Three Dudes in a Brew Pub
The following is the second part of a multi-part series chronicling Donovan Wheeler’s conversation with two men running for local offices in Greencastle, Indiana. They are Democrats in that Midwestern swath of red which often and easily goes to the other team. So easily that, this year, the other team didn’t even show up for the debates. In part two, Russell Harvey (running for Greencastle Township Trustee) and Matt Cummings (running for Putnam County’s 3rd District seat on the county council) talk about the growing addiction crisis afflicting their community and the need to become proactive regarding solutions.Last summer my fiancée and I enjoyed pizza and beers with some good friends near Indy. We were hanging out in one of our many favorite brew pubs when my 49-year-old bladder told me to get “up and at ‘em.” As woman after woman after woman filed in and out of the ladies’ room, I waited outside a firmly locked door.
I didn’t pay the closest bit of attention to the scraggly-looking fellow who eventually half-sauntered out the room. I did make some wisecrack to Wendi and our friends, suggesting that maybe a married couple had squirreled themselves away in the men’s room so they could work out their mid-life crisis. When I finally entered the restroom, and when I stepped up to the sink to wash up, the joke was long past my thoughts.
While I scrubbed my hands, I felt something odd under my shoes. When looked down, my mind found it hard to process what I was seeing. The rubber soles of my Sanuks wrapped smoothly over the body of a syringe underneath it, and peeking out beyond the sole was the tip of the white, thumb applicator. I should have known then what I was looking at. I should have figured out instantly that the dude who had hogged the men’s room for the last half hour had locked himself in there so he could shoot up.
Instead, the only thing I could think about was how differently my story might have played out had I been wearing a pair of flip-flops.
“Long term, if you do not treat a drug user, the cost to the taxpayer is maximized. That includes ER visits, police resources, and incarceration.”
Before that moment, I thought about drug abuse the same way a lot of folks think about it: It’s someone else’s problem. It’s someone else’s choice. Let whatever happens to them, happen to them. After that moment, I thought about drug abuse very differently. It’s everyone’s problem. One way or another, no matter how much you shutter yourself up in your living room and duck your head under that late-70’s afghan your great-grandma knitted, the needle finds its way under your foot.
I didn’t share this story with Matt Cummings nor Russell Harvey, when they talked about Putnam County’s (and the state of Indiana’s…and the nation’s…) growing opioid problem. But it ran through my mind by the second.
“Have you ever read Malcolm Gladwell’s essay titled ‘Million Dollar Murray’?” Cummings asks me. I hadn’t. I still haven’t…sort of. I’m reading at the moment, FYI. “It totally changed my perspective on this. Let’s be honest about this: Using public dollars to fund someone’s addiction. That is hard, especially when we have [all these other issues we’ve talked about] to deal with as well. People are going to say, ‘That’s their choice.’”
“But you have to be solution-focused, and you have to be cost-benefit-focused, too,” Cummings explains. “Remove the emotion from this and look at this issue logically. What’s going to be cheaper in the long run? Long term, if you do not treat a drug user, the cost to the taxpayer is maximized. That includes ER visits, police resources, and incarceration. We have to be economical. We can’t economically afford to go about this judging people from a position of moral superiority.”
Cummings collects his thoughts for a moment. Under the Wasser Brewing’s dimly lit evening setting, the intensity in his eyes disappears behind the odd mixture of shadows and glare running across his glasses.
“With regard to the substance abuse problem,” Harvey offers, seizing the moment, “Governor Holcomb has specifically challenged the state’s local trustees to explore solutions to the problem, and he’s encouraged everyone to not be afraid of what’s necessary. So you have to be ‘plugged in’ to the community in the best way possible to help people grow and become independent.”
“Additionally,” Harvey continues, “where we lack programs, we need to look at what we can create to address that need. How does spending a little bit of money now save us a lot of money later? That also means coordinating with various non-profit groups already in existence and offering them help so that they can contribute to the greater good.”
“Of course the question this raises is ‘Why are people using drugs?’” Cummings follows up, his question remaining rhetorical for now. “In the last [half-decade] DCS cases in this county have quadrupled. So as our funding for schools goes down while our DCS cases go up…what does that mean?”
“You’re a teacher,” he adds pointing at me. “Are you equipped to stand before a room full of kids who are cognitively disabled because they were born with brains addicted to meth? Big Data says that if you don’t read at grade level by third-grade, you are more likely to end up in prison—that data comes from The Children’s Defense Fund.”
“Prisons actually use that same data to estimate how many beds they’re going to need in the future,” Harvey adds.
“Access to treatment is a huge issue we need to be talking about,” Cummings says with an air finality. “What happens when technology and automation move people out of work? We saw in the ‘90’s, and we’re seeing it now. Do we want to be reactive to these problems or do we want to be proactive? Reactive means we invest in prisons and people staffing those prisons and prison infrastructure. I am not for that. I am 100% against that.”
While the two candidates negotiate their second-round beer choices with our server—a tall, polite kid named Tyler who also happens to have one hell of a singing voice—I slowly rotate my IPA in front of me. Like I said, I could have talked to them about that needle incident in that men’s room all those months before. Instead my thoughts go to a family friend, a 36-year-old father who lost his life to an overdose. Somewhere in the crevasses of my mind I turn my attention further…to a pair of former students who also succumbed to lethal addiction.
Despite the myriad ways the epidemic has filtered through the drug sub-culture and has worked its way into my own life, I still find myself mulling gruff, dismissive thoughts. I still ask myself, why should this be my problem? That restroom incident, however, proved that we don’t live in silos. And as logically, staggeringly compelling as both men’s common sense sounds, I’m also feeling something more—this notion that goes along the lines of, who am I to judge? Could I 100% swear that I would avoid that abyss were I lose my job and slip into deep poverty? What if I had gotten hooked on painkillers after a knee replacement?
This issue—maybe more than others—stands as the greatest threat to this community. As Cummings said earlier: we can lock them up and forget about them, or we can help them return to society and contribute. One of those solutions strikes me as very much American. The other sounds more like the things my history teachers spoke of when they talked about 20th century fascists. In that context, the decision becomes an easy one, and the fact that I even debated it for a half a minute embarrasses me.