Addiction Replaces or Aids Art — Profile of a Homeless Heroin Junkie

Collin Gilbride perceives life through the window of heroin and believes it is essential to his form of art.

By Shawn Cook

It’s a part of society, some ancient repellent inside that says that which is different is to be avoided, ridiculed, or ignored. That has been the case for most of Collin Gilbride’s life. An artist from a young age, his life splays out like the random colors chosen for a developing painting.

From the time Gilbride was 15 years old he has been addicted to heroin, and he spends most of his time in pursuit of, waiting for, or being completely intoxicated by it. He sleeps where he can find a dry spot, more often than not at Westmoreland Park in Eugene’s Friendly Street neighborhood. He has been allowed a small space in a friend’s nearby garage to work on his art work, but is not allowed to stay past 10 at night. When it comes to how people react to seeing him wandering in search of a decent place to sleep, he says he’s used to it. “Look at me,” Gilbride says, looking down at himself with pathetic gestures, “I can’t blame them.”

Gilbride grew up in Indiana, the son of affluent family. His father worked for a large plastics company and, according to Gilbride, made sure they always had the physical things that they needed. His father was not, however, very present in the daily routines, never showed up for ball games or cared much to see his son’s progress in school. Gilbride, noticing this more and more, gave up trying and just spent as much of his father’s money on drugs and partying and traveling as he could. “I had all the friends in the world then,” Gilbride says, behind a sarcastic huff.

Entering his late teen years, meeting more and more friends that were getting into alcohol, marijuana and other drugs, Gilbride says he “fell off the proverbial deep end.” From the conventionally accepted alcohol and marijuana to the back alley hush-hush of heroin, Gilbride left any hope of normalcy behind. He speaks articulately, a sign of a quality education early on, but appears ravaged by poor decision making and continuous drug use. Now, to his odd bewilderment, he is an addict and homeless at 32 years old.

That’s not necessarily the way he sees it, though. “I’m right at home in the open air,” Gilbride says. “I don’t owe anybody and I go wherever I want whenever I want, and besides, ‘crazy’ is what I do.” His face reddens in focused moments to match his smelt copper hair. He is slight, no more than 130 pounds, but carries himself like a thunder cloud. He speaks over his friends in a loud, unavoidable, gravelly voice. He is childlike in his insistence to be heard over them, but the voice of the rain steadily tapping at the tin roof of the awning speaks more to all than anything.

Gilbride and his “friends,” three bedraggled, similarly scraggly and unorganized men ranging in age from 40 to 50 years old, sit at a picnic table under an awning in the park. They are there nearly every night. They talk at, rather than to, one another and it seems more of a band working together for the same objective: getting high and nothing else. No love is lost between these lonely men.

Gilbride contemplates as he chews the inside of his cheek, a nervous habit. “I don’t want to stop,” he said. Black, or Cheese (code names for the low-grade, smoke-able version of heroin they mostly use) comes in a small gooey ball wrapped in the torn corner of some dirty piece of plastic bag. He displays the sticky, greasy ball and it is indeed black. “I’ve never had a better friend, or lover,” Gilbride says.

As jumbled and confused as his paintings, Gilbride turns his small space into an indescribable mess. Here, paints pile on dry mugs, brushes fight for room with scissors, and a small burnt piece of aluminum enlightens one to reason.

Gilbride portrays the sad remnants of a man who could have done whatever he liked with his life. After years of abuse, however, he can hardly track a conversation for more than a few minutes without a senseless distraction. He lights a cigarette and takes a few puffs. “My dad didn’t care, or my mom, and I hated Indiana, and school. Life’s just not set up for people like me,” Gilbride said.

The four of them made gestures to one another, which appeared to signify it was time to go find a place to use, alone. When asked if he’d ever quit, or try to get help, he squeezed the muscles around his fierce, unbelievably bright blue eyes and shot out a few words as he passed. “Come back and talk more any time,” he said, already on his way “but don’t ever ask me about walking away from the only thing I ever really loved that loved me back.”

Gilbride has been allowed a small garage space in the Friendly Street neighborhood, which he has tranformed into a place to make his chaotic work.

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