Junkie Town – Rolling Stone
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Junkie Town

They came for the music and stayed for the smack

Heroin, Seattle

Drug user taking in heroin with syringe

Burlingham/Getty

Nearly every store on Broadway — the central shopping and dining street in Seattle’s Capitol Hill — is a junkie landmark. The Jack-in-the-Box is where Kurt Cobain used to wait out the hours before connections, until fame found him. The Taco Bell has a single-occupancy bathroom you can lock, in case you’re far from home and need a clean, private place to fix. Behind the Broadway Market there’s the brick apartment building where one of the hill’s many dealers will buzz you in until fairly late in the evening, and the parking garage beneath the market — if you still have a car and can spare $1 per half-hour — is an even cleaner and more private location to shoot. Hill residents will direct you to the neighborhood’s two call-back pay phones (where pages to dealers can be placed and returned), by the locksmith’s and in front of Dick’s drive-in restaurant. Fred Meyer, a drug store, will sell you needles over the counter without a prescription — which is legal in Washington — in bags of 10 for $3.

Fridays and Mondays there’s a needle exchange out toward Seneca Avenue, and if you’re willing to swing downtown, there’s an outdoor booth on Second and Pike that makes exchanges every business day. North of them both, looming over downtown, is the Space Needle. The Needle has lately become an unintentionally ironic symbol of the city’s heroin problem. A lot of bad jokes have been made at its expense — and they’re made constantly, each time the hills drop away and the cityscape parts and some sore-armed, tight-pupiled Capitol Hill resident catches sight of the spire — but it’s the Needle that helped convince Anne Simpson that the time had come to kick.

“I was sitting at work,” the 23-year-old waitress explains, “and two tourists were at the bar reading their little map. They turned to the bartender and asked, ‘Where’s that needle thing?’ And without thinking I looked up and went, ‘You mean needle exchange? That’s over on Seneca.’ That’s when I knew I had to get clean and that I had to get away from here to do it.”

Anne came to Seattle, a place she’d seen in movies like Singles, from Texas, where her father worked in construction and her mother was a social worker. “I’d seen junkies all my life and knew the downfalls,” she says. “I fought off addiction really hard.” Anne started by smoking heroin once a week. Then it was twice a week, still under control. Then came needles and a dealer — in her case, Mark Wofford — and now, as Anne ruefully says, “I’ve pretty much shot a whole compact car into my arm.” She turns and looks out the window. “This is just a very junkie-friendly place. In Seattle there’s almost no reason not to use.”

Always, there’s the talk of quitting. Junkies dream of escape to a place without temptation; dealers dread imprisonment. Mark the dealer and his girlfriend Katie were about to make their evening Broadway runs when a friend stopped them on the sidewalk. Some dangerously pure heroin had made its way into Mark’s supply. Two of his clients had overdosed in front of the Safeway supermarket; another had been found near the Jack-in-the-Box. Broadway, teeming with police cars and ambulances, was lit up like a carnival. The police already had Mark’s rough description, and bicycle cops — who stick mostly to Broadway — were whizzing along the dark residential streets in search of him.

Katie had the night’s 12-gram “half-piece” (a full dealer’s piece in Seattle weighs 24 to 26 grams) stashed in her bra, and the two of them had just enough time to scramble into a stranger’s garage and hide beneath a car before a police cruiser turned the corner and began training its searchlight along the houses. They hid all night. For weeks afterward, Mark couldn’t sleep: “I’d lie there with my ears perked like a dog,” he says, “listening for the door to get kicked in, for cops pulling up in my driveway, everything. I mean, I’d been doing it for almost a year, and the life expectancy of a Capitol Hill heroin dealer is six months.”

Mark — tall and soft-spoken, with a sandy-eye-lashed handsomeness and a junkie’s astonishing slimness — has decided to quit dealing and get clean. It’s a decision that will reverberate through the community of users who’ve come to depend on him. It’s a decision he made even though at 21 he had become one of the hill’s top three dealers, even though he and Katie were received as drug royalty by most hill users, even though the city was furnishing him with a steady stream of new clients.

Mark says it is the music that brings them. “Some of our biggest, most famous musicians are known heroin users,” he says. “People have been coming [to Seattle] since ’91 and ’92, and they probably think, ‘Oh, man, I got a band, I’m going to get signed, and I’m going to try heroin.’ Or maybe they didn’t think about the heroin, maybe they just wanted to get their band checked out. And then the heroin came along.”

No one is sure how heroin became so inextricably linked with Seattle — popular theories: port town, grim weather. What is not disputed is the drug’s pervasive presence. “My treatment experience tells me that heroin use is much more prevalent here than it’s ever been,” says Scott Martin, an emergency-room social worker at the city’s Harborview Medical Center. “Since I began working in Seattle in 1972, the number of methadone centers has doubled, and the number of treatment facilities for drug addiction has exploded. That amount of growth is incredible.”

The Drug Abuse Warning Network has been charting the national heroin rise for years: There was a 34 percent increase in heroin-related emergency-room incidents from 1991 to 1992, followed by a 32 percent jump in 1993, with a third uptick in 1994 (the most recent year for which figures are available). But these numbers have hardly kept pace with the numbers in King County, where Seattle is located: From 1986 to 1994, heroin fatalities increased nearly 300 percent. And of course there have been the heroin-related music deaths, which listed together look like a kind of grim new alternative Grammy category: Cobain, and Kristen Pfaff of Hole in 1994; Stefanie Sargent of 7 Year Bitch in 1992; Andrew Wood of Mother Love Bone in 1990.

The attention that these youthful deaths have brought to Seattle has not delighted long-term residents. “It’s causing fallout,” complains the Seattle photographer Alice Wheeler, who moved here in 1981, “and part of the fallout is kids moving to Seattle to be junkies. All these runaways come here for that lifestyle: Share big houses with a bunch of people, crash here, crash there. There were junkies in the punk scene when I got here; there were always whispers about people. Heroin had always been Seattle’s dark little secret, and it’s a shameful secret. But the new generation of junkies who’ve moved here are not ashamed at all. They nod visibly in public; it’s a badge of honor.”

The street kids on Capitol Hill have two favorite spots for “spare changing.” There’s the cash machine at Seafirst Bank (if they’re trying to put together the necessary $20 for an eighth of a gram), and then there’s the lot in front of Dick’s (if they’re after a hamburger). On warm, sunny days — rare in Seattle — they sit together in big cross-legged groups in front of Payless Drug Store, whip on sunglasses, lean back and take in the sky.

Teal is a 17-year-old runaway from Pennsylvania with shaved temples and a fringe of lavender bangs in front of her eyes; Philip, 18, who has a soul-patch and wears a floppy brown cap, grew up in Arkansas. Philip began shooting two years ago. “The first time I did it, I was really scared,” he says. “My friend was gonna hit me up. I was like, ‘No, don’t do it — do it — don’t do it.’ And then he did it, and it was the best drug I’ve tried.” Teal did her first shot this year, “because of the way people talk about it,” she says. Seattle, the kids say, is a good city for junkies: “easy to scam, easy to fix.”

There’s a sense of community on the hill, even among street kids: Neither Teal nor Philip has an apartment; both have friends who let them couch surf and stay on for a few days in each place. In the summer, Philip says, there are lots of good places to sleep outdoors — “as long as you check first for sprinklers.”

Street kids make up a small percentage of King County’s estimated 10,000 to 15,000 intravenous-drug users. Often they are like Will Stephans, 28, who’s lived in the city for seven years. Raised in the upper-middle-class suburbs of Denver, he moved to Seattle because he wanted to live in a city with a thriving music scene. He already had a name for the band he hoped to found: Automatique. He also dreamed of finding a counterculture that mixed drugs with creativity. For a while he alternated between bunking with relatives and surfing his friend’s apartments.

Now he’s a resident of the downtown federal housing projects, where he gets by on welfare and food stamps. As he explains with a wince of smile, he’s been “married to the horsey” for six years. He has a black beard, pale skin and, on both cheeks, red cuts that don’t appear to be healing.

When Will needs extra money to score, he waits by the sidewalk for older men in cars, offering blow jobs for $20, money upfront. When he gets it, he runs — “services not rendered,” he says. This type of work takes a sharp eye: “I try to go for frail and weak, but you never know when someone is actually going to be able to thwart your efforts at ripping them off.”

Sometimes, Will speaks with the corrosive irony of someone whose youthful guesses have mostly turned out to be wrong. Other times, using words like ennui or synchronization, or describing the odor of his housing complex as “the rancid smell of cooking chunks of poverty,” he sounds as though he’s quoting an unpublished essay that’s gone through a few too many drafts. Will intends to give his rock & roll dream one more year; if it doesn’t work, he says, he’s going to leave Seattle, go back to college in Colorado.

“It seems to me that the drug culture is largely filled with, you know, white kids from classic, mildly privileged, white suburban backgrounds like mine,” Will says. “We all have comfort zones to fall back on. And for a lot of us, it’s like when people go into the military. They have some experience that maybe kicks their butt a little. Being strung out, handling withdrawal — all of it tests your mettle. And some people are going to end up lost souls; there’s going to be some carnage. But I mean, in a world where one’s identity can be this vague, soupy mix, this is something that might boil the real you out of you.”

Anne Simpson knows how hard it is to kick, how the drug’s pull gets stronger after she’s been away from it. “I’d go through my withdrawals, stay clean for a week or two — three was the longest,” she says. “Then I’d think, ‘Well, I obviously don’t have a problem. I can go ahead and use once and not get addicted’ — and within a few days, I’d be strung out again.” This time she swears she will quit for real. A week ago she duct-taped her last needle to a sheet of paper, wrote out the words “not an option” and thumbtacked it to the wall. Having her dealer out of commission makes her even more optimistic. “I think what really killed me was actually getting a connection in the first place,” she says. “Mark could get it for me every day and bring it to my house. So it becomes like, OK, for 40 bucks you could go out drinking with friends and possibly have a good time. Or you could buy heroin and be guaranteed a good time. So it’s nice having Mark out of business.”

Mark’s retirement, now four days old, hasn’t been as rewarding for his friends who still use. Eric, whose sweet features and shaved head give him the disarming look of a hard-boiled angel, is a 25-year-old veteran of the Air Force (peacetime enlistees call it the Chair Force). He makes sandwiches at a local deli, and until very recently his days have passed with the maintaining junkie’s tranced, wonderful simplicity. A wake-up shot, bliss, work for five hours; an afternoon shot, bliss, hang out for five hours; an evening shot, bliss, sleep. Mark’s retirement has complicated this schedule. Eric doesn’t have any other connections, and he’s almost out of dope. After midnight he goes for a walk on Broadway and returns to Anne’s Capitol Hill apartment with Greg, who squats in an abandoned building in the university district.

Greg is tall and bird thin, and his motions are slow and gliding — he seems to move on heroin time. He used to run deliveries for Mark, he knows lots of dealers, and he and Eric decide to cop together.

In Seattle, if you know your way around, heroin is like takeout food. You can have your dope delivered — phone a pager number, wait for a call back, set up your meeting — or you can resort to a downtown drive-through. It’s nearly 1 in the morning and as Greg begins phoning, it becomes clear that delivery is pretty much a losing proposition. So Eric and Greg head downtown to First Avenue and Pike and look for Mexican men in doorways. Black tar — chiva, Seattle’s heroin staple — comes from Mexico, and these men can arrange downtown deals.

After a quick consultation, a stocky, ponytailed guy leads Eric and Greg up the block. (It’s understood that after copping, they’ll kick down some of their dope to him — the standard amount is one-quarter of the score.) He leads them to a woman in a long, quilted down jacket, but her price is too high. He leads them around the corner to a Chicano couple talking by a parking meter. Greg walks into a doorway and glides out a moment later with his fist wrapped around a wax-paper bundle of what looks like beef jerky but is in fact a quarter-gram of black tar.

Back at Anne’s apartment, the preparations begin. Greg removes a spoon and an orange-capped syringe from his coat pocket. Eric lays out an alcohol prep pad, a penknife, a cotton ball and a glass of water on the coffee table. He sets to it meticulously, as if this is another Air Force duty to be mastered, like fixing engines or breaking down a rifle. They squirt water on the tar, hold lighters under their spoons and stir. Eric uses his knife, Greg the end of his needle, and there’s the scratchy sound of metal against metal. The air fills with the smell of cooking heroin, which is a little like burned vinegar.

Anne says, looking on, “I think what I miss more than heroin sometimes is just the ritual of shooting.” Eric agrees. “You get addicted to the needle,” he says. “Just the process of sticking something into your vein, having such a direct involvement with your body — I mean, I’d probably shoot food now if I could.” Eric draws the mixture into his syringe and injects it into the crook of his elbow. The result is powerful and close to immediate. His lilac-colored lids drop down over his eyes, his mouth opens; his head rolls forward, and his fingers delicately twitch.

Greg, a seven-year needle veteran, flexes his left hand until the veins stand out. He tries shooting the tip of his thumb, then between his knuckles, but the veins are too small to hold the contents of the injection. After a long search, he finds a workable spot in the palm of his hand. Anne watches, eyes glittery.

The off ramp, a club on Eastlake, has a proud history. Mother Love Bone played there. Soundgarden played there. Pearl Jam played there. More recently, the club has developed a new reputation. Sitting at the bar, three members of the popular local band Whyte Out can spot the dealers, who drift alertly among the tables. They circulate like waiters — if you look at one of them long enough, he will slip over and recite his bill of fare. The members of Whyte Out are black, from Cleveland, New York and Chicago. They are mystified by the Seattle association of heroin and glamour. Dope has been a factor of inner-city life for decades, but back home it has the opposite association. “It’s the loser drug, man,” says T-Roy, the drummer. “It means you’ve given up. We don’t understand it.”

Kenneth Carter, the guitarist, laughs. “Except here, nobody seems to be losing,” he says. “Everybody seems to be winning.” They’ve seen other local bands use heroin as a shortcut to street credibility and integrity, to indie-label deals and tours. “There’s a certain allure,” T-Roy explains. “People will go see a band because it’s like, I heard they’re the most dangerous band on the street.’ You know? I heard they’re fucked up. Let’s go.’ ” He takes a sip of vodka and frowns. “But maybe it’s because of our culture, man, and being black. The idea of talking about let’s go score some heroin, that thought is a little too intense to collectively play with.”

In the beginning, we did some fun stuff,” Dustin Cowan says, nodding at Ellen Wallace, his girlfriend. They would shoot each other up, the way lovers will sometimes tilt each other’s glasses or place food in each other’s mouths. Or they would shoot together, pull the needles out and immediately kiss, so they could enjoy the pleasures of rushing and kissing at once. In bed, Dustin says, “I’d be lying on the bottom, and Ellen would straddle me, and we’d be having sex with a needle ready.” Ellen continues, “And then when I’d start to orgasm, I’d hit him, so that in a way we were both having an orgasm at the same time.”

Dustin and Ellen are 19 and 18. Dustin’s father is a well-paid executive from a nearby state, and his family owns a vacation home; Ellen grew up solidly middle-class. The couple moved to Seattle together to go to school. Instead, they found dope connections, got strung out and stopped attending class.

“It was just too hard to come up with the cash we needed and still make it to school on time,” says Dustin. “And then while we were in class, we’d be thinking about how it was taking up hours when we could be out making money to score.

“The way we live now is, we spend every waking moment putting money together,” he continues. “We get out of bed and do our wake-up — hopefully we have a wake-up waiting for us. And then we have to go right out and start making money so that we don’t get sick in the afternoon. Then we come home, do another shot and go right back out to make more money. And we might be able to sit down for a half-hour and feel it if we’re lucky. But usually not. And by the time we get in from making money at night so that we can have a wake-up, it’s usually 3 o’clock and we’re so exhausted we just go straight to bed. We have no time to do anything else. I mean, we haven’t seen a movie, gone to a concert, done anything we used to do together anymore. This is all we do. We just try to make money.”

In the mornings, Ellen and Dustin spare-change together on Broadway. In the afternoons they split up. Dustin’s job is boosting; he shoplifts cigarettes by the carton, wine, books, bluejeans. CDs, though, are his speciality. He and a partner work together: One steals, the other returns. Ellen works with a partner, too: Jo, a statuesque, short-haired 28-year-old who is a third-generation Seattle junkie. She looks the way you’d imagine a Northwesterner, as if she could start a homestead or stare down a grizzly.

Ellen and Jo run their scam on the Date Line, a Seattle telephone matchmaking service. Once they’ve convinced a man he should pay to have sex with one of them (Jo does an excellent schoolgirl voice; their slogan is “nothing anal or painful”), they then convince him to pay in advance. They have an elaborate story: Jo has been locked out of her apartment and needs the money upfront to pay her landlord or they can’t use her bedroom. The trick then drives her to Dustin and Ellen’s apartment building. Promising she’ll be right back, she goes inside and never returns. They watch through the blinds while the john walks frustrated circles, and Ellen goes out to cop their dope. At night, Dustin and Ellen meet up to spare-change again in the bars downtown.

The apartment they come home to manages to feel empty and cluttered at the same time. There are spoons and orange syringe caps under most of the furniture; there’s no television or stereo — they pawned both of them months ago. There are boxes of packed possessions in the corners and against the walls; the toilet hasn’t worked for weeks, and Ellen and Dustin have been using the largest drain available: in the bathtub. This leaves them no place to shower. All of their resources, all of their working energy, has gone into heroin, which, in the drug’s sneakiest twist, no longer even gets them high.

Ellen’s veins have started to collapse — the smaller the person, the thinner the vein — and it’s impossible to find a vein that will hold the shot. So Ellen has moved to “muscling,” which means pushing the needle into a fleshy spot like the buttocks or shoulder and waiting for the dope to slowly be absorbed. There’s little or no high produced by this method; the body’s craving is simply quieted. (Addicts will sometimes begin shooting their necks in this case, which is comparatively dangerous and leaves a line of vampire dots by the throat.) And Dustin’s tolerance has exceeded the couple’s capacity to fund it. After a year, Dustin and Ellen no longer talk in terms of sharing highs or rushing: They speak of either being dope sick or getting well.

Today has been a successful day. Jo has left another frustrated john to circle the building. Dustin’s partner has come back with seven box sets of CDs; he sits down while Dustin gets up to return them. When he comes back, everyone has enough money to cop. Dustin pages their dealer. Ellen goes outside to score, and when she comes back, Eric and Katie are with her. Eric has been trying to contact Ellen for the name of her dealer; and Katie, fresh from 12 days of being clean, is looking for dope. She and Jo are friends; they embrace. “I wanna do some drugs,” she says. She makes everyone promise not to tell Anne; she knows Anne will be disappointed. Katie has purple hair and eyes the cold, striking blue of a Siberian husky’s. On her face is a look of embarrassed, excited hunger. Katie’s face is full of want.

She asks to talk to Jo in the bedroom. Jo sits on the bedspread with her hands folded over the small white box in her lap — she keeps her works in a first-aid kit. Katie wants to buy Jo’s extra dope, but she hasn’t got enough money. As a dealer’s girlfriend, she never had to bargain or even buy dope at all. “I only have $20,” Katie explains. “That’s a 30 piece,” Jo says. Katie stammers, “Oh, can you just sort of…? I can’t even shoot that much.” Jo smiles and says, “OK. You can have the whole piece.” Katie seems surprised. She stops stammering. “You were always very nice to me,” she says. The two women hug, and Jo says, patting her back, “Oh! You’ve always had that nice smell! I remember that.” And then Katie lies down on the bed, and Jo cooks up her shot, feels at Katie’s throat for the vein and injects her in the neck. In the other room, everyone else has finished shooting. They’re sitting on the couch or sprawled in easy chairs, and for a moment, before they have to go back out and get more money, everyone is well.

Kurt Cobain’s death is understood differently on the hill than it’s understood in most quarters. People still remember the singer as a couch surfer, as a junkie. It must have been a surreal experience for denizens of the hill to open fashion magazines in the fall of 1992, when Seventh Avenue went grunge, and thin, beautiful models were dressed like the users at Jack-in-the-Box, like the spare-changers in front of the Seafirst. It must have seemed like a junkie’s dream.

Mark’s attempt at kicking has lasted 12 days. He has spent the afternoon with two friends, shooting up, and he seems at once both disgusted with himself and strangely composed. “The first time I tried to get clean was about two years ago,” he says. “I’d been clean for a month, maybe two months. And at that point — this is before I started dealing — I’d really decided that I wanted to be clean or I wanted to be dead. I was totally broke; everything had crumbled so far to bits that I just wanted to be clean or dead. Then, you know, I’d still get drunk and shoot dope. That happened a couple times, and when it did, I woke up just wanting to kill myself And so the morning I heard he’d died, I knew he’d been struggling with kicking for a long time. And, you know, the first thing that went through my mind was, I understand. There were all these people in the media giving their ideas about, ‘Oh, Kurt couldn’t handle the fame.’ But, you know, when all you’re trying to do is be clean and you can’t do it, you feel worthless. You think, well, what the fuck am I good for, then? I understood.”

Anne has been clean for six weeks now, and she’s decided to stay in Seattle. For her, the hardest part is probably over. The rest have chosen escape. Dustin and Ellen have left for the country to try to kick, taking with them, by Ellen’s count, “codeines, Valiums, clonidine, Klonopins, methadone, hospital-grade Tylenol, Phenergan and speed, plus NyQuil.” Eric’s flown back to the East Coast, where he’s toughed his way through eight days of withdrawal. His mom, having seen enough movies to know, asked him, “Are you a junkie?”

Anne is even feeling a bit confident now. She’s over the roughest part and is even allowing herself a dangerous little flight of junkie nostalgia. She has a new escape plan. “I sometimes think if I went on vacation,” she says, “I would take a chunk with me. My tolerance is so low I could probably get high for two days on a 20 piece. And that’s all I’d do. As long as I’m in a strange situation where there weren’t dealers, where I couldn’t find it again, I’m sure I would stop. But that place isn’t Seattle.” 

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