Like many Hamiltonians, I sometimes find myself driving on Route 29—past the stadium I’ll always call Waterfront Park, regardless of the current sponsor (Arm & Hammer), and the place I’ll always think of as KatManDu, whatever its current incarnation (Cooper’s Riverview)—on my way into Trenton or points beyond. For years, I’ve wondered about the people who stand on the concrete islands between northbound and southbound traffic, waiting for red lights to shuffle out among the cars with a sign, and maybe a cup or a can, seeking donations to their cause.
But what exactly is their cause? Why does there seem to be such a large, frequently-changing cast of characters? And where do they spend their time when they’re not on Route 29?
I spoke recently with one of those Route 29 regulars, to find out a little more about at least one guy behind a sign.
Chris is 36-years old, a thin, bearded man who grew up in the Trenton area. He agreed to talk with me, saying, “I want people to know my story.” He spent eight years in North Carolina before returning to New Jersey; he was married for 11 years, and has a 9-year old son, but now the marriage is over and he doesn’t see his boy at all.
According to Chris, the main culprit in his tale is one all too familiar to New Jersey residents, and Americans in general—opioids. His case, like many others, began with, and is compounded by, a legitimate medical issue—FAI, a kind of hip impingement that causes severe pain and limits activity. He demonstrated the condition by popping his hip out of its socket, dislocating it as easily as I might snap my fingers. He needs two hip replacements, he said, and added, “I haven’t felt my toes in four years.”
He’s been in recovery for addiction before, but the effort wasn’t successful. He also spent time at the Trenton Rescue Mission, but now lives in an abandoned house in Trenton with two other people. He prefers the independence to the Rescue Mission’s rules about staying in after 4 p.m. and—though Chris didn’t mention it explicitly—its hard line against the use of drugs or alcohol on the premises.
Regarding Route 29, he said, “I’m here seven days a week, 8+ hours a day.” What kinds of reactions does he get from the drivers who interact with him during those red lights, I wondered? “More good than bad,” he replied, referring to them as his “90-second friends.”
I asked if there was any kind of arrangement, formal or merely understood, among his Route 29 colleagues. How is it decided, for example, who gets to stand where, and when? Is it simply first come, first served, “dibs” style? Chris said it was seniority-based, and made a point of noting that some of his colleagues—and competitors—had been there “years and years” and “don’t want to change.”
“Do the police ever chase you off?” I asked.
“All the time,” he replied, with a sigh. If a warning or two doesn’t empty the area, the next stop is jail, but Chris harbors no ill will, saying law enforcement is “doing their job” and noting that he grew up with a close relative who was a police officer. He added, with a measure of pride, “I’m not a criminal. I’m a guy who’s down on his luck. I never did anything illegal before.”
An average day brings $20-30, he said, noting that he uses it to buy clothes and food. He was reluctant to talk about his sources for opioids, and how he got what he needed in that department.
“How can people help you, other than money?” I asked. “What has to happen for you to get out of this situation?”
I inquired whether he’d sought treatment for his hips—maybe without the pain, kicking the opioid habit would be easier?
To get treatment, Chris said, you needed a permanent address. That required money and a job. It sounded like a chicken-or-the-egg scenario, but he also said he’d been seeking Social Security Disability, with the help of a lawyer; to me, that was proof there must be a way. As Chris saw it, the situation could be summarized simply: “I need to get my s*** together.”
It was a pleasant, faux-spring afternoon, but Chris’s opioid addiction hovered over our conversation like one of the gray clouds visible on the other side of the Delaware River—temporarily distant, but always looming, ready to wash away his best-laid plans.
Chris might be exactly what you’d expect, or nothing like what you’d expect—he quotes Thoreau and has several of his own memorable turns of phrase, which he aspires to use one day in a book about his struggles. He captured his situation, as he sees it, with a colorful metaphor and a hint of optimism: “I’m in the toilet bowl of life, going around and around, but I’m not flushed yet.”
Later, I spoke with Barrett T. Young, chief operating officer of the Trenton Rescue Mission. He said his organization offers both inpatient and outpatient help with addiction, and he hopes Chris—and anyone else who is homeless, addicted or both—will come (back) for treatment. “We will get them the assistance needed,” Young promised.
On my drive home, I thought of an old movie—one that had nothing to do with drugs. It was Good Will Hunting, specifically the scene at the end of that film where Ben Affleck’s character “Chuckie” and his buddies discover that Matt Damon’s character, Will, has left his familiar surroundings to move forward with his life.
Though there are plenty of reasons Chris’s absence from Route 29 might bode badly—chief among them a fatal overdose—I hope that one day I’ll have a moment similar to Chuckie’s, driving by Chris’s former haunt and smiling at the thought that he’s escaped his opioid prison, and found the path to a better life.