Walking Woodstock: The Flaneur Reflects on the Heroin Crisis

Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

Walking Man sculpture by Alberto Giacometti.

Once, dinosaurs roamed New York. Not long ago they were so numerous herds of them clogged the highways, morning and night. They invariably dressed in armor, even at home — wearing

hats and suits, and responsible expressions on serious faces. Many of them had lived through the Great Depression, and had fought in Korea, the South Pacific, and Europe. They had shown their mettle in combat, and returned home to take charge. Their reign seemed eternal. Then, one day in the Sixties, they vanished. The Real Grown-Ups disappeared. The Children’s Crusade had hit them like a comet slamming into Earth.

A shadow fell across the land. The word went out that Real Grown-Ups were no longer needed.  Youth (white, prosperous) celebrated with music festivals and…drugs. Everyone felt equal and entitled. Everyone dressed the same — like teens, in teeshirts and jeans.  Everyone stayed stoned. When the formerly Real Grown Ups emerged from their hiding places, they wore pony tails and mutton chop style facial hair, and they wanted to do a doobie with their supercilious offspring.


The world had turned upside down.

For awhile drugs, sex, and rock and roll ruled. Naturally, the celebrants blew it when they discovered that freedom was another name for responsibility.

Such were the idle thoughts in the pinball machine that passed for the flaneur’s mind as he sat on a hard bench on the Village Green contemplating a newspaper headline about a heroin epidemic in the World’s Most Famous Small Town. (Now that his PD had hobbled him, and he could not roam the byways of his Village, a bench on the Green had become his observation post on Woodstock). When he sat still, he was invisible. It was early spring, mid-morning in April.

The flaneur knew heroin by many fanciful names. In the 60’s poet friends in the East Village preferred “Lady H.” They shot up in his bathroom. One night, he recalled, he had been persuaded to taste Lady H. In a glass of wine. Hot liquid silk had filled him with a certainty he had never before experienced. The world was perfect, and pain-free, and he belonged in it. This was followed by another certainty: that he must never taste Lady H. again. He was too susceptible to her charms.

Was it coincidence that a few weeks later, he accepted a job as a New York State Narcotics Parole Officer? He was not a narc, he told his friends. He was assigned the impossible task of finding jobs for junkies. But he had made arrests, and he had taken people to jail. When he learned that he had been hired to enforce the savagely racist Rockefeller Drug laws, he turned in his badge.

As he mused that some of the junkies he had watched enter prison would be getting out now, an old Toyota pulled up to the curb just yards away from where he sat. The passenger side window rolled down, a paper bag was handed to a boy in a football jersey, and the deal was done — so blatantly the flaneur looked around for cops. They had always kept an eye on the Green. No longer.

So this was the epidemic that was making headlines, he thought. The story he read covered the waste of young lives and sketched the economics of junk, but the writer did not venture into the dark country of why? Why were so many people who had grown up in this mountain paradise, who lived, when  compared with, say, the million refugees now flooding into Europe, like princes of the blood, looking, at the start of their lives, for an emergency exit?

Was the answer somehow related to the loss of the Real Grown-Ups? Had the Zeitgeist become so frightening that voters might really elect Conan The Barbarian President of the strongest nation in the world? Like the “Just Say No” campaign of yore, the feeble, ineffectual community efforts undertaken against heroin couldn’t compete against what

Lady H. offered: oblivion. If the reality of that was too stark for most to accept, consider what else she offered: a way of life that demanded your full attention 24/7. No hassles of responsibility, relationship or career, no entanglements except with Lady H. Chasing her was both career and vocation.

Serve her, and you were free. You belonged to a secret society, whose members had only to show the track marks on their bodies to be welcomed by other vipers. In other words, you could remain a kid.

The flaneur shook his head. What kids needed more than anything else was a rite of passage that would earn them the respect of their community. It was why thousands of kids from around the world flocked to become soldiers for ISIS. This drive of young men to prove their manhood seemed universal. Boys needed to show themselves worthy to enter adulthood. Give them roles to play or they would destroy themselves.

In other times the gatekeepers of adulthood had been called Real Grown-Ups because they were seemingly wise (or at least mature) authority figures — “Father Knows Best” types. They kept the world safe while kids slept. They could be counted on to do the right thing.

Like the tooth fairy, it was a nice fantasy. Unlike the dinosaurs that vanished, the Myth of the Real Grown-Ups was just that: a Myth. Any bright teenager would have learned that the world was not run by the competent and mature, but by the mean and mad. The 20th century had been the most murderous in human history, claiming 187 million fatalities in a series of bloodbaths. There was no hiding the nature of the reptilian brain in the human animal.

The flaneur stood, and stretched. In an hour on the bench, he had considered every facet of an intractable problem. There were no good answers, but the only approach that offered any realistic hope at all, he concluded, was Legalization.

Ching! His mental pin ball machine lit up with telepathic protest, from families who had lost children to Lady H. to would-be Real Grown-Ups, those who believed in punishment, to those who hoped Rehab might yet work.

Lady H. is strong and seductive, with an hypnotic appeal to those who are overwhelmed by fear and pain. Kids are no match for her, but perhaps, the flaneur hoped, legalization was the most efficacious way to save them.