When Liz and I moved to Park Slope in 1976, the neighborhood still bore scars of a decade of disinvestment exacerbated by the city's fiscal crisis. There were abandoned buildings on 7th Avenue south of 9th Street, on Garfield Place between 7th and 6th Avenues, and on many blocks between 4th and 5th Avenues.
But the most heartrending scenes that I saw in the neighborhood were those outside the methadone clinic on 8th Avenue and 5th Street. Every weekday, I would see 20 to 40 people lined up outside the clinic, their faces drawn and haggard, their affect depressed and defeated. About a third of the people were women, two thirds men. And most of the men were wearing army fatigue jackets.
Day after day, I saw the same faces. The same jackets. And I had a haunting realization- these men were Vietnam veterans. Young men from Park Slope and Windsor Terrace's working class neighborhoods who came back from the war with drug habits and mental health issues that rendered them unable to gain or keep regular jobs.
And the methadone clinic was not the only place I saw them. As I jogged or walked around the park, or, a few years later, took my children to the park to play ball, I would see theme on park benches along Prospect Park West or on benches by the ball fields. They were there, rain or shine, by late morning and stayed till late afternoon.
It was hard to put in words how painful this was to see. We had sent the best of our working class youth to Vietnam, to fight a war so awful and demoralizing that it destroyed many who fought in it, and then left many of them to suffer with their nightmares and injuries with whatever drugs that would kill the pain, whether illegal or prescribed by doctors.
As years passed, the abandoned buildings were fixed up and Park Slope became wealthier, the number of people lining up outside the clinic started to shrink and the methadone clinic eventually closed.
But I never want to forget the men and women who stood outside it, people who sacrificed for their country and paid a terrible price for what they did.
I write this piece in their honor, and as a reminder how easily people can become disposable when their families lack power and influence.