Bruce Wayne and the Rule of Law

You can learn a lot from Lyft drivers.

One thing I tend to encounter is stories of how we become American.

I met a Lyft driver recently named Aldo. He’s from Guatemala and came here 30 years ago, at 14, escaping civil war.

He doesn’t want anything to do with Guatemala, he told me.

He went back for the first time not long ago, and couldn’t stand it. There’s no rule of law. “Nobody follows the rules,” he said. “You can’t just drive along peacefully like this. You gotta be aware of these other drivers running redlights. Motorcyclists coming up to rob you.”

I’ve heard the greatest stories from Lyft drivers. I met the brother of the champion of Mongolian BMX racing one time. Another was a Vietnamese screenwriter. A third was a Dreamer.

As Aldo and I drove along, he extolled the virtues of the Kia Optima hybrid, how he’d lived peacefully with his family in South Gate for eight years until his landlord married a Colombian woman and she started causing problems.

He told me he’d adopted his wife’s children — she was legally changing her name from Maria de la Luz to Lucy — raised them and they are now grown or growing. That he contracted polio when he was born and walks with crutches.

In Guatemalan, he couldn’t go back to his old neighborhood because he might not be able to leave it. He also couldn’t stand the smells in the outdoor markets.

So he came back from his visit home, and is getting his U.S. citizenship next year. And when he does he’ll change his name to Batman’s alter ego.

“I’m American,” he told me. “Everybody knows him.”

 

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Mexican Mafia Chronicles: Champ Reynoso Dies

Word was recently passed to me that another of the pioneers of the country’s most damaging prison gangs, the Mexican Mafia, has died.

Adolph “Champ” Reynoso passed at a Colorado hospital near the federal maximum-security lockup where he’d spent his last many years. He was 75.

Reynoso was part of L.A. crime lore. He was a member of Big Hazard, an East LA street gang.

Later, he was made a member of the Mexican Mafia while in prison. He was one of the 22 Eme members indicted in the first federal RICO case against the gang — coming in 1995, and hingeing on the testimony of Ernie “Chuco” Castro, up to that point one of the most influential members of the organization.

The trial pulled back the veil on the mafia in several ways – one of which was to reveal its scheme for using street gang members to tax drug dealers in the barrios of Southern California, the revenue for which was funneled to mafia members and their associates.

The scheme remains in place today and has turned the Mexican Mafia into more than a prison gang –rather, an organization with enormous influence beyond prison walls.

Years later, now 61, Reynoso was identified as a leader of the Eme in the Supermax prison at Florence, Colorado, in testimony about a hit that took place within the gang at the prison.

At his passing, he was deemed the highest-ranking active Mexican Mafia member.

The last few years have seen the passing of several Eme figures from those years — those who formed or spread the Eme: Peter “Sana” Ojeda, Frank “Frankie B” Buelna, Ruben Rodriguez, “Black Dan” Barela. Joe Morgan and Benjamin “Topo” Peters died years ago. Many others have dropped out of the gang while in prison – an exodus that began with Castro, who went into federal witness protection, and, before him, Ramon “Mundo” Mendoza.

Most of the older Eme members, like Reynoso, were heroin addicts on the street — reflecting the fact that their criminal careers began in the late 1960s, early 1970s — a time when heroin crept into the Mexican-American neighborhoods of Southern California with a vengeance.

 

 

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In Praise Of A Great Newspaperman: Mike Fitzgerald, Stockton Record

In 31 years as a reporter, most of them at daily newspapers, I’ve worked with two great columnists.

One was Steve Lopez of the LA Times. The other was Mike Fitzgerald at the Stockton Record.

Mike retires this week, after decades on the job. Here’s his final column.

Great columnists possess one common trait: They’re all newspapers reporters at heart. They sometimes opine on the day’s news, but they usually leave 24-hour news punditry to others.

Instead, what they most believe in is going to talk to the neighbor, the cop, the pastor, or the taco truck owner. Reporting, true and straight. Nothing like it for burning away crud and getting to a joyous kernel of veracity.

That’s what Mike has done as a columnist. He combined that instinct with a deep knowledge of his native town.

Today, awash in the sewage of 24-hour news, we too often confuse columnists with pundits. They are not the same – at least the best columnists aren’t.

The best columnists help you understand where you live, often by pointing out the tiniest corners of the town that you realize only later that you were dying to know about. Mike did that.

It’s not that they don’t have opinions. Columnists’ job, in part, is to have opinions. But these opinions should be based on the relentless collection of facts, not on ideology. Mike did that.

Sadly, we Americans prize pundits, who are cheap, as everyone has an opinion; we don’t want to pay for columnists and thus we are poorer for it. We have too many of the former and one less of the latter today.

Mike and I met when I began my stint as the Record’s crime reporter. He took me around to meet the cops and others that would make up my daily rounds for the next four years (1988-92). That first night we drove to south Stockton where a car had plunged through a house and landed on a woman sleeping in her bed. I’d never known that to happen, but in Stockton I covered another dozen of those.

In a year or two, they made Mike a columnist. We sat across from each other for a couple years, as he churned out terrific snapshots of the corners of the town, of its politics, its neighborhoods filled with Cambodians, Sikhs, Michoacanos, blacks, and the whites of north Stockton and east Stockton – which were then two separate planets.

We covered the horror of Cleveland School together, where a drifter showed up in January 1989 with an AK-47 and killed five kids and wounded 30 more.

We were part of a staff then that I believe the best I ever worked with – young reporters, eager to cover the world, growing with experience, and set loose on a town that was full of stunning, beautiful, crazy, terrible stories.

Mike and I got along because we recognized in each other a kindred spirit: we were both born to be reporters. We’d have been miserable and failures in any other profession.

It helped Mike, too, to that Stockton is one of the great American cities. Integrated, roiling, common-sensical, a lot of problems and a lot of heart.

As Mike writes: “It’s the drug addict in recovery. The Hmong in adult education class. The millennial who wants to live in a high-density downtown community. Filipinos digging out their history to restore their lost narrative.”

Mike got out of the office and told their stories and many more. That’s what great columnists do.

Great columnists keep at it. Mike did that, too. (Read some of those columns here. )

My feeling is that Stockton will miss Mike Fitzgerald a whole lot.

As that feeling grows, meanwhile, I just wanted to say, from one newspaperman to another, thanks, Brother Mike. You done great! -30-

 

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The Bent Spoon Guy & Purdue Pharma

This summer, a sculptor built a steel, 11-foot, 800-pound bent heroin spoon. With the help of an gallery owner, he put it on a trailer and drove it to the headquarters of Purdue Pharma, the manufacturer of OxyContin.

The bent-spoon protest of the country’s opiate epidemic by Massachusetts sculptor Domenic Esposito and Fernando Alvarez, owner of a Connecticut art gallery, stayed in front of the company’s Stamford, CT offices for only two hours before police impounded the sculpture, but it gained worldwide attention.

Alvarez was arrested and eventually convicted of a misdemeanor charge of blocking free passage.

I was in Boston recently and had a chance to meet and talk with Esposito about the episode and what brought it on.

Our conversation ended up including his brother’s addiction, drug marketing, Americans’ pain, and #thespoon movement they hope to ignite.

Great story. Take a listen. Share it if you like it:


 

 

 

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The Palomino Rides Again

I don’t go in for nostalgia much. The Rock N Roll Hall of Fame, for example, seems a sad place to end up, because it means you and what you created are antiques, dead.

So last night, when I went to the resurrection of The Palomino nightclub (for one night only) in the San Fernando Valley, I was wary.

The Palomino, until its closing in 1995, was part of the roiling, ethnically based music scenes that spawned in Los Angeles in the decades before the Internet and changes in the music industry and club world made such conglomerations rare.

Music is created in a time and a place by people from both and eventually they all pass, and only the records remain, which I figure is good enough.

The excuse for last night was to hold a benefit for a new pop-art museum – Valley Relics. Really, though, it was a chance to remember.

But instead of wallowing in the past, a dozen or more singers showcased the beauty of the music created at The Palomino. True, there were a few too many speeches about how great things were back when. But what I’ll take with me is a raw and simple sweetness, intensity, and longing in the music that I don’t associate with oldies, nostalgia shows.

Three monster backup bands, including one led by guitarist James Intveld, who got his start at The Palomino, were worth paying to see by themselves; his band included the tremendous Marty Rifkin on pedal steel.

Last night, I was finally able to see Rosie Flores, who rocks as hard as anyone. Jim Lauderdale was impeccable and has a voice that, if anything, has improved with age. I first heard him on an anthology album called A Town South of Bakersfield that I found sometime in the early 1990s and was my introduction to LA country.

Most unexpectedly, Gunnar Nelson, of the heartthrob band Nelson, and son of TV-teen-idol-turned-country-act Rick Nelson, showed up to play a Dylan song and two by his late father. He told the story behind his dad’s hit, “Garden Party,” which Rick Nelson wrote after playing a Madison Square Garden oldies show, only now he was playing hippie country music and the crowd hated it. He wrote the song and its chorus (“You can’t please everyone so you gotta please yourself.”) in response. Never knew that story. The song took on a power and poignancy I’d never associated with it until his son played it.

(I’ll admit to not knowing until today that Intveld’s brother, Rick, played in Rick Nelson’s Stone Canyon Band and both were killed when the band’s plane crashed in Texas in 1985.)

A slide show on a wall reminded us that the great days of The Palomino were the 1970s and into the 1980s. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. Those were great years for music scenes in L.A., and thus for the clubs where they found their legs.

In the late 1970s, legions of white punks in Hollywood created their own scene, complete with clubs but also halls rented for DIY shows. That was followed in the mid-1980s by black kids from Compton creating beats in their garages on SP 1200 drum machines, birthing gangsta rap. Not long after that, the narcocorrido scene emerged in the newly forged Mexican-immigrant enclaves of South Gate, Bell, Huntington Park, Lynwood southeast of L.A., growing from the music of Chalino Sanchez, who was murdered in 1992.

All of these had in common a lot of young folks who were initially ignored by the recording industry and mainstream radio, and who thus learned to make their own records and promote them on their own, selling them in swap meets and outside shows.

Meanwhile, out on Lankersheim in the then-largely white San Fernando Valley, The Palomino attracted huge stars of country music – Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, George Jones, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Tom T. Hall, Marty Robbins, Kris Kristofferson. But the club was also a magnet for young musicians who came to LA from all over to play country music. Some of the best country music in America was created there.

The Palomino offered what all music scenes must have: A venue for young artists and bands to aspire to, a place to hone, to be heard and discovered. Dwight Yoakam was an opening act there. The club was also a hangout for young actors and stuntmen in the film industry.

So last night was a good night. In the end maybe I was affected by some bit of nostalgia. The night made me yearn for the days when I was going to the Hong Kong Café and watching the Germs, the Plugz and the Go-Gos on the same small stage. (I think I once went to The Palomino – can’t remember any more – but I do know that back then a trip to the 818 was, for me, almost like a trip to another country, so it didn’t happen much.)

Today, from what I can see, the era of the L.A. music scene is largely dead. My take is that the Internet has made music so easy to create that the industry has fragmented into a million little pieces and no sufficiently large critical mass of fans, clubs, and media attention can form around a small group of artists doing daring new stuff. Everything’s so diffuse. Listen to KCRW and you rarely hear the same band – they just cascade by.

I’m sure someone will correct me on this. Maybe I’m not paying as much attention as I used to.

But going out to dive clubs where daring music is played doesn’t seem quite the thing it once was. Without the clubs as centers of community where fans can see musicians and musicians can improve – like, in their day, the Hong Kong Café, El Parral, and The Palomino – it’s hard to imagine that kind of musical effervescence repeated.

Which is not to say new stuff won’t come along – it just may not happen in a community the way it once did.

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Topeka and Brown v. Board

I’m here in Topeka, Kansas, where I’m speaking to the Kansas Medical Society, and it’s an overcast day.

First time here. So I stopped in at the Brown v. Board of Education historic site in the southwest part of town, where the neighborhoods have a lot of nice wooden houses with porches under tall trees.

The site is the old Monroe Elementary School, once segregated, where the black families who brought the suit had their children enrolled.

Oliver Brown and his daughter Linda Brown were the lead plaintiffs in the case. In 1950, they had gone to a white school to enroll Linda. They were turned away. Their case went to the Supreme Court and changed America by, among other things, beginning our country’s agonizing process of living up to our constitution as written.

The court’s 1954 ruling, of course, overturned the idea, enshrined in U.S. law following the Supreme Court ruling in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896), that separate and equal public schools were constitutional.

Using the Brown case as a test, the NAACP and its attorney Thurgood Marshall argued that separate but equal violated the 14thAmendment. The amendment was passed during Reconstruction guaranteeing, among other things, equal protection under the law. Jim Crow had suffocated the amendment.

The court agreed unanimously with Marshall — and with that began the resuscitation of that part of the Constitution.

I learned a few things.

One was that Brown was only the lead of five school segregation cases that were argued before the Supreme Court that day. Others were from South Carolina, Virginia, Delaware and Washington DC. The Kansas case was chosen as the lead case because the effects of segregation were less bad – the differences between white and black schools weren’t as pronounced — and thus the case had the potential for setting a new high standard for black schools – that of white schools in Kansas. In some cases, the black schools were actually better than the white schools. So a ranger explained to me.

The idea of choosing Topeka as the lead suit was to make school segregation itself, and not the school quality, the key issue.

Also, I learned that Topeka didn’t wait, but began integrating its schools a year before the Supreme Court’s ruling. Other regions of the country, of course, rebelled.

I heard the name of Charles Houston for the first time.

Houston was the dean of the Howard University Law School who turned the school into a “West Point for civil rights attorneys,” mentoring Thurgood Marshall, as well as many other less-heralded but equally energetic attorneys.

Sounds like quite a figure in American history.

I bought a biography of Marshall written by Juan Williams because it appears to have a lot of references to him. Houston worked his students like a drill instructor, flunked a good many, and had a saying when students complained about the hard work: “no tea for the feeble; no crepe for the dead.” In time, he took Howard Law from an unaccredited backwater into a powerhouse, churning out talents attorneys whom I suspect, like Marshall, helped change the country.

Through all our complicated history, the courts remain the place, as Houston knew, where people, though it would take so much painful time, eventually could find justice.

Here’s a photo of Linda Brown, who was 7 and in the 3rd grade when her father first took her to that white school to be denied enrollment. That’s quite a dramatic image – this big man holding his daughter hand in his as they walk up the steps into this school where they’ll likely be rebuffed.

She became a Head Start teacher and died earlier this year at the age of 76.

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Coming Soon: Money For Three Addiction Research Centers

The National Institute of Health yesterday announced what sounds like a major new push to attack the opiate epidemic at the community level.

A big part of what it’s calling its HEALing Communities initiative will be to try to integrate prevention and treatment efforts for addicts while strengthening communities.

There’s more than that, though.

Two years ago, I wrote about the potential for economic development to the Ohio River Valley region that I thought could come from the region positioning itself as a center for addiction research. Northern Kentucky University, and their provost, Sue Ott Rowlands, picked up on that idea, I’m honored to say, and the Ohio River Valley Research Consortium was formed.

It now appears that within the NIH push is what is described to me as “a lot” of money (though how much is as yet unknown) to establish three research centers around the country. Here are the guidelines for applying for that money.

Sounds like it might be a good moment for folks in the tri-state Ohio River Valley, so badly hit by the epidemic and deindustrialization, to marshal some forces and look to the future of what such a center can mean for research, dollars, and attracting PhDs to the area — and what all that might mean, in turn, for regional economic development.

They might also consider, as I wrote two years ago, what such a center could mean for all those recovering addicts now studying to be drug counselors and social workers, who might be hired to help in the studies such a center would fund.

After so many years of negative behavior, many I’ve met are now eager to be part of something positive and something bigger than themselves. Harnessing them could mean a massive infusion of new energy to a region that’s lost a lot of it.

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A Poem For 9/11: Shanksville

This being the anniversary of the terrorist attacks on our country of Sept. 11, 2001, I’m publishing a poem written about the day by my father, who is professor emeritus of comparative literature from Claremont McKenna College.

Shanksville

By Ricardo Quinones

Whatever it was,
Needing a companion at 40,000 feet,
The accumulating spotty clouds
Suggesting the beetle bush wildness
That overhung his eyes;
The patches of ground below
That resembled the  splotches
Of his nearing-ninety skin,
Or the flight path itself
Southeast of Pittsburgh,
Some twenty minutes from  D.C.
Placing us directly over Shanksville,
The last great chapter of American democracy.
All conspired to bring  to mind
The presence that they required.
And so I said to the  presiding form
The poetic father of us all
“Kitty Hawk, Kitty Hawk,”
And he, pleased by the recollection,
Replied, “Shanksville, a name quite different,
Like many along these rural roads,
But what’s in a name?
What matters  are the revelations they contain.”
Out of the depths of the American past,
He established the tableau of vision
That would govern our conversation.
*
The Wright brothers had it all,
The turn-of-the-century
Tinkerer’s genius of invention
Coupled with the thirst for competition.
The French were dogging their tails.
But they were masters of locomotion
And at Kitty Hawk
Were the first to lift a powered device
Weighing more than air
Twenty feet off the ground for twenty seconds
A distance of 120 feet.
To the derision and abuse
Their claims elicited
Galileo’s defense was ready for use,
Eppure si muove,” nevertheless it flew.
The French with justice in their hearts
Were brought to admit and apologize
For discrediting this first adventure into space
That in more than a half -century’s time
Would send a human to stroll on the moon. Continue reading

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Orchard Supply Hardware And The Mediocrity of Millionaires

Today I learned that the Orchard Supply Hardware store near me is closing.

Some 4300 people* are losing their jobs. A chain of growing and seemingly profitable hardware stores, serving well their communities, is being liquidated.

OSH, as it’s known, has 99 stores in California, Oregon and Florida. If you don’t live in those states, you may wonder why this matters to you. But it does.

For this is not about globalization, or low-skilled immigrants stealing 4300 jobs. Instead it’s Wall Street; it’s about a few rich guys who need to make their numbers.

When I talk about Dreamland, I often say that our opiate epidemic grew from our destruction of community, in many ways, all across America. The demise of Orchard Supply Hardware, announced last week, is the kind of thing I’m talking about.

OSH was a place where the community came, where people bought things with which they built their homes and yards.

The store had a rare combination in hardware these days: great customer service and smaller stores. That meant you could actually find the things you needed. This earned it $600 million in sales last year. OSH, which is owned by Lowe’s, was expanding.

OSH is a chain but people I know feel like it’s their local hardware store. I didn’t buy hardware anywhere else. With all the crappy chain stores and chain restaurants we Americans have to tolerate stomping all over our country, here was one that people actually wanted to shop in, and felt close to.

It seemed that behind OSH was a creative idea: position it as an alternative in a world where customers are moving away from big box stores they have to drive for miles to get to. Smaller stores, easier to get to, alert and knowledgeable staff.

Sadly, Lowe’s backed off this inventive positioning of OSH in July when it hired Marvin Ellison as CEO.

Ellison was the CEO of JCPenney. There, he ran the company into its worst quarter ever. In his last quarter, the company lost $69 million and its stock hit an historic low. In his three years there, JCP shares dropped by more than half. For that record, he was compensated with $10.8 million in cash and stock in 2017, then hired this year to revitalize Lowe’s.

You may wonder: What about that record makes this guy worth hiring anywhere?

You may wonder: What company looking to rebound in this retail environment would hire anyone from JCPenney?

Another question that may occur to you is, why does Lowe’s feel in such a hurry to boost its stock price? Well one reason, apparently, is that a big chunk of Lowe’s stock has been purchased by Bill Ackman, an activist hedge-fund investor, who is hankering for change and wanted Ellison.

Why anyone would listen to Ackman’s advice on business is an interesting question. His hedge fund has lost half its value in the bull market of the last three years.

Ackman is the guy pushing things to go fast at Lowe’s. And he’s the reason the former CEO, a guy with some long-term vision, was booted.

Here’s why: Ackman’s hedge fund once had $20 billion, but as investors have pulled out amid its poor performance, the fund now has only $8 billion. Of that, he’s betting $1 billion on Lowe’s stock to rise, and quickly, to staunch the investor exodus. (For more, watch this CNBC interview.)

Thus, Forbes wrote, “The Lowe’s clock is ticking. And with Ackman as the timekeeper, Marvin Ellison is a man in a hurry.”

First idea: liquidate a growing and seemingly profitable chain of stores and its 4300 employees. Double down on big-box retailing just as consumers are rejecting it.

Mind you, this has nothing to do with improving the long-term viability of Lowe’s as a business.

But I guess if I’d lost as much money as Ackman has, I’d be in a hurry to earn it back, too.

Still, you know, Ackman and Ellison might take a moment. Common folks are paying the price: the employees, the contractors and communities that rely on those stores.

In corporate America — as we’ve swooned over it, exalted it, praised its wealthy leaders for making themselves lots of money — the clear hunch I have is that, really, a lot of the fellows at the top are not that good. It’s mediocrity on parade a lot of the time, insulated from results, from any whiff of merit pay, and from the consequences of their failures, particularly as they are felt in towns across America.

I spoke to a guy at my OSH store who said he had worked for the company for 20 years. Here’s how he was told the news: On the afternoon of Tuesday last, company officials suddenly shut the store, escorted the remaining customers out, assembled the staff, and let them know their jobs were ending; the store was closing Oct. 20.

“Today you’re Orchard Supply Hardware. Tomorrow you belong to liquidators,” he said they were told.

Within a couple days, “Everything Must Go” signs were all over the store.

You may wonder: How is that okay?

Here’s Ellison: Lowe’s is “developing plans to aggressively rationalize store inventory, reducing lower-performing inventory while investing in increased depth of high-velocity items. Exiting Orchard Supply Hardware and rationalizing inventory are the driving force behind the changes to Lowe’s Business Outlook.”

So they’re going to stock stuff that sells well. Brilliant idea.

But why does that mean OSH must close? Why not sell it to someone who actually gives a damn about Americans and their communities, and who has the creativity and energy to run such a company?

(NOTE: A Lowe’s spokeswoman emailed me this morning (8/29) with this response to the columns, saying that OSH was not profitable:

We are working hard to make this transition as smooth as possible for our associates and our customers.  We will be retaining our associates through the store closure process and are encouraging them to apply for open roles at Lowe’s stores, where they will receive priority status. Associates will receive job placement assistance, and we will be providing eligibility for severance. 86 percent of Orchard locations are located within 10 miles of a Lowe’s store.

The decision to exit Orchard was based on the need to focus growing our core home improvement business and deploy our capital to more profitable projects. Orchard’s 2017 earnings before interest and taxes (EBIT) was a -$65 million on sales of approximately $605 million.*)

Instead, Marvin Ellison, escaping JCPenney, decided within less than two months to close 99 stores and lay off 4300 people.

All because? Well apparently Bill Ackman has lost a lot of money in bad investments.

As I’ve traveled the country, I’ve learned that the cost of losing Main Street has been incalculable – yet we bow to the free market as if we have no choice. That’s what’s happening here.

The good news? Lowe’s stock price has gone up a few bucks – so I guess we can all breathe easier.

This move will harm Lowe’s in the long run. I know sales are going online, but hardware will always be different. Customers need that contact with sales staff who know their stuff. Even contractors say that. (See a video about contractors’ opinions on OSH closing.)

OSH formed in 1931. Many years later it was bought by Sears, whose glory days were well behind it, looking to spruce up its home-improvement position. Owned finally by a hedge fund, Sears apparently did what Sears is now known for as a hedge-fund property – it muddled through. (Read an LA Times story here.)

Finally, it spun the company off, but not before saddling it with enormous debt. Naturally, that debt crushed OSH into bankruptcy within two years. This is how Business Insider described it:

“In 2005, Sears Holdings – by then run by hedge-fund guy Eddie Lampert – announced that it would extract a special dividend of $450 million out of OSH, and that OSH would borrow the money to pay this dividend.

“In January 2012, in typical private-equity manner, the now heavily indebted OSH was spun off to the public; 18 months later, in June 2013, OSH, buckling under this debt that Sears Holdings had put on it, filed for bankruptcy.”

In bankruptcy, OSH was bought in 2013 by Lowe’s, which, under then-CEO Robert Niblock, did some great things. Above all, it remodeled OSH stores. Funny what happens when you invest as if for the long run. The staff now seemed motivated. The store came to life; so apparently did the chain. In Pasadena, it became one of the city’s biggest sales-tax generators

Until that day in July when OSH’s parent company hired a guy from JCPenney at the behest of a hedge-fund owner losing money in a bull market.

You may wonder at it all.

If so, here’s a petition to make yourselves felt. Please share it, and this article, if you like it.

  • (Correction: I originally noted the number of OSH employees as 5400. A Lowe’s spokeswoman informs me that the correct number is 4300 and I’ve made that correction throughout.)

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Louisville: Jail Among The Solutions

In Louisville the other day, I wanted to see how jail was changing in America.

This epidemic of opiate addictions  calling on us to reexamine a lot about how we live, our values, culture, ideas and institutions we’ve taken for granted.

One of them is jail. Jail has always been a crippling liability in our fight against drug abuse. Jails are usually places where humans vegetate, sit around, argue, learn better criminal techniques, then get out weary and stressed and, if they’re addicted to drugs, they head straight to the dealer’s house.

This epidemic is forcing new ideas. One of them is jail turned into an asset, a place of nurturing, of communion as addicts learn to help each other.

That’s a bizarre concept. I never thought I’d write “nurturing” and “jail” in the same sentence, but it’s happening.

The state of Kentucky seems furthest along in all this. I wrote an Op-Ed column for the NY Times about a visit I paid to the jail in Kenton County, Kentucky. Yet what’s being tried in Kenton County – and a couple dozen other county jails in Kentucky — began in Louisville – in Metro Jail.

Why jail?

Well, if “we can’t arrest our way out of this,” as is so often said, then we need more drug-addiction treatment. Yet this epidemic has swamped our treatment-center infrastructure. New centers are costly to build, politically difficult to site, and entering them is beyond the means of most uninsured street addicts, anyway.

I know that jailing addicts is anathema to treatment advocates. But opiates are mind-controlling beasts. Waiting for an addict to reach rock bottom and make a rational choice to seek treatment sounds nice in theory. But it ignores the nature of the drugs in question, while also assuming a private treatment bed is miraculously available at the moment the street addict is willing to occupy it. With opiates rock bottom is often death.

Jail can be a necessary, maybe the only, lever with which to encourage or force an addict to seek treatment before it’s too late. In jail, addicts first interface with the criminal-justice system, long before they commit crimes that warrant a prison sentence. Once detoxed of the dope that has controlled their decisions, jail is where addicts more clearly behold the wreckage of their lives. The problem has been that it’s at this very moment of contrition when they have been plunged into a jail world of extortion, violence, and tedium. It’s a horrible waste of an opportunity, and almost guarantees recidivism.

With this epidemic, though, we’re seeing new approaches – jail as a place of rehabilitation, a place where recovery can begin.

Several years ago, as heroin began to grip the area, the Louisville jail saw inmates dying from overdoses.

Mark Bolton, the jail’s director, said the spate of deaths forced new ideas.

“We modeled a pod on outside treatment (centers),” he said. “It became a matter of taking the resources we had and repurposing them. We sent people [to drug rehabilitation centers on the outside] and found out how they run their peer detox program. We learned from them.”

Louisville Metro began with female inmates. Those who were just off the street and detoxing, and who normally were spread across the jail, were placed together in one pod, christened Enough is Enough. This allowed more focus on their needs, and got them away from other inmates who were angered by their withdrawal symptoms, which included vomiting, diarrhea, screaming, insomnia and more.

Jail officials began allowing people in recovery into the detox pod as well. These recovering addicts mentored the new arrivals – washing and soothing them. Officers preferred it, as they no longer had to clean up vomit and diarrhea.

In addition to bathing and caring for those in withdrawal, inmates take classes in relapse prevention, understanding criminal thinking, accountability, parenting, and more; they run their own 12-step groups.

As the Enough is Enough pod began to function, there were fewer fights, less contraband. “Inmates into their recovery and into their sobriety are self-policing. The wear and tear is less,” Bolton said. “After we worked out the bugs, we began to see some of these people show progress. The inmates into their treatment appreciated the fact that they were caring for a human being that was at a place where they had been once.”

When they leave jail, they’re given a Vivitrol shot, which blocks opiates, and they were connected with housing and follow-up Vivitrol shots.

The jail now has the one women’s pod and three pods for men: 56 detox beds and 64 recovery beds, total.

I visited the pod – with about 30 women, four of whom were detoxing. The walls were covered with art work.

(Click here to hear the end of the pod’s afternoon meeting that day.)

It seemed, finally, a nurturing place in jail – far more about recovery than its connecting pod, where fights and loud noise were common until the early morning.

I spoke at length with a woman named Kara, whose addiction was more than 20 years old. This was her 17th time in jail. She had come from washing the vomit off another woman who had just arrived in the pod.

Here’s our interview:

The Louisville jail experiment isn’t a cure-all – no one thing is for this opiate-addiction epidemic. And the jail has difficulty tracking inmates who leave, so it’s unclear how well they do on the outside. What’s more, inmates by this time face a daunting uphill trudge to sobriety, hampered by family dysfunction on the outside, shredded personal relationships, a private sector wary of hiring them, and on and on.

And of course, there isn’t nearly enough in available treatment options.

“I would love to shut some of these programs down,” Bolton said. “This shouldn’t be the jail’s responsibility. [Addiction] is a public health issue. Our job is detention, protection of the public, to get people to court. When we have to become the quasi mental health facility for people who are poor and don’t have access to services, or for people who are drug addicts and who’ve created these chaotic lifestyles for themselves and can’t get treatment in the community — then we become this de facto fallback place for everybody. That’s not what jails are designed to do, nor should they be.”

Yet until a massive investment in community drug rehab and medically assisted treatment takes place, it’s likely that pods like Enough is Enough will be necessary.

It also occurs to me that with jail rethought and remade — a nurturing place — we have the chance that it will be an asset in the next drug scourge that comes along.

Either way, as with Kenton County, it seems like a better bet of public money than the way jail has been done up to now.

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A Safe Station For Addicts in Whitehall Ohio

A couple weeks ago I was in the Midwest, speaking about Dreamland.

I decided to add a couple days to the trip to spend more time in places where I was visiting than I’ve done in the past.

First stop was Whitehall, a town of about 18,000, next to the airport in Columbus, Ohio.

I got there a little early because I wanted to see a new idea the town had instituted.

Whitehall Fire Department has established its firehouse as a Safe Station – meaning that addicts can come by, no questions asked, and will be shuttled to treatment. This has been tried by police departments elsewhere, but in Whitehall they decided on the fire department, believing that most folks would be more at ease there than showing up to talk to police.

The idea had been in place about six weeks and 54 people had made use of it. Whitehall being part of the Columbus metro area, the vast majority of Safe Station drop-ins are not from the town.

One fellow who dropped by was Matt, who grew up in a fairly difficult family but in a middle-class town nearby. He played football, baseball, basketball in high school. In his town, sports were it, he said. Young men got their identity from their participation, or stardom, in sports.

Readers of Dreamland may feel where this is going.

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Pennsylvania Priests & Bebop Jazzmen

I read two things yesterday.

I opened the Pennsylvania Grand Jury report on six Catholic dioceses and the evidence of sexual abuse by more than 300 priests dating apparently to the 1950s.

I got through the introduction and the first two priests in the diocese of Allentown.

It wasn’t just the preying pedophilia. It was the craven blaming of victims, the various layers of psychological torment they endured by predators for years trying to deflect blame, and by church officials who rushed to any lie to hide scandal.

I had to stop. It was revolting, almost deadening to read.

Luckily, I’m also reading a book about the beginnings of modern jazz in the 1940s in New York City: The Birth of Bebopby music historian Scott DeVeaux.

I found refuge there.

DeVeaux chronicles all that went into creating modern jazz out of the bustling swing-jazz era. I was in the part of the book that focuses on the jazz scene that formed around the late-night/early morning jam sessions at the many clubs around New York in the 1940s.

I’ve been reading it because I’m a long-time fan of jazz – I wrote my senior history thesis on this very period and topic. But also because I’m interested in how “scenes” are created. Places where people come together with similar interests and through intense competition and collaboration over time they create something new and unexpected and change the culture.

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Planting Portsmouth, Ohio

Portsmouth, a small town I wrote about in Dreamland, has been slowly rebounding from years of economic decline and drug addiction.

That’s a remarkable thing. For it was Portsmouth – on the Ohio River — that led the way into our national opiate-addiction epidemic. The town was where the Pill Mill – sleazy pain clinics prescribing massive amounts of pills to almost anyone for cash – was born.

With the town blasted by this huge supply, and the sense of community shredded by job loss and more, widespread pain-pill addiction was a fact of life in Portsmouth by the end of the 1990s.

But a lot has happened since then. The town, each time I return, seems slightly more energetic, more invigorated, more about positivity and less about dope’s inertia and fatalism. A recovery culture has taken hold there that’s exciting to watch.

Not that all the problems are behind Portsmouth, Ohio. But there’s another story now competing with the “let’s get high” culture that gripped the town for so long. I wrote about the beginnings of this at the end of my book – the small clues of rebirth: new gyms, a coffee shop, lofts, refurbished buildings and more.

Along that line, the folks of Portsmouth – 500+ volunteers – get together this Saturday to wash, repaint, redo their downtown in something they’re calling Plant Portsmouth.

They’ll be painting light poles, scraping and painting all the curbs, replacing 120 streetlights, and more. “None of this has been done in 20 years,” said Jeremy Burnside, an attorney in town who got the idea started.

They’ll also be planting plants as a way of signaling the town’s rebirth.

Burnside’s hoping to set a Guinness World Record for the most people planting plants simultaneously.

(Folks — please send me photos from the day and I’ll post them here and on social media. #plantportsmouth)

Organizers have raised $75,000 from local businesses to pay for supplies. That itself is a sign of how locally owned businesses are now growing in Portsmouth. None of that money came from the chain stores and corporate fast-food restaurants that have dominated the town’s economy since things began to go bad in the early 1980s and the shops on its main street closed. (Btw, I bought a couple t-shirts, inspired by Dreamland and the community pool that was the source of my book’s title, from a company called 3rdand Court that began in downtown Portsmouth. Check them out.)

The antidote to opiates is not naloxone. It is community. I say this often in my speeches when I’m traveling around the country. We Americans have isolated and fragmented ourselves in a million ways – this in poor areas and in wealthy areas.  That left us vulnerable; it left us dangerously separate and disconnected from each other – strange to say in this time of technological hyper-connectivity.

The final expression of all that is our national epidemic of addiction to opiates – the most isolating class of drugs we know.

Rebuilding community (in a million different ways) is crucial to fighting it, I believe.

I’m glad to see Portsmouth leading the way on that, too.

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Librarians and the Opiate Addiction Epidemic

Our national opiate-addiction epidemic is different from other American drug scourges for many reasons.

It’s the deadliest and the most widespread. It didn’t begin with drug mafias, but through the promotion of narcotic painkillers by pharmaceutical companies to doctors, who were pressured by we Americans, demanding an easy solution
to our pain.

But the epidemic is also remarkable for whom it has forced to its frontlines.

Librarians make up one such group.

I’m in Ohio this week, speaking at four regional conferences of librarians around the state. Today was Gallipolis — pop. 3500, in rural Gallia County, along the quiet, majestic Ohio River.

I stayed after my talk to listen to a panel made up of a university librarian, an elementary school librarian, and a public librarian talking about their experiences with this epidemic.

We heard about needles in the bushes, about how a child who lives in a drug house smells, about calling 911 because a customer had overdosed in a bathroom, about the look of some people who come into the library high. The epidemic has made danger zones of innocuous public places.

One school librarian, I was told, suspects two girls at her school are being abused. They come to school smelling badly. She takes their clothes home and washes them.

I was also struck by the stories many in the audience (80 people or so) had to tell about addiction in their families.  Several librarians were raising their addicted relatives’ children.

Librarians are also perfectly poised, though, to be great catalysts for change – community organizers in the fight against this plague. That’s what I believe. They have the spaces, the local trust and credibility, and often small towns need folks like librarians to bring them together — and this is happening.

As I said to the group I spoke to, who better than purveyors of the book to be the leaders in this fight.

Plus, librarians are looking for new roles to play – rebranding libraries as community centers, places where people can come together. This catastrophe is offering libraries and librarians that moment to reinvent themselves towns and counties.

In the afternoon, I drove through the pristine southern Ohio farmland – white houses, white churches, silver siloes, blue sky, and acres of green corn.

I stopped at the Dairy Queen in Washington Court House, another small town with a bunch of opiate addiction problems.

Tomorrow Dayton – then Findlay and, finally, Twinsburg.

Next week I speak in Weber County, Utah, and after that Brunswick County, North Carolina.

All frontlines in America’s epidemic of opiate addiction.

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Purdue in Tennessee II: High-Volume Prescribers

From 2006 to 2015, Dr. Michael Rhodes was one of the top prescribers of OxyContin in the state of Tennessee.

His practice had many of the signs of what had come to be called a “pill mill.” Lines of people outside. A knife fight in front of his office. Investigators found he often prescribed without proper physical examinations or knowing the medical histories of his patients. Over those years, Rhodes, of Springfield TN, prescribed 319,000 OxyContin tablets. In May, 2013 had his license placed on restrictive probation by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners.

Still, representatives from drug-maker Purdue Pharma continued to call on him urging him to prescribe more OxyContin, their signature drug, according to a lawsuit filed by Tennessee Attorney General Herbert Slatery.

“In spite of this disciplinary action by the board (of medical examiners) and direct knowledge of his patient’s death from OxyContin, Purdue continued to call on Dr. Rhodes,” the Tennessee complaint states. They continued to “pressure Dr. Rhodes to prescribe more and more opioids, even when he expressed concerns regarding his own ability to competently do so.”

According to the lawsuit, Purdue reps called on Dr. Rhodes 126 times, include 31 times after his license was restricted.

They did so during the years after the company signed an agreement in 2007 with the federal government to be vigilant for abuse and diversion of the pills and look out for doctors prescribing in unscrupulous ways.

That lawsuit, filed in May and unsealed by a state court judge a week ago, alleges the company was largely to blame for the opiate epidemic in Tennessee by creating a public nuisance due to its marketing techniques. (See previous related blogpost.)

Part of the Tennessee complaint against Purdue catalogues alleged attempts by the company to get high-prescribing doctors and nurses to prescribe even more of their product, despite signs that those medical professionals were behaving in unethical ways and that their prescribing habits were out of control. Cultivating high-volume prescribers, the complaint alleges, was seen as crucial to the company’s business. The complaint alleges the company called on several such nurse practitioners, three now-shuttered pain clinics, and 13 doctors, who’ve retired or had their licenses revoked or placed on probation.

Among them was Dr. James Pogue, of Brentwood, TN, who prescribed 562,000 OxyContin 80mg pills between 2006 and 2013, making him one of the largest prescribers in Tennessee even three years after he stopped practicing medicine. He generated $655,000 in revenue for the company during one six-month period in 2009, according to the complaint.

Company sales reps called on him 53 times between 2005 and 2012, “more than half of those occasion coming after his license was reprimanded in 2009.”

The Breakthrough Pain Therapy Center, in Maryville TN, was known to have none of the typical diagnostic tools associated with pain clinics: examination tables, gloves, urine screens “or providers who performed independent pain diagnoses.” It also included “scant” office records and pre-written prescriptions often dispensed “without a physician present.”

While placing some staff on no-call lists, the complaint claims Purdue continued to call on other staff members at Breakthrough Pain Therapy, whose owners were federally indicted in December 2010. This included Buffy Kirkland, a nurse practitioner who worked there for several years. Between 1998 and 2017 as a nurse practioner in Tennessee, she prescribed 68,000 OxyContin tablets, of which two-thirds were of 40mg or stronger, according to the complaint.

The Tennessee complaint is one of numerous lawsuits filed in the last year or so against Purdue and several other drug companies that make opioid painkillers. The plaintiffs include Native-American tribes, small towns like Everett, WA and large cities like Los Angeles and Chicago. Most state attorneys general have filed lawsuits, as have at least 300 counties in a suit that alleges a “public nuisance” by these companies. That suit is consolidated in a federal court in Cleveland.

When I was writing Dreamland in 2013-14, I remember only three such lawsuits against makers of opioid painkillers. This was a time when the issue was largely hidden, those affected largely silent. Families were ashamed and wanted to obscure the truth of the addiction and manner of death of their loved ones. Thus the media paid scant attention and elected officials, outside those in a few states, paid less.

But the awareness has expanded in the last three years. One result is that many more lawyers across the country have turned to examining legal theories that might prosper in court.

Public agencies have been hammered by the cost of the epidemic. Indeed the epidemic’s costs have largely been borne by the public — by coroners and public health offices, police and sheriffs departments, jails, county hospitals, foster children agencies and more. Meanwhile profits have largely accrued to the private sector, mostly to pharmaceutical companies.

Thus, today, most state and county officials have to be seen by their constituencies as doing something dramatic about this epidemic, and a lawsuit has become an option to recoup some of those costs. None of the new lawsuits has yet gone to court.

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