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When I was six or seven, a Chanukah gift for me arrived in the mail. The slender brown paper-wrapped box was from my aunt Ruth, who lived in Manhattan and always sent me fun presents, so I tore off the paper as fast as I could. Inside was a white B. Altman box. Oh no. I'd told my parents I wanted a bow and arrow, a really good jump rope, and a Slinky, but this was probably clothes. Boring. Reluctantly, I opened the cardboard container.
Inside was a white crewneck sweater, with a red A embroidered directly in the center of the chest, underneath the neckline. This wasn't going anywhere near school. I got teased enough for the frumpy clothes my mother bought me, but this was really bad. I didn't even like the colors: white was icky. And Aunt Ruth knew my favorite color was blue, my second favorite greenwhy did she get me a red initial?
I roll the empty ice-cream spoon around in my mouth. "You don't have to take the finish off," my mother tells me. "Put that back in the dish. It's close to your bedtime anyway." We are eating butterscotch ice cream by the light of a mosquito candle in the full dark of our backyard. My little brother, just four, is asleep in his room. Since I turned ten, my bedtime is nine thirty, instead of nine, and I guess that I have a half hour to go.
It is very quiet; there is no through traffic on our suburban New Jersey street, and the houses are on lots of an acre or more. Our three lawn chairs are on the octagonal patio in the center of our backyard lawn, where the cultivated and thewild have fought to a draw. The lawn is marshy, and the woods that ring it on three sides encroach each spring in the form of hundreds of tree seedlings I must pluck out as they appear. On the fourth side of the lawn the dark bulk of our house rises, lit only by the ceiling light in the kitchen and one lamp in the family room.
I stay still, hoping that if my parents forget about my presence they will talk about secret, adult things. Dad, olive-skinned and handsome, with closely cropped black hair already flecked with grayhe is, after all, forty-onewears baggy chino shorts, a madras shirt, socks and sandals. Mom, a little taller, paler, short-haired, "pleasant looking" in her words, is in a short-sleeved man-tailored yellow blouse, her favorite color, a blue cotton skirt that falls below her knees, stockings (despite the heat) and sober brown lace-ups. The stockings are for her varicose veins, the shoes for her flat feet, the blouse to conceal the tissue missing from her neck since she had half of her cancerous thyroid removed twenty years before.
Instead of feeling sorry for my mother's infirmities, I am appalled by them. Although she suggests that I too will eventually have varicose veins, I hotly deny it. And I hate the shoes she makes me wear, ugly things with "support"; she insists that I have flat feet like hers. The more she draws attention to her physical imperfections, the more Ieven at tenwant to distance myself from her, to show her that I am strong and athletic and healthy.
I am tall for my agealas, not nowand have small, regular features. The only problem is my hair, a mass of black ringlets at odds both with the straight-haired fashions of the times, and our mainly Anglo-Saxon town. And my clothes, chosen by my mother. Because she thinks fashion is created to manipulate people into spending money needlessly, she won't buy me the expensive trendy clothes I want; because two of her uncles are garment manufacturers and she grew up knowing how to judge fabric, she won't buy the cheap imitations that would please me nearly as much. Instead of the fashionable hot pants I covet, I am wearing an archaic shorts set in a pink and yellow floral print I know is uncool, an outfit I'm glad my school friends aren't here to see.
At least the sixties have pushed my mom toward greater informality: now, in 1968, I no longer have to wear white gloves and black Maryjanes on special occasions. But why couldn't my father pick my clothes? I loved his old black leather motorcycle jacket hanging in the laundry room closet. Mother says he wore it when he courted her, and he drove a little MG convertible. "It was so small," she laughs when she remembers. But it sounds a lot more fun than the two Rambler station wagons he chose for us. Washed-out red (1964) and hospital green (1965), they were inexpensive and highly rated, I've been told, by Consumer Reports. When I ask why my friends' parents have more glamorous cars, I am told they are pretentious, and buy their cars on credit. My parents buy theirs for cash, and advise me to do the same when I grow up.
The crickets and frogs make a rough music in the background of my parents' voices. You can't see any other houses from the back of the house; my parents have told me we are lucky to have one-acre zoning in our town. This is also why it is safe for me to walk around the neighborhood by myself, or even to school a mile away. My parents talk a lot about safety, but tonight the conversation is duller, revolving around repairs to the washing machine. The talk doesn't interest me until I hear the names of our next-door neighbors, the Van Eingens, whose little girl and I ride our bikes up and down the street together. I could see them sitting on their patio when I followed my parents out the laundry room door to the backyard a half hour ago.
"... Must have a drinking problem," my mother is saying. "They've been out there at least since I brought the steak out to you at the grill, and I saw they had several beer bottles on the table then." "They have people over a lot," my father offers. "They don't have educated voices," my mother notes. "I don't believe either of them went to college." "But he must be doing well," my father counters, "he mentioned he was buying a Lincoln." "Probably on credit," my mother responds.
My parents didn't demonize drinking; it was just one of those things, like golf, or buying showy cars, that they thought beneath people of their intelligence and good education. Both of them had been to graduate school and studied science and knew, for instance, that golf provided little exercise, that many expensive cars were poorly engineered, that buying on credit was cost-ineffective, and that alcohol injured your health, made you say stupid things and increased your chances of injuring yourself in freak accidents. I knew our Ramblers were practical, but I had much more fun riding in the cars of my parents' friends, showy automobiles that are beloved collectors' items today.
I was too sheltered to even wonder if the Van Eingens were having more fun than my parents, who between the two of them didn't have a drink a week. Drugs were completely out of the question. My mother and father had few friends and socialized only a few times a year, mainly with equally abstemious relatives whose foibles they talked about behind their back between visits. What we called the liquor cabinet held, upon sneak inspection, a dusty bottle of Benedictine, whatever that was, and another with a name I at least recognized: Scotch. Both were nearly full, and I left them that way. I had no curiosity about alcohol in grade school. This I must have picked up from the culture, for by junior high I'd gotten tipsy a few times at parties. But then and now, alcohol isn't my drug.
Just as rare as my parents' puritanism about alcohol is heroin's entrance into my consciousness through family stories. I grew up hearing of a legendary great uncle, the black sheep of my father's family, who was in due course a minor league ballplayer, a merchant sailor, and a junkie. My father's Hebrew name, David, was his, and before I was born he died at the Federal Narcotics Farm in Lexington, Kentucky. This is all I know about him. All of his accomplishments were unusual in the Jewish context of the sixties and seventies, although less so in the racier forties and fifties, and the presence of a professional athlete in our family made as great an impact on me as that of a junkie.
Although we have no physicians on either side of the immediate familyodd for Jews of the professional classat various times both my parents made their living working for drug companies, my father as a research chemist and patent attorney and my mother as a medical writer and marketing consultant. My parents both were at ease with the sciences, but I detested them, and the chemistry set my father optimistically bought me languished unused. Dad had heralded his later talent for organic chemistry by producing a genuinely life-threatening, permanent scar-leaving basement lab explosion at fifteen; it didn't look as though I'd be following in his path to grad school in chemistry.
Perhaps narcotics addiction, the dark sides of medicine, an opposite or obverse of the healing side, hung in the air over our family too. My father was proudly right-wing on most issues by the time I was old enough to understand dinner table conversation, but there were books about junkies on my father's shelves. That's where I found Thomas De Quincey's brilliant, unsurpassed Confessions of an English Opium Eater, as well as Junky, and cheap drug exploitation novels from the late sixties, and a detective novel of which I remember only the opening lines, about a lawyer so brilliant he might have practiced anywhere, but he had to be within five minutes of a fix, so he practiced in Harlem.
My dad was draconian about crimes against property, rioters, welfare and "permissive child-rearing," which he sermonized about at the drop of a hat, but he was surprisingly liberal on social issues. He professed sympathy for Oscar Wilde, whose "Ballad of Reading Gaol" he knew by heart, and he never said anything scornful about drug addicts. When Great Uncle David's name came up, it was my mother who always put in, "the one who was a drug addict." Neither of them added any condemnation, because in suburban New Jersey in the sixties and seventies, being a junkie wasn't even on the radar screen. My parents were more concerned that my brother and I not develop a taste for sugary sodas; we didn't.
The nearest I can come to explaining to someone who doesn't take illegal drugs the unrecapturable specialness of your first heroin high is to invoke the deep satisfaction of your first cup of coffee in the morning. Your subsequent coffees may be pleasant enough, but they're all marred by not being the first. And heroin use is one of the indisputable cases where the good old days really were the good old days. The initial highs did feel better than the drug will ever make you feel again.
The chemistry of the drug is ruthless: it is designed to disappoint you. Yes, once in a while there's a night when you get exactly where you're trying to go. Magic. Then you chase that memory for a month. But precisely because you so want to get there it becomes harder and harder. Your mind starts playing tricks on you. Scrutinizing the high, it weakens. You wonder if you're quite as high as you should be, if the cut's different, if there's something funny about your jaw or lower back, if it used to feel this speedy.... Ah for the good old days, when heroin felt wonderful. If I had to offer up a one sentence definition of addiction, I'd call it a form of mourning for the irrecoverable glories of the first time. This means that addiction is essentially nostalgic, which ought to tarnish the luster of nostalgia as much as that of addiction.
Addiction can show us what is deeply suspect about nostalgia. That drive to return to the past isn't an innocent one. It's about stopping your passage to the future, it's a symptom of fear of death, and the love of predictable experience. And the love of predictable experience, not the drug itself, is the major damage done to heroin users. Not getting on with your life is much more likely than going to the emergency room, and much harder to discern from the inside.
Dope can make you bad looking, especially if you're using a lot: you retain water, so your face grows puffy and aged, you develop blemishes, your skin looks green. And after quitting, you look worse for months before your former looks return. But heroin also seems to retard the aging process. People who've been involved with dope are pickled by it, preserved from decay.
What happens might be purely chemicalheroin does slow the metabolism. Or it might be psychological, an arrest of life experience. Think about those commercials for skin care products that point out that laughing or frowning ages your skin. Life on heroin doesn't lend itself to lots of animated facial expressions. Your lows are higher andbecause of the physical annoyances of addictionyour highs are lower. There are not a lot of surprises, which is often the point; your rhythms are defined by the familiar and predictable arc of the drug's breakdown in your body, rather than the hazards of time. It is absence of pain that you are looking for, but absence of living that you get. Your last few years of use are like suspended time, and this absence of living tells on your face, and, alas, on your heart.
Sanctified only by usage, but nevertheless immutable, alphabetical order is one of the more obvious enemies of chance. While there is an underlying arbitrarinesswhich words to alphabetize, which letters they happen to begin withonce a commitment is made to the principle, all is fixed. Alphabetical order is the schoolchild's first lesson in the implacability of fate: he may be assigned to a seat solely on the basis of his last name, and he will learn to listen for that name each morning in the roll call, in its proper place.
When you stop to think about it, alphabetical order is emphasized in early schooling more than its intellectual importance warrants. Learning the alphabet is conventionally the first step in learning to read, but it's not necessary for the process. Given a basic vocabulary, you can read in a language without knowing its alphabetical order. True, you can't use a dictionary, a phone book or many other reference works without great trouble. But digital culture makes it likely that the importance of alphabetical order will erode rapidly in the near future. We won't use paper dictionaries or reference works; we will just query a database.
Our early training in the alphabet is mainly about submitting for the first time to an arbitrary discipline. The implacable order of letters will not be rearranged to please the child; no cute pleas or frightening howls will change it. Memorizing the order of the letters is an induction into the child's inherited culture, a set of rules that initially appear equally arbitrary, but which make human society possible. Rules are the enemy of entropy. The sonata and the sonnet, the haiku and the lipogram, the blues lyric and Scrabble, the civil statute and the religious injunction all set up artificial forms that comfort distress at the uncertainty of human fate (see vertigo).
The olive skin and curly black hair that made me an anomaly in my childhood town allowed me to blend into the heavily Hispanic Lower East Side street scene more easily than many of my friends, but it is probably just dumb luck that saved me from the embarrassments of arrest. I tried to minimize risk: street lore had it that copping during the day was more dangerous than at night, because the police were more motivated to make arrests in daylight. Buying below Houston Street was said to be more dangerous than above, since that area had been targeted for a police crackdown. You were supposed to drop the dope bags if you thought a cop was behind you; looking back over your shoulder was a tip-off that you'd been copping.
Before leaving the house, I made sure I had my license because if you're arrested you get released faster with ID. And of course I had to have the right money, which sometimes meant getting reverse change, a ten or twenty for ones or fives. Stores in the neighborhood often refused this request. But almost no dealers would take ones. If they knew you, fives were OK, but tens were the only sure thing. You could usually get change for larger bills, but it wasn't the best idea. If the guy took your twenty and only gave you a bag, or would only give you two bags, not a ten and a bag, what were you going to do?
Whenever I went out to cop, I was watchful. I liked going for a reconnaissance by bicycle, to check to see if a particular spot was open. (You don't take a car, because the new laws let the cops confiscate it if you're busted.) The odds that you would arrive when the spot was open were maybe fifty-fifty. If it was closed, you had probably passed by a bunch of undercover cops, who had watched you walk to a known dope spot and turn around and walk away. The more times the cops saw you the more likely it was they'd pick you out and arrest you some other day when you were walking away from buying. It was too much exposurehence the bicycle. There were also supposed to be video cameras aimed at notorious cop spots and if you showed up a lot they knew you were using.
If the lookouts or another user told you to come back in five minutes, you had to kill time. Sometimes I spent those stressful minutes lingering in a bodega, searching for an imaginary need on the dusty shelves of Goya canned goods waiting forlornly in their off-colored sun-faded labels, or searching among the stale bags of dried black and red beans. Many of the stores were drug fronts, but they wouldn't sell to Anglos, or dealt in crack rather than dope. Or I pretended to be waiting for a friend outside, reading a band poster pasted on a lamp post, or one of those signs, handwritten when I first moved to the East Village but later printed out on home computers, announcing the finding or losing of a pet.
The worst was being told to come back in twenty minutes, so you had to go home or somewhere else and repeat the whole procedure. What with all this, I sometimes just sought out a friend of Dave's named Stan, a prematurely decrepit and unexpectedly sweet white handyman who would get you a bag or two for cost plus five bucks or a taste. You could spend your waiting time in Max Fish (see Max Fish), get high there without having to go home, and start your evening more smoothly.
All my junkie friends had been good athletes. Alexandra had lettered in three sports in her California boarding school, Dave went to prep school on a football scholarship, Ondine had won show-jumping events, Sam had run cross-country and climbed mountains, Can had mountain-biked and windsurfed competitively. When they stopped doing sports for one reason or anotherinjuries, moving to New York from a less urban environment, depression, workthey used dope to blow off their naturally high level of energy, to calm them down, make them feel normal. And some of them did both dope and sports.
Pat's girlfriend Cassandra used to snort dope immediately before going running (I, more puritanical, did it after, as a reward); a friend of a friend ran the New York Marathon high. But my friend who best exemplified the linkage between sports and dope was Candy, who is as tall and lean as a man. Shortly after I met her, I learned how physically fearless she was. One night, I ran into her outside Max Fish at two in the morning. Already fucked up on dope, she was heading off to cop again on Avenue D, mounted on her expensive Italian racing bike, her shoes in the toe clips, her left arm in a cast. The day before, she'd broken it in two places in a freak accident.
Heroin provides the all-absorbing, anxiety-deflecting presentness, which we can also find in sports. In the middle of a good tennis or basketball game, the voices in my head that do not bear on the activity of the moment are stilled. I forget about not forgetting to buy garbage bags, about my date tomorrow, about my eventual death. And I emerge from the spell of the sport better able to focus on what is and isn't important. So much of my life has been spent in this oblivion of athletics: hitting a tennis ball against the wall as a kid, practicing squash in college, doing martial arts, learning to surf, shooting baskets, and recently back to tennis again. Perhaps if you fall out of the habit of playing a sport seriously, where those moments of immersion occur often, you are more vulnerable to a chemical substitute than someone who never knew those moments at all.
There is also a biochemical link. Both serious drug use and serious sports demand strong constitutions and a high pain threshold. Like many of my druggie friends, I have a hardy constitution and don't notice pain that bothers most people. Endurance sports like running and swimming have always been easy for me, although I'm not talented at them, or particularly fast. I just don't feel the pain. Or is "high pain threshold" code for self-hypnosis, the ability to make yourself not register sensations as negative?
During the years I used dope, I played a curious game with myself, balancing heroin against exercise in an effort to get high as often as I wanted without losing my strength and muscle tone. Later, a physician friend suggested that my level of exercise made it possible for my body to clear the drug from my bloodstream unusually quickly. And so, although my highs ran out faster than they might have otherwise, I also sunk more slowly into addiction.
My experiences with mixing dope and sports concentrated on martial arts. Doing both heroin and tae kwon do in a committed way wasn't as difficult as the nonuser may believe, but it required planning. I found that going to martial arts class the day after a night spent getting high worked well: since some heroin was still in my bloodstream, I felt less pain during the warm-up exercises. (My lifetime pull-up recordninewas achieved one such day after.) But the day after the day after I was irritable, uncomfortable in my skin, and found martial arts purgatorial. Of course, if I got high that night, I ensured myself another good class the next night....
This system worked well until one evening, on a day after dope, when I got kicked hard in the stomach in the regular sparring exercise. Tears came to my eyes from the pain, and when I stood up straight it was cautiously, suspecting a broken rib or bruised organ. Luckily it was neither. I was ashamed; despite my years of training and my blue belt, I simply hadn't seen the kick coming. Chalk that up to last night's dope, I thought. I pulled back from heroin for a week or two, but eventually the heroin won out, and it made me pull back from sparring, which was what I'd loved about tae kwon do in the first place. Toward the end of my dope years, I had a low-level but constant sense of mortification about this evasion.
There is this moment of exultation just when the dope hits your bloodstream, and you feel so good you have to share it, so you talk, you talk as you have never talked before (if you are normally reticent), you chat with people you'd cross the street to avoid other times, you speak almost as a substitute for motion. And in a group of people who have gotten high together, the talk erupts at nearly the same instant, all voices suddenly raised, engaged in discourse, if not dialogue, because what with everyone speaking at once, it is really impossible to have a conversation, but the delightful part is that no one is mad about being unable to complete sentences without interruption, because the bliss of heroin has descended on all.
These moments offer something like the freedom of the psychoanalytic couch, at a lower price, and in a social setting. They might be some users' reason for doing the drug: if you have trouble getting to freedom of speech, but distrust liquor's lack of control, dope unlocks the door just enough. This urge to talk might have something to do with the way I began writing professionally (see first time) and the odd little fact that the literature of opiates in English began almost with the first users.
But dope babble bothered me. I thought it made me see myself as others saw me: all my life I had been told I talked too much. And if my psycho-analysis had helped me to piece together some subtexts in all those words, dope made me suspicious of their quantity. Now that I write, I talk less. The babble has been recognized and channelled, perhaps also tamed and removed from the unstable excitement of its origins in the unconscious.
When my brother and I were kids, we were always being warned against some carelessness, or some pleasure, that might result in disaster. "Don't hold that pencil near your eye! If someone knocks against you, it will poke your eye out!" "Wear your rainboots! If you play in your sneakers, you'll catch a cold." And so on. The disaster that was never mentioned was my dad's illness, but I wouldn't find out about that until later.
Heroin use is way outside the margin of these potential disasters, but it's also possible to see it as a way of warding them off. A line from a television song, "Adventure," always reminded me of heroin: "I love disaster/And I love what comes after." So the life you lead after the disaster is free of certain kinds of anxiety, fears that are worse for you than worrying about being a drug user.
In New York, heroin comes in $10 bags, small ¾" by 1 ½"glassine envelopes, glued shut on three sides and sealed with transparent tape at the top. Sometimes they are folded in thirds horizontally and encased in brightly colored plastic bags. The plastic prevents the heroin from dissolving if you put the bag in your mouth, or if it gets wet somehow. This is convenient for the user, but designed for the street sellers, who often conceal bags in their mouths or under a paving stone or in a crack in the wall. Street folklore has it that the dope from enclosed bags is weaker.
If you buy in bulk, the price comes down. The typical deal is $90 for a bundle, ten bags, but sometimes you can get a bundle for $80. Sam even found a place that would part with five bags for $40. The other way to get more for your money is to go to the places where poorer users buy. The bags are still $10, but the dope is stronger, which is why Dave and Ondine sometimes went up to East Harlem to cop. Dave would go to the Bronx, but that's unusual for a downtown user. I suspected that these trips were fueled by a hunger for adventure; the cab fare Ondine paid must have wiped out any savings on the dope (see madness).