When I moved to New York City, I had no real idea about heroin and heroin abuse. I am an alcoholic, and seeking out drugs, except for pot, back then, never crossed my mind. I turned 21 years old here, and I don’t think I had ever tried cocaine. I certainly liked pills, and I took them whenever they were available and free of charge. They augmented drinking; they often made a nightly stint in a bar, like after having given blood, far less expensive.
A couple months after my twenty-first birthday, I went to “little Club 57,” at 57 St. Mark’s Place, in Manhattan, for a beer. The staff was painting the place, and they said the bar was closed. I asked if I could help them paint, and they told me to come back the following day, figuring I wouldn’t. I did, and I helped them finish their work over the next few days. They asked if I was able to be a bartender, and I told them if anyone knows anything about alcohol, it is I, what ought to be an enormous detriment in the bartending field. I began tending bar, playing records, and entertaining onstage shortly afterward, and I worked alongside a manager who I will call “Adam Lefkowitz.”
Adam would leave the bar, a bar very slimly attended on most nights, to go “get ice.” He would return several hours later with a story about being mugged, and, so distressed, his chin would soon hit his chest, and he would “fall asleep” in a chair. I swear that guy got mugged about three times a week. Naive as I was, it took a friend to tell me that what Adam was doing was going out to buy heroin, spending the bar’s till and lying about it before he nodded off. Before Adam would pass out, it was sure that he would give me a lecture about how I was drinking up the profits. “So that’s how they do it,” I thought. Adam’s habit led largely to the demise of Club 57, as we were constantly behind in the rent.
A few years later, a friend of mine from Rochester, NY (Rah-Cha-Cha), named King Farouk, was visiting The City, and he overdosed at a friend’s apartment. He was about 26 years old, and I thought of him as an “older” person. The Raunch Hands had visited Rochester many times, and Farouk had been involved with booking our shows, and he and his brothers had put us up in their home regularly. He had taken the whole band and an entourage out to some lakeside property his folks had bought, and we all took turns shooting a shotgun. I found out that I am a terrible shot. When Farouk died, I didn’t really know what to express. I have been around death for much of my life. When I was twelve and thirteen, an altar boy for the church that adjoined my school, I would check the obituaries the previous night to see whether it would be math or English from which I would be excused to serve a funeral. I could get out of doing a bunch of homework by doing five minutes of research in the newspaper. I had also attended many funerals of people far closer to me than of those in the papers I delivered. Irish as I am, I look for the after-party to be like a consolation prize to the human loss, but it rarely is. Farouk’s death seemed senseless and wasteful.
Over time, I learned about heroin and its effects and as a social phenomenon, and many of my questions about other people’s unusual behavior were answered.
The first time I ever had the drug was under false pretenses. The Raunch Hands were about to play a show at the Blue Rose, on the Upper West Side, and I was at the home of a friend, having a few before the set. Another guest, my Dubliner friend, Billy-O asked if I wanted a line. I figured he meant cocaine, and I said, “Sure.” He was playing a prank on me; it was dope, and I performed what I felt was one of my worst shows ever. No matter what you think of Johnny or of Sid or of Billie Holliday, opiates do not enhance a performance. I cried hot tears after that show.
I had a few more trials and errors with dope before I moved to Madrid in the early 1990s. There, one night, I was out and about, and I had some money in my pocket. My girlfriend was an airline stewardess, and she was out of town. I was just knocking around, and I came across someone the Raunch Hands had stayed with in northern Italy. I will call him “Carmello.” I saw Carmello on the street in Malasaña early in the evening, as I was on my way to eat in a delicious pizza restaurant, and I invited him along. We left the restaurant and went to a nearly empty nightclub, early, and I recognized a couple girls there. Carmello, married, took about 15 minutes to whisper into the ear of one of the two girls, a displaced French girl named Anna Maria. Shortly, we were on an easy quest for dope. Drug procured, we all went back to Anna Maria’s place. I was a nasal user, and I was taken aback when Anna Maria gave Carmello a spike of hers to use, which had clearly been used before.
We did up what we had bought, and we sat around, talking, drinking Mahou. After some hours, Carmello wanted more, about which, fundamentally and financially I spoke up, and they laughed me off. Copping is a fun and dangerous part of the process. I did not think it was a good idea, but I went with him and Anna Maria for another round from under the tongue of a Moroccan kid. We went back to her place, and they shot up again, somewhat deriding me for “wasting” the junk up my nose. It is a clear remembrance of mine not wanting to fall asleep, in case either of these two dropped off.
I did fall asleep, and at about 6:30 of that shining Sunday morning, I startled myself awake to find Anna Maria breathing and Carmello not. I slapped his wrists; I slapped his face; I lifted him up and shook him. I shook Anna Maria awake. I felt Carmello’s pulse, and it was waning. He was still warm, and he hadn’t had the courtesy to turn blue. Anna Maria lived in a pension, a place where she lived with many other women and from which she could, with overnight “gentlemen” guests, get kicked out. Almost nurse-like, she advised me to get Carmello down the stairs, and she would call an ambulance. True to Spanish form, the only phone was outside in the hallway.
Have you ever lifted a dead body? It does not matter the person’s height or weight. It is different from the person who is merely passed out. Gangly limbs go in all directions, and there is nothing but heft. I ratcheted Carmello’s body down the wide spiral staircase of Anna Maria’s pension, sweating, cursing. How could this fucker die on my watch? I made much noise coming down the stairs with him slung over my back. I didn’t care about Anna Maria’s station; I wanted as much help as I could get. I was staring up into the glinty, dusty, morning rays through the spiral staircase, a dead man in my arms, with my abysmal Spanish, yelling, “Dame alguien!” Three or four women appeared over the cylindrical railing, and one who spoke some English called, over and over, “He is only sleeping. He is only sleeping.” I got Carmello out onto the sidewalk in quiet, brilliant, Madrid Sunday sunshine. Anna Maria dressed and ran downstairs. I had no papers to be in Spain legally, so she told me I ought to get out of there, but I would not leave Carmello on the street; I waited for the ambulance with some element of hope. When the ambulance team arrived, they didn’t even try. They felt under his chin and then they looked at me and then they looked at the ground. Carmello was gone, and we all knew it. Anna Maria wasn’t coming back down, and I surely couldn’t stick around, so I left Carmello in the hands of the emergency crew; although, it was certainly no longer an emergency.
I wonder if, on that bright, Sunday summer morning, I have ever felt worse in my life.
Junk is not, and never will be,
The rock ‘n’ roll element