Nestor Ramos

On the Orange Line tracks, three discarded items and the stories they tell

(Nestor Ramos/Globe Staff)

A pacifier. A whiskey bottle. A needle.

If the things we leave behind tell the stories of our lives, then this was a sad tableau on the Orange Line tracks, each item separated by three railroad ties.

They lay the way they might have fallen if they’d been tossed all at once from the State Street platform, their flight governed by each object’s particular aerodynamics, their paths dictated by the way they were held together in one hand.

Was this an accumulation of a few days’ discarded trash, scattered by the passing trains? Or, worse, the leavings of a single sad life? Either way, the triptych on the tracks recalled the deadly riddle of the Sphinx: What creature walks on four feet in the morning, two at noon, and three at night?


In mythology, the Sphinx posed the riddle to Oedipus as he made his way to Thebes, and ate anyone who failed that test. But we all learned the answer not long after we gave up our own pacifiers: It’s us. We crawl, we walk, we hobble.

Today, as the opioid epidemic rages so fiercely that it has contributed to a decrease in American life expectancy, 2018’s version of the riddle would look a bit different: The cradle. The struggle. The grave.

Outside, high above the platform where people wait for trains, the city is once again decking its halls for the holiday season. On the Common, this year’s Christmas tree is 46 feet tall, and ice skaters circle the Frog Pond. Even our famous ducklings don their red scarves and hats.

But this city is littered with the detritus of a different sort of life.

The pacifier

Nestled next to the rail opposite the platform, the pacifier was round and purple and small — the type the hospital sent home with us when our daughter was born almost three months ago.


Babies ditch their pacifiers constantly, of course. It’s easy to imagine a harried parent pushing a stroller on a crowded platform as the little one rockets another pacifier onto the tracks. We can hope that’s all it was, but it won’t change the reality: Thousands of babies are born here every year to mothers who are addicted to opioids.

Nationally, the number quadrupled over a 16-year period ending in 2014; in Massachusetts, it grew even faster, until about 13 of every 1,000 babies delivered here in 2013 were born to mothers living with opioid-use disorders.

Babies born to addicted mothers often suffer from low birth weight and other complications. Their first days are spent in withdrawal. And while we know that addiction affects every rung of the social and economic ladder, often those babies come into chaotic lives that have a way of enduring across generations.

Pain, too often, is hereditary.

The bottle

Why is it always Fireball?

It would be hard to walk more than a few blocks in this city — perhaps in any American city — without spotting a 50-milliliter plastic “nip” bottle with an orange label and a red cap. That’s the hallmark of a now-ubiquitous, sweet, cinnamon-flavored Canadian whiskey called Fireball.

“Tastes like heaven,” the company’s slogan boasts before concluding, more accurately, “burns like hell.”

Compared with its bottom-shelf competition, Fireball goes down pretty easy. It’s sweetened, and a little spicy, and at 33 percent alcohol, it’s not even technically whiskey (or whisky — Canadians drop the “e.”) Perhaps most importantly, it’s uncommonly cheap: Some stores still sell the little bottle for 99 cents; buying 15 of them would get you the same amount of booze as a whole bottle, but for a little less money.


But when we think about alcohol, we like to imagine a cold beer on a hot day or a high-end cocktail stirred by someone wearing a garter on his arm, not someone pounding an ounce of whiskey on the Orange Line platform.

Long before opioids started taking thousands of lives, alcohol was ruining them.

The needle

If these are a sad life’s three stages, then this is — for so many — the end.

In Massachusetts in 2018, an estimated 1,518 people died of opioid overdoses through September. The crisis is so dire that this number represents an improvement over both 2017 and 2016.

There are no simple solutions, but one that the medical community says would surely save lives remains blocked by politicians. Supervised injection facilities would allow intravenous drug users to inject under the watchful eye of a medical professional, with a clean needle and saline.

It’s a hard sell for a lot of people, who say it sounds like enabling bad behavior and dissuading people from getting clean.

But that presupposes that people want to be addicted to heroin and watch their lives collapse. It also largely ignores the reality in which we now live: Men and women shooting up on street corners, in gas station bathrooms, and, sometimes, on subway platforms — invisible but for what they discard on the tracks.


The pacifier. The bottle. The needle. The things we leave behind tell stories.

So do the people.

Nestor Ramos can be reached at