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School Days: Shooting in the Bathroom, Nodding in the Classroom

Heroin use and addiction are described in first-person narratives from a number of young users in New York

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A close-up of a drug addict using a syringe to inject himself. Circa 1970.

William Lovelace/Express/Getty

Teachers used to walk into a school bathroom and catch kids smoking cigarettes. But that’s all in the past. Now they don’t go in at all. I don’t go into the bathroom at all at school, I mean who wants to see a shooting gallery, anyway I’d probably get mugged.
—A girl at an East Side, Manhattan high school

The thing about heroin is that it gives a human being a purpose in life. It gives him an occupation, an identity, friends, a chance to be better at something and above all it takes up time.
—A 16-year-old junkie, in the East Village

NEW YORK—Coping with the junkie has become a way of life for residents of the traditionally liberal Upper West Side of Manhattan. For the last three years, an ever-growing army of teenagers has been trekking day and night across the West Side, robbing apartments and stores, stealing cars, purses—anything that will provide them with the cash for heroin.

But most New Yorkers were unaware of just how young junkies were becoming until December 16th, 1969, when newspaper headlines trumpeted the story of 12-year-old Walter Vandermeer, who was found dead in a Harlem tenement after taking an overdose of heroin.

City officials estimate there are over 100,000 drug addicts in New York and that it would be impossible to pinpoint the actual number of dope users. Dr. Earl Jung, head of the city’s drug abuse program in the schools, estimates that “a large percentage” of the 100,000 is of school age.

Last year more than 200 persons aged 19 years or younger died in New York City from narcotics-related causes (that statistic was tucked away in a back section of the Times).

Dr. Jung sees no immediate solution to what he terms a “very complex” problem; he believes the answer lies in scientific advancement of addict-treatment techniques. “Of course,” he adds ominously, “the big hard-core surge in the rest of the country is yet to come.” In the meantime, city councilmen are continuing to call community meetings to discuss drug addiction, its curtailment, and where to put the blame.

Phoenix House, a non-profit organization concerned with the rehabilitation of drug addicts, is taking more concrete steps towards a solution of the problem. Named after the legendary bird that rises from the ashes of apocalypse, Phoenix House was found in 1967 by five former addicts who had just been released from a hospital detoxification ward. They pooled their meager resources and set up shop in a roach-and-rat-infested apartment on the West Side. Today there are more than 1,000 former addicts living in 15 Phoenix facilities throughout the city. Group encounter sessions and a cooperative living environment are the prime ingredients for therapy.

The Brooklyn House is populated almost exclusively by school-age kids. Five of them, all former heroin users, agreed to tell their stories. Two are black, two are caucasian, and one is a Puerto Rican.

Alfred is a 17-year-old black kid from Harlem who started using drugs in junior high school. He has been a resident of Phoenix House for almost a year. He talks of his experiences with heroin as if they were comic escapades in his life, but also talks of days spent in detoxification wards—possibly as a reminder to himself as well as to the listener:

“I lived in Harlem on 134th and I guess I started using drugs because I came from the ghetto. The people I looked up to were like pimps, and dope fiends, people who were making money the fast way. My father was in the numbers racket and my brother was selling drugs. In school I always had to be with the crowd; whatever they did, I did the same thing.

“I started smoking grass at 13, but I got tired of it after about two months. I moved on to sniffing heroin and later I started shooting. When I was 13 I went to junior high school in the Bronx; that’s where I had my first shot. I skin-popped it in the back of the auditorium because teachers don’t hardly look there during the change of periods. I started liking it so I stole from my brother. Then I got money from my father. I’d tell him I was going to a dance or something just to get money so I could get high. Then I started catching a ‘jones,’ what’s known as a habit.

What happened when the habit got worse?

“I had to find a way to make more money and the only way was to take off people, what they call stinging people, like I’d rob and mug them. I was always hanging out with people who were 18 when I was 14 because they knew what they were doing. Ever since I was a small kid I knew how to rob people’s pockets—grab them by the neck and go in their pockets or rip their jewelry off. When it really got bad I started stealing from my house.

“I was always getting cold, feeling sick, I couldn’t eat nothing and I kept throwing up. When I got to 16 my mother told me either I go to Phoenix House or else to the Rockefeller program. So I chose Phoenix House because people said the Rockefeller program was like jail. My mother took me there one time for a test to prove whether or not I was an addict.

“I stayed there a week while they took the examination and they said I didn’t use drugs. You see my mother had told me three weeks before, so I played slick and stopped shooting. I was kicking at my friend’s house and when my mother finally took me there, they couldn’t prove I was an addict because I didn’t have any drugs in my system. Anyway later she found out that I was still fucking around, so when she gave me the choice, I chose Phoenix.”

Did he ever turn anyone else on to heroin?

“There was this little kid living on my block, his father was a big-time numbers man. He always used to have all this money and he looked up to me like I was his big brother. He was smoking and I told him to try some dope. I’d tell him it was so great once you got high. At first he was scared, but he snorted it and liked it and I started using him because I didn’t have no money. Finally I shot him up.”

* * *

Vicki is a very demure, almost wispy 17-year-old from Queens who has also been in the Phoenix program for over a year. She fills me in on her background.

“I went to a high school. It’s predominantly upper-middle class, that’s all. When they had that marijuana panic in 1969, a lot of the kids out there started taking money from their families and buying barbiturates. From what I remember there was no difference between the black and the white kids; the white upper and middle class kids were ending up shooting dope too. We used to have this big park outside the school and a lot of the kids would go there and pop pills, smoke grass or shoot dope. They used to have a class called occupation-orientation and that was supposed to be for the pre-drop-outs, the ones that were using drugs. Well, all that class did was to give the kids a lot more leeway. They got away with murder, cutting class and getting high.

“I was in my own little world, I didn’t get along with my family and I started smoking pot because my friends were doing it. It was just a big thing of hanging out, that’s what everybody was doing, so why not? People take dope when they get called chicken and want to prove they’re not afraid. I had a friend who did it and she died of an overdose of heroin, she had taken too much for her first time. If you were doing good in school, everybody made fun of you. You were a square.”

* * *

Like many former junkies, Eddie at 15 feels he benefitted from the experience. He started using drugs in junior high school and, as he puts it: “I went fast from marijuana, straight into heroin, snorting it, skin-popping and finally shooting it, in the space of a few months.”

Eddie lived in the run-down section of Brooklyn in which the Phoenix center for teenagers is located, but he went to school in Williamsburg where he learned all about heroin when he was 12.

“I’d sit in class trying to study and I’d hear the guys in the back shooting dice and grooving and saying, ‘Yeah man, that’s it, I got it.’ That sounded more interesting to me than what I was learning for the simple fact that the teacher used to say ‘one and one is two,’ and if you asked her why, she’d say, ‘Well, that’s the way math is.’ Or you’d ask her a question and she’d say, ‘Well, that’s so because I said so.’ Hey man, they relate down to you instead of relating across to you.”

Eddie admits he was easily led. “My mind was into those fast, slick guys who had a $20 shirt or a $25 pair of pants, so I started hanging out with them. I used to shoot up in the bathrooms. I’d buy the dope in school in the lunchroom; you could always tell who was selling drugs in school by the way they dressed because they made money. I’d buy two or three bags and cut class to shoot. I had my own works when I was 12. If someone took my works I’d be willing to start a fight to get them back.”

* * *

Gladys sits behind the reception desk at Phoenix handling calls and visitors efficiently and with a relaxed self-assurance that would make her highly rated on Madison Avenue. She grew up in Harlem and looks older than 16. She talks avidly of her years spent shooting heroin, remembers all the dope panics and major busts, worked for several dealers and thinks people who drop acid are crazy.

“I went to Julia Richman High School, that’s on Second Ave and East 67th Street on the East Side. When I first started going there the drug population wasn’t that high. Then in the last year I was there, ’69, the drug population got bigger. A lot of ‘A’ students who weren’t shooting drugs started. People would bring all kinds of drugs in and get off in the bathrooms or in the park outside school. I changed over from pot to heroin because I got tired of the same high. I know deep down inside I wanted to try heroin, I was really curious.

“I used to say to myself: ‘Well I’ll just get high on weekends, look at them hard-core dope fiends, I’m never going to be like them.’ But after a few weeks I started to feel it. One Monday I woke up and felt funny, my nose was running, I was cold, my eyes were getting watery and I couldn’t eat. In fact, I just couldn’t move, my bones were aching.

“You know what, I never took acid. I used to say ‘acid, are you crazy?’ But I still shot dope. I knew nothing about acid, but heroin, I knew just how much to take of that. Also with acid they can’t bring you back, but with heroin they can.

“I was on methadone for three days and they were trying to get me on to a methadone program. I didn’t want to go on to that stuff because that’s just another drug, I might just as well have stayed on heroin. I cut myself off methadone after three days and I was just sick as a dog, I might as well have kicked ‘cold turkey.’ I couldn’t get out of bed.”

Gladys’ objections to methadone treatment conform with the views of many black people who see methadone as whitey’s tool of control. Methadone maintenance substitutes a synthetic drug which allows the addict to function normally and at the same time blocks the euphoria of heroin if the patient resorts to his old ways. Although methadone itself is addictive, it doesn’t require increasing doses to satisfy the addict as heroin does.

Gladys favors group encounter therapy sessions and emphasis placed on communication to resolve the social and emotional problems that Phoenix believes are the roots of youthful drug abuse.

“You see … we are very hostile and emotionally starved people,” she explains. “At the same time, we’re very sensitive. Encounter can be very frightening, but it’s sometimes the only way to get your feeling over.”

She returns to telling about her former life in Harlem. “I used to hang out with people of 20 when I was 14, mostly with hard-core dope fiends. They taught me how to rob hotels and break into stores and easy things, like snatching pocket books from ladies. Another thing we used to do was make up a pile of dummy bags and sell them in Long Island for this man called ‘Goldfinger,’ but his real name was Jimmy. He lived right down the block from me and used to call me his little sister. I also tricked twice, and that was a horrible scene for me. I was scared because I didn’t know what the man was going to do to me, I didn’t know if he was going to pay me or not. Those were bad times. But holding guns in front of people seemed funny at the time. I guess I got a kick out of it.”

* * *

Robert, a 15-year-old Italian kid from a middle class neighborhood in Queens, saw his whole problem in terms of a communication breakdown, both in school and at home. “My father never showed me affection. He’d say like: ‘Here’s a bike, go play with it’ and he’d throw me out of the door. He’d never sit down and rap with me about the things that were bothering me. I started using drugs in school when I was 11. The kids at the bottom of the class had images. They cut classes and maybe went out and stole a car and they used dope. I started stealing cars and stereos in the middle-class neighborhood where I lived to get money to buy dope.

“Sure, I turned other kids on. I turned on this kid once to heroin. He was 11 years old and I was 14. I did it because I was hanging out with guys of 17 or 18 and I wanted someone my age or younger to shoot drugs with me. The kid had problems at home. His mother and father were separated and his sister was getting high over at his house and I asked him if he wanted to try it and he did. I mean, he didn’t know anything about snorting and I shot him up the first time. Man, now I look back on it, I’m a creep, really, for doing it. He was 11 years old and I messed up his whole life.”

* * *

Bobby’s parents live on Lenox Avenue in Harlem, but you won’t find him hanging out there. Nor does he live in Phoenix House. He spends most evenings with a small group of friends, fellow heroin users, on the top landing of a dilapidated five-story building on 105th Street in Manhattan. The hallway reeks of stale urine and rotting garbage, but the stench doesn’t reach the top floor and Bobby, who is 15, says it’s cool to shoot up and go nod in the little park on the next block during the summer months.

Bobby left home for a few weeks last year following a beating from his father for lying. He was snorting a little heroin at the time, “just to take his mind off things,” he said. Now he and his five friends each shoot a couple of bags a day with the communal needle. “We’re all brothers,” Bobby says. “Ain’t nobody here got a habit, we manage to get about 20 bucks a day together, somehow.”

The money is accumulated from a variety of sources. An older sister’s purse, stealing in school, wheeling and dealing, or panhandling on Broadway. They buy the dope from a few guys in school. Bobby’s friends have arrived and are sitting quietly on the landing listening to us talking. Bobby tells them it’s cool; “He’s an old friend of mine.” Five guys and a chick, all under 16, appear in the doorway.

They go down to the basement where they keep their works hidden and shoot up. Ronnie has a little trouble getting off, but soon everything’s cool and they come back to the top landing. The talk is mostly about how each is going to get rich quick and what kind of clothes or cars they’ll buy.

* * *

Frankie is a skinny ten-year-old Puerto Rican kid from Spanish Harlem. He is not a member of Phoenix House. He sits on my couch playing with the cat, a little reluctant to talk because his teacher (a friend of mine) is sitting next to him. Gradually he loosens up and admits he started smoking reefers when he was nine. “That’s easy,” he says, “just like smoking cigarettes.” He used to go to the West Side Youth Centers, but they told him not to come there “messed up.”

“My boy Benny got the grass for me, he’s 18 and married now. We used to go to Central Park and sit there and smoke. Afterwards we’d go back to the block and listen to records at my friend’s house. I’ve seen a spike too, but I never used one. I’m scared to go to the doctor even. They showed me how to snort smack and I snorted a few times. My cousin’s 12 and he’s hooked; he tried to hook me into it but when they get high, I tip [leave]. They offered me a cap of the stuff. How do they get the money and the dope? They cop. It takes them about half an hour or even less to get the bread together. They know where the stuff comes from, if the regular guy ain’t around they cop from anyone. Sometimes they steal the money from their mother and father. They get any bread they can get their hands on. When they get off, they just watch TV and fall asleep.”

* * *

Myron Glicken is a 25-year-old administrative assistant in the entertainment department at Phoenix House. He has not taken heroin for 19 months since he entered the program. Myron started mainlining when he was 12 at junior high school in suburban Newark in 1957.

“Heroin is an emotional pain killer,” Glicken says, “but kids use it because it’s the thing to do, long before the escape factor even enters the picture. It’s a very enjoyable ritual—robbing, copping, cooking and shooting—not to mention the experience of the rush. Perhaps most important, it relieves the boredom. That’s the hardest thing about kicking the habit, coping with the boredom.

“I always wanted to be an addict. To me an addict was a night person, he was mysterious, really hip and with something extra going for him, something squares didn’t have. The status thing is very much part of it with the kids today. The guy who sells in school can afford the smartest clothes. Then, of course, there’s an incredible peer group pressure to mainline. A kid who starts snorting or skin-popping may take anything from a couple of days to a year before he actually puts a needle in his veins. It depends on what his friends are doing.

“How has the heroin scene in New York changed? In 1960-61 there were 700 addicts running ’round uptown unable to cop any dope. The panic ensued because one wholesaler got busted. In those days dope just came in from Turkey via Marseilles. That sort of situation wouldn’t arise today. The stuff comes in from everywhere, Latin America, the Far East, you name it, and the importers are many more than existed in 1960.

“There’s still so much bullshit going around about heroin and the pusher man shooting up kids. There’s no such entity as the dark figure in a raincoat and slouch hat dispensing free drugs outside a school and there never was. What’s happened is that there’s been a complete decentralization in the marketing and distribution process and increasing competition in smack selling with more and more kids taking it. Consequently the price has dropped. The other thing people forget is that demand outweighs supply.”

“The school has become the marketplace,” he says. “At least that’s the case in New York, the kids are selling to each other. They cop from an older brother who probably has an uncle who’s a wholesaler and so on…. One thing I’ve noticed, the younger the kid you cop from the better the dope. I know it’s because their habits are not so well developed they don’t have to dilute it as much.”

* * *

There were 1,031 narcotics deaths in New York in 1969, up from 654 a year earlier. Dr. Michael Baden, the city’s deputy chief medical examiner, thinks that the increase is due to “teenagers who in previous years would have used marijuana but instead are taking heroin, possibly because of the glamorizing of it through publicity.”

“I can’t say for certain what has caused the increase in the last few years,” says Glicken. “It seems to go in cycles. Many white, middle-class kids came to heroin through speed, which is something black kids rarely use … Certainly a lot of kids started taking barbiturates and heroin as a result of the government’s ‘Operation Intercept,’ which caused a grass panic here.

“That was a bright guy who thought that scheme up.”

In This Article: Coverwall, Drugs

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