Issue 10.4, November 1995

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Essay Excerpt

Hope to Die a Dope Fiend by Charles Pearson and Philippe Bourgois

Scotty injected his last drops of heroin into a scarred vein running along his outer forearm. On this chilly, late winter afternoon, I had been watching him, his street partner Jim, and another homeless heroin addict, Leo, share a $20 bag of black tar heroin in their homeless encampment/shooting gallery. For the past year, as part of an HIV-AIDS prevention study, I have been spending much of my time with a network of heroin addicts who live under a stretch of San Francisco's downtown freeways. As I was walking toward the back of the camp where another four men were fixing heroin, out of the corner of my eye I saw Scotty fall to the ground. As he jerked in the dirt, his eyes rolled back and asphyxiated gasps rattled from inside his throat. "Oh my God," I thought as I ran to his convulsing body, "he's gonna die!" 

...

Scotty's seizure gradually subsided. As I lifted his 36-year-old, half- starved, heroin addicted, alcoholic body-which could not have weighed more than 105 pounds-out of the dirt, Leo, eager to help, grabbed a blue plastic milk crate and positioned it for Scotty to sit on. Jim continued to massage Scotty, while I backed off to allow my own adrenaline to subside. 

My defenses shattered, the misery and threatening uncertainty of the lives of the dozen homeless heroin addicts I had befriended in the course of this research slammed me into a fit of anger. I threw one of the dirty, uncapped syringes lying next to Scotty's mattress into the bushes that camouflaged our visibility from a freeway access ramp. I felt powerless, realizing how completely hopeless it was for me to have thought that my daily give-and-take exchanges or my outreach/intervention research project might ever improve the lives of these desperate dope fiends. Throughout my relationships with the different members of the shooting gallery's network, I have always made gestures that I hoped might alleviate, at least marginally, their daily struggles for resources and minimal comfort. I have provided them with such minor amenities as old clothes, spare dollars and change, food, candles, and an occasional car ride to hospital emergency rooms and social service appointments. Once I brought them a car-load of federal government disaster relief blankets that I had persuaded a local homeless shelter to entrust to me. Most importantly, courtesy of San Francisco's needle exchange program, each week I have delivered a full supply of new, clean hypodermic syringes. During Scotty's seizure, however, I was forced to face the fact that there was nothing I could ever do to keep Scotty from probably dying a poor, hungry drug addict. I guess that is why he refers to himself with pride as a "dope fiend." 

Repressing my anger - or rather channeling it into a personal sense of inadequacy - I knelt in front of Scotty, took one of his hands, and asked him to tell me if he was okay. Perhaps I needed assurance that my presence mattered - before, during, and after the seizure. If our chest-massaging, arm-yanking, and torso-thrusting had saved his life, I wanted it to be for a reason. Still trying to focus his eyes and get his bearings, Scotty replied weakly, "Yeah. Thanks for being here, Cap. I don't know what would've happened if you weren't around." He gently reached out his swollen, scabbed hands to cradle mine and then squeezed firmly, all the while thanking me over and over again. He even forced his discombobulated eyes to focus calmly on my face. Both touched and reassured - our mutual humanity cemented at least for a moment - I realized it was time for me to get away. I needed to go home; I was ready to have a tantrum. I wanted to break my ties with this shooting gallery, dope fiend scene.

I did go home and have a tantrum, screaming at my housemate and research partner, Philippe, about the United States being criminal; anthropological research being an elitist lie; and humans obviously having no worth, let alone humanity. Succumbing to the protomodern Gingrichian order of things, I was convinced there was no possible hope for ever meaningfully addressing, even slightly, the suffering of the socially marginalized in America. I even yelled at Philippe for adding cilantro, an herb I normally enjoy, to our dinner soup. I had forgotten that my research partner was also close to Scotty and that conducting this ethnographic fieldwork was his equally futile way of coping with the social misery of the homeless heroin addicts surviving on the margins of our neighborhood. I was not ready, consequently, when he lashed back out at me with a humiliating barrage of curses for caring about human life and for not being professional enough in my ethnography: "What the hell is the matter with you? Don't you realize that they're all dying? What difference does it make if he dies right now? It would have been better for him. Can't you separate yourself out? This project can't go on if you're gonna mess up like this. I'm going to call the whole thing off. Forget it! Forget it! I quit! You're fired! This is ridiculous." (587-589).

Pearson, Charles and Bourgois, Philippe. "Hope to Die a Dope Fiend." Cultural Anthropology 10.4(1995): 587–593.