Dopefiend Excerpt: The End of the Line, Free Drug Treatment


rockford-smokebreak

Spring rolled in hot.

One afternoon at the rehab facility, I (pictured, right) was sitting in the Vehicles Office with Aaron (not pictured), one of the drivers. Aaron had a broad forehead, a quick wit, and thin brown hair that he wore pushed straight back. We had the morning shuttle route, which left at 7 a.m., and was usually done by noon, having us both back at the facility by 2 p.m. Vehicles was a cushy job.

Reading the New York Times, Aaron tipped his thick glasses up onto his nose. I sipped coffee from a paper cup. Another driver, Keith, poked his head into the office and shook the shaggy mop of blonde hair from his eyes. Keith tapped his fist to his chest, and then held up three fingers.

Looking up from his paper, Aaron grinned and made the same gesture.

“What’s that?” I asked.

Wehicles,” Aaron said, tipping his glasses higher on his nose. He held up three splayed fingers to make a W.

Keith grinned.

Creasing my brow, I shrugged. “Wehicles?”

Aaron looked surreptitiously out the door and then whispered: “Wehicles is for white people.”

I laughed. All the drivers were white. During the morning shuttles, the radio was a flashpoint for tension. Black people wanted Soul on one end of the FM dial, while the white people liked Rock down the other end. I tuned to Soul going downtown, and then Rock after the van had emptied. I hushed the occasional impertinent request for Rock on the downtown leg with a soft, “Oh, I want to hear this one,” regardless of what was playing, and then conveniently forgot the request soon after. Sometimes I patiently dialed in a baseball game on the AM band. Baseball was like a balm for the tension caused by the radio.

“That’s true,” I said. “Why are all the drivers white?”

“Brothers don’t need a license,” Keith said. He cut his eyes toward the hallway outside the office and kept his voice low.

I nodded as if this made sense. But I couldn’t imagine anyone not having a driver’s license, much less an entire race without a license. Aaron explained that public transportation in New York City was so good, you didn’t need a license unless you lived in a suburb. The few white people at Rockford other than me were from Staten Island, The Rockaways, or Throggs Neck. Mostly the white people were older, had lost their jobs, lost their health insurance, and then succumbed to some sort of addiction, typically crack. Rockford was the end of the line, free drug treatment.

Dopefiend Excerpt: A Little Help From my Friends


FrankK

“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.

Dopefiend Excerpt: Sunday Celebrations at Rockford


facial hair bronx

Each week at Rockford, there was a Sunday celebration: families brought home-cooked meals, girlfriends appeared in tight jeans and teased hair, and sons mended family ties.

Aaron (not pictured) and I (pictured, far right) never participated.

He had a girlfriend in Manhattan, but she was ignoring him while he was in treatment. I occasionally wrote my mother carefully composed letters that never asked for anything, or even posed any questions she might feel compelled to answer. I didn’t want to pressure her. In prior treatment experiences, I had pushed for the organized reconciliation, the weekend visits. I couldn’t imagine going through all that again.

As the summer wore on, counselors began to disappear, with little explanation for their absence. Juan was gone. Rick was gone. A few others were gone. Aaron pointed out that they had actually relapsed and then had to be let go. When I suggested they might have gotten better jobs, Aaron laughed. He was shrewd.

“They’re junkies,” he said. “You can tell they’re in trouble, if their caseload suddenly gets cut.” This appeared to be true.

Miguel, who had pale yellow where the whites of his eyes should have been, had his caseload cut to a third of what it once had been. A few days later, he took his remaining charges into the courtyard, and then nodded off in his folding chair during group. One-by-one his clients stood, folded their chairs and then wandered off, until only Miguel was left in the courtyard, his chin upon his chest. News of the counselor’s relapses terrified me. It was exactly the kind of thing I could see myself doing.

Dopefiend Excerpt: Joey and His Mom Celebrate Three Years Old


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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.

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Dopefiend Excerpt: Young Joey on His Bike in the Zoo


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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.