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What It Takes: Nine Cents for Drugs

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


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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, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.

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The criminalization of certain drugs has a range of effects; it fails to deter all use, but does deter some use, while at the same time having some consequences that are bad. Criminalization increases the price of drugs, makes money-making criminal activity among drug users more likely, strengthens the criminal underworld and the drug-using subculture, and makes illicit drug use and sale a more dangerous activity. However, criminalization does keep drugs out of the hands of a certain proportion of the public.¹

Feeling better is not won easily. Money is not won easily.

Desperate women suck dick or bare ass at sporadic hours: in the cloaked cabs of 18 wheelers; next to the least foul-smelling option in a lot full of dumpsters; behind a bridge pillar that props up a home made of sheets and 2×4 boards.


Takeesha, Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

It is scheduled weekly by 5 a.m. appointment or suspended and painful in its search during the day when one is sick, vomiting, pants stained from withdrawal.

Men will still take it in sickness.

One woman panhandles, collecting $10 shuffling 50 yards back and forth in front of a stoplight over the course of 8 hours, ignoring jeers and words disarmingly vile. This is summer, winter, sleet, hurricane. Her hands crack and stiffen, and her back bends.

Desperate men lift packages from the train yard to resell to the corner stores. Beer, packaged food. They collect scrap metal in stolen grocery carts, jumping 12-foot industrial fences capped with barbed wire, to resell at scrap metal yards before 6 p.m. closing. When there is no metal, they find cheaper things: cilantro, clothes, watermelon.


Prince, Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

During all of these acts, there is risk of police and violence. All are things to be stabbed during or for. All are things warranting arrest.

The safer option is to collect cans, haul a splitting garbage bag across the neighborhood, sort through street trash and private property, in a race against a dozen others doing the same in a half-mile radius.

Everyone can see what a state you’re in, the way your clothes smell of urine and were on you yesterday.

Nothing is private in this choice, unmasked as you are by your garbage bag.

Agile men must battle elderly women, meeting in line next to the grocery store entrance, on display like fresh fruit. Stand in the sun, in the snaking line.

Cans and bottles go one by one into a machine that yields $12-$14 for a full collection, when the machine works.

Others rob, earning a distrust that moves undisguisedly by person and by corner.

You know exactly how much money you need. You know this to the cent.

You cannot buy drugs for $8.91. There is no amount of begging or proselytizing your loyalty in return for the difference. You better find nine cents.

You’re sick; you have to fucking find the nine cents.

If you slip and steal, you are hunted and beaten, or, worse, snubbed by dealers. They search you lazily from their corners as you hurry your attempts to collect metal, cans or men. The spider can wait for the fly.

Everyone does this now and then.

This atop the sickness, atop cops’ rounds and the generic physical danger that making money entails.

Worse, no fix.

The bottom, no fix.


Pepsi, Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.

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More Hunts Point Addiction Writing
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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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