It was all right at Greenmount and North avenues the other morning. Leon was there, currently in the twilight of a crummy life at the end of a needle, and he said he didn't hold anything personally against this president of the United States.
"You heard about this?" I asked Leon. "Dole says Clinton hasn't done anything to stop your drug problem."
"Mine?" asked Leon.
"Yeah, yours. Apparently, you wouldn't be on drugs if the president was paying more attention to you."
"Is that right?" Leon asked. He stood in a brief Sunday morning drizzle and watched an old woman walk past with an umbrella held tightly in both hands.
"When did you start doing drugs?" he was asked now.
"Me? About 1969."
"Nixon," I said. "He was president in '69. Maybe Dole should blame him."
Leon thought about this for a moment. Standing about a block above North Avenue, he glanced down Greenmount, past a sign saying, "Food Stamps Accepted." There was a wire trash can a few feet away, mostly empty, with bottles and papers spilled all around it. A man carrying a long stick with a spike on the end walked past and stuffed some of the trash into a big plastic bag. A nearby lot had weeds growing wild all over the place and trash buried in the weeds, which would be dinner for various rodents. There were doors and windows on rowhouses where people once lived, which were now boarded up and covered with graffiti, including these:
"To Wesley: You will never be forgotten. I love you and miss you."
"To Kippy: I will always love you and miss you so very much."
Leon shrugged his shoulders about Wesley and Kippy. Might have been neighborhood boys who moved away, or jilted some heartbroken girl. Might have gotten themselves popped by somebody, might have lost their lives at the end of some needle. Around here, who knows?
The needle stuck in his mind for a moment. In the memory of everyone who lives in this city over the past 30 years, this neighborhood is synonymous with poverty and blight, with people hustling in a variety of shadow occupations to support themselves, with the cops making sporadic shows of muscle and then retreating, and with drug traffic that goes back at least as far as Johnson and Nixon, through Ford and Carter and Reagan and Bush, all of them finessing the truth about their various alleged wars on drugs.
And for Bob Dole, in the dying weeks of the most sorrowful excuse for a presidential campaign since Michael Dukakis, to tell us with a straight face that Bill Clinton causes drug traffic is to imply a complete ignorance of the past three decades in the cities of America.
These men in the White House have all sat there indifferently and watched the things that fuel the drug hunger: the hopelessness of finding decent work, the decay of neighborhoods and the desperation of people to remove themselves from such realities.
Dole makes his drug claim about Clinton on a few factors, none entirely valid. He talks of cuts in the Clinton drug budget -- without mentioning that the cuts were quickly restored, that Clinton proposed a record $15.3 billion to fight drugs, and that Dole was Senate majority leader when his own party cut money for drug prevention and treatment in the Clinton budget.
But Dole implies something about Clinton beyond numbers, a link to the character issue, to the famous joint Clinton never inhaled but joked about in front of America's children, and what kind of behavior is this for the nation's father figure?
Thus: Clinton as cause of the nation's continuing drug culture.
"Well," Leon was saying now, stepping lightly past broken glass on the Greenmount Avenue pavement, "nobody really thinks in terms of the president. That ain't why you start fooling with drugs. There's a sense of depression, yeah. You can't find work, you can't support your family. You walk out of your house and your neighbor's furniture's out in the street 'cause he ain't paid his rent. You got 47 cents in your pocket and you gotta get formula for the baby. So you want to get away from all this, and somebody offers you something that makes you feel good, and you say, 'Well, why not?' "
Near him on Greenmount Avenue, within a few yards of each other, Leon could see Lutie's Liquor Store, Sid & George's Tahiti Miniature Bar, Baccus Liquors and the Greenmount Inn. They've been here for years, through the various presidents, all of them testament to people's need to numb their pain.
In the nation's various inner cities, it's been this way for decades now. If Bob Dole wants to lay the blame at Bill Clinton's feet, he'd better add some more political names to the list. There's enough blame here for everybody.
Pub Date: 10/22/96