I’m ineligible to serve on a jury. Whenever I’m selected for jury duty, I never make it past the first voir dire—the part where the defense and district attorneys interview prospective jurors to ensure they’re not biased. Sooner or later, one of the lawyers for one side or another will ask the group, “Have you ever been the victim of a crime?” and I’ll raise my hand and tell them, yes, three times. Back in 1986, when New York City was a bit rougher, I was mugged three times within the span of two weeks. Some folks gasp, the opposing lawyers look at each other and shake their heads, and I get to skate.
The first robbery happened while I was at a crackhouse, so I suppose I was asking for it, even though, being a whiteboy, I was looking for powdered cocaine, not rock. And it wasn’t even for me. I was hanging out, like I usually did in those days, at Vazacs on 7th Street and Avenue B (aka “the Horseshoe Bar”) and I ran into Laura, an old friend I’d last seen when I was living in Paris, (later, ironically enough, she worked on the movie Traffic) and she asked if I could get her some blow.
Helpful fellow that I am, I ducked around the corner to the rock house on B and 6th. I went upstairs, checked out their wares and was not impressed—they tried to sell me what looked like Parmesan cheese, really clumpy, yellow crap—so I passed. I went downstairs and while heading to the door at the end of the dimly lit hallway, two gentlemen I’d met upstairs at the crack den—their names, I shit you not, were Sha-hee and Baby Pop—bounded down the stairs, saying “Hold up bro!” and dumbass me, I turned and stopped.
The tall one shoved me against the wall and stuck the point of a 9″ hunting knife up against my throat. I pushed my head back into the wall as hard as I could, to get away from the knife point, which looked and felt very sharp. It seemed like if he gave just a quick little push, Pop! I’d be skewered. Sha-hee told me he was mad at me for disrespecting the man’s product.
“Should I stick this motherfucker?” he asked Baby Pop.
“Nah, he’s all right,” Baby Pop said in a friendly tone as he rifled my pockets, transferring my last 20 bucks from my pants to his. The point of Sha-hee’s knife dug further into my throat and I started shaking, faking terror.
I don’t know why, but I really wasn’t scared. I’m not bragging—I’m no tough guy, anything but, I’m kind of a pussy and hate confrontation of any kind, especially of the physical sort, but when I was in the middle of this life-or-death situation, everything felt calm and clear and I was without fear. I remembered a story my Dad once told me about when he was in the war, how he got out of a nasty jam, and I realized I could make it through this safely if I pretended to be scared, so that’s what I did. “Yeah, he harmless,” the big one said, disgust apparent in his voice as he lowered the big knife. I nodded my head as if to say, yeah, that’s right, harmless, don’t need that big knife anymore.
Meanwhile, Baby Pop pulled my cigarettes from my breast pocket, peered inside the pack and, finding it empty, shook his head sadly and put it back. Thank you, Jesus, I thought—there were three bags of dope tucked inside the cellophane. He started rolling up my sleeve, like he was a tailor measuring me for a suit. “You ain’t got no watch, bro?” I could hear the disappointment in his voice as he found just bare wrist. Sha-hee and Baby Pop turned and walked out the door without even saying goodbye.
When I got back to Vazacs, just around the corner but a world away, Laura was gone. But Evelyn was there, saw the look on my face (now that the moment had passed, I was terrified) and asked me what happened. I told her and she said, “Hey, you can get a free drink out of that!”
She pulled me over to the bar and said to the bartender, “Hey, Mark, give this guy a drink, he just got mugged!”
“Where?” he asked gruffly.
“Two doors down,” I said.
He made a face as if to say, “Idiot, got what you deserved.” He turned towards a paying customer.
We retreated meekly. Despite her scheming low-rent junky ways, Evelyn meant well and was an all-around good egg.
For the next few days, I saw Sha-hee and Baby Pop wherever I went—not only on the streets of the Lower East Side, but also on the 6 train, Midtown, Wall Street, all over the place—or at least I thought I did.
The second mugging took place a week later, while I was waiting for the elevator in the lobby of my apartment in the Jacob Riis house at 7th and D. (My roommate Tina and I were the only two white folks living on Avenue D between Houston and 14th street in 1986, but that’s another story.) I’d just borrowed $20 from somebody at Vazacs for train and lunch fare for the next day, when two teenagers (I don’t know how I knew they were teenagers, but they obviously were, even though I couldn’t see their faces because they were wearing ski masks) came up from behind, saying “Yo!” I turned around. I think it’s safe to assume with a fair bit of certainty that when young men are wearing ski masks, indoors, in May, they are probably up to no good.
“What?” I couldn’t believe this was happening again.
“Give us what you got, bitch!” one shouted. They both had their right hands in their bulging sweatshirt pockets, like they were pointing guns at me. Whether it was guns or their fingertips tenting the fabric I couldn’t tell.
“Do you have a gun or not,” I said. Again, I wasn’t being some kind of tough guy. I was tired, wanted to go home and was loaded (I was always at least half in the bag by midnight in those days). After the knife against my throat the previous week, pointed fingers weren’t going to get it done. They looked at each other and one of them partially pulled his hand from his shirt and showed me what kind of looked like a gun barrel, but it might have been a stick or even a Tootsie Roll. Close enough.
“OK,” I sighed, and reversed my front pockets, showing them white elephant ears. Nothing but lint. I hoped they would be dumb enough to fall for it. They looked at each other again, one of them gestured towards me with his head, the other one approached and dug my wallet out of my back pocket. Shit, thought I was going to get away with it for a second. He pulled the lone, borrowed twenty out of my wallet, and threw the bare billfold against my chest. It fell to the floor while they scampered out the front door.
“Thanks!” I said involuntarily. That made me feel like a chump, but I really was thankful he’d at least given me my wallet back. That was worth a $20 service charge.
But the third mugging was the worst. The third time was a real charmer: I was mugged by a friend, Miguel Piñero, the acclaimed playwright, TV and movie star. He was a Big Deal in the ’70s. While he was in prison for armed robbery, when he was 25, he wrote a play, Short Eyes, that was nominated for Tony Awards and such. He got out of prison and was embraced by the city’s radical elite. He was in movies and had a regular role on (and also wrote for) Miami Vice. He was also a convicted felon, a career criminal, a thief, a murderer, and, of course, a notorious junky—the part he played in the classic film Fort Apache: The Bronx was not much of a stretch.
I was heading back to my place with Evelyn. It was about 2am, and it had been a long day, we were both kind of dope sick and we had one mere bag between us. We were just east of B on 6th when I heard somebody shout my name.
“Hey! Yo, B!”
I turned. There was Mikey (that’s what everybody called him) across the street, furiously waving his arms over his head. He was wearing a ratty old scarf, a shapeless fedora and greasy fingerless gloves. He needed a shave two weeks ago. By 1986, Mikey’s career was on the downside. Not that he cared. He once said to me, while we were wandering the streets late at night looking for a cop spot, “Fuck that Hollywood bullshit, I don’t want to sit around Michael Mann’s pool, bunch of starlets with they titties hanging out, I’d rather be selling works on Avenue D.” The pool sounded pretty good to me, but to each his own.
I stopped. “What’s up, Mikey?”
He came trotting over, shambolically approaching me and Evelyn. “You cop yet?”
“Yeah, New York, New York.”
“Don’t know, we haven’t done it yet.”
He pulled a gun, a small revolver, and jammed its blunt snout against my belly. “Give it up!”
“Huh? Mikey, what the . . .”
I really didn’t want to give him our dope, not even at gunpoint, not under the present circumstances. It had been a really long day.
It was Saturday. Evelyn came by my apartment in the Jacob Riis House around noon and woke me up. “Wanna go cop?” she asked me.
I was standing at the door in my bathrobe, yawning. “Uh yeah, OK. C’mon in, gimme a minute.”
I hadn’t been doing dope nearly as long as Evelyn, and didn’t have half as bad a habit as she did; I usually waited till the sun went down before I used, I could last till then, and it was generally easier and safer to cop after dark, safer from the cops at least. But I liked Evelyn—she was friendly, cute, tall, thin, high-breasted—and I was glad she’d invited me to participate in her hijinks, so I said “Sure.” This is how a man gets in trouble.
We headed west a couple of blocks and turned right on Avenue B. It was a nice day, early spring, the kind of weather you might get in New York maybe 10 times a year. I liked Avenue B; it had character. Still partially paved in cobblestones, two out of three buildings above 10th Street were vacant shells, so it was peaceful and quiet, a halcyon retreat from the hubbub of the big city. And there were cop spots just about everywhere up there, which made it even easier to relax.
By the time we got up to 13th, Evelyn was pale and sweaty. I was too. Like I said, my habit wasn’t nearly what hers was, but the anticipation was making me feel sick, the same way you’d feel “well” as soon as you copped, just from having the bag in your pocket. Liberty was a good afternoon cop spot. We each spent our last ten bucks on a couple of bags rubber-stamped with the Statue of Liberty. You had to hand it to the dope sellers—they had a great sense of irony. Some other brands were Dom Perignon, AA, No Joke, Poison, Toilet and In Too Deep. Couple of years ago there was a big bust in Massachussetts, police confiscated a few hundred bundles of Obamacare. Those dealers could make it big in the straight world doing marketing.
We copped two bags from a spotty Puerto Rican kid, and went back to Evelyn’s squat on 8th between B and C. Eighth Street was lined with burnt-out buildings; a gigantic technicolor graffito mural flowed from building to empty building the whole length of the block. It was beautiful.
Her squat was nice and roomy, would have gone for $1500 bucks a month even back then if it was located just a few blocks west (or $15,000 today; or maybe $30,000). It wasn’t really even a squat, just an abandoned building “managed” by a crazy old Ukranian lady. Evelyn paid her a shakedown fee of $100 a month to live there. It had electricity from a nearby streetlight via an extension cord, but no running water or heat. I thought it was great, and asked if I could meet the old lady so I could move in. I never did meet her, or move in. The building was converted to luxury condos a couple of years later.
Evelyn asked me, “You mind if I skin pop it?”
“Your house,” I said.
I hadn’t used a needle yet, though my friends were starting to, so I wasn’t shocked or grossed out to see her shoot up. Especially not compared to the first time I saw somebody fix, in the bathroom at Neither/Nor. Neither/Nor was a combination bookstore / performance space / after-hours club / shooting gallery over on 6th Street between C and D. Mikey lived in the back room. Legend had it that on his way to catch a plane to LA to personally deliver his latest Miami Vice script, he OD’d on the front steps. When the paramedics arrived, one of them said, “Give him a shot of Narcan.” Narcan is the stuff that stops you from overdosing. It also immediately puts you into massive withdrawals. So Mikey, even as he was turning blue, woke from the dead saying “Fuck that shit!” and jumped in a cab. I don’t know if he made his flight or not.
Neither/Nor was a cool joint; they sold underground lit mags like Between C&D (remarkable in its time because it was printed on computer paper, with the perforated holes on the sides, and then slipped in a sealed plastic bag), Raw and The East Village Eye. At night they had poetry readings by folks like Darius James, Emily Carter and The Reverend Pedro Pietri, and music by bands like the Microscopic Sextet, Missing Foundation and White Zombie. I was snorting coke in the bathroom around 4am with this guy William, who supposedly worked for the film producer Ben Barenholtz, when Sandy, a skanky old junky, started banging on the door. She must have been pushing 40—we were kids back then, and anybody over 30 seemed old, but however old Sandy was, she looked 20 years older.
“Let me in!” she said. We ignored her and kept sniffing. Finally, she pushed the door in, refusing to wait her turn. She sat on the toilet, pulled her pants down, and said, “Don’t mind me, I’m gonna shoot this in my pussy.” She got out her gear and proceeded to do just that, poking a needle into the dark shadows of her nether regions. My goodness, I thought. I caught a plane to Paris the next day and didn’t come back for six months.
Anyway, Evelyn loosened her pants, revealing a couple of inches of smooth peaches. Butt cleavage wasn’t something you saw every day back then. Her ass was small but shapely, not quite my callipygian ideal, but I appreciated it nonetheless. She poked a needle one arc radian down along the inviting bright white curvature.
I huffed up my bag with the cocktail straw I always carried. There was no bite to it.
“You feel anything?” she asked.
I shrugged. The dope wasn’t completely beat, but it was, as the old-timey New Yorkers used to say, “gah-bage.” There was just enough whatever the fuck they put in the shit that day to take the sickness off, but not enough to get high.
We decided to head over to Vazacs and cadge some drinks off her ex, a pleasant if taciturn guy who tended bar, while we waited for one of our square acquaintances to show up so we could cop for them. It was Saturday afternoon, there would soon be some yuppie willing to do the old “you buy I fly” routine. Evelyn smiled at her ex and leaned forward, saying, “Hey, can you help us out?” He didn’t say anything, just gave us each a shot and a beer. He looked at me and smiled joylessly, as if to say, man, you don’t know what you’re getting into. Or maybe he just wanted to punch me.
We nursed our drinks while we waited. A lot of dopefiends hate alcohol, but not me. Maybe it was because the “heroin” we were doing didn’t have that much heroin in it, was a mélange of Tuinals, Fentanyl, No-Doze, Pixie Sticks and plaster dust, so a shot of whiskey would help get some sort of chemical reaction going. Or maybe I was just an alcoholic before I became a heroin addict.
Bennet walked in. He was a medical student at NYU who liked to hang out at Vazacs on weekends and get high. I always thought of him as a civilian, a guy who’d take a vacation from his life once in a while by spending an occasional night the way we lived every day. Years later I saw him at an NA meeting, making me wrong yet again. He was embarrassed to see me and walked out. I was beyond embarrassment so I stayed. That day all he wanted was a bag, a perfectly reasonable desire, and we were happy to oblige, as long as he got us one too. We all grinned as he handed Evelyn 20 bucks.
Why would Bennet pay people like us to buy them dope? There were at least a dozen cop spots within a few blocks of Vazacs, and they were not hard to find. You’d walk down 3rd Street between C and D and there’d be some guy standing on the top of a stoop yelling at the top of his lungs, “Bullet is Opennn! Opennn and Smoking!!! Bulllllit! Bulllllit! Bulllllit!!!” Not exactly on the down-low.
But besides the legit dealers, there were beat artists everywhere, just waiting for a sucker to come along, so they could sell him re-taped dummy bags full of sugar, or rob me, him, or worse. My friend Jack got the shit kicked out of him more than once copping on 3rd Street, but he kept going back there because they had by far the best dope. It was crazy down there, like the Wild West—you’d hear gun shots at least once a week. The first time I copped at Bullet House, with my running buddy Tim, there was a fresh pool of blood on the lobby floor that we had to step over to get to the dealers, who were perched on the stairs. We handed them 20 bucks and one of them asked the other, “Should we take off these white boys?” and the other said, “Nah, ain’t worth it for two bags, just serve ’em.” So even though they had the best dope I was usually too scared to go over there, unless I went with Mikey—I could go anywhere with Mikey. I’d run into Mikey while I was out copping, and say I was going over to 6th Street and he’d look at me like I was crazy—“Don’t waste your money on that gahbage, man!”—and he’d take me over to 3rd Street. He’d introduce me to the other junkies and the dealers, saying, “This is B, he’s cool,” and they’d look at me like they didn’t believe him, but they’d leave me alone because Mikey was the unofficial mayor of the Lower East Side.
Nobody could figure out why Mikey and I were friends. Why was the down and dirtiest yet most famous celebrity dopefiend on the Lower East Side hanging out with some suburban white boy? I’m not sure myself. He never hit on me, so it wasn’t that. I do remember one time, doing one of the first readings I ever did in public, at Neither/Nor, Mikey was sitting in the back slowly nodding his head. I’d like to think he respected me as an up-and-coming writer. Or maybe he was just nodding out. Everybody found our friendship mysterious, but I guess we just enjoyed each other’s company. My less-fucked-up friends were worried about the relationship—did I really need a dyed-in-the-wool junky mentor?
There were easy-to-find cop spots everywhere, but the downside of copping was that you could get robbed before, during or after your purchase, and maybe get raped, stabbed or shot in the process.
And who can forget New York’s Finest? By this time, most of my friends had been arrested once or twice. If you got popped and you were unlucky, the cops would beat the shit out of you for fun before hauling you in and then charge you with resisting. Once you got processed and were in real jail instead of one of the big holding pens, it wasn’t so bad, not exactly 20,000 Years in Sing-Sing. Still, spending 48 hours in the system (which felt like a month, especially if you were dope sick), till they finally let you go for time served could be a real problem if you had a job for instance. I usually didn’t, but the bologna and egg sandwiches they served for breakfast, lunch and dinner were memorably terrible.
So for a guy like Bennet, who had a real life outside the Lower East, who didn’t appear to use more than a bag or two once or twice a week, it was well worth his while to slip somebody like me or Evelyn an extra 10-spot to avoid copping. He knew we knew where the good stuff was (and we did, sometimes) and he wouldn’t have to risk getting ripped off or mugged or having to spend the rest of the weekend in a holding cell and miss his Monday morning anatomy class.
Bennet gave us a twenty and we went back up to 13th Street and bought another couple bags of dope, but from a different guy because we were smart and learned from our mistakes. He was standing in the right place, and the stamp looked right, so we thought we were good to go. We got back to Vazacs and Evelyn and I went to the ladies room and split the bag. It barely tasted like anything. Not that good nasty bitter dope taste you learned to love, or even the ether taste of cut-up dope, or even the scotch-tape flavor—this was the sweet taste of crushed Tic-Tacs, or whatever white powder the guy who just beat us put back in some empty bags and re-taped.
Fuck, the fucker burned us! Fucking dummy bags!
But Bennet was cool—he didn’t think we burned him. He thought, correctly, that we all got burned together. Not that we wouldn’t have burned him if we could have. He gave us another twenty to try again. This time we went to Fourth Street, because at last—it was nice and dark by now—a decent cop spot, New York New York, was open. We delivered a bag to Bennet back at the bar, wished him well and headed back to my place, one bag of almost certainly good dope between us. I was hoping it would be good enough that we could both get high and then Evelyn would sleep with me.
Mikey jammed the snub nose of his gun into my belly. “On three, motherfucker! One! Two!”
I didn’t wait for three. I dug the bag out of my pocket and dropped it in Mikey’s fingerless gloved hand. He lowered the pistol. “Hey man, sorry about that. I wasn’t gonna kill ya. But I would’ve shot you in the leg if you didn’t gimme that bag!” He skulked off into the darkness.
Evelyn looked at me incredulously. “What the fuck! You gave him our dope! What’d you do that for!”
“He was gonna shoot me!”
“Are you sure that was a real gun?”
“Yeah it was a real gun!”
“Aw, man, what’re we gonna do now?” Evelyn pouted. She looked beautiful.
“I’ve had enough, I’m going home—you wanna come over?”
“You’re just gonna go home? You don’t want to try something else?” She was appalled by my lack of gumption.
“No, man, I’ve had it.”
“I’m gonna go out there and see if I can cop again.”
I gave her a kiss on the cheek and turned east.
I never did sleep with Evelyn, though I think she wanted to, later, but by that time I was too strung out to care. A few years later I heard she died, of bone cancer of all things. I think she was 32. I wish she’d had a chance to grow up. Maybe she would have gotten clean eventually. Or maybe she’d have ended up like Sandy. No way to tell.
One week later, I was coming home from another shitty temp job, doing data entry at the New York Stock Exchange, just starting to get sick. I was going to go home and change (they made you wear a suit and tie at these temp jobs) before I went out to cop, so I didn’t look like a rube. I was walking East on 7th Street, between C and D, almost home, when somebody starts shouting my name.
“Hey B! B-Man, over here!” I turn and look and on the other side of the street, there’s Mikey, hopping up and down. Before I can even think about high-tailing it, he starts waving a $10 bill over his head, shouting, “It’s cool man, I just wanna pay you back!” He scuttles crabwise across the street and, before I can react, presses a crumpled bill into my hand. What, I wasn’t going to take it?
“Man, I’m so sorry about last week, but I was really sick, I couldn’t help myself.” He whipped off his fedora and tilted his head so I could see his scalp. (I’m not tall, but Mikey was really short, like 5’4″ at best; I thought it was really funny that they cast Benjamin Bratt, who’s well over six feet, to play him in the sadly mediocre eponymous biopic that came out in 2001.) “I was really fucked up and hurt, too! Check it out, man, somebody tried to shoot me!”
There was a part in his scalp. “See? The bullet grazed my head, they just missed me!” He really said this to me. And expected me to believe him. Like he was Shemp from an old Three Stooges short where they were going hunting and Moe got careless and parted Shemp’s hair with a bullet. “I feel real bad about taking you off last week, so I wanted to pay you back. I was glad you just gave me the bag, cause I woulda shot you if you didn’t. But I wouldn’t have killed you, I’da just shot you in the leg, cause you’re a good guy. Anyway, now I’m good—Michael Mann just bought the rights to my life story for $200,000!”
Could’ve given me $20 then, or maybe even a bundle, to make up for my trouble, I thought, but I didn’t say anything.
“So, we cool?”
“Yeah Mikey, we’re cool.”
I went home, got changed, and copped with Mikey’s amend. I don’t remember if it was any good or not.
Mugged By A Movie Star, by B. Kold, from Sensitive Skin #13.
Sensitive Skin 13 available here in PDF format here for just $4.95, or get the full-color print version via Amazon and select bookstores.