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Monday, July 25, 2011

Junkies Say the Darndest Things

When I was in the 10th grade, classes were canceled one day so we could talk about drugs. There were maybe fifteen of us in one of the rooms sitting in a semicircle, facing a teacher and an ex-junkie who likely was court-ordered to do this. The ex-junkie had long blonde hair in a ponytail and he moved with the boneless demeanor of a novice surfer. The teacher was in every way his opposite: balding, angular and reserved. They passed out sheets with columns titled, “Ages 11-13, Ages 14-16, Ages 17-21.” We were supposed to write our feelings in the blank spots.

The junkie spoke, “See, we’re gonna talk about this from like what the different ages would be affected like.”

The teacher stole a sideways glance at the junkie and added, “We will go around the room and talk freely about our experiences. You are safe to speak here.”

The kid on the far end raised his hand. “We can say anything?”


“11 to 13,” the junkie started. “Like, how do you feel about drug use at that age? Good? Bad? How would it like affect an 11-year-old, you know?”

The first kid shook his head, “That’s real bad for someone so young.”

“Bad,” the next kid said.



When it was my turn I said the same thing: “Bad.”

So did everyone after me.

Until the kid on the end: “This friend of my brother’s? We went to his house and he lit a joint and blew pot smoke in a dog’s face and the dog walked wobbly and could only stand if it leaned against a wall.” A crooked grin crisscrossed the lower half of his face and he blurted this with the alacrity of a stand-up comic. His eyes widened while his eyebrows arched crazily. “The dog was like, ‘Oooor, roooor, oooooorr,’” he howled while swaying back and forth.

“Uh,” the teacher said. “Thank, uh, next age group.”

“14-16. What about drug use at that age?” the junkie asked us. “That age group is trying for Varsity.” He tapped two fingers to his head. “Think what effect using drugs would have on those chances moving up from J.V.”

The first kid shook his head again. “It’s really bad at that age.”

“Bad,” the next kid said, as did the next few.

“It’s bad,” I offered. “But also sad.”

“Bad and sad,” the teacher said. “Interesting.”

“Bad and sad,” the next kid said.

“Bad and sad.”

“Bad and sad.”

The kid on the end: “This friend of my brother’s? We went to his house this other time? He has a parakeet and he covered the cage with a sheet and blew pot smoke in there and the bird hung upside-down from its perch and tweeted crazy stuff.”

The teacher expectorated a staccato snort and then banged his chest with his fist. He tried to recreate another cough to sound like the previous bark of laughter but it wasn’t even close. The junkie adjusted his tie and stared at his loafers.

Later in the seminar they handed us another sheet with multiple-choice questions. One asked:

What is the best antidote for taking drugs?
A) Other drugs
B) Alcohol
C) Coffee
D) Lots of rest

“Coffee,” said one kid when prodded for an answer.

“No way,” blurted the kid on the end. “You use coffee for a downer, not for coke. You don’t freebase and then gargle Folgers Crystals unless you want to blow up like Richard Pryor, you doofbag.” He flicked his finger on the back of the other kid’s head.

The junkie smiled wryly, clapped his hands once and pointed at the kid on the end.

The teacher jumped in, “Look, uh”—he set the paper down—“let’s um, let’s talk for a minute.” He turned to the junkie and said, “Just tell them the truth. All of it. About drugs.” The teacher turned one palm up and made a sweeping gesture to us.

“The truth?” The junkie set his paper down as well. “The truth is drugs are great. Yeah.”

I have never seen a more panicked look on a teacher’s face.

The junkie said, “If they weren’t great they wouldn’t be a problem, right? But they’re great … until they’re not. And when they’re not they ruin your life. But—honestly—if I could do drugs again without problems, I would do it. But now I know problems come later and I won’t ruin my life twice.”

The teacher’s face eased only slightly.

“That’s the truth,” the junkie said. “You asked me for it.”

When we lived in Caracas, Venezuela I was in the 3rd through 6th grades. Our house had iron bars on the windows. A steel door separated our backyard from the world outside. The one time we didn’t lock our car someone tried to steal it. We were allowed to ride bikes to friends’ houses but we knew to be careful.

One afternoon my mother took us to the park. A scrawny Venezuelan boy about my age played around the bushes so I joined him. His clothes were dirty and torn but I didn’t mind. He was nice. In his cupped hands was a small bird. This interested me because we had pet birds too.

“¿Como se llama tu pájaro?” I asked him.

“No se,” he replied.

“¿Es un canario?”


The boy opened his hands and showed me. It was a sparrow.

He wandered away and I watched him curiously. With his back turned, I saw one arm work in a whittling motion into the other. Downy feathers flew into the air and fell to the ground. My mother yanked me away when she pieced together what was happening. The boy was hungry. She gave him some money and we didn’t go to that park again.

Another time in Venezuela, a gang of children stopped my bike on the sidewalk. The boys parted and the oldest of them approached. He laughed at the streamers dangling from my bike’s handlebars.

“¿Sabes que es ‘marijuana’?” he asked me.


He pretended to inhale slowly while holding his index finger and thumb to his lips. “Ma-ri-jua-naaaaaaa…” he said dreamily.

“¿Es un cigarillo?” I asked.

All the boys laughed and the oldest said, “Es un TIPO de cigarillo.” The boys laughed harder. “Es un tipo muy … especial.”

I pushed hard on my pedal and the boy stopped me easily. He flicked the streamer on my handlebar and sneered, “Adios, niña. Adios, muchacha.”

He stepped aside and I sped home.

Another day I saw a man stumble into the street with his arms flailing. In no time he was down on the asphalt in the middle of the road. One of his arms moved in a circular motion that reminded me of “yummy in my tummy,” but the way he did it was odd and mechanical. There were no cars on the street so I pedaled to him and stepped off my bike. The man’s face was frozen tight. An adult who had seen this now ran in the road with me. The man lay on his side with his neck curled tightly to one shoulder and the top of his head pressing into the pavement. The circular motion of his arms stopped, leaving his whole body awkwardly contorted.

I touched him. He was stiff.

The adult next to me touched him also. He shook his head.

“¿Muerto?” I asked.

“No,” the adult said. “Cocaína. Heroína. ¿Sabes que es ‘cocaína’ y ‘heroína’?”


The adult waggled his finger at me. “Drogas. No drogas para usted. No, no.”

The man on the ground exhaled hard and white foam ejected from his mouth. With every labored breath the foamy saliva spread over his inverted face, oozing up his nostrils and into his eyes. I swallowed and took a step back.

“Ay,” the adult said and looked around for someone. He put his hand on the man’s arm and shook it back and forth. The body rocked stiffly in unison.

“Ay,” the adult said again.

The teacher dimmed the lights and showed us a filmstrip about peer pressure.

When the lights came back up the junkie asked, “So like you’re at a party and your friends are doing drugs? Do you do them too? Yes? No?”

The kid on the end singled me out by blurting, “Not if Ale threw a party. All you’d get is milk and cookies!”

The room erupted in laughter. I reddened, and as a retort for being lampooned I said something demeaning about anyone who would try drugs in the first place. In no time the room turned on me.

The teacher held his hands up and the junkie took me in for the first time. He tilted his head and squinted coolly. I’ll never forget this. He said, “Good kid, huh? Yeah, that’s okay.” He moseyed up to me. It was only a few steps, but I felt intimidated. All day this guy had been a bit of a loose cannon. He said, “Nice house, probably? Nice neighbors? Let me tell you something. Drugs’ll bite anyone and they’ll do it anywhere. So don’t think you’re above this. Shit happens, my friend.”

He gave me a knowing glare, suggesting one day I would see the very things I had seen up close as a little boy.

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