San Francisco, December 18, 2007
Up on Sixteenth Street, above Market, there’s a large, three-story Victorian, a highly coveted piece of San Francisco real estate. My friend Will Shatter OD’d there over twenty years ago. I usually drive by the place on my way across town. It’s getting so I don’t even think about it anymore. There was a time I didn’t know how I felt about Will dying, the way his wife found him crumpled up against the stove in the kitchen. About how he fell down after he did his last shot. Lights out.
I’d been out of town when it happened. Before I left we’d made some sort of vague promise that we’d both quit shooting dope. Then I moved to New York City and the next thing I’m getting a phone call saying Will’s dead, then reading his obituary in the Times.
A few days ago I thought I saw Will walking across Market Street. He had a certain gait, skinny legs, always looked cool. He even got away with having a receding hairline. There was something intriguing, almost enticing, about Will. Something more than the fact that he sang and played bass in a band. Women were attracted to him. I hated to hang out with him at the clubs, because when I did, they never paid any attention to me.
Sitting in my car at a stoplight, I watched the person I thought was Will walk into a bar, a bar I’d been to before—back when I knew Will, back when I was using, back before he killed himself.
The phantoms and apparitions are everywhere. Sometimes—depending on my frame of mind, how well I’ve been taking care of myself, whether I’m overworked, lack of sleep, bad diet, tired— that’s when I see them the most. Out of the corner of my eye, hanging out in doorways, are faded visions that when I stop and stare aren’t there at all.
Most of the people I considered my friends and used drugs with are dead and gone. Yet I remember each and every one as if I’d just laid eyes on them. Even though I know they’ve passed away, I keep thinking I’ll see some of my old friends again and inadvertently catch a glimpse of something familiar in someone else. The way people walk and talk and carry themselves, the expressions on their faces remind me of the dead.
Unless I’ve touched their arteries and found no pulse, checked airways to be sure they’re not breathing, or seen the fatal wound first hand, it’s like they’re just not around right now, but someday they might be.There’ve been times I’d have to tell myself they’re not here anymore. Unless I’ve actually found someone dead, with a needle still sticking out of his arm, or identified the body at the morgue, or gone to an open casket funeral, it’s like the death isn’t real. Unless I’ve touched their arteries and found no pulse, checked airways to be sure they’re not breathing, or seen the fatal wound first hand, it’s like they’re just not around right now, but someday they might be. I might see them at the flea market, buying cheap pairs of socks, looking like they just got out of bed. Or maybe I’ll run into them some night down at a Chinese restaurant digging into a bowl of fried rice.
The city itself haunts me. Whether I’m looking up from reading the newspaper while riding the bus or driving home from work, spectral landmarks leap out at me: a passing street corner; an apartment building where someone I’ve known has died. General Hospital, the Hall of Justice, County Jail, the Pontiac Hotel, that subsidized housing project off of 3rd Street that I used to live in, all of them are vertical graveyards. Rooms, apartments, and jail cells, nothing but stacked gravesites, their blank windows aligned and symmetrical like tombstones.
People ask me how I can live in a city where so many of my friends have died, where I got high for twenty years. And all I can tell them is that I’ve shot dope in every major city in America and Europe. What’s the difference? Time diffuses the past, and mutes memories. Friends fade from my thoughts and I keep on living.
These days I can be at an intersection where I used to meet my dealer and don’t even think of the hours I spent waiting there for drugs to be delivered. I don’t think of the endless afternoons of dope-sick withdrawals, nursing a drink in a bar or staring at a cold cup of coffee in some rundown café. It was a long time ago. I shot dope, sold drugs, did crimes, went to jail. It doesn’t mean I have to continue living like that.
Three months ago, at the café down the hill from my house, I ordered my usual latté, and looked out the front window onto Grant Street. I thought I saw Sweet walking in front of the saloon across the street. There he was, strolling by and getting into a white van. Just like the white van of his I sold for his sister after he died.
His was one of those deaths where I saw the body. My flatmate Mia and I had been out all night driving around the city when we realized we hadn’t seen him in days. Something clicked. At a badly lit intersection by the railroad tracks, I turned the car around and drove home. We found him in his loft, in bed, under the electric blanket. He’d been dead for two days. His room smelled putrid, his body bloated and stiff.
I woke up our other roommates and somebody called an ambulance. We huddled together in the kitchen, not looking at one another. Mia was crying. But I couldn’t feel anything—too much dope in my veins. When the operator found out the person in question was dead, she told us to wait for the coroner and then hung up. I got angry that none of my other roommates had done anything, noticed the smell, checked to see if Sweet was all right. I’d been downstairs in my room for the last couple of days, high and out of it. I hadn’t thought to check in on him either. He had come downstairs and told me he wasn’t feeling well, borrowed a couple bags of tea and some honey, said goodnight, and went to bed.
When the coroner showed up, before he even saw the body, he looked at us and asked if it was a drug overdose. Shrugging my shoulders, I said I didn’t know. Everyone else looked at me like I should.
“I wasn’t living his life,” I said, then turned around and walked downstairs to my room. Lost in “what ifs” I sat in the dark for at least an hour. If I had just gone upstairs to check in on him I might have saved him, found him before he died. I’d been in my room, directly below his, while he passed away. I’d been too high to care, too preoccupied even to walk up a flight of stairs. Too wasted, wound up, and unwilling.
So I shot some more dope.
The medical examiners, paramedics, and police had arrived. They marched up the stairs. The sound of their voices, the thud of their boots, the collective squawking of their radios jolted me conscious.Hours later, the doorbell rang. The medical examiners, paramedics, and police had arrived. They marched up the stairs. The sound of their voices, the thud of their boots, the collective squawking of their radios jolted me conscious. I left my room and reluctantly joined them. Sweet’s loft, where his body lay in his bed, was crowded with men in uniform struggling, grunting, swearing as they tried to force his rigid form into a body bag.
A fat cop with a leather binder took notes. Turning, he motioned me over by waving his pen. “Know the suspect?” he asked, pointing with the same pen at all the commotion in the loft above us.
“Shit, sorry, I meant the deceased. It’s been a long day.”
“Yeah, I knew him,” I said, and then turned my back to the cop to avoid having to answer any more questions.
“Know what he died of?”
The drugs I sold him? The oppressive atmosphere of today’s society? The Agent Orange sprayed on him in Vietnam? The emotional toll of being a black man in America? Instead, I shook my head, and then stared at the floor.
“Found a marijuana pipe,” he said. “Your friend smoke a lot of pot?”
Looking up, I notice two paramedics coming down the ladder, half of Sweet’s body slipping through their arms as they tried to get a grip. It didn’t look like they were wrestling with a body, encased as it was in the black high-density woven polyethylene of the body bag. Instead it looked like they were just tugging on some fancy duffle bag with straps.
“You run into a lot of marijuana overdoses?” I asked the cop and then stepped forward, putting a hand out to steady the body as they lowered it to the floor. It felt hard against my hand, nothing like a human being.
“Somebody get a gurney over here,” yelled one of the firemen. The body, prone at our feet, slowly curled back into the fetal position Sweet had died in.
“I’ll never get used to that,” said the cop as he looked away, shaking his head and closing his notebook.
* * *
Excerpt from the memoir Gun, Needle, Spoon (Dzanc Books, 2015).