(photographs by Cole Rise)
I can’t with any accuracy pinpoint the moment I stopped harming myself, but the process began on a warm summer morning in Spanish Harlem, the air still mild and somehow hopeful.
A brass section wailed from an upstairs window, as though today, like all others in Latino neighborhoods, were meant for celebration. I was still at street level, bringing up the rear of a line that wound five flights to a nickel dope and coke spot on the top landing manned by two Latino teens, neither old enough to have finished high school.
I was neither ill nor well. I’d kicked a habit three weeks earlier in a Bronx hospital but had refused the recommendation for further treatment. I’d been getting high every day since, not caring that soon I’d be back where I’d started. I had nothing else.
Before me stood a woman, older, oddly plump for a drug addict, shifting her achy weight from one foot to the next.
As always, my hands were moist and my stomach danced nervously. Though I’d been hitting this same spot for weeks, lining up with fifty or so other fiends waiting to buy drugs made me uneasy. These were not the desolate, bombed out blocks of East Baltimore where I got my start. People lived in these buildings: children played in the hallways while parents eyed us with part fear and part disgust.
The woman in front of me wiped a screen of sweat from her neck and stepped forward. “Gimme four and two.” She paid one boy, took her bags from the other, and then bounced away clutching her purchase in a tight fist. I slid into her place, vaguely queasy with the promise of a blast. I could practically taste it washing across my tongue already, feel it crawling up my back, cresting in my cheeks. But before I could say what I wanted, one of the boys, wearing sunglasses and an intentionally askew Yankees hat, stood at the edge of the top step and announced, “All right, listen up, y’all. That’s it. We out for now. Shop closed. We’ll be back on in forty-five.”
I deflated. “Out? What do you mean out? I just waited—”
“Sorry, blanquito,” he said. “Come back in a while and we’ll be on again.”
I started to say something else, a plea, but before I could form the words, the two boys had disappeared into one of the apartments, leaving me and the rest of the line moaning and cursing under our breath. I lingered, considering my options. I could wait. I could see if anyone downstairs might want to split theirs with me. I could try the other spots on 110th and 116th. But no one else had those big nickels, the ones I sometimes sold downtown as dimes, and the thought of walking another ten or more blocks uptown on my blistered feet was excruciating. There was nothing else to do but wait it out, go bum and smoke and sit somewhere until they reopened.
More annoyed and bored than the usual sickness and desperation, I bounced back down. It wasn’t until I’d hit the last set of steps that I heard voices, an argument, some kind of commotion echoing from the courtyard, but I thought little of it, too preoccupied with how I was going to kill off the next hour and turned the corner just as someone grabbed me from behind and put me against the wall. To my left were five uniformed officers behind eight or nine junkies form the line, now spread-eagle against the bricks, their bags, vials, cookers, and hypes littering the ground like a spilled bag of candy.
My throat closed, and a few cold sweat beads crept along my ribcage.
But wait! I thought. I’m clean. For once in my life my pockets were completely empty. I didn’t even have an old syringe.
“Where you coming from?” the cop asked, patting my sides and legs, his fingers inside the waistband of my underwear. He went along my socks but ignored that small space between my ankle and Achilles tendon where normally I hid my bags.
“Friend’s house,” I lied.
“What friend, guy? And which apartment?”
“Um, Alex. He lives up on the third floor. Three-C, I think.”
The cop laughed. “Alex, huh? You really expect me to believe that? I look like an idiot to you?”
I couldn’t see him, but I said, “No, not at all, sir.”
“So what are you doing here then?” He sounded slightly less angry now; in fact, he seemed more irritated than angry. Perhaps like the rest of us, he too understood the futility of this war.
Which might explain why I decided to tell him the truth. “OK, fine. I was trying to cop something. But they closed up shop before it was my turn. I didn’t get anything. I’m clean, sir, I swear.”
But then something else hit me, and the force of it was like a swift kick to the stomach: clean or not, if they ran my name, I was finished, back to Rikers to serve out my full sentence of three and half years, plus additional time for violating probation. Part of my sentence for a purse-snatching charge eight months earlier was to complete a mandatory residential rehab program, a probation stipulation I’d violated when I left a facility back in March. A wave of nausea took hold, and my head pounded in time to my heart, thudding in my temples and behind my eyeballs.
I saw it all so clearly: the bridge connecting to that low sprawling island city and the miles of fences with their curled razor wire tops. The armed guards with their hard stares and set chins. The intake strip downs, body searches, and communal showers. The ubiquitous echo of angry men. The flash fire of an inmate stabbing another. The rush of officers in riot gear. The puddles of blood left on the floor. I swore last time that I’d do myself in before I let them send me back there.
“Clean, huh? So what the hell are these?” I followed the trajectory of his finger to the ground, to the two still-sealed bags of heroin at my feet. “Damn, you almost had me going there, guy. I was starting to believe you.”
“Those aren’t mine, sir. I swear. I didn’t get anything—”
He pinned me against the bricks with his forearm. “Only thing I hate worse than a junkie is a liar.”
“I’m not lying. Look, I still have money in my pocket,” I said, hoping he’d follow my line of reasoning. It was weak, but it was all I had.
The cuffs bit into my flesh and rubbed against bone. “I swear,” I said again, but it didn’t matter. He wasn’t listening anymore.
I grew cold and shivered as I thought of Rikers. On my first day there an inmate took my jacket. I could still smell the bologna on his breath, his words hot against my ear. “That’s a nice Carhartt, son. How ‘bout you take it off and let me try it on?” I could still feel all those eyes on me, waiting for my response, the dull pressure of a blade against my neck when I refused—“Think I give a fuck, whiteboy? Got two bodies on me already. What’s one more?”—and, worse, the shame of acquiescing in front of everyone, of crying while I did it.
“Please, you have to believe me,” I begged. But it was no use. I was done, and there wasn’t a single person left in the world who’d come to my rescue now. Not even Mom.
But then another officer, one who’d been standing at my side the whole time, said, “Hold up a sec with that one.
He’s telling the truth. They aren’t his. They came off her.” He pointed at the woman I’d stood behind, the same one I’d just cursed for buying up the last bags. Our eyes met, hers imploring me to do or say something, to take the blame perhaps, but I looked away quickly.
“Sure about that?” my officer asked.
“I seen them fall out when I was searching her.”
My officer turned me around. “Looks like it’s your lucky day, kid,” he said.
Unaware that I’d been holding my breath, I exhaled and nearly collapsed at his feet.
“Technically, you know, I could still bring you in just for being here.”
“Yes, sir,” I said.
“But I ain’t gonna.”
“Thank you, sir.” I gnawed on my cheek to hide any emotion, good or otherwise.
Taking my arm, he led me to the street, away from the rest of the haggard line-up. “Listen, you want some advice, kid. Stay the fuck away from here. Go get yourself some help. You don’t belong out here. Look around,” he said, waving a hand. “You still got a chance. Not like some of these other people. But this is all you got to look forward to. And getting locked up. It’s only a matter of time before you’re getting processed down Central Booking, or worse, out on the Island.” He looked me over. “And that place’ll eat you alive.”
Oddly, some part of me wanted him to know that I’d already been there and survived. I wasn’t just some wet-behind-the-ears white kid. But the last thing I wanted to do was alert him to the fact that I might have a warrant. “Yes, sir. I know. I’ve been trying. In fact, I’m scheduled to go into a program tomorrow afternoon,” I lied.
“Good. Be sure you make it there.” He released the cuffs and told me if he ever saw me anywhere near that building again he’d arrest me whether I was clean or not.
I swore he never would. Ever.
An hour later I was back, same building, same stairs, looking over my shoulder every few seconds for that same cop. Luckily, he never showed; I scored my bags, got straight in an overgrown lot on the next block, and made tracks for downtown.
Only something was off. That cop had shaken me. You don’t belong here. You still got a chance. This is all you got to look forward to. I knew these things, had known them for years; yet there I was, still trying to make it work. I’d reached an impasse: I wanted to get clean, and I didn’t want to get clean.
After three months in Rikers, the courts had released and mandated me to a therapeutic community, whose approach to treating addiction consisted of shame-based behavior modification and tough-love-type confrontations, all of which was uncomfortably similar to my father’s Marine Corps-based methods of child rearing. Nevertheless, terrified of going back to jail, I stuck it out for five months, a record for me, until, after twenty-two separate eight-flight trips up and down the old tenement building stairs, carrying single cans of peanut butter from the basement to the roof, a “reflection experience,” I said “Fuck this” and walked back out into the cold, willing to take my chances.
If winter in New York and the threat of returning to Rikers Island weren’t enough to keep me inside, I didn’t know what was.
A few days before, Oliver, a gentle and soft-spoken caseworker at an outreach program I’d been frequenting—a drop-in center for street kids where I got clean works, subway tokens, and McDonald’s gift certificates that I could always trade for cash—said he could get me into a place in midtown, a shelter for runaway teens that also had a residential drug program on site for males up to twenty-three. “I know someone on the unit I could call if you think you might be interested.”
“Maybe,” I’d said with a shrug. I had to think on it before making such a big decision about my life. We were talking two whole years here, a lifetime to a twenty-one-year-old.
But hadn’t I already spent a lifetime out there? And what was really left but more of the same? At the very least, I decided I needed to get off the streets. I knew from experience that it was only a matter of time before things went south again. Situations for addicts rarely ever get better—we get sick, beaten up, arrested; we lose teeth, we gain diseases, we die. Granted, what I was doing was a form of slow suicide, but I wasn’t ready to die just yet.
With a half-nickel of coke and a full bag of dope tucked safely into my sock for later, I trudged the sixty-some blocks back to Streetworks and told Oliver I thought I was ready.
“They can take you at five,” he said.
I hadn’t expected things to happen so quickly; they rarely do when it comes to drug treatment.
The place was a dull white building just west of Port Authority, a strangely desolate block comprised of abandoned buildings, warehouses, a vacant lot, and a soup kitchen, all situated under a tangle of crisscrossing ramps bending toward the Lincoln Tunnel.
At 4:45 I did the last of my stuff in the lobby bathroom. The rush was decent, but I could hardly enjoy it. Then, at the reception desk, I stated my name and told a large, friendly-looking woman I was ready.
“Ready? Ready for what, baby?” she asked.
“To get clean.”
She removed her glasses and looked at me quizzically. Then it hit her: “Oh, you must be the new intake. Go have a seat and I’ll call upstairs for a counselor. Might be a while before they come down, sweetie, so make yourself comfortable.”
Comfortable would have been nestling into her ample bosom and letting her pat my head until I fell asleep. Instead, I found a set of dingy couches on the other side of the vast room and sat staring out a wall of windows. The sun was still burning high and bright over Manhattan. It was finally warm, mild enough to sleep outside almost comfortably. And here I was about to check myself into another rehab, ready to throw in the towel for the eighth or ninth time in less than two years. But I assured myself it was only temporary, a few weeks tops, enough time to rest, put on some weight, and “blow off the stink,” as my mother used to say. I’d be back out in no time, refreshed and ready for more.
Some hours later I woke from a strange half-sleep. I was curled into the fetal position on the couch, chilled by a cold film of sweat. The sky had morphed into a dark blue melancholy dusk, and before me stood an attractive young woman, clear and clean, a file folder pressed to her chest. “Hello. I’m Helen from 6A. Are you William?”
Briefly I considered saying no and strolling back out into the evening. My eyes even darted from the woman to the doors. But then I felt the hot swelling in my boots and imagined those blisters slapping the concrete all the way back uptown. I thought of the cop, and then the sweating woman, who was probably right then still waiting for processing downtown. And there was still money to get, spots and dealers to negotiate. I could get burned. I could get arrested. Then what about tomorrow, the next day, the one after?
I nodded, said, “I am.”
“Oh, good. Sorry to have kept you waiting down here all that time. Are you OK?”
“Fine. Just tired.”
I followed her to the elevators, inside of which I grew self-conscious about my clothes and smell. I hadn’t showered in days, maybe a week, and I couldn’t recall the last time I’d changed.
“Oliver from Streetworks said you’d been through a detox.”
“I was at Montefiore for a week,” I said, omitting the fact that that had been a month prior and that I’d been getting high every day since. I wasn’t worried, though; a month-long chippy was nothing I couldn’t handle on my own.
“So you should be fine with the withdrawal stuff then? We don’t get a lot of heroin addicts on the unit, and we’re not equipped to do detoxes. So if you think you need it, we’ll have to send you out.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said, feeling small and puerile as I caught a warped reflection of myself in the elevator walls. In it I saw my father and mother. Dad’s thick arms folded across his chest, mouth set, his hard glare telling me it was time to get my act together, to shape up, to face this thing like a man. Mom, skeptical, but trying to believe I’m serious and wondering how long it’ll be this time until the next phone call for bail or fix money.
The elevator doors parted with a thump and we stepped onto the floor. A wall of smoky gray glass separated the hallway from the living room area, where five or six young men on a massive horseshoe-shaped sectional sofa were watching the news. I followed Helen into a brightly-lit office, with two desks and a wall of glass looking out toward the living room and dining room, reminiscent of the of the Plexiglas-encased staff offices in Rikers, referred to by inmates and guards alike as “the bubble.”
Helen asked me the usual intake questions—where I’m from, how long I’ve been at this, how many times I’ve tried to stop. But it felt different than previous intakes: strangely, she seemed interested in my story, in me, as though we were simply chatting, getting to know each other over a cup of coffee. It was as though I were talking to a friend instead of a counselor. More than just a vague attraction to Helen, though, I had the sense that this program was unlike the last one I’d been in: there’d be no scrubbing mortar with a toothbrush for hours on end, no sitting in a swivel chair while other residents and staff took turns yelling at me, no signs around my neck informing the world that I didn’t know how to follow directions. Here, I thought, was a kinder, gentler approach to recovery. Or so it appeared that first night.
After phoning my mother to tell her I was still alive and back in a locked facility, Helen showed me to a single room just beyond the office. “Tomorrow we’ll put you with a roommate. This is only temporary,” she said.It took me a moment to realize that she was referring to my room and not my stay.
Exhausted and wanting only to sleep before the ache of withdrawal returned to my back and ribs, I took a long hot shower, changed into a clean but too small t-shirt and a snug pair of women’s Guess jeans from the free clothing box, and fell into a deep and dreamless slumber.
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