“If I (pictured, left) got thrown out of the house,” I said, almost in a whisper, “I just slept on the couch over at Bud’s, or sometimes up at Mary and Frank’s (pictured, right)…”
R.I.P. Frank K.
My dog died yesterday morning. He was a good dog, but he didn’t have a long time on this earth. He was my first pet and I really loved him.
One time I was acting as an AA sponsor for a guy who lived on my block. He had a huge, old dog and we’d go for walks or I’d go to his house to chat. He was having a hard time staying away from drugs and had been around AA for a while. You get a guy like that and you just hang out with him and encourage him, because there really isn’t anything to tell him that he doesn’t’ already know. He moved away from my block, and I didn’t hear from him for a long time and then he called me one day to say that he had relapsed (no surprise) and that the big dog had died. He was calling because he felt terrible. The dog was ready to die but was hanging on and was uncomfortable and my friend had been using drugs for a few weeks and so he dealt with the dog’s impending death by purchasing a large stash of drugs and holing up in this bedroom and when he finally came out, the dog was gone. If you’re an AA sponsor you hear this kind of thing all the time and you’re supposed to A) not judge and B) be compassionate. I didn’t do any of that. I told him something like “Grow the fuck up” and asked him not to call me anymore. I feel bad about that now. I did much worse and the sponsor’s that really made a difference in my life didn’t act like that to me. The reality of staying sober is that I’m able to cry when my dog dies, hold my wife while she cries, stick around with her for an entire afternoon when I have an upcoming deadline on Friday, because, really, the deadlines are important, but maybe not as important as being the kind of guy someone can rely on when everything feels so shitty.
When we told my daughter the dog was dead, she started to chuckle and said something like, “You guys are kidding us.” She did the same thing when we told her Santa wasn’t real, and we let her get away with that, so she is still deluded about where the Christmas presents come from, because, really, who wants to tell their kid Santa isn’t real, if the kid really wants to believe in Santa. My kids cried for about half an hour. And then they went to swim. And then they came home and cried on and off most of the night. And so I guess the point is I feel terrible, too, but maybe not as terrible as the guy I was sponsoring must have felt, not that I’m any better than he is, but it’s just this strange mix of feeling terrible and feeling satisfied with myself all at the same time.
For a guy like me, that’s a pretty good deal.
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.
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!”
I sat down with Theo over the weekend to discuss DOPEFIEND. I met Theo in her memoir writing class at the UW and she has fast become one of my biggest writing allies. She an excellent writer, with a fabulous blog. She also asks great interview questions. Here is one of my answers:
I don’t want to give away the ending of the book, but what happened caused me to reflect on how my addiction to heroin altered the course of my life; the real ways in which my selfish, immoral behavior as an addict changed the lives of others, people who I cared for, some very deeply. I think every recovering addict has these sort of feelings sooner or later. I know I have in the past. But this time I could also see clear, tangible evidence of how my experience with addiction could benefit others. My son, in particular. My worst failure had become my greatest asset.
Read the rest of the interview here.
When the box of books arrived from the publisher earlier this month, Aaron, my youngest son (pictured) grabbed one from the stack off my desk and headed to his room. My daughter, Kennedy, grabbed one too, when I wasn’t looking. Later that night, walking from room to room to say our good-nights, I found each of them curled up on the bed, reading the book. How strange! I was still riding high that day from finally seeing the thing in print. I also felt giddy that my readership had increased by two right before my eyes. But I’ll also admit to feeling a little nervous. I mean, don’t get me wrong. My kids know I struggled with drugs and that now I am in recovery. And I haven’t shared anything in the book that I wouldn’t tell them myself, if they wanted to know. In fact, I’ve already told them quite a few of the stories, just sitting around the kitchen table. But still, I felt a little anxious about them reading the book. Would they like it? Hate it? Or—horror of horrors!—would they be embarrassed by it.
Kennedy finished her copy the same night she got it. She read it blazing fast, under two hours. At thirteen, she is an avid reader. She came into our computer room around 10 pm where I sat typing away at the keyboard. She stood by my desk, her arms hanging limp by her side. I looked over and she held the book up. “Finished it,” she said.
My first thought was: “You scanned? How could you?” Then I remembered something my AA sponsor always said: “It’s not about you, Tim.” She was standing there looking all wiped out, like a dishrag in a downpour.
“What did you think?” I asked.
“Great,” she said. She laid the book back on the stack with the others and turned to leave.
“Hold on,” I said.
“Hug,” I said. I opened my arms wide.
She is almost as tall as I am, but she doesn’t weigh nearly as much or have much bulk. She’s a lot of fun to hug because you can just fold her up inside your arms. I got her all tucked in under my chin and could smell the fruity shampoo she used on her hair.
“It’s a really sad story, Dad” she said.
I agreed. “It really is,” I said.
We held one another for a little longer. “You want to talk?” I asked.
“No,” she said. “I want to go to bed.”
Holly told me that Kennedy asked her a number of pointed questions about our relationship from the later chapters of the book, which made me feel much better than it should have. I guess she didn’t scan after all. One of the questions had to do with the ceremony Holly and I had in our apartment when we got married. I had already relayed this story to Kennedy one night during evening prayers, but the book has the more adult version, where Holly (who rarely cusses) calls me a bastard.
I believe Aaron is still working on the book. Later this month, I get to pass off the a copy of the book to my #1 son, who hasn’t read it yet. I’ll keep you posted.
I’ve been in touch with Sam, an old friend of mine from back home who has cancer and is dying. He is my age, bedridden now, and married to a girl who used to hang out with my little sisters when we were teenagers in Steelton. One time about thirty years ago, right after I got home from the military, I went on a double date with Sam, my girlfriend, and some other girl. Long story short – while we were on the date I robbed a guy. Got about two thousand dollars. I gave Sam five hundred, but then I blew through the money I had and couldn’t stop thinking about the money I had given to Sam. So I robbed it back. I asked around and learned that he had probably given it to his aunt to hold. I went to his aunt’s house and told her the cops were onto us and that I needed the money back. She had it hidden in the filter to her swimming pool. I remember because it smelled like chlorine and she had it wrapped in plastic. Sam and his aunt were both furious with me, and we didn’t speak to one another for a long time, and then I moved away, got sober, etc.
Sam is a good guy.
After I quit high school, I got a job as a dishwasher at a restaurant called Hot Shoppe at the local mall. I hated it. I remember going to apply for it and the woman doing the interview asked me about high school. I probably shrugged my shoulders. Up to that point, everyone who had asked me about high school would follow up with a short, infuriating lecture about “What a smart guy you are” or “Why do you have to be so angry?” But this lady said something about what a tragedy the current educational system was. I was smart enough to know that was the kind of thing you said to a fuck up. Someone who you could care less about, but you wanted to at least appear reasonable, because you needed someone to run the dishes through the machine. Didn’t make me mad like all the lectures, but it was certainly depressing. I remember how those dishes burned my hands. Sam got me a job at the Holiday Inn downtown. He was my boss. He said the trick to that job was to always keep the bathrooms clean. He wanted the bathrooms cleaned at 7am, 11am, and 2pm, and then he said I could “take a little break” in between. He broke into the hotel bar and we’d take our little breaks in there.
He called me out of the blue a few months ago. Saw me on Facebook. He told me about his illness, and we talked on the phone once or twice, and I went to visit him the last time I was home. Earlier this month, I sent him an advanced reader copy of the book, because who knows how long he’s going to last. This whole time we’ve been talking with one another, I wasn’t sure if I ought to bring up the stuff about the five hundred dollars. I was praying about it and giving it a lot of thought. Finally last night we were talking and I decided to bring it up. He totally rewrote history on me! He said, My aunt told you to kiss off and never gave you that money. Really? Ha, ha! I was going to argue the point, but then I decided to just let it go. If that’s how he remembers it, what would be the point?
Sammy, Sammy from Miami! Here’s to you, Sam.
“Dopefiend is a stunning account of one man’s stubborn struggle for sobriety and sanity, alongside a heartfelt memoir of how hard (and vitally important) it is to love. Tim Elhajj shares it all—the pain, the shame, and the joy—in clear, illuminating prose. You must read this book.”
“I love this book! From the first page, I was swept up into the story and the narrator’s progress from a Lower East Side homeless shelter to rehab and beyond. Most stories of addiction focus on the addiction side of the story and say little about what the actual work of recovery looks like. Dopefiend is a riveting portrayal of the recovery side of the equation. Both funny and poignant, this book belongs on the shelf beside the very best of recovery memoirs, such as Knapp’s Drinking: A Love Story and Karr’s Lit.”