PROF. PETE PIPER
Andrew P. Sorfleet, AOCA
Where have I been? Where are we going?
By Prof. Pete Piper
The professor is dressed in a three-piece grey flannel suit, complete with all the accessories, including a tobacco pipe with a hankerchief in the breast pocket of his jacket. The Professor wears reading glasses (with no lenses) which he is in the habit of looking over the top of. This lecture is delivered standing, pacing. He recites, he doesn't really read. The Professor is nervous and fumbles a bit with his lecture notes. He remembers the cure for stage fright and visualizes the audience all sitting in their underwear. Today the Professor is delivering a lecture he gave on a panel called "Where have we been? Where are we going?" at the first Canadian Harm Reduction Conference, held in Toronto - November 22-24, 2002.
Tink, tink, tink. The Professor clinks his water glass with a glass crystal meth pipe, which he has removed from his inside breast pocket, along with a tiny baggie of salt and chrome lighter. Flicking his lighter
Anyone mind if I have a hoot? Just kidding, I know we're suppose to be keep that sort of thing out of sight. [Waving the pipe] For me, this is harm reduction.
The Professor removes his jacket, and hangs it on the back of a chair conveniently near by. Removing a flask from his waist coast pocket, he takes a swig of scotch clears throat.
Ahh. Single malt.
Hello, I'm sorry, I'm a bit nervous. It's been a while since I've had to give a lecture. My name is Prof. Pete Piper, and I'm here today with the blessing of the Chronic Benevolent Fellowship. [pause] I've also worked here in Toronto for some years, so a few of you may know me by a number of different names. But if my drug dealers knew I was speaking at a conference like this, I'm sure I would no longer be welcome.
Where have I been?
First, I want to share with you my early experiences in a 'safe injection site.' And, discuss with you a little bit the idea of community.
I spent much of my childhood growing up in a small town in rural Ontario, about 3,000 people. At the tender age of 17, I left the controlling environment of home in search of making my own way in the world.
I had been smoking hash and cigarettes and drinking on a regular basis since I was 15 and hung around with the local riff-raff bikers, drug addicts, welfare bums etc. I dealt acid to make a little extra cash and regularly did other chemicals. Within this community, I fell in with some people who enjoyed the pleasures of shooting drugs. This micro community less than a dozen people were older and wiser. I respected and trusted them. And, when they trusted and respected me, I was introduced to the sacrament of 'injection drug use.' MDA was the ultimate drug of choice, but speed was also most popular. As far was I knew, there was very rarely heroin around.
There is no more bonding an experience, I think, than banging MDA together and sitting out on the roof under the stars. This activity was very underground and secretive because, even among the other people who did chemicals, shooting up was seriously frowned on. It wasn't something you wanted people to know about you. It was in these communities that I was taught the value of discretion and trust.
This was in the early 1980s and while AIDS hadn't really reached this remote community, I was taught to always clean my needle with rubbing alcohol then water because of hepatitis. It was best to always have your own fit which you never lent out, and a few extra fits you could give or lend out was always a good idea. In those days, there were even a few glass fits around. I was taught to have a great deal of respect for the ritual, and the drugs, and the understanding that they can take hold of your life if you're not careful.
With time, my apartment became known as a place where one could find a clean needle. I used to get allergy shots regularly, and every time I was left alone in the little room I would raid the doctor's drawers and stuff my biker boots. They weren't always the ideal size. Myself I preferred a shorter, chunkier fit, with not quite as fine a point as is popular today.
There was this guy, "Pete" I'll call him, who used to drop by every so often, to trade me a fit for his wash, basically. He liked to get very drunk, shoot speed and fight. Sexy. There were times he would show up too drunk to make his hit, and he would ask me to give him a hand. I got to be a pretty good. This wasn't something you would normally do with someone you didn't completely trust, because we knew too well that we could be charged with attempted murder, should anything go wrong. But, what was my alternative? I had watched "Pete" through my kitchen window, kneeling down in the parking lot behind the billboard, in front of the headlights of his car, making a mess of his arm. For me, this was "harm reduction."
Eventually, I noticed that my life seemed to be going nowhere, and off to Toronto I went. It was there I found gay sex. In fact, I was having so much sex I decided I might as well try to get paid for it. Off to the stroll I went. It didn't take long for me to move into the more lucrative escort services and business classifieds, but I always kept tabs with the stroll, often working there with my cellphone. I am fond of the place where I had my first hustling adventures.
When I graduated from college my interest in sex work politics led me to a prostitutes' self-help agency. With both college and sex work experience I was perfect for a "peer educator" job. It was simple really. My time on the stroll making friends and business associates could be counted as "outreach" as long as I counted all of my "contacts," as well as the number of condoms and needles I dispensed during each encounter.
Already the time had ended when community organizing happened around kitchen tables. Sexual liberation had turned necessarily into AIDS activism, and then into bureaucracies where people began to believe that activism and community organizing could be achieved through government-funded jobs.
It was the early 1990s when, police armed with a new child pornography law, turned up the heat on their hostility toward the hustlers in boystown. Some of those "hustlers" had become involved as volunteers with our organization. Eventually, some of us there had to break some rules, to try and ensure that a particular young man didn't end up beaten or killed in jail. The consequences of our actions resulted in the complete fracture of the agency in distrust and fear that its funding had been and would be jeopardized. I fled the job and moved to Vancouver weary and broken, disheartened and disillusioned.
But I hadn't lost my taste for sex work politics. And it wasn't long before I was fraternizing and organizing with my prostitute associates. Eventually my partners and I moved into a dingy leaky apartment on Granville Street near Davie. Two doors down from the peeps, right beside the St. Helen's (affectionately known as the St. Heroin's). The third floor apartment had been the first boy's massage parlour in Vancouver. Everything in the place had at one time or another been painted black. It was in front of those peepshows, on the way home one day, that I met "Pete."
"I pan for pedicures"
"Pete" had those beautiful blue eyes with that perfected pleading puppy look which I am sure was well-rehearsed. "You look like a friend I used to have," he said. He looked so sincere. 'Pete' was a piper too, and he just wanted some change, because he was hungry. I offered him lunch. The Grade 'A' (pronounced "Grey Day") always had a great cheap lunch special. "Pete" was more interested in money than eating I think, but he accepted my offer. After lunch we went back to my place for a spliff.
Like many of us when coming down from ups, "Pete" had walked himself to exhaustion. I fed him pot cookies (they make you hungry and sleepy "harm reduction") and took off his boots for him, as he finally started to relax. His boots were soaked right through (it was November) and the soul was cracked. His feet were cold and swollen, red and blistered. I drew a basin of hot water with epsom salts and soaked his feet. Then, I sat down in front of him and pulling his one foot firmly into my thigh, I began to rub. It felt like hours that I was lost vicariously in the pleasure this gave his feet and I realized, I loved "Pete."
Pete then slept for a day and a half.
Pete and I have been friends ever since. I got to watch him move away to Peachland, father a beautiful baby girl, and battle the ordeals of having his daughter snatched from his arms at the hospital in the presence of two security guards not three hours after she was born. The child was apprehended, not because of anything her parents had actually done, but because of the bigotry and prejudice rife in the ministries for social services. "Pete" and his girlfriend had been visited by a worker only once, three months into the pregnancy when they were labeled "crack heads from Vancouver."
But the community they lived in had faith in Pete and his partner. The members of their church supported them and vouched for them and helped them meet the next three months of requirements that it took to get their daughter back. "Pete" has a second beautiful daughter now, he is a proud and loving father. And he still disappears from time to time for a time, but I don't worry. I've seen the resilience of human spirit, I keep faith and pray that all will be well with him and his young family. I like to think of myself as their 'God father' of sorts.
Where are we going?
Now I live on Prince Edward Island. Not only is the island far away from my drug of choice ("harm reduction"), unexpectedly it has given me a sense of renewed hope. I can see community organizing again. 50/50 draws to pay for the trip to Halifax for a hip or heart operation. Benefit dances for a family who's barn has burnt. Card parties to pay for new fixtures for the community hall. And I've also seen people so poor. Remote, elderly women, battling cancer for instance, so poor they can't even offer you a cup of tea half way through the month. The welfare and old age pension cheques just don't stretch.
Governments, with their funding for "peer" salaries, infiltrate underground, economically impoverished communities by paying us to exploit and even compromise our friendships, networks and relationships. This government infiltration also results in the fraying of the fabric of these communities. If one of us has a carrot, you have a potato and I have a bone, together we can make a pretty good soup. Instead, these government programs make us dependent on the meagre gruel they dish out. Eventually communities forget how to make soup let alone grow vegetables.
Government funding for "social programs" isn't provided out of some charitable or compassionate aim to ease or reduce human suffering. Instead, the money goes to building convoluted bureaucracies of containment. Shame on them. If "harm reduction" was really about making sure people could get clean needles for example, the government could have made it a lot easier for people to buy them, a long time ago. Governments dangle their carrots, always in exchange for something. "Harm reduction" initiatives are about building the infrastructure to identify and contain people.
Public health is not an institution that is built on compassion. "Public health" is an instrument to police society in order to contain disease. Governments can pass laws restricting personal freedoms even quarantine in the name of public health. Its roots come from post-revolution France, when Prefect Poubelle (French for "trash can") passed the first public health ordinance, ordering the landlords to provide their tenants with containers for trash to deal with the health threats posed by garbage flowing in the streets.
If public health "harm reduction" initiatives were truly about the compassionate aspects of health care, the government would put equal effort into helping all the truly down-and-out, including those passed out and pissed on rice wine or aftershave, slowly dying of hepatitis and exposure. They would not just scapegoat all of us who are identifiably doing drugs. When we take on the identity of "user" we set ourselves up to be that scapegoat.
$ Paid to care? Or paid not to?
Do I think the government should spend more money on implementing more "social programs" and "peer projects" under the guise of "harm reduction?" I think these programs ultimately provide opportunities for those already enfranchised in the government's social management system. Social programs are about managing poor people, not about giving poor people a hand up. All of this talk is just a distraction from the real economic problems our country faces. It doesn't provide what people really need, opportunities for meaningful work a hand up.
So, when a bunch of social agencies throw a conference to trot out their latest expansion proposals under the headings of their latest jargon, I always get suspicious. I know there are supposed to be rules about the government funding lobby groups. To me it sounds a bit like lobbying for more dead-end jobs where we are paid to professionalize helping people, turning relationships cold that should come from the heart in the first place.
Where do we go from here?
Let me be clear. I am not attacking the jobs or people in this existing infrastructure. I don't want to see fewer people having happy, meaningful lives. I want to see more people being happy. The important challenge now, I think, is for those of us employed in these bureaucracies, to go the extra mile. Be willing to break the rules to make a difference in someone's life. Why is it that a union's most powerful action is to strike to be non-productive? What if everyone for one day did something nice for someone by breaking a rule you know isn't just or fair.
It's us who have to make the difference. To paraphrase Audre Lorde, it's not about who has privilege and who hasn't. It's about recognizing that we all have some privilege, and what matters is what we do with that privilege. June Callwood once put it to me another way. "Everyone thinks that I have power. I don't have power, I have influence. All I do is try to use that influence to do some good." A big fan of "random acts of kindness" June has given me other words to live by: "Carpe diem. Seize the day."
Created: January 3, 2003
Last modified: June 5, 2003
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