This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
The number of prescription painkiller overdose deaths increased five fold among women between 1999 and 2010, according to a Vital Signs report released today by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. While men are more likely to die of a prescription painkiller overdose, since 1999 the percentage increase in deaths was greater among women (400 percent in women compared to 265 percent in men). Prescription painkiller overdoses killed nearly 48,000 women between 1999 and 2010.
“Prescription painkiller deaths have skyrocketed in women (6,600 in 2010), four times as many as died from cocaine and heroin combined,” said CDC Director Tom Frieden, M.D., M.P.H.¹
Jen and Pachino: Hunts Point, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
Jen, a large woman with a small face could look mean with her tiny mouth, erupt loud in her light-skinned Latino ways. Eruptions involved a petite footstep, air slicing the block to make insult. Make threats. If it fit the mood of her boyfriend. Her boyfriend had to have the mood, feed it to Jen through caresses and vocabulary. And heroin. Jen felt what he felt.
Jen, the duckling. Jen, the barometer.
When a boyfriend was locked up, Jen erased memory — hers and others’ — with new alliances. She became bisexual for Charlie, a female pimp who needed a woman with which to revitalize her streetwalking game. Tender and girlish and dainty for Charlie. Suddenly Charlie, the love of Jen’s life.
With her new paramour, Jen dressed varieties of body parts in matching spandex, collected anonymous head wounds and beatings. The pair got the shit kicked out of them at the laundromat, spent weeks in hospital beds for the drugs, the escape from homelessness and the cheese fries from Sonic.
Charlie, classy and cleaning herself up, snorted coke off her hand, done with heroin years ago. Jen drank the mini bottles of methadone, switched to sniffing coke, something light. More than that became nasty.
The season waned and forever ended: the system plucked away Charlie, dumped the boyfriend back. Neighborhood means of cosmic trade.
Jen re-remembered men’s sweetnesses, lost the word “Charlie,” found her male love sporting a new get-clean prophecy. He left Bronx for a Harlem in-patient program.
She wanted to get clean too. For her kids.
Gone to Harlem for treatment, the pair settled Hunts Point on weekends, washed near-clean clothing batches during the week, sought care for long-lost ailments with active Medicaid cards.
Jen had a bad back, needed surgery. She left, returned, showed the scar subdividing the tattoo near the end of her spine. Her boyfriend slurred with the Percocets; they both slung her bottles on the block.
Weeks later, the boyfriend rode the sidewalk alone.
Jen was hospitalized. The drunk boyfriend said so while gaping a strange woman’s chest. She had become addicted to the painkillers from her back surgery. She’d be fine. She must have loved them more than she loved him.