More than twenty years ago, I moved to New York City with less tan twenty dollars in my pocket to kick a heroin habit. I was leaving behind my beautiful three-year-old boy, who had his mother’s straw-colored hair and clear blue eyes, exactly the opposite of my own dark hair and eyes. I searched for some recognizable piece of myself in his chipper, smiling face but didn’t see much.
A: Absolutely. One of my work colleagues asked me this and I was thrilled to hear it. Thrilled! I love to talk about the book. Recovery. Writing. Memoir. Parenting in the wake of heroin addiction. Anything. It’s all fair game. And you don’t have to like the book for me to show up. I’m really thrilled to talk about the work.
For me, talking to people about the book represents a huge milestone in my recovery. When I was using heroin, I thought it was enlarging my world. This was an illusion. My world was actually shrinking.
Recovery has been about doing the hard work required to actually expand my world. Over the years, I’ve had many milestones. Everything from being allowed back into my mother’s house to starting another family. In the last few years, the milestones have been fewer. But the readings and events have been a huge gift to me. Huge. I’d love to speak with your group.
You can reach me here: firstname.lastname@example.org. If you’re far away, maybe we can use Skype.
A: Everyone asks this and it’s totally fair. You pronounce it phonetically like this: L Hodge.
Some Arabs might bicker, but it’s close enough for me.
I followed Joey up Swatara Street. He was still just a noodle of a boy, all sun-browned arms and skinned knees. We were trekking up the high school hill to pass a baseball—me carrying his stepdad’s glove, him loping three paces ahead. I hadn’t lived on this block in years and didn’t recognize many of the neighbors who sat out on their front porches. Joey knew everyone. He waved at some people across the street, then shouted to someone else sitting on a porch.
Sometimes he would stop, address someone on their porch. “My dad’s home,” he’d say. “He lives in New York.”
I’d nod, smile.
I felt vaguely uncomfortable meeting so many people, wondering how much they knew of my story, or if they knew anything at all. On these weekend visits, I tried to let Joey take charge. I followed him. We did whatever he wanted to do, as long as it didn’t cost too much.
We were halfway up the hill and it dawned on me how difficult it would be for me to reach out—wave, or just say hello—to that many people. “You’re popular, son,” I said. “People really like you.”
Joey stopped. I wasn’t expecting him to do that, and I strode past him and then looked over my shoulder to see what had caused him to pull up short. He was standing there with his mouth open.
“Me?” he asked.
“You didn’t know that?” I laughed. “You’re very outgoing. You know everyone, everyone knows you.”
His eyes welled up with emotion, and then he blushed—bright red strawberries across both his cheeks. I was surprised—as much by his reaction as by my ability to elicit it with such small praise.
He put his head down and started walking with me.
“I wasn’t like that when I was little,” I said. “I’m not even like that now, but I wish I were.” I didn’t want to overplay it or embarrass him, but I knew I’d said the right thing.
He needed my perspective. And I wanted to give it to him.
A girl in Steelton was selling heroin from her third floor apartment on Front Street, across from the main entrance to Bethlehem Steel. “Black-tar” heroin, they called it. Dope so potent some people had been rushed to the ER after trying it. Vince, my connection, assured me, “It’s a smoker.” That some had required hospitalization was more testament to the drug’s potency, than any kind of warning. “People are falling out,” he said. A siren’s song, to be sure. Of course I wanted some. My only concern was how I could improve my chances of getting any: this dope was more expensive than usual—thirty-five dollars for a dime bag, if I got it through Vince—and it was going fast. I attempted and botched the burglary of a friend’s apartment. He called the cops.
Two uniformed police officers took me to the municipal building on the other end of Front Street. Their faces were familiar, as was the face of the young plainclothes detective who sat at a desk sipping coffee. During the cavity search, I could hear the detective and one of the uniforms reminisce about Richard, an older addict I knew, who had waited for his own cavity search to blow a greasy, wet fart into the face of his inspector. By the way they spoke, I could tell it was a familiar story for them. I had heard the same story myself, but told to me by my own circle of friends. I had always thought it exaggeration or gag. I mused on the mutability of truth as I held my ankles.
One of the uniforms led me to a little four-by-four cage with a heavy iron-barred door at one end of the office. He insisted I remove the shoelaces from my sneakers. I looked at the ratty laces, the plastic tips of which had long since disappeared, leaving only a blooming mass of string on the ends. I snorted at the ridiculousness of me attempting to hang my 160 pounds from this tiny iron closet with these dirty laces. I negotiated to give him the entire sneaker, laces and all. So I sat in my stocking feet in the little cage, resigning myself to my new circumstances. County jail.
After about an hour in the cage, the detective came for me. He took me to a chair beside a desk, gave me a can of Coke, and both my sneakers. He proposed an alternate plan: help him bust the girl on Front Street, earn a favor.
I sat there dumbfounded with my sneakers in my lap.
I didn’t want to bust anyone. I wasn’t even certain I could buy the drugs. Vince usually did that for me. He also had the syringe and helped me inject the drugs. I wasn’t even sure which apartment the girl was living in. All I really wanted was a bag of that dope. I told the detective the dope was more expensive than usual, trying to make him see the futility of his plan. He said it didn’t matter. How much did I need, he wanted to know. He said this with a smile, a big toothy grin. As if he were a patient uncle, lending me money. I told him I wasn’t even sure which was the right apartment. He said he definitely knew.
I looked at him. I realized I had been looking past him all night. Now I looked him right in his eyes and he smiled.
“How much money do you need,” he repeated.
I had resigned myself to jail, but now my enthusiasm was rising, blooming, my mind on fire with possibilities. For an addict, this racing mind is the hardest thing to quiet. I really did not want to bust the girl. There were few rules for addicts. I stole from my mother and my wife. I traded sex with men for money. Snitching, however, was different. Nobody likes a snitch.
I did some quick calculations in my head. I wanted to buy extra dope—some for me, some for the cops. I also wanted a couple of dollars to buy a syringe.
“How much?” he asked again.
“Ninety-eight dollars,” I said. I ended up blurting this out. I don’t know why I picked that number, but it was too late to call it back. I was glad I hadn’t gone over a hundred.
“For one bag of dope?” He looked at me skeptically.
“Yup,” I said.
I realized it was a ridiculously high amount, but I smiled.
“Ninety-eight?” he smiled. “Why ninety-eight?”
“’Cause that’s how much it costs.” I said flatly.
“You don’t need ninety-eight dollars.” This from one of the patrolmen on the other side of the room. His tone was contemptuous.
The detective stood and left me sitting at the desk. On the other side of the room, he engaged the cop with hushed whispers. I heard the uniform’s voice rise in disgust, “Ninety-eight dollars?” he hissed. “For one bag?”
Between the three of them, they didn’t have ninety-eight dollars. But I wouldn’t budge on the price. I put on my sneakers. I stood and put my foot on the chair to knot the laces. They called in Pickles, a wiry black officer, who owned a car repair garage on Front Street. The detective met him at the door. As they spoke, Pickles flashed me a look of utter disbelief. The detective grinned over at me and waved. He put his arm around Pickles’s shoulders and turned him to the door, both their backs to me. They continued to talk for a few more minutes. Finally they broke.
Pickles reached into his front pocket for a huge roll of cash. When he peeled off the money, I didn’t feel like I could back out.
The nice thing about using drugs in a small town is that the girl who was selling the heroin looked into my face and instantly recognized my family. She was a big girl, probably in her early twenties, with a round full face. The wan light from her kitchen made her cheeks glow. I won’t repeat her name here.
“You one of them Elhajj boys?” she asked.
“Tim,” I said.
In time, she would eventually send a message from the female wing of the Dauphin County Prison, to the larger male wing where I was housed, forgiving me for what I had done, and making it clear she was asking for no retribution. In fact, she was actively using her influence to protect me. She hoped to use the bust as an opportunity to start over. The person who gave me this message—an addict from Steelton who had been incarcerated on unrelated charges—delivered her words with an odd mix of reverence for her and undisguised contempt for me. I felt shame, but not much surprise. She seemed a kind woman. That night on the landing of her third floor apartment, just before she stepped aside and let me in, she said: “You shouldn’t be doing this.”
I got the last three bags of dope.
She wanted thirty-five dollars apiece. I was a few dollars short for three, but she let me slide. Another woman hanging out let me borrow her syringe. She was older. Tight white jeans and a heavy leather purse. Old enough that I felt ashamed of myself for how my eyes kept wandering back to the curve of her hips and thighs in those white pants. I rinsed her syringe with Clorox, then with clear water. I opened one of the glassine bags and emptied it into the spoon. Not black-tar, but a fine powder with a dark tint, like instant chocolate milk. It was 4 a.m. and the police were waiting in the alley out back. The girl who had the dope was frying eggs in the kitchen. This was my first time purchasing heroin from a dealer on my own.
I opened and dumped the other two bags into the spoon.
The woman who had lent me her syringe balked. “That’s good shit,” she said. “You sure you want to be doing that much?” I resealed the empty glassine bags and put them into my front pocket. Beat bags. One for the cops, the others could be filled with crushed aspirin. Or just left empty. You couldn’t determine what was inside the milky-white glassine bags without first opening them.
I made it into the living room before I passed out.
Around 6 a.m. the police busted down the door. I woke to the sound of the glass in the apartment door bursting. I had passed out in such a way that my body had crumpled to the floor, propped between couch and the coffee table, cutting off the blood to my legs. I could barely stand. They put me in handcuffs, but I was wobbly from the drugs and my legs, and on the way out the door my arm got hung up on a shard of broken glass.
I stood in River Alley handcuffed and bleeding, the heel of my shoe filling with a puddle of blood. Someone called a paramedic and he sutured my arm in the lane. I couldn’t see any of the women from the apartment. Looking to earn favor, I told the cop who was watching me that I had purchased the dope. He reached into my front pocket and took all three of the empty bags. The rest of the cops were searching the apartment, but couldn’t find any dope or Pickle’s money. They came out in the alley and asked me if I’d help. I berated them for what had happened to my arm as they took off the handcuffs, then followed them up the stairs. The apartment was trashed. Everything was in one massive pile in the middle of the room. As I glanced around the apartment, I noticed a stereo sitting undisturbed on a milk crate near the bed. The detective noticed it at the same time as me. Pickles’s money was under the stereo.
At the station, we all herded into the briefing room.
The police chief produced a little test tube filled with clear liquid. He looked around the room and said, “We’re looking for blue, gentlemen.” He intended to test the heroin for potency. Had any heroin remained in those bags, I feel certain it would have turned the water in his little glass tube the bluest of blues. What could be done? Only hope is real and reality is all a bitterness and a deceit. The chief opened the first bag and upended it over the test tube. Of course, nothing came out. The detective shifted nervously. The chief did the same with the second bag.
I remember him peering into the third bag with one eye shut.
“Damn—” I said. I sniffed, rubbed my nose. “She ripped us off!”
The official book tour has come to an end. I visited Portland, Seattle (pictured), Oakland and San Francisco. Public speaking doesn’t always come easy for me. I had to push myself, but I had a good time. I’m even a little sad now—I was just starting to get the hang of presenting the book.
I feel so grateful for what I was able to achieve with the book tour. When I first started to use heroin, I was seventeen and I thought my world had finally opened up. My lack of confidence was no longer a problem. All the anxiety was behind me. But that was all an illusion. Really my world was already beginning to shrink, only I couldn’t see it. I ended up in a Manhattan homeless shelter—in a tight, claustrophobic, little, tiny world.
Recovery has been about doing the real work to make my world big again. Throughout my recovery I have found concrete, real examples of how my world is expanding. In the beginning they came fast and regular. For example, Mom letting me back into her house. Going to Hunter College. Marrying Holly and being welcomed into her wonderful family. In the last ten years, the milestones have slowed, but when one does appear, it’s really something.
These readings have given me an amazing experience of being connected to something bigger than myself. Except for the multi-author events, all my readings have been modestly attended. There has always been at least one person who I knew was going to show up and at least one more person who surprised me by showing up. But this feeling of connectedness isn’t about the size of the audience. There was this one lady about my age in Seattle (who surprised me by showing up). She sidled up to me after the Q&A and whispered that she had been in recovery for a long time. After announcing a pharmaceutical morphine addiction, she said she really didn’t feel like she belonged at the NA meetings with all the young people. And then she said she didn’t feel like she belonged at the AA meetings with all people our age who drank alcohol. I totally understood what she was telling me. I wanted to say, You are COMPLETELY welcome at the Dopefiend readings, Ma’am. I know just how you feel. In Oakland a woman and her husband mentioned that their son had just got out of treatment for his own heroin addiction within the last three months. They were in that uncomfortable place, wondering if it would stick. How long would it last. I know that feeling. I’ve felt that myself about my own recovery. I told them that sometimes recovery really does stick. I said not to give up hope. I mentioned that it took me a couple of tries before I was successful and that kids kick heroin all the time. They looked a little tense, but they smiled. I was so glad they showed up.
And that’s not even counting all the friends and family who have shown up for me. I had friends brave hours of bay area traffic to attend. I had family drive up to Oakland from as far away as the central coast of California. I have friends who I had never met before, but who I know from making a bunch of bad jokes on the Internet, and these friends showed up for me in San Francisco. And then they hijacked me and my wife and took us to a nice place after the event and we celebrated.
My world feels huge.
And, really, it’s just the beginning. Once you put a book out there—especially memoir—you make an implicit commitment to discussing it. So the official book tour is over, but I’m going to keep discussing the book. Later this month I’m guest lecturing at Theo Pauline (HOW TO SLEEP ALONE IN A KING SIZE BED) Nestor’s memoir class at the UW. I’ve got a few more things lined up after the holidays. And, of course, I’ll keep posting here. Stay tuned!
If you’re in San Francisco, come see me at Re Write: An Evening of Prose from Writers in Recovery. It’s a fabulous line up of recovering dopefiends, ne’er-do-wells and misfits, who all love to write. Get your tickets here. Click the flyer to open a PDF version of the flyer or go here for more details and a map.
I hope you can make it! I know just what I’m going to read.
This is from Northwest bookfest in Kirkland yesterday. After the event, Holly and I walked over to Park Place Books, the bookseller for the event. There were no more copies of DOPEFIEND available in the store, but there had been a nice stack at the start of the day.
I met a lady in the book store who had been in the audience for the memoir panel and we chatted for about ten minutes. I felt incredibly authorly. She kept prefacing all her questions by saying, “If this is too personal…” But all her questions were fine. If you’re going to write memoir, you can’t shrink from questions about your life. We talked about the stigma associated with a drug history and the wisdom of publicly admitting to it. Note in the picture above I am still proudly wearing my author name tag. This is a full hour or two after the event. I was joking with Holly that I was going to stride purposefully through crowds on grounds, waving my hand in the air, repeating with urgency, “Excuse me! Excuse me! I am an author and I have an author event.” Holly laughed. Then she said, “You’re not really going to do that, are you?”
The lady in the Park Place Books was disappointed she couldn’t get a copy of DOPEFIEND (not as disappointed as me), but I encouraged her to go back to the event where I had signed the last of the DOPEFIENDS.