Beacon Hill in Boston, Massachusetts was not always a place of high priced abodes and yuppie couples who had made good. In the 60s, there were basement apartments rented out to anyone who could pay, regardless of their professions. Such was the place I’ll call 2a Anderson Street.
The back alley crawling into 2a was a toilet for indigents, or even for drug customers who occasionally came and went. The clientele was not the best, as was the product. Old rubbish swept through, riding the eddies brought by the New England fall. Leaves were sparse in the densely packed Hill. The rubbish would simply have to do.
It was a bitter time of war. The nightly news consisted of body counts and gruesome photos of mangled bodies. A time when a teenager’s coming of age might consist of a swift death, or a whirlwind romance resulting in youngsters getting married before their time, simply to say they had. What better time to leave your seed behind than before you died from a booby-trapped disposable lighter some Vietnam teenager left to blow your face off, or from being impaled by feces-smeared, bamboo spears set to spring up at whatever tripped them. It was a time when the future of the country felt there was no future at all. We were a lost generation.
2a Anderson Street was my refuge away from my parents. For all the violence across the sea, there was none like the violence at home. I had learned young to keep my eyes lowered when being spoken to, affording just the right amount of eye contact to show my attentiveness. My life was a careful balance of survival. Vietnam made home look good. School was just an interim between the two. 2a was my home away from home, and the grime in the alley meant nothing at all. Home was clean, and home hurt.
The door leading into 2a opened on a small stairway that dropped down into a windowless apartment that smelled of sweat and old cooked food. The room adjoining the door was huge, twenty by twenty feet, with four cots, one in each corner. A makeshift pantry led the way to the back bedroom, where my friend Karla and I would lay at night, listening to the grunts and moans of those in other beds, partaking of young things who consented to their passions. We would giggle, but I was scared. Still, I felt safer at 2a Anderson than in the streets or at home. There was something about the place that made me feel more alive than I’d ever felt before. It was just a matter of time before I realized why.
The denizens of 2a were a jumbled lot, harboring weekenders looking for space away from their parents. I never knew why they allowed us to trickle in; I was just grateful that they did. I only remember two of the names: Jay and Rocky. Jay was a broken soul, probably a Vietnam remnant. He never spoke, just walked by and looked at us as if we were someone’s children over for a visit. He was on the high side of his twenties, but his dull hazel eyes were tired beyond their years. His shoulders hunched as if he had carried a heavy load too far. Then there was Rocky, twenty years old, a full-blooded Navaho Indian, with straight black hair to his shoulders and beautiful brown eyes filled with soft pain. He always had a quiet hello for me mixed with a little smile. Rocky was a junkie, but then most of us were drug abusers. My choice high was LSD, and it was beginning to wear on my body. I was thin, even emaciated, and I almost didn’t care. I was fifteen years old.
I had become adept at reading faces, and something in Rocky’s face told me he would never give his pain over to others, that his was a private lot, buried behind those smoky eyes. He minded his business and never delivered harsh words. His tone was sad, soft and knowing. There were whispers that he dealt in heroin, and from what I’d been able to see of his arms, it was true. He’d catch me looking at him sometimes, searching for who he was, and give me a look like an amused brother tolerating a little sister. He was not at all like the others in the apartment. There was carefully covered well of emotions wrapped in stone inside of him. But I could see them all. 2a Anderson was no longer important; it was Rocky who I went to see.
A number of weeks after I had started frequenting 2a, my peers moved on to a new rite of passage and were clamoring for me to join them. My fear had kept me safe for a while. It was supposed to be the greatest, but I was afraid of needles. Karla set up a double date with her boyfriend and another young man who would walk me through my task. We went to my young man’s small apartment, settled in the living room, and lined up to use the syringe. I was nauseous just watching them mix the brownish-white heroin and water in a spoon, holding it over a candle to liquefy it, then sucking it up through a small piece of cotton as a crude strain for impurities.
The needle was a number eighteen, something that a vet would use for a larger animal–a horse, maybe. To me, it looked even bigger. “C’mon. You want to go?” They kept asking. I told them to go ahead—until there was no one else to go. I sat in a kitchen chair while they all gathered around me, letting Lucky push Hell through my skin. He searched, poking the soft tissues underneath, finally producing blood as he drew back on the plunger. I widened my grimace, watching him squeeze, slowly pushing the milky fluid into my arm. A fog fell over me as supper crept up my throat, forcing me to the bathroom where it exploded into the toilet. I had made my rite of passage.
The weekend came. It was time to trip into Boston. I was excited about being able to tell Rocky that I what I had done. Miles crept by as I walked and hitchhiked in alone to bring him the news. Now he would have to accept me as an equal. I had had the courage to follow in his footsteps. I arrived at 2a, and searched for him in the darkened room, finding him in his corner.
“Hey, Rocky, look at my arm. I shot up for my first time the other night.” I brought my arm up, smiling as I pointed to a wound surrounded by blue/black tissue, nestled in the crook of my arm.
He grew quiet, staring at me for a moment, then dropped his gaze. His eyes glazed as he lost himself in some memory of long ago. His face lifted, eyes focusing on mine, as he slowly removed his shirt and turned his arms out to me. There were two hard lines of tissue running up each arm. “Is this what you want? I don’t know where to shoot anymore. Is that what you want, too?”
At that moment, I knew he was dead. There was no hope in his face, but I could see how important it was to him for me to listen. I wanted to hug him, but I was not sure how.
The next weekend I stayed home. 2a was raided, and a significant amount of heroin was found. Rocky went to prison, Deer Island I heard. They turned Karla loose after contacting her parents to pick her up. I never saw Rocky again.
For the next few months, I struggled with my hallucinogenic abuse, but I never shot up again. Rocky made me know I had a choice; that he wanted me to be okay. As the years have gone by, I’ve often thought of him. I’ve cried at those times. I wish there were some way I could let him know he helped me value myself—only because I saw in his eyes how He valued Me.
Copyright 1999 Joyce Bowen
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