I’m on line at a check-cashing store, the ghetto bank, as they call it up here in Spanish Harlem, up here on 103rd and Lex, waiting for the money I convinced my mother to wire me so I could get some laundry done, buy a few packs of smokes and get a decent meal before I go in. Before I call it quits. Before I throw in the proverbial towel. But what I’m really planning on doing is running right up to the nickel spot on 105th and First and filling my veins one last time before I admit myself into another detox unit. One last time before I’m forced to face King Heroin’s withdrawal from my addicted little cells.
If all goes as planned, sometime after four o’clock this afternoon I should be strapped to a bed, pumped full of methadone, Tylenol, Prozac and Virasept, and be answering questions about my mother and my father, why I hate myself, why I’m trying to commit suicide, and from where I think this behavior stems. And if all goes as planned, I’ll shrug and tell them I don’t know. And then they’ll ask me how long I’ve been shooting heroin, drinking methadone, and shooting cocaine. And me, always the class clown, I’ll shrug again and say something like, too long, I guess. And when they ask me when my last fix was, if all goes as planned, I’ll get to tell them, just now.
I went halves on a nickel-and-nickel speedball this morning up on 110th with a Spanish guy they call Frenchie. But already it’s wearing thin, the jones stealing back in like a cold hand against my skin.
I step up to a bulletproof glass window and yell to the woman on the other side that I’m expecting a very important Western Union delivery. I tell her my name, and she tells me to wait and that there’s no need to shout. Then she thumbs through a stack of thin, pink receipts and says, "Nothing here."
I ask her if she’s sure and, trying only to be helpful, add, "It’s coming from Baltimore. From a Carol Foster. I mean Larson. I mean, Larson’s her maiden name now, but she might have used her married name because it’s the same as mine and all."
The woman throws me an irritated glare and then barks, "Like I said, it ain’t here yet." Then she says, because maybe she feels a little guilty for shouting after just having told me not to, "If you want, you can have a seat right over there and wait," pointing to a window ledge at the front of the store.
Why I do this, I’m not quite sure, but I tell her that I’m not some white boy who just moved to New York because he’s been watching Friends and thought it might be fun. I tell her I’ve been here for years. "Don’t mistake me for one of them," I say, gesturing out the window at no one in particular.
But she just ignores me and again tells me to go sit down.
Then I tell her I’m sorry and give the truth a try. "It’s just that I’m ill and I’m going into this place this afternoon and my mom said she’d send me this money, and I don’t know what I’m gonna do if she doesn’t."
"Listen, honey," she says, "you go on and sit over there, and I’ll let you know when it comes. Okay? Okay," she answers for me.
I fall out of line and excuse myself as I cut between two older men and fold down onto a window ledge that looks out at Lexington Avenue. Over my head the words CHECKS CASHED hum white noise, and then my own voice chimes in saying, "Not today, Mom. Please. Not on my last day."
And then, to no one in particular, I’m saying, "She told me she’d send forty. Said it would be here by ten this morning. And she’s usually pretty good about things like this. Unless," I’m telling no one at all, "unless she’s been going to those Al-anon meetings again. Unless this is another one of those tough love lessons."
I walk outside and step into a payphone booth to call my mother collect at work. And when she finally picks up, I try to sound as innocent and as clean as possible. Try to sound the way she’d like me to be, the way I once was. I tell her I’m fine, that I’m still going in, that I’m doing it for myself this time, and that, overall, I’ve been feeling pretty good. And when that’s finally all out of the way, I hit her with, "I was just wondering if you were able to send that money we spoke about last night."
After a pause, a pause that feels like it could have been an hour, she tells me she hasn’t and that she doesn’t understand why I need it.
"I told you, Mom," I say. "I just need to take care of a few things before I go in. You know, like, all my clothes are dirty, and I need to eat and get some smokes for my stay and all that."
There’s another pause, so I jump in and add, "And, you know, I just wanted to have a few bucks while I’m in there. For, like, toiletries and stuff."
Then she hits me back, asking me point blank if I’m going to get high with it. I tell her no, of course not. But at this point in our relationship, I think we both know better.
And then I think about telling her that I’m going to get it one or way or another, and that it would be much easier if she just gave it to me. But instead I tell her I’m sorry and that I’m really going to do it this time. "For real," I add.
Then the next sound I hear is of my mother trying to hide the fact that she’s crying. Then she’s telling me she loves me and that she really hopes it’s for real this time.
"It is," I tell her. "This is it for me."
And just when I’m thinking I’m losing, just when I’m thinking I’m going to be hustling change the rest of the morning and picking up last night’s beer cans from the gutters and the garbage cans of the Upper East Side, she caves and agrees to send me twenty, saying, "That should be more than enough."
Pinching the skin and pulling the hairs on my leg through my pants pocket, I thank her and tell her I love her and that I’m going to get it together. Then I hang up the phone and smile as I picture a new twenty-dollar bill shooting through the underground glass tube that runs like a giant syringe from Baltimore to New York to the pockmarked ditch in the bend of my arm.
I step back inside the ghetto bank, smile at the woman behind the glass and sit down under the buzzing sign. Trying to relax, trying to regain my earlier high, I cross my legs at the knee and close my eyes.
"C’mon, Mom," I’m saying aloud, folding my arms and knocking the back of my head against the window. Sitting here waiting for it come, it’s like watching a pot that never boils.
If I’ve learned anything it’s that you can’t think too much about it. You can’t think about how you’re never again going to get to chase down ten bucks, cop a couple dimes or a few nickels, gun them all at once, and then disappear into a nod. You can’t think about how you’ll never again get to run those old streets in those old neighborhoods. Or how you’ll never again get to taste the kerosene-like fumes of an East Baltimore coke shot. Or feel the spreading warmth of an East Harlem dime bag on a winter’s morning. You can’t think about the death sentence that managed to get mixed up with your shot one day. You can’t keep turning over all the regrets, or thinking about how much of a failure you are in everyone’s eyes. If you want to get clean and say clean, you have to push all that away. If you don’t, what I’ve learned is that you end up right back where you left off.
You end up right back here.
I was clean once. For almost five months. After a three-month stint in the world’s largest correctional facility, a judge mandated me to a two-year residential rehabilitation program as an alternative to sentencing. No problem, I thought. Anything’s better than jail or the cold streets, I thought.
The place was called a therapeutic community, but it wasn’t the friendly, loving, or nurturing recovery environment the name suggests. It wasn’t that at all. Instead, it was one of those military-type break-you-down, build-you-back-up rehabs, one of those leftover treatment models from the sixties where they shave your head and scream at you all the time about how you’re a piece of shit because you’re addicted to drugs, just in case you weren’t already fully aware of that. Just in case the fact that you lived on the street, ate out of trash cans behind bagel stores and bakeries, begged for change on East 86th Street until you had enough for a nickel shot from 103rd, and shared needles with just about anyone who would give you ten on the hype isn’t enough to break down your ego, they take care of the rest.
For nearly five months I stuck it out, shouldering the screaming confrontation groups, having to wear sandwich-board signs informing my fellow junk- and crack-addicted brothers and sisters that I didn’t know how to follow directions or didn’t know how to listen, and having to scrub the building’s East 10th Street brick facade with a toothbrush and a cup of water as part of what they called addicts’ learning experience. I stuck it out, every day harder than the one before. I stuck it out because I thought it was what I needed to get clean, because I was afraid of going back to jail, and because I didn’t want to go back to this. I stuck it out in spite of the fact that each and every one of those 140 days I thought about riding the crest of a dime shot of coke and parachuting back down on a three- or four-bag shot of dope.
After a few months, after I’d gained back some weight, after the gray in my eyes had lifted and the blue had returned, they let me have a visit with my mom. And since I seemed to be doing so well, since I looked so good, since it seemed like I was finally getting myself together, she took me shopping and bought me some new clothes, a new pair of shoes, a Walkman, and a tape.
The next day I left.
The next day the weather finally broke and spring had hit the city, and all I could think about was getting high. And when a counselor put me on another learning experience for asking for a cigarette when it wasn’t a designated smoking time, I decided I couldn’t take it anymore. And before I knew what I had done, all my new stuff had been pawned off on the streets of Spanish Harlem, and I was banging a twenty-and-twenty speedball in a crack house up on 117th Street.
Because I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I couldn’t push it away.
That was three months ago.
"Sign right here," the money lady tells me.
I sign my name, and she reaches into the drawer and removes two tens. And then a twenty. And that’s why I love my mom.
"Thank you," I say, but again the woman ignores me. But I could care less, because my pockets are fat and I’m already out the door and heading up to the spot.
Now I’m at the First Avenue entrance of the Metropolitan Hospital Center, enough coke and dope in my pockets for two solid blasts. For two good last shots.
The automatic door slides open and I step inside.
The trick to getting a fix on in a public place is to stroll right in like you’re supposed to be there. Walk right through that diner door and head straight for the bathroom in the rear as if you do it every day. Walk into that corner bar in the middle of the afternoon, smile at the bartender, maybe even offer a hello, and then just amble straight on back to the stall and do your thing. Or, like I just did, cruise right through the sliding doors of your local hospital emergency room, go right past the security desk, and right over to the public bathroom.
This particular bathroom has been my spot since I’ve been out here this last time. It’s been like an old friend. This particular bathroom is a two-man job with a sliding bolt lock on the stall door, which, when you’re used to trying to fix behind parked cars, in project stairwells, or on floors of abandoned buildings with about five other junkies all vying for your kickback, is almost like having your own place again. Plus the main lobby has three color TVs where you can watch CNN or catch a soap opera or a talk show while you’re settling into your nod.
The best part is that it’s only three blocks to the nearest nickel spot.
And nobody ever says a word.
I got caught once in another hospital doing this. Last summer I shot four dimes in the Beth Israel lobby bathroom and fell out with the hype still clinging to the bend in my arm. A few hours had gone by before a security guard— this big black guy— unlocked the door and woke me up. When I opened my eyes and my brain finally processed what was happening, rather than trying to run, rather than risking a chase and losing my high, I forced myself to cry. And it worked. Instead of calling the police or even throwing me out of the building, the guy brings me into his office, gives me coffee and donuts, and tells me how he had been a junkie years ago and that if I was ready for help, he could help me. I say, "Sure, yeah, I can use some help. Like a twenty or something should do it." But all he does is hand me a small piece of paper with his number on it and tells me it’s way more valuable than any amount of money.
I slide the bolt lock into place, drop my pants, and let loose. I do this because once the smack hits your system, you can’t, and until all your coke’s gone, you’ll have to. And it’s best to get it out while you can, while you’re in a bathroom.
I gently put the four bags and the four vials, my spoon, my works, and a piece of cotton on the top of the toilet paper dispenser. Gently because my hands are shaking and because just about the worst thing I can think of right now would be to drop my shit on a wet bathroom floor when I’m about to get busy. When I’m about to get busy for the second-to-last time. I flush the toilet, wait for it to refill with clean water, and dip the needle in.
Squeezing toilet water into the spoon, two coke nickels and two dope nickels go from powder to liquid, and I’m already sweating. I drop in a piece of cotton, stick it, and pull back until the solution races up the neck of the syringe. And despite the fact that it’s a myth and no one’s ever really died from an air bubble in the vein, I give the hype three firm flicks.
I lean back.
I slap awake my veins.
Sometimes I wish one of these shots would just put me in the Big Nod and let me leave all this behind. Just let me sleep. Sometimes I wonder if I would have died had that security not found me on the toilet.
I pull my sleeve up to the shoulder, slide the needle in at the bicep, and fish around until I get a vein. Blood shoots into the neck of the hype and everything fuses into a red cloud. A red cloud of blood and drugs, of life and death. I gun it and then pull back. It leaves. It comes back in. It goes back out. Back in. Back out. In and out. In and out, like something pornographic. And then I slam it home, watching it leave the syringe and feeling it flare through the blue cords of my arm.
Sometimes I wish I could just stop remembering things.
I inhale and hold it.
My needle is dull, and dull needles hurt when they penetrate. They hurt even more when you’re fishing for a vein, like trying to draw your own blood with an old nail.
My friends in Baltimore used to call me Doc because I could hit just about any vein in any arm, as long as there was still blood flowing through it. No one calls me anything here.
I hook a vein that seems too tired to put up much of a fight.
They say junkies are just as hooked on the needle as they are on the dope they shoot. They say it’s a manifestation of self-hatred. They say it’s self-mutilation.
Once, when I was clean for about three months, I used to punch myself in the face. It started by putting soap in my eyes until they were red and burning and tearing. When that wasn’t enough, I wrapped my hand in a damp washcloth and punched myself in the face as hard as I could in front of the mirror. When that wasn’t enough, I started bashing a shaving cream can against my face until my eyes were all black and blue.
I guess it was like picking up where someone else left off.
My blood starts to jelly in the hype, so I slam the shot. The last shot. The last hoorah.
The coke hits first, and I’m paralyzed. I’m sweating. My ears are ringing. And I feel like I could shit myself.
I’m holding my breath. I’m underwater, and rays of light splash down from the surface.
In my last rehab they made me talk a lot about my childhood. They made me talk about things like how my father used to hit me and how my mother was invisible. One time my father beat me so badly that my sides and back were all full of bruises and handprints. But nothing was visible with a shirt on, so I went to my room and smashed a dumbbell weight against my face to try and break my nose. I don’t think I broke it, but it swelled up enough that my father felt bad the next day when he saw me.
The dope rolls in, and I’m easing back down.
All I can see is my own reflection in the stainless steel walls. My reflection, all distorted and muddy. "This is it, you know," I tell the reflection. "It’s all over."
Over 56,000 soldiers died in the Vietnam War, but my father wasn’t one of them.
I pick up the needle and start poking myself with it until I find a vein. I pull out some blood. I let it hang for a moment and then plunge it back in my vein before it coagulates. Then I fill the syringe and start spraying lines of blood on the white floor and on my shoes. Then I fill it again and spray my reflection until my own blood runs down the walls. Then I fill it again and splatter the walls around me until the stall is a murder scene, a battlefield.
Then I fill it up again, cap it and put it in my pocket, just in case. Just in case someone wants to fuck with me.
I lie back against the toilet and let the dope flow through me, let it crest and flow. I try to forget. But I can’t stop trying to figure out which one it was. Which shot in which city with which fiend?
Right now I’m thinking that if I had a gun I might kill myself. Or maybe I would go out into the lobby and kill a bunch of people, sit down and watch some TV, and then take myself out.
But I’d probably just kill myself. They say turning around the figurative gun is the hardest thing to do. They say once you pull it out of your own mouth and point it at the right people, you’re getting healthier.
I close my fist and punch my reflection. Then I do it again. And then again, until the wall warps and my knuckles hurt too much to do it a fourth time.
Maybe once I’m clean my mom will buy me another new pair of shoes. But this time I won’t have to sell them.
I spread my syringe, cooker, empty dope bags, and coke vials out on the floor with the lines of sprayed blood, because I’m hoping someone will find them. Because maybe someone will understand. Maybe someone will grasp what happened in here today. And maybe they’ll start being a little more careful with this bathroom.
"It’s time to go," I tell my muddy reflection. And then I’m back in the lobby. And then I’m back out in the world.
Picking up a half-smoked cigarette on the ground and lighting it up, I tell myself this is it.
Then, waving at nothing, I say, "This is it. This is definitely it."
Will Fleming is a native of Baltimore, Maryland who now resides in Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn.