Meth is the most abused hard drug on Earth, with 26 million addicts, which equals the combined number of cocaine and heroin users. For years the Mexican drug cartels used industrial-sized superlabs to control the world’s meth supply. When the Mexican government in 2009 banned pseudoephedrine decongestants — the most popular and potent precursor for meth-making — the cartels shifted some of their manufacturing to California, which officials believe produces more meth in the U.S. than the next five top-producing states combined. (PBS Frontline and the U.S. Department of Justice)
Recently, meth has taken a do-it-yourself turn. The popular new “one-pot,” or “shake and bake,” method requires only a two-liter soda bottle and someone desperate enough to shake up a bunch of unstable ingredients. In a story last November, this sassy headline said it all: “Micro Meth Labs Run Riot. Undermanned Police Play Whack-a-Mole.” (Wall Street Journal)
In the end, I found more questions than answers. There were no helpful tips for getting rid of meth houses and few explanations why meth has become such a nationwide scourge. Some say the boom is, like everything else, the economy’s fault (Bloomberg). But from what I see of the traffic going in and out of the Bad House, these runners, bike thieves, and flophousers were probably never on the upswing of any economy.
The meth-buying clientele who come to our street are a different story. There are collegiate young people on skateboards and bikes who come to buy. Cars full of rowdies ready to party, where one jumps out to make the purchase. Sometimes it’s a respectable middle-aged couple or a construction guy in a late-model truck. These types stroll up to the Bad House like visiting royalty.
And then there was Blue Minivan Lady. I was out for my morning run and spotted the blue minivan parked in the Bad House driveway. Always kept clear, the driveway is like a landing strip for the bike traffic that comes and goes through the backyard gate. I figured the minivan driver didn’t know the rules yet. Her head rested on the steering wheel, as if fallen in despair. From what I could see, she looked like the kind of mom who’s always early to pick up her kids from elementary school. She was wearing a jaunty little hat.
I watched for a few minutes. Blue Minivan Lady didn’t move. I thought about going inside to call 911, but instead, as inured as I’d become to the Bad House drama, I turned and walked the opposite way. At the end of the block, I looked back to see that Blue Minivan Lady had stepped from the car. She was a small woman, nicely dressed, and it seemed to take all her strength, moral and physical, to open the backyard gate with the squealing hinges.
How long before she joins the steady stream of twitching, hollow-eyed people with bad teeth and matted hair who chatter down the sidewalks of my life?
What the Neighbors Say
Some neighbors are resigned to the Bad House. Some don’t mind it at all. I’ve even heard once or twice that we’re safer living so close to it because “they won’t piss in their own backyard.” Of course, these same neighbors keep mean dogs and lock up their bikes with care. I wonder what might change their minds about the danger the rest of us feel. A meth-lab explosion? Overdose on the sidewalk? A visit from a Mexican drug cartel?
Okay. Forget the meth and bike stealing. How about public harmony? California state law defines a nuisance property as one that is “indecent or offensive” and that affects “the comfortable enjoyment of life or property” of a neighborhood. The Bad House crowd may not “piss in their own backyard,” but their customers have certainly pissed in the shrubbery of our front yards. Pissing figuratively in our neighborhood — that is, shooting up, snorting, smoking drugs in cars parked just around the corner or down the street from the Bad House because the desperate can’t wait — is a regular occurrence. More than once I’ve almost been mowed down by the kamikaze drug runners, especially at night.
For hard-working, intelligent homeowners to accept the presence of a house this bad takes the unofficial San Diego motto “It’s all good” to a new extreme. I think back to other cities and towns across America I’ve lived in and try to imagine my former neighbors not uniting against a Bad House, not fighting for the overall good of their neighborhoods. I can’t.
So I’m grateful for neighbors who care. For us, the activities of the Bad House control the mood and safety of the entire street. It’s like the anger, fear, confusion, and sadness generated within a family when one member is a drug addict. My neighbor Annabel (all names have been changed) tells me that her dog refuses to walk past the Bad House. Absolutely, positively refuses. That may sound silly to you, but to me it’s a reminder that sometimes dogs are smarter than people.
My neighbor Gloria believes that houses like the Bad House have another, more sinister effect. “It brings people to the street who ordinarily wouldn’t be here,” she says. “Once they’re here, they see what a nice, quiet place for crime it is.”
Gloria is the leader of our Neighborhood Watch group. One day she told me a story about a friend whose home was robbed. “The thieves wiped her out,” Gloria said. “The police said trucks must have been in the driveway for hours, but nobody thought to question what they were doing there. They took everything but the cat.”
This woman was going to sell her house, move to a different part of the city. “I told her that these things can happen anywhere,” said Gloria. “I told her she had to go out and meet every single one of her neighbors. If she’d known her neighbors, it’s possible that somebody would have noticed the trucks and called the police. Knowing your neighbors and watching out for each other is the best alarm system you can have.”