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Monkey on my back.

Me and my monkeyLong and warped words, blahblahblah pukedon the paper and set the game in motion, readon if you can. . .
Where is the cave where the wise woman wentAnd tell me where is all the money that I spent?I propose a toast to my self-controlSee it crawling helpless on the floorSomeday there’ll be a cure for painAnd that’s the day I throw my drugs away.
Sunday afternoon, June 6. I am going to kill myself. No kidding. This time I mean it. I’m sick. So sick. My last fix was 45 hours and, let’s see, 20-oddminutes ago. Ancient history. Not a wink of sleep last night. Jumping outof my skin. No way to get comfortable. Every hour is a day. Every minutean hour. Marrow sucked from my bones. Ice water in there now. Aching legsflailing. Why do you think it’s called kicking? Snot streams from my nose, tearsfrom my eyes. Rancid sweat pours everywhere. Shivering. Shaking. Every hairstanding on end. Goose bumps on my goose bumps. Why do you think it’scalled cold turkey? Sick. So very sick. Something even sicker? One shot, one lousy shot of dope would set me straight. Okay, six hours later, I’d need another. Then another.
Then another. So the dope-fiend day goes. In Junktime, though, six hours is alifetime.
Stack of 20 twenties on the kitchen table. Too fucked up to go out and cop.
Just crapped my pants. Third time since sunrise. An hour ago–five hours ago,I don’t know–lurching into the john. Another bout of heaving. Didn’t make it.
Burning stomach acids spewed all over the hallway. Sick. So very, very sick.
Sickest thing of all? This ain’t no baby jones. This ain’t no squirrel monkey onmy back. King Kong is riding me to death. Even 400 bucks won’t score threesquares a day for this 800-pound gorilla. Hope against hope. Hope for dope.
Dial the beeper number. Mac the Man. Old Reliable. The Albert Schweitzer ofsmack dealers. What a mensch. God bless him. Come on, Mac. Got me a BigMac Attack. Lately, Mac’s been dropping by a $500 spoon of white junk everyday. Home delivery. Beats carryout. Back to basics. Screw showering. Screwshaving. Screw eating. Feed that monkey. He’s ravenous today. He’s pissed.
He’s kicking my sorry ass. “Ain’t nothing happening”, Mac’s been saying sinceFriday. Panic in Needle Park, bro. Ring. Ri– Grab for that phone. “Ain’tnothing happening.” For the twentieth fucking time. Fucking asshole. Ragingat fucking Mac. What’s a fucking dealer with no fucking dope? Just anotherfucking scumbag. Fucking asshole. Raging at my fucking self. Why didn’t youfucking hit the fucking street to fucking score before you got so fucking sick? Too fucking late now, you fucking fucker.
Free fall. Nine months on a major mission. Fifty thousand bucks worth of narcotics since Labor Day last. Heroin and cocaine. White powder for whitepeople. Mighty white of you, Mr. Jones.
Hitting bottom. Pulling cash off credit cards. Ten grand of the most over- priced greenbacks this side of La Cosa Nostra. Most of the 50 Gs, savings fromthe Fuck You Fund. Souring beyond consolation on Washington journalism.
Years of freelancing on the side like a lunatic. Stashing bucks away like animmigrant. Buy my way into a new way of life.
Wouldn’t you know it? My brilliant career turns to shit. My mid-life crisis turns into the smack habit that ate the national debt. My Fuck You Fund isfucked. The Creator, that sarcastic shit, is sniggering up his long sleeves. Thetill is tapped. Owe Mac five C-notes for Thursday’s spoon. Money, honey.
What’s left to cash in? Get that second mortgage when I get straight. Whoa.
Long-term thinking, in Junktime. Slow weeks tearing off that big chunk ofbread. Fast, fast weeks shooting it.
What then? Hock the tchotchkas. Stereo. TV. VCR. Computer. Type- writer. Microwave. Cuisinart. Sofa bed. Dining table. Bench press. Carpets.
CDs. Books. Yuppie fire sale. Lost My Lifestyle, Everything Must Go! Pricedto move. Pennies on the dollar.
And then what? Felonyville? Passing bad paper. Boosting department stores. Snatch and grab. Car breaking. House breaking. Violence = meth?Not worth it. Don’t have it in me. Not a kid anymore. Too bourgie. Too lazy.
Can’t see playing bitter-end dope fiend. Can’t see nodding on a park bench.
Yeah? Can’t see living without dope. Damn. Can’t see living.
Great Puking Jesus! Gonna barf again. Dry heaves. Vile bile. Wham! Jolt of panic. Flop sweat flowing. Got a five-page story due in the A.M. Shouldhave filed on Friday. Too loaded Thursday to tickle them ivories. Phoning myeditors with lame excuses for a month now.
Down at the office on Friday. First time in ages. Cameo appearance, no Oscar: Hi. I’ll be okay. Under the weather. That cold I’ve had the last threeyears? Rhinovirus from hell. Can’t seem to kick it. Heh, heh. Pathetic bid toyank $10,000 from my pension account. No can do, Mr. No Show. File thatstory–or else! Fuck you all very much. Reports and clips heaped on cigarette-scarred dining table. Got no interviews. Fake it. Fake it ’til you make it. Doinga lot of that lately. Can’t write like this. Too sick to go out, get straight.
Damned sure too sick to sit still, hack out 4,000 words.
What’s the T-shirt say? I used up all my sick days, so I called in dead. Why do you think they’re called deadlines? Pull the plug, you pussy. Sick and tiredof feeling sick and tired. Can’t carry King Kong another inch. Back is broken.
Want him gone. Locked in a cage. Melt down the key. I keep trying. Really Ido. Bastard keeps coming back. Climbing through that gaping hole in my head.
This is my seventh cold turkey since ’91. Each one more nightmarish than the last. Can’t do this no more. Can’t hack the pain. Can’t hack the desperation.
Can’t hack the despair. Okay? Okay. This is the last time. Yeah. Tendril ofwillpower. I won’t fix. Uh, uh. No sir. Kick this fucker. Five, maybe six moredays, no sleep. Not a nod. Anti-Junktime. Every hour a day. Every minutean hour. Another six, maybe seven days staggering around. Boneless, brainlesszombie. Depressed beyond reason ’til those precious endorphins–endogenousmorphines–kick in again. Two weeks, minimum. I’m straight again. Clean.
Drop the jive, junkie. Don’t dope-fiend a dope fiend. Who are you fooling? Not me, friend. Not any more. Kick for what? To get hooked again a week, twoweeks, a month later? Run up another big, fat jones? Like every time before?I’m a loser, baby. So why don’t you kill me? But how? Forget about an O.D.
The drug cabinet is bare. Gargle drain cleaner? I’m barfing up spring water.
Head in the oven? Too slow, too uncertain. Take an electro-bath with the radio?Probably only works in the movies. Jump in the river? District can’t wipe itsown ass, but it can put a suicide fence on the Ellington Bridge. No gun inthe house, damn me for a bleeding-heart pablum-puker. Bleeding heart. Hey!Yeah, the six-inch Henckels. Super sharp cutlery. Reread that gut-churningcardiac chapter in How We Die. Shelve that best seller under Self-Help. Hmm.
Between those ribs. My day of deliverance. Thanksgiving Day. Let’s carvethis turkey. In the tub. Less mess. Hari kari, very scary. Kneeling, knife tochest. Heart aflutter, on the chopping block. Fear sweat. Oh, God, I can’t doit. Oh, God, I’ll screw it up. Like everything else. Self-cutters always flinch.
Just another body fluid to splash around. Need Plan B. Need dope, damn it.
Where’s the nearest dope? Pharmacy around the corner. Drug store cowboy.
You don’t have a gun, idiot. Sunday, stupid, they’re closed. So break in. Yeah,get caught. Get shot. Ow! Blood. Pain. Ambulance. Hospital. Morphine!Methadone. Methadone! Detox. Yes! No! That means treatment. You’ll bust yourself. No more job. No more secrets. This is a big one, bro. Excuse me, Mr. Editor, one of your staffcorrespondents is a stone dope fiend. Recovery? They’ll make you change.
Make you go to twelve-step meetings. Bummer. Can’t do that. Can’t do that?That’s a bummer? What’s this, a day in the country? Like a dream, a movie. Jerky crane shot of Columbia Road, pan down to a rattle-trap Diamond Cab. George Washington University Hospital, please.
Emergency Room. Slumped in back. Too trashed to know or care how badI stink. How bad I look. It’s got to be bad. Real bad. Cab heads down23rd Street. Oh, man, Gay Pride Day. I forgot. Rolling past P Street Beach.
Throngs of cheerful queers. Familiar faces. Funny, I don’t feel proud today.
Crouched down, snotty cheek to the seat. Can’t let them see. I’m just a junkie.
A kicking, puking, shitting, sweating, shaking, scamming junkie scumbag.
GWU Emergency Room. Sidle up to window. I’m a heroin addict. I’m in major withdrawal. I’m suicidal. I need methadone. Huh? Insurance card? Uh,yeah. Fumble with wallet. Clack of computer keys. Stagger outside for a smoke.
Wobble back inside. Wait some more. Glaring at the other patients. What youlooking at, butt wipe? My name is called. Ask not for whom the bell tolls,asshole. Through the swinging doors. Bare examining room in back. Strippedto my shitty shorts. No belt, Suicide Boy, no laces. No nothing.
Not even methadone, please? Pretty please? After admission? How long–? Click. Grab the knob. Locked in. Big mistake, coming here. Cold tile walls.
Cold tile floor. So cold. So very cold. Oh, shit, I’m going to shit myself again.
Cup of meth with a side of Depends, please. Hold it in. Hold it in. Think aboutsomething else. Think about that yummy methadone.
Shrinks. Shrinks, shrinks, and more shrinks. Where’s my goddamn methadone? Questions. Questions, questions, and more questions. Can you name the lastsix presidents, in reverse order? I’m suicidal, and you want to drag me throughthe degraded cesspool of the American presidency? Let me out of here. This is all a big misunderstanding. I don’t belong here. Okay, okay, I’ll be okay. There,see? So, where’s my fucking methadone? Another hour. What day of the week is this? Do you know where you are? I know where I am. Do you know where my goddamn fucking methadone is?Finally, elevator up to 6 North. Psych unit. More questions. I might scream. Imight get rude. Getting closer: Your room. My bed in the rubber-room wing.
More waiting. Every minute an hour. At long, long last: The tread of sensibleshoes. A glimpse of white. It’s Florence Nyquil, R.N. Angel of mercy, bless herkeys. Hark in yon chalice: It’s my goddamn fucking methadone! Seventy mg. of long-lasting synthetic opiate dissolved in grape soda. Soma.
Ambrosia. Nectar. Elixir of the Gods. Thank you. Happy hour. Bottoms up.
Good to the last drop. Lick the cup. Thank you. Thank you. A small poppyof reprieve blossoms in my wretched gut. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
Half an hour. Bingo! Right as rain. Not high. It takes a lot more than 70 mg.
of stuff to set King Kong off to nodding these days. But, plop, plop, fizz, fizz,oh what a relief it is. Call the Vatican, call Mother Theresa, it’s a miracle cure,Doc. Goose bumps? Gone. Sweats? Gone. Marrow? Warm as toast. Bowels?Steady, thank you for not asking. Snug as a rug in a bug house.
If I’m not sick, why am I lying in a hospital bed? Silly, silly, dope fiend. Why would you want to cut your black little heart out? Life ain’t so bad. You’ll sleeptonight, slumbering in Morpheus’ sweet arms. And don’t fret about no wake-upshot, you bad boy. There’s dope to burn in this joint. Sit up. Check off themenu card for breakfast. Hmm. Let’s see: toast, cereal, banana, coffee, and, ohyeah, for dessert, a nice big cup of methadone soda. Done. Let’s cruise this popstand. Make some calls. Excuse me, nurse, where’s the phone? And how latecan I have visitors this evening? What! You gotta be kidding. No visitors untilnext weekend? Locked ward? Non-smoking hospital? No coffee machine on thefloor? Meetings and psych sessions 12 hours a day? These nightly “Big Book”readings listed here, they’re not recitations from the Physicians Desk Reference?A twelve-step program text? Hell, no, I’ve never read it.
Flimsy gown flapping, dragging back to Rubber City.
through the drugalogues at the back of the recovery text. “I used anythingand everything available every day. It didn’t matter what I took so long as Igot high.” Hmmm, kind of diverting. Porno for pyros. What’s this? “I’m ahappy, grateful drug addict, clean by the grace of God and the Twelve Steps.”Give my other leg a yank! Born-again dope fiends, sheesh! Flip, flip. Step Four.
“Searching and fearless moral inventory?” No way, José?! I can’t even meet myown eyes in a mirror.
Like it or not, they’re going to make you pick that fearful moral lint right out of your grotty little navel. Me, I don’t reallyunderstand any of it. How did a reasonably intelligent, reasonably successfulslice of middle-aged, middle-class Wonder Bread like me wind up totally toastedon 6 North, a hopeless slave to junk, anyway? There’s a party in my mind. . . and I hope it never stopsI’m stuck here in this seat. . . I might not stand upOther people can go home. . . Everybody else will splitI’ll be here all the time. . . I can never quit.
–Talking Heads, “Memories Can’t Wait”, 1979 Where, oh where, does this unseemly obsession come from? Is addiction really a disease, as treatment counselors now insist? Psychologist Stanton Peeleskewers several vital organs of the disease model in his 1989 screed, The Dis-easing of America: Addiction Treatment Out of Control. Intent on assailingthe practice of remanding to twelve-step programs and profit-driven treatmentcenters everyone who is nabbed Driving While Impaired or who has flunked apiss test, though, Peele fails to acknowledge adequately the flaming insanity ofhard-core, terminal addiction. “Insane” may be the only diagnosis for those soobsessed with getting off they compulsively court death and disaster every day,in every way. In so far as it is chronic, progressive, and fatal, yeah, addictionsure looks, walks, quacks and squats like a morbid illness.
If so, what sparks addiction? A miserable childhood, certainly, is not a pre- condition. Sufficient numbers of crack freaks and smackheads admit to havingenjoyed secure salad days in the bosoms of warm, loving families to rid anyoneof that rationalization. That said, growing up in the House of Usher probablydoesn’t hurt anyone’s chances of grabbing the brass ring of addiction, either.
My own dependence on the kindness of chemicals can only have kindled in anintensely alcoholic, emotionally frigid household. Sorry, honey, I shrunk thekids! So, blame nature. Blame nurture. Me, I blame no one and nothing but the perverse mysteries of my own willful self. All I really know is that I’ve alwaysused something to kick start that party I’ve always wanted to have roaring inmy mind. No way was I going to give up my comfort blanket when, accordingto Spock, the time had come for it to go. My mother resorted to slicing thattattered shmatta in half every time it came out of the dryer. It was an inch-square of raveled fabric before I finally surrendered to Spock.
recovery mad ’90s, there aren’t yet 12-step programs for rug rats. But there’sFirst Step food for thought here. Four years old, and there I am: bitter-endingit like a needle-scarred pro.
Likewise, in a later prolonged battle over my thumb sucking, my folks ended up painting them with a foul-tasting fluid. Suck-No-More or some such.
Antabuse for infants. No less foreshadowing was my needle-sharp sweet tooth.
Like so many budding addicts, I was a stone sugar freak–my “life and think- ing. . . centered on [candy] in one form or another, the getting and using andfinding ways and means to get more”, as the twelve-step text has it. Knee-highto a dachshund, I’m shoplifting chocolate, swiping change to buy it, hiding mystash away to savor in swooning secrecy. A dope fiend in training.
And, then, when the time came to move on to the real thing, I quite simply fell head over heels in love with getting high. I’ve loved drugs almost to death,you might say. Maybe I’m an extreme example, but it’s not like I’m the onlyone. “No civilization has found life tolerable without. . . the things that provideat least some brief escape from reality”, world historian Will Durant has ob-served. The Bethesda matron with her ’script for Xanax, the Munich b"urgerwith his stein of bier, the Pacific Islander with his bowl of kava– ’tis all toohuman to get loaded. Only the Inuit, supposedly, eking out an existence in thesnowy wastes of Alaska, boasted no artificial stimulants until obliging Europeaninterlopers introduced them to booze. Wandering an outback no less arid thanthe Eskimo’s arctic, even the aborigine chew pituri, a shrub ripe with nicotineand scopolamine.
Billions upon billions of human beings throughout history agree–getting high can be more fun than a barrel of monkeys. An unspoken, unspeakable truth,that, these days. To state out loud in the ’90s that drugs can be anythingbut the devil’s implacable dildo is as foolhardy as flashing a Comintern card inthe ’50s. Until the powers that be acknowledge this inconvenient fact, though,American drug education will never be other than a laughable waste of posterboard. What I remember of my own drug education in the late ’60s are grainyblack and white films from the ’50s. You know, on a dare, Suzy Sorority takesa puff of “tea” offered by a duck-tailed greaser. Before you can say “assassin ofyouth”, a haggard Suzy is turning tricks for a trench-coated pusherman. Vastlymore knowledgeable about the current-day reality of drugs than the gym andhealth teachers dragooned into educating us about them, we thought those filmsa scream. No less a joke were such spurious scare stories as the mythical collegestudents who went blind staring down the sun tripping on acid.
Youth, in any event, believes itself invulnerable, indestructable, impregnable.
Like sex and driving (or eating, for that matter) drugs of all description are anever-available source of pleasure that can also yield a world of hurt. A sizeablepercentage of kids will use, guaranteed, no matter how many pictures of friedeggs are thrust in their faces. So why not inform them accurately about thepleasure and pains, alike, lying out there on the neural frontier? “This is yourbrain; this is your brain on drugs”, says precisely nothing of meaning to kidshaving the hoot of their young lives on a first joint. Once they suss that many ofthe “facts” dished out with the slogans run rife with farcical misinformation andbaseless scare stories, kids will tune out everything they might also hear aboutthe very real dangers lurking down that long, winding stream of substances. Iknow I sure did.
Around the time I (belatedly) began yanking my young crank with all due adolescent diligence, I also found filler for that yawning cosmic void far moreeffective than Hershey’s kisses. I first got drunk at age 12, spritzing a belly full ofbourbon and gin all over the house one winter night. A kid actor in communitytheater, I’d tag along on post-curtain pub hops. Despite a juvenile tendency toorder scotch-and-tonic and other non-drinks, my elders in that more innocent,more dissolute era were more than happy to buy me drinks. I was more thanhappy to down them.
Around the time I began boozing, I also began blindly harvesting pills from any bathroom with a lock on the door.
become a lifelong vocation as a drug cabinet cowboy usually yielded Miltown,phenobarbital and all those other mother’s little helpers. The drowsy life in theValley of the Dolls was never for me, downs and tranks being the only chemicalgenre for which I never really developed a hankering.
tumbled to street drugs. Pot in its many guises, of course, and then acid andthen speed and then cocaine and then heroin. The classic textbook progression,you might say.
Substances, it should surprise no one to hear, can be a terrific way to facili- tate acceptance for the socially impaired. Candy is dandy, but liquor is quicker.
I was the sort of irritatingly hyper-intellectual, pencil-necked geek whom toughswould travel from other school districts just to kick the shit out of. In time,having dived head first into the counterculture before most of my peers workedwonders for my social standing.
For one thing, genuine camaraderie still flourished among longhairs in 1968, at least in my fly-over land hometown. Spot a freak you didn’t know and you’dcross the street to say “high” and compare notes on hassles from straights. “MayI help you, Miss”, at the McDonald’s. “When did you last take a bath?” from theasshole in line behind. We were family. For another when the Great AmericanTune-In, Turn-On, and Drop-Out finally went mainstream around 1970, havinggotten in on the ground floor catapulted me from the trollish bottom rank ofthat savage high school totem pole to the winged precincts at the top. Oneyear, the hockey team is plotting to pound my faggot ass and shave my hippyhead. (Take it from a pro, short of hiring a helicopter, there are only so manyways to sneak home from school.) The next, the same jocks are slapping me onthe back, asking to cop a lid of grass. I never dealt to those jerks. Why shouldI? I had arrived. I had it all figured out, I figured.
The druggist–unconscious minister of celestial pleasures!–looked dulland stupid. . . Nevertheless, in spite of such indications of humanity,he has ever since existed in my mind as the beatific vision of animmortal drugist, sent down to earth on a special mission to myself.
–Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1822 A new friend of mine, a retired veteran of the drug wars, sorts users into two broad categories. “Sheeps to Slaughter” pop any old handful of pills, no questionsasked. “Mad Scientists” research the hell out their chemicals–and pontificate adnauseum on what they think they know. An anything-goes garbagehead whomemorized the PDR, given as often as not to scooping all of the poop on hisdope only after sampling it, I guess I’ve always been a sort of hybrid: “MadScientist to Slaughter.” Call me Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hydromorphone.
Early mornings last June, the detoxing dopers on 6 North would be herded into a room for one of the day’s many group gropes. This particular gripefest waslaunched by each patient listing every substance he/she had ever used/abused,from aspirin to acid, from Coke to coke. Of the hundreds of hard-core headcases who’ve passed through 6 North, a counselor told me, I took the toxiccake. As I monotonically reel through a three-column, three-minute litany oflicit and illicit uppers, downers, inners, outers and sidewaysers I have crammedinto my mouth, nose, bloodstream and rectum over the past 28 years, the al-ready glassy eyes of my fellow addicts glaze over completely. Here’s the dishonorroll–classified, alphabetized, trademarked, and spell-checked for publication:Depressants: amitriptyline (Elavil); barbiturates [amobarbitol (Amytal), pento-barbital (Nembutal), phenobarbital (Luminal) and secobarbital (Seconal)]; ben-zodiazepines [alprazolam (Xanax), chlordiazepoxide (Librium), diazepam (Val-ium) and lorazepam (Ativan)]; chloral hydrate (Mickey Finn); dimenhydrinate(Dramamine); diphenhydramine (Benadryl); ethyl alcohol (booze); meproba-mate (Miltown and Equanil); methaqualone (Quaalude and Sopor); phenoth-iazines [chlorpromazine (Thorazine), prochlorperazine (Compazine), trifluoper-azine (Stelazine) and promethazine (Phenergan)]. Stimulants: adrenalin chlo-ride (epinephrine injection); amphetamines [benzphetamine (white crosses), dex-troamphetamine (brown-and-clears, black beauties) and methamphetamine (Des-oxyn, crystal meth)]; cocaine (flake and crack); methylphenidate (Ritalin);phenylpropanolamine (over-the-counter diet pills). Inhalants: amyl, butyl andisobutyl nitrite (poppers); Carbona cleaning fluid; nitrous oxide (laughing gas);toluol (airplane glue). Psychedelics: DMT (dimethyltryptamine); Ecstacy (MDMA,3,4-methylenedioxymethamphetamine); Eve (MMDA, 3-methoxy-4,5-methylenedi-oxyamphetamine); LSD-25 (d-lysergic acid diethylamide); MDA (3,4-methylenedi- oxyamphetamine); mescaline; ololiuqui (Hawaiian wood-rose and morning gloryseeds); peyote; phencyclidine (PCP, a/ k/a Sernyl, angel dust or love boat);psilocybin; scopolamine (belladonna); STP (a/k/a DOM, 2,5-dimethoxy-4-methyl-amphetamine); tetrahydrocannabinoids (hashish, hash oil, marijuana and phar-maceutical Marinol). Opioids: codeine phosphate (Tylenol 3, etc.); dextromethor-phan (cough syrups); diacetylmorphine (heroin); diphenoxylate (Lomotil); fen-tanyl; hydrocodone bitartrate (Hycodan, Hydromine and Vicodin); hydromor-phone (Dilaudid); meperidine (Demerol); methadone (Dolophine); morphinesulfate; opium (smokable gum and pharmaceutical Pantopon); oxycodone (Per-cocet, Percodan, Roxicet and Tylox), pentazocine (Talwin); propoxyphene (Dar-von).
Taking pedantically this exercise in pharmaceutical total recall, I’ve not bothered listing such lame kicks as eating heaps of nutmeg or smoking bananascrapings (though I am lame enough to have tried them). Nor have I includedsuch mild legal stimulants as caffeine, ginseng root, or nicotine, nor the manykola and betel nuts chewed on trips through West Africa and South Asia. Alsoleft off is the most definitely “mood-altering” drug, Paxil–the Prozac of the ’90sfor bummed out hipsters, so said the Sunday Times “Styles” section–which liftsthe thunderheads of darkest depression but with none of the lightning boltshurled by a drug worth abusing. Anyway, what dope worth the name takes twoweeks to come on? This is also something less than the Compleat Post-Modern Materia Medica because, not for dint of effort, there are actually drugs I’ve never tried andlikely never will now that I’m clean (if not necessarily serene). Having tiredquickly of disco in the ’70s, I’ve never inhaled ethyl chloride, the lung-freezingvapo-coolant the gay Saturday night fervor gang was honking from hankies inthe ’80s. Having wearied of electro-dance thumpety-thump by the time ravescame into fashion, I’ve never run into such neo-neuro-nukers as the just-outlawedphenethylamine, 2CB.
Nor, for whatever reason, did I ever get around to banging phenmetrazine, or Preludin, a sort of speed known on the streets as bam. Nor have I had mymad whirl with the many mind-bending tropical flora favored by the CarlosCastaneda crowd. Farewell asarone, cohoba, datura, fly agaric, kava-kava, khat,yage, and yohimbine, I’ll never know ye. Likewise, ibogaine, squeezed from apyschedelic shrub in Africa and touted today as a cure for–goodness, gracious,shut my mouth–heroin addiction.
I’ve also confined the substances cited to those consumed with recreational intent, not those inflicted by surgeons. Ether (like being drowned in a washingmachine), therefore, and pentothal (lights out, kids) does not make the dopelist. Similarly, my sole run in with ketamine, a PCP-like anesthetic qua partydrug called Special K, was decidedly non-recreational. After flipping a drive-away car ass-over-bumper in 1980, I was tended by a quack pursuing his quaintcountry malpractice in Van Horn, Texas.
badly shattered shoulder he reckoned was merely dislocated, Dr. Feelbad shotme plumb full o’ K. Already in shock, I hallucinated being methodically crushedby industrial machinery. I’m told I screamed in non-stop terror until the K woreoff.
Even in my own field of specialization, opiates, several potentially worthy alkaloids escaped unsampled. Topping that list is oxymorphone, or Numorphan.
Milligram for milligram, this semisynthetic opiate is 4-5 times more potent than diacetylmorphine, or heroin. It even kicks biochemical butt a wee bit harderthan hydromorphone, or Dilaudid. Here’s one way to think about the opioidhierarchy: Following the trend toward groups named after opiates–Codeine,Laudanum, Morphine, Opium Den–let’s say I put together an alternative rockband. Oxycodone and Hydrocodone are okay, I guess, but this band is loudand fast so we call it Dilaudid. If we really bit the big one, a likely outcome,I’d shift the name to Demerol, a synthetic opiate 60 times less potent thanDilaudid. If we rocked the rafters, though, I’d rename the group Oxymorphone.
If Oxymorphone became an overnight, arena-filling sensation like Nirvana did, Iguess we’d have to switch the name to Etorphine. Synthetic dope 10,000 timesstronger than morphine, etorphine’s only apparent use outside the laboratoryis in darts to stun elephants and hippos for capture.
Finally, please, a moment of awed silence for that holiest of narcotic grails: the Brompton’s Cocktail, a made-to-order elixir named for the fun-loving Lon-don hospice where it was first concocted. A typical cocktail decanted for the dy-ing at a nursing home in England in the mid-’70s reportedly comprised “heroin,cocaine, gin and phenothiazine, a tranquilizer, all mixed in with a chloroform-water base.” Death, where is thy sting? When I put a spike into my vein, then things aren’t quite the sameWhen I’m rushing on my run, I feel just like Jesus’ sonI guess that I just don’t know. I guess that I just don’t know.
–Velvet Underground, “Heroin”, 1967 I have always considered my body a temple. Yeah, a Temple of Doom. In my misspent youth, I’d try almost anything–twice. Phencyclidine, alias PCP orangel dust, offers your basic brute-force chemical lobotomy. Age 16, dusted tothe tits, I stand before an elm tree, completely clueless what this alien entitywas much less what the English word for it might be. How can anyone smokethis poison for pleasure? Well, of course, I had to get dusted a second time justto see if anything could really be that nasty. It was, and I’ve not touched thestuff again.
So appalling were some mad experiments, even Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hy- dromorphone wouldn’t run them twice. Belladonna, for instance. STP. DMT.
Injectable adrenaline. Bad trips and bum rushes, one and all. On most of thesechemical catastrophes, I was warned in advance. But I had to try them. It’s likethis: On my 11th birthday, I got one of those Mr. Wizard chemistry sets. It wastrashed in no time. Who could resist mixing the chemicals together hoping forwild colors, a foul stink, an explosion, any unexpected outcome? The same spiritof adventurous inquiry–the very verve that made America great–also informedmy later chemistry experiments. A not-atypical July day, 1970: Morning, getout of bed, smoke a joint, eat breakfast. Meet Jeff down at the lake. Drop atab of mescaline. Amble over to Rod’s house. His anesthesiologist dad keepsa big jar of 5 mg. yellow dex in a high kitchen cabinet. Drop a couple hits ofspeed. Stroll back down to the lake. Smoke a bowl or three of kif. (A few yearshence, we would also have downed a few beers. In those polarized days, boozewas strictly for parents, jocks and war-lovers. You know, fools and beerheads.)The afternoon flits by on effortless wings of electric song.
Early evening, the mesc wearing off, I split. Hit Stevie’s place. His mom is away. An activist with the underground railroad smuggling draft resistersinto Canada, she’s gone a lot. The Feds come around a lot. Ironically enough,Stevie’s doper friends come around a lot, too. This midsummer’s night, a crowdof them are in the kitchen, shooting opium. Terra incognito. The needle is kindof scary. The opium is more than fine. Rounds off the jittery trailing edge ofthe speed. Amps up the fading eyelid movies of the mescaline. Goes real goodwith the hash we smoke.
Later that night, warmly wrapped in my private world of wonders, gliding home to the House of Usher. My folks are out, too. Drift up to my room. Put on Ten Years After. Roll a joint. Lay back. Not high enough. Time to push theenvelope. Time to shift to afterburners. Pull out a tube of Testors. Squeeze aglob of glue into a baggy. Toluol, plastic solvent, kiddy dope. It’ll zap your braincells, they said, eat your liver. Maybe. Also the most astonishing hallucinogengoing. Later, Testors spikes its red-and-white tubes with mustard oil. Make youget sick before you get off. Pull the baggy’s mouth to mine. Huffing. In, out. In,out. Toxic taste. In, out. In– Total ignition. I boldly go where no boy has gonebefore. Floating inside a polyhedron so hugely vast only a drugged mind couldcomprehend its vast hugeness. An immensity of electric space defined by vivid,swirling geometries. At once plasticene and fleshy, they pulse rhythmically withmy every breath. Cosmos suffused in a sonorous magnetic hum. Music of thespheres. Every detail down to the most minute swirling curlicue unthinkablysharp, unbelievably real. Alternate reality as concrete as the keys under myfingers now. There, then, though, there is no body. All is mind. The mind isall. All is one. One and one and one is three. Come toge– Well, you get theidea.
Amazing stuff, pyschedelics. Mere hundreds of micrograms of cleverly struc- tured molecules are the keys to a private Disney Land of the divine. Acid andits chemical cousins could be a gas, pure and simple. We called them laughingbummers. You know, trips where you get to guffawing. Rolling on the ground.
Clutching your sides. Can’t catch your breath. Might die of hilarity. Hurts. Justcan’t stop. All the terrible, absurd mystery of the universe roaring from yourgut in an unstoppable gush of elation. Tripping was just as often a strange,solemn pilgrimage into the seeming center of universal mysteries. More thanonce, stretching on mental tippy-toes, I reached out and grazed the very ass ofGod. Yes, I did. Unlike such strenuous disciplines as Zen meditation, though,the chemical short cut to this glorious grasp of the oneness of the cosmos leavesone pretty much nowhere the next day. Nursing a hangover, maybe. I steepedmyself in Zen writings striving to cobble a construct that could capture and holdthese awe-inspiring sensations, perceptions and visions. An exercise in futility.
Like everything else, the insights gained from a pill are ultimately worth aboutwhat you pay for them. In those days, acid ran a buck a tab. Dollar for yourthoughts? Tripping, of course, could also be a scarifying plummet into the self’s bot- tomless abyss. Set (how you feel when you drop) and setting (where you doit) can be crucial. Setting: My first time tripping in New York City, big-timebummer. Salsa hell. That West 103rd Street barrio too unsettling, too alienfor a mind-blown Middle American. You quickly learn to sit the bad trips out,though. This too–your face melting into your hands, say, or a shattering visionof human misery and vicious folly stretching into the far wastes of eternity–thistoo shall pass. Set: Never drop if you aren’t reasonably happy with your life.
As my teens wore on, this became a mission impossible. The mounting real-ization that my attraction to my own sex was more than a pubescent passagewas devastating. Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Sex, the abom-inable Dr. David Rubin’s late-’60s bestseller, seemed to tell me exactly what toexpect: a career of furtive shame, compulsively cross-dressing, dildoing myselfwith summer squash. How could I feel good about my deviant self? Faggot!Cocksucker! Buttfucker! Conservatively, I count more than 350 trips. Six timesa month, let’s say, over five years or so. Peyote cactus. Like eating God’s feces.
Psilocybin. Organic psychedelic orgasm. Acid. How shall I count the ways? Blue Barrel. Orange Sunshine. Purple Dot. Pink Owsley. White Lightning.
Black Death. Sugar cubes. Blotter. Windowpane. Microdots. Pharmaceu-tical LSD-25 from Czechoslovakia, even. The candy store is wide open, andI am shopping myself silly. Most of the first 300 or so trips were a joy. Asmy closet crisis deepened, at absolute loggerheads with my true self, my innervoyages evolved into grueling travails of introspective despair and self-hatred.
Undaunted, I kept slamming myself over the head with that million-pound cos-mic shithammer. Bitter-ending it like a dope fiend, until the psychic pain couldno longer be unendured. Save for a half-dozen ecstatic mid-’80s interludes withEcstasy–more an empathic mood-mellower than a wrenching mind-expander–I’ve not touched a psychedelic since I turned 20. That acid test fit what hasbeen a lifelong pattern. Revving up my drug of choice, I’d drive it relentlesslyuntil that toxic truck crashes. Clamber from the wreckage. Hike back to theneural highway. Flag down a more roadworthy chemical vehicle. Continue thetrip.
With pot, this was really more a matter of simply shifting into a lower gear.
In my teenage years, smoking weed was pretty much like breathing–everyonedid it all the time without much thinking about it. As I advanced into my 20s,not only did social toking fall increasingly by the cultural wayside, but I foundit harder and harder to maintain in public high on grass. Not until 1982, when Iread “The Dog is Us”, Marcelle Clements’ insightful essay in Rolling Stone, did Irealize that “attacks of ego-chewing paranoia” eventually afflict most potheads.
Over the past two decades, I always kept a small stash of grass on hand, butfor purely private consumption, the better to enjoy music, zone out in front ofthe tube, inhale pints of H"aagen-Dazs.
On speed, no surprise, I ran the crash-and-burn cycle in record time. I never got into shooting crank, thankfully. And ice, smokable methadrine, camealong after my time. I ran the route orally, gobbling white crosses, brown-and-clears, black beauties. The pills were bad enough. Three, four day runs. Up andrunning, running, running. Not sleeping. Not eating. Talking, though. Talking.
Talking. Talking. Bouncing off the walls of rooms filled with speed freaks.
All of us chattering like squirrels. Day Three of a run. Manic amphetaminepsychosis. Voices in my ears. Gremlins in my eyes. Neural collapse. Twelvehours dreamless doze of the dead. Get up. Go for the gusto. Drop some morecrosses. Run that sucker again. And again. And again. By the spring semesterof 11th grade, Zippy the Speed Freak is an unwashed 120-pound hollow-eyedshadow of himself. A babbling brook ebbing down to boulder-bones. Teethloosening in my head. The speed truck veered off into a ditch and blew into amillion bits. I haven’t even felt tempted to press the pedal to that particularmetal in a quarter-century.
Not long after I heaved up on the shores of neighboring terrain, Coca Coun- try, I’d also leaped the injection hurdle. Not that hard to do, once I discoveredthe payoff. Hitting coke, the reward is repeatedly sticking your greedy fingersinto God’s light socket. Yow! shouts Zippy the Coke Head. Are we having funyet? Crack, readily smokable cocaine, has made this explosive pleasure accessi-ble to one and all, absent the fuss and muss of tapping into the mainline. I’vesucked on my share of crack stems. The thing is, you can only pull in so muchsmoke in one blow on the devil’s johnson. The blizzards of flake you can tipinto a spoon and draw up into a fit, though, are limited only by the fortitudeof heart and wallet.
That first electric jolt of coke lasts mere minutes. Successive rushes are never quite so electrifying. So hit it again and again and again. Chasing mytail. Swooning with pleasure. Jack that fit. Pumping blood-coke in and out,in and out. Incandescent light. Head fixing to explode. Up the dose againand again and again. Heart fixing to explode. Pounding. Pounding. Cardiacarrest? Survived that hit. Close call. Can I live through this one? Handspalsied. Making mincemeat of my arms. Bent over. Gripping the rig in twotrembling fists. Trying to hit veins in my feet. Stick a fork in it, this run isdone. Roger, flight control, Flight Umpteenhundred is crashing. Auguring in.
Bruised, bleeding limbs. Utter emptiness. Bottomless despair. A year’s worthof brain dopamines squandered in a night.
I ran the coke truck only partway off the road. Too much craziness on coke alone. Fit-jacking craziness. Sex craziness. Money craziness. Street craziness.
That yammering id: More, more, more. Never enough. And then, inevitable asdeath and taxes: crash craziness. Never again. Need to blunt that brute edgewith a soothing balm in the Gilead of my grief. A monkey, a cute little squirrelmonkey, scampers into the room. Perches on my shoulder. Hey, sucker! Enterheroin. Enter speedballs. On the street, coke is girl, heroin is boy. A heteromatch made in heaven. Heroin. The blue-plate special in the chemical cafeteria.
At age 7, I got a picture book for Christmas, A Child’s Glimpse of New York.
I knew even then that I wanted to worm my way into the Big Apple’s hardcore. In the fullness of time, I succeeded. In my mid-teens, reading WilliamBurroughs and the other Beats, I knew I wanted to be a junkie. Terminallyhip. Coolly self-contained. Beyond the law. Beyond caring. Stoned, listeningrepeatedly to Lou Reed’s “Heroin”, I wanted to be Jesus’ son, rushing on myrun. In the fullness of time, I succeeded. I guess that I just didn’t know.
Opium is profane and quantitative like money. The more junk youuse the less you have and the more you have the more you use. Junkis the ideal product. . . . No sales talk necessary. The client will crawlthrough a sewer and beg to buy. The junk merchant does not sellhis product to the consumer, he sells the consumer to his product.
–William Burroughs, “a word to the wise guy” A new buddy–having lost his job, his condo, all his money and then some– was cooping for a bit at his mother’s house, as newly recovering addicts will do.
When I’d call and leave messages last summer, his mom would tell him, “Thatheroin addict called.” With no less contempt she might have announced, “Thatbaby-raper called.” Her son, I might add, is a stone crack freak. Crack, I mightfurther add, is the wackest of wack.
As for smack, I won’t con you, we’re not talking about over-priced Anacin here, just another analgesic in life’s pharmacy. Pursued aggressively, junk willfuck up your life, you can count on it. It is rather remarkable, though, how heroinhas come to be cloaked in such an outsized mystique. Heroin: the urdrug, themere mention of which sends frissons of fear and titillation dancing down thespines of the uninitiated. Precisely this cachet lures the curious, the reckless,the rebellious into heroin’s dark flame. This ubiquitous alkaloid could do with abit of demysticizing. If prostitution is the oldest profession, prehistoric hookersand hustlers may well have been working those caves to feed a jones for opium.
Human consumption of the sap of the oriental poppy, Papaver somniferum,has been traced as far back as the 6th millennium B.C. Written referencesto what Homer called nepenthe, the “potent destroyer of grief”, date to the3rd century B.C. Only in 1803, though, did a German pharmacist isolate fromopium gum its most potent alkaloid. Morphine, he aptly named the stuff, afterMorpheus, the Greek god of dreams. In dynamic duo with the hypodermicsyringe, contrived in mid-century, morphine proved an infinitely more effectiveanalgesic than laudanum, the 10% tincture of opium widely used until then.
(Widely used is something of an understatement; in mid-19th century England,opium consumption averaged three pounds per person per annum.) Morphinewas infinitely more addictive than laudanum, too, as America learned in theCivil War’s wake, its boarding houses jammed with jonesing vets suffering the“army disease” of addiction.
In 1898, yet another German pharmacologist repeated earlier experiments treating morphine with acetic acid. Willkommen, diacetylmorphine! Bayer & Co.
marketed the novel semisynthetic opiate as a cough suppressant, dubbing it heroin–from heroisch, “powerful” in German. Those Kraut chemists! Morphine.
Heroin.
B death gas, does the family of nations finally stage an intervention. Fromgoose-stepping to twelve-stepping: “We admitted that we were powerless overPoland. . . .” “Heroine”, the succoring cure for morphine addiction, is another seemingly deathless myth of drug history. But heroin is a remarkably efficacious coughremedy. No cure for the common cold, eh? Give smack a whirl and you can joinmillions of satisfied junkies who claim never to have suffered a cold, cough orflu. Per milligram, diacetylmorphine also boasts better than twice the potencyof morphine sulfate, the PDR says, although its effects are of “slightly shorter”duration. Like a diligent Customs agent, interestingly, when presented with adose of smack, the busy body promptly metabolizes the illegal stuff back intomere morphine. So why the black market in heroin? Why don’t the traffickerseliminate their bills for acetic anhydride and simply deal in morphine? On the demand side, intravenous injection of morphine produces a nasty pins-and-needles sensation (to escape which, when fixing morphine, I’d alwaysshoot in a leg muscle rather than an arm vein). Another reason nine out often dope fiends prefer heroin: “A mainer to my veins leads to a center in myhead”, Lou Reed sings. But only a minute fraction of the morphine flowing inLou’s bloodstream can cross the blood-brain barrier to mate with the opiatereceptors so conveniently clustered in his head. Armed with a valid biochemicalvisa, heroin more easily passes the barrier in that instant before the metabolicCustoms catalysts mobilize for action. Heroin thus hits faster than morphine.
Ergo, more euphoric bang for Lou’s buck. Bonus offer, shoppers: no pins-and-needles. On the supply side, heroin is no more a concentrate of morphine thancrack is a concentrate of cocaine. Au contraire, Pierre. A kilogram of morphinebase yields better than 1.1 kilos of heroin. You don’t need a Friedman to figurethe French connection’s upside in this business.
What is heroin like? If I had a quarter (bag) for every time a non-addict friend asked me that, I’d. . . well, I’d probably still be shooting dope. More thanany other drug state, opiation may be the hardest to describe. Why do youthink they’re called hard drugs? Watching practiced dope fiends fix up, expres-sionlessly wash out their works and calmly carry on their affairs, the innocentbystander might well think heroin has no effect at all. On maintenance doses ofdope, the only sure external signs of intoxication are meiosis, or pinpointing ofthe pupils, and a Lauren Bacall-like roughening of voice. Watch, too, for per-sistent snuffling. High or kicking, it seems, junkie snot runs like a faucet. Oh,yeah, there’s that disconcerting tendency to pour sweat and an aptly apelikepawing at that subdermal opiate itch that somehow never quite gets scratched.
Pretty subtle stuff. Even the infamous nod, that chin-on-chest opiate stupor, comes and goes almost at will. A nod can seem a bottomless well of wakingdreams. Drawn-out dialogues with angels. Lost to the world. My first timesnorting smack: A camel slips from numb fingers, onto my lap. The lit tipburns through jeans, through shorts, searing into my 17-year-old short-and-curlies. An alert buddy nudges, Your dick’s on fire, asshole. On the otherhand: Decades later, nodding in my cubicle, musing in smack’s sweet embrace.
Hopelessly lost to the work-a-day world, right? Not entirely. An editor intrudeson my reverie. In a flash, I’m all business. Bright-eyed, bushy-tailed. Yes,sir. No, sir. Three bags full, sir. Heh, heh. Nor are narcotics–from narkosis, Greek for “benumbed”–necessarily all about nodding. A shot of dope, not toolittle, not too much, et voila: the Mighty Morphine Power Ranger, imbuedwith the strength to do what needs to be done. Say what you will about dopefiends, don’t say we don’t work hard. Keeping that moody monkey in chowis fulltime work, ripping and running, whether you’re boosting hockables fromdepartment stores or writing feature stories. Before my monkey became KingKong, but well after weekend and then evening use had inexorably evolved intoa relentless morning-noon-and-night routine, I stuck fast to a hard rule: nosavings for smack. Over several years, I cranked out freelance like a fanatic topay the dopeman. Covering the 1992 political conventions, I zestfully slaved 14hours a day, zipped on junk. (We all know now what put the tiger in my tankthat hot August in Houston. What in the name of his judgmental God mostmerciless was Pat Buchanan hitting? Adrenal glands harvested from Haitianimmigrants?) Compared to coke’s solar, electric push, junk exerts a more lunar,near-tidal pull. Smack unstoppers a warm flood of euphoria, detonating a softburst of ease radiating from tummy to finger tips. Also radiating from thetummy, often enough, is a spectacular Technicolor yawn. Many a novice drivesthe smack truck into the ditch on test drive, puking their guts out alongsidethe neural highway. Never again, they swear. And they don’t. So much for theit’s-so-good-don’t-even-try-it-once myth. Research by Vincent Dole, the fatherof methadone maintenance, suggests that only 1 in 50 of those who try heroinever pursue the drug to dependence. Dyed-in-the-wool druggies sample smackand simply walk away. Not for them.
Not me. I had to shop hard to score my first fix. The older users and dealers I approached wanted no part of steering me down that particular pathway.
So much for the myth of the pusher.
encounter with the white horse was very much like catching up with a familiar-but-forgotten friend. Yes! This is what I’ve been looking for. Yes! This isexactly how I’ve always wanted to feel. Narcotic nausea? Oh, well. Fix up,throw up and carry on.
I know that some of you don’t understandMilk-blood to keep from running outI’ve seen the needle and the damage doneA little part of it in everyoneBut every junkie’s like a setting sun.
–Neil Young, “The Needle and the Damage Done”, 1972 Carrying on with junk, of course, typically entails probing tender flesh with piercing needles. Gross! shudders the neophyte narcophile, I could never dothat! Never say never. Needles are just another blood-brain barrier, easilypassed over once you get the hang of banging. For me, watching others fixhas always sparked a certain scrotum-tightening queasiness. Among his manyother failings, a former using buddy was also something less than a born needle-man. Beavis is in the living room punishing vein and gristle with clotted works.
Butthead me, toe tapping, stomach churning, is in the kitchen waiting irritablyfor him to finish. Hitting yours truly, though, has never been a problem.
Blood-Sugar-Sex-Magik. Like dicking yourself. The cooking up and tying off–foreplay. Slipping it in. Shooting the wad. Ejaculatory release. Cause andeffect so elemental, Pavlovian junk cells salivate before the bell’s even rung. As ajunior junkie, the needles, not the dope, sometimes seemed the issue. Drugless,I’d pass the hours drawing blood or running a point through my finger webs,thrilled to the quick to possess this new power over my own stubborn body. Asa senior smackhead, needles have been less of a fetish and more simply a meansto a desired end. Instant gratification, for one thing. Not a drop of preciouspoppy juice wasted, for another.
Besides bestowing the grisly stigmata of addiction–blue-green-yellow bruises and scabby track marks, not to mention the lumps and embolisms of missedhits–injection also vastly boosts the risks of accidental overdose. Early lastyear, despondent though I was, I stoutly resisted a shrink’s urgings to go onanti-depressants. Listen to your own damned Prozac, Dr. Kramer, I wasn’tgoing to trust the AMA to mess with my serotonin, thank you very much. Ofcourse, thousands of times I’ve eagerly injected directly into my bloodstreampowders of highly dubious purity and potency compounded by criminal cartelsand street scum. Only once have I had the eerie experience of keeling over afterjacking a hit, coming to consciousness 15 minutes later with the fit still danglingfrom my arm. Shooting at home alone, I just figured that was the monkey’srude way of saying he’d had his fill. Groggily, I cleaned my works and packedthem away until morning. Twice, though, I’ve endured the terror of watchingothers slide into overdose. In the early ’70s, a friend dropped by with a bottle of apomorphine swiped from his physician-father’s black bag. My girlfriend–thiswas years and years ago, remember–went first. Apomorphine is an emetic, itturns out, owing less to Morpheus, the god of dreams, than to Bacchus, thepatron saint of puking. No sooner did Patti pull needle from vein than she fellover in a dead faint. Minutes of panic until she came around. Should we call anambulance? She might be dying! Would the heat follow the medics? We mightget busted! And so that unpretty point of junkie etiquette–when a colleague croaks, dump the corpse at a discrete remove and carry on.
Beavis at his Dupont Circle pied-a-terre last year, a rerun of the Patti panic.
Constitutionally incapable of comprehending when enough was enough, Beaviskept banging bags until he tipped over into comatose cyanosis. Hours of fear thistime. Butthead slapping Beavis awake with wet towels. Struggling to decide:Call an ambulance and split? Or just split? You’re a greedy asshole, I tellBeavis, when he again could breathe without being ordered to do so. The nexttime, I warn him, I leave you to die.
And I might have done just that. In Junktime, it’s pretty hard to get too panicked about anything. Smack: an opaque plate of safety glass shieldingagainst all of life’s little drive-bys. Friend dying? Oh, well. Boss calling? Oh,well. Rent due? Oh, well. In Junktime, when Mr. Monkey is sated, every houris a minute, every day an hour. And every day-hour passes pretty much likethe one before. Most of you sorry wretches have no clue how you will feel asyour day wears on. Get up on the bright right side of the bed, return to it aPMSing bitch on wheels. Ah, but well-medicated wiseguys always knows howthey’ll feel: comfortably numb.
“When the smack begins to flow, I really don’t care anymore”, Lou sings.
“And I’m better off than dead.” In the coils of Junktime, I might as well bedead. Smack: just another word for nothing left to lose. One by one, themammalian pleasure-functions ebb away. Food? Why bother? Just as well,really. Peristalsis takes a holiday. Haven’t taken a shit in weeks. Libido packsits bags, too. Haven’t had a hard-on in months. Sex–a vaguely entertainingintellectual concept. Reading is fun-damental. Not in Junktime. Keep scanningthe same page over and over again. Eyes can’t focus, anyway. Music hathalarums to wild the civil breast, eh, Will? Not in Junktime. Who needs tunes?Harmony enough just noodling away on that internal endorphin piano. Hailthe real opium of the masses: cable television. After so many hundreds ofempty hours drooling witless before the chatter-box, I can’t bear the sight ofthe damned thing. Who parked this overflowing tele-toilet in my livingroom,anyway? As the monkey settles in, the kick inevitably collapses of its own weary weight. Simply stoking an unsteady state of opiation, junk becomes a monotonousmeans of knitting and reknitting the ever-raveling sleeve of care. Tolerancebuilds. Turbo-injecting more and more junk-fuel just to turn over that cellularengine. The early rush is gone (recapturing which, Speedballers of America, iswhere coke typically comes in). Only when circumstances drive the addict tothe anxious edge of withdrawal will a shot of dope trigger the tummy orgasmof yore, thirsty junk cells gratefully gulping.
Circumstances often so conspire. “He’s never early, he’s always late”, Lou sings, another home truth in another smack song. “The first thing you learn isyou’ve always got to wait. Waiting, waiting for my man.” If the man is way late, well, have you ever seen documentary footage of a raging baboon? Brutalblur of snarl and incisors? Hungry monkey goes crazy. If sweet oblivion is theinitial carrot, savage withdrawal is the enduring stick. In time, the dope fiendis not so much chasing a high as fleeing a debacle. The body leans full intothe opiate onslaught. If that gale should suddenly fall still, the metabolismtumbles flat on its face. All symptoms of use take an abrupt U-turn in with-drawal: Constricted pupils dilate. Depressed blood pressure spikes through theroof. Where once there was constipation, now diarrhea for days. Where oncethere was constant nodding, now insomnia without end. Where once there wasnumbness beyond caring, now anguish beyond endurance. Heroin “withdrawalcan mean life-threatening convulsions”, Newsweek informed us last August ina typically bollixed bit of drug reporting. Alcohol or barbiturate cold turkeycan be terminal. Like rats on strychnine, those addicts can convulse into fatalexhaustion. Kicking junkies don’t die from withdrawal, though many of us haveprayed to God that we would.
As violent as the abruptly junkless body’s revolt can be, the psychic pain vastly exceeds the physical. Think on it. Sick as you’ve ever been, and two hardtruths remain front and center: 1) this infection is self-inflicted, and 2) it canbe cured only by the medicine that caused it. Hair of a very savage dog, indeed.
Every dope fiend suffers withdrawal symptoms guaranteed to drive him or heruniquely around the bend. Stone insomnia was my personally homesteadedcircle of hell.
Marinated in misery, I am blinklessly awake for every single second of the ordeal, hundreds of thousands of seconds over a half-dozen or sonightmarish days.
Junk sickness boasts a powerful psychosomatic component, which makes its ravages no less a horrifying reality. Aging metabolism may be partly to blame,but every time I have run up and then kicked a jones, the withdrawal worsensand the next habit comes on all the more quickly. These days, 48 hours of use,and I am helplessly hooked. Even clean, the dope fiend must sometimes endurethe bizarre phenomenon of smack-agony flashback. Protracted conditioned ab-stinence syndrome, it’s called. Returned to the cages in which they had becomeaddicted, lab rats are plunged into writhing withdrawal. Those junkie rodentsbeen drug-free for months. Months! Once the junk cells have drunk deep of thepoppy’s nectar, it seems, they develop a crafty monomaniacal mind of their own.
I’ve suffered torturous twinges of this situational sickness myself in New York’sPenn Station, through which I passed again and again on copping missions toManhattan’s ghettoes, feeding a secret habit none of my colleagues could evereven have guessed at.
I don’t need to fight to prove I’m rightI don’t need to be forgivenDon’t cry, don’t raise your eyeIt’s only a teenage wasteland –The Who, “Baba O’Reilly”, 1971.
Appalled by the person they believe themselves truly to be, teenagers typ- ically cultivate a romantic notion of the person they would like to be seen asbeing. I’m afraid I cast myself in the Jean Genet-William Burroughs role–youknow, the queer-intellectual-outlaw type (garden-variety, bourgeois, bullshit-artist subtype). When not ratifying my adolescent angst reading Samuel Beck-ett’s grim novels, I’m peddling speed and acid on a street corner. When notstriving for Zen satori gobbling psychedelics by the handful and poring overAlan Watts’ noodlings, I’m boosting clothes, books, steaks and cigarettes fromdepartment stores and supermarkets. When not eating macrobiotic and fol-lowing the Grateful Dead all over the Woodstock Nation, I’m sitting aroundshooting narcotics.
In short, I was a hopelessly confused, foot-in-all-camps sort of kid. A shade too middle class just to drop out of high school like the other burn-outs I knew,I went to summer school (strung out on speed) so I could accelerate a semesterso I could graduate early so I could move out of the House of Usher just afterturning 17. The first few months on my own, I worked construction. Grubstakein hand, I then paid the rent for a time dealing ounces of grass and grams ofhash.
In time, as hippie high times yielded to hard-core doping, more and more of those I ran with were packing heat. A candy-ass thug, I was too lacking in thecourage of my questionable convictions to go strapped myself. One night, sittingwith a half-dozen of the scumbags I called friends, surrounded by a vast stashof Schedule I drugs, we get into some not-so-idle speculation. What if the Mancomes bursting through the triple-locked door? My vote, unvoiced, is we dropto our knees and beg for mercy. Wrong, you pussy! Shoot it out is the majorityview. Everyone but me, it turned out, was armed. As nickel-plated pistols werepulled from waistbands and the host yanked his double-barrel shotgun out ofthe hall closet, I truly knew myself for a dickless wonder treading water wayover his head.
Risking life, limb, and liberty with mindless abandon, I’ve always met with more luck than I’ve probably merited. In 1972, hair hanging almost to mywaist, I hitchhike between cities with Stevie and two kilos of grass. Stoppedby the Highway Patrol, my 17-year-old goose seems cooked for sure when a trooper radios for back-up and sets to ripping up my cigarette pack looking forreefer. Knees-knocking, I all but hold my wrists out for the steel bracelets. Butthe troopers never even look for the four pounds of pungent Mexican weed sostupidly stashed in my backpack. Instead, they give us a lift to another freewayentrance and ten minutes to get out of Dodge. Down at Mardi Gras around thattime, Stevie’s luck runs out. Patted down on the street by the N.O.P.D., he isbusted for the whale’s tooth hash pipe in his pocket and sits in Parish Prisonfor three days while I line up bail money. Strolling through the French Quarterat Stevie’s side, carrying the hash we’d been smoking in his pipe, I’d once againwriggled free of fate. Just after my 18th birthday, I do finally get popped–formisdemeanor theft after stuffing a 95? paperback under my shirt. (ThomasBerger’s Nights in Berlin, as it happens, much to the misplaced, elbow-nudgingdelight of the cops in central booking.) After a day in county jail, I get a year’sprobation. Not until my early 20s, though, did it finally sink in that I could likemyself a lot better and escape the gut-wrenching anxiety I suffered every timeI went into a store if I would just pay for the things I wanted.
Overnight, inexorably, myth would have it, heroin sucks its acolytes down- ward into that spiraling sinkhole of insatiable need. Not necessarily. Duringmost of my late teens, I shot smack only now and again, chipping away as manymanage to do for years and years. Of course, chippers never know when theirnumber might come up in life’s lottery. For many, too, a weekend diversionbecomes a daily compulsion.
My own number came up in 1973 after I had crushed a lumbar vertebra and a half-dozen other significant bones in a drunken, 300-foot tumble off the edge ofNorthern California. Getting jacked on medical morphine every day for months,doubtless, primed the pump for what was to come. So did coming under the careback in my hometown of the aptly named Dr. Jones. For a full year, Jones fedmy jones with ’scripts for 50 Percodan, renewable twice monthly. Pharmacistswould positively sneer as I filled and refilled the good doctor’s permission slipsto get loaded. What did I care? What could they do? This dope was legal.
The crowd I was then running–well, limping–with, was also shooting more and more illegal dope by now. Thanks, at first, to the tides of China whitewashing back from Southeast Asia, and then to the waves of Mexican brownflowing over the border as the Vietnam war wound down, the dope in thosedays was plentiful, low-priced and potent. Save possibly for a brief mid-70snationwide panic, heroin has always been relatively plentiful in this country, ifnot always low-priced and potent. The smack-is-back stories now soaking upso much ink are one of those hardy perennials to which journalists, like dogs totheir own vomit, fell compelled to return again and again. The field notes ofthis reporter, who has returned to the smack scene itself at irregular intervalsover the past quarter-century, suggest that junk does not take a holiday.
Working as a mailroom clerk, trading Percs for bags, and middle-manning minor junk deals, shooting dope ever day was easy to do. I sold off a terrificrecord collection to feed the monkey, an act of idiocy I still bitterly rue. But Iwas not stealing, robbing or hustling to sustain my habit. On moving to NewYork in late 1974, walking away from my jones and Dr. Jones–away, in fact,from a whole way of life–also proved remarkably easy to do. Others were notso blessed: Lynn–lying overdosed for days before her bloated corpse was found.
Danny–his head shot gunned off by dealers, his girlfriend nodding off obliviousupstairs. Cameron–his heart bursting from hitting too much coke. Chris–up on trafficking charges, hanging himself in rehab. Conrad–serving a long bit inthe state pen for blowing away a suburban kid in a stupid drug rip-off. John–doing his own bit after getting stung on a coke deal. A few in my crew just gotpermanently weird, rusting out along the neural highway.
Lucky me, I just belatedly went off to college. Armed with my last bottle of Percs, I tapered down the monkey’s diet and booted him out the dormitory door.
Aside from inflicting some insomnia and knee-jiggling nervousness, the ape leftwithout raising too much hell. Diving into my studies, working 40 hours a weekto pay for my credits, who had the time or the energy for doping? Anyway,the overwhelming urge to use simply dwindled away. Blowing the hinges off mycloset door in my 21st year opened the way to new obsessions: love and sex. Ahuddled mess, I had yearned to breathe free. Coming out, I now could. I wasdating, having lovers, getting laid–performing all the adolescent rites I’d so longsublimated with so many bags of sexless smack.
Before long, the drugging and thugging of my early years came to seem a closed chapter, just fodder for war stories to share with a select circle of friends.
Which is not to say that mine was a life of Baptist abstinence. But days, evenweeks would pass between drinks or tokes. Peeking into the occasional medicinecabinet, I’d come across the odd bottle of Percodan or Tylenol 3. Yeah, I’dpop a few. But during my eight years in New York City–Headquarters, DopeCentral, the Junk Capital of the World–I never went prowling the streets foropiates.
By 1982, having earned a journalism degree and shifted to Washington, I had every reason to view my addiction in the past tense. Having shadowedme all that time, however, the monkey had another plan. Always patient, hebided his time and built his muscles. As HIV carved its awful mile-wide swathethrough urban gay American life, my own life again began to wobble on its axis.
As the Anxious Eighties wore on, that damned monkey took to rapping on mydoor with more and more insistence. When foolishly I answered his knock, thatsurly chimp charged back into my life transformed into a raging gorilla.
I’m readyReady for the laughing gas. . .
I’m readyTo take it to the streetReady for the shuffleReady for the dealReady to let goOf the steering wheelI’m readyReady for the crush Taking leave in early 1983 to help nurse my dad through the final stages ofcancer, I stumbled briefly back into the gorilla’s embrace. With all that freeand legal dope lying around? Percodan. Tylox. Mepergan. Why not opiatethat long month of horrors? Plenty to go around. One pill for you, daddydearest, one for me. What a weird feeling walking out of a pharmacy with a bagof syringes and a 20 cc vial of morphine sulfate. But no weirder, really, than theparent-death looming ahead. Plenty of morphine to go around. One shot foryou, father mine, and, well, two for me. Not long after his life ran out, Dad’sdope ran out, too. As had my earlier dance with the monkey, this brief turnon the floor simply receded into insignificance. In any event, I had plunged myever-more-unhappy self into ceaseless work, that iron-fisted addiction that ruleswhite-collar Washington. Only the neurotic depression of legions of workaholics,I’m convinced, keeps this town’s paper mills churning out those ceaseless reamsof policy and prose. If all the worker bees humming away inside the Beltwaywoke up one morning, smelled the latté? and got themselves a real life, theU.S. government and the many cottage industries feeding off of it would go intoreceivership. Memo to Newt: If you’re really serious about cutting Uncle Samdown to size, dose the Washington water supply with Prozac.
For years and years, as the notices for Workaholics Anonymous meetings going up in recovery clubs around town put it, I was “a human doing insteadof human being.” As with any other substitute for a balanced life, though, workaholism works only so long before the inevitable crash. By the late 1980s,the draw of working 14-hour days in pursuit of a career that seemed increasinglymeaningless had waned. Depression, like nature, abhors a vacuum. Supplantingthe drive for achievement, that old drug hunger reawakened. In 1985, I begansipping a cocktail every night after work. By 1988, I realized that I was nightlyguzzling three or four bone-dry martinis–a nice way of describing a tumbler of gin on the rocks. On a 1989 trip out of town, I ended up copping several bagsof junk. My hands tremble as I cooked my first hit of street dope in 15 years.
Shit! The shit is watered-down fentanyl. Not a nod or a scratch in ten bags.
A synthetic opioid administered in microgram dosage as a surgical anesthetic,fentanyl is also cooked up in covert labs as a heroin substitute. The cause ofmany a fatal overdose, fentanyl can fool the monkey but has never rung mychimes. However frustrating, that suggestive taste of the poppy kick-started apowerful yen to dive once again into dope.
More years would pass, though, before I got truly back into ripping and running. Until then, the drug cabinet cowboy rode the range. I find myselfaccepting invitations just to gain entry to unexplored bathrooms. It’s amazingthe stuff non-addicts leave laying around. Codeine. Percodan. Percocet. Rox-icet. Vicodin. Demerol. Dolophine. Obsession roaring back larger than life,I am shameless, pathetic, helpless, hopeless, ridiculous–ransacking bathroomsleft and right, swiping entire bottles of pills, defying confrontation, damning anyconsequences. No gutter is too slimy to crawl through: Profiling a best-sellingauthor for a local magazine, I’m so bold as to poke my nose into his medicinecabinet while while touring his mansion. Damn! Nothing but over-the-countergarbage. I even lift a bottle of hydrocodone tablets prescribed by a vet forfriends’ basset hound. Someday, I’ll have to make my amends to poor Max,who had to hack through that kennel cough on his own.
In 1991, after circling and picking off the outriders of my life, the virus gets personal. Again and again, it ruthlessly excises friends and former lovers.
Impending middle age meets the Middle Ages: Bring out your dead! Life be-comes a relentless round of deathbed farewells and memorial services. Thatyear, too, a near-hire by a national newspaper comes a cropper. My careerbecomes merely a job. My craft, print journalism, is swirling down the toilet ofmounting American aliteracy. Everything seems to be turning to shit.
After much dancing around the burning bush, I learn that a white-collar acquaintance has been snorting smack on frequent trips to Zurich (then stillhost to an infamous legal junk market). Recalling the relief heroin once gavea tortured teenage closet case, I’m ready to let go of the steering wheel. I’mready for the crush. I mail order five grams of dope. Having walked away froma teenage habit, I think I know all there is to know about heroin. I was aboutto take the graduate course. The finals would be a bitch.
Early in a run, junk can be very much a working drug. Lord knows, I work hard my first few years back on the spike. I even win several of the prizesjournalists are forever handing one another in that ceaseless Washington circlejerk of self-congratulation. The sizeable check attached to one of those engravedchunks of Lucite, of course, is immediately funneled into my thirsty arm.
What a bizarre double life I led: Scoring a bundle of junk–fifty $10 bags–I’m up in Spanish Harlem, wading through the crack vials that litter 124th and Lexlike pebbles on a beach in hell. Deal done, I fix in the john of a greasy spoonon Third Avenue. Heading back on Amtrak to D.C., I don a suit to interviewa House committee chairman. One night, I’m compulsively mixing and fixingspeedballs by candlelight in a roach-infested shooting gallery on Avenue C. Thenext afternoon, I’m gassing away on a panel discussion at one of Washington’smore strait-laced think tanks.
This is skating on thin ice, indeed. And, on occasion, the brittle membrane dividing my double life threatens to shatter. Early one morning, I appear on one of C-SPAN’s viewer call-in programs, a forum for politically and emotionallyunstable cranks. Let’s just say I hadn’t exactly gotten my beauty rest the nightbefore. “What do you know about anything?” a crazed but perceptive viewerphones in from Atlanta. “Your hair’s a mess. Your tie’s undone. You look likeyou just came in from a party.” I was up late working on a story, I respondlamely. Yeah, the story of my life. The program veers off into a nationwidediscourse on how fucked up I look. As I contemplate sliding out of the hot seatand crawling off the set, a sweet Virginian calls in. “It’s not what’s on yourhead”, she says, “it’s what’s in it.” Lady, I think, if you knew what was reallyin my head, you wouldn’t sound so sweet.
In 1993, I’m empanelled on a jury. Bad luck, I’m running a bad habit and the Superior Court building crawls with cops. No way am I carrying works intothat place; the metal detectors at the gate almost pick up the Swedish steelholding my spine together. If the judge hadn’t cleared the court every day at5:00, I might have gone with any old verdict just to get out and get my fix. Thejury haggles for three days before agreeing to nail the defendant–a gay drugaddict, ironically–for theft. Having done his bit at Lorton, he turns up lastsummer waiting my table at a restaurant. I introduce myself and he proclaimshis innocence anew. Be that as it may, I say, at least you were tried by a juryof your peers.
I’m settling in for an interview with an assistant secretary charged with prosecuting one front in George Bush’s war on drugs. I start to shrug off mysuit jacket. Idiot! My sleeves are rolled up. My arms, flecked with needlestigmata, look like week-old steak tartar. Jacket back on, I realize soon intothe interview I could have cooked up and geezed a speedball into my jugularvein right there. I don’t think that doughty drug warrior would have had thevaguest clue what was going on.
No aspect of American life is more hemmed in with sinister medievaltaboos, more burdened with lurid, rancorous prejudices, and moreencumbered with morbid, shrivelhearted self-interest than the law-enforcement end of the narcotics business.
–Alexander King, May This House Be Safe From Tigers, 1959 In early 1993, enslaved to junk and returning from just-liberated Central Europe, I make a shopping stop in Zurich. In a burg where a scotch can setyou back $12, brown Afghani smack can be had for a piddling $70 per gram.
Dazzled by this Blue Light Special, I score a half-ounce, walking it back throughU.S. Customs in a shoulder bag alongside my notebooks and tape recorder. Inrueful retrospect, a remarkably dumb move, carrying 15 grams of heroin intothe Mother Country. Ma, you see, is on a real tear about drugs. That dope wassolely for my own consumption. But had I been snagged at BWI, Ma wouldhave grounded me in a Federal pen for not more than 27 months and not lessthan 21.
Future generations can only gaze back on the cruel and self-defeating puni- tive prohibition that has so long characterized American drug policy with thesame appalled embarrassment with which we today view the days of Jim Crowapartheid. The absurd pettiness of the so-called war on drugs can be little shortof astonishing. Amidst the supposed throes of a deadly crime wave, the NewJersey State Police felt compelled last August to dispatch undercover agents toa Grateful Dead concert, netting 17 busts for possession of–Katie, bar the gate!–nitrous oxide. While thousands of addicts yearning to live clean await beds atunderfunded treatment centers, billions are invested in new prison cells. Betterthan a million Americans sit behind bars today, compared to only 330,000 in1980. Forty-six per cent of that increase in convicts, the Sentencing Projectcalculates, are POWs in the drug war.
The first shot in this civil war was fired in 1914 with passage of the Harri- son Act, which for the first time sought to regulate the import, marketing andsale of cocaine and opiates. Thanks to ever-more restrictive readings of thatact, it “drastically reduc[ed] the flow of new addicts from medical practice orthrough the use of legal drugs”, Alfred Lindesmith notes in The Addict andthe Law. “On the other hand, by shutting off the supply of legal drugs fromcountless users without criminal records it forced them to the illicit traffic andinto the underworld.” When drugs are outlawed, only outlaws will use drugs.
Driving narcotics underground, the government worked a neat trick: It leantnarcotics the tempting allure of the forbidden while simultaneously creating avast, violent and ruinously expensive black market far more socially corrosive than anything pertaining pre-Harrison Act. Most strikingly, prohibition hasutterly failed–in absolute, if not relative, terms–to reduce American addictionrates. Some 250,000 citizens–neurasthenic white southern ladies, mostly–werehooked on opiates in 1900, drug historian David Musto calculates. Today, theDrug Enforcement Administration figures 600,000 of the nation’s 2.7 millionhard-core drug users to be heroin addicts. (The 2.1 million others are coke-heads.) All such statistics are endlessly debatable; no one really knows howmany Americans are actually on dope. But a 140% increase in opiate addictsafter 80 years of harassing and jailing junkies? The war on drugs is a protractedslow-motion Waterloo of epic proportions.
It is also far more than an abstract campaign against some inanimate sub- stance called drugs. Make no mistake; this is a war on people. More specifically,it is a class war. This being America, that means it is also a race war. My mostsearing memories of Junktime are not of the cold turkeys, the street scrapes,the bruised and bleeding arms. Infinitely more bruising were the looks brown-skinned mothers would shoot my way as I carpet-bagged into their communitiesto cop my drugs.
A chill November night: I grab Amtrak up to New York on a mission–20 nickels of ’caine and a brick of smack. I’m jonesing hard in the stairwell of arundown project on Alphabet City’s Avenue D, waiting for some 14-year-old tobring me my brick. The elevator is busted; they always are in these high-riseslums. A steady stream of hustlers and players, yeah, but plenty of plain oldall-American hardworking poor folks are shuffling up and down those squalidsteps. No one seems surprised to see my quaking white ass there. The playerseye me hard, looking maybe to take me off. White boys can carry big rolls andI’ve been ripped off before, losing $700 on Avenue B just weeks earlier. But Ihang tough, 200 pounds of drop-dead desperation. In the eyes of the workers,though, that unspoken anthracite contempt slices even through my abject self-absorption: You, you privileged asswipe, you are helping kill my kids! The samecold laser stare would greet me later in Northeast D.C. on my daily runs to aNorth Capitol tenement to fill my self-prescriptions. That look could lash myheart to ribbons. But what was I, hopeless junkie me, to do? Would I muchrather ride out to Chevy Chase Circle to score my dope? Damn straight. Youmeet a less violent, more refined class of folks out that way, quite frankly. It’snot that there aren’t plenty of dopers living in crustless white bread America,it’s just that there’s just no open dope markets out there.
And that, precisely, seems to be the sole goal of drug enforcement policy: Let’s scare middle class folks like me away from hard drugs. The tale told hereshould make manifest what must already be crystal clear: it ain’t working, guys.
The drug war is a rout, and the drugs have won. In a market so powerfully drivenby demand, they always will. Reasonably well-raised white folks with everythingto lose are still getting hooked on crack, smack, you name it. I’ve met scoresof folks just like me. Journalists. Doctors. Lawyers. Designers. Consultants.
Bureaucrats. Executives. Republicans. I have sat in my dealer’s kitchen andwatched the evening rush hour of civil servants picking up their $50 bags ofjunk or chunks of rock. In a 1991 survey of the Washington metropolitan areajust published by the National Institute on Drug Abuse, 0.3% of lower-incomehouseholds reported using heroin within the previous year. A larger percentageof members of higher income households, 0.4%, were riding with white horse.
Save for the occasional mugging and auto theft, however, the comfortable are not much afflicted by the havoc that punitive prohibition has spawned. Andthose among the comfortable inclined to do so can readily negotiate their wayaround the drug ban. Treated as criminals, poor folks caught with dope aregenerally consigned to the prisons. Treated as sick individuals, by and large,middle-class dopers check into treatment centers. “By pretending that most ad-dicts are dark-skinned and destitute”, Musto has observed, “middle-class Amer-icans can avoid responsibility for confronting the reality of drug abuse amongtheir own families and friends.” Meanwhile, punitive prohibition simply drivesthe market for illicit drugs into our most defenseless communities. Only ghetto-dwellers are desperate enough to run the risks involved in feeding the rest ofAmerica’s insatiable hunger for highs. A $100 billion-plus market has thus beenhanded over to thugs of all description–international traffickers, ruthless streetpunks, viciously corrupt cops. Citizens already battling unbelievable social oddsbecome dope fiends, to boot, simply because the forbidden traffic is so intricatelywoven into fabric of their everyday lives.
And so, each of our inner cities has become a bloody Bosnia. But who with the power to make a difference really gives a damn? Having decampedfor the suburbs, the middle classes don’t have to see the dreadful damage done.
Only the chippers and trippers among them do, parachuting into the ghettoesfor their prohibited drugs. A $100 billion dope bazaar is not fueled by welfarechecks and boosted radios. That takes the legitimately earned cash of hundredsof thousands of middle-class screw ups like me.
I’ve been doing a lot of soul searching lately. I can take no pride in how I have lived much of my life. Neither, though, can I view myself as a criminal. Myadult sojourn in Junktime was as bourgeois as bourgeois could be. No stealing,no dealing. When my IRAs and Money Market accounts expired, I financed myhabit the American way: I put it on plastic. I have since gone AWOL in the drugwar, of course. I choose no longer to use. But how much longer can our societyblindly persist in this fruitless, destructive drive to keep millions of Americansfrom self-medicating? Are we going to bitter-end this drug war, like dope fiends?How much worse do the drug warriors really think things could get under anew, less ruthless approach? Given the social distortions effected by decades ofapproaching drugs solely as a matter of law enforcement, decriminalization orlegalization would be no instant panacea for the real dilemmas that narcoticspose, in and of themselves. Shelves of books have hashed out this debate, andI see no need here to rehearse all the arguments. I do think, though, thatAmericans get confused between what is legal and what is generally viewedas moral or personally desirable. (How, for instance, am I to view the lawsoutlawing my intoxicants of choice when laws throughout the land also outlawmy making love to my partners of choice?) Even if heroin and cocaine werelegalized tomorrow, even if I could chase my kick as readily as alcoholics pursuetheirs, I would still strive to shun dope like the plague. Opium, a scholar haswritten of Thomas De Quincey’s addiction two centuries ago, “fosters a seductiveself-absorption that attacks the roots of human community.” Only six monthsago, my days dribbled one into the next like the drool down my shirtfront.
Today, I choose human community.
But not all Americans will always so choose.
would be brave, beautiful and brimming with joy. We don’t live in that world.
Rather the yawning spiritual nada at the cold heart of materialist post-modernAmerican society seems only to have whetted an historically lusty appetite for intoxication. Boasting but 6% of the world’s people, this nation makes up 60%of its market for illegal drugs.
No argument: drugs can foster a misery beyond belief, regardless of their status on the statute books. But don’t we also have a constitutional right to thepursuit of unhappiness? If the consensus truly is that the strong right arm of thelaw serves to protect us from ourselves, why single out the junkies for jailing?Let’s at least be consistent. To hell with lying in wait to nab the drunk behindthe wheel. Bust those boozers at the liquor store door as they cop their filthybottles of Montrachet. Force those workaholic wonks from their keyboards atgunpoint. Lock them in amusement parks and throw away the key. Ten yearson the Ferris wheel, mandatory minimum! Drop the Twinkies and raise yourpudgy hands, fatso, we’ve got this Safeway covered! Turn off that TV, youcouch-potato dirtball, the fitness police are here to take you jogging! You havethe right to an attorney. You have the right to remain silent. You have no right,apparently, to treat your mind and your body as your own.
It will occur to you often to ask, why did I not release myself fromthe horrors of opium, by leaving it off, or diminishing it? To thisI must answer briefly: it might be supposed that I yielded to thefascination of opium too easily; it cannot be supposed that any mancan be charmed by its terrors. The reader may be sure, therefore,that I made attempts innumerable to reduce the quantity.
By late 1992, an increasingly well-fed monkey was gaining the upper hand overmy own mind and body. No longer could I put off the day’s first shot untilcocktail hour. Fixing, rather, was the day’s first task. As a kid, I was repelledby my father’s morning ritual: a fistful of aspirin washed down with “orangejuice”–a nice way of describing five fingers of gin, two fingers of o.j. and ice,always lots of ice.
knew where Dad was in the house. Who’s repellent now? My morning ritual:stumbling out of bed sick as a spavined dog, mixing a shot and blindly stabbingmy arms with a rig. Whatever his other failings, at least Dad didn’t bleed allover the place.
How to describe the burden of carrying that monkey? Heart-stopping panic every morning. Eyes snap open to a stark reality: Whatever else is done thisday, you must feed a $100, $200 or $500 habit. No exceptions. No days off. Themonkey is naggingly insistent–and damnably shortsighted. Because I’m wakingup so dope-sick, I try cooking and prepping my wake-up shot the night before.
Syringe cocked and loaded on the bedside table. That is the theory. The reality?I lie sleepless, obsessed with that cocked fit lying just feet away. As often asnot, I shoot my wake-up by 1:00 A.M. As often as not, that loss of self-controlalso meant that chasing down more drugs is Job 1 the next morning.
A habit is a leash, sharply circumscribing the habitué’s range of movement.
Traveling out of town, I could never pack enough dope to cover even the mostfleeting of visits. (And what would constitute “enough” dope for such as me, theGolden Triangle’s annual output?) On a 1993 trip to see friends in Indianapolis,I bang my way through three bundles–30 bags–in less than three days. Sundaymorning, I have but half a bag to carry my addicted ass back to Washingtonand my stash. Disaster strikes. US Air cancels its noon flight to NationalAirport. Shaking and sweating, I elbow aboard another flight to BWI. Oncethere, jonesing for real now, I learn that the next bus into D.C. doesn’t leave fortwo hours. Desperate, I hire a limo, my first ever. Too sick to enjoy the novelty,I lie on the backseat shivering on the $60 ride into town and the precious bagsawaiting there.
Some compare heroin addiction to vampirism. That analogy works, but I’m more often reminded of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. The body’s metabolism,its every cell, seemingly, subverted by an alien force that eventually usurpscontrol over daily life’s every detail.
an(opium) pod person. From late 1991 to late 1993, I kick six habits–eachmore firmly entrenched than the last. Days and days of sickness. Once clean, injust a few more days, the temptation of that speedball rush strikes again. Justthis once, okay? But no one can fix just once. In two days I’m hooked againand ripping off on another run. Thousands more dwindling dollars down thetoilet. Never again, I swear, throwing my works down the garbage chute. Justonce more, I swear, scrabbling through the trash to reclaim them.
In the spring of 1993 I stay clean for a few record-breaking months–but only because I’m traveling overseas. A glorious ten weeks of freedom from obsessionand despair. But purely a geographical cure. My first night back in D.C., Ishoot a bag. In a week, 100-pounds heavier, a thousand times more voracious,that fucking monkey is back sitting on my face. Later that summer I shove himaway again, fending the bastard off for a miraculous month. I’m not workinga formal recovery program. I attend a few twelve-step meetings. Not for me.
Who wants to spend the rest of their life sitting around talking about not doingdrugs? Not me. I just need to learn how to control my use of drugs. But I’mon anti-depressants. I’m seeing a shrink. I’m in group therapy. I’ll make it thistime. Life ain’t really so bad, is it? Labor Day, 1993: a memorial service foran old family friend. Everyone else is in the living room, toasting her memory.
I’m tossing the bedroom, looking for you-know-what. Bingo! I am stunned. Inmy trembling hands, a bottle holding 130 hits of Dilaudid. The good ones, No.
4s. The best. Four mgs. a pop. Street value: $2,000-$5,000. A hydromorphonemotherlode. Enough dope to run up yet another giant jones. Underneath asurge of sick excitement, I am almost weeping. I am lost. Later that month, Itrain up to New York for a journalism convention. I never even leave a friend’sborrowed apartment. A lost weekend crushing, cooking, and hitting teeny yellowtablets. I return to Washington hopeless, hating myself. The Dilaudid runs out.
I make a feeble stab at kicking. You win, Mr. Monkey. I give up.
stronger and stronger. The average bag, 7% pure a decade ago, today runs 36%,White House drug policy director Lee Brown says. (Justice Department flaks,for their part, talk about 65% pure junk.) New York and Boston, supposedly, areawash with 95% bags. This is just more drug-war hype. I know no one actuallycopping on the streets of New York, Boston or Washington who believes it.
The dope business is just that, a business. Why supply 95% pure product when a captive clientele will settle for much less? In most Eastern cities, junk ismarketed in $10 glassine envelopes. Often double-bagged in polyvinyl to deterdipping by the street-level dealer, these dimes are stamped with a trademark.
“DOA” is a brand I recall fondly. “Heartbeat” is another. Now and again,an unusually good bag hits the street.
astounded if the very best of these exceeds 36% purity–the supposed averagetoday. Once demand for a brand is established, though, the suppliers repeatedlystep on their product, stretching their supply and snowballing their profits. Oneweek, “Playboy” contains a goodly jolt of diacetylmorphine. A few weeks later,it’s mostly quinine, lactose, baby laxative, artificial creamer, God knows what.
Consumers have no way of knowing which they’re getting until they buy and hit the product. I once dropped $500 on plausible-appearing brick of double-baggeddimes. What I got was 10 cents worth of baking powder.
Along with the catch-as-catch-can nature of the street market, junkies are also plagued by ever-accelerating tolerance. More and more dope is needed tokeep up with the jones. Periodically, I score a handful of methadone tablets onthe street and try to taper down the monkey’s insatiable appetite. Greedy andill disciplined like all junkies, I’m always still on 50 milligrams or so a day whenthe meth runs out. Within 48 hours, I fall into vicious withdrawal and am backto banging junk.
By fall of 1993, I am burning my way madly through my savings. So what? My condition seems terminal. You can’t take it with you, right? And I have fewillusions about where I am going. But I give up caring. My horizons no longerextend much past the next shot. And those are coming ever closer together. Afriend in New York now scores smack and coke for me, shipping it to Washingtonby Federal Express. Soon, I’m wiring him a thousand bucks a week. Packagescome every three or four days. Spying one of those red-white-and-blue deliverytrucks on the street can still set my stomach to flip-flopping.
Load on enough opiates long enough and something funny happens–euphoria turns to aggravation. When he was guzzling laudanum by the quart, De Quinceydescribed “exalted states of irritability.” By this time last year, I’m pumping20-30 bags a day into my arm. Any brush with the work-a-day world throwsme into paroxysms of annoyance. I no longer give a damn what other people–clueless dimwits!–think of me or my behavior. Cry for help or terminal insanity,you be the judge: Flying home from Boston, I cook and shoot a speedball inLogan’s departure lounge. Let some officious ass just try to stop me! Now I’malso geezing dope in the stairwell at work. Needlework is more safely done inthe men’s room, I know that. But I can’t smoke in there. One afternoon, rippedand ragged, having filed what I imagine to be a deathless piece of prose, I storminto an editor’s office: “Who do I have to fuck around here to get on the cover?”By last spring, I do my co-workers the favor of simply staying away from theoffice. “Working at home”, I file the occasional piece. The bare minimum dailyadult requirement of work. Soon, I’m merely phoning in the odd excuse. Bythen I have a Washington connection. In time, I don’t even have to cab acrosstown to cop. I dial Mac’s beeper and he comes to me bearing quarter spoonsof reasonably potent white junk–then half spoons, then full spoons. About agram of stuff. Five hundred bucks a day for Mr. Monkey.
But is he grateful? By now, he’s a fat slob. Fat, dumb and unhappy. By now, he’s got me flat on my back most days. I subsist on chocolate- covered donuts.
I rise only to sneak out of my building and pull cash advances off the ATM–or to extinguish the brush fires sparked in my bedding by dropped cigarettes.
This is no longer a habit really; it’s a slow-motion bid at suicide. Half-crazed,I lie around my apartment, ignoring the phone, blowing off a shrinking circle offriends. In a reprise of the Mad Scientist to Slaughter chemistry experimentsof yore, I spend evenings slugging gin, shooting junk, smoking crack, puffingpot. Every so often, I inhale a nitrous oxide whipette, just for a brief changeof pharmaceutical pace. When I feel myself sliding into respiratory arrest. Istruggle to my elbows and concentrate as best I can on drawing that nextbreath.
“I did absolutely nothing”, Burroughs wrote of his long, late-’50s slow-dance with the monkey in Tangiers. “I could look at the end of my shoe for eight hours. I was roused only when the hourglass of junk ran out.” In my final weeksfeeding the monkey, I seem to have stumbled into the terminal dope fiend’snirvana–a work-free drug place. Imagine Ripped Van Winkle’s sickening shockupon reawakening to harsh reality early last June. My cash is long gone. I’mten grand in credit-card debt. I’m on the verge of losing my job. Worse of all,fucking Mac is out of fucking dope.
So, tell me, Sister Morphine, how long have I been lying here? What am I doing in this place? Why does the doctor have no face? ‘My name is Ed, and I’m a stupid stinking drug addict and alcoholic.
Including detox, this is day seven.’ Hey, they were cheering for me!It felt nice.
–Michael Guinzburg, Beam Me Up, Scotty, 1993 The face I confront upon checking into 6 North for detox is the implacable scowl of my health care provider, Aetna Life Insurance. Almost a decade workingfor the same company, tens of thousands of dollars paid out on my behalf,and every day that I’m in George Washington University Hospital Aetna isthreatening to kick me back out onto the street. As I work the twelve stepsof recovery, I’m supposed eventually to renounce all resentments. My grudgeagainst Aetna is one I plan to hold onto. A heroin habit should be graduallytapered down with methadone over three weeks time, the PDR says. Staggeringin under the dead weight of a monster monkey, I get a week before Aetna givesme the boot and I have to finish kicking on the bricks. Plummeting over sevendays from 70 milligrams of methadone every 24 hours to none at all, I’m pouringsweat by mid-week and wracked with insomnia. Convinced that withdrawalwould drive me back to shooting dope upon discharge, the shrinks urge me goon methadone maintenance. A tempting offer, guys. Thanks but no thanks.
Methadone may be as wrapped in misconception as heroin. A 1974 primer on neuropsychopharmacology even classifies the stuff as a “narcotic antagonist.”Antagonists abruptly unplug opiate “agonists” such as heroin from their re-ceptors. A short-acting antagonist, naloxone (Narcan) is administered to re-verse opiate overdose. Narcan will also catapult addicts into violent withdrawal.
A longer-acting antagonist, naltrexone (Trexan), is prescribed to keep addictsclean. Antabuse makes the relapsing alcoholic violently ill. Trexan simply ren-ders relapse an exercise in futility. Shoot what you will, you can’t get high.

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