For a time anyway, I’d say we were pretty fortunate. I can’t think of much, anything really, that we lacked, assuming it was something one could pick up at the mall (a popular hangout in 1980’s Americana). I had all the GI Joes’ (which incidentally did not turn me into a lifelong military man), the Star Wars figurines, my own TV in what was our own kids playroom. A total 0f four rooms in the house were kid territory. We didn’t want for much materially or spatially, we had it all.. maybe thats there the trouble came in.
I was born in Washington DC in 1977 to a Highly Reformed Middle Class Jewish American Family. Certainly Jews as far back as any of us our stories or our photos could tell. The actual practice of anything religious was more occasional ritual than holy celebration and far from a way of life. It’s what we, the reform Jews did: “Jewish Lite”; High Holiday attendance, the occasional fast for Yom Kippur, Passover Seders, in retrospect quite a bit more than anyone in the family does these days or has since. We were both “made in to Wo/Men” via that special ethereal Jewish tradition. I can’t say I felt any different after and was a bit embarrassed during the celebration. These dancers, entertainers, celebrating me for my parents money. I wanted to celebrate with them, to dance not for the spectacle, more on that later. My Bar Mitzvah was at the Olde Ebbit Grill. A quick Google on that place might bring the price into perspective.. Having spent many of my adult years in jails, streets, rented closets, homeless shelters and rehab clinics, we, in retrospect, needed nothing.
My fathers family came down from Canada, having emigrated from Eastern Europe some years prior, my mothers family was all Boston. Their parents’ parents had come over long before the turn of the century. Some of the first Jews here? Could be. We were what I would call Jews in an Ethnic sense. It was our bloodline (a few thousand years of inbreeding) and that of seemingly most of my parents friends.
My father excelled in business, after being hired on by my mothers father who was himself put on by a WWII buddy, they had a Reprographics shop in Washington, DC. Many years later my father would take that and then another Reprographic firm , or the more modern “Imaging” firm National. From there he went global. He worked a lot. As his firm expanded so did his hours and travels, leaving mom at home with the kids, and in the later years usually a live in-sitter/housekeeper in the mix. I’d say I was about 3 when we first moved, 8 when we moved from a house to something more like a small hotel or bed and breakfast about 10 minutes outside DC.
This nice suburban life started ending for me sometime around age 10, the City just down the road and the madness therein became more and more the focus of my interest. It’s hard to say what went down when, but I remember visiting parts of DC we generally stayed far away from—we being any person of lighter skin tone—with my grandpa. He was showing me something.. his old store yes, the different parts of the city not seen by tour busses yes, but he was also telling me a story. He was one of the first business owners in DC to hire Black people, and the amount that would attend his funeral with their families 60 years later was amazing. My favorite story, one which he would never tell himself, was when a few employees of his went down to the lunch counter to eat. They were told they did not serve Blacks and should leave. When my grandfather was told the tale he made sure that for now on they would be welcomed to dine there if so desired. As we rode around our city I can remember as clear as if it was yesterday thinking “What the fuck is going on here? People live like this? How is this? How does this happen?” I felt guilt, I felt shame, I felt as uncomfortable as i can remember feeling at that age, save for a few other episodes..
My mother, who often seemed miserable, or somehow someway craving something, would often stick to her study, her bottle of White, and whatever soap was on. She was lost and my father didn’t really have the same need or understanding of nuance, of conversation, emotion, companionship and the like. He was a salesman, a businessman with a good handshake and a strong “I’m Joe” smile. “And every things A-Ok.”
The most important figure in the house as far as us kids were concerned was the longest running live-in maid. She was from Guyana, read Jet and Ebony magazines, and taught me to dance. Guyana was never of real interest to me..i craved the action down the road, in Washington DC.
As a student I visited all the requisite historical sites and museums. As a pre and young teen DC took on a very different feel. The city was—as it was said— 70% Black by day, 95% by night. Go-Go was the music scene i gravitated towards.. a sort of live blend of long rap and R&B tunes meets extended Grateful Dead improv jams, 30 minute songs with a legion of percussion. Most had a horn section too. Go-Go and Hardcore Punk, Straightedge Punk were the ruling music scenes in DC. And though Go-Go shows were often the unfortunate home to drug dealing violence spilled over from the street (this is once again Washington DC in the mid-80’s, per capita the most murderous town in the Nation for several years) drugs never piqued any interest. The damage of crack was everywhere. Our nations capital changed the name of the Basketball team from the Bullets to the Wizards and the Mayor was busted “set up by the bitch” smoking crack in a notorious DC hotel sting.
Straightedge meant straight. It meant nothing from cigarettes to alcohol to often even sex. The Go-Go and Hip-Hop crowds, the Graffiti scene which in which i found meager fame, were not drug using venues. Crack was taking a huge toll on the city and the music i was hearing from both scenes was largely screaming “Fuck Your Drugs!”
Back at home the discussion was even less. Not only were drugs (a loaded term if there ever was one, but for this paper i use it to describe any mind or mood altering substance) absent from my crowd of friends (with the exception of a few who sold crack or weed), they were absent from the house. My mothers wine being the only exception. I may have witnessed my father have a cigarette of two, my grandfather drank but i have few memories before he stopped on his own. We didn’t even do much sugar. It was almost an anti-drug house; conversation, presence, existence unknown. My mom took our physical health very seriously and as i began spending more and more time in the city my mental health came into question as well. I saw scores of shrinks, the only thing I remember was being told I was ADD, which meant as little to me as the rest of the talk therapy.
No one in Potomac, no one that we knew did drugs. Certainly not in abusive illicit obvious manner. My uncle was the only exception. He was a heroin addict, still struggling from time to time though somehow still alive and quite well. But his being a heroin addict meant nothing to me other than the strange way my mom and he would interact and the few times the adults would gather and discuss him behind his back. He seemed to like hanging with the kids more than the adults at family functions which suited me just fine. He was the “cool” uncle. Earring, red Porsche (eventually seized), had long hair once, never any kids. Just didn’t exactly fit the mold which surrounded us. It seemed most every family we knew in the neighborhood was a lot alike. Nothing stood out, just pervasive yet somehow understated opulence.
My mother found a couple rocks of crack i was holding for a friend while things were changing fast. I was arrested for graffiti, a snitch from another crew turned me in. Shoplifting charges, late nights out.. I was sent away at 13; to first a wilderness type camp for troubled kids followed immediately by two years in a since sued and shuttered Synanom based boarding/ reform school.
It was here, among the troubled children of societies elite (Paris Hilton attended for a brief time, Barry Goldwater III lasted a year) that i learned all about what drugs are like to take. I’d seen crack and weed, with zero interest of ingesting.. but by the time I left the school, I could not get enough of anything. Within four years of graduating that program with honors I was sleeping on the San Francisco pavement sticking $200 a day of heroin and cocaine in my arm.
I did make sure to eat one apple fritter a day, they were only a buck and had a couple pieces of fruit on em.
Heroin, or opiates in particular, all drugs licit or ill in general have become a much bigger problem in the suburbs since then. Whereas at one time one would have to brave the dark alleys at night for a $20 bag of fun or relief or whatever the case, now everywhere. Kids can order anything under the sun on the internet let alone venture outside. Ritalin was my first drug of choice and abuse, what was i believe self medicating my multiply diagnosed ADD. Once I learned the power a small pill can have offer ones mood life took on entirely new meaning. Adderral has taken the place of Ritalin and SSRI’s and SNRI’s have taken the place of what were benzos, then amphetamines and now into even more complicated brainscapes. After the prescribed opiate surge of the 2000’s the suburban drug landscape has been revolutionized. Where the occasional LSD trip or coke night has become Bath Salts, Fentanyl, and Spice. The fruits of prohibition have now dominated the once unthinkable drug addict market… the now dying upper middle class suburb.
Unfortunately this issue will never be solved using the same tried tactics. The situation in suburbs across America has become infinitely worse since the 80’s and will continue to do so until an adult conversation is had, and such a conversation to my mind cannot exist under the guise the DEA and their Scheduling is pure fiction. Dangerous deadly fiction. I always had a “Just Say No” Button on my wall as a young kid, yet Knew nothing.