Eric Granskou’s battle with addiction raged for more than twenty years before he entered recovery and was able to write about his experience. It’s rare to hear the voice of someone who has been so far down. Many Americans would prefer to avoid encountering the unpleasantness of life at the bottom, or to romanticize it in fiction. This is not fiction. “Everything I write is true,” Granskou says. “It happened just as I wrote it. All I have to do is remember.”
“Eric, Recovering Wino” was originally written as a series of letters to the author’s Alcoholics Anonymous sponsor. Granskou later showed his story to some of his professors at El Paso Community College in Texas. It might have ended there had not one administrator sent it to M. A. Maier, an editor at a university press. Struck by Granskou’s vivid — and often ugly — tales of street life and drug use, Maier took it upon herself to edit the rough manuscript and track down a publisher for it. She found The Sun.
— Andrew Snee
I really don’t like to talk about my parents too much, but they forced me to in detox. I subscribe to the theory that it was myself and no one else who brought the bottle to my lips. My mother and father did not drive me to drink; I can’t blame them for what I did to myself. But in detox, they maintain that if your parents are winos — even closet winos — then you are more likely to become one yourself.
Growing up in El Paso, Texas, I would look through my mother’s bedroom and find her hidden whiskey, codeine, and so on. So I guess she was one of those closet winos for a long time. My father died in 1962, when I was fifteen. He was the disciplinarian, made sure I did my homework. He’d been a second lieutenant in Italy, in an armored-infantry combat unit, a real war hero. But he smoked a lot — three packs a day — and that’s what killed him at age forty-two.
After my father’s death, my mother locked herself in her room every day. My high-school studies went to hell. While my father was alive, my grades were all As and Bs, but when he died, I simply quit trying. I was skinny, unattractive, unpopular, addicted to paperback novels, and uninterested in girls. I started to hang out with a local barber who was in his twenties and married with two stepchildren and one of his own. We would drink wine and discuss the whys and wherefores.
One night, we were drinking some Tokay after hours in his small barbershop when he asked if I’d ever tried marijuana. We went into the little room at the back of the shop, and he lit up a joint and showed me how to smoke it, how to hold my breath and count to thirty before I exhaled. We didn’t want to waste even a particle of that magic smoke.
Somewhere in the back of my mind, I realized that this was not right. It felt too good to be right. And it was. Once I started smoking, what little ambition I had disappeared. I and a friend from school would skip class and drive around all day, smoking. Every day we had to smoke a joint — it was a holy thing, like attending church. The process of preparing the joint, lighting it, and inhaling the smoke was like a ritual.
Eventually, I dropped out of school, and a few years later Mom decided it was time for me to move out, so I did. I tried to join the army, but was refused for being underweight. I’d heard on TV and from friends and in the songs on the radio that, when you had nowhere left to go, San Francisco was the place to be. So, in the summer of 1968, that’s where I went.
On the way to San Francisco, I tell everyone where I’m going. Another hitchhiker, Wally, says he lives in the Haight. He breaks out a pipe and we smoke some weed. Back in El Paso, they’re sentencing people to five years for first-offense possession; out here, people smoke weed openly. They believe in marijuana. So do I.
Wally gives me an address in the Haight, and I crash there. The house belongs to a jovial twenty-year-old from a well-to-do suburb. His teenage friends come over on the weekends. George, who has curly auburn hair down to his waist and two-inch-long fingernails, is only sixteen, but already old in the ways of LSD.
“Have you ever dropped acid?” George asks.
No, but I’m very hip, I assure him. I might be from a lame town in Texas, but, by God, I want to know all about this stuff.
“Let’s send Eric out to score the acid,” George says to the others. Then he turns to me with a smile. “You won’t get ripped off, will you?”
I promise him I won’t.
I don’t know a thing about acid, but I go and find a guy like George described. “Hi, what’s your name?” I say.
“Jesus,” he says.
“You mean like Hey-sous?” I say.
“No, I mean like Gee-sus,” he says. With his long hair and skinny build, he even looks like Jesus. It’s cold and rainy, and he has on only a T-shirt. His eyes are shifting back and forth, up and down the street.
“How can I be sure your acid is good?” I ask.
“You got fifteen cents?” he says.
“Then let’s go get some tea.”
The tea shop has low, Japanese-style tables with cushions for chairs. A beautiful hippie chick in a sari serves us. “Take this,” Jesus says, handing me a vitamin-C tablet with a splash of what looks like ink on it, “and when it comes on, then give me the $2.50.”
I take the pill. After ten minutes, the table we’re sitting at begins to come alive. Its legs start to move, and the wood takes on a fleshy quality.
“Can you feel it yet?” Jesus asks.
I push the $2.50 in change over to him, and Jesus leaves, winding his way across the serpentine, mosaic floor and out the ancient Chinese Buddha-temple door.
I walk out, too. Haight Street looks like a kaleidoscope. The sidewalk moves. I pass two bikers wearing knee-high black boots and filthy cutoff denim jackets with Nazi insignia and Gypsy Joker emblems sewn on the backs. A wave of paranoia sweeps over me. Their motorcycles are huge, bright, evil-looking machines from the land of Oz. I keep walking until I find a bench to sit on. A weird, owl-like boy sits beside me. “I took some acid,” I tell him. He has big, wise, owl-like eyes.
A boy with shoulder-length hair and a girl in a miniskirt walk by arm in arm. The guy has on a cutoff Levi jacket. From across the street, this giant blond biker comes running, and boom! he hits the guy. The girl steps back, hand over her mouth. The guy falls to the sidewalk, and the blond giant begins to kick him with his big black boots, then grabs the Levi jacket and strips it off the guy, kicking him all the while. The guy crawls bleeding into the doorway of a nearby bar. The girl in the miniskirt is in shock. I watch all of this through the window of acid: every color enhanced, unearthly, sparkling, surreal. The pungent odor of the pines. The chill night breeze that makes the trees go wooooossssshhhh. Witchy. Beautiful.
“Where were you?” my new friends ask when I return.
“I only had enough money for one tab.”
I start taking LSD every day, mainly because a tab costs less than a bottle of wine. One night, I get clubbed while stealing two chunks of cheese. This Arab storekeeper has been ripped off by hippies so much that he’s taken to defending his merchandise with force. I’m bent over the cooler, stuffing the pieces of cheese down my pants, when zap! a club comes down on my head. (To be perfectly honest, the club was only a piece of broomstick, and it would have taken many blows with it to hurt somebody.) I run out of the store with the angry owner right on my heels. He’s so mad he throws the club at me as I run away. I’m quite good at running away from angry store clerks by now.
In my drug-addled state, I start copping a resentment against the Arab. I go into a Safeway and boost a paring knife. I have decided to stab the Arab while he is locking up his store tomorrow night. He can’t get away with clubbing me.
Around midnight I arrive at the store and stand next to the front door, which is steel and has thick wire over it. After the last customer has left, the Arab’s old father comes out and looks at me strangely. Then the Arab appears. “Hey,” he says, “aren’t you the one that I caught stealing the other night?”
I stand there paralyzed, the knife in my hand down by my side. The Arabs walk over to their car and get in. I don’t know what to do. I must have my revenge. The night is warm; their car windows are rolled down. Just as the Arabs are about to drive off, I run over to the car and toss the knife in through the open window — not throw, just lightly toss it — then run down Haight Street in the dark.
I wander around a lot, high on acid. Today there’s a band playing on a flatbed truck in the park, and I’m crying listening to them — I’ve never felt so sad. After the band quits playing, they give me a ride back up Haight Street. I’m sitting there on their flatbed, sobbing my heart out. I don’t even know why.
The band drops me off and I wander down Haight Street, feeling confused and very high. My heart is a cold spot in my chest. The people look like cartoon characters. A van stops beside me, and a hippie inside it asks, “Do you want to go to the hospital?”
Why not? I go with them to the hospital, and the night nurse asks me what’s the matter. I don’t know how to explain: I’ve been on this trip for three days without any sleep, but I’m not even tired. “I have a cold,” I say, and give her a fake name. Then I wander off down the hospital corridor. A security guard grabs me by my hair and drags me back down the hall, where two more guards await. They throw me on the floor, rip off my shirt, and handcuff me. All the while the floor tiles are moving and changing colors — light blue to green to yellow — and every tile is a little TV screen, with tiny animated characters running back and forth on it.
I go to jail. It smells like Pine-Sol. They put me in the tank. I sit on my cot and take off all my clothes. The next day, they bring me before the judge for assaulting the security guard.
“You have anything to say?” asks the judge.
“Is this real?” I ask.
“Thirty days,” says the judge.
They process me and lock me in a cell: small, narrow, six stories up, with a window made of glass panes. I am so far up, they figure I will not break the window and jump out.
The jail, the acid, being alone — it all starts to get to me. I feel ashamed, no good. I shit in the toilet; I fish out the turd; I take my spoon and eat a piece of the turd. I drink a spoonful of urine. I break the windowpanes with my elbows, cutting myself in the process. I try to cut off the fingers of my left hand, but succeed only in producing a deep gash across them. The blood floods out in big bright red drops. The air fills with the smell of my blood. I write my name on the wall with it. Thick gobs cling to my gray cell wall. I’m trying to think of a way to cut myself deeper when the guards come and haul me to the hospital.
“Count backward from a hundred,” the doctor instructs. “By the way, why are you doing this?”
“Because I have to,” I say.
They stitch up my hand and take me back to the jail, a different cell this time: no cot, no window; only a toilet. I piss on the floor and mop it up with my hair, screaming. The other prisoners can’t understand what’s wrong with me. “Man, just do the thirty days,” one says. “Nothing to it. Hell, I got ninety.” The guards give me a mop to clean the floor. I break the handle and shove the stick up my ass. I’m bleeding, but it’s not enough, so I take my spoon and shove it up my ass, too, with all the strength my skinny arms can muster. I feel something break in my bowel, and the spoon goes in real deep: blood all over the place. I try to crack my head on the bars of the cell door, jump up and bring my head down hard: Boom! It doesn’t even knock me out. Disappointed, I slam my hand against the bars. My stitches rip open, and my hand starts to bleed profusely — big, sticky drops. The guards come in and manhandle me down to an ambulance: Emergency room. Recovery room. Psychiatric ward.
The nurses shave my head and give me Thorazine — three pills, three times a day. The psychologists call my mom and ask her to come and get me. She arrives and we fly back to El Paso. At the county hospital there, they put me in a psychiatric ward full of soldiers just back from Vietnam. One of them, a big, strong man, will jump up from his bed at random, any time, day or night, stand at rigid attention, and scream at the top of his lungs, “Corporal Jennings, ready for patrol, sir!”
A friend from high school finds out I’m in the hospital and smuggles in a joint for me. After about two weeks, I suddenly feel all right again. Being around these GIs straight from combat has somehow taken away my depression. I leave the hospital happy. Three days later, the local hippies have a “be-in” at the old mansion by the college. I attend in my hospital pants, with my shaved head. I take some acid. The trip is mellow and pleasant.
Snake and I are sitting underneath a bridge to the Northgate Shopping Center and sniffing glue. Snake is a longtime connoisseur of glue-sniffing. He shows me the proper way to do it: You take two paper bags, one inside the other, and wad them up to make them flexible, then take two tubes of model-airplane cement and squeeze them into the bags, one at a time, trying to keep any from getting on the edge of the bag. (You don’t want it all over your face.) After the glue is in, you squish the bottom of the bags with your hand to smear it all over, give it more spread, for more vapors. Finally, you grab the top of the bags in your half-open fist. Now comes the important part: You don’t actually “sniff” glue; you inhale it, putting your mouth to the opening of the bags and breathing deeply. You inhale several times, sort of hyperventilating into the bag until the fumes burn your lungs and your eyeballs feel as if they’re filling with warm water.
Later, a cop comes looking under the bridge. “Hey, you,” he says. “Come on out of there.” His voice is not mean or anything, just fatherly. He looks fatherly, too — plump, middle-aged, clean-cut.
They put Snake and me in separate police cars. The fatherly cop is sitting next to me, writing out the report. He looks worried, sad even. He’s concerned that I sniff glue. “You shouldn’t do this, son,” he says. “You shouldn’t do this.” His plump, uniformed body heaves a deep sigh. His face is a mask of concern.
The parents have left their sixteen-year-old daughter in charge while they visit Aunt Harriet in Baton Rouge. Unbeknownst to them, their daughter likes pot. They don’t know this, but Snake does.
Snake and I drive around in his car, a 1936 Dodge, looking for somewhere to crash. We find a middle-class home; the parents have left their sixteen-year-old daughter in charge while they visit Aunt Harriet in Baton Rouge. Unbeknownst to them, their daughter likes pot. They don’t know this, but Snake does. The girl is absolutely blown away by Snake, with his long hair and his worldly swagger. “Sure, honey,” Snake says, “bring all your friends over. I’ve got lots of pot, lots of it.”
It’s Friday night, and four or five of her friends come over. Snake gets them all high for the first time, and after the laughter dies down, he casually asks the girl, “When are your parents coming home?”
“In two weeks,” she says.
“Good,” Snake says. “Can I stay the night? Me and my friend are very clean.”
“Sure,” says the red-eyed girl.
“Great,” Snake says. “Let’s smoke some more weed.”
Later, Snake says, “Here, honey, you ought to try one of these,” and gives her a Dexedrine. “Have you ever been with a man? Come here, sweetheart. Don’t be shy. Let Snake show you something.”
When we leave, six or seven days later, the house looks as if a tornado has hit. The valuables are missing, and everything smells like pot. The little girls now like speed and want some more.
Dexedrine is an amphetamine that comes in two varieties. The capsules are brown on one end and clear plastic on the other. Through the clear plastic you can see hundreds of tiny little white and orange balls. The tablets are thin orange triangles, sometimes called hearts. I take three of the capsules and sit at a drugstore counter drinking a glass of iced tea. After an hour I notice that my balls feel funny, kind of tingly. No one’s looking, so I reach down into my pants to feel my nuts, and they’re drawn right up against my body, my scrotum contracted. Jesus, I think, my balls feel like little tiny baby’s balls. Maybe they’ll keep going all the way up into my groin. The store’s radio is playing, and the music sounds good. A warm feeling starts somewhere in the middle of my spine and crawls up to my shoulders, spreading outward. My hair stands on end; every pore in my body tingles. I walk around for hours, then go to an all-night restaurant and sip coffee and look at the waitresses with longing, my balls still up tight next to my body.
After three days like this, I take four more capsules.
Speed is easy to get. Everyone knows where the pharmacy in Juarez is: $2.50 for a bottle of Dexedrine capsules; $1.75 for a bottle of triangles. I put my money on the counter and add to it an extra quarter. “A tip,” I say, and smile warmly. The pharmacist smiles warmly back. I return to the Volkswagen beetle stuffed full of kids. We break open the bottle and take all the pills on the spot — five capsules each — so the border guards can’t bust us.
An eighteen-year-old friend of mine goes out into the desert at sunrise, puts a .22 rifle to his forehead, and pulls the trigger. He leaves a suicide note addressed to me; the police bring me downtown to read it. It says, “Love is sex, sex is death, and death is the ultimate trip.”
The day before the funeral, I break open a capsule of Dexedrine and pour the little balls into a spoon with some water. Then I heat the spoon with matches until the water boils and most of the little balls dissolve, turning the liquid bright orange. I draw the liquid up through a cigarette filter into an eyedropper with a needle on it. This is my first time shooting up. The rush makes my face hot, feverish. I stay up all night and go to the funeral the next day.
I got arrested time and again for drug-related charges, but I still didn’t catch on. I was convinced that, through no fault of my own, the police just didn’t like me. They had something against me personally, or were just bigoted against me because of my clothes and because I liked to use drugs. My philosophy was that the police were wrong to hate me. When they busted me for marijuana, I felt as though I were a martyr for the cause. I didn’t think the drugs were doing anything “harmful” to my life.
I get out of jail and start hitchhiking west. In Yuma, Arizona, I get picked up by a truck full of kids.
“Are you hungry?” they ask. “Do you need a place to sleep?” They take me to their trailer. “Have you ever shot speed?” one kid asks.
“Only once,” I say.
They fill up a syringe, and, pretending to know what I’m doing, I stick it roughly into my vein. The methedrine rush comes over me.
Later that night, we return from a concert and out come the needles and the spoons: shot number three of my life. We’re lying back listening to the stereo when, all of a sudden, one guy makes a strange noise. His arms shoot straight out, and his body contracts so violently that it bounces up in the air. The kid who owns the trailer rushes over, kneels on the guy’s chest, and starts pumping with both hands. “Get out! Get out!” the kid hollers. “The ambulance and the cops are coming.” We all leave and come back later. Turns out this is a common occurrence.
In the morning, the kid and a middle-aged Mexican junkie are getting ready to make a dope run to Mexico. Before they leave, the junkie prepares a hypo for the kid’s girlfriend, who has never shot up before — she’s only fifteen. She takes one look at the syringe and says, “I can’t.”
“Here, let me,” the junkie says. He grabs the girl’s arm and squeezes until fine, thin blue veins begin to emerge from the depths of her milky white skin. The junkie carefully picks one and expertly injects her. When he’s done, he wipes a drop of blood from the girl’s pale white arm with his thumb. You can see the methedrine high wash over the girl’s countenance.
“How do you feel?” the junkie asks.
“Good,” the girl says soberly.
The kid and the junkie go over to Mexico to score. About a day later, I hear the kid has been busted in Mexico: the Mexican narcs were waiting for him at the border; someone had informed. I wonder how bad jail in Mexico is. I wonder whether the kid will ever get out.
I walk into a Safeway in the Fillmore ghetto and stroll over to the meat counter, eyeing all the steaks and rounds and pork chops and hamburger and chuck roasts. I’m very hungry; it’s been a long time since I had a steak to eat. I’m also high on LSD, and drunk. I pick up a steak and pretend to look it over, as if preparing to buy it. Then I jam the meat in my pants, straighten up, brush down my shirt, and head for the front door. As I pass the checkout, a clerk half turns and says, “Wait a minute, sir.” At this, I race out of the store and up the street. A young, healthy bag boy charges after me. I can’t run very fast. The bag boy reaches out and grabs my hair. My feet fly up and my back hits the sidewalk. Immediately I start screaming, trying to make the bag boy seem like some kind of brutal police officer. I have learned through much experience that if you can embarrass the clerk, it sometimes ruffles him, and if you can attract a sympathetic crowd, it helps your case immensely. So I scream, “Look at him! He grabbed my hair! He’s going to beat me up! Get him off me! Somebody, please help me!” I’m a pathetic sight.
The clerk is flustered. “I just want to know if you’ve got a steak in your pants,” he gasps.
“Hell, no, I don’t, you son of a bitch.”
By this time a number of black people are standing around watching. The white bag boy looks around nervously and says, “OK, that’s all I wanted to know.” He turns around and starts jogging back to the store. The show is over. I’ve gotten away with the steak.
Sitting in the back seat of the police car, I am at peace, the speed filling me with euphoria. My insides are super, super clean, as if a cool breeze is blowing softly through me.
Los Angeles County Jail: I’m having a bad time. It’s very crowded in the receiving room. We prisoners are standing shoulder to shoulder, naked, our street clothes on a low wooden bench that surrounds the room. I’m skinny, scared, and have lumps in the crooks of both arms from injecting barbiturates. A large black man standing next to me accidentally bumps my clothes onto the floor. I mumble something, and he hits me full in the mouth, hard. The force of the blow knocks me flat on my naked back, my skinny white legs straight up in the air, genitals and asshole staring this guy in the face.
“Get up!” he screams. “Come on, get up, motherfucker! Fight like a man!”
I quietly retrieve my clothes and move to a different spot, this time beside a black man who looks less violent. “You are subject to being raped, motherfucker,” he counsels me. “Subject to being fucked in the ass.” I don’t need his advice; this has already happened. I suck on my lower teeth and notice they move back and forth. I worry they’re going to come out, that they’ll never heal, that they’ll always move back and forth like this, on the verge of falling out.
When they line us up for tank assignments, the guard says, “Is there anyone here who thinks he will have trouble?”
An old man says, “Yes, sir; I have a heart condition.”
“OK, step out two steps,” the guard says. “Anyone else?”
The only one of twenty-five prisoners with long hair, my mouth busted and bleeding, I raise my hand. I don’t wish to spend the next seventy days being fucked every day, two or three times a day. The guard is my savior. He sends me to a separate tank. After doing my time, I go back to the street. I never give it a second thought.
In Malibu, there’s a Buddhist temple right out on Highway 101. Inside the door are all these shoes lined up — people leave their shoes there while they meditate. I try on several pairs until I find one that fits, then hitch a ride up the coast with a rock band. They ask me if I want to come to their house, and I say, “No, please take me to Berkeley,” although I’ve never been there before. They drop me off and I crash outdoors, no sweater. The night turns cold and one of my elbows freezes up. I wake in the morning and begin bumming change. This is my life.
I ’m real depressed. Someone gives me a hit of acid and I climb a tree, thinking I’m a deer. In the morning I say to myself: That’s it. Enough. I want to go straight. I’ll go to Grampa’s and see if he can help me.
I hitchhike to Iowa, not drinking or taking drugs. I’m skinny and hungry and don’t know what to do, only that I want desperately to be straight. A bag of marijuana blows by right in front of me, and I don’t even bend over to pick it up.
When my conservative Norwegian grampa sees my hippie clothes, he freaks out. He cries. He’s just a little old bank clerk, but in 1918 he was a sergeant in the United States Fifth Cavalry. He takes me to a barbershop for a haircut, buys me new clothes, and gives me money for a bus ticket.
I go to see Mom. She says I can’t stay there unless I work. I get a job washing dishes at a restaurant. The kids in the kitchen all talk about smoking marijuana, dropping acid, drinking beer. I can’t bring myself to tell them that I’ve done all that for years. I start holding a cigarette in my mouth, thinking that, if I just suck on the filter, it will ease my mind. After a while, I light it. I start drinking beer after work, smoking skunk weed. Mom drinks; she has men over. Maybe I should never have stopped. Maybe I should have learned to deal acid instead. Maybe I shouldn’t have cut my hair. Now I’m just another square.
I drop acid and go back to living on the street.
One morning, walking past a parked station wagon, I casually glance through the open window and notice two or three backpacks — and a sleeping bag, too! On the street a sleeping bag is a real boon. I steal a pack and the sleeping bag and run around the corner to my cellar. Inside the pack is a letter. “Helen,” it begins, “I hope your studies are coming along all right.” It’s signed, “Aunt Martha.” And included with the letter are seven hundred-dollar bills. My brain goes haywire. I take a swallow of wine, thinking, Oh boy, oh boy, oh boy, oh boy!
I take the seven hundred dollars and immediately head for a restaurant. On the way, as kind of a joke, I ask a woman, “You wouldn’t happen to have any change, would you?”
“Oh, gee,” she says. “I just got paid today — here.” And she hands me a five-dollar bill. A five-dollar bill! I have gone months at a time without seeing a five-dollar bill.
After I eat, I buy some boots, a leather jacket, striped pants, and glasses. Next I score six hundred tabs of acid from a dealer I know. Then I buy a large bag of M&Ms, pour out the candy, and put the acid inside the bag. Finally, I purchase a bus ticket to El Paso.
I arrive at night and take a cab to a friend’s house. This friend used to be a square, a happy high-school kid, but then he fell into drugs: marijuana, acid, speed. He lives at home with his mother, two brothers, and a sister. His dad died when he was a kid. I walk into his bedroom and see a .38 on the bedside table, two rounds inside, ready to go.
Instead of going to work, my friend deals weed and speed. All the neighborhood kids come to his house while his mother is working and shoot up. These kids are all fucked up. Too bad; it isn’t my problem. I have six hundred tabs of acid for the little neighborhood kids if they want it. Fuck them, I’m not twisting their arms, forcing them to buy it, am I? My life is twice — no, three times — as tough as their little namby-pamby lives. I live on the street, dirty and hungry, with criminals all around. Every day is a struggle for me, my friend. So buy my drug, fill your mind with brilliant colors — I don’t care what you do; just give me $2.50 apiece. And they do.
John, who just got back from the war, comes over to my friend’s house. Before the war, John never associated with my friend, never used drugs. Now we sit together in my friend’s bedroom, where all business transactions take place. John asks me if he can have a tab of acid for free.
I’m dirty, skinny, strung out, broke again, hungry, with no place to stay. “I’m sorry, John,” I say. “I can’t. It costs everyone $2.50 each. Sorry.”
Does John go scrounge $2.50 someplace? No, he throws himself face down on the bed and begins to sob. John is a very large guy. I’m embarrassed and don’t know what to do. Before the war, John played football, laughed a lot, and was easygoing. Now he’s weeping, heaving big convulsive sobs. I lean over him and whisper, “OK, John, I’ll give you a tab.”
Rob and I are zipping down Mesa Street on my motorcycle.
“Pull in here, at the Circle K!” Rob hollers in my ear, pointing.
I stop the bike around the corner from the store and Rob goes in. He’s back in less than thirty seconds.
“C’mon, let’s go!” he says.
We ride half a mile to the 7-Eleven. Rob is back in twenty seconds this time, with two more cartons of cigarettes. He shoves them up into my torn jacket liner. We ride down Mesa like this, stopping at every convenience store, until my coat is bulging with cigarette cartons: twelve in half an hour.
We bring the twelve cartons to a bar on Alameda Street. Rob goes in, and comes out with seventy-two dollars. He gives me five for gas and disappears around the corner to buy some dope. Then we ride to Rob’s father’s house on the east side. Rob’s father doesn’t really like Rob’s staying there, because Rob will steal anything — once, he took his father’s college ring. At the house, Rob fixes me up a syringe of heroin; this is the rest of my payment.
I ride downtown with the syringe, loaded with dark brown liquid, in my shirt pocket. I inject the dope in the bathroom of a bar. On my way out, I nonchalantly say hello to an acquaintance; then I exit the bar, open my mouth, and let vomit spray from it like water from a fire hydrant. The vomit is pure and clear and comes from the pit of my stomach. I bend over so it will clear my shoes, and it pours like a thick stream of water to the curb. There’s no discomfort, no bad taste. I feel like I could French-kiss Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and she would say, “Oh, your mouth tastes so clean.”
This is heroin.
A neighborhood kid comes over. I knew this kid before, too. Now he’s a speed freak.
“I’ve got some acid,” I say.
“How much you want for it?” he says.
“Give me seventy-five dollars for a hundred.”
“OK,” he says. “You want to shoot up?”
“Yeah.” I never refuse an offer of drugs.
We go quietly into my friend’s bedroom, so as not to wake his mother. As an experiment, I mix a tab of purple-microdot acid in the spoon with some speed. I have a sawed-off plastic syringe with a baby pacifier on it. The pacifier makes it easy to “register”: You insert the needle into the vein, and flip the pacifier with your forefinger until the blood pops up into the syringe. Then you squeeze about half the solution into the vein, and let go of the pacifier. The syringe fills back up with blood, the pacifier wriggling like a worm. Finally, you squeeze the bright red fluid into the vein. When the needle makes a sqrrrrrp sound, that means it’s all in (along with a little air).
For some reason, though, acid was not meant to be injected. Almost immediately, I get an excruciating headache. Man, it hurts! Oh, my fucking head!
I woke up in the morning, and the first thing I thought was: How can I score? I fell asleep at night thinking, Do I have a wake-up? All day long I walked around thinking about who had the best stuff, who could I get to go in on a bag with me, how could I get some fucking stuff. That’s all I ever thought about.
So what happened? Why didn’t I go straight? Why didn’t I settle down, exercise, go to school, work part time, and concentrate on saving what was left of my life? Just think, if I had spent all those years working hard, going to school, maybe finding someone to love, how much better my life could have been. What was my hang-up? Why was I so down? I felt condemned to be alone, a misfit. Other people my age were married, raising kids. What was wrong with me?
I’m half drunk, lying under a hard canvas tarp with my bottle of wine beside my head in case I need a swig during the night. I’m freezing cold and dirty. Every now and then I kind of half wake up and pray, “Dear Jesus, please help me. I’m tired of living like this.”
Walking around broke, with nothing to my name but my secondhand clothes and a small bag of methedrine, I stop to shoot up in the back yard of an empty house. It’s midday, right out in the open. I don’t even hide, crazy from being loaded. I’m seeing flashes of color — blue, yellow, green. Everything glistens. I haven’t slept three hours in the last five days. I fill the syringe with water at the outdoor faucet and put some speed in a bottle cap. It dissolves instantly. I wrap an old belt around my skinny arm and jam in the needle. There are already big, saucer-sized yellow blotches on my arms. I pull back the plunger and blood rushes into the syringe, bright red. Just as I’m pushing in the meth, a cop comes around the corner, his gun out. “Hands up!” he says, and puts the handcuffs on my wrists, a familiar feeling. A fat man in a bright orange jumpsuit comes around the corner of the house. I guess it wasn’t abandoned, after all.
“You got him?” the man asks.
“Yes, sir,” says the cop.
Sitting in the back seat of the police car, I am at peace, the speed filling me with euphoria. My insides are super, super clean, as if a cool breeze is blowing softly through me. No pain; no hunger (even though I haven’t eaten anything in three days). I feel super smart, not afraid of the cops or of going to jail. All I need is air to breathe, and to be high. Anyway, who cares if l go to jail? No one visits me. I could die and no one would give a fuck.
To write this story is no problem at all. All I have to do is remember and write it down. This is exactly how it was.
For months now I’ve been sleeping in the desert under some dirty blankets and begging for food. I’m tired and almost faint with hunger. A friendly man takes me to his apartment to make me a sandwich.
“Can I wash my hands?” I ask.
“Sure, the toilet is right over there.”
In the bathroom, I open the medicine cabinet: shaving cream, soap, various prescription bottles. Then I notice the guy’s watch on the sink. I stick it in my pocket without a second thought.
I eat the sandwich, thank the man, and leave. As I slog across the gravel parking lot in my worn-out boots, here comes the guy: big, strong, and healthy. I reach down and pick up a large rock. He comes closer. I drop the rock, take the watch out of my pocket, and hand it to him without a word. The man is nice, understanding. He knows I’m tired, hungry, and in pain, but he still can’t let me have the watch.
For a little while, I go straight, give up drinking and dope, move into the Y, take electronics courses at the community college. I start to exercise, running ten miles a day and lifting weights. I even cut my hair. I’m working for a good company, one that supports people who are trying to better themselves. One afternoon, all sweaty from a ten-mile jog, I drink one beer. Two months later, I’m half drunk on wine and screaming at my supervisor, “You motherfucker, why don’t you leave me alone?” They don’t even fire me; I get another chance. But I get drunk and lose all the money I have labored to save. People get used to seeing me on the streets of El Paso again.
Like many street people, I camp out in my clothes. To stay reasonably clean and odor-free, I have a routine I do practically every day: I go to the Vickers gas station (I have kind of an agreement with the attendant), enter the bathroom, and lock the door. Immediately, I take off my clothes. While I’m unbuttoning my pants with one hand, I’m turning on both taps with the other. I put my shirt and pants in the sink, and scrub them quickly with a bar of Irish Spring. I hit the button on the hand dryer and put my pants over the blower. While they’re drying, I wipe the soapy floor with my socks, then wash them, too. When I’m done the whole room smells like Irish Spring. After many years of practice, I have this routine down to a science. I’m in and out in twenty minutes.
Mario never washes. He lives right out in the open on Franklin Street, has an old mattress and some cardboard in the alley between the hostel and the YMCA. Why he’s never been attacked or harmed, I don’t know — maybe because he’s crazy. Every day he stands by the hamburger stand, his head shaved, hollering at people. He can be real friendly, however, when he’s had his medication. Unfortunately, his medicine is very expensive and hard to get. When Mario has it, he reads books and washes his clothes, but when he doesn’t have his medication, he goes back to being a grinning fool.
I ’m sleeping in a little storage shed outside this big mansion they’re fixing up to be a restaurant or something. It’s cold out, dead of winter. You can see your breath a yard in front of your face. I’m half drunk, lying under a hard canvas tarp with my bottle of wine beside my head in case I need a swig during the night. I’m freezing cold and dirty. Every now and then I kind of half wake up and pray, “Dear Jesus, please help me. I’m tired of living like this. I’m getting very old. My body hurts all the time. My clothes feel itchy, like I’ve got bugs or something. My head is cold and drunk. I’ve been doing this for a long time, all alone. Please help me.” Shivering, I fall back into a fitful sleep on the cold concrete floor.
A flashlight shines in my face, waking me. It’s a cop, a big Mexican American, coarse and tough-looking. Perfect. “Oh, hello, officer,” I say nervously.
“You got any ID?” he asks, gruff but polite.
“Sure, here.” I hand him my ID card. “Cold, huh?”
“It sure is,” the giant cop says, shining his seven-battery flashlight at a spot on the shed’s wall. He takes out a felt-tip pen and writes something on the wall, then hands me back my ID and says, “If another officer stops here, show him this. And be gone early in the morning.”
“Thank you, officer, thank you,” I stutter, glad not to have been arrested.
The cop leaves, shouldering his way out of the small shed. After he has driven away, I look at the spot on the wall where he was writing. It has his signature, and above that, my name, my date of birth and social security number, and the current date.
Life goes on for me. I keep getting busted, keep going to jail. Then one day I’m in the back of a police unit, and the cop turns and asks me, “Have you ever been to detox?”
“No,” I say. “What’s that?”
They drive me over to a building on Paisano Street. Inside, the man behind the desk doesn’t look like a jailer. “You got room?” the cop asks him. “Sure,” the man says. “Bring him.” I empty my pockets onto the table, the man puts everything into a plastic bag, and they take me upstairs.
“What’s wrong?” the nurse there asks. “Too much to drink, hon?”
This blows my mind. In all my days, no nurse has ever said, “What’s wrong?” as if she really cared.
The nurse takes my picture, my pulse, my temperature. Then she takes my clothes to wash them and gives me a hospital gown. This is wonderful: no angry guards, no drunken winos puking all over the place, no thugs trying to steal your shoes. The next morning, I have a nice breakfast, blow into a breathalyzer, and am given back my now-clean clothes and set free.
My friend and I begin our daily begging. We do pretty well, and after a few minutes have enough for a bottle of Mad Dog. We split it, then ramble on up Mesa, stopping every pedestrian to ask for spare change. We bum enough for another bottle of Mad Dog, and drink that. I stand outside the Circle K and manage to beg enough for yet another bottle. This is the last thing I remember before I wake up in detox.
It’s the sixth time I’ve been in detox this year. Today, instead of the one-day room, they put me in the dorm with the people who are staying longer. Maybe the other rooms are full. The junkie in the next bed squirms and tosses all night long. As soon as I get sober, I’ll leave. I wonder if I still have enough for a bottle of Mad Dog. I look out the window: rainy, wet, and cold. It’s almost Christmas.
At breakfast, an orderly announces that it’s time for “group.” I’m confused. All the times I’ve been here, I’ve never participated in any group. I blurt this out, but a pretty, dark-haired pregnant woman says sweetly, “It’s OK. Come on.” On the street, no one talks to me this way. The other winos are pure survival. So when the pregnant woman talks pleasantly to me, I have to trust her.
Group is like this: We sit in a circle, and the group leader (usually a junkie, because junkies are more assertive than winos) starts the conversation: “Today we’ll talk about acceptance. Do we all accept the reason we’re here in detox? Let’s start with you, Joe.”
Joe, who’s been here before and knows the routine, says, “I’m really sick. When I came here last night, I was desperate. I was nodding so bad, the cops picked me up. I know I’m hooked.”
We go around the circle like this, each of us “accepting” that he or she is addicted. When it’s my turn I say, “This is the first group I’ve ever been in. I’m forty-five years old and have been a wino for a few years.”
The drug counselor, Magda, who is really in charge, says, “But do you accept the fact that you are an alcoholic in need of treatment?”
This strikes me as belligerent, as if Magda is asking me to declare that I’m nothing but a fucking wino. “OK,” I say, “my name’s Eric and maybe I’m in need of treatment.”
Group ends, and by lunch time I’m ready to go. It’s still cold and rainy. I’d better get real drunk tonight so I can ignore the rain and wind and cold.
After lunch the nurse announces that it’s time for “video.”
“I feel like leaving,” I tell a thin, good-looking cokehead.
“Oh, don’t leave,” she says. “What else have you got to do?”
This is the second time someone — an attractive woman, no less — has spoken kindly to me. I stay for video.
That night I attend my first AA meeting, downstairs at eight o’clock. A man gets up and says, “When I first came to detox two years ago, I couldn’t even walk up those stairs. I was so sick, I had to stop at every third step and wait for the shakes to subside. Now, with the grace of God and AA meetings, I have managed to go 623 days without taking one drink or using any form of mind-altering drug.” At this, the crowd of about forty men and women breaks into a lively round of genuine applause. This is not for me. I’m too old. What good would it do me to sober up now?
A few days go by. No one pressures me to leave; if anything, they encourage me to stay. They even give me back my civilian clothes; I no longer have to wear the hospital gown. We have group every day and are taken to other AA meetings around town, so that, after we leave detox, we’ll know where to attend.
When my fifteen days of detox are up, I have one last interview with a counselor. He asks how I feel, how was the food, how did I like the groups, the AA meetings, and so on. Then he asks if I’d like to stay at the hospital on Delta Street.
I stutter, unsure of myself, “I don’t think I really need it.”
The counselor, without emotion, says, “You need it. If you don’t go, you’re going to die.”
I argue, and point to the other junkies and prostitutes and winos in detox. “Look at them,” I say. “They’re really messed up.”
He shows me a picture of myself taken a month earlier: big, stupid face with a tangled haystack of hair. He says, “You’ve been here six times already this year. If you don’t get treatment like you should, then you can’t come back.”
“OK,” I say, humbled. “I’ll go.”
I went to treatment, then to a halfway house. There, I heard about a new type of subsidized housing for people like me who wanted to go to school and improve their lives. It looked better than any place I’d lived in the past twenty years. That’s how I, Eric Granskou, recovering wino — arrested more than a hundred times, with three stays in psychiatric wards — at the age of almost fifty, was given a second chance on life.