When I was nineteen and chose to accept the creeping suspicion that I would turn out to be a writer and, by extension, chronically deficient of funds, I made the fiscally prudent decision to drop out of school. I still worked on the college newspaper to which I had sacrificed so much of my grade-point average, writing a weekly gossip column until a brother in the Zeta Beta Tau fraternity threatened to sue over an item I’d written about his alleged screening for his fraternity brothers of a video he’d filmed of himself having sex with his girlfriend. The threats spooked the editors of The Daily Pennsylvanian into suspending the column entirely. This did not bother me, as I thought I had more substantial work to do.
On the other side of town, a virulent heroin epidemic needed to be investigated. It was 1998 and Philadelphia still nurtured a robust-in-hindsight tabloid newspaper called the Philadelphia Daily News (motto: “The People Paper”), where I was an intern on the city desk. The summer had required the city desk’s near-daily attendance at some photo-op or announcement in a particularly lawless swath of eastern North Philadelphia known as the Badlands. It was the most syringe-blanketed, zombie-infested, bombed-out neighborhood in a town in which achieving a superlative in such categories really meant something, and the city’s new celebrity police commissioner, John Timoney, had thrown himself into an exotic—or quixotic—quest to finally Do Something About It, via a multi-agency siege he called Operation Sunrise.
For all of Timoney’s messianic zeal, his efforts instilled little faith in the loose confederation of addiction counselors and rehab providers I met in the Badlands. Their budgets had been gutted by some technicality of welfare reform, the heroin seemed to be getting purer and more noxious every week, and they could not handle the drastic influx of court dates and bail demands they faced as a result of Operation Sunrise’s indiscriminate sweeps. A distressing new book on the drug war called The Fix illuminated their struggle; although numerous studies had estimated that every dollar spent in the attempt to constrain the demand for drugs—especially if those efforts focused on drugs’ most conspicuous consumers—was worth ten spent trying to stamp out its supply, the supply-siders had won the debate again and again.
I wanted to alert “the people” of Philadelphia to the misconceptions clouding our heroin problem, so I called the author of The Fix. He humored me, and then casually asked if I was aware that John Timoney’s daughter, Christine, was a drug addict.
This was tragic, of course, but also a fascinating story. Why was the police chief of an impoverished city with a famously overcrowded prison system and no shortage of rapists and murderers on the loose making it his first order of business to round up and jail a bunch of pathetic heroin addicts . . . when his own daughter was addicted to the stuff? Was he trying to track her down? Was it a macho thing? What was it like to fight the drug war on two such vastly different fronts? I scheduled an interview for the next week, telling his press officer I wanted to address concerns about the city’s “drug treatment infrastructure.”
But in the fluorescent glare of Timoney’s office, armed with my tape recorder, I felt like an asshole. The murder rate had already dropped drastically in his first few months on the job, and that year it would plunge below 300 after breaking 400 in every year of the previous decade. Who the hell was I? “I’ve known people who have gone into treatment,” he offered, shaking his head and giving me an opening to lamely and awkwardly mention his daughter. When I did, his expression hardened in a way that spooked me. “I don’t want to talk about my daughter,” he said. I left soon thereafter.
And that was it. My editors instructed me to drop the story, and I left the paper the next month in a routine round of Knight-Ridder budget cuts. I ended up in Hong Kong, where I’d lived as a kid and where, for the time being, there was some money.