I’ll call her ‘Sally’ out of respect for the dead. We worked together at McDonald’s, the last refuge of scoundrels and lower-middle class ambitions.
Fitchburg, Mass. long had strong undercurrents of vice coursing through it. Heroin was no different. In the mid-90s, it roared to the top of the menu. It was often easier to find than weed.
The heroin was ferried about by a network of Dominicans in ugly, old minivans. Sally would get deliveries at work. The Dominicans came and Sally’s sanity went. She would return from the bathroom an Opiate Zombie, her wit and charm inverted into a sleepwalker-like shuffle and incoherent mumbling.
I wish I had done something. I wish I had stopped it. I was a teenager. I knew nothing.
Sally was cool as hell. She had come from the east, a wealthy town by the sea. Rumor had it (it may have been herself who propagated it) that she fled some sort of familial abuse. Whatever the case, she had the air of old blood, a strange Victorian gait about her. Alabaster face, jet black hair, a clipped and lilting accent with unmistakably posh elements sprinkled within her speech.
She completely stuck out in Fitchburg, against its grittiness and provincial roughness. She adapted to her new home with black trench coats, nylons, big boots- the full Goth kit. But her face told it differently, her eyes showing her displacement and betraying her lofty otherness.
She was smart and really funny and had great, great taste in music. The Cure (obviously). Iggy Pop. Weird industrial bands none of us had ever heard of. She was a fount of pop culture knowledge from somewhere bigger and seemingly better than Fitchburg.
It was in this time, in this place where Trainspotting landed 20 years ago. It was a seminal event. In the grime of Scotland, we saw our own ‘burg. In the misfit band of junkies, we saw ourselves, or at least idealized movie star avatars of ourselves. In the soundtrack, we heard the same music as our own bleak landscape. The dangers of a random glass to the face or a shoplifting run gone bad- we knew this scene and recognized it as our own.
Trainspotting marked a turning point for my little slice of damaged, impoverished humanity. ‘Burg kids flipping burgers to make money because we didn’t know what else to do. For me, I took Trainspotting as a fable. Heroin – smack – I wanted no part of it. Dead babies on the ceiling? You can keep that. Choose life? I think I shall, thank you very much.
Others in the group, the majority in fact, took it in another direction. They began to live it out. My friends, my beautiful, broken friends, sitting glass-eyed around filthy mattresses, gone to whatever it was. I was there somehow, maybe just to see it, to record it. A monitor. They always welcomed me. I don’t know why.
In contrast, Trainspotting showed me that writing can indeed set you free, no matter how shitty your hometown or how fucked up your social group. As a result of the movie, I sought out Irvine Welsh’s novels (lifted off unwatched shelves, likely. Forgive me Father, for I have sinned, etc. etc.) and dove in completely. Writing became my drug, temporarily at least. I was a late bloomer, not touching weed until I was older. I quickly made up for lost time, but always along the path of what can only be called ‘90s neohippie bullshit. Enlightenment through Ecstasy and acid (all lies of course). But there were no dead babies along that path. No complete fall from grace. Maybe I was lucky. Actually, I know I was.
Sally, on the other hand, had no such luck. Her trajectory was one-way, with a propulsive energy that I could only process as being fate/destiny/whatever. Of course, that’s just hippie bullshit lies too, isn’t it? A way to make bad things seem okay.
What happened to Sally was very bad. She discovered that she could make more money on the streets than in the drive-thru. In a testament to her bizarre wit, she made a joke out of it at first. Look what she could get! Forget shoplifting and stealing, she had credit on file!
This is the true horror of drugs. They make the unthinkable laughable. And that’s when things go bad.
The last time I remember seeing Sally, I was still working the drive-thru. She was with a John, a disgusting, toothless trade worker in a 20-year-old pickup truck. She said hi. I said hi. They drove off. I think it was about 6 months later when they found Sally in the woods. Her killer was never brought to justice. Whoever did it, however it happened- heroin was the accomplice.
Today, heroin is bigger than ever, except now it’s called “medicine.” It’s served up by doctors to a massive legion of suburban Opiate Zombies. Bad backs, bad knees, toothaches- whatever ails, there is but one answer and that answer is the almighty opiate, forever and ever amen. Pure and scientific, the perfect salvation for the masses. That’s progress for you.
Every time I see Trainspotting or hear a song from its outsized soundtrack, the ghost of Sally visits. Every time I see an Opiate Zombie at the mall or the grocery store or the office –they’re everywhere now- Sally’s ghost is there too. Where was her prescription, her slice of relief nonchalantly doled out by staff in white lab coats? Why was she pushed to the street for her fix while the SUV drivers next to me on the highway are afforded such comfort? The hypocrisy nags. It never stops nagging.
Trainspotting is an incredible film because it challenges us not to forget, not to sugar-coat, not to glorify. In its own way, it nags too. At its core, it is about remembering. Danny Boyle makes us remember with humor, darkness, and pure humanity throughout, elements that continue to shine in his work today. A good fable teaches real lessons and Trainspotting does so knowingly and truthfully, and that’s why it sticks 20 years later. It’s a requiem for those we’ve lost, a paean to those who have survived. It’s not so much about choosing life as it is about life choosing you, and dealing with whatever comes next.