I sat every day perched high above the northeast corner of Canal and Allen in my painting studio in New York, mostly not painting. Down below was a tree-lined stretch of median called the Allen Malls. Worn by the wind, weather and debris, The Allen Malls were constructed in 1931 and hadn’t been renovated since. A seemingly useless space, the Malls made what is in effect a 25-foot wide cement park in the middle of a freeway. On Dilapidated wrought iron benches atop mislaid slabs of cement, buckled and broken by the persistent roots of ginkgo trees, congregated a group of misfits either waiting for, or just returning from, their daily sojourn to dose at the methadone clinic around the corner.
Who would hang out there anyway?
I was fascinated by these people, and I found myself gazing off into their midst when I should have been painting. For me, the fascination, being a former drug addict and having twice been a patient of the methadone clinic, was one of, “What if?” What if I had stayed with it? Would that be me? And it was the ilk of some of my friends?
It seemed that there were universal characters and common–very common–stories being expounded from the would-be screams of hoarse muffled voices. They had big puffy jackets and sweaty, pasty, almost translucent flesh, like Data from Star Trek:The Next Generation. Previous attempts at blending in with society had failed miserably: two-tone hair color and the “rat tail” still prominent features, decades out of fashion. You know the rat tail those residual strands of, “Yeah, I use to have long hair and resisted cutting this last piece,” and now have braided its ugliness into a memento mori of a rock-and-roll fantasy now trailing down the dreamer’s back, hidden under a business collar.
The stories always go something like this: a botched hustle involving a trip to some family member’s home at least 50 miles away; some kind of family emergency–possibly a death or a rush to the hospital for dialysis; getting locked out of the house (impossible because they were all veteran burglars anyway); a new friendship with a kindred spirit that offered a real fix, followed by some kind of ruthless double-cross, leaving them un-high and dry, having been ripped off of all their money and left only to bum a ride or a bus ticket from the family member, who was by now fed up with them and had just kicked them out of their life.
Our hero has made it back just in time to miss their dose.
Now broke and about to be sick beyond belief, their only recourse is to plead with others for a mouthed dose (that’s when you fake swallow the juice and save it in a cup to sell or do later ) or to get in on the scheme to score currently being hatched among “friends” with either a promise to pay them back or as a straight-up accomplice.
This is the main conversation, but there are others going on that aren’t so loud. There is of course the hope that some dumb passerby might hear their story, take pity on them, and give them some dough. This stage also acts as a kind of actors’ workshop where one can hone their storytelling skills, so when one finds a sympathetic ear, they can make the most of it.
“Acting.” I see a lot of acting, dramatic hand motions, things being pantomimed; fascinating to watch. There are also props: One older junkie friend of mine found a broken watch.
“Now I look like I know what time it is!” He said, in an attempt to look a little more pulled together.
Another guy would carry a thick cheap paperback novel in his back pocket or a newspaper a few days old.
“Whatchya reading?” I’d ask him, thinking he might be the literary sort of type like Burroughs or Bukowski.
“I can’t fuckin’ read. That’s just so I look like I’m doing something when I’m waiting,” he said, looking at me like I was an ass.
There will never be an automated dope machine, as Reed said way back, and it will always hold true. “You have to wait.” There’s a lot of time to occupy.
So there I’d be, watching them, seeing the same ones return, new ones arrive, some dropping out. Some show up again month after month; every day the same kind of thing. I thought of taking notes on them like an anthropologist. But I’m too lazy for that. I thought they couldn’t see me or were oblivious to my being there. I was four floors up. They seemed to be so engrossed in their own daily “business”, a term also used by actors to mean the little things they do when they are on stage when not delivering actual speech or dialogue: light a cigarette, pour a drink, rifle through some papers. The Business; doing business.
One day I’m walking down the street and there’s a small group of them. I recognize one, one of the most colorful of the women, tight-cut hair on the sides bleached to a brassy amber, longer and dark brown on top, looking like a Puerto Rican version of The Stray Cats. She’s big, scary, loud–The Bitch Mama, I called her. She was dragging some skinny chick with her who couldn’t seem to get her spine to line up right. She’s snaking along and keeps falling asleep while The Bitch Mama jerked, jerked, jerked her across the street. They’re heading back from the dirt park that’s around the corner on Essex Street, also made in the depression and almost as depressing as the Allen Malls. They’re all loaded down with a white five-gallon bucket and armloads of tattered fur coats, looking like they’d just got back from a trapping expedition, but they’d spent the entire day in the park trying to sell the pelts. The loose-stemmed one was kinda sexy in a kind of extreme version of Heroin Chic. I watched them, trying to put the story together in my mind.
The HC chick was obviously a newcomer to the scene. The others rarely ever looked loaded, they were so used to the stuff. She and The Bitch Mama must have come across the pelts and did their best to hock them from a chain link fence in Sara Roosevelt Park. The two had had some success on the venture, enough to get the young one high, but only enough to get The Bitch Mama fighting mad.
I had some business of my own, Li Chi, a Chinese black tea with heavy cream and lots of sugar from my corner bakery, a daily 4:00 PM ritual. As The Bitch Mamma hit the curb on the south side of Canal Street she turned around, looked me dead in the eye and said, “Hello, Officer! Hello, Mr Officer!” In a nagging schoolyard, ‘I’ve outsmarted you’ smartass tone. She wound her head at me continuing so everyone in the area would know I was an undercover narc and had been spying on them for a year or so. “Are you gonna take me to jail today?” Keeping it up, but whom she was hoping would hear, I don’t know. This was Chinatown and almost nobody spoke English here, only the few artists, the firemen across Allen, and them. And the firemen were on our side. Heather’s Uncle Johnny went to visit with his fireman brothers at the Chinatown station when he dropped off Heather to stay with me. Murph, classic red-headed Irish New Yorker, made sure his niece was watched out for. They showed up at our parties, double-parked the fire truck with the lights flashing the corner. The men in their gear mounted the stairs and one of the partygoers shouted up, “The firemen are here!” like we were being shut down or something. “Give em a beer!” I hollered back at the rudeness. Is that anyway to treat a guest?
Maybe the word got back to the Bitch Momma that the punk rocker (what I’m usually known as with my bleached-out Warhol hair) is a narc and not to be trusted. It’s possible because another time one of her hopped-up squirrely gentlemen hopped up on to the fire engine and was trying to figure out how to fire it up. I banged on the metal station door, “Hey MURPH!” I yelled up from the station floor. “Some guy’s stealing your truck!” Murph and his buddies slid down the fire pole and into action.
“The Fucken’ Methadonians are at it again!” Murph said as he passed me and the three of them yanked the zombie from the truck. “Get back in the Mall where you belong!” Unfazed, he stumbled back to his pack, another big heist foiled. What a great name, I thought. Methadonians: a primitive zombie society living in our midst. After the action settled down, I asked Murph,
“What the hell are you gonna do with a stolen fire truck? Try to hock it to another station?”
“He was gonna go for a joyride. He didn’t know, he just saw the keys and couldn’t help it.” I imagined Bart Simpson and the gardener’s tractor that kept saying “Ride me. Ride me Bart.”
Later I did find out that the police were surveilling them downstairs from my friend’s studio in the building next door. They had fake decor and a Ficus tree, binoculars and phone line, taking notes on pads of yellow legal paper. They wore worker drag so they’d blend in with the construction guys that tore up the street and took turns manning the outpost with clockwork diligence. I’m amazed that the city of New York had the budget to spend on keeping tabs on these folks — and what were they hoping to find out from this entry level of the crime industry –the Methadonian?