*Equus Press is proud to announce the planned publication (for April, 2018), in one volume, of PHIL SHOENFELT’s novel trilogy Stripped. A memoir of Shoenfelt’s New York years (1979-84), Stripped examines what follows after all social norms have been rejected, detailing the struggle with the legion of demons lurking at the bottom of every addiction, drug or other. Remembering a New York that (after AIDS, Giuliani, and 9/11) has long been gone, Stripped is a tale of a city which is filthy and dangerous, but which, once upon a time, also provided a matrix for artistic creation where flowers of insanity could grow freely. CUT TO THE CHASE, the excerpt published below, is the opening of Stripped.
“But once we have ventured along the path of sensuous disorder it takes a good deal to satisfy us… the urge towards love, pushed to its limit, is an urge towards death.”
Georges Bataille, EROTICISM.
- CUT TO THE CHASE
I see them as I’m walking down the steps out of Black Mark – four big fuckers in hooded jackets lurking in the shadows of the snow-dusted street 4am street. With the twenty five dimes of smack I just copped stuffed down my pants, plus the ten nickels of coke I bought earlier, I’m not too thrilled about having to walk past these guys. The only alternative is turn east towards Avenue D, and if I do that they’re gonna get on my tail and follow me. They must have had me in their sights ever since I left the coke joint – a white face in Alphabet City at this time of night being such an obvious target. Now they’re biding their time, waiting for me to pass, clustered around a stoop thirty yards up the block. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve had to cut and run, and though I’m not much of a fighter I am pretty fast on my feet. With my heart pounding like a jackhammer, I hit the bottom step, then walk quickly towards the opposite sidewalk.
But not too quickly. If I make a break for it now, they’ll be on me like a shot. My legs are shaking, I’m out of breath, and the dark waters of incipient panic are rising ever higher. Random images keep flashing through my head, none of them connected to the situation I’m in. Yesterday I ate fried chicken at the Puerto Rican cafe on Avenue B – it tasted great but I couldn’t keep it down – and at primary school in Northern Ireland the teachers were strict and caned you in class – a whack across each hand, girls too – and I’d always get Nellie McIvers in trouble cos it turned me on to watch her being punished – and the sunlight on the Hudson River that first winter in New York, riding the train to Albany to meet Debbie’s fucked up family – and when I first tried smack in London I took too much and OD’d – working in a sex shop in Soho at the time, flogging dirty magazines at five quid a throw – and I wonder what happened to Jon and Diane, who went off to India when I came to New York – it’s weird how some people stay in your life while others drift out of the picture – and a month ago it was Halloween, and the Spirit of Evil keeps dogging my steps – and across the sidewalk is a vacant lot with burnt-out tenements on either side.
If I can reach it before they reach me, I might just have a chance. The ground is dark, piled high with rubble, and I know a shortcut through a collapsed cellar that will bring me out on 5th Street. But as soon as I turn in that direction, two of the guys peel away from the stoop, slouching towards the waste ground up ahead, trying to outflank me. The others stay where they are, keeping to the shadows as they watch me go, so if I don’t make a move pretty damn quick I’m gonna be boxed in.
I got robbed that way the second Christmas I spent in New York. I’d gone downtown to score some smack with a hundred and twenty bucks hidden in my sock, ten in my pocket to hand over in case of attack. It was late at night, and with all the regular places closed I was stupid enough to enter an unlit dope house on Avenue B. There weren’t even any lookouts posted, which should have made me think twice.
The minute I got inside I knew it was wrong. As I turned around to leave, two big white guys in expensive overcoats walked in and stopped me. Claimed to be narcs working on a stakeout, said the joint was under surveillance. I believed them too. They looked the part, they had the cop vibe, they even waved a badge under my nose. One of them whips out a flashlight and covers me with his gun, the other bangs me up against the hallway wall and does a quick body search. Then they march me up to the first landing and tell me to empty out my pockets, no longer bothering to keep up the legal front. I hand over my ten dollars, hoping they’ll be satisfied, but they’re not impressed at all. Still holding the gun on me, they order me to strip, and of course spot the roll of bills stuffed inside my sock. Not content with taking this, they steal all my fucking clothes too – leather jacket, shirt, sweater, boots, jeans, the whole caboodle – leaving me shivering in my underpants, ball-freezing temperature and all. But they did flip me a dime to call home, which I thought was very considerate. After I’d made a dash to the nearest phone booth, Debbie and Jay came and got me in a cab.
At least the guys had a sense of humour. Or maybe the dime was a gesture of seasonal goodwill. Whatever the case, they sure had me fooled with that phoney cop routine. I mean, you just don’t expect to have your street clothes stolen by slick-looking dudes in camel hair coats. These days I’m a lot more cautious, never walking thirty yards without looking left and right. That way I can see from the corner of my eye if someone has slipped in behind me.
It’s just common sense, after all. There are too many psychos walking these streets, people who think they have a God-given right to take away your drugs and money. Sometimes they approach you like a long-lost friend. Sometimes they tag along and strike up a conversation. Sometimes they simply whip out a pistol and aim it straight at your head. Maybe the gun is unloaded, maybe it’s a fake, maybe when it comes down to it the guy’s too nervous to pull the trigger. But that’s a few too many maybes.
Right now the pair up front are ambling along the sidewalk, swinging their arms and doing the pimp roll. As I level with the stoop, the other two come out of the shadows, moving towards me through a circle of orange streetlight. A wave of dope sickness hits me in the guts, making me wince as the cramps take hold with a vengeance. My body is aching, the sweat’s pouring off me, and for a second I think I’m gonna vomit.
They’re baleful looking bastards, that’s for sure, one Rican and one Black. Jackal-faced lowlifes who’d probably kill their own grandmothers for the price of a fix. Like a film in slow motion they come towards me, backlit by the orange glow, radiating waves of pure malice. When the black guy smiles, showing the gold of his incisor, the feeling of doom is so overwhelming I almost forget to keep walking. It’s obviously meant to put me at ease, to allay suspicion just long enough to get in close. Instead I see a grinning death’s head floating towards me through a flurry of wind-blown snow.
Years ago in England, I had a recurring dream. In this dream I was always running, chased through a maze of dark city streets by a gang of hired killers. They believed I’d stolen the secret codes of the organisation they worked for, but whether this was true or not I had no way of knowing. The codes belonged to an earlier dream I wasn’t able to access. Now these goons had been called in to make sure I never did.
The chase went on for hours, looping around the blackened hulks of burnt-out public buildings. Finally I’d arrive at a dead end street, and there in the darkness, halfway down, stood an old GPO telephone box. I knew that if I entered the street I could end up trapped, but I was too exhausted to run any more. I also knew that sitting next to the phone was a directory with the number of the Controller. If I could just get through, I’d be able to explain everything and the chase would be called off.
At this point the dream would vary. Sometimes the directory was missing. At other times I’d find it but the page I needed had been torn out. Occasionally there’d be a different book, an encyclopaedia or a thesaurus. As I went through my pockets, searching for the number, four stooping figures would appear at the top end of the street. The door of the kiosk would always jam, and as the killers approached I’d try to break out, hammering on the small panes of glass with my fists.
The blurred faces that peered in bore little resemblance to anything human. Freakish red eyes, loose yellow skin, asymmetrical features – the results of a genetic experiment gone horribly wrong. As the glass shattered under their blows, I’d thrash about from side to side, trying to avoid the manically stabbing blades. The dream would end with an aerial view of my own putrescent corpse, lying face down in the oozing black slime of some desolate river estuary.
With the two guys moving in fast, I lengthen my stride, ignoring the fucker with the gold tooth who keeps asking for a light. They fall in a few steps behind, all of us walking in file down the street, as if we’re on a country stroll. Finally the pair up front slacken pace and hang back. As they turn around to face me, the movie gets even weirder.
Both are wearing Halloween masks, a bizarre little touch that amuses me no end. For a second I even have the strange idea they’re friends of mine playing a practical joke. Space is out of whack, time has slowed to a crawl, everything seems to be happening in a dream. But the quickening footsteps behind sound real enough. With the two guys blocking my way up front, I’ve suddenly become the meat in a very unappetising sandwich.
It’s the moment of truth, the time to do or die, and all at once I have this genius idea for the move I’m gonna make. Racing towards them at full speed I veer sharply to the right, as if making for the vacant lot. The moment they skip sideways to cut me off, I change tack and head the other way.
This trick almost works. I’m just about past them and home free when my foot skids on a patch of ice. Fighting to stay upright, I see the two jokers in masks looming above me with outstretched hands. One of the others jumps me from behind, digging his nails into my throat. As I slip and slide, unable to gain traction, they nearly bring me down.
Then I see the gleam of metal – knife or gun I can’t be sure through the tangle of arms and legs. Above all the cussing and heavy breathing someone hisses, “Stick the mo’fucker, stick him!” Another one grabs the collar of my coat, yanking me back and popping a few buttons in the process. Then I get punched in the side of the face, but the blow doesn’t quite connect. They’re getting in each other’s way, and we all keep slipping on the icy pavement. I’m just about to call quits, give them the drugs and beg for mercy, when headlights come sweeping around the corner of 4th and C.
“Patrol car!” one of them yells. “Move it!”
As they take off across Avenue D, heading for the projects, the driver gives a couple of blasts on the siren. I dust myself off and walk briskly along the sidewalk, trying to look as if nothing unusual has happened. With all the drugs I’m carrying, the last thing I want is to get stopped and shaken down.
I needn’t have worried about that. As the car glides past, I see the cop in the passenger side, hat pulled down low over his eyes, slumped in his seat. He looks at me out of his side window with barely a flicker of interest, then turns away and settles back into his doze. A moment later they’re gone, transient visitors from another dimension, the banshee wail of the siren still echoing in my brain.
Normally New York cops don’t bother with the punters. With so many rapes, murders and robberies on their hands, they don’t have the time to hassle lone junkies for a few bags of dope. But while it’s unusual, it’s not unknown. They sometimes like to dish out a little street justice too.
Once I was buying coke in White Lightning, an abandoned building on Clinton Street that some black guys used to sell out of. I’d just walked inside, and was getting ready to score, when a whole squad of police came charging in behind me. Several other dope fiends got caught in the raid as well, everyone dodging this way and that as the blows rained down upon us.
It didn’t take long for a sense of order to be instilled. While the main group of cops went upstairs to look for the dealer, a few of them stayed behind to keep us company. They herded us into a back room, lined us up against the wall, then went through our pockets, taking any drugs or money they found. When the rest of the squad returned a few minutes later, it was clear they were in a foul mood. By the time they’d stomped up to the fifth floor, the dealer had escaped across the rooftops, taking the package with him. Now they were stuck with all the junkies who hadn’t managed to scuttle out the door as the bust went down. If they arrested us and took us to the precinct, it would mean a hell of a lot of paperwork. So instead they knocked us around a bit, spicing up the action with some jokes and repartee: “Yo, scumbag, your mother’s a whore…” and “They say your little sister gives great head…” and “I hear you can’t get a stiff dick when you’re shootin’ dope…” and “DIRTY FUCKIN’ JUNKIES IF IT WAS UP TO ME I’D WASTE ’EM ALL…” one fat, red-faced bastard whipping out his pistol and putting it to the head of the cowering teenage addict next to me. Finally, they lined themselves up on each side of the hallway, forcing us to run the gauntlet while they laid into us with their nightsticks. I suppose it provided some kind of relief for all their anger and frustration. And it was preferable, I thought, to being taken downtown, spending the night in a holding tank, then being hauled off to court in the morning, broke, rancid and dope sick.
The apartment I share with my wife Rebecca is on the corner of 3rd Street and Avenue B. Instead of going directly inside, I walk past our building then double back, just in case I’m being followed. After everything I’ve been through, it would be tragic to get jumped while unlocking the front door. With the snow falling heavily, it’s getting hard to see, but as far as I can tell the street is deserted. I’m getting sicker by the minute, though, and the thought of all those packets of white powder is sending shivers up and down my spine.
Some junkies like to prolong this feeling, to tease themselves with the physical discomfort of withdrawal. When they finally stick the needle in, the sudden release from pain makes the rush even more intense. Addicts of this type like to think they’ve got their habits under control. They create a whole ritual out of cooking up the gear, relishing the procedure even in the midst of cold turkey. Some will go so far as to claim that dope sickness is just a state of mind, one that can be overcome. But this ideal only applies when the smack is in their pocket or bubbling away in the spoon. See them when they’re strung out and broke, and they’re just like any other kicking junkie: a mess of jangled nerves and sweating flesh, whining and wheedling and bugging everyone in sight.
My friend Danny Kramer is a typical example, a real pain in the ass. One time we were copping together, and I made the mistake of allowing him to get his hands on the gear first. He’d turned up at my place telling me how sick he was and begging for some old cottons – or better still, and if I could possibly manage it, a small loan to tide him over till his welfare check came through.
Standing there in the doorway, he did look pretty sick: feverish eyes, shaky voice, nervous movements and hand gestures. Each few seconds he’d gag and double over, blubbering like a kid, trying to win my sympathy.
Dope-buddy or no dope-buddy, I should have just blanked him. But I happened to be feeling a little sick too, and was only waiting for an excuse to get high. I agreed to go with him and took the ninety dollars I’d saved for Becky’s birthday, telling myself I’d make it up to her later.
He reckoned Indio’s stuff was on the money, so we walked to the building on East 9th Street and joined the queue of addicts in the hallway. Cleverly, Danny managed to get himself ahead of me in the line. When we were two or three places from the dealer, he turned around and hissed at me to pass him the roll of bills. I did so without thinking and regretted it immediately, looking on helplessly as he pocketed my drugs.
As we hit the street, I began to feel distinctly uneasy. I didn’t think he would actually try to rip me off. I was with him, after all, and made damn sure I stayed close by so he couldn’t slip away. But I knew from past experience what a procrastinator he was, a consummate artist of pointless self-denial.
Danny was visibly calmer now, confident in the knowledge that he was in control of the situation. I was feeling much, much worse. As we strolled together through the summer streets, he began to pontificate on the vagaries of junkie life. Then he launched into a story about his ex-girlfriend Jane:
“…It’s like I told her, man, it’s just me, it’s the way I am. Ain’t gonna change this far down the line, y’know what I’m sayin’? I mean each form of life on God’s earth gotta have the freedom to be itself, right? An’ if people ain’t willin’ to give each other that freedom, then what the hell, we all may as well not bother. So it was a case of take me as I am or leave me, I guess, an’ sure the bitch split, but so what? Like I’m s’posed to roll over an’ die or somethin’, is that what you’re tellin’ me?” Danny paused for breath, but the question was only rhetorical. “An’ I ain’t sayin’ her leavin’ didn’t hurt, it goddamn hurt like hell. I mean, we was together more’n five years… But it was her decision to stop with the drugs, an’ I can’t be held responsible for that. Jus’ cos her expectations in life have changed don’t mean I gotta change too… An’ I tell you somethin’, man, I ran into her a couple o’ weeks back, all dolled up in her new clothes an’ shit, an’ with a good payin’ job too. So we go for a drink in some swish bar, an’ you know what? After a while she starts cryin’, tells me she ain’t happy with her new life – like it’s my problem anymore – an’ how she was happier with me than with this new straight dude she’s bin seein’, even with the drugs an’ all the crazy fuckin’ arguments we used to have – an’ how she admires me for never sellin’ out, for stickin’ to my guns an’ maintainin’ my sense of personal freedom – an’ most of all, I guess, for bein’ a survivor.” He paused again to let his words sink in. “Cos ultimately that’s what it’s about, man, goin’ with the flow but never goin’ under, bendin’ with the wind but never breakin’ – ‘the slings an’ arrows of outrageous fortune’, an’ all… Now who the fuck was it said that?”
By now I was suffering a crisis of accelerated withdrawal symptoms. The monologue continued all the way to Danny’s building, through a dingy hallway, up three flights of stairs and into the murk and squalor of his tiny apartment. A foam mattress lay along one wall, the dingy sheet partially covering it marked with cigarette burns and spots of dried blood. Unwashed clothes were piled up in one corner, and the only pieces of furniture in the room were a rickety table and two wooden chairs. Rolling up my sleeve, I sat down on one of them and waited.
Danny continued his bullshit with no apparent concern for the drugs he’d been so desperate about half an hour before. He raised the blinds, offered to make coffee, and kept up a stream of verbal nonsense that so enraged me I could feel a tight knot of anger gripping my guts. I wanted to scream out “GIMME THE DRUGS NOW!” and was almost ready to jump up and punch the cocksucker in the mouth. Finally, I grabbed his arm and ordered him to put the dope on the table.
He looked at me with a wounded air, disappointed at my shameful lack of patience. Nevertheless, he pulled the bags of smack from his pocket and laid them down, leaving me to divvy up the gear. I cooked up a shot, drew back the plunger, tied off quickly and banged it into my vein. As the stuff hit me in the chest, I leaned back and let the warm heroin glow wash over me.
Only after waiting several more minutes did Danny begin to prepare his own shot, spinning out each step in the process, obviously making a point. There really was something quite perverse in this endless deferral of pleasure, but by now I didn’t care. Cocooned in the Land of Nod, I was immune to his bullshit, oblivious of everything except the spreading warmth within.
So I’m not the type of addict that likes to wait around. Once I’ve scored I like to get the stuff into my vein as quickly as possible. I certainly don’t try to kid myself that I’ve got the evil, grasping monkey under control.
There is one thing I’ve got to do, though, before I deliver the gear to my customers and get high myself. Entering our building, I walk quickly past the door of our flat, then take the stairs, two at a time, up to the top landing. There’s a short flight of steps here that leads to the roof, with an alcove in the wall beneath that’s just big enough to crawl inside. Here I can do my work without being disturbed.
Once I’m settled in the alcove, I poke my head out to make sure no one is lurking around. Then I retrieve the bags of dope from my pants and arrange them on the floor beside me. Finally, I pull a small leather pouch from a hidden place in the lining of my overcoat. Inside it are the tools of my trade: spoon and syringe; a roll of Scotch tape; paper and matches; a razor blade embedded a piece of old cork. The tape and blade are essential, and I always take them with me whenever I go to buy heroin for other people.
Tapping the bags isn’t exactly kosher, but it’s one sure way of feeding my habit. The packets are made from wax paper, folded over and sealed with tape. It’s easy to cut through it with the blade, then peel it away without tearing the wrap. The amount I take from each is negligible, but when multiplied twenty or more times it adds up to quite a bit of dope. And with fresh tape around the bags, no one is any the wiser. The punters are happy with the stuff they get, I’m happy with my XL bag, and Becky’s happy to share it with me. The only problem is that with so much smack around, our habits have increased exponentially. Sometimes it seems like a case of diminishing returns.
Becky helps support our addiction with the money she makes from dancing. My sweet darling wife, you see, happens to be incredibly beautiful. People are willing to dig deep in their pockets just to watch her take off her clothes. I don’t exactly approve of her doing this, but she was dancing long before I met her and refuses to give it up. She claims to get less harassment in this job than she did when she worked as a secretary. Certainly the money is hard to resist. Whenever she dances at some downtown topless bar, like The Babydoll or The Pussycat Lounge, she never comes home with less than a hundred dollars in tips.
Yet in spite of all this ready cash, the dope we can afford to buy is never enough. The five or six bags I’m thrown at the end of each mission have come to seem more like an insult than a just reward. Between the two of us, Becky and I need eighty bucks a day just to keep straight – much more than that to get high. Then there are the usual things such as rent, utility bills, transport, food and drink. Tapping the bags helps to balance the equation, a surcharge I feel I’m entitled to for risking my neck on the street.
It’s dangerous work, after all. I’m still a little shaky from that street action earlier, and things could have ended badly. But such hazards go with the territory and I’ve learned to accept them. They’re all part of the system I’ve evolved for maintaining our habits, a system built on the concept of round-the-clock drug availability.
My day always begins with some research and development work. Most mornings are taken up with this. Alphabet City is the asshole of Manhattan, an area of rotting tenement buildings largely given over to the sale and purchase of illegal drugs. Every outlet has its own brand of dope, and because the quality of each varies from day to day, it’s important to know where the good stuff is at any given time. In order to find out, I take a stroll around the neighbourhood, running into friends, picking up news on the grapevine. This is my favourite part of the day. By lunchtime I’ve usually found out where the best gear is being sold.
Once I’ve completed the research phase, I return to our apartment and start making phone calls, announcing that I’m open for business. Many of my customers are uptown party-poppers, pampered rich kids who haven’t got the balls to go out and cop for themselves. Instead, they hire me to do it for them. Normally I take my pay in smack, and by now my knowledge of the local drug scene has become a valuable asset. I don’t go out until enough punters have turned up to make the rigmarole of copping worthwhile. As soon as I’ve collected the optimal amount of cash, I hit the street and start hunting.
While I’m gone, they sit around our flat drinking coffee and chain smoking. This is a drag for Becky, who has to put up with all their whining, but I’m usually back inside an hour. Naturally, they’ll want to get high the minute I return with the drugs, and although I didn’t use to let people shoot up in our place, lately things have begun to slide. It’s normal, now, that each time you need to take a piss there’ll be one or more junkies locked inside the bathroom. They’ll stay there for hours if you let them, sitting on the toilet or the edge of the tub, talking bullshit and jabbing needles into their scab-infested arms. A couple of times I’ve had to kick the door in when someone has nodded out. But the more customers passing through, the more commission I get paid, and I tend to regard them as a necessary evil.
It’s a little dark up here in the alcove, so I strike a few matches to see better what I’m doing. I make a large paper wrap, then tap out a small quantity of dope from each of the twenty five bags. This is delicate work and it’s important not to take too much. Otherwise the punters will notice and my reputation will be blown. My hands are shaking, so I sniff a line to calm my nerves and take the edge off the sickness. My nose is streaming, my left eye is throbbing, and my clothes are soaked through with sweat. A puddle of water has formed around my feet from the melted snow on my boots.
Sometimes I wonder where all this shit is leading. Sitting here in the dirt and dark, it’s hard to believe that my life has been reduced to such a pitiful level. I think of all the people sleeping below, stacked up in their beds like maggots in a woodpile. For a moment I feel so pissed off with existence I could kill.
It would be so easy to go down in the basement, spread a little gasoline around and set the whole damn place on fire. Nobody would miss them, that’s for sure. Most are families on welfare, with no real reason for living. Not only that, but they breed like rabbits too. Nothing to do all day except sit around eating junk food, watching TV and fucking. Soon there’ll be a whole population living on hand-outs, and their ignorant feral children will rule the streets.
I get these violent urges now and again, but I never act on them. At other times I feel so sad and wounded I just wanna crawl into a hole and die. This often happens when I think about Becky and me, and all those plans we had in the beginning.
The idea was that she’d go back to school, while I’d get off the gear and find a job to support her. Later we’d take a year off to travel the world, a kind of sabbatical during which I’d begin work on my long-projected novel.
What a pipedream that turned out to be. All that happened was that she got sucked into my trip, and the small habit she had when we first met is now out of control. I should have been protecting her from her own worst instincts, but all I do is stumble around with my head so far up my ass I can’t see daylight. She’s not even twenty yet, already strung out and with two abortions behind her.
Ten minutes later, with the tapped bags resealed, I’m back downstairs unlocking the door to our apartment. The air inside is steam heat damp, thick with cigarette smoke and the smell of nervous sweat. The moment I enter half a dozen faces turn expectantly towards me, as if I were the bearer of glad tidings from afar. If I weren’t in such a hurry, I’d pause for a moment to bask in the glow of being such a popular guy. The only person who seems less than pleased is Rebecca, who is perched on the edge of the sofa looking decidedly pissed off.
“Where on earth have you been?” she hisses. “You were gone an hour and a half. I was just getting ready to send out a search party and… Oh my God, what happened to your eye?”
“Oh, nothing much,” I reply, throwing my coat across a chair. “I got jumped by some jokers in Halloween masks when I was coming out of Black Mark. Luckily the cops showed up right on time.”
Rebecca is about to answer, but before the words are out of her mouth everyone starts talking. They’re all very keen to express their sympathy, though I suspect my state of well-being may not be what is uppermost in their minds. It’s left to Veronica, a successful model from the Upper East Side, to voice the general concern:
“Oh wow,” she says, “what a drag! But is everything okay? I mean, you do still have the…”
“Yeah, sure, everything’s hunky-dory. I didn’t lose any of the dope, if that’s what you’re worried about.”
“Well, of course it’s not only the drugs. I was just starting to think that maybe…”
She trails off into silence, even starts to blush. This is nice to witness, as normally she’s one of the most stuck-up bitches you could ever have the misfortune to meet. You’d never guess, from her pictures in Vogue and Elle, that this angel-faced blonde is a full-on junkie. And while it’s true that she only sniffs, or skin-pops in her backside to guard against tracks, she is in reality almost as hooked on the stuff as I am. She also treats me like a personal drug slave, and her condescending attitude gets right up my nose. If she weren’t such a dependable customer, I’d have told her to take a hike long ago.
Rebecca comes over to assess the extent of the damage, peering into my face and wrinkling her brow.
“You’d better go disinfect those scratches,” she says. “They’re actually pretty deep. And you’re gonna have a nice big shiner when that eye comes up tomorrow. It’s lucky for you they didn’t have knives.”
“They did, I think. Or it might have been a gun. Whatever it was, they didn’t get a chance to use it.”
She shudders visibly and her eyes cloud over. I know exactly what she’s thinking, and that later, when we’re alone, there’s gonna be another debate about the pros and cons of our present admirable lifestyle. Rebecca believes I’m obsessed with smack, that I take too many chances persuing it. While such concern is touching and is, in fact, quite genuine, it only lasts until the next time she’s sick. Then all her finer feelings are simply overridden by the physical imperative. I’ve lost count of the times we’ve decided to go straight, only to backslide after three or four days weaning ourselves off. One of us will always weaken first, chipping away at the other’s determination until it collapses. If she comes home from dancing with a couple of hundred bucks in her purse, and looks at me with those tragic, pain-filled eyes, I’m not going to refuse her. Even if it’s three in the morning and we’re supposed to be staying clean. I’m sure she exaggerates her withdrawal symptoms, but when there’s the prospect of dope in the offing it doesn’t take much to persuade me. So between us we haven’t been too successful in our attempts to go straight, and it’s a source of endless argument which one of us is most to blame.
Right now she’s giving me the silent treatment, as if I’d deliberately set out to piss her off. I don’t know what she expects me to do. It’s a war zone out there, pure Russian roulette. Whenever I have to cop east of Avenue B, I wonder if I’m gonna come back alive. Someone’s got to take care of business, though, and Becky’s too highly strung, simply not cut out for this type of work. These days she gets nervous just walking from a cab to the door of our building.
Hendricks, a down-and-out sax player, is the next one to saunter over and check out my battle scars. With his straggly hair and sunken cheeks, grease-black Levis torn at the knees, Hendricks looks more like a Bowery bum each time I see him. He’s always broke and he’s always on the scrounge, and right now he’s trying to ingratiate himself, oozing fake sympathy and offering redundant advice.
“Oh man,” he says, poking at my eye with his dirty index finger. “Those guys landed a few good punches on you back there. Man, you gotta be careful goin’ round the streets at this time of night, especially if you’re gonna cop alone. If you’d waited a coupla minutes for me to arrive, I’d of course have gone widya.”
“And how was I supposed to know you were on your way? You didn’t call to say you were coming over. If you had I would’ve waited, knowing what a hard case you are. I’m sure those bastards would never have jumped me then.”
“Hey, fuck you an’ your Limey humour, man! You know damn well I’d back you up if you was in a tight spot. Anyhow, I don’t even have a dime for the phone right now. I had to give my fuckin’ landlord every last cent I had, otherwise my ass woulda bin on the street. Hell, I even had to pawn my goddamn sax again. I may as well just leave it in hock an’ rent it out for special occasions.”
This is typical Hendricks, a man who’s made penury a way of life. We go back at least a couple of years, though I don’t exactly remember where or when we first met. I do remember hating him intensely whenever we ran into each other in clubs or shooting galleries. Now he’s an undeniable fact in my life, like a bad tooth or a case of the clap. Strangely enough an odd kind of friendship has grown up between us. Sometimes I even think we’re like mirrors held up in front of each other. It’s clear that neither one of us cares very much for what he sees. But there’s always a certain fascination involved when you see your own worst qualities reflected in the character of another.
“No, really man,” he continues, “you’re lookin’ so pale an’ wasted these days you may as well have a sign over your head saying VICTIM – PLEASE ATTACK ME! You know how the streets are in this part of town. Those vultures can smell dead meat a mile away. Even the twelve-year-old kids with baseball bats gonna be takin’ their chances with you soon. If I were you, I’d give serious thought to changing my line of business. Y’know what I’m saying?”
I know exactly what he’s saying, and the worst thing is that he’s right. When I first began copping, I rarely had any trouble because I still looked strong and healthy. I walked the walk and talked the talk, and was able to put out a confident vibe that discouraged all but the most unhinged desperados from messing with me. Lately this has begun to change, with the number of attacks definitely on the rise. I know that it’s down to my weak and shabby appearance, the negative energy I seem to be transmitting. Even so, I don’t appreciate the matter being raised in front of my customers.
“Yeah, right, okay,” I say. “Maybe we should go cop together in future – me with my VICTIM sign, you with a big flashing neon thing saying LOSER-FUCKWIT. I’m sure we’d make a very successful team.”
This draws a guffaw from Freddy Diamond, who’s been sitting in the corner keeping to himself ever since I walked in the door. Freddy works as night manager at a 42nd Street sex show, and I’ve known him for years, ever since the time I was with Debbie. He and his girlfriend Liz, a black topless dancer, are the least objectionable of my regular customers. Both of them are long-term junkies who have managed to attain a certain level of control over their habits. In spite of this, I can tell from their expressions that they’re starting to lose patience. Especially with Hendricks, who refuses to shut up and allow me to get on with the business.
“Yo, don’t get all rank an’ bitchy,” he says, pretending his feelings are hurt. “I was only tryin’ to offer some friendly advice.”
“Sure you were, Hendricks. And if I ever need some advice about copping drugs, you’ll be the first person I contact.”
“Oh come on guys, show some mercy, please! Are you gonna keep arguing the whole night, or can we relax now and get high?” Tim Hutton, a rising young artist whose friendship I’ve been cultivating, is rolling up his sleeve in preparation for a shot. With an apartment on Lexington Avenue, and a personal allowance of two thousand a month, Tim is the heir to a fortune in Manhattan real estate. This puts him a trillion miles away from Hendricks, who is always muttering darkly about Tim’s lack of artistic credibility. Pure jealousy, of course. Tim squanders most of his allowance on heroin and cocaine, and by the end of each month he’s as broke as the rest of us. The big difference is that he doesn’t have to worry about rent and utility bills, his family taking care of such mundane matters.
Tonight he’s with a short, chubby girl who looks like a Kings Road punk. She answers to the name of Muffin, and I haven’t met her before. It turns out she’s a student from Tim’s old school in Vermont, one of the most expensive private colleges in the country. Dressed in tartan bondage pants, with a spiky blond crop and safety pins everywhere, she’s too fresh-faced to be any kind of serious junkie. I figure she’s only along for the ride, to maybe sniff a line or two. I’m annoyed at Tim for bringing a stranger to our flat without asking my permission.
Rebecca comes out of the bathroom with a bottle of iodine and some cotton wool. Grabbing me by the arm, she starts dabbing away at the dried blood on my neck.
“Seeing as you’re more interested in needling Hendricks than in looking after yourself… Godammit! Stand still for just one minute, can’t you?”
The iodine stings like hell, but I let her finish her work. One last dab and I break away, picking up my coat and extracting the bags of dope. Finally it’s feeding time at the 3rd Street zoo, the moment they’ve all been waiting for. As they gather around the coffee table, the sense of excitement is palpable.
I sit down next to Liz and count out the bags, shooting them across the table like a dealer in a card game. Tim picks up ten, handing two of them back to me as commission. Most of the coke is for him as well, and as soon as I’ve taken my percentage from that, he goes over to the kitchenette to cook up a speedball. Freddy and Liz take five dimes each, and Veronika the remaining five, while I receive one wrap back from each of them. That makes a grand total of five dime bags for Rebecca and me – plus, of course, the extra large bag I’ve got stashed away in my toolkit.
Veronica is quite sniffy about having to part with her share of the commission. Especially when she realises that I’ve come out of the deal with one more bag than she has. I’ve heard from quite a few people recently that she’s been talking behind my back, trying to turn other customers against me. I can well imagine, from the sour expression on her face, the resentful monologue that’s going on inside her head. Bitches like that have no human feeling. I’m sure it rankles that she’s gonna have to sit in front of a camera for an extra two minutes, just to finance my dime bag of commission.
She can hardly complain, though. Not in the face of all the sympathy I’ve engendered by getting myself beaten up. Instead, she announces her imminent departure, asking me if I’d be so kind as to order her a taxi. This is said in such a snotty way that I almost tell her to do it herself. In the end I dial the number anyway, just to get rid of her. As soon as she’s out of the door, Liz cracks up laughing.
“Phew! That girl sure has one hell of a bug up her ass! The whole time you was gone she hardly said a word, just sat there lookin’ superior. Even when she did speak, nothin’ she said made any sense.”
“Yeah, well, it takes all types, an’ I guess her cash is as good as anyone else’s.”
More words of wisdom from Hendricks. Mesmerised by the proximity of this narcotic bounty, he’s hovering over my left shoulder, following my every move as I empty two of the bags into Rebecca’s spoon.
“Hey man, d’you think you could help me out a little? I ain’t feelin’ too good right now, an’ like I said before my fuckin’ landlord hit me up for everything I had. But I got a good payin’ gig comin’ up next week, an’ I’ll see you alright if you an’ Becky let me have your cottons. Maybe you could leave a teeny bit of dope in ’em as well.”
“Hendricks, you’re a buzzard! You never come around here when you’re flush, only when you’re on on the scrounge. And by the way, how are you gonna play a gig when your sax is in the pawn shop?”
“No problem, man. Sammy Ortega’s got a nice old tenor he hardly ever uses. I’ve already arranged to borrow it for the show. Once I get paid I can afford to get my sax outta hock, an’ get both of us high.”
It’s hard to find an answer to this, and anyhow I’ve got more important things to do. Dipping the syringe into a glass of water, I draw back the plunger until the barrel is half full. Then I squirt the water into the spoon, taking care not to spill any. The smack is beige, so I add a little ascorbic to make sure it breaks down properly. Then I heat the liquid from below with half a book of matches. Things are moving along nicely now, and pretty soon it’s bubbling away like brew in a witch’s cauldron. Leaving it to cool for a couple of seconds, I tear off a piece of cotton from a cigarette filter. I roll it between my fingers, drop it into the goo, then stir the mixture around with the end of the barrel. Lastly I attach the spike and draw half of the solution back through the filter.
“But how can you live like this, Hendricks?” I ask, passing the needle to Becky. “I thought my life was fucked up, but yours is even worse. Have you ever thought about getting a job? You can always make money washing car windscreens over by the Holland Tunnel. Then you could afford to buy some drugs instead of mooching off me.”
“Oh come on!” Becky says. “Stop giving the guy a hard time. Of course he can have our goddamn cottons, if it’ll just make him shut up. Give us all a break, will you?”
She pulls a bandana from her pocket, makes a loop to put her hand through, then works it along her left arm. She’s quite squeamish about injecting herself, and I usually do it for her. This time she starts the procedure alone, clenching her fist and trying to raise a vein. As she prods about with the needle, searching for that elusive bloodline, I stop what I’m doing to watch her.
“You’re being very generous with our dope, I must say. Next time you’re sick you’ll regret not holding onto those cottons.”
Becky shoots me a dirty look, her dark eyes flashing anger. She’s already in a bad mood and my sarcasm isn’t helping.
“Sorry honey, I wasn’t having a go at you. As for the business with Hendricks, you know we’re just winding each other up.”
“That’s not the reason I’m angry,” she replies, letting the bandana fall away. “D’you want me to write you out a list of everything you do that pisses me off?”
“Can we talk about this later, please? Come on, let me give you a hand with that, otherwise you’re gonna miss.”
She passes me the syringe and draws the tourniquet tight. Like a lot of girls she has delicate veins that roll away beneath the pressure of the needle. It takes time and patience to get a clean hit, to not blow the shot by going right through. Five minutes, though, and I have it. A thin plume of blood shoots up the tube, and Becky lets the bandana fall away. When I boot the stuff into her vein, she leans back with a sigh, lolling against the headrest of the sofa.
Finally it’s time for my own dose of poison. As I draw the shot into a clean set of works, Becky comes out of her nod, reaching for the pack of Camels on the table. She lights one up, then relaxes again, crosses her arms over her chest and exhales slowly. I squirt a bit of the liquid back into the spoon for Hendricks – not enough to get him high, but enough to take the edge off his sickness. Having done my good deed for the day, I tie off and find a servicable vein in record time. The second the needle goes in, I know the stuff is good. It hits me above the heart like a hammer blow, sucking the pain from my aching limbs and drying the mucus in my nose and eyes.
At last I feel at peace with the world, calm enough to appreciate the cheery domestic scene around me. Freddie and Liz are hard at work, cooking up their dope over the gas burner in the kitchen. Tim, meanwhile, is babbling away, educating Muffin about Otto Dix and his problems with the Nazis. It’s hard to make sense of the monologue. Tim is so wired from the coke that his words are coming out scrambled, and he keeps forgetting what he said a moment before.
Such confusion is all too common when shooting speedballs. As the coke reaches your brain, a surge of electro-chemical energy jumps across the synapses. You can almost feel the overcharged neurons smoking and burning and popping away. Sometimes there’s an out-of-body experience too, a weird sensation as though your head has expanded then turned itself inside out. You might hear bells ringing in your ears, you may even start speaking in tongues, jabbering away in a whole new language of made-up words. Complete gibberish that no one else can follow, but the rush is so exhilarating you just don’t care.
Do too much, though, and psychosis beckons. I’ve seen people flip out from shooting coke, and it’s not a pretty sight. The signals controlling the motor functions go haywire, the muscles start to convulse, and it’s possible to suffer a full-blown seizure, even a heart attack. But normally with speedballs the junk kicks in after a few seconds, soothing away any panic or incipient paranoia. That’s what I love about them. One minute you’re on top of a rocket being blasted into the stratosphere; the next you’re floating down on gossamer wings into a warm, perfumed bath of gently lapping dreams. Rebecca doesn’t approve of my penchant for these cocktails, believing them dangerous and potentially lethal. It’s true that New York street coke is particularly corrosive, cut to hell as it is with all kinds of chemical shit. But then again, so is the dope, and if you’re gonna do one then why not the other? And as my eyes grow heavy and begin to close, I watch Tim chop out a line for Muffin, knowing how easy it is to fuck up when you’ve never done dope before – and I hope to Christ she doesn’t OD, and I wish they’d all just disappear and leave me in peace – not really needing the cherished daughter of some influential banker dead in my apartment, and considering once again the wisdom of allowing strangers to get off here. But once things have begun to slide it’s difficult to turn them around, and I certainly don’t have the strength right now to insist on changes in the house rules. Maybe later when I’m feeling fine, but now I’m walking through a labyrinth of interlocking corridors, hotel doorways on either side and a sticky green substance underfoot – the tunnel lit by bare electric bulbs, and off in the distance the noise of water gurgling through a duct – and up ahead in one of these rooms a man sits waiting in the darkness, listening as your footsteps echo between the abandoned buildings – like a system of Chinese boxes, really, wall after wall, story inside story – each situation drawing you further in, never finding the door marked EXIT – and I guess that’s it, I must have drifted off, maybe for just a moment or two, maybe for much longer. And emerging from the nod, I notice that Freddie and Liz have gone, and I can hear the sound of Muffin throwing up in the bathroom. Hendricks is trying to wangle a bag of dope off Tim, while Rebecca is passed out on the sofa next to me. The cigarette between her fingers has burned right down to the filter, and there’s a small line of drool running from one corner of her mouth. Even like this she looks beautiful. I haul myself off to the bathroom to check on Muffin, seeing as neither Tim nor Hendricks seems to give a damn. I find her down on her knees driving the porcelain bus, her face the colour of an avocado, puke dripping from the end of her chin.
“Are you okay in there?” I ask. “I think you took a little too much before. It always makes you sick the first time, your body isn’t acclimatised. The best thing is to walk around in the fresh air until you feel well again. But not alone, and definitely not in this part of town. D’you want me to call a cab for you and Tim?”
“Yeah, please,” she says, in a quavery little girl voice. “But not just yet. I feel really yukky right now, and my legs are so shaky I don’t think I could stand. Do you mind if I stay in here a while longer? I don’t want anyone to see me like this. Oh gosh, I think I’m gonna vom again…” She turns her face away and retches into the bowl.
“Stay as long as you want,” I reply. But I’ll tell them to send the cab in about twenty minutes, okay? You should be feeling a little better by then.”
“That’d be great,” she says, “thanks a lot. Gee, I feel so embarrassed…”
I walk back into the main room and prise Hendricks away from Tim, who’s surrendered half a bag and his cottons just to get some peace. All this action is blowing my high, and I’m starting to get pissed off.
“Hey, Tim,” I say, grabbing him by the sleeve. “That girl Muffin you brought along is throwing up in the bathroom. As soon as she’s finished you’d better get her out of here. I’ve got enough problems on my plate already, and I’ve told you before about turning up with uninvited guests.”
“Yeah, yeah, no hassle. I was in there keeping her company for awhile, but she told me to leave – didn’t want me standing around watching her barf. I never intended to bring her with me, actually. We were in some restaurant having dinner, and when I mentioned I was gonna pick up some smack she asked if she could tag along. Just to see what it was like. She wants to be a writer, and as nothing ever happens up in Vermont, she thought it’d be an interesting experience. You know, give her something to write about.”
“Fuck you, man! I’m not here to provide an educational experience for all your bloody school friends. What if she’d OD’d? That would have taken a bit of explaining, wouldn’t it?”
“Oh, cut the lecture, please,” says Tim, in an affected drawl that makes me feel like punching him. “You’re right, okay, I shouldn’t have brought her along. But she’s not gonna OD and I promise not to do it again. Now can we change the subject before it gets tedious? Like what are you doing next Thursday evening?”
“Probably the same thing I did tonight, last night and the night before. Why?”
“Because I’m inviting you and Rebecca to the launch party of my latest exhibition. It’s at this discotheque on the West Side called The Kamikaze Club. It’ll be cool. Lots of food and free drinks and beautiful, art-loving women. I can even introduce you to a couple of my bloody school friends who are looking for a reliable connection.”
“Okay, yeah, why not?” I say. “Just leave our names at the door and we’ll see you inside. D’you mind if Hendricks tags along? The poor bastard could do with a good feed.”
Half an hour later, with everybody gone, I’m cooking up a speedball and thinking about Tim’s invitation. These days I get a little paranoid when I have to mix with people who aren’t on junk themselves. In fact it’s a real ordeal. If I don’t get completely loaded first, I break out in a sweat and start to hyperventilate. It’s the atavism that freaks me out, the naked tooth and claw behind the social mask. Tim’s circle being what it is, I can well imagine the crowd of jostling art-groupies that’s going to be at his opening. On the other hand, there is the offer to introduce me to potential customers – nice young people with cash to burn and a yen for hard drugs.
Rebecca is still nodded out, far away in the land of dreams. Soon I’ll be right there with her and none of this bullshit will matter anymore. Watching her sleep so peacefully, I suddenly feel sad enough and stupid enough to cry. As the dawn light filters in through the stained venetian blinds, I stick the needle into my vein, boot it and wait for the rush.