by Matthew Desmond

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Chapter 7

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The Sick

Scott’s primary responsibility is to take care of Teddy, who seems older than his 52 years. Teddy can barely walk, but Scott, who used to be a nurse, insists that he walk around the trailer park anyway. Teddy is angry with Tobin Charney for evicting them, but Scott understands. He and Teddy fell behind on rent two months prior, when Teddy had to get a neck X-ray and a brain scan.

Teddy thinks that Tobin is “purely an asshole” for evicting them and, if he were able to, he would have “punched him in the nose.” Scott listens patiently as Teddy launches into a monologue. When he finishes, Scott figures that being evicted is a good thing: it is the “kick in the ass to get me out.”  


Scott grew up on an Iowa dairy farm. His mother was raped by his biological father, who ran out on her after she was forced to marry him. She married another abusive man, with whom she had Scott’s younger sister, Clarissa, but divorced him. Finally, she ended up with “Cowboy Cam” and had three more children.

Scott did not get along with Cowboy Cam and left for Winona State University in Minnesota at age seventeen. He soon grew tired of Winona. He moved to Milwaukee and finished his education at Milwaukee Area Technical College. At thirty-one, he received his nursing license and began working in a nursing home.

Scott lived an upscale life in Milwaukee. After five years, he hurt his back and was prescribed Percocet for the pain. At around the same time, Scott lost two of his best friends to AIDS. The opioids helped him to relieve both the emotional and the physical pain, and he had a steady supply until his physician retired. Scott began buying and stealing pills from both coworkers and patients.

Scott discovered fentanyl, which is a hundred times more effective than morphine, and began siphoning it from Duragesic patches at the nursing home. He rationalized that stealing pain medicine would enable him to take better care of his patients.

Before long, Scott was severely addicted to fentanyl and tried everything in order to avoid withdrawals, which involve shaking, sweating, diarrhea, and body aches. Scott calls this “the sick.” In August 2007, his siphoning of fentanyl was discovered. His supervisor, who had a history of drug abuse, gave Scott a few more chances. However, he soon lost his license indefinitely and decided to commit to the life of “a full-blown junkie.” He sold all of his valuables and stayed at the Lodge, where he met Teddy.

Scott liked Teddy in part because Teddy needed help, and Scott is a nurse at heart. Teddy has a history of homelessness. His family was poor, with fourteen children, and his father was an alcoholic who died after colliding with the back of a semitruck. Though they seemed to be mismatched, Scott and Teddy became friends and decided to become roommates. They found Tobin and the College Mobile Home Park, where Scott discovered that “getting drugs was as easy as asking for a cup of sugar.”

Scott’s dealers eventually ran out of their supply. He woke up feeling “the sick” approaching and began to walk around the trailer park until Heroin Susie and her boyfriend Billy noticed him. They invited him inside their trailer and offered him black-tar heroin. Though Scott always swore he would never use needles, particularly after seeing his friends die of AIDS, he was willing to try it. Soon, he felt the “relief” and “weightlessness” that made him feel like “a child floating back to the surface.” He has been using heroin ever since.

Heroin Susie and Billy have long been drug users. Susie’s legs are so scarred and discolored from thirty-five years of heroin injections that she struggles to find a vein. Sometimes, Billy will assist her by forcing the needle into the jugular artery on her neck. Scott, Susie, and Billy would work together on raising money for heroin, which costs as little as $15 or $20 for a balloon holding approximately a tenth of a gram.

Lenny claims that he turns away people with drug charges or domestic violence charges on their records. He can access anyone’s record free of charge via the Consolidated Court Automation Programs (CCAP) website, which is Wisconsin’s effort to inform citizens of the goings-on of its civil and criminal courts. Employers and landlords can easily view speeding tickets, evictions, felonies, and arrests. However, a number of Lenny’s tenants—including Susie and Billy—have drug charges.


Lenny and Office Susie accompany Tobin to Milwaukee’s Landlord Training Program as part of Tobin’s agreement with Alderman Witkowski. Around sixty other landlords are present, and at 9:00 a.m. the program coordinator, Karen, began the lecture. She emphasizes the importance of screening one’s tenants, or determining “who’s been naughty and who’s been nice.” She explains that it is not realistic to expect a tenant with a previous eviction to pay their rent, so it is foolish to accept them.

  • A landlord’s decision to accept or reject a tenant carries major consequences for both neighborhoods and individual buildings. Landlords have the power to shape “a geography of advantage and disadvantage” by trapping poor families in crime-ridden areas. A history of poverty, addiction, and incarceration can lead to an individual's “being isolated from job networks and exposed to vice and violence,” thus making it nearly impossible to lift oneself out of poverty.

Teddy decides to go home to Tennessee, and Scott realizes that he needs a plan. He asks Pito, a friend he met in Narcotics Anonymous, about job prospects. Pito connects him with Mira, “a take-no-shit lesbian,” who gives him a job hauling out abandoned valuables from foreclosed homes. Scott is shocked by all of the things people leave behind.

Teddy leaves for Tennessee in a white van, and the next evening Scott’s trailer is looted. Everyone in the park knows that he and Scott have been evicted, and that Teddy is gone. They wait until Scott is at work before taking everything of value, but they leave behind a plastic container that holds his photos, diplomas, and other “evidence that he had once been someone else.” They also left his Polaroid camera and his books, but took all of the empty beer cans to sell.

Scott thinks about the final home that he had cleared out that night. It had looked like a regular house, but inside was a stripper pole and a homemade stage that was surrounded by couches. Hardcore pornography was everywhere, including in two of three bedrooms upstairs. In the third bedroom, however, there was a twin bed, toys, and unfinished homework. Scott thinks about that bedroom as he sits on the floor of his “gutted-out trailer” and weeps.

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Chapter 6


Chapter 8