It’s interesting how in one week –– no, make that two consecutive days –– I’ve had first-hand experience with addiction.
It started on Monday when a bleary, very red-eyed young man came into our office mumbling. I took over from our Russia-born accountant who couldn’t understand what he was saying. He came in, sat down, realized from all my questions that I was somewhat open and receptive, and communicated the fact that he wanted to get to a detox center in Montreal East.
Besides the hoarse voice, red-eyes (these were not your usual bloodshot eyes either but something much more garish) he was a good-looking and honest-looking person. He had a beard of four or five days’ growth and was wearing jeans and sneakers.
“I don’t want money,” he said, shaking his head, “just a lift. I’ve been walking for three days.”
He showed me his feet and a full-blown blister. “I can’t walk,” he said, and limped to prove his point.
It was my lunch-hour and I thought that I’d do a good deed. I would drive him to the Detox Centre.
“My father owns a lot of stores,” the young man mumbled. The bloodshot in his eyes went much farther than the usual marijuana high; I thought that maybe he was still stoned. “My parents don’t want to see me. People told them to practice tough love.”
While driving him to a place where he said he had left his clothes and ID, I realized that Gouin Boulevard, east of Pie IX would be too far to go to and return during the one-hour that I take for lunch. “Look,” I said, “I’ll give you money for a cab.”
I drove to a bank machine and took out $40. I also gave him $10 that he said he needed to pay the old man at whose apartment he was keeping his stuff. “I met him at a soup hall,” he explained. As he hopped out of the car I asked him, “What are you addicted to?” “Heroin,” he said. “I snort it,” he said, raising the sleeves of his shirt to show that he had no needle marks.
“Good luck,” I said. He patted me in a friendly way on the back. He had explained earlier that he had been high since “before Passover”. A young Jewish man from an affluent household as well as neighbourhood. And a junkie. He had been to this detox before, he said, but when things are going well, well, that’s when the allure of heroin is too difficult to give up.
Later, in the office, he called me on my cell (I had given him my number in the deluded hope that perhaps his father would one day pay me back). “You were right, Ron,” he said. “The taxi driver wouldn’t take me there when he found out I didn’t have enough money. He took me right back and the detox centre said that they would take me there. I just need to pay them…”
The thought hit me that I had been scammed from the beginning. This person had seen how easy it had been to get $50 out of me and wanted more. Forty dollars was certainly enough money to get him across town in a cab. “Sorry, Jacques,” I said, “You found someone who doesn’t have a lot of money. I’m sorry, but I can’t give you any more.” As he started on his story once again (I have to admit, he had a lot of chutzpah: to enter the office of strangers and tell his story. The red eyes and blisters on his feet were real, though) I cut him off. “Good luck, Jacques, take care,” I said and hung up.
Later, my boss was leaving the office. “Why’s the door locked?” she asked. I hesitated answering. “I… don’t want to be bothered by someone.” I was afraid that Jacques would at any moment walk in telling me in his convincing fashion why he wasn’t asking for money and could I “help him out”?
It didn’t happen.
Last night, I came across addiction of a different kind.
I was in a bar checking out the Canadiens-Senators playoff hockey game (I don’t own a TV at my place in Montreal). I thought that I was in a sports bar and would be surrounded by other hockey enthusiasts. Instead, I found myself watching the 2nd and 3rd periods alone, surrounded by people whose faces were stuck in video gambling machines. It was eerie. What, one might ask, is the charm of these machines? Spend any time watching someone “play” and you’ll quickly notice that 95% of the time the person is losing each play and that when there is a win play the winning itself is a pittance of what’s already been lost. And yet people were waiting for available terminals!
During commercials, I would look in particular at one Chinese-looking man, about my age, who every ten minutes or so would add another $20 to the machine. Sometimes he would get on a winning streak, acquiring anywhere from $3 to $15 each time, only to watch that amount slowly dwindle down to nothing. Can this activity be remotely satisfying?
And to think that this goes on every night! After all, it was only a Tuesday evening. How busy is this place on a Friday or Saturday night? Was anyone in the least interested in the hockey game? The answer is no (and we were winning at the time – the only occasion that finds me truly interested in watching, unless the game is very close, being the unable-to-handle-losing type of fan).
It was disheartening to witness, all this money going down the drain. I know, it’s going to the Quebec government, to pay for the bridges and highways we are famous for building. But still…
I can only surmise that there must be some enjoyment in watching those numbers, and cat faces (yes, they have all kinds of slot machine games) whiz by every five seconds or so, even if most of the time you’re losing. The enjoyment cannot come from leaving with any winnings, since these machines are notorious for leaning heavily in favour of the “house”. Perhaps these people are incredibly lonely and find more pleasure in spending their money this way than in being addicted to other things, like television.
We all have our addictions. In the space of two days I witnessed the sad effects of some of society’s more sinister ones.