Chris Arnade Photography

The Pope, Obama, and Inequality

image(Franciscan nuns in South Bronx)

In the nineties I was part of a wave of Investment Bankers and smart policy wonks that invaded Argentina. We had arrived, many under the auspices of the IMF, to convince Argentina to embrace the economic mantra of unregulated free markets.

Our days were spent lecturing “very important people” on the wonders of the markets. Nights were spent in fancy restaurants. After dinner Tango dancers would be dragged out to entertain us. We slept in five star hotels that could have been in New York City, except for the massive paintings of Gaucho’s riding on the Pampas hung on the walls

On one trip, as I was being driven to the airport, my cab was caught in a swarm of banners and megaphones:  Political protestors from the neighboring slum.

Slums ring much of Buenos Aires. They are sprawling collections of small shacks built of tin, wood, cardboard and a few choice items discarded by the wealthy.  They are carved out of oddly shaped plots of land that others don’t want, directly under an airports flight path or on unsteady land prone to flooding, or huddled next to busy train tracks.

With the cab stopped, the shacks clustered next to the road were no longer just a dark blur of concrete and reflective tin. They were homes. Sheets operated as doors, and on this summer night most were pulled aside to let in a breeze. Inside candles sat on tables or bare bulbs dangled from live wires. The stark light lit the faces of slight children.

A street of mud fronted a bar built of reclaimed wood. Inside a TV run by stolen electricity was showing a soccer game.  The game flickered as the rabbit ears barely grabbed the faint signal. Empty beer cans littered the wooden table. A mother of Mary statue sat in a corner, surrounded by a collection of votive candles.

It was not a neighborhood anyone I knew would visit. It was, to paraphrase the local bankers, “a dangerous place filled with squatters who have no respect for the rule of law. They don’t recognize property rights. They don’t respect themselves, choosing to drink rather than work.” 

During that period and for much of his life, the Auxiliary Bishop of Buenos Aires, Jorge Mario Bergoglio was regularly visiting those slums, trying to bring solace to the poorest of the poor. Since his election in 2013 as Pope, Jorge Mario Bergoglio took the name Francis.

Since that election, Pope Francis has focused much of his energy on highlighting what he learned in his work in the slums, that wealth inequality is one of the most morally corrosive issues the world faces.

Its an issue he knows well, after living his life in a country that has always had a large percentage of the population, many living in slums, that is voiceless, almost completely excluded from wealth and power.  Most in Argentina don’t acknowledge the slum dwellers unless one of them, like Diego Maradona, reaches fame through his soccer abilities

Slums are the ugly side of a world economy that is tilted towards a “winner take all” mentality.  Few want to look at the economic losers, not in Argentina, and certainly not in the US, the intellectual champion behind the “winner take all” policy of lightly regulated free markets.

In the US, since 1980, with the election of Ronald Reagan, the bulk of policy has been written for the benefit of the wealthy. Taxes have been made more regressive, labor laws relaxed, and markets deregulated. The policy shift profoundly changed the US, and the world, giving more power to those with capital at the expense of those who labor. Voters were told that growth, no matter how it was generated, would eventually lift all boats.

Free markets became the religion of politics, and economic growth, as measured by simple numbers like GDP, became its saint. Even Bill Clinton, the savoir of the left wing, became a free market acolyte, pushing through congress the middle class decimating NAFTA and then dismantling any remaining regulations of Wall Street with the repeal of Glass-Steagall.

The move towards free markets was personally good for me. In 1993 I joined a 5,000 person investment bank, Salomon Brothers, and watched as it transformed into a massive 200,000 person megabank fueled by lax regulation.  Compensation at the bank also grew, with million dollar paychecks, more than my father made in twenty years of teaching, normal.

New York City was equally transformed. My apartment building in Brooklyn Heights changed radically. When I first moved in it housed a variety of residence: Artists, professors, social workers, schoolteachers, and a retired plumber. I was the only banker.  Twenty years later the artist and many others are gone, victims of rising prices, and I am one of many bankers.

Free markets, and the right to consume, became the invisible hand that guided elections.  Until the financial crisis of 2007 exposed the economic costs behind “growth at all cost.” That crisis enabled the election of President Obama, and the passage of the first major policy that was not for the benefit of only the wealthy: Obamacare.

The Obama administration spent much of its first term performing triage, attempting to arrest the damage done by the collapse of the free markets philosophy.

My bank lost close to 100 billion and was effectively bankrupt. The government stepped in, took over many of the ugly assets that had brought the bank to failure. Yet the bankers still got paid. More bankers moved into my neighborhood.

Now in his second term President Obama has stated that his focus will be the on most pernicious results of the last generation’s obsession with free markets and growth: A rapidly expanding wealth and mobility gap.

The resulting and growing chasm in wealth and opportunity between those with access to capital, and those without, shouldn’t have surprised anyone. When you pass laws that favor one group over the other, that group will win.

Economists, always a thoughtful lot when it comes to human behavior, knew the wealthy would benefit far more but argued that growth, even if unevenly distributed, will be a net benefit because the winners will win more than the losers lose. They will then share those winnings, either via investments that boost jobs and lower costs or from politically forced redistribution via taxes.

The sharing the winnings part never happened. The winners used their new wealth to further empower themselves. They did this by flooding the political system with money to further stack the rules in their favor.  They didn’t invest, well not in job creating systems, but rather they moved production to places with the cheapest labor and the fewest regulations.

My employer, Citibank, a clear winner in the new economy, lobbied extensively to change banking regulation. It encouraged me and other employees to push their congressional representatives to repeal what little banking regulation existed. We would get regular updates on how we could fight to make the US safer for large financial institutions.  They also encouraged us to spend one Sunday a year picking up garbage in a poor neighborhood. Plenty of photographers were on hand for that event.

As inequality grew the economists and politicians came up with a new argument, that income redistribution would happen organically, via some magical economic process called trickle down. It is a term that evokes images of rivulets of water seeping into a cramped basement apartment from the mansion above. That didn’t happen either.

Barack Obama, an academic himself, understands these arguments. Yet he also knows first hand the absurdity of their claims. During the height of the Reagan revolution, while Pope Francis was in the Argentine slums, a young Barack Obama was working in Chicago’s South Side as a community organizer for a church-based organization. He, like Pope Francis, was seeing the ugly result of the dedication to a “winner takes if not all then most” economy.

He was seeing that growth at all costs did not lift all boats. Headline GDP numbers were growing and despite the productivity of the average worker being up 90 percent, the income of the typical family was stagnating. That boom in growth and productivity was indeed benefiting the richest 1%, who since 1980 have seen their wealth grow at staggering rates.

He was also seeing, as anyone who has spent anytime in the poorest neighborhoods of the US knows, that not only was wealth inequality vastly increasing, but also more dangerously, mobility was decreasing.

Poor neighborhoods were becoming places harder and harder to escape. Places where children are born into a lifetime of limited opportunity and almost assured economic stagnation.

As the US moved itself, and much of the rest of the world, towards outright idolatry of unregulated free markets, the Catholic Church, a moral guiding force for many, did little to try and stem the rampant consumerism.

The church itself was moving towards the right, under the charismatic Pope John Paul II. Token statements addressing the new obsession with free markets were made, reminders that the church was imbued with the philosophy that all people are equal, regardless of social or economic statues, but the bulk of the Church’s energy was directed at helping to overthrow the nasty dictatorships of Eastern Europe.

It was a noble effort, and worth the energy. That those totalitarian regimes hid under the pretence of being pro labor (communist in name alone) only helped the arguments of the free market politicians, who could claim philosophical kinship with the Church.

Ronald Reagan and Pope John Paul II got along famously. President Reagan could overlay and co-opt his gutting of labor with the Pope’s efforts to give Eastern Europeans their personal freedom and liberty back.

When Reagan and John Paul met, both Obama and Francis were toiling away in relative obscurity, doing community organizing in some of the poorest regions of the world.  Presently President Obama and Pope Francis are focusing on addressing the changes brought by the movement towards consumption and free markets.

Pope Francis has led the way, both in volume, in timing, and in clarity. His renewed focus, done in the language of ethics rather than policy, has brought needed and long overdue attention to the corrosive and dehumanizing effects of growth at all costs.

He, like Obama, is at heart still a community organizer, and wants everyone in the Church to be the same. As he wrote,

“I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Pope Francis also has a clearer and longer understanding of inequality. For the simple reason that the slums of Argentina are far worse than Chicago’s South Side. 

The history of Argentina, for roughly the last 100 years, is generally one of class warfare. It could be the poster child for inequality and social and class calcification.  Corrupt oligarchs intent on maintaining their massive wealth and unchecked power have long ruled it. When their interests have been threatened they have turned to military rule.

At times labor has revolted and installed its own governments, often by force. Imbued with anger and driven retribution, they themselves end up doing little to correct the massive imbalances. Rather they follow the prior political pattern and grab their own share of resources, enriching themselves and their friends.

Argentinean politicians have little interest in the public good; rather politics is a means of personal enrichment.  As one Argentinean economist told me, “We Argentines have a hotel mentality. We don’t live here, we are only renting this place.”

Those living in the slums certainly don’t feel ownership of the country, being almost entirely disenfranchised.

That narrow self-interest of the wealthy and ruling class is endemic of economies with long-standing wealth gaps and limited social mobility.  Over time, unchecked by others, the rich end up have little interest in investing in the real economy, little interest in generating anything that trickles down. They end up only interested in maintaining their own position.

This is what Pope Francis knows first hand. This is the environment he grew up in, that he worked in.  He knows just how morally and economically dangerous inequality is.

He knows this in visceral first-hand way. Pope Francis knows that the inequality we have in the US and Western Europe is bad, but will get much worse if nothing changes.  He knows that our problems are embryonic relative to Argentina.

He knows that the US is moving towards a Latin American-style economy, one where the Koch brothers are multiplied many times over. One where the wealthy don’t just want more money or opportunity. Rather they want power. They want the political system to be run with the intent to guarantee that their wealth is never threatened. They want labor to be disposable, voiceless, and expendable.

I hope President Obama listens to Pope Francis when he talks about the tin shacks and mud streets of Buenos Aires. I hope the President listens to the Pope, not only because Francis has moral authority, but because he has far more experience and far more knowledge of the dangers of unregulated free markets and the resulting inequalities.

As the Pope wrote in “Apostolic Exhortation

“Some people continue to defend trickle-down theories which assume that economic growth, encouraged by a free market, will inevitably succeed in bringing about greater justice and inclusiveness in the world. This opinion, which has never been confirmed by the facts, expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.”

A shorter edited version of this appeared in the Guardian: The Pope, Obama, and a former Banker…..

 


Alone

Sonya walks the three-mile stretch at all hours, sometimes holding a panhandling sign that she flashes at the cars. If enough drugs are in her she looks down, focusing on the things that fill her mind.

At one end is her squat, an empty warehouse Eric found, nestled next to a gas station, edged by cobblestone streets that bring tourists.

At the other end is a corner for drugs. No tourists come here, just regulars needing their fill. It is more active at this end, even though most people don’t move very much. Rolls of twenty-dollar bills are swapped for pills and tiny bags, the exchange masquerading as hugs or hand shakes. 

 For the first three months Sonya and Eric kept away from the police. “Eric can be loud, but he had too much to lose, so we tried to keep quiet.”

Events started to turn against them. Two woman cops, the “Keystone C*nts,” wouldn’t give them a break. “They kept looking at us. I could tell they thought we were hiding something.”

A month ago they tried to arrest Eric, but he ran. Two weeks ago they arrested both of them. Eric tried to run, one of the officers hands moved towards her gun. “I reached for the other officer’s gun. I am not going to just sit back and let someone shoot Eric. I may be crazy, but I will kill someone if they try to kill him. Simple as that.” 

It didn’t get that far. He was arrested, his name ran, and now he is gone into the system. “They found his violations from New York.”

She is alone.

She walks the length, passing the junkyards, the dealers, the barbershops, people asleep on the ground, and the hand-painted signs. Two Klonopins and a needle of heroin slow her, dragging out her steps.

On each of her knuckles is a letter written in marker.  Her left hand spells FURY, her right, SCAR. The U is being smeared by her wedding ring. She is hot to the touch, with a fever well above one hundred. “Since my spleen was kicked in, I get these fevers all the time.”

Before Eric was arrested they talked about saving money to buy a car. “Now I should use everything to go back to New York so I can follow Eric’s case. I can’t be alone out here. I turn my back for a second and some damn asshole tries to jump or rape me. I am not sure even the warehouse is safe anymore.”


Maybe you saw Pepsi?

If at 7:38 PM, on August 29th of last year, you were driving on the Bruckner Expressway, you might have caught a glimpse of Pepsi. She was leaning against the rail of the squat, watching the Amtrak trains pass beneath her. Maybe you didn’t see her. I mean, why would you look, because nobody is supposed to be there, hovering over the train yard like that. Maybe your eye was drawn to the families crossing the pedestrian bridge. Maybe you noticed her beneath that.

She was well lit, standing in the fading light, but she was still. It’s hard to see something that doesn’t move even if spotlighted.

Well, maybe you did see her. But you certainly didn’t see the black eye. Or the bruised ribs. Or the cut on her leg.  Not from that far away. Even if you stopped your car, walked through the dirty puddles, and opened the door with the “No Trespassing” sign, you would not have seen those. She was hiding them with make-up.

Those happened the night before. Beat up while walking the track. Beat up because a John “freaked out, went crazy, started beating on me.”  Or maybe she tried to steal from him. She does that now and then. “Who doesn’t?”

She had just woken up. The night before she had managed to get back to the squat, managed to borrow a few hits from Shelly for the pain, to allow her to sleep. “I crawled for a block.” 

You couldn’t have seen her before she woke, the bare mattress was hidden behind cardboard boxes.

If you did see her it was probably when Ramone pulled her up from mattress. The pain was too much to stand without another’s hand.

I doubt you saw her though. She only stood for five minutes and Ramone was only there for a little more than that.

She collapsed back into the sheltered bed after the Southbound Acela passed beneath her feet. She worked a needle into her arm, covered her eyes with her cap, and went back to sleep. Hidden again.


With a broken leg, unable to do much, I sat in a bar and photographed those who passed by the open door.


And so it goes

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The missed calls started slightly over a week ago. Voice messages started to ramble. Shelly was less often at the Laundromat, out for walks.

When my phone flashed 718-777-4300 I knew it was Shelly and I knew she was in Rikers. She was only person I had told about putting money into an account to accept calls from Rikers.

She was arrested Saturday night, charged with B Felony for a direct sell to an undercover officer. Given her past record, none for drug sales, she could face up to two years.

She was resigned and content. “I can’t live in Hunts Point and be clean. I just can’t. I can’t keep doing this. It is getting tiring living on the streets. Tiring hustling. I don’t know, maybe jail is just what I need. You saw me after one month in Rikers. You saw how happy I was.”

Seeing Shelly last month in Hunts Point, trying to stay clean, I wanted to hope. Still I knew it would be too much. Too many triggers. Surrounded by a street family, most who are still using. It reminded me of something I had written over a year ago.

When an addict tells you they are clean, especially if they are still living the life, it is often a different definition. It means doing a hit only now and then, not having, as Shelly once said to me, the “I need it or I crap in my pants, the I need it or I suck a strangers dick addiction.” To them they are clean, they feel like they can control when and how. Social shooters.

That is the difference between being an addict in Hunts Point and an addict on the Upper East Side. Each has an awful disease, addiction cuts across everything, but escaping addiction in Hunts Point means escaping Hunts Point, it means escaping everything you come from. It means remaking who you are, eschewing the past that made you, often leaving family and friends, and really moving on and becoming someone new.

How many of us can do that?

Maybe for Shelly the only way to do that is two years in prison. As awful as that sounds.

Note: The picture is from four months ago. Shelly, prior to her arrest on Saturday, was back to two bags a day.

Note: This is not product placement for 7 UP

More on addiction here: Faces of Addiction


Take back the night

In this new town you can drink inside stores. In this new town Cambodian men stand stoically behind plexiglass accepting dollar bills for mini shots of liquor in mini plastic cups.

Other men stand behind plexiglass and sell $3 sandwiches.

A small sitting area is filled with close to twenty regulars who have been drinking $2 tall-boy Cobras or Pabst Blue Ribbons or Modelos all day. They shuffle from tables to refrigerators to plexiglass back to tables.

A younger man, hair filled with sticks, walks unevenly towards the plexiglass, his shaking hands clamped tight on either side of a lunch tray filled with a dollar’s worth of nickels.

It a mash up of a bodega, restaurant, homeless shelter, bar, shooting gallery, and dance hall. 

Outside, under the El, police vans sit across from men selling whatever you want.

Eric and Sonya sit at a dirty table under the jukebox drinking beers and telling stories.

Eric, a new $20 in his hand, runs outside, while Sonya tries to help a man find a song on the jukebox. Drunken fingers fight a greasy touchscreen

Eric comes back with four Klonopin tablets. They swallow them with a chug of beer.  The jukebox drowns out a fight behind them.

“Yeah, this was your city
You did it all and more, broke every law except for one, babe
Attraction, are you ready
I know you feel it
Pull you nearer ‘til you feel it again, oh”

They have more money. Sonya wants four bags of heroin and Eric wants two bags and a sandwich and minutes on the mobile phone. They start yelling at each other, their voices fighting to lift above the music.

“Take back the night
Come on, use me up until there’s nothing left
Take back the night
Dizzy, spinning, sweating, you can’t catch your breath
Take back the night
Ooh, don’t know when the sun is rising next
Take back the night
So if the feeling’s right, then raise your glass and let’s…”


Loathing

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Every morning Sarah wakes up and hates herself. Not in a “I hate myself because I am 15 pounds too heavy way.” Not in a “I hate myself because my kids have piano lessons and it’s snowing way.”

She hates herself because she is living in a tiny car, sucking dick for money, and spending it all on heroin. She hates herself because yesterday she told everyone she wouldn’t be here today. She told everyone she would be in detox. She told everyone she would be one step closer to getting her kids back. She hates herself because she is still in that car.


image(Her home)

She hates herself in the morning when she looks for some left over bags to shoot and can’t find them. “I really tried to save them. You can’t go to detox sick.” She hates herself in the afternoon when she fools herself with, “ok, tomorrow morning, that’s when I will go.”  She hates herself a bit less in the evening. She has a few bags in her and she imagines that next morning won’t be this morning.

Sarah’s language is resigned. The future is never about living in a car in Hunts Point. “Next Tuesday? I won’t be here then. I will be in detox. Or I will be dead.”

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Take your worst hangover. Take it and multiply it by a huge number. Take it and imagine you have a button you can push to make that hangover go away. Pushing that button has taken everything you ever wanted away from you. Your kids, your house, your friends, your idea of what is normal.

You push that button every fucking day. Every day. You can’t stop doing it.

FUCK THIS. FUCK IT ALL. I HATE THIS FUCKING LIFE.

“You like my boots? I found them in the garbage. Fucking hot…..”

More on addiction here: Faces of Addiction


Sex Worker, Prostitute, Whore, or something else?


I will ask this question, and the quoted answer, to one person a week.

“Sex Worker? Like with vacation time and a cafeteria? Ha! I prefer business woman. I am in the business of offering things on my terms. I may stand on a street corner, I may walk the track, but I have my limits on what I will do. A whore will do anything for money, anything for drugs.”

“When I was younger and had a real bad habit I was like that.”

“Some of the things men want you to do. They crazy things. Sick things. Things you can’t imagine anyone wants. They ask for it all the time and I say no. I don’t do those things. Try and find yourself a whore you sick motherfucker. I am a business woman.”


On Philip Seymour Hoffman

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1) He never played easy characters. He never played simple characters as simple. He wasn’t pretty, either in looks or personality. He seemed to understand that everyone is nuanced, broken, with some hidden or not so hidden faults. He seemed out of sorts in the “it is so pretty and simple and fun” world of Hollywood. I will miss knowing that he is out there making movies.

2) He died from heroin. My first impulse (played out where first impulses play out; on twitter) was to point out people die from heroin daily. That is unfair to him, to his years of sobriety that allowed his talent to develop and affect others.

3) Yet he was an addict. Addiction has a way of trumping all else.  Sometimes it does it with dramatic finality producing a headline that screams, “Found on floor with needle in his arm, fifty bags of dope scattered around house.”

More often it plays out in a less dramatic but equally painful way. Like I see in Hunts Point daily. It is an addiction that wears down a person until their talents are hidden to most. Nobody wants to look at this path of addiction. It is rarely pretty and produces no headlines.

4) Next time you see an Eric panhandling under a bridge, or a Takeesha standing on the corner, try to see past their situation. Look past the cartoonish ugliness that has become society’s view of addiction. Try to see the human in them, the one fighting a shitty-ass disease. Like Philip Seymour Hoffman.

More on addiction here: Faces of Addiction


Marina Village, Bridgeport Connecticut

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Forty-three long low-slung buildings sit clustered against a railroad track and a highway.

Half of the homes’ windows and doors are boarded up. The other half look empty, except for an occasional small sign of life: A toy on the steps, a cat in the window, a liquor bottle in the snow.

Built in 1949, they are closing. A woman, drugs in her, told me it was because “of that hurricane. Flooded us all out.”

A policeman, worried about my safety, told me, “they been trying to close them for twenty years. Finally the university bought them.”

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Another policeman (the police cars circle and circle) told me, “These people don’t respect anyone. Not us (Police? Whites? What us?), not themselves. After Sandy Hook liberals now want to take the guns away from the good guys.”  A tattoo of a mermaid with very large breasts snaked down his arm.

A small girl, maybe ten, walked alone through the grounds, her pink jacket the only flash of color. Her face blank, her eyes never leaving a distant point ahead.  Four men at the corner, talking sports, followed her with their eyes.

A mother carried heavy bags of groceries. Her face blank, her eyes never leaving a distant point ahead. Her son trailed behind, holding twice the amount she carried.

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A teenage girl yelled in her cell-phone, “I forgot my food stamps and now I am $7 short. I need you to come pay.”

Another policeman pulled up to me, “These people going to think you are a cop. They like to shoot anyone in the butt. I guess it’s a gang thing. Keep your eyes behind you.”

The small girl, her pink jacket flashing in the sun, was almost half a mile away, half a mile closer to the park on the ocean.

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Love in the time of Heroin, part four

They live in the abandoned warehouse next to the gas station where I first left them. Half the roof is caved in, with old metal beams scattered like pick-up sticks for giants. A small trail weaves through them, back to an “office” that remarkably still has electricity. Getting inside means crawling through a tiny broken window.

“We crawled in here the first night. I flipped a switch, and the place fucking lit up like a cathedral.”

 On the other side of the warehouse wall, cars pull up to fill their tires with one-dollar air. The first day, after the long drive from Hunts Point, they sat in the parking lot smoking menthols against the side of my van. Next to them, a young woman with a bouncy pony-tail sticking out the back of her sports cap sprayed whitening foam on each of her tires. Accessorize that VW Golf girl!

The last two weeks have been tough. No money, maybe only $10 a day. Sonya walks the stroll, panhandling sign in her hand. “I got fifty younger white girls doing the same thing. It ain’t like the Bronx.”

Their habit has stayed small, squeezed by the economics. “We been tweeking since last night, can’t you tell.”

When they do get a bit of money, they jump the “El” to try and save fifty cents. “Everything gots to be done cheaper here.”

The drugs are better. “This is heroin city. Police can’t do anything about it. They can’t arrest us. They know if the heroin stops, the city’s real estate will collapse. This whole city is just a big shooting gallery.”

They hold small bags in their hands, bought from kids on bicycles with faces set deep in their hoodies. “They don’t cut the heroin like them dirty niggers in the Bronx. This stuff will roll your eyes back in your head.”  They jump a fence and descend towards the railroad tracks.

A half an hour later they stroll under the “El”.

Sonya is slack, eyes dopey and empty. Eric has ideas. Lots of ideas that need to be told.

“We going to get a house. They just give buildings away in this city. I built shit all my life. I can turn something like that into a palace.”

They argue about the small money left. Sonya wants more minutes on their Obama phone. Eric wants a proper meal at the Steak and Fries. “Let’s splurge. I will get sick rather have you keep working.”  

They kiss for the camera. “Stop grabbing my tit you little shit. That is for later.”


"Being busy means saying no to drugs"

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Shelly was arrested in early December for shoplifting cosmetics from a Manhattan CVS. She was given one-month in Rikers.

On January 2nd she was released. She called me and asked to come to my apartment, to get a ride back to the Bronx.

She looked great. “Rikers was good for me. They detoxed me. I got signed up for Medicaid and food stamps. I got lots of shots and pills. I was mostly bored. I read a lot. Watched TV. The food sucked though.”

She was clean, happy, funny, and excited.

We drove back to Hunts Point; it was a painfully cold morning, the beginning of a blizzard.

She had a place to stay, with a friend. She didn’t want to do drugs, well certainly not heroin. Maybe a little cocaine.

We pulled into the McDonalds, her to get some food, me to make a long phone call. I gave her a $20, asked her to get something for her and a diet coke for me.

She spent $17. I didn’t think that was possible at McDonalds. (3 Bacon McSomething-or-others, 6 apple turnovers, 6 cookies, 2 weird-ass coffee sugary things, four orders of fries. “Rikers food sucked I told you.”)

She took me to an auto glass shop in Hunts Point to get my windshield fixed. She knew the owner. “Hey Papo, treat my friend right.” The place in my neighborhood wanted $500. Papo did it for $140. “See, I can help you save money.”

Since then she has stayed mostly clean, the happiest and most balanced I have seen her in three years. “No heroin at all.”

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Gone are the huge mood swings. The panicky calls. The six missed calls in a row. The desperate 3 am calls from unknown numbers. The voice messages on why nobody treats her well, why everyone is against her, that trail off into minutes of background noises and yells.

She has a job at the Hunts Point Laundromat. Working keeps her busy. Busy keeps her away from drugs. “I spend eight hours a day folding clothes. I love it. I keep my self occupied, keep my hands moving, always have someone to gossip with.”

She called me the other night, asking me to come take a picture of her at work. “You always take pictures of me when I am not doing well. Please take and post a picture when I am happy. Please.”

More on addiction here: Faces of Addiction


Just try getting clean, part 3

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You keep reminding them it is for their kids. You do it so often you sound like the character in the Simpsons, “Won’t somebody please think of the children?!

The first step is them getting out of the broken car they live in.

That means scheduling a pick up at 7:30 am for a ride to detox.  That means waiting for the cop car to leave, the one parked right across from them, to tap on their window.

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It means waiting for them to buy drugs. You can’t go to detox without drugs. You crazy? It’s like eight hours of sitting and waiting. Don’t want to be tweeking during that.

Phone calls are made, sometimes on your phone. You sit in your car, waiting. You drive to the 7-11 to get a Coke Slurpie for you, and a large coffee with cream and sugar for them.

You know addicts. You fill about ¼ of the cup with sugar, ¼ with cream, the rest with coffee. A sugary darkish sludge designed for the desperate.

You wait in the parking lot, thinking it’s a better place to spend your time. You look into a corner: A clothing donation box painted like a small pink house (you know friends who steal from it). A port-a-potty (you have used it in desperate times). Three sick orange cones. A bright blue shopping cart (you can imagine whose it is, and wonder what happened for him to lose it).  A deep sadness overcomes you.

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You drive back to bring the coffee, to hopefully pick them up.

She is still sitting in the car and picking. Picking at all of her skin while her hand clutches a crack pipe. He is running, looking for drugs.

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The excuses come. They always come.

"Someone stole my bag of clothes. I can’t go without that."
"I want to see my kids first, but visiting hours ain’t for another three hours."
"Only shit they got on X Street is cut cheap. We got to run to Hero City to get the good stuff."
"My ID got torn in a fight last night."

You repeat, “It’s for your kids.”

Finally in your van you drive. Drama erupts. Drama always erupts. “We need our hits.”  The drugs they told you they did before, while you were at the 7-11, they didn’t do.

You pull over. You park your van in a quiet block. You walk up and down while they turn the back of your van into a shooting gallery.

He can’t find a vein. Not a working one. Nerves you know. Fifteen minutes turns into an hour.

You watch planes leave LaGuardia, wondering if the lives of those overhead are as complex as those below.

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Crack is to be smoked, “Not in my fucking van. No smoking.” They smoke in the snow.

Finally. Garbage from the van is collected, bagged, and tossed into a safe place. Wrappers, needles, half eaten pop tarts, cookies, the 7-11 coffee cup, and an old lipstick container.

A stray needle lands in the snow.

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Fifteen minutes more of driving. Fifteen minutes of changing radio stations trying to find a song by Elton John. Her favorite. Fifteen minutes of talking about a cologne, “Derek Jeter Driven.” It is the only thing other than drugs he brings. He clutches it like a pendant. They both put it on. Neither has had a shower in two weeks. That works.

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You get stuck in traffic beside the Bronx Zoo. Stories are told about jacking cars in the Bronx Zoo parking lot. Not by them, but by others they know. “Best place to jack cars in all of the Bronx.”

You pull up to the ER. “Where is the beer? I can’t go in without beer.”

She runs to the bodega and buys three tall boys. One for you, a sweet gesture.

They sit in back trying to write down important numbers on a scrap of paper: Johns, lawyers, and dealers. They argue as they try to remember the numbers. “This paper is all we will have for next three months!”

Three months if the plan works: detox, 28-day rehab, then a mommy and me inpatient program.

A police car flashes its lights, telling you to move on. That finally gets them to spill out of your van.

They say goodbye. She says, “You won’t be seeing me around Hunts Point for a few months. I hate that mother-fucking place. I hate it.”

They become part of the crowd entering the hospital.

You collect yourself, glad for fifteen minutes without drama. You start driving back home.

You open the windows to pull in the fresh air. Doesn’t matter it is 10 degrees. It isn’t Derek Jeter Driven Cologne.

An hour later your phone rings.  You hope it’s not them saying they didn’t get accepted, offering up some excuse. You put the odds of that at fifty fifty.

“Hey man, this is Chino. You called earlier? I was out cold. You need dog food or cat food?”

More on addiction here: Faces of addiction


On Men

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Three years working in Hunts Point with addicts. Three years listening to countless women recount sexual abuse by male relatives. Three years of watching men prowl the streets looking to pay women to suck their dicks. Sometimes getting their dick sucked isn’t enough and they beat the women and rape them. Just for kicks I guess.

Three years of children telling me, “I don’t know who my father is. He ain’t ever been in my life.”

Egypt, her eye blackened by a boyfriend, after listing every man who has raped or beat her answered my question of, “Has any man in your life ever treated you well.” With, “Yes, one has. God.”

Carmela, sexually and physically abused since eight saying, “When did I start prostituting? I always have. I mean I always thought you had to give up your body for food or to find a place to sleep. I never knew it had a fancy name like prostitution till I was like 16. I just knew it as the way a girl lived on the streets.”

Simple crude fact: There are no women driving around Hunts Point looking to pay men to “suck their pussies.”

Simple crude fact: Only a minority of men I know in Hunts Point don’t beat their girlfriends. I mean I only suspect they don’t. Others claim everyone does.

Simple crude fact: A young girl growing up in the neighborhood is often forced to endure a torrent of taunts, stares, yells, grabs, and more disgustingly common than it should ever be, forced sex.

So I get asked. What have I learned in my three years working on my project?

There are many decent men who live in Hunts Point who respect women fully. They are dedicated fathers who work selflessly, take responsibility for their children, and are unfailing polite.

Still many men suck, and the ones who suck cause huge problems that sadly overshadow all else, eclipsing the decent men.

Yes I understand the irony of a white male saying that. Guilt, loathing, call it whatever you want.

I simple see it as a fact that somebody, trained in the sciences like I am, cannot ignore or deny.

PS: I grew up in a very poor white southern town. I saw very similar things taking place. This is not about race. This is about gender.

More on addiction here: Faces of addiction


Stop trying to save people

My piece in the Guardian: Stop trying to save people

Please Share. I don’t ask that often but I really feel strong about this.

"Saving someone" is an arrogant presumption that you know what is best for others. The only person one can save is oneself.

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