Looking out the car window as we drove back into the old neighbourhood, I was struck by the order of it all. Small homes with fine trim lawns and shrubbery, splashes of colour from the planted flowers. It was never a place where people hung out on their verandas or front lawns. One would rarely see people just walking around. But the facade projected serenity. That was the whole idea wasn't it?
When it was first built in the early 60s, this suburb was surrounded by farmland. There were horses and cows in the field directly across from the modest bungalows built at the height of the post war baby boom. Working class to be sure, mortgages paid on time every month by honest men who held down blue collar jobs or had small independent businesses.
The women stayed home and raised their children. Everyone knew each other.The kids walked to school. From kindergarten to the end of High School, if you lived here you were never more than a twenty minute walk from school, a playground or sports facility, shopping. Even the beer and liquor store were just five minutes walk, and that was really convenient.
Fifty years later. Our car rounded the left hander that turned into the top of the street. Into the low numbers. The houses had seen the tiny improvements typical of new generations of first time home owners, new paving stones, fences, aluminum siding and recently laid shingles on the roofs.
But one house stood out.
The front lawn was overgrown and strewn with weeds. Boards from the siding hung down over a bent a twisted front garage door. At the side of the house near the fromt entrance garbage was overflowing from three city plastic bins. Adult diapers were hanging from the open lids, and strewn along the ground immedietly in front of them. Ugly green flies buzzed all around. The front deck was now a mass of old discoloured wood, the stairs crooked and broken.. The screen door was no longer attached to its springs, and swung open with no resistance, like a broken limb, a barely attached appendage.
Persistent knocks were not answered. Then a hurried shufle of the front curtains and an unrecognizable voice. A challenge to open the door. It swung open. A stranger.
"I live here," came the answer to the question: "Who are you?"
The rapid speech, nervous twitches and emaciated figure were tell tale signs of a person in the throes of addiction.
This woman's response brought a wave of nausea that was only to get worse. Within the first few steps into the house it became painfully obvious what this place was. The smell of tobacco smoke tinged with the sickening odour of chemical. Overflowing ashtrays. Glass pipes discoloured black at the ends. People were smoking crack here.
"She's downstairs" the sickly woman brought me down the stairs, past the rooms where I had grown up. Where my children later played. In the far corner of the basement where my father had built the shelving where the books had been, a votive candle flickered, the only defence against the onslaught of total darkness. Photographs hung on the wall. Pictures of my nephew. He had died mere months ago of a heroin overdose. And sitting in a chair, smoking a cigarette, a woman barely able to open her eyes. On a table beside her, a spoon and two syringes. Eight operations on her leg following a car accident and the percodan and oxycontins weren't doing the trick anymore.
Now only heroin killed the pain.
Only heroin helped soothe a soul tortured by what was and what could have been.
It is hard to even begin to describe the hurt I felt when I saw my sister like this.
To see the house that I had helped my mother pay for by taking a job at 14 and handing over all my cheques until I was 18.
My mother who is now in a long term care facility with a broken hip, a double mastectomy and howling 24 hours a day as she suffers through a tortuous dementia.
My sister in the family domicile, renting out rooms to other junkies to support her habit and pay the bills.
You can never really go back home. And as I was to find out later, the new battleground of heroin addiction isn't in the inner city core. That place is reserved for the hipsters and condo dwellers. The suburbs are the new ghettos. Not every street. Not every neighbourhood. But take a closer look. The cops know it. The city councillors have heard the complaints from their constituents. And now I know it.
And that knowledge hurts.