The Calm Before The Storm - Preston Peet

There's something about the cold weather that always brings up memories of dope, of using it and of endlessly going through withdrawals, especially now that I live inside a relatively warm apartment. A major hindrance to kicking, other than not really wanting to, was that while living on the streets in a variety of cities through the coldest Winters of my memory, I was always trying to keep warm, something that heroin was particularly good at doing. But not all the memories are bad, not even the ones of kicking in the dead of Winter with nowhere to get out of the cold. Some of them are downright fond ones, with a feel, a smell in the air that is almost palpable. Even today, Winter scents will bring memories up in a flood. A particularly vivid one is of my first time picking up a rig in 1990 and sticking it in my arm, after Atlanta had just been covered in a rare snowfall.

"You've done heroin? That's the one drug I really want to try, but I haven't ever seen it," Jennifer says to Thomas one early Winter evening, staring at him with her great big eyes, sitting up half naked in their bed in Atlanta, Georgia. They've been discussing their favorite topics- music, sex and drugs.

"Oh yeah?" says Thomas. "How would you want to do it, sniff, smoke or shoot it?"

"Shoot it for sure," she replied.

Thomas has himself a mission. His girlfriend wants to shoot drugs, and if she does, he does. When he did heroin years before, he'd started out sniffing it, but moved quickly to smoking it, chasing the dragon. He'd never gotten around to shooting up before laying off dope entirely for a number of years. But now, eager to please and madly in love, he's perfectly willing to start.

He begins asking around, but in 1990 Atlanta, heroin is a scarce commodity. They find a source for Valium first. While not exactly dope, when they each eat 3 or 4 10s, then go out drinking heavily at their favorite local punk rock club, falling down stairs and off barstools is a common occurrence. Total inebriation is the goal, and they are good at it. Still, it's not dope, which they graphically confirm when Jennifer brings home their very first rig, which she stole from her gynecologist's office.

It's big, very, very big, with a bore like a 16-gauge piercing needle, a tool for drawing large quantities of blood, not for injecting drugs into blood veins. But having seen similar rigs in graphic anti-drug propaganda presentations for years, they don't know any better, thinking how great it is to finally have a rig of their own.

Still not having found a source for the real deal, heroin, they sit down on the bed the night she brings home the rig, deciding that since the Valium gets them really fucked up when eaten, perhaps it'll be even better when shot into their arms. Going purely on instinct, Thomas crushes 2 10s into a spoon, crunching them down to a fine blue powder. He draws up some water into the rig and squirts it onto the piled powder, which floats to the surface. Holding the spoon over a candle, he heats it while stirring the powder, trying to get the pills to break down and melt into the water, but only succeeds in making blue muddy stuff. Thinking this doesn't look right, Thomas drops a rolled up bit of cotton into the goop, then tries to draw up liquid into the rig through the cotton, getting exactly nowhere.

After adding more water and heat and still accomplishing nothing, in exasperation Thomas removes the cotton from the spoon, pulls the plunger from the rig, and pours everything into the back of the rig along with a little more water. He put the plunger back into the rig, shakes it up, then very carefully taps out any bubbles he can see in the chamber, not wanting to inject any bubbles into his bloodstream. He's always heard that can kill someone and he doesn't want to do that.

Amazingly, with the size of the needle and it being his first attempt at injecting himself, it doesn't take him long to actually get a vein in the crook of his elbow, pulling blood up into the rig as he's heard he's supposed to do to be sure he's in the vein. Despite the initial glee at seeing the blood in there, when he tries to push the mixture into his arm, the plunger won't move. He tries again, with the same results. No movement at all of the plunger. He tries and tries, eventually pushing with such force it's a wonder the needle itself doesn't pop off the end of the rig and imbed itself deeper into his elbow joint. Despite his efforts and the gargantuan needle, the muddy Valium slop they've created will not go through the needle. So he gags it down, disappointedly drinking it with some beer from the fridge.

When he thinks back on this evening years down the road, he can only shake his head, grateful that it didn't work. He can only imagine how sick he'd have made himself shooting all that Valium chalk into his arm. Having shot microscopic dust particles when getting straight more than once since then, shots that left him with the very worst migraine-like headaches of his life, just the thought of how hard he tried to force all that stuff into his arm makes him queasy and thankful to high heavens that he was unsuccessful.

So it's back to the search for real dope, making due for a few more weeks with eating pills mixed with copious amounts of alcohol. Then he has a chat with a goth friend one night at the club Masquerade, a young lady named Karen, who mentions how much she loves to go out and just sit watching the people dance while the music carries her along in her heroin haze. With her dark goth appearance, demonic tattoos and burn marks from bizarre kinky sex rites, he doesn't know why he hadn't brought it up to her before, but upon hearing this he tells her about his quest. She says to give her a call in a couple of days, as her connection is expecting a shipment from NYC soon.

Another letdown he thinks. He's heard this more than once, that there is heroin around or soon will be with nothing coming of it. So it's not with much expectation that he calls her bright and early afternoon two days later.

"Hey Karen, what's up?"

"Not much. I'm brushing all the snow off me and trying to get warm," she says.

"Snow? What are you talking about?"

"You haven't looked outside? There was a blizzard last night."

Sure enough, outside his window the snow is piled knee-deep, a white blanket everywhere.

"Cool. I was wondering about our conversation the other night." Thomas gets to the point.

"Yeah, I just came from there. Why don't you come over?"

He and Jennifer leap excitedly from the bed, throw on their clothes and proceed to drive as quickly through the snow as they can across Atlanta to the apartment Karen shares with another friend of theirs. After months of searching, they're about to finally get their fix. Upon arrival and ringing the bell, Karen opens the door with glazed, pinned pupils, waving them inside the small apartment. Helios Creed blares from the stereo as Karen leads them to her room. She hands them a few 1cc insulin syringes and sells them 5 bags of heroin for $100. Then she walks them through the process of setting up a shot, not much differently than Thomas had with the Valiums that failed first attempt at shooting up. Karen suggests splitting a bag between them as it's their first time. When Thomas notices a bubble in one of the rigs, Karen laughs and says that William Burroughs once pointed out that if bubbles could kill there wouldn't be a junkie alive. That sounds logical to them. Jennifer goes first, then Thomas, both of them finding that which they'd been missing, finally becoming whole, alive, complete.

Then they throw up.

Despite the exuberant vomiting, everything is beautiful, and the world makes sense, changed but not changed. They remove their sweaters and sink into the sofa in front of the speakers, both of them glassy eyed and nauseous and utterly at peace. The dark magical music washes over them, taking them to deeper spaces than ever before, urged by the drug to drift in a half-dream, half-awake state of stoned semi-consciousness. After nodding in and out of conversations for an hour or so, watching Alexis, Karen's room-mate, shoot up methamphetamines she cooks up in the bathroom sink from some nasal inhalers she has, they make the move to go home.

Jennifer can barely keep her eyes open, much less drive, so Thomas must take the wheel. Always one to at least try to behave as though drugs were his friend, not to be fought against but something to facilitate easy flow in the spiral of his life, this is simply another adventure to partake in. As Jennifer periodically leans out the window to throw up, Thomas steers them along the snowy highway back to their house across from the Atlanta Zoo, where they stumble inside and fall into the bed to finally pass out and dream.

Despite the bone-crushing, total body hangover the following day, and the subsequent turmoil Thomas finds himself in over the years due to serious, hard-core heroin addiction- the endless parade of asshole cops, the stupid destructive prohibitionist moralizing and shitty, self-centered addict behavior on his part- he can never think badly of those early days of using dope, the proverbial period of calm before the storm, when the world felt right and fine and good, when all was balanced and warm, despite the freezing Winter whitening the world outside the windows.

$ $ $ $ $ $ $

"Prohibition creates an irresistibly lucrative opportunity for entrepreneurs willing to operate in illicit business. It is the policy of idealists who cannot appreciate that the use of drugs often reflects other sets of human ideals: human perfectibility, the yearning for a perfect moment, the peace that comes from oblivion."

Richard Davenport-Hines