Portland is all right if you don’t want a shoe shine.

I travel a lot, and I cling to a semblance of routine while I am on the road in order to keep from going insane.  For instance, a few weeks ago I was working in Woodland Hills California, and the Marriott had a nice shoeshine right in the lobby. Part of not sucking at life, for me involves transforming past obsessive behaviors into new healthy ones.  Whereas in the past, I would have hit the streets as soon as I got to San Fernando Valley to try and find a drug connection, now I am impelled to polish my boots. New town, new polish, and so on. I love my boots, and I love the anachronism in having some guy polish them while I look at the newspaper. Soo….The 9th annual harm reduction conference was held in Portland Oregon this year, an event I have wanted to attend since before I even knew it existed (or so I always say), but at least since 2007 when a friend of mine who worked the local exchange in Salinas got back from Austin TX with a huge smile on his face and lots of great stories of strategy, skill building, and many attractive anarcho-punks (perhaps less important but still a draw for me). At the time I could barely afford a bus ride across town, let alone a plane ticket to Austin TX, but I resolved to make the conference a priority as soon as I got my shit together. Well everybody, 2012 is evidently the year I got my shit together officially because guess where I just got back from? (well, relatively just got back….not that long ago….) Thanks entirely to a generous scholarship from the Harm Reduction Coalition and a generous stipend from the Northern Nevada Outreach Team…without the help of those two organizations there is no way I could have afforded to make the trip, and eat, and survive….so maybe next year will be the year I actually get my shit together. Stay tuned…Upon my arrival in Portland, and yet another Marriott hotel, I embarked on another early morning shoe shine mission. The early mornings, between 7 and 9, are the prime times for shoe shining, because businessmen are on the way to work, lawyers are on the way to the court,  etcetera. So I got a coffee (meh.)and a newspaper, typed ‘ shoeshine’ into my GPS, and started walking. 3 and a half hours later, I had dirty boots, a cold cup of coffee, and a wadded up ball of newspaper. I still haven’t figured out how a town of that size could not have a shoeshine booth, either independent, or in the lobby of one of the many fancy pants hotels I sought out.  But in spite of the rocky start, we were able to salvage a positive experience, Portland and I….

…..Just as my friend promised, the conference WAS inspiring and transformative and chock full of pretty dread-locked girls with back patches, poppy tattoos and political ideas just as kooky as mine. When I start talking to my progressive friends about  my political core concepts they sort of get a far away look in their eye and start changing the subject or remember an important phone call they needed to make. It’s not that I am advocating anything totally crazy like insurrection, revolution, workers seizing the means of production, or voting for Ron Paul. I speak in broad terms about every man’s right to liberty and autonomy, our duty to take up mutual aid, direct action, and radical self reliance – our need to value respect, tolerance and individual happi…there, I caught you checking your text messages! It’s okay, I know, I do it too when a crazy guy is talking, But see, at the conference these concepts were bandied about like they were actually valuable …pshaw, I know, insane right?….and it wasn’t just because I was in Portland either!! I found some people from all over America with similar values as mine! Finally! (What are they called again? Peers?) I mean I definitely have my friends and fellow crusaders for social justice here on NNOT and PHASA but I don’t know…it was a pretty wild feeling that first day – totally surrounded by comrades from all walks of life: students, volunteers, social workers, public health officials, nurses, law enforcement, Catholics, ex-convicts, former addicts, outreach workers, current addicts, clinic workers, sex workers, lion tamers , rehabilitation center counselors – (just kidding no lion tamers) a broad cross section of different socio-economic backgrounds, educations, professions, sexualities, races…. men and women, young and old…a lot of different types of people coming together to tackle the problem of addiction and it’s widespread impact on the community as a whole. A community just as diverse and varied as the attendees of the convention. I felt like the polar opposite of how Hunter S Thompson must have felt when he inadvertently stumbled into that cop convention just as his acid was kicking in. Instead of lizard people I saw angels. It may have just been my excitement at being there for the first time, but I feel like the passion that was in the air gave everyone an extra look of serenity and holiness, and if it could have somehow been harnessed and transformed into energy it may have been capable of launching the waterfront Marriott into space, or at least as far as Redding.

I felt the way an Amway salesperson must feel when they meet others from their native planet at the annual gathering in Las Vegas, or the way a neo-hippie candy raver sparkle pony feels when they go to Burning Man for the first time. I felt the way that Frank N Furter feels at the end of Rocky Horror when he realizes he is finally going home. It was indescribable really, but for the purposes of this post, for lack of accurate vocabulary, I will most likely say things like inspiring or transformative a lot. So now that we have established that it felt amazing and inspiring and ended up being a somewhat transformative 4 days in the gray, drizzly, and utterly devoid of shoeshine stands city of Portland. There were many bridges, and many strip clubs, but not one place to polish your leather. I will go on to explain some of the important things I learned while I was gorging myself on Voodoo Donuts and underwhelming over-hyped coffee and being all inspired and transformed. For instance, we should have a log book for our outreach team. Duh. Why didn’t I think of that? Simple and so effective at improving our performance! See what I mean? Don’t you feel inspired yet? If you don’t you probably haven’t gone on any outreach walks with us yet. YET. (Call me. We need you.) Okay I am getting carried away here. First thing first, even more important than the log book thing, is the following piece of doggerel: ONE HIT ONE KIT DON’T SHARE SHIT. This may seem like a no-brainer, but it’s actually an innovation in terms of HCV prevention…conventional wisdom has always been that as long as a person didn’t share needles with anyone they wouldn’t be able to contract any diseases….and that is definitely true when it comes to HIV, which cannot survive in the open air. Yes, oxygen is toxic to the HIV virus, but it can survive in the vacuum of a syringe….so intravenous drug users were told that the best thing they could do to cut down on their risk of contracting HIV was to never share or re use needles. It wasn’t that long ago when health officials began to notice an alarming trend….while HIV infections were going down in communities with syringe access programs, HCV (or Hep C) infections were remaining static and in some cases even increasing! Unfortunately, HCV is extremely virulent and can survive in the open air for several days! That means that even if people don’t share needles they can still contract Hep C by sharing ‘works’ i.e.: cookers, cottons, tourniquets…anything that could come in contact with blood during the process of using. It was several years of bad information, with many people thinking they were using safe shooting practices, and inadvertently contracting or spreading HCV. In order to stop the sleeping giant that is this generation’s future HCV pandemic (over 3 million people – 75 % of people who are currently infected don’t know that they are infected!!) from being the sobering death machine that AIDS was in the 1980’s, harm reduction workers are designing a new approach in education that focuses on HIV and HCV by advising clients to use one kit for every hit, and DON’T SHARE ANYTHING.  Using this approach not only cuts down on the spread of HCV and HIV, but also bacterial infections, necrotizing fascitis, and gnarly abscesses.

If you are the average citizen, you are not a current or former injection drug user and never will be. It may seem baffling to you that syringe access would be an issue. Thankfully,living on the street and having a physical and mental dependence on drugs is a completely alien lifestyle. I plan to write a whole piece on what a needle exchange looks like and exactly what it does, so I won’t go in to gruesome or dreary details on this one…we will just say that any town of this size without a needle exchange is sitting on top of an ugly, virulent, and desperate underworld…and unfortunately the fallout impacts not just those who reside in this underworld but also first responders, policemen, and children. Clean needles save lives and not just the lives of drug users. But I will expound on that another time. For now we use positive language and stress the fact that WHEN (not if) the legislature decriminalizes syringe access in February, we will have a system that is at the height of modernity and effectiveness, built around ideas such as using one needle for every injection. As residents of northern Nevada, we may be behind in terms of services available for our homeless and addicted, but starting now, we have the potential to arm people with the knowledge to save their lives, so that in the future we hope that sharing cottons or cookers will be looked upon as just as bad an idea as sharing needles. It seems like such a simple thing, but it is actually a revolutionary concept. Of course, it is crazy to think that no one will ever re use their works or share cottons just like its crazy to think that people will always have safe sex. But remember the name of the game is harm REDUCTION not total absence of all harm….any improvement is positive.

Getting back to the conference, just so we are on the same page, so far we have been inspired by the dedicated, diverse, and wildly attractive crowd, and we have revolutionized  our approach to syringe access and hepatitis C control. That right there would be more than most conferences accomplish in a week, and on the first day! But did we pack it in early and spend the rest of our trip roaming the streets of Portland in search of good record stores and handcrafted yarn things with birds on them? We did not! Why, every single day spent in attendance was literally a cavalcade of skill building, knowledge acquisition, friend making, and goal setting.(also yoga if you are into that) And that’s just between 830 am and 700 pm! I am sure I don’t have to tell you that the already tragically hip nightclubs in the area were overrun with awesome-ness every night after the classes let out….whether the ubiquitous bookstore coffee shop combo, the even more ubiquitous strip club, the disgusting PBR soaked dive, or the oh so boozhy well lit wine bar, you couldn’t find a crappy conversation if you tried! Thousands and thousands of current and former drug users, current and former sex workers, doctors, nurses, social workers, volunteers, and activists of the armchair and full time variety running wild in the streets of the pacific northwest. Just as much to be learned at the nightclub as the classroom, as I am sure any conference attendee will testify.

In the four days I was at the conference, I attended sessions on modeling syringe access centers, vein health and safe shooting practices, advocacy from the local to the federal level, drug use trends in nightlife and electronic music festivals, effective outreach, hepatitis C, and public art. By the end of each day I had learned so much that ideas were sloshing out of my ears and onto my shoes and I was, most nights and to my shame, way too exhausted to go out and party with the drug users and sex workers. I attended the conference with several colleagues from Reno, so we were able to adopt a ‘divide and conquer’ approach, by not doubling up on sessions we were able to compare notes later and thus maximize the total amount of knowledge brought home. There were 4 of us this year. In 2014 the biannual conference will be in Baltimore, and it is my hope that every board member of PHASA will be able to attend. We could have brought a whole van load of people and still not seen or heard everything this year, but by God I want to try next time. I had my eyes completely opened to a lot of concepts that were totally foreign to me, and I can only be a better advocate and outreach worker as a result. It was amazing for me to see the light go on over some of my colleagues’ heads as well. Although I was with a group of street savvy and socially conscious bad asses, I am the only one of us with a history as a homeless IDU. I am only saying this because that life was my life and I have been desensitized to some aspects of it, and as a result I sometimes forget that when I say something like ‘muscling’ or ‘chipping’ that the person who I am talking to may have no idea what the hell I am talking about, or may have another idea then I do….I have been so awash in the sea of needles and street life that I usually forget that most people have never even seen another person shoot up, or cop from a street corner, or experience cold turkey withdrawals. If I am to be a responsible and effective advocate for this cause, I should remind myself that everyone reacts differently to this kind of subject matter, and often react arbitrarily. By paying attention to the things that resonate with people who have a different experience than mine I can effectively communicate with more and more diverse people, because harm reduction based policies should be the norm, and everyone should be demanding their implementation, not just the lefties. Right now this is most definitely not the case, but I can only hope that as the numbers continue to prove that harm reduction is the most common sense, effective, result driven policy we have at our disposal in terms of dealing with sex and drug addiction on a broad level – as the numbers continue to demonstrate that these programs stop the spread of disease and drug overdose fatalities, we can only hope that more people will come around, regardless of their party affiliations or lack thereof. That’s the nice thing about numbers, they owe no political allegiance. The bummer is that numbers have shown the abstinence centered ‘war on drugs’ to be bankrupt for years, and long term success rates for abstinence centered 12 step recovery programs are equally as abysmal…I guess when it comes to ‘morality’ effectiveness is not as important as moral high ground.

I have been home from Portland for a few weeks now, and we have already begun to implement some of the ideas we picked up while were there. We have formed much needed alliances with established organizations for guidance and help of the material and idealistic varieties…we are but a fledgling group of upstarts, and the advice we have received from our new friends has already proven valuable – not to mention the offers of supplies we have received! When people learn that we are a new group, and what we are trying to do here in Nevada..amazing how generous they become. Right now we mainly need the tactical support, but wow, what a nice feeling to be united in solidarity with people all over America who have fought battles similar to ours and prevailed, and go on to fight new battles ahead of us.

Perhaps that might be the nicest thing I brought back from Portland, aside from my new t-shirts, or my notes, or my sweet laminate holder lanyard thing….the feeling of connection and common experience.  It’s easy to feel isolated doing this work in Reno where the typical reaction I get from people when I start explaining what we are working toward is somewhere in between total indifference and thinly veiled hostility. Its not that I need the approval of strangers to validate my cause as just, I do this because it needs to be done, certainly not for the social cachet it brings me. The approval of strangers is not needed, no, but the approval, encouragement, and solidarity of hundreds and hundreds of new comrades feels nice. I can only speculate where our little program will be by the time Baltimore rolls around, but I am bound to be in attendance. I wouldn’t miss it for anything.  I have only been to Baltimore once before, and it was before I had the boots – but my sweetheart has given me a travel sized shoe shine kit just in case – this time, I will be prepared.


GLOSSARY: IDU- Intravenous Drug User
HCV – Hepatitis C Virus
Chipping  –  Controlled, casual use.  Not strung out. Usually refers to
a heroin habit.
Muscling –  using a syringe to inject directly into the muscle, rather
than the blood stream. Often a muscle shot is the last
resort of an IDU who has destroyed his veins by
re using syringe or similar unsafe shooting practices.


Teenage Kicks and True Confessions

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.
Who knew?

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.