Walk Down Misery Street

I wasn’t struck so much by their bad manners or outward appearance, the stab wounds and prison tattoos, as by the content that came out of their mouths. Not one of them provoked violence or threatened anyone. Far from it. Rather, their talk resembled that of philosophers and thinkers.    

True, in the heat of an argument, they could sometimes swear roughly, no matter how insistent I was that they be careful with their F-words. Yet how sensibly they speculated about life! They talked about how it was so necessary to manage one’s emotions and listen to the voice of reason, to have faith in God, and to live in harmony with oneself and others. To overlook the faults of others and work hard to overcome one’s own. To refrain from worrying about the future and not dwell on the past. To live one day at a time!

And most important of all, as they all said in unison and individually: “Don’t use drugs or alcohol! It’s so evil! This damn heroin, crack, grass, vodka. If it weren’t for the drugs, my wife and I never would have divorced; I wouldn’t have lost my job or gone to prison. I would have a family, a job, an apartment, a car. I would be someone. And what am I now? I am nothing. Fucking junkie! I live in a shelter. I need to report to my parole officer once a week. I have to take urine tests everywhere I go. I’m on food stamps. And why all of this? Because of coke and booze. But now I’m serious about being on the road to recovery. I’m going to be careful, listen to the voice of reason, and live in harmony.”

Just about everything they said was in that spirit.3

“What am I doing here?” I asked myself as I listened to these people. I expected to be teaching them about how bad it is to use drugs and alcohol. And here they were, saying the same, knowing better than I did how bad it is!

But how did such deeply thoughtful people wind up in prison? How could they condemn drugs so zealously, yet still use them for years? How was it possible to reconcile their speech, full of humanistic pathos, with their criminal offenses and angry faces?

There was another question I couldn’t answer: Where did all these people disappear to, and why? They are under the supervision of the court! Those who drop out of treatment face the risk of returning to prison. What are they doing? Again wandering the city—again snorting, smoking, shooting, and drinking? Just yesterday they were here at this very spot, talking so wisely about the dangers of drugs. Had they all lied? Were they pretending?

Questions, questions . . .