The Northern Kentucky suburb in which I grew up was, at the time, middle class — or perhaps more accurately, working class with middle-class aspirations. Our neighbors included teachers, factory workers, secretaries, car salesmen and grocers — a mix of white and blue collars, a mix of educational levels, a mix of families and kids.
The neighborhood still appears to be that way — I sold my parents’ house to a guy who might not have been old enough to buy a beer, an electrician looking for a place where he could marry his Intended and start a family. I’m glad it worked out that way, but when I think about who we were and who we became, I wonder a little bit about what my neighborhood was, and what I didn’t notice.
My brother’s story of addiction and violence is public record. Two boys lived in the house across the street from ours. The older one was a buddy of mine, though considerably more socially adept and a year ahead of me — he played guitar and we jammed sometimes, and worked together in shared math classes. The younger one was a friend of my brother’s — and has a lengthy record for state and federal crimes, mostly involving drugs or the means to acquire or make them. At last report he had gotten straight; I hope it’s still true. A few months ago, I found out that the girl next door, who was my brother’s age, died within the last couple of years: heroin OD.
Of course, there were a lot of us — really, the majority — from that neighborhood who have turned out OK. Indian Hill Drive wasn’t Panic in Needle Park. And drugs have messed up people from every class and setting, as I’ve also learned over the years. But the problems haven’t gone away, even from my old neighborhood or the neighborhoods like it. They may have grown worse.
Northern Kentucky has a serious heroin problem:
The escalating use of pain pills – and then laws to restrict their use – has lead to the resurgence of heroin, which is trafficked from Mexico to Kentucky, officials have said. For many pain pill addicts, heroin is easier and cheaper to acquire on the streets.
“Northern Kentucky is really the epicenter of the heroin epidemic as far as Kentucky is concerned,” said Bill Mark, director of the Northern Kentucky Drug Strike Force.
“We are where we are in 2014, because the prescription drug abuse, that we experienced in the 1990s and 2000s, created a very large number of individuals who were dependent on opiates,” Mark said.
Like a lot of things, the situation is complicated — see the first quoted paragraph for an example of what I mean. There is no magic solution (which makes a certain bitter sense, as the search for magical solutions to pains originating in the body or soul gets a lot of people into drug trouble in the first pace.) And again, I’m a closer witness to this than I care to be. After the murders, I had to look through my brother’s truck for something — maybe his wedding ring? By then, having gone through the wreckage inside the house (murder scene investigations and searches are not tidy affairs), I had found what a friend told me was the remnants of a crack pipe, and the brillo sometimes used as tinder. So I knew that was part of my brother’s life. But as I rooted through his truck, I found a syringe, which I later turned over to the police. I imagine it was tested — I don’t know. But it wasn’t a hard equation to solve, in any event.
I find myself thinking about all of this today because Kevin Williamson has written an article on the rise in heroin use in America for the new issue of National Review. It’s not an overwhelmingly hopeful article — but then, I wouldn’t expect it to be. It is, however, worth your time. Along the way, Williamson comments on an element of what is almost a liturgical experience for some junkies:
They call it the “red flag.”
Some heroin addicts fall in love with the ritual of shooting up. Some of them have been known to shoot up when they don’t have any heroin, just to feel the calming presence of the needle in the arm. The ritual is familiar enough to anybody who has spent any time in that world: You put the chunk of tar or bit of powder in the spoon, squirt a little water in with the syringe, heat it up to get it to dissolve, drop a little pinch of cotton into the spoon for a filter, pull the heroin solution up through the cotton into the syringe, find a vein — this isn’t always easy, and it gets harder — work the needle in, pull the plunger back . . .
And then, you see it: the red flag, a little flash of blood that gets pulled into the syringe and lets you know that you have found a vein, that you aren’t about to waste your junk on an intramuscular injection that isn’t going to do anything except burn and waste your money and disappoint you and leave you with a heroin blister. Certain addicts become, for whatever reason, almost as addicted to the needle — and addicted to the red flag, to the sight of their own blood being extracted — as to the heroin itself.
And this morning, as I think about too many of the kids in my old neighborhood and the ones like it today, I wonder about red flags of all sorts.