Just got back from a rewarding street outreach mission during which we were able to distribute 42 hygiene kits. several safe shooting/ bleach kits, and over 200 condoms to some of the scattered homeless denizens of Reno, Nevada. Generally we do this twice a week on Tuesday and Friday afternoons, and on this day there were three of us representing the NNOT/PHASA street team, and you can bet we ran out of supplies before we ran out of recipients.
I almost didnt go out today. My mother is in town on a visit, fresh from Portugal and exotic locales – and I see her not nearly enough these days. Also visiting is my 9 year old, who chiefly resides in Chico and whom I can never see enough of no matter what.
Some other factors: The co-director of outreach was out on personal business,two of my two volunteers flaked, and this week has been without exaggeration one of the most stress filled I have had in recent memory. I easily could have called off the whole shindig and no one would have been the wiser. None but the most observant of our clients would have even noticed we were absent.
To be honest, as much as I like wandering the streets and public parks of Reno handing out rubbers and soap and whatnot to those who can’t afford to prioritize rubbers and soap and whatnot due to their current life situations, today I just felt like hanging out with my mom, my kid, and my sweetheart – resting, taking refuge from the heat and the hot rods (see also: hot august nights) and, to use the parlance of our times: ‘chillaxing’.
And yet,today at least, I sallied forth into the evening sunlight, facing mobs of visiting automotive hobbiests and their ice cream paint jobbed ilk, in order to walk the streets with some fellow NNOT/PHASAers for two hours distributing survival tools to folks whose reactions upon reciept typically border the murky regions between sincere gratitude, misdirected hostility, and leery befuddlement.
The purpose of this piece is not to pat myself or my comrades on the back for fulfilling our commitments as volunteer harm reduction workers. Having said that, at this time I would like to pat myself on the back, along with my comrades’, for fulfilling our commitments as volunteer harm reduction workers. Sometimes people ask me what I get out of it. They assume I am getting paid or have some designs on recognition or acclaim. Some are hip to the fact that the goal I am working to achieve, which is the deregulation of syringes in order to allow for needle exchange programs to function legally in the state of Nevada, is a goal which is more likely to bring a person infamy then good old fashioned fame, even if they are sympathetic and understand what a triumph this would be for public health officials, law enforcement, and drug addicts statewide. They presume (with some degree of certitude) that I revel in infamy even as I work toward the greater good. Some of the more intelligent and questioning of my critics, like my daughter, frame it thusly:
“Does it just make you feel good daddy? To give? It makes me feel good sometimes…”
And it’s this question of why….why I continue to go out every week in the face of ignorance,misunderstanding, contempt, and worst of all – ambivalence – which brings me rather clunkily to the subject of Checkmate.
I got a message from my friend Checkmate yesterday. She sent me song by the Undertones, called ‘True Confessions’. Go ahead, give it a listen(the video at the top of the page):
‘This song reminds me of you ALL KINDS’ she said.
I should say here that I am delighted that I should be associated with such a song by anybody, particularly this girl, for reasons I shall attempt to elaborate here . The Undertones are a seminal and influential Irish punk band, probably most well known for being British super DJ and alt-music icon John Peel’s favorite band…their most popular song ‘Teenage Kicks’ is an underground cover band staple, one of those songs that everybody has heard but nobody knows who sings it.
Speaking of ‘teenage kicks’, let’s talk a little more about Checkmate. When I first met Checkmate (not her real name, doi!) I was 27 and she was 16. I was knocking around in between Monterey County Jail, Yuma County Jail, rehab, and ‘the streets’. By that time I already had several years as a ‘track star’* under my belt. She was just beginning what would end up being a rather long and dramatic career as a Juvenile Delinquent. I had already mastered the art of burning bridges so effectively that there were very few people left in my life would even let me in their door, whether to spend the night, eat a cheese sandwich, or empty the litter box. Those people who had the presence of mind not to trust me within their homes or their arm’s reach included my mom, my dad, all my old friends, and my siblings. It was no surprise that it had come to this, I was an incorrigible thief who would steal from anyone, family included , to support myself . I did this chiefly by shoplifting electronics from WalMart, Target, and Costco. It was a hand to mouth existence until I arrived in Yuma, when some hardcore ex convicts I met (in rehab) took me under their wing and introduced me to a whole new world of exciting felonious activities, transforming me almost overnight from a run of the mill, two bit street hustler to a run of the mill, two bit multinational criminal and smuggler of contraband. Contraband sounds so much more sterile, almost romantic, in comparison to the actual items I was moving back and forth accross the borders from Arizona to Mexico, from Mexico to California, or some combination of statelines and national boundaries. Contraband. Also known as methamphetamine, stolen cars, weapons, and the odd human being.
This was way back when MySpace was still a thing that wasn’t mentioned nostalgically or mockingly when referencing one’s Facebook addiction. It was MySpace which allowed me to meet Checkmate’s best friend, and by extension Checkmate. It was MySpace which had unwittingly set the stages for me to embark on a relationship with Checkmate’s best friend …let’s call her ‘ Sheena’ …it was MySpace which allowed technology to bring forth an unholy relationship which spawned seven of the hardest years of my life and a subsequent assault on general decency and my liver which the world has never seen since and hopefully never will again. It was all becos of MySpace. So the more irrelevant MySpace becomes with each passing day, the further karma is meted out and proven to be a righteous force in the universe. I had met Sheena on MySpace, and we had begun a relationship which initially consisted entirely of online messaging. We never met face to face, never talked on the phone, we would just check in with each other, on MySpace, every single day. At a time when I had recently been dumped by my girlfriend of 3 years, and all my ‘friends’ were gnarly old dope fiend parolees gone AWOL, this online relationship was the closest thing to normalcy and stability that I had in my life, and I cherished and nourished it side by side with my drug habit. They were the two things I had in life that I could always count on. When I went to jail for 90 days for a simple possession charge the online messaging turned into daily correspondence. We talked on the phone for the first time immediately on my release, discovered that we were born on the same day in July (albeit 10 years apart from one another)and we were hooked. She was my ‘out’ from Yuma. We hatched a plan, as simple as it was stupid – I would come to Salinas, teach her how to pick locks and we would Bonnie and Clyde our way down to Baja to live out our lives like Clarence and Alabama from the film True Romance. As it turns out, to those who study astrology , we Cancers (AKA Moonchildren) are not that practical and also have a propensity for melodrama.
When Sheena showed up in a stolen car to pick me up and whisk me away, Checkmate was riding shotgun. For the next several years the three of us were inseparable.I dont think I ever taught them how to pick locks, but on our first night together, on the kitchen floor of Checkmate’s house, we built our first magic bag**, and the rest is history. Checkmate quickly proved to have a genuine passion and aptitude for shoplifting, possessed with an innocent charm and seemingly no fear of recrimination or punishment (‘What’re they gonna do, I’m a minor.’) she seemed to have been born with what is commonly referred to as a ‘green light’ which allowed her to get away with almost anything and not be caught – like most green lights, hers eventually turned red – but her eagerness and acuity led to her handle – we would cry out “CHECKMATE, BITCHES” – arrogant and proud, after compromising the security of some large box store… speeding off with our soon to be fenced bounty.
And for the first few months, that was the routine. I had my habit at a manageable level, so that the rest of the team had no idea that I was chipping from time to time. Because back then it was all about the alcohol. Rum. Bacardi Razz to be exact . Swimming pools full of flavored rum. Every day we would steal a bottle (or two). One bottle meant a pleasant evening, two usually meant a physical altercation between Sheena and I, or a random act of criminal mischief by me – perhaps just stealing away to sniff glue or smoke crack in Chinatown. Fortifying our nerves with drink we would proceed to steal as much of whatever we could get to pay for our hotel room that night and if we were unable to do that we would squat in an empty house or a car or a public park. We were essentially very well dressed gutter punks. On the day of 2/3 of the teams birth, we all lay in a drunken pile on the street in Santa Cruz and begged for spare change ( a time honored tradition in Santa Cruz, it would seem). We made 300 dollars in 2 hours. At that time it was one of my proudest achievments. We were untouchable. Such was the nature of my sickness, and such had I been living for so long, that this seemed not only a normal means of subsisting, but actually a step up from the downright depravity of life along the Mexican border…
…turns out the Mexican border was not done with me yet, and a farcical showdown at the crossing in San Luis de Potosi would be the first in what would be a long series of mishaps and run-ins with the law for our gang of three.
Somewhere in the first few months of meeting Checkmate, I woke up from a blind drunk in a stolen CRV somewhere near southern California’s Pyramid Lake. Sheena and I were piloting the stolen vehicle, and Checkmate followed behind in her stolen Kia. Somewhere in our drunken stupor, we had hatched a plan (more likely I had hatched a plan since I knew where to go) to steal my girlfriend’s mother’s 4×4 along with Checkmate’s mother’s Kia and head down to Algodones, where I knew a delightful fellow by the name of Chuy who payed 5000 dollars cash, no questions asked, no titles needed, for 4 wheel drive vehicles. As I began to sober up, more details of the plan unfolded. We were planning to drive the CRV down to Algodones, get the cash, and use the Kia to drive down to the sea of Cortez where we would use the money to live in a seaside palapa for the summer, or until the money ran out.
Sounds nice, doesnt it? Most silly dreams sound nice, and like most silly dreams this one was never meant to be.
I won’t get into the specifics of what happened down there in Mexico, but let’s just say that it didn’t go well. And it should have been a sign for our team to disband. Unfortunately, we decided to stick together. The harder we held on, the worse our lives became. And here’s where I bring in the Harm Reduction piece. You didnt think this was just a big war story, did you?
If our lives the way I describe them sound at all romantic or cool, then maybe I have failed. Then again, anyone who says there arent aspects of the lifestyle that are both romantic and cool is lying. There’s a reason that people keep going back. But I dont want to romanticize. I want to talk about the reality of my life today, with three years of domestication and three years (more or less) off the needle. I want to talk about Checkmate, and why she is a miracle, and our friendship today is a miracle…and I want to talk about how CLEAN NEEDLES SAVE LIVES. But first a little bit about Harm Reduction. I am going to assume that if you are on this site, and have read this far you may already be familiar with what Harm Reduction means but if you aren’t, be advised it isnt one of those meaningless platitudes from the non profit/do gooder world, it is one of those things that means exactly what it means: namely the reduction of harm in any situation. In the world of drug addiction and policy, it basically means an approach to dealing with the problem of drugs which includes not only abstinence but every weapon at our disposal to combat drug addiction and the harm it causes to our families and our societies at large.
When I ask myself why I go out to do street outreach on days like today when I’d rather be doing something with my family, or on days when I am accused of enabling drug addicts and actually being an agent of harm I remind myself that my life as an IV drug user was chiefly a life of misery. By the time I had resigned myself to living on the street daily injecting drugs, I had given up on myself, and much of society had subsequently given up on me.
One of the things I am constantly reminding myself and others is that homeless drug addicts do not check their humanity at the door on their way out to sleep in an alley or fleabag motel. They are still deserving of our love and understanding. I guess I have always been vaguely aware of this concept but one of the first time it crystallized for me was at a needle exchange and drop in center in Salinas CA. The drop in center operated on a low profile basis, but on the door was a sign that said ‘ THE HEART IS A MUSCLE THE SIZE OF YOUR FIST KEEP LOVING KEEP FIGHTING’ and when you walked inside you were greeted by a large sign that said, simply, JUDGEMENT FREE ZONE. It was between these walls, and in other places like this, where I met people who actually seemed to care for me even though I had given myself up for dead long before. They cared enough to toss me a sandwich and remind me to eat when I was wasting away, they cared enough to teach me ways I could improve the quality of my subhuman existence from unbearable to bearable, they cared enough to teach me ways I could stop myself and others from dying of overdose or contracting the HIV virus. So much more happens in a needle exchange then just the exchange of needles. Drug addicts are met wherever they are at in their addiction, sometimes just being kept alive long enought to make the decision that they want to live.
‘If they wanna die, let them die’ is a chorus I have heard repeated without irony by otherwise loving and compassionate people who honestly feel as if drug addicts are the scum of the earth and deserving of some sort of weird social darwinism. Well, somebody who wasnt me said it best when they said ‘ dead people dont recover.’
Several of my friends from that time in my life are dead now. They will never have the choice to enter treatment, to work a 12 step program, to find Jesus or Buddha or Krishna, to fall in love, to relapse, to let music wash over them and heal them, to use cognitive behavioral therapy or work out their daddy issues or some combination of the above which might serve as a complicated solution to the equally complicated problem of addiction. Sometimes it’s as simple as finding religion, or the right sponsor….sometimes it’s years of replacement therapy, incarceration, or rehab. What saved me isn’t the same thing that saved Checkmate. Good old Sheena never got saved. She is still living the life of misery. But she is alive. And as long as she is alive, there is hope. I hung out with Checkmate the other day. It was undoubdtedly the first time we had ever been in each other’s presence for that amount of time and not been under the influence of something. It was amazing.
‘Man of everyone…I never thought it would be you and me who made it.’
Those were her words. I never would have thought either, but one of the things that harm reduction work and recovery has taught me is that the power of human beings to transform themselves is limitless. I have gone from being a homeless IV drug user, a multiple felon who was repeatedly incarcerated and had no relationship with his family to speak of, to being a proud father, a trusted friend, activist, and volunteer. I have even achieved a vague level of success in my chosen profession.
That is the message of hope I bring to the streets of Reno twice a week along with my condoms and bleach kits. Not everyone will stop to get to know me, but if they do I will be happy to let them know….I made it out….Checkmate made it out……Anyone can….
How many more people have to die from overdose, or from contracting HIV or HCV in Nevada before we adopt a common sense drug policy that allows workers like me to discuss ALL the options a drug addict has to live a happy healthy life? As long as abstinence is considered the only alternative to addiction death and disease will continue to do a booming business in Reno.
And on the day when a drug addict can walk into a room in Nevada and deposit his dirty needles into a sharps container for safe disposal without fear of recrimination and walk out with clean needles, information on abscess care, and Naloxone to administer to any friends who might overdose in his presence…well on that day I might get taken for a drunken Bobby Fisher as I loudly proclaim to all who can hear me: “CHECKMATE, BITCHEZZZZZ!!!’
*TRACK STAR: someone with track marks on their arm AKA a junkie or IV drug user.
**MAGIC BAG: a homemade bag made mostly of aluminum foil, which can be used to bypass store security alarms.