excerpt 2/4 from
The Death And Life
Of An American Small Town
by Nick Reding
Copyright (c) 2009 by Nick Reding. Published by Bloomsbury USA, New York.
Against the oppressive humidity, the night's smells begin to take shape. Mixed with the moist, organic scent of cut grass at dew point is the ether-stink of methamphetamine cooks at work in their kitchens. Main Street, just three blocks distant, feels as far away as Chicago. For life in Oelwein is not, in fact, a picture-postcard amalgamation of farms and churches and pickup trucks, Fourth of July fireworks and Nativity scenes, bake sales and Friday-night football games. Nor is life simpler or better or truer here than it is in Los Angeles or New York or Tampa or Houston. Life in the small-town United States has, though, changed considerably in the last three decades. It wasn't until 2005 - when news of the methamphetamine epidemic began flooding the national media - that people began taking notice. Overnight, The American small town and methamphetamine became synonymous. Main Street was no longer divided between Leo's and the Do Drop Inn, or between the Perk and the Bakery: it was partitioned between the farmer and the tweaker. How this came to be - and what it tells us about who we are - is the story of this book. And this book is the story of Oelwein, Iowa.
By the time I went to Iowa in May 2005, I'd already spent six years watching meth and rural America come together. The first time I ran across the drug in a way that suggested its symbolic place in the heartland was not in Iowa but in Idaho, in a little town called Gooding. I went to Gooding in the fall of 1999 to do a magazine story on that town's principal industry, ranching. At the time, I didn't know what meth was; it was completely by accident that I found myself in a place overrun with the drug, though the obviousness of meth's effects was immediate. That first night in Gooding, I went to have dinner at the Lincoln Inn, a combination roadhouse and restaurant. ON Friday nights, the road crews who'd busied themselves all week paving and grading the county's few byways descended on the Lincoln to drink beer. An inordinate number of them, it seemed to me, were also high on meth. When the sheriff and a deputy drove by in the alley around midnight, they stopped to look in through the back door. Then they got back in their cruiser and drove away. What could they do, the two of them, faced with a room full of crank users? Two nights later, I was in the bunkhouse of a nearby ranch when three Mexicans drove up in a white Ford F-150. They were meth dealers, and the oldest among them, a nineteen-year-old who gave his name as Coco and said he'd been deported three times in the last four years, explained the crank business to me this way: "At first we give it away. Then the addicts will do anything to get more." Meth, it seemed, was just a part of life for the 1,286 inhabitants of Gooding, Idaho.
Back in 1999, very little was being written about the drug, with the exception of a few newspapers on the West Coast and a smattering of smaller ones like the Idaho Mountain Express. At the time, I was living in New York City. To read the New York Times, the Washington Post, and even the Chicago Tribune was to be largely unaware of methamphetamine's spread throughout the United States. When I talked to friends about what I'd seen in Gooding, no one believed me. That, or they dismissed crank as one more unseen, unfathomable aspect of life in The Middle: as prevalent as corn, as inscrutable as the farm bill, and as tacky as evangelical theology. Whether I traveled to Ennis, Montana, to Merced, California, or to Canton, Georgia, local consciousness of the drug was invariably acute, even as meth somehow avoided coherent, national scrutiny. For four years, wherever I went, there meth was, as easy to discount s it was to discover; once I was back in any major American city - be it New York or Chicago - whatever I'd seen or heard lost all context. I even began to get the feeling that the drug was somehow following me around. I tried and failed on numerous occasions to convince my agent and several magazine and book editors that meth in American small towns was a major issue. Eventually I tried to forget about it and move on. But I couldn't ignore what I saw in November 2004, five years after being in Idaho, which is that meth had become a major feature in the landscape of my home.
I grew up near St Louis, Missouri. Fifty-five miles away, near the town of Greenville, Illinois, is a wetland complex that is one of the more important stopover points in North America for what is annually the world's most concentrated migration of waterfowl. I've duck-hunted there for much of my life, and consider Greenville to be a part of the place, largely defined, from which I come. Like St. Louis, Greenville sits in the mist of the bluff prairies and timbered hollows that once stretched along the Mississippi Valley from east-central Missouri down to Kentucky. Together, this area is a discrete subset of the southern Midwest, unified by geography, an accent, an economy, and a cultural sensibility that is an elemental part of who I am. Hunting ducks each autumn at Carlyle Lake has always served as an annual exploration of my family's history, for the birds that hatch on the prairies of northwest Iowa and the Dakotas migrate south, like my father did six decades ago, down the Missouri River toward the promise of St. Louis. There, they meet with great masses that have moved north along the Mississippi River, just as thousands of people have done, my grandmother included: she left an Ozark mountain subsistence farm along Ebo Creek, Missouri, and came looking for a better life on the fertile floodplain that surrounds St. Louis. Not far from where the two strands of my family came together, there's Carlyle Lake, and the little town of Greenville, where I have always felt at home. Somehow, despite having run across meth in small towns all over the Mountain and Middle West, I had persisted in thinking that the area where I grew up was somehow immune to its presence. That all changed one night in Greenville. I was in Ethan's Place, a bar to which I've retired for many years after duck hunting. There, I met two men whom I'll call Sean and James. Sean was a skinhead. He'd just a few days earlier been released from Illinois state penitentiary after serving six years for grand theft auto and manufacture of methamphetamine with the intent to distribute. He was a thin and wiry six feet one, 170 pounds, with a shaved head and a predictable mixture of Nazi tattoos. He was twenty-six years old. James was black, twenty-eight years old, and a heavily muscled six feet three. His frame was less sturdy, it seemed, than his burden, for James moved with a kind of exhausted resignation, like someone who suffers from chronic pain. For the last six years, James had been serving with the Army Airborne, first in Afghanistan, where he participated in the invasion of that country; then in Iraq, where he was also a member of the initial offensive; and finally, as a policeman back in Afghanistan, where he'd found himself in the curious position of protecting people who had been shooting at him a couple of years before. Like Sean, James had been in a sort of prison, and he was finally home.
Shared history is stronger than the forced affiliations mandated by jail or the military, and pretty soon James and Sean, the black and the neo-Nazi, talked amiably about all the people they knew in common. They drank the local specialty, the Bucket of Fuckit, a mixture of draft beer, ice, and whatever liquor the bartender sees fit to mix together in a plastic bucket. As they played pool, James stalked around the table, shooting first and assessing the situation later, each time hitting the balls more aggressively. The contours of his face formed themselves into a look of desperate perplexity beneath the shadow of his St. Louis Cardinals cap. Why, he seemed to be thinking, will the balls not go in?
Sean, too, moved around the table with a kind of pent-up aggression. Whereas James' muscular shoulders sagged in defeat beneath his knee-length Sean John rugby shirt, Sean's movements were fluid and decisive inside his Carhartts. His confidence was palpable. The enormous pupils of his blue eyes brimming with lucid possibility, Sean easily crushed James in the game of pool. Sean was riding the long, smooth shoulder of a crank binge. As I shot pool and talked with James and Sean over several nights, it hit me with great force that meth was not, in fact, following me around. Nor was it just a coincidental aspect of life in the places I'd happened to be in the last half decade, in Gooding or Los Angeles or Helena. Meth was indeed everywhere, including in the most important place: the area from which I come. There, it stood to derail the lives of two people with whom, under only slightly different circumstances, I could easily have grown up.
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