The American Conservative
April 6, 2011
Since the late 1990s members of the media have routinely trekked into the hinterlands of America to cover the meth “epidemic,” flap their lips about the newfound dangers of the heartland, and beat a path back to their urban refuges. I had hoped that this phenomenon would end with the recent decline in meth use, but instead Nick Reding’s Methland: The Death and Life of an American Small Town climbed the New York Times bestseller list and claimed the Chicago Tribune’ s Heartland Prize for 2009. This is especially irksome for me because I grew up in a small town in Southeast Missouri that was sometimes referred to as the meth capital of the world.
According to DEA statistics, Missouri had led the nation in the number of meth labs discovered every year since 2003. When I was in high school, MTV dispatched a news crew to my town and interviewed a number of friends and acquaintances for a story on meth users.
I did meth for the first time when I was 15, and by the time I was 17, I was using it once or twice a week. I can safely say that although many fine writers, Reding included, have attempted to tackle drug use in small town America—and have exposed the uncomfortable truth that drugs are more prevalent in rural than urban areas—none of them really understand the subject.
These outsiders routinely accept a sensationalized version of meth’s power: it is a uniquely addictive drug that ruins everyone it touches. But most people who take meth and other illicit drugs are otherwise normal—they just like to get lifted every once in a while. This is not to minimize the possibly dire consequences of drug abuse. I have a number of friends who died well before their times due to rampant substance-abuse problems—none of them directly meth-related, however. One of my best friends died after shooting up coke hours before his court date. Few have more familiarity with these tragedies than I do, but they are by far the exception rather than the rule.
Taking meth is like joining a secret society. Most users don’t talk about those activities to outsiders, but we can communicate all we need to each other, even when surrounded by the uninitiated, with knowing smiles, quick head bobs, subtle sniffs of the nose. Once I became at least a semi-regular consumer of the drug, I discovered that users extended well beyond the speed freaks at Wal-Mart buying lithium batteries at three in the morning. I could read the signs perfectly—the teeth grinding, chain-smoking, darting eyes, and omnipresent bottles of water—and could even spot those members of my town’s upper crust who happened to enjoy a rush. Anyone can spot a tweaker who has been up for days in the depths of amphetamine psychosis, but few non-users have the eyes to see the rest.
Of course, this was also true of most of my town’s good, God-fearing folk. They substituted hysteria for real knowledge of the drug. We walked among them as their employees—or employers, for that matter—neighbors, and friends, but if they had known who we were, they would have descended upon us like a screech owl on a vole. Anyone arrested for meth got his face splashed across the front page of the paper. Within days, even hours, formerly respected members of the community could have their lives ruinedby the drug but by people’s perception of it. But regardless of how shocking the upstanding citizens of town found it when one of their own was exposed as a fiend, the revelation never made them question their presumptions. I remember when two girls around my age were busted cooking off a batch at a local motel. The girls were popular at school and from good families, but after the news got around town, every time I left for a party my mother demanded to know if either one of them would be there—as if they were the only ones at school who did white dope.
Because of the dire repercussions of being found out, we were more tight-lipped about meth than any other drug, even with our peers. When my friend Drew first started using meth, he flaunted his consumption and told anyone who asked exactly what he was on. Drew was friendly and gregarious by nature, but that could not stand. Some of us told him to shut his damn mouth and refused to acknowledge his existence until he did so. He learned more discretion in the next few days than he had hitherto in his life.
Meth is not the whole story here, not by a long shot. In my tribe, almost everyone took almost every kind of drug imaginable—meth included, but it was hardly the sine qua non of our drug universe. On a typical weekend night, we might drink a fifth of whiskey on top of a couple blue bombers of hydrocodone, then snort a rail around three in the morning to keep the party going. The order could be reversed by taking a psychedelic like LSD or psilocybin in the afternoon—possibly accompanied by a little meth or ecstasy to steady the mind—and then drinking into the early morning with a nightcap of codeine cough syrup to ensure a peaceful sleep. We smoked weed almost constantly regardless of which route we took, and drinking and driving was treated like a competitive sport.
For the most part, however, we were not the stereotypical burnouts that people expected this behavior from, nor did we think of ourselves as such. Several of my closest friends and I were in the top decile of our class despite being intoxicated half of our waking lives—frequently including school hours. We were almost all athletes and participated in a number of activities and clubs. For two years, every one of my class’s officers was a multiple drug felon.
We were also, by and large, neither poor nor neglected by our parents. Our mothers and fathers were solidly middle-class or, in a few cases, upper-class. They worked as doctors, bankers, teachers, contractors—very few lawyers, oddly—and owned some of the most respected small businesses in town. Busy as they were with work, our parents made every effort to be involved in our lives: attending parent-teacher conferences, cheering us on at sporting events, and taking us to church every Sunday followed by lunch at one of the town’s few nice restaurants.
Nor can anyone attribute our wide-ranging illicit behavior to a faltering local economy, as Reding does frequently in Methland :
One example of the connection between financial loss and the increase in meth use was a feeling among small-time cooks that they, like the moonshiners of the early twentieth century, were the last of a breed, not just of rebellious criminals, but of small business people. In the wake of so many closed storefronts, it was the Beavis and Butt-Head cooks, as the police called them, who touted their place in the increasingly weak economy of Oelwein [Iowa].
My town never had similar economic woes. Granted, there were two strip malls that sat largely empty—where we would congregate on weekend nights to drink, sell drugs, and decide where everyone should go for the evening—but that was more the consequence of the owner’s outlandishly high rents than an indicator for the economic health of the town. The industrial park was always full of humming factories with more moving to town when I graduated, and pretty much all of my friends worked summers and part-time during the school year. There was poverty in the area, to be sure, but in a town where many people were only two or three generations removed from sharecropping—myself included—that was nothing new.
It’s possible that we turned to drugs out of boredom, but I doubt it. True, there weren’t numerous recreational options around town, especially for teenagers. We had the local multiplex and a few pool halls that allowed minors, and that was it. Still, we were good at making our own fun. We were less than an hour’s drive from a lake and a number of rivers and creeks, so the springs and summers were a seemingly endless cycle of swimming, tubing, fishing, campouts, and bonfires. Regardless of the season, we had house parties when someone’s parents went out of town, and if worse came to worst, we could just drive around all night. The only things the cities had that really interested us were concerts, and we were always game for driving to see our favorite bands.
But it’s not as if we used drugs less when we were occupied; we believed they enhanced any situation. In fact, our desire to use drugs increased proportionally to how much fun we thought an activity would be. When we took our senior trip to a tourist trap on the Redneck Riviera in Florida’s Panhandle, eight of us brought along eight balls of both meth and coke, a pound of weed, and four ounces of ’shrooms. Most daringly, one friend raided the pharmacy where he worked and filled a large Mason jar full of every pill he could find that had a “may cause drowsiness” or “do not operate heavy machinery” warning. Drugs were not all we were concerned about, however. They were always a secondary concern next to being with our friends. A decade later, I still spend most of my time with the same people despite having moved away from our hometown years ago.
This all seemed perfectly normal to us. We didn’t match the conceptions of drug users presented by the media or government, but we were certain the same thing was happening everywhere in the country. We were not disabused of this notion until our friend Calhoun moved to Kansas City and came back to visit, telling us that all his new acquaintances thought he was an addict. I remember his explanation very clearly:
So the first day at work I start talkin’ to the guy that’s showin’ me around the place, and I ask him where I can get some weed, and, ya know, he tells me. And then I’m like, ‘so where can I get some pills,’ and—again—he tells me. Then I ask him where I can get some meth, and he says he doesn’t know. So I ask him if he knows where I can get some X, and he’s like, ‘what the f–k’s wrong with you!?’
Calhoun shrugged in disbelief. “I don’t know! I just thought people liked to party. I guess up there ya just do like one or two drugs at a time or somethin’ like that.” This pretty well blew our minds. Who wouldn’t do any and all drugs available to him? We weren’t even the craziest people we knew, so if we were addicts, we simply didn’t have the terminology to explain the people who were really out there—people like The Hawk and Bodean.
The Hawk was the best meth cook I knew. While the less competent chefs cooked up batches of gray or even brown dope filled with impurities, The Hawk’s stuff was always pure white—or occasionally blue when he was experimenting with a new recipe—and burned hard and pure going up the nostrils, like a white hot nail straight into your brain. But again, he did not fit the popular stereotype of a chef as some backwoods hick, rail-thin with half his teeth missing. He was skinny but not unusually so, in his early twenties when I knew him, with dark hair and nondescript features. If he wore dress pants and a tie he would have looked like a car salesman, but he was a damn sight smarter, nicer, and more honest than most car dealers I know. The Hawk sold drugs, but from what I could tell his primary income came from weed; the meth was more of a hobby. As friends of his, we never paid for the lines and quarter grams The Hawk gave us over the years, and even when dealing with higher quantities he never charged us retail. The guy was addicted to meth and probably benzos to boot, but he never wronged me or anyone I knew and still goes down as a standup guy in my book.
Bodean was something else. If someone I trusted had told me he was the Norse god Loki, I would have believed it. You never knew what he would do next, but the good money was always that it would be violent and destructive. Although he was just as familiar as The Hawk with the white-dope devil, he always remembered to eat and lifted weights, so his body was 190 ripped pounds in 70 inches. His hair was jet black with long bangs that fell to one side of his face almost down to his sharp jaw. If he had grown it a little longer and put it into a devil lock, he would have fit in on stage with the Misfits. I was friends with Bodean, but I knew better than to cross him when he was angry, especially if he had been drinking bourbon.
A guy in the class below mine once had the misfortune of becoming the target of Bodean’s rage when he was pounding Jim Beam. It was a misunderstanding, but Bodean landed about ten elbows to the kid’s face before he knew what was happening. Another time, the cops came to bust a party, and while they were occupied inside, Bodean attempted to steal their cruiser. When the cops ran back outside, he jumped out of the car and yelled, “F–k you, pigs!” in his guttural, almost caveman-like drawl and took off through the backyard. The cops chased after him, but were literally clotheslined in the next yard while Bodean ducked and kept running through the cemetery, across Main Street, and through the woods to home—about two miles. Although I can’t be sure what mixture of drugs Bodean was on for all his adventures, the only occasion I am certain he was fueled primarily by amphetamines was the time he shot his PlayStation with his MAC-10. He had been up for days, and one of his friends wouldn’t stop playing Tony Hawk , so Bodean walked into the room and shot right through the console and into a water line in his basement. Fortunately, many plumbers in the area would work for crank.
Bodean was also involved in the drug trade—pretty deeply at times—but we didn’t necessarily consider him a drug dealer. Drugs were not his only source of income, and he was by no means a kingpin. Most people we knew only sold drugs to get their own supply for free, so we didn’t think of them “real” drug dealers because such a wide definition would incorporate pretty much everyone we knew at one time or another. We considered selling—or at least giving—drugs to your friends a social duty. If I bought a quarter pound of weed and sat on it while my friends were dry, it would have made me an instant pariah. There were few deeds nobler in our minds than breaking the law by, say, trafficking a sheet of acid back from a rave for no profit save a fantastic experience shared with your friends.
We took a much dimmer view of cops, our natural enemies. We had a certain grudging respect for a cop who really believed he was making the world a better place by busting people for getting high—quixotic as that belief is—but crooked cops were the lowest of the low in our taxonomy. After two of the cities’ top narcs busted a friend of mine with a pound of weed, it was agreed that no charges would be filed as long as the cops kept the pot and my friend never mentioned it again. We already knew those particular officers were crooked, so it was hardly a revelation to us—other townspeople might have reacted very differently to the news—but we were all sickened by the theft. They were worse than highwaymen because they publicly claimed a noble purpose.
Still, we didn’t want them to quit being cops; if you had to get busted, it was best to get popped by them. What we really wanted was for crooked cops to be punished for their sins in dramatic fashion. We hoped that they would be struck by lightning, in an obvious act of God’s anger, but we would have settled for having them publicly exposed as crooked and sent to prison. But as long as such people lived in our town, they could do the least harm as police officers.
While we took our trips on LSD and the cops took theirs on power, the good townsfolk had their religion. Our town was a departure point to parts unknown, and most people chose to ride one of two trains: drugs or Jesus. Both groups believed they were bound for enlightenment and cursed the other as hopelessly naïve and probably wicked. Conveniently, if anyone grew weary of his chosen car, the trains ran on parallel tracks, and people frequently jumped from one to the other.
My friend Matt was as devoted a space cadet as I knew. The summer before our senior year, we had a running contest to see who could take the most acid at one time. Some might wonder why two intelligent young men would do something so hazardous to their mental health. It was for the same reason Sir Edmund Hilary conquered Everest: because it was there. We were determined to scale the mountains of our minds then dynamite them to pieces, only to build them higher still and do it all again. I bowed out of the contest after I ate a ten-strip of Tim Leary blotter paper at a hippie festival and came to believe that I had zipped my tackle off while taking a leak, but Matt pressed on. He ended up eating 22 hits at an outdoor rave, and he claimed he saw a girl we knew turn into a duck-billed platypus. He more than doubled a total that had nearly destroyed me, and you would never know a nervous thought had crossed his mind. It was as if tripping were his natural state of being.
Nevertheless, he frequently bounced back to the Lord. It seemed that every time a girl broke his heart, his world would shatter, and he would spend the next two or three weeks attending prayer groups and preaching the Good News to us. This tendency was probably attributable to the reform school his mother sent him to near Patterson, Missouri. The teachers were former Marines and zealous Baptists who beat the students and forced them to memorize Bible verses. While Matt was there, one of his classmates slashed another student’s throat in an attempt to take over the school. That school was the only topic Matt felt uncomfortable discussing, and I have to believe it is part of the reason Matt could be intoxicated on a far deeper level by Jesus than by LSD.
I didn’t fully comprehend how warped my little town was until I moved away for college. I attended an elite Midwestern university, and many of my classmates came from supercilious locales like New York and L.A. For the most part, they thought of my friends and me as half-mad provincials with minds twisted from the tedium of small-town life and adulterated methamphetamine. The same attitude pervades the journalists who cover drug use in rural America. (Reding is exceptional in that he has a small-town pedigree and makes a noble attempt to see through his subjects’ eyes. Still, despite his best efforts, he remains an outsider in the places he describes.) They come to find madmen, who are admittedly easy to find, confirm their prejudices, and file their stories confident that they’ve made a difference. True, they have told the rest of the world more than it ever wanted to know about rural America’s underbelly. But they can’t tell us the whole truth because they don’t know it and never will.