Today’s MOSTLY TRUE SHORT STORY: Rebel Without a Clue

F LoBuono

“All men make mistakes, but a good man yields when he knows his course is wrong and then he repairs the error. The only sin is pride.” Sophocles

When I was a young man, I might have described myself as a closet rebel; I got good grades in school, was captain of my high school and college football teams, president of my senior class, and was generally seen as a good guy. However, internally, I was a wild man, willing to, on occasion, take extreme risks, often simply for the sake of the experience. Not many knew of this dichotomy. And, I kept it that way — not being expected to behave badly gave me the opportunity to fly under the radar and get away with shit others would never have.

Simply put, there were few things that I wouldn’t do on a dare. I saw myself as a bohemian and did my best to act the part. I read Kerouac, Kesey, Faulkner, Hemingway, and Huxley and listened to Waits, Morrison, and Dylan. I took The Doors of Perception almost literally — I was determined to break on through to the other side — to an altered state of consciousness, one that would let me see further into my own soul. My closest friends and I were as hard as the devil’s conscience and did not fear death. It was too far away — too remote. Besides, I was god damned bullet proof — or, at least thought so. We were determined to live fast, die young, and leave only a bare husk, desiccated and depleted, behind. We would not go gentle into that good night. That was to be our misguided legacy.

To accomplish this, it would require some extreme experimentation. Since the time period was the late 70’s and early 80’s (I was in my 20's), that generally meant a copious amount of drug use . Excess was often seen as the key to Success (remember Studio 54). And, boy, my friends and I sure did our share:uppers, downers, speed, coke, mushrooms, pot, Quaaludes, crack, and, yes, for some of us, even heroin (more on that in a moment). If it could produce an altered state, we were interested in its consumption. However, it’s important to note that we never (rarely?) did these things simply to get high (although that could be a convenient by-product) but, rather to see where they might lead us, i.e. through the doors of normal perception and into the world of the imagination. If you are going to Talk the Talk, you’d better be prepared to Walk the Walk. It was essential to live the experience. So, it was not simple escapism in the way we often associate with so-called recreational drug use. There was a deeper, less insidious purpose for us. At least, that’s what we managed to convinced ourselves.

Of course, there was inherent danger in what we were doing. And, in fact, friends were lost because of drugs and addiction. But, the effort to find out more about ourselves and the world around us, by whatever means necessary, was a price that, personally, I was willing to pay. In a sense, because it was not without risk, it made the experimentation even more important. So, I suppose that, for me, the reward was worth the risk.

And, one of those high risk experiments was my one, and only, brush with heroin.

As part of my so-called bohemian lifestyle, despite my undergraduate degree and Masters credits, I rejected a 9–5 existence and was driving a taxi to make ends meet. It was a good gig in its day. If you hustled, you could make a buck and you ALWAYS met interesting people. I dressed however I liked and never took the job home with me. I wore my hair as I pleased, including a shoulder length ponytail. If I missed shaving for a day or two, there was no one who really cared — even me. In other words, it was simply a means to an end — not a career.

One of the most interesting passengers I ever had in my cab was a wealthy, regular rider named Mike (I will not use his last name to protect his privacy) with a most unusual appearance. VERY tall at 6'7", he had a pear-shaped body (thinner at the top, thicker at the bottom). His family was the largest importer of Teamo tobacco products in New York. So, he had the means to live almost anyway he chose. And, he chose to live as a heroin addict.

He had an account with the cab company I was working for at the time and would take regular trips into the City to buy his drugs. He liked me because he thought that I could challenge his intellect, which was considerable. So, he would often request me as his driver to take him from his luxury apartment in Fort Lee, N.J. to the drug dens on the seedy part of the lower East Side of Manhattan known as Alphabet City.Mike had long since burned through his own money to support his habit so he often bilked his wealthy parents for the cash necessary to feed his addiction. He was also a terrible gambler. I once watched him borrow $10,000 in cash from his father, place it in a plain brown paper bag, and bet it on NY Knicks game (I think he lost!).

On our trips into the City, Mike and I would have long, philosophical discussions about life and love. He claimed that he was a Vietnam vet and had acquired his addiction there. However, it was hard to believe Mike — after all, he was a junky. Well, one day, he turned my head around so much that it was difficult to disbelieve anything he said after. On this particular trip to score his drugs, from the back seat, Mike said to me:

“You think you’re pretty sharp, don’t you? You think you have this great lexicon — but, it’s not as good as mine. And, I’ll prove it. I’ll tell ya’ what: I need another ride into the City tomorrow and I’ll request you as my driver. Between now and then, I want you to go to the dictionary and look up 3 words, any 3 words — the more obscure, the better. When I call for you tomorrow, bring them with you and test me.”

Well, I did what he asked and researched 3 of the most bizarre terms I could find, wrote them down, and brought them with me to challenge Mike. After I picked him up and he settled into the back seat, he immediately asked:

“Did you bring the 3 words?”

“Of course” I replied and then preceded to test him, word by word. They were so abstruse that I can’t even remember them today. However, I do recall that he got their exact spelling and meaning IMMEDIATELY and CORRECTLY. He didn’t even have to take a second to think about them! He laughed:

“Is THAT the best you could do?”

It was amazing. He was a lost soul, desperately mired in addiction, but still had the mental acumen to best me at my own game. After that, I never doubted him again (well, almost never).

One question, however, that I never stopped asking Mike was, “why? How could a man with so much talent and so much to offer be so hopelessly addicted to heroin? He always danced around the question, never giving me an honest, complete answer. That is until one day, I asked again, “why”? He replied simply:

“Because it’s like kissing god.”

And, he left it at that.

I was dumbfounded. What could that possibly mean? What synthetic compound could be so potent as to be compared to looking into the eyes of god? I so wanted to know more. No, I NEEDED to know more. However, even as intrepid as I was, heroin was simply beyond the pale. At that time, it was seen, if you will, as a ghetto drug, one only used by those people so down and out it was the only way to feel “up”. It was not meant for some white, mostly suburban kid. Yet, here was Mike, a wealthy Jewish kid living in a luxury high rise doing it on nearly a daily basis. So, my curiosity was peaked. In my world, the only way to truly KNOW is to DO. Still, the stigma was, at that moment, too great to overcome. It simply wasn’t done in our world — until that changed.

One day, after driving Mike on the rounds to score his dope, I was dropping him off at his apartment. After signing the receipt for his trip, he pressed something into the palm of my hand. It didn’t feel like the usual healthy tip he gave after every ride so I checked it out. It was a small, about 1" square, cellophane packet. On its face was stamped a blue train. I learned later that these “stamps”, like the train on mine or a red rose, identified the quality of the drugs within. I asked him:

“Is this what I think it is?”

Mike replied:

“Yes, it is. It’s time to stop asking me and find out for yourself the answer to the question you continue to ask.”

Immediately, I responded:

Sorry, big fella’ but I ain’t sticking any needles into my veins!”

I may have been crazy, but I wasn’t insane.

“You don’t have to”, he countered:

“You’ve snorted cocaine, right? (At that time, just about everyone had). Do this the same way. There is enough in the packet for about 4 small lines of heroin. Just snort 2, the same way you do coke. Remember, you can always do more if want but once you do, you can’t go back.”

I shoved the packet into my pocket, thinking that I would probably never cross that line but saved it anyway should I ever change my mind. Besides, I was so damned curious.

When I got home, I appropriately placed the packet in my desk draw where I kept my other drug paraphernalia like a small compact mirror and straw for snorting coke. In a sense, I was salting it away for the proverbial rainy day — one that I felt was right, if ever, for that level of experimentation. As much as I wanted to overcome my fear, I suppose it was healthy to make sure that I was doing it for the right reason — that shit can kill. Besides, there was the stigma. So, I waited for my moment.

A week or two must have passed with it still sitting in my desk draw, untouched. I can’t say that I was compelled by it but, still, I couldn’t stop thinking about what Mike said: “It’s like kissing god.” What could possibly have that effect on human consciousness. Sooner or later, I would have to know.

My chance came one Friday evening.

I was sharing an apartment with another taxi driver, an Irishman we’ll call Tom Mahoney (a pseudonym) who may have even been crazier than me, and an old German Shepard dog named, Brucie (his real name). We lived in a two bedroom apartment in old house at the corner of Pine and Accomondo Streets in Fairview, NJ. It was located right on the edge of the Palisades, high above the Hudson River, across from 100th St. in Manhattan. So, we had spectacular views of the City making us the center of our social world. We were so bohemian that we created our own club called The Accomondo He-Man Women Haters Club in honor of an old The Little Rascals episode. What made the club so unique was that it had as many women members as men, with Tom’s sister acting as Vice President — anything to be contrary. To paraphrase the Eagles, “we threw outrageous parties, without paying the heavily bills” — at least in terms of money. Our physical and emotional well-being may have been another matter entirely.

Both of us having worked the identical shift at the cab company that day meant we arrived home at about the same time. Since we were both bachelors, Friday night was a big deal. The boys would marshal at our place before a night of drinking, drugging, and debauchery out on the town. But, before that, my roommate and I need to resupply for the night, i.e. get more beer and booze from the corner supermarket. For some reason, I felt that night might be the right night to experiment. I would be among friends and the Friday night revelry beckoned. I was told that, by snorting it, the heroin might take some time before the full effect kicked in. So, before we left for the store with the dog, I crept into my room and pulled out the packet and my cocaine kit.

I unfolded it and poured out a small pile of a brownish, sand-like substance. It wasn’t a lot. Just enough for 4 small doses as Mike had told me. Following his instructions, I cut 2 small lines (each about an inch long) out of the pile and left the rest. I quickly snorted the 2 lines, one in each nostril. I remember a slight burning sensation in my nose but felt nothing else at that moment.

We grabbed the dog and started our walk to the corner store.

We tied the dog outside the store and went in to begin our shopping. It wasn’t very long when the feeling started coming over me in waves. It was not too strong at first but seemed to be intensifying with every passing second — a deep, nagging nausea was beginning to well-up deep within my gut. At first, I didn’t think too much of it. I was told that it was not unusual to feel some discomfort, especially the first time. So, I just went about my business.

But, with each passing moment the nausea was becoming more and more intense. At one point, I started to feel dizzy, as well. I was doing my best to keep my composure but that was becoming virtually impossible. The nausea was overwhelming me. I felt that if I didn’t get some air, I would certainly either vomit, pass out or both! I needed to get out of the store and quickly! So, I made an excuse to Tom, saying:

“I think that I hear the dog barking, I’m going out to check on him.”

Tom replied that he didn’t hear anything but that I should check him anyway. He would finish up and meet me outside.

When I reached the parking lot, the dog, of course, was fine. But, I most certainly was not. The cool fresh air helped but did not cure my rising affliction. However, I felt that if I could just compose myself, perhaps this terrible queasiness would abate and I could get on with the business of KISSING GOD.

Tom emerged from the supermarket with the goods and we gathered up the dog for the short walk back to the apartment. I remember being exceptional quiet for the trip as I was using all of my concentration to fight off that awful feeling. When we arrived home, we went into the kitchen to place our groceries away. I remember working with Tom to stack the stuff on our selves when I just couldn’t take it any more. I knew that if I didn’t LAY down, I would certainly FALL down. I said to my roommate:

“Tom, I don’t feel very well. Would you mind finishing up while I go into my bedroom to lie down for a bit.”

He looked over at me and replied:

“Holy shit. You’d BETTER lie down. You’re fucking green!”

I’m not sure of the actual accuracy of that statement, but at the moment, I sure felt like it was true.

I went into the bedroom, closed the door, and laid on my back, fully clothed on the bed. I laid there as still as I possible could, my arms straight at my side, looking strait up. As long as I didn’t move too much, I could control the nausea. However, even the slightest movement of my head or arms would send waves of biliousness over my entire body. I did not sleep, nor move. I just lay there, motionless, staring at the ceiling.

As it was a Friday night, as I mentioned, my buddies would be dropping by to begin the evening’s festivities. One by one they came into the room to check on how I was feeling. The most common response from them upon seeing me lying there was:

“Jesus, Frank. You look like shit!”

Believe it or not, as long as I didn’t move my head or body, I could actually respond — feebly. I thanked them for their concern and told then I wouldn’t be joining them for that night’s debauchery. Then, I went back to my misery. The evening came and went and darkness fell. I still could not move. At one point, I remember thinking that if I could just make it to morning, I just might survive this debacle.

The night passed slowly. My friends had come and gone and, still, I could not move for fear of losing my shit. All night I simply lay there, desperately wishing for this sickness to pass. Finally, after what seemed an eternity, a faint light began invading my bedroom. Dawn was breaking. I had indeed made it through the night! Perhaps, the worst was over. I tried sitting up. To my surprise, I did so without the sickness that had overwhelmed me that long night. I decided to see if I could actually get out of the bed and stand. So, I did. Again, it was without that gnawing sickness.

The only other time that I had felt such an intense, immobilizing affliction was many years before when on a fishing trip I experienced the debilitating effects of sea sickness. I remember feeling that, at first, I was afraid that I would die from it. However, after suffering for a time, I was afraid I WASN’T going to die. I was that sick. My heroin experience left me with the same sentiment. And, strangely, just as the effects of the sea sickness departed as soon as I got on dry land, the effects of the heroin on my body seemed to disappear just as quickly that morning. As I moved into the kitchen to make a cup of coffee, I didn’t feel any lasting impairment. I was amazed because I had been SO sick just a few hours before.

At first, I didn’t tell anyone. I wasn’t sure that people would understand my motivation for this experiment in the first place. There was that stigma associated with the very word heroin. But, I felt like I needed to share that experience withsomeone. So, after my roommate joined me in the kitchen for a cup of joe, I decided to come clean with him and share my entire story.

Tom was a kindred spirit of sorts, a fellow bohemian. So, I hoped that he might see things from a similar perspective to mine. And, he did. When I recounted the previous night’s adventure he wasn’t judgmental at all. In fact, he was fascinated by it — so much so that we called a mutual friend who was more experienced than we were in such matters to find out what went wrong. Tom said he wanted to try what was left over. When we told him what happened, our friend chuckled, explaining that my experience may have been a bit extreme but was not atypical. He suggested that if we should ever try again, we might begin my coating our stomachs with an antacid to ward off the nausea. And, the experience would improve once our bodies adjusted to the substance, i.e. over time.

Well, I had enough. It reminded me of my initial experience with smoking cigarettes. When I first tried them, I hated it! The smoke made me gag and my throat hurt. All of my friends who were smokers all told me the same thing:

“Don’t worry. Give it time. You just have to get used to it. The experience gets better with time.”

Really.

My reaction was the same: why would I WANT to give it MORE time? My body gave me the strongest message possible. It totally rejected what I had tried to force it to accept. In other words, it repudiated the substance in no uncertain terms, saying clearly — POISON. POISON. POISON. DON’T DO THIS TO ME EVER AGAIN!! (BTW, I never smoked cigarettes and still don’t)

So, I gave the remainder of the packet to Tom to use in whatever way he saw fit (a story for another day). I was done with a capital “D”. As I said, I may have been crazy, but I was certainly no fool. As had always served me well in the past, I would listen to my body.

I continued to drive Mike on his almost daily trips into the City to score more and more drugs. He asked me about my experience with the “packet” he had given me. I gave him all the gory details. But, Mike had one more life lesson to teach me. After returning from one trip he said:

“Frank, you have a romantic vision of the world, especially when it comes to rebellion. I want to show you something.”

He preceded to invite me to his apartment. It was on the top floor of an exclusive hi-rise in Fort Lee. It had to be very expensive. But, when he opened the door, I was shocked by what I saw. The place was a filthy mess. There were empty bags of McDonald’s hamburgers and other garbage scattered around the entire place. Dirty, foul dishes littered the sink. The windows were so filthy as to almost obscure the spectacular views the apartment offered. And, the place stank.

He cleared some garbage off a seat and asked me to sit while he got his “kit” out. He sat across from me and rolled up his sleeve to expose an arm that was loaded with festering pustules created from his constant injections of dirty needles. Mike then preceded to wrap a rubber hose around his upper arm while clenching his fist. This would cause his veins to be more easily exposed. He then preceded to “cook” the heroin in a spoon being heated over a lighter before drawing it into the syringe.

I didn’t want to see anymore but Mike would not let me turn away. He brought the syringe, now filled with smack, to his bulging vein where the needle found its mark. After emptying the contents, Mike let out a deep sigh and collapsed back in his chair, obviously in the throws of making out with his god.

It had the desired effect. It was one of the most vile things I have ever witnessed. In the end, Mike had delivered to me a great service — there was NOTHING romantic about it at all.

The bottom line, I suppose, is this: the whole point was experimentation to explore just how far I could push myself in the search for truth. Well, the only truth that I found there was degradation and death. Fortunately, my parents instilled in me a certain strength of character to, ultimately, respect my body above all else. I believe that it helped me avoid the scourge of addiction that effected so many others. And, besides, I never got god smacked!

Soon after, I stopped driving the cab, eventually making my career in TV news. And, I never saw Mike again — that was until one day, years later, at my father’s wake, I saw a strangely shaped, very tall man standing at the back of the room. It was him! I approached him and we shook hands. He told me that he was clean and sober and doing his very best to stay that way. I smiled broadly and wished he well. Then, he departed and I never saw Mike again.

That was over 30 years ago. I’m sure that he is gone now, as are the drug dens and shooting galleries that once infested Alphabet City and Mike knew so well. Times change — sadly, heroin is no longer just a ghetto drug. It has come to the suburbs in a BIG way. One need not risk their life buying it on the Lower East Side. It has become cheap and readily available. And, it is an epidemic. We are losing our young people to heroin and opioid addiction at an alarming rate. It’s a complicated issues that is beyond my ability to solve. However, I will say this to anyone who might be listening: you will not find god there and, in the end, only darkness.

I think, therefore I write.