Note 1: This is first draft material excerpted from my memoir in progress. I've dropped the 'Crazy Sorrow' from the title, thanks to an excellent suggestion from ericlewis0, and reverted to my original title, The Secret History of My Foolish Heart. Like my last post, this material is rough and it's not political but your feedback is invaluable in my efforts to bang this unruly manuscript into a (hopefully) publishable property.
Note 2: I sometimes speak harshly of addicts and addiction, but that's just me trying to be truthful about a harmful drug and the devastation it can and does cause. I do not for a minute think that someone else's desire or compulsion to alter their consciousness (which is all but universal in humans) entitles me to judge them or feel anything other than compassion for them and kinship with them. And I'd like to believe that would be true even if I were not a former addict myself. Self-righteous, narrow-minded judgment of others is for hypocrites and bigots. It's always best to steer clear of such territory, in my opinion.
I was bruised and battered and I couldnt tellHeroin is a hell of a drug, to paraphrase a famous drug-crazed rocker. Like many drugs it can do some very nice things (however temporary and illusory) for your consciousness. And like so many of those other drugs, it extracts its price. One pays proportionately to what one receives it seems. Heroin is heaven and hell in white powder form, and its price is your living soul, if not your beating heart.
What I felt
I was unrecognizable to myself
I saw my reflection in a window I didn't know
My own face
Oh brother are you gonna leave me
On the Streets of Philadelphia
Bruce Springsteen, Streets of Philadelphia
Heroin provides a powerful illusion of well-being: happiness, satisfaction, peace, contentment and a warm euphoric feeling from head to toe, all in a convenient powder form. It mimics well-being so beautifully that all those things that normally produce actual well-being end up going gradually by the way side as one slides deeper and deeper into addiction: relationships, love, sex, food, work, personal values, a sense of purpose. Who need's 'em? I've got a dime bag in my pocket, baby. I'm good to go.
Users don't come to that radical view immediately of course. It's a progression. Typical users start out intrigued or curious. It's purely academic. They dabble - only lightly. Just to see what all the fuss is about. It seems fairly innocuous...and kind of nice. It makes you a little sick to your stomach, but it's not too bad. And like I say, it's kind of nice. And it gets nicer each time you try it. It's deceptive how quickly you come to the point where you can no longer walk away. People have known this for ages of course, but it's hard to convey such wisdom. Especially in the absence of trust.
The more you use heroin, the more it crawls up under your skin, seeps into your bones and sucks the spirit from the marrow. It's as though it wants everything that's good in you for itself. All in exchange for a false but powerful form of happiness, which ebbs and flows in rhythm with the heroin content in your blood. As that concentration diminishes and the chimera of contentment and satisfaction fades into nothing, you panic. This is where heaven becomes hell, as you now feel the exact opposite of what you feel when the heroin content of your blood is strong. And it's hard to bear.
Heroin has a way of speaking to you as though it were a seductive and manipulative lover.
“All you need in this world is another little taste of me,” it whispers in tones suggestive of eros and euphoria. “One sweet taste of my pure heaven will set everything right. All those other things, those nagging little details of your life, will take care of themselves. It'll all sort itself out. And besides, isn't ten minutes of true ecstasy easily worth the rest of your miserable life?”
One has traveled a long way down a dark alley by the time they begin to hear that siren song. But by then you are a fly caught in a web. A rat in a trap. You are beyond all reasonable hope of redemption. Some are wrenched away from heroin by harsh circumstance, or broken away from it by tragedy or trauma, but almost no one just walks away. This makes quitting cigarettes, a notoriously difficult thing to do, look like child's play. Seriously, child's play.
* * *
I have a tendency to look back at my youthful indiscretion with heroin as the highly regrettable act of a dumb-ass kid too stupid to know better. And there is certainly that aspect to it, but it was more than just that. Everything happens within a particular context, and events and the context within which they occur cannot be separated, not if understanding is the object. The duration of my active addiction ran from the fall and winter of 1969 to that awful night of May 4th, 1971, when my life came crashing down.
There is a theory, one I subscribe to, that the 60s youth rebellion was my generation reacting to our own despair over the meaningless existence that was planned and left for us, and in so many ways, shoved down our throats. A world full of opportunities for dull and monotonous servitude to make rich men richer at the expense of our own liberty, creativity, imagination and vision - not to mention the overall well-being of the planet and all of humanity.
There was something of a generation-wide epiphany fed by the JFK assassination, the senseless and bloody war in Vietnam, ongoing ecological destruction, wide-spread human suffering and the propagation of a highly regimented and controlled society, one that more and more resembled the dystopian nightmare of Orwell's 1984. Our futures held cubicles and battlefields and we sensed it all coming as members of our herd were fed gradually into the meat-grinder of Vietnam and our pleas to treat the planet kindly were ignored. Our rebellion was, on one important level, us freaking out about society's rotten deal, the meaninglessness of modern life, humanity's tragic trajectory and the boneheaded refusal by the Powers That Be to do anything real about any of it.
Another part of the context of my addiction has to do with the person that I am. From a young age, I wanted very badly to be a writer in emulation of my heroes like Mark Twain, Jack London, Jack Kerouac, John Steinbeck or Kurt Vonnegut, but it didn't come easily to me. I struggled with writing. I was ungifted and untutored but somehow possessed by the vision of it. At some point I came to realize that the most important thing for any writer is experience. Only with it does one have anything worth writing about. That's the way it seemed to me at least as a young and inexperienced teenager. With that as my truth, and with the turbulent 60s as the backdrop, I knowingly throttled up my risk taking behavior: running away from home, hitchhiking around the country, experimenting with drugs and running with strangers. Reading Kerouac's Dharma Bums at age 14 had taught me that life is full of risks, so you might as well take a few. This chosen view set me up for a fall, it's fair to say, but then I did get that experience I was looking for.
My descent into addiction mirrored the world of the times in many ways. Mine was no isolated case. Many similar stories played themselves out across the counter-culture. Many of my old friends were right there with me all the way. Hard drugs, heroin, meth and the like, were changing hippie culture and the counter-culture at large...destroying it from within. 14th Street in Atlanta, like Haight Ashbury in San Francisco, lost its peace and love ethic as the junkies and speed-freaks overran old haunts and the whole place took on a seedy, frightening edge. All of this against the backdrop of the MLK and RFK assassinations, race riots, civil rights marches, police beatings, church bombings, antiwar demonstrations, the raging and ever-worsening war in Vietnam itself, the brutal killing of protesters at Kent State and Jackson State and on-and-on it went as the dreams of hippies and lovers of social justice were brutally crushed. The peace and love holdouts faded away or headed back to the land, others cut their hair and took straight jobs or otherwise blended into the background, while yet others turned to the hard stuff for escape or solace. This happened all over the country like some sort of karmic plague. Hard drugs killed a lot of good things while they were in the process of killing me. It wasn't just about the drugs though. There were forces at play. I'll leave it at that.
* * *
As the quarter ounce of heroin I happened upon at Woodstock began to run out, I cultivated alternate sources. As I was living in Huntsville, Alabama, the supply of heroin was somewhat erratic. Sometimes you could find it and sometimes not. In the absence of heroin, substitutes had to do. Suitable ones in those days included morphine, dilaudid and other synthetic narcotics like blue morphine. I came to know the local guys most likely to have those drugs. Sometimes they bribed doctors or forged prescriptions, or burglarized pharmacies. But those sources were sketchy and unreliable. I found myself more and more often traveling the two-hundred miles to Atlanta to score. There was plenty of heroin in Atlanta. I would score there, come back to Huntsville, sell a little and shoot a lot, mainlining pure happiness directly into my eager veins, every shot fueling my tolerance, my need and my desperation...and marching me inexorably toward a bad end.
Those guys I mentioned, the likeliest sources for narcotics in Huntsville, were an interesting demographic to say the least. There were the hippies who made the transition along with me from soft drugs like pot, LSD, mescaline and such to the hard drugs like heroin and other narcotics. And then there were the redneck dopers, and these boys were no hippies. They seemed to be throwbacks to the fifties: greasers, hardcore 'necks with DAs, hot-rods, prison records and badass tattoos before they were mandatory. They were all several years to a good bit older than me. They were thieves, active criminals and all but illiterate. Most of them carried guns. These guys were violent, unpredictable and crude, not my sort of peeps at all, but narcotics, perhaps even more so than politics, makes for some mighty strange bedfellows. However reluctantly, I came to know some of these characters pretty well, all too well actually.
Of all that crew, the one I liked the most (and possibly trusted least) was a little dude with a out-sized Jesse James complex by the name of Jackie G. A hundred pounds soaking wet, he had to be clever and sly to survive around the thugs he ran with - but he was also respected for his boldness. He was known to have robbed pharmacies in broad daylight, and if no narcotics could be found anywhere in town, he'd go get some, usually by busting out the plate glass at some pharmacy in the middle of the night and taking what he wanted. He took crazy risks, and only occasionally went to prison for it.
Jackie and his friends all grew up in a part of Huntsville that was a distinctly blue-collar neighborhood, which is to say a poor neighborhood, supported by a cotton mill and a shoe factory. Post-WWII, and again post-Vietnam, many returning vets found themselves addicted to morphine as the result of having been wounded. Addicted to powerful narcotics and likely wracked with PTSD and other such emotional wounds that we didn't even know how to talk about at the time, the lives of these men followed a tragic if predictable trajectory. In Huntsville, as in cities and towns across the nation, these wounded, damaged men swelled the ranks of the narcotics-addicted and whole new subcultures, such as the redneck junkies of Huntsville, Alabama and elsewhere, were spawned.
Their use of the term was the first time I'd ever heard 'dope-fiend' used in anything other than a humorous or ironic fashion. Perhaps originally intended to be ironic, it had come to be an accepted term for narcotics addicts within the culture. Most of Jackie's crowd self-identified as such. It was hard to avoid the impression that their commitment to dope-fiendishness was lifelong. That is one way in which I differed from them. I was just passing through. This wouldn't be my life forever. I was pretty sure about that. Pretty sure...but not absolutely.
* * *
One frosty winter night, might have been around February of 1970, I was driving around the Five Points section of Huntsville on the prowl for narcotics. I figured that, since I was in the neighborhood, I'd drop in on Jackie, see what he was up to, see if he knew anybody who knew anybody.
The frozen gravel in Jackie's grandmother's driveway barely gave as I pulled in and parked. I walked around back to Jackie's room crunching ice with every step. He let me in the back door and quickly crawled back into bed. He had the wood stove going. He'd have been frozen without it. It was the only heat there was, back there in that added-on more lean-to than room, where Jackie's grandmother barely tolerated his existence. Perhaps that's harsh. I'm sure she loved his worthless hide. I sort of liked him myself.
“Got any dope,” I said.
“No, goddamit, I've called every motherfucker I know who's still livin'. Nobody's got nothin' – or they're all fuckin' lyin'.”
We sat for a spell in silence just absorbing the magnitude of the situation. Jackie was the first to speak.
“You got your car?”
“No, I parachuted in.”
“Very fuckin' funny, I'll see about getting you a spot on the Tonight show. In the mean time, listen the fuck up. I got a plan.”
“Let's hear it.”
“All you gotta do is drive. And don't ask too many questions.”
“That's a hell of a way to treat a friend Jackie.”
“Listen here my friend, if you do as I say you'll be shooting dilaudid before this night is over. So, you driving or not?”
“Let's go dude.”
Jackie hopped into some clothes, pulled on some boots and a heavy coat, grabbed a tire iron and we headed for the car.
“Where we going?” I said, pulling out and heading toward town.
“Go to the Parkway and head North.”
We road in silence for a few miles.
“At this next light, turn right and go slow past that shopping center so I can spook it out.”
We eased past the shopping center into a residential neighborhood.
“Take the first left,” Jackie said, “then do it again then go straight to you're on a dirt road.”
I saw that it was the remnant of an old farm road or something. It led right to the back of the shopping center, where we parked behind some trees and got out. Every time it occurred to me how unwise what we were doing was, my mind would jump to what Jackie said about shooting dilaudid before this night was over. That completely ruined my perspective...and no doubt impaired my judgment.
I followed Jackie through a breezeway around to the front of the drug store where he promptly busted out the plate glass in the door with his tire iron and ducked inside. Seeing nothing else to do in such a situation, I ducked in after him. He went straight to the narcotics cabinet and started rifling through the contents tossing the good stuff to me. I held the pillow case while he vetted the haul. We were out of there in no time, ran to the car and got clean away, due to the great good fortune bestowed occasionally on drunkards and fools (and apparently junkies), and absolutely nothing else. Some plan, eh?
We drove back to Jackie's and shot dilaudid and nodded out, huddled around the warmth of the pot-bellied stove in Jackie's tiny little lean-to for the rest of the night.
* * *
Burglarizing a drug store is not something you want to do on a regular basis. In fact, I couldn't believe I was doing it at all. It made me nervous as a cat to be caught up in such high-risk madness. I considered myself to be something of a cultural outlaw to be sure, and had always cultivated a healthy disregard for rules and authority, but drugs were pretty much legal in hippie culture, so I never considered myself an outright criminal. Yet here I was, a newly minted burglar, an offender, a felon, a fully fledged breaker of the law in the eyes of society. The cognitive dissonance was a little discomforting, but I had a killer cure.
I hit a couple of more drug stores with Jackie over the next few months or so and acquired a little money from sales of the proceeds, but finally decided it would be wise to get the hell out of Dodge for a spell, and up and moved to Atlanta along with my girl friend. I told the nice real estate lady that I was an art student at the Atlanta College of Art, just around the corner from the 13th Street apartment she rented me. That was my fantasy life, the art student thing. I thought it best to leave my real life out of it.
I already had connections in Atlanta and started dealing immediately. This quickly became my routine: I would rise early and do a wake-up shot. I'd walk up to Peachtree Street and take a cab to some nearby projects where I'd cop a couple of loads of heroin from a friend of mine who moved lots of smack. I'd return to midtown, having the cab drop me off some few blocks from the apartment so the cabbie wouldn't know where I lived, and walk the walk of the paranoid, with hefty bundles of heroin stuffed down my boots and rubbing ominously against my legs, back to the apartment. Once safely home, I'd shoot up, stash all but a certain amount of the dope and head for the Tenth Street pool hall to sell smack. Many mornings there would be a small crowd waiting for me. I'd sell out in a hurry and have to go back for more, all the while keeping a paranoid eye out for cops...or junkies with bad intent. I looked a lot like a walking drug store to some of those guys.
One day, I was sitting at a table in the pool hall when three of my regular customers came in and sat down at my table. They each bought a dime bag, and then sat around shooting the shit (as in conversing). One of them mentioned how bad his veins had become through overuse, so bad he could hardly find a vein to shoot up with.
“I've seen you shoot brother,” he said. “You're damned good with a needle, practically a doctor. I bet you could hit me.”
Sadly, I didn't see it coming and agreed to go off with these guys to try and help this poor dude with his reluctant veinage. He had stroked my ego and challenged me, and I fell right into his trap. We walked a block to an apartment building that was cantilevered off of a hill so that there was an open parking area beneath the building. A covered staircase at the rear led in two flights up to the first floor. Junkies often used this closed stairwell as a place to shoot up. That's where we went. As we entered, one guy says, “Get him!” and they all grabbed for me. Taking the path of least resistance, I backpedaled up the stairs kicking and fighting for my life. I yelled for help and fought for all I was worth. I made it to the first floor and poked my head out into the hallway but they still had hold of me, trying to drag me back into the stairwell. I screamed for someone to help me. People's doors began to open. “I've called the police!” someone yelled. At that, the bushwackers broke off their attack and absconded down the stairs. One of the apartment dwellers took me into his apartment and locked the door. Thank what-gods-may-be for the mercy and kindness of strangers.
* * *
Every day I grew more and more addicted, and every day I took more and greater risks. I was losing weight I didn't have to lose. I was consuming almost nothing other than heroin, nicotine, frozen strawberries and candy bars, never giving the notion of nourishment a second thought, as though I had my basic food groups covered. My apartment became a crash pad overrun by junkies and transient Huntsville hippies. My girlfriend moved back home. I began to get sick. But I kept up my routine.
One day as I returned from my morning buying junket, I was in the final approach to my apartment building when Edweirdo, both an old Huntville hippie friend and a fellow junkie, burst out of the bushes crying, “Bust, bust!”
It was then that I noticed the unmarked police vehicles parked hurriedly at awkward angles in front of the building entrance. I glanced up and saw the screen to the 2nd story window Edweirdo had just jumped from hanging by a thread, the curtains awry and the blinds bent and sticking up and out like a compound fracture. Edweirdo and I scrambled quickly back up the street, ducking behind cars and shrubbery. We watched from a safe distance as they brought everyone out in handcuffs and shoved them into the cars and vans. They arrested everyone at the apartment, probably a dozen or so all told. As they made bail over the next few days I got bits and pieces of the story. The cops were specifically looking for me. There were live warrants. I was a wanted man. The day before I learned this, I was in Chili-Dog Charley's for a cheap bite, hoping I could hold something down. I'd been vomiting everything I ate for several days. I was becoming a wraith. One guy looked at me and said, “Dude, you got it bad. Morphine poisoning. I can see it written all over your face.”
I just stared at him. I had nothing to say. There was no denying it and no point in confessing. I remember that in the background Mick Jagger was singing, You Can't Always Get What You Want.
That encounter, the fact that I later vomited the chili-dog I had wolfed down and the yellow tone I'd begun to notice in my skin, worried me. The next day I learned of the warrant for my arrest. I waited till evening and shuffled my miserable bones down to the Greyhound station and bought a ticket for Huntsville.
As I sat in the crowded waiting room feeling frail and faded, I observed the other pilgrims: the patrons of bus-lines, the poor and dispossessed, society's walking wounded, each wrapped up in their own thin slice of the human drama. When I reflected upon how little any of these people were cared for in this world, I felt a pang of pure sorrow and a mainline connection to the unabridged history of human loneliness.
When the Public Address system announced my departure, I boarded and found a seat toward the rear of the bus. As the lumbering beast of a conveyance left the station and lurched slowly through city canyons, making its gear-grinding, smoke-belching, awkward way through Atlanta evening traffic, the rain began to fall. Distant thunder grumbled in the darkness as shards of colored light reflected off of rain-slick surfaces. Someone a few seats up had a radio and it was playing Brook Benton's Rainy Night in Georgia, and it was one of those moments when the universe comes at you on so many vectors that you are quietly overwhelmed and everything is somehow subtly but forever changed, as though the cosmos had reset itself. The moment lingered and languished as a sublime and awful sadness ran through me. I felt like it was raining all over the world.
Hoverin' by my suitcase, tryin' to find a warm place to spend the night
Heavy rain fallin', seems I hear your voice callin' "It's all right."
A rainy night in Georgia, a rainy night in Georgia
It seems like it's rainin' all over the world
I feel like it's rainin' all over the world