I grew up in an affluent, mind-warpingly dull town in suburban Connecticut. On a quest for some kind of meaning, as a cure for boredom, as a substitute for genuine rebellion, as a panacea for adolescent angst or premature clichéd bourgeoisie alienation, my friend J and I made a habit of imbibing a cornucopia of mind-bending Substances.
Weekends were spent smoking filched cigarettes at the mall. We chugged medicinal cherry red cough syrup, which I can still somehow taste in the back of my mouth. On one particularly desperate day we took turns trying to inhale smoke from a burning cone of incense. We ordered pure DXM powder (the active ingredient in cough syrup and a potent dissociative) from a vendor of bulk research chemicals. It arrived from Hong Kong in a sealed plastic baggie stamped “NOT FOR HUMAN CONSUMPTION” and was tucked into the pages of what looked like a Chinese glamour magazine. We ordered painkillers from Habeeb—a guy we found on a now-defunct forum dedicated to reviewing various international pharmacies. We bought Salvia Divinorum extract and tiny silver canisters of compressed laughing gas, as well as various research chemicals: 2C-I, 2C-E, 2C-B. I insufflated—snorted—a miniscule amount of 2C-I and saw the ceiling tiles in my friend’s basement swarm with ants.
When not tinkering with the chemicals in my young brain, I spent my time like any other suburban teenager: going to school, preparing for the SATs, playing poker, checking off my requisite pre-college extracurricular and volunteer activities.
But thinking about, learning about, reading about, talking about, anticipating future use of, and actually imbibing drugs took up a lot of my time. Drugs, and alternate states of consciousness in general, fascinate me. I thought of my forays into the drug world not just as an escape, but as enhancement, exploration, divination. States of consciousness don’t exist in pills and powders; drugs unlock states of mind that are already inside each of us. For me, using was how I got to know my many selves.
I understand that drugs have addictive potential. But I’ve always thought that the myth of the “helpless addict” who couldn’t control his own actions was preposterous. Drugs don’t control our behavior. We do. Perhaps the “addict” isn’t under a spell, but is instead making a rational choice to use them. I’ve never felt my drug use was beyond or outside of my control.
The best way to extract and imbibe the opiate alkaloids from dried poppy pods is to make a tea. There are endless debates on drug forums about the best recipe for poppy pod tea, but my tried-and-true method is to first crack the poppy pods by hand and throw all of their tiny black seeds into the garbage. Then I put the cracked pods in a high-powered blender to turn them into a fine powder. Then, this powder is measured out and steeped in a few cups of near-boiling water for a half-hour in a glass jar. I shake the jar around, and usually squirt in a little bit of lemon juice, which aids in the extraction. Lastly, I run the whole sloppy mess through a cheesecloth filter, removing the powder, and then drink the earthy brown tea that remains.
I was ordering the dried pods of the poppy flower and dosing myself with the narcotic opiate tea made from these pods a couple of times a month during the last years of high school…then college…then the years following school, when I was directionless and sad, bouncing from one city to another in search of something I could not name.
My PayPal history with my preferred pod vendor is the most accurate record of everywhere I’ve ever lived—old apartments and zip codes, cities and towns I’ve passed through quickly and forgotten. I’ve now tried almost every opiate under the sun, and have never been physically addicted or gotten into trouble because of them. In fact, my occasional use of poppy pod tea has greatly improved the quality of my life. My last order of pods, a year ago, ran me $140 and only got me high twice. Fuck that. I’ve been missing opiates lately, often going online to discuss them and to whet my appetite.
So I decided that I’d try purchasing heroin. I liked reading people’s rambling stories online about purchasing it: illicit hand-to-hand transfers, and nervous shifty-eyed small-talk. I wondered if I could pull it off. Ordering pods over the Internet a couple of times every year was getting sort of boring. It was almost too easy. I wanted to try something else. I wanted heroin.
* * *
On an overcast Friday about six months ago, I decided to finally bite the bullet and take a trip to New York City to buy it myself. I’d tried snorting it a couple of times in high school but had never purchased it on the street before. I know heroin exists where I live, but my timidity when it comes to asking the “right people,” my clean-cut appearance, and my general lack of street skills have rendered finding it locally, so far, impossible.
I bought a bus ticket online and made arrangements to stay with a friend for a few days. The ride is a couple of hours from where I live now in Upstate New York. I wrote down the address of a needle exchange, thinking that maybe if I hung around there I could strike up a conversation with someone who could help me find heroin. However, I had reservations about trying to obtain heroin at a needle exchange—a place meant to help addicts avoid disease by offering free injection equipment—as I find it distasteful and kind of rude. On the bus ride over, it was overcast, drizzly, and as I looked out at the gas stations and McDonald’s and Wendy’s passing by, I reflected on the “how to score dope” posts that I’d read in preparation for my trip. The posts emphasized that I shouldn’t hand over any money before I saw the drugs, that I should learn local slang for the drug I wanted to buy, and that I should carry my ID on me in case of arrest. They said that getting ripped off in “the game” was common, and that I should trust my instincts if I thought something fishy might be going on.
When I got off the bus, it was still early afternoon. My friend was working until later, so I decided to walk around the Lower East side in Manhattan and see if any opportunities would present themselves. I wandered and was walking up toward Union Square when I came upon a person begging for change at a streetlight. When the light went red, she would walk up the line of cars, soliciting change with a plastic McDonald’s cup in hand. She walked the line of cars front to back, stopping to pick at her teeth for a minute in the mirror of a parked white van while she waited for the light to turn red again so she could repeat her walk. She was white, in her late-twenties or early thirties, and had the recognizable unwashed appearance of a homeless person or stereotypical street addict. She had sores on her face that I found unappealing. I dropped a crumpled dollar in her cup and asked her, nervously, if she knew “where the dope spot was at.” I shook her hand and she introduced herself to me as Jamie.
Jamie said that she didn’t do that stuff anymore; that she was in a methadone program. She seemed suspicious. Methadone is a subject I’m interested in—it’s fascinating to me how many heroin addicts have successfully weaned themselves off of heroin and into methadone—and we started chatting about it. We discussed the length of the methadone detox, the rules of the program, and the process of tapering off from methadone. Slowly, Jamie warmed up to me. I asked her about the quality of the local powder heroin as compared to West Coast Tar.
I put another dollar in Jamie’s cup and reminded her that I was just looking for twenty dollars worth of “dope” and was not trying to pull any funny business or anything. I told her I’d give her an extra twenty dollars for her trouble. I felt a pang of guilt, thinking that if she really was on the methadone program and trying to stay clean, twenty dollars in cash might be a huge temptation for her.
Jamie looked at me seriously now and said, “You’ll really give me twenty? People out here usually hardly give me anything.” I could tell that, even with her suspicions, when she heard that I’d give her twenty bucks, it was too much to resist.
I pulled my pocket open so she could see I had two twenties in tow. Her posture changed. She bent forward, a rocket ready to fire into space. “Alright. Let’s go.”
I was tagging along beside her, trying to keep up. We jaywalked. We jaywalked again. A car honked. A hot-dog vendor yelled. We walked through the Village and Lower East Side, to god knows where, in order to meet Jamie’s dealer. The walk was only a few blocks, but I was so nervous that it felt like forever. My heart was pounding at the prospect that I might have actually started the chain of events that would lead to having heroin in my pocket. She checked every machine we passed by with a change-slot: pay phones, electric parking meters. At one payphone, she picked up the receiver and began to dial.
She paused. “You know what? I have two bags on me. Just give me the twenty for the two I have. Is that cool? Will you still give me the extra twenty?”
Yes, I said. Of course.
She passed me a clear plastic bag. It was about the size of a baseball card. Inside were two folded wax paper bags stamped in bold purple: “Purple Label.” Even heroin has a brand name. The bags were about the size of postage stamps. I quickly stuffed them in my pocket. Jamie cracked a warped smile and yelled “Enjoy!” like a TV grandmother setting down a plate of piping hot oatmeal cookies. “I’m always around here,” she said, “if you want to come by tomorrow.”
I walked away, quickly, a shit-eating grin plastered on my face, giddy, light-headed, happy.
* * *
I ended up getting heroin from Jamie three times while I was in the city, buying about ninety dollars’ worth in total. I inhaled it in the bathrooms of bars, restaurants and cafés. I presented a clean-cut appearance and almost always patronized the business whose bathrooms I used, in order to avoid suspicion. A snorted line of heroin is felt in mere minutes, whereas poppy pod tea comes on slowly, gently and lasts a lot longer.
The next time we met at our usual spot by Union Square, next to the stoplight that was her preferred spot for begging. Jamie asked me if I “booted.” I said yes, and she offered me a “clean spike.” I then remembered what “boot” means—to shoot up—and told her, actually, no, I don’t boot, I only snort it. I know it’s kind of a waste, I admitted, but I don’t like fucking with needles, even though I know I’m missing out on the “rush” that come with injecting heroin.
A tall black guy walked past us with ear buds in. Jamie discreetly pointed at him and whispered, “He raped me. He knew I had two warrants out and so I couldn’t call the cops.”
“That’s fucked up,” was all I could think to say.
“My program, if they see me doing any deals or anything, I’m totally fucked.” She threw the two tiny wax paper bags into a baseball cap that had suddenly materialized in her hands.
I developed a routine. In my bathroom of choice, I would unzip my backpack and take out a literary journal, a back issue of Glimmer Train. I purchased it before leaving for New York, not realizing that I would be too high to ever read any of it. I would lay out a drinking straw cut to about three inches, a credit card and the folded wax paper bag filled with heroin, placing them all on the magazine. I would empty the tan powder from the wax paper bag, and then rip the bag, getting every little bit of heroin that might have accidentally gotten stuck to the bag. I would rip the bag a couple of times, crumple it into a ball, and toss it out, then take the straw and scrape off any heroin that might have inadvertently gotten stuck on the credit card while I made the line; I’d put it back into the line and snort it. I would even snort the back of the literary journal, just to make sure I got everything. Then, I’d lick my finger and rub it on the back of the journal. If I saw more than a little bit of powder, I would feel sad for wasting good heroin. I would taste my finger. It always tasted great.
Before I came to New York, I had scoured the Internet in search of Fun Parties and Events and anything that might be interesting. A food-lovers group was organizing a “guacamole tour.” There were plenty of shows and concerts. I never did anything on the list. My afternoons and evenings all surrendered to a series of heavenly nods.
* * *
The third and final time I saw Jamie, her dealer wasn’t picking up the phone. We walked around to kill time, calling the dealer often and getting antsy. We went to a Starbucks, and she ordered one of those giant chocolate-and-caramel-coffee deals, a milkshake impersonating a coffee. She took off the plastic top and stirred it around with her green straw, blending the caramel, chocolate, whipped cream and frozen coffee stuff together into a sloppy mess. As she did this, I saw how dirty her nails were and felt like cleaning out the gunk under them for her. I thought about how if people saw her they might be afraid to touch her because she looks homeless and has sores on her face.
Somewhere on the Lower East Side, we ran into one of her friends, a handsome, boyish-looking Middle Eastern kid about twenty-four, my age. He had a Sbarro pizzeria bag with him, and wore a collared shirt, unbuttoned and exposing his abs. His eyes looked nervous. He talked about the warrants out for him, and walked like a maniac: long, unpredictable steps. He said that he could cop (buy) for me, but I would have to buy him a bag. I said OK. When he was gone, I explained to Jamie that I trusted her, but now that there were other people involved, I was worried about losing my money. She trusted this guy, she told me, like a brother. “Don’t worry,” Jamie said.
Her friend looped around a corner. We followed him, but not too closely. He came back and gave me five unstamped bags, tucked between his thumb and index finger, walking away immediately. I put the bags in my pocket and we darted off, eventually putting two of the bags in Jamie’s outstretched hands.
We were both pretty happy at this point. Jamie could tell I was relieved that it had gone smoothly. She suggested that I come with her to use the men’s restroom at the hospital while she used the women’s. I declined.
“Am I going to see you again?” she asked. “I figured you got three this time, you know—two for today, one for tomorrow.”
I said probably not, as my bus was scheduled to leave the next day. She gave me a hug and a little nervous peck on the cheek like a prude schoolgirl might. “Enjoy,” she said. “Take care of yourself.”
I walked away.
* * *
I continue to venture down to New York City to buy heroin a few times a year. I don’t tell any of my friends about it. The social stigma surrounding the drug is too great. Maybe that’s even part of the allure. Breaking social taboos can be a liberating experience.
Still, I realize that I could easily slip. Heroin is a dangerous drug, and I’m not naïve about the physical, legal and social risks. It’s possible that, some day, I’ll wind up like Jamie. Every heroin addict initially thought that they could maintain control over their use, that they’d indulge in a “once in a while” kind of way—the same way I do.
Most Americans will never use or even see heroin, and for them it will remain a mystery. The users who bottom out and then get clean tend to be the most vocal. But I know there are other casual users like me, flying under the radar, keeping their use hidden because of draconian sentencing guidelines and social stigmas. I don’t have any regrets about my drug use. For me, heroin has been genuinely life-enhancing and, in a few months, I’m looking forward to venturing down to the city and buying some more. I have a reliable connection now, so I no longer have to buy it on the street.
* * *
Laura Baisden lives in Nashville, Tennessee. She is a printmaker and illustrator who specializes in relief printing and letterpress. She spends her workday designing posters at Hatch Show Print, and her evenings drawing and carving her own illustrations.