City Paper is not for tourists
“I’m wearing a diaper. Right now.”xxxxxxx
Hitting in perfect pitch the high C note of a self-deprecating sicko demanded by the post-modern junkalog, Jerry Stahl thus opens Permanent Midnight, his 1995 memoir of shooting dope and fucking up in the promised land of Hollywood. “This whole deal is not, like, something I’m proud of,” Stahl continues. “Not the kind of thing that makes you want to grab the nearest phone and dial fifteen of your closest friends. On the other hand, I think I ought to mention it. I think I have to, because this…is where I now find myself. Where drugs, for better or worse, seem to have taken me. And this, it says so right on the contract, is a book about me and drugs.”
The same year that Warner Books published Permanent Midnight, now in its third printing, I signed a similar contract with Doubleday. This deal followed the anonymous publication in the Jan. 13, 1995, Washington City Paper of “Me & My Monkey: Confessions of a White-Collar Dope Fiend,” an epic-length article that itself opened in the approved fashion: “I am going to kill myself. No kidding. This time I mean it. I’m sick. So sick. My last fix was 45 hours and, let’s see, 20-odd minutes ago.” The book-length version, my contract stipulated, “shall be the Author’s memoir of his 25-year drug addiction to heroin as he climbed to the top of his profession as a Washington journalist and defense expert.”
Truth be told, I only really shot dope for about five years total at the dawn and dusk of that two-and-a-half decades of wide-ranging drugging and drinking. And I would be the last one to boast of having climbed to the top of any profession. Okay, so sue meand Doubleday would, by now, probably like to do just that.
I guess I must have written one hell of a book proposal. What I haven’t written yet is that damned book, leading Doubleday last month, after years of patient waiting and nudging, to cancel my contract, leaving me owing them a shitload of money.
Inking an agreement with a major publishing house when I had been off the spike for only nine months was clearly premature. But it’s better than three years now since I promised Doubleday those 80,000 words, and I have reluctantly been forced to face two stark facts: One is that I’m a lazy sonofabitch. The second is that after foolishly diving headfirst into the recent tsunami of memoirs and dope-fiend autobiographies, I have a bad case of cold feet about completing my own junkalog.
It was the memoir aspect of my assignment that proved to be the barb on the needle. Unlike critics who bash them as a self-referential literary plague on the 1990s, I have nothing against well-written memoirs as such. Indeed, besides the many recent heroin books, I have this year read and enjoyed Tom Andrews’ Codeine Diary and Andie Dominick’s Needles. (An obsessive collector of books about drugs, I was first drawn by their highly suggestive titles. But these turned out to be memoirs of living with, respectively, hemophilia and diabetes.) The trick to making any memoir more than an unseemly public display of life’s lesions is to lay bare in emotionally understandable terms the internal human feelings attending whatever drama prompted the publisher’s initial interest.
No mean feat that, especially for an essentially private person like myself whose writing, heretofore, had largely been confined to penning impersonal (if sometimes surreptitiously impassioned) essays on national security policy for the staid old National Journal. (NJ’s motto: “Dare to be dull.”) I mean, how do you bring insightful emotional truth to bear on your alcoholic and dysfunctional (but nonetheless loving) family when five of its seven members are still living? How to sift through more than four decades of a reasonably eventful but often depressing life for those necessary and telling details relevant to a long love affair with chemicals without lapsing into tedious self-indulgence? Can you sell your life story without selling out?
I think you can, but I’m still struggling to perfect some sort of Gypsy Rose Lee routine: stripping on that metaphorical stage without revealing too much, or at least anything too embarrassing. What I have seen after a couple of years doing little but devouring doper books, which date back to 1821 with Thomas De Quincey’s seminal Confessions of an English Opium Eater, are the twin dangers lurking before the writer of the drug confessional: The work can end up being a temperance tract, which is precisely the tenor of most of those published before the 1950s. (With such frenzied titles as Thirty Years in Hell and The Wail of a Drug Addict, what else could they be?) Or the drug memoir can wind up as a particularly sleazy sort of side-show attraction in which the author-geek bites the heads off syringes and splashes himself with blood and diarrhea and other bodily fluids for the tut-tutting entertainment of any yokels willing to pay the price of admission.
But, as generations of carnies have learned, build a side show and they will come. Whatever the freak-show tack lacks in nuance, it more than makes up for in commercial appeal. And so my already paralyzing ambivalence about this project approached rigor mortis when I sank into a seat at the Avalon a couple of weeks ago to watch writer-director David Veloz’s film version of Permanent Midnight. Among other petty matters, I couldn’t help thinking that if I’d gotten off my poxy bum sooner and finished my own little book, this might have been my story up on the big screen. I could have been a contender in the confessional sweepstakes.
Starring the aptly ferretlike Ben Stiller as the speedballing geek who supports his oil-burner habit by writing bad television sitcoms, the film sustains the wry wit that made Stahl’s book such a page turner. With Stiller seemingly misted with Wesson oil for that greasy junkie sheen, the movie also accurately reflects most facets of the lying, desperation, and general grossness that are the terminal junkie’s lot. I particularly enjoyed the scene where Stiller/Stahl feigns outrage when the friend who is putting him up finds his entire stash of precious Percodans missing. (A little rehab joke: What’s the difference between a drunk and a junkie? A drunk will steal your stuff and lie about it; a junkie will steal your stuff and help you look for it.)
Veloz and Stiller get all of the dope-fiend details right, down to the last abscess. But I still left the theater suffused with same dissatisfaction with which I had turned the last page of the book. Neither version of Stahl’s story, however deftly told, gives us any real reason to care about the dope fiend in question. All we ever see is what this generally unpleasant character does. Empathy demands that we know a bit about who this guy is, but Stahl desperately employs his wit like a rapier at every key turn to keep us from finding that out. Of course, if we did learn more about the inner Jerry Stahl, we might just hold him in more contempt. The man is a junkie, but he’s no fool.
And it’s a wise junkie who can turn his caustic humor to good and telling purpose. Perhaps the most personally engaging moment in the film comes when it is all but over. As footage of Stahl’s actual appearances plugging his book on various talk shows plays on the screen, a Stiller/Stahl voice-over recalls: “People ask me, ‘What is the worst thing heroin made you do?’” His reply: “Maury Povich.” A creature of Hollywood, Stahl is no stranger to the American publicity monster and its eerie demands. In a rather chilling 1995 Los Angeles Reader article, he described at length his post-publication sojourn in talk-show hell. “By, say, the eighth time you’ve marched out that kicking-smack-while-Los-Angeles-burns anecdote,” he mused, “it has eight times less meaning. By the twenty-eighth you might as well be reciting the ‘Gilligan’s Island’ theme. When I wrote the thing I was shaking. Now I feel like I’m in dinner theater.”
And that might be the weirdest thing about the current run of heroin memoirs: Performing a sort of freak-show-as-dinner-theater, middle-class screw-ups are successfully dining out on survivors’ tales of their days in the gutter. Examining this trend a few months back in Spin magazine, Lily Burana acidly commented on “the current abundance of ex-junkies who are making public record of their
heroin-addled past. Like Scott Weiland telling Howard Stern about jumping the fence at rehab. Or the growing cache of memoirs…that illustrate the depths of addiction with a shockingly detailed-yet-humorous-yet-somehow-still-poignant anecdote involving vomit. Not to mention the alarming frequency with which ‘recovering heroin addict’ now appears in rock-star profiles.”
I can understand why I.V. veterans like myself might retain a certain clinical interest in someone else’s war storiesthat’s what ex-users typically do when we get together for lattes after our 12-step meetings. We trade tall tales of our misadventures in the maw of addiction. Usually exaggerated for effect, these legends are an artifact of a phenomenon commonly called “junkie pride,” the perverse pleasure afforded by one’s own sheer damnable badness. Stubborn shreds of that hubris usually outlast even the most humbling of rehabs.
A bit harder to understand is the irresistible fascination so many civilians seemingly have with all this junkie business. My friend Toby knows a thing or three about drugs, but he is by no means a junkie. Yet he regularly goes to his library branch to ask after new books “about people shooting up.” Toby certainly doesn’t seem to be alone in this vicarious smack-happiness, so maybe the attraction isn’t so obscure at that. Over and above its psychopharmacological allure, heroin and its dark attendant world proved alluring to many middle-class dope fiends like myself exactly because shooting dope was the most obvious expression of extreme hip alienation our limited imaginationsspurred by reading too much William Burroughs and Jim Carrollcould come up with.
Some of us sought out heroin not despite the fact that it is forbidden and fucked-up and dangerous, but precisely because it is those things. The desperate need to cop at all costs a bag of dope will eventually have even the most suburban of souls exploring not only the far edges of their psyches and values systems, and also see them prowling the most untamed frontiers of our urban badlands. And something in the contemporary American soul still yearns for at least a postgraduate year out on the existential edge of our settled and all-too-predictable postmodern lives. So why shouldn’t an unexpectedly wide range of general readers find a frisson or twomaybe even a bit of gut-level identificationin the middle-class junkalog?
But here’s the rub: The very spirit-deadening qualities of the drug itself, not to mention the highly repetitive rituals involved in securing a daily supply of it, ensure that a heroin habit is actually one of the more tedious ways of adapting to life on this planet. Hal Ellson’s The Golden Spike (Ballantine, 1952), one of the more accurate pulp novels about heroin I’ve read, is also among the most boring because it somewhat artlessly depicts in interminable detail the tiresome cycle of copping and shooting.
After the honeymoon period, a span of often deliciously reckless naughtiness that can sometimes endure for yearsthat certainly was my experiencethe dedicated junkie’s life is really only about getting more junk. Punctuated by moments of raw terror while copping on the mean streets, this existence largely consists of heavenly interludes of mindless bliss interspersed with hellish passages of equally mindless dope-sick wretchedness. Either way, our hero is most assuredly not entertaining deep thoughts about the Meaning of Life. None of it, in fact, is really about anything but the ways and means by which the enduring habit, that psychic parasite, will consume all that the host organism once possessed simply to sustain its own meaningless continuation.
When I first got clean four years ago, I wrestled with the delusion that my life had all of a sudden turned terribly dull now that I was no longer hamstering along on that exercise wheel of sick-cop-high-sick-cop-high. Until, that is, some sort of wisdom finally dawned with the realization that my greatest happiness with heroin had come only when I had enough dope to lock my apartment door behind me for 24 or 48 hours. And what would I do then? Sit with my syringe and my spoon, chin on my chest, burning holes in my clothes with cigarettes while nodding off in front of forgettable TV shows likely written by Jerry Stahl between his own nods. As adventurous literary lives go, this is mighty weak stuff.
Having read dozens of dope books, my taste for the genre has doubtless grown as epicurean as that of the Frenchman for his hundreds of soft cheeses. But my admiration for the work at hand has come to hinge upon the extent to which the writer is able to eschew going solely for the cheap thrills of the freak show while hewing honestly to the elusive and ambiguous human truths lying at the true heart of any experience, even one as stereotypical as a 1990s bout with heroin. Sadly, thoughand this may just be a blocked writer’s sour grapes fermentingnot that many of the recent dope titles strike me as hitting that mark.
At least the dark doings of Permanent Midnight transpire in Hollywood, just as Scott Frank’s lovely Tales From the Geronimo: My Seduction by Junk and Desert Dreams (Grove Press, 1995) benefits from the comparative novelty of being set in 1970s Tucson. Much of what lends so much of a too-muchness to so many of the current junkalogs is that so many are set in Manhattan’s East Village, capital of the honky-boho-outlaw-wannabe-junkie nation. (Not that, in a fit of reverse snobbery, I’m striving to renounce citizenship in that land. Although off the spike for the eight years I lived in Manhattan, during much of my latter-day Washington dope-shooting career I made regular copping pilgrimages to the East Village’s Alphabet City.)
All too typical of the East Village heroin Bildungsroman is Maggie Estep’s Diary of an Emotional Idiot, a crypto-autobiographical novel published last year by Harmony Books. What I liked best about this book was the cameo appearance of a thinly disguised character based on Stewart Meyer, author of The Lotus Crew (Grove Press, 1984), a truly terrific junkie novel. What I liked least was the book’s tiresome blend of Gen-X ennui suffused with (at least as portrayed by Estep) ill-earned bravado. “I was by then an outright down-and-out skanky junkie chick,” Estep’s “Zoe” smugly announces halfway through this thin volume. “I was still remotely cute, but my arms were bruised and abscessed from shooting and my knees and shins were scraped from jumping off rooftops during raids.” Maybe I’m unfairly misreading Estep, but this just smells like false junkie pride.
In 7 Tattoos: A Memoir in the Flesh (Crown Publishers, 1997), performance artist Peter Trachtenberg prowls the same East Village streets as Estep but brings much more in the way of maturity to the tour. In beautifully unaffected lapidary prose, Trachtenberg devotes seven chapters (one for each tattoo) to his life’s various passages, only one of which was addiction. He also pungently notes the essential tedium of the junkie’s life.
After describing the rise of crack cocaine in the 1980s, Trachtenberg remarks that “the only reason I didn’t succumb to this progression may be that in the 1970s I got into heroin, and heroin narrows one’s interests to heroin and the means of getting it. Heroin turned me into a sour know-it-all, nodding out over The New York Times on a cigarette-pocked mattress and having discussions like this:
‘Yeah, that asshole.’
‘What a scam.’
‘There’s Jesse Jackson.’
‘He’s an asshole, too.’
‘Yeah, you’re right. He is. You think Suicide’s open?’”
Linda Yablonsky plows much the same furrow in The Story of Junk. Published last year, this entry is pointedly subtitled A Novel, though it began life as a straightforward downtown memoir. Yablonsky’s publishers, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, didn’t miss a trick, peddling Junk to reviewers in zip-locked plastic baggies, like oversized variants of the double-bagged decks of Suicide-brand dope dispensed on Avenue B before Rudy Giuliani slammed his million-pound moral shithammer down on Manhattan decadence.
Yablonsky dutifully walks us through all the stations of the junkie cross, pausing to serve up an aperçu about the real story of junk that mirrors Trachtenberg’s insight: “While other drugs work to alleviate pain, excite the mind, or otherwise trick the senses, heroin plays with the soulor whatever it is makes a person uniquely appealing and distinguishable,” Linda/”Laura” explains. “Like an enveloping shadow dissolving day into night, it sneaks across your vision and tries to put it out, whatever that joy is by which you live, it creeps inside and pushes you down, making you smaller and smaller, a tiny flame burning down.”
Or, as Sue Halpern noted in the New York Review of Books last fall, “Ms. Yablonsky does not try to make a life on junk boringthis isn’t one of those subtly preachy booksit just happens to be boring.” To belabor the point by mentioning any more of this year’s dope books would be just as boring. And yet, and yet, and yet…There does remain something about the hard-core drug experience that really is not boring. Few of us are truly bored by our own lives, as often as we may complain about being so. However blurred and repetitive the details, a major heroin habit can be a life- and soul-threatening experience of the sort forever engraved upon one’s psycheprovided, of course, that one survives the ordeal to remember it. And, then, for the resurfaced junkie with literary pretensions, there is the seductive siren call of prurient public interest: “Oooh, show us your track marks!”
When I hesitantly rolled up my own literary sleeves more than three years back, with that 20,000-word “Me & My Monkey” piece, of course, I was counting on some degree of public interest. But I was struck dumb by its morbid ferocity. My editors at National Journal, remarkably, had given me permission to publish my tale of woe under my real name in City Paper. But, after considerable internal to-ing and fro-ing, I decided on anonymity. With only four months gone since my last shot of dope, and still riding a reportorial beat saddled with predictably conservative sources, I didn’t feel even remotely ready to face the glare of public scrutiny. Within a year or so, though, I figured on floating some kind of book proposal and dropping the “Junkie With No Name” bit.
I didn’t feel much readier two months later when Howard Kurtz, the Washington Post’s media reporter, tracked me down. Over the course of several days he talked me into giving an interview, though I did refuse to sit for a photograph. Imagining that my accounts of shooting up in the men’s room at the American Enterprise Institute and other deeds of Washington junkie glory would run in Kurtz’s regular Style section media column, I was flabbergasted to rise on the morning of March 18 to find the story emblazoned across the top of the front page, jumping to a lengthy half-page on the inside. “Journalist as Junkie: Covering National Security Beat, Reporter Struggled With Heroin,” the headline blared, next to a 1993 photo of me receiving a journalism award from former President Gerald Ford. (At the time, I probably should have been receiving counsel from recovery guru Betty Ford, who was sitting in the audience.)
I couldn’t bitch about Kurtz’s story. He had dealt with my problems sensitively and quoted me accurately. Nor could my editors and publisher really bitch about my having brought national opprobrium down upon National Journal. Intent on highlighting my duplicitous dance “between the glittering marble of official Washington and the shadowy netherworld of illicit drugs,” Kurtz had felt compelled to emphasize “the plush, carpeted offices” and overall prestige of our little “high-toned public policy journal.”
But, even if it had been Walter Cronkite coming out of the crack-house closet, it’s hard to figure the prominent play given this story. “Journalists are really full of themselves when the editors of your paper believe the personal drug habits of one of their fellow scribes is front page news,” ranted the one letter the Post printed about the story. I couldn’t have agreed more. My first thought was to change my name and move to another town. I didn’t have time for second thoughts, because my phone immediately started jangling off the hook. First was the Associated Press, looking for quotes to speed a matching story onto its wires. Nextand this was virtually the crack of dawn on a Saturdaywas a producer for Eye to Eye With Connie Chung. He pretty much wanted me to drop my pants on the air and turn a few slow pirouettes for the nation’s entertainment.
“You are now the only person I know who has turned down Connie Chung,” Kurtz later told me in a note. I scented flattery then and still find it hard to believe now. Anyone who knows anything about the mediaand that does not include the poor chumps who wind up on Jerry Springerknows what it means to surrender your life story to the tender mercies of sharklike television producers. Their interests are not your interests. Until I had a book to sell, no way was I going on TV. While reports of the junkie Pentagon journalist found their way into papers across the country, I found myself putting off just about every news magazine on the air, from CBS’s 60 Minutes to ABC’s Nightline to NBC’s Dateline. Meanwhile, I quickly found myself an agent.
The beautiful part is that the future publicity promised by this unsatisfied feeding frenzy helped spawn a reasonably vigorous auction in New York on my book proposal, securing me a six-figure advance. On the promise of all those bucks, generous for a first book by a non-celeb, I even quit my job at National Journal, weary of the grind after 10 years in the trenches. The ugly part is that I’ve thus far failed to write that book, driving myself some $100,000 into debt now that Doubleday has bailed on the project.
But it’s not over until the sick junkie screams. Well, it’s not really over even then. While churning out drug- and literature-related scribblings for assorted obscure ‘zines and plowing my obsessive way through my ever-growing home library of 1,500-plus dope books, I’m still laboring on writing what I’ve come to think of asand it’s one wordthatdamnedbook. I want to scream like a sick junkie when people ask, as they inevitably do, how the book is coming along. I love my cats so much, I now believe, because they’re the only mammals in my life who never ask me that question. But thatdamnedbook is coming along, especially now, perversely enough, that I no longer have a guarantee of getting it published. It may even turn out to be a pretty good one. After all those years of fieldwork and these more recent years of intensive home book study, I like to flatter myself that I may have something insightful to say about America’s enduring love-hate relationship with drugs.
I also like to flatter myself that if Me & My Monkey ever is made into a movie, I will be played by Robert Downey Jr. He’s better looking than Ben Stiller, and he’s already got the method-acting thing nailed down tight when it comes to playing a dope fiend. Provided, of course, that he’s not too busy writing his own junkalog.CP