(Orginally published in the 4/17 issue)
About 19 years since listing Temple as a prospective college, Louis “Butch” Edinger
was still deliberating.
He was still scared of rejection, too, even after ebbing to utter homelessness for four years, a number providing only context
for the countless nights spent sleeping
on the floors of abandoned rowhomes, strewed with syringes, feces and debris.
Edinger cleaned up and gained acceptance
at Parkway Recovery, sitting down by the doctor and taking in whatever he prescribed.
“You talk with an accent, but you’re smarter than most people I went to school with,” the doctor told him. He digested the doctor’s opinion and the 80-milligram dosage of methadone needed to combat his heroin addiction. Both doses have settled well with Edinger since leaving the methadone clinic three years ago for Bucks County Community College and now Temple, where Edinger is a 38-year-old junior. The irony is that Edinger eventually sunk to the streets through popping prescriptions
of Percocet, however, none were in his name. Recovering from a gallbladder operation, the mother of his two children partitioned the prescription with him, and Edinger soon became sure of the pills’ necessary function.
“I really thought I was a better father and I could communicate better and that I was a better son,” he said of the pills’ role in his life as a 20-something. “I wasn’t going to the bar and I was watching the Flyers playoffs with my 1-year-old at my feet. It really filled a piece of me that, when I look back on it now, was such a sense of euphoria.”
Limiting it to only a weekend treat, Edinger and his girlfriend at the time quickly exhausted the allotted number of refills, forcing Edinger to call on his neighborhood friend, Morey, for a favor. As he approached the edge of his personal
descent in its retelling, he paused and looked at his 10-year-old son
“You know what, Pat? Can you do me a favor? Could you sit over there for just a couple of minutes? I might be talking about your mom here. I don’t want you to …,” said Edinger as his youngest son tested the range of earshot.
“Farther. OK, that will work.”
In an instant, Edinger traced 14 years back to his life’s fork, when Morey – who ran out of Percocet – was explaining the harmlessness of heroin.
“Butch, I’ve been doing it for two years and I haven’t been hooked yet,” his friend had told him, sending Edinger’s mind adrift.
“I think about that statement now,” Edinger said, “and that made sense to me then. Now I think, ‘What an idiot.’ I should have turned it away right then and there … But I bought into it because it’s Friday and I’m John Wayne. “Other people get addicted to it, but I’ll overcome it, because I’m tough. I’ll be the one who [won’t].”
This cowboy’s $40-weekend getaways with heroin – a word he and his girlfriend couldn’t bring themselves to say initially – soon ballooned to terrifying heights.
“We would call it ‘Perc,'” he said. “The H-word was hard to say for the first time.”
It didn’t take long before heroin rolled off their tongues and into their noses. In the course of a year, he would lose his Kensington home, his 1986 Ford Crown Victoria, his job as a trucker, his family’s trust and custody of his two sons, who lived with their grandparents in Bensalem, Pa.
“I wasn’t paying rent,” he said. “The place looked like s–t. I wasn’t interested in anything but getting high.”
After stealing from his parents, their door closed. That move forced Edinger to seek refuge elsewhere. He found it in West Kensington, amidst the rubble of an abandoned rowhouse, or “abandominium,” one of hundreds he would come to know.
“I remember I had this [knot] in my throat. I was so upset,” he said. “It was physical pain and I was like, ‘How did you get here?”
He said the city’s Department of Licenses
and Inspections would clear out and board-up anything crawling in it.
Just as well anyway – Edinger’s new job kept him on the run constantly. He and roommates would “boost,” essentially sell drugs to buy drugs, targeting specific pharmacies and supermarkets to raid.
Initially he was concerned with being sly, pocketing items in one motion, ever so subtlety. However, after seeing the potential payout – or as much as $2,500 a night – Edinger stopped caring about being slick and would walk. And, when necessary, he would run out of a pharmacy’s doors with a full basket, deliberately raising it above the sensors when needed. Edinger said he would then sell the goods at fixed prices to a nearby bodega, where the items were pawned.
“You’d be amazed how many [bottles of] aspirin you can fit in a basket at $5 a piece. And if you got diabetic test strips, [they were] $35 a piece,” he said.
Edinger built quite a police record, being arrested – and released – 17 times, most of them on $1,500 bail or on R.O.R., which stands for released on recognizance. That meant he was arraigned in good faith that he’d show up to a court hearing; otherwise, a search warrant would be issued after three days.
“The next day [out of jail], I don’t even remember what date the court [date] was because I didn’t care,” Edinger said was the common emotion. “I don’t care about my family. I don’t care about the kids that are at my parents’ house. I want to get high and I’m not going to no court.”
Although having little problem forcing some homeless guy to prostitute himself on the street for some owed money, an act he coined “the Spruce Street stroll,” Edinger said he was too embarrassed to panhandle.
“The funny thing about panhandling is the more you look like you need it, the less you’re going to get,” he said. With every abandominium that was boarded up, another was broken into and soon infested with people from various backgrounds, Edinger said.
“This is how I know why addiction is so not prejudice. It used to amaze me how people
would get stuck down there. Literally, they would come with $20 for dope,” said Edinger, referring to the first-come-first-own “shooting galleries” he sometimes operated.
“They didn’t care about getting home, they just cared about getting dope. Three years later, they’re still there.”
Since being homeless, Edinger knew what it would take to leave the homeless lifestyle;
he said he wasn’t ready to abandon an addiction.
“All I had to do was give up using and I wasn’t able to do that,” he said. “Despite the misery, despite laying my head down in an abandoned house full of human waste and f—ing old needles and crack bags and dope bags and any kind of garbage left in there with a bunch of people who would cut your throat if they thought you had $100.”
Although he preferred abandoned homes to shelters, he pretended to be suicidal 10 times to get a room at Charter Fairmount Institute, at Chestnut Hill Hospital. Other homeless followed suit, causing the crisis center to up its standards to ensure people weren’t taking advantage of services.
Edinger’s friend didn’t pass the new requirements of either needing a plan or having tried committing suicide.
“They turned him away and he scratched his wrist this way,” said Edinger, demonstrating by sliding his finger horizontally across his wrist.
“He didn’t want to kill himself, but he knew you had to go in looking good.”
It was difficult for Edinger to reconcile his new lifestyle with the one he left behind four years ago.
“I was the one that went to Catholic school [North Catholic High in Philadelphia] and played sports,” Edinger said. “And the one you called when you needed to move. … I was the dude you called on.”
Getting back to his old life was nothing short of a challenge. After abusing the first step of Narcotics Anonymous program, admitting himself powerless only when faced with the temptation of relapsing, he didn’t know where to go. More than 90 percent of U.S. treatment centers are locked into the AA approach, according to the American Psychological Association. He turned to his friend, Cathy, who allowed him to stay, with her child, at her Roosevelt Boulevard studio apartment. Cathy wasn’t the first to notice that Edinger was using again; however, her response to it was something he said he’ll never forget.
“Butch, I’m going to give you a deal that nobody ever gave you your entire life,” she told him. “If you don’t tell me you’re using, you got to f—ing go. But if you tell me, you can stay and I’m going to help you.”
It was an offer he could not pass up.The next day he checked out her list of various methadone clinics and decided to get his life back. His family noticed his good behavior. His mother invited him to a free weekend stay at a beachside hotel.
He took her offer one step further.
“I said, ‘Mom, um, could you ask Dad and maybe I could, like, live with you and get a job?'” Edinger recalled asking his mother. “I said, ‘I wouldn’t be able to get an apartment of my own now and I could work and save.’ And it ended up happening. Which was kind of a miracle because my father holds a lot of resentment against me.”
Edinger, 38, said he hopes to restart his life, but he doesn’t want to forget anything he picked up during the course of it. Although he’s concerned about landing a job with his criminal record, the sociology major asks who would know better about social ills than he?
“In what field is all the s–t that I’ve been through going to be a help to me rather than a hindrance?” he asked. “I’m not only reading the textbook. I pretty much went through a lot of it.”
Steve Wood can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.