I admire rich people who do something creative with their money instead of just buying more stuff.
Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappo, lives in Las Vegas and brought his company there, then started what’s known as the Downtown Project, which uses $350 million of his own money to revitalize what was the town’s main street before The Strip — this roughly in the 1930s, I’m told.
I was just in Las Vegas briefly and stumbled upon this project on Fremont Street. What I saw amounts to transforming the town’s first motels, which had become hooker and parolee hangouts, into small mini malls, keeping the motels’ structures and improving the signs, and renting the rooms to microentrepreneurs with business ideas: photo galleries, sound studios, pottery, cafes, vegan foods, etc.
Nevertheless it is beginning to bear fruit, and what I saw looked fantastic. The Ferguson Motel is now one such mall, with a cafe dug out of the patio, a restaurant at street level, and a dozen or so small businesses in what used to be motel rooms.
Of course, several motels are boarded and fenced up and waiting their own transformation, I suspect.
But the whole thing is beyond cool and creative. Nothing to do with gambling, either.
Hsieh, by the way, lives in a trailer park behind one of these motels, that is packed with tiny houses and Airstream trailers (Those who know me will know I believe Airstreams are the coolest vehicles ever made and remember that among the first stories I ever did as a journalist were those I wrote about the Wally Byam Caravan Club International’s annual Airstream convention in Boise, Idaho in 1986, while I was an intern at the Idaho Statesman that summer.)
Anyway, here are some of the shots I took while I was there.
In 1998, while I was living in Mexico, I had an encounter with the LeBaron clan, which has been in the news lately due to the massacre of family members in the state of Sonora, apparently at the hands of drug traffickers.
At the time, I was working on a story about the agricultural Valley of San Quintin, south of Ensenada in Baja California. I had noticed a highway sign – “Zarahembla” — on my bus trips up and down the valley.
Young Mormon missionaries on the bus one day spoke of it in frightened terms. The place was tainted, they said, by heresy and murder, excommunication and polygamy, and they were warned to keep away from it. Others said that was long ago; many people simply didn’t know the history.
So one day I got off the bus at the highway sign and walked a couple miles down into the community and introduced myself to Zarahembla’s patriarch, Fernando Castro.
Castro was 82, the last apostle of the LeBarons’ annointed messiah, Joel LeBaron. Castro had six wives, 42 children and an unknown number of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He told me he stopped counting at 126.
He was a frail man, with large spectacles perched on his nose and a mustache of white whiskers curving around his mouth. He had children in Utah, Minnesota, Colorado, Phoenix, San Diego, Washington. Most of them were construction workers. Joel LeBaron had been also his son-in-law, father to Castro’s grandson — Jose Fernando LeBaron.
Castro lived isolated in the desert and entirely according to his religious beliefs. Baja California was where Oaxacan Indians, Sinaloans, lapsed Catholics were remaking themselves and forgetting their pasts. New Protestant churches along the peninsula highway, built from concrete block and slapped with white or blue or yellow paint, were signs of that rebirth.
This is what Fernando Castro did.
He told me the story of Joel LeBaron and the LeBaron clan. Suffice to say the LeBarons were polygamists in Utah who believed the oldest son, Joel, was the messiah returned to earth. The Mormon Church excommunicated them and the family and its followers fled Utah to northern Mexico. Their first outpost was in Chihuahua. But as years passed, they had Castro lead a band of followers west to colonize Baja California. They named that outpost Zarahembla – from a larger ancient city that Mormons believe once existed in the Americas.
Several years later, Joel LeBaron was murdered, in a story out of Cain and Abel, by his brother Ervil, who was jealous and believed that he was the messiah. The killing took place on a street in Ensenada in the 1970s. Without a messiah, the LeBaron utopia screeched to a halt. Castro followed his prophet’s vision and stayed at it, the faithful apostle. The bad water, the wind and murder blew away the other pilgrims and twisted Joel LeBaron’s utopia into something more like the real world, where dreams are scorned and killed. Castro lingered on over the next decades.
When I met him, he lived in a concrete block home, painted a fading yellow. Off in the distance was a grove of olive trees, stunted for lack of water. He said Joel LeBaron’s dream was to have a community free of hate and racism. Part of that dream of peace was to grow trees in the desert.
Castro was only 5’9”, still he towered over his three youngest wives, who each measured about 5 feet—quiet and sweet women who spoke Spanish with slight Indian accents and whom he met in the villages near his hometown of Atlixco in the state of Puebla. His first three wives had left the compound years before and lived in Colonia LeBaron in Chihuahua, he said.
The house stood on the basin of a desert valley, a windy plain of sandy and milk-chocolate earth that covered wide streets. Roosters’ crows occasionally caromed across the valley, breaking the calm. There were cacti planted in rows, homes of concrete, with column and arcing doorways, tire carcasses and an occasional junked car.
It was the kind of desert place where families came once to stake a future; some left and their homes stood vacant and incomplete for years, good ideas that didn’t quite work out and instead become blank canvases for midnight graffitiers.
He reproached me not being married or having children. “Who will populate your planet with you when you die?” he asked. I allowed that I didn’t know and we changed the subject. I met his wives, children, grandchildren. We spoke about a lot – about Joel LeBaron’s death and other things.
He told me to visit the colony in Chihuahua, but I never did. Work took me elsewhere.
The last I saw of Fernando Castro, he was waving me goodbye as I walked back to the highway to catch a bus. I suspect he died many years ago now. But he was a nice and generous man to me.
It’s a bizarre tale involving the importing of an entire Russian orchestra after the end of the Cold War, and fans who acted like guerrilla warriors, fighting in DIY style to establish a beachhead for their music amid the techno, disco and ranchero.
It also involves Mercedes Quinonez, who had tried all her life to find classical voice instruction in Tijuana, only to find it too late, when she was 51. A poignant tale that I’ll never forget. (See photo below.)
Today, opera and classical music are part of the town. Growing from it all, there are today youth orchestras in some of the toughest barrios in Tijuana. (Listen to a radio story I did for LA’s radio station KCRW.)
Opera in Tijuana struck me as completely out of place with the city’s fame and reputation as a town of sin and late-night drunkenness.
But I took opera as a sign of how the town was evolving, with a middle class, an optimism, and an energy — the three of which were hard to find in combination in cities in other parts of Mexico.
That’s why I’ve spent so much time paying attention to it.
Many years ago I also did a report for NPR with my Mexico City colleague Franc Contreras about the phenomenon in Tijuana, which you can listen to here.
There’s also an annual Opera Street Festival in July that is a fantastic event, taking place 150 yards from the border wall, in Colonia Libertad, a place known more for its immigrant smugglers and the artisans who make Tijuana’s plaster Mickey Mouse statues.
Four years ago today, April 15, Dreamland was released after a lot of work, interviews, travel, and endless revisions.
At the time, my family and I thought the book would fail and fade quickly because throughout my research I found people – families mostly – very reluctant to talk. This issue remained largely hidden, though I judged it to be the country’s worst drug scourge.
But those families were ashamed, mortified that loved ones were addicted, and thus they kept silent.
In the four years since Dreamland came out, I’ve been thrilled to watch awareness of the problem spread, and the response to the book grow every year more intense.
Media outlets now devote large pieces to it.
Families now speak publicly about it, instead of staying in the shadows. Their obituaries are more likely nowadays to tell the truth. That’s healthy for those families, and for the country.
Politicians have expanded budgets and enacted new policies to fight this problem.
Opiate addiction is now recognized as one of the top issues facing the country, which is where it should always have been.
When I was writing Dreamland, there were three lawsuits against drug companies. Today, there are some two thousand plaintiffs: counties, towns, Native tribes, Attorneys General, and more.
So I wanted to take a moment to thank all of you who have read Dreamland, who’ve passed it around, read it for book groups or in classes, gave it as gifts, pestered co-workers to read it, and talked about it endlessly.
Thanks, too, to elected officials who have used it to shape policy, doctors who’ve used the book to inform their practices, families who’ve gone public, and podcasters for sharing it.
As I’ve spoken all over this country — more than 200 times since the book came out — I’ve realized how important word-of-mouth has been.
I have cherished the chance to speak to so many kinds of groups: public health nurses, judges, drug counselors, coroners, librarians, doctors, legislators. And more.
I’ve especially loved the chance to visit small towns where I assume authors don’t often show up: Tiffin, Bluffton, Leadville, Hendersonville, Whitewater, Whitehall, Marion, Peoria, Van Wert, Springfield, Newark, York, Worchester, Jeffersonville, Chico, Morehead, Mishiwaka, Spartanburg, Simi Valley, Greensboro, Scottsburg, Chillicothe, Grosse Pointe, Ashtabula, Marysville, and others.
I want to thank all the folks who helped me with the book when they didn’t have a clue who I was. Especially the good people of Portsmouth, Ohio, where I kept on showing up to listen to stories of pill mills, of a beloved swimming pool, and finally, of recovery.
There’s still a long way to go in all this.
The numbers of deaths remain staggeringly high. Each one reflects crushed families and friends. I think a lot about them as I’m on the road. I meet them everywhere, though I often don’t know what to say, or whether what I say is of any help. So I tend to do a lot of hugging.
One crucial issue is convincing insurance companies to reimburse for pain treatment that does not involve opioid painkillers. This would allow doctors to fashion a more holistic array of treatment for chronic-pain patients, instead of just cutting them off from the pills and forcing them, cruelly, into the black market.
A Young Adult version of Dreamland will come out this summer, which I hope will allow high school teachers to guide students in understanding, discussing, and, who knows, taking action in their communities.
I’m working now on a follow up to Dreamland, which will chart the epidemic and all that’s happened surrounding it in the last several years.
All that is to come.
For now, I’m shaking my head at the long amazing trip that Dreamland has been so far, and my family and I thank all of you who read it for allowing the book to play a role in our national story and yours.
Jo Martin is a retiree from the corporate world who now removes tattoos from the skin of people for whom the inked hieroglyphics mark lives of addiction and crime they are trying to escape.
I met Martin when I was recently in Northern Kentucky.
A few years ago, with her children grown, Martin was tutoring jail inmates, most of whom were repeat offenders and long-time drug addicts. A friend told her about a priest in Los Angeles working with gang members.
Father Greg Boyle had begun Homeboy Industries, which offered paths out of gang membership, the friend said. Boyle was speaking at a university in Ohio, so Martin went to see him.
She was especially taken by Homeboy’s tattoo removal service, she told him. Every jail inmate she tutored had them, and the stains were impediments not just to them getting work and renting apartments, but in fully leaving behind a damaging way of life.
Some part of why people remained in addiction seemed to have to do with their tattoos, she said. The markings served to keep them mired in crime and drugs, pulling them back even when their intentions were good. Removing the ink, on the other hand, seemed to imply a commitment from which there was no turning back.
She emailed Boyle later to find out more. “Come to California,” he wrote back. She went, toured Homeboy Industries and saw the organization’s tattoo removal operation.
She returned to Northern Kentucky and formed a tattoo-removal nonprofit, Tattoo Removal Ink. Using the life insurance her late husband had left her, she spent $55,000 on a laser machine – an Astanza Duality – that removes tattoos of black and red ink.
Astanza sent people to train Martin in using the machine. “Never in my life had I touched a laser,” Martin told me. “None of us knew how, but it’s very doable. To practice, we did a whole bunch of people who weren’t incarcerated, charging them nothing.”
In 2016, from a small office, Martin and two nurses began removing tattoos of those leaving the jail where she used to tutor – with particular emphasis on those on the face, neck and hands, as well as the markings of gang membership, and the tattoos pimps apply to brand their prostitutes.
Soon she began to see the bizarre – the man with a Hannibal Lecter mask tattooed across his lower face. Another with a dotted line tattooed down the middle of his face, with one side of his face clean, then other mightily tattooed.
“We take a lot of swastikas off,” she said. “And teardrops.”
Caught between a torment of a wife and a storm of a mother, with a spinal birth defect that created lifelong pain, an alcohol habit that grew ferocious, to which he and others then added pills of all kinds, and an unmerciful road schedule that pinned him to events every night for months and ground him out like a spent cigarette.
Hard to know which of all that played the biggest part in killing him.
And still he wrote, mostly while on the road. His songs defined country music and spoke simply to folks. He took their titles often from conversations. “You’re gonna change or I’m a gonna leave” “You win again” and others were lines he heard spoken.
He referred to himself often in the third person, as “Ole Hank.”
But he was only 29 when he died.
One beautiful character who emerges in his story is Ernest Tubb, a rock to whom Hank turned often during his constant marital problems with Audrey, whom Chet Flippo portrays as a conniving, money-grubbing plague on Williams’ life – not that Hank didn’t contribute to the disaster that was their marriage. Tubb was by contrast sober, wise, and had learned to manage the country music life in a way that Hank never did.
So, too, an almost-was singer named Braxton Schuffert, who turned his back on the music business and devoted himself to his family back in Shreveport and his job delivering for Hormel Meats. Apparently a talented singer, Schuffert saw the life his friend was leading and didn’t want that for himself, though Hank was often urging him to move to Nashville, offering to get him on the Opry, plying him with songs he’d written. Sounds like Schuffert had a career waiting for him if he’d wanted it. Hank visited him every time he went to Shreveport and Schuffert seemed one of the few in Hank’s life who cared for the singer, but took him as a cautionary tale, no matter how big and famous he got.
The last few months of Hank’s life are painful to read. Constantly drunk or stoned, incontinent, weak and bone thin, plied pills and morphine by a quack ex-felon he hired as his personal physician, divorced from Audrey whom he still loved and hated, banned from the Grand Ole Opry, missing his son Bocephus, barely remembering the words to his own songs, on stage hanging onto a microphone stand, marrying a young country girl three times on the same day, twice in front of legion of paying fans, not remember any of it.
Clearly a man in need of serious addiction and pain treatment, both, and a long break from the road.
The incredible thing is during those last months he wrote Your Cheatin’ Heart, Jambalaya, Settin’ the Woods on Fire and I’ll Never Get out of This World Alive– each one a country classic. It’s not even clear he ever performed Your Cheatin’ Heart live.
He was dying for days before he passed, which he did on New Year’s Eve, 1952 in a Cadillac taking him to a show in Canton, OH. He was only discovered so by his driver, who stopped in Oak Hill, WV, lost and unsure which highway to take to Ohio.
In the back seat lay Hank Williams, cold to the touch. In his hand was a slip of paper with a shard of a song that he composed, likely to his ex-wife, minutes before he died.
“We met, we lived, and dear we loved, then comes that fatal day, the love that felt so dear fades far away.
Tonight one hathe one alone and lonesome, all that I could sing. I you (sic) you still, and always will, but that’s the poison we have to pay.”
Not long ago, in eastern Tennessee, I had the chance to record a conversation with Isabel Workman.
Isabel is an elementary school teacher who, along with her husband, adopted two children born to different mothers, but both dependent on opiates.
She and I had a poignant chat about one of the most lacerating byproducts of the opiate-addiction epidemic in America: the rise in infants born with Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome, essentially in withdrawals from drugs, these days mostly from narcotics.
That in turn has overwhelmed the foster-children agencies. Many are being raised by their grandparents, while others are being adopted by couples like Isabel and her husband. Without these folks, the country would be in even more serious trouble.
All across America this is increasing, but Eastern Tennessee is one place where it’s felt with special intensity.
Our conversation lasts slightly less than 25 minutes (piano by my daughter).
The other day, I was out in Pomona – 40 miles east of Los Angeles — and took a swing by what was once one of the region’s most notorious parks.
In south Pomona, it was for years officially called Madison Park, but known to everyone around as Sharkie Park. The 12th Street gang, which dates to the 1940s, had its territory nearby, took the nickname the Sharkies and used the park as its main hangout.
Gang members who killed were allowed to get a shark tattoo. They feuded famously and endlessly with Cherryville, another Pomona neighborhood gang. They were among four Pomona gangs targeted last year by a federal task force in Operation Dirty Thirds.
Today, the park is an emblem of how gang culture has retreated in Southern California.
Madison (Sharkie) Park was rechristened Tony Cerda Park, for a local Chicano activist. From Facebook, I’m seeing that it occasionally has exercise classes. Police I spoke with can’t remember the last shooting there — a remarkable fact. Indeed, the park was quiet, with only an elderly fellow riding by on a bike.
I spent some time driving around 12th Street and I found what I’ve found in other once-notorious gang neighborhoods.
No one hanging out. No graffiti.
Blank walls everywhere. The only sign that graffiti was once there is what appears to be a floodwaters stain about seven feet high, which is about as high as gangsters could reach with a spray can. It’s where wall owners, or the city, had to paint up to to cover the graffiti.
After that, the wall slightly changes color. You can see this in these pictures.
This is the new sign of Southern California’s change – this floodwater look, as if seven feet of water was once here and has receded. (Beneath it, you can bet, are layers and layers of graffiti alternating with beige or white paint, going back decades.)
You see this everywhere. It’s a hopeful mark. It means that the scourge that once drowned working-class neighborhoods has departed.
I have no idea if Pomona 12th Street still exists and, if so, in what form; nor do I know what’s happened to their feud with Cherryville. I can say that whatever they’re up to, they no longer are visible on the streets where they gained their reputation. So homeowners no longer have to invest in painting over their graffiti.
Southern California still has some pockets where gangs are an issue. But they’re the exception now.
My dad died early Friday morning. He was a great father, loved his boys fiercely, a beloved and tempestuous literature professor at Claremont McKenna College, a husband, scholar and author.
I’m only beginning to understand how much I’ll miss him.
Here’s my obituary for him, which I’ve submitted to the newspaper in our hometown:
Ricardo J. Quinones, a long-time Claremont resident and retired comparative literature professor at Claremont McKenna College, has died from complications of a many-year struggle with Parkinson’s Disease.
Prof. Quinones was also founding director of the Gould Center for Humanistic Studies at the college, which now has a distinguished lectureship in his name. For several years, he served on the board of directors of the National Council for the Humanities, appointed in 2004 by President George W. Bush.
He died in hospice care at his home in West Los Angeles on Jan. 25, 2019. He was 83.
Prof. Quinones and his young family arrived in Claremont in an old Buick station wagon in 1963, straight out of Harvard University, where he earned his PhD under renowned literary scholar Harry Levin.
Over the years he became a fixture on the small, growing campus, a beloved teacher for generations of students, in love with his subject. He was chosen Professor of the Year in the mid-1970s. He was also at times a tempestuous figure. He protested the Vietnam War, supported the Civil Rights Movement, loved Robert F. Kennedy and voted for George McGovern.
Years later, with increasing encounters with a stifling political correctness in academia, his politics veered away from the Democratic Party, believing it had left him, though his favorite presidents remained Harry Truman and John Kennedy.
He was one of the first presidents of the Association of Literary Scholars, Critics, and Writers – which formed in 1994 in opposition to the politicization of debate in the humanities and as an alternative to the Modern Language Association, the mainstream organization of literature scholars.
Through it all, he loved reading and literature and all kinds of stories, baseball and basketball, movies, especially gangster movies, and The Godfatherabove all. He was as delighted by Bird and Magic as he was by T.S. Eliot and King Lear. During the 1963 move to Claremont, he entertained his then-two young sons with the stories of Odysseus, and his office was a famous chaos of books and papers piled in seemingly incoherent stacks, in a filing system only he could decipher.
In his long career, he wrote nine books of literary criticism, including three in retirement while battling Parkinson’s. He was a noted scholar and expert on the works of Shakespeare, Dante, and James Joyce. He was selected to write the entry on Dante Alighieri for Encyclopedia Britannica.
His last book, North/South: The Great European Divide, in 2016, was a discussion of Protestant and Catholic Christianity and their effect on economic development. His first book,The Renaissance Discovery of Time(1972), is considered a standard of literary studies of the period.
Novelist Charles Johnson used Quinones’ book, The Changes of Cain, an exposition on the Cain-Abel theme in literature, to influence his 1998 historical novel, Dreamer, about the life of Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
In retirement, he also wrote five books of poetry. His poetry tended toward storytelling. He wrote a poem about the plane that went down in that Pennsylvania field on September 11 – Shanksville– and another about his memories at age 10 of the men returning from World War II.
As the disease withered his muscles and twisted his fingers and toes, he nevertheless held poetry events, with actors reading his work, combined with a cellist or a violinist.
Ricardo Quinones grew up in Allentown, PA, the second child of Laureano and Maria Elena Quinones: He an immigrant from Galicia, Spain and a worker in a brewery; she a worker in a sewing factory, born in America to a large family of immigrants from Calabria, Italy.
Laureano Quinones had been born an illegitimate child, abandoned by his mother in his seacoast village in Spain. Leaving her baby with relatives, Eliana Otero fled to Argentina and was never heard from again. Laureano was raised by an uncle, taking the uncle’s last name of Quinones. At 20, he left Spain and, alone, made his way to Puerto Rico, where he cut sugar cane, then to New York and finally to Allentown, PA, where he met and married Maria Elena Matriciano.
They lived in the First Ward, a teeming, densely packed neighborhood of immigrants from Italy, Poland, Hungary, and Syria, who had large families and came to the town for its easily available manufacturing jobs. Bethlehem Steel and Mack Trucks were among the mainstays of the town.
Growing up, Ricardo Quinones was an altar boy and a copy boy at the Allentown Morning Call newspaper, where he one night shepherded the news that Hank Williams had died.
A friendly priest channeled him into college, something rare for kids from the First Ward, where many parents had little education and spoke English poorly.
Like his father before him, he left the comfortable enclave and struck out into the world – taking a bus alone to Chicago and Northwestern University, a private school where upon his arrival he was the among the poorest students on campus.
Originally intending to be a journalist, he fell under the mentorship of Donald Torchiana, a Northwestern literature professor, and from there his career focus shifted to academia.
At Northwestern, he also met his first love, Lolly Brown, a student from an upper-class family in Des Moines, Iowa. They were married in 1956. Their early days were spent in Europe on a Fulbright Scholarship, studying in Italy, Germany, and France, where he played basketball for a club in the town of Clermont-Ferrand.
He came to Claremont as the town was morphing into a place of great musical, and artistic effervescence. His friends were poets and artists, then later political scientists and economists. His sons attended Oakmont Elementary, El Roble Junior High, and Claremont High School, and he sent them to Berkeley, Yale, and CMC.
He encountered death too young. His mother died when he was 11; his father when he was 22. His second son, Nathanael, died at 18 in a car accident in February, 1979, followed by his wife, who died of cancer that May.
After that, he raised his two youngest sons – Ben and Josh – alone. They went on to become attorneys. His oldest son, Sam, is a journalist and author.
In the late 1990s, he met Roberta Johnson, a literature professor at Kansas University specializing in Spanish women writers. They fell in love and married in 1998. One of his books of poetry is titled Roberta. She cared for him through his illness, along with his wonderful caregivers, Anthony, Marlon and Ferdie.
In 2008, he survived the rupture of an aortic aneurysm, something few have done. Then, in a kind of slow-motion torture over many years, Parkinson’s took most of what made the man. He could only shuffle toward the end. Yet he wrote every day, pecking away through each morning, until the very end, when it took that from him, too.
Apart from cigars, Italian food and red wine, books were the only material possessions he loved. At his home, his shelves remain the earthly expression of his fertile mind. In his stacks is Heaven: A History, and The History of Hell. One of his favorite poets, the storyteller Robert Frost, stands in between Joe Stalin and Martin Luther; Henry Kissinger’s World Order next to Lord of the Flies — testament to how he enjoyed throwing ideas together and seeing what the collision produced.
On Christmas Eve, when his sons’ families were about to meet for dinner, they thought it best he not come over but instead head to a hospital for his low blood pressure. It didn’t seem safe. But he insisted on being at the dinner. Demanded it. Marlon Batiller, his dearest caretaker, told him, if you can stand, I’ll take you. He stood. On this, his last family Christmas dinner, more fragile than ever, he read For the Union Dead by poet Robert Lowell.
A few weeks later, on his last time out of bed, he asked Marlon to pull him up and into his wheelchair, and roll him into the dining room. There, on the table, sat the readings for his next project. It was to be a book about the 1800s, though he wasn’t sure yet what. His reading for it included Treasure Island, Huckleberry Finn, biographies of U.S. Grant, Napoleon, and others.
He’d grown to love Grant. He added him to his list of favorite presidents and defended him vigorously as mistreated by history.
That morning, emaciated, he sat in his wheelchair beside his books. He held the Grant biography. Then he leafed through the Napoleon. The books were new, and thick, and heavy and he re-read a bit from each.
Finally, he placed them back on the table and he sat in the chair in silence just looking at them one last time. And after a great long while like that, he asked Marlon to wheel him down the hall and back to the bed, where, two days later, he died.
A public memorial service will be held Sunday, April 7 at 12:30pm at the CMC Athenaeum.
In Los Angeles, Craigslist has emerged in the last few months as a major new marketplace for illicit fentanyl.
The online classified ad service has for several years been a virtual street corner, a place where drugs are sold under lightly veiled pseudonyms: black-tar heroin (“roofing tar”), crystal methamphetamine (“clear sealant”), or generic and most likely counterfeit oxycodone 30 mg pills (“M30”).
But fentanyl, the deadliest of them all, is a new arrival, apparently within the last year, and for the moment appears to be for sale on Craigslist only on its Los Angeles site.
A search of Los Angeles Craigslist revealed numerous listings for fentanyl code words “China White Doll” or “White China Plates” or “China White Dishes.” A few were even more brazen: China “fenty fent” White read one. The ads usually display no photographs or images other than maps of the areas the vendors purport to serve.
The search did turn up numerous ads of what appeared to be vendors of actual dinnerware; these included photographs of plates, bowls, teacups.
But other ads were like this one, from a West Hollywood vendor, who advertised under the headline, “White China Christmas Edition – $100”:
“Were you left out in the cold? Were you served fake stuff? Are you sick? Let me help you ease your pain. …Tired of the petty games or fake product being sold at a cheaper price, or waiting hours upon hours for the dude.”
Offering “Winter White Fine China,” a Sherman Oaks vendor advertised professionalism, reliability, fast service and “product testing available. No pressure to purchase.”
“Yes honest vendors still exist!” the vendor wrote. “Be cautious, stay alert & don’t get fooled! If you’re not absolutely satisfied we go our separate ways!”
“Mention #painpaingoaway for the sale prices,” read one Wilshire vendor’s ad.
Another in Gardena offered a “brand name substitute of roofing tar”: “$20/strip if you’re buying one, price breaks if you need more. White china plates also available as well, $100/half set $180/full set. TEXT ONLY PLEASE. When you contact me, please include your name, what you’re looking to purchase and if you’re mobile or if you need delivery (If delivery, include your location as well)”
Many listed the keywords that buyers might be using to find vendors: “Addys, blues, China, perks, xanax, white, coke, fent, Subs, Percocet, oxycodone, Norco, Suboxone, adderall, fentanyl, Dilaudid, tramadol.”
I sent an email to Craigslist media department requesting an interview on how and why this occurred and is allowed, but I’ve received no response.
“We’ve observed a high frequency of involvement of Craigslist in the dissemination of [illegal] drugs,” said Ben Barron, an assistant U.S. Attorney in Los Angeles who is prosecuting the region’s first Craigslist-related fentanyl death case. The case involves Andrew Madi, an alleged Craigslist heroin and fentanyl dealer who is accused of selling fentanyl that killed a buyer last summer.
Madi, 25, was indicted earlier this month on charges that he sold fentanyl to a buyer, recently out of drug treatment, who responded to his Craigslist Los Angeles ad. Barron said Madi allegedly advertised “roofing tar” (black-tar heroin). Then, via texts, Madi allegedly told the buyer he was out of roofing tar, but had “China White,” offering a money-back guarantee if the buyer was unsatisfied with his product.
When Madi texted him later asking his opinion of what he’d been sold, the buyer replied that “this white does the job for sure.” On July 6, the buyer was found dead in his apartment, with a baggie containing fentanyl nearby. Officials allege that Madi had been advertising fentanyl, heroin and Xanax on Craigslist since March.
“We have very good reason to believe that this was just one small slice of the trafficking [Madi] was doing using many email addresses and burner cellphones” on Craigslist, Barron said.
A cursory check of Craigslists in Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, Seattle, Minneapolis, Charlotte, San Francisco, Palm Springs, and Las Vegas turned up only a small number of similar listings, or none at all. New York’s listing offered a handful of such ads. San Diego and Orange County Craigslists had several, though far fewer, suspect listings than did Los Angeles.
Barron suggested the reason may be related to Los Angeles’s position as a major drug hub, both from Mexico and from China, where much of the fentanyl powder is made by hundreds of chemical companies.
“Even if we don’t have the same degree of opiate overdose problem as you’d see in the Rust Belt, the drugs are flowing through here,” he said.
One long-time heroin addict, who requested anonymity, suggested the Craigslist fentanyl marketplace was due to the bust of an extensive, well-used San Fernando Valley-based heroin delivery services — known by addicts and police as Manny’s Delivery Service — in December, 2017. Addicts and mid-level dealers from as far away as Anaheim and Bakersfield were said to patronize the service.
The service reputedly did not sell fentanyl, but the addict said many people have switched to fentanyl after Manny’s cheap, potent heroin, and the organization’s convenient delivery, were no longer available — though other services have stepped into the vacuum Manny’s left behind.
The Craigslist ads for fentanyl, he noted, began popping up not long after Manny’s was taken down by local and federal authorities. The cases against 16 defendants in the Manny’s indictment are still winding their way through court.
Fentanyl might have arrived anyway, said the user, given its advantages as an underworld drug. “But I can tell you without a doubt what has happened to the L.A. dope scene since they were busted: Fentanyl is everywhere. There’s a lot of people who are choosing to use fentanyl,” he said in a telephone interview.
If you have any stories of buying fentanyl, heroin, or other illegal drugs on Craigslist, or from Manny’s Delivery Service, please feel free to comment below, or contact me at email@example.com.
Fentanyl is a legitimate medical painkiller – a synthetic opioid – used often in cardiac surgery and to control chronic pain. But it is up to a hundred times more potent than morphine and highly addictive, and thus has become a street drug as America’s epidemic of opiate addiction has spread in recent years. The epidemic began with doctors overprescribing narcotic pain pills. Many patients grew addicted to those pills and some of them switched to heroin, which is mostly from Mexico or Colombia. Recently, though, traffickers have turned to fentanyl as a heroin substitute because it is cheaper to manufacture and, due to its potency, easier to smuggle in small quantities.
Public health and law enforcement officials attribute the record overdose-death rates of the last few years to widespread addiction to opiates across the United States and the arrival of illicit fentanyl – often in powder form – on the streets in response.
Fentanyl has become widely offered for sale on the Dark Web — that part of the Internet that requires a special connection and expertise to connect to. But Los Angeles appears to be the first place where the drug is offered on the open web.
The emergence of the Craigslist fentanyl marketplace is alarming, Barron said, because at least “on the Dark Web, there’s a degree of sophistication involved in that, whereas anybody can use Craigslist.”
UPDATE: As of March 25, 2019, Craigslist in Los Angeles, as well as in other cities I checked, appeared to have stopped the drug-dealing ads under the terms “china white,” “roofing tar,” and “clear sealant ” – though a small number could still be found for “M30.”
One thing I tend to encounter is stories of how we become American.
I met a Lyft driver recently named Aldo who’s changing his name to Bruce Wayne.
He’s from Guatemala and came here 30 years ago, at 14, escaping civil war.
He doesn’t want anything to do with Guatemala any more, he told me.
He went back for the first time not long ago, and couldn’t stand it.
“Nobody follows the rules,” he said. “You can’t just drive along peacefully like this. You gotta be aware of these other drivers running redlights. Motorcyclists coming up to rob you.”
I’ve heard the greatest stories from Lyft drivers. I met the brother of the champion of Mongolian BMX racing one time. Another was a Vietnamese screenwriter. A third was a Dreamer.
As Aldo and I drove along, he extolled the virtues of his Kia Optima hybrid, how he’d lived peacefully with his family in South Gate for eight years until his landlord married a Colombian woman and she started causing problems.
He told me he’d adopted his wife’s children — she was legally changing her name from Maria de la Luz to Lucy — raised them. They are now grown or growing. That he contracted polio when he was born and walks with crutches.
In Guatemala, he couldn’t go back to his old neighborhood because he might not be able to leave it. He also couldn’t stand the smells in the outdoor markets.
So he came back from his visit home and is getting his U.S. citizenship next year. When he does he’ll change his name to Batman’s alter ego.
“I’m American,” he told me. “Everybody knows him.”
Reynoso was part of L.A. crime lore. He was a member of Big Hazard, an East LA street gang.
Later, he was made a member of the Mexican Mafia while in prison. He was one of the 22 Eme members indicted in the first federal RICO case against the gang — coming in 1995, and hingeing on the testimony of Ernie “Chuco” Castro, up to that point one of the most influential members of the organization.
The trial pulled back the veil on the mafia in several ways – one of which was to reveal its scheme for using street gang members to tax drug dealers in the barrios of Southern California, the revenue for which was funneled to mafia members and their associates.
The scheme remains in place today and has turned the Mexican Mafia into more than a prison gang –rather, an organization with enormous influence beyond prison walls.
At his passing, he was deemed the highest-ranking active Mexican Mafia member.
The last few years have seen the passing of several Eme figures from those years — those who formed or spread the Eme: Peter “Sana” Ojeda, Frank “Frankie B” Buelna, Ruben Rodriguez, “Black Dan” Barela. Joe Morgan and Benjamin “Topo” Peters died years ago. Many others have dropped out of the gang while in prison – an exodus that began with Castro, who went into federal witness protection, and, before him, Ramon “Mundo” Mendoza.
Most of the older Eme members, like Reynoso, were heroin addicts on the street — reflecting the fact that their criminal careers began in the late 1960s, early 1970s — a time when heroin crept into the Mexican-American neighborhoods of Southern California with a vengeance.
Great columnists possess one common trait: They’re all newspapers reporters at heart. They sometimes opine on the day’s news, but they usually leave 24-hour news punditry to others.
Instead, what they most believe in is going to talk to the neighbor, the cop, the pastor, or the taco truck owner. Reporting, true and straight. Nothing like it for burning away crud and getting to a joyous kernel of veracity.
That’s what Mike has done as a columnist. He combined that instinct with a deep knowledge of his native town.
Today, awash in the sewage of 24-hour news, we too often confuse columnists with pundits. They are not the same – at least the best columnists aren’t.
The best columnists help you understand where you live, often by pointing out the tiniest corners of the town that you realize only later that you were dying to know about. Mike did that.
It’s not that they don’t have opinions. Columnists’ job, in part, is to have opinions. But these opinions should be based on the relentless collection of facts, not on ideology. Mike did that.
Sadly, we Americans prize pundits, who are cheap, as everyone has an opinion; we don’t want to pay for columnists and thus we are poorer for it. We have too many of the former and one less of the latter today.
Mike and I met when I began my stint as the Record’s crime reporter. He took me around to meet the cops and others that would make up my daily rounds for the next four years (1988-92). That first night we drove to south Stockton where a car had plunged through a house and landed on a woman sleeping in her bed. I’d never known that to happen, but in Stockton I covered another dozen of those.
In a year or two, they made Mike a columnist. We sat across from each other for a couple years, as he churned out terrific snapshots of the corners of the town, of its politics, its neighborhoods filled with Cambodians, Sikhs, Michoacanos, blacks, and the whites of north Stockton and east Stockton – which were then two separate planets.
We covered the horror of Cleveland School together, where a drifter showed up in January 1989 with an AK-47 and killed five kids and wounded 30 more.
We were part of a staff then that I believe the best I ever worked with – young reporters, eager to cover the world, growing with experience, and set loose on a town that was full of stunning, beautiful, crazy, terrible stories.
Mike and I got along because we recognized in each other a kindred spirit: we were both born to be reporters. We’d have been miserable and failures in any other profession.
It helped Mike, too, to that Stockton is one of the great American cities. Integrated, roiling, common-sensical, a lot of problems and a lot of heart.
As Mike writes: “It’s the drug addict in recovery. The Hmong in adult education class. The millennial who wants to live in a high-density downtown community. Filipinos digging out their history to restore their lost narrative.”
Mike got out of the office and told their stories and many more. That’s what great columnists do.
This summer, a sculptor built a steel, 11-foot, 800-pound bent heroin spoon. With the help of an gallery owner, he put it on a trailer and drove it to the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin.
The bent-spoon protest of the country’s opiate epidemic by Massachusetts sculptor Domenic Esposito and Fernando Alvarez, owner of a Connecticut art gallery, stayed in front of the company’s Stamford, CT offices for only two hours before police impounded the sculpture, but it gained worldwide attention.
Alvarez was arrested and eventually convicted of a misdemeanor charge of blocking free passage.
I was in Boston recently and had a chance to meet and talk with Esposito about the episode and what brought it on.
Our conversation ended up including his brother’s addiction, drug marketing, Americans’ pain, and #thespoon movement they hope to ignite.
Great story. Take a listen. Share it if you like it: