Sean McAlpin came to NYC with no where to go, no one to turn to, and just a backpack on his back. Since moving here in 1998, Sean has utilized his breadth of experiences to create captivating and, at times, chilling short stories and poetry about the New York experience and beyond. All these works can be found at his website.
As I read through Sean’s fiction (that is inevitably inspired by reality), I was struck by a particular short, “Not Like the Movies”. Spoken from the point of view of a junkie, I think the story brings to light the struggles a person suffering from any kind of addiction goes through. Often times we think of addicts as undeserving and pathetic, but we forget that they’re feeling, hurting people just like us. With nearly 2,000 people dying from drug abuse a year in New York, I think it’s important we understand the struggles someone with addiction goes through. And, as described by Sean’s story, the struggles are only intensified in a place like NYC.
I woke to a blinding light, the sun was beating thru the filthy plexiglass window beaming into my eyes, into me, like a judge getting ready to pass sentence. Here I was again, in some Times Square fleabag hotel that was pretending to be anything but. I was sweating like a whore in church; god was I sick. Slowly I came to and looked around the room, I saw Tommy lying there on the floor and thought man what are we doing? Will this ever end? Will it ever get better? This is not what life was supposed to be, how did I get here? I was staring at Tommy as my thoughts strangled me, I was startled when I realized that he was looking back, his eyes as big as dinner plates, pupils the size of quarters. Clearly he was as sick as me. It was a fucking desert in Hells Kitchen; there was no dope to be had. We were both as sick as dogs with a pocket full of money and no dope. This was bad. I always said I’d rather have drugs with no money than money with no drugs. You can always get money somehow, but you can’t always get dope.
Let me clarify for those of you (which is probably most of you) that are not from my world. Dope is heroin, not weed, or grass, or something that teenage kids play with. Dope is not any other drug than heroin, diesel, horse, smack, whatever you call it it’s not in the same universe with any other benign little substance like weed. There is a popular myth being propagated at present and that myth is this: A drug is a drug and they are all the same. Man that is just outright fantasy, anyone who’s actually done them can attest to that.
“So what the fuck are we going to do, Tommy?” I said. Now that was a stupid question because we both knew the answer already. The answer was the same since the very first human got the very first habit. Who was that I wonder? What the fuck was that like, to be the very first? Someone was. So the answer was the same since this proto human with the first habit asked it, we would either get dope or get dope sick. Dope sick, withdrawal, the desert of all deserts, and it had already started, we had passed desperation about a lifetime ago and we were now in frantic territory. I’ve seen it portrayed many times in movies, TVs, and books, but it can never be described accurately. No amount of narrative can convey the actual experience. It is yet another area where metaphor fails miserably. Kind of like when it tries to describe god, it can’t and there is no other vehicle to even attempt it.
Tommy had heard about this infamous cop spot across the river, way out in Brooklyn, in east New York. Surely they had something out there, so all we had to do was take a little trip to the outer borough and score some diesel. Now I had been running with Tommy long enough that the alarm bells went off every time he came up with an idea. But right now the craving was louder than the bells. So I said fuck it and we got on the subway. That seems real simple, “got on the subway”, no problem. But when you’re dope sick, nothing is simple. Hell, moving isn’t simple when your this sick. But we were no longer in charge; the habit was, so we went.
Starting down Eighth Avenue to the subway station at 44thst. I felt like I was embarking on a never-ending journey. I had zero energy and this was the last thing in the world I wanted to be doing, but it was the only thing in the world I could do. It was Saturday morning and the streets were crowded, New York City crowded. It felt like a nightmare navigating thru all of those ‘normal’ people. It seemed that all those faces in the crowd knew somehow what state Tommy and I were in and they were judging us mercilessly. I felt naked, exposed, like a cockroach when the lights are flipped on. A bullet in the head would be a real nice break right about now. And the smells, oh god, the smells. A myriad of odors from the smell of the dirty streets that I always hated to the smells of food vendors that I usually loved. Today I couldn’t stand it, every vapor hit me, jabbed me like a right cross, I wanted to puke. And it was summer so every aroma was magnified a million times. I don’t know if all big cities are like this or if it’s isolated to NYC, but there is an extremely strange, no an extremely annoying phenomenon in this city, you can be walking along and right out of nowhere hit some random block and immediately the entire world smells like ass, or decaying bodies, or death. Yes, annoying to say the least. And when dope sick, more than annoying. Well, we finally got down to the A train and I sat there like the sick junkie I was. You’ve probably seen them if you’ve ever ridden the New York subway. Not the ones you see almost falling but never quite completing the act, swaying like a weeble wobble. No, not them, they’re the ones who just got high and are feeling no pain. I’m talking about the junkies that look like walking zombies, eyes bulging, sweating, holding their guts in pain. We were those junkies, just to be clear.
The train took forever. Every turn, every bump, I thought I would shit, piss, and vomit all at once. When we arrived I could feel the hope coming in. That overwhelming hope that I wouldn’t be sick for much longer mixed with the devastating fear of believing this suffering might actually end in my lifetime. Afraid to hope. You might think hope is a good thing, but for some reason when you’re dope sick and the hope comes in the sickness multiplies. It’s like when you really have to piss and your holding it. It becomes much harder to hold as you get closer to the toilet. Then I could feel it; the cottonmouth that made me know that hurling was a sure thing now. I raced to the top of the steps at the station and let it rip. I was too sick to be embarrassed anymore. I’ve witnessed that scene from the other side. When I was ‘normal’ I’d see a junkie get sick like that and feel nothing but contempt. How could someone let themselves go like that? How pathetic, what a loser. Now, on this side of things, all those opinions meant nothing. They meant nothing before when I was having them only now I knew they meant nothing. It wasn’t always like this. See that’s a joke. Of course it wasn’t always like this, anyone who’s fallen knows that. And everyone has fallen, some just further than others. I regained what little composure I could muster and got on with the task at hand.
In the midst of all this madness Tommy had another brilliant idea. Since we had a good bit of money lets try to score big and go back to Hells Kitchen and sell it. We would have no trouble moving the stuff with the kitchen being so bare. So here we were, a couple of junkies from Hells Kitchen in east New York feeling entrepreneurial. We got to the cop spot and saw some Dominicans standing on the corner. We knew they had dope but we were white boys from another neighborhood, we’d have a better chance of getting shot than of copping. The only thing that kept us somewhat safe was that two white boys like us would be mistaken for cops. Not good for scoring but good for staying alive…sometimes. Well, we approached them and they acted like we were from mars or anywhere else more than two blocks from here. We must have approached ten dealers before one would finally talk to us. Tommy starting in about how we were looking to score big and had enough money to make it worth his while. Good going Tommy, tell a Dominican drug dealer that the two white boys far away from their home neighborhood have a lot of money. The dealer said he had a few bags for now that we could try but he would have to go and re-up if we wanted to score any weight. We were in no state to think long term, so we took the bags he had and wanted to fix up right away and then we could discuss further plans. But not knowing the neighborhood we didn’t know where to go to get off. That’s when the Dominican brother made the best offer either of us had heard all day. “Come on, I know where you can fix”, he said. So we followed him. He started down the stairs to some basement boiler room in the projects. Tommy was bug eyed and happy to be going anywhere. But not me, even my desperation for a shot couldn’t override the alarm bells I was having now. I knew something wasn’t right. “Come on Tommy, fuck this, let’s get outta here”, I pleaded. “Naw man its cool, this guys ok”, he said. Now we just met this guy about a hot two seconds earlier so there’s no way we knew if he was “cool” or not but there was no talking Tommy out of it. So instead of letting him go down by himself I figured it’s better if there are two of us. We followed the guy into the basement. He took us to a boiler room. A dark, damp, musty smelling room with one light bulb hanging there in the center over the boiler. A boiler room with one light….in the projects…in east New York, Brooklyn….man this was not good. There was a wall faucet and a bucket and that’s all we needed. Tommy and I got to work fixing up while the Dominican “stood watch” at the door. I hit my arm and right away I was in a different world. The physical pain, the psychic pain, the anguish, the fear and hopelessness that I had woken up with this morning vanished. Like the bright unrelenting sun being in your eyes blinding you and then a big storm cloud moves in and gives you a reprieve. The pain was gone in an instant. Man did I feel good. Fuck, why would I ever want to stop doing this, nothing, I mean nothing, could touch this feeling. That’s one of the craziest things about dope, you can go from feeling so sick, so miserable, even to the point that you have to have a shot but you don’t want it, like you are somehow in touch with how awful this shit can make your life. And then BAM, one shot and your entire world view does a 180, man why would I ever even think about not using this stuff for the rest of my life, it’s fucking awesome.
That’s when I heard, “all right motherfuckers don’t move”. I looked up and coming thru the door were two big black dudes, obviously friends of the Dominican. Tommy was between the door and me so he was grabbed first. I was far enough away that as the second guy lunged at me with a knife I sidestepped him. The blade caught my arm and I felt a burning like a hot iron was just laid on my bicep. Now I was in adrenaline autopilot. I ran around the boiler to get away. We were at a standoff. One guy had Tommy by the collar with a knife to his throat and the other one was on the opposite side of the boiler waiting for me to make a move so he could cut me off. And the Dominican was still ‘standing watch’ at the door. Tommy immediately started in on the guy holding him, “Do you know who your fuckin with? My brother is connected motherfucker, I swear to god you fucking do anything stupid and you’re all dead”. The funny thing is that Tommy was right. His brother really was connected and although he wasn’t happy with Tommy’s lifestyle if somebody hurt his kid brother he would have found these thugs and killed them. But none of that meant anything right now because these guys didn’t give a fuck who we were and they had us pinned.
Ever since I was a kid I have thought about this moment countless times. Not this exact moment, but the generic moment when you think, wow, I would fuck someone up if they did that to me. All the movies I saw that fed my little fairy tale, all the cool scenes where a real bad mother fucker somehow pulls it off and kicks everybody’s ass. Those movie heroes, the delusional self-hero in my head, all meant nothing now. None of it mattered. The one dude had a knife to my friend’s throat; the other one had a knife pulled on me. So I did the only thing I could think to do, talk. The one thing that all the bad-asses in the movies never do. They say things like, “the talkins over man, your mine now” or some other really cool sounding line. Well, not me, I talked away, like a fucking chatterbox. “Whoa, wait a fuckin minute man, what do you want? You don’t have to do nothing stupid here, just relax and we’ll give you whatever you want”, I said. “Your money bitch, hand it over”, he replied. Then Tommy piped in, ”fuck you we aint got no money”. The one brother threw him on the ground and kicked him in the ribs. I mean we were junkies, not in the best of shape and very skinny. So we were in no position to even consider giving an ass kicking. I said, “Easy man, Tommy shut the fuck up. Ok, Ok, I’ll give you the money but just take it and go. We aren’t from here and nobodies gonna listen to a couple of junkies anyway”. That’s when I saw the dude’s whole attitude change and I realized they had planned on killing us but saw there was an alternative to that now. At first they were gonna take our money and kill us so we couldn’t finger them. But he knew I was right. He knew we wouldn’t tell anyone about this. So I pulled out the money I had stashed in my left sock (the right sock is where I had my real stash) and handed it over the boiler to the guy that had me pinned. He looked at me, didn’t say a word, the other one kicked Tommy in the ribs again and they left, all of them, the Dominican too. Talking saved my life, very antithetical to the movie logic. I think we would both be dead if we fought back, or didn’t explain that they didn’t need to kill us because we had no credibility. Once they were out the door, Tommy and I bolted for the subway and all I could think was thank god they didn’t take our dope. After all that adrenaline rush we needed another hit. So we ducked into a diner by the subway and went in the bathroom. We didn’t get on the train and high tail it outta there. We stopped and shot dope before we left, that goes without saying. That’s one concept the movies get right.
The following Saturday found Tommy, his brother Tony and his crew, and myself driving around east New York looking for the trio that robbed us. Tommy had opened his big mouth and told his connected mafia brother what happened. And then what happened was no longer up to me and Tommy, but up to Tony and his crew. Tony and his friends had pipes, guns, and blackjacks. Tony kept saying “is that them, is that them?” Hell, I wasn’t sure I could even remember what they looked like. Then we saw two brothers and a Dominican standing on the corner. “There they are”, Tommy yelled. Tony pulled up and in jig time Tony and his three friends jumped out and threw a beatin’ on them. Those guys didn’t know what hit them. Tony was bashing in the Dominicans head in with a pipe and his friends were kicking and hitting the two brothers who were on the ground by now. And once again, all the times I saw the revenge scenes at the movies and imagined how cool it would make me feel, well it didn’t. I felt sick to my stomach. Hearing bones crush while the victim is screaming for mercy made me want to hurl. Hell, I wasn’t even sure if these were the same guys, they probably were but who knows. I felt like shit, I needed another hit, but I knew we couldn’t fix up until Tommy’s brother and crew were gone. The three wanna be thugs were lying in the street with bones sticking out and twisted in ways that only worked in cartoons and I was just craving to be anywhere but where I was. I just wanted to be back in Hells Kitchen, home where I felt safe. I wanted to lie up on my couch, do a hit, and watch a cool action flick. After all isn’t that why we watch movies? For an escape. Because real life is not like the movies.