The Enemy Is Every One of Us: The Acclaimed Screenwriter of 'Traffic,' an Unflinching Inquiry into the War on Drugs, Learned His Material Firsthand

By Gaghan, Stephen | Newsweek, February 12, 2001 | Go to article overview

The Enemy Is Every One of Us: The Acclaimed Screenwriter of 'Traffic,' an Unflinching Inquiry into the War on Drugs, Learned His Material Firsthand


Gaghan, Stephen, Newsweek


I started drinking young and hard in Louisville, Ky., a town known for its bourbon, cigarettes and horse racing. I grew up on the same block where Hunter S. Thompson had a generation before. I also wanted to be a writer, like my grandfather, who carried a card in his wallet that read, "If you find me, call my son [my father] at this number... " I wasn't much different from my peers, except where they could stop drinking after three or six or 10 drinks, I couldn't stop and wouldn't stop until I had progressed through marijuana, cocaine, heroin and, finally, crack and freebase--which seem for so many people to be the last stop on the elevator.

None of this is particularly interesting. I was white and middle-class and took a stubborn pleasure in throwing away opportunities. I seemed to have a skill for attracting, then antagonizing, figures of authority and was expelled from high school after exhausting the supply of teachers willing to have me in their classes. I didn't care where I went as long as it was somewhere else. Like I said, common as weeds.

I made my way to New York, where I could purchase drugs off the street 24 hours a day. I rarely slept and felt lousy most days, working intermittently, befriending bartenders. Eventually I got arrested on the corner of 15th Street and 8th Avenue in a sting designed to take down a 14-year-old drug seller and his family. The cops wanted a white guy for the bust and waited until they got me.

Later that night I was handcuffed inside a wire cage at the pre-cinct. The following afternoon they chained 18 of us together and herded us out into the sunlight and into a small box on the back of a pickup truck. It was an Indian summer day with the temperature in the low 90s. The truck soon pulled over and parked. The fans were turned off, the lights turned on. We started to bake.

An hour went by and people were going crazy. I had written a "Simpsons" script and now recited it by heart. My audience was calling me "Professor" because of my glasses and asking questions about Bart and Lisa. Finally, the hatch separating the prisoners and the police officers slid open. A face appeared in the little slot. A voice said, "We're gonna ask you a question and if you get it right, we'll turn on the fans, turn off the lights and even give you a slice of pizza." The hatch shut.

Voices started in, "Yo, Professor, answer the question." The hatch opened. The face looked us over--soaked, puke everywhere, steaming--and asked, "Which is closer to you now, the moon or Europe?" I panicked. …

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