"Live Bait & Ice Cream"
"Meth Harvest a Bumper Crop"
Rural America isn’t making it. At least not judging by the portions of it found in north-central Indiana. Connecting the vast stretches of soybeans, corn and sky to one another, the occasional hamlet emerges under such memorable names as Point Isabel, Normal, Swayzee, Etna Green, and Pierceton. The main drag in each town, once a functioning “downtown” commercial zone, is now void of nearly all human activity and is eerily quiet. The two remaining going concerns in such towns are generally a post office and a tavern, the latter presumably to drink away one’s economic woes. Myriad make-shift antique stores now occupy these streets-largely themselves closed or open only on Saturdays-where once stood banks, drug stores, the five and dime, and a greasy spoon diner or cafe. The commonly abandoned single-screen cinemas are particularly evocative of an era gone by. All of it is in fact long gone, replaced by rotting facades and silent storefronts.
Mid-America on Meth
The rural small town economy subsists now almost exclusively on farming and meth. John Mellencamp should write a song about this or augment the annual “Farm Aid” show with an anti-meth interlude. The problem warrants it; meth has to be considered a bigger rural scourge than farm foreclosures now. To illustrate this point, some rural county sheriffs report an 800 percent increase in methamphetamine production during the past 15 years. Indiana, Missouri, Iowa, Kansas and North Dakota are among the industry’s growth leaders. Rural Mid-America is sold on meth it seems.
It’s a simple matter really. The production “lab” can be a kitchen, a barn, even an RV on blocks, and thus is a moving target and harder to detect. The product itself involves a hundred dollars worth of chemicals, which is then easily sold for a thousand dollars worth of profit. And we’re dealing with an insta-crop here. Other forms of dope production require seeding, growing, nurturing, deseeding, etc. In other words, they require not only effort but time, months and months of it. Even crack had to first be grown for some 18 months before being harvested as a coca plant prior to embarking on its crystallized metamorphosis to user. But meth is a same-day production, unfettered by climate or pestilence. Uncle Oscar can cook it up for sale in the morning and the buyer can consume it later that same day. Not only is production extremely fluid, but the market is right there in small town USA too. No borders to cross, no DEA to foil, no customs agents to outwit. At the point of sale, the meth-maker is largely dealing with neighbors. No middle men, no unfamiliar pushers or coded meeting places needed. It all comes together in a nearly textbook business model. Against this convenient, highly addictive juggernaut, underfunded rural law enforcement agencies are fighting an unwinnable uphill battle.
That’s why I smile broadly when crossing someone in these isolated dot-on-a-map towns trying to make it the old fashioned way- legally. Capitalism is a tough enough proposition, but exponentially more so when competing against methamphetamine. So when I heard a barroom account of a dubious local character named Rick engaging in “core” for a living, I was naturally curious. Was “core” the local terminology for some hideous new incarnation of meth? No, as it turns out, core is basically taking junk, cleaning it up a little, and hoping someone else will pay you something for it; a poor man’s version of trash to treasure. Core is one step lower than antique and one step above garbage.
Back out on Indiana 13, a sparsely traveled one-lane state highway, while pondering Rick’s murky fate. I’m traveling at least ten miles an hour above the speed limit, when I suddenly do a double-take. No, I didn’t spot a cop but passing through a nearly abandoned town north of Wabash, Indiana I do notice that a long-empty gas station has been refashioned into a small business which is heralding its “Grand Opening” with a twenty foot banner proclaiming, “Now Open: Try our Ice Cream and Live Bait!” Strange visions come to mind: Mocha fudge a la nightcrawler.
In a few months, I fear, after the inevitable decline and fall of this ice cream and bait venture, a new banner might arise in its place promoting for once a booming rural enterprise - “Meth Cooking Supplies Here!" For once, I hope I'm wrong.
Update, 1/29/2012: I wrote this piece in October, 2009, as I prepared to embark westward toward New Mexico. I hit some of these same back roads, and some new ones, today to see valued friends in Etna Green, IN, population zero. Slightly before hitting state road 114, I saw the "live bait & ice cream" parlor and yes, it had indeed changed hands. It is now rebranded as The Super Store and its former green and blue motif has been traded in for red, but in small lettering, underneath that grandiose store title, it said almost apologetically: "We have live bait." Amen & Good luck, rural America.