The addicted city

By RIC KAHN  |  April 3, 2008

Having been forced to face the antihero hanging around its harbor, the town’s twitching body politic is now symbolically suffering the symptoms of withdrawal — teary dyes, dilated pupils, muscle cramps, sweating, sneezing, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea and depression — as Gloucester, like a junkie going cold turkey, painfully and publicly tries to kick its heroin habit.

* * *

Gloucester, the oldest fishing port in the Western Hemisphere, has always seemed spooked by an undercurrent of teratism that seems at odds with its image of a sea town stocked with a core of lunch-pail lumpers pledging fealty to family and San Pietro — the patron saint of fishermen — and fringed by a colony of offbeat artists. Way yonder yesteryear, more than a century and a half ago, old Luce George was the talk of the town. Through the power of witchcraft, Luce reportedly would freeze the oxen passing by, leaving them standing with tongues out until the driver paid an extortive toll (to the devil?) of wood or corn. Much more recently, in 1984, a woman was murdered deep in the woods of the Dogtown section of Gloucester. Despite the danger signs that included a fairly well-known record of public masturbation and assault and battery against a female bicyclist while naked, the Gloucesterite convicted of the crime had for years been dismissed by many townspeople as just another odd duck. The aberrations continued. By 1985, it was reported, almost a quarter of the 175-boat Gloucester fleet had sunk over the previous five years, many under a suspicious cloud of insurance fraud. Though nearly three-quarters of the boats had gone down in calm weather conditions, many Gloucesterites, continuing the tradition of putting a good face on events (or simply turning the other cheek), blamed the sinkage on the horribly rough seas. In ’85 the amount of fish caught and brought to market was down 32 million pounds and $6.5 million dollars from 1982. The fishing industry was dying (or, as those preferring to put a positive spin on circumstances say, sick but not terminally ill.) And so were the sons and daughters of Gloucester.

While the headlines focused on seaside Gloucester being a haven for marijuana-running — CAPE ANN DRAWS TOURISTS, DRUG SMUGGLERS — heroin was traveling through the city’s central arteries and veins. Police back in ’85 estimated there were 100 hard-core addicts hanging around town. In this close-knit community — one extended family fastened to another — the presence of the needle-users figured to bring howls of horror. (Could there be a more oxymoronic family snapshot than the weather-beaten fisherman standing beside his daughter, who sticks hypodermic needles in her arms, legs, or groin?) From the folks who erected a monument to the more than 10,000 Gloucester fisherman lost at sea, the official response to more than 35 Gloucester offspring lost to heroin’s undertow in the past 10 years was mostly scowls and a steady blast of silence.

One reason there were no wall-to-wall protests, says Essex County District Attorney Kevin Burke, is that Gloucester’s heroin habit — unlike that in a place like Lynn — was not accompanied by an out-of-control crime wave that would have triggered the citizens’ alarm. Naturally, there was a batch of B&Es. But many of Gloucester’s addicts are working stiffs, with hard-earned cash in their pockets. And though her soul may be sullied, and addicts were openly scoring and nodding down by the boulevard, Gloucester’s exterior quality of life has not been corroded away.

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