It was the end of March in 1991. I was driving around in a minivan filled with stolen equipment, stolen rifles, a shotgun, car radios, some home entertainment pieces that are outdated now, and a nickel plated .357 underneath the driver’s seat. The end result of this is not surprising. Then again, I wasn’t thinking about the end result.
The night began with me climbing in through the back window of an outdated house with old furniture and couches that were sealed in plastic seat covers. There were statues of Mary holding Jesus and religious pictures throughout the home. There was a crucifix in every room and each room seemed even more outdated than the next. The home was as clearly empty and owned by someone elderly.
I made it in through the back window and crept through towards the front of the home beneath the dim light of the family room. I stayed low so the neighbors wouldn’t see me. I crept up the stairs and made my way into the master bedroom. It was best to start from the top down. I could check inside each room and look to see which room had value and what room didn’t.
There were family pictures all throughout the house. I didn’t like that. I didn’t like the pictures of Jesus either because I couldn’t afford to think about feelings or have emotion. In my eyes, I was there to do a job and a job like this can be hard to do when the eyes from happy family pictures seem like they’re following you.
I swear the rooms felt like they were haunted. The house smelled like an elderly home would smell. There were plastic runners across the carpet too. I figured this was a grandparent’s house for sure. Who knew who lived there? Who knew where the homeowner was or if one of the two from the elderly couple was still alive? But I swear the rooms felt haunted to me.
I opened the dresser drawers but found nothing but old clothes. I checked through the usual hiding spots and found little to nothing of interest. I went through the closets and checked the shoe boxes. And I checked beneath the mattress in the master bedroom and found two envelopes that were stuffed with cash. I found a small case with two shiny rings. But pressed for time, I stuffed all the small details into my pocket and added them to the grab. There was another box of jewelry in the night stand. This one definitely had value. I took necklaces and bracelets. I took two watches, and all the rings, which were stuffed into the crevice of the blue-velvet lining of the jewelry box.
After adding this to the take, I looked up at the night stand to find another family photo. This time it was the grandkids. The smallest of three boys held up a sign that read, “We love you Grandpa!” While above him, the tallest of the three held another sign which said, “Get well soon.” I had to face that picture down flat because the phot bothered me. And I couldn’t afford to be bothered. Not now. I had business to tend to.
My partner was downstairs. He rummaged through the living room. He took the VCR. He took silver from the table and the silver crucifix from the wall.
“What are you gonna do with that,” I asked
“It’s a silver cross,” he said
“Put that down,” I told him.
“Let’s get out of here,” I said in a loud whisper.
“These pictures are starting to freak me out.”
“Did you check the back of the freezer,” I asked.
“Good call,” he said.
In response, my partner asked, “Did you check the bottom of the beds?”
I showed him one of the two stuffed envelopes I found in the master bedroom. I only showed him one because in all honesty, I planned to keep the other. Besides, I swore he kept things from me so it was my turn to keep something from him. Besides, there is no honesty amongst thieves. As I saw it, there is no honesty amongst anyone—especially when you’re crawling through a home like a snake on your belly. , “It’s already been taken care of.”
The kitchen was at the rear of the home, which is where we made our escape. My partner opened the freezer and took out the contents. He rattled the frozen boxes until he came to a small box that appeared to have been opened before. He shook it and said, “Jackpot!” The box with cash wrapped in tinfoil was hidden beneath the London broil. It wasn’t a lot of money, but it was enough to call this a decent score. With the cash, the VCR, the gold, and the rest of the jewelry, we walked out as happy crooks.
Next stop: Canarsie, Brooklyn
We were on our way to the spot where we sold the gold. The man at the pawn shop sat behind bulletproof glass. He knew us well enough to know he would have to inspect and test each piece of jewelry we tried to sell him. But the man behind the glass didn’t mind. We kept him busy enough. But this was a lengthy process. The man behind the glass scrapped the gold against a stone. The gold then left a mark and the man spilled acid on it to see if it was truly gold or fake. He’d separate a pile for the fake jewelry and sometimes, he’d complain if it took too long. But we usually did well with him and he would pay us fairly. However, this didn’t mean the man behind the glass liked us. This had nothing to do with being liked. No, this was all about money. And the money we received didn’t mean I liked the man behind the glass either. Truth is I hated him
The man behind the glass was dirty. I could smell his underarms leaking from beneath the bulletproof glass. I hated the way his store smelled from curry. I hated that he spoke to his partners that sat in the back in a different language and I hated that man behind the glass finished every sentence with, “My friend.”
The man behind the glass was not my friend. I’m not even sure my partner was my friend. To me, we were all just people that mixed together like a piece of some crazy puzzle. It wasn’t about being liked; not at all. I suppose we were just pieces of each other’s addiction. And that’s all we were to each other. Eventually, the transaction was made and the man behind the glass finished, which was good because the smell in his place was ungodly and my stomach always turned when we went in
The drive over was mostly quiet. I drove and weaved through traffic. I didn’t want to talk. I didn’t want to say anything because I didn’t want to think whatsoever. I just wanted to go see the man behind the glass and get this over with.
“They were Italians,” said my partner.
“The house we just came from,” he said.
“Don’t get me wrong, I grew up in a Puerto Rican household. My mother had pictures of Jesus everywhere. She even wrapped the couches in plastic too. But the Jesus statue in the rooms —that’s what gives it away.”
I shrugged off the truthfulness and trying to rid me of the memories from the pictures that stared at me while I stole from the home.
“I don’t care what they are,” I said. “So long as the man behind the glass gives us money for the gold and we can sell that old VCR, I’m fine.”
It was always the same look we received when walking through the door. The man behind the glass had his little shop, white walls that were dirty, an old red rug that looked worn, and the overhead lighting, which hummed to interrupt the quiet on my side of the glass.
“Let’s not take all night,” said the man behind the glass as we walked in.
My partner emptied his sack into the basin beneath the partition. The man behind the counter asked, “Is that it?” I said, Nope,” and poured my little sack down as well.
“Oh wait,” I remembered out loud and retrieved the two rings I grabbed from the closet. The man behind the glass seemed excited.
“Diamonds,” he shouted, and called for another one of his foul smelling partners to look at the rings.
The two argued back and forth in a different language. They viewed the stones on both rings through a loop, or viewing glass, and argued some more. Finally, the man behind the glass turned to me and said, “This is not a real diamond.”
My partner asked, “Are you sure? Those rings were in his family for a long time.”
“Maybe they have more sentimental value,” responded the man behind the glass. “But I don’t buy sentimental value here.”
I thought about that . . .
I thought about what that word meant and realized that I regressed back to who I was before my life on The Farm. I went back to the junkie I used to be and I hadn’t even been high yet. I was about to toss away my pride and what I worked for. It was over. Everything I had was about to vanish.
Six months before that time, I was living in a sober community. I believed in good; I believed in God, and I believed I had the ability to stay clean. I was proud of the person I became. My family was proud too. But along with the gold and the old VCR, I was about to trade away my purity and head out to East New York, Brooklyn.
The guilt mixed in my stomach and my nerves were frayed like the end of an old nylon rope. There was an inner voice saying, “You don’t have to do this . . .”
“You can turn around right now. You can cut your losses here. Think about it. You don’t have to flush it all away.”
I kept seeing the photos from the house, which we just trashed. The pictures flashed in my head. Things like “We love you Grandpa,” and the “Get well soon,” which I saw in that photo on the nightstand of the grandkids; it began to rip my insides apart. I kept seeing the loving photos of Jesus spreading his arms as if to say, “I am the light of the world. He who follows me shall not walk in darkness.”
However, there was no light where I was going. There was no salvation at the head shop, where we purchased lighters and crack-pipes. The only light I saw was the flicker of a small torch as it heated the glass pipe to melt away my wholesomeness, and then, my sin was complete.
It was all gone. The trust I had earned was ruined. The achievement of completing more than one year’s sobriety was vaporized in a crack pipe. It felt as if I had never stopped. I felt as though I had never accomplished anything at all; and thus, I sunk deeper into the binge.
I picked up exactly where I left off. It hurt at firs; like a quick sting, but the drugs helped take the pain away. They helped me forget. The flame shook and hit the tip of my glass pipe and suddenly, all the pain, all the fear, all the regret melted away.
And then it becomes like a frenzy. The mind is gone and all I could do is go through with the binge. All I could do was “More,” but after a while, even “More” couldn’t solve the pain. Nothing could stop the ride I was on. Except for death, of course, and there was a piece of me willing to find it.
After we smoked the crack and there was nothing left, I thought to myself, “God, I wish I had a bag of dope right now. That would make this all so much easier!”
My partner and I binged for 24 hours. We binged through the streets of Brooklyn. We binged after he sold his nickel-plated .357 magnum, and we binged all the way back to my hometown on Merrick Avenue.
The worst part of my relapse was the reflection in the mirror. My eyes looked soulless. My heart seemed broken and emptied, and for the life of me, I couldn’t stop the pictures I saw on the nightstand from flashing through my head.
The next morning was a holiday. It was Passover and my family gathered in the dining room. They prayed and thanked God. I sat, emptied of whatever purity I tried to rebuild, and listened to family members say, “I’m so proud of you!” because at last, I was finally out of trouble. (Supposedly)
“You’re doing so well,” they told me.
But the most hurtful thing to hear was this: “Your Father is proud of you too. I know if he were still alive, he’d be the first to say how proud he is of you.”
The Old Man. . .
That cut me deep.
He told me he was proud before he died. I guess that was the worst part of my relapse because I realized I let him down.
My next clear memory was April 1st, also known as April Fool’s Day. I had driven up to the small town of Hancock and gone to the house where I’d gotten sober.
They smiled when they saw me, as if not an ounce of love was gone. They welcomed me with opened arms, but I could not accept their embrace. All I could do was weep. I couldn’t even look at them because the same was more painful than a bullet through my gut.
“What happened,” they asked.
“I threw it all away,” I said
“I went out,” I told them. “I went out and I got high.”
This happened 27 years ago April 1st.
I won’t say it’s been an easy ride. I won’t say it’s always been an enjoyable one either.
But I will say I’ve done this.
I’ve accomplished what those who knew me then said I could not.
My last trip into a treatment center, I left with some of the other inmates joking about me. They laughed and took bets on how long it would take me to screw up.
“He’ll never make it,” they said.
They were wrong.
PS: Right about now, that old partner of mine is walking around somewhere. I’m sure he’s out of prison by now. Last I heard they tagged a body to him from a shooting in Brooklyn. I never knew for sure, but the news sounded about right.
I never want to be that guy again.
So long as I live this way, I know I will never be that guy again . . .