It’s the end of the day, but I didn’t want to turn in without telling you about a story I first read this morning, but haven’t been able to forget about. Chris Arnade — follow him on Twitter — writes a piece for The Guardian based on his visit to Portsmouth, Ohio — a small city devastated by drugs. It used to be a manufacturing town. Then the factories left. Now it’s Rust Belt ruin, and narcotics. Read:
On my first night in town, a beat-up car parks next to me, positioned in the darkness cast by my van. The passenger, a middle-aged woman, injects the driver in the neck. He stays still, head tilted to expose a vein, as she works the needle in, while two young boys play in the back seat.
Done, they pull away as I try to fool myself into thinking I didn’t see what I saw.
For six days in Portsmouth, over three trips, I keep trying to fool myself. Eventually, I am unable to just watch and listen.
He sees a homeless young couple pushing around their two children in a shopping cart as they beg for money. He calls them “James” and “Meghan,” and talks to them:
I continue to see them over the next few days along a commercial strip, Meghan standing by the side of the road holding her sign, staring straight ahead, her expression vacant, while James pushes the cart with the kids in it, collecting bottles and cans. Sometimes he stops to let them play.
One afternoon I run into him in the McDonald’s bathroom, filling plastic bottles with water to clean his children.
Outside I ask him more questions about his situation, and he tells me his history with drugs. “I was born in Portsmouth and raised around drugs. Everyone used them. My father drank, and I started drinking when I was a teenager. Then started Percocets when I was 19. Then I moved to the harder stuff like Oxy 80s, then heroin.” I ask him if he still uses drugs, “No, I don’t. Well, only Suboxone [an opioid medication used to treat opioid addiction]. I buy it from the street since I don’t have a prescription.”
Most drivers ignore the family. Police pass without stopping. One woman drops off two slabs of bottled water, and a minister inquires about their condition, but otherwise they are unseen. I think about calling child protective services, but it is clear James cares and is attentive. I also assume I am missing part of their story. Surely others have called. Perhaps others have inquired more than I have. Perhaps things are more complicated than what I see.
Besides, there is so much visible pain in Portsmouth, it is hard to focus on any one situation.
Later, Arnade meets and interviews Kim, a beautiful young woman, only 19 years old, recovering from heroin addiction. She lives with her grandmother Vickie, who has had custody of her since she was one. Kim had her first child at age 15. She now has two. More:
[Vickie] is retired after 28 years as a cook in the school system. When I ask if there are drugs around, she laughs. “Oh honey, yes, this is Portsmouth. This is the armpit of Ohio.” She points to the neighborhood. “Everything around here is dope-town. Xanies, Oxys, meth, we got it all. Nothing for kids here. When I was young we had dances at the community centers. Now they have nothing. No work around here unless you are a nurse, or a doctor, or lawyer.”
Vickie doesn’t do drugs (“except for my smokes”), and so she has become the de facto mother for an entire neighborhood, a calm center in a tornado. That tornado eventually pulled Kim in. “When I adopted Kimberly, I promised her mom I would keep her in her life. Biggest mistake I made.”
Kim gets up to chase after a child and comes back. “I would go hang out at my mom’s trailer, with all my cousins. We would play there, spend evenings there. It is where my mom got me on heroin. At 13. My mom was doing it. Everyone was doing it. I wanted to do it because I thought it would be fun.”
You’ve got to read the whole thing — especially for the ending. What would you have done in that situation?
This is our country today.
I wonder what the people of Portsmouth, Ohio, have to say about whether or not Donald Trump’s job should be at risk for what he supposedly said to James Comey.
UPDATE: A reader writes:
I just wanted to take a moment to thank you for your article about Portsmouth, Ohio. I’ve lived in the Portsmouth area for my entire life (I’m 35). I’ve been a daily reader of your blog for the last 2 or 3 years.
This area needs all the help it can get. In a lot of ways, living here makes you feel like you’re cut off from the rest of America. Change happens all around the country, but nothing ever changes here. Not for the better. Things just slowly get worse. The stories that are told in the Guardian article have been realities for as long as I can remember. I remember friends discovering drugs in middle school and becoming burnouts in high school. I’ve found needles lying in my front yard while cutting grass. I’ve seen police raid the house across the street. I have friends and family members that are in and out of rehab or have died from overdoses. Recently, I found someone lying in a parking lot with her eyes rolled back into her head and had to call an ambulance. I suspect she had overdosed as well.
I don’t want you to think it’s all bad, though. There are good people here. Many are trying to help out, but it’s hard. The drug problem is overwhelming. It touches everyone. Good jobs are scarce and there is a constant threat of layoffs, leaving most people to struggle to take care of their own families. I know of several instances where grandparents are taking care of their grandchildren because the birth parents were addicts. The story that J.D. Vance tells in Hillbilly Elegy is common here.
There are good churches in the area too, but the congregations are dwindling. Most of the people my age or younger leave for Cincinnati, Columbus, or Dayton as soon as they graduate college if they are able. This leaves a large generational gap in the local congregations. The majority of the people are either retired or nearing retirement age. But many are active in the community. Our small church has people involved in visitation, rehab, and foster care. Some of the younger couples have adopted children whose parents were involved in drugs. We all want to make a difference, but it’s hard when our resources are so limited.
As far as Trump is concerned, I don’t think anyone here really cares about the events that transpired between him and Comey. Like I said before, issues like that seem so distant from us that they may as well be happening in another country. If anything, most people simply hoped that he would bring jobs back to the area. I think many of us knew that wasn’t going to happen. It never happens. But there was a sense of optimism during and after the election. That’s gone now. Personally, I have never believed that the president or the federal government was going to solve our problems. Since I’ve graduated high school, both a Republican and a Democratic president have been in office for two consecutive terms and nothing has changed. Like J.D. Vance, I don’t know the answer to the riddle of my community, but I do think the solution is going to have to come from the community itself.
I apologize for rambling on longer than I should have. I had intended to keep this short. Again, I thank you and the author of the Guardian article so much from bringing us to the attention of a national audience. It gives me great hope that people are starting to notice the problems that we face. I hope that God uses this to bring help to our community.
UPDATE.2: Sam M.:
Rod, you blogged earlier about the piece in the NYT Magazine about the rise of polyamory. New York Magazine has an interesting supplement to that. It’s a review about a memoir in which a middle-aged woman discovers that she can act like a lecherous middle-aged man:
This is seen as a huge victory. In a sense it acts as an extended restatement of the Law of Merited Impossibility. “Nothing about your marriage is going to change based on what other people do. But when it does your open marriage in which it’s OK to make out with short story writers from California will be awesome!” Like year health plan? You can keep your health plan!
This is not an argument for or against gay marriage. Rather, it simply reaffirms your continued insistence that the culture moves in broad, glacial shifts we cannot predict. Elites, like the lady mentioned here, are almost completely insulated from the more dire impacts of a consumerist approach to morality and family life. But other people are not.
Sorry, Portsmouth, Ohio. Sorry about your Mountain Dew mouth and your meth addiction and your dire family straits. On the bright side, when you use drugs you can be accepted for who you are, including your imperfections. Which is great!
Just stay out of my neighborhood, you know, because the Dean at Pierson College at Yale let me know that you don’t know squat about Japanese ice cream treats. Loser! Enjoy your freedom from the patriarchy, though!