I go to work past some kind of vocational high school in Riga, and almost every morning, I see something that reminds me of my high school days in the US-- almost everyone has left the building and is standing around in small to medium-sized groups. Back at Newton North High, this kind of a scene meant there was a fire drill, and this occurred a couple of times during any semester. At the Latvian school, the teenagers are out, standing in clumps, every weekday. And 99% of them are smoking. It is, in other words, a daily “nicotine drill”.
Don't get me wrong. Smoking is an individual choice. I have smoked for periods in my life, but never to the point of addiction (“needing” a cigarette at all costs, feeling “withdrawal” symptoms). If someone wants to smoke, let them do it (with respect for others and non-smokers, a commodity in short supply in Latvia). But the shocking number of smoking teenagers every morning indicates a number of things badly wrong. First, apparently these kids are either not educated about smoking, or whatever they are told falls on deaf ears. Compare this to the relatively low teen smoking rates in Sweden and other European countries. The other thing is that these smokers are the public health problems of the future in a country were there is practically no public health – by the time they are 20 years older, there may well be no tax-funded health care in Latvia (or many of them may be net consumers of health service in countries they have emigrated to).
In other words, the “nicotine drill” is yet another “street level” observation of the failure of societal mechanisms in Latvia and the continued degeneration of everyday life. I can only note that the proportion of the strange, addled and desperate-looking on the streets continues to increase. It is, perhaps, distorted by the fact that I work near the Riga central train station, and train stations are magnets for social outcasts.
Just a few examples – the pathetic, stereotype-boosting hustle by Roma/Gypsies by the train station, involving a few women peddling some kind of cosmetics, supervised by a number of men. It happens every day, with little apparent success by the “salesladies”. Where the goods come from can also be open to question. Certainly, one of the marketing mistakes by this team of street peddlers is that most Latvians automatically think – “Roma=stolen goods”. This may or may not be true. Perhaps they are peddling counterfeit goods. In any case, this activity, day-to-day, propagates the image of Roma as folks who engage in what can charitably be called cheap-ass, sleazy commerce.
A few meters away (one standing with a crutch, one sitting in his wheelchair) are two disabled beggars, who routinely engage in verbal and, sometimes, physical bum fights. The stand right by the pedestrian cross toward the train station (also the Origo shopping center) said to be the busiest in northern Europe. Here we see the phenomenon I have called urban cattle in full flower. Urban cattle are people who simply wander about mindlessly, ignorant of distinctions between sidewalks and road traffic, as well as anyone else engaged in locomotion (on foot, by motor vehicle or bike) around then. Urban cattle operate alone or in small herds. These herds, as a rule, fan out when one approaches and tries to overtake and pass them while walking somewhere in a purposeful manner (the cattle saunter and pause, doing “stop and stares” at nothing in particular).
It has now become routine at the Origo crossing, where pedestrian lights are indicated by digital times, for the urban cattle to jump the gun in considerable numbers at around 10 seconds before the lights actually change. I see this every time I cross there. First the urban cattle, some as early as minus 15, without even breaking stride from whatever hallucinatory or somnambulant hike they are one, then the rest of us
This seems especially dangerous, as the cattle end up in the path of drivers racing past the crossing on yellow. So far, I have not seen anyone hit, which seems almost miraculous. Then one day I noticed a few heavy-eyed cattle walking in a noddy-plodding manner not typical of alcohol drunks, who usually stagger and sometimes are self-aware (with the exception of the glassy-eyed robodrunks marching in their own oblivion).
Which brings us to the next observation. Mr H is definitely here in Riga. Harry the Horse is riding high. People are fucked up on heroin in Riga, not in great numbers, but increasingly noticeable. I have worked or lived in places with junkies on the streets before (New York, Frankfurt) and the eyes half-shrouded by lids, knees bending slowly, then popping back out of the nod thing is pretty obvious. Maybe other recreational chemicals do the same. I don't remember seeing folks on quaaludes back in the day, but those made people who took them into giggly-gumbies (like the stop-motion clay creature Gumby of 1950s and 1960s TV), or so it is said.
Anyway, I run across a few obvious junkies on the street every week, and this should have alerted the media that something is going on. But the Latvian media do not have the time or resources to deal with this issue, or maybe I don't read the right papers. However, it is become clear that heroin use among the underclass (and not only) is an emerging problem in this country.
My solution – decriminalize heroin, set up needle exchanges, clean shooting galleries and offer detox programs (unrealistic in Latvia except with charitable financing) to those who need it. This would reduce the danger of overdoses, get the heroin trade out of the hands of criminals (shifting it to pharmacies for registered addicts), prevent the spread of AIDS and hepatitis, as well as drastically reduce crime related to drug addiction (theft and robberies) as well as emptying the prisons of those “guilty” of victimless crime.