Sitting slouched down on a park bench in Midtown Manhattan, it was all coming back to me. Romancing that first hit on a joint I’d taken fifteen years ago or beating that crusty gray cotton for the tenth time when I knew damn well that there wasn’t another hit left in the spoon. Of course, after a couple of futile-ass attempts at painting a rosy picture of my life, I was forced to look at the reality of it all and then unfortunately after that, I was left alone with myself, a place I hated to be, as once again there I was wishing that I was still unspoiled and a bit naïve.
Back when it really mattered, back when I actually thought about shit, back when I used to agonize over whether or not everyone in the entire world liked me. Hoping that all of them was wondering was I really one big incredibly lovable human being or was I just one of those dejected souls that gets jettisoned off into that space where loneliness rules and nobody even drops by to see if you’re still alive. And as I rushed to get to wherever it was that I was going, there’d be this distressing sensation that no one truly loved me, because no one was capable of truly loving me, because I was so adamant that I wasn’t the least bit lovable in the first place. Why even try?
There were even times when terror-stricken I’d stare into the mirror and contemplate which one of my various freckles, wrinkles or scars was the offending culprit that had turned the world’s love off, one adoring fan at a time, leaving me abandoned, unwanted and alone. This of course led to some rather odd behavior on my part, like avoiding being photographed by strangers, only exposing my left side to security cameras and worse: all those sneaked peeks at my blurry reflection in store windows, parked car windshields and occasionally those unforgiving three-sided dressing room mirrors that one always finds hidden obscurely off to the side of the men’s clothing department in repressive institutions like Macy’s and Sears.
The reality of it all is that I hadn’t even realized that I was doing any of those things as I was still mired in my fears honed by all the finely tuned phobias that I’d harvested from adolescence. And because of that, none of this even seemed the slightest bit relevant, sitting there uncomfortably on a dark green painted wood bench on one of those weird traffic island kind of parks that appear to grow right out of Broadway as the taxis rush by in a constant stream of yellow. Smoking a joint and staring at the ornamental crustaceans – that from where I was sitting appeared to be crawling up the gray granite side of the building across the street, I came to the undisputable conclusion that I was to be alone for the rest of my entire life.
Of course if I didn’t get up and move in a minute or two I wouldn’t be alone at all as down the block I could see that two blue uniformed police officers were making their way towards me, no doubt following the odorous trail of sinsemilla, a smell that New York was just not ready for. Too Californian in nature. It sure didn’t smell like Nathan’s hotdogs or some roasted indistinguishable meat on a stick or like any of the other indigenous to the street smells that you’d normally find floating around in Midtown Manhattan.
Quickly standing up with my right hand outstretched flagging a cab, I couldn’t help but notice my reflection, a very unflattering incongruously dark somewhat bloated shape, in the darkened plate glass window of the restaurant directly across the street. ”Can’t eat tonight, or ever, you gargantuan fat slob” I think to myself and then as the sounds of the cops’ running feet start to fill my ears, I’m closing the taxi door and giving the driver a destination in the Lower East Side as the taxi slowly slips into the incognito-ness of the day’s afternoon traffic: another cab, another passenger, another narrow escape from the un-manicured hands of the law.
“God I’m tired,” I mumble, rubbing my eyes as I try to remember what time I’m to meet Paco, whether it was supposed to be 11 am today or 11 pm tonight. Goddamn, how the hell should I know? I can’t even remember if today’s today.
Yet somewhere out of the void, creeping into my subconscious, I hear, “Hey buddy, you mind if I take Fourteenth?” Looking up, I’m greeted by this pair of bloodshot eyes staring at me from the rearview mirror and it takes a few seconds to comprehend just what it is that they are asking of me.
“Sure man, just get me there!” I say, talking to the mirror like that’s who I’m supposed to be talking to. Yet I gotta admit it’s a better choice than talking to a back of a head or to no one in particular as these eyes just might be able to get me where I’m going. And as the taxi shimmies and shudders its way across four lanes of traffic, I lean back seeing the reflection of my face in the passenger window.
“Jesus Christ, you’re one ugly mo-fo,” I mumble to no one in particular. Only the taxi driver hears me and once again his eyes, or actually their reflection, are looking in my direction. I really got to remember to stop just blurting things out loud.
“Sorry, I wasn’t talking to you,” I announce making sure that I am actually saying the words not just thinking them and then fumble in my coat pocket for a cigarette. Only to remember that I smoked the last one twenty minutes ago and I’m out and then all of a sudden I realize that I got something else to obsess about.
“That’s Ok, no offence taken,” the cab driver says before turning his head in my direction. “Sir, may I ask you a rather personal question?”
“Well, if it’s about anorexia, prenatal sex, osteocopic surgery, baseball, the whereabouts of my mother, dental hygiene, IV drug use, adult inertia or the use of certain transfats as oil substitutes in most of our society’s favorite snack foods, well, then the answer is no. And I do reserve the right not answer any inquires on numerous other as of yet unnamed subjects.”
“Does that mean yes?”
“Fire away my good man, fire away!”
“Are you that funny guy from the television?”
“You know, the one that plays the space alien on that sitcom?”
“Are you sure?”
“Actually I have no idea what you’re even talking about.”
“Oh, I get it.”
“You get what?”
“You don’t want anyone to know that it’s you. Don’t worry, I won’t tell. Besides, who am I gonna tell anyway?”
“Honestly, I’m not who you think I am, really.”
“You look like ‘im.”
“I’m not him.”
“You sound like ‘im.”
“I’m not him!”
It’s hell to be mistakenly recognized as some celebrity, especially some insipid sitcom comedian when the truth is that there’s really nothing funny about the whole goddamn thing and secretly deep down inside I’m wishing that I’d be mistaken as some rock star or at least a really cool artiste. But no, it had to be a TV sitcom actor no less. Obviously I’m cursed, doomed to a life of being ugly, unloved and resembling second rate television celebrities, and you know in my book it just doesn’t get any worse than this. Every so often someone thinks they know me, thinks I’m that comedian, or some other actor. Makes me think I could have been something else in life, something other than a dope fiend watching the world go by. But with the first pangs of withdrawal thoughts of that nature generally dissipate rather quickly and I’m back here right where I am: chasing the bag, getting high.
Just past the Bowery on East Houston between Chrystie and Forsyth Street lies a derelict piece of cement and dead grass that carries the large and somewhat prestigious misnomer Sara Delano Roosevelt Park. It’s where I usually meet Paco to buy a bindle of dime bags filled with China white heroin, lactose, fentanyl and assorted barbiturates – not necessarily in that order. A bindle is an interesting proposition since the deal is that you get ten bags for the price of eight and then one of the bags is always empty, so in reality you get nine. Which is kind of an out right New York pay off, only you don’t get to tip the dealer yourself, like having the gratuity already added on to the bill, like some high class restaurants do.
Crossing Forsyth, I look up and see the edge of the park come into view. “It’s there on your right,” I tell the driver and he abruptly pulls over as I begin getting out the money to pay the fare. Unfortunately the morning sun is a bit bright and it makes for a mirror-like high-resolution reflection on the window of me handing him over the cash. I try not noticing myself while I’m doing it and in my haste I step out of the cab without looking. “Egotistical asshole,” I hear the driver say not so under his breath right before I close the door, and then I notice that the park is empty except for a bum or two sleeping away on one of the various unkempt park benches. So there I am standing alone staring off into space wondering if indeed the agreed upon time had been 11 pm and I am in fact twelve hours early for this drug deal. Of course there’s not a pay phone that’s unmolested and in working order in at least a good quarter mile radius and so calling Paco to find out when we’re to actually meet is at the present time out of the question.
“Hmmmmm, what to do, what to do…”
And then, as if in a vision sent by the gods, a man steps out of the tavern across the street and it’s obvious: I can go sit inside and wait or even just go in and see if they have a phone that works. Good. Things are looking up.
Stepping out of the daylight into the dark bar I’m assaulted with that depressingly familiar smell of stale alcohol spilled on dirty rugs mixed with crushed cigarette butts. From the looks of the insides of this place, it’s one of those dives that should be called Joe’s or Lou’s, but I didn’t bother to look at the name before I came in. In front of me is one long bar running the length of the room with a few booths off to the right and then what looks like a very well worn pool table in the back under a hanging lamp.
“Got a pay phone?” I ask the down syndrome looking guy who’s standing behind the bar.
“Phone fur payin cus-a-mers only” is his response and yeah, I’m in New York.
“Ok, Ok, jeez already, give me a fricking beer and then point me in the direction of the fucking phone!”
“Milla, Bud, McSorley, Guinea?”
“Wha kinna beer youse wan?”
“How about one that you pour into a glass and it foams a little?”
“Tha, I kin do.”
Next to the pool table is one of those pay phones that looks like it’s from back in the days when a call only cost a dime and when I put my finger out to punch in Paco’s number I’m almost surprised to see that there’s not a dial.
“Is Paco there?”
“¿Paco? ¿Paco quién? ¿Quien llama?”
On the other end of the phone line a television blares away and I really don’t know exactly what to say to try and convince this woman that Paco needs to talk with me. Hell, it’s of the utmost importance and here I am without a single phrase of Spanish to woo her confidence with. “Senoro, I needa speek wit Paco, el vantay!”
From somewhere behind me I hear some one say, “It doesn’t help to try and imitate a New York Puerto Rican accent man.” And when I turn to look, standing there staring at me, is Paco, dressed in what looks like a New York Yankees uniform, only it’s made out of silver lamé. He needs no more advertisement than that suit that he’s a drug dealer. Hanging off his neck are at least three strands of gold that I’ve undoubtedly involuntarily paid for. On his left wrist, loose to the point of almost falling off, hangs a matching gold Rolex watch, on his feet, bright red alligator skin Adidas.
“Why you white dudes always think that if you affect a Spanish accent that it’ll get you in good with the man?”
I hang up the phone, doing a little shake of my head that I’m certain would look cool if I was a badass gang-banger or at the very least wasn’t a hundred and twenty-pound spike haired junkie trying to cop dope in a dark empty bar. But when I catch a glimpse of myself doing it in the mirror behind the liquor bottles I immediately stop, making a mental note of what a fat slob I look like from the side, and unenthusiastically slip onto the barstool in front of my beer.
“How you find me man?” I ask him and then take a sip of beer.
“Word on the street is some skinny-assed-dope-fiend-looking-white-dude just got outta a taxi and bee-lined it for this bar. Hell man you know that this is my neighborhood. So now that we’ve established the fact that you’re here and that I’m here, what I can I do you for my man?”
Taking another sip off my beer I lower my right hand under the bar and ease out the small roll of money that I have in my pant’s pocket. A hundred and sixty is the price for two bindles. I, of course, being that dope fiend that wants to get the most for his money, got a hundred and fifty two: five twenties, two tens, five fives and seven ones, all neatly rolled up with the twenties on the outside so it looks fat like all the money’s there. Paco knows I’m going to short him, and I know that he’s going to short me the usual amount of two bags. It’s a mutual shortness transaction going on here. That’s just the way things work.
“Gimme two, and could you not short me this time? I’d really like to get what I pay for.” I tell him, and then involuntarily do that little shake of the head thing again.
“Is the money right?”
“Right as it always is.”
“Sure you right baby.”
The bags, the money, they all transact in a quick handshake and then Paco nods farewell and I go back to my beer, the dope now safely hidden away burning a hole in my pocket. Only now the question is: do I walk the eight blocks to the crib or try and do a quick shot in the men’s room?
Looking up, I see the bartender staring at me. Forget the men’s room, this dude already knows what I’m about. So I pat the two bindles of dope sitting in my pocket like they’re some sort of good luck talisman and get up off the bar stool, preparing to leave.
Out of the corner of my eye I catch a quick glimpse of myself in the mirror behind the bar. Startling sometimes to see myself – my real self, that is: tired, strung-out, a mere reflection that’s usually only good enough to critique my body weight or put a value on the unattractiveness that I feel. Only right now I got no time for such nonsense because I’ve got to go fix. It’s times like these that it’s a luxury, this low self-esteem, this poor self-image.
Pushing open the bar door, I peer into the daylight with squinted eyes. I know some dope fiends that once they score their drugs they’re cool, withdrawal’s all but gone, they’re almost physically well just having the drugs in their hands. But I’m not like that, never have been. Looking up the street I see is the sign for Katz’s Deli and knowing that that’s the direction I have to go I start walking.
A Block and a half later I’m standing in front of Sal’s pizzeria taking a breather and out comes Mikey, I’d guess I’d call him a friend or maybe it’d be a little more on the real side to just say that at times we’ve shot a lot of dope together. “Yo man, ya got a cigarette?” he says.
“Nah Mikey, I’m out.”
Mikey looks terrible, looks like somebody just ran over his dog. Come to think of it, Mikey always looks like that with this Bon Jovi New Jersey rocker persona that he’s been slowly cultivating into New York street junkie chic. Screwing up his face is just part of the whole deal.
“Did ya hear bout me an Darleen?” he asks and then stands there blocking my way, waiting for me to respond.
Darleen is Mikey’s girlfriend, been going out for years – one more depressingly cute junkie couple living in the Lower Eastside. Mikey always has a story about him and Darleen, and it usually ends up in tragedy with them losing their dope or getting evicted and then Mikey uses it as an excuse to put the touch on people, asking for money. But today it ain’t like I really got time to listen or even any money to lend out to pay for their habits instead of mine. Yet for some reason I still say, “No, man. What happened?”
“Thing been goin bad, stayin at the hotel, don’t got no money. Seems like it ain’t gonna get no betta. So we decided ta end it all lass night man. Went ta the dope man an gotta few bindles an said we was goin out. Made up our minds man. Fuckin life sucks.”
Mikey was either drunk, high on dope or wasted on pills. I could barely understand him as he slurred his words, but I was getting pretty impatient as he was seriously cutting into my getting high time. With a wave of my hand I urged him on, trying to get him to tell me the rest of his story even if I didn’t believe a word of it.
“Well, like I said, we’re stayin at the hotel, so we got up inta the room an Darleen, she cooks it inta two rigs. One fer me, one fer her. An then she says we gotta do it all at once an OD in each other’s arms. Only she said ta make it legit, really do it right, we got a write a note bout how we can’t take livin like this no more, how we hate this world an how we’re in too much pain to continue on. She says tha when they find us it’ll make it tha much betta – really show em somethin. So I write the note sayin all tha shit she toll me ta say – an then we shoot the dope – best high I had all year. Only I wake up this mornin and Darleen don’t.”
“Jesus Mikey,” I say when I finally realize what he’s trying to tell me. “Man are you all right?”
“Fuckin weirded me out a bit, it did. Wha wit Darleen layin there all blue an me sick as a dog. Beat the cottons an got well. Then I saw that goddamn note sittin there an it hit me like I was gonna be in trouble or sumpin. Crossed out all the we’s an changed them to I’s an stuck it back in er hand an left wit out sayin goodbye. Damn dude. Wha I’m gonna do now?”
It sucks when I can’t even empathize with my friend’s pain. It sucks when I really just want him to go away so that I can go get loaded in peace and be by myself so I don’t have to share any of my dope with him. It sucks that the entire time that he’s been talking my reflection in the window of the dry cleaner behind him has been adsorbing all my attention and I just can’t help looking at myself and thinking how large and bloated I look. Glancing away I notice that Mikey’s lips are moving and he’s saying something about being on his own and needing a place to stay.
“Sorry Mikey, I gotta go, I’m late,” I mumble and then leave him there standing with his mouth wide open and bee-line it down the block heading for Elizabeth Street. I always really hate it when people do that kind of shit to me, ignore my misery and make some lame-ass excuse just to get rid of me. But I had to do it, otherwise Mikey’d be tailing me around all day whining about Darleen and I really didn’t need to think about anything like that while I’m trying to get high.
That’s precisely why I don’t hang out with girls like Darleen. Who needs the drama? I’m perfectly capable of cultivating one-sided unhealthy relationships with women who don’t use drugs, are somewhat stable and go to work every day while I lounge around their apartment “looking” for work. Besides if Darleen wasn’t busy contemplating suicide she was cheating on Mikey or stealing his drugs and money. I couldn’t take that kind of rejection all the time. Hell, Mikey’s better off not being with her; besides with Darleen gone it’s one less arm to feed in the long run.
Turning left onto Elizabeth Street, I’m half a block away from the apartment. A couple of the local Latin Kings are standing in front of the bodega and as I pass by they ask me if I’m looking. Never buy dope right in front of your own house. It’s too close to home and then everyone’s going to know your business. Besides these guys use and because of that they cut the shit out of their drugs, so buying from them is a total waste of money.
“Naw, I’m cool.” I tell them and then cross the street to enter Jane’s apartment building. Walking up the stairs to the fifth floor, I can smell the mildew, the bug spray and the years of oil based enamel paint that’s been layered onto every inch of the hallway’s walls and woodwork. Three doors down the hall from the landing is Jane’s apartment and even though I know she’s not home I knock just to be sure. Jane’s sort of like my girlfriend. We’ve been hanging out together, drinking in bars when she gets off work, eating dim sum on Sunday, her only day off. She’s got no idea that I’m shooting dope. She’s got no idea that I’ve got a girlfriend in California waiting for me to come home. She’s got no idea of half the shit that I’m up to. But she still gave me the keys to her apartment and so I live there and while she’s at work I shoot dope and when she gets home I tell her that I’m looking for work. We both know it’s a lie, but it doesn’t matter. Then we go out to the bar and drink.
Locked in her bathroom, I get out my syringe, spoon and lighter that I’ve got hidden wrapped up in one of Jane’s washcloths under the sink. Taking out two of the glassine bags of dope, I carefully empty them into the spoon. Taking the rig in one hand, I turn the cold water on with the other, filling the cup that’s at the edge of the sink. Drawing some of the water into the rig, I then press it back out onto the dope that’s lying inside the spoon. With the backend of the rig’s plunger, I mix the dope and water and then shakily, I hold the spoon out with one hand while applying the lighter’s flame to the underside of the spoon.
A slight chemical smell hits the air, my stomach tightens. Pulling a Q-tip out of the medicine cabinet I tear off a small piece of the cotton and drop it into the spoonful of dope. Pressing the tip of the needle into the cotton, I use it as a filter as I draw up the liquid into the syringe. A quick tap to see if the air bubbles are gone and I’m looking around for something to tie off with, something I can use as a tourniquet to tighten around my arm and make my tired overused veins stick out like they used to so that I can stick the needle in them and get this dope in me.
Lying on the bathroom floor is a pair of Jane’s pantyhose and I grab them, wrap them around the top of my right arm, flex the muscle, pump my fist. Halfway down, in the center, in the crook of my arm, a dark blue green vein stands out and I press the needle into it. Silently a line of blood shoots into the syringe’s barrel as I register the vein; quickly I push the plunger down while letting the pantyhose loosen as I finish, pulling the rig out of my arm, a trail of blood forms and runs onto the white tile floor.
There’s that unmistakable taste in the back of my throat. There’s this sense of warmth invading my entire body. The side of my face itches, my stomach tightens and then I’m calm and everything’s all right. Eyes half closed, I’m thinking about a cigarette, I’m thinking about eating some food. I’m thinking that maybe I should actually call that dude about that job like I told Jane I would. Wrapping up my rig and spoon in the washcloth, I stuff it back up under the sink and look up into the mirror. Staring back at me, eyes pinned, like I’m looking through a haze, I see someone who appears to be normal who looks a hell of a lot like me. Strangely, nothing about how I look or what I appear to weigh bothers me. I know I’m skinny, I know I’m attractive. Yeah, I know the whole world loves me, really they do.
Wiping the blood from the floor with the pantyhose, I stuff them into the garbage can by the sink and unlock the bathroom door. Walking across the apartment, I notice the full-length mirror that I turned around this morning before I went out and I turn it back so that the reflecting side is now showing. Standing in front of it, I look at myself while I push my stomach out, trying to get it to go over my belt so that I can see what a fat man really looks like. My torso’s the size of most people’s thigh; my legs in these pegged-legged jeans look like black encased pipe cleaners. The skin on my face almost seems transparent; the tracks on my arms stand out like dark bruises on my pasty white skin. Turning my face, I catch my profile and I know that I look good.
Grabbing a beer out of the refrigerator, I sit down on the bed with my back against the wall. September is ending. That sunshine I saw today was weak and winter is soon approaching. A junkie never gets warm during a New York winter and I shiver thinking about it. Closing my eyes, I can see California and I know that I’ll be going there soon.