Speed Freaks



314 East 6th Street ny ny

Neighborhood: East Village

In the summer of 1968 I had an apartment on East 6th Street between 1st and 2nd Avenues. The rent was cheap, and it was on the top floor of a tenement which meant there was a sooty patch of skylight in my bathroom and a tub with feet where I could sit and contemplate the black starless sky.

Decorating was minimal. I painted the floor and radiator and all visible pipes a flat plum; the walls were white; and my mattress lay on crude pallets from large wooden packing crates. There were a few gaudy flourishes–a large antique mirror with ornate gilt frame–a black and white poster of Mick Jagger kissing a microphone.

My needs were few since I did not eat or sleep, which is to say I was typical of most people in New York at that time. A sort of corrupt Taoist, I lived on air and the weird buzzing that seemed to fuel the city. I shoplifted clothes from Saks and Bloomingdales and Bonwit Teller. People gave me drugs. In this regard I had benefactors who, like me, wanted to be dangerous. Two lived in my building: a drug dealer from Texas and an acting student at NYU who was also a member of a motorcycle gang called the Dustbusters (not to be confused with the rival gang on 5th Street, the Dirtdevils.)

These two gangs did things like tie each other up in abandoned buildings and set each other on fire. When not engaged in homicidal acts, the Dustbusters lined their many Harleys in front of the tenement on 6th Street, and the gang–a pack of hirsute sociopaths hung with oily chains, leather vests, and inscribed with tattoos–clanked and banged and tinkered.

At dawn, the hostile spit and manly vroom of ten engines would have woken me up if I had ever slept. It is a safe bet that the Busters didn’t sleep any more than I did. And while they were busy torturing rivals, I tie-dyed my plundered satin shirts from midnight to 4 AM. Joined by invisible threads of amphetamine, we ground our teeth and chewed our respective cuds into the early morning, courtesy of John the acting student and the white pile of crystal meth he doled out so generously.

John didn’t expect sex as payment for his drugs. He was anomalously genteel, and he got his thrills from having each foot in a different world. He was handsome too–pale, blond, hollow-cheeked with fish-belly blue eyes. His greatest fear was turning into a goody-goody. I knew this by instinct. I also knew he was a romantic. And in the same way the Dustbusters fascinated him, so did I. But he didn’t really want the Dustbusters or me. He wanted the spark we set off in his imagination. Under these circumstances sex was irrelevant.

The drug dealer down the hall was a slightly different story. He expected something in return for his tokens. But that was his bad judgment. He specialized in psychedelics, LSD, mescaline– at least that was what he gave away freely. He was short, not much taller than me, and he wore a leather hat with a wide brim, straw-like hair wisping down to his shoulders. He would have been good looking if he were taller or broader or healthy. But there was something of the underfed sharecropper about him. Where he shone was in his own environment, which was a large dun-colored apartment without furniture and black metal gratings on the windows. Here he was the big man or at least the center of attention in a place jammed with people making furtive entrances and exiting with the guilty expression of smiling dogs.

The Texan licked his fingers in between counting leaves of cash, and then he rolled his currency into a thick wad–sometimes he did this many times in a row. And one time, maybe after the fifth counting, someone howled,” Look out they’re coming in the window.” And they were. They looked Puerto Rican in that they were not black or white but a dark coppery color. They had managed to wrench the corner of a grating off and they were making headway on the next and rattling the windows with implements. They were waving some kind of weapons–knives or guns or something. I don’t know because it was dark out there. The drug dealer from Texas did what you would have expected (being from the Lonestar State where the men are men, and the sheep take cover.) He told me I had to help him.

I said okay, and we ran down the hall and bolted ourselves in my apartment with the police lock. I also had a metal door you would have needed a hand grenade to bust through, and my windows fronted 6th Street except for the skylight that for some reason the thieves didn’t bother to find. After that the Texan backed off with amorous expectations. But the motorcycle gang did not go away. And one morning after a zippy night of drawing increasingly intricate little pictures with a fine-liner and tie dying and retie-dying my clothes to hideous shades of green and brown, I experienced what is known to speed freaks as crashing.

In fact, I crashed all the time, but I didn’t know what it was, so I hadn’t isolated it as particular to the act of taking amphetamine. I thought it was part of life. Crashing is a lot like it sounds: a sudden and utter pitch from happy puttering around to the gloomiest edge of rage. Only the rage doesn’t ignite. It sits sodden and immobile and huge. I looked at my fingernails dyed purple with red around the sides. The stove was sloshed with horrible colors. The heap of clothes was as if stained by dung and bile. My drawings were stupid and the fucking motorcycles– vroom vroom vroom–were blasting holes in my teeth. I strode to the window, hoisted it up, shrieking, Shut up you fucking morons.

Well, that didn’t really happen because before shrieking, I looked down and thought, ” They tie people up and burn them.” So instead I suffered into the overly hot afternoon, each noise like a stone bouncing off my tin pate. Shut up. Shut up. Shut up.

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