Chris Arnade Photography

Hunts Point Clean

(Debra in Brownsville)

Debra called me over. She was sitting on the doorstep of an abandoned building in Brownsville: a quite space just off a busy commercial street. A gorgeous old solid building, probably once a bank, now mostly boarded up. A makeshift shelter to the otherwise homeless. 

She said quietly, politely, and with a hint of a southern accent,  “I need to ask you a question.  When you pan for gold, like they did with Lewis and Clark, when you exchanged that gold, did they swap it or get money. How did that exchange go?” Her next question was equally nonsensical, and had to do with the Texas and I believe Cellos.

I sat next to her and shifted the conversation, asking, “Tell me your story.”  “Well I was born to Debra and Jimmy Hendrix 46 years ago here in Brownsville. My first memory, I was under the breakfast table as my parents ate. Michael Jackson was on the radio, playing that song ABC, and I was sitting there singing it. I wouldn’t stop. I kept running around the house singing that song. Soon everyone was calling me that. ABC. Was named that up through high school. Then things started going wrong. My daddy died and my mommy committed me. They said I was schizophrenic. When I got out I got the disability that sustains me now.”

She then asked me for some money. “I need just ten dollars. Just ten. I need new clothes and am hungry.” I told her I would buy her a sandwich at the deli, but she said, “No, I ain’t that hungry, just need clothes.” I asked if she did drugs, “No. I don’t do the drugs. I don’t do anything. I used to, but I ain’t anymore.”  

I have learned the symptoms: The need for exactly $10, the covered up arms, the tiny pupils, and the comatose and gentle talk that comes from heroin.

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 the addict Michael 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 the can control when and how. Social shooters.

I thought of this when I met up with Deshawn on Friday. She had disappeared from Hunts Point about six months ago, so I was happy to get a call from her.  I have heard some rough stories in Hunts Point; Deshawn’s is perhaps the roughest. Here is what I wrote after first meeting her:

Deshawn, 36, ran away from her heroin-addicted mother and abusive stepfather at 11, and ended up on the streets of Hunts Point. She and her cousin, at the time 13, slept wherever they could, and then moved in to a crack house. Barbara calls Deshawn her baby daughter, saying “these two tiny girls just showed up in Hunts Point with nothing, and we other women tried to look after them, but we were all struggling. We made them family.”

Deshawn started using crack at 16, and has been doing it since. After being raped five times, she bought a gun. “I never had to use it, thank God.” When I asked why she fled home at 11, she paused for the first time, looked at me, and said, “it’s really hard for me to go there,” before breaking down in tears.

When I asked her what her dream was, she said “to get out of this place—to be happy and in peace—but it’s all I know. I believe God got better plans for me. I really do.”

(Deshawn)

She had realized part of her dream, “to get out of this place.” She had been in Philadelphia, in rehab and in the hospital.  Now she was back in Hunts Point, back to where she fled from an abusive family to a lifestyle of abuse by necessity.  Back to the only place Deshawn knows as a home, the place where she forged a street family.

We talked and smoked in my van as a massive storm unleashed its rain; she told again of her past, but more importantly, spoke about the future and her new boyfriend.  Rehab had moved her outlook forward.  Yet she was still in Hunts Point. Her call to me had come from her “brothers” cell phone, an addict.

I want Deshawn to succeed in being clean, not Hunts Point clean, but real clean

Living in Hunts Point, surrounded by her friends, most of them addicts is not going to keep her clean. Real clean means not being dropped right back in the cauldron that chewed you up and almost broke you. Real clean means getting a support network that is not itself immersed in drugs, it means living in a place where there are jobs, it means having a real family that can help you, not a family that fucked you.

That is the difference between being an addict in Hunts Point or Brownsville and an addict in Upper East Side. Each has an awful disease, addiction cut 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?


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