SECTION 1: DOWN
(The Journey into Corruption)
“The Pusher Man”
I became painfully aware of it when Don came to my small apartment and sat down in the shabby armchair in the corner. He had a serious look on his face. He coughed a little, as if clearing his throat to say something crucial.
"Ted, I'm strung out,” he said, waving his hand in a big circle like a man who had just made an important announcement.
I was a little startled but I looked at him and said, "Well, I must be too. I've been fixing every time you did."
Don nodded his head.
"I think I'm going to quit for a while," I said. "I want to get control of this thing." I certainly liked using drugs but didn't want to feel I was totally out of control.
"They have places you can go to for detox," he said.
I was starting to get worried. What had I gotten myself into? How bad was this going to be? I didn't like the idea of committing myself anywhere so I had decided to kick at home. Why couldn’t I give up heroin that way? I had done it with other drugs.
I decided to ask Don the one question we had never talked about. “What is it like to withdraw from heroin?”
“It’s not as bad as you think.”
“You’re bullshitting me.” If there was one thing I knew for sure it was that Don was a liar. I had seen movies where addicts were writhing in bed with their backs arched, screaming in agony from the pain. I worried it would be like that.
“No really, it’s not that bad. You shouldn’t do it, though. Why kick when we can get loaded?”
I expected him to say something like that. When I bought a spoon from him he usually took half for scoring. I didn’t like it but what could I do? I had no other connection. I went to bed that night determined that tomorrow would be the day, but not knowing what to expect.
The next morning I awoke and my skin felt cold and clammy. I felt good enough to go to my job as a cook at Mike’s coffee shop, the local mom and pop restaurant. When I got there, I went into the bathroom. This was the same bathroom where I had fixed midway through a shift. I went into the stall, closed the door, and pulled down my pants. As I sat there I looked at the graffiti scrawled in various colors on the walls. It formed a multi-colored collage of slogans, gang names, initials, and drawings. Someone, not me, had drawn an image of a hypodermic needle with a black marker, and gigantic black tear-shaped droplets were drawn from the tip down to the bottom of the stall. Looking at the graffiti made me feel people were rotten. I knew I was no better. I flushed the toilet and pulled up my pants.
Outside the stall I looked in the mirror. I was shocked. It was as if I was looking at a stranger. His hair was disheveled and his shirt was rumpled. The face looked hard and there were dark bags under the eyes. That can’t be me, I thought. I peered closer at the image in the mirror; the skin on the face looked pale and clammy. I saw the scar under the left eye from the drunk-driving accident. Yes, it really was me.
For some reason an urge to curse at the reflection came over me. I raised my voice, “You son of a bitch, you’re the one that’s been after me.” The image in the mirror didn’t answer.
Trying to straighten out my hair, I ran my black pocket comb through it, but the unruly mop stubbornly popped back up. I left the bathroom and sat down at the counter to have a cup of coffee before starting my shift. The coffee seemed to help as I sipped from the steaming mug.
One of the waitresses sensed something wrong. She walked up to me and said, "Cold turkey, huh?"
"Cold turkey is a sandwich," I said. She squinched up her face and gave me that "who-do-you-think-you’re-kidding” look and went back to filling the creamers on a bus tray, getting ready for the morning rush. I felt weak and miserable and was hoping that maybe Don would show up unexpectedly with some good dope like he had a few times before.
I returned to the kitchen and started working. One of the waitresses came to the window and hit the little bell on top of the counter.
“Hey, buster, why are my orders taking so long today?” she asked. I felt the anger rising up and wanted to throw something at her, but I needed the job.
“I’m not feeling well,” I said, giving her a dirty look. What a bitch, I thought. I worked my shift reluctantly and headed back to my apartment.
When I got home, I immediately went to bed. My bones were beginning to ache. The ache wasn't unbearable, but rather a dull pain with an occasional sharp sting to remind me it was there. Maybe this isn't the drugs, I thought. Maybe I'm coming down with something. I was lying there with my nose running when I heard a key slip into the front lock. The door opened and the harsh afternoon sun streamed into the room. I winced.
"Hey," Don said with a grin on his face, "I copped." He held up a small red balloon, the size of a large marble. The bag of dope had been knotted at the top and folded over. Don had that excited maniacal look in his eyes I knew so very well.
He walked into the small kitchen. It was hidden from my view but I heard the metallic clink and ring of a tablespoon being dropped on the counter.
"You want some?" he asked.
It didn’t seem to matter that I had told him of my decision to quit just the day before. Don was the kind of guy who never shared his drugs with anyone. I couldn't remember a time when he gave someone a "pinch" or even left a “wet cotton”. I was strongly tempted, but I wasn't going to let this get the best of me. I ran my fingers through my hair, pushing back the unruly locks.
"No," I said, "I'm going to kick. Remember, I told you that yesterday."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot about that."
He went about the business of preparing his fix in the kitchen. I heard the lighter click and hiss as the butane ignited. Don had an unusual lighter. It was about a third of the size of a man's hand with a burnished silver-gold look and shaped like a dragon. When he clicked it, the flame shot out of the dragon's mouth in an upward arc, perfect for cooking heroin.
I began to smell the pungent odor of Mexican brown heroin wafting in the air. I rolled over in bed and tried to blank it out of my mind. Soon, mercifully, the pungent sweet odor faded. Don walked back into the dual-purpose living room/bedroom with one shirtsleeve rolled up above the elbow while a thin trail of blood trickled down his arm. He was oblivious to the tiny drops of blood dripping from his middle finger onto the soiled carpet. He dropped himself into the corner chair and nodded off into opiate dreams. A few minutes later he was jolted awake when his chin fell toward his chest. He scratched the side of his neck and rubbed his cheeks. Then he looked at me through pinpoint pupils. "Teddy boy," he said, "that's some pretty good dope. I left you a big taste out there."
I got out of bed and walked to the kitchen. There it was all right, a big bent spoon lying on the countertop. Somehow the spoon itself seemed larger than normal. Inside the spoon was a plump, dark little cotton ball and a small pool of brown liquid, slightly tinged with blood. Usually he would have used it all, and left only a sucked dry, arid cotton. I turned away and leaned my forehead against the refrigerator. The cool metal felt comforting against my feverish forehead. God, I thought, I really do want it. I kept my head on the freezer door as if communing with it to tell me what to do. The dope was only an arm’s length away, and though I wanted it, something told me I better not. I tried to listen to that voiceless voice.
"It looks good," I said. “But I think I'll pass." Every fiber of my body was screaming something different.
"Okay by me," Don said. "I'll do it in the morning for a wake-up.”
I got through the distressing evening and went to bed. Most of the night I tossed and turned, barely sleeping. Don was curled up on top of his air mattress in the corner, sleeping peacefully.
I awoke in the morning after sporadic sleep. I called work and told them I was sick and wouldn't be coming in. The whole day was miserable. My nose ran continuously and my aching bones were screaming for a fix. I stayed inside watching TV, wondering how long this was going to last. An old horror movie was playing on the TV screen. I watched as Count Dracula walked down the hallway looking for something as dark gothic music poured out of the TV speaker. The Count stopped at a door, sensing his victim inside. Then, suddenly, he turned into a puff of smoke and slowly the black vapor seeped mysteriously under the door. I turned off the TV and tried to read a little but just couldn't concentrate.
About the same time as the day before, a key slid into the door. Don had that look of expectancy on his face again. It was like a rerun of the day before. I got out of bed and went into the bathroom, where I took a warm shower. When I finished Don was still in the kitchen. I went to bed and fell into a light sleep right away and slept fitfully for several hours. When I awoke, Don was in the armchair, dozing from the effects of the shot.
I got out of bed and walked into the kitchen. The spoon was still on the countertop. I peered into it and there was only a dry wad of cotton where once had been a refreshing brown lake of smack.
To hell with it.
I walked into the living room and poked Don in the arm. "Wake up." I said. "I want some dope.”
He opened his eyes. "Hey, man, I ain’t got any. I shot it all.”
I didn't have enough money to score. Frustrated, I screamed at the top of my voice, "I want drugs!"
Don looked startled. “Keep it down – they’ll hear you next door.”
I didn’t care whether anyone heard me or not. “I said I want some goddamn drugs.”
“There’s nothing left. Even the connection is not holding until tomorrow. You’re out of luck.”
“I’ll rip off a pharmacy then,” I said.
The maniacal look returned to Don's eyes in expectation of drugs to come.
I had burglarized pharmacies before--twice. I recalled the last time, four years ago, when things had not gone so well. I had climbed on the roof of the pharmacy and then dropped into the adjacent store that shared the building. With a claw hammer I had started banging a hole in the drywall. Bits of debris flew everywhere as I hacked away. When the jagged hole was large enough, I had slipped through into the treasure trove of the pharmacy. I ransacked the shelves. It didn’t last long, though – as I was doing it, I saw the bright halo of a flashlight through the pharmacy’s window. The brilliant beam of the light shone on my pant leg and then a loud voice rang out through the dark night: “Freeze.” I could vaguely see a drawn pistol in the dark. The officer ordered me over to the glass double doors and demanded I get down on my knees. After I complied, he ordered me to put my hands behind my head and lean my torso against the glass door. Then he had leveled his shotgun at my exposed midsection.
“Now just don’t make like a rabbit and run and everything will be okay,” he had said.
But the memory of the experience and the subsequent conviction weren’t enough to overcome my urgent need of the moment.
“Yes,” I repeated, trying to convince myself. “A pharmacy burglary is a very good idea indeed.”
Don drove me to the local pharmacy. I got out of the car and approached the building. It was dark outside. I looked down the street – no one was in sight. The store’s concrete side loomed up as I approached the rear of the building where a metal maintenance ladder embedded in the side of the building made it easy to clamber up. On the roof I found a large hooded vent of galvanized metal, kicked off the cover, and crawled into the duct. It was the first time I had ever been inside an air conditioning passage and it felt weird. I guessed they made them that large so maintenance workers could get inside. They should think a little bit more about burglars. It was smooth inside except at the seam where the sections fit together.
I saw a light shining into the duct up ahead. Crawling forward, I peered through the louvered vent at the store below.
The store was brightly lit and I could see the vacant aisles and stocked shelves. The vent hole wasn’t large enough for me to drop down into the store so I crawled farther along the duct. Soon I came to a larger ceiling vent. I gazed down into the hole. This spot was away from the aisles and there was plenty of room to land.
I turned over on my back and extended my leg so my shoe heel was right in the middle of the vent. I started kicking but it resisted – a dull metal thud mixed together with a clatter of the louvers echoed in the duct. After four good whacks, though, I heard the sound of the slats in the vent clatter to the floor below. I busted through with several more thrusts. Several electrical wires dangled from the vent cover but I didn’t give them much thought. I dropped 20 feet to the floor, landing hard, but I didn’t care. Nothing was going to stop me now.
The drugstore’s pharmacy was in a walled-off section in the corner. I opened the low, swinging door and entered into my Shangri-la. Going up and down the aisles, I examined the large quart-size plastic containers on the shelves. All of the jars had labels and many of the names were unrecognizable, but I did see they were in alphabetical order. I walked back to the beginning of the shelves, running my fingers across the front of the labels on the white, plastic jars. Finally, I came to one I recognized: Amphetamine. I grabbed a nearby cardboard box and placed the three amphetamines jars in the box. Putting it under one arm, I walked farther down the aisles.
Then I spied another name I recognized: dextroamphetamine sulfate. I picked up the jar and unscrewed the lid. Inside were hundreds of orange heart-shaped tablets with a line down the middle. And there were five jars! This is going to be great. Into the box they went and I proceeded down the shelf. I recognized another name: Seconal. I picked one jar and unscrewed the lid. Inside, clustered together, were bullet-shaped, red capsules. Each side of the capsule had Lilly in white flowing script and F40 underneath. Oh shit, I thought, I’ve hit the jackpot. Lilly F-40 bullets! Red Devils! I took three out of the jar and popped them into my mouth. I should feel better now.
After I swallowed the Red Devils I started to think maybe three was too many, especially since I hadn’t taken any lately. I decided it would be better to offset them with some of the speed so I grabbed the three jars of reds off the shelf, put them in the box, and then opened one of the Dexedrine jars and grabbed four heart-shaped capsules and gobbled them up. That ought to do me for a while.
Ten minutes later, midway through the ransacking, I heard a sound like rodents scurrying. But I quickly realized it was the scuffle of shoes on the store’s vinyl floor. The police were getting into position to shoot me if necessary. In a panic, I realized I had triggered a silent alarm.
A harsh, demanding voice rang out. "Police department, come out with your hands up." The awful reality suddenly overwhelmed me. I did as ordered but not before I stashed all the drugs I could into my underwear. At least I wanted some drugs to take to jail. Slowly I raised my hands up from behind the pharmacy counter. I saw several police officers kneeling with their revolvers drawn and trained on me.
"These punks work in twos," said the officer in charge. "Start looking for the other one." They were right about there being two of us, but apparently Don had skedaddled in my car. They handcuffed me and led me off to one of the waiting patrol cars.
During the booking process they confiscated the drugs I had stashed in my underwear. I was fingerprinted and photographed. They drew sketches of the “tracks” on my arms. Then I was taken to the back of the jail and put in a cell.
The next day I was shackled on a chain with twelve other inmates and sent off to the county jail. I had already gone through the worst of withdrawal symptoms prior to the burglary so my pain was mostly mental from being locked up again. As the loaded bus full of prisoners snaked its way through the morning rush-hour traffic, the city howled its morning sound, and I wondered if the county jail was going to be as horrific as it had been the first time I was there.