Authors: Stephen Reid
Tags: #LCO10000, #SOC030000, #BIO024000
My secret life with Paul got easier. His house â with its plush carpets, art on the walls, a refrigerator rich with food, and not one, but two big, shiny bathrooms â was mere blocks from my new school. I hitchhiked home only to sleep. My dad remained absent in one way or another, and my mom was buried under a pile of laundry. I slipped away to become the ghost of my own boyhood.
Being from my hometown was like being from a bad neighbourhood. I parlayed that image into as much leather-jacket mystique as I could among the sons and daughters of merchants and mill managers. These were boys who worried about their golf scores and wore machine-knitted sweaters over houndstooth slacks. The girls had ponytails and wore Banlon sweaters tucked into plaid skirts. They put pennies in their loafers and Kleenex in their brassieres.
We guzzled mickeys of lemon gin, those boys and me, in the washroom at school dances. I drank to wash down the black beauties and Christmas trees I stole from Paul's bag of tricks. The gin helped kill the taste of him; the uppers quelled the nausea. When the dances ended, I would be fighting outside the New Moon Restaurant or walking one of those plaid-skirted girls home. On the sofas in their parents' living rooms, I kissed those girls too hard then stole their mothers' tranquillizers from the medicine cabinet on my way out the door.
Paul took a vacation to Mexico and returned with glossy poolside pictures and a bag of marijuana. He was growing leery of giving me more morphine and, I think, tiring of me. But nothing could shake my determination to extract more from him. An unspoken blackmail hung in the air between us.
Each time Paul gave me the hard stuff he'd written something in a ledger that he left on the bar. One night, high and curious, I peeked. The ledger turned out to be a mandatory account of narcotic dispensations he was obliged to keep for the RCMP. Paul had been falsely recording every cc of morphine he had given me as injections to his patients.
The next day in class I kept staring at my friend Bobby M, wondering if he knew his mother was dying, afraid he'd find out I'd taken the medicine meant for her. I began to fear that everyone would learn about me and Paul. It was like living with an execution date. I started to fragment. One spring morning I missed the yellow bus. I crossed the asphalt highway and stuck out my thumb to cars heading west.
I landed on the West Coast three years too early for the Summer of Love. In the dark heart of downtown Vancouver I had instead my first summer of heroin. In those few short months I would learn ninety-nine names for junk and lose the one for love.
Main and Hastings, the Corner: I wasn't there a hot five minutes before a young native guy turned me around so his pal could steal my gym bag. The slim contents must have evoked some feeling of kinship because I hardly had time to notice the bag missing before they were handing it back. The first guy put his fist under my nose and told me they called him Box, because that's what he liked to do.
Box took me for coffee at the Plaza Cafe, where there were tiny holes in the bottom of all the spoons. Box filled me in: the Chinese proprietor drilled his spoons to discourage the dope-fiend clientele from stealing them or using them to cook up in his washroom. The cops kicked the toilet doors off their hinges on a regular basis.
I'd barely had had time to stir my coffee when a character everyone seemed to be waiting for strolled in the door. He wore a green suit, and his hair looked like it had been licked by a cat. Teddy Beaver was a bundle player who oversaw a small network of singles dealers. A bundle, I would learn in the weeks to come, was a package of twenty-five number-five capsules of heroin, triple-tied in a prophylactic called a stall. I also would learn to carry the stall in my mouth, ready to swallow it at the first sign of a roust. In those days, simple possession meant a certain trip to penitentiary.
There was a code on the Corner back then: strangers and children couldn't buy heroin. Ray Charles could see I was no cop, but Teddy wasn't going to be responsible for me being “turned out.” Even after I had rolled up my sleeve and showed how Paul had already taken care of that, Teddy said he didn't want me catching a habit on his dope. It didn't matter. Box scored off Teddy, and I was “in the car.”
Box scurried back to his flop with me so tight on his tail we made one shadow on the scarred red bricks along the alley. We took the back stairs of the Balmoral Hotel two at a time and hit the one john shared by all the tenants of the second floor. There was a round hole where the lock should have been; I braced my foot against the bottom of the door the way Box showed me and kneeled to “keep six” out the peephole.
Box worked quickly, removing a bent spoon, an eyedropper, and the steel point of a needle he had hidden in the toilet-paper tube. He cooked the dope until the water fried at the edges of the spoon, then sat on the toilet and twisted his shirtsleeve into a knot over his bicep. When the veins jumped up, he held the dropper like a dart and sunk the needle into his arm.
Blood flagged into the dropper, and Box squeezed the bulb. His eyes closed and his body slumped against the toilet tank, the needle still hanging from his arm. I shouted his name. When he wouldn't respond, I started to shake him. Box gradually came around enough to repeat the whole cooking ritual, and this time he sank the needle into my wing.
We spent the remains of the day in his room, sprawled across the sagging bed listening to a scratchy Chet Baker record. My tolerance was low, and I about went to heaven on less than a quarter cap. Box didn't get seasick, but me, I ran to the bathroom and spewed my junkie bile every half hour or so.
I entered the world of Hastings Street with all the zest of a kid joining the carny. Box and I shoplifted meat and sold it to the five o'clock crowd at the Blackstone. We dry-tricked the fags over on Seymour, hustling them for ten bucks with a promise to appear. A ten-dollar bill was known as a sawbuck, the currency of the Corner. It is what the hookers charged; the price of a blow job was tied to the cost of a single cap of heroin. Box and I did whatever it took to go back to the Balmoral and get high.
Teddy Beaver appeared on the Corner every afternoon about three and stood there surveying his kingdom. One day he overheard Box ragging on me about rent. He led me by the elbow to a back booth at the Plaza for a
mano a mano
. I went to work for Teddy. Whenever one of his singles dealers needed to be re-upped, I would make the pickup, then the delivery. I was handling twelve to sixteen bundles a day, 300 to 400 caps, and yet I still couldn't score on my own.
Teddy put me away with a hooker called Kitty, whose old man had, until his court appearance that morning, worked for him. He was now sitting out a deuce-less in Oakalla. I retrieved my gym bag from Box's room and waited at the Plaza for Kitty-Cat to finish her shift. She scored two caps and we hailed a cab, stopping on Davie Street at the all-night pharmacy. KC kissed me to pass me the stall, then clip-clopped inside to grab a new kit â one eyedropper and a number 26 point.
Kitty had a one-bedroom in a six-storey building on Butte. She started apologizing for the messy apartment while we were still in the elevator. Kitty was a serial apologist; she was still saying her sorries through the bedroom door while I rummaged in her kitchen drawers for a spoon. I had cooked up and fixed half a cap before she came out in a housecoat. Kitty stood short in flat-bottomed slippers and was every inch a tender mess. I hesitated when she asked me to cook her up one cap â a cap fix was a major habit, one that would kill most users â but I threw it in the spoon.
Before I got even half the whack into her, Kitty was into an overdose. She turned blue. I wrestled her limp body into a cold shower where she came around slowly. Kitty's ex had been “giving her the Fraser River”. It was an old junkie double-cross, which in New York would be called giving somebody the Hudson; in Toronto, Lake Erie. Kitty thought she had a major habit but she had been shooting mostly water while her boyfriend “h.o.'d” the dope for himself.
Kitty and I fell into a routine. We kept vampire hours. Every day we woke to the setting sun, did a jimmy-hix; then she put on her high heels and painted her mouth target-red. I put on my sneakers and we caught a cab to the Corner. She went to work at the Blackstone, me to the Plaza Cafe.
Kitty became the mirror I was afraid to look into. The heroin had us both by the throat, and I watched her skin turn grey, her bones start to jut, and sores develop at the corner of her mouth. We began to resemble the other zombie dope fiends, spiritless, single-minded in our obsession. The search for pleasure devolved into the avoidance of withdrawal. If I went without heroin for more than a few hours my nose would drip and my legs would begin to ache. My quest for utopia had become a ritual of drudgery, the daily grind to maintain a habit.
One night on our way home, after she had scored our dope, Kitty announced she was pregnant. I didn't know how. She turned French tricks exclusively, and I was using four caps a day â for all the erections I ever got, she could have had swallows nesting in her vagina and I wouldn't have known. In the elevator my legs wobbled and I got a bitter taste in my mouth. The alarm bells went off, and I spit out an eight-cap stall as I slid to the floor. True to junkie form, Kitty went for the stall before she tried to help me to my feet. The stall she had forgotten to triple-tie.
I woke in the Vancouver General looking up at the gentle face of a nurse. She was touching the tracks on my arms and crying. I closed my eyes, then snuck out as soon as she left the room. I waited in a blue gown at a bus stop across the street for Kitty to come pick me up in a cab. I sat on that bench, fourteen-years-old and so emptied of feeling I didn't even understand why that nurse had been so sad.
Teddy was a no-show one night, and a minor panic set in until Jerry the German went out to Chilliwack and came back with an o-zee already capped up. The word on the street next day was Teddy had been shot eight times and stuffed down a sewer grate. Rumours flew. Some said it was the Roadrunner, a notoriously vicious cop; others said Teddy had double-doored the Chinese Triads. Whatever the truth, his mother, an old east-end matriarch, spent two days and two nights out in the pouring rain searching, until she came to the one manhole cover she hadn't wanted to find. They say the old lady lifted Teddy's body out by herself.
Kitty scored me the first bundle I could call my own. I began putting out singles from a booth in the White Lunch. One night I was tucking a twenty in my sock, having just sold two caps to Donny-the-Poet, when two harness bulls walked in and pinned him to the floor. Behind them came the Roadrunner. He usually carried a wedge-handled flashlight to pry open the mouth of a reluctant hype, but this time he wasn't in the mood for formalities. When Donny wouldn't spit out the stall, the other two cops held him down while the Roadrunner coolly bent a fork around his own hand and began to dig his way into the Poet's mouth. Before Donny could surrender, his lips were hanging in so many shreds his mouth looked like the entrance to a carwash. On his way out, the Roadrunner told me to sit tight, he'd be back.
I phoned Kitty from San Francisco a few weeks later. She had suffered a miscarriage and was home from the hospital. The Roadrunner had come looking for me and had hung her by the ankles from the balcony. She said when he let go of her all she could think of was how glad she was she hadn't gotten the fifth-floor apartment she'd always wanted. The next time I called, her number was out of service.
I was arrested that fall outside Berkeley with a tobacco pouch full of third-grade marijuana. A judge declared me a juvenile non grata; I was flown to Seattle to await expulsion from the country. On the trip from the airport to King County Jail, in the back of the prison van, a black man tried to force me to masturbate him. We were both cuffed, and my struggles to keep him at bay amused the sheriffs no end.
The next morning an FBI agent drove me to the border crossing and turned me over to Canada Customs and Immigration. They left me unattended in a waiting room, and I bolted. I caught a ride to Vancouver and phoned my Uncle Victor, who wired me enough money to buy a ticket on the first Greyhound bus back to northern Ontario.
My mother hugged me for ten minutes straight, but it was a week before my dad acknowledged my presence in the house. I returned to school, ready to repeat the year I had missed, but my determination began to dissolve in the sea of faces in that grade nine classroom. My small-town values, my human values, had been forever altered. I knew things no fourteen-year-old should have to know. The days of catching snowflakes on my tongue were over.
Within months I was gone again. I got as far as Winnipeg, where I was arrested for shoplifting a leather jacket from the Bay and put in the Public Safety Building. I had a cellblock to myself. For a week I saw only a hand that set a cup of coffee and a muffin on my bars in the morning and coffee and a sandwich at lunch and dinner. Then I was sent home. My mother hugged me; my father ignored me. The ink hadn't dried on my probation papers before I was back out on the highway, my thumb hooked in the general direction of Toronto. Over the next few years, I returned to live with my parents for shorter and shorter periods. Sometimes I was brought home in the back of an OPP cruiser; sometimes I came on my own because I felt too beat-up out there. On one trip home I learned Paul had been caught with his hands down a pair of houndstooth pants. Paul had made a mistake messing with one of their own: the town fathers sent him packing. During another short stay I went back to the place where Paul had parked his Thunderbird and given me my first taste, near the old Woolgemuth farm. I even fixed heroin there, in the futile hope that whatever portal had been opened on that long-ago afternoon would be opened for me again.