Hanging on a line
I was on my way home the first time I saw them. It was just the other day. I was coming up the road near my house and there they were – a pair of white sneakers with the laces tied together hanging over a telephone wire. It was the first time I’d seen this cultural artifact in my small town — in any small town in Maine — and it made me sad.
I’d heard the rumors, of course. The shoes were supposed to mean drugs were available nearby, that gangs were active in the area, that someone had died from drugs or violence. “Oh dear,” I thought. “Not here.” Not in my little town of farms and cows and endless views.
And in the days since, I have felt sad every time I pass those sneakers. I’ve been surprised at how much they’ve bothered me. So much, that I looked on Snopes.com, the urban legend debunking website, for the meaning of sneakers on telephone wires.
I found that there are many theories about what the hanging shoes mean, but no one really knows. Snopes.com offered the following interpretations:
It’s the work of gangs marking their territory;
Bullies take them off defenseless kids, then sling them up out of reach as the ultimate taunt;
Gang members create an informal memorial to mark the spot where a friend lost his life;
Crack dealers festoon wires to advertise their presence in the neighborhood;
The shoes increase wire visibility for low-flying aircraft (the sheer unlikelihood of this notion makes it my favorite);
Overly puffed-up boys who have just lost their virginity or otherwise passed a sexual milestone look to signal the event to others;
Graduating seniors mark this transition in their lives by leaving something of themselves behind, namely, their shoes;
Kids do it just because it’s fun.
So maybe there’s no reason at all for me to be sad about the dangling sneakers in my neighborhood. Maybe they mean something quite different from what I imagined. Maybe they don’t mean anything at all. Somehow, though, they continue to haunt me.
Whatever they signify, I know, and the shoes remind me, that drugs are everywhere. Even in my lovely small town, where people work hard and are mostly kind, where the sorts of tragedies that make the news are rare.
Drugs are destroying lives every day, in the small towns of Maine, in cities across the United States, in places around the world. They do immense direct damage to users and their families, and a tsunami of indirect damage, including related crime and increased health care costs. According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), the health care costs of tobacco use are $96 billion annually; alcohol use is responsible for $30 billion in health care costs; illicit drugs are responsible for another $11 billion. Overall, NIDA reports on its website (drugabuse.gov), abuse of tobacco, alcohol and illicit drugs exacts a toll of more than $600 billion annually in costs related to crime, lost work productivity and health care. (The agency includes non-medical use of prescription drugs in illicit drug use.)
And young people are the ones most affected. According to NIDA, in the past year, 7 percent of 12-to-17-year-olds and 13 percent of 18-to-25-year-olds acknowledged using prescription drugs — opioids, ADHD stimulants and anti-anxiety medications — for non-medical reasons. As of December 2012, almost 15 percent of high school seniors reported using a prescription drug non-medically in the last year. The agency goes on to say, “In 2010, almost 3,000 young adults died from prescription drug (mainly opioid) overdoses — more than died from overdoses of any other drug, including heroin and cocaine combined — and many more needed emergency treatment.”
Almost 3,000 dead — about as many as were killed on Sept. 11 — many times the number killed and wounded at this year’s Boston Marathon. And that doesn’t even count cigarettes, alcohol or street drugs. But where’s the outrage? Where are the calls for government action to end the needless deaths — and they are entirely needless, completely preventable.
I’m not an expert in the field of addiction and drug treatment; I have no credentials in criminal justice. I have no answers.
All I have are two questions: How long will we tolerate this waste of young lives and potential? What would you do if one of those 3,000 dead were your child?
Those lives should mean more than a pair of sneakers hanging on a wire.