Copping is a muscle, and muscles have memory.
In the summer of 1994, I had just graduated from high school, and was homeless. My mother had kicked me out of the house, and would only let me come home if I agreed to her one condition: I had to go to, and complete rehab. I’d attempted rehab once before, and found it unbearable; I’d schemed to get myself kicked out. There was just too much going on in the world outside that I didn’t want to miss, and I hadn’t been doing heroin long enough to equate it with any real kind of misery. I was on my own for the first time in my life, and had no qualms about sleeping outside, if it came down to it. My mother’s one condition was a weak extortion.
My best friend Chelsea had just been released from the fabled Silver Hill Hospital, where her parents had sent her after she overdosed on heroin in a McDonald’s bathroom stall. Edie Sedgwick had been to Silver Hill, and it had a hairdressing salon. I was jealous. Maybe I would have been able to endure my own intended 28 day stay if I’d been sent to a rehab that cush. One of the patients at Silver Hill with Chelsea was a good-looking young man with a thick head of wavy, dark hair who kept love letters from Courtney Love in a box in his room. He’d regale Chelsea with all sorts of wild stories about Courtney, who’d just lost her husband, Kurt Cobain, to suicide a few months before. Kurt and I had been in different rehabs at the same time; I felt a kinship with him because we’d both left the treatment centers we’d been forced into against our will.
Chelsea’s roommate at Silver Hill was an attractive young woman named Alex. Alex’s father had gotten rich selling high-waisted jeans to lower-income women across America. She’d been sent to Silver Hill by her parents for an eating disorder. Growing up on the peripherals of the fashion industry, Alex had been a model, and was bulimic. Silver Hill was a dual diagnosis program, which meant they treated emotional problems as well as drug and alcohol ones, and Chelsea was being treated for cutting herself while she was there. She and Alex had come up with an agreement to support each other while in treatment: Chelsea wouldn’t cut herself, if Alex didn’t make herself throw up. But the reverse was also true, and possibly the more effective motivator: Chelsea would cut, if Alex vomited, and Alex would vomit, if Chelsea cut. They had managed to keep this agreement a secret from the staff.
Alex was discharged from Silver Hill first, and a week after Chelsea’s release, a Lincoln town car came to pick her up to squire her to Alex’s family’s Upper East Side townhouse. The town car stopped behind the supermarket where I’d been sleeping, and picked me up too.
It was a beautiful summer day and we were both so excited. Alex had an itinerary planned for us while we were in the city. We would have free reign of the Lincoln town car. Chelsea had told Alex I’d spent the summer homeless, and Alex had offered to take me shopping. I met Alex quickly; she was pale and statuesque, with bright blonde hair, and wore round Jackie O style sunglasses as she fluttered about the townhouse, getting dressed. I hadn’t been so excited for what lay ahead since I was a kid, and my family would go on bargain vacations to Cape Cod. Alex had an appointment with her therapist and asked the housekeeper to make us whatever we wanted to eat, and gave Chelsea two hundred dollars. The money was for incidentals, and for heroin, a drug Chelsea had told Alex all about, and Alex wanted to try.
We didn’t know anyone in New York City to cop from, so we had the driver drop us off on St. Marks Place, and asked him to wait. We hit the streets, eyeing everyone we passed. We were walking towards Tompkins Square Park, a destination for homeless young people with punk rock sensibilities where I’d copped other times when I’d been in the city. There is a waxy, sort of preserved Madame Tussaud’s look to heroin users. In the same way that crackheads have sharp, spastic mannerisms, people on heroin have their own identifying characteristics: they look like they are intoxicated by sleep; they radiate a sort of toxic languor.
Two men passed us. They looked like they’d stepped out of a street scene in Midnight Cowboy; they looked like the sort of people I envisioned whenever I read anything about the old automat Horne and Hardart in Time Square. One of the men wore a child’s size leather jacket, his arms poking out at the elbows. The other was hunchbacked and walked with a cane. All I could think was Herbert Huncke Herbert Huncke Herbert Huncke. We approached them, our want stronger than our shame.
“Um…” I’d learned that the best way to present myself when asking a stranger for anything illegal was with self-effacement. “Do you think you could you help me and my friend…?”
I left it to hang in the air. If I was right, they would just need me to clarify which, coke or dope, and how much.
They looked at each other.
“You aren’t cops?”
Our appearances were testimonials. Chelsea had short bleached blonde hair with skinhead girl sideburns and fringe bangs, and the stubble on my shaved head was dyed black. Some cops will go to the trouble— my friend George was once busted smoking a joint by a cop with a Mohawk—but most, I assume, aren’t paid enough and are too vain.
“You’ll buy for us too?”
“We’re going to have to take a walk. How much do you want?”
“A bundle, plus the two for you. Twelve?”
“We need to go to the Bowery.”
Up close, the man with the cane was much younger than he had first appeared to be, due to his curled body. We talked as we walked, Chelsea, friendly and curious about everything, blabbed away, talking about rehab, what we were doing in the city, our car and driver. I was quieter, because copping always made me extremely anxious. Not so much about the police, though that anxiety definitely played a part, but because I couldn’t relax until I had it. The outcome in ellipsis until I had the dope in my body did something to my bowels. I walked along like a duck, because I had to shit.
As we approached a side street off the Bowery, the man in the leather jacket asked for the money. His friend with the cane stayed with us, and my sphincter relaxed a bit. He made no moves to hobble off, a good indication that they had no plans to rip us off. The man in the leather jacket returned a few minutes later, sidled up beside me, and slipped me the heroin.
“Come over there with me. I’ll introduce you,” he said.
This was an incredibly generous gesture; most middle men prefer to stay in the middle, as it’s such a profitable spot.
I turned the corner, and followed him to a store front with the grating pulled down. Outside, on a plastic chair that looked like it had been stolen from an elementary school, sat a short, fat Asian man. With a wet towel draped around the back of his neck, and a red dragon tattooed on the top of his head, he resembled a sort of biker Buddha.
“Sammy, this is my friend.”
The man’s eyes were closed, and he quickly opened them to look me over.
“How can I get in touch with you?” I asked.
The man in the leather jacket answered for him. “He’s usually right here, or you can ask for him in the lobby at the Sunshine.” He was referring to the Sunshine hotel, a rather infamous skeevy SRO, near CBGB’s.
“Alright, we’re good. Thanks Sammy.”
As we walked away, the man in the leather jacket told me what I’d been suspecting; that Sammy did not speak English.
“He speaks money,” he said.
We rejoined Chelsea, and his friend with the cane.
“Alright, we got to go,” the man in the jacket said. “We’re on a deadline.” He didn’t elaborate. “It was nice meeting you girls. Don’t make that driver of yours too crazy.”
We offered them a ride, but they declined.
“I figured out who you remind me of,” the man with the cane said to Chelsea, who he had obviously developed an affection for. “Edie Sedgwick. You’re not a toothpick like she was, but something about the eyes and the face. Maybe it’s the hair. And the driver. The reincarnation of Edie Sedgwick.”
“It was nice meeting you girls,” the man in the jacket repeated, with a smile. “But I’m curious. Why’d you ask us?”
“I like your look,” I said.
Like walking death.
It was the truth.