Righteous Dopefiend

Righteous Dopefiend

Righteous Dopefiend

Righteous Dopefiend


This powerful study immerses the reader in the world of homelessness and drug addiction in the contemporary United States. For over a decade Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg followed a social network of two dozen heroin injectors and crack smokers on the streets of San Francisco, accompanying them as they scrambled to generate income through burglary, panhandling, recycling, and day labor. Righteous Dopefiend interweaves stunning black-and-white photographs with vivid dialogue, detailed field notes, and critical theoretical analysis. Its gripping narrative develops a cast of characters around the themes of violence, race relations, sexuality, family trauma, embodied suffering, social inequality, and power relations. The result is a dispassionate chronicle of survival, loss, caring, and hope rooted in the addicts' determination to hang on for one more day and one more "fix" through a "moral economy of sharing" that precariously balances mutual solidarity and interpersonal betrayal.


There is nothing righteous about dopefiends. They’re assholes;
they’ll screw you. There is nothing enjoyable about this life. —Max

Jeff’s Fieldnotes

Cars shoot one by one around the blind curve of the exit ramp as they descend from the freeway without reducing their speed. Frank is the first to cross. He strains to listen, but the background roar of rush hour traffic above us drowns out the sound of oncoming cars. He takes a deep breath, jumps off the curb, and sprints safely past the DO NOT ENTER sign onto the median. Felix follows, crossing carefully but more confidently. Now it is my turn. I timidly stick out one foot as though testing the temperature of water, hold my breath, and dash to the other side. I have driven past this spot weekly for the last ten years, but when I feel it for the first time below the rubber sole of my shoe, and when I grab the iron guardrail to hoist myself onto the median, I feel as if I am stepping onto foreign soil.

We are approaching a shooting gallery known as “the hole,” a recessed V-shaped space beneath the juncture of two major San Francisco freeways. To enter it, we have to sidestep along a six-inch-wide cement beam for another ten yards, with cars rushing by on either side.

A discarded metal generator sits at the far end of the space. Three catty-corner, earthquakereinforced concrete pylons support the double-decker freeways high above us and also shield us from the view of passing cars. My foot sinks into something soft just as Felix warns, “Careful where you step.” I move more cautiously now to avoid the other piles of human feces fertilizing the sturdy plants that were selected by freeway planners to withstand a lifetime of car exhaust. The ground is also littered with empty plastic water bottles, candy wrappers, brown paper bags twisted at the stem containing empty bottles of fortified wine, the rusted shards of a metal bed frame, and a torn suitcase brimming with discarded clothing. Behind the generator, a sheet of warped plywood rests on a milk crate; on top of the plywood, a Styrofoam cup half full of water and the bottom half of a crushed Coke can sit ready for use.

Frank and Felix eagerly hunch over the plywood table and prepare to “fix” a quarter-gram “bag” of Mexican black tar heroin. They are running partners, which means they share all their resources, including this twenty-dollar sticky pellet of heroin the size of a pencil eraser that has been carefully wrapped and knotted in an uninflated red balloon. Felix earned this bag as payment from his supplier. He gets one for free for every ten that he sells. Frank makes his money

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