excerpt 4/4 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.
The notion that bad things don't - or shouldn't - happen in small towns is not uncommon. What Tim Gilson's disbelief suggests is that nowhere is that conceit more prevalent than in the small towns themselves. By 2005, meth was not just challenging Oelwein's sense of itself; it had destroyed it. Gilson had much from which to draw for his incredulity. That same year, an analysis by Slate.com showed that U.S. newspapers had used the title "Meth Capital of the World" to describe no less than seventy different American towns, cities, states, and counties, from California to Pennsylvania. Several meth-related murders had become national news, most notable the murder of a nine-year-old girl in Cruthersville, Indiana, who'd inadvertently found neighbor's meth lab and was subsequently beaten to death.
Throughout its history, America has panicked over narcotics perhaps more often and more extravagantly than any nation in the world. Measured by its habitual recurrence, drug addiction is our defining morality play. The first act dates to the late 1700s, when alcohol consumption was blamed for everything from sloth to moral incertitude in the new and largely rural nation. Ever since then, most drugs and drug epidemics have been associated with urban life, whether expressed by the Prohibition raids of Chicago and New York speakeasies, LSD in San Francisco in the 1960s, or Wall Street's and South Beach's cocaine excesses of the 1980s. What set meth apart was not only the idea that one could make it in the bathtub, but also that the people doing so were poor or working-class rural whites. In that way, the meth epidemic appeared to have neither analog nor precedent in any time since the Revolution.
In truth, all drug epidemics are only in part about the drugs. Meth is indeed uniquely suited to Middle America, though this is only tangentially related to the idea that it can be made in the sink. The rise of the meth epidemic was built largely on economic policies, political decisions, and the recent development of American cultural history. Meth's basic components lie equally in the action of government lobbyists, long-term trends in the agricultural and pharmaceutical industries, and the effects of globalization and free trade. Along the way, meth charts the fears that people have and the vulnerabilities they feel, both as individuals and as communities. The truly singular aspect of meth's attractiveness is that since its first wide-scale abuse - among soldiers during World War II - meth has been associated with hard work. For seventy years, the drug more commonly referred to as crank has been the choice of the American working class. It's in this way more than any other that the story of meth is the story of Oelwein, Iowa, along with that of Roland Jarvis and Tim Gilson and Jeremy Logan. It is also the story of the remarkable, even heroic lengths to which people and communities will go in order to fix themselves.
Some of the deeper meanings of this drug's hold on America had been evident back in 2004, in Greenville, Illinois. Since the farm crisis of the 1980s, many of the farmers there had long since foreclosed on their land. People left in large numbers. According to Sean and James, in nearby Hagarstown, Illinois, there is but one resident who remains. By 2004, many of the employment opportunities in Greenville and the surrounding area were half-time, with no benefits. Out by Interstate 70, just a couple hundred yards from Ethan's Place, there were no fewer than seven major chain motels, none of which contributed more than a few minimum wage jobs to the town's economy. Greenville, once a proud, vigorous farm town, now depended in part on reluctant passersby moving between St. Louis and Indianapolis in order to survive.
Soon enough on the night that Sean and James played pool with each other, they were talking about job opportunities. There were construction gigs closer to St. Louis, In Belleville, Illinois, or even farther still, forty miles beyond the Missouri line, in St. Charles, sixty miles from Greenville, one way. There was a night-watch job across the street from Ethan's at the Super 8, a position held at the time by a forty-year-old divorced mother who was heading to Chicago to try her luck. And there was some work at Wal-Mart. James, who'd entered the Army a grunt and left it six years later a proud staff sergeant, was not enthused by these options.
Sean just laughed. He knew what he was going to do: make meth. The money was good, the drugs were good, and it garnered him access to all kinds of women who, once they smoked a foil or two, would do anything for more. Sean clearly didn't give a shit about the consequences. The way he saw it, life in Greenville was a prison anyway. It was better to live well for a time and go back to jail than to pretend to make ends meet on two hundred dollars a week and no health insurance that Sean said a job at Wal-Mart would get him.
That night, it was unclear whether James was buying it. But it was impossible not to wonder at what point he would start seeing things through Sean's eyes. After all, they'd immediately been able to overlook their immense surface differences: black skin, white skin; shaved head, military crew. On a deeper level, there existed a stronger, and ultimately more enduring, foundation: they were united by history. Life in Greenville had, in the course of their lives, changed fundamentally. And yet here they were together, finally home. If James planned to stay, how long could it be before crank, and Sean, seemed like his best option?
That's not a question I will ever be able to answer directly, for in all the times I've been back to Greenville, Illinois, I've never seen James or Sean again. The nights I spent talking to them in 2004, though, drove me in my attempt to understand meth in small-town America. Along the way, I began to understand how greatly life in those towns has changed in the past thirty years. Oelwein is a simulacrum for Greenville, and by extrapolation, for the great expanse of the rural United States. Beginning in Oelwein, one can follow meth's currents backward to the thousands of disparate sources from which it flows. From May 2005 until June 2008, I went back many times to Oelwein; I went to California, Idaho, Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, and Missouri, to big cities and small towns alike, in an attempt to put the events in that small Iowa town into some kind of large-scale perspective. Eventually, the story I'd once viewed through the lens of homespun crime became one that stretched from the Czech Republic to China to Washington, D.C., and involved not just addicts and prosecutors and public defenders, but also congresspeople and governors and U.N. officials; neuropharmacologists and macroeconomists; rural sociologists and microbiologists; and drug lobbyists and pharmaceutical company executives.
What it took three and a half years to fully understand (nine if I count back to my trip to Gooding, Idaho) is that the real story is as much about the death of a way of life as it is about the birth of a drug. If ever there was a chance to see the place of the small American town in the era of the global economy, the meth epidemic is it. Put another way, as Americans have moved increasingly to the coasts, they have carried with them a nostalgic image of the heartland whence their forebears came, as worn and blurry as an old photograph. But as the images have remained static, the places themselves have changed enormously in the context of international economics, like an acreage of timber seen in two photos, one in spring, the other in winter. Really, what James and Sean were confronted with that November night back in 2004 was nothing short of finding a place for themselves in a newly unfamiliar world.
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