This article originally appeared in the April 1, 1988 issue of the Boston Phoenix.
Gloucester — Sir Smack blew in from Boston back in ’68, chauffeured to Fishtown in a pearly white Lincoln Continental. You could find him down on the mainline, flirting with the young lords and ladies at the teenage gathering spot, the mom-and-pop ice cream shop on Washington Street, one of the gateways into Gloucester.
He was electric, charming the pants off both the guys and girlies. They’d lie and steal just to spend some time with him, their demigod, for he could stifle their pain. The outnumbered cops tried to bust up the all-night party, kick him out of their seafaring city. But he was hard to keep down. In waterfront barrooms, down on the boulevard near the famous bronze Man at the Wheel, in the bathrooms and basements of turn-of-the-century-double-deckers—he was being introduced all over town. Buddy to buddy, cousin to cousin, husband and wife, brother to sister, generation to generation, his influence spread from Gloucester and its industrial-strength family ties. The former big-city stranger became a downright Gloucester guy, a regular Jones.
The vain man. He flaunted his power, keeping a warped scorecard of those he had seduced: in a city of 24,964, 200 to 250 are now counted in his cutting crew. Plus those he’s reduced to ashes: more than 35 over the past 10 years.
Many of the proud people of this insular 27-square-mile peninsula, where it is said a message can travel faster by word of mouth than by telephone wire, must have seen or heard him—nodding head, glassy eyes, pinhole pupils, scratching left and right — on his way to toil in the killing fields. But most found it too painful to look him squarely in the peepers, burying their heads instead in the Good Harbor Beach sand.
A year ago, the mysterious Sir Smack — Herr Heroin — was exposed by the city’s daily newspaper as a marauding monkey man in Gloucester’s salt-watery midst. The paper’s four-part series on heroin, says Ron Morin, executive director of the only drug-counseling program in town, NUVA (which stands for New Life), ripped the veil of denial off the faces of the good people of Gloucester. One year later Gloucester finds itself not only a place where one out of every 125 residents is a heroin addict, making the quiet seaport the per capita heroin capital of the Commonwealth — from the scions of Eastern Point to the lumpers of St. Peter’s Square — almost totally touched, somehow, some way, by the needle and the damage done.
Heroin — smack, boy, scag, horse, H, junk, stuff, shit, dope — has coursed through the veins of more than one family’s entire set of children and continued its killer course elsewhere. One child is lost, another picks up the needle, a mother picks up the pieces. For all his secrecy, Sir Smack might as well have sent press releases to the neighborhoods announcing his arrival. All the area kids know the druggies’ doors by heart. He has taunted the cop on the street. He has tempted the ex-addict who’s got her habit beat. He has delivered the junkie who’s in heroin heat. He has infiltrated the poet’s Muse. He has seeped into the politicians’ campaign rhetoric. He has been barred from the barroom. He has littered the landscape with his dirty works. And he has stolen forever the teen-angel’s totem — goin’ parkin’ with my boyfriend — as the guy behind the wheel might just be the IV-drug-using AIDS devil in jeans-and-T-shirt disguise.
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.
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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.