The addicted city

By RIC KAHN  |  April 3, 2008

“I didn’t want any glory,” she says. “I just wanted to reach other parents and spare them the heartache that I’ve been through. I wanted the people of Gloucester to open their eyes and see we have a problem here. It’s not just Gloucester. It’s all over. I think heroin is like a disease, like cancer. For a mother, it’s devastating. You don’t know what to do. You know there’s a problem, but you deny it. You hope and pray for the best. Jay knew I was there.  I was always there for him. But if they don’t want help, you can’t give them help. They have to want to help themselves.”

In being the first mother to break her own silence, Cynthia Cavanaugh also helped break the town’s silence. What followed—and continues to follow—was a seaside town’s engaging in a daily life-and-death dialogue, one being played out on the streets, in the city-council chambers, in the taverns, and on the pages of the city’s broadsheet.

At a public drug forum sponsored last May by the city council, a drug-fighting state cop called the city’s funding for drug law enforcement “intolerable.” “Ex-junkie” Arthur Schebel told the 120 gathered, “This is the first time in my life I’ve ever agreed with the cops. There’s definitely a serious drug problem here, and it has to be dealt with.” He received a standing O. Later he would say, “Buying a bag of heroin in Gloucester is like buying a pack of cigarettes. Except you might have to wait an hour…You can’t blame the parents because they do everything out of love.” On his way out of the chambers, several people shook his hand, wished him luck. (By the next March, his luck had turned bad. He’d returned to shooting dope and he was sentenced to 15 to 20 years for a series of habit-supporting 1986 Springfield B&Es.)

Last October an anti-drug parade with bagpipes, floats, and the Coast Guard color guard marched through the city. The theme was “Drugs are a disease and we are the cure.” In his campaign for city councilor, Joseph “Monkey” Orlando, who passed out baseball caps, litter bags, and pamphlets bearing anti-drug (and pro-Joe Monkey) messages, declared the city’s number one issue to be drug abuse.

The same month, after 27-year old John Thompson III had died of a heroin overdose—the seventh in Gloucester over a 10-month span, 10 times the national rate—two of Thompson’s friends ended a letter to the editor of the Daily Times with a plea to the city: “Please commit your hearts and minds to fight against drugs. You owe it to your children…We must join together as a community and fight this battle against drugs to insure that Gloucester remains a healthy and wonderful place to live.”

Sometimes messages of life and death rode side by side. One the day NUVA was publicizing a new support group to help the families and friends of drug addicts, the paper reported that Gloucester police were helping to bring in the largest haul of illegal drugs ever seized on Cape Ann, including 394 bags of heroin valued at almost $20,000.

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