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The Lower East Side Needle Exchange T-Shirt

(my naive attempt to relate to a heroin user as if he were a normal person)

by Bob Ramsey (

In Mid-November, I attended the 8th International Conference on Drug Policy Reform at a hotel in Washington, D.C. On the last evening I was walking past the propaganda table at the main ballroom and passed this guy ambling the other way. He was wearing a leather jacket that was unzipped revealing his black T-shirt with white letters in a nifty graphic saying "Lower East Side Needle Exchange". We passed without greeting and after about 5 steps I thought "I want one of those T-shirts". After 5 more steps I thought "maybe he knows where I could get one"... 5 more and "I'll never find out if I don't ask him now". I turned and scurried around the corner where he had just disappeared.

There were just the two of us in the 50 yard walkway alongside the ballrooms... "Excuse me, sir... excuse me... hey, where'd you get that T-shirt? Can I get one?"

He stopped and turned methodically. "Well yeah, man, we're selling them for 10 bucks".

"Do you have any in extra large?"

"No. All we got left is large. Do you think you could get by with... No, I guess you need an extra large. I could send you one when we get back to New York."

"How much would it be with shipping and handling?"

"Well gee, I dunno... I guess it would be less than $20".

"I suppose it would! How about 15?"

"I guess that'd prob'ly do it. But hey, maybe my boss has an extra large left. We could walk around and check."

We exchanged pleasantries as we walked back around past the conference entrance where I had first seen him. He found that I was from outside of Dallas and asked if they have a needle exchange there, but I didn't know. When we came to the small meeting room on the other side he went in. The meeting was just breaking up and people started filing out, some leaving, some forming small groups in the hallway. He came out with four or six people kind of dressed like him who assembled by the windows as he came back over to me. "I'm sorry, man, we're out of extra large, but if you give me $15, I'll mail you one right when I get home."

I didn't have correct change, but after some fumbling and discussions with passers-by, I ended up giving him a twenty and a five, and he gave me a ten.

"I don't have any cards left", I said, "do you have some place I can write down my address?"

He rifled through his stack of leaflets and handed me a light blue half-sheet that was blank on the back. I sat on the bench along the wall to write my address, but found that my pencil didn't show up well on the blue paper.

"Do you have a pen?" I asked.

"Sure!" he said, and he handed me a syringe. The part you push on with your thumb was in the "out" position, and the glass tube was filled with a reddish translucent liquid that I suppose was intended to represent a mixture of blood and heroin. At the end where the needle would be was a ball-point pen.

"Well!" I said. "I've never seen anything quite like this! Do you have any more of these?"

"No, man, that's from a needle exchange across town. We just have the T-shirts."

Sitting there on the bench, I wrote down "X-Large" and my address and handed it up to the disheveled gentleman in black. As he leaned over to retrieve his pen, his dark wavy hair fell alongside his face and I was hit with a strong gust of mysterious aromas punctuated by tobacco.

"Thanks, man. We appreciate it. I'll send you some literature, too."

As he hurried off to join his comrades, he turned and waved. "Thanks again, it's for a good cause."

When I got back to the office on Monday, I was a big hit with my tales about the drug law conference and the literature I brought back. Everyone gathered around to read "Prison Life" monthly, with its advice column "Ask Bubba". Bubba dished up sage advice on such topics as "My celly snores", and "I've got this thing for Hillary Clinton, what should I do?"

And you can imagine the mirth and merriment when I told them about the Lower East Side Needle Exchange T-Shirt: "You mean to tell me you gave fifteen dollars CASH to a guy in a T-shirt saying "Lower East Side Needle Exchange?!!!", and "Just what was that 'good cause'?" I had to agree it was a good joke, even if it was at my expense. But I decided it was an excellent value. For the humble sum of $15, I had bought a ticket to the Greatest Show on Earth, a show that would last several days at least:

Would I get my T-shirt, and if so, when? I thought about starting an office pool, but nobody wanted to bet me. After all, they felt sorry that I was already out 15 bucks. And what kind of odds could I get? And how long is too long?

The T-shirt became a test of stereotypes about drug users. Everyone assumed this guy must be into heroin and the money would necessarily disappear.

So the question becomes:

Is it possible for a heroin user to behave responsibly? Can a junkie carry $15 in cash from Washington to New York and render perceived value to a faraway stranger known only by a scawled address on a scrap of paper? Or would he need the money for something more important?

That night I slept well, but awoke an hour or two early, thinking about my interest in changing our drug laws. Injuring people to protect them from themselves... The problem seems to get bigger the more resources we throw at it... Would civilization grind to a halt if we let consumers consume what they want? Would a foreign enemy conquer us? Is the right to remain silent the only right we have left? Do we have the right to? Do we have the right not to? What is right? About here God kicks in. I have had some prayers answered in my day. I'm not very good at praying, but I've heard God only cares about sincerity, so I went ahead, and it went something like this:

Dear Lord, If it be thy will, hear my prayer. I'm just a white-bread white-boy, what don't know nothing about the evils of heroin. I believe our laws are causing these problems, but now I'm not so sure. I've been working on this social issue with the goal of letting half a million people out of jail... a course of action that would stifle the growth of America's prison industry that has such high hopes of taking up the slack where the military is laying off... that would make tens of thousands of government employees rethink their career plans...

Give me a sign, Lord. Is prohibition a vain attempt to plug some safety valves you installed in our souls? Can a junkie wrap up a T-shirt and lick a stamp? I need to know if what I'm doing is right. Either way it comes out, I promise to submit the facts to a candid world like it says in the Declaration of Independence. And if you really want to make it a sign, then bless the postman's fingers and grant him Godspeed. In Jesus' name I pr....

No, that would be cheating. If it be THY will, Lord. Let's leave Jesus out of this... Well... Jesus, if you WANT to get involved in this, feel free. Thy will is pretty important too. And God, if you REALLY want to make it a sign, you can put crosses on the package or something really over-the-top that I wouldn't even think of and.....

As my prayer further deteriorated into meandering brain cells firing in the night, I closed it out and went back to sleep.

In the following days, I thought about the test I had proposed. The U.S. Postal Service, or U.P.S. or whoever, didn't break any delivery speed records, and the T-shirt didn't show up as we were saying Grace before Thanksgiving dinner. But Time-Life wants 4-6 weeks to send out a CD. Andwhether it shows up or not, what is proved by a statistical sample of one?

I can't even send a letter to my mother- why should I expect a nameless junkie on the Lower East Side to send me something that costs money? A woman at work predicted I would get the T-shirt "about March. He'll lose the address and find it later. He'll think that's soon. Those people don't think about time like we do."

At the office the joking has died down, but now and again we find someone who hasn't heard about the Lower East Side Needle Exchange T-Shirt and it's good for another laugh. Whether I get the shirt or not, that fifteen dollars is still providing value, so I suppose it's way up there on the list of the best money I ever spent. Still, there are a couple of reasons I'm hoping that guy can get his act together. One is a positive answer to this momentous question. The other is- I want one of those T-shirts.

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