that they’d spent that past couple days getting ID cards, which apparently had something to do with getting signed up for subsidized housing and methadone treatments to help wean them off the heroin.
“It ain’t a cure, but it’s a start. I just want you to know I remembered all the stuff you said the other day about choices. Maybe we’re on our way.” His girlfriend walked over and took his hand and they walked off together toward whatever awaited them.