John S. Blake exposes the hypocrisy surrounding the reporting of overdose deaths and goes deep beneath the wrapping of what has been a decades-long issue.
Every Christmas, it’s the same thing: cereal boxes, shopping bags from stores that have nothing for me, and packaging larger than the gifts. She doesn’t give me a clue, doesn’t let me know what’s inside. She wants me to work for what’s inside. She loves to see the anticipation (frustration on my face). But the wrapping—that’s another story. My wife—with the precision of a surgeon—measures, folds, snips, and ties like it’s a form of meditation. She sets a bouquet of colored tissue paper atop shopping bags to fan like peacock tails and places gifts beneath our tree like she’s putting infants to bed. She makes sure all of them can be seen in a photo. All I see on Christmas morning is love. It no longer matters what’s in the packages. I just know—as the coffee brews and my daughter digs through paper for her new phone—my wife loves me.
My last relationship reflected a different story. She’d pull out shopping bags from wherever she got my gifts and toss (seriously) me said gifts—boxes Frisbee-d across the couch, price tags still stuck, gawking at me with the clearance stamps. Back then, when my spine was made of Nerf material and my belly swished a lake of tequila, I believed this was as good as love was going to get. I thought love can only do but so much. I was wrong. It’s not the first time I’ve been wrong. It’s certainly not the last.
I was born—and spent a great deal of my childhood—on the lower-east side of Manhattan. This was long before the posh invaded; before CBGB’s got bathed and dressed into a boutique, long before the chess tables had their torsos torn from their legs and removed from Washington Square Park, before squatters were eradicated from abandoned buildings—Houston Street to 13th, FDR Drive to Bowery—set to be uniformed into lofts for an allegedly better breed of people.
Back when all I wanted to do was swing from chains and a steel seat in Baruch (The Big) Park, the lower east side was the mecca for heroin and stabbings. It was always too dangerous, but where was there to go? It was our park. It wasn’t abnormal to see adults seated on benches, curved, slowly closing, each limb a finger, their bodies becoming fists. Nodding from heroin was such a common sight, people simply ignored it—everyone except me. I couldn’t. My mother bent that way in our living room. My oldest brother bent that way in our back-bedroom. My father would sometimes pick me up, and while we rode the subway, he’d bend and fist, slowly rise, and bend again. It was coextensive to watching flowers bloom and wither, bloom and wither, from spring to autumn and back to spring in a matter of minutes.
By my thirteenth birthday, Ma was in prison, Dad was dying from AIDS, and I lost two siblings to overdoses (both with needles planted like death’s flags in the dirt of their flesh). Meanwhile, I had my first shot of dope. I sat in dopehouses. (Notice I don’t use a hyphen or separate the words dope and houses. It’s a real thing even though it hasn’t made it to the dictionary.) I laid across couch cushions in abandoned buildings off Avenue C and, from floors above the street, I’d watch other junkies—like I was—die, just feet away from me. Sometimes, rarely, they were white. Most of the time they were black, Puerto Rican, or Dominican. Dealers who worked the building couldn’t take the smell, so junkies, just like me, were ordered to grab limp skin and stiffening bones, foaming mouths and twitching tongues, and toss them. And junkies, like me, were tossed out second, third, fourth, and even fifth floor windows, flung into alleys and dumped on brick-piles of demolished structures. Tossed, Frisbee-d across couch cushions and over other nodding bodies. Clearance. They were cheap items an establishment begs its customers to take with them.
Ambulances were more street sweepers than saviors. The police were more price-checkers than protectors; kicking at limbs, turning corpses over, onto their backs to snap photos (or not). Cops may have even bothered to check what was left in a junkie’s pocket for any hopes of identification (or money) or a picture of someone who looked familiar, maybe an address. At least twice per day, we’d hear about a friend, a friend’s friend or relative, or a close relative dead in the street from dope. It was around this time I began noticing things like what my part of the city was wrapped in; chipped paint, steel gated windows on my school, frayed books at our library, more liquor stores than boutiques, more brown meats than pink or red at our supermarket.
Then Crack came, and with it, the crackhouse. (Again, no hyphen. It’s a thing. Trust me. Even though Microsoft isn’t aware by way of their word glossary, even though a red squiggly line shows up on my document, “crackhouse” is a word.) The streets were strewn with glass vials that held product. There were so many vials—carpeting playgrounds and schoolyards, seasoning stairwells and building hallways—walking felt like November, like dead leaves beneath our feet, crunching, shattering our hopes.
Then came the changes. Rents were raised. Residents were evicted. New, wealthier tenants moved in. Paint was no longer chipped. Concrete had been washed. My public school was gutted and doctored into a college prep facility. Graffiti was painted over; names of both survivors and the dead, whitewashed. After finding poetry, and a couple of overdoses of my own, I thought it best to take my then-homeless body to Virginia to stop surviving and maybe learn what it meant to live.
It’s been seven years since I left the lower east side. I’ve been back but only to discover opportunities to grieve. The Chess Shop closed. Some of the handball courts have been flattened. Even paintings by the late Keith Haring on Houston Street are gone. I haven’t been back in a couple of years. I can’t. I just no longer can. With all my curiosity—this desperate need to visit old friends and see how they’ve been—I can’t bear to find out what’s been taken, and what it’s been replaced with.
However, on October 5th, I found out exactly what’s become of my childhood environment. I read an article by Nina Strochlic about another junkie found dead. My first thought was, No shit! It’s the lower east side. And I almost missed it. Had I not had enough coffee, or been awake long enough that morning, or perhaps had too many other items hanging from my mind, I wouldn’t have taken notice.
The first thing that struck me was the picture. The picture had blonde hair and perfect teeth. The smile was pristine. The picture was of a woman from Long Island. She was a doctor. She was a mother. She had these blue eyes wide enough to cradle a stare. I had the hardest time leaving the photo. Something in my skull couldn’t get past the picture because it didn’t go with the article. I thought about the few times in my life when I found an article about another dead junkie. The headline usually read something just above “another dead junkie stinking up the hood” with a snapshot of an orange body bag and a black woman sobbing nearby. Or the photo was a Latinx in Albuquerque or Phoenix or Los Angeles. Or Puerto Rican or Dominican parents crying out for their child. Not this one. No. Where was the body? Why was I staring at a smiling woman? Why wasn’t I gawking at a body bag and a cop’s foot nudging the carcass?
Then came the second wave of puzzlement. The verbiage was some sort of word salad drenched in fat-free, light dressing of delicate description and ginger pity. She wasn’t labeled a junkie or an addict found dead in a dopehouse. She wasn’t Random Woman Dead from Addiction. This was a “Doctor Overdoses at High-Society NYC ‘Cocaine Apartment’ ”.
Then I compromised, At least the death of a junkie made the news. Strochlic wrote this article for The Daily Beast. It’s about time we start talking about addiction. Finally! People are starting to care. Then I continued reading,
“A night of blowing off steam in Manhattan for a visiting mother of three ended tragically on Sunday morning. Kiersten Rickenbach Cerveny was found dead in the doorway of a Manhattan apartment building under mysterious circumstances that have sent a frenzy of rumors flying across the New York tabloids.”
To endure the nausea and oncoming headache took nothing less than a miracle. A rage began warming my face and shoving my blood through my limbs. How euphemistic. How absolutely careful each word was placed, like bows and ribbons, like tissue in an array of hues. How priceless the packaging for a vulgar display of hypocrisy. The love shown by America’s media to white victims of drug addiction is unfathomable. It’s unfathomable because, for decades, I witnessed, heard about, and grieved human beings who pressed their own hearts flat with coke, bent their bodies into their own cold plots with heroin, drank themselves into aspiration while passed out, and there wasn’t a cruel word—let alone a kind one—for any of them by any media outlet.
White America doesn’t care about the struggles of poor people of color. We, as a nation, need to admit this before any social change can happen. Before I can be asked to soften to a puddle of sympathy for a wealthy white woman who crossed the tracks for a walk on the lower east side and died, someone has to name every one of the thousands of neighbors, kin, and random children who lost their lives because this country didn’t care enough to shed a tear.
After thousands of addicts that surrendered their breaths to chemical dependency—addicts that were humans first, someone’s children, spouses, and parents—who were never given any benefit of journalistic doubt; countless people that succumbed to compulsivity, suddenly a reporter comes to the defense of one junkie’s character? Suddenly, the police have an “ongoing investigation”? Suddenly, the biography of the junkie is necessary for the article?
Then, after researching, I noticed the overdose of this junkie was serious news:
“Long Island Doctor, Mother of 3, Found Dead After Night Out in City” —New York Magazine
Jen Chung, writing an article about the “doctor” for the Gothamist, went so far as to inform the world, “A fund will be established for the college education of [her] three beautiful children.”
Isn’t that beautiful? How compassionate the world—seemingly overnight—became. Not a drug binge, but rather “letting off steam” or “a night of partying” or “hanging out with friends”.
Oh, the love America has for the epitomic standard of beauty; white, blonde, blue-eyed. Oh, the compassion asked of us for the doctor, the pageant-winner, the … victim?
Understand when I say, this isn’t news. What I mean is, this isn’t a shock. This isn’t anything new to anyone who understands NYC. This isn’t anything new to the black and Puerto Rican communities in Alphabet City.
So why was this considered news? ’Cause pretty, rich, white women who gave birth to children and won pageants and went to college shouldn’t die from drugs? ’Cause it’s not a tragedy when poor, unattractive (to you) people of color die from drugs?
Let me first say that addiction is a struggle for millions of Americans. Bottom line is, if we were to post news stories when every junkie overdosed, there’d be no time whatsoever for the weather or sports or world news or anything else. My heart goes out to this woman’s family. Her children are now motherless. However, what makes this woman’s story any more spectacular than the millions (yes, millions) of other junkies that have died? That she was pretty? How about wealthy? How about white? Not a crackhouse, dopehouse, or traphouse (another real thing without a hyphen) … “Cocaine apartment”? “Chelsea residence”?
The greatest tragedy is this tell-all white privileged perspective on another dead junkie in New York. My father took his last breath from a disease President Reagan couldn’t voice around.
Recently, Katharine Q. Seelye wrote an article for The New York Times, “In Heroin Crisis, White Families Seek Gentler War on Drugs”. And ain’t that some shit? No kidding? Now that all the neglect, all the eyes tightly closed to suffrage in ghettos, all those sealed ears to cries from black and brown communities nationwide, white people need something. While black and Latinx areas were burning to the ground from lighters under crackpipes and spoons that cooked pools of dope, those same backs are feeling the heat but claiming to see the light.
The NYT’s article quotes Michael Botticelli, Director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, “better known as the nation’s drug czar,” who had the nerve to say, “Because the demographic of people affected [now] are more white, more middle class, these are parents who are empowered …. They know how to call a legislator, they know how to get angry with their insurance company, they know how to advocate. They have been so instrumental in changing the conversation.”
And I’m calling BULLSHIT! I have to. The narrow idea that people of color haven’t pleaded with politicians, the absolutely shortsighted perspective that black and brown communities just sat there, pissing away their families and flushing their futures down the toilet only to shrug and keep it moving is astonishing.
I was there, 1975, in my crumbling living room, bearing witness to my mother’s pleas with emergency numbers and schoolteachers, drug programs and federal welfare representatives, police and pastors, begging for someone to save my then nineteen-year-old brother, begging white people to come to the ghetto and get her son, to help him. I’ve sat in church basements and heard recovering addicts, rocking in exquisite pain as they withstood detoxification, share stories of insurance companies and rehabilitation centers that were only concerned with down-payments, deductibles, and bottom lines.
Seelye quotes a white father who lost his daughter, “When I was a kid, junkies were the worst …. I used to have an office in New York City. I saw them. … [now] they’re working right next to you and you don’t even know it. They’re in my daughter’s bedroom — they are my daughter.”
And after offering my sincerest of condolences—because I know all-too well how to bury an addict and sit with embers in my gut wondering why this country wouldn’t move in a more healing direction—I have to insist that junkies always looked exactly like his beautiful daughter; with beating hearts and amazing minds full of potential, eyes to gaze into with hopes of peeking at their dreams, and bodies to embrace, and foreheads to kiss goodnight.
This is a remix of the Tuskegee Experiment; we have now concluded that white bodies also wither and bloom during heroin nods. White bodies, too, jitter and convulse with enough crack. White bodies deserve dignity and our deepest sympathy when they surrender to narcotics; just like bodies with more melanin in their skin.
If only White America stopped being so hopelessly white. If only people of color—enduring the needles and broken crackpipes (again, no hyphen) strewn about their own streets—were seen as equal generations ago … then maybe the good doctor would still be kissing her children before heading to the office. Maybe this father’s daughter would still be alive. If only we unpacked white privilege. If only we put an end to our miserable, five-century-long tradition of considering race and income as a factor when it comes to how our society loves its citizens. Maybe, instead of only five years sober, I’d never have gotten high in the first place. Maybe all these new white additions to the death toll would be here, shining like new gifts, positioned for presentation as the new day’s sun brings celebration. Maybe, just maybe my entire family would be here instead of having to be remembered in this pitiful essay.