A Tuesday in February on Methadone Mile

B. Dixon


9:30 AM: Arrival


The orange line emerges from the darkness of its underground tunnel. Morning light splinters at the smudges on the subway windows, every ray stinging my eyes. The train begins its deceleration, breaks releasing like a labored exhale followed by the screech of metal on metal friction. A barely audible voice seeps into the car from the speakers above. Mass Ave, it says, Mass Ave. For some, it’s just another stop along the way to somewhere else. For others, it’s the only stop there is. The doors open and I step onto the gray platform, the chill of a Boston winter greeting me with a saber-toothed wind. Someone is lying on the bench by the stairs to the street, their face and torso covered with a pile of yellowed newspaper, pigeons gathering round. I creep over, quiet, and kneel beside them, my knee touching down on the concrete next to a discarded syringe. Crooking my head to the side, I observe the fragile tide of their breathing, rising and falling, ever so slightly. Relief grips my heart. They’re alive. I stand, dusting my pant legs, and ascend the stairs to the street, trying to shake the stubborn recognition of how normal these interactions have become out here.


9:45 AM: The Kingdom


I’m walking past the stop for the 1 Bus when he flags me down. His face is familiar. Dark skin. Patchy beard. Sharp features. Rosary beads around his neck, always on display. His story is familiar too. Mom and dad split. He lost his home. Dropped out of school. Joined a neighborhood gang for a while. Got busted for dealing. Did some time in South Bay down the road. Was released to the streets again–and somewhere in all that time, he got hooked on smack. Smack and God. I know all this and I can’t remember his name. I should be ashamed– but I’m not. This place has a way of stealing names from perfectly good people, reducing them to lost souls and statistics.

He’s standing in front of me, bobbing up and down on his tip-toes trying to keep warm, hands in his sweatshirt pocket. The weather doesn’t prevent him from preaching though. Never has for as long as I’ve known him. Summer and winter. Rain, snow and sleet. God is good, he assures me. God is good. I give him a set of hand warmers and a winter hat from my bag. He accepts, repeating again, God is good. He goes on. He says that he’s found God for real this time. Says he’s been clean for six months. He’s only down this way for an appointment at the clinic for his cellulitis. Says his veins are hard as rocks. He rolls up his sweatshirt sleeves to prove it. Both his arms are covered in dark black scars up to his elbow creases. I ask if he needs any other support to help him stay clean. Counseling? Support groups? Meds? Anything. He waves me off and says God is all he needs. He says he’s found the kingdom of heaven within. Says it’s but the size of a mustard seed—so subtle, so elusive–but he’s finally found it. Now all he has to do is nurture it. He points to the sky with a long bony finger, fixing his gaze above. I’m silent, taking in his theatrics, navigating the space between faith and reason. I’m lost in the chasm.

The bus pulls up beside us, cutting me off from a response I don’t have. He asks if I have spare change for the bus. I hand him the two singles in my wallet though I’m not supposed to while on the clock. I don’t know if he’s going to that appointment, but I don’t want a bus ticket to be what stands in the way. I have faith that he’s going. I have faith in him. God is good, he repeats as he steps on. God is good. The doors close behind him.


10:05 AM: Hell


I want to go to detox, she says, curled up, hands around her knees, white winter jacket pulled over her head. She’s snacking on Oreos, chocolate dust caked onto her chapped, purple lips. She’s young. Can’t be more than twenty or so. I ask if she has a preference on where to go. No, she says. She just wants to get out of this place. This is hell, she says. I call up the detox down the road. It’s the closest. We could walk there, and they always have beds available. The phone’s ringing. She changes her mind. They abuse people there, she says. I hang up. I ask if she’s been to detox before. If there’s any place she feels comfortable. She tells me to hurry up. She says she’s never felt this sick. She says she’s afraid she’s going to shit her pants– and this is the only pair she has. I offer to call an ambulance instead. Absolutely not, she says. She can’t afford the hospital bill.

I try the number for a spot over in Jamaica Plain, only a few subway stops away. The intake worker answers in a voice dripping with burnout. Before I can speak, she yells that she doesn’t want to go there either. My friend’s been there, she says. They got bed bugs. I hang up again and start scrolling down my list for more options. She’s visibly frustrated now, holding her stomach and groaning. Cursing my name. She doesn’t understand why I can’t help her. Why no one can help her. I feel her urgency. Her confusion. Her desperation. I’m choking on it. Commuters are walking by, their heads down– but they’re watching. Always out of the corners of their eyes.

Hurry, she begs. I find another number. How about here, I ask. She ignores me. She asks if I have water. I reach into my bag and retrieve a plastic bottle. I hand it to her and she accepts with a small, shaking hand. She guzzles it down, water dripping from the corners of her mouth, muddying the Oreo dust into a dark paste. She hands me the bottle back, empty and crushed. Thanks, she says, panting. I repeat my question. She says nothing again. Just starts crying. I pivot my position from kneeling in front of her to sitting next to her on the cold, damp ground, careful to keep my distance. People continue by. Talking on phones. Walking their dogs. Heads all down, but looking. Always looking. I make sure my lanyard and badge are visible to them. I’m sorry, she says between sputtering breaths. I’m sorry. I let her know she has nothing to be sorry about. She disagrees.


10:30 AM: TRY GOD


I’m on the corner, waiting for the walk signal. A cluster of tents set up across the street along the rusted chain link fence. Traffic is backed up in all directions, exhaust from tailpipes rising like chimney smoke billows. Wanderers of the Ave, men and women alike, haunt the traffic, weaving in and out of the temporarily halted vehicles holding cardboard signs and begging for eye contact through rolled up windows. One man holds a sign that reads: ANYTHING HELPS. A woman has one that says: I HAVE TWO KIDS. Another sign simply says: HUNGRY. The light turns green and the cars pass them by.

I find myself watching this one man in particular. Old, hunched over, dressed in trash bag robes, crossing toward me from the other direction. He’s dragging his left foot wrapped in a tattered sheet cast while pushing a shopping cart full of belongings. He’s at the median and, with the walk signal clock counting down from ten, decides to attempt crossing the other half of the street towards the corner where I’m standing. He commences, one step—one limp—at a time. The clock: 6…5…4. He doesn’t look up or around at his surroundings. There’s a large white pickup truck at the front of the line of traffic, awaiting the green light, vibrating with anticipation. He’s pulled up halfway into the crosswalk. I scan the truck up and down, noticing the driver has posted a silver Jesus fish and a bumper sticker promoting a Christian radio station by the tail lights. 103.2 TRY GOD.

The timer runs out and the light turns green. The man is directly in front of the white pickup truck. Before one can finish an exhale, the sound of a sharp, aggressive car horn rings out into the air. First a long drawn out blast. Then several short small ones. The old man marches on with his cart, not phased. The driver in the white pickup waits just enough for wiggle room and whips around the old man, barely missing him from behind. The line of traffic follows. All blowing by. All barely missing him. The light turns yellow. Then red again. A few more cars fly through. The old man reaches the corner and shuffles past me, head still down. I watch him move on, flurries starting to fill the gray air.


11:00 AM: Persons Served


There’s a cluster of makeshift tents erected on the corner lot at the intersection between Mass. Ave and Melnea Cass. Tarps and sheets held up by folding chairs, boxes and stacks of crates. I’m moving along the front row of tents, stepping in and out of trash, discarded donation items and used needles, taking a mental headcount of the occupants while handing out what supplies I have left in my bag. The team I work with has been asked to have numbers to report at the next city task force meeting. My team’s funding depends on these numbers.

A young couple, both sitting upright and wrapped up in sleeping bags, asks me for water. I only have one bottle left. They agree to split it. An older man asks if I can help him get more of his medication because the voices in his head are back. Says his pills got stolen in the shelter along with his phone charger and ID. Another man with a prosthetic leg asks if I can help him call his case manager at the housing authority to check in on his application status. His wheelchair doubles as both a seat and a corner post to hold up the left side of his tent. I call the number he gives me. No answer. Two men sitting on upside-down buckets ask if I’m handing out clean needles. I give them the address for the needle exchange down the road. They already know where it is. An old client of mine who stopped coming by my office for counseling a few months back makes his way over to me. Says he wants to come back in for weekly sessions again. Says he’s sick and tired of being sick and tired. An old recovery community quip. I have a cancellation this afternoon so we schedule a session for today at 1 o’clock. I write the time on three different business cards, one for his pocket, one for his shoe and one to go in his bag–just in case he forgets or loses one. There’s a woman at the end of the row in an oversized New England Patriots Starter jacket. I try to speak with her. She stays silent and just points to her mouth. I offer her my last two granola bars. She accepts. Gracias, she says.

I reach the end of the row of tents and turn to survey the scene behind me, just to make sure I didn’t miss anyone. Eleven total. Eight “persons served.” I record the numbers in the notes app on my phone. The flurries are picking up and swirling, but not touching down. There’s a sign leaning up against an empty tent next to me. It reads: PLEASE DON’T THROW OUT MY STUFF. I’M COMING BACK. I notice a cop car parked across the street, two officers sitting inside. They flip on their lights, the red and blue whirling uniquely bright against the gray air. They pull out, blasting through the intersection and out towards the on-ramp for the highway. The siren sound fades in the distance. There must be an emergency somewhere.

I throw my empty backpack over my shoulder and start trekking back towards the subway station. I now have to be back at the office for 1 o’clock.


11:30 AM: The Kingdom (Reprise)


Historic triple-decker brownstones line the walkway to my left with a small, unceremonious green space in the foreground ahead with three leafless oak trees and a couple sitting spaces. As I draw nearer to the park, I observe a familiar figure, hunched over on one of the benches, his frame folded and head between his knees, bobbing up and down, as if trying not to succumb to gravity. I recognize his winter hat as one I handed out earlier this morning.

As I come to a stop in front of him and descend into a crouch, I see his full face. Dark skin. An old patchy beard. Sharp features. Rosary beads hung around his neck, the polished crucifix dangling low, almost touching the ground. A trail of drool drips from the same lips that spoke the words God is Good only a little while before. I make the reasonable inference that he never quite made it to his doctor’s appointment. That my money didn’t go toward a bus ticket.

Hey, I say, softly. Hey. I wish I could call him by name, but I still can’t place it. He lifts his hand off his knee, a feeble gesture to acknowledge my presence. I ask him for the second time today if he needs anything. Detox? An ambulance? Slightly different options than before. He waves me off for a second time, though this time painfully slower than before—and silent. No mention of the Kingdom of Heaven.

I stick around long enough to make sure he can sit upright on his own. To make sure his breathing continues. I have no supplies left in my bag after my visit to the tent city. I remove two business cards from my wallet and write the words CALL FOR APPOINTMENT on the backs of each, no idea if he has a cell phone. I tuck one into his hand and place one of the bench next to his leg, weighing it down with a small stone I found on the ground. I know that both will likely blow away. I try to have faith they won’t. And that he’ll call. Please be safe, I say. Please. A Godless prayer, not a request. I turn again into the headwind, trying not to think about the kind of kingdom that grows from a poppy seed.


6:00 PM: An Afterword


A freshly poured Guinness settles in a plastic cup in front of me. I watch closely as the light brown waves at the bottom roll over into the beer’s signature dark stout color. Once settled, I raise the cup to mouth level, pause, and then take a sip, the announcement of my train arriving sounding over the loudspeakers behind me. Without thinking about it, I choose to catch the next one.

The small station pub is relatively empty on this cold February night. There are only a few other commuters, all sipping their various choice of poisons. The bartender walks up and down the row, checking in how people are doing. She typically remembers most of the regulars–including myself–and treats them very well, often chatting about this and that. As she cashes someone out at the register, I notice the TV behind her next to the bottles of liquor on the top shelf. It’s running the local news.

The headline at the bottom of the screen reads: “Protests on Methadone Mile.” A dolled up reporter stands in front of the very tents I visited earlier that day, her scarf blowing in the winter wind as she speaks. She’s talking about the residents of the area protesting the conditions of the Ave and threatening to withhold their tax dollars until the mayor does something to clean it up. A man and a woman wrapped in blankets shuffle by on the sidewalk behind her, never looking into the camera.

The bartender checks in on the two middle-aged men next to me. They’re clean cut, business casual. Both drinking cocktails. They order two more. The one closest to me asks the other if he can believe this story. His friend responds with another question, asking if the other can imagine ever living down there. He goes on to express his sympathy for the residents forced to endure the discarded needles on the ground and addicts passing out on their doorsteps. They then both begin estimating what this condition must do to the property values of those beautiful brownstone apartments. The bartender makes her way down to me, offers a forced smile. She gestures at the TV with the back of her head, never turning to see it. She then leans in to me, smile disappearing, and whispers– My brother is somewhere out there. I haven’t heard from him in a year.

She leans back and crosses her arms, forced smile returning. Start you another Guinness? she asks. I nod. The news shifts to the weather forecast. I wish to God she didn’t whisper.


B. Dixon is a writer and licensed mental health counselor living in Salem, MA. His work has been published in the Main Street Rag, Pithead Chapel, the J Journal: New Writings on Justice, and the *82 Review, among others. His writing has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and the Best of the Net.