A streetwise sociologist guides reporters through the drug underworld
Greg Scott is a fixer. In Chicago, where Scott plies his trade, the title is traditionally tapped for the slick wheeler-dealers who haunt the criminal-court corridors or City Hall. But there’s nothing traditional about Scott, a 42-year-old, ginger-haired, Gonzo-worshipping, award-winning radio freelance citizen-journalist; an independent filmmaker and public health advocate; a tattooed Midwestern tenured sociology professor, dad, and Little League baseball coach.
Scott’s clients aren’t seeking zoning changes or friendly judges. They are journalists, some of whom pay him as much as $450 a day, plus expenses, to guide them safely through the streets and alleys of “Junkieville”—Scott’s name for Chicago’s drug world. Once they’re there, Scott fixes them up with the likes of Murdering Mike, Big Hands Laura, the Other Laura, Teardrop Rose, I’m-not-a-hooker-I’m-a-body-therapist Chrissie, Cat who fights like a man, Medicine Man, Pony Tail Steve, and Mortician Steve—no relation—as they tell their stories on camera.
“I’m the go-to guy for Junkieville,” Scott says. For more than a decade, he has researched, documented, reported on, and, most important to him, befriended the residents of Chicago’s drug scene—the junkies, prostitutes, pimps, thieves, and panhandlers, and the crime boss he invited to his book-filled living room with a painting of Hunter S. Thompson on the wall in suburban Oak Park one night last summer to be interviewed by a bossy bald Brit, Ross Kemp, who hosts a gritty, you-are-there-style British television show, Ross Kemp: Extreme World.
Scott does his fixing inside crack houses, shooting galleries, brothels, seedy motels, and a dusty encampment known as the Brickyard, where the homeless residents—sometimes dozens at a time—live for hustling and heroin and where the “weekend warriors” visit for a couple of days before returning to their nine-to-five lives. George Hughes, a freelance television producer and director, is another Englishman who has used Scott’s fixing services. Hughes was working for Drugs Inc., the National Geographic Channel series, when he hired Scott as a consultant. Hughes flew from London to O’Hare International Airport in the fall of 2009 and drove into the city to meet Scott.
“I arrived there expecting to be eased into things,” Hughes says. “But within a few hours I found myself in a crack house on the west side, meeting heroin dealers and addicts. For me that’s stuff straight out of the movies. It surprised me how much they respected him. They trusted him implicitly. We were welcomed into this place even though it was the den of iniquity. To have someone like Greg guide you through is invaluable.”
Hughes not only used Scott as a fixer, he put him on camera. Scott appears in the heroin segment of the series as “the Medic,” enacting one of his many passions: working with addicts on the front lines of HIV and AIDS prevention. Hughes was so impressed with Scott’s abilities that he convinced the production company to hire him to work on the next installment of Drugs Inc. Scott was promoted from fixer to producer. In January, Scott spent three weeks fixing and producing a segment on crack in Chicago. As soon as the crack segment was wrapped, Scott began research for a segment on ketamine, a horse tranquilizer used as a date rape drug and known on the street as Special K. “I don’t know anyone else in Chicago doing my type of work,” he tells me. “I can fix anything. Everybody has a knack. I just happen to have a knack for getting involved in illegal shit.”
Scott calls what he does “immersive sociology,” “embedded journalism,” and “all of the above.” The work bag he slings over his shoulder is stuffed with naloxone, an overdose-reversal medication, as well as the condoms and clean syringes that he distributes for free. He is a member of the worldwide harm-reduction movement to prevent the spread of HIV, AIDS, and other diseases among injection drug users and their partners. An associate professor of sociology at DePaul University and director of the school’s Social Science Research Center, Scott is also the volunteer research director for the Chicago Recovery Alliance, a harm-reduction group.
“He was way out there already, so he fit right in with us,” says Dan Bigg, a cofounder of the alliance. “He didn’t need any extra training in how to treat people with respect. In addition to being a brilliant guy, he’s very much a man of integrity. He uses that integrity for good. He doesn’t just sit silently in a school office. He gets out in the real world.”
In early November 2008, Scott was working on one of his own sociology/journalism projects, filming Pony Tail Steve and his wife, Pam, as they shot up a couple of $10 bags of heroin. Pony Tail slipped into a deep nod and then fell backward. He was turning blue, overdosing—dying. Scott put the camera on a table and jumped into action. With the camera rolling, he and Pam worked to revive Pony Tail, shaking him and kneading his chest. Scott gave him mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Nothing worked. Then Scott injected him with a syringe of naloxone, which brought Pony Tail back from the brink. (Paramedics and emergency rooms have used the drug for years to reverse overdoses.) Scott sold 40 seconds of the near-death scene to a cable news network. He charged 40 dollars per second; the proceeds went to Pony Tail and Pam. He also turned the scene into a naloxone how-to DVD for the Chicago Recovery Alliance.
Scott fixes journalists up with junkies to pay for his own habit—making short documentary films, most often set in Junkieville, such as The Family at 1312, about a band of crack addicts, and Matrimony, about the wedding of Pony Tail and Pam, his heroin-addicted lover. Scott’s award-winning journalism for WBEZ, the public radio station in Chicago, is also set in Junkieville. He traces his commitment to telling the stories of the addicted to an encounter he had in 2003 with a heartbroken, heroin-addicted panhandler called Freeway. In the early 1990s, Freeway’s infant daughter had died of SIDS. Within 24 hours, Freeway’s wife was dead too, killed in a car crash. A week after the combined funeral for his wife and daughter, Freeway found himself in a dope den, smoking crack and snorting heroin. A few months later he was living on the street, panhandling to support his new habit.
When Scott ran into Freeway one night in 2003, Freeway was sitting on railroad tracks near the remains of his shack in the Brickyard. The day before, railroad police—or “bulls”—had come through and set fire to his makeshift shelter. In a radio essay called “Brickyard Reflection,” Scott said a “plume of oily-smelling smoke” rose into the sky as Freeway scribbled “furiously in a slightly charred notebook.”
“Actually, he was drawing,” Scott said in the essay. “As it turns out, the bulls had burned down his home and everything in it while he was out making money to buy the heroin he was using to self-medicate clinical depression. From memory he was trying to recreate by hand the image of his dead infant daughter; his last remaining picture of her went up in flames.
“That night I decided that I would dedicate the rest of my life to living among, documenting, and telling stories publicly about the people who occupy what has become one of the lowest rungs in our society—the junkies, crackheads, dope fiends, and hookers who used to be our beloved mothers and fathers, brothers and sisters, best friends and neighbors.”
Scott the fixer is Scott the broker, teacher, translator, story shaper, and protector of journalists and junkies on the shorter-than-many-people-think bridge between the straight world and the addicted one. “I have to do a lot of contextualizing,” he says. “It’s an opportunity for me to help shape the story, to help shape the image that gets out there. What I want most out of all this is dialogue, a robust public dialogue about addicts and addiction.”
It can be a dangerous job. He does his best to keep everyone out of harm’s way. But if something goes wrong, he is not a bodyguard. In case of trouble, his advice is simple: Duck low. Run fast. That’s exactly what the crew of Ross Kemp: Extreme World did last summer when a pissed-off pimp pulled a pistol.
Kemp and his crew were in town to do a show about heroin in Chicago. They had hired Scott to take the crew into dope dens and introduce them to a pimp called Silk and to Baby, one of his prostitutes. Silk agreed to allow the crew to film Baby as she walked the street, trying to pick up customers. The money shot they were after was Baby getting into a car with a trick. The longer Scott and Silk talked, the more Silk got into the idea. He even asked Scott if he wanted him to slap Baby around on camera. Not too hard, Silk added. Scott declined.
Scott and the film crew set up out of sight as Baby began her stroll. Another prostitute approached Baby and began yelling that Baby was trespassing on her corner. Then the woman spotted Scott and the crew and phoned her pimp, screaming at them to stop filming her “likeness.” Scott tried to calm her and explain what they were doing. She continued to curse and scream.
A few minutes later a car whipped around the corner and screeched to a halt, and the driver jumped out. One of the crew yelled, “He’s got a gun.” The gun was, in fact, pointed at them. Everyone ran.
No one was hurt, though, and it turned out the pimp with the pistol, a woman, was a friend of Silk’s, and she apologized to Scott. “No worries,” he responded. The shaken crew headed back to where they’d left Baby. She was getting into a car with a customer.
They missed the shot.
A few years ago, producers of WBEZ’s Eight Forty-Eight morning news program were searching the halls of academia for a scholarly voice of authority to explain the ways of Chicago street gangs to their listeners. The producers found Scott. They quickly learned that gangs and thugs were “just a portion of the research he did in the street,” says Aurora Aguilar, the program’s senior producer. Scott pitched 20 of his own story ideas to Aguilar, including a series he longed to do about the Brickyard. By the time he met her, Scott had already collected dozens of hours of video and audio recordings of addicts, shooting up and spouting off about life on the edge. His story pitch lasted three hours. “We were amazed that he was able to learn so much about these people and gain their trust,” she says.
Scott reported and produced a four-part series on the Brickyard. His work went on to win a Peter Lisagor Award from the Chicago Headline Club and a National Headliner Award. “It’s the proudest moment I’ve had at the radio station in nine years,” Aguilar says. “We took the first piece on spec. This was the first time we worked with someone who had absolutely no experience producing radio. It was definitely a little risky to have someone who didn’t go to Ethics 101, who has been involved with resuscitating someone who overdosed, and who knew a lot of these people because he had given them clean needles. But he’s responsible. He’s careful. We can’t wait to work with him again.”
His work, she says, was down to earth, a little rough around the edges, different, real, the stories and voices raw. The first piece began with the voice of a man named Hoss singing “Amazing Grace.” Later, Hoss described life in the Brickyard, which Scott’s narration called “this conflicted community of addicts.”
Hoss: “Everybody will fuck over a friend. They allow the drug to demoralize them. They forget who they were in the heart. And forget what the basics of life were: Respect thyself, respect thy neighbor, and respect thy friend.”
Plainfield, Indiana, where Scott grew up, is a long way from the Brickyard. When Scott was a boy, Plainfield was home to about 9,000 people. “There were 400 students in Greg’s high school class,” his father, Randy, says. “No minorities. One of the students had a tan.” The family had moved to Plainfield from Indianapolis, but Scott longed for the big city. When he was growing up, “I always felt like an outcast,” he says.
And for as long as Scott can remember, he has been drawn to marginalized people and outlaws—“criminal entrepreneurs” as he put it, revealing the geeky sociologist in him. Maybe he inherited his gangster love from his mother, Barbara. “She read everything she could get her hands on about serial killers,” he says. When Scott was 10, he started a “detective agency.” He distributed fliers up and down his street, asking potential clients, “Do you have a cheating spouse?” A neighbor called his parents. “We had to close up the agency,” he says.
Scott attended the University of Southern California and earned a Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1998. Back in the Midwest, he landed a research/policy job at the Illinois attorney general’s office. The feeling of being an “outcast” came roaring back. “I had to check my soul at the door too many times,” he says.
Scott doesn’t have that outcast feeling when he’s in the Brickyard. He tells me there are two places in the world he feels truly at home: the Brickyard and New Orleans. He owns a house in the Big Easy, in fact. He loves the seedy bars, the juke joints, and “the old voodoo lady down the street feeding folks out her back kitchen window at two dollars a plate.” As for the Brickyard, that makeshift village of the dispossessed, Scott recalled in his radio essay the time one of the Brickyard regulars told him that he was “every bit the freak that they are.” The man said that everybody in the Brickyard had their own thing: Some smoked crack, others preferred heroin. “Your thing,” the man told Scott, “is telling stories—that’s cool. We need somebody to make our home movies for us, to get our lives on tape and share it with the rest of the world. Otherwise, man, we’re gonna die invisible.”
In the Brickyard, one hot late-summer day, I watch Scott as he films an interview with Jamie, a 53-year-old grandmother, prostitute, and heroin addict. Jamie, who grew up in the suburbs, was illiterate until her 40s, when a group of fellow addicts taught her to read from a Dick and Jane children’s book. Scott’s fourth wife, Erin, handled the audio. She works with him on most of his films. He first got married at 19, after his freshman year of college. “That’s what everybody does in Indiana,” he says. He has finally gotten marriage right, he says, although it still amazes him when “people who know me well ask me for relationship advice.”
Scott asks Jamie, the subject of the interview, to describe herself without any reference to drugs. “A very understanding, caring person,” she says. “I’m a more positive person than a negative person. I love to travel, meet people. I like to horseback ride. I believe in love.”
Then he asks her what she wants the world to know about drug addicts. “Drug addicts are human beings,” Jamie says.
Scott spends the first days of the new year fixing, lining up interviews in Junkieville for Drugs Inc. and for a project about sex workers he hopes to do for public radio. With a few minutes to kill, he sends me a short e-mail:
“I’m in the parking lot of an hourly rate motel delivering honey roasted oats cereal and a half gallon of milk to a prostitute with whom I’m trying to build rapport for an interview on sex work. Waiting for the trick to leave. This line of work isn’t always glamorous, eh?”
Don Terry, a former reporter at the Chicago Tribune, the New York Times, and other newspapers, is a staff writer at the Chicago News Cooperative. Excerpted from Columbia Journalism Review (March-April 2011), a media monitor published bimonthly by Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.www.cjr.org