In the thick of it:
It was the beginning of summer in 1989. I was closing in on my 17th birthday. My friends and everyone I knew were off somewhere living life as teenagers should, and there I was, stuck on a job and wishing I was anyplace else. My hands and face were dirty with soot and grease. My long hair was matted with sweat after working in boiler rooms as an apprentice for The Old Man shop.
Inside my thoughts, I waited hours for that moment when that imaginary whistle screamed at 5:00pm. At last, the week would be over. I watched the clock and wished the minute hand would roll as quickly as the second hand. In my thoughts, I could literally hear the sound a clock makes, “Tick-tock, tick-tock,” because the day moved drastically slow
I had extra money in my pocket and plans for every dollar. I had an unforgivable urge that refused to quit. Meanwhile, I was surrounded by men who spoke in broken English. They worked hard and valued their dollar. They packed lunches from home and counted on their earnings to feed their families.
They seldom called in sick and only spoke of drinking alcohol on weekends. These men were against drugs and the tragedies created in their communities by the drug culture.
Meanwhile, I was thinking about making my connection near Corona,Queens on Northern Boulevard not far from 103rd Street. I tried to connect with a friend of mine on 134th Street and Willis Avenue, but his deal fell through so the heroin was out.
I was a part of the tragic life, which my co-workers hated so much. I was part of the reason for the guns on the street. I was equally responsible for the crimes committed against those in their community. And whether my interaction with the streets in their neighborhood was minimal or frequent; I was still a part of a deadly sickness.
I was the opposite of these men. I was their antithesis. These men worked to feed their families and keep roofs above their heads. I worked to feed my addiction.
Completely disregarding the life I was fortunately given; I was an insult to the men that worked in my father’s shop. I threw away what they would otherwise try and save. I had no remorse or concern for their life or anyone else’s. They saw me as a joke. To them I was the boss’s son—a spoiled little kid that worked for his “Daddy,” and a lucky draw in the sperm pool of life.
These were the strongest men I had ever met. They worked hard. They worked long hours without breaks or complaints. They swung wrenches and endured pain. Whereas I was only pretending; these men were real.
They were husbands and fathers and members of a community. These men worked for my father before I was even born.They knew me as as a brightly shining infant and saw how I degraded myself as a lowly drug-filled teenager.
I suppose they were envious of me. I was envious of them as well. I was envious because I watched the way my father spoke with them. The Old Man never spoke the same way to me. In fact, The Old Man was hardest on me.
He instructed all of his mechanics, “I don’t want him to have it easy. I want you to work him hard. And if he doesn’t work hard, then I want you to fire him!”
The Old Man did not like nepotism. Fortunately for me, my mother did.
I was so young and painfully frail. I was weak in mind and weak in muscle. I struggled to lift the tools and swing wrenches. Even the smallest man employed by my father was stronger than I was.
The smallest was Marcos. Marcos came from Ecuador. He fought hard to make a success for himself. Marcos was short in height with tan colored in skin, jet-black hair, almond shaped brown eyes, and he was father to a young girl with severe disabilities. Marcos was the electrician. He tried to teach me how to wire controls and basic electrical work—but my mind was someplace else.
Carlos was the most accident prone. He was a good man with a thick Dominican accent. Carlos had been with my father since he arrived in this country. The Old Man taught Carlos how to speak and read English. He helped Carlos learn to drive in this country and successfully obtain his driver’s license.
Carlos was a family man; however, his desire for other women of any race, size, or age caused problems in his home life.He was thin and dark skinned with a short tight Afro that bulbed around his head. Carlos has a black Diablo goatee that he kept thin and neatly trimmed. He often reeked from an overdose of cologne and seldom had a day when he did not hurt himself. I liked Carlos. I spent more time with him than any other of The Old Man’s mechanics.
Joe was a tall, strong Haitian man. He laughed at me more than others and often told me that I was as weak as a baby girl. Joe was kind on most days, but I seldom worked with Joe. He was usually on heavier jobs that required strength.
Kenny was a talented mechanic. He was thin and bearded with shoulder length, long, scraggly hair. Kenny wore glasses with wire rims and spoke with experience. he was an ex-biker, ex-junkie, who somehow earned the love my father.
Kenny was the only person I ever saw my father give a second chance to. He was later fired after a falling from the wagon. Eventually, Kenny lost gave sobriety a shot but lost himself to the needle. Not long after entering sobriety, Kenny became the first person I knew to die from the A.I.D.S virus. I liked Kenny.
I liked him very much.
Rego was The Old Man’s favorite. He was like a son to my father. Rego was the foreman in my Old Man’s shop. He was fun at times, but mostly serious when it came to work. He was proud of his Puerto Rican heritage and taught me Spanish words, which were never good. Rego would often send me to others in the shop and tell me to relay a message in Spanish. This of course would make the others in the shop laugh because the message was always vulgar and most often an insult against me.
I learned a lot working in The Old Man’s shop.
I learned that I was not strong enough to be a man.
Each Friday, the men in The Old Man’s shop would take their checks and head over to the bank. They deposited the money they earned into bank accounts and sent some back to the family in their home countries. These men paid rent and bills.
I had no rent and I had no bills. I only had an addiction, which is why the men despised me.
With all I had; I spent every dollar and every cent. I was withering away—wasting my life on junk, and to them, this was disgraceful. I wasted everything. Meanwhile, men like Marcos were scraping everything together to feed and care for a young disabled child.
Meanwhile, others my age were discovering themselves. They were enjoying their youth. It was summer, which meant all of my friends were enjoying the park on Prospect Avenue. Each day was a new adventure for them. To me, my new adventures consisted of climbing inside sewerage ejector pits and fixing sump pumps that remove sewage waste from residential buildings.
As a result of my choices, I lost my childhood and teenage rite of passage. While the people I knew were thinking of getting their driver’s license or going to prom—I was working as a teenage dropout. While others I knew were enjoying the wealth of their youth—I was sweating in steam rooms and cleaning pipe fittings. I was digging ditches and popping blisters on my hands; meanwhile, the rest of my peers were enjoying their long hot summer days.
Come Friday, I waited for that imaginary whistle to ring at 5:00pm. I couldn’t wait to get home and detach myself from the painful reality which I had created.
Come 5:00pm, I sat through traffic on the Grand Central Parkway. I listened to The Old Man complain about my efforts at work, or lack thereof.
I couldn’t wait to get out of the car. Once I was home, I washed myself as best as I could. Then I grabbed every dollar I earned and ran out the door.
It was only a matter of time before I was at the spot . . .
Anthony was a neighborhood guy with a small to moderate drug business. He knew me as well as I knew him. We were not friends, per se. I was younger than Anthony and less popular than him. Simply put, I was decent customer with a steady income. And that was good enough
I was too small and weak to complain about price or quality. I was too insecure to fight back and too frightened to lose the one fix that settled the ongoing disputes in my mind. So rather than argue, I submitted to the weak counts and weak quality. In exchange, I purchased an 8-ball, or to explain it in easier terms, an 8-ball is 3.5 grams of cocaine, or to be more exact, an 8-ball is equivalent to an eighth of an ounce.
With the extra money in hand, I decided to double up on my usual purchase. This time I went for a quarter of an ounce. And so it began
My house was fortunately empty for the weekend. The Old Man decided to take my Mother someplace special. They left an extra $20.00 in the tin above the microwave for me in the kitchen. This was for food—but with my plans being as they were, I was certainly not going to be hungry.
Setting up in my bedroom, the outside world was too intrusive. The paranoid stir had only begun. I closed the door and fixed the blinds to my window so I could see out, but no one else could see in.
Paranoia is part of this disease. Paranoia is a voice that whispers so painfully loud and in unshakable ways. The only acceptable method to silence the imaginary whispers is to placate them with the drug. The only problem with this is each time the fears are solved, the solution is only temporary. Once the high wears off, the paranoia returns worse after each attempt. It is an impossible way to solve an impossible riddle.
My bedroom had two windows. One window faced the front of my house and looked out onto Merrick Avenue. Merrick Avenue was a main street and frequently busy.
The side window was over the garage at the side of my home. This was often my escape route when sneaking out of the house.
My twin bed was on the floor without a headboard. My beige painted walls were covered in black felt posters. They were the kind that glowed in the deep purple lighting of a black fluorescent light bulb.
My posters were also used to cover up holes in the wall, which I used as stashing spots to keep my drugs and pipes. The dark, hardwood floor was creaky at times. I had a small stereo and a television on my dresser drawer. The closet with two sliding closet doors was to the left of my bedroom’s entryway. The closet was also home to a few jugs of gin that hid in the back corner.
After securing all sides and entries, I gathered my needs. I took everything I could think of and sealed myself off from the world. It was nothing to me but a matter of fact. I was in too deep to turn back.
I chose this life. And even if this life was only living while closely dying—I spent hours trying to perfect this sickness to the best of my ability.
There are different kinds of cocaine users. Some like to sniff from a small pile dumped into the crevice between the thumb as it closes against their forefinger. Some enjoy the snorted lines on a mirror. And me, I enjoyed the hot flame which lights the pipe and installed an immediate bliss of cool and beautiful numbness.
There are some who believe cocaine comes with a certain flashy prestige. I was the opposite side of this. There was no prestige in my addiction. There was nothing glamorous about it at all. Not for me.
Since I preferred to smoke it . . .
this meant I had to learn the right way to cook it.
There are different methods when cooking up. A simple way is part cocaine, a smaller part of baking soda, and a few droplets of water. The mixture in this case is crucial.
The contents are placed in a bent up spoon with the basin bent in a way that it could sit like a ladle over the heat from a cigarette lighter or candlelit flame.
I preferred to use the cigarette lighter. A cigarette lighter was an extra step; it was something for my hands to do while further ingraining myself in the ritual of addiction.
On occasion, I would cook with ammonia. Ammonia left a slightly cooler flavor to the smoke. I suppose the extra chemical added to the impact of the high. The measure of ingredients were the same as if it was water.
Once this was set, I rolled my thumb across the flint to spark the orange flame from my cigarette lighter.
The two-inch flame swayed as I placed it beneath the spoon. In seconds, the contents came to a rapid boil and then crystallized in a purer, more potent form of smokable cocaine.
The only problem when freebasing with ammonia is the extra expense. It was also something else to carry. Water on the other hand is free and can be found literally anywhere. In some instances and in more desperate times, I even used water from the bottom of a storm drain to cook up with. I didn’t mind the parasites and bacteria. Hell with it, I said. “I’ll smoke them too.”
On this night in particular, there was no concern for the extra expense or baggage. I was home and locked behind my bedroom door. As far as I was concerned—I had everything I needed.
Once the cook was finished and the hit was ready, I loaded the batch from the burnt spoon into a glass pipe. Then I flicked the lighter to strike heat against the glass. Initially, the hit sizzled. This is the sound a hit makes.
First it begins to sizzle. Then after placing the other end in my mouth, the sizzle fades and switches to the sound of a softly delicate whistle, which is the sound of air being sucked through the pipe.
The tip becomes red hot as the flame darts into the mouth of the pipe. A thick white smoke flies back through the glass tube. The dense smoke is a sign of relief that fills the lungs. At this point, I drew in the smoke as deeply as I could. I pulled in with all I had to inhale all the contents in order to release all the beautiful poison into my bloodstream.
I held my breath until I could no longer hold it anymore. Then I exhaled. And as I exhaled, a symphony of bells rang in my ears. The weight of my world lost its gravity and all was forgotten. I was not thinking about my inability to fit in or be like everyone else my age. I forgot about the struggles at work or my co-workers who considered me to be meaningless and useless. I lost myself to the incredible whirlwind, which devoured time in an incredible blitz of fast light.
Once the blood takes hold, the chemical reaction is quick and unmerciful. In the fit of the high—I was able to climb inside the tiny capsule and feel myself dissipate into the excess. I was drawn in by the cool rush. What began as a soft explosion transformed into the surge of blood running through my veins.
I was numb.
My heartbeat thumped as if it were pounding inside a hollow drum. I lost feeling in my lips and mouth as they numbed from the responce to cocaine. My breathing took on a new speed as I blew out the last bit of smoke. I waited for hours for this millisecond of light—and once the light came, it vanished just as quickly.
As it is with any binge, the main objective is to keep high. Only, this high is fleeting. As high as I was, I fell to a low more drastic than when I began. I spent hours hiding on the floor in my room. I barricaded the door with furniture.
I made the paranoid rounds to my front window and then returned to the side window with my leg outside to ready for an escape.
Each time I checked the windows, I checked to see if, “They” were out there. And the term “They,” could literally mean anyone.
“They” could have meant the police. “They” could have been my neighbors or my parents coming back in surprising return.
The term “They,” meant anyone and everyone that would come between me and myself; it meant anyone that would come and take me away from me high.
In my fit, I ran to the front window to check and see who was outside. The phantom sounds of my imagination sent panic through my body. Each time I heard a noise, I either ran to the front window to check and see who was coming, or I began climbing out the side window with the expectation of running away.
My binges were like a black hole of time. I was sucked in and lost. Again, I repeat myself by explaining I lost myself to the drug the same way water loses to a drain. Swirled up and sinking, I fell through what seemed to be a bottomless pit. There was nothing left to me. I had no joy. I had no passion. All I had was a nearly empty pouch of cocaine and the terrible anticipation that it would soon be completely empty. And then what?
Hours later when the sun began to show itself the next morning, everything was gone. There was nothing left to cook. There was nothing left to sniff or satiate the insatiable need that would not stop.
I had a few empty bottles of cough medicine that I drank—but I vomited them out the side window on the roof of my garage. My room was ripped apart. My bed was pulled away from the wall because I hid behind it.
Saturday morning and there I was, crawling along the floor on my hands and knees, stripped to my underwear—hoping to find a piece of something I may have dropped. And this is when the mind plays tricks. Everything I saw, every tiny pebble or old crumb that fell on the floor and resembled something white was subject to an intense investigation.
Worst was the reflection in the mirror. Worst was the look in my eyes. I was so young and childlike. Half possessed, half sick, and partly electrified, my facial expression was that of a deranged lunatic. My lips were purple with burn marks from the glass pipe. My skin was a pale shade of green. My eyes had dark rings beneath them. I looked emaciated and thin. I looked drawn out and wired—as if I had not slept in weeks.
I often wonder how I’m still alive.
When people get high they call it “Partying.”
When I think of parties, I think of rooms filled with people. I think of music and dancing. When I think of parties, I associate them with laughter and lightheartedness. I can assure you there is nothing lighthearted about drug addiction. The last thing I considered my addiction to be was a party.
Addiction is a vacuum. It is a deadly draw into a false moment of numbness, which in exchange, leaves behind the scars and costly remnants of excruciating pain.This is why people struggle to get sober. It’s because of the pain they face when they stop. It’s because of the reflection they see in the mirror and the realization of the damaged they’ve endured. Instead of facing this, most continue to run, and that’s why so many fail to become sober
More than 25 year later and I still have dreams about this night. This was the same night Mike and Randy were picked up someplace in Rockaway. This was two months before I was picked up on two different charges and sent away.
The funny thing is I never thought I would be grateful for this outcome. Had it not been for that—I would have been no different than the names on the long list of local tragedies.