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.
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.
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.
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.