I finally got around to trying heroin myself during the New York years I wrote about in Chapters Four and Five. A guy I’d helped out with a couple of phone calls asked me if I’d ever used it. No, I hadn’t. Wasn’t I curious? Of course I was.
But I had to be careful, paranoid even. Once I became a genuine drug expert, I learned the drug expert rule. I could no longer talk about my own drug use, past or present. God forbid a drug expert should actually have any real experience with illegal drugs. Unless of course he or she had lost it completely and recovered, thereby demonstrating through biography the truth of the drug warrior vision. Repenting and abstaining and returning to the church to heal sinners like him or herself was acceptable. But doing just fine and adding a little illegal chemical to the life mix was not. Official drug experts could only be virgins or ex-whores.
Imagine a field where the experts can only be terrified of or resentful towards the subject of their expertise.
And – to be a little more practical about it all – God forbid I should give anyone the power to blow the whistle on me by actually taking illegal drugs in their presence. I had to be careful, because I had double agent jobs to do, and if word went out that what I said came from a drug abuser – remember, any use of any illegal drug, ever, which qualified most everyone I knew in the 1970s – what I said would be dismissed before I reached the verb in the first sentence.
9 x 5.8 x 0.8 inches
I took the risk anyway because I was curious about this chemical, the more so since I’d started working in New York. So when my acquaintance offered me two bags of heroin, I accepted them. I told him I’d maybe try them later.
Two blocks from my apartment was a jazz club called Stryker’s. I often walked down late in the evening in mid-week when Chet Baker played. I didn’t know it then, but my choice of musician couldn’t have fit better with my work, or with what I was about to do. Baker, as the recent biography Deep in a Dream describes, was a notorious junkie. I happened to catch him shortly after his return to the U.S. from Europe. He was clean, trying to re-establish himself in the local jazz scene. I couldn’t believe the beauty of the music when I first walked in and heard him play, me and a few other weeknight patrons.
So I decided I’d snort some heroin and go hear Chet. I opened the glassine bag and laid out neat lines of white powder using my business card from the Narcotic Addiction Control Commission. In those days the powder was just a few percent heroin, the rest being filler like quinine and mannite. I snorted the heroin and then started to change my clothes. I sat on the bed to put on my jeans and realized that my legs itched like crazy. I reached down and scratched and then laughed. Junkies scratched all the time. I’d heard that the quinine caused it. It was added to enhance the rush of the heroin going in when you injected it, which I hadn’t, but then it apparently still caused itchy skin. I laughed because I was acting like a dope fiend.
I finished dressing and headed down to Strykers. Once I turned the corner and headed south on Columbus Ave., something struck me as different. It was like I’d acquired a tuner with a panel of knobs and sliders that gave me control over my environment. I could tune different sounds and colors in and out. Bring up the good looking woman walking on the other side of the street and dampen down the car traffic and the noisy guy yelling out of the window right above. I could edit the show in a dynamic way, to my liking, whenever I wanted. Official drug experts could only be virgins or ex-whores.
What a great New York drug heroin was, I thought. Like any city, but more than most, New York is an information overload, a constant perceptual tornado that surrounds you most places you walk on the streets. Heroin is the audio-visual technology that helps manage that overload by dampening it in general and allowing a focus on some part of it that the human perceptual equipment was, in fact, designed to handle.
I stepped down into Strykers – so many jazz clubs require you to step down before you enter. My favorite DC club until it closed was actually called One Step Down.
Patrons sat along the bar like birds on a wire. I nodded at a couple I knew by sight. The rest were the usual mix of ages and colors. The club was said to be a principal hangout of the Black Mafia. I looked around at the empty bar stools, trying to decide where I’d sit. Then it hit me – I didn’t give a shit. In fact, I didn’t give a shit the rest of the evening – it didn’t matter what anyone said or did. It didn’t matter if I spilled my drink or not. It just didn’t matter. I was always pretty relaxed in Stryker’s, but I was even more relaxed than usual. I just didn’t have a care in the world.
Heroin was the perfect whatever drug. Remember my reaction when I broke my leg and got the IV Dilaudid? Here, take the leg home and work on it later. I’m fine.
Another major marketing advantage for heroin in New York: “I don’t give a shit” was a survival strategy in a city where so many events hit the edge of your world as you walked through it. Most I enjoyed. But a lot of those events were the kind of thing that a person would normally react to in a negative way – a psychotic homeless person, a fight, garbage on the sidewalk, an inconsiderate moron – the streets were full of heartfelt tragedies and abrasive aggravations. And that’s not counting the long list of aggravations that are part of everyday life anywhere – the commute, unpaid bills, the stupid supervisor, the annoying family member. And that’s still not counting all the personal ghosts we carry around – feelings of inadequacy that come and go, stress born of some buried experience in childhood, the usual human baggage. So I decided I’d snort some heroin and go hear Chet.
Put all these together, in New York or anywhere else for that matter, and a few hours of “I don’t give a shit” sound pretty good. If it’s true that the aggravation level is higher than average in New York, not to mention a higher degree of confrontational style, then a little heroin puts you in a box lined with cotton that softens it all before it hits you.
Chet Baker came out from the back of Stryker’s, stepped up onto the bandstand, and started to play. I like his music anyway, probably because, as I later learned, he was playing out of the soul of a 1950s era California white boy. In other words, he was playing my life, too.
But I heard the music in new ways. In fact, I floated inside the music instead of listening to it from the outside. I could isolate the different pieces and hear them separately and together at the same time. I felt like I was riding around on the waves of improvisation. It was a great ride, too, like flying at different speeds through a space filled with colors that twisted and merged in blends that never repeated.
And, in retrospect, the “I don’t give a shit” played a role as well. Jazz, great jazz, is about a lot of things, and some of its aboutness is deep, profound, intense, about the down side of life – anger, loss, defeat. I think jazz is so powerful because it connects your head and your heart more than any other kind of music, and it pulls memory and emotion down some rough trails and often doesn’t bring you back again before it stops.
It’s probably not an accident that the great period of jazz, when it shifted from entertainment to undanceable expressions of painful history and political anger, was a period when a lot of musicians became heroin addicts. Most of them, interestingly enough, eventually stopped, on their own.
During the break I surfaced from the musical ride and joked with Pedro the bartender. All I could think was, “Man, this is one fine drug.” It’s been called all kinds of things, the King, the best drug ever, the top of the line, etc. After that evening at Strykers, I believed it. And a week later I snorted the other bag and went back and the same evening, all over again. This drug, I felt, I could in fact like – too much, just as the book title said, It’s So Good Don’t Even Try It Once. Maybe the title wasn’t such nonsense after all, at least for me.
I never used heroin again. My heroin experience didn’t teach me anything about what it’d be like to be a junkie, because serious junkie is when you enjoy the drug less and the drug starts enjoying you, at your expense. I’m telling you, I can see how a person could get addicted. But by then I knew what addiction to heroin was all about, and I didn’t want anything to do with it.
“The Perfect Whatever Drug” is an excerpt from chapter 11, " A Heroin Epidemic at the Intersection of Histories," from Michael Agar's book Dope Double Agent: The Naked Emperor on Drugs.