A couple weeks ago, in a hurry to meet someone, I passed by one of the few addicts I’ve seen regularly in the northwest corner of Washington Square Park, in fact, enough to have had a few conversations with him. He was passed out on Sixth Avenue, looking close to death.
I had seen him the evening before a couple blocks north, on the steps of the library, appearing to ask for help. I was across the street and started to go toward him to say hi, but he was rambling incoherently and didn’t recognize me, as best I could tell. The first time I met him, last spring, I had been picking up litter and he thanked me. I may have posted about it here. He described himself as a heroin addict, but at least not as far gone as the people on “crack row,” as he called it.
His face then was covered in scabs, I guess because various drugs lead people to pick at their scabs. Over the six months or so since, I spoke to him in the park, I’d seen him riding a bike, and when I walked through crack row picking up litter, we’d give each other more attention than most for our having spoken a few times. I’d ask him if he wanted out, to kick the addiction, but he never seemed to want to.
Seeing him on Sixth Avenue looking close to death evoked compassion. I doubt I could do anything to save him, certainly not passed out as he was. As everyone knows, he’s one case of a culture of addiction. I’m doing the best I can to address that culture. If we don’t change the culture, we can help all the individuals we want, we’ll keep creating more.
Another guy I spoke to a few times I’ve seen descend into utter incoherence. The first time couple times he spoke to me, he was already hard to understand. He’s black and kept talking about how all the other n-words were keeping him down. He wasn’t like them, he told me. For a while he would tell me how he wanted to rise above this mess, at least I think that’s what he was saying, but he never did. Starting out disheveled, he grew more so over the months. I haven’t seen him in a while, but the last times he didn’t recognize me either.
Both of them seemed to lose their humanity, existing as shells, no thought passed the present moment and not experiencing much of the moment either. Still their humanity seemed there, as if behind a fog of incoherence, but that if they could stay clean long enough, the fog would clear and they’d show through. Maybe just wishful thinking on my part.
How different are most of us?
Their loss of humanity and possibly their lives is greater than most other addicts, of, say nicotine, alcohol, or doof, but with the amount of litter from doof packaging, people’s time on cell phones, sales of video games, popularity of binge-television, talk of bucket lists, levels of obesity, heart disease, diabetes, and so on, America looks pretty well addicted.
It may seem overly harsh to compare someone who craves pizza and ice cream enough to consume themselves into disease with heroin addicts, but the more I see people capitulate, resign, and abdicate their civic and social duties to abide by values like 1) Do Unto Others As You Would Have Them Do Unto You, 2) Leave It Better Then You Found It, and 3) Live and Let Live the more similarities I see among all addicts.
The value of knowing junkies
Seeing someone obese or stuck on their cell phone ignoring social interactions around them makes me want to avoid reaching their level of addiction, which is helpful when considering downloading some stupid app, engaging on social media, or considering what to eat for dinner.
Seeing a full-on junkie sleepwalk into incoherence and possibly death clarifies where all addictions have the potential to lead, including doof, social media, flying, and what our culture celebrates motivates me to reject this culture promoting craving and addiction. I live in Manhattan, but I don’t live in 2022 mainstream American culture of resignation, abdication, and capitulation based on addiction. Do you think it’s otherwise? I know there’s plenty, but what’s your evidence of mainstream American culture not resigning to craving? Is it increasing or decreasing.
About culture, not individuals
If it wasn’t obvious, this post is about culture, not individuals. Each person addicted is serious, but at our rates of addiction, any individual just manifests our cultural values. The difference between addiction to legal things like nicotine, gambling, and social media and illegal ones like the junkies I described are quantitative, not qualitative. That is, they lie on one axis with no dividing line between them. Seeing the connection between potato chips (“Bet you can’t eat just one!”) and syringes on the street helps me viscerally dislike and avoid the chips.
[EDIT: Update (October 19): I saw him walking around on Sixth Avenue, fairly lively, so he didn’t die, but he looked pretty high, his body contorted oddly as he walked, but at least he’s alive.]
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