By Tony O’Neill.
Six months later, spun out on crack, heroin and crystal meth once more, stinking and weak, homeless and friendless I tried to quit again. I needed a place to stay and a chance to get through the worst of my cold turkey.
The guesthouse I ended up crashing in was located at the back of a friend’s house, in an area of Venice known locally as Ghost Town. It was a slum area with a thriving crack scene and what seemed like no apparent sources for heroin whatsoever. The couple who had let me take over their guest room for a few weeks were quite well off, worthy and well-intentioned, although I was rapidly getting sick of their concerns about my health. Broke and scared, I had called them up telling them that I was trying to come off of heroin again but couldn’t do it in Hollywood. They offered me the guesthouse as a place to stay while I got through the worst of the physical symptoms and I accepted gratefully. Three days after arriving, I realised that – yet again – I did not have the strength or endurance to get through the next week of cold turkey. I needed to get heroin somehow, so that night I hit the street trying to score.
For a junky, the place really was a ghost town. At first I got excited when I walked around – on virtually every street corner guys loitered whistling at cars as they cruised past, running up to the vehicles which pulled up and making sales. In dark corners, pressed against walls like statues, ebony figures appraised the foot traffic in the area. Some kids used laser pointers in what seemed to be a code to warn of approaching cops, shabbily dressed buyers tried to hawk boom boxes, jewellery and other shit in exchange for drugs. I stepped over an older white guy who had obviously just been jacked for money, drugs or both. He was lying face down on the street, the back of his head smashed open and raw. It was a street-dealing scene almost as busy as Macarthur Park. However, after hitting the first three guys I came up to and getting offered nothing more than crack or PCP I started to get a sinking feeling. I only had 40 dollars on me, and in my sick state my overriding need was for heroin, not substitute drugs.
I finally found an old looking crack head skulking around the darker recesses of a basketball court on Rose. He watched me approach with a smirk. There weren’t too many white kids walking around this area so late at night. He had me pegged for a junky straight away.
“Hey,” I said as I walked towards him.
“Hey yourself,” he replied, with a voice so grizzled and deep it was nearly subliminal. “You looking for someone?”
“Look, I need to score man. I’m looking for chiva. Dope – you know where I can get some?”
“Chiva?” the old guy whistled. “You in the wrong place. All rocks around here son. I can do you a good deal on some rocks・
“Listen I’m a junky and I’m sick. All I’m looking for is dope.”
“Well・ the old guy said thoughtfully, “You’re gonna be a looking motherfucker then ‘cos ain’t no market for that round here. People want rocks they come here. People want that shit they go downtown.”
I cursed and walked back to the guesthouse. It was eleven at night and I had no car. I was screwed. I went back to bed, took 5 10milligram Valiums and tried to sleep. The night seemed endless. As the sleeping pills took hold, I managed to fall into a drugged half sleep for a couple of hours, but by 2:30 in the morning I was wide awake again, wet with junk sweat, and doubled over with stomach cramps. I watched the sun rise on the wall of my room, checking the clock every ten minutes convinced an hour must have passed by now. I vomited continuously into the trashcan by my bed, even when my stomach was empty still having to lean over and regurgitate burning yellow stomach acid every so often.
I called Raphael as soon as 8 the next morning crawled by. He seemed surprised to hear from me, and even more surprised when I told him where I was staying. He told me that he’d figured I’d gotten busted or OD’d so I filled him in a little on what had been happening. I asked him for a 20-dollar bag of smack and he reluctantly agreed to drive it out to me. He always bitched when I wanted less than half a gram delivered, but I was insistent. I gave him detailed directions and he told me he’d be there at 9:30. I agreed to meet him a few blocks away, and I settled down to wait.
This was the beginning of my third day without dope. Stomach cramps where increasing in their ferocity, and all of my demons where coming to the surface, lurking under the bed and in the closet. Again, I became totally aware of my situation, of the utter hopelessness of where I was and what I was about to do. I get 20 dollars worth of smack and then what? When it runs out I am back to where I started・less money, starting my kick all over again. A black chasm of despair opened up inside of me. A month in detox and rehab and here I was 6 months later strung out worse than ever, out of money sleeping in the guesthouse of some people I barely knew. None of my friends from before I got my habit wanted to know me. I was miserable. I wanted this to stop; I really wanted it to stop. I didn’t just want a break from the drugs; I wanted to go back to before I stuck a needle in my arm for the first time, before I knew how fucking amazing that feeling was, before I blew it for myself by getting a taste of what heaven is like. How could I go back to blissful ignorance now? Despite the dire situation I was now in and how unhappy it made me, I knew that the sad truth was that being straight, getting out of bed and starting the day without a shot of dope just wasn’t a possible reality for me anymore. How could I live with the horrors and the boredom of being alive without something to make me feel that it was worthwhile, something to make me feel connected to the world around me? I’d changed. I’d altered my brain chemistry, my reward system my entire outlook on life and as far as I could see the change was irreversible. I had no more control over what happened next than I had over the wind or the rain. I was at my habit’s mercy.
It was late morning when my phone finally went off. I had laid there, squirming and cursing, puking and spitting, staring at the impertinent mute thing, willing it to buzz into life to no avail. I had actually started to sleep when the phone did go off, and I snatched it up before the first ring had ended. I got up wearing only jeans and a T-shirt, no shoes no socks. I had a sense of purpose now, like a long distance runner beginning his journey. I was focused totally on the transaction, on getting to Raphael as soon as possible, and then getting back so I could obliterate my feelings for another few hours. All those hours in rehab, sat cross legged in a circle, concentrating on breathing and trying – unsuccessfully – to achieve the kind of spiritual peace though meditation that I am suddenly bestowed with while going to score. Maybe this is the closest I am ever going to get to that kind of bliss – my situation is suddenly cropped and reduced down to the bare essentials for now – I will leave, I will score, I will get high. Beyond that the world is an irrelevancy.
I left the house, nervously fingering the scrunched up 20 in my pocket. As soon as I had walked a couple of steps down the block, the heat rising from the pavement started to burn the soles of my feet. Well, fuck it. I considered the delay that returning to the guesthouse for a pair of shoes would entail, and decided against it. I turned left on Rose and carried on walking the 7 or 8 blocks to where I was due to meet Raphael. The sidewalk changed from broken paving slabs to tarmac which was beginning to melt already under the desert sun. I could feel its softness under my feet, and became aware that it was beginning to stick to me. Each step became more and more painful. I could feel blisters forming, and I started to try and walk on the sides of my feet to take some of the pressure off my burning soles. The sun beat down mercilessly, but I fixed my mind on the drugs I was going to buy and like come old Indian yogi walking on hot coals, the thought of fixing put the thoughts of my breaking and blistering flesh to the back of my mind.
I made it to a strip mall on the corner of Rose and Lincoln consisting of a Chinese take away, cheque cashing place, pawn shop and a Laundromat. I ducked into a shaded spot, and sat on the wall waiting for Raphael to show. I watched every passing car intently looking for his face behind the wheel of his junkyard Toyota. A new looking SUV pulled into the lot and I was surprised to see Raphael behind the wheel with a new girlfriend. I wondered absently if he’d finally stopped drinking and snorting and whoring every dollar he made. I limped over and slid into the cool, air-conditioned vehicle. I closed my eyes, enjoying the feel of the leather seats and the cool air.
“Hey buddy,” Raphael grinned, turning round to face me. “You don’t look so good.”
His girlfriend turned to look at me, and turned away just as quickly with a slightly disgusted look on her face. She muttered something in Spanish, and started fixing her lipstick.
“I don’t feel so good my friend.”
We did the deal, and Raphael dropped me on the corner of my street. I thanked him, told him I’d be in touch, and split with my drugs. There’s not a lot of small talk to be done between a dealer and a customer once the transaction is completed. If only all human interactions where so clean cut and defined. I carefully slid the front gate open, and walked back into the house. Standing in the yard, watering the plants was Jim, one of the people who took me in this time. He looked up at me and raised an eyebrow.
“Hey・what you doing up? I thought you’d be・well, you know.”
Jim was in his fifties and had been on the periphery of the music industry for most of his life. He made a living training corporations how to make more money by employing some kind of new age psychobabble that he tried to explain to me once, but my overriding impression of him was the bitterness that he carried around at never making it as a musician. Maybe this is why he still tolerated me coming around to borrow money that I could never pay back, asking for a place to stay when things were bad. He probably thought of me as a colorful character, I mused, and I was sure I made a funny topic of conversation when he hung out with his friends; that I was some kind of attempt to hang on to his past in the rock industry. It made me feel like even more of a whore and a loser. Instead of sucking his cock I was here to be a performing monkey, to fit into some stereotype of an artist-on-the-ropes. An artist who hadn’t done anything more that shoot up for the past two years. Jim smoked pot and claimed to understand my problems, yet he thought it was as easy as just putting the needle down for me to get straight. Right now I was not in the mood for his homilies.
“Yeah, I’m not feeling so good. Tried to take a walk to clear my head but I didn’t get far,” I gestured to my bare feet. “Too hot to go more than a block without shoes in this weather.”
“I’ll say!” he laughed with mock concern, “You look pretty bad. You are doing the right thing though. That shit will kill you, know what I’m saying?”
I stared right through him, focusing on getting past him, into the guesthouse and fixing.
“You’re right Jim. I’m over it. I just need to get my strength back and I’ll be cool.”
“Good man,” he gave me a friendly tap on the shoulder and I tried not to recoil from it. “Keep it up”
I walked past him thinking ‘FUCK YOU JIM, FUCK YOU FUCK YOU’ but saying something about going for a lie down as I slipped inside my room to get myself well again. I split the 20 bag in two and shot into my neck for the sake of speed. I was shaky and weak and the idea of finding a vein anywhere else in a hurry seemed pretty remote. The shot instantly flooded my system with good feelings. I didn’t get very high, but a familiar warmth radiated within me. A feeling of coming home.
I spent the day in a pleasant state of blissed out lethargy. Suddenly, I had an interest in TV, music, and writing again. I scribbled in my journal a little, ate some cakes and chocolates from the fridge, dozed off for a while. I awoke some time later, when the sun had set and something dark had rose in my heart. I looked at my pathetic wrap of smack and resisted the urge to do it. I wasn’t sick yet. Again, the thought of what would happen when I ran out surfaced, and I felt a pang of psychosomatic withdrawal symptoms simply from thinking about it. I stood up with a new sense of purpose. I started hunting around for the last of my money, as always figuring the best way to not think about my situation. I was going to get high, and if there was no heroin in Ghost Town then I suppose I’d have to smoke crack. I rustled up 40 dollars in bills and change and headed out of the back door.
An hour later and I was sat with Henry and Arturo, two members of a street gang called the V13 (V for Venice, 13 for the thirteenth letter of the alphabet which is M for Mexico). I was cooking up a rock of crack in lemon juice taken straight from the lemon tree growing out the back of the guest house and they watched me with mounting horror as I cooked it up, filtered it into a syringe and started digging for a vein.
“Man, shooting crack,” Henry grumbled, shaking his head and looking at the floor , “that’s some prison shit right there.”
Henry was a man mountain, a local crack dealer covered in jailhouse and gang tattoos, and it seemed absurdly comical that the sight of my cooking up and injecting crack shocked him. I smirked for a second, before returning to the job in hand and focusing my attention to finding a suitable vein. As I pushed the concoction into a vein it stung – lemon juice is caustic especially when administered intravenously. The hit was good, that familiar rush of adrenaline that comes from shooting coke took me and after glazing over for a moment I came back to situation at hand.
Earlier on I had scored a rock off Henry and took it back to the guesthouse. I didn’t have a pipe, so I picked a lemon from out the back and injected the rock. I licked it first and as it tasted like coke, not soap or wax I felt somewhat reassured about shooting it. The rush was good, so I headed out with the rest of my money to buy some more.
Henry talked a little more this time. He asked me if I was new to the area, if I lived nearby. I told him that I was 2 blocks away and he made me an offer. If he and his homeboy Arturo could come back to my place and have a smoke they would provide the pipe and a few free rocks. I was pretty looped on crack so I decided that this was a fine idea, and Henry gave a coded whistle summoning Arturo – a dealer ensconced on a further street corner over. Introductions where made, and we all headed back to the guesthouse. As Henry and Arturo made a bong out of a glass stem, some gauze and a soda bottle I prepared a fix・/p>
The pipe went round a few times, with the usually intensity of a crack sessions with strangers. Conversation was stilted and forced and tended to drift off as we watched each other load the pipe and take a hit with starving eyes. Things only relaxed when the pipe was in my hand and I could concentrate on putting a rock on the gauze, holding a light to the stem, filling my lungs with the smoke, bellowing out plumes of white cocaine fumes, feeling the rush dizzying me and almost as quickly starting to fade as I passed the pipe on and resumed watching intently and awaiting another turn.
Pretty soon the crack was gone and Arturo turned to me.
“Lets go for a drive,” he said, “We godda pick up some more.”
Cruising the backstreets of Ghost Town, Henry at the wheel with Arturo lighting a joint laced with angel dust and me in the back seat, I started to get a bad feeling. My adrenaline was pumped up to insane levels, and my guts churning in anticipation of something indefinable yet terrifying. Henry was circling a block with a set of projects on it shadowed with palm trees, and whispering conspiratorially with Arturo. The joint was passed back to me but I refused it as the very smell of PCP was making me feel sick. I kept my eyes firmly on the guys in the front seat and my hand on the door handle in case I needed to bail out.
There was a kid hanging out on the corner, and upon noticing him Henry whispered, “Here we go,” killing the lights and turning into a side street half a block up from the kid. I watched as Arturo pulled a gun and a balaclava out of the glove box, and slid the balaclava over his head, sticking the piece in his jacket pocket. I kept quiet. Silently, he opened the car door, and slipped off into the night.
“What the fuck is he going to do?” I hissed to Henry after Arturo had gone.
“A debt. That nigger workin’ the corner is getting jacked, man. Fucking pussy.”
The silence of the night hung all around us in the balmy air. I heard the crackle of the pot burning as Henry took a drag. The chemical smell from the angel dust filled the car. I kept an eye on the street around us but it seemed completely deserted.
Suddenly, Arturo turned the corner, still wearing his balaclava and slumped into the passenger seat. Henry gunned the engine and we took off back towards the guesthouse. I watched Arturo place the gun back in the glove box, and even in the dark I could see it was slick with blood.
“Here, cop this,” Arturo told me, as he shoved something back towards my hand. I opened my palm and he dumped a bloody mess into it. In the red goop were 7 or 8 cellophane wrapped rocks and one smashed front tooth. I brushed the tooth to the floor with a shudder, and closed my fist around the drugs.
“Watch the blood there,” Arturo told me dryly. “I had to knock the shit out of the jungle-bunny’s mouth.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Tony O’Neill‘s debut novel Digging the Vein is published in the US and Canada by Contemporary Press, and in the UK by Wrecking Ball Press from Summer 2006. He has previously played with bands and artists including The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Marc Almond. He lives in New York.
First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, August 10th, 2004.