I used to recreate with drugs (pot, hallucinogens, opiates) in my 20s, I had a vodka problem in the early to mid ’90s, and I had an alcoholic dad who passed along a good amount of emotional misery before joining AA in the mid ’70s, so I know a little something about substance-abuse pitfalls. Addiction is the banshee that could have taken me to hell but shrugged and gave me a “get out of jail” card instead. I was spared, grew past it, whatever…and yet there but for the grace of God.
I’ve therefore been very interested for some time in reading a forthcoming book by N.Y. Times columnist David Carr called The Night of The Gun, which is about his former life as a drug user and coke dealer (in the ’80s), and his struggles with alcohol addiction more recently.
Night of the Gun (Simon and Schuster) has an Amazon.com publishing date of August 8th.
I got the book yesterday and read most of it right away. If you know Carr’s media column or his Oscar-season writings as “the Bagger,” it should come as no surprise that it’s exquisitely written. I love Carr’s voice, which is at once flip and candid and yet elegant and wise. But the book is also a gripping, dead honest and well-reported confessional. And at the same time — no mean feat — dryly entertaining.
Night of the Gun is one of those “I did this and whoa…I’m not dead!” books, but of a much higher calibre. Much. Carr is a man of immense steel balls to have written this, and particularly to have gone back into the damp muddy tunnels of the past and fact-checked everything for three years. He did some 60 interviews with the witnesses and participants. He pored over the depressing documents (arrest reports, medical sheets) that all drug-users accumulate sooner or later. It must have revived nightmares. But Carr went and did it and bravely wrote this book, and did a bang-up job of it. Hat off, head bowed.
Carr offers this succinct sum-up on page 16: “WHAT I DESERVED: Hepatitis C; federal prison time; HIV; a cold park bench; an early, addled death. WHAT I GOT: A nice house, a good job, three lovely children. WHAT I REMEMBER ABOUT HOW THAT GUY BECAME THIS GUY: Not much. Junkies don’t generally put stuff in boxes; they wear the boxes on their heads, so that everything around them — the sky, the future, the house down the street — is lost to them.”
A truly first-rate website has been put together to explain the book and the story and the whole thing. Tomorrow’s N.Y. Times magazine (in the 7.20 Sunday edition) will contain an excerpt from the book titled “Me and My Girls.”
Carr’s book reminded me of the “farewell, my dignity” aspect of drug use. Constant assaults on your self-esteem, stains on your sheets and your soul, humiliations unbridled. One way or another, if you do drugs you’re going to be dragged down and made to feel like a low-life animal. Because that’s what you are as long as you let drugs run the show.
Drugs didn’t exactly “run the show” when I was 22 or 23, but they sure were my friends. I saw my life as a series of necessary survival moves, spiritual door-openings, comic exploits, adventures, erotic intrigues — everything and anything that didn’t involve duty, drudgery, having a career and mowing the lawn on weekends. Pot, hashish, mescaline, peyote buttons, Jack Daniels and beer were my comrades in crime.
(I’m going to leave aside discussions of my Godhead Siddhartha discoveries with LSD, and I’d just as soon forget my relatively brief encounters with blithering idiot marching powder from the late ’70s to mid ’80s.)
The particular story that David Carr’s book brought back was me and my upper-middle-class friends’ flirtation with opium and, for a brief time, heroin. The way we saw it, smack was much hipper than your garden-variety head drugs. Opiates were more authentic, we figured, because guys like William S. Burroughs and Chet Baker did them. Where today I see only the danger, the depravity and the recklessness, back then we saw only the contra-coolness.
I was never much of a user, but I did flirt from time to time. I was a candy-ass in junkie circles because I confined myself to snorting and smoking the stuff. One thing I learned pretty quickly is that “chippers” (casual users) have to be careful because heroin will make you throw up if you smoke or snort too much because your body isn’t used to it. Which mine never was because I wasn’t…you know, dedicated.
I was living in a crash pad in Southport, Connecticut. My sole source of income at the time was working part-time for a guy who ran a limousine driver service. Business guys looking to go to Kennedy or LaGuardia or Newark airports would call and I’d come over and drive them to the airport in their car, and then drive it back to their home. Doesn’t sound like much of an idea, but there were definitely customers calling from Westport, Weston, Easton, Wilton, Georgetown, Redding, Southport and Fairfield.
My deal with my boss, Peter, was to be on call at all times. A guy leaving for the airport in a couple of hours would call Peter, he’d call me, I’d drive over and so on. So one afternoon — a Sunday, possibly — a friend and I happened to have some of that snort-smoke stuff, and had retired to a barn out back for a little indulgence. We rolled a nice fat joint and soon I was royally Baker-ed. But just as we got back to the house the phone rang. It was Peter telling me to dress nicely and be at a certain client’s home in 45 minutes if possible, certainly no later than an hour. A trip down to Kennedy.
If I were less of a fool I would have said then and there, “Sorry, Peter — no can do.” But I was broke and needed the money. Go for it, I told myself. I figured I’d take a quick shower, change into a dress shirt and sport jacket, and be relatively straight by the time I got to the client’s house. But the shower didn’t help and I looked like a wreck. My pupils were little black micro-points. So I put on a pair of deep-black shades and then had the inspiration to put on a cowboy hat, the idea being that the manly-conservative cowboy vibe might rub off and make me look less drugged out.
But I was feeling way too wasted as I got into my car so I got my friend to drive me over in his. I figured the stuff would wear off sooner or later and I’d be okay.
I started to feel more and more nauseous as we drove over. When I realized with a jolt I was going to be sick, I rolled down the window and lurched halfway out and spewed. Except we were moving at a good clip — 40 or 45 mph — and so the vomit splattered along the side of my friend’s bright red car.
You need to imagine yourself raking leaves on the front lawn of your beautiful Southport home, blue sky, your toddlers playing nearby, birds chirping in the trees, when all of a sudden you see this ratty red Impala rolling along with some guy leaning out the passenger window and spraying clam chowder. You have to think of it in those terms.
It was all we could do to keep the client from calling the police once he saw me — pasty-faced, straw cowboy hat, unable to stand straight, slurring my words, flecks of vomit on my sport jacket. I was screamed at and, of course, fired by Peter. Never before had I felt like such a piece of detritus, and nothing has happened since to equal this. It was so humiliating that the opiate-usage thing ended very soon after. I told myself I was the rebellious but capable son of suburban middle- class parents who led productive, organized, reasonably moral lives, and here I was acting like a complete degenerate.
The purple rage on Peter’s face, the look of contempt in the client’s eyes, my own self disgust. If these things didn’t wake me, nothing would have. But they did.