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''War Stories'': AIDS Prevention and the Street Narratives of Drug Users
Merrill Singer, Glenn Scott, Scott Wilson, Delia Easton and Margaret Weeks Qual Health Res 2001 11: 589 DOI: 10.1177/104973201129119325 The online version of this article can be found at: http://qhr.sagepub.com/content/11/5/589

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“War Stories”: AIDS Prevention and the Street Narratives of Drug Users
Merrill Singer Glenn Scott Scott Wilson Delia Easton Margaret Weeks

The day-to-day discourse of illicit drug users is replete with stylized narratives of street experience. These “war stories,” as they are popularly known, are shared among drug users as they hustle for money, purchase drugs, get high, and hang out in diverse street locations. Drug-user narratives, which describe complex adventures and grave suffering, are primary ethnographic sources of information about patterns of drug consumption and risk behaviors. Importantly, in the time of AIDS, street narratives provide a much-needed window on the generally hidden lives of socially marginalized street drug users. As part of an effort to put the analysis of drug-user war stories to use in HIV prevention, in this article the authors analyze a corpus of street narratives told to members of an HIV-prevention research team in Hartford, Connecticut.


parked especially by the AIDS epidemic and recognition of the significant role drug use plays in HIV transmission, a growing public health focus has developed around increasing our understanding of the lives and behaviors of street drug addicts, especially injection drug users and crack cocaine users. Both of these groups of illicit drug users are known to be at high risk for HIV infection (Jarlais et al., 1994; Kral, Bluthenthal, Booth, & Watters, 1998; Singer, 1999b; Sterk, 1999). Public health researchers have been concerned especially with finding ways to expand our awareness of the (a) precise nature of risk behaviors among drug users (i.e., specific acts that increase the chance that a drug user will be infected with HIV and/or transmit the virus to others), (b) social contexts that facilitate risk behavior, (c) social structural factors that contribute to risk taking, and (d) the role of social networks and relationships in promoting or inhibiting risky acts. However, conventional epidemiological approaches, such as community surveys and structured interviews, have important drawbacks in this arena of research (Bourgois, 1995). As a result, there has been a strong interest in identifying alternative approaches for gathering critical information needed in AIDS prevention in this population. Street drug users have been described as a hidden population, a group that resides outside of institutional, clinical, or easily accessible public settings and whose “activities are clandestine and therefore concealed from the view of mainstream society and agencies of social control” (Watters & Biernacki, 1989, p. 417).

QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH, Vol. 11 No. 5, September 2001 589-611 © 2001 Sage Publications


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sagepub. ethnography—which has the ability to elucidate information about highly private and often illicit behaviors from individuals who have learned to be distrustful of outsiders—has gained an important role in AIDS-prevention research (Kotarba. and culturally have had negative long-term relationships with mainstream society. By definition.” contextembedded. As indicated by Bourgois (1995). As Spradley (1970) noted. Downloaded from qhr. & Normand. other data collection problems remain (Broadhead et al. 2013 . & Schensul. p. economically. In the course of field research with drug users. As Bourgois (1995) argued. The “remarkable new interest in ethnography and qualitative research” (Altheide & Johnson. ethnography is “better suited than exclusively quantitative methodologies for documenting the lives of people” (p. “Words. 15). most of the criminologists and sociologists who painstakingly undertake epidemiological surveys on crime and substance abuse collect fabrication. Singer. 1990. Consequently.590 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 Intentional concealment makes it difficult to reach street drug users with standard epidemiological data collection methods (Singer. 1993). vivid meaningful flavor that often proves far more convincing to a reader—another researcher. 1998). especially when they are organized into incidents or stories. a practitioner—than pages of numbers” (p. have a concrete. ethnography in large part consists of continually “listening to men [and women] talk about their experiences” (p. The intended goal of ethnography—to gain an “experience-near. including both field observations produced by the ethnographer and statements by participants made during informal conversations (with each other and/or with the ethnographer) or in specific response to researcher questions. creates multiple opportunities for relaxed and casual conversations between researchers and research participants. and insider-oriented perspective on the issues or social groups under study—results in the collection of extensive qualitative or textual data. 1998. Needle. 485) stems from the types of relationships it encourages between respondents and researchers. ethnographers hear many tales from their informants about the vagaries and challenges of life on the streets and life on drugs. 12) As a result. and the nature of the data it seeks to collect. in a well-cited passage about the nature of ethnographic data. Weeks. 12) at risk because it is based on longer term.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. a policymaker. and directs researchers to encourage the sharing of detailed narratives of daily living. asserted that “what we call our data are really our own constructions of other people’s constructions of what they and their compatriots are up to” (p.. Most drug-users and dealers distrust representatives of mainstream society and will not reveal their intimate experiences of substance abuse or criminal activity to a stranger on a survey instrument. rapport-based connections with members of the target population. 1994. 1999a). Although innovative street outreach techniques and snowball peer recruitment strategies have proved successful in penetrating some layers of the street drug-using population for survey research. As Miles and Huberman (1984) stressed. individuals who have been marginalized socially. no matter how sensitive and friendly the interviewer may be. 71) and recording these statements. Indeed. 9). Coyle. the appeal of ethnography in AIDS-prevention research is rooted in what Smith (1978) termed the quality of undeniability of detailed insider accounts. Geertz (1973). the varied settings in which it is able to gather data on the behaviors and experiences of study participants. 1992. (p. Singer.

by active drug users in the course of ethnographic conversations and qualitative interviews.Singer et al. to be embellished in light of our own direct experiences over the past decade with the street drug scene. 1993).com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. Kleinman’s (1988) analysis of narrative construction among medical patients: Patients order their experience of illness—what it means to them and to significant others—as personal narratives. expressed in this article. they constitute much of the database collected by street drug ethnographers and outreach workers (Bourgois. However. . core metaphors. . Waterston. 14). fictions in the sense that they are ‘something made. / STREET NARRATIVES OF DRUG USERS 591 Often involving complex adventures and grave suffering. Research team members include both anthropologists and Downloaded from qhr. we have come to the realization. Mackesy-Amiti. 2013 .” as these insider narratives of street experience are often called. for example. . In the end. Consider. p. from an epidemiological research perspective. many drug users’ stories we have heard during the course of street ethnographic research seem. drug-user narratives can serve as very useful windows on what might be the most important kinds of information needed for effective prevention. In this sense. & Goldstein. Geertz’s (1973) invocation of the notion of construction raises the issue of validity and consequently the utility of narrative ethnographic data in the development of effective.’ ‘something fashioned’” (p. “cop” (find a dealer and purchase drugs). adventures. “War stories. The plot lines. 49) As this discussion implies. .sagepub. ethnographic data are “fictions. and hang out are primary ethnographic sources of information about drug use and risk behavior. the issue of validity has received only limited attention in the ethnographic HIV-prevention literature on drug users (Fendrich. At the same time. and rhetorical devices that structure the illness narrative are drawn from cultural and personal models for arranging experiences in meaningful ways and for effectively communicating these meanings. get high. . we sometimes have pondered whether they are invented from whole cloth or instead contain objective facts that are relevant to the assessment of AIDS risk and the development of AIDS prevention. both by tellers and their audiences. Wislar. and sufferings told to members of our research team in Hartford. realitybased public health responses to threatening diseases such as HIV/AIDS and substance abuse. provide an important window on the generally hidden lives of socially marginalized street drug users. to date. as we have listened to drug-user war stories. Consequently. that the primary relevance of drug-user stories to AIDS prevention lies not in their ability to be read as objective and verifiable accounts of actual events but rather in their effectiveness in giving a meaningful voice to heartfelt and troubling sentiments and concerns. How does this process of cultural construction affect our ability to treat drug users’ stories as useful data for public health programming? Although “it is easy to become captivated by the stories of your informants” (Maxwell. the narratives told among drug users as they hustle for money. the content of stories is culturally and personally shaped to fill desired social and individual needs for the storyteller. at a minimum. As Geertz observed. The illness narrative is a story the patient tells . (p. These points are illustrated using a corpus of stories of street events. 1996. 1995. In addition to direct observation and the day-today conversational process among and with informants. to give coherence to the distinctive events and long-term course of suffering. Connecticut. 1995). 15).

Price. Participants for these interviews were recruited through standard street outreach to known high-drug-use areas of the city (based on prior studies). Criteria for participant inclusion were active heroin or cocaine use (during the past 30 days). we call attention to the oppositional tension of drug users’ narratives and to three themes found in the narratives—generosity. Content analysis of these data by project staff members identified primary themes that could be used to order the narratives and to construct a typology of narratives. “Probably the primary way human beings make sense of their experience is by casting it in narrative form” (p. Finally. narratives were recorded in the field notes of project ethnographers and outreach staff members. & Gerdes. and able to give informed consent. abandoned buildings) and to assess the potential for implementing HIV interventions in such sites. 88 in-depth interviews have been conducted with 76 drug users. betrayal.” constructing borders and pathways of valued and devalued conduct (Kleinman & Kleinman. In this ongoing project. Davison. in short. we employ a fairly simple and straightforward definition of a narrative as “a discourse featuring human adventures and sufferings connecting motives.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. a narrative is an account of a specific event or a set of linked events in which actors take specific actions with socially meaningful outcomes. they were guided by a set of key research questions. display. 2013 . 1994. Although interviews were open ended. In other words. acts. a narrative “affixes blame and assigns responsibility” (Mattingly. 1988). being at least 18 years of age. p. Here we present this typology and representative examples of the various narrative types and subtypes commonly found among drug users and use this information to suggest ways in which drug-user war stories can contribute to AIDSprevention efforts. p.592 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 anthropologically trained AIDS community outreach workers who have gained experience in conducting in-depth qualitative interviews. In other cases.1 This study is designed to understand the nature of HIV risk in drug-use sites (e. Specifically. 1998. 1992.g. In addition. and work through experiences” (Rubinstein. Tape-recorded interviews were conducted at the project offices (at two sites in Hartford). and consequences in causal chains” (p. most of which were audiorecorded and transcribed for analysis. is a mechanism people use “to understand the social life around us” (Carrithers. 275). Singer. 1986. 1995. including seeing them as a primary mode “by which people organize. The team is multicultural and includes both male and female ethnographers and outreach workers. Downloaded from qhr. as contrasted with other kinds of talk. Narratives situate people in “local moral worlds. Following Mattingly (1998). p.sagepub. 286) and in so doing affirms moral boundaries and suggests a course of action (Good & DelVecchio Good.. and efficacy—in terms of their relevance for HIV prevention among drug users. whereas field notes were recorded on the street or in drug-use locations (or immediately after visits to these locations). 1991). Data for the analysis presented in this article were collected primarily through the Study of High Risk Drug Use Settings for HIV Prevention supported by the National Institute on Mental Health and the National Institute on Drug Abuse. NARRATIVES IN ETHNOGRAPHIC RESEARCH Telling stories is a central human social activity and hence a behavior and a social process of keen ethnographic interest (Bruner. 259). 11). The narrative. As Gee (1985) asserted. 1987). Narratives have been analyzed in several ways. 78).

15). “A good storyteller is persuasive and seduces the audience into seeing the world in a particular way” (Mattingly. “This is who I am and what I do. 1998. Using etic event labels (i. 163). TYPOLOGY OF DRUG-USER NARRATIVES Narratives. socially implicated” (p.. 52). In this light. we have come to see that they can be grouped into a number of distinct categories.” In addition. 53).e. as Cain (1991) showed in her analysis of narratives at Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. we have constructed a preliminary typology of drug-user stories as displayed in Figure 1.sagepub. so—conversely—a vast number of events may be subsumed under a single event label” (p. what Cohan and Shires referred to as “occurrences in time (an action performed by or upon a human agent) or a state of existing in time (such as thinking. In a research setting. We then reviewed Downloaded from qhr. p. consist “of events placed in a sequence to delineate a process of change” (p. narratives are a means by which storytellers acquire and construct identities and self-understanding. 286). in listening to numerous drug-user war stories over the past several years.Singer et al. uniting a speaker and his or her audience. and social events in useful and meaningful ways. social others. feeling. “All talk is contextually situated. 2013 . as a form of verbal performance and display (Tedlock. We constructed this typology by twice reading through the interview transcripts and field notes and identifying distinct stories of personal experience as a drug user. Rimmon-Kenan (1983). 1983). We do not view this typology as either comprehensive of all street drug users’ stories or even as the only means of ordering the specific stories in our data set but rather as an instrumental approach to organizing and evaluating a complex body of narrative material. narration allows the storyteller to construct himself or herself.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. being or having)” (p. / STREET NARRATIVES OF DRUG USERS 593 FIGURE 1: Typology of Drug-User Narratives narratives are interactive. however. in a discussion of narrative analysis. designations developed by our researcher team). observed Cohan and Shires (1988). an informant narrative is one of the most important ways of communicating. As Keesing (1987) emphasized. noted that they “may be decomposed into a series of mini-events and intermediary states. In other words. Events depict activities of some sort.

1993). the power of drugs. . The second kind of narrative in our typology includes several distinct subtypes. my father. That’s when I started to drink and my father. you know.” and by the time I was 12 years old. because I was watching the girls. “I just tricked [prostituted] for this shit [drugs].com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. that’s when everything started. For example. . we have collected many in which a male partner. miraculous gains. Any particular narrative may include more than one of the themes used to construct our categories.” Guys are . he used to say. light it up. I didn’t start doing dope until about 13. shit leaking everywhere. specific instruction in both drug use and drug dealing was provided by his father: From the time I was 6 or 7. Take your time.2 a middle-aged African American man. [don’t] waste my stuff. . Each of these types and their inclusive subtypes will be examined in turn. take their time. message(s). explained the important role women played for him in learning how to use crack cocaine: Everything I learned about this shit. a long-term polydrug user. he had me start working out there selling dope. . ’cause I was watching my father. . Girls I was messing with. you know. voiced by Tony. In addition. And. John. “No. and do it right. or plot element(s) of each story (Reissman. The typology consists of the following six primary thematic categories: learning the ropes. In the following narrative. and suffering and regret. a 35-year-old man of mixed Puerto Rican and Italian background. he was only teaching me what he knew best. And he shot me up at 13 and I’ve been flying ever since. . you know. Guys are like. secondary. you crazy!” Although we have not heard many narratives in which a woman teaches the drug-use ropes to a man. I learned how to make pipes. . . that’s when I asked him one day because I seen him doing it and decided [to ask]. just put it in there. Learning the ropes. friend. Man you don’t care. Girls I was dealing with. . 2013 . the following narrative told by Rodney. put it in there man. I want to smoke!” You know. learn. “Come on. He wanted me to be like him and I ended up being like him. he would take me with him to the bars where he would play pool and hang out and I would watch this man just come out playing pool like he was a shark. I learned everything by watching them. I was drinking. all that shit. Girls don’t want to hear that shit. many of these narratives challenge expectations and common dominant society stereotypes about the lives of street drug users. . and tertiary categories. I learned how to smoke.sagepub. I learned from girls.594 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 the narratives to ascertain the key theme(s). Examination of these themes suggested a typological organization of primary. Girls are like. Adventurous experiences. . I can’t hate my father for anything that he did ’cause his father taught him the same thing. So. . but all of these tales share a common theme involving the description of events or abilities that go beyond normal limits or routine occurrence. For example. This narrative type involves stories about acquiring the knowledge and skills needed to get and use drugs and to survive in the street subculture. I learned how to cook [the cocaine]. . adventurous experiences. not like the old days. Girls know better than anybody how to make pipes because they have the patience to sit there. Uh uh. told the following story that exemplifies the wild party subtype: Downloaded from qhr. . “Watch me. I’ll pull it hard. light it. or relative is the primary source of drug-scene knowledge for both women and men. Get it right. [and] I am the same way.

it was five or six of us. . . . you’re gonna come full force. street knowledge. Tom gave me 10 bucks. Whereas personal situations vary. . . and I would be sitting there looking up at her through the window. . . . In this type of story. Call ’em up and pull up in front of their houses and have limo parties. no matter what the situation was. If I needed . And if you hear people tell ya. . that was my spot. and peer networks: [Over on] Baker Street. I ran into a dope dealer I know. . I used to have some wild parties. He hit me off with a bag of dope [and] we managed to get $5 worth of coke with the change he scrounged [panhandled]. And he gave me 10 yesterday. I got connections with the Solids [Solidos. long eight-wheel limos and have parties in ’em. They watch each other’s back. hey I got at least one or two girls. . didn’t want to give up no loot. if something happened to me. and his mother wouldn’t give him no money to get high. . . . a Puerto Rican street gang]. And you can ask the fellows about this . however. 2013 . By telling and retelling stories such as this one. and there were captains. It was like. my turf! As a matter of fact. . or I would help myself out. . instead of one on one. . see. Amazing sometimes! [And yesterday] I ran into Tom. . $5 worth of ready rock [crack cocaine] and a bag of dope [heroin]. . and I just felt powerful. stuff like that.sagepub. . Ran into another older brother of his and his brother was cooking up some [drugs]. they’ll tell you that was my turf. the guy I’m staying with right now. . We’d drive around and pick up people. Peter. I got connections. Notable in this story is the contrast created between the events described and the usual harsh reality of most street drug users. [Back in the day] I was running my block. So. with the families [street gangs] in jail now it’s a little bit better than trying to be on your own. one of the sun roofs of these super long stretches that I used to rent. I tell who what [drugs] to sell. Eddie would be one of the people who could tell you about that. And we [had] left the house with no money. In jail and on the streets. ’Cause. there is an opportunity to claim possession of one of the flashier badges of success (driving around in a limousine). And that means full serve. He used to sit in the fucking limo and just get high and have parties with ounces [of drugs]. John also shared the following tale that is illustrative of the amazing street skill subtype of adventurous experience narratives. . Back then it was the Magnificent Twenties. . / STREET NARRATIVES OF DRUG USERS 595 I used to pick up Barbara when I used to have my limousine parties. I was shooting [injecting drugs] and smoking. I had to decide who I could trust and Downloaded from qhr. I was affiliated with Twenty Love [a predominantly African American street gang]. I mean flat broke! [Peter] was dope sick [beginning drug withdrawal]. owning only meager personal possessions—and even these are routinely subject to being lost. and we came home proper. nights spent in run-down abandoned buildings or walking the streets because there is no safe place to sleep. . Nobody could sell on that block unless they were Twenties. the teller calls attention to his or her ability to “get by” through the deft use of personal attributes. for many individuals caught up in a street-oriented. Nothing. Solids and Twenty Love are cousins. The moves I can make! We went out the other day with no money. confiscated. I was vice president [of the gang]. To tell you the truth. drug-centered life. or stolen— and having few if any markers of success and value in the wider society. I would call on the phone and tell her to come to the front window . no nothing and came home with . That got me through yesterday! Another example of this type of story was told to us by Tony: Well.Singer et al. . . . has run into a lot of people that know me from the old days and he is quite impressed.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. This is when I used to rent these big. reality consists of days spent engaged in petty hustles to raise small sums of money for the immediate purchase of drugs. they would help me out. . .

That’s only a dollar a pack.000] a week and paying people.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. he’s not aware of the fact that I’m on welfare.. Like if you had everybody out there selling dope [heroin]. that’s why I had guys at the end of the street. Other important street survival skills are described in the following narrative by Hector. It was a good business. 2013 . cigarettes and coffee. I know how to run it. two coffees from this store and two from the other. I’m going one by one. boom boom . Reviewing these narratives. they’re always thinking. I’m like him. Preble & Casey. I be hitting little stores. If I steal a carton of cigarettes and go and sell it to a store. . quick hands and the ability to win confidence and exploit other people’s greed are combined to create an effective street hustle: I go to stores and steal coffee and stuff like that. 1969). See. knowing how to manipulate or coerce others. So. I’ll start from one end of Ames Street and head to the other [end]. I’ve used this once this week. . And you know. they get caught. So I talked my dad into sending me the money. . He used to have the same thing.596 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 who I couldn’t. like I need all these things. So I just come up with what I need [and tell my dad] I don’t have the stuff [medicine] that I use everyday. . it’s not weird. It’s like looking at the next day even though it’s this day. . this story affirms the degree to which street drug users are an integral part of an informal (and illicit) component of the small business market economy (Johnson et al. . But the next day is coming right around the corner. . the state welfare. ’cause if you try to be greedy and keep all the money for yourself you gonna get caught faster. Until I get to the end of Ames Street and that is where I sell them.sagepub. a 30-year-old Puerto Rican man. And I’ve learned a lot of tricks from him over the years. . If I steal something from this store. Take one.e. . this narrative suggests a way in which drug users transfer skills from mainstream society (i. you can only do two bags and your high is usually four or five Downloaded from qhr. guys down at the end of the street looking out. skillful salesmanship) to street survival. They be sending me to get [i. . he’s a salesman. . whatever. I take it to [that] store and sell it to them. And we’d talk to each other to see who was coming. 1985. . . . In this instance.e. they’re always thinking about ways [to get drugs]. . . But that is why I had runners. and being prepared to take opportunistic advantage of all situations. steal] shit. I was smart. using hand signals. as illustrated in the following narrative: You know it’s weird. I learned from my father in Philadelphia. Twenty bucks worth. . We would use 5-0 to signal for the police coming [from the TV program. I can pay them $20. A lot of them trust me. boom. . and we used signals off of the porch.. . I was making about seven Gs [$7. . So. like Tylenol and stuff like that. . My dad lives in Michigan. . but people who do drugs. So he’ll send me the money Federal Express or Western Union. . . We used to have one person that stayed at one end of the block and another at the other end. I applied what I learned from him to my business and it worked. Plus I had the seven [thousand] in my pocket. . Significantly. cops. it pays for my medication. For example. the key elements of street skills appear to be knowing how to read people and situations. cigarettes. Hawaii 5-0]. Notably. well. . to the same people that I be taking them from.. they give you only $10 for the carton. with walkie-talkies. Also critical to making it as a street drug user is the ability to recognize unexpected or sudden opportunities to get drugs or money (or other things of value) and to quickly act to take advantage of these chances.

And if you ever watch them. They are very dangerous. and heroic rescues.and achievement-oriented cultural values. . syringes]. . When I got there [to the cells of customers]. Stuart. well. I always went straight to the top floor. watch the kids.. these narratives portray efficacious individuals with notable abilities. And I just sent my ex-wife . and there was like four [cars] went by back to back. told the following story: I think a lot of people don’t want to be around these kids [gang members involved in drug dealing]. So. drug users embrace conventional action. . [and] on the right side. . a frequent place of residence of street drug users. people who make things happen and get things done even under trying circumstances. You know .” And they’d give it to you man. sometimes you’ll catch drive-bys [drive-by shootings] and shit like that. So. “Oh. it’s Twenty Love. So. Bigger crimes on the second floor. . no wait. another gang]. I was the guy selling the needles [to other inmates]. / STREET NARRATIVES OF DRUG USERS 597 bags in a day. and Twenty Love sells the caine [cocaine]. I set up all the stuff for the doctor [e. it’s Solids [Los Solidos. an African American man in his mid-40s. highest crimes on the top floor. 48 bucks. They sell the dope [heroin]. and I was like. I haven’t had a lot of money this past week. . I took care of the guys! It’s something that you learn. every morning those guys would say.” Downloaded from qhr. . and [she] gave me the 40 bucks that she got. . a middle-aged African American man: I used to work in the hospital [in prison].e. that’s how I took care of myself [i. . . Fleisher. I need fresh needles every day. so your mind is pushing for the next day for how to get high and when to get high. shit!” And you don’t know where to duck because a bullet is going by your head like that. . that contrary to the assumptions of straight society. as depicted in the following narrative told by Kyle.. Stories such as these invert the common image of street drug users as social failures and people lacking the intelligence or skills to succeed in regular society (e. . Now grab me a couple of bags [of drugs]. . by the cultural elements they express. . On the left side [of the street]. . well. “Damn that just missed my head. . “Look man. I persuaded her to take it back to Victoria Secret and she gave me the money. So. narrow escapes. She took back a wedding gift that she got for her sister at Victoria Secret. I had access to needles. Whatever the veracity of these stories. Those were the guys that had the COs [correction officers] running the drugs [in] for them. . but] I’d put them [aside instead]. Bullets was whizzing by my head and all I could hear was it. 1995). . [She] didn’t go to the bridal shower. . I went to cop over there one night and they were doing drive-bys. Also found among the adventurous narratives of drug users are stories that tell of close calls. Illustratively.. like guys with low crimes on the first floor.Singer et al. no questions. Like. Whereas street drug users commonly are seen as socially marginal individuals. they sent you up on different floors. Because she was fighting with her sisters because nobody would pick her up to take her to the bridal shower. they’d slide that shit [drugs] under the door. I asked her. these narratives emphasize the grave threats that drug users face each day on the street. . Survival skills also are needed in prison. I’d go over to them and . they’d tell me to destroy them [after use with a patient. These kids are dangerous.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. You’ve probably been to Baltimore Street If you go there.g.sagepub. 2013 . they reveal. .” So. Rather. their stories appear to give voice to noticeably mainstream concerns and ideas. his drug addiction] in jail.g. bigger crimes on the third floor. and are. My job was in the hospital. . . Commonly. . I didn’t make her. . you hear it. you got them. . . “You need five set ups [syringes] every morning. It’s all Twenty Love [a drug-dealing gang].

” So. . and then she called over another girl. . . you know. So. She lived up on the 16th floor.598 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 Oftentimes. have food thrown back at them]. as seen in the following narrative: Downloaded from qhr. Kyle shared the following gory event narrative. Guys save it up for a whole week. You’ll have to keep him here. based on his prison experiences.g. how’m I gonna get out of this right?” I said. Great escapes from the police are also common: So.. You got to go in that cell to give the guy a tray [of food]. we was on the highway.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. alternately. You gonna go in there and give them liquid? Some hot liquid? He’s gonna throw it on you. They searched us and everything. They made us drop our underwear. They took us out of the car. . We gonna fuck you up. you want to come back to the carnival with me?” And she said. And the White boy had like $500 on him.e.” . He was like doing 50 on the highway at night. “Yo. . In this type of story. you got to pay too.. I fed the guys in quarantine [e. Little baby. .] “I’m [from] way in New Jersey. For example.” I said. I don’t know what he did with the cooker or whatever. like $500 on me. Someone knocked at the door and she went to get it. And they didn’t find nothing! Another group of adventurous narratives involves gory or sickening events that served to underline the often brutal and frightening side of street drug users’ lives. . and a little baby was up there running around by himself. . . My brother. but I got more money back at . Most of the COs couldn’t go in there because they knew they was going to wear food [i. I hadn’t noticed at first.. . guys get hit with a bag of shit. So we go up to her apartment. .” They said. I’m just lucky enough that I know how to do that. Or I seen guys get hit with a bag of shit. And the girl. gang members. I just shot the stem [cocaine pipe] right out the thing and the lighter out the window. . . you know. seven dudes. . an accessible friend of the intended victim) is targeted for some form of retribution stemming from a violation of trust in the drug trade (e. you know. you know. the carnival [where he worked]. a substitute (e. [But] it was like six. In jail. we just gave him all the coke we bought. . So we get up on the 16th floor. . running around by himself. . they like. . everything. So we said. “Damn. I think he slipped it under the seat or something. The next thing you know the narcs were pulling us over. just for that CO to come there. I ain’t never been here but a few times to cop. I don’t know what he did with it. “Yeah. she said it was her girlfriend. you know. must have been like 3. I’ll go get the money and come back.g.” So we saw this girl and said. The needle. . Now the girls are naked in there and they cutting the music on high. You got to know how to deal with that kind of stuff. drugs and violence often combine to produce tragic endings. we were the ones to go in there and do that. we can go up there. I rolled down my window. “Yo man. but I got my own place. They [the COs] are the ones that put them in there. 4 years old. We must have got over a hundred bags of caine. AIDS patients]. 2013 . narrow escape narratives involve mistaken identities in which the wrong person or.” [one of them said].” But. your boy owe us some money.. He was just driving. . she was pregnant. but then I got a good look at it.sagepub. motherfucker. I was smoking [rock cocaine] just looking around.g. “No man. you want to get high. I’m gone. “We gonna get us a nice girl. . [I said. . don’t do that. receiving drugs to sell and not turning in the money). “Hey man. this what I got man. such as the following: I had all this money. lift up our socks. a story that also emphasized his survival skills: I was in with diabetics. One of her girlfriends knocked at the door. “Your boy owe us some money man.

“Man.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. This Black kid. He was fighting to stay in. . . where I found the money. some of these stories involve surviving drug overdoses. . . . . I wasn’t even trying to steal the car. smoking [crack] by myself and I met these two guys. open my cell door. . . They tried to put him out because they didn’t want him to die in their house. Next thing I remember. Damien. let’s leave it at that. For example. Tito.” Only.” He knew what I did. I seen this one kid in jail once. I woke up and somebody was. was over there getting high. .” Then I got off again. . the discovery includes both money and a car: The first time I stole a car here. . He was in somebody’s house. I fell on bricks and the floor the dude was telling me. . . just give me a ticket. . hmm. you ODed this and that. and the guy got scared and he freaked out and the needle broke in his veins. For example. . I would have probably died. “Man. . . you know. I fell out. I’ve seen people in the hallways [of his apartment building] still with it [the syringe] in [their arm]. they want to take a blood test. and I smoked it with the Black guy and gave the kid whatever. And when I was inside. . Kyle relayed the following experience from his time in prison: I told my CO. It’s time for me to work tonight. In this instance (a narrative that also includes the theme of outstanding street skills). I just sat in my cell and got off [with drugs brought in by another CO]. my mouth got full of saliva and I don’t know [what happened]. a Puerto Rican man who has been using noninjection drugs since the age of 8. this ain’t that good. the medic is waking me up. I know if it wasn’t for him. Miraculous gains. A couple of hours we were going straight without stopping and I ODed on it. You was a dead man! . I was getting hit in my face. / STREET NARRATIVES OF DRUG USERS 599 My biological brother.” He said. The only reason I’m here is because you didn’t show up for work because you never miss work. calm down. And he was doing dope and cocaine together. I found some money. I’m scared of needles. I was just stealing the radio. I don’t know if he died but [he had] a belt wrapped [around his arm] and he tightened it up even more [and] he just started screaming. they [always] give me a ticket ’cause I refuse to take a blood test. I was . you know. He said. I Downloaded from qhr. “Come on. I guess he started to OD [overdose on drugs].Singer et al. came back. he had a glass pipe and the other kid he smokes and shoots up. I got you. He saved me. I just jumped up and I grabbed him and he said. the following narrative is an example of a subgroup of miraculous gain tales that concern great finds or discoveries. . . . . I [had] $100. He was 19 years old when he died. told the following story that also fits this subgroup of street tales: I don’t like needles. “I’m talking to a dead man. 2013 . I refuse and if they want to give me a ticket. I guess it froze his heart or something. hmm. you fell out. I’ve seen this daddy who was doing coke in the vein .” My arms hurt. The latter part of Tito’s narrative is also suggestive of another group of adventurous stories. often of money or drugs. . [And] about 2 years ago. he went to get a blood test and I was after him. a subtype we have labeled heroic rescues and narrow escapes.sagepub. I almost started screaming myself when I seen that. But I actually died in jail. I’m sitting in the same room when the lady [nurse] is sticking him. . speedballing. He was really cool about it. I was like. She stuck him four times in this arm and like twice in this arm. So ever since that. And they started stabbing him and stuff and pushed him out into the hallway. When I go to jail. I was 11. several subtypes can be identified. Similar to Tito’s. Again. and I [bought] 13 dimes [13 bags of cocaine]. “All right. and they let him die in the hallway. We have labeled the third primary theme miraculous gains because they involve stories of unusual success or fantastic discovery.

. I take everything [all the drugs and money] from him. and I left because I thought she was going to call the cops. . . The only place he might see me again is jail. “You know what time it is!” He just give it to you. And this kid calls me over. She let me change my clothes . By the time he gets his pants up and buttoned. Especially when he has to put his clothes back on. believe me. . happily. Stick it right in his mouth. . right in his face. And I was like. . I tell him.600 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 found a spare key to the car. because last time I did bolt. . and I’m thinking. [Then]. All of a sudden after she left she came back with two cruisers. let me take a ride over to where I am [living].” He gave me a bag of dope. “You know what time it is. 9 thousand [dollars at a time]. and coerced sex. Diane. so I won’t be freezing in the cell.” So I took the car for a month. I called the owner to get a reward. Downloaded from qhr. So. the last time she checked my name. relayed the following narrative: This police lady saw me. I knew it. to make sure I wasn’t gonna bolt . man. a 38-year-old White prostitute whose life in recent years has consisted of repeated arrests and periods of imprisonment. such as the following example: When I say do ’em. . 8. “Well.” I told her I was going to be dope sick [suffer from heroin withdrawal] and she took me home. what did I do? This kid’s gonna fuck me up or something. . You stick it right in his face. I’ve caught [robbed] thousands and thousands. I’ve never had a problem with them. a White heroin addict: I was down on Ames Street.sagepub. . a police officer reportedly showed unusual generosity and allowed an arrested drug user to inject heroin one last time prior to going to jail for the weekend (while awaiting a Monday morning appearance in court). I’m out of there. She was in the car. “Oh God. Take this. Another example of uncommon generosity was shared by Rita. She stood right next to me . she gave me the money. A second subtype of miraculous gain narrative we refer to as big scores. “Oh no. And when he pulls it out [to sell it to me]. she stayed in the car [and] she asked me how I was doing and everything. I stick him up. “Give me five dimes” [five bags of drugs]. cause I’m gonna make him pull them down.” He got a pistol in his mouth. he gonna give it to me. She gave me 20 bucks to give it back to her. confiscations. so she started talking to me and I was like. . saw the car. I guess she already had the insurance company set up for it. “Hey.” But I went over there and he says. I smoked a cigarette. the car was still in the same place. So there was a key in there! It was far away from where I was [living]. “Oh. I’m gone! And he doesn’t know me from Adam. I pull out my pistol and take everything. I seen you around here. . in this instance. so I thought. you know where these young Black kids hang out.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. . I did half a bag of dope. 2013 . . I started using it again. I mean I might bring him [a street drug dealer] back here in this back alley and say. 7. including tales of beatings. . I couldn’t believe it.” . . . . he gonna give it to me. Although street drug users generally see themselves at the mercy of the police and have many tales of police cruelty toward them. But . . I left for about a week and a half. When I came back. He ain’t gonna chase you. A third subtype of this group of narratives we refer to as uncommon generosity. [Then you] haul ass. Last time I had like six warrants. she’s gonna check my name.

you know. I always carry a bottle. . “No. . . A guy came up and said. I had three bags [of heroin]. because I had dope on me and he came in with a girl. to look out for Debbie once again. one time I split a bag with a guy because that guy was real sick and I don’t like to see that.” And the girl was like. . . In telling tales that highlight one’s own attributes.” More frequent than positive accounts of others are tales that describe one’s own kindness and generosity. For example. I respect kids.Singer et al. a 34-year-old Puerto Rican man. And he was like. 2013 . . . . trying to get the last buzz before she goes in [to jail]. charitableness emerges unexpectedly in the midst of aggression: I was up against the corner. I would grab . drug users tell many stories of ruthlessness and inhumane treatment at the hands of others. Although. . . And the way he had me.” So they left me. . He probably wanted to get a hit. the little couch. I’m sick. I’ll never do something like that where people live. . give it up. He was like. . a street gang member) acts in a way that is completely counter to the storyteller’s expectations. I went into that neighborhood just specifically to see her. and I was sitting on that little bench. . But. “Yo man. . It boils down to money and getting jumped on and whatever. participants often lament the shortcomings of others or the general deterioration of social relationships in the drug scene. I did go over there for Debbie’s sake and I did take a chance doing that. . . And of course. Instead of being cruel or hurtful. you know. you know it was like. I’ll take one bag. just leave him with the dope. She took one. .com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. messed up. . I give you a little bit because I know and [can] imagine how you feel when you’re sick.” He had a knife. . Because I was concerned for Debbie. “Give me everything. / STREET NARRATIVES OF DRUG USERS 601 As in the previous story. In the following narrative. Sometimes. I’ll crack that over someone’s head. you see. the youth in this story demonstrates inexplicable generosity. . . as noted in following sections. Not like the old days. provided the following example as he talked about the types of locations he has used to get high: [The building we use to get high in is] empty. I put like 10 [units of liquefied drugs] in my cooker and the other half I gave to him. and this and that. They’ll think twice about robbing me with a knife or not. I need it. . I put myself in a jeopardizing position. . . they also share contradictory experiences that affirm that even on the street they experience and are moved by moments of human kindness and benevolence. . an individual who normally is seen as a threat (in this case. your watch. And see. If I can. “Give me the dope too!” And she was like. Genaro. . grab one and leave him with two. “Give it all up!” And I was like. When we go there. So he do it and I do mine. if I had seen it coming. . she was. so I’m staying away from that area. . . . “No. I did break down and go to see Debbie on Friday.sagepub. . She’d been. John describes how he put himself at considerable risk of injury to let a friend know that she did not have to turn herself into the police immediately (based on information given to him by a bail bondsman): I been avoiding the Ames Street area because I was in some trouble over there. the following narrative by an older Downloaded from qhr. everything. I think he was using “ready” [cocaine]. He had me trapped in the corner. so they left me with two bags. everybody got their own stuff [drugs and drug paraphernalia]. as in the following tale set in an abandoned building that is commonly used for illicit drug consumption.

Let me tell you something about New York. And. . their narratives nonetheless emphasize the considerable control drugs have over their lives. So. the effect of first exposure to crack was sufficiently powerful to begin a long-term crack addiction: One day. And they got some of those pushers on the street. a very common topic of participant narratives. “Take this motherfucker and be happy with it!” and all of that. They don’t have the respect.” So. guys [drug dealers] in New York . I want him to . It started bubbling and it came to a boil. . you fucking up the caine. . . . 2013 . let’s get this package ready for Hartford. for example. I said. I want my business. ’cause I want them to come back. [that’s] another word for those who run the streets looking for [drug] customers. described his first encounter with crack in great detail in the following narrative that combines first-use and learning the ropes themes. a piece of jelly-like whitish thing Downloaded from qhr. “No. he put in 80. Ironically.sagepub. So. One subtype of this group of power of drugs narratives involves often excited accounts drug users tell about their first major drug experiences. Despite the frequency with which drug users complain that drugs today are not nearly as good as “in the day” (a common phrase that harkens back to the good old days of the past). . . . I thought we were going to sniff it. Another expression of how the drug scene is not like the old days involves an asserted decline in the quality of drugs.g.” So. and a friend of his came with us. me and a friend of mine. New York has a thing. . . . . You know what I mean? It’s all screwed up with baking soda. but I never smoked it. it was payday. In this instance. The power of drugs. I didn’t know anything about it. I sat back and watched what they were doing. . Waterston. . . . 1993).” Hartford doesn’t have the best dope. . You know what I mean? They give Hartford like third-degree dope. . they know when Jersey people are coming. . I’m cooking it. what the fuck you doing?” He said. . you know. You know what I mean? They go around the first of the month: “Okay. we said. they know when Hartford people are coming [to buy drugs]. I have to respect them. . I am going to treat them somewhat good. Compared to the old time . some test tubes and started putting water and baking soda in and stuff. I said. so I take care of them. . That’s what these people are used to.” I tried it a little bit when I was in the army . But. It is so cheap. . “Hey. . They forget that those are the people that are putting money in their pocket. . . . street drug users in New York also complain about the declining quality of drugs in their city (e. . “Sure.. But at the same time. and he put in 80. . an African American cocaine user. Caliph. I put in 80 [dollars]. they put it in some vials. Then the water started discoloring from gray to clear and then you saw a rock. We stopped at a crack house. . snatching money. For example: Ready rock [crack cocaine] is so cheap. Man. But they don’t look at it that way. yeah I want customers. to heat it up. These young kids don’t have it. . blah blah blah. “Well. . Put some fire underneath it. we’re gonna go out and get some cocaine.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31.602 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 drug dealer contrasts the way he treats his customers compared to younger. if you go out there [in the street] and see these kids [who sell drugs] today. I mean. they got shit that’s full of baking soda. upand-coming street dealers: Pagers. I appreciate the man who knocks on my door spending money with me. We settled in to get some girls and you know we picked up some cocaine.

. These narratives of things you have to put up with include tales of harassment and hardship of Downloaded from qhr. Watters. . If true. We would just go get in the car and go down there [and] say. And that’s when it hit me. at $100 a bundle. 2013 . . it was a good feeling that lasted for about 2 minutes.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. If the money runs out and we can’t get to the bank at 4:00 in the morning. oh you got a ball [of cocaine]. “Whoa. I was sniffing [cocaine]. . $15. . So. go to the bank.” So. I would smoke small like a quarter a week [of marijuana].sagepub. then we just wait till 9:00 in the morning. like a big rush. anything goes. . I was doing like 4. I was eating a lot of mushrooms. . they took it. four.500 and that’ll go quick. but it was like whatever money I was making. Maria. about a year ago. People couldn’t understand what it was like. . I was selling [drugs] for the Dominicans. like it was the rush in. . I was drinking about a 6 to a 12 pack a night. And my brain. “Yo. and they cut a little piece of rock off and they put it up on the screen. And um. . such as the following example: I was dropping a lot of acid [LSD]. I said. sell me a ball. . this level of heroin use would be noteworthy because it resembles descriptions of cocaine bingeing—a practice that emerged in response to the much shorter duration of a crack high compared to a heroin high (Booth. I saw the guys. .000 for myself. He stood up. a bundle is 10 bags. in dope so I can do it. .000 every 2 days and I was making a $1. .Singer et al. $100 worth. It was like my ears started ringing. Go back and each of them would grab [some] and go back to the house and half an hour later be back down to get some more. .” you know. what you got. I was drinking a lot. & Chitwood. And they dropped it down in some ice water. . / STREET NARRATIVES OF DRUG USERS 603 floated in there. . I was smoking pot. . take about $3. I was making $14. Then I looked at his reaction. . me and my brother and my mother. . she settled for a large amount of money. Opium. which was a lot. Also encountered in this group of narratives are stories of unlimited. pulled down real hard and the pipe turned crystal ball white inside there.” . . So. peyote buttons. I . . opened his eyes and said. Another group of narratives that extol the power of drugs over the lives of drug users consists of descriptions of the regular and seemingly uncontrollable consumption of startlingly large quantities or varieties of illicit substances. I was doing . .000. . . every 20 minutes shooting a bag. $8. give me a ball. . described her previous level of addiction to heroin in the following words: When I was really deep in dope. when I hit it. for example.000. Before. polydrug use. And then I wanted another hit real bad. . The intensity cocaine bingeing can reach is seen in the following account: My mother . . and the next thing you know it’s like “click” “click” “click” and it was a rock. let me try that. we were spending. do you know what I mean? I was caught in a trip. 1993). Another subgroup of narratives that stresses the power of drugs over the lives of addicts involves various stories suggesting the many trials and tribulations drug users are forced to endure because of their involvement with drugs. I was doing everything. 5 bundles a day . . I did it. that went down good. I took everything and anything. I was getting . a Puerto Rican woman who was trying to get into a drug treatment program. . at least $7. lit it up and started smoking. When I was really deep deep in the dope. So I’m looking ’cause I never saw nothing like this before. . “Yeah. . I was doing meth [methamphetamine]. so I was doing four bundles a day. anything! I took [anything]. after the accident. five bundles.000 each a day. .

For example. . . and I did it ’cause I had a lot of problems with my dad. and with that it was easier because I could relax more and forget about my problems. So there is a place. And when you stop. and that problem made me start the cigarette vice and then. 40 apartments in there. And then I started smoking pasto. Each building has its own gang. a floor where there’s no apartments. He broke my leg. You have to go all the way back [to the end of the line]. shared the following enduring suffering story: I started smoking. That’s when I was 16. Another woman reported.sagepub. He . Every time he went by my side he would slap me. . You stick a dollar under the door.” That’s when he really got crazy and he said he was gonna kill me with the machete. . you know. they’re going to suffer because they didn’t have a father and stuff like that.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. . He locked me in the house all the time and I told him. “I’m not gonna be yours. . and he made me so nervous all the time. .604 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 various sorts. I’m dope sick. . . And the police don’t go there. I had the bag in my hand and cops coming in. He pushed me down the stairs and broke my leg. but I think that even though he was my father he was interested in me. They have 17. . but I can’t. ’cause I needed to calm my nerves. it’s a long. he pushes you. Milagros. . . Male narratives about suffering often are tied to the pain of drug withdrawal (Connors. And there’s a guy sitting in there with a shotgun. And you get off on the floor and there’s a [door and] the peephole is open. Each floor has like 30. long glass stem. Downloaded from qhr. . Suffering and regret. . I had to leave my house because he ran after me with a machete. He did this since I was 12 until I was 16. You know how you get black and blue and stuff like that? He used to hurt me like that. 18 floors. 4 years. And you pull [inhale on the pipe stem]. For example. . through there. . 5 hours before they let you go. and I have to stay in lock up all the way until I get out to go to [the court]. So that’s how I started smoking cigarettes. there are people behind you. right after that. 7 in the morning. so I stayed. You have to be there 5. The gang runs the building. And they stick a pipe. I was trying to get off. the following story portrays some of the ordeals associated with having to deal with street gangs because they control the drug trade: I’ve gotten high one time in one of the worst [housing] projects in the country. some [buildings] even [have] 28 floors. without any reason. . Probably about like 7. God forgive me. female drug-user stories fall into the narrative category of suffering and regret. 1994). . that’s how my addiction started. they send the gang up to get it because the gang maintains order up there. hit me all the time. They’re already there. . . He got upset sometimes ’cause I was talking to a guy. right. This is no joke. Four hours is forever when you’re sick. Because they got to sell their drugs. And the guy with the shotgun pushes you. And that is the way it happened [he got arrested] both time. they pull it back. Disproportionately. My nerves were totally destroyed. . . a 35-year-old woman. about 6:30. My body was all sore. I started to use pasto [marijuana]. There’s a guy in the hallway with a shotgun. but after 3. I thought that if I would leave him. If you got more money. such as the following: Well. If they need someone. I left. 2013 . . And one in the elevator with a shotgun. I tried to open the bag as fast as I can. my kids.

and I can’t say. Sold them! So I [only] have a limited supply of my personal art work left. no one introduced me to it. in the following narrative. I have to drop off something. I’ve lost many good jobs from it [drug use]. I’ve went out and sold them [to buy drugs]. I was devastated. took out all of my [drug] paraphernalia. So I asked him when I got paid one day. You know . my son. “What about me?” I say. my other neighbor. ’Cause they had a deadline. “Oh yeah. . wanted to get a driver’s license. But it was my decision to get more. .” So I said. . “Any particular color?” And she comes right back with her musical little voice and says. as if his fate were sealed long before the actual events occurred. I gotta say that dope really screwed up my life man! It took everything from me. After a while. . Pictures of Malcolm X. . and what kind” and she said a Corvette. It tore it to pieces.” So. I can’t blame anyone for it. my daughter chimes in and says. . I mean. . and stuff you know. you know. I stopped outright and didn’t get high for many years. And I said. “Here. So if you want your license go down to the MV and get your papers tomorrow and I will teach you too. . It would have happened sooner or later. whoever it was. “Let me get one or two of those things [bags of heroin]. . As this story suggests. now she’s happy and so I jokingly said to her. “All right.” I can’t blame that person . / STREET NARRATIVES OF DRUG USERS 605 Another subtype of the suffering narrative has the theme of regret. I used to go to Thursday night parties. fine. By contrast. “Give me a ride down to Cedar Point and I’ll give you some smoke [marijuana]. and it was my decision to actually do it. . “Well. regret emerges as an empowering force that led him to quit using drugs for a number of years. . missing time. It destroyed my life. a little there. “Just sniff half” and. And I did half a bag and I really liked it. So then. out getting high. So. you know. But. dad’s gotta get you a car.Singer et al. . I didn’t know. . Marcus Garvey that I’ve drawn. and it didn’t last like I thought it would last. . “Yep!” And I said. now that you are gonna get your license.” And she says. here’s a bag [of heroin]. .” So I got a couple of bags. . calling in sick ’cause I’m out all night getting high.” I sit down and I’m worked up because I realized that I was neglecting my children’s little lives. At the party that night. to pick it up. destroyed it and threw it away. . . tales of regret often are infused by a sense of futility and fatalism. as seen in the following first-use account by a male drug user: My neighbor downstairs was telling me. a junky for 28 years. there is also a strong element of inevitability. This was like 2 years ago. Not going to work. . I used to have so many pieces of art work that I used to keep. So then I did the rest of the bag the next day or something. It really destroyed my life in a matter of 6 months. whatever. “What do I do with this?” And she’s like. and as we were talking about it. that job was eliminated.sagepub. I haven’t sold my hands yet! Downloaded from qhr. 2013 . “Blue. ain’t got time to go to work ’cause I’m getting high. Although the teller of this tale takes full responsibility for his actions. I found myself going back. Kathy. The dual themes of loss and regret related to drug use are also central to the following narrative by another male drug user: I messed that job up [because of cocaine]. in all sincerity: “Kathy.” and I did it a couple of times. So. “Well. And she’s like.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. Kathy. this person turned me on to it. I went into my drawer.” I was like. it will last me the week. recorded by a middle-age White male. who them days didn’t do H [heroin] or knew anything about habits. I’ll do a little here. . they didn’t have time for that. . . You know. he was a retard.

I’ve lost my job. We certainly do not disagree with this Downloaded from qhr.. . I don’t want you here any more. In the morning. or cheating in a relationship—is a common element of these kinds of narratives. I know drugs do weird things to people. So. Lamenting betrayal by fellow drug users—usually in the form of not repaying a loan. including the collection of informant narratives and life histories. . it pisses me off because of the simple fact that I don’t know to this day.g. . my car. comparing accounts by two or more participants and comparing accounts by the same informant at two or more points in time). This is the winter time.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. 2013 . they say I’m right down the hall. and I returned just to break into the house to steal stuff. I don’t have a personal life. drugs can bring unparalleled highs and exciting adventure. and I got arrested. 1973. the claim of greater accuracy has been reiterated as a rationale for including ethnography in AIDS-prevention research. I woke up with a cop sitting on top of my chest with his hand on my throat. They were upset. Taking other people’s stuff. with the claim of heightened research validity: By design.000]. and drugs. Over time. That’s when she realized that something was going on. taking one’s money or other possession. And to have someone do that to me . CONCLUSION Ethnographers have strongly defended their use of qualitative methods. but they also deliver unimaginable lows and great physical and emotional suffering. I started stealing shit out of the house and either pawning it off or like selling my wife’s high school ring and her jewelry and stuff like that. I sold it for a grand [$1. and sodas. maybe when the cops are knocking on their door. blah. and boom. And I have to start breaking into houses and stuff like that. get out!” So I left. she was like. Which is not me. vii) and offers ample opportunity for verifying informant accounts. field-based qualitative research is deeply rooted in “the immediacies of social life” (Geertz. For example: I drove my car down to Cedar Point and sold it for a bundle [10 bags. with a street value of under $100]. and my own stuff. drug users often come to emphasize the things drugs have taken from their lives rather than the benefits they derive from drug consumption. I’ve lost my family now. blah. I’m real real sick. And. that drug users often maintain an intense love/hate attitude toward drugs. So. and I went over there to make sure they had cigarettes. I was hiding out. cross-checking descriptions. in fact. getting high at someone’s house where nobody knew where I was except for them [occupants of the dwelling] and the police found me. end of story! I don’t even like talking. they did. Now I am on the street. and I’ve never done that to nobody. You know. . And then I sold my tools. “You’re out.606 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 This narrative further underlines the sense of great personal loss as a consequence of drug use reported by many participants in our study. I was hiding out and they found me. and whatever. I led them on. maybe that’s why.sagepub. For example: The police found me. not sharing drugs. blah. And after I sold my tools. And that lasted a couple of days. So. . doing that crazy stuff. now I’ve lost my family. That’s the only thing I can think of. go get him. and they were like $10.000 worth of tools. and triangulating various data sources (e. Consequently. It is evident from these narratives. p. I have never done that kind of stuff before. only two people knew. you know. We have labeled the final subtype of suffering and regret type narratives betrayal stories.

com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. it is the one that motivates much of the work of our research team. 2013 . Our examination of the narratives in our data set points to the existence of identifiable story types that reflect the cultural shaping of personal experience into conventional categories of meaning. Drug treatment programs. whatever their validity from a scientific perspective as objective records of observable behaviors. For example. These intensely oppositional themes exist in dynamic tension within and across the narratives. and the details of real events with rhetorical devices and culturally meaningful themes (Kane. just as their stories construct and encapsulate core cultural meanings in their lives. More precisely. the police. there is a validity to the narratives that transcends their adherence to the actual details of the episodes they purport to describe. especially residential programs. the dynamic and oppositional tension of the narratives very accurately reflects the actual experience of street drug use: Drug users both love and hate being on drugs and all that focusing their lives on drugs entails. In this specific sense.Singer et al. often offered in nonresidential settings (e. events. Put simply. gang members. sudden reversal. defining a street persona.sagepub. the narratives are culturally valid. rule oriented. during street outreach or in office-based educational groups). we think it fair to raise questions about the validity of some kinds of ethnographic data. these narratives appear to group around a number of contrastive experiential sets. the very psychotropic substances around which drug users structure their day-to-day activities. objective fact with colorful fantasy. usually lacks the ability to structure the social lives and activities of its target populations. Furthermore. / STREET NARRATIVES OF DRUG USERS 607 perspective—indeed. and excitement and surprise versus burdensome routines (things you have to put up with) and enduring suffering. Consequently. we are concerned with questioning whether street drug users’ personal narratives are reasonably straightforward records of actual lived events or are. The intensity of this conflicted involvement enlivens their stories. and unpredictability that characterize street drug-user lives. 1998. in the context of AIDS-prevention research. trust versus betrayal. and most important. makes narratives a critical resource for AIDS-prevention efforts. in varying degrees. and circumstances. fabrications. AIDSprevention programs are forced to adapt to drug-user realities or suffer from lack of Downloaded from qhr. similar to all storytellers. tend to be highly structured. close-to-actual-events veracity. Taken together. such as high (psychotropic effects) versus low (drug withdrawal). and propping up damaged egos. Tedlock. The general literature on narratives would certainly suggest that drug users. 1983). fellow drug users appear in the narratives as both friends and foes. Thus. as do family members.g. the dynamic tension expressed in the narratives suggests the importance of intervention programs being structured to be sensitive to the fast-paced change. constructing social worlds. kindness versus abuse. our own field experience suggests that drug-user war stories serve a number of important functions. as we listen to participant narratives. impermanence. a set of psychosocial influences that may nudge narrative accounts away from objective. success versus failure and regret. merge immediate experience with culturally constituted imagination. AIDS prevention. Whatever the veracity of this or that element in any particular narrative may be. and somewhat rigid because they seek to control the disruptive highs and lows in the lives of drug users. including impressing researchers (who pay fees for participation in research projects). articulating feelings and values.. we believe. Still. like quantitative data collected in formal research environments. Recognition of this fact.

their narratives reveal both a hunger for acts of patient kindness and a strong valuing of caring behavior. providing insights of vital use to AIDS-prevention initiatives.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31. a desire for intimacy. knowledgeable.sagepub. based on a genuine appreciation of them as fellow human beings. a narrational celebration of unforeseen acts of kindness. Reversing the usual course. These conclusions raise an important question for those engaged in AIDS prevention among drug users: As we formulate and test prevention messages and methods. namely. The stories underline the degree to which street drug users expect to be mistreated and abused in their social interactions. they are seen as a pleasant surprise. should be a critical program element in AIDS prevention. Although all service providers who work with street drug users come to grow wary of their survival-oriented tendency to engage in manipulation or to be undependable. attributes that fly in the face of their usual denigration as unproductive individuals who lack desirable qualities or useful talents. At the same time. and goal-oriented individuals. as a result. by treating drug users as socially resourceful. Three. it is evident from the narratives that acts of generosity and caring are not expected. warrant consideration. drug-user stories emphasize that they are quite wary of betrayal. In short. Avoiding actions that can be construed (rightly or wrongly) as betrayal. Although these stories. Significantly. similar to all human stories. is a way of engaging drug users in AIDS prevention. and hence when they occur. therefore. breaches of commitment. a fear of betrayal. A keen sensitivity to the issue of betrayal with emphasis on carefully handling behaviors that might be seen in this light and developing strategies for avoiding acts that might be interpreted as violations of confidence. the narratives emphasize the skills and abilities of drug users. is suggested as the appropriate orientation of educational and service programs that work with drug users. producing. Their personal narratives suggest that they expect others to fail them. the narratives suggest the value of recognizing and appreciating demonstrated acts of generosity and caring by drug users. and a need for personal efficacy. a painful experience. traits that similarly are denied by social stereotypes that portray them as aggressively self-focused and completely controlled by their drug dependencies. many of the truths conveyed by drug-user stories are. in particular. how closely are we listening to the messages coming back to us from the very people we seek to assist? Downloaded from qhr. undoubtedly are embellished and slanted to convey desired messages and meanings. they nonetheless contain important truths for prevention programs. although it is always. Ethnography and drug-user narratives provide important windows on these complex and contradictory realities. Recognition of these commonalties—as opposed to the extreme dehumanizing otherness to which street drug users are commonly subjected—may be one of the most critical lessons for AIDS programs. Second.608 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 rapport and ineffectiveness. This suggestion is based on an interpretation of the unexpected generosity narratives as expressions of deep desire for an arena of beneficent interaction. nonetheless. broader cultural truths that street drug users share with others in American society. First. Peering through the window of drug-user narratives. analysis of street drug-user war stories suggests these colorful narratives can be read as experience-based statements of underlying concerns and heartfelt wishes. or duplicity is crucial to relation building with street drug users. Consistently treating participants in a caring fashion. certain potential lessons for AIDS prevention are recognizable. 2013 . Finally. in fact.

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S. 4. educational ethnography and other case studies. C. (1992). Ph. Taking care of business: The heroin user’s life on the streets. Cultural models in language and thought (pp.sagepub. Price. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. Maxwell. 416-430. He has over 100 articles published in health and social science journals. Cromley. 36. E. Singer. K. (1969). Tedlock. Human Organization. New York: Methuen.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31... Scott Wilson. Singer has been the recipient of both the Rudolph Virchow Prize and the AIDS and Anthropology Paper Prize through the Society for Medical Anthropology. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press. J. Preble.. CA: Sage. Trotter. E. (1978). where he has been involved in community research since 1982.) & J. & Biernacki. Culture. Philadelphia: Temple University Press. Rubinstein. Peacock. (1993). M. Street addicts in the political economy. Waterston. UK: Cambridge University Press. (1993). Philadelphia: Temple University Press. ethnic minorities: The crisis and alternative anthropological responses. (1998). R.). D. LeCompte. Practicing Anthropology.D. & Gerdes.. 89-95. Medical Anthropology Quarterly. He has participated in respondent recruitment and data collection on five studies funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Newbury Park. M. In D. IL: F. R. M.S. (1996). is a medical anthropologist involved in the study of structural factors in HIV prevention for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.). M. 370-385. T. Previously an ethnographer for the Downloaded from qhr. Sterk. In J. Davison. Wilson coordinated the collection of the narratives analyzed in this article as a researcher at the Institute for Community Research. 2. E. 17-20.. Singer (Vol. Eds. M. Itasca. & Huberman. Singer. and reproductive illness behavior in Haiti. Weeks. (1999a). You owe yourself a drunk: An ethnography of urban nomads.. 125-191). Smith. 313-342).. Qualitative research design.. 4. and is the coauthor or editor of eight books. & Schensul. 15(4). Watters. Ecuadorian illness stories: Cultural knowledge in natural discourse. C. J. (1993). J. Cambridge. 31-58. 257-276. CA: AltaMira Press. (1984). & M. Singer. Quinn (Eds. In L. Studying hidden and hard-to-research populations. Rimmon-Kenan. Target sampling: Options for the study of hidden populations. Anthropology and culturally targeted AIDS prevention. (1999b). 273-297. Singer. Narrative analysis. P. 146-164). He is currently living in India. Review of research in education (pp. M. Ph. Connecticut. Schensul. 12. critical theory. Thousand Oaks. Social Problems. Brown. C. Holland & N. Mapping networks. Glenn Scott began his work in AIDS prevention as a street outreach worker at the Hispanic Health Council in 1993. M. 1-24. (1995). 51. He is currently working as an interviewer and ethnographic assistant on a study of sterile syringe access among injection drug users in three New England cities. G. Narrative fiction: Contemporary poetics. J. Singer. L. A. M. J. 6. & Casey. (1987). drug use. is the associate director and chief of research at the Hispanic Health Council in Hartford. Miles. Medical Anthropology. In search of the good: Narrative reasoning in clinical practice. has authored numerous book chapters. Schensul & M.D. Spradley. Narratives of elder parental death: A structural and cultural analysis. Delia Easton. and AIDS prevention research projects since 1984. Merrill Singer. (1989). International Journal of the Addictions.. (1970). Boston: Little. AIDS and U. L. M. Qualitative data analysis. (1983). Why do Puerto Rican injection drug-users inject so often? Anthropology and Medicine. (1988). (1983). CA: Sage. The ethnographer’s toolkit: Vol..D.). Singer has been the principal investigator on a continuous series of federally funded drinking. CA: Sage. J. LeCompte (Series Eds. An evolving logic of participant observation. J. 2013 . (1999). 9.610 QUALITATIVE HEALTH RESEARCH / September 2001 Mattingly. L. Ph. D. is a cultural anthropologist who has worked on ethnographic studies of street drug users in the southwest and northeast United States. Fast lives: Women who use crack cocaine. spatial data and hidden populations (pp. Reissman. D. Walnut Creek. The spoken world and the work of interpretation. Beverly Hills. Shulman (Ed.

and cultural factors in AIDS risk among women of color. for the last 10 years. 2013 . She served as principal investigator on the study reported here. and studying AIDS risk among the elderly. she is involved in evaluating the potential role of women’s use of microcides in AIDS prevention. with a special focus on social. Downloaded from qhr.sagepub. Connecticut. Currently..Singer et al. a cultural anthropologist. and other topics in the AIDS epidemic.D. Easton has studied teen experience of parental HIV infection. structural. Weeks has conducted research on women’s health in the People’s Republic of China and. examining pathways to drug use and HIV risk among youth. / STREET NARRATIVES OF DRUG USERS 611 Hispanic Health Council. Margaret Weeks. has directed and participated in studies of HIV risk and prevention in Hartford. assessing social network models of AIDS prevention among drug users. Weeks has published numerous articles and book chapters on AIDS risk and prevention. is the associate director of the Institute for Community Research. Ph. risk behaviors among injection drug users.com at UNIVERSIDAD DE ANTIOQUIA on July 31.

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