My Dairy Queen (DQ) ice cream parlor is a mile from my home in Worthington–a suburb of Columbus, Ohio and a gateway to the heartland and Corn Belt of the USA flyover country. My DQ is so not Worthington, an historical and tidy town. No, my DQ’s gutters are under lit by fluorescent lights. Primary colored ads cover the windows. A gigantic neon-lit soft-serve vanilla cone floats over the patio. Trash cans with helmets, looking like sentries, mark the patio’s corners. Stationed in the back are four dark green dumpsters. Full.
I notice all this because I am by inclination and training an ethnographer. I take in my social and cultural environment, the bricks and mortars, conversations and writings the way a hummingbird takes in sugary waters. I am a fortunate person who has been paid by a university for forty years to do just that: teach and write about social and cultural order and change. I’ve written about my thirty-five years of my everyday life in Seven Minutes from Home: An American Daughter’s Story (Sense: 2016). The DQ is part of that life.
I am a regular at the DQ along with other regulars. Coaches bring their kids’ teams. Winner and losers lap their soft-serves side-by-side. Divorced fathers bring their kids on their Sunday visitation days. Grandparents indulge their grandkids. Heavy-set women pop in and pop out, taking their indulgences to their SUV’s, slurping Blizzards in private.
“Peanut Buster Parfait,” I say to Barbie, a tiny high-school girl behind the counter. “Lots of hot-fudge, please.” I am addicted to the Peanut Buster Parfait, as are many of my friends, but none of us has plans to join a Twelve-Step program to unaddict ourselves.
“Two dollars and seventy-nine cents,” Barbie says, giving me the senior discount.
I give her three dollars, and drop the change in the “Help the Children” jar on the counter.
Barbie pumps hot fudge into the bottom of the plastic glass, sprinkles on peanuts, a pump of vanilla soft-serve, more hot fudge and another pump of soft-serve, still more hot fudge and a spoonful of peanuts. “Great,” I say, picking up the parfait, a napkin and a red plastic long-handled spoon. It’s a warm enough early October afternoon to slip into one of the quarter-round cement benches on the patio and watch the activity around me. There are lots of different kinds of people here today. I have never seen the DQ so busy in the early afternoon on a school day. I’m having a great time. Peanut Buster Parfait and people watching. What more could I want? Perfectly satisfied, I walk back home. My husband, Ernest, is in the kitchen eating leftover Halloween candy. “You won’t believe what I saw at the Dairy Queen,” I say, sitting down at the table and starting the conversation with an attention grabber. “What?” “There were all kinds of people like I’ve never seen there before.” “What kind? Skinny kind?” “No. Some kids with jeans hanging down past their underwear.” “Boxers?” “I doubt it. They didn’t look strong enough.” “Dogs?” “Actually, there was an apricot-colored toy poodle there with a rhinestone leash attached to a svelte woman in high heels and a mini-skirt.” “So, her underwear was showing, too?” “Not until she got into the passenger seat of a BMW.” “Anyone else of interest,” Ernest asks, taking a swallow of Diet Coke. “Yes. There were two youths speaking Spanish.” “Ole.” “And a carload of Upper Arlington types in their Abercrombie and Fitch t-shirts.” “Ubercrumby and Rich.” “And a woman pushing a stroller with no baby. And a guy who looked like Homer Simpson, although not yellow. And a trio of guys in Gahanna football jackets. A pit bull puppy on a string connected to woman with an LPN badge, and..” “What were they eating?” Ernest asks. “I didn’t notice,” I say. “I’m a sociologist, you know. Not a dietician.”
Over the next couple of weeks I go often to my Dairy Queen where this rapid shift in clientele has been taking place—different ethnicities, ages, races, social classes. Not only is the Dairy Queen’s brazen architecture so not Old Worthington, now the clientele are so not Old Worthington, either. I ponder the possible changes—a Worthington “melting pot” like the DQ chocolate melter? An urbanized village? Sightseers?
“You might want to read this,” Ernest says. At breakfast, he hands me the Worthington weekly newspaper. I read the headline: POLICE ARREST 13 YOUTH FOR TRAFFICKING IN HEROIN. And then the lead paragraphs: Worthington police arrested thirteen young adults in a drug sweep at—“ “—the Dairy Queen!” I cry. “Yep,” Ernest says. “Your Dairy Queen.” “Oh My God!” “Yep.”
I read on. “They were selling Mexican brown heroin.“It’s needle grade,” Ernest says.
“Inexpensive,” it says here. “Highly toxic. Highly addictive.“Yep.” “They’ve been dealing at the DQ for three weeks.” “Yep.” I’m shaking. I’m shaking. “Read what the police sergeant says!”
Ernest reads out loud. “ ‘In the past we dealt with weed, pills and some cocaine…All of the sudden, you’re talking about heroin… Some kid will ruin his life.’ ”“I feel for his parents,” I say. “All the parents.”
Two days later I go the Dairy Queen, glad that the heroin epidemic has been nipped and glad that the DQ is still open. Only the regular-regulars are at the DQ. I’m thinking about what the police sergeant had said—“Some kid could have ruined his life.” I’m relieved it wasn’t my kid. Twenty years ago it could have been. Would have been? But it wasn’t.
The January freeze has set in but that doesn’t stop me from going to my DQ to get a Peanut Buster Parfait. I sit in my car, heater on, and spoon the creamy deliciousness into my mouth. A TV truck is in the parking lot. Probably the techs are getting their DQ fixes, too. Or, maybe there’s “Breaking News” in Worthington. Very unlikely, but I turn on the TV station’s App on my iPhone.
The New York news anchor is doing a segment on the biggest drug epidemic in the country. “It’s heroin,” he tells his viewing audience. And it is not just an inner-city problem. Mexican drug cartels have discovered new lucrative markets: suburbs. New clients–high school students, teachers, professionals, college athletes, soccer moms.
“Heroin is everywhere,” he says. “Even in places so typically Middle-American that companies for years have used it as a place to test new products…We welcome our correspondent now…”
I almost choke on a peanut. “…from the Columbus, Ohio upscale suburb, Worthington, Ohio….”
What? “…She’s with Beth at an ice cream parlor parking lot.”Beth’s clean and scrubbed face, eyes shielded by dark glasses, comes on my iPhone. She looks like the girl next door. She is the girl next door. She’s in that TV truck. “You don’t look like a junkie,” the correspondent says. “Anybody could be a junkie,” Beth says. “Even Miss America.” “Why heroin, Beth?”
“That’s easy. On a scale of 1 to 10, cocaine is a 6. Heroin is a 26.” “Is it hard to get?” “No. Easier than weed or cocaine. I could call and get it within fifteen minutes, right here in this DQ parking lot.” “Expensive?” “Nah. It’s cheap. Less than ten dollars a hit. Much cheaper than Vicodan.” “Your friends…?” “We all do it. There’s no stigma. Is that what you’re asking?” “Back to you,” the correspondent says to the anchor. “Thanks.” Looking serious, the anchor tells the viewing audience, “Heroin overdose take the lives of at least 23 Ohioans every week.” I watch Beth exit the TV truck and open the passenger door of a late-model sedan. I wonder if Beth’s life will be one of this week’s 23.
“Did you read this?” Ernest asks me, pointing to the lead article in our newspaper. “Thirty-seven heroin overdoses in 24 hours here in Franklin County.” I read: Mothers overdosed in cars, babies in car seats. Teenagers collapsing on streets. Kids blacked out. Over three thousand dead from overdoses in Ohio this year.
A new crop of heroin has hit us. The old one was cut with fentanyl, a horse sedative; this one is mixed with carfentanil, a sedative for elephants. I turn on the local news. They are doing a segment on the local heroin epidemic. Social workers, doctors and users have been assembled. The director of our public health, a doctor, is showing everyone how to safely test their heroin. I watch him put a syringe into his arm. “Only use a small amount,” he says. “See how you are feeling before you do more.” “What about Narcan?” the newscaster asks. “A very good antidote. Anyone can get FREE Narcan at any drug store or medical supplier. No questions asked. It will save the life of the overdoser.
” “What do you think of that, Beth?” the newscaster asks. “Honestly?” “Well, yes.” “I don’t like it because it ruins my high. But, it wears off so I can get high again.”
Laurel Richardson is an Academy Esteemed Professor Emeritus of Sociology at The Ohio State University. Permission: The International Interdisciplinary Impact of Laurel Richardson’s Work (Sense: 2015) includes over fifty tributes to her and her most recent book, Seven Minutes from Home: An American Daughter’s Story (Sense: 2016), is a nominee for the Best Memoir: USA.