It had been a while since I walked the streets of Mass Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard, the area seen by many as the face of the opioid epidemic in Boston. With recent reports that overdoses and overdose deaths are dropping, I was hoping, but not really expecting, to see visible changes on the streets.
There are signs of hope. As I linger near the methadone clinic on Topeka Street, people on bikes pedal furiously, cars arrive quickly, and a young man runs down the street to get there, all before it closes. People biking, driving and running to treatment is always hopeful.
And yet, on the next block over from the methadone clinic and in the shadows of the Suffolk County House of Corrections, there is a dark spot where those addicted hunch out of sight, hide from the wind, and inject. Needles litter the ground.
Two blocks away there is also hope. Near a bus stop, two women are talking to each other. A middle-aged woman tells a younger woman, “I wanna get well. You’re just like me. We both take the abuse. People laughing at us in our faces. We gonna be together.” Ten feet away, two women and a man share candy. People offering support to others is always heartening, more so when they have so little to offer.
And yet another block away, a young man, neatly dressed, clearly not of this area, having just sold something to somebody, counts his money as he walks away. I had seen something similar last time I was here, and still find it disheartening.
I walk next to a woman, who eyes me closely, suspecting I may be a police officer. She looks at me a final time, shrugs, and then yells ahead, “Tell him to tell Toothy I need him back here in a hurry with good stuff.” On the next block, a young man approaches and asks me, “You got any benzos?” A few minutes later, he returns with a friend. As they walk by me, they ask, “Where’s the green beans.” They greet the older woman with the scrunched face standing by the bus shelter, calling her “Momma Mia.”
A younger guy, who appears newer to the area, shows me a knife, flips it open, and asks if I know anybody who wants to buy it.
What strikes me about some of the young men and women is that they do not yet have that street hardened look. Their jeans and sweatshirts seem relatively clean. They appear to be in decent physical shape, not yet thin and drawn. But I do notice their clothes hang somewhat loosely, and I can see their darting eyes and greyish skin color. In a short time they will look like the others on the streets.
What scares me is that right now they look how my sons and their friends would look two weeks after that one moment when their addiction led them to the streets. After two weeks of sleeping on somebody’s apartment floor, or in a shelter. After two weeks without a good meal.
Those new faces on the streets remind me that the epidemic still rages in places away from here, the places from which they came. Places nobody sees – in homes, in schools, in offices, and at work sites. Places where thousands upon thousands still manage to get out of bed, go to school and to work. Where they still manage to feed their addiction. But places in both time and distance that may be just moments away from Mass Ave. and Melnea Cass Boulevard.
I can’t help but think that while this area is the face of the epidemic, despite reports of progress, the faces look the same.
Like the last time I walked these streets, I realize that for every face of addiction, there is the face of someone working at a shelter or clinic. And, for every trade of pills, heroin, fentanyl, and “green beans”, there is a transaction of kindness and help.
Like the last time I walked from these streets back to the work that needs to be done, I hear the words of Robert Frost, “The woods are lovely dark and deep. But I have promises to keep, and miles to go before I sleep, and miles to go
before I sleep.”