The old neighbor’s kids used to play in front of my shop with a basketball, using the fire escape ladder as a hoop. Occasionally, the ball would go astray, and knock off some of the 50 cent books from the outside table. Sometimes, they would play hide and seek under the table, in the large potted plant, or under the A-frame sign, often blocking the door and getting in the way of customers. But they were part of the neighborhood, and for all their annoyance I felt that my store had a responsibility to share space with them. In the summer, we gave them chalk to write on the sidewalk with. They helped us keep the storefront clean, and the 99 cent store next door put them to work selling Italian Ices.

Late last fall, in a scene that could have been taken from The Grapes of Wrath, they loaded all their belongings on the back of a rickety pickup and left.

The first time I noticed the new neighbor’s kid was a month or two ago. He was older, a late teenager, and he came in the shop to ask if the mailman had come yet. He usually is here by now, I said, but we haven’t gotten any mail. The kid eagerly explained that he was waiting for a settlement check to come from an accident lawsuit he’d filed.

Several days later, I noticed that he was pacing the sidewalk again. “Nothing in the mail yet,” I asked. “No,” he said, with a nervous, distracted tone. I asked what he was going to use the money for, and he said that he had plans to go to a technical college.

Now, the kid is outside nearly every day, often pacing, and often acting like he’s waiting for something that’s late. I know it’s not the check, because he has expensive new clothes; and the pinned eyes, drooping lids and slurred raspy speech that indicate an expensive new habit. Sometimes he gets into a car with tinted windows. The car parks on our block, he gets in, gets out in less than a minute, the car drives off, and he goes inside.

I want to help. My first instinct is to talk to him; tell him horror stories about the things I found myself doing when my money ran out, tell even more horrible stories about what happened to close friends of mine, stories about being beaten, stabbed, raped and robbed. I wanted to tell him that the drug lies, that it tells you everything will be alright, that it lulls you into a state of complacency and luxury only to leave you with more pain than you ever knew existed. I wanted to tell him that the drug has a psychotic personality disorder, and that it is never satisfied – that it will take your brain first, then your body, your soul, and finally your life.

But I didn’t, and I probably won’t. I asked myself how I would have reacted if someone had warned me in the same way nine years ago, and I suddenly realized that I had been warned in much the same way, by strangers and loved ones, by addicts and professionals, in one way or another by nearly everyone around me. And all the concern wasn’t worth a damn. I thought it was all about the pious self worth of the messenger, and I thought that even if it was entirely true and as simple as that, that for some reason, I wanted the whole deal anyway.

I can see in his eyes, and in his walk, that he already doesn’t care. And I worry that, even though it’s been more than three years since I’ve been anywhere near where he’s at, all I can do if I get involved is to drag myself back down. If I were to talk to him now, I don’t know if I’d be trying to help or trying to score a bag.

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