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Javier Valdez – A Month Ago

The rule of law is something to be treasured. It is precious beyond value. It has been achieved in relatively few countries and times through history. Yet little good comes without it. No real economic development, no great technological innovation, no slow march of prosperity, no public safety, no civic life.

After living in Mexico, it seems to me the rule of law is achieved through culture and a host of attitudes that give rise to prolonged (taxpayer funded) investment in infrastructure and government.

The rule of law is accomplished through facts on the ground, through small things working well. These include courts, prisons, police, civil service, decent public-employee salaries and training, but also parks, street lamps, storm drains, clear title to property, and much more — above all at the local level.

Most of this is what Mexico lacks or has neglected.

Superimposed on that civic weakness, and growing from it, has been the venomous presence of drug traffickers who have lost any discretion they once displayed and now behave with medieval cruelty. But what allowed them to go from hillbillies to national security threats in the span of a few decades is the lack of rule of law and all that I mention above. The result is the difference between 3000 murders in Juarez a few years back while El Paso tallied only 20 or so. On one side are strong civic institutions and well-motivated law enforcement of various stripes working together; on the other, infrastructure has gone begging due to lack of budget, corruption, lack of accountability, and a general belief that local government isn’t worth the time.

All that is what got Javier Valdez killed a month ago today.

Valdez, you may have read by now, was an esteemed, brave journalist who chronicled the drug world of Sinaloa in books and his newspaper Riodoce.

He was gunned down by masked men who accosted him as he was getting into his car not far from his newspaper. To make it seem as if robbery was the motive, they took his car, ditching it not far away. The computer and cell phone he was carrying have not been found, according to his newspaper.

I met Javier in 2014. I saw him again in February. We had breakfast to talk about things in Sinaloa. In the meantime, I had provided a promotional quote to the English-language version of his book Los Levantados (The Taken) because, despite knowing him only casually, I admired the work he and his newspaper, Riodoce, did consistently.

The Taken (University of Oklahoma Press), by the way, offers an amazing view of worlds few of us will enter. You should read it. The first story is about a Mayan Indian from Chiapas who fathered six pairs of twin girls and, to support them, was recruited to do some kind of work in Sinaloa, only to find that the work he was hired to do was not in agriculture, but in something connected to drug trafficking, though he never figured out what that was because a battle between cartels consumed the region where he was sent. Just stunning stories.

In the month since Javier’s death, we’ve heard the calls for the government to do more to protect journalists, end the impunity with which the underworld rules many parts of the country. I echo those calls.

But what ails Mexico isn’t only lack of political will. It is certainly that, but it is also a systematic neglect of local government that goes far back in the country’s long history. So even with the political will to find the killers of Javier Valdez, investigators would be hampered by the lack of tools that their counterparts in other countries take for granted.

There is no way to make good on calls of better investigations without a mighty strengthening of the local and regional public institutions that go into such investigations.

As we examine all the reasons why brave people like Javier Valdez have fallen, Mexico needs to look to its local government and build up its institutions, its capacity, its ability to protect its citizens and the ability to find justice for them when it cannot.

Like all politics, justice, at its root, is local.

Ensuring that would be the greatest tribute to a brave man.

#ourvoiceisourstrength #nuestravozesnuestrafuerza

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Keith Dannemiller: A Podcast

Keith Dannemiller, a native of Ohio, has been one of the premier photographers out of Latin America for two decades now. His black and white street shots from Mexico City are strange and dazzling.

Keith and I worked together in Mexico for many years, both of us freelancers. We recorded this conversation a while back when Keith’s first book of photography — Callegrafia – was coming out. It’s sold out, but the chat is interesting – about finding what to shoot, and why, and what got him started on street photography, and how a man devoted to his craft does his job.

Keith’s new exposition of his photography is called Luz Translation, opening in the town of San Miguel De Allende, Guanajuato, on February 2. Check it out if you’re down there. It’s at Centro Cultural El Nigromante Bellas Artes, #75 Hernandez Macias and running until April 23.

Find out more about him at his website, www.keithdannemiller.com, including the photo tours he leads of Mexico City.

 

 

 

Photos by Keith Dannemiller

 

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A Doctor’s View of Pain Pills

Here’s a letter from doctor with a long exposure to the problem of addiction and pain pills. I get lots of email letters about Dreamland. I’ve put a few up on this blog – always with names and identifying details removed.

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 I have recognized for many years, at least since the late 1980s, that the chronic use of opioid medications was typically a barrier to recovery. I am a physiatrist, a physician procter-1specializing in physical medicine and rehabilitation, since 1986.  We manage patients who have catastrophic injuries: spinal cord injury, traumatic brain injury, amputations and those with multiple and severe trauma. I also treated many patients who had less severe injuries including strains, sprains and other soft tissue trauma. We often manage patients over many years. When the use of opioids became more frequent, in the late 1980s, I was perplexed. I did my best to manage pain, if at all possible, without the use of chronic opioid therapy. I was perplexed even more so in the mid to late 1990s when Oxycontin came on the scene. Physicians no longer were afraid to prescribe opioids for non-cancer pain and did so seemingly without caution. They were duped. Drug companies and their physician spokesmen duped them.

I grew up and later practiced medicine for many years in New Mexico. New Mexico, as you may know, has always had one of the highest drug overdose rates in the nation.  Heroin had been the drug of choice, at least until opioid medications came on the scene. I worked as a house painter’s apprentice in the late 1960s while in college. I worked on one crew that every journeyman painter was an ex-con related to heroin use.  I had plenty of opportunity to use heroin but it scared me. My co-workers told me how great it was. One guy, much older than me, made it sound so appealing. “Come over and we will shoot up and listen to jazz.”  I never tried it though I had lots of opportunity.

I knew quite well how dangerous heroin was and never believed that opioid medications were any less dangerous. When I started practicing in the late 1980s many of the patients I saw were on opioid medications when I assumed their care. Most of the more seriously injured patients I saw were successfully weaned off opioids. Many of the less seriously injured, especially those with work related injuries, were much more difficult to wean. Some patients of both categories ended up on long term opioids but were closely monitored to determine if they were benefitting from opioids and whether they were abusing them. Escalating doses were typically not allowed.

The work related injury group of patients who generally had much less severe injuries, were routinely on opioid medications when I took over their care. My job as a rehabilitation physician was to get them back to their usual activities including return to work. I found that opioid medications were a barrier to their recovery. Some of my referring physicians believed the standard of care was to treat pain with opioids as long as patients complained of pain. Some patients were never going to stop complaining of pain and the reasons were frequently psychosocial in nature. I never believed the hype from drug companies regarding the safety of opioids. I saw from up close as a young man and as a doctor that they were dangerous and in general not appropriate for long term use in non-cancer pain.

I knew little about Dr. Russell Portenoy at the time of the opioid prescription explosion but I knew plenty about what drug companies were saying about the safety of opioid medications and the unlikelihood for addiction. I now understand Dr. Portenoy’s role in this public health catastrophe.  I don’t believe Dr. Portenoy and other drug company marketer’s claims that they are now surprised about the addiction potential and danger of opioids. Intuitively it did not make sense. Oxycodone and hydrocodone are so similar to morphine and heroin both chemically and by their mechanism of action. Why would you believe they are so much safer? Those guys were either just plain dumb and so drunk with drug company money and self promotion that they refused to pay attention to what was happening to patients. I am sure they are not dumb. Dr. Portenoy is a brilliant and charming guy. Just view his video presentations and interviews. He is also a successful academic physician. That is what made him so dangerous.  I am just an average doc who has never had a higher academic position than a clinical assistant professor.  I have never authored a paper that made it to a medical journal. How could I know more than them and have been so right about the proper role of opioid medications?  Why didn’t they? Certainly not because I am smarter.Grand Canyon Trip 2015

I think your book was very even handed, maybe a little too much, with Portenoy and the other opioid selling/promoting physicians. I’m telling you they knew better. Their response of “If I knew then what I know now….” just doesn’t cut it. They are responsible for the hundreds of thousands of deaths and ruined lives. They should not get off the hook. I suspect their narcissism will prevent even one sleepless night for the damage they have done. But they and their benefactors, the drug companies, have created a horrible health crisis that was largely preventable in the United States. It is almost strictly a U.S. problem caused by U.S. physician “thought leaders”, drug companies and misguided bureaucrats.

I applaud your book. Bringing the black tar heroin story into your narrative was great. You connected the dots. I wasn’t aware of that part of the story. Thanks again for your book. It may just impact our legislators and government officials even more so, to focus on rehabilitation not punishment for those young kids who got caught up in a drug problem often caused by misguided or crooked doctors.

The punishment of “pill mill” docs and drug company marketers including their corrupt physician lackeys could never be equal to the suffering they have created. Glad you spotlighted the problem and did it in such a well-researched, entertaining and cogent way. Thank you.

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24-Hour News – Just Like Heroin

24-Hour News is just like heroin.

We pretend we’re informed by it. In reality, we know that each network is a dealer in the drug of outrage. Each provides little information or depth. Instead they concoct a diet of heat, alarm, frenzy. Above all, they provide us a drenching isolation that separates us from our fellow Americans.

cnn

One sign of a heroin addict is that he forsakes family, old friends and community to hang out with others who use and sell dope. They talk about dope constantly and don’t understand those who don’t find that topic endlessly fascinating.

That’s what 24-Hour News has done to us, and our body politic. Forced us into little bubbles of people, all of whom think and talk alike and don’t understand anyone in the other bubbles who don’t think and talk like them. We all know this is true.

Which is why I say 24-Hour News is just like heroin.

So this election day, after we vote, let’s do another civic duty: Let’s all turn off 24-hour news, and talk radio, too, for that foxmatter.

For good! Just block them all. Easy to do by clicking here. Each station. CNN, FOX, MSNBC, Headline News. The problem is the format, not the network itself.

24-Hour News assumes that every issue has only two sides to it, and we can neatly know what they are, and that once a position is staked out, we cannot waver from it. It picks and pricks at some topics well beyond any presumed responsibility of informing the public is fulfilled. Yet somehow it does this while rarely providing any deep or nuanced understanding. And other issues is doesn’t touch at all.

It Monday-morning-quarterbacks public servants and elected officials to death.msnbc

All because it has to fill that time.

Meanwhile, these networks bundle most issues into five-minute, in-between-the-commercials, pre-digested packets. I’ve been on several of these and I now boycott them. I was on a CNN segment once that discussed the Mexican drug war – in six minutes with two other guests. We cannot possibly learn a thing about that very important issue in so short a time.

24-Hour News is one of the most corrosive influences on our democracy. Doping it. Distracting it. Numbing it. Lowering our standards for what “news” is and how much participation is actually required of us to preserve a functioning republic.

Never has 24-Hour News failed us more harmfully than in this presidential campaign. Its anchors spent most of the pre-convention months analyzing incessantly whether Candidate X had a pathway to the nomination. The horse race is all those networks cared about. It was a narcotic that had us all distracted.

We need real journalism. We got junk food. We needed deep discussions of complicated issues. We got yammering, blather, screeching and babble – usually designed to make us feel outraged at everyone else and confirmed in the righteousness of our own behavior and thinking.

In other words, we got dope.

For that’s what heroin does to an addict: convinces him that the path he’s on is the right one and no other is conceivable.

As Americans, we spend a lot of time worrying about what we consume, avoiding processed foods, cigarettes, sodas.

Why don’t we have the same concern for our civic consumption?

Some who block 24-Hour News may suffer withdrawals at first. Shiver and shake and not be able to sleep. But that’ll pass. My bet is they’ll emerge with a fresher, brighter outlook on life. They won’t be angry or outraged at their fellow Americans all the time.

Another thing: Recovering addicts find life without dope to be complicated without that Silver Bullet to remove their worries. So, too, might folks recovering from 24-Hour News.

Just as heroin takes our cares away, the 24-Hour News Syndrome relieves us of the tough work involved in being Americans. We don’t actually have to strive to develop an opinion when 24-hour News provides it to us.

So we will have to develop our own opinions without the help of an anchor and a 5-minute expert there to enrage us and keep us tuned in through the upcoming commercial break. It may mean reading more. A wider range of opinion or news stories. Books or magazine articles. But the last place to find real information on anything worth knowing about is at a five-minute snippet of yammering talking heads. We know this is true.

But if Americans are exceptional, it’s through this work required of us in citizenship, civic participation, and in being accountable for our political and consumer choices. This is the job description of being an American, seems to me.

“A Republic, if you can keep it,” said Ben Franklin to the woman who asked what the Constitutional Convention had just created.

We got away from that, from what’s best about America. We opted for easy – easy solutions to pain, quick and easy answers to complicated problems, easy substitutes to civic participation. Convenience and comfort over all else.

In doing so, we rid ourselves of things so essential that they have no price … and in return we have been invaded by cheap crap.

So today, Be An American!

Please go vote!

Then come home and block every 24-hour new station on your TV.

We need to keep this Republic for a while.

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Dr. Procter’s House

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

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

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

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

Karen:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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David Procter was a product of that, I believe.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Sound of Dulcimers in Ohio

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s the website: http://www.prussiavalley.com/

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Speaking of which …

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

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

Grand Canyon Trip 2015

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

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

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

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

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

Anyway, here’s the full lineup:

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

Sept 20: Van Wert, OH

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

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

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

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

Oct 3: South Shore, KY (Recovery Works)

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

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

Oct 6: Indianapolis, IN (Indiana Hospital Association)

Oct 6: Logan, OH (Hocking Middle School)

Oct 12: Marysville, OH

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

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

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

Oct 26: Pittsburgh PA (Gateway Rehabilitation)

Oct 27: Dover, DE (Various events)

 

Hope to see you at one of them!

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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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Adios Underworld Pioneer Sana Ojeda – I think

Mexican Mafia prison-gang member Peter “Sana” Ojeda, a pioneer in the Southern California underworld, was found guilty by a jury today of a slew of racketeering charges in a federal court in Orange County.Peter Ojeda

In 1992, Ojeda held meetings at Salvador Park in Santa Ana, bringing together warring Latino gangs from across Orange County.

It was a stunning moment that showed the power of the Mexican Mafia in the barrios, sworn mortal enemies stood docilely together as Ojeda, from atop baseball bleachers, told them to stop the feuding and drive-by shootings.

The so-called Peace Treaty spread from there to Latino gangs across Southern California, during which Mexican Mafia (Eme) members banned drive-by shootings.

In the end, though, the peace treaty proved a Trojan Horse. Eme members used the newly discovered obedience of Latino street gangs to set up a vast business model of using thousands of gang members to tax drug dealers in barrios across the Southland, then funnel the proceeds to Eme members and their relatives in prison and on the streets.

The new system, which remains in place today, transformed the region’s Latino street gangs from neighborhood entities into money-making enterprises. Neighborhood gang loyalty disintegrated, as feuding over money, taxation, the favor of Eme members, turned gang members against each other. It also led to mass defections of gang members from the Mafia structure inside California prisons.

Spotty and haphazard though it often is, the Eme’s drug-taxation system amounts to the only region-wide organized crime syndicate Southern California has ever known.

Ojeda was convicted of running the Orange County operation – ordering murders, extortion and more – from his federal jail cell, where he’d been since his arrest on a prior racketeering charge in 2005. He was helped by his girlfriend, Suzie Rodriguez, who was also convicted. Both will be sentenced in May.

Still, it’s hard to imagine this will be the real end of Sana Ojeda. Mafia members, most of whom are doing life in maximum security prisons, routinely run these operations with the help of go-betweens on the street.

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In San Bernardino: A womb provides the perfect cover

So the woman apparently swore allegiance to ISIS on Facebook – that’s what AP and others report – meaning she viewed her womb as nothing more than cover. Staying in the US while deflecting suspicion – what better way than to have a child.

Meanwhile, Republicans are talking terrorism. Democrats talk guns.imgres

Both are right.

As this case unfolds, it seems to have more to do with fanaticism than anything else. The real question is, as this fanaticism spreads, should we be complicit in our own demise?

The ISIS connection, I guess, now doesn’t surprise me. This couple clearly had been planning some attack, given all the ammunition (thousands of rounds) and tools they possessed to make a dozen pipe bombs. So her entry into this country should only be viewed with suspicion.

Then, within a few years of returning from Saudi Arabia (home of Wahabi fanatics and the oil that we are addicted to), they’re married, with an infant daughter and, after much late-night work, they choose a holiday party of county employees a few weeks before Christmas to go off, kill people and leave their daughter an orphan.

All of that reeked with something more sophisticated than the typical insane killer a la Tucson or Aurora.

But the guy was a U.S. citizen, mild-mannered, county employee, from a family of at least one decorated US Navy sailor. How many of those are there in our country? Millions.

The question is: How easy are we making it for terrorists to do their job when someone can buy these kinds of assault weapons? That someone bought them for them is no surprise. This kind of straw purchase takes place at Arizona gun shows all the time. L.A. street gangs get their weapons this way, too.

Why is that an easy thing to do? That should not be easy – I see no reason why it should be legal in most cases at all. These guns are designed for the simple mowing down of people. Nothing else. Why don’t we know where each of those guns is and who owns them?

Senate Republicans just voted en masse against a bill that would have prevented the sale of arms to people on the FBI’s terrorism watchlist. That seems irresponsible. Particularly as they don’t appear to have any other solution to this problem, other than the mass arming of every American, a fanatical idea itself, it seems to me.

That is their final solution: A garrison state outside every holiday party and keeping the world out of the country.

Given Paris, Colorado Springs, South Carolina and now this, we are confronting something that combines classic political fanaticism with run-of-the-mill insanity. Mixing one more than the other, depending on the imgres-2case.

Dostoevsky had some things so say about that in his novel, The Devils, also known as The Possessed – an 1872 novel increasingly relevant to our times. It’s the denial of the individual, of one’s own existence, doubts, intellect, love and connection to others — all that prostrate before some perceived higher cause. At the same time, it’s an attempt to shred, destroy community, the public coming together of human beings.

Southern California has seen this before. The best example I’m aware of is in our street gangs, where nothing short of a brainwashing occurs in kids in their teens, teaching them that their 12-square-block area, their clica, is worth you dying or going to prison for. Hence, they dominated parks and street corners and didn’t pay too much attention to where their bullets flew. Saw that many times.

Heroin addicts display these brainwashed characteristics in devotion to their dope, I’ve noticed.

We saw it, too, in Colorado Springs or South Carolina, where loonies were killing for what they perceived was some higher cause. Even the Tucson guy, who was out of his mind, had some higher calling in mind, even if he couldn’t articulate it in a way any of us could understand.

In San Bernardino, the fanaticism is especially pronounced, of course. Even a womb was employed in its furtherance.imgres-1

The guy now seems a toady in comparison with the blind devotion of this woman he married – though we can only take that verb with a grain of salt.

What gives greatest pause is the couple’s target. Unlike the targets of previous killings, it’s unclear what a holiday party of county employees has to do with the larger goals of ISIS. Unless, of course, it’s simply to kill the way Americans live, the openness with which we conduct everyday life.

Any target is fine – place or human. That seems the clear conclusion here: sowing fear, shredding community, isolating us from each other.

Question is, then: Given that keeping that attitude out is almost impossible, are we going to be complicit in our demise?

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La Marseillaise – Casablanca

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I Love Paris – Ella Fitzgerald

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Eleuterio Cruz – RIP

I’m saddened to report the death of a fine man, Eleuterio Cruz, a campesino from the village of Xocotla high on a mountain in the state of Veracruz, Mexico. I visited Xocotla five times in 2002 and 2003,

Eleuterio Cruz

where I met with him, played guitar with him once, and mainly listened to his stories of his town.

He was of a generation of men from the town that for 31 years spent every Tuesday taking off from the farmwork that fed their families to hack a five-mile road out of the mountain that would connect Xocotla with the rest of the world.

They started in 1945 and finished the road in 1976.

It took them that long because they had only picks and shovels.

Mr. Cruz was the grandfather of Delfino Juarez, whose story I told in my second book, Antonio’s Gun and Delfino’s Dream. He was a nice man, kind and generous, and I remember him with great fondness.

Here’s what I wrote about him in the book:

Eleuterio was born in 1933. He began working on the road when he turned seventeen. For the next generation, every boy did the same.

Today, Eleuterio is sixty-nine and has a sharp nose and jaw. His skin is taut, dark, and calloused by years of hard farming. Raising corn and potatoes all his life on a hilly patch of land made him spry. He’d played guitar in cantinas for many years; he drank a lot, then he turned to Jesus.

Eleuterio worked on the road as his twelve children were born, and as they grew up, and as they had the first of his thirty-five grandchildren. He served as mayor for a spell and organized roadwork crews.

Every man in Xocotla had to work on the road one day a week. On Tuesdays they would usually gather their tools and march down to chop, shovel, and pick at the mountain.

The Second World War ended with atom bombs. Then came the Cold War and an arms race. In Xocotla, the men had no explosives, so they hammered and chipped at solid rock, and at times clawed at it by hand, then dumped the debris down the mountain.

The world outside was changing quickly. The Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War, the student rebellions of the 1960s, the hippie era, a man on the moon, the drugs and sex revolution, dictatorships and coups in Latin America, the Tlatelolco massacre, and the Olympic Games in Mexico City. Through it all, Xocotla’s men remained steadfast to the idea of their road. Every Tuesday the mountainside rang with their picks and shovels glancing off the rocks.

“No one died,” said Eleuterio.

One man’s foot was crushed as he hammered at a massive boulder that stood in the road’s path. No one touched that boulder for a generation after that, believing it hid the devil, who wanted to take people.

“I don’t think so,” Eleuterio said. “This person didn’t know how to use a sledgehammer, which is why the rock hit him in the foot.”

For a full thirty-one years the men of Xocotla pounded at that five-mile road. As they measured progress in centimeters, Mexico’s population went from twenty million people to fifty-five million people. Six Mexican presidents, and twelve Xocotla mayors, came and went. A Mexican middle class emerged, though none of its members lived in Xocotla. Through it all, Xocotla’s men kept at their colossal hand-carved public work. The government gave them no help until the end, when it provided a gas-powered jackhammer with which the men shattered the last obstacle in their way—that solid rock where the man had injured his foot.

Finally, in 1976, they finished. A red Jeep carried the priest from a town at the bottom of the mountain up the zigzagging, rocky five miles of one-lane road. Xocotla had a party. Eleuterio Cruz was forty-three; he’d worked on that road for twenty-six years.

 

My condolences to Delfino and the rest of his family.

RIP Eleuterio Cruz.

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Katrina New Orleans

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Ten years ago, hurricanes whomped through southern Louisiana and the levies broke and everything flooded.

Six months later, I spent six weeks in New Orleans covering reconstruction for the LA Times before and after the first Mardi Gras following the disaster.

Photos here are from that time.

While there, I told the story of the Latino workers who had shown up – a quiet cavalry to the rescue – just as everyone was fleeing the city in the weeks following the flood.

The workers I interviewed described an amazing image that took place three weeks after the flood, in the days when residents were briefly allowed back in the city. They  came then left quickly as the city was unlivable. On one side of the freeway, heading out of town, were their cars and trucks packed with every belonging a family could salvage. On the opposite side, leading into New Orleans, were quietly coming cars filled with these guys — Latino immigrant workers, each with no more than a backpack and a few tools, who heard there was work. Armies of Mexicans and Salvadorans, mostly, who lived in the Martian landscape, coated with the grey sludge of disintegrated dry wall, that the city had become in the weeks after the hurricane and put up those blue tarps of the roofs of thousands of houses.

Many of them stayed for the day labor they could find, hanging out at Lee’s Circle. A lot of them didn’t get paid – usually stiffed by Latino immigrant contractors, who also descended on the city. When I met these workers months later, many swore they never would work again for a Latino contractor. It was a Wild West of labor law, and was still when I was there.

The hurricane did a lot, but to me what it did most graphically was to show how ill the city had been before the levies broke. I’d been to NOLA several times for the music and food and never seen the pathology.

When I arrived to cover it as a reporter, I learned about it more deeply. It was a city that had the same population in 2005 that it had in 1930 – unlike many Southern cities, which had grown vibrant in those years. It relied mostly on tourism jobs, which paid poorly.

Before the hurricane, almost no Mexicans lived in NOLA – which is a bad thing because Mexicans are usually found where an economy is growing and jobs abound. Mexicans are a pretty faithful barometer of economic vibrancy, or the lack of it. They came after the flood.

I remember the city funded its public defenders from traffic fines and had seven property assessors for 164,000 properties, which is why the city also had so little property tax revenue. (LA County has one assessor for 2.4 million properties). One assessor, from a small district the size of a large neighborhood, had had the job for 15 years or so. Someone with his last name – an uncle and his father – had had the job since the 1920s.

Municipal governance was arthritic. Everywhere – in the hospital, the schools – the signs of decay were present long before the hurricane showed up. Katrina didn’t cause the illness; it laid it bare.

Six months later, as these photos attest, the mud and grime was gone, but reconstruction seemed almost nil.

Still, it is one of our greatest cities, and I love it, in part for how it mixes folks up, throws everyone together, a big raucous America.

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Heroin & Hyperconsumption – A Poem

Ever since beginning work on my book, Dreamland, I’ve been struck by the way opiates isolate those addicted to them.

As I wrote and researched, they grew into a metaphor for modern American life.

Opiate addiction, seems to me, is some kind of final expression of our own destruction of community, our lack of connection across the country – both in poor communities and wealthy ones. cropped-Virgin-of-Guadalupe-dec-12-2012-La-Placita-11.jpg

We exalt consumption and the individual over community and have for a long time now.

These drugs seem to fit that; they turn everyone who abuses them into self-absorbed, lonely hyper-consumers.

The poem below was written by Andrew Smith, one of the thousands of Americans who died in 2014 of a heroin overdose. He was 24.

His mother, Margie Borth, discovered it after his death.

“There were several writings, this one is about scoring heroin and the lonely world that became his life,” she wrote, sending me the poem. “His brilliance still shines in his dark, sad words. His best friend described this as `hauntingly beautiful.’  I knew nothing of his addiction until just five weeks before he died. I was in a blur of grief when I first read it.  But now I do see the beauty of his writing.  I miss him so much, just like the thousands of other parents who are thrown into this nightmare. “

Simulate the Static

by Andrew Smith

____

The waiting, oh god

The waiting

The parking lots, the bathrooms, the empty parks that close after dark

The driveways, the bus stops, the car backseats

The posh bank lobbies, flea bag motel rooms, gas station pumps

Oak trees, palms, and retention ponds meant to beautify

The ditches, the swamps, and one off dead roads that lead to nowhere

And the loneliness of that trap.

The broken windows,

The made for TV dinners

The busted speakers blaring bass on a burner cell phone

The children going hungry, ignored in the corner

Staring at a broken television; simulating static.

The characters

The hangers-on, the worn out, the washed up

The good, the bad, the ugly

and the pretty young white girls with the blank eyes

Staring in awe at this newfound world.

The sun is setting and it’s starting to rain

My eyes are closed and I’m wishing I’m somewhere else.

When I hear a tap on my passenger window

Within 30 seconds, he’s gone

And the wait seems like a thousand centuries ago.

                  In this moment, I rest my eyes a second

Breathe a sigh of relief and know that all is right with the world

At least for these brief few hours.

The rain falls and my windows are up

It casts shadows across the dashboard

And the radio plays a news story

From a country whose language I do not speak

And a land I do not know.

                  Life is a quest

And we all search for something:

Money, fame, power, an identity.

For most they never find it;

And like a mirage in the desert,

it wavers in allure on their weary walk forward.

For others, they do.

And what’s worse,

They’re left in the emptiness of what it means.

But in this moment a fleeting comfort comes to me

And I know I’m not alone.

(Feb 2014)

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