Made in USA

Pub date August 19, 2009
WriterJason Morris
SectionArts & CultureSectionLiterature


DRUG LIT You can go to these places. Reading Righteous Dopefiend (University of California, 392 pages, $24.95), I kept trying to pinpoint, via clues in the text, where on "Edgewater Blvd." — Bayshore — the homeless heroin addicts whose lives the book chronicles were encamped. You want to know if you’ve walked by them. Because what pulls you through this often dense ethnography are finely drawn portraits of the brutal lives of individuals.

Philippe Bourgois, a professor of anthropology and medicine who taught for a while at UCSF (he’s now at the University of Pennsylvania) and Jeff Schonberg, a photographer, spent nearly 12 years with a core group of 10 homeless drug addicts in and around the Bayshore area. In Righteous Dopefiend they’ve created a devastating, blow-by-blow indictment of the countervailing forces that conspire to keep these people — Hank, Petey, Tina, Carter, Felix — on the margins.

Of course, the authors recognize that the members of the group they’re following bear some responsibility for the day-to-day atrocity their lives have become. But they track these lines back carefully, conducting extensive interviews with family members, former employers, and ex-spouses who live more (or at least much less precariously) in the "mainstream." Part of what’s revealed in these back stories reminded me of William T. Vollmann’s argument, in his book Poor People (Ecco, 2007), about "accident prone-ness": that the cultures of poverty, addiction and marginalization have a snowball effect within individual lives. Meeting medical — or court — appointments becomes impossible without transportation; sores and open-container tickets turn into abscesses and bench warrants.

The book is divided into nine parts, each detailing an aspect of the everyday lives of the homeless addicts. In "Falling in Love," over the course of interviews, monologues, and Schonberg’s overwhelming black and white photographs, we watch the trajectory of Tina and Carter’s on-again, off-again romance. The chapter is bracketed by "Intimate Apartheid" and "A Community of Addicted Bodies," which illustrate the particulars of the group’s estrangements (from within and without) and its focal, primary romance — with heroin, crack, and alcohol.

In "Making Money," the few legal, and many more illegal, means of getting enough cash to fix are catalogued and considered. Bourgois considers the obsolescence of blue-collar manufacturing jobs, nationally and particularly in rapidly gentrifying cities like San Francisco. What interests the authors here, as elsewhere, are the ambiguously symbiotic, even parasitic relationships employers have with the homeless. One boss who relies on a member of the group pays him exactly enough for a bag of heroin, ensuring that he’ll be at work again first thing the next day.

Throughout the first-person narratives, Bourgois threads his argument: that the institutions, ostensibly set up to serve this body of addicts (from the police-state to community clinics) are, like the employers, both dependent on them (for government funding, menial labor, etc.) and ultimately at cross-purposes with them. The services senselessly undercut one another, forming a no-place for the homeless to barely survive in, characterized by the either/or of living purely by chance, in extreme squalor, or in a permanent maze of bureaucracy. So the Edgewater homeless carve out a life in between, under the freeways but with methadone treatment or an SRO perpetually on the horizon. It’s a shell game where the addict always loses.

There are plenty of good reasons to get this book and read it. If you’re interested in homelessness, addiction, or in the public health issues surrounding IV drug use, this is an excellent source of information. The authors treat their subject brilliantly and with great compassion. It is also a hell of a story, and it’s local. These people walk by you every day and should not remain invisible.