Walk Down Misery Street

Should I leave? Give up? Choose some other career? Or maybe go back to Russia altogether? Everything dear to me is there. At night I reminisced about the apple orchard near my five-story building. The branches of the apple trees came up almost to the windows of my apartment on the second floor. I slept on the balcony in the summer, on a squeaky cot. I inhaled the aroma of apples. I listened to the birds sing in the morning as I lay bundled up in my woolen blanket. Oh, how good it was, how good . . .

Now here came an American morning of a new workday. My dreams washed away with the morning shower, right down the drain. I dressed quickly and hurried to the bus stop.

I didn’t understand that I had come across the “powerhouses”—the most difficult patients, the drug users of the criminal world who were homeless. Tough guys. Tougher do not exist. How was I supposed to know that in brilliant, magnificent New York, in addition to the polished and energetic stock traders on Wall Street and the happy tourists in Times Square, there is an entire army of unlucky characters who have hit rock bottom? And we are not talking about numbers in the single digits, but in the tens of thousands. Maybe even hundreds of thousands.

The System sends this army through three streams: to prison, to drug and mental health treatment institutions, and to halfway houses. If someone slips away from the System, finds himself on the street, using and stealing and robbing again, this generally does not last long: The fallen will quickly be picked up and funneled back into one of these streams. These people have almost completely lost their skills for community life. Very few are able to pull through.

To this day, I wonder why I didn’t slam the door shut and leave the substance abuse field forever. What forces kept me there?

***

It’s not clear how long I was wracked by doubt and where this would lead. But the situation resolved itself in unexpected ways.

It all began . . . with a common toothache. My molar became a serious blight on my life. It had ached from time to time for a long while, but then the pain became unbearable.

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