Cab Calloway High School

Tomorrow (Thursday) I’ll be speaking at Cab Calloway High School of the Arts in Wilmington, Delaware.

The speech is open to the public and I’ll be talking about opiate addiction, America and Dreamland. Delaware, like so many parts of the country, is awash in opiate addiction and all its consequences.

But I love the idea that the school is named for Cab Calloway, an orchestra leader I’ve loved since I was a kid and first heard “Minnie the Moocher” (I was in junior high, I think). Here he is with the Nicholas Brothers, stunning tap dancers.

The school’s first board president was his daughter, Cabella Calloway. He had moved to Delaware shortly before the school was founded in 1992 and was involved in its formation before his death in 1994.

By the way, the school’s marching band has won the championship in its area six of the last seven years. Nice! Next Sunday, they’re in Hershey PA competing in the Atlantic Coast Tournament of Bands.

Good luck to the Cab Calloway High School Marching Band! A name like that, you better win! How could you not?

I’d love to see a marching band named for Cab Calloway.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Dreamland, The Heroin Heartland

Gray’s Lake and Grandparents’ Stories

My grandmother, Paula Brown, was a gadfly in Des Moines, Iowa, fighting McDonald’s garish golden arches and trying to save old buildings. Because of her, my mother didn’t allow us to eat at McDonald’s. I didn’t have my first Big Mac until I was 12 and it didn’t do much for me. (I think I’ve had three or four – the sum total of all McDonald’s burgers of any kind I’ve had in my life.)

I spent a day last week in Des Moines, Iowa, where I spoke to a convention of county Medical Examiners.

It was my first time in the city since I was 14. We went on several cross-country car trips from California to Ddes-moines-3es Moines when I was a kid.

My grandfather, Ken Brown, owned an engineering company in town. He formed Brown Engineering in the Depression with my grandmother. The company still exists.

My grandmother also fought for many years, successfully in the end, to preserve what’s known as Gray’s Lake, south of downtown Des Moines, and keep it from commercial development and motor boats.

I suspect most folks in Des Moines are happy she did. She’s mentioned on a plaque at the lake. It’s now a park – a beautiful, quiet part of the city, with a bike path and footpath around it, rowboats and a small concession stand.

The city has clearly put some energy into preserving the lake and its surroundings, while making it useful to folks. People, one fellow told me, use Gray’s Lake relentlessly in Des Moines.

I’m proud that she did that. I’m betting most people would love something like Gray’s Lake – free of speedboats and Applebee’s – as part of their town.

Made me think of heritage. My grandfather fought in Patton’s Army during World War II. That’s on my mother’s side.

A few months ago, my daughter and I went to NYC and to Ellis Island and found records of the man I believe is my grandfather on my dad’s side. Lauraino Quinones is the spelling we found – a fellow from Spain, born in 1900, who took a boat from the Dominican Republic and landed on Ellis Island in 1922.

The real spelling of my grandfather’s name was Laureano, so I don’t know if this is his record, but everything else matches up.

He had a story out of a novel. He was born an illegitimate son in 1900 in a small Atlantic Coast village in Spain. His mother, whose husband had abandoned her years before, left the boy with uncles and fled to Argentina to escape the scandal and was never heard from again.

He grew up with no one, I suppose, and when he was 20 he joined the Spanish merchant marine, jumped ship in Puerto Rico, cut sugar cane for two years, and then in about 1922 or so, made his way to NYC, and eventually to Allentown, Pennsylvania, where in due course he met my grandmother, Elena Matracino, from a large family of Italian immigrants.

He worked in a brewery and she in a sewing factory. They both died before I was born.

But I love those stories – I’m connected to Italian and Spanish peasants, Oklahoma farmers, somewhere in there we’re supposed to be related to Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy, and there is, I’m told, some Cherokee Indian as well.

All of that got mixed and mashed and, as it should, was turned into something else, new in America.des-moines-8


Filed under Storytelling

Judge Moses’ Court

I was in the town of Logan, Ohio last week, at the tail end of my speaking tour through Ohio, West Virginia, Kentucky and Indiana.img_3596

Logan, pop. 7,000, is an Appalachian coal town in the county of Hocking, about 40 miles southeast of Columbus in the farmland off of state Highway 33.

The morning after my talk, I spent an hour in the town’s drug court, which is now dedicated entirely to people with opiate addictions trying to expunge criminal records and keep their recovery going.

The court is run by Judge Fred Moses, who in this court looks and sounds more like a social worker. He asks each client about his or her recovery, job prospects, children – confers with prosecutors and probation and social workers. The idea behind drug court is that clients must get into addiction recovery, begin to repair their lives, before any record expunging takes place.

What struck me was, first, that there were such a court at all in a town like Logan. And then that all the 10 or so clients I met that day were addicted to opiates, heroin mostly.

All but one started into addiction on pain pills. A few began using them after they were prescribed the pills for some medical reason. Others began using them recreationally. But all of them got into their addiction because of the pervasive, massive supply of these pills that were, and are, available.

In Logan, according to a recovering addict I spoke with (whose interview I’ll post later), pain pills and benzodiazapines, and the insistence with which clients demand them, have made docs unimaginative it seems. At least, pills appear to be many physicians’ immediate go-to response.

Judge Moses has most of his clients on Vivitrol, the opiate blocker, paid for by Medicaid, which, in Ohio, has been available to anyone since 2014. This is due to a Republican governor, John Kasich, who expanded coverage to all Ohioans, largely, from what I understand, to give people without insurance access to addiction treatment – so big was the state’s problem.

Without that, Vivitrol would be too expensive for Hocking County. Sitting there that day, I wondered if at some point every heroin addict in America will have to be on Vivitrol.img_3600-copy

Judge Moses’ drug court is a standing testament to how opiate addiction is changing minds in rural areas. I suppose there was a time when the idea of giving a drug to combat drug addiction was viewed askance in Hocking County. But this addiction is different and requires different response. Hence Vivitrol.

What also struck me, though, was that this scourge spread across the country largely due to the private sector – pharmaceutical companies and doctors, urging the aggressive prescribing of narcotic painkillers.

There’s a role we all have, as American health consumers, in what’s taken place, and it’s an important one. But it’s striking to me how this began due to the private sector – not underground drug traffickers – and how the profits have accrued to the private sector.img_3577-copy

Yet dealing with the collateral damage has been charged almost entirely to the public sector: ERs, public health departments, cops, prosecutors, jails … and drug court, like the one run by Judge Fred Moses in the small town of Logan, Ohio.

I wish his clients well, as I do the town of Logan itself, where I met a lot of nice people (and received this Proclamation), and which now must battle this kind of persistent, costly addiction along with all the other issues facing small-town, rural America.

1 Comment

Filed under Dreamland, The Heroin Heartland

Dr. Procter’s House

I’m speaking today in a mansion near Portsmouth Ohio built by a doctor named David Procter – known around here as `The Godfather of the Pill Mill’ – whose story I told in Dreamland.

A reader I’ll call Karen, who grew up in Portsmouth, wrote to me a while ago:

“For some reason I feel compelled to tell you that Dr. Procter was the catalyst that destroyed my family.

The house, in South Shore, Kentucky on the Ohio River, has been converted to a procter-2drug rehabilitation clinic run by a company called Recovery Works.


“My dad worked at the prison as a guard. He hurt his back, falling from a ladder during some sort of training assignment.

“I only knew that my dad got hurt at work, and [Procter] was his doctor. And that my mom hated him with a passion. I can remember going to his office and my mom coming out so upset. I found later that it was because she would go there and beg him to stop giving my dad pills. Lines out the door. I can still remember my mom and my aunt and my grandmother in the car discussing all the people.


Pharmaceutical companies and pain specialists viewed the pain-pill revolution that transformed American medicine as a boon to doctors. They sold the opiate painkiller pill as a way of addressing the lack of time doctors had with patients, and pain patients in particular.

That doctors accepted them so readily tells us how serious were the time pressures they felt.

The more you prescribed them, though, the more the pills became a curse – just like morphine molecule they contained. They wore down a doctor. A doctor known as an easy touch was soon overwhelmed with patients who filled his waiting room, waving cash in front of him, insisting. Soon he was accepting only cash – addicted to it, accepting the lies his patients told him, believing too that nothing was wrong.

From this emerged the medical mutation known as the Pill Mill. Nothing showed the corrosive effects of for-profit medicine like the pill mill.procter-1

David Procter was notorious in Portsmouth for prescribing large amount of pain pills to patients, with almost no diagnosis.


“The day my parents marriage finally ended, was the day my mother threw all of my dad’s pills Down The Gutter and he removed the manhole cover and crawled down to get them. I remember her taking her wedding ring off then and telling him that she wanted a divorce. His head was literally sticking out of the manhole. Sad time.”   Karen


David Procter was a product of that, I believe.

He had come in 1977, and been beloved. Amid economic decline, doctors held the key to life strategies like worker’s comp and SSI. Procter became the quickest doc around in preparing worker’s comp papers.

In 1988, the Kentucky Board of Medical Licensure investigated him for the first time. Those reports seem to describe a man losing his bearings but still trying to maintain some semblance of medical and moral rectitude, still looking for second opinions and trying to find alternatives to pills for his pain patients.

Ten years later, a second investigation, and that doctor had vanished.

In the interim, OxyContin and the Pain Revolution had come. Jobs were gone, Main Street was an empty shell. Ohio River towns had lost huge population. Dreamland pool had closed.

As a doctor in a desperate place, he had been unaccountable for too long and grown corrupt, the Kentucky public record documents. Now, investigators found a man who extorted sex for pills from vulnerable and addicted women, who preyed on girls tormented about abortions. His waiting room was a corral of drug addicts, all there with eyes downcast, desperate. He stayed open well past his posted business hours. His records were shoddy or nonexistent.

After a car accident, he began hiring doctors with drug and alcohol problems to run his clinics. This is what gave him lasting importance to this story, for those doctors in turn left to start their own pain clinics.

The problem metastasized like a cancer. Procter became the Ray Kroc of the Pill Mill.


Drugs have hit my family hard. My uncle’s stepdaughter and her daughter were both murdered in Lucasville. They still haven’t found their murderers. The daughter was a beautiful sixteen-year-old girl who didn’t deserve anything that she got. Apparently her mother was selling Oxycontin. My aunt’s step-daughter is doing life right now for murdering another girl in a town near Portsmouth. I have two uncles who both died of heroin overdoses in the last 6 years.

And some of my friends from high school, their daughter has been missing for about 6 years. Due to drugs as well, I’m sure of it. I could go on and on. I’m so glad that I left that area in 1989 and made a better life for myself. However the county that I am living in and have been living in for 27 years is starting to feel the sting. It’s happening.    Karen


David Procter eventually went to prison for 12 years. He was released in 2014 and, being Canadian, was procter-3deported. He leaves behind a strange painting of a monkey looking into a mirror, with Dr. Procter’s reflection looking back at him, and a seven-bedroom, six-bath, seven-car mansion on 34 acres that is now occupied by 16 addicts working on their recovery.


My dad OD’d in 2009, but he really died years before. He was a good dad once. I’m glad that I have those happy memories.

I know Procter’s house well. We always called it the house that pills built. Beautiful place. Fitting that it’s now a rehab.   Karen



Filed under Uncategorized

Sound of Dulcimers in Ohio

Recently, I was passing through Waverly, Ohio, on Highway 23, and stopped in at Prussia Valley Dulcimers and met Gary Sager, who runs the shop with his wife, Toni.img_3376-1

We had a long chat. Gary used to work for RCA making TV tubes until the plant in Circleville closed in 2004 and all that work went to China. He’d been making dulcimers for several years by then, so he and Toni opened the store.

Turns out, didn’t know this, but most good mountain dulcimers (the kind pictured here) are made by artisans in workshops around America. So Gary tells me. The work hasn’t been turned over to the Chinese entirely, in other words.

Gary sells only this kind of artisan dulcimers. Nice American story of a guy rebounding from the punches of globalization, not letting it keep him down.

So if you’re in central or southern Ohio and in the market for a real American-made mountain dulcimer, or a banjo, a mandolin, or a guitar, stop by Prussia Valley Dulcimers in Waverly, Ohio and see Gary Sager. He’ll give you a good deal….

Here’s the website:

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Speaking of which …

These next several weeks I’ll be traveling to many parts of the country for speaking engagements about Dreamland: Dallas/Fort Worth, Huntington WV, Indianapolis (twice), Logan, OH, Salt Lake, and South Shore KY, among other places (full list below).

These follow many events over the last year. I can’t wait!

Grand Canyon Trip 2015

It’s been wonderful, after spending so long writing about a fairly depressing topic, to see communities like Scott County IN and Marysville OH plan to use Dreamland to begin discussions/alliances focused on combating the problem of opiate addiction, now nationwide.

I’m a storyteller not a policymaker nor an advocate, but I do feel overwhelmed at times at the intensity of the response and so honored that these towns would invite me to visit them to talk about this.

I want to say thank you to the hundreds of folks I’ve already met while signing books at numerous events – half of whom have stories so powerful that they might have ended up in Dreamland had I met them while I was writing. It’s become one of the joys of touring, meeting folks like this, going to places like these.

I note, too, that many of these place are not towns on a typical book tour. But this is not a typical book nor, I suppose, a typical time.

I love that I’ve been able to visit Peoria IL (home of Caterpillar) and Chillicothe OH (Go Cavaliers!), but it also shows you where the problems with opiate addiction are now in our country.

Anyway, here’s the full lineup:

Sept 19: Scott County, IN (Various events, including Austin High School Auditorium, 7-9pm)

Sept 20: Van Wert, OH

Sept 21: Marion, OH (Palace Pavilion, 3:30-5pm)

Sept 22: Dallas/Fort Worth, TX, Hurst Conference Center, (When the Prescription Becomes the Problem: A community response to the Opiate Epidemic)

Sept 29: Salt Lake City, UT, Sheraton Hotel (Beyond the Needle and the Damage Done:  A law enforcement and health care response to the opioid epidemic)

Oct 1:  Huntington WV, Ohio River Book Festival, (12:45-2pm)

Oct 3: South Shore, KY (Recovery Works)

Oct 4: Zanesville, OH (and environs, various events)

Oct 5: Columbus, OH (North Broadway United Methodist Church)

Oct 6: Indianapolis, IN (Indiana Hospital Association)

Oct 6: Logan, OH (Hocking Middle School)

Oct 12: Marysville, OH

Oct 13: Indianapolis, IN (Indiana Attorney General’s Conference, Indiana Convention Center – Indiana Prescription Drug Abuse Prevention Task Force,  public invited)

Oct 14: Des Moines, IA (Iowa Medical Examiners Convention)

Oct 24: Hillsdale MI (Hillsdale College, various events)

Oct 26: Pittsburgh PA (Gateway Rehabilitation)

Oct 27: Dover, DE (Various events)


Hope to see you at one of them!

Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Tijuana, cops, & why people leave Mexico

I have no doubt that (yet another) wall between the United States and Mexico would be a disaster. The biggest reason: it would provide Mexico’s elite with some distracting issue to point to to avoid having to address all that has made it a country that people risk death to leave.


The other day I was in Tijuana working on another story about the deportees who have congregated in that city.

I was hanging out in the Zona Norte, a neighborhood right at the border where I suspect 90 percent of the residents have been deported. I was in a humble, cramped one-story apartment complex, where many men have rented cheap rooms – the kind of place that dots this neighborhood. (Btw, this neighborhood is a hundred yards from not one, but two walls separating the country.)

I was interviewing one of these guys, when another came to his door and said the police were there. After the interview, I went outside to the patio to find heavily armed police menacing the guys in the apartment. One had teeth clenched, right up in the face of one man whose hands were cuffed.

I don’t know the whole story here. There are a lot of good reasons why these guys were deported: DUIs, drug use, etc. Some may have been selling drugs. I don’t know. The neighborhood is full of problems, and I would understand a police officer’s frustration with it.

But I do know that to a man, every deportee I’ve interviewed has stories (plural) of cops beaten him, taking his money, insulting him for speaking English, for being a deportee, and in general using their power in a manner that would seem to have little to do with combating crime or drugs in the area. On the contrary, it does a lot to keep poor men down.

I suspect these men, while they were working in the United States and part of that workforce sending money home to Mexico, were applauded. Now they’re deported and it’s a different story.

What I saw that day was minor, really. But this minor experience gets to the bigger issue of what Mexico must do to become a place that people don’t want to leave.cropped-IMG_0910.jpg

Mexico is bereft of institutions that common Mexicans can have faith in. Mexico’s economy has been doing well, but the day prior I met two groups of people – one from Michoacan, the other from Guerrero – that had traveled up from Mexico’s interior to ask for political asylum, so scary was the violence that surrounded them.

So there’s two Mexico’s: one reflected in the (real) statistics of economic growth; the other in the (also very real) experience on the ground in many Mexican states of complete disintegration of the basic institutions of civil society.

I recently did a story for National Geographic about Ciudad Juarez and all that it did to reverse years of nightmarish violence: by investing in local infrastructure.

I have seen good Mexican cops, but there aren’t enough of them. Political parties have become the new dictatorship. City government is so lacking in funding and civil service that it – the most effective level of government in attacking poverty – is completely incompetent, and too often unaccountable. Meanwhile, Mexico seems always ready to shoot itself in the foot – to wit, the recent release of drug cartel leader and killer Rafael Caro Quintero, now marshaling forces to go to war with El Chapo Guzman in various parts of the country, including in Cd. Juarez.

(Read two related stories in the latest edition of America’s Quarterly with the views of Mexico’s central banker Agustin Carstens and its former ambassador to the U.S., Arturo Sarukahn.)

So if Mexico is inflamed at the demagoguery of one of our presidential candidates, I don’t blame it. That demagoguery – yet another wall along with it — poses real threats to the United States and its standing in the world. It would also poison relations between the two countries, thus removing an important lever with which the United States can push Mexico to change, and closing off the ways in which the countries currently and beneficially work together.

Mexico ought to strongly note its disapproval. Then it ought to turn inward and begin examining why for decades it has been a country so many poor people have risked death to leave.


Filed under Border, Mexico, Migrants

just can’t do no more today

As I try to keep a gauge on the opiate-addiction epidemic in America, one place I go is to The Addicts Mom Facebook page, with 22,000 members, one of whom is me.

The posts are from mothers as they attempt to deal with the lacerating addictions of their children. Here are a few posts, with names removed, that I saw at random this morning. Those who listed a location are from Georgia, Wisconsin, upstate New York, Pennsylvania, and Alabama.

At times, it gets to almost an aching kind of poetry.

Note: AS means addicted son; RAS recovering addicted son


Well my almost 21 year old AS will be spending another birthday in jail I am sure! Please pray for his healing and mine!IMG_9349


I always knew it was going to be my child one day. On the Fourth of July I found my addicted daughter unresponsive and blue. I breathed for her until paramedics came. They saved her life this time. She spent three days in Icu and was released with no help at all. I live in Florida and I was wondering if this is enough for a marchman act? Doc is Xanax and snorting oxicodone. Any advise is appreciated. God bless all of us Mothers. I just can’t take much more.


I love having a place where people actually listen when I talk bout my addict children. Most people in my town don’t want to hear that there are children addicted in their town people need to wake up sad for the addicts who are outcast. Having trouble getting police to put narcan in there cars also


UPDATE: His PO is coming to see him tomorrow– I will let y’all know how it goes.
My Birthday overall was a good day. Thanks for the wishes and prayers. Blessings to you all.

Dilemma- my 18 almost 19 AS was released from jail last Friday to serve out his probation-14 months (it’s a joke; very seldom face to face visits with his PO). On Sunday he apparently used LSD; when I confronted him he said ‘no worries Mom; it won’t show up on a UI.’ He had no where else to go but our house and the court said our house is not an option for him to stay (we have a younger child at home). He was told the rules- no drugs or drug use. A small issue he flat out refuses to pick up his clothes (drives me crazy) states he’s just defiant; like I’m supposed to be ok with that answer.
Suggestions??? Oh yeah; today is my Birthday- I feel like hiding in a hole not celebrating life


Last night my phone rang at 11:30 my heart automatically started racing. Then I seen the caller I.D it was my RAS instantly worry washed over me, I picked up the phone and the first words out of my mouth was ” what’s wrong? Are you okay?” His reply was ‘Yes ma’am I was just on my way to work and I seen a shooting star and it was the brightest most beautiful one I’ve every seen, and just wanted to call and share with you”.

Four years clean, still suffer from shell shock but feeling blessed.


So another week and another dirty urine at probation. Told me he wants suboxone, I suggested vivitrol. Someone on the MAT (medically assisted treatment) site posted a link for a slide show on all the meds used. I sent it to him privately. He wants to do vivitrol now and I sent him the local dr name and address. He swears he wants to be sober. I asked him, you know how awful detox is, why isn’t that enough to not pick up? He CANNOT deal with stress. No coping techniques. We all have stress but you have to learn to cope. I get the whole disease thing I truly do, but I also struggle with the you know it’s not good for you, you know what you are running away from is gonna still be there and you are making more problems to deal with when you sober up. I know my mind doesn’t function as an addicts but they are all smart kids or adults. Dang fight for your sobriety hard the way you chase that freaking drug. He looks terrible. Lost weight again. And all he keeps saying is everyone is judging me and that makes me want to use. No that gives you a lame excuse to use. We aren’t judging we love you and are worried. I know my dealer he wouldn’t do that yadda yadda yadda. Won’t be long and he is gonna end up in jail, then maybe I can sleep:( I am ANGRY this time.


My soul is tired, my heart hurts, I just can’t do no more today😥

Leave a Comment

Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland, Writing

“My father went to a pain doctor…”

I received this note from a reader. I print it here as it came over the transom, though a few things were added at my prodding, wanting to know more. Has a feel like a beat poem somehow, just one long run-on sentence of how addiction comes to those aren’t looking for it.

No one in this reader’s family was on drugs before “my father went to a pain doctor.”



Hi I know you get alot of people asking you things I think what your doing is great IMG_4113my father went to a pain doctor in Ohio and he was getting 224 80mlg oxy take four four times a day plus perk 15 I dont know the dose on them he was a drywaller and I have a old bottle so ppl wouldnt think I was crazy when I tell them what he got he would go every two weeks to pick up I just now am realizing how bad that was for him when u have a family of addicts and myself feel into that same pattern you dont wake up and do homework till ur own mind is right

when he got them thats when everyone got bad bc he got so many my mother and sister got them handed to them when he was alive I didnt do anything I did after the fact

he ended up passing Oct 2010 due to finally trying to use a needle to inject those pills and getting a blood infection my mother still is on dope and my sister was and has been clean for almost three years now I was did buy pills and dope on street for three years after my dad passed I then back in 2014 put myself in the Methadone clinic till Jan 28th 2016 in South Eastern Indiana I have been clean since and wanted to say we live in Tri State of Cincinnati and its bad in this 275 loop and see you came very close to NKY to speak I hope to see u when u come back but wanted to tell my past and I always thought for my dad that was way to much a Dr was giving a man who just had back problems thank you


Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

The Tuba God

Not long ago, I was driving through Tennessee and happened upon a town called Cookeville, which is home to Tennessee Tech University. I had been advised that TTU, an engineering school out in the middle of nowhere, is also one of the world’s great centers for tuba playing.

This is largely due to the presence, since 1967, of Winston Morris, whom my source referred to as The TubaIMG_1277 God.

As a reporter, I pride myself on braking for anyone I hear who is colloquially known as the “God” of something, or the “King” of something else.

I have done stories on The Cambodian Donut King and The Tomato King and a Chinese-Mexican beauty Queen selected because she accumulated the largest number of Pepsi bottle caps (true story – Hell, they’re all true stories.)

Among the cool things about being a reporter is that it gives you a license to barge into the lives of some of the most creative people in America. So that’s what I did.

I called Morris and he kindly allowed me to stop by on my way from Nashville to Knoxville. We talked a lot about tubas, the most relegated of instruments, and how it has emerged from the shadows where other instruments – mostly trumpets – had placed it. A civil rights movement for tubas, where the instrument was now breaking with all limitations, and playing any piece on the instrument was now possible.

Many years ago, Morris started the school’s Tuba and Euphonium Ensemble. He said he did this to attract attention to his program and to begin writing repertoire for the instrument, which had precious little. He envisioned the ensemble as tuba version of the string quartet or brass quintet. The Ensemble is now four decades old and has recorded pieces by Duke Ellington, Cole Porter, Thelonious Monk, Gunther Schuller, Michael Jackson, and a bunch more.

He had more to say about tuba playing, about living in the Jim Crow South as a boy, about caring for his wife for 16 years after her massive stroke. We had lunch at an Indian restaurant in Cookeville.

Morris, btw, also holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the largest collection of tuba-related figurines – more than 2200. Rabbits playing the tuba, bears playing the tuba, Santa Clauses playing the tuba, soldiers playing the tuba, monkeys and elephants and cats playing the tuba. He’s donating it all to the school, which will set up an exhibit of tuba-related art.

Just another reason to stop while driving east from middle Tennessee.



Filed under Culture

Just Tired

From a Facebook page that I’m a member of. Don’t think I’ve read anything recently that better gets to the heart of the weariness so many American moms and dads are feeling:

Hi Moms, I guess I need your advice today. My recovering addicted daughter called last night from Nashville, she said her daughters father beat her up. She sent pictures. It broke my heart. She has supposedly been clean for 3 months. We’ve been going through this nightmare with her for over 13 years. She always has huge drama in her life, every man she gets involved with she says ends up abusing her. She’s also bipolar and has been arrested in the past for also abusing some of these men. She wants me to fly to Nashville to get my grandaughter ASAP, before DCF takes her. I know this should be a no brainier but I am tired and it always affects my husband and our marriage.

We have 4 addict children and a total of 7 adult children. This daughter, Amber, has chosen to live far away for years as she doesn’t like our advice. We’ve had to take other grandchildren from another daughter for 3 years.

We’ve been parents for 38 yrs, and we are just exhausted.

Our lives revolve around helping kids get into treatment, or visiting them in treatment, or going to court or trying to visit or help grandchildren that are effected by parents addiction. We are currently in NH, and we are suppose to go to Boston Sunday to celebrate our 30th anniversary, we have reservations, and tickets to the Redsox game. Now I’m sitting here trying to figure out what to do. And I am actually afraid to go to Nashville, if my daughter is not telling me the whole truth which happens often, I could get into a mess and I feel like I’m just getting to old for all of it. I’m so tired. I just laid in my bed last night crying, and my husband told me we may have to just let it all go and whatever happens is Gods will.

I am posting mostly because you moms are the only ones that understand and when we can’t think for ourselves because of our overwhelming exhausting emotions, I feel that you all may help me see this more clearly. Thank you for being here Moms, I don’t know what I would do without you.


Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

What the Orlando Killer Was Thinking

Among the healthiest things you learn as a journalist is that the world is a hazy, cloudy place, rarely clear, not often black and white, where two opposites may be true at the same time, and that as things change all the time you need to move with them as they roil.

In my experience, these mass shootings teach us this over and over.

The latest wrinkle in the nauseating Orlando massacre, reported in the LA Times, is that the killer spent the previous year drinking at the gay bar he shot up, so much so that he was recognized by people he was shooting at that night. He also spent time on a gay chat app.

All this adds more nuance – predictable in all these cases as they unfold and more is known.Mateen 1

I think the idea that this guy may have been a closeted gay man seems to make sense; that he hated that he was gay, was violent because he hated that he was; that the shooting was in anger for what he was, venting on the people who provoked his attraction.

After all, what truly straight man goes regularly to drink alone at a gay bar? He’d been doing it for more than a year. What straight man also spends time on a gay chat app?

In that light, this Islamic thing may be as much of a cloak as anything else, a way of finding some kind of larger romantic rationale for what he was in the process of doing.

Mateen 2

Unclear to me that he was much of a clear thinker, but that’s self-evident.

(Note: Several days after I posted this, information surfaced that Mateen may have had as many as two gay affairs and that one with a Puerto Rican man may have resulted in him being HIV+.)

I mention all this because it falls in line with other cases I’ve covered as a reporter.

I’m very happy to ascribe fanatical religious/political/terrorist motives. But as a reporter, I’ve also covered seven mass murders (Stockton, Tucson, Aurora and Newtown among them) and in each case I was one of the journalists assigned to find out as much as possible about the suspect.

In each case, I came to have a very nuanced, though at the same time quite cloudy, view of the way the person thought or appears to have thought before he died. Because in the end, that’s the truth of the matter. It lies usually quite a way from how things appeared on first blush.

In Stockton (1989, the first of these mass shootings), we thought the shooter must have harbored great hatred for Asians, as the elementary school he fired on was largely SE Asian. In time, I grew to believe that he may have had some cloudy hateful ideas about Asians, but that was the most you could probably say. In fact, he was probably incapable of holding a clear thought of any kind – this from all I learned about his life up to then, and then his motel room where he spent his last night (with little green plastic soldiers deployed all over the room and a shirt on which he had written, “Death to the Great Satin” Mateen 3sic).

If anyone can tell me the clear thoughts that the shooters in Tucson, Aurora and Newtown had, I’d be very interested to hear. To me, they were all lost boys, murky in thinking, crazy, festering and unbalanced. Hence, finding a political meaning behind their actions was very difficult. We at first thought the Tucson shooter was a Tea Party member because he shot a Democratic congresswoman. Now, I can say with conviction that he was another boy out of his mind, lost, unfriended, scary to many, apolitical, and left by his parent to dangle on his own in the nether-reaches of virtual games.

This Orlando killer may have had some vague ideas of doing something for Allah and the Islamic state or (I now hear maybe) Hezbollah – I’m very willing to buy that. That’s who fanaticism wraps in its warm cloak – the lost, the embittered, the unbalanced. But the first information you get in these cases needs always to be balanced and blended with info, usually clearer, that comes later. So the stuff about his hanging out in Pulse for a year offers insight that we ought not ignore.Mateen 4

I can say that he does not seem like the Boston bombers, or the San Bernardino couple – all of whom were very focused, confirmed and dedicated Islamic terrorists, though perhaps technically solitary actors.

Those folks had a lot in common with Stavrogin, of Dostoevsky’s The Devils. Omar Mateen did not – at least that’s how it seems to me at this point.

Seems to me that his call to the cops about ISIS as he was shooting up the club was a way of very loudly saying, “…and just so’s you know, I’m NOT gay!”

What better way to say that than to invoke the world’s most notorious homophobes?

Then again, I’m always ready to let new facts change my mind.


Filed under Culture, Storytelling, Writing

Carthage, IL: Frozen Yogurt & Kids Who Fear of Summer

In the farming town of Carthage, Illinois, a lot of kids are afraid of summer.IMG_1205

Ada Bair told me this. Ada runs a rural hospital in Carthage, population 2700, in Hancock County in western Illinois. I met her in Springfield, where I spoke this week to a conference of rural hospital administrators.

Half the kids in town are eligible for free or reduced lunches. So many Carthage kids rely on school for food, she said, that the idea of summer terrifies them. This is the byproduct of rural poverty, unemployment and now widespread drug addiction.

Yes, kids in America’s farm belt don’t have enough food for the weekend. There’s something very messed up about that.

A few years ago, Ada started Food For Thoughts, which sends home weekend lunches with these kids. Her hospital also now funds free lunches for kids 18 and under through June and July. I’m not sure about August and was afraid to ask.

Six weeks ago, Ada’s husband, Charlie, opened a frozen-yogurt shop in what had been a long-abandoned drive-in bank that he’d bought and remodeled. He calls it Lilly’s, for Ada’s late mother, who helped bag theIMG_1113 lunches for the kids before she passed at age 102 last year. The shop is at Wabash and Madison in downtown Carthage.

“He wanted to do something on a micro scale that could be replicated in other communities to help revive dying downtowns,” Ada said.

Lilly’s operates in an economic desert of shuttered storefronts. It offers chocolate, vanilla, and a flavor that changes periodically; salted carmel pretzel was a big hit. The profits go to Ada’s Food For Thoughts.

Carthage has been thinning out for years now, Ada says. Methode – a company that makes batteries – has finished moving most of what was several hundred jobs down to Mexico, in a process that took 15 years. Farms are consolidating, too. They’re still family farms, but where there was four or five farms and families working them, there is now one. Where there were four or five farm houses on one road, there’s now one. A farm that size is the only way to afford the kind of massive farm equipment they’re selling these dIMG_1115ays.

So there’s just fewer people in Carthage, fewer people to support grocery stores, churches, to form the critical mass to move projects of all kinds. Less community. Made it feel almost like a desert – at least where people are concerned. With that comes isolation and a deep poverty.

Seems to me this also has a lot to do with the opiate-addiction epidemic in America. Isolation – in suburbia or in tiny farming towns. Either way, we’re cut off from each other. Opiates feed on that. As drugs, they create the idea that being alone is preferable. But in a small town or county, they also create the feeling that we’re powerless against them. It’s true; when we work in isolation, all problems are insoluble. Sometimes I get depressed.

But then I meet folks like Ada Bair — a little like Narcan for the soul.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

Good Day in Chillicothe

In Chillicothe, Ohio, the way I understand it, school janitors are heroes.

Many kids are growing up in families of addicts and have no place to go, their home studded with neglect and jagged edges; so they hang around after school. There, janitors have befriended them, bringing them food, IMG_1525giving them a sober adult to talk to and a calm place to hang out.

My family and I spent Thursday in Chillicothe, a southern Ohio town (pop. 21,000) bedeviled, as so many are, by the opiate-addiction epidemic.

I spoke all day long – a radio interview at 6:30 am, meetings with three groups through the day, and a 7 pm public talk at the Majestic Theater, the oldest (1853), continuously operated theater in America. Yet by the end I wasn’t exhausted; I was instead exhilarated by theCHILLICOTHE STUDENTS electric, intense response of people I met.

That’s how it’s been everywhere lately.

Writing Dreamland wasn’t arduous; it was engrossing. But it was also about a tough topic in which the worst of human behavior was on display. So I’m thrilled to see towns like Chillicothe using the book to come together, form alliances, leverage talent, talk about this problem in a way that hasn’t happened before, and do something hopeful.

Heroin seems to be having the opposite effect in Chillicothe that it has on users. If heroin isolates addicts into self-absorption and hyper-consumption, the drug also seems to be bringing people together to fight against it. I see this elsewhere as well and that’s encouraging. I know the problem is big. A new sporting-goods store delayed its opening in Chillicothe for months, I’m told, because it couldn’t find enough workers that could pass a drug IMG_1514test.

I wish I had a better answer to those who asked what to do about families where drug addiction is now generational, where the grandparents on down are using, where great-grandparents are raising their grandchildren’s kids. Kentucky Gov. Matt Bevin, the day before in Louisville, told me that his state is on the verge of losing an entire generation, swallowed up in a morass of dependence, unemployment and now opiates. Kentucky has more able-bodied, working-age people who aren’t working than those who are, he said. That feels scary.

Heroin, it seems, is the final nausea to afflict small towns and rural communities already crushed by the farm crisis, downsizing, outsourcing, the loss of local retail, depopulation, and more. It seems that heroin has IMG_1591pushed many places to a life-or-death moment.

Knowing that, though, I also can’t help but recognize the energy I’ve been encountering in the people I meet.

In manufacturing, as I understand it, innovation happens through immersion in the work, people knowing the production process so well that together they find new, small, better ways to improve on how to make something.

Fighting heroin, I believe, is the same. When people come together, work together, knowing their community and its problems, when they leverage their talents and energies, the solutions specific to that place will emerge. I believe that.

And just as manufacturing processes improve incrementally, in small steps, so this problem has no sexy silver IMG_1592bullet, I suspect, but will be best fought with a combination of tiny efforts, many partial solutions, none of which is perfect, but together amount to something powerful. That’s good. Haven’t we had enough, after all, of the one sexy solution to solve all our problems: Didn’t `one pill for all people and every kind of pain’ do enough damage?

While I was writing Dreamland, people seemed to work in isolation, cut off from each other. Parents of addicts seemed hidden, silent. That’s the biggest change I’ve seen. People have now started talking about this issue, forming new alliances, comparing notes.

In Chillicothe, we stayed in the Carlisle, a beautiful brick building, restored after many years empty due to a fire. A hospital group decided to move into downtown and refurbish the building, believing apparently that it served the community best by being part of the revival of its core. The Majestic Theater will soon get a renovation. Luckily, the town never tore down its old beautiful brick buildings, which are being repurposed. New retail businesses are opening downtown. A t-shirt shop sells shirts of companies that have left town. My daughter now has a shirt proclaiming “Chillicothe, Ohio.” So the town seems to be rebounding, even as it battles this debilitating scourge. Maybe that’s the story – complicated, and not easily or neatly told.

I want to thank the people of Chillicothe for so hospitably welcoming my family and me. Thanks to Hudson Ward, at the Carlisle.

Thanks especially to Nick Tepe, the county’s head librarian, for organizing folks to bring us to town. Librarians ought to be playing exactly this kind of role in communities, and Ross County, Ohio seems to be blessed with a talented one.

Next, I’m heading to Knoxville, for the International Tuba and Euphonium Conference. And from there to Springfield, IL to speak to a conference of that state’s rural hospitals.

Meanwhile, Chillicothe had an annual street fair going while we were there, known as The Feast:

This slideshow requires JavaScript.



Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, Storytelling, The Heroin Heartland

Going Home to The Bronx

In 1970-71, my family lived in the Bronx – the Norwood Heights section – on a street called Bainbridge Avenue. I attended sixth grade at a school named P.S. 56 (Public School) – in a class taught by  Mrs. Tinkelman. My father was teaching at City College of New York and my mother was completing her masters at IMG_0282Fordham.

It was a remarkable change for a kid from the bleached L.A. suburb of Claremont, where everything was sunny, non-ethnic, where migrants from across America had landed and left a lot of who they were back home.

My PS 56 classmates were Jews, Italian-Americans, Irish-Americans, a Ukrainian, a Puerto Rican, and about 10 black kids bussed in from South Bronx. It was the first time I’d known any kids you could describe in those ways. It was nothing like I had ever experienced back in suburban L.A. I loved the time. Their accents seemed to come from mafia movies. I learned to play stickball. The Jewish boys I knew all wore ties to school every day. A few of the black kids talked back to the teacher constantly, which amazed me, but they always did their homework.

On Wednesdays, for the weekly assembly, the school required the girls to wear white dresses, and we boys to wear white shirts and ties, which in time I grew to like.

At school was the first I heard the term “high waters” – this in reference to pants I was wearing. I had no idea what people were talking about at first, then I did and insisted my mom buy me better-fitting jeans. I also spent the entire year thinking “Ho” was a reference to a garden tool but didn’t understand why the tool would be so often mentioned.

I bought my first 45s – “Let It Be,” the song that most reminds me of the Bronx, and “I’ll Be There,” which is the second-most. My parents enrolled my brother, Nate, and me in an “ecology” class at the Natural History Museum in Manhattan. Every Saturday for eight weeks, we’d march to the elevated train on Jerome Avenue and take the subway into town – two boys alone, ages 11 and 9. Never had a problem.

That year, the World Trade towers were completed, Frank Serpico was in the news, and the bank robbery happened that was later made into the movie “Dog Day Afternoon.” Times Square did not look like corporate Disneyland – but in fact looked quite the opposite.

In the Bronx, I met the first two kids I’d ever known with my last name. Puerto Rican brothers. We played basketball together at the Mosholu-Montefiore Community Center, where I also took a pottery class. I had my first girlfriend at PS 56, though I was terrified to talk to her. Her name was Linda Neihardt.

At school, I was milk monitor, distributing milk to the other classes, along with Frankie Campbell, Salvatore, and Terry – whose last names I’ve long forgotten. We spent time around Joe the Janitor, who had a heavy New York accent. I always wondered what became of them. Frankie and Terry were from South Bronx and were growing up to reach young adulthood as the Bronx famously became a war zone.

When Muhammad Ali fought Joe Frazier for the first time in the Fight of the Century, which it probably was, I was the only kid in my class rooting for Ali. I found this strange, for to me Muhammad Ali was the only reason to care about the sport of boxing, and I haven’t since he retired. Several kids asked me why I had moved from California to New York as so many folks were headed the other direction.IMG_0402

Yesterday, I was invited to speak about my book at the nearby Montefiore Hospital’s psychiatry department. Afterward, my daughter and I walked down a transformed Bainbridge Avenue. The house where I lived for a year is now home to the hospital’s Children’s Psychiatry unit. The Bainbridge Pizzeria, which served still the best pizza I’ve ever had, is now the Norwood Grocery. Bainbridge is dotted with 99-cents stores, small Chinese and Latin restaurants, cellphone shops and beauty parlors.

P.S. 56 when I went there was woefully under serviced, with ancient plumbing and only a small patch of fenced-off grass. Now it is under complete reconstruction. A worker told them they were adding new classrooms, a new gym, and a playground. It’s due to open in September.IMG_0319

The area is now home to mainly Dominicans, but also Muslims (judging from women in shador dress), Pakistanis, some Mexicans (judging from a store or two), and blacks. No white people at all.

This change probably came many years ago, and I found it fascinating because I had not heard in the news that it had happened. I found that encouraging.

In the countries where many of these immigrants, and those with whom I lived, are from, the concept of “holy land” and who it belongs to seems part of the history of life. Ancient battles, purges and pogroms, bitter feuds tenderly nurtured over generations divide one ethnic or religious group from another and keep neighborhoods, villages, static and unchanging.

(In the years after I left, the neighborhood became a refuge for folks from Northern Ireland escaping the violence there, was known as Little Belfast and was a hotbed of support for the IRA. Norwood spawned one Irish band, Black 47. The Irish influence waned after peace came to Northern Ireland and folks returned.)

This concept is foreign to anyone from Southern California, with its rambunctious real estate market that shapes neighborhoods, then reshapes them again 25 years later, and aggressive sunshine I’ve always felt helps people leave the Old World behind.

True, it has had its eruptions in the form of gang feuds and violence, but they have subsided to the point where they almost don’t eIMG_0386xist any more.

I don’t know how well folks in the neighborhood get along today. It wasn’t perfect back when I was living there.

But in Norwood Heights, a massive demographic transformation took place twice in the space of 40 years and it happened quietly, organically and without the kind of eruptions that might attract national, much less worldwide, attention.

It felt good to be back.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized