The following essay was submitted as my final project for English 404 Creative Nonfiction Spring 2022.
In 1968, I was nineteen, living in the Bronx. I couldn’t feel how deep was the water around me or know I would almost drown in it. My mind and life were mired in an ocean of depression and anxiety. The turmoil was lurking on the horizon. Youth were challenging the world order. War was everywhere, in faraway lands, on American streets, in our souls. The war in Vietnam continued to eat the young even as we protested across this country. The champions of a peaceful revolution were assassinated. Racist forces held their ground against the forward movement of American history. The old voices told us to believe that America was exceptional. Racism, sexism, income disparities, and class warfare were only aberrations. They called us communists, rabble-rousers, and traitors. According to them, we were the real danger to America. They sicced police violence down on us. Bodies and blood flowed like a flash flood across America’s urban landscape. I battled for survival inside the cyclone, where my life would be defined by two lies: a “normal” life during the day and a dope fiend at night.
It was not what I dreamed when I was a kid looking into the future or what my mother and father had wished. Amid the violent chaos, a quiet but deadly menace stalked the Bronx. Its campaign for death swept me up.
I pushed back against the waves of depression with long subway rides from the South Bronx to Greenwich Village to seek camaraderie with other anti-war compatriots. There were the secret Thursday shopping excursions into Manhattan with my girlfriend Chicky, who hid the relationship from her family. We swore we were in love. The Fridays with my boys at Saint Anselm Catholic Youth Organization. We would shoot hoops and pool and then run off to Carlos’s basement apartment to smoke weed and listen to Red Foxx and Moms Mabley comedy albums. However, despite my worst efforts, my life was besieged by a growing heroin habit, the petty crimes to feed it, and the inevitable drug overdoses. I was scared, confused, and angry, and sure I would be doomed to six feet under.
In the dope world, everyone lies and cheats. It’s the bargain with the devil. Heroin imported from some foreign country smuggled across thousands of miles hidden in suitcase bottoms to apartments full of naked women mixing it with baby milk powder or rat poison into a glassine bag so you can buy from a man with no name in some dark hidden hallway.
I was old enough to go to Vietnam, but I wasn’t ready to die in a faraway land. So, I bluffed my way out with a military service deferment only in a war or national emergency. But, the powers in Washington, D.C. couldn’t or wouldn’t admit there was a war in Vietnam. Meanwhile, my friends were disappearing from the hood—drafted to become the wounded and dead bodies that kept piling up in field hospitals and black bags 8,637 miles away. Young people, the fodder for the war machine, lost faith in the Vietnam conflict and the illusion that America was exceptional. At home, another battle raged on between my father and me. Even as the bleak reality of the war filled the evening newscasts and newspaper headlines every day, my father declared America was winning. I only saw death and hopelessness. In protest, I burned my draft card at a UN rally.
Abandoned apartments became shooting galleries like the one off Willis Avenue where a violent moment, a drug overdose, played out like a bad crime movie that would not stop. It was my daily dance with mainline, straight into the central vein. Slumped in a broken down upholstered chair that had seen a more peaceful, relaxing time. My hands smeared with pain and blood, surrounded by the smell of alcohol, weed, a grease-stained brown shopping bag, a trail of dead food, half-empty beer cans, and desperate dreams.
It was the year of cities burning. New York, Baltimore, Boston, Chicago, Detroit, Kansas City, Newark, Washington, D.C. I wanted to join the urban guerrillas committed to tearing it all down. I was no longer willing to sit on the sidelines watching televised pandemonium. I left a Wall Street trading job to enlist in the South Bronx social justice army to battle over community control of public schools. The New York City Teachers’ Union closed the city schools against community control, the largest strike in the city’s history. Community groups, parents, and teacher allies vowed to battle the union and the Central Board of Education in the streets and schools. The days were filled with marches, school board meeting takeovers, and Black and Latino parent mobilization to fight for local control.
There is a ritual. There is always a ritual when preparing for the violent death that is sure to come. Don’t worry about sterile. Ignore the dirt on the stairs to the apartment, the old blood dripping down its walls, or the smell you swear is “Man, did someone shit up in here?” This is not Good Housekeeping certified.
The cops lined up military-style in a straight-line shoulder to shoulder on that Friday, September 13, in front of JHS 52, with their shiny badges and nice crisp uniforms. Their police hats tipped just right on their lovely crew-cut white heads. Their job was to keep the threatening hordes of black and brown mothers and their children from conjuring up a new life and future beyond the South Bronx and public housing and run-down tenement buildings. The parents were there to open the school for their kids. They could pledge allegiance to the flag, grow up to be successful Americans, and move to New Jersey, Long Island, New Rochelle, or Connecticut. It could happen. It’s the American Dream. Instead, they were destined to work low-paying jobs. You could find them at the greasy spoon in El Barrio, shuffling clothes racks down 7th Avenue or sorting through boxes of vegetables at the Hunts Point Market.
Mainlining, injecting directly into my vein was the only way to enjoy the fruits of the opium poppy. I pulled out the eyedropper and a small needle ready to shove heroin Smack, H, Chiba, Junk, Skag, Dope into my body. An old bottle of murky water the rusting bottle cap on an equally rusting coffee table leftover from the last fool who overdosed while crying for his mommy, “Don’t take this ride on the mainline home.” I’m choking from the stink that’s floating around me. I needed to get high with my last five dollars until payday Friday.
The police megaphone announced there would be no trespassing that day. Not on their watch. The spotlight turned onto one constable, a defender of the social order, the vanguard against disorder. A young, fresh-faced stalwart for a way of life, an ax handle in his hand. This ax handle, typically 32 to 36 inches long, was not the usual official policeman’s nightstick. The longer ones worked best for big timber and splitting wood. The shorter lengths were superior for smaller timber and general utility work. The latter was also best for beating those black and brown people who thought they could trespass onto public property as if they were taxpayers. On this day, the American Dream turned into an American nightmare. The one defender of the social order would use that ax handle as he saw in those news reports from the south. They knew how to use the ax handle properly. Swing and never miss.
Into the bottle cap I so carefully squeezed one, two, three drops of unclean water. The water slowly mixed with the off-white specks of heroin. Cooked it with a match underneath the cap until it blends into a muddy liquid.
The picture in front of me was vivid, living in my nightmares for years into the future. Swing baby, crush some heads, some Friday daydreams. Swing that ax handle like it’s 1968. The angry spittle foamed from his face and those of his comrades. The message was clear. The ax handle would crash through some heads and bodies to teach them a lesson. “Don’t fuck with us. We’re the man. We are the power.” No amount of black and brown mothers with their innocent children at their sides could stop them. Not one. It was madness run amuck. They went after the first black guy they saw, swearing that he was the Black Panther Party. As if they all looked alike. Brown hands reached out to stop the arrest. Nightsticks and the ax handle blocked the charging crowd. I grabbed a blue uniform. A club and an arm then wrapped around my throat choking me. My eyeglasses crashed onto the sidewalk. My breath escaped from my lungs. Two arms became four become six as I was lifted and hauled to a waiting police car.
My belt wrapped around my upper arm looked for the central vein that cried for the high. And the muddy water sucked up through the thin needle from the rusting bottle cap through the weeks old cotton ball up into the eyedropper back down through the needle and down I plunged and the rush of warmth that turned to panic while my soul was falling and falling and falling. And I realized this is not a trip home or into paradise. No one would save me here.
Those guardians of society proved they would do anything to protect their American Dream. The war for social justice continues until this day.
Suddenly, I was falling out out of the apartment down broken stairs spilling out into the street cursing where I heard heavenly music crashing with the sounds of sirens, imagining what my father would later call me in the emergency room, desagradecido, ungrateful. I’m shrieking, I’m alive, I’m alive.