I awoke in a car, I think on someone's lap, and familiar voices were talking in a serious tone. I think they were talking about me. I fell asleep.
I opened my eyes and saw a very large man with a gold tooth standing above me and heard the sound of gum chewing. Gum snapping, actually. That really irritating sound when someone quickly rolls gum around in their mouth allowing their tongue to leave a tiny air bubble that snaps each time they bite down.
"We've got him," the very large man said. "He's conscious. His eyes . . . " Then I was out again.
I opened my eyes and noticed it was very bright. A woman's voice with a thick Boston accent read off some numbers. I sighed softly and realized an oxygen mask was covering my mouth.
The very large man looked down at me and smiled and his gold tooth literally sparkled. It was very disconcerting and he said: "He's breathing." I wondered if he was God.
The woman moved towards my head and I saw that she was tiny. She removed the mask from my mouth.
An authorative voice spoke my name.
"Do you know where you are?" He asked.
"The hospital?" I asked in a whisper.
"Do you know why you are here?"
"No . . . " I cleared my throat and repeated, "no."
"Your friends think you might have taken drugs. Did you take drugs tonight?"
"Yes." I looked up and saw a young man not much older than me in a white jacket over a shirt and tie, a stethoscope around his neck. He had his hand on my right foot which he was shaking as if I was asleep.
"What drugs did you take, Dick?" He was talking much louder than necessary, as if I was deaf, or a non-English-speaking foreigner.
I thought for a moment and couldn't think of any other drug I might have done this particular night. I liked to mix heroin with cocaine, but I had been out of dope for weeks and I couldn't remember getting any recently. What night was it anyway?
"Nothing else," I said in a non-committal tone.
"Well, Dick," his tone changed to one of someone who knows of what they speak. "I've seen a lot of people messed-up on drugs; and I've seen a lot of people on cocaine, and I don't think that cocaine does this to you."
I looked at him, suddenly afraid that I had given the wrong answer and that my punishment was to be rather severe. I looked at the very large man, then at the tiny woman. They all looked back with no discernible expression.
"How much cocaine did you do tonight?" He asked disdainfully.
"Three or four grams," I said, hoping my answer would not irritate them any more than the last answer.
"C'mon, Dick," his tone was almost sophomoric and friendly. "An eight-ball doesn't do this to somebody."
"I really don't think I shot any more than that tonight." I explained and looked at each of them pleadingly.
The doctor was silent and his jaw literally dropped, the tiny woman gasped as if the statue of the virgin in her local church had begun to bleed, and the very large man with the gold tooth struggled to hold back an explosive laugh. I became confused and panicky. Were they angry with me? Were they impressed by me? Were they going to call the police?
"I saw no entry point," the tiny woman insisted.
The sleeves of my shirt were still covering my arms and had not been unbuttoned, so I was uncertain that she had even looked for tracks.
I nodded to my left arm and then my right arm.
The tiny woman rolled up one sleeve and the doctor the other. The delivery point was not hard to find. Maybe it was impossible to discern which of the hundreds of holes neatly and perfectly running along my veins might have been the entry point of the particular shot that brought me to this simple, but frightening dialogue; but, it didn't take a medical doctor or registered nurse to see that I had been shooting drugs for more than just a few hours this particular evening.
The tiny woman literally threw my arm back on the examining table and clicked her tongue in disgust. The doctor looked closely and said, "How long have you been doing this? There's no sign of infection. How have you prevented infection?"
"Alcohol," I said almost as a question.
His voice was softer now. "Ummmm . . . there's not much I can do for you here. We need to take some tests and get some more information from you." And he walked out of the room.
The very large man with the gold tooth had been standing behind me and he helped me sit-up as he raised the bed to a sitting position.
The tiny woman spoke in a tone of utter disgust: "It's people like you who give cocaine a bad name." That was the last thing she said to me for the rest of my time there.
I was a total mess, and I was in love with shooting cocaine, and I was near death, but I knew that her remark was insane.
"I have to weigh you," the very large man said. "Do you think you can stand on that scale?" He pointed across the room.
"Sure," I said. The tiny woman glared at me as she moved out of the way. The large man swung my legs off the bed as he held my arm.
"I'm going to hold your arms as you get onto your feet."
"Thanks," I said as I moved my ass towards the edge of the bed. My body slid down towards the floor. I felt my boots touch the floor and my legs turned to rubber under the weight of my body. I started to crumble to the floor and he grabbed me in a bear hug that I expected to hurt. It didn't.
He moved his hands to my shoulders and looked me in the eyes. "Can you walk to the scale?" I looked across the small room and started to cry. I couldn't walk across the room. I didn't even know how I was breathing. I felt like dying. I shook my head.
The tiny woman clicked her tongue.
He said, "I'm going to pick you up and we will both get weighed, then we will subtract my weight from the total. That will give us your weight. Is that OK with you?"
His voice was kind and gentle and direct and friendly. He was helping me and that just made me weepier. I nodded my head and he said, "Here goes!"
He swept me up like an infant and took two steps onto the scale that the tiny woman had zeroed-out. She slid the counter-weights and said one fifty-eight.
The very large man with the gold tooth swung back towards the bed and seemed to place me back down with one smooth step.
"One fifty-eight?" I asked. "Both of us?"
"Kilos," he said while he punched a calculator. "Together we weigh about . . . 348 pounds."
"I weigh this much," he said as he punched numbers into the calculator. "Which means you weigh . . . " he turned the calculator for me to see, " . . . this much."
I looked at the read-out and it said something like 88.9872214.
"How many pounds is eighty-eight kilos?"
"You weigh just over eighty-eight pounds, my friend. You are one skinny guy."
He grabbed my wrist and started taking my pulse. Then he took my blood pressure. Then he lowered the back of the bed so I returned to a full recline. All of this was done in silence. Not an aggressive, hostile silence like the tiny woman, just a matter-of-fact silence.
He leaned close to me and whispered, in a friendly, concerned tone, "You only weigh eighty-eight pounds. That's too skinny."
The young doctor returned and asked, "Have you ever had a blood gas, Dick?"
"I don't think so."
"Well, you like to play with needles, so this shouldn't bother you too much," he insisted. He laced the fingers of his left hand into the fingers of my right hand and bent my hand back so that the underside of my wrist was tight and exposed. He then used his teeth to remove the plastic safety-cap off the end of a huge syringe and inserted it into my wrist pushing and pushing and pushing until he found the artery. I gasped and my left leg shot straight into the air.
He said sarcastically, "You might feel a little discomfort."
The relief I felt when the needle was withdrawn from my wrist made me forget that I had felt weak and dizzy and afraid. I was now wide awake.
The doctor left and the very large man with the gold tooth asked, "Are you alright?"
"I don't know."
"Do you . . . " he started to ask something when the doctor returned.
"Dick," the doctor was now yelling again, and pronouncing every word as if I was mentally retarded. "Do you have health insurance?"
"Do you have a place to go if you leave here?"
"How will you get there?"
"I don't know."
The very large man with the gold tooth said, "He has a friend waiting for him."
This was news to me.
"Since you have no insurance, your friend will have to take you out of here. I can't do anything for you. I have sick patients with real problems that need attention. You should go home and stop shooting cocaine." He turned and walked away. I never saw him again.
I looked at the very large man with the gold tooth and said, "I can't leave here now. I can't walk."
"I'll help you," just wait here.
He came back with a clipboard and showed me where to sign. I signed. He tossed the clipboard across the room and helped me sit-up.
"Can you sit here for a moment?"
"Yes, I think so."
He returned and said, "I've called a cab and your friend is going to take you home. I am going to keep you in this room as long as I can, but they are going to need the bed soon. So I'll be back."
He walked out of the room and a voice called behind him asking if the room was empty. He walked back and forth very quickly a few times, then came back into the room after what seemed like hours.
"The cab is here, and I have to get you out of this room. Your friend is waiting just down the hall. I am going to help you get to him. Are you ready to stand?"
"I know, man. I know," he seemed genuinely concerned. "But, I have to get you out of this room before they flip-out. Your friend can help you home. I'm sorry."
He helped me off the table and helped me down the hall. I almost fell, and he held me up. I was handed-off to my friend and almost fell again. They both helped me into the cab and I went to sleep.
April 12, 1981, was quite a night.
The part of the story I did not yet know was that my friend had found me in the kitty-litter. His cat, Miss Emily Ching, gazing at me. There was a tourniquet and an eye-dropper and syringe points and a spoon and a cotton ball and empty vials. My friend thought I was dead. He rolled me over onto my back and found me to be alive and breathing. He said I became conscious when he yelled and I told him not to call an ambulance because that would bring the police. He had gotten his neighbor to drive us to the hospital.
I had been shooting about a half-ounce of cocaine a day for about ten weeks. I was toxic. I weighed 88 pounds. I was a greenish-grey color. I should have been dead.
The next day I went through the motions of seeking help and called the hospital from which I was summarily dismissed the night before. I was told that cocaine wasn't addictive, and their drug-treatment program was only for people addicted to heroin. I called another hospital and they told me that cocaine was not addictive, that if I was having a problem with it, I should really stop. I called the doctor who had been my pediatrician for many years. He told me that cocaine wasn't addictive and that I should stop doing it, and what was I doing using needles anyway.
I gained a few pounds quickly. I ballooned to 110 pounds within a week. I went from looking like death to looking like a junkie and I felt much better. I started shooting coke again. Then my veins started giving out. I couldn't go on. A friend came to my home and insisted I eat. He took my works and my coke. He held me under the shower. Then he drove me to my mother's house where I laid down.
I started calling drug rehab programs. I had no insurance, so my choices were limited.
When the free clinics learned I was shooting cocaine, they said they couldn't help -- their program was for heroin addicts. A woman at a program sponsored by Tufts University actually asked me a bunch of questions. She was curious about my problem. She encouraged me to stay off drugs, but she said that she couldn't help me because their program was for people using heroin.
I started calling programs out-of-town. I got an interview at one, and after a long day in a smelly municipal building they told me that their program was for people on heroin, but good-luck.
I called the woman at Tufts. I explained that she was the only person who showed any interest in my problem and I begged her to help me. She arranged an interview for me with the director of the program. He was skeptical, but he accepted my application.
She changed my life.
I entered the outpatient program with all the heroin addicts. I stood in line to pee in a cup, and always asked the med student monitor if he wanted to help. I went to group therapy and felt inadequate. I went to counseling and got angry. I once got in the methadone line but my name wasn't on the list, so they wouldn't give me any. I got a hobby, which was recommended. Then I got into a relationship, which wasn't recommended. Then I got a job, which helped with the bills.
Now I am in Brooklyn, and I am (alive!)
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