The N-word and the C-word are the two most dangerous terms in the English language. Steady at No. 3 is “heroin,” which won’t get you punched, but might cause more serious repercussions in the long run. As today’s rebel youth increasingly are embracing the deadly drug, even after the high-profile overdose of street-wise flower child River Phoenix there is much discussion as to why people, especially the younger set, are riding this roller coaster without seat belts. I mean, this drug silenced the horn of Charlie Parker. What do you think it’s going to do to a kid who grew up on Gameboy?
Why? Why? Why toy with near-certain death just to get high- and pay for the privilege? The easy explanation is that smack replaces fear, hopelessness and insecurity with euphoria. But I think another reason for heroin’s revival is that the word is just so tough. The first part is “hero” and the second part is “in” — two things we’d love to be — and when you put them together, you conjure up striking images of shadow people lighting the bottoms of spoons and biting tubing and sticking needles into their skin. Heroin imagery always has a hip soundtrack, whether it’s the Velvet Underground or some crazy cool jazz or the garage instrumental “Apache” that Quentin Tarantino used to underscore John Travolta’s smack-induced bliss in “Pulp Fiction.” In this age of advertising and promotion, heroin has benefited from one of the greatest marketing campaigns of all time and the dealers didn’t have to pay a cent. No one pays a studio for product placement when heroin is shown.
The creative element of society is doing all this great P.R. work because heroin is just too powerful to deny. Plus it’s got all those cool, fun-to-say nicknames like “skag,””smack” and “China white.” Tell me Madison Avenue didn’t come up with China white (“It’ll brighten your day”). People talk slow and deep on heroin, at least in movie and TV portrayals. Oh, they may come off a little spacey, but you never hear the arm forces say goofy things like, “I’ll take the Longhorns and the spread.” Nah, man, heroin is dark as a second coat of despair. It’s a dividing line between the “us and “them” that have been going at it ever since Elvis Presley was shown on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1956 — just from the waist up. Heroin is a badass club that’s easy to join. In fact, you can get in on all the chills and spills for only $30.
Or maybe it’s $20 and my friend kept $10 for himself. I’m referring to a co-worker in Chicago, where I lived from ’88 to ’92, who asked me to ride with him to the South Side. He was going to get some heroin and, I don’t know, it just seemed like a cool thing to be
part of. Heroin. South Side. This was before “NYPD Blue” when you had to go out and find your own chancy adventure, so I went along for the ride. Anyway, we got to the Hyde Park brownstone and he was about to go inside when I asked him what was the minimum amount one could buy. “Thirty dollars,” he said. I extracted a couple of bills and asked him to get me some. I just wanted to try it, to see what all the fuss was about. I looked at it as a learning experience. Plus, whenever anyone asked me if I’d ever done heroin I’d tell them I had, and I was tired of lying. Thirty bucks doesn’t get you much heroin, but I practically got high just holding the little plastic bag with the few grains of beige powder. Wow, heroin, I thought, and was suddenly engulfed in bad. I stuck the bag in my shirt pocket and headed to Lounge Ax. Some of my friends were there and I got in a conversation with one of them. Motioning him to move a little closer, I whispered, “Hey, man, do you want to do some heroin?” You should have seen the look on his face as he declined. He was trying to be hip about it — “No, man, I haven’t done any in years” — but you could tell he was knocked for a loop.
It would’ve been real embarrassing if he’d accepted, because I didn’t have enough heroin to make a duck walk funny. I spent the rest of the night having conversations and then being turned down on the heroin offer. Man, this stuff is great, I thought, noting that it’s even cooler to say “heroin” when you’ve got some. For the next two or three weeks, I rarely was without my smidgen of heroin. It seemed that every morning I was looking for my heroin and my car keys, so I could get going. I had no desire at all to take the drug, but it was a kick being tied to something so powerful and decadent.
I’ll admit to a level of shallowness cultivated by decades of constant exposure to pop culture, but I’m telling you that heroin’s attraction goes much deeper than the pharmaceutical effects. I’m wondering if our fascination with the darker side of society is helping to set traps for folks not as absolutely terrified of death as me. Before everyone in the world decided to get a tattoo, people used to always ask me why I let someone put ink in my arms with a needle. Whenever I’d show off a new tattoo, like the one of John John saluting or the one of the woman holding groceries in both arms as her underwear falls to her ankles, there’d always be some spoil sport to say, “That may seem cute now, but I wonder if you’ll still feel that way about it in 50 years.” They don’t understand that the permanence is the appeal. Imagine having something cool that nobody short of a Hell’s Angel with a blowtorch could ever take away.
Heroin users, meanwhile, always hear about how they could kill themselves if they’re not careful, and I think that could be part of the allure. Heroin is just temporary suicide anyway and like the real thing the motivation is murky to all but those who make the leap. In case you’re wondering, I never did find anyone to do that heroin with me and I ended up leaving it in my shirt pocket and then throwing it in with the wash. It was, literally, 30 bucks down the drain, but I did get a little more mileage. I’d go into the bar and ask my acquaintances to sniff my clothes. Yep, washed in heroin. I’m too cool.