There were two other problems at Inwood Junior High School. The first was drugs, nasty drugs, like heroin, in the fight against which I became intimately involved, and the second was resistance to the Vietnam War, in which I had also become interested.
Unlike most of my colleagues at Inwood, I’d had some experience with drugs. You couldn’t live in Greenwich Village and go to a party without coming into contact with them, and quite frankly I did inhale, but the drugs with which I came into contact were marihuana and peyote (or mesqualine), but no heroin. LSD didn’t seem to have been invented at the time, or at least I knew nothing about it. Crack cocaine was to come later.
In the emerging East Village, “grass” was quite common and no big issue. It was well known it did no particular harm (there were lots of fine books by Harvard professors that confirmed our opinions), and that the only time you were in danger from it was when the police department was hunting for headlines. Peyote, while frowned upon, was still legal in the city, and I remember a big sign across the window of a coffee shop on East 3rd Street, saying. “Yes, we have no peyote today!” It just wasn’t a big deal.
It is also worth mentioning that I knew no “pushers.” Drugs didn’t have to be “pushed,” as the demand was always there, they were seductive. The dealers provided you with what you wanted, and on the whole, only suggested pills when they ran out of their other wares. Somewhat later peyote was also criminalized and became largely unavailable. It had provided such pretty colors. . .
In any case, the drug scene was about to change. Indeed it had already changed in Harlem, where heroin was wreaking unbelievable havoc. Anything that could be exchanged for money or heroin was traded, including people. At night, in apartment buildings, the copper plumbing system of tenements were being ripped up by addicts and sold for the little glassine envelopes. Lives were ruined and people killed because of heroin, and tolerant as I was of recreational or psychedelic drugs, heroin was an entirely different story. I had seen some of its results while working for the Welfare Department right after college, and it was devastating. In addition, the plague didn’t stay in Harlem. Suddenly drugs were all over the city, LSD among them, and the authorities didn’t distinguish between “good” drugs and bad. It was all illegal. The schools and school children were not immune. When the Board of Education posted signs over our time-clocks asking for volunteers to attend a weekend workshop to learn how to deal with and eliminate this terrible plague (and it was indeed terrible), I volunteered. From previous experience I knew a bit more about drugs than most people. I was also concerned, and I really wanted to help my students.
The workshop was located on the top floor of a brownstone on East 34th Street. It ran from Saturday morning to Sunday afternoon. It never mentioned drugs or drug addiction, and at first I really wondered about why I was really there, but unexpectedly it began one of the strangest chapters in my non-traditional education.