A Walk Down Misery Street

“This is just the first step. We’ll file a housing application, based on your medical things with AIDS. With time you can get a job in a substance abuse clinic somewhere. You’ve still got your diploma and work experience.”

He nodded, making a fist as a sign of his full determination to fight and win. He kept his somewhat strained eyes on me, as if in expectation. I looked at the closed door. I put my hand in my pocket and took out two crumpled twenties.

“Take it. You can give it back whenever.”

Peter took the money, sighing lightly as if relieved. Then he pensively furrowed his brow.

Of course, he knew that substance abuse counselors, like all workers in any drug clinic, including secretaries and janitors, were strictly forbidden to give patients any money. Peter would have understood had I not given him a cent. He had nothing to lose, but I could get into trouble at work. Regardless of how nice and honest a patient may appear, crossing a professional boundary into a purely human interaction carries a risk, especially concerning money.

Still, I believe Pete expected this from me—this well-meaning though arguably unprofessional act. He didn’t have a dime. Only a subway card. And his life. And God.

He hid the money in his pocket. He was in worn-out sneakers, ripped jeans, and an old sweater. We hugged again and agreed to meet the next morning.

Peter didn’t show up the next morning, or the following week. He never showed up at the halfway house I had arranged for him. His cell was disconnected. I had no way of finding out what happened to him or where he went. All that was left in my cell was the picture of us together—students at graduation.

What happened to him? Why did he disappear? Had I done the right thing in giving a chronic drug user, just released from prison, forty dollars? Such a sum amounted to four bags of heroin or cocaine.

“You snort coke, shoot dope. Make sure you don’t get them confused, my Russian brother.”

Did he buy himself a hot dog and some sneakers, or those damned bags of drugs? Had he gotten high and landed himself back in prison? Was giving him money an act of good or evil? When dealing with drug addiction, common sense and ethical principles are often challenged, if not turned upside down.