A short story about heroin

Cabramatta in the 1990s was known for two things: 1) Being home to the largest settlement of Vietnamese migrants to Australia, and 2) Being the country’s heroin capital.

The two were not necessarily related, although the former occasionally made the most of the latter (more on this later).

My family lived close to Cabramatta, and both my parents started working downtown in the 90s.

While neither were involved in the heroin trade (Cabramatta did, believe it or not, have an economy outside of heroin (and, FYI, most people in the 90s would have chosen to believe “not”)), both had stories from the height of the drug boom.

Dad had tales of tripping over junkies (“They were everywhere”). Mom had tales of tripping over mounds of heroin (“It was everywhere”). They made it sound like Cabramatta was in the midst of a perpetual snow day.

In the local government’s words, it was an “epidemic.” People were scared of Cabramatta. No one wanted to visit.

This didn’t seem to worry my parents, though.

My dad worked for a travel agency, and locals were still booking flights to Vietnam, which meant, epidemic or not, he had work in Cabramatta.

As for mom, who rung up customers at a pharmacy, the heroin addicts, or “xì ge,” as they’re called in Vietnamese, didn’t scare away customers. They were the customers.

***

Most pharmacies in Australia are small and stock only medical and personal care items. You won’t find anything to the scale of a Walgreens or CVS.

Dang’s Chemist, where my mom worked, one-upped every pharmacy in Cabramatta when it came to intimacy. The hole-in-the-wall establishment was claustrophobic, and for good reason: a smaller store meant cheaper rent. It was the same reason the store, despite its booming financial success, never renovated or turned on the A/C in the summer. A bean not spent was a bean saved. This philosophy made the owner a literal millionaire.

In a town dotted with pharmacies, Dang’s was the local favorite. It knew its market better than anyone else, and was more determined to capitalize on it than anyone else. According to mom, this was “Asian Smarts” at play. If a competing pharmacy priced a bar of soap at $3, Dang’s would price it at $2.90. If a customer came in claiming they’d seen some antibiotics elsewhere for a lower price, Dang’s would price match.

To the average Australian, these things didn’t matter. But the residents of Cabramatta weren’t average Australians. They were largely migrants from Vietnam who understood the struggle of building a new life in a foreign land. They weren’t about to piss away 10 cents if they could avoid it. Asian Smarts worked for both sides.

So when heroin came to town, Dang’s saw an opportunity.

To shoot heroin, a person needs a syringe, water with which to mix the heroin, a spoon in which the heroin and water can be dissolved, and the heroin itself. Dang’s couldn’t sell heroin, but it could sell everything else. The syringes used to inject heroin were the same used by diabetics to deliver insulin. The pharmacy sold tiny pods of sterilized water that were used to flush IV drips. Throw in an alcohol swab — the kind doctors swipe against your skin before a vaccination — and a plastic spoon from a bulk goods store, and you had what was essentially a heroin injecting kit.

Dang’s packaged these kits in small homemade envelopes constructed from junk mail, so even the envelopes themselves presented a cost saving (Smarts on Smarts!). Each kit sold for $1.50.

Could a heroin user buy each of these items in bulk for a lower price? Sure. A box of 100 syringes sold for $10. Bulk packs of plastic spoons were available at grocery stores for $2. But the thing with heroin is it takes away your ability to plan for the future. Dang’s understood this. And because it understood its market, it capitalized on it.

***

There are certain drugs that make people scary. Heroin is not one of them. Addicts enter such a deep state of euphoria they barely function.

When I was 10, I used to regularly drop into the pharmacy to wait for my mom to finish work. I sat behind the counter, where Dang’s stashed hundreds of its home-brewed heroin kits. Addicts would come and go, asking for “a pack.” Those who didn’t have the $1.50 for the whole pack would often just buy “a needle” (50 cents) or “a spoon” (20 cents).

Several times a day, various addicts who had just shot up would come in, stand near the counter, and sway back and forth; their eyelids drooped, their sentences slurred. Most didn’t even know where they were. They were harmless, but annoying. After all, Dang’s was a claustrophobic place even without customers.

According to mom, there was an easy way to get rid of these people.

“You say to them, ‘Hay! HAY!” she said, “You want me to call you an AMBULANCE?”

And just like that, the addict would snap out of their high, assure her that they were fine, and promptly leave the store.

***

By the early 2000s, Cabramatta had cleaned up. The establishment of legal drug injecting rooms and needle exchange programs drew users away from Cabramatta. There was probably some kind of disruption to the heroin trade, too. Before long, the drug had gone out of vogue.

This wasn’t a problem for Dang’s. It had identified a new opportunity: selling baby formula to Chinese nationals.

Cabramatta today is a thriving cultural center. You can pay to join Cabramatta food tours, where guides take you to Vietnamese restaurants where you’re guaranteed to get ripped off. The target market is white people who don’t know better. The Smarts really are everywhere in this town.

Despite the hard evidence that the city implemented strategies that effectively curbed the use of heroin, people still had their own theories about what happened.

According to my dad, heroin is now another city’s problem. All the addicts moved to suburbs with injecting rooms.

According to my mom, heroin is no longer a problem. All the addicts are dead.

“No, they’ve all gone to Redfern because there are injecting rooms there,” said dad.

“They all died off,” said mom.

“NO, they’re in Redfern!”

“Yeah,” mom said. “All dead.”

First published February 8, 2016