Mike Kirby is a former city councilor who currently authors two blogs, Kirby on the Loose and Doyle’s Progress. He has kindly allowed us to reprint two articles from the former. Whether they be condo developers or convenience store owners, the decisions of private businesspeople affect the quality of life in our neighborhood.
Crack is Back, Parts One and Two (3/11/08)
what’s it like?” I asked. “ Nice,” she said, making a little airplane
of her hand and flying it around her, gaining altitude and heading up
into heaven. “All your troubles, all your cares, all the things that
are bringing you down? Poof, all gone. Bye, bye misery.”
watched her hand as it banked and lifted. There was a little nostalgia
in her voice, even though she says she has been clean for many years.
Anyone who has fought the gremlins of depression and self-hate can
relate to that little plane. Anyone who has been on the street. But the
problems in taking that ride are legion. A short fifteen or twenty
minutes in heaven, and then you’re back here on earth. There are no
physical withdrawal symptoms as such from crack cocaine. Alcoholics can
go to rehabs, but there is no protocol for a withdrawal program from
crack cocaine. Crack addicts, desperate to get off the streets, say
their problem is the booze, and get into detoxes and from them to
was talking to this former crack addict the other day in a quiet
restaurant on Pleasant Street. We’ll call her June. June sits against
the wall drinking a cappuccino with her sunglasses on, nervously
twisting her long dark hair. She is slim and attractive, looks younger
than her forty years. She is only two days out of the hospital. Her
boyfriend, who is an addict, had badly injured her. The sunglasses are
to hide her bruised left eye, which had just been operated on. She
wanted to talk to me because she was angry with the Gazette. Victims of
domestic abuse are not supposed to be identified in newspapers because
of possible retaliation. But there she was, on page three, and now she
can’t go anywhere without running into people who are worried about
her. She has brought her pink cell-phone with her and it sits on the
table between us. I look at it warily. It’s a Sanyo Spirit with all the
bells and whistles. If you lose it you can call Sprint and find out
where it is; it has a camera; it has a brain with more basic smarts
than I have. She had been getting threats from people who might be
gang-connected, and the threats are on the phone. She fiddles with its
menus and then sets it down.
A scary voice blares out of its speaker, and suddenly someone else is at the table.
“I am going to kill you bitch, I’m going to kill you, just you wait.”
Outside well-dressed shoppers are drifting by, having a nice peaceful day, lunch at Spoletos, window shopping at Eileen Fisher.
She is not waiting around to be killed; she is staying with some friends out of town. Crack has come to Northampton.
Have you ever seen a crack pipe?
The first one I saw came from a doorway on Pleasant Street. It’s a
glass pipe about four inches long, with a hunk of a Chore Boy scrubbing
pad jammed into one end. The one I saw had been used, and was black
with gummy residue. Look around Northampton alleys, you’ll find them.
Users lodge a little rock of cocaine into its coppery nest, light it up
and inhale deeply. This type of base-cocaine makes a cracking sound
when heated; hence the name “crack”. Smoking cocaine allows extremely
high doses of cocaine to reach the brain very quickly and results in an
intense and immediate high. There are no withdrawal shakes from smoking
crack, but you get frantic wanting more and you do stupid and dangerous
things. Like breaking into cars down on Roundhouse Plaza.
crack in question that her boyfriend got with her money after he beat
her up came out of a subsidized apartment in Northampton. Not Holyoke.
Maybe it is in your neighborhood. I am not telling you readers which
building because the management company says it will just send people
there looking for drugs. There have been crack parties in that
building. The building is attractive and well-maintained. I talked to
the building manager the other day and she said that she has been on
the phone three, four times with the police department asking them to
make an arrest. This is the second time that they have had this problem
in this building, and the last time there was a long wait before it was
resolved. The reality is that Northampton has only one policeman that
specializes in narcotics, and he like most narcotics people, is trying
to get the big guy, not the street dealer. And one guy working 35 hours
a week works five days a week, he has staff meetings and coffee breaks
and vacations. If you have a problem in your building or in your
neighborhood, you are going to wait for a while.
And when and if the
police do arrive, it can be a traumatic event for the entire
neighborhood. When state and local police raided a drug house on my
street, they arrived in force, with machine guns and a swat team.
Neighbors answered a door knock to find an officer with a machine gun
warning people to stay inside. In the wake of the raid, the
neighborhood organized a crime watch and had a talk with the offending
landlord, and there has been no trouble ever since. Assertiveness pays,
both for owners of properties and neighbors. Currently there are
efforts underway by Phil Sullivan and the Rotary to organize and fund a
crime watch program in Ward Three.
Steven Chaput manages the SRO at 96 Pleasant Street
and runs his real estate business out of a shoe-box size office on the
first floor. 96 Pleasant Street is housing of last resort, dedicated to
serving low income people, especially people who have been homeless.
Numerous organizations, including the city and shelters funnel people
into his intake process. Unlike many SROs, this building has on-site
management. He says his building is free of crack, but that it is out
there in the community. He says that when you have someone in your
building selling crack cocaine, you’ll notice the traffic. People
banging on doors and ringing the buzzers. He likes fundamentals, and
sticking to the basics. If you stay with the program, he’ll back you a
thousand per cent, if you go off the program and begin using, you’re
out. He’s a graying red head with a red moustache, and he loves to
The stresses and strains that go with managing a 24-room
SRO pale in comparison with the job he had once in Springfield managing
3500 units. Steve works for non-profits and private landlords. He
believes you have to deal with addicts straight on. If someone is
using, you bang on their doors and say hi, I know what is going on.
There’s cameras going, the police are aware, you are making this
building unsafe for everyone. For a long time he had what looked like a
camera mounted above the main entrance to 96 Pleasant Street. It was a
dummy that he got from a mail-order place, and the line to the camera
stopped at the wall. It is time, says Steve to the addict/dealer, to
move on. And most of the time, he says, they do. There is too much
irrational fear out there about addicts, he says.
Northampton our non-profits and the city are trying to deal with the
problems on the cheap. Maybe because their budgets are tight and the
pressures are high to get people off the street and into housing. The
city puts former addicts and alcoholics in senior housing and SROs and
family complexes, and then life for the long term residents tends to go
downhill. There are few programs that support these people in recovery
and check in on them periodically to see how they are doing. The
subsidized apartment is often the big prize that ends up destroying
them. Out of the structured claustrophobic stressful world of the
shelter or the half-way houses, away from all the rules, they are
lonely and free to indulge themselves. They invite friends from the
shelter in, give friends a place to stay for the night. And pretty soon
the buzzers in the buildings are getting pressed by people who want in,
for all kind of reasons. People down at the Salvo House find people
sleeping in the stairwells or in the day room. One thing leads to
another, and pretty soon lives are down the toilet, along with the
It is common knowledge among property managers
that eviction often doesn’t work, and the best safeguard of peace in
your building is good screening to keep the bad people out. Easier said
than done. Even with the best screening, predictable things happen.
People start drinking and using again, and now they have all the
tenancy rights guaranteed to them by law. It might be six months, a
year, or never before a landlord can get rid of a bad tenant. Their
fellow tenants do not, as a rule, agree to become witnesses. Judges do
not like to put people out on the street, and require legal evidence
that the person is dealing drugs. A letter from the Police Chief that
doesn’t have concrete evidence in it won’t cut it.
what we got here, I think, is a little quiet epidemic growing here in
Northampton’s shadows. Statistics are impossible to come by. There is a
counter culture that knows when and where the ships are coming in.
Route 91 is the river: this is a tributary. The symptoms of this
epidemic are not overdoses, but sporadic outbursts of violence. Women
getting thrown out of windows, houses and cars being broken into,
people assaulted and robbed. How about that poor guy who sat down in
the middle of Route 91 about a month ago? Why did that happen? It’s all
stuff that fuels the police log in the Gazette. Nothing that affects
anyone until it happens to you and me or a neighbor.
abetting this crack cocaine epidemic are small businessmen. The hock
shop down in Springfield that will take your electronics and give you
cash with no questions asked. The convenience stores in Northampton
where you can get a crack pipe. June told me you could get them in any
package or convenience store in town. To test out her thesis I went out
on a shopping expedition. It was a snowy afternoon, and bitterly cold,
so I wore my parka, and pulled up its hood. I walked down Pleasant
Street and Main Street, following someone’s strange-shaped footprints
in the snow. The footprints vanished over by the Eagle Club. The
traffic swished by. Most people around here don’t remember when
Pleasant Street was a slummy neighborhood, full of dive bars. With my
hood up, I probably looked like a bum to the good people passing by.
remembered June talking, “No more misery,” she said. Being on the
street or living in rooming houses is no fun. People self-medicate
since time immemorial, trying to blot out the world, the cold, the kind
of internal grief you give yourself when you are down and out in the
richest land on earth. But crack is a new deal, not a simple depressive
like alcohol that just makes you sit down somewhere and not get up for
a long time. Crack and its lack has an urgency to it, drives you to
frantic action to get more. When her boyfriend was out looking for June
to get money from her, he went out into the neighborhood banging on
windows at places he thought she might be.
first stop was at Pop’s Package on Main Street; the woman behind the
counter reached back behind the adding machine and produced one of
those little plastic tubes with a fake purple rose in it. “Made in
China,” says the gold sticker. We and the British sold them opium in
the nineteenth century, they sell us crack-pipes today. They cost the
stores about ten cents; they sell them for a dollar.
Millennium Package Store on Pleasant Street I went through my shtick,
shuffling in, heading for the cooler, getting a couple little ponies of
zinfandel, buying a scratch ticket. Asking for a stem. If you were
uncool and asked for a crack pipe, life in the store might come to a
sudden halt and eyebrows go up, but if you quietly ask for a “stem” or
a “rose” or “one of those glass tubes” like I did, the employee will
reach over to a hidden place and come up with one for you. 99 cents. I
bought pipes at Pops, Millennium Package store on Pleasant Street, the
7-11 on King Street, and at Sam’s Grocery in the mini-mall on Spring
Street out in Florence. At Northampton Package store on Conz Street,
they were sorry, but the pipes were out of stock. At Sam’s, there was a
big rack of them right out on the counter next to the register.
Evidently they are a hot seller, and an impulse item.
a BostonNOW reporter found a convenience stores selling “Straight
shooter kits” comprising a pipe, the flower, and a steel wool scrub
pad. In 2001 in St. Petersburg Florida it took a lawyer and former
crack addict, Darryl Rousson, to bring the problem to the attention of
the wider community, and he did it by walking off with 11 rose tubes
from a gas station. He was charged with petty theft, but later cleared. He said he was irritated that the clerk didn’t seem to care what the tubes were used for. Stores in neighborhoods with a crack problem tend to carry them. With all these Northampton stores selling them, this alone might be a good marker that we have a problem in Northampton.
has a paraphernalia law (ALM GL chapter 94C @321. It prohibits ” the
sale, possession and purchase with intent to sell drug paraphernalia
knowing, or under circumstances where one would reasonably should know,
that it will be used to ingest, inhale, or otherwise introduce into the
human body a controlled substance.” The law carries a penalty of
imprisonment for not less than two years and a fine of not less than
five hundred dollars.
The fact that so many of these stores have
them in hidden locations indicates that they know what these pipes are
used for, and also indicates that we might have a substantial problem
in our town.
When I got home I unloaded my stash, and put it
into the refrigerator. “Zinfandel? Budweiser? Icehouse?” my wife said,
“What on earth have you been doing?”
Earlier, I was talking about addiction with Steve Chaput, who manages the apartment complex at 96 Pleasant Street.
were talking about how hard it was for addicts to straighten out their
lives once it goes into the toilet. The program that Bill W. and the
Methodists in the Oxford Fellowship started in 1935 and its off-shoots,
Alanon, Alateen, and Narcotics Anonymous are probably the major
faith-based initiatives to take root and be adopted by our government
and mainstream society to deal with an onerous social problem. AA and
NA programs work for some people, but not for everyone. It is
missionary work, for better or for worse. Souls are saved, and many
more are lost. The program never worked out too well for my mother and
father. There were periods of sobriety when we were proud of them and
they were going to meetings two or three times a week. But there were
too many crashes on their little airline for them to start booking
passengers. It has been documented that people in AA are more prone to
binge drinking than people in other types of programs because AAers
believe in the apocalypse should they pick up.
“Do I want to
learn tightrope walking from someone who’s fallen?” said a friend of
mine. Heavy involvement in the program often means acquiring
girlfriends and boyfriends who are in the community, which often means
more problems. The program is a dangerous minefield. Marrying someone
from the straight world may be a bigger step toward long-term recovery
than anything else.
was about three in the afternoon a couple weeks ago and I was cooling
my heels in the little waiting room at the Northampton Police
Department. The sun was blasting through the dusty window, and I was
looking through a clipboard of sex criminals living in the community. I
thought I discovered a secret nest of them out living in the country
until I realized that 205 Rocky Hill Road was the jail. I had my
collection of crack pipes ready to show the Chief. The Mayor came out,
looking as burdened as usual. You can squint and almost see our city
there with all its deficits and problems strapped on her back. She
smiles, but smiling costs her a lot of work. She looked at my
collection and said something to the affect that my, my, the things you
learn. She said something about us all turning stupid as we grew older,
and went on her way.
People came and went, filling out accident
reports, using the phone to talk to people behind the bluish
bulletproof glass. Eventually, when my heels were nice and cool, I went
on home, only to find a message on the kitchen table that the Chief had
called. I talked to the Chief, he sounded appropriately concerned about
our local convenience stores selling these things, and said that he
would talk to one of his detectives and tell him to call me.
“Mind you,” he said, “He won’t be calling you today.”
Two weeks later, I have yet to get a call.
putting together this story, I had occasion to talk with quite a few
people who are dealing with this problem, either as lawyers, social
workers or housing managers. It is apparent to me that there is very
little being done across departmental and organizational lines. No one
is sharing information and experience. There is, however, a great deal
of denial. The police and the Mayors office don’t seem to think that
the problem is serious enough to pull off any conferences or public
education programs. Anything that might spook casual visitors to
Northampton is out.
I also talked to someone fairly high up in
the legal system that deals with this problem. I was rocked back on my
heels to hear him tear into the system and our whole national policy of
criminalizing drugs. He told me that many people used drugs with no
repercussions, and that Netherlands with its more permissive attitude
does a better job that the US, who jails people by the millions. I
walked out of his office thinking how civilized and urbane many lawyers
are when they are speaking off the record. They play the game, cynical
men and women of the world, working away inside a dysfunctional system
while things get worse, collecting their paychecks and never rocking
the boat and never saying that the King has no clothes. And keeping
themselves comfortably distant from the havoc that drug dealers and
their wild and desperate clients wreak on the tenants of an affected
building and whole neighborhoods.
Links to crack pipe sales in convenience stores (Thanks to Paolo Mastrangelo)