Two weeks from today, my third book, Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic (Bloomsbury Press), is officially released.
The story of this epidemic involves shoelaces, rebar, Levi’s 501s, cellphones, football, Walmart, American prosperity, with marketing, with Mexican poverty and social competition, and with the biggest swimming pool in the US and what happened when that was destroyed.
It’s about the marketing of prescription pills as a solution to pain of all kinds, and about a small town in Mexico where young men have devised a system for retailing heroin across America like it was pizza.
The tale took me from Appalachia to suburbs in Southern California, into one of the biggest drug-abuse stories of our time – and one of the quietest, and whitest as well.
Among them, Portsmouth was ground zero in the opiate epidemic that is now sweeping the country. I’ve been there four times for the book: twice to hear about the degradation that took place with economic decline and the rise of prescription pill use; twice to hear the stories of how Portsmouth is emerging from that hell and a recovery community is forming.
I hope to return a fifth time.
What I found electric about the RWR video was that it was not a celebration of thuggery. Instead it was journalism — a description of what these guys had grown up in, using Portsmouth as the video backdrop — and a call to rebirth for their hometown.
I suspect Bruce Springsteen and Merle Haggard would find a lot to value in the RWR and their song.
Plus it was DIY all the way, and, as a fan of early punk rock that pioneered DIY attitudes, I thought it looked great.
Anyway, five of the nine members of RWR took some time to talk to me about the group, the song, the reaction and more. Portsmouth born and raised, they are: Clint “Random” Askew, Nick “Big Mung” Mungle, Donricko “D’Gree” Greene, Barry “B.E.Z.” Munyon, Justin “JLew” Lewis. (Others in the group include Lexxy “Riide R Diie” Jackson, David Packard, Arrick “Lil Mont” Montgomery and Angelo “Anjo” Jackson)
You can listen to them at the link above or download it.
Check out their story. Tell me yours. Leave it in Comments.
Meanwhile, you can read the fantastic comments so many left on earlier posts I did last week.
So I sifted through the comments for some excerpts that tell the story of a small American town that is beaten down and rising up.
“…I’m 60 yes old….have lived here since I was 9. I cry when I see what had become of the town I grew up in. I remember a downtown that was filled with stores and restaurants. Christmas shopping was magical. Shoulder to shoulder, bells ringing… You could find anything you wanted! There were no Kmarts, Walmarts or malls. …”
“…We never locked doors and never had to worry. Now we live behind closed locked doors with alarms on them. The working class is worried about keeping what they have while the others steal to get what we work for. Kids being raised by grandparents because of the drugs here….”
“Drugs have been prominent as early as Dr.Lily and Dr.Proctor. With a steady and fast decline ever sense then. With businesses shutting down. No work around the area….”
“…Watched the girl next door go from straight A’s to prison in just two years from the first O/C. watched my son’s friend go from valedictorian to living in his own filth, without any utilities. … At one point the estimate was that of every 10 adults in Scioto county, 7 were addicted to oxycontin. think about this. you go to the store, the clerk is high. you take your dog to a vet, you see the pinprick pupils. you stop at the post office, you see the obvious proof of addiction, it is … as if someone crop dusted the county. with opiate.”
“… knew our town was on trouble when people young and old were lined up down Chillicothe (the main street in Portsmouth) to see the pain pill doctor. Or maybe it was when I bought pills from friends Grandmother. Or how about when I saw a former high school cheerleader walking the stro….’
“…I got pregnant I was unable to stop so my son was taken from me n I went to treatment immediately after five weeks of treatment my father was shot and killed robbing theCarry out…”
“…You can’t leave the house alone without fear of coming up missing to never be heard from again….”
“…You got to survive the 740 is what the hell I know….”
“…My daughter is an addict in early recovery. She was in the top 10 of her graduating class, and on the dean’s list at SSU…until the dope got to her. She went from pain pills, to heroin, to meth. … She got busted and sent to jail. … Maybe I never paid enough attention, maybe I was just to busy trying to work to survive. Maybe I just didn’t want to believe that things were so bad in our town….”
“…I’ve only been free from prison since May 31st,2013 and I know I can’t go back to living in Portsmouth….”
“…I noticed an out-of-towner at a coffee shop and asked what brought her to town. She was on a boat trip down (and back) the entire length of the Ohio River. In all her trip preparations, no one had ever mentioned Portsmouth. She had pot lucks and stops scheduled in towns all along the river, but stopped in Portsmouth by accident, to pick up supplies. She added a couple of days to her itinerary to look around. “What happened here?” she asked. “This was a real city once,” she said. “All the buildings are taller than a lot of places I’ve stopped. But it seems like a ghost town.”
“…7-4-0 reminds me of my hometown, Elkhart, Indiana (574). Elkhart was built on the pharmaceutical, band instrument, and musical instrument manufacturing industries. Because of the mobile home industry, it tags along with the fortunes of Detroit. Don’t know about heroin, but backpack meth and home meth labs (one blew up across the street from the high school) are everywhere….”
“…WTH do I know about the 740? I was born and raised here I watched it go from a quiet little town, where you didn’t have to be afraid to go out at night, or lock your doors, to a poverty sticken, low job rate, drug capitol. Portsmouth is starting to fight back finally …”
“…went to prison cause I couldn’t stay clean my mom did a lot by raising my oldest most of her life,sometimes it’s like a never ending battle,but we do have recovery in our town,an once again back in treatment…”
“…am a mother who use to addict to pain pills been to prison twice and finally went to treatment in the 740 which changed my life for ever.Now I have been working full time for 5 years going back to school to finish my degree and have overcome a lot trying to stay clean and sober it is possible in the 740…”
“…I’m currently involved with a group of people who are looking to start a worker cooperative in the city as a means of providing work and education for the unemployed. …”
“…here are 2 options: be the change you want to see, or change your surroundings & the people you spend your time with!…”
“…I am finishing my Master’s in natural resources and environmental science so I can publish research on this post industrial town and its resulting drug addiction….”
“…we are recovering like crazy down here in little ole Portsmouth!!! I also know one of the men in the video, watched him grow into adulthood and become a GREAT man, a father, and a caretaker despite all of the hurdles that he faced, and he really did beat the odds…”
“…I personally have overcome my past, and will not let the downfalls of MY hometown get me down or pull me back! I did it and so can you Portsmouth!!!! All you need is a lil inspiration, and thats what these men are!!!…”
“…I really dont like rap i usually listen to country but i loved this song n so proud of them….”
“…What I know about the 740 is good people are doing something about it….”
“…The people here need to save our “740″. No one is going to do it for us….”
“…I’m still here and I recently just got out of rehab….”
“…No longer does this have to be a “junkies town”, or “drug infested” … she is inching herself back to be the home I grew up in. A place where doors are left unlocked at night. A place where its okay to send your children to the store. … It doesn’t come easy. It will get better though. (progress not perfection) I’m an addict. My story and the stories of many of my fellow addicts are similar to the story of our city. We can/do Recover. Today I am proud, honored, and happy to say that I am living in the solution and not in the problem….with that I pass….”
So that’s Portsmouth’s story, folks. Share it if you like it.
I said I’d never been there before I went to Portsmouth, Ohio.
Later, when I thought about it, and saw the video by RWR (Raw Word Revival), I realized I had been to the 7-4-0 many times.
Seems like the 7-4-0 is in the 6-2-0 (southwest Kansas), where the farming towns are empty, streets are vacant, and storefronts are boarded up. I was there several years ago.
One reader said this:
7-4-0 reminds me of my hometown, Elkhart, Indiana (574). Elkhart was built on the pharmaceutical, band instrument, and musical instrument manufacturing industries. Because of the mobile home industry, it tags along with the fortunes of Detroit. Don’t know about heroin, but backpack meth and home meth labs (one blew up across the street from the high school) are everywhere.
I was in Youngstown — which looked a lot like the 7-4-0, now that I think about it.
I was in the 7-4-0 in Pecos, Texas, where there aren’t enough food stores of any kind but the fast food variety.
In Huntington, WV (3-0-4), I did a story about the spread of black-tar heroin that had reached the city from one very similar small town in Mexico. More pizza joints in Huntington than there are gyms in all of WV, I’m told.
And having lived in Mexico, I can say that a thousand villages down there are in the 7-4-0, which is why those folks have left en masse, just like so many have left Portsmouth.
I was in the 7-4-0 in Marion, Ohio, where a guy got so upset at the lack of attention to the heroin problem that he put up signs saying, “Heroin is Marion’s Economy.”
And it seems like I’m in the 7-4-0 when I walk the aisles of any Walmart. I always imagine them haunted by ghosts of the storeowners who once sustained small-town America: one aisle by the departed local grocer; down another the former hardware store owner, and next to that, the long-gone woman’s clothier or that pharmacist.
Well, I’m not gonna lie — I like this guy’s style.
Brad Belcher was upset that people in his hometown of Marion, Ohio (north of Columbus) weren’t talking about the rampant heroin/opiate addiction in their midst.
Home to President Warren G. Harding, the rural town of Marion, like much of Ohio, has been hammered by departing jobs and a general malaise of defeatism and inertia, Belcher told me.
Heroin (in the form of courts, jail, the underground economy, etc) has taken the place in the economy of a lot of manufacturing and other businesses that for decades kept the town tight and townspeople concerned for each other. (Marion was once home to Marion Power Shovel, which once employed 3200 people making earth moving and mining equipment. It closed in the late 1990s.)
Now people were dying. Dope was everywhere.
So to ignite discussion about all this, Belcher printed 800 signs and late one night put them up all over town: in front of Walgreens, outside cornfields, in the wealthy neighborhoods, along the retails strips.
He was caught in the act by three officers of the law just as he was about to put them around city hall and downtown.
They took down most of the signs, but his little bit of guerrilla political theater — a la Abbie Hoffman — was taken up online and in social media.
Belcher, a former addict himself, became a cause celebre.
The signs made the topic okay to talk about, he says. Before people were mortified to admit they had addicts in their families.
The town, he says, is now at least attending to the problem it avoided. Churches are involved. Local folks recently organized a heroin march. The cops arrest more heroin dealers than ever before. People talk openly about what they once kept silent. But the town doesn’t have any drug treatment facilities — besides its jail, that is, which serves as de facto center for detoxifying from heroin.
I’m here in Youngstown, Ohio. A tough-looking town that appears to have been through a lot.
Apparently the town once had miles and miles of steel mills. That’s gone.
Just interviewed a Mexican trafficker who told me that the guys from his town back home sent hundreds of guys to the US to retail heroin like pizza.
In time, they’d saturate a market and so the heroin pioneers in that market would move on to other places and thus, over the years, they expanded. They’re now in 20 states and cresting on the new markets for their dope created by the waves of addiction to Oxycontin, which contains a drug molecularly almost identical to heroin.
It’s all part of the next book I’m trying to get done.
I’m in Portsmouth, in southern Ohio, a region that has taken a beating from so many corners in the last 30 years.
Farm crisis, factory jobs going overseas, and lately, the hyper-marketing of prescription painkillers, which led to the nation’s first pill mills (unscrupulous docs selling prescriptions like candy for cash).
That led, before many years had passed, to great amounts of addiction to Mexican black-tar heroin delivered by guys from the town of Xalisco, Nayarit — a massive and quiet epidemic, and what the book I’m working on is all about.
The heartland of America — who knew?
This area is showing a few signs of coming back. I just today had conversations with two women today who give me hope. But it’s slow and there’s a long way to go, for having fallen so far.
By the way, the pet store said the people by Red Belly Piranhas to raise in aquariums. They get about as big as a human hand.
That was a long time ago, though. Portsmouth has gone from a population of 55,000 to less than 25,000 today.
In one shopping center, a WalMart shares space with the smokestack to what was once a steel and coke (coal) plant, employing 5,000. Talk about poignant transitions.
Many of the old industrial buildings, beautiful brick structures, are empty. This one, as it happens, is not quite one of them. There are offices on its first floor, which I’m told acts as an administrative office for far-flung shoelace production around the world.