The answers are vague, the ideas fleeting. They come and go in conversation, they’re almost abstract thoughts…here’s how you get addicted, these are the culprits, and here are the victims of the scourge — easily available, cheap, devastatingly destructive heroin that appears to be in almost every upstate community. It’s an equal opportunity monster, having killed two young men in Woodstock in the last two months, who, by all reckoning, were beautiful, once full of promise. But they got caught in the trap and were sucked down the drain.
“At Harold (Reilly’s) funeral (December 29), there were so many kids there the same as Harold. You want to shake them, say he wasn’t doing anything other than what you’re doing,” says writer Martha Frankel. “One thing I do know…not one of them is having a good time. There’s a lot of unhappy kids walking around.”
Come visit the front lines. Provisions, the not quite a year old deli-style shop on Tinker Street, couple of doors down from the Center for Photography, where Emily Sherry and Anthony Heaney serve up sandwiches and coffee, and gourmet offerings for reasonable prices.
They have a pay-it-forward board, where customers can put down a little cash beyond their own purchases so that someone else can claim a sandwich, or just a cup of coffee.
“The kids come in here — on a low day, two or three of them, on a good day, 15 to 20 kids from all over town will come in here to eat. Sometimes they eat for free, sometimes they buy their food. Sometimes they eat for free one day and come in and buy their food the next day,” says Emily. “They’re our kids. They are absolutely our kids, Woodstock kids. The youngest one is 11, the oldest was probably Harold.” Reilly was 24 when he died.
“It changes, their faces change, but there’s a core group of them that we see regularly. They are not necessarily kids without parents, or kids without people who love them. But they are kids who don’t necessarily feel as if they belong to the community, and they are searching. Some are troubled and some aren’t. Anytime there’s food involved — you’re always hungry, right? It brings people. And because we have the pay-it-forward board, they know they can come in here without money and still get their food. It kind of started that way.”
Emily, 43, grew up splitting time between Woodstock and Accord. She worked at Fleischers’ Meats in Kingston, then opened her own meat business in Reading, Pennsylvania. That’s where Anthony, 42, who had worked for years at local establishments, including the Corner Cupboard and Heaven, learned to butcher his own food.
“Anthony said to me, it’s going to be really hard for you, tough for you.”
But Emily said, “no, I’ll be fine…” She had also come from a therapeutic background, having worked as a family therapist, for family and youth advocate programs such as Berskhire Farm and Families First. “He said, you don’t necessarily understand what you’re stepping into, and he was right. It had nothing to do with food. It was about integration into the community. Even having grown up here, I did not understand that I was not part of the town culture. Anthony was really immersed in it.
“When we first opened it was really important to us, if we were going to be surrounded by all this abundance, that we would find a way to give back to the community, but also get the community involved in understanding the disparities here in Woodstock. We feed five to six people a day from the board. Obviously there are other resources in town, Family, the Churches, but this allows for something different.
“One of the things that started bringing the kids in, they knew they could get a bacon, egg and cheese even if they didn’t have any money. And now they really patronize us, they save their money, or they’ll come in and say, I don’t have any money today, but I really want a Reuben, can I come see you Thursday and they always do. And Harold always did.
“We met Harold because his [younger] brother Henry was the first kid who started coming in here,” Emily continued. “He loved our food and would eat here any time he had the money. He’d come in and start bartering us for our food, and he became just kind of immersed here. His mom had moved to Florida and his dad lives in Saugerties and he just became really important to us and he brought Harold here and asked for help. ‘This is my brother and I’m really concerned about him.’ He loved Harold so incredibly much. There was nothing he wouldn’t have done to keep him safe. But how much could he really do? He was only 19.
“Harold was a beautiful, beautiful boy, he was smart and honest…but he was not honest when he was using and it was tough on Anthony and me. When Harold would come in and he was high, with a group of other people who were also really high and they all needed food and they all needed water — and we don’t turn anyone away if we can help them — but eventually Anthony had to say to them, it hurts her too much, you guys can’t come in here when you’re high. You need food, you give us a call, but you can’t come in so messed up, it’s too hard.” Still, when not high, they’d come in, and the bonds grew.
“Whenever Harold was in town he’d come see me, let me know where he was at, how he was doing with rehab, his relationship, all the things,” said Emily. “And then I knew he was high, there was no other option for him — all the rehab, nothing had worked and we talked about it really openly and Henry and I talked about it openly. But nothing made it get any easier. And then Shama (Gaffney, an 18 year old local man) died (in November), that was awful. He was a tough kid. He was a handful. He was so rude when he first came in here, Anthony told him he had to leave. He came back and said, I don’t know what I did wrong, this is just who I am, how I’ve been taught. I need your help, I don’t want to not be able to come in here, all my friends come in here. So I started working with him.
“In order for him to get food, he would have to behave a certain way. He would come in and say ‘yo, I get a baconeggan’cheese,’ and I’d say, ‘excuse me?’ I would shake his hand and he would say I’m sorry, we would work on eye contact, what a real handshake felt like, what he’d have to do to get a real job — because no one in town would hire him, his reputation was so bad —what it looked like to be respectful toward Anthony, looking him in the face, standing up straight, teaching him to have a better sense of self, teaching him that he was good and positive, not just all the things he truly believed about himself, about just what an awful piece of crap that he was. Reminding him that there’s goodness in all of us and that there was good in him. And right before he died he was enrolled at Ulster and had just bought his first car. He pulled up here in his car and, he was, ‘yo, this is my car…’ That was three days before he died. It was just awful.”
There’s no Mr. Big in Woodstock…no one about whom you can say, just get this one guy and the whole drug supply dries up, he’s supplying everyone. Would that it were that easy. One day it’s one person, the next week, it’s another.
Woodstock Deputy Town Supervisor Bill McKenna, who attended Reilly’s memorial, lines it up. “The (police) have made arrests over the years and that helps to keep some of it down, but unfortunately, if one guy gets arrested, there’s someone ready to step behind them and start peddling again. I hear from the community that if the cops know who the dealers are, just arrest them…I know the police are as frustrated as we all are, but they need to have evidence, witnesses, and solid cases and it’s tough.” The town just agreed to participate in URGENT, the countywide narcotics enforcement arm, that will allow communities to work together. He pointed out that an officer from another community might not be known here and might be able to gather evidence denied to those who are easily recognizable to local dealers. He also said that the public has a role in law enforcement. “They need to come forward and testify, act as witnesses. If you know that someone is peddling drugs and you’ve seen it, call the police. They’d love to hear from you.”
Anthony and Emily can’t gather the evidence for police but they can draw the line in their own establishment.
“There’s no way not to know (who it is),” said Emily. “If you open your ears and open your eyes, then you know. It’s not factual, not anyone saying, ‘I know…’ It’s just rumors, but as business owners its our prerogative to say it’s not something I want in my business. And that’s what we did. It went a long way with the kids. They were thanking us and taking pride in their relationship with us.
Anthony acknowledges the stark reality. “We can do what the police can’t really legally do…they can’t say it’s you. But as a citizen I can say, you know what, I don’t want you around here, you’re selling dope. It really makes them step back, because everyone seems to just let them do it or ignore it, not look at it. Then you know, you get people threatening you, but, I can say, I know what you do and I don’t want you around.”
Emily agrees. “If more people would take some kind of action, look at the small pieces we can do, it makes a difference. So when Anthony started that, did that, we had a Detective here in the first 15 minutes…”
“It resulted in one of our kids starting kicking,” said Anthony. “There was another young man who heard, you’re not going to come here if you’re selling, and he stopped selling and using. Now we have to stay on him, we’re partially responsible for his decision. We have to follow through, otherwise he’ll relapse, and that’s where the danger is. We have to keep an eye on him. That’s part of the risk for us.”
“And it hurts, because that’s when they die,” said Emily.
“I only know what I can do, I can refuse to call them junkies,” says Frankel. “I reach out to a lot of kids who are in trouble and ask if I can help them. Most of the time they say no, but sometimes they’ll ask for money and I can’t give them that, but a ride, or some food…”
She laments the lack of activity, of opportunity in the small town. “There’s nothing here, for them. That’s why they get into heroin and they can’t get out of it. They don’t trust us adults to get them their information. And they don’t think they’ll die from it. I see these kids at Cumberland farms at night and I get out of my car and go over to them. There is a life without drugs. The kids don’t believe it.
“I have no answers. No idea what we should do about this problem. There are answers but these kids have to get clean first. We just have to keep talking about it. They must feel so alone and scared.”
Emily Sherry agrees. “I think that’s my point, that none of these kids are throwaways. They are integral to our community. Without youth there is no community. This community cannot continue to grow and prosper if they continue to die. Everyone will leave. The kids are scared. They’re scared to go to these memorial services. When I went to Shama’s memorial service, there were hundreds of kids, they just didn’t know what to do with themselves. At Harold’s memorial service the other night, they were crying and adults were just lost trying to understand what’s happening.
“The most important part of this is that everybody keeps saying we have to do something about this as a community,” said Emily. “But that starts with the individual, each one of us, all the business owners, friends, everyone in this community has to take a hard look at what we’re doing, how we’re behaving and what we can do as individuals. And start with something small. What Anthony and I can do is feed people. We can give them a nurturing environment, open our arms, open our doors and say, we are here. We can help figure out a path towards rehab, towards getting help, the concrete steps we need to take to get it happening.
“These are all our children. They don’t belong to anyone else. If we don’t stop seeing this as someone else’s problem, nothing is going to change. These are my kids, these are Anthony’s kids, they’re your kids. They’re no different than any of the children we can raise, because there’s no saying what turns someone into an addict. I’ve met parents of these kids who come in and say, thank you, thank you for feeding him, thank you for looking out for him. There’s not much you can do, but thank you for having your eyes on him, and caring about him…and him knowing that you have a place where he can come.
“You might have something else to offer. A ride, an open door, a kind word. Don’t cross the street when you see these kids, don’t look the other way, don’t call the cops. Engage, smile, don’t be afraid. They’re not looking to hurt someone, most of them, they’re just a little lost and it’s our job as a community to help fix that.
“The one thing I keep saying to the boys is, I can’t keep losing you. And they appreciate that they have people who are willing to say that. At the end of the day, I can’t stop the heroin trade, I can’t get them to stop using, but I can love them and open our doors to them and feed them, offer them absolutions when they need them and model good ethical behavior. We can all do that, that is a very simple small change we can all do.”
If one or two do so, think about what 50 or more might accomplish.
This is the third in a series on the drug problems in Woodstock. The first documented a community meeting searching for solutions. Part two spoke to law enforcement and officials for their perspectives.