It's 11 a.m. on a Saturday, and the cool late-summer morning is giving way to what will soon be a steamy day. Eric Peterson is taking a break, leaning against a pickup truck bed full of the fruits of his labor: five bright orange, government-issue garbage bags bulging with roadside refuse.
Picking up trash is not his day job. But he has a daily ritual--methadone maintenance treatment--that brought him to Durham's only public methadone clinic six years ago and to this stretch of road today.
"We were trying to think of some way we could send a message to the community," Peterson says. The "we" he refers to are the members of the Patient Advisory Committee, a group he founded at the clinic two years ago in order to give voice to patient concerns. A year ago, they decided to sign to sign up for North Carolina's Adopt a Highway program, becoming one of about 6,000 private groups that help keep the state's roadways clean in exchange for a little free publicity.
The signs on State Highway 751 marking the group's 1.8-mile segment, a scenic and gently swerving swatch through Duke Forest, read: METHADONE PTS. OF THE DURHAM CENTER. The Department of Transportation was a little uneasy when the patients applied to adopt some highway. "They wanted to know if we could reword the sign and bury 'methadone' in the middle, because it would be the first thing people see when they drive by," Peterson says. But the DOT, which has allowed even such ostracized groups as prisoners to participate in the program, ultimately relented.
"Methadone usually doesn't make the news unless some sort of crime has been committed," Peterson says--that's why the group set out "to show methadone treatment and patients in a positive light, and do it in a public way.
"This is not for show," he insists. "It's about giving something back to the community and making reparations." Another member of the group says his trash pick-up work constitutes "a kind of self-imposed penance for my crimes of addiction." He stole from strangers to support his heroin use, he says--"and that's what I think about when I'm out here all sweaty and pissed, picking up garbage."
Most important, says the methadone patient, who requested that his name not be published, is "getting the public to believe we're better people than they think we are, and at the same time trying to make ourselves the good people we want to be."