I’ve written a little about my upbringing in a modest size community in southern Ohio — Portsmouth. For the most part, my family lived in Portsmouth while I was growing up – there’s a more complicated trajectory of the reasons why we moved, from inside the city, to a small hobby farm outside, which did matter in the development of my mental perspective. Living in Portsmouth was largely a classic suburban existence, albeit far more violent than most people in the US in that socioeconomic class typically experience. Living in the countryside, though, broadened dramatically my exposure, and understanding of rural poverty in Midwest America. It was hard-core Appalachia outside the city limits, and there was more than one night riding the school bus home after dark where kids would be having sex in the rear of the bus.
At any rate, the confluence of conditions of a profound lack of opportunity in my hometown, coupled with my desire to live in the western U.S. and pursue whitewater sport, caused me to leave Ohio when I was 20. After working at J&L Steel in Cleveland, I moved to North Carolina and Duke University, and really never look back. That was in 1983.
Just because you leave a place, though, doesn’t mean it decides to freeze itself in time. And Portsmouth, even in the mid ’70s, was an iconic community starting the process of unraveling. Never known for its social cohesion, railroad strikes were known for boxcars off the tracks and burning police cars. Empire-Detroit Steel Corporation, with their antiquated open hearth furnaces, and wire and rail mills, started the process of collapse through major closures of parts of the mill around 1976. And it never did get better — the shoelace factory closed, and the shoe factory, and so on. They were never replaced, but created one of the first post-industrial landscapes in the U.S.
And though we were north of the Mason-Dixon Line (Kentucky was just across the river) there was no let-up in the chronic racism that African-Americans experienced. De facto segregation corralled almost all the black folks in one part of the city with a swath of public housing, and the black kids had their own pool to go to as well. I can’t remember the name of that pool, but it wasn’t the one where I worked as a lifeguard, courtesy of a family friend and swimming instructor.
That pool was called Dreamland, and it was a big one. It was a nexus of the white trash community, and I have many fond memories of hanging out with single moms watching their kids playing in the water, and 13-year-old girls. By this time, the idea of 16-year-old girls hanging out by the pool all summer had already faded into the sunset. To be a teenager in Portsmouth meant summer work in a fast food joint, or laboring on a garden or road crew. I supplemented my own lifeguard earnings with literally backbreaking labor throwing hay on nearby farms, mostly at my parents’ insistence. I didn’t want the money (the pay was $2/hr.) but the farmers were friends and needed the labor.
It was with a certain fascination that I picked up Sam Quinones’ book ‘Dreamland’ — a book about the opioid epidemic. I knew that Dreamland, the pool, had long been filled in and ceased to exist. But I was tied to this place — and while I maintained some friendships with old high school classmates, largely, I had left.
Why should anyone interested in the topics on this blog read Quinones’ book? Because it is an amazing piece of generative complex systems adaptation after social collapse. Or rather, it documents what happens during a process of social collapse, as ingrained information regarding functioning social structures morph and change to adapt to new norms.
The short timeline behind all this is as follows. The factories providing revenue from outside the community fold. That lack of money/energetic support ceases to exist, and formerly proud and effective social structures also start collapsing. The center of the town is abandoned, replaced by some version of Walmarts, which then form the new nexus of economic activity.
But these also are poorly supported, and the area and its inhabitants fall into depression. This depression creates the need for a caregiver community to start prescribing (and exploiting) the population using opioids. This legal channel works in combined ways, some bad, but not all, until it grows to the size the exploitation is so bad, it must be stopped. A few doctors build amazing fortunes on providing the drugs — Margie Temponeras, one of the doctors not mentioned in the book, but a literal next-door neighbor whom I grew up with. She was recently convicted and sentenced under federal drug trafficking laws for singularly providing millions of pills from her pain clinic in Wheelersburg, an adjacent town to Portsmouth by about six miles. What Temponeras did was terrible and inexcusable– but I also have to wonder about the lack of empathy toward her victims, and the trauma roots of all this, as her brother was killed working under a car around the time we were in high school.
Even after reading Dreamland, it’s unclear exactly to me when the legal pills stopped distribution in Portsmouth, and the black tar heroin dealers from the state of Nayarit in Mexico started flowing. There was obviously a parallel confluence of the two sources. But the system dynamics are unmistakable. What happened with the Nayaritos, in the face of a community living in depression and pain, was they evolved a parallel economic ecosystem involving dispensation of black tar heroin in small balloons, containing .1 g of heroin, throughout Portsmouth, as well as ‘underserved’ communities across the Midwest.
What was different about the Nayarit strategy was that instead of having a centralized drug house, where people who might be addicted would have to go to buy their hit of drugs, the bosses put clean-cut Mexican young men in nondescript cars, like Toyota Corollas in a decentralized distribution system pre-dating Uber Eats by almost two decades. If you wanted your fix, you’d page one of them on your pager, and they would bring the hit to you. If you were out of money, they’d understand, and front you your fix until you found the money.
And if you couldn’t find the money, well, the Nayaritos would have a list of goods you could steal for payment. From Walmart — to the point where if there was a disagreement with your drug delivery boy, you both could call Walmart for a price check. This phenomenon blossomed to people specializing in stealing certain categories of goods. Some folks might specialize in baby clothes, or stereo equipment, and even set up these types of stores in their apartments. The demand for American goods was strong back in Nayarit, and the mercantile ecosystem of thievery would adapt. Quinones writes in unflinching detail about all of this from a true complex system perspective. It is mind-boggling.
After reading the book, some of it was so unbelievable I had to start calling old friends to find out how much was hyperbole and how much was truth. The sad reality I was exposed to was that many of my high school friends’ kids had also been victims of the epidemic and gotten hooked on opioids — either the legal or illegal varieties. Any “it couldn’t happen to decent people” thoughts were quickly disabused by my old friend, who will remain anonymous, as she listed the various people that I would know that had to deal with this crisis. I subscribe to my hometown news feed, and while there is some positive news every now and then, most of the region reels under the crisis of naked addicts writhing around in parking lots, and an unusually high number of chronic petty thefts and automobile accidents. It’s like the whole area has St. Vitus Dance, the Appalachian name for Huntington’s Disease, where the hapless victim shakes themselves to death quietly.
If there’s any lesson from all of this, especially in a time where more and more of the country is experiencing this kind of economic dislocation, is that mirror systems will appear regardless of protestations of morality from others saying to withhold aid. In the case of Portsmouth, the Nayaritos provided the social care system in the absence of a more formal, prosocial variety. Nothing gets better, of course, because it can’t.
It’s not like the drug dealers, nor the cops on the take, nor the last newspaper editor running anti-Muslim propaganda on his own Facebook page have a bigger view of the world. And so one sees a distorted web woven of dysfunctional relationships springing up, alternately making new modalities of functioning, like methods for quick mass theft of goods from Walmart, coupled with legacy modes borrowed from the past — like setting up a store with indexed pricing of stolen consumer goods. Like pictures I’ve seen of the webs woven by spiders exposed to psychedelic drugs, the long-term evolutionary characteristics are doubtless nonviable. But they work well enough in the present so that the spider can catch a few flies.
My recommendation? Quinones’ book, which has received accolades from many quarters, should be high on anyone’s list who cares about the fate of our country. Liberals in particular need to read this book, and realize that many of the forces that put Trump into power have not gone away. And short of secession, we are going to live with the legacy of places like Portsmouth’s collapse for a long time. Because people will adapt to their circumstance. And it won’t be pretty.
A tip of the hat to my wife, Chia-Chu Hu, for the insight that when you don’t set up a social services system, one will basically become emergent and find its way for people in need. And those people may be heroin dealers from Nayarit.