I’ll call him John. Names don’t really matter. People change, reinvent themselves, become characters in various of life’s little dramas. It won’t make any difference to you what I call him as long as I give him some name, any name, just to identify him. So it’s going to be John, a common all-American name like Paul or Peter or Jack or George or Tom. He could have had any of those names, but I chose to call him John and John wanted money.
“Lend me $50,” he said.
“What for?” I asked.
“You know,” he responded.
“You should get off of that stuff; it’s gonna ruin you.”
I gave him the $50 and walked away. John had started using heroin shortly after graduating from college. He believed that it would improve his saxophone playing and then further improve his painting skills. John had been playing with a jazz quartet on weekends at small clubs in the East Village; during the week, he taught art classes at a high school in upstate New York and painted in the afternoon.
I first came across John in the men’s room of a now-defunct jazz club in the Village. There, I saw him on his knees, bent over a toilet bowl, retching and vomiting. Not exactly the most felicitous introduction. Zipping up my fly, eager to exit the bathroom, I heard John call out, between gasps and moans: “Please help me. I think I’m having a heart attack.”
“Do you want me to call an ambulance?”
“No, put me in a cab and take me to the E.R.”
In the cab, I tried to sit as far from him as possible. He had the rank, nauseating smell of vomit emanating from his shirt and face. I stayed with him in the E.R. and remained there after he was wheeled away on a stretcher. I felt responsible, but didn’t know why. An example of my curious conscience, I thought. Or just plain curiosity.
About three hours later, having read every available copy of Time and New York magazine, I learned that John did not have a heart attack, but apparently drugs were causing an erratic heartbeat that had frightened him.
“He should be in a drug rehab center,” an E.R. doc in green scrubs told me.
“I just met him tonight. I don’t know what I’m expected to do.” Obviously, I didn’t think it necessary for me to help rehabilitate a stranger with whom I had shared a few sentences and little more.
“Well, somebody better look after this guy, or he’s going to kill himself. You found him; maybe you should now find one of his friends or relatives. They may want to be his pallbearers.”
John walked tentatively out from between a pair of swinging doors. Though wearing a vomit-stained shirt and jeans, his face was clean and looked sallow and tired. Bluish-gray circles undergirded his eyes. His short straight black hair was wet and combed in an uneven fringe over his forehead, reminding me of a dissipated Roman emperor. The resemblance was accentuated by a large, aquiline nose and thin lips. He held his right index finger to his mouth, then whispered: “I gave them a phony address. No bill.” He smiled mischievously, grabbed my arm, and guided me out of the hospital toward a taxi.
“Well, I’m glad you’re feeling better. I wish you well,” I said, anticipating that I would soon be on my way.
“Where are you going?”
“Home,” I said.
“No, no. You musn’t. Get in. We’ll go to my girl’s apartment.”
I got in and he gave the driver an address on Avenue A. “You’ll like her. She’s cool. Has a great voice. One day, she’s gonna be a great success.”
Standing in the open doorway of an apartment at the top of five flights of stairs and illuminated by a single hallway bulb was a striking beauty; her look was standard issue hip for the late 1960s. Silky, shoulder-length blonde hair perfectly parted down the middle. A tall, shapely figure poured into a pair of snug hip-hugging, bell-bottom jeans and a tight white T-shirt, no bra. She wore no shoes, and the toes of one foot rhythmically patted the floor. They seemed to be waving to me.
“Call me A,” she said as she shook my hand.
We sat in canvas director’s chairs around a round Con Edison cable table, and A poured each of us a grape jelly glass of Chianti from a large jug. The room was sparsely furnished: a deteriorating couch with well-worn cushions, paperbacks on plank shelves supported by bricks, an old Emerson record player encased in blond wood squatting on the floor. An album of music by the Blues Project permeated the living room but was soon replaced by a musical call of the wild from Janis Joplin, which was later followed by Ten Years After.
I stayed for a little more than an hour and then said I had to get home. John asked for my phone number, and I considered giving it to him with one incorrect digit. However, my curiosity had been aroused, and so I gave him the correct number. The ensuing phone calls opened up a narrow pathway to our friendship.
A few months later, John married A, whose career as a singer never took off. What did take off were their addictions to heroin. From the East Village they moved to a rented old dilapidated farmhouse in the Catskill Mountains so that John could be closer to an art teaching job. A attempted to give singing lessons to the locals, but more often was hired to babysit their toddlers. John would periodically go to Manhattan to score heroin from a dealer in East Harlem.
I continued to visit them over the Christmas holidays and a couple of times in the summer. Low on cash, they closed off the second floor of their house in winter to save on heating bills. In the summer, they found it inconvenient to dress and so were often in their underwear or just plain naked. They were natural nudists, never self-conscious. And after taking in numerous admiring looks at A’s body, I took their nakedness for granted, though the needle tracks on their arms and the backs of their legs made me uncomfortable. I wondered if they would ever overdose and did not look forward to discovering their bodies.
One autumn day, I got a call from A. She was crying, hysterical, scared: “John has been beaten up. He’s in Harlem Hospital. His nose and jaw are broken. The cops want to question him, but he can’t talk; his jaw is wired shut. Now the cops want to talk to me. If they see tracks on my arms, maybe they’ll arrest me. I don’t know what to do.”
“I’ll get a lawyer and we’ll go see John and talk to the cops. I’ll call you later.”
One look at bruised and battered, swollen and bandaged John made it obvious that he had gorged himself on misery and destruction. Where would he go from here?
The lawyer smoothed things over, and neither A nor John were arrested. The drug dealers who beat up John and stole his money were never arrested, as far we know.
John finally went to a rehab center, but A refused to go. While John was away, she started an affair with a young neighbor. When John came home from rehab, A told him she was leaving him.
Within a few weeks, John was back on heroin, though, as he told me, “I take it in suppositories. No more tracks.”
It wasn’t as easy as that, for six months after telling me about the suppositories, John overdosed. A friend from John’s 12-step program found him and called an ambulance. John was revived, and again went to rehab. This time a wise counselor guided John onto a road of real recovery.
John took up long-distance running and boxing lessons at a local gym. In his living room, he placed a freestanding punching bag stand that included two heavy bags, an adjustable height speed bag, and a double-end-hung speed bag. He worked out there every afternoon after he returned from his teaching job. He would jump rope and shadow box every day for half an hour.
“I run five miles every day, and it robs me of a desire to shoot up,” John told me. “The boxing drains me of anger. I sweat like a sponge and feel exhausted. I’ll do this until I’m too old to care. Anyway, you know, I was able to save up a deposit to buy this dump. My name’s on a mortgage. How does that grab you? For weeks, it scared the shit out me. But, you know, I love this cozy, slightly smelly hideaway.”
John became a vegetarian, took up meditation, and painted away his nightmares on large, dark canvases that turned to bright pastel colors in spring. A year later, back in Alphabet City, A died from a contaminated dose of heroin that some local dealer gave her. He took her money and left her sprawling like an abandoned marionette on the ground in Tompkins Square Park.
“A mother of a little kid thought A was a passed out drunk. She went and told a cop who walked over to her as a bum tried to steal her shoes. The bum ran off, and the cop discovered that A was dead. An ambulance took her to the city morgue; the medical examiner did an autopsy, cut her chest right up the middle with shears,” John said sadly and with a look of disgust on his face. “I buried A in the little apple orchard behind the barn. I don’t know if it’s legal, but I don’t care. You know, she had a beautiful voice; I used to tease her that she could have seduced the birds out of the trees. She could have really made it, but — you know — neither of us ever tried.”
Jeffrey Sussman is the author of numerous short stories and essays, and 10 books.