Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Eric Schneider

Editor’s Note: Our series of reflections on Addicts Who Survived continues today with Eric Schneider discussing Teddy’s narrative, posted yesterday.

How did heroin become a drug used largely by African Americans after World
War Two, when it had been a primarily white drug in the previous decades? What were
the social settings that nurtured this new wave of heroin use? How did young people,
primarily males, become the postwar generation of heroin sellers and users?
David Courtwright locates the transition from white to black heroin use in the
Great Migration, the movement of African American southerners into northern cities,
where a primarily rural people encountered not only problems of social dislocation but
also a racism as overt and virulent as the one they left behind. But urban life was also
different, and while hemmed in by a color line that shaped residence, education, and
employment, African Americans were freer to act within these bounded spaces. Here
African Americans developed a language and a style of cultural resistance, an infra
politics of daily life, a zoot-suited, bebop-inflected assertion of self that emerged most
clearly in the social settings of entertainment and vice districts that police effectively
zoned into black residential neighborhoods. Illicit off-the-books economic activity
mingled with outright criminality and ordinary working class street life, and the drug use
of gamblers, pimps, prostitutes and hustlers inevitably seeped into daily life.
How do we understand the process by which heroin use spread? There are some autobiographies, most notably Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land, that
testify to the spread of heroin within teenage peer groups. Investigations by reporters,

Heroin and history--what's your source?
Heroin and history–what’s your source?

local police or the Federal Bureau of Narcotics tracked down the sources of the new
upsurge in heroin use that had caught them completely by surprise after the heroin
drought during World War Two. Court records reveal the outlines of trafficking schemes
as heroin made its way from city to city, and Congressional, state and municipal hearings
featured heroin users who explained before television audiences how they got “hooked.”
These records, while useful, all have limitations. Autobiographies are artfully designed
and can rarely be taken at face value, prosecutorial records are focused on proving a
particular version of events, and investigators in public hearings prepare their witnesses
and agree on the presentation of a narrative. Of course oral histories also suffer from
limitations, especially selective memory, and depend on the knowledge and the rapport
established by the interviewer, but they provide first-person insight into the
circumstances and the choices made by ordinary individuals whose experiences might
otherwise be lost. Addicts Who Survived is the best collection of interviews with opiate
users that I know.

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Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Teddy’s Narrative

Editor’s note: After introducing the series last week, I’m pleased to present the first of the excerpts from Addicts Who Survived chosen by our guest bloggers.  Eric Schneider made extensive use of the oral histories collected by Courtwright, Joseph, and Des Jarlais in his 2011 book, Smack: Heroin and the American City.  Asked to choose one particular passage from Addicts Who Survived, Eric has recommended the recounting by “Teddy” of his teenage experiences with the world of illicit enterprise.  Tomorrow, Eric will offer his own reflections.–Joe Spillane

TEDDY

Teddy was born of black parents in Savannah, Georgia, in 1927. His family life was extremely unstable. His absentee father drank himself to death, and his mother tried repeatedly to foist Teddy on other relatives: “ I was like a burden to her.” Eventually she ran away to New York City, but he found her and joined her in the mid-1930s.

When I was a youngster Harlem was alive. You could hear laughter. The streets would be full of people. Lenox Avenue, Seventh Avenue, all had businesses: there wasn’t an empty store front along there. Seventh Avenue was like Broadway downtown. There was dope in Harlem, and crime, but it wasn’t like it is now: people weren’t getting mugged. Sure, there were fights, but it was basically just fights.

Harlem, 1943
Harlem, 1943

The section I lived in was integrated. There were white people living right down the block on 132nd Street, and on 134th. I went to school with white kids. We even had gangs or clubs with the white kids in them. The people who owned the stores, most of them were Jews or Italians; they used to bring their kids there in the morning, and the kids would go to school with us to grammar school. When they’d complete grammar school, they’d go someplace else. I went to P.S. 89: it was the first school I’d gone to. I didn’t go all that much down South-there wasn’t nobody to make you go down there; it was left to your family. It wasn’t compulsory to go to school the way it was here in New York. So my mother had to take me to school. I went as far as the eighth grade. I started ninth grade but I was just going, if you know what I mean: I went when I wanted. There was no one there to guide me; there was never no one home. My mother worked as a maid on Long Island. She would leave in the morning to go to work, or whatever, and she might come home two days later. So I’d be runnin’ around on the streets and stealing. At that time you could go to all the five-and-ten-cent stores, where they’d have cookies and candies just laying on the shelves. I’d go and pick them up and eat them. It was like a picnic. Everything was in the open-it wasn’t like it is now, where everything is in cases.

I had run-ins with the police, like for stealing cases of soda off of trucks. See, back then the police had a different system. The police knew just about everybody on their beat: all the kids, where they lived, who their mothers were, and their fathers. This way, if something happened in the neighborhood—if someone said, “Why, them kids stole so-and-so” —he’d round up all the kids in the block and find out who it was. Most of the time they’d take you home. But if your mother wasn’t home, they’d take you to the precinct, slap you around, beat you up, and send you on home. Then they’d notify your parents and say, “Listen, Teddy did this, this, and this.” That’s when I was getting to be about thirteen, fourteen years old.

The first time that I actually got arrested was for cuttin’ a guy. I was in a teenager’s gang; maybe I was about fifteen. It was a territory thing:  we’ve got this block, this is our block, and you can’t come in this block unless you’ve got permission from us. We were fighting, but we weren’t fighting really to kill one another, even though we had sticks and knives.  You had to carry this stuff. If you stuck somebody, it made you a big guy.  If you stuck so-and-so, they’d give you a name like “Ice Pick Slim” or “Killer Ray.” You’d try to get a nickname for yourself. The police would take us in, and line up all the clubs, and ask, “Who did this?” So you’d say, “I stuck the guy,” right? It was a thing where, if you did it, you told them. You did it because it looked good-you’d get a name for yourself, you know. People would say, “Teddy sticked that guy, yeah,” or “Teddy’ll kill ya,” or “Don’t mess with Teddy, ’cause he’s a bad guy.”‘This is how you started to get that rep, or that bad-guy image.

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Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Series Introduction

Editor’s Note: Next week, we begin a new series marking the release of the first paperback edition of Addicts Who Survived: An Oral History of Narcotic Use in America, 1923-1965.  First published in 1989 by the University of Tennessee Press, Addicts Who Survived was based upon a series of oral history interviews of older methadone patients in New York City.  There interviews were collected starting in 1980, by David Courtwright, Herman Joseph, and Don Des Jarlais.  Both Joseph and Des Jarlais were themselves subjects of a more recent oral history project, History of a Public Science: Substance Abuse Research, conducted by myself and Nancy Campbell.  You can read Don Des Jarlais’ interview, and Herman Joseph’s interview, to get some additional perspective from both scholars on Addicts Who Survived.

Starting Monday, we’ll present a series of excerpts from the book, paired with a addicts-who-survived-an-oral-history-of-narcotic-use-in-america-before-1965scholarly reflection on the excerpt.  We’re pleased to have four notable scholars of drugs and addiction contributing to the series, starting with Eric Schneider.  Monday, we’ll run an excerpt from “Teddy”–whose involvement with “dope” began in Harlem during World War Two.  Tuesday, we’ll publish Eric’s reflection on Teddy’s history.  And so on…

I’m particularly pleased to have organized this series, because of how much Addicts Who Survived has meant to me since I first read it (not long after the initial publication).  I can still remember working on the early history of cocaine, and coming across an account from “Curtis” describing how he obtained cocaine from a drugstore at the age of nine–in 1913.  It is hard to describe the impact of reading his account in 1990 or so, at a time when few people even remembered that cocaine had once been legal, much less had access to testimony about that moment in time.  I wish that Addicts Who Survived had prompted more such oral history projects.  For now, we can simply celebrate this particular accomplishment.  Here’s a portion of what “Curtis” had to say, below.–Joe Spillane

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