As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.
Home of the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company
There’s a simple knock on the door, nothing special.
“Mailman,” comes the answer. “Special delivery.”
I open the door. Why did I open the door? I see a mailman, six foot, barrel chest, receding blonde, blue eyes. No mail.
“Is your name Laura?”
“No, you must have the wrong apartment.”
I start to close the door. It’s afternoon but I’m in my pajamas, rags I sleep in. I like to sleep in rags.
“Just a moment.” He pushes back the door. “Your name’s not Laura?”
“No. It isn’t.”
He takes a folded letter from a trouser pocket, opens it. I’m staring at his shoes, scuffed, pointy-toed, buff-colored western boots. Do mailmen wear western boots?
“Is this—?” He gives the address, the apartment number.
“Yes, but there must be some mistake.”
“This is the right address but you’re not Laura?”
“That’s right. I’m not.”
“Is this your apartment?”
“Well, who are you then?” Before I can make a reply, he pushes the door open wide. “Never mind, Federal agents, DEA. You’re under arrest. Step back, please. We’re coming in.”
Now there’s a gun in his hand. He shoulders past me into the hall. Behind him, four men in plain clothes, no—five, are coming up the stairs. There’s a woman, too, another blonde, petite with a ponytail, wearing a tweed blazer. I see many hands on holstered guns.
I shrink back inside. My head is spinning. I sit at a table in the living room.
A man with a chin cleft, in a suit and trench coat, carefully reads me my rights. I stare at the floor. My cats are looking back at me, one grey fluffball, two tigers. I look away.
“Can I see some identification?” I ask. I’m stalling. I sound like a child.
The man in the trenchcoat shows me his badge and ID. While others disappear into other rooms, check out the walls, peek through closets, I scrutinize the ID’s photo and particulars, without comprehension. My eyes won’t focus. I see only “Drug Enforcement Agency.” This guy’s name is—Dick.
“Now, what is your name?” Dick asks. He speaks softly. He’s very patient.
I have to spell it out. It’s painful. I’m not alone. A friend with whom I share this apartment is sitting, speechless, on my bed.
“Ladies, you’re under arrest for the sale of narcotics, a federal offense,” Dick announces. “We know you’ve been dealing heroin here. We’ve made several buys through an intermediary. Is there anything you’d like to say?”
“No.” My friend shakes her head, pets one of the cats.
“All right, I have to ask one question: Do you have any heroin here now?”
The female agent and two of the men surround me at the table. Hands are still on guns. I’m in my pajamas. I might as well be naked.
“We’ll have to search your apartment,” Dick says.
“You have a warrant?” I’m all attitude. Do I think this is TV?
“No,” he admits. “We don’t have a warrant, but it won’t be difficult to get one. It’ll take about an hour, maybe two, and we’ll stay right here ’til it arrives.”
Then we’ll wait, I say to myself. To the cops I say not a word.
“Do you have any heroin in your possession?” Dick says again.
In another room off the kitchen, the tiny room that is my office, several grams of Pakistani brown, brought by a regular mailman, are sitting on a table-shelf in front of a scale. I’d been waiting for one of my better customers. Was he the rat? That one? You can never trust a junkie. I should have known.
My new source was here minutes before, left with all my money. In my pocket I’m holding nearly an ounce of his China white.
The woman agent makes a move toward me. I stand up. I reach in my tattered pocket, hand a clear plastic sandwich baggie over to Dick. It’s not my lunch; it’s my life. The woman pats me down lightly, with nervous hands. She’s more scared than I am. A rookie, I guess. They sent me a rookie. I almost laugh.
Dick looks at the bag, white rocks the size of mothballs, loose powder at the bottom. It’s the best stuff money can buy. Pure. I’ve only had a taste. It’s still working its way into my nose.
“Okay, good,” Dick says. A lock of dark hair falls over his eyes. They’re grey. No, they don’t have a color. “Do you have any more heroin in this apartment?” It’s five rooms, light and airy, good location.
Miserably, I sink into a chair. “In there,” I say, nodding toward the office. “You’ll find it.”
Unlike the rest of the place, the office is dark and gloomy, its floor worn out by heavy traffic. In three years I’ve had to replace it twice.
Dick sends the mailman to check it out. The others begin their search. “Please … Can I ask you not to make a mess?” I say dumbly. Like I’m going to be there later and have to clean it all up.
“No problem,” Dick says cheerfully. “We’re not like your city cops. You’re lucky you got us.”
“Yeah,” I say. “Lucky.”
“Someday you’ll thank me for this,” he predicts.
“Not real soon,” I say.
He laughs, tells the others to relax. When the mailman returns with the dope in his hand, Dick takes me in the office. It’s the only room with a door. He closes it, seats himself at my desk. I take the plain wooden folding chair beside it that has always been the customer’s. I’ve never sat in it before myself.
I look around. The scale is gone, the mirrors and the razors, the straws. I glance at the bookshelves extending up the opposite wall and quickly look away. My remaining cash is hidden there, between the pages of several old books. I wonder if anyone’s found it.
“So,” says Dick. “How did a nice girl like you end up in a dirty business like this?” He gives me a silly grin.
“Look, I’m just a junkie, that’s all.” My shoulders sag. “Anyone can be a junkie.”
“It’s the truth.” It is.
“How does it happen? I’m just curious.”
“It happens, that’s all.”
He tells me they’ve been watching me for a while, several weeks, intercepting my mail, tapping the phone, making small buys. He asks if I keep my old phone bills. I do. I don’t know why—there’s nothing on them. I stand up and reach for a grey cardboard case on a shelf above my head. “They’re in here,” I tell him. “Take your pick.”
He lays a few pages out on the desk and looks them over. I see a puzzled look cross his face, disappointment. “I never made any phone calls,” I tell him. “Everyone always phoned me.”
It’s ringing now, incessantly. The answering machine clicks and clicks, pleading voices asking if I’m home, when they can come over. I’m annoyed. With every call I sink deeper into trouble.
“You never made any calls? Then how’d you get your stuff?”
“It knocked on the door, just like you.”
He’s still in his coat. He shifts in his seat. “I want to tell you something. I can’t make any promises, but I can almost guarantee, from what we’ve got here, right now you’re looking at five to 15 years in a Federal prison.”
Five to 15? I’m thinking, that means two, maybe three, if I’m good. I can’t stand it. I stop thinking.
He asks me if I know a certain guy, what should I call him?—Angelo.
“Angelo who?” I say.
“I’m not sure.”
“Listen,” he says. He tells me all about Angelo, a smuggler. He’s been on this guy a long time but the guy keeps slipping away. Dick knows more about him than I do. “Is Angelo a friend of yours?”
“I don’t know who you mean.”
“You know who I mean.”
“Who set me up?”
“You can figure that out for yourself.”
“I haven’t got any idea.” Actually, I have several, all of them wrong, according to Dick. I must have gotten too greedy, I think. Never get greedy; I remember a supplier telling me once. When you start to get greedy, it’s the beginning of the end.
“You weren’t that surprised to see us, were you?” Dick inquires.
“Of course I was!” I nearly shout. “I mean, I knew this day might come. I just didn’t think it would be … today.”
“So, why’d you let us in?”
“I thought you were the mailman!”
He chuckles. “That was a good trick, wasn’t it?”
He offers me a smoke. It’s not my brand and I demur. He lights one for himself, has one of the other agents bring me one of my own.
“You’re not very tough,” Dick says.
“Not at all,” I agree. I feel nauseous.
“So, how’d you and Angelo meet?” I don’t answer. I can’t. I look at the phone bills as if they’re the Dead Sea Scrolls, something of value.
“I have to ask you again: Is this Angelo someone you know?”
“Maybe. I know a lot of people.” I take a deep drag on the cigarette. Dick looks at me, I look at the bills. “Angelo … Yes. I don’t know if it’s the one you mean.”
“You get stuff from him?”
Time stops. There’s no sound anywhere, no blood rushing in my ears, no sign from God, just some heroin seeping through my pores. I need a bath. I need an out. There isn’t one.
“Isn’t Angelo your source for heroin?”
“I can’t believe this is happening.” My voice is small. Is it my voice?
Dick shakes his head. “Everyone says that,” he tells me. “Every time. What about Angelo? You might as well tell me. It’s going to come out, one way or another, in the end.”
“Yes,” I say. “Angelo.” It’s over. I’m going to jail. I’m going to kick dope in a cell. I can’t believe this is happening.
“Who else is there?”
“No one else?”
“No.” I think of all the “guys” who’ve been here in this seat over the last four or five years, the runners and stumblers, the dealers and smugglers, Angelos and Franks and Eds and Joes and Henrys. Good-looking guys, fat guys, wasted guys; teachers, artists, carpenters, fathers: junkies. Nobodies.
“So, how’d you and Angelo meet?”
“I don’t remember. Junkies have a way of finding each other.”
“Listen, I’m no criminal. I’m addicted, I have a habit, and it’s bad. I admit it. I get stuff for myself and sell some of it to my friends. Otherwise I couldn’t afford it.” Why am I talking like this? I can’t stop talking. It must be the dope, the good pure dope. It isn’t me. This isn’t me. I don’t do this. I’ve never done anything like this in my life.
“I don’t expect you to give up your friends,” Dick tells me. He looks sincere. “I’m not asking you about your friends. I can understand your wanting to protect them. But let me tell you what’s going to happen. When we’re done here, we’ll take you and your roommate uptown to the office, and book you. You’ll be fingerprinted and have your picture taken. We’ll have to fill out some papers. Then we’ll put you in handcuffs and take you downtown to be arraigned. If you need a lawyer, the Court will appoint one. This is a serious charge. I want you to understand how serious. Do you understand?”
“I can’t believe this is happening.”
“You junkies all seem to be on the same wavelength,” he says, a little bemused. “You all think getting caught is your whole problem. It’s never the junk, it’s the law that’s the problem. The law and the police. Is that how it is?”
I say, “It’s a form of sickness.”
“Do you want a doctor?”
A doctor, I think. For years I’ve been the doctor. A medical dispenser, not a crook.
“If you want a doctor, I can get you one. But let me ask you: do you think Angelo would protect you, if it was him I was talking to now?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is Angelo a friend?”
“In a way.”
“I don’t think so. Do you know where he is?”
“No. He doesn’t live in New York.”
“I don’t know. He just shows up when he feels like it.”
“Where do you get your stuff otherwise?”
“The street.” I’m lying. I don’t know if Dick believes me. He has to.
“When do you think you’ll see Angelo again?”
“I don’t know. I haven’t heard anything from him in quite a long time.” I don’t have to lie about this.
The phone rings again, the machine picks it up. It’s Angelo. He identifies himself, the fool, names his hotel, says to call him. We’re finished here now. Before we leave the apartment, I go in the bathroom to dress. The woman is watching me. There’s dried blood spattered all over the bathroom walls. I’ve never noticed it before. Uptown, they take us in the federal building by the back door—up in a freight elevator, many floors, down a long, well-lit corridor lined with dull white doors you need a code and an ID card to enter. At one we stop and in a moment we’re in a large, windowless grey room, empty but for a steel-case desk, some swivel chairs, and a drafting table-sized fingerprint stand in a corner, next to an industrial aluminum sink. In an adjoining space there’s a camera on a tripod, facing a wall hung with white no-seam paper.
A female agent stands behind the camera, peers through it. “Which is your good side?” she jokes.
I’m holding a slate clapboard with my name and a number on it under my chin. I look into the camera. I wonder if I should try to smile.
Dick sits me down at the desk. I have to sign some papers. One says I understand the charges against me: possession and sale of Class II narcotics. Another paper is, in Dick’s words, “a kind of waiver.” He asks me for my father’s name, address, and phone.
“You’re not going to tell him about this, are you?” I shriek. My father has no idea. This’ll kill him.
“Nah. Not unless we have to.”
“In case something happens while you’re in custody.”
My eyes grow wide. “In case something happens? What’s going to happen?”
“Nothing, probably. But you never know. This is just in case.”
I fill in my brother’s name. My father’s moved. I don’t know his address. I sign, feeling helpless.
The “mailman” enters carrying the bag of pure, marked as evidence. It’s the last time I’ll ever see it. I feel like waving goodbye. Instead, I swallow, hard. I’m sweating. The dope’s wearing off. I’m going to cry. I look at my friend. She’s pissed.
“Come with me,” says Dick. He shows me through a door by the desk. It leads to a narrow hallway, two clean cells behind shiny black bars, each with a bare bulb and a bench. Nothing more. “In here,” he tells me, indicating a room at the hallway’s dead end. It’s about the same size as my office. One desk, two chairs, no windows. It’s like a tomb.
Over the next couple of hours, Dick continues to press me for names. He’s got my phone book, a computerized gadget—regulation-dealer model—with a password accessing all the “important” numbers. I don’t volunteer them. As we go through the names he does find, all I say is, that’s a friend, and that’s a friend. He presses harder. I say nothing.
Finally we pass back through the fingerprint room into a large outer office, where a couple of dozen agents sit at computers and talk on phones. They all watch as Dick sits me down at his desk and has me dial Angelo’s hotel. My voice shaking, I ask Angelo to come by at 7:00. He can tell something’s not right. I pray he can tell. I try to think of some code I can use to warn him off, but with so many eyes and ears on me, I jam up.
We return to the big empty room. I’m clammy, a little dizzy, my calves twitch. My friend is sitting at the desk, silent, her hands toying with her cap. Dick disappears. We just sit there.
Suddenly, he’s back, smiling. Why shouldn’t he smile? He’s having a very good day. He tells us we’re being released on our own recognizance, just for tonight. We’re to go home and fix ourselves up. We’re to go home and wait for Angelo.
I stare at him, disbelieving again. Go home? Go home?
“You need cab money?” he asks.
“No,” I say. I don’t want any favors. “I have cab money.” It’s all I have.
In the taxi my friend turns her hat inside out, removes from the sweatband a bag of dope. My dope. She’s stolen it. She’s been stealing from me for a while. I’ve never been so grateful. I don’t know how she got away with it, not the stealing, but keeping it from the cops. I think she’s crazy. We both are. We laugh, even though it hurts. Just before 7:00, I’m sitting in a nondescript brown government car parked across the street from my apartment. Dick’s behind the wheel, walkie-talkie in hand. I’m bundled in an old overcoat on the passenger side. Two agents are in another car somewhere behind us. Others are at the hotel. Still more are scattered elsewhere up and down the street, I can’t see where. It seems very dark tonight. I’ve never seen it so dark.
The walkie-talkie crackles to life. “He’s leaving the hotel,” someone says. “He’s with another guy. Should we take him?”
“No,” Dick says. “Let’s see where he goes.”
“Who’s the other guy?” Dick asks me. How should I know? I’m shaking in my skin.
He says he’ll turn on the heat and puts the key in the ignition. The engine sputters and dies. He tries it again. Same result. He floors it. With a shudder, the car roars to life. “Your tax dollars at work,” says Dick. Tax? I haven’t paid taxes in ages. “Better hurry,” he teases. “Them IRS guys are much worse than us.”
“Yeah? What’ll they do? Put me in jail?”
“Ah, don’t be like that. You’ll be all right.”
“Sure,” I say. “I’m fine.”
Dick checks his watch, looks at the street.
“He’s late, this guy.”
“Nothing unusual. He’s always late. Sometimes days late.”
“Where are they now?” Dick says to his walkie-talkie.
“In a deli,” comes the answer.
“I think we’ve lost them,” an agent reports a half hour later.
“I don’t see them now. They must be down by you somewhere.”
Two men are walking south on the other side of the street. Dick asks me, “Is that the guy?”
I’m slumped in the seat. Peering over the bottom edge of the window frame, I look through the dark. “No,” I say. “Not him.”
Static from the walkie-talkie. “Is this him?”
“No,” says Dick. “Hold your places. We don’t know if he’s carrying.”
I close my eyes.
While other drugs work to alleviate pain, excite the mind, or otherwise trick the senses, heroin plays with the soul—or whatever it is makes a person uniquely appealing and distinguishable. 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. It pushes you down, making you smaller and smaller, a tiny flame burning down, and when you’re so small you’re barely an ember, something happens, something comes at you and …
I never felt so small as I do at this moment, in the car with Dick. And yet this thing, this drug that has brought me lower than I ever thought I could go, is the one thing I want to salve my soul. Just for a minute. Just for this minute. Not even a minute. Time’s up.
“Is that the guy?”
I look again. Another stranger. And then, about a block away, I see him, walking fast, hands in pockets, head bent into the March wind. “Go away!” I want to shout. I’m screaming inside, “Just keep going!”
“You okay?” Dick asks.
Nothing I can do.
“Is that the guy?”
I glance up and shrink from my bones. He’s close.
“Is that the guy?”
“I’ve never done anything like this in my life.”
“Really?” says Dick. “I do this every day.”
Bully for you, I want to say, but then I see Angelo enter my building. I choke on my tongue. I nod, and fall to the floor of the car in a heap.
“Go!” Dick shouts in the walkie-talkie. “Move in.”
Nothing happens for a minute. Then, static.
“Is he carrying?” Dick says.
“Stay down a minute,” he tells me. I no longer have eyes or ears; my mouth is twisted. I’m shaking. I’m weeping. Then I turn to stone.
“Okay,” Dick says. “Coast’s clear.”
I’m ready to go downtown.
“No,” he says, wags his head. “I gotta deal with this guy tonight. You go home and I’ll be back bright and early. Get some sleep.”
Sleep? He thinks I’ll sleep? He doesn’t think I’ll run, but I might. I don’t trust anyone anymore, least of all myself.
I can never tell anyone about any of this, I think, as I crawl on hands and knees up the stairs. It feels like I’m climbing Mount Everest. I can never say anything, not ever.
Days pass, three of them. Dick comes in every morning to sit in my living room and wait to see what gives. He’s curious about me. I pretend to be impressed. Dick’s my new best friend. We talk about ourselves all day long while I sweat and jerk around, dopesick as hell. Somehow the idle chatter keeps me steady; otherwise I’d be screaming.
Every day my friend slips out to go to “work”—a friend’s art studio that is really a front for a crack house. She’s making jewelry and dealing, getting high. It makes me furious and frightened, too. I’m expecting some friend of Angelo’s will show up any minute, attack rifle in hand. Dick’s stolid presence is no comfort at all. He’s hoping another of my sources will stop by. The horrible thing is, one might.
On the third day, when we’ve run out of things to say, I ask Dick about Angelo. “He’s sweating it out,” Dick tells me. “Like you.”
Right, I think. But I’m not in jail. “Has he said anything about me?”
“No,” Dick replies. “Not a word.”
We share a moment of silence.
I know I’ll see Angelo again, someday. It’s inevitable. Dick says he’ll “turn” eventually. Everyone does. I’ll be walking down the street, or sitting in a restaurant, or standing in line at a movie and he’ll be there, eyes burning. Will he know me? Will we speak? I don’t know but it doesn’t matter; by then, I’ll have nothing to hide.
New York, November 1993
Linda Yablonsky is a writer living in New York, and program director of the Nightlight Reading series at The Drawing Center.
As an art student, I learned very quickly that one person’s neutral vessel is another person’s politically freighted, irreducibly marked load.