Sniffing

To kids looking for quick thrills, painting the town has a meaning all its own.

There was a Styrofoam wig head on Freddy Garcia’s desk. Judging from the half-dozen copper-colored gouges in its cranium, it had obviously been through the Wig Head Demonstration before. Nevertheless Garcia shook up a can of Krylon Interior/Exterior Enamel and aimed the nozzle at an untouched stretch of frontal lobe. The copper paint came out radiant, and immediately a metallic froth developed everywhere it had been sprayed. Each little Styrofoam cell twitched and disappeared, and when the paint had dried there was an inch-deep rift all the way down to the eye.

I bent down to inspect the damage more closely and the paint fumes flooded my nostrils. I can’t say it was a entirely unpleasant smell: I even thought I could detect, mixed in there with the solvents and propellants and halogenated hydrocarbons, the faintest breath of anise.

Garcia looked down at the wig head, at its lustrous new imperfection.

“It’s a scare tactic,” he admitted. “Some kids are onto it. They see the wig head demonstration and they come up and say, ‘Hey man, I don’t spray that stuff right on my brain, man!’ But others, you know, they’ll start thinking. I mean if it does that to that Styrofoam, imagine what it can do to your tissues and lungs.”

Inhalant abuse, it is called. Garcia and I had been abusing the wig head with spray paint because here in the westside San Antonio barrios, as in most other places, paint had become one of the most pervasive methods of getting high, the drug of choice among kids whose choices otherwise were few. Paint is not the only substance whose fumes produce what drug pamphlets describe as “relaxation, euphoria, impaired coordination.” The omnivorous sniffer has only to open a medicine cabinet or a pantry to find a vehicle for his transcendence. Fingernail polish, glue, gasoline, paint thinner, vegetable-coating sprays, typewriter correction fluid, deodorant, insecticide, the list proceeds well beyond the reach of a healthy imagination. “It was a brave man who ate the first oyster,” read a sign in a restaurant where I’d had breakfast that morning, but that seemed to me a prosaic feat beside the desperate ingenuity of the first poor kid who ever tripped out on Arrid Extra Dry.

Some of these substances, the ones whose active ingredients are hydrocarbons and fluorocarbon propellants, are extremely dangerous. Four people died in Texas last year, for instance, because they did not stop to think that PAM might do the same thing to their lungs that it did to their cake pans.

Though the use of spray paint was beginning to cross ethnic barriers and move into the white middle class, 80 percent of the “clients” dealt with by the state last year were Chicano kids, mostly in their teens and mostly male. This sort of vicarious information is dispensed in reams by the various bureaucracies the drug abuse problem has called into being. For several weeks I had been gathering it, reading technical reports and flyers with skulls and crossbones superimposed on them and thumbing through guidebooks on State of Texas drug lore (“Is it illegal to water-ski under the influence of drugs?”). I had atteneded a regional meeting of the National Youth Project Using Motorbikes (NYPUM, as in NYPUM in the bud) where I had watched movies of kids puttering around on minibikes to keep their minds off sniffing. Several times I had visited the offices of SPODA, the State Program on Drug Abuse, and sat in a room whose floors were stacked with printouts and surveys and reports. A woman had sat behind her desk and called out late-breaking statistics that she read from the dial of what looked like a desk calculator.

But here in San Antonio I was after “observable data.” I was in the offices of the Toxicant Inhalant and Drug Abuse Prevention Program (TIDAPP), a project of the Mexican American Neighborhood Civic Organization (yes, MANCO). I had long ago given up trying to understand just which acronym I was dealing with at any given moment—they seemed to fit together anyway, like those kitchen canisters that come stored inside one another. Municipal programs were partially funded by state programs, state programs were partially funded by federal programs, etc. It was a world of clever acronyms and litanies—youth referral, youth outreach, youth advocacy—a world suspended within webs of matching grants and grant proposals and the ghosts of de-funded programs.

Garcia and Juan Pacheco, who had joined us, both worked for TIDAPP, Pacheco as supervisor of the project and Garcia as one of four caseworkers. They were in their late twenties and had grown up in the westside during the days when glue sniffing had been epidemic. (Now it presented fewer problems, in part because of a mustard-seed additive introduced by manufacturers to make would-be sniffers nauseous.)

“Mainly what we do here is work with parents and kids,” Pacheco explained. He had a round, rather wistful face; a full beard seemed to make no impression on it. “Our project is a prevention project. Some of these kids—they’re so messed up they want to continue sniffing. They don’t care if they become vegetables or not. But we’re after the ones we can help. You develop the leaders first. You go to some guy you know is a leader, he’ll tell his friends, ‘Hey man, that stuff’ll kill you!’”

“Who knows what ‘prevention’ is?” Garcia conceded. He was sitting on a table, throwing a pencil up in the air. There was a certain gringo affability in his voice, but his appearance carried hints, I thought, of militancy: he wore his hair as straight and symmetrical as an Apache’s, and there was an isolated unshaven spot beneath his lower lip.

“Actually what we mean by prevention,” he went on, “is to produce some unconscious response in them—something that tells them at the right time, ‘Hey, wait a minute—that guy said something about not doing this.’”

Though the deleterious effects of sniffing paint have been, as in

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