The addicted city

By RIC KAHN  |  April 3, 2008

Another reason for the hush has to do with the Gloucester gestalt. Gloucester is a small city, characterized by a combination of small-town protectiveness and big-city tolerance. “Gloucester is a tolerant community, people give each other space here,” says Phil Salzman, 38, who teaches a newly instituted drug-and-alcohol peer education course at Gloucester High School. “And that’s wonderful, that’s why a lot of different kinds of people have moved here. But it’s not always good. And one of the negatives is that there can be a lack of intervention at home…It also makes it a difficult community to organize.”

In clinical-speak, it would be called “an enabling community.” Strong and proud, the citizenry is a mix of Italian (16%), English (nine percent), Portuguese (six percent), French (three percent), German (one percent.) Dad is at sea, Mom becomes the figure who maintains family values. Sonny hits her up for money. Or she notices some cash missing. Maybe she doesn’t suspect. And maybe she can see it in his glassy eyes but turns away. “She has her own internal code of honor,” say’s NUVA’s Ron Morin. “Family is first and foremost, and she has a kid she loves. Drugs are a mystery to her.” She gives Sonny $50, he gives her a nod, a wink, a peck on the cheek. She hears some drug gossip on the grapevine. Confronts her kid. Handsome—he sweet-talks her. “Knows she loves him more than anything,” Morin says. Tells her this drug thing is nothing to worry about. She figures it’s under control, he’s not dying. She says the rosary, keeps it inside the family. “She wouldn’t call a stranger to tell him,” Morin says. Like an addict denying reality through junk and then denying he’s got a jones, she thinks everything is fixed. “This is a community that cares a lot about each other,” Phil Salzman says. “I just don’t know if we know how to care.”

But some say the see-no-evil silenzio is the work of a community that can be as callous as a crewman’s hands. “Everybody’s business in Gloucester is everybody’s business,” says one Gloucesterite who, like everybody else in town, is close to someone who lost kin to heroin. “Most of the people turned their back on the heroin problem. They didn’t care. They thought the heroin addict was a bum who lived on the street — not anybody’s father or kid — and hoped he died and got it over with.”

In April 1987 the Gloucester Daily Times dropped the corpses on Gloucester’s doorstep. One woman and two men had died from heroin ODs in the past six months, wrote reporter Sean Murphy, who’s now at the Globe. Two of the victims were 31; one was 28. Four children were left without a mother or a father. The mortal math came out to a heroin death rate twice the national one and five times metro Boston’s rate. The latest conservative street count is 10 heroin OD deaths — some say it’s as high as 16—in the past 18 months.

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