Originally published on my blog “Sawbuck City Chronicles,” February 2, 2008
Eight years ago I began living with, filming, researching, and writing about “junkies” on Chicago’s west side and in Cicero, a highly urban suburb adjacent to Chicago. My first contact with this particular addict community occurred through a health promotion program called the Chicago Recovery Alliance, which provides many street-level services, including sterile syringe exchange.
Soon after becoming a CRA volunteer, the Executive Director asked me to assume the unpaid post “Director of Research.” I readily and happily agreed. That’s how this phase of my “life with junk” began. Since January 2001 I have become a professional junky … a sociologist filmmaker who prefers his “family” of heroin addicts, crackheads, and prostitutes to just about any other group of people. In this blog I will reflect on the days and ways of “dope fiend life” and on how the people I have come to know, to love, and occasionally to detest have figured into my life, and how I have figured into theirs.
On occasion my “friends” will post their own accounts through the poetry, short stories, films, and photographs they create. I want this blog to serve as conduit for their communication to you.
To paraphrase and possibly bastardize William T. Vollmann, I make a living out of putting myself in extreme situations wherein fellow humans face seemingly implacable adverse forces, and then I try to make sense of it all. Only in these moments of shame, degradation, loathing, fear, and defilement am I really able to grasp, understand, or comprehend how humans in general operate as a species endowed with a capacity for moral calculation.
Extreme situations constitute the “laboratory” in which I attempt to learn about the nature, extent and range, typology, application, and distortions of morality. Only here, on these streets, in this “pay by the hour” motel room on Madison Street where I’m currently holed up with two hookers, a copper wire thief, and a strung out heroin dealer, can I begin to make sense of it all.
This is not a subculture. The term “subculture” presupposes, etymologically speaking, the undisputed existence of a primary article, i.e., dominant culture. Not once in my entire sociological career, which admittedly spans only 20 years, have I encountered a satisfactory definition or delineation of the “dominant culture” that we “mainstream” people presumably share.
Culture is an outcome, and it’s a dynamic, ever-changing one at that. It’s the “Y variable” in a regression equation; it’s the dependent variable explainable, they say, via manipulation of theoretically specified independent variables, or factors. Ultimately, culture consists of the over-determined series of adaptions humans mount when dealing with material and symbolic conditions whose existence they cannot eradicate, dismiss, control, or otherwise manipulate. So if there is no single, unifying, overarching or undergirding CULTURE, then there can be no sub-culture.
Finally, the term subculture implies inferiority, or at least subservience. Once you get to know any network, confederation, or community of addicts, you’ll find that their cultural systems have more in common with traditional notions of culture than not. Powerful stakeholders, especially in the media, often work very hard to obscure these similarities, because, let’s face it, the crafting of representations is big business. And in the media, profit lives and breathes on the iron lung of advertising. So the more lurid, caricatured, outrageous, and provocative the representation, the more likely people will consume it. And if they’re consuming the representation, then they’re a captive audience during the break for “station identification and a word from our sponsors.”
A good junky is a horrifying junky. We want to see what we expect to see in representations of junkies and junky culture. But I’m going to spend a fair amount of time and expend significant energy in this blog demonstrating to you how similar the junky and straight worlds really are. In fact, I’ll show you how the junky world not only parallels the straight world but represents a magnification and intensification of the straight world’s fundamental tenets. Put simply, there is a junky in every one of us. Every community and culture bears the seeds of “junkyville.” The world of the junky is our world, laid bare like a desiccated worm on sun-scorched pavement. Junky culture is ugly only to the extent that mainstream culture is hideous.
In room #4 at the Grand Motel, the porn channel runs constantly. The channel knob is lodged in place. A dear friend by the name of Earl Dukuo, a solid Indiana corn-fed fella, sits next to me, fishing for vein in his upper arm with a BD syringe, 1/2″, 28 gauge. Tonight’s delivery: A jab of rock (13 “dime” bags) and 1 full oz. of wholesale-cut (i.e., pretty strong) white powder heroin. Earl threw some Dorman sleeping pills on the dope, stepped it out, bagged up, and now it’s time to test out the product before the customers get here. Earl, Big Hands Lucy, Copper Kyle, and me, 2:30 Dirty (my nickname), are shooting dice, a game called 10,000 … and if you’ve got any experience with crack, you know how soothing that game can be. Okay, gotta roll … I’m up next.