Cocaine in the City



Neighborhood: West Village

I first tried cocaine off of a chessboard, while listening to Lou Reed in my West Village studio apartment with a girl named after the Central American country in which she was conceived. I remember thinking that for brief moments life really could be a movie if you made it one.

The girl and I were in the same cosmology class, and when the professor complimented her name, Salvadora had offered up the information about her conception. Her parents had been on a trip in El Salvador; she just went by Sally. After class, we talked about getting drinks together. The two of us drank more than the average nineteen year old sophomores at NYU.

We had first met the day before as I was leaving the apartment of her friend Abigail. Abigail and Sally shared nearly a gram of cocaine every day. They had lived together as freshmen in Florence, Italy and now both were at NYU. I met Abigail on the first day of math class. She took me back to her apartment to make out until her roommates got home. We drank and smoked, and it was then that I was offered cocaine for the first time but turned it down. Like Abigail and Sally, I was a sophomore. My college friends thought of me as a person with connections because I’d been the first one to buy weed. But not cocaine. I couldn’t imagine what their year in Florence was like.

Abigail and her roommate were rich. You could tell from their apartment, which was in a building with a doorman at Union Square, and also by the ease with which they bought cocaine. They weren’t ever concerned about running out because there was a guy who delivered. Instead of a dining table in the alcove off their living room, they had covered the floor with large pillows and blankets and put a large mirror on a coffee table. There was a tapestry on a wall and another on the ceiling that you saw when you looked at the mirror. 

I had been smoking a lot of pot, meaning several times a day for three and a half years, by the time I was nineteen, but their apartment was something new and different to me. It seemed like a setting you might see in a movie about a terrible misunderstanding between stoners. It looked like an opium den.

Besides cosmology, I was also taking a class on evolutionary biology. The two classes emphasized the unnerving chance and randomness of everything. It was merely chance that elements suitable for life on earth had ended up on the same rock in space. Those same elements are found throughout the solar system, but in different concentrations and in different relations to other elements. Who was to say why or how we ended up as these elaborate compounds of matter?

I wanted to become a writer and believed that drugs could provide an intense experience, and that artists relied on experiences. Life seemed best understood as continuously linked chances and, I thought, drugs could contribute something to both chance and experience.

One Thursday after class, Sally and I went to happy hour at an overpriced Mexican place around the corner from Stonewall, which was only a block and a half from my apartment. She had grown up in Florida and had long hair with a streak of blonde in the front. She looked like a hippie. There were lots of piercings and she wore a lot of turquoise. I was attracted to her at the time, barely knowing her, but that wasn’t important. The plan was for us to hang out and for me to try cocaine.

I’m not sure what made this the right time to try it. It was the end of August or beginning of September, and I’d only moved to New York in July. I’d spent the previous year in Paris and couldn’t imagine returning to my hometown to spend the summer with people I knew from high school. I had broken up with my girlfriend even though she was moving to Gramercy Park, which is near NYU. I explained to her I wanted to start my new life without attachments or obligations. She didn’t like how much weed I smoked.

Cocaine was something my ex-girlfriend wouldn’t do and she would have been upset with me for even wanting to try it. I can’t name one specific influence that made me embrace the idea of drugs and excess and volatile relationships. I guess it was the usual suspects for a young person with artistic aspirations–a mix of Hemingway, Bukowski, Didion, Patti Smith, and Bob Dylan, among others. Or perhaps it was the artists I had obsessed over in Paris: Van Gogh, Braque, Veronese and his “Wedding at Cana.” And I think it was also growing up listening to Jay-Z, Tupac, and The Rolling Stones. Maybe part of my mindset was also connected to how we romanticize famous artists like Amy Winehouse and Heath Ledger who met tragic and young deaths.

But it was not just artistic pretensions that led me to cocaine. I tried it because it seemed like most everyone did it— at least occasionally. When Sally offered to do some with me, I figured it was a good opportunity.

I snorted my first line while Sally used the bathroom. All her energy made me anxious, and I just wanted to take a walk on the wild side with Lou Reed. This was the movie playing in my head: young, wannabe writer does coke in a studio apartment with a beautiful girl he doesn’t know. He has no immediate aspirations besides having fun in the city, something the young, wannabe writer doesn’t think he’s had up until now.

Sally came out of the bathroom, and we sat on my leather couch in front of the coffee table looking at the cheap Picasso and Kandinsky prints I had on the walls, under Christmas lights that lined the living room ceiling. I’m not sure how much more coke we did, but we did a lot more.

After the first week of math classes, Abigail stopped showing up and would text me about assignments until I stopped responding. Then Sally and I stopped talking, and I started doing more and more cocaine. We still had class together, but we had stopped sitting near each other after she contributed nothing to a group project, which resulted in our group receiving a lower grade. I cared about grades. It was how I convinced my mom, and probably myself, that weed and alcohol weren’t ruining my life. And by now, I was working on how to factor in coke.

I bought a couple grams with my friend after going to a party in Brooklyn where we had gotten the number for a dealer. It took him less than an hour to get to my apartment. My friend and I drank, did lines, and smoked joints until just before the sun came up.

That was in October, and those couple grams would become my life for four or five days. The movie in my head was quickly turning into a cliché: young, wannabe writer goes on a cocaine bender after deciding this is the only time he’ll buy it.

The first two days I didn’t do any during breakfast, but then I started in during the morning. I would snort a line or two before every class, which meant walking back and forth from the campus to my apartment to smoke and snort off of the chessboard. Coffee from Oren’s on Waverly was required for the second half of class when I started to come down.

It’s a wonder that no one knew I was high. Despite my anxiety, I often participated in class discussions and continued completing assignments. If I wasn’t doing cocaine over those four or five days, I was sleeping. Once you do enough, you’re essentially using just to stay awake, and once that became my experience I knew I couldn’t keep it up physically or financially. I was looking for something to make life feel like more than just wakefulness. I was looking for inspiration. There was never any real prospect that cocaine could solve that problem, but I would have tried just about anything back then.

The thing about drug users is that sometimes we are more concerned with finding drugs than finding people to do them with. I’m not sure whether I was happier to find cocaine or someone like Sally. 

Ultimately though, it didn’t matter. I would lose the friends, then the cocaine, and end up alone. I became an underage regular at The Thirsty Scholar, a basement level dive bar on 2nd Avenue between 9th and 10th Street. It was where I spent the majority of my afternoons and nights, even completing most of my schoolwork at the table next to the lone window. That bar is gone now. The bartenders and regulars found new places.

That year in New York I took chances whenever I could because that’s what happened in movies, like Midnight in Paris. I used to think that movie was about the life of a writer, but it’s not. Owen Wilson lives a dream/fantasy/hallucination in Paris. But he never finishes the book he is supposedly writing. He just meets a different person and falls in love with her. Actually writing the lines, that’s a different story.


Griffin Vrabeck earned his BA from New York University and MA from the University of Chicago. He currently lives in Southern California. This is the first creative work he has published.

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§ 3 Responses to “Cocaine in the City”

  • Jeff Loeb says:

    Sweet, and the dissipation sounds eerily familiar. Walked by the location of the former Thirsty Scholar on Saturday. Don’t worry, the neighborhood sports several contenders.

  • kurt v osenbaugh says:

    Very strong voice, pulls you along into this memory of experimenting in college.

  • Louie the Lip says:

    Glad that you didn’t end up like Tony Montana

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