I have been thinking lately about wasted lives. The Freddie Fender song about "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" has been running through my head.
When you live in Midtown Atlanta it is hard not to somehow see the people along the streets who obviously have surrendered to letting a little chunk of crack cocaine or a cheap bottle of booze run their lives.
And up until recently I was living in a weekly hotel in Midtown, which I affectionately referred to as "the crack house." I dubbed it that in humor because of its location and then as I came and went about my business I came to realize that I had hit the nail on the head.
Crack heads who somehow survive by living on the streets, crashing with friends, begging, borrowing, sometimes stealing and whatever else it takes to earn a few bucks. Sometimes they get enough money together to rent a room, for a day or two's respite from the mean streets. Mostly it was regular people living at the motel but there was this sprinkling of crack users.
Curious about what makes things tick and sheathed in the cloak of nothing ever hurting or killing me, I have talked to some of the crack heads. I treated them to some meals, listened to their stories, encouraged them to give it up with little or no success.
I thank the Big Guy who watches over me that I never tried drugs. I am sure there were drugs when I was at Wofford College (1966-1970) but I never saw them and was too busy working full-time and going to school full-time to notice if they were there.
I apparently was born without an addictive personality because even the taste of the grape doesn't call out to me in such a way that I can't give it up for months without thinking about it when I am trying to lose weight. I find Perrier water (with its carbonation) in a glass of ice with a twist of lime gets me through.
But I am not stupid enough to believe that if I had ever tried something as addictive as crack or cigarette smoking I could just do it occasionally. I have heard too many stories and seen enough from one friend in my home state who surrendered everything for crack, got off it with the help of me and other friends and then surrendered again and ended up in prison.
I will tell you two brief stories from my short time in Atlanta.
First is a guy named Matt and the other is Daniel, both of whom I met and broke bread with and listened to their stories. Both had one thing in common. They came from good middle class families, grew up in nice houses in suburban areas, had families that tried desperately to get them to stop and then ended up giving up on them.
Matt was around 38, had a loving father and mother, a wife and little kid. But he left it all behind for crack. He bumped around, earning money any way he could. Like Daniel, he was super addicted because rather than smoking the crack he shot it up. Experts can correct me if I'm wrong, but what they said is that to get a bigger jolt they ground up the "rock" of crack and put it with lemon juice and injected it into a vein just like heroin.
The approach I took with both Matt and Daniel was not to be judgmental, preachy or demanding. I listened and learned and offered advice selectively.
One day recently, Matt came to the newspaper looking for me. It turns out he had made that decision to give it up. He sought help from counseling and ended up in Jonesboro detoxing, living with a sponsor and his wife and had seen his wife and kid. He came by the newspaper to see me and we talked in the parking lot. He rolled up both sleeves and although he is in his late 30s he bubbled with the enthusiasm of a kid and wanted to show me because I kept encouraging him to go clean. "See," he said as he displayed both arms with no needle marks. We were going to have lunch again soon but I have lost track of him and hope he is OK.
Daniel is a different story. He comes from Columbia over the state line in South Carolina. He is about 24. Went to a good Catholic high school and then finished in public schools. His father is an engineer. But he got hooked and then dropped out of college after a year and a half. He tried the Marines but got thrown out when they found ecstasy on him. He came over to Atlanta with a job but got fired when he failed a drug test. Then he started, like Matt, living on the streets, using as much drugs as he could. I bought him some meals, even played chess with him since I love it but am not great. He kicked my butt each time. I encouraged him to go at least one day without crack but as he left the restaurant it was clear he was heading back to the crack area of Midtown. I once saw him and he had bruises on his face. He said he was talking to a woman in a bar and got in a fight with her boyfriend. But I suspected it was a drug deal gone bad. It was clear he was running with some serious heavyweight druggies. He told me a story about a drug dealer coming to his fashionable home in Columbia and holding a gun to his mother until he produced the money he owed. It came clearer and clearer to me why his parents, out of mental exhaustion, finally ordered him out of the house. I didn't ask much of him, but over a meal I produced some writing paper and a pen and begged him to write a few lines to his parents. They deserved to know he was all right. He agreed and I mailed it for him. At our next luncheon I tried to talk him into applying at the mall for some seasonal work which would provide some money and fill up those hours during the day that ended up in boredom and then drugs. He kept promising to do so. But then this week I heard he got into some trouble and stole some items from a friend and is on the lamb. I haven't seen him since and I fear he is going the way of my friend in South Carolina who is in prison for a long time. I wish I could tell you that you will never be touched or see the ravages of addiction. I wish I could have made a difference in Daniel's life. I wish I could have pulled him back over from the dark side.
Instead, I end up with no one to occasionally play chess with over a meal and with the song "Wasted Days and Wasted Nights" playing over and over in my head.
Bob Paslay is assistant managing editor of the News Daily and Daily Herald, He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or at (770) 478-5753 Ext. 257.