My “gap” semester son, Nick, turned 19 on Monday. He is working and living with his Dad this fall, while waiting to start college in the spring. Nick and I spent some nice time together last weekend — going on a shopping spree and discussing our narrative obsession with the AMC series, Breaking Bad.
For the few people in the universe who don’t know the storyline—Breaking Bad follows the transformation of high school chemistry teacher Walter White into a wealthy, crystal-meth "cook." Walt, played by the talented Bryan Cranston, becomes increasingly violent through his better-paying day job but remains gentle with his children and fairly affectionate with his wife—turned moll—in the evenings.
I felt a little sick after watching ten episodes back to back, but I grew nauseous when I read Sarah Stillman’s recent New Yorker article, “The Throwaways. ” The article describes Rachel Hoffman, a 23 year-old Florida State graduate who was murdered while trying to frame a drug dealer. Neighbors had smelled pot coming from Hoffman’s apartment, and—after her arrest—the police had bargained with her to reduce the charges. The young college grad was killed when her wire was discovered. Stillman highlights the dangers and abuses endemic to our underfunded criminal system, by outlining how police districts receive financing based on the number of narcotics arrests they report. Police send informants into the drug world while barely training them.
My son is experiencing the cold reality of the minimum wage this fall. Like many parents, I worry about the pressures of the working world, but understand its painful lessons. Nick has some interesting observations about the economic appeal of drug dealing and drug-themed media for young people. But I’ll let him tell you in his own words—
Let's face it, the drug empire is perhaps one of the most far reaching, ever-present, highly successful "corporations" in the world. The idea of entering such a lucrative, albeit extremely dangerous trade seems more and more enticing, especially now in today's tough economy.
Television and movies have certainly glorified the idea of drug dealing. Two recent series and a movie come to mind —Weeds, Breaking Bad, and Blow. All three main characters are drawn to drug dealing by a mix of the sense of grandeur behind it and necessity.
Nancy Botwin of Weeds begins selling marijuana because she feels she has no other method of sustaining herself and her family after her husband dies. She stays in the business, however, because she secretly loves the thrill of the danger and loves the amount of money she can move even more. Walter White of Breaking Bad turns to cooking meth after being diagnosed with cancer to support his medical bills and his family first, yet through the series his motives are warped to resemble raw ambition and power mongering. In Blow, George Jung goes into the drug dealing business at first driven by the idea that money is everything, an idea that his mother unintentionally implanted into his head at a young age. He craves the crazy whirlwind of a lifestyle that is at once romanticized and criticized in these epic stories. In all of these examples, the families of the accomplished drug dealers are practically destroyed by the very thing that was intended to fix them. It always ends badly.
The temptation for the glory and especially the money are present in high school life, despite the danger. With most graduates and students my age hard-pressed to find a job, combined with the romanticizing of the drug trade in the entertainment media, it's understandable why kids my age turn to drug dealing—especially in poorer, inner city areas where the only choice can be between flipping patties for minimum wage or making a substantially better salary working past the fringe of the law.
I come from a comfortable background and have never really needed to worry about money. I think it's fair to take a step back and withhold judgment on people who take the easy way out and give in to such a strong temptation, because desperate times often breed desperate measures.