The Awful Truth

Heroin is Cute


Cintra Wilson
February 11, 1997 4:51PM (UTC)

heroin used to be regarded as something used exclusively by Wrong Side of the Trackers — creeps you only read about in cheap '50s shock pulp books featuring women falling out of their dresses on the covers. Gray-skinned old Losers popped dope into their blackened veins, along with mumbling perverts and non-union scab laborers and those who robbed cars and beat hookers. Dope was Bad, and the people who did it were in some low section of urban earthly hell that most of us were thankful to have no contact with.

Today, heroin is more glam than ever before, having recently killed a variety of exciting young movie and rock stars. The nasty old tar monkey is strutting with its new collar and spats into some of the more prestigious social scenes. Smack has shirked its old Bogeyman image like a client of Hill and Knowlton. Its vintage taboo, replete with the cuteness of classic Tough Guy tattoos from the '40s, seems to be a perfect holding pattern for disenchanted youth. A whole new breed of the Rich and Fabulous are pulling the wicked old sleeping bag over their heads and watching life evaporate into a low, cope-able din, letting the White Horse carry them slowly out to the deepest parts of an uncrossable river.

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When I was growing up, drugs still bore a sheen of Studio 54 chic, despite numerous attempts by the public schools to "Scare us Straight" by showing us Drug Ed. films of the college kid who tore his eyeballs out on PCP in the '60s. Drugs looked like an alluring recreation to us in high school: expensive and glamorous and totally annihilating of suburban ennui. In the '80s, narcotics seemed like the quickest way of getting a new personality if your old one wasn't working. It was easy to get submerged in the concrete identity quirks provided by one of the Big Three narcotics — cocaine, speed and heroin, the white powders. (Ecstasy and other hallucinogens were shuffled into a less serious pile — the Children's Happy Meals of the misdemeanor possession world.)

Heroin users were classically blasé and nonchalant, with a low strain of romance weakly bleating under the ghosts of their characters. We used to say that junk addicts were unfulfilled lovers, heroin being the reliably demanding invisible spouse. Speed Freaks were colorful and overaccessorized and exhausting, and very Engaged with Life. We used to say that Speed Freaks were unfulfilled artists. I once belonged to this category. I fiddled half-assedly with smack a few times but I always thought it was boring. I used to compare walking into a roomful of people on heroin to walking in on a bunch of turtles with their heads all sucked in.

Coke addicts were the least attractive of the lot, because of their total lack of anything remotely resembling loyalty or honor. There is an unspoken, kindly brotherhood among even the worst H. junkies, and a communal love of New Age blather and astrology among speed freaks, but coke addicts, particularly those who smoked or shot the stuff, were the lowest scum drippers in the pit — they were invariably liars and thieves and deluded Big Talkers, horrible bores with falsely grand impressions of themselves and mouths you'd love to fill with two-part epoxy and seal up forever. Their minds worked like lab rats hitting the gratification door again and again. They would think nothing of chewing through your chest to get to what they wanted. Their high was perceived by other drug fiends as being stupid and desperate. Theirs was not as dignified as the other narco-identities.

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The first heroin junkie I knew was a girl named Beverly who had always been legendary in my suburbs as a Great Beauty. She was a ballerina with a tangled mane of red hair and Maude Frizon shoes who drove a Porsche 914 with sexy recklessness — she regularly pulled squealing U-turns in the middle of the Golden Gate Bridge. Her only flaw was that she affected a fake South African/British accent, claiming it was because of her parents. She was older than me and had the respect of friends I idolized, so she was a star to me before I ever met her.

By the time I finally did meet her, she was a full-fledged junkie straight from the alphabet jungle of New York, with a tall, shellacked black mohawk and thick, sooty cat-eye makeup and a capital H Habit that needed a lot of urgent attention. I remember fawning over her like she was some kind of exotic wild beast, even though she was fashionably rude and my interest in her was perceived as some kind of awful weakness on my part. This attitude would last until she was flat broke and in the first real Cold Sweat I'd ever seen, pleading on the sofa with tears in her eyes and terrible involuntary muscle spasms that caused her arms to jerk out like Dr. Strangelove. I couldn't bear to watch her that way — I wanted to preserve my idolatry. To wipe out how pathetic she was, I'd get on a cross-town bus and score her some smack. Naturally, once she got it into her blood she hated me for being nice to her again, but it was a relief to have her be comfortably cruel again.

She and her Hungarian boyfriend had a terrible relationship. I had an ex-junkie boyfriend who once described Addict Love by saying, "Junkies like to take each other hostage." She ended up willfully OD'ing in his bathroom on Christmas Eve, an act of revenge for his getting a new girlfriend. "I'll make you sorry!" was the last thing anybody heard her say. She was only 22 at the time, but had already given up all hope of having a different kind of life — she seemed too far gone to herself, and the undertow of that idea, the seemingly impossible amount of emotional and physical labor it would require for her to change, became insurmountable. She stepped out in a short, angry blast — a petty Fuck You in which she decided, for the last time, that she was going to have the Last Word.

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There is nothing less attractive than watching someone you know nod out in a bar, mouth in maximum fly-catching slackness, bobbing to and fro with their eyes rolled out. It's more intimacy than you want, like watching someone wet the bed — you can never look at them the same way afterwards. But you knew that junk had gotten hold of one of your peers in the worst way when they started shrugging off their various failures to comply with the rules of society with a sad, self-effacing chuckle, chalking up their lameness to a pervasive Inability to Function they seemed resigned to living with. Smack gradually takes the edges off people's personalities in a bad way, even when they're not high. They start getting apologetic, like they constantly reek to themselves, and assume that everyone else sees them as weak sacks of shit.

Beautiful girls I knew who, previous to junk use, would look at me with no more interest than a hungry cobra would a frozen steak, suddenly had new, sadly dotty personalities and indiscriminate friendliness. "Hiiiiiiiiiii!" they'd say, with the inflection curling apologetically down at the end. "Do you want to come sit at my table? What are you dooooooing?" they'd say with the soggy tone of your soused, over-the-hill and depressed aunt, trying to make conversation so as to stop up the constant screaming horror hole of loneliness that was bleeding them away.

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It took me the longest time to recognize the signs of somebody high on junk. Finally I realized that on blue-eyed people, the pupil dilation glazed their eyes with something translucent and gelatinous like napalm, and people who used to be cool and aloof became over-accessible in a way that was as emotionally dangerous as driving in a blackout drunk.

Heroin users seem to evolve together into a coagulated troupe of character-driven professional relationships not unlike a theater cast or baseball team. There was one character named Nick Nod, a dealer, who was famous for falling completely asleep in improbable positions — like standing up with a shoe in his hand and remaining that way for three hours.
Friends of mine got high with Courtney Love, back when she was still a whining fat girl with a puffy nose and nobody thought she had any hope of getting any kind of career, and her quirk was that when you came out of the dope dream you were in, you'd find Courtney gazing into your face saying "Do you like me? Do you think I'm pretty? Hold my hand. Will you be my friend?" I had one boyfriend who had a revolving-door relationship to heroin that always pissed me off no end. Some bandmate of his had to thump him back to life one day after he OD'd (this was something that happened to him fairly regularly) and he responded the next day by showing up at her house with a bouquet of dead, wilted flowers. Kind of a junk joke. Rumors abounded of people we knew dying every month or so, and being revived in the emergency room, brought back from turning blue only to immediately leave the hospital and score again, the anti-junk antidote having removed their high.

I hope heroin doesn't get more popular than it is right now. Half of the people I knew in the '80s are dead, because they didn't have enough respect for the big lethal dragon, thinking they could flirt and fuck with it and somehow tap-dance away from the inevitable retribution. Most of them never even saw the last big swat that took them out, or had any idea it was coming. Nobody's life is so disposable, I would tell their ghosts now, if I saw them. You had no idea how loved you were.

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Cintra Wilson

Cintra Wilson is a culture critic and author whose books include "A Massive Swelling: Celebrity Re-Examined as a Grotesque, Crippling Disease" and "Caligula for President: Better American Living Through Tyranny." Her new book, "Fear and Clothing: Unbuckling America's Fashion Destiny," will be published by WW Norton.

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