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Union Square (2004)
But addicts they are, and world-class addicts at that. The seven lost souls Stephen Szklarski follows around downtown New York's Union Square neighborhood with his shaky DV camera are deeply troubled and, in many cases, hopelessly addicted. We get to watch as they literally beg, borrow, and steal their way from one $10 bag to the next, with some of the kids needing to score more than ten times a day just to avoid going into convulsions.
The stories of Mark, Ron, James, Stealth (the one with the elaborate piercings), and Danny (the one who uses an eyepatch in order to gain more sympathy as he panhandles) are somewhat interchangeable. All had trouble at home, all slid quickly down heroin's slippery slope, and all realize just how desperate their lives are. Ron describes how he can make a quick $40 by selling his body to a dirty old man he knows, and we tag along as James fences hundreds of dollars worth of books and CDs that he's stolen from a friend's apartment. Feeling a tad guilty, he explains that he's left a note back at the apartment admitting his crime. Whether the police will come for him he doesn't know.
More interesting is the soap opera-like saga of Cheyenne and Mike, who battle not only their addictions but also each other in a finger-pointing dysfunctional relationship that you'd think would be the last thing either one of them needs in their precarious situation. They look quite cozy sleeping together under a blanket outside the A&P, but when it comes to making money, the no-nonsense Cheyenne (who has a five-year-old daughter being cared for by her sister) will do whatever it takes to fill her begging cup, while Mike, who considers himself a musician, will only panhandle in the guise of a guitar-playing street musician, and to be honest, he ain't that good.
It's too much to expect any happy endings from this grim slice of life. You'll watch this film for its journalism, not for its drama. Szlarski isn't really able to show redemption, though he does make a small political point by illustrating how tough it is for a homeless addict to find a way into a useful detox or rehab program. Instead, he focuses on daily logistics, introducing us to a dealer with a totally clear conscience and following the addicts into skanky bathrooms to watch them shoot up. This is not a movie for the needlephobic. Not content to give us just one demonstration, Szlarski films each of his subjects as they slap their forearms and do the deed. Note the blood. Note the dirty fingernails. Note the desperation. It's interesting to note how quickly they can inject themselves. What matters most is to get in and out of that bathroom before someone knocks on the door to see what's going on in there.
Though Union Square had a dangerous and druggy reputation back in the 60s and 70s, those of us who live there today assumed that drugs had long since been pushed out and that like Times Square, the area had been thoroughly sanitized and gentrified. Don't we have Barnes & Noble and Toys R Us and Diesel and Foot Locker? Don't we have not one but two Starbucks? I guess what we didn't know was that smack addicts were shooting up in the Starbucks bathrooms. Now we know.
Employees must wash hands before returning to work.