I was cold: shivering actually as I walked into the bathroom of John Dewey High located on Coney Island, just 2 stops from Brighton Beach on the D train. I wasn’t wearing a coat this overcast February morning, just a dungaree jacket with all my patches and pins. That was my identity, how I repelled adults and challenged authority. I showed my colors; my Jimi Hendrix patch on my left arm spoke volumes while the marijuana leaf patch on my lower pocket told people I was cool.
Winter was harsh that year; I remember the ice and dirty slush covered the streets in frozen waves as busses splashed it on sidewalks and buildings weeks ago, throughout the streets of New York. I didn’t give it a second thought and, that’s where I lived, in Brooklyn.
I was smoking weed pretty regularly at that point, yet still attending classes—well, most of the time. I showed up when I didn’t oversleep or have something better to do. At 16, I had many better things to do, all more important than school.
This high school building was new: it was the promise of a technical high school that wasn’t fulfilled. Instead we had empty labs and vacant teachers who complained outwardly to anyone who would listen. John Dewey H.S. was an experiment in creating an environment for learning. It was nothing like what the founders had promised. It was a failure so far, but I had no control over that. I can only be responsible for what I did with it, and honestly, my plans were to get stoned and play guitar.
I entered the bathroom expecting to find a group of guys huddled around the space heater with the window open so the smoke could escape easily, in case a teacher walked in. There was a fifty percent chance the teacher would smoke with us, but we couldn’t take the risk.
I figured someone would have some weed for me; someone always did. I had $5 in my pocket, and I probably should have used it for lunch, but I could eat something later.
“Hey!” I said, with a deadpan expression, and I threw my backpack on the ground in an act of defiance. They knew what it meant; there was already a pile of books and backpacks strewn throughout the cold, damp bathroom space, when I let my own bag drop into that pile.
“Anyone got some?” No one spoke, no one had any weed to sell, and I just wanted to get stoned. That was the common thread among the group I hung with; we wanted to get high. Race, creed, color had no bearing when you have a common interest.
One guy spoke up: Touché’ was the name he used. A black dude with a shiny leather coat, a beret cap and dark sunglasses that never left his face. “I got something for you,” he spoke. He pulled out a glassine bag, about an inch long and half an inch high. I knew what it was. I had turned him down before; he was a junkie. I knew that. But I wanted to get high. I had skin-popped before, meaning I had injected into the back of my upper left arm, not directly into a vein, which was considered safer, but I didn’t exactly know why or even if that was true.
He dumped the contents of that tiny envelope into a bent spoon, went to the sink, added a few drops of water, and then with a single movement, popped open a dented, gold-plated zippo and cranked the flint wheel. A tiny flame struggled to catch hold under the spoon, he cooked the contents until they bubbled.
We were kids, who knew what was clean? He grabbed a syringe from his pocket and drew in the home-made stew, signaling me to roll up my sleeve. I did, he popped it into my right arm behind the muscle with a quick jab, and then a push of the plunger.
I felt the warm rush of heroin high, which I had experienced before. This time it was a little less powerful than the last time, as I came to realize that it always is. I gave him the $5 bill and he nodded a nod of approval as I rolled down my sleeve. I had to collect myself in stages, I was moving slowly, as I walked out of the second floor bathroom and headed to the staircase. I knew I could sit there peacefully for a few minutes, which I did. Just as I was approaching, I felt sick; I bent over and lost whatever was left of breakfast. I knew that was, unfortunately, part of the experience.
I felt relieved in an odd way, but the deep fog that rolled over my brain was urging me to stay still a little while longer. We all knew that heroin is addictive, maybe the most addictive substance in the world. I knew this, and I also knew it could kill me, but the odds were that I would live another day.
An hour passed, and I was regaining motor movement again. I checked my schedule: I had a class I could sleep in on the third floor, and so off I went and found the half-finished, mostly empty classroom and our ambivalent teacher just getting started. I slipped my sunglasses on and slouched down in the last row.
By the time the class was coming to an end, I felt my brain coming out of the fog and back to earth. I turned in my homework, which I had completed the night before, with a nod from the teacher. I knew I would get at least a B, the work was way too easy.
Being socially inept at 16 seemed to be working for me, I played lead guitar in a band I had organized earlier last year. We practiced on Saturdays and I knew we would be getting high after band practice. That’s when the girls from the neighborhood would come by and watch. If it weren’t for my band life and the guitar, I wouldn’t ever have contact with girls who might want to be more than friends.
The next morning, back at school, I needed to see if I could get some weed for Saturday’s band practice, and went back to the second floor bathroom., Touché and his crew were there as always, beckoning me to join them. I asked as before: “Got any?” And he nodded yes, and opened his hand to another glassine bag.
I shook my head. “No, I want some weed,” which resulted in a short shaking of his head. He then once again pushed me to take the glassine bag; I did, and I gave him $5 as before.
I didn’t use it that day. I stored it away in my wallet where I knew it would be safe until the next day, after band practice when everyone was gone. I knew that the drug had its grip on me when I found myself thinking about it all day on Saturday. As we practiced, I considered how I would enjoy the high I had waiting for me. And then, everyone left, and I was all alone.
I had my own spoon and my own zippo lighter, and I arranged them carefully on the makeshift table consisting of two guitar amps in my mom’s basement
I pulled out the sealed plastic syringe, added a few drops of water and waited for it to boil. Then, with the bubbling mixture pulled into the new syringe, when I was about to plunge it into a vein in my right arm, something happened.
The phone rang.
I put the syringe down, I answered the phone, I heard nothing.
“Hello? Hello? Who’s there?”
I waited a second to see if anyone was really there. It was a dead line. I hung up.
Annoyed to have interrupted my afternoon activity, I resumed guiding the syringe on its trajectory toward my vein when I realized the syringe was frozen solid. The counterfeit, evil concoction I had cooked had cooled down and congealed into a solid block.
It was at that moment my whole life flashed in front of me: a life of despair, addiction and poverty, an early demise for sure. I saw that future and I saw that I may have been granted a reprieve.
The realization was immediate. Had that phone not have rung, I would be dead. I would have died instantly, maybe over the course of 45 to 60 seconds as the deadly poison headed straight to my heart. I sat there stunned, horrified at where my life had taken me up until this moment.
I broke down in tears. Sobbing alone in the basement of my mom’s house, I had dodged a bullet. I realized then just what would have happened and I would have forfeited a life issued to me to use as I wish.
How did that happen? What did it mean? Who called me? Was it God on the other end of that line dialing my number?
As I sobbed alone in the basement, I felt an opening of sorts, a subtle change that Saturday morning, I started to feel my feelings for the first time, I was hurt and I was coping in the only way I knew how.
Funny how one split second of your life can change it entirely. I developed a new respect for the adults in my life; I realized how hard it was to see a kid like me, wasting his life. I became exterior to the subjective world and saw myself from a distance, and I didn’t like it.
Those adults, previously enemies and antagonists, were there to help me on my journey through adolescence. I became open to that support and let them help me, not instantly but slowly as I regained trust, hard as it was.
The truth is that I never really saw my own life outside of school and home. I knew that other kids grow up into adults but I couldn’t see how that would happen for me. I started to wake up to the idea that moving on, past the drugs and into a world where I have something to offer, could be appealing.
As I a left my teenage years, I was also able to look back and see what I gained. My experience with the drug world in the big city left me with an unexpected gift.
When I walked into that high school bathroom, I felt as if I entered Touché’s “office,” it was where he conducted his business. Even though he scared me on one level, there was a professionalism about what he did. I remember summoning my inner-Touché as I negotiated bookings for my band, carefully weighing my expenses vs. what my competitors were charging and the split among band members, and then holding my space in getting the deal done and delivering it.
Later, as I built my first business, I often remembered just how disciplined and structured my high school drug dealer was in his “sales” presentation and business process. Don’t get me wrong, I certainly didn’t admire what he did, but to succeed, everything had to work perfectly– it wasn’t lost on me. I mimicked his matter-of-fact confidence and direct approach to closing as I helped Tony Robbins and Chet Holmes, as their CEO, to grow their company. I built a world class company and touched thousands of lives.
Realizing that other kids are out there in the same position that I was, I also started speaking to groups of teenagers as part of the Hugh O’Brian Youth Leadership Organization.Thanks to where I am now, I am able to be the “gel in the syringe” for them. I would have missed all that incredible experience had I not experienced the drug world and learned my street smarts back then. I am grateful to be able to inspire others and to give back to a world that I took so much from as a boy.