Work has me driving from Boston to New York more often than I would like, but it’s a leafy drive on long, straight roads. On a recent trip I stopped for a burger and beer at a nondescript bar in a quiet Western Massachusetts town, the kind of town where you never pay for parking, and where, I’d imagine, you know your neighbors. You might even grow your own vegetables and spend some evenings sitting on the porch.
Americans have always admired small-town life; Mayberry is stuck in our consciousness. It goes without saying that the bigotry-sensors of my fellow urbanites are tuned for maximum sensitivity when they head into small, mainly white towns. But still, who doesn’t breathe a little sigh of longing when they hear about the hedge-funder who gave it all up and opened a bed-and-breakfast or antiques shop on some languorous, walkable Main Street?
Sitting at the bar, waiting for my burger, I heard a similar sigh when I told my bartender, a kind, sad woman in her twenties, that I live in Boston. Her eyes flashed soft hunger. Your life, she said, must be so exciting. She seemed to wish we could trade places.
But why? In a place like hers, the cost of living is much lower. You can walk safely at night, and always find a quiet place to read. No parking tickets or cattle-car subway rides. The bartender told me she had recently been released from prison. She’d had some sort of injury, taken her prescribed fentanyl, become addicted, and acquired more from a drug dealer after her prescription ran out. Her young son had been taken from her when she was arrested for possession, and now she was allowed only supervised visits. She was tending bar to save up enough money for her own apartment. Her mother, from what I gathered, was in similar straits, and the child lived with his grandfather.
The crack epidemic ravaged poor urban communities in the 1980s. I grew up knowing this, and thinking it seemed safely distant. Urban blight was the natural consequence of economic dislocation, as manufacturing jobs moved overseas. Racial enmity contributed, in some cases. The deep despair of poor, inner-city “others” is overdetermined. We’ve countered it chiefly by locking up a small nation’s worth of men and women who have responded to the despair by buying and selling drugs.
But now there’s something new to explain, another far-away calamity—the tornado path that opioids are cutting through small-town America. Why is Mayberry now despairing? Last year New York magazine published a beautiful, searing reflection on the opioid crisis in America by Andrew Sullivan. He delved into the history and specifics of this poppy-based drug family, and came back with some profound insights. The sharpest was this: opioids are drugs that help you withdraw from life. Cocaine and alcohol, in their ways, can intensify your experience of people and things. Opioids allow you to slip away. It’s a drug for those who don’t want to play the game anymore, who feel disposed of and useless. Opioids also duplicate the natural chemicals our bodies produce in response to sex, friendship, holding our children, etc. They are a chemical community for the lonely and isolated.