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The White Noise

The White Noise


A hit of addiction and mental illness, chased by chemistry and culture.
The White Noise Home

Addicts Are Professional Vagabonds


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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty and prostitution in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.

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Addicts, by nature, lead lives as vagrants of some description to cope — in search of a new doctor to fill a prescription; a new partner who better understands; a new recovery program that will be more effective; a new bar away from prying eyes. To look at this ubiquitous concept of search and tumult, I’m exploring the literal example of vagrancy: the nature of home.

The low-income addicts of Hunts Point, even those with current housing, flit from place to place, seemingly without the expectation or sense of spatial connection — professional vagabonds. Through a week following Diana and John, here’s a look into the intangible nature of home and stability as it relates to their drug, crack.

Diana going to work: Hunts Point, Bronx
Diana in front of her building, Hunts Point. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Sunday

A wooden boardwalk led Diana inside her new building, an extended 30-degree slope of plank past a handful of drug dealers. As she pulled open the building’s heavy metal door, one of the number lurking against the entry quietly voiced an insult. Diana strode by in today’s wig, a long, curly, honey-toned one, and a houndstooth hat. Into the elevator she went, pressing level 3.

Exiting at the third floor, she walked left, stopping at a door halfway down the long hallway. Voices punctuated the hall’s silence, behind the row of doors. She hammered on the door, expletives, “Johnny, let me the fuck in.”

Her husband answered, dressed in a navy sweatshirt and grimy white brief underwear. Dressing, he walked from the door to their rented room in the apartment — $80 a week — past a small kitchen. He muttered something about their renter, a Ghanian (or so he thought) who valued neatness, who could handle drugs but not tricks in the apartment.

A white sheet divided the couple’s room from the rest of the space, door gone. Other sheets, colorful ones, covered the windows. The smell of bleach overthrew the air.

Inside the dorm-sized room, a filled air mattress leaned against the far wall. A table with a black-marbled pattern sat near the door, three chairs scattered. The bulk of the room bared faux-wood linoleum floors, deprived of furniture. Near the table stood a person-sized decorative cat. Diana claimed responsibility for only the air mattress.

She took off her wig and hat, resting one on the plastic sculpture to throw the other on the table. Taking a seat, she took out the newly-copped crack and a lighter. This space marked the first time she and her husband have had a roof overhead in over a month. Sure, the tenant is obsessive, and a bit paranoid (bringing white people in made John keep an ear open), but for $80 a week they couldn’t complain.

Crack Table: Hunts Point, Bronx
Crack on the table, Hunts Point. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.

The crack came out in ziplock bags too small for thimbles. Taking the rocks onto a fingertip’s ledge, Diana brought them to the pipe’s mouth, placing the fragments on the stem’s tip, vertical, tapping them down. Eyes open, staring into the flame for the hit of the high. She greets the feeling with a faint nod, her hands roving a check around her body — perhaps a search for a reminder of her skin, or one of paranoia.

Vacant, blank.

Then, meticulous, a marionette cleaning her pipe stem with a brush.

Smoking Crack: Hunts Point, Bronx
Diana and John smoking, Hunts Point. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.

The apartment shared nothing beyond her habit, no vestiges left to present evidence of a 20-year-old inhabitant and her husband. Her purse held her important things– Medicaid application, condoms. New clothes could be bought on demand with the day’s earnings.

High dimming, her irritation turned. “Okay, time to go.” The building, with its occasional yells from one floor or another, was a place of shelter only — one to sleep and to smoke without heckle. Leavings and enterings were whiplash sudden.

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Saturday

Diana crossed the street just after dark, blonde wig again, arms full with a plastic black bag and a bottle of white wine. “A trick just gave me this. Do you want to come up to our place? I’m going to be an escort soon. I’m celebrating!” Her low chuckle joined her snaking sway across the street, onto the sidewalk, an already-tipsy path home.

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Sunday, One Week After Move-In

John paced the major trucker intersection on the other side of Hunts Point, hoodie drawstrings tied tight against his face in the cold. He’d been waiting for Diana to return from a date for over an hour and feared she postponed returning to smoke crack. “Tuesday’s our last day in the apartment, if not sooner. I don’t think she’s taking that seriously and saving her money.”

Long-winded, clotted reasoning told that they weren’t getting along with the man who rented the room. Time to go, just like that.

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Here’s a companion piece to this post, a video taken inside John and Diana’s apartment.
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More Hunts Point Addiction Writing
Writing Beyond Addiction in Hunts Point
Chris Arnade’s Photos and his Facebook feed

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. aidel 5:20 pm 11/12/2012

    Two of the most horrifying aspects of being an addict are waking up, having no idea where you are, how you got there and what you have done. The second is having no place to go. The latter, I believe, happens more often to young, vulnerable women, often leading to destructive/abusive relationships that are very hard to escape. Unfortunately, many young women see this as their only choice…and who knows? Maybe it is.

    Link to this
  2. 2. stevecastleman 1:01 pm 11/13/2012

    Addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease. It’s treatable. Perhaps not as successfully as one might like, but on a par with other chronic diseases that require substantial behavioral change, like diabetes and hypertension.

    Unfortunately, many people still don’t believe addiction is a disease. That’s why science-based education is so important.

    For a not-for-profit website that discusses the science of substance use and abuse in accessible English (how alcohol and drugs work in the brain; how addiction develops; why addiction is a chronic, progressive brain disease; what parts of the brain malfunction as a result of substance abuse; how that malfunction skews decision-making and motivation, resulting in addict behaviors; why some get addicted while others don’t; how treatment works; how well treatment works; why relapse is common; what family and friends can do; etc.) please click on http://www.AddictScience.com.

    Link to this
  3. 3. czakrzewski 3:44 pm 11/13/2012

    this piece describes the reality of a hard-core drug addict, but it clearly is narrow minded to describe all addicts this way.

    Link to this
  4. 4. kendrickmoose 9:40 pm 01/21/2013

    Great title and great article. This will make me think differently when I see an random mattress laying around in Montreal.

    Link to this

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