Things were looking grim. I had to get out of town in a hurry, but I had no money, and no place to go.
“I could drive you to New York,” said Jay.
That could work. I had to lay low and stay out of sight. What better place to do that than in the middle of eight million people?
I wasn’t best friends with Jay, but he was part of our extended hippie gang, and this being the 1960s, we all had to love each other, or at least act like we did.
You could call Jay a nice Jewish boy, but that might be stretching a point. He was kind of a galumph, big, awkward, slightly clumsy. He meant well, I think, but I was still learning to decipher a Brooklyn accent, so I only understand about half of what he said. I didn’t get most of his jokes, if, in fact, he was joking. With New Yorkers, if you weren’t from there, it was hard to tell.
But he represented a ride out of town and out of trouble, so he was my friend from now on. “You can probably stay with my family until you get something figured out,” he added, and that clinched the deal.
We’d be traveling in Jay’s ’41 Mercury sedan. It was sharp and stylish, but a little over the hill. The heater hadn’t worked in years, and the headlights had recently given out. This being early February, it would be a chilly ride, and by daylight only. The trip to New York normally took one long day; we’d need at least three.
We spent the first night in a graveyard in Ohio, the second parked outside a Howard Johnson’s in Pennsylvania. Day three found us rolling down the New Jersey Turnpike when it started getting dark, just as the glimmering spires of New York heaved into sight.
“I’m not stopping now,” said Jay. “Once we’re in the city, we won’t need headlights.”
He was right; we made it across Manhattan, into Brooklyn, and pulled up in front of his parents’ house in Flatbush. He introduced me to his family, then asked his dad if he could borrow his car. “I need to take care of a couple things in the city,” he said.
We picked up Jay’s best friends, Dennis and Smiley, and headed across the Williamsburg Bridge. “What are we gonna do?” I asked.
“We’re gonna get high.”
That sounded okay. Getting high was what had gotten me into trouble back in Michigan, but that didn’t mean I was about to stop doing it. I wondered what kind of drugs we’d be getting. Pot, acid, hash, maybe some psilocybin? Whatever it was, I was sure it would be great. This was New York City, after all.
We took a long ride uptown. Cruising alongside Central Park made it feel like we were out for a drive in the country, but that changed in a hurry when we hit Harlem.
It was late at night and bitterly cold, so the streets were mostly deserted. You could still see scars from the riots a few years earlier. We pulled into an alley behind a large brick building that was missing a lot of windows.
“We’ve gotta go in here for a minute. You should get down on the floor and stay there till we get back. Make sure nobody sees you.”
“What? That’s crazy! Why can’t I go in with you?”
“These guys would freak out if we brought a stranger up there. I don’t even know what they’d do. Just stay on the floor and keep quiet. We’ll be back in five minutes.”
Hiding on the floor of a car in Harlem was not my idea of how to spend my first night in New York, but I did as I was told. By the time five minutes had passed, I was shivering uncontrollably. Half an hour later, I was ready to get out and walk, except that I had no idea where I was or where I would go.
I don’t know if I was falling asleep or slipping into a coma when they finally got back. “It took longer than we thought, things were kind of weird,” was all Jay had to say.
We headed back downtown, to some place in the Village, on maybe Sullivan or Thompson. They let me come in this time, and we trooped up a narrow staircase into a small, windowless room with dark burgundy wallpaper from the 19th century. Smiley tossed a package into the circle of light surrounding a small table lamp, then dug around in his pocket and came up with a spoon and syringe.
I had read William Burroughs’s Junkie and a few other narcotic potboilers from the 50s and 60s, so I had a general understanding of how the routine went, but I’d never seen it play out in front of me. I was also under the impression that drug addicts were sweating, wild-eyed half-savages, not 20-year-old middle-class college students from Brooklyn.
I remembered a conversation I’d had with Jay back in December. We were hanging out at an off-campus squat on one of those blessed days when both the heat and electricity were working. Jay, just back from New York, had a new record he wanted me to hear.
It was by a group called the Velvet Underground. Some of it was pleasant, but other bits were horribly harsh and abrasive by 1967 standards, especially the track he most wanted me to hear, “Heroin.”
It was the audio equivalent of a car crash. Too painful to listen to, too compelling to ignore. As it played, Jay told me he was ready to blow this town and go back to New York where everything was happening.
I didn’t take him seriously. Hippies were always going to do things and very seldom did. He was also insisting that heroin was the next step beyond LSD, which was a “toy drug for kids.” Being one of those LSD-taking kids, I argued with him for a while, then forgot about it. Jay was not going to drop out of college to do heroin in New York, that much I knew.
Yet here we were.
I wondered if they were expecting me to shoot up with them. I hoped not, but was afraid I might have a hard time saying no if they pressured me.
The thought had clearly never crossed their minds. It was if I wasn’t there. Leaning back against the wall, I watched them cook up the dope. As the needle slid into Jay’s arm, I almost collapsed. It was as if the heroin hit my blood stream the same instant it reached his. I’d heard of contact highs before, but nothing like this. I knew then and there I never wanted to try the real thing.
Was Jay a junkie, or was he going to turn into one? I worried, but the next morning everything seemed back to normal. Jay and I went into the city and got jobs at a book warehouse in the Village, and for a few weeks we rode the subway into town every morning and came home too tired to do anything but sit around watching television. On weekends Jay would go out with Dennis and Smiley, but they didn’t invite me, and I didn’t ask to come along.
Then the trouble I’d been dodging back in Michigan came knocking at my door in Brooklyn. I had to leave in a hurry, and spent the next couple months in Ohio, first in Kent, then in Akron. Cowboy Jimmy, one of the hippies there, helped me get a new, almost foolproof ID. I was feeling safer than I had in a long time, and life was good enough in Ohio that I had no reason to leave.
But I did, of course, back to New York, for no particular reason that I can recall.
I didn’t know what I would do there or where I would stay, until I got word that Jay, Dennis, and Smiley had moved into an apartment on the Lower East Side. It was on E. 11 Street, between B and C, a pretty tough neighborhood where the cops only came around in caravans when there were bodies to be hauled off.
I knocked on the door, and Smiley answered. He wasn’t smiling. He seemed half-annoyed, half-bewildered, as if he couldn’t figure out why I was there or what he was supposed to do about it.
I was relieved when I saw Jay coming up behind him. He didn’t look any happier than Smiley had.
“Oh, it’s you,” he said. “Got any money? Got any dope?”
I did have a couple tabs of acid, but that wasn’t what had in mind. “Oh well,” he said, “I guess you can come in for a while.”
It was a three-bedroom apartment with a huge living room and a tree-shaded garden. It was probably a really nice place when it was new, but that would have been a long time ago. The rent was $100 a month, which even in those days wasn’t hard to come up with, so Dennis, Smiley, and Jay were free to devote all their time and energy to getting heroin, shooting heroin, and nodding out on heroin. It was obviously no longer something for “special occasions,” as Jay had tried to tell me before I left New York.
I slept on the sofa, with no idea of how long it would be before I got booted out. Completely broke, I sometimes went without food for two or three days. Jay and the other guys didn’t eat either, but according to them, heroin made it so you didn’t have to.
One glorious day some friends from Michigan mailed me a five-dollar bill. I spent a buck on junk food, right before three guys grabbed me, hit me upside the head with a gun barrel, and took the rest of my cash. Jay, Smiley, and Dennis walked by as I was lying there bleeding, but they either didn’t see me or didn’t want to get involved. Most likely their eyes were on the dope man.
In the same way I’d gotten a contact rush the first time I watched Jay shoot up, life on E. 11 Street gave me a crash course in how to be a junkie. Knowing I was in constant danger of overstaying my welcome, I let Jay treat me as a sort of errand boy and live-in servant. He especially enjoyed making me tie him off while he injected, which he did several times a day, even when he didn’t have any drugs. He’d lie there playing with his needle, sucking blood out and shooting it back in again, which seemed to give him an almost sexual pleasure.
Just when I didn’t think I could take it any longer, I found a new place to live, an abandoned building at 213 E. 2nd Street, where several hippies were squatting. The girl who told me about it was the brains of the operation, despite being only 15. She supported herself by turning tricks with wealthy businessmen at the hotels up by Times Square, which might sound shocking, but in those days almost nothing was.
She was also shooting a lot of heroin, but managed to keep that secret from us until the cops pounded on our door in the middle of the night to tell us she had overdosed and was in St. Vincent’s Hospital. When we went to see her, the rest of the story came out: the pimp who had set her up in business and “given” her the building we were squatting was also supplying her with dope. And the more tricks she turned, the more dope she needed, so the hundreds, maybe thousands she was pulling in made a quick detour right back to the pimp.
Stuff like that was happening all over the Lower East Side. The guy who helped patch me up after my pistol-whipping said, “Man, it was really cool here last year, but then the junkies showed up. They totally destroyed our commune. No matter how nice a pad you’ve got, you let one junkie in, they’ll bring their buddies, and your scene is dead. Murdered, really.”
As summer was setting in, I had a chance to get out of New York, and took it. About a year later I heard Jay was dead.
He’d been on his way to a rock festival when he OD’d and died in the back seat. Dennis and Smiley didn’t notice anything was wrong until they pulled into a rest stop. They had a long debate about what to do but eventually decided there wasn’t any point in missing the festival. “It’s not like he’s going to get any deader,” as one of them said, so they left him at the rest stop and carried on to New England.
It was a harsh story, and not everybody wanted to believe it, but it sounded about right to me. Within a year, Dennis and Smiley were dead, too, or so rumor had it. I wasn’t in touch with anyone who could confirm the details, but it seemed like an appropriately symmetrical wrap-up to the whole sad tale.
Some friends from the Michigan hippie gang made a shrine to Jay, surrounding his picture with flowers, candles, and incense. “He’s not some kind of martyr or saint,” I told them. “He was a junkie, and he died. That’s what junkies do. They die.”
It was the kind of remark you’d expect of a cocksure 20-year-old with a severe empathy deficit, but I don’t totally take it back. Jay was the first of what would be – at last count – 43 dead junkies who intersected with my life. I began practicing social distancing when any of my friends started playing around with heroin, easing away from them and doing my best to stop caring. I had enough funerals to attend without cultivating a crop of overdoses-in-waiting.
My heart still goes out to Jay’s parents, and to Dennis and Smiley’s. They were hardworking, second-generation immigrants who were so proud to see their sons head off to college, the first in each of their families to do so. Then they’d had to watch in horror as those sons turned into zombies and corpses.
Drug addiction is an illness, no doubt about that. Addicts deserve to be pitied and helped, not scorned and punished. Locking them up in prison usually does more harm than good. But I won’t go to the other extreme, where shooting drugs is considered just another lifestyle choice, and addicts are “members of the drug-injecting community” (yes, such a thing exists, at least in the minds of well-intentioned social workers).
Sick people don’t usually get to diagnose themselves or choose their own course of treatment. This is doubly true if their illness is contagious, and one could make a case that addiction is at least partially so. If I had been a little younger, a little more impressionable, I might have joined the Jay, Dennis, and Smiley club and not be here writing these words today. God only knows how many kids have followed their boyfriend, girlfriend, or favorite rock star down that desolate road.
For most of history, people with life-threatening, potentially contagious diseases were treated or quarantined, whether they liked it or not. “That’s just your opinion, man,” was not accepted as an alternative to observable scientific fact. But I keep forgetting that we’re living in 2020 America, where everything is just a matter or opinion. And where everybody has a God-given, gun-toting, constitutionally ordained right to be wrong.