A Portrait of the Dopefiend as a Young Man

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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!”


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