A dime bag for the schoolgirl

I thought escaping Vassar to make Harlem drug runs meant I could be in the elite world, but not of it.

Published February 24, 1999 8:00PM (EST)

| The train conductor announced 125th Street as "the first stop in Manhattan -- next stop, Grand Central!" It amused me that he didn't say the "H" word -- Harlem. The little Harlem station, with its rickety wooden benches and peeling walls, was so different from grandiose Grand Central. I had never gotten off the train at the Harlem stop but was sure I would blend in easily in the black neighborhood. Dressed in my usual jeans and sneakers and carrying thirty dollars Daddy had sent me, I wandered up the broad street, not sure of anything -- why I was there, what I would say, how I would be received.

I headed toward a group of tall buildings. Projects. I loitered there for a while, feeling reckless. At last, a young guy approached. "What you need?" His eyes scanned the street. I felt awkward. "Uh, I got twenty bucks." I thought saying "got" and "bucks" would establish me as a homegirl. I might as well have shouted, "Excuse me. I don't wish to be presumptuous, but do you have any heroin for sale, and if so, could you provide me with the quantity/price breakdown?" He smiled. "Where you from, New Jersey?" The ultimate, humiliating insult. "No. I'm from Brooklyn." "Yeah? You seem like you from New Jersey. You sure you not from New Jersey?" His words meant something was terribly wrong with my presentation, that I appeared middle class, maybe even whitegirlish.

A stocky woman with bad skin and glazed eyes approached with an air of no-nonsense urgency. "You straight?" she asked. "What you need?" "Lemme git a dime." He didn't ask her if she was from New Jersey. He eased something into her hand as she slipped a bill into his and she split. Straight. Dime. I filed away the new vocabulary words in my memory. The dealer turned his attention back to me; I was ready. "Lemme git two dimes." He slipped two glassine envelopes into my hand, and I fumbled a twenty into his. "I'm on this corner every day, so look for me when you come back. If you don't see me, ask anybody for Eddie." I was so pleased to feel part of this new group that I almost forgot to ask Eddie my second question. "Uh, do you know where I can get ..." Another vocabulary lapse. "You need works? See that building over there? Go to 1-B. That's Pops' crib. He's cool."

My naoveti was astonishing. I was a Vassar freshman buying heroin in Harlem, without benefit of white-skin privilege, wealth, or family ties. When Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., was arrested in his BMW a few years later doing the same thing, he wasn't prosecuted. I, on the other hand, would have been sent straight up the river, not back to Vassar, but to prison. My existential explanations of tribal yearnings and identity conflicts would have fallen on deaf police ears, as would have my explanation that it was my first time. I was a classic no-common-sense, all-book-learning casualty. Ernest and Ann were doing it, as were a whole lot of my project friends. I wanted to belong, too, make my last stab at being truly project before my inevitable transformation into Straightback Sally.

I followed Eddie's directions to the low-rise tenement building and tapped softly at 1-B. A dark eye peered through the peephole. Four locks unlocked, clicking one after another. Absolutely anyone could have been on the other side of the door, but my only concern was the embarrassment I felt. The door opened. Before me stood an old man with black skin and white hair who looked like anyone's sweet old grandpa, except for the enormous revolver protruding from his waistband. Speech failed me. I felt too ashamed to ask something so awful of someone who could be my grandfather. Besides, he might scold and lecture me about the folly of my ways. "Don't be shy with ol' Pops, honey, come on in and make yourself comfortable. No need to be shame with me. You want some works?" I sat on the couch, wanting to throw myself into his grandfatherly embrace and tell him how unhappy I was. Why wasn't he trying to talk me out of it, tell me I was hurting myself, that I should go back to Vassar and stay put? "How many you want, honey? One? Two? They a dollar a piece." I read the marking on the big cardboard box of syringes: "Harlem Hospital." It was a depressing scene, the two of us there, grandfather and granddaughter, with that box.

I wasted no time making a spectacle of myself back at school. To be able to use the works, I had to overcome the fear of needles I'd developed during my annual elementary-school inoculations. But my fear of death stopped me from mainlining, which was how most junkies I knew lived, and died. Instead, I just stuck the needle in my thigh. Most of the time, though, I opted for a less life-threatening route. I scooped the white powder onto the tip of a fingernail file and brought it to my nose.
Bitterness flooded the back of my throat. A warm drowsiness relaxed my body. I cruised over to Kendrick House, where I performed every attention-grabbing act imaginable, short of wearing a T-shirt with "Hey, look at me!" printed on it. I paraded around, wildly exaggerating every sensation. I slumped in a high-backed chair in the middle of the lounge, leaned against the fireplace, knees slowly bending, did a slow-motion doze in the recreation room. I wanted everyone to know that I was not like them, and would not become like them.

It wasn't long before I was known for having "a problem." As much as I pursued my own isolation, I loved the attention and solicitude I was getting. "How long you been on that stuff?" I was asked. "Oh, a long time. I'm from the projects, you know," I lied. I told myself that my act affirmed my project-girl identity and proclaimed my solidarity with the downhill plungers I left in Brooklyn. In reality, my actions bespoke the distorted reasoning of a guilt-ridden survivor.

Most people shook their heads in disapproval but said nothing. Harriet, the black belle from Tennessee, had plenty to say, however. Her clothes and manner commanded deference. I could see she was someone used to the best. She wanted to "try it" but needed to know it was "good quality." I assured her it was top-notch. Eddie had said so. She wasn't entirely convinced. "It's not cut with any shit? I mean, I won't get sick, or jump out the window, will I?" Sniffing it was perfectly safe, I asserted. "Okay. Can I do some with you? But don't tell." She didn't want me in her room, so we went to the Early Prison Cell [McDonald's dorm room]. Brenda was out, as was often the case. I suspected it was because of me, but she said she just had lots to do. Harriet asked when the rest of my things were going to be delivered. "Never," I said, chuckling. We got high. A few moments passed. Harriet had a puzzled look on her face. "I don't know, I feel kind of weird. I had some once before, but it felt different, What kind of coke is this?" "Coke? That was heroin ... I thought you knew." The belle bristled. "Damn, girl! Nobody takes that!" After that incident, whenever we crossed paths we would look at each other and burst into laughter. The reaction "across the street" was altogether different. A couple of my white friends, hell-bent on waging their own brand of rebellion at Mom's alma mater, were desperate to experiment. Taking "smack," as they called it, with a black girl from the ghetto was the kind of thing that made breathtaking journal entries. And all within the safety of the ivy-wrapped walls of Vassar. Wasn't that what college was about, the enriching experience of meeting people from different backgrounds?
A wealthy friend from the Upper East Side begged me to share some with her. Adrian was all curls, dimpled cheeks, and aristocratic airs. Recalling Harriet, I was more reluctant this second time around. "Suppose you overdose and die? It'll be my fault." I remembered the suspicious look I thought I had seen in the eyes of white parents my first day. "Oh, for Chrissakes, dahling. I've taken more of everything else than you could even dream about. What's a little smack going to do to me?" Her characteristic way of punctuating sentences with the word "dahling" annoyed everyone but me; it reminded me of Masterpiece Theatre. I was given a similar line by pencil-thin Pearl, the banker's daughter from Palm Springs. She insisted she'd taken it before, but gave a suspiciously vague description of what the high felt like. She even wanted to go with me to Harlem, having "heard so much about it." It was as though the entire trust-fund set of Vassar College wanted to be teenage junkies.

Finally, I agreed to share. But absolutely no one would be allowed to make the trip with me. "You'll attract too much attention, like walking spotlights." Always the pushover, I returned to Harlem, accompanied by Pearl and a buddy she'd brought along, a German intern. They were to wait in the 125th Street station until I got back. All three of us must have looked like "walking spotlights," huddling and whispering in the waiting room. "Just sit here and don't move! And don't try to make friends. I should be back in about half an hour." Pearl told me to please be careful, and the German said, "You're so brave." Foolish was a more accurate description. My Vassar admirers didn't know how easily I was outmaneuvered by real project folks. It wasn't unusual for a dealer to take my payment, then direct me to wait in an empty lobby or at a nearby car, tree, or trash bin -- anywhere other than near him. Inevitably, he'd disappear. I came to know from the sound of someone's promise to "be right back" that he wouldn't. When I accepted that something, or perhaps everything, about me spelled "easy target," I began bringing extra money to replace what would invariably be ripped off. There was nothing I could do but sidle over to the next unsavory looking stranger, hoping for the best.

I didn't see Eddie anywhere and asked for him as he had told me to do. The response was blunt and indifferent. "Eddie locked up. What you need?" I got what I needed and went to see Pops again. I knocked at his door. A neighbor opened hers. "He ain't there no more, honey. Pops got killed. A robbery." I stood there dumbfounded. She closed her door. Pops had been shot dead by someone who wanted free syringes and fast money. How could someone kill a gentle old man? I couldn't help thinking that maybe he, like me, was also out of his league.

I was away longer than expected. When I walked into the train station, there was not a Vassar girl in sight. "Did you see two white girls around here?" I asked an old woman in the restroom. She looked at me suspiciously. No, she hadn't. I caught the next train to Poughkeepsie and arrived late in the evening. I found Pearl and the German in the campus cafe, drinking beer. We squealed and hugged. They'd left after waiting for an hour, because the ticket clerk kept staring at them, as though they were "prostitutes or something." We went to Pearl's room and shared what I'd bought.

Education had taken a back seat to my identity drama. The only class that held my attention was English. The professor, Judy Kroll, was typical of Vassar's impressive faculty. Not yet thirty, she had published a book of poetry and already had her doctorate. We were on a first-name basis, an informality I had learned to appreciate. Like mine, her identity was a mix of diverse influences. Originally from Queens, she was married to an Indian academic whom she'd met at Dartmouth. A frequent visitor to India, Judy often wore saris, shawls and sandals to class, which seemed very exotic. Celebrity worship best described my feelings, and I felt the delicious rush of a teenage groupie whenever she drove by in her black Mustang convertible, blowing the horn and waving to me. My fellow classmates were envious. "You're friends with her?! But she's so aloof to everybody. What's she like?" "Nice," I'd respond with false nonchalance. I was thrilled when Judy asked me to help proofread the manuscript of a book she was writing on Sylvia Plath, and then felt petrified that I might miss a typo. I had never met a published author and basked in reflected glory. She welcomed student visits during office hours and seemed to take a genuine interest in our talks about life in Brooklyn and my lack of direction.

In English class, she presented the works of Virginia Woolf, Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath with subtle intensity, and the discussion explored questions of identity from the perspective of these writers. I spent long hours studying the reading material and laboring over my term papers. Something in me resonated to their struggles, despite our obvious differences. On my own, I read Maya Angelou, Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison. A larger identity was taking shape, expanding beyond the project-girl persona I embraced.

Like movement along a fault line, this inner shifting threatened my stability. I sought calm all too often on Harlem's street corners. Despite, or perhaps because of, my glaring lack of sophistication, most people I met were nice to me. Nonetheless, it was impossible to establish any lasting relationships because folks like Eddie and Pops vanished from one week to the next. My school relations had failed, not surprisingly, given my acting out, to blossom into genuine friendships. And somehow I'd made myself believe that college posed a threat to me but the destructive behavior and caricatures on which I was basing my identity did not. Despair creeped into my soul.
Brenda was out of the room. I turned on the record player and put on a recording of Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata." Then I sat down on my bed, holding a bottle of sleeping pills prescribed for what I'd told the local doctor in town was insomnia. I had decided to die. Thinking in the absolutes typical of depression, I found "everything" sad, overwhelming, and hopeless. The somber piano chords filled my head with grandiose notions of tragic and noble young death. I swallowed two pills and looked at myself in the mirror. No, the glasses had to go; I would look cuter without them. I placed my glasses on the dresser, beneath Kevin's photo. It hit me how pathetic I was, a coed whose closest relationship was with her kid brother. I took a few more pills. Again, I looked at my reflection. Maybe I looked better with the glasses, more intellectual. I put them on, and washed down another handful of pills. Now I was scared, but there was no turning back: I had already taken so many that if I didn't finish myself off, I was sure to end up a bedridden vegetable. The bottle empty, I lay down on the bed and waited for drowsiness and death to envelop me.

A half hour passed. Nothing was happening. I put on another record for ambiance, Samuel Barber's "Adagio for Strings." I continued to wait to be whisked away to the happy heaven of young poets and rock stars. After an hour without even the slightest yawn, I realized I had been duped. Placebos! I thought angrily. The doctor was probably used to Vassar students coming in with fabricated complaints. More dollars down the drain. I was also relieved, as much as I didn't want to admit it. No one was happier to have lived to tell the tale than I was, recounting my failed suicide attempt the following day to the mental-health counselor. For my own safety, I was confined to the infirmary. The same day, I unscrewed the window screens of the room and climbed out, took the bus to the station, and hopped the train to 125th Street. Back at school that evening, I skulked around campus, dodging campus security cars, high and content with myself. I called Judy from a phone booth in Main Building. She said, "Everyone's looking for you." After a long conversation, she was finally able to persuade me to return to the infirmary.

I opened my eyes the next afternoon and looked directly into Daddy's heavy face. Mother and Kevin were there, too. Vassar had put me on a medical leave of absence. Then I really wanted to die. Glum and disoriented, I got dressed. Mother and Daddy had already packed up my belongings, so I didn't even get a last look at my Early Prison Cell room. Four months after my momentous arrival at college, I was on my way home. The brake lights of the tan wagon shone red as Daddy slowed down to let pass a bus marked "West Point Weekend," full of Vassar girls. As they got off and disappeared across campus, we pulled out and headed toward the expressway. The bike I had "found" outside a dorm and repainted black lay strapped to the top of the car. Silence resounded, except for Daddy's dire third-person predictions. "She's gonna end up just like that dope addict girl on the second floor, what's her name, the one in jail?" From the back window I watched Main Gate recede from view. I was banished from the castle, a project girl again, in fact as well as fantasy. What felt like a one-car funeral procession turned onto a Brooklyn street. Upstairs, I went to my "room of one's own" and sat for a long time on the side of the bathtub. It had been traumatic to leave home to be resocialized and reeducated in an alien world. But it was worse to be back as a failed college girl. I realized it was far better to be from the projects than in the projects. Like Icarus, I had flown high and suffered a spectacular fall. College had given me a glimpse of a wider, whiter, wealthier world than my own. I wanted to assume its benefits, but not its identity. Did I have to be it, to share in it? That was the conflict that had wrestled me down and threatened to pin me there, in the projects.
SALONJanet McDonald grew up in a housing project in New York City. A graduate of Vassar College, Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University School of Law, she is currently a lawyer in Paris.Excerpted from "Project Girl" by Janet McDonald. Published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux. ) 1999 by Janet McDonald. All rights reserved.

By Janet Mcdonald

Janet McDonald is the author of "Project Girl," a memoir tracing her troubled path as a high-IQ student from the projects to a successful law career. It will be published in January by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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