Saturday Morning at the Needle Exchange

The New York Times Op/Ed -  February 15, 1994 (reprinted in Palm Beach Post, Seattle Times and Fort Worth Star-Telegram)

Jimmy tells me about how he used to run with a gang, then went to jail, and now is interested in peaceful things, like poetry and art.'' He has no used needles to return, so we give him two clean sets.

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Lis is headed downhill. Her make-up is applied with clownlike exaggeration, her teeth look loose, her yellow hair is a mess. She's got four used needles, which she drops in the hazardous-waste container. Lis has a present for me and my fellow volunteer Donald. She shyly gives us a brown bag. I don't look inside until later, when I find two Almond Joy candy bars. Donald won't eat his, but I say what the hell, I'm hungry.

On Saturdays, the Lower East Side Needle Exchange Walkabout starts off from Third Street and Avenue C and moves downtown. There are usually five of us, though who shows up on any given Saturday varies. Among our volunteer ranks are a doctor, an opera singer, a comedian and a carpenter. Our group brings the waste container, clean needles, bleach and water, cookers (bottle-cap-like holders for cooking heroin), alcohol pads to clean with and condoms for you know what. The exchange, which began four years ago as an underground operation, now legally distributes 66,000 needles a month at its storefront and on the street.

We go to four sites. Some are close to methadone clinics and people have grown to expect our arrival. We see a lot of the same faces. (I've changed the names of participants and some other identifying details.) We're collecting dirty needles and handing out clean sets. Participants in our program get two more needles than they give us. If they bring more than 30, we give them one for one. Sometimes people exchange more than 100 needles, and we're pleased to send an equal number of clean ones back on the street. That's the point.

I think I've heard every opinion about what we're doing: We're promoting drug use or we're wasting our time or we're endangering ourselves. What surprises me, however, is how many different attitudes exist even among those at the needle-exchange office. As a white man, I find that many of the other white men and women who work there share my moral relativism—we make no judgments about the participants. Our goal is to prevent the spread of AIDS. Addicts can keep on using needles and not get AIDS.

Other volunteers, many of them black or Hispanic, feel differently. Some are opposed to any drug use and see the exchange as a means to steer people into treatment. There's a 12-step rap that brings Nancy Reagan's just-say-no platitudes to mind, but when I hear it with a Puerto Rican accent, it gives me pause. In the Wisconsin of my youth, drug abuse meant smoking some dope and cruising the cornfields in our parents' cars. Being stoned and stuck in a muddy ditch seems far away from Jimmy's rebellious posse-running. Is it?


Some participants in the program have gained legendary status among the volunteers. Foremost among them is Aaron (pictured above). An elderly man who, rumor has it, was once an engineer in New Jersey, he has a long, bushy gray beard. He's quite an expert on Judaism, though he told me his father was not a religious man. He regularly brings us a payload of collected needles. He's an entrepreneur, too. He may have a box of leather belts or something else to offer.

Aaron often brings us chocolate cake and fruit juice, which he gets God knows where. It's a nice gesture, but no thanks. (The Almond Joy had a wrapper.) He brings his needles to us in a box on a strap hanging over his stomach; this is so he won't violate Talmudic law and actually be carrying something on a Saturday. (I've never gotten around to checking this loophole's validity, but I have my doubts.) What does the Talmud say about heroin? I neglected to ask Aaron's rabbi, when Aaron introduced me to him and his 8-year-old son one summer afternoon.

Everyone assumes it is depressing work. Yet the people I deal with every Saturday are interesting, vital. They are alive with humor and (yes) hope. One day while passing out needles, I watched a man not far away. His knees gave way. He was obviously stoned and was having trouble standing. A friend of his standing nearby took charge and leaned the top of his head against a tree.

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Was it callous that this seemed funny to us? A few minutes later, this same stoned guy roused himself, came over to get some needles and joked about the tree, too. He was one of the wittiest guys I've met. You might not believe me, but often the people I encounter while exchanging needles are friendlier and kinder than the people I deal with in my professional life.

Of course, sometimes people try to rip us off, trying to get more needles, telling us our policy has changed. Or sometimes they get defensive.

Under state law, when we hand out needles we have to gather certain statistics. (The exchange is, however, anonymous.) One Saturday, at the bottom of sordid Sara Delano Roosevelt Park, I blew it. One guy constantly hassled us about our questions; week after week he complained about our procedure but never took any needles.  He was being a jerk for the hell of it. I finally told him not to waste our time. I told him to get lost—only in stronger language than that.

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A mistake. Ballistics: I was disrespecting him, an arrogant white boy who tells people what to do. He was throwing a fit. Adrenaline flowing in my veins, I imagined a gun or a knife beneath his coat, and so did the other volunteers. But nothing happened. He angrily left, and I was ashamed. I had not behaved compassionately, I had not risen above the situation, and I had endangered all of us.

One Saturday last winter, during a blizzard as fierce as the one that hit New York last week, our group plodded down the unplowed streets, our supplies on our backs like hip-hop Santa Clauses. The Lower East Side was never lovelier, covered with a pristine layer of snow, just the sound of the wind and our laughter erupting again and again at the absurdity of this particular existence.

We weren't entirely sure any participants would show up, so when they did it was like greeting old friends. Handing out needles and bleach and condoms to them became a communion of sorts. They couldn't believe we had made it out in the storm, and I marveled that somehow each of us--participant, volunteer--had arrived at this place at this moment. Looking at the faces around me in the cold, swirling winds, there was joy, a happiness that we were together. We need each other.


Dana Edwin Isaacson is a book editor at Paramount Publishing.

Illustrations by Jim Atherton at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram