High Times

That Time I Took Heroin

The enduring memory of a singular experience

I first used heroin in the spring of 1969. I was 15 years old. My friend Cooper (which is not his real name) said to me one afternoon: "I have some heroin. Wanna do it?" He'd bought the drug for $2 on Dyckman Street, the main boulevard of our Manhattan neighborhood.

I was faced with an enormous decision. Like every American, I had been lectured on the evils of heroin. I knew that it was the most addictive substance known to man, that one casual encounter with "smack" could easily lead down a steep path to self-destruction, crime, a ghostlike existence and early death.

"OK," I replied.

We stood in Cooper's crowded apartment on Arden Street. He opened the drawer of an end table and produced a small glassine envelope. Inside was a white powder.

"Now what?" I asked nervously.

"You snort it up your nose," Coop instructed. Then he did so, with half the contents of the envelope. I quickly emulated his example.

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We were both on heroin! But the drug hadn't yet taken effect. What should we do now? We were both too excited to sit still.

"Let's take a walk," Cooper suggested.

"Yeah," I nodded.

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Soon we were on the street, beginning to feel the drug kick in. I had smoked marijuana 12 times and hashish once but had never ingested a chemical. What would happen? Cooper and I turned right onto Sherman Avenue.

What a gentle drug heroin is! I felt a child's rapture, looking around at the six-story buildings I'd known my whole life. My body felt near-weightless. It was like riding a horse. (Maybe that's how it got that nickname?) We turned right on Dyckman. The street of small shops—a dry cleaners, a hardware store, a toy store, a butcher shop—seemed like a carnival. The colors were slightly brighter than usual, almost cartoony. Coop and I floated down the block. The apples in the fruitstand glowed like candles. Part of the pleasure was a sense of danger. We were criminals—real renegades. "Junk" users!

After about an hour, our high was over. I never took heroin again. Why? I'm not sure. For one thing, I hate to spend money. (Coincidentally, I have almost none.) And no one offered me free heroin again. If I were a beautiful woman or a rich guy, I'd probably be dead by now.

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Also I was determined to be a hippie; that was the central goal of my 15-year-old existence. And hippies expand their consciousness rather than dulling it—or so I understood from reading the East Village Other.

Shortly after my heroin-initiation with Cooper, I bought the Velvet Underground's first album at a secondhand record store in the East Village. Alone in my bedroom, I heard "Heroin," a searing ballad with the best electric viola solo in rock history:

I have made a big decision;

I'm gonna try to nullify my life—

'Cause when the blood begins to flow,

When it shoots up the dropper's neck,

When I'm closing in on death …

But heroin was not like that for me. Taking a drug once is like kissing a girl once. You avoid the dependence, the frustration, the annoyance of a real relationship. All you retain is the memory of a single joy. My recipe for happiness is: Do everything once.

As for Cooper, he also escaped the terrors of addiction. Last I knew he was a born-again Christian working at the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

Tags: memoirs