Recently on my short walk to work, I came across a homeless man in an alley. This would, under any other circumstance, be a fairly usual sight for five-thirty in the morning in a relatively large town. However, the man I saw was sat on an industrial bin, with a band around his bicep and a needle wedged into his vein.
Of course, society is aware that drug use is a common recreation. It is exhibited in television and books all the time. Trainspotting is an obvious example, which shows the harrowing effects of heroin and the impact it can have on a person or group of people. However, I’ve never felt uncomfortable watching this and find myself deeming the characters, particularly in the film, to be somewhat cool. In addition to this, there has been a link between the use of hard drugs and an idealistic image since celebrities became well-known for using them. Stand By Me is a film I’d grown up with and the one in which River Phoenix showed his true and natural talent in the industry when he was just a child. Phoenix died of a drug overdose three years before I was born, and yet it’s his unique and popular character that I have been engrossed by. He’s always been to look up to. His death was gritty and dirty and real, and yet his life as a drug user and his craving for a good time have been glorified by society. Even in documentaries about the awful circumstances of his death, his daring lifestyle has been idealised as one that only the successful will have the pleasure to experience.
Bearing this in mind, let’s return to the homeless man I saw on my way into work. There he was, crouched on a bin that stunk of half chewed McDonald’s, with a filthy needle in his hand, spoon to his side. I did not see anything cool, or idealistic, or even any kind of romantic misery in this picture. I couldn’t even bring myself to be sad for him at the time, although it does bring me down now when I think back to him. I suppose I’d always seen myself as a helper, and someone that wouldn’t shy away from a taboo situation such as this. I at least thought I could show the man some humanity. A smile. What’s appropriate? At the time, all I felt was fear. I saw what I saw, processed it, then I drew my eyes to my black shoes and focused on the scuffs, in the hope that this poor man didn’t even exist. When I got to work I was shaking. It took two days of replaying what I’d seen before I could tell anyone.
I suppose I’d always thought I was numb to these things. Groups of kids walk down the high street with joints in their hands all the time, it’s something you smell in cities every day. Drug use on television is shown so rawly. I’m not sure what I’d expected when I saw this man, but I’d never presumed it would be quite so real.