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.

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

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

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“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.”

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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

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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.

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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:

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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.

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Obama, Elkhart & the Dope of 24-Hour News

Elkhart, Indiana sounds like a town that needs to stop watching 24-hour news.

This Jackie Calmes story in the New York Times reports that the town once on its back, having lostIMG_0638 many jobs and about to lose thousands more should Chrysler have gone under in 2009, has rebounded from the depths of the Great Recession and now is near full employment (3.8% unemployment down from 23%).

This has a lot to do with Barack Obama’s auto bailout and stimulus package passed to resuscitate the ravaged economy he inherited upon taking office.

Obama visited this town as a candidate and as president and did not forget it, but instead helped save it. Yet support for him is weak in Elkhart, Indiana. Yet somehow they find something to support in Donald Trump, and can only fault the president.

The problem here goes pretty deep, I think. If nothing – not even solid political performance – is good enough for us any more, who are we then?  Has the great American ideal of accountability been taken to such absurd extremes? Will only perfection suffice?

It used to be common for people to have mixed allegiances, because their politics were born of their towns and the solutions people saw locally, which stretched quite naturally across party lines. Today we’ve grown into bubbles, even locally, obeying the stark divides in Washington and in the broadcast media. We view politics as some sports contest and we’re fans of one team or another. I’ll admit it: nothing the Dallas Cowboys do is going to make me their fan. But that’s not how politics, governing should be.

We  excoriate government, but government is our way of coming together, in community, to solve problems.

Why imitate our national political leaders who live captive to politics as sport? And what about some courtesy? How about saying thank you?

I’ve written a lot about my belief that our heroin and pain pill-addiction problem stems from years of destroying community in this country, leaving us without the social immune system to combat a drug as isolating as opiates. Elkhart is one place where that happened. Now it appears that this town is forming community again, becoming a place where people are working and putting their lives back together. I assume it’s not perfect and that much remains to be done.

But this attitude expressed by people in Elkhart now that things are better, to me, feels childish, feels unserious. Above all, it feels as if they’ve downed too much of the dope of alarm, frenzy and anger dealt by 24-hour cable news and talk radio, which traffic in all that and never heard of a solution to a problem, nor reported on one.

We luxuriate in complaining about politicians, yet won’t support those who follow through and who help create community out of destruction?

Seems to me that if we believe the alarmism of 24-hour cable news despite the evidence looking us in the face, then we’ve become infantile, hardly deserving of our world-power status, and we deserve the loonies we get.

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Filed under Dreamland, Global Economy, The Heroin Heartland

Francis, Mexican bishops, & the New World

Pope Francis had something wonderful to say to the bishops of Mexico yesterday.

“Be vigilant so that your vision will not be darkened by the gloomy mist of worldliness; do not allow yourselves to be corrupted by trivial materialism or by the seductive illusion of underhanded agreements; do not place
your faith in the ‘chariots and horses’ of today’s pharaohs. …”

and

“Do not lose time or energy in secondary things, in gossip or intrigue, in conceited schemes of careerism, in empty plans for superiority, in unproductive groups that seek benefits or common interests. … Do not allow yourselves to be dragged into gossip and slander. … If you want to fight, do it, but as men do. Say it to each other’s faces and after that, like men of God, pray together. If you went too far, ask for forgiveness.”

IMG_9512If there are clerics in this world due for a spiritual tongue-lashing, it’s Mexican bishops.

When I lived there, I was struck by how uninterested most bishops (and there were notable exceptions) seemed in the country’s poor. Many seemed either absorbed with ritual, or with political intrigue and playing golf with the powerful – either oblivious to, or studiously ignoring, the country’s towering wave of poverty, throttled opportunity and energy, and of course, today, violence.

In the most deeply Catholic parts of the country – Oaxaca and Chiapas – it was as if the church hadn’t changed much since the Spaniards brought it over. The priest was viewed as a quasi-deity in many Oaxacan villages. People were not allowed to look at him when he walked their streets – this as recently as the 1970s, from people I’ve spoken to. The religious traditions of those villages – the fiestas that poor peasant farmers had to pay for, miring them in debt for years; the incessant use of alcohol – have served to keep generations of people poor.

Thus so many Mexicans, especially so many Mexican Indians from isolated villages in states like Chiapas and Oaxaca, convert to Protestant denominations when they leave their home towns.

Look at Pico-Union and South Central Los Angeles, or the agricultural Valley of San Quintin in Baja California. You will see hundreds of new churches – Pentecostal, Baptist, Jehovah’s Witness and more – many of which were formed by Zapotecas, Mixtecs, and Mayans who were once thought to be the bedrock of Mexican Catholicism.

They were easy to control when they hadn’t seen anything of the New World, and were cloistered in the Old.

Away from the limitations, prohibitions, and ecclesiastical arrogance they grew up with, many seem to feel that spiritual reinvention ought to be as much a part of their new lives as the socio-economic conversion they are going through.

Just as global economic competition has entered Mexico in the last few decades, so too is the country facing religious competition. Too often, the church still seemed to behave as if it had a monopoly on souls.

I thought I saw similarities between the church and how Mexican immigrants turned away from  Gigante, the Mexican grocery-store chain that tried to enter the Southern California market a few years back, thinking it could treat these immigrants the same disparaging way the chain had back home.

Mexican bishops and the Pope ought to visit one of my favorite places in Los Angeles: St. Cecilia Catholic Church, at 42nd and Normandie, a vibrant (and full) church, with congregations, and saints, from Oaxaca, Guatemala, El Salvador and Nigeria.

They’d see how Catholicism wins when it opens itself to its parishioners, allows them to own the church and take an active role in it. They’d see how crucial that is to energizing a congregation now working in the New World and used to, but unhappy with, the ways of the Old.

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Filed under Los Angeles, Mexico, Migrants, Religion

Trump, Heroin & Mexico

A lot has been made lately of Donald Trump and his wish to build walls between the U.S. and Mexico.IMG_4841

This got a new bump recently when the candidate, in New Hampshire, reiterated that he’d build these walls and use them to stop Mexican heroin from coming into the U.S. – New Hampshire being one of many states suffering from huge jumps in opiate addiction.

Opiate addiction appears to be emerging as an issue in the presidential campaign, as well it should.

I’ve read a lot that does seem to be too nuanced on either side of this topic.

Here are a few of my thoughts:

Virtually all our heroin comes from Mexico, or comes from Colombia through Mexico.

Originating now in our hemisphere, heroin now changes hands less and travels far shorter distances than it did when so much of it came from Turkey or Burma (1970s).

All that means that it’s cheaper here than ever, it’s more prevalent, and it’s far more potent. And all that, in turn, has a lot to do with why people begin using it in the first place (cost), and then stay addicted (prevalence), or relapse after rehab, and then why they die more frequently (potency).

Used to be that people (addicts from the 1970s) lived for many years on heroin – when it was more expensive and less potent and more arduous to find. A lot of heroin addicts who started in those years did die, but they died during the AIDS epidemic from sharing needles, not so much from overdoses.

Now heroin addicts aren’t living long; They’re dying young and quickly. I believe that’s because so much of the drug comes from Mexico, making it cheaper, more potent and more prevalent than ever.

* *

We already have walls up in many parts of the border. Heroin already crosses where walls are – Tijuana (two walls) is one example.

When uncut or less cut, heroin is easy to conceal because it’s so concentrated – again because now it comes from Mexico, which is so close.

So you don’t need trucks to get a lot of heroin across – though trucks have been used. A lot of people walk it across at the border crossings hidden in a purse, or a backpack, or on their person.

There’s a market for heroin because there is a demand for it.

* *

That said, I believe that supply is fundamental to this issue – supply created this demand, just as it did during the cocaine days. We didn’t have a huge demand for cocaine before Colombians began smuggling tons of it up through Florida. Likewise, we didn’t have huge numbers of heroin addicts before doctors began prescribing enormous quantities of opioid painkillers such as Vicodin and OxyContin, etc. and a lot of people got addicted, then switched to heroin, which is now, as I said, cheaper than ever.

Heroin traffickers, as I hope I made clear in Dreamland, came late to this party. They followed the demand for opiates that had been created by massive overprescribing by doctors of these painkillers.

* *

Just as we cannot arrest our way out of this problem, we likely cannot treat our way out of it, either. Particularly with treatment costing so much and taking so long. Typical treatment that has any chance of success, from what addiction specialists tell me, is a minimum of nine months. One doc I know insists a year is the minimum.

Curtailing supply is thus essential to giving each attempt at rehab and recovery a greater chance of success. So that every recovering addict isn’t bombarded with dope at every turn, as they are in so many parts of the country today.

* *

That said, among the steps I think we need to take – some of which are articulated by the CDC recently – is retraining doctors to question why they prescribe these drugs and, if they’re necessary, in what quantities. For example, for wisdom tooth extraction, 60 Vicodin is common. That seems crazy to me.

Seems like 6-12 pills would be reasonable, and that the patient should return if he needs more. Doctors prescribe so many of these pills out the gate because they don’t want to see patients a second time, and they know that insurance companies often won’t reimburse for those follow-up visits, no matter how few.

So this problem will require that insurance companies change their practices, and reimburse doctors for follow-up visits for the (again) few patients who might need more of those pills after routine surgery.

* *

Walls have had a healthy effect on the border. Tijuana (two walls, as I said) is an excellent example of that. When it was the main crossing point – 1960s until mid-1990s – rapes, robberies, assaults and murders were common, particularly in the 1980s and early 1990s. Then the first wall went up, then the second. Now it’s calm on that border line. May be a weird symbol for a globalized world, but murders and rapes are rare now.

Despite those walls, heroin will seep in, through the cracks, in ways that seem to me impossible, or extraordinarily expensive, to stop. And that’s not the supply that caused this problem.

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Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland

True Tales From Another Mexico – at 15

Fifteen years ago this week, my first book, True Tales from Another Mexico, was released, just as George Bush was about to make his first trip abroad – to Mexico, governed by its new, duly elected president, Vicente Fox.
cover1big
 
I remember not really being able to absorb the idea that I’d actually written a book. Over the years, it sold only well enough to be known as a “cult classic” – a description I like.
I think it remains relevant, largely because of the stories in it: A colony of drag queens, a lynching, Oaxacan indian basketball players, the section of the Mexican Congress then known as “The Bronx,” pistoleros, telenovela queens, the Paleteria La Michoacana popsicle makers, the slum boss known as La Loba and her Chippendale dancers, and Chalino Sanchez, the late, great narcocorrido singer.
 
It’s still for sale, and is now on Kindle. … Hope you like it…. 🙂

 

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Tacos and Dope Culture

A new L.A. taco restaurant has a narco theme to it.

Tacos Los Desvelados in Maywood, California named its food for notorious Mexican and Colombian drug traffickers. Chapo Guzman gets a taco, Pablo Escobar gets a burrito, and so on.

That’s pretty funny, and possible only because of Maywood’s safe remove (it’s a small town southeast of Los Angeles) from the real and sinister violence that these guys have created.

Here’s something else that’s not so cute:

Mexico’s Attorney General’s office reports finding 662 bodies in 201 clandestine graves in 16 Mexican states from 2005 to the present. Of those, 380 have been so decomposed that investigators can’t tell if the bodies are of men or women.

In Iguala, Guerrero alone, 63 graves with 133 bodies have been found.

Let’s go get some tacos!

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Heroin and the Super Bowl

“H-E-R-O-I-N – what’s that spell?”
 
This 60-second ad about heroin addiction, filmed at a high school in Missouri, will air during the Super Bowl.
 
A drug that once was associated with jazz musicians, pick-pockets, East LA gang members, NY street hustlers and punk rockers is now featured on our secular holiday, interrupting pizza and guacamole as it’s piped into American homes from Alabama to Alaska.
 
That’s a stunning event for this country.
 
What’s more, millions of people will know someone like that girl.
Post Script: Sadly, the Super Bowl came and went and this spot did not run. Not sure why. If anyone has an idea, please let me know.

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Filed under Dreamland, Drugs, The Heroin Heartland