It was a chance encounter a few years ago in a coffee shop on the Upper West Side where I peeked into the shadowy universe of the “junky.” After the meeting I invited Harry to my office to continue to tell his story which goes back thirty years when the island on 72nd Street and Broadway was known as “needle park”. To my surprise, a week later he called up and asked to visit.
I was startled by the texture and style of his presentation, for Harry appears to be a subdued, overweight, Jewish middle-class guy. Yet if I closed my eyes, I heard the accent of a rapid, speaking, Black-accented con man. It was a leap to conceive that this quiet-looking man was once a byproduct of the ghetto underworld. His tale is a cosmic joke of an unusual role reversal; an abused kid from an orthodox Jewish family who squeezed through the rabbit hole into the fringes of the junkie underworld.
“A MAN WITHOUT GUILT”
Did I feel guilty when I was part of the “life”? At that time I was an addict and a con man, known as the “mouth”. My rationalization was that the meatballs I hustled were meant to be used. Still, no matter how far gone, there were some actions that I deeply regretted and really experienced shame.
Frequently, I had no place to live. I roamed the streets like the wolf that I was, hiding razor, sharp teeth. Crossing the island on 72nd Street and Broadway, I noticed a middle-aged, blind woman making her way. She hesitated at the curve and I offered to help. The gesture was authentic but when I learned she lived alone, the wheels turned. It wasn’t long before I manipulated my way into her life and moved into her pad. She lived in a lovely, serene brownstone off Riverside Drive. I persuaded her that I was a college student in need of a residence. It met her needs with the illusion that she had found companionship with a young, educated man. In fact, I never completed high school but my advantage over most street people was an interest in reading and a sophisticated vocabulary. It was easy to pass for straight.
Gladys was plain-looking but pleasant and quite nice. I was the first man in her life. I conned her to believe after graduating, I intended to attend medical school. I asked her for financial help. Everything was a lie, including the false name.
I even offered to marry her and promised the gift of a “seeing eye” dog. To ease her into the con, I would borrow small sums, then a few hundred and then a thousand. I eventually ripped her off for several thousand dollars; her complete savings. Gladys didn’t realize what was happening because the manipulation was gradual. When her account was empty, I even sold the stereo. I believed, it was for a good cause; feeding my habit. It was pathetic, “I mean I was pathetic.” Finally I disappeared with “no goodbyes” in search of my next prey.
Port Authority is the Mecca for a lot of young kids from the hinterlands. They arrive with ice cream on their face. I was “the wolf in sheep’s clothing”, prepared to devour them. One evening while hanging out, I noticed this lovely, almost luminous, young thing strolling through the terminal, lugging two worn bags. I offered to assist her. We struck up a conversation and she explained she was from Kansas and had arrived to study acting. To me, she was beautiful, fresh and clean. It was as if the Wizard of Oz dropped Dorothy onto my lap. At first I just hoped to have this lovely person by my side.
Because Laura was so naïve, it was easy to persuade her to stay with me. Even after several months living together, she was unaware I was an addict. Laura’s vision of a dope fiend was that of a monster and was stunned when she first caught me “shooting up” in the bathroom. She didn’t know how to react. I tried to persuade her it was a temporary condition but I knew it would be impossible to continue to hide the craving. Sadly for her, she remained and gradually slipped into the life.
When I was bummed out I would ask her to make the connection and pick up the dope. She was reluctant but I overcame her resistance. Laura went along, either because she felt sorry or was in love with me. She would then visit these horrible haunts to cop the shit. One dreary day when she was down, she whispered, “I want a taste”. Maybe because I cared, I first tried to discourage her but we both had a destructive streak; she soon got strung out.
Being hooked is a powerful compulsion for it meant that life is solely about raising money to feed the “golden arm.” We were like squirrels, frantically saving a few bags for the next morning in fear of waking up hungry. One fateful day when we were short, she volunteered to walk the street. After that I encouraged her to peddle her ass for both of us. Almost every night she could be found on Broadway, walking the beat. I admit, I was bad news often faking sickness, pressing her to spend extra hours out there. Returning home, she would give me the money; then cook, clean and finally exhausted, flop herself onto the mattress.
Ironically when she hit up, she was often too wasted and strung out to enjoy it. She was like a loyal dog in love with a cruel master. It was even worse when she slid downhill. Sick and needing more and more dope, she became a liability. I just threw her out. Or rather, I changed the locks and told her not to return. By that time she was far gone and ended up with one of those low down, street pimps; not that I was much better. One day, she was found dead in an alleyway, her throat cut wide open.
Today, I ask myself “how cruel could I have been?” It was not even conscious but an automatic way of life. Among my so-called friends, we understood that when the time is right another junky is just a piece of meat to be ripped off. As for the junky chicks, they were considered pieces of meat, hanging on a hook.
Deep inside, I felt like a “piece of crap”. I needed to drag everyone who cared for me down into the cesspool. I handled my antisocial behavior by rationalizing that the world was a “big ripoff”. There was no guilt because on the streets I believed that I lived in a special universe; “it’s them against me.”
Since childhood I’ve been “fucked up the ass” and there is a lot of anger inside me. In spite of being raised and abused in a Lubavitch home, and later a dropout, where life on the streets of Bed-Stuy served as school. I couldn’t continue to be like those junky suckers out there.
I remember how it felt to be so low that I could float down the sewer when it rains. I know what it is like to sit there with a “spike” in the arm, shivering in a furnished room, one step ahead of the “man”. I have not forgotten who and what I was. Part of me still tingles when I pass by my old haunts, missing the life of hustling and shooting up. Sometimes sitting alone in the night, I am depressed and I feel the old urge “to get off”. I start deluding myself what it was like to be on the stuff and how good it felt to be high. Like many junkies, I was there not just because of the physical craving but the “head trip”. I craved that excitement of living on the edge. Of course there were always dues to be paid.
It has been many years since I last spiked. It was as if I was reborn and given a second chance. It is the present that counts and I try to make the most of it.
There is not much I take for granted. I am well aware that I sold my life down the river but I came back. I feel in my heart if ever again I cannot control the urge, rather then stick another spike in my arm, I would jump off a bridge. I am convinced that if I shoot up even once, everything that I have accomplished in my straight life will be sucked down the drain; it would have been for nothing.