Downtown San Diego crack addicts teach writer to pan-handle

Pain killers

We walked up Broadway and across Eighth to the El Cortez. In the shadows of the abandoned hotel was a place the bums called Heroin Row.
  • We walked up Broadway and across Eighth to the El Cortez. In the shadows of the abandoned hotel was a place the bums called Heroin Row.
  • Image by Joe Coleman

Nick bought his heroin at Fifth and Main. The dealer slipped him a pebble-sized ball wrapped in balloon rubber. Nick put the pebble in his mouth and palmed off 15 bucks. Every deal downtown was quick — no one knew when Sammy might be watching.

He’d taken down his pants to show me his leg: from buttock to the back of his knee ran a rift in his skin, open, red, festering.

He’d taken down his pants to show me his leg: from buttock to the back of his knee ran a rift in his skin, open, red, festering.

Sammy was a cop. He kept a beat along Broadway, Fifth, and Sixth. Every bum we met knew him. “Hey, buddy,” Nick would say. “What’s up with Sammy?”

“Sammy puttin’ on us, bro’,” one would say. “Ain’t seen the fucker,” another would reply. “Goddamn!" said one. “Sammy got me up the head, took five bucks I had!”

Sammy was a code word: Bums vs. Sammy. If you knew Sammy was the man, you were at least half cool. Nick told me Sammy would arrest a guy with 15 bags of heroin and book him for three. If you had some cash, it disappeared. Everyone knows a bum doesn’t have any money.

Nick liked to say he’d recently inherited $180,000. His parents — in Joplin, Missouri — had died a month ago. He told his friends on the street I was his little brother, mourning our folks and looking for a place to stay.

He’d come into some cash last fall. A guy we both knew who ran a deli hooked Nick up on a tuna boat. He worked four months. The night he got back, he got himself a room at the Marriott and took a walk to contemplate his luck. He got rolled and lost it all — $1800. Sliced down the stomach, back of his leg opened up.

“Sammy fucked up my leg worse, though,” Nick had said while we waited to buy the heroin. “I was walking down here, fucker says, ‘Stop! I know you got a bag.’ I didn’t though, so I keep walking. Sammy takes out his stick, comes after me. I pick up speed. But my leg fucks me up, slows me down. Sammy, the fucker, takes me out at the knees. I tell you, buddy, I felt my leg just rip open, you know? Just rip open.”

Nick showed me the wound a few weeks before. I’d run into him around midnight, in front of the Pan Pacific Hotel. He’d taken down his pants to show me his leg: from buttock to the back of his knee ran a rift in his skin, open, red, festering. Exposed muscle twitched; about mid-thigh a sliver of bone lay bare. The flesh stank. Nick looked like he was going to cry. He couldn’t believe the decay he saw was his own.

Nick claimed he fixed to take care of the pain in his leg. He’d spent a month at the hospital, then moved onto medication from the VA, but they’d cut him off. He had to do something to kill the pain; shooting up was an old habit.

His brother started him on codeine when he was 13. Before high school was out, he’d been busted. He was sent to juvenile hall. He remembered playing football there, being a real star. He said he’d kicked hard drugs. What followed then I never quite found out. He said Vietnam, but then he also said he was 34. Not too many 14-year-olds made it into the Marines.

I asked him about the war once. He didn’t say much. “Two tours, buddy. I thought I had to do it. Two fucking tours.”

“Where?” I asked.

He sighed. “It’s not worth discussing, Jeff.”

I like to believe he lied about his age. It could be he was trying to give himself time, time to get his act together, to get back on track. It could also be he lied about Vietnam. Everyone has to tell stories to make their lives real. The harder the life, the more extreme the tall tales. But Nick also said he’d fathered two daughters a few years after the war. When he talked about the girls and their mothers, I heard too much regret in his voice to call him a liar. And that’d make him older than 34.

Maybe he was telling the truth when he said that after two tours of war and two daughters, he’d kicked the habit. Maybe he was even telling the truth when he said he’d turned into a drugstore cowboy, writing fake prescriptions for pharmaceuticals, and had ended up serving a total of 13 years for various convictions. During one of those spells, he said, he’d gotten a degree from the University of Oklahoma — in drug and alcohol counseling. “I ain’t stupid, Jeff,” he’d told me, “but a degree don’t mean nothing when your leg is cut open like a baked potato.”

Nick was limping from the pain by the time we caught up with a buddy of his, an old black man named Roy. We walked up Broadway and across Eighth to the El Cortez. In the shadows of the abandoned hotel was a place the bums called Heroin Row. The three of us squatted in a cove in front of the boarded-up entrance. A small tree hid us from the street. Nick said just about every junkie in the city shot up there sooner or later. And almost every bum, he said, was a junkie.

Roy and Nick squatted on one side of the cove. I leaned against the tree, hesitant to move any closer to the needles and the shit on the ground. But Nick gave me a glance that told me I couldn’t keep my distance, not there. I squatted in close with them. Nick found a soda cap full of used bleach and mashed a can to make a cooker. He unrolled the dark ball of heroin and placed it on the aluminum. Roy took out a lighter and held it underneath, and the drug melted. Nick tied off. Roy gave him a needle. Nick held the tip in the small pool of liquid, watching the needle suck up the smack. “C’mere, Jeff,” he said. “Smell.” I sniffed in the bleach fumes and something else. “That’s what it is, Jeff. You don’t gotta fix. You just watch. I’m gonna show you.”

“You don’t gal, Jeff?” asked Roy. His voice was deep and slow, but I didn’t hear menace in it.

“Don’t fix,” I said.

“My little bro’ ain’t that dumb,” Nick explained. “He does pharmaceuticals.”

“That’s cool,” Roy said. “Your brother Nick here a good man, Jeff. You listen to him. Don’t ever get strung.”

“Ahh! Fuck!” Nick had fumbled the needle. It flipped and pricked his hand before dropping at my feet.

“Shit, man,” Roy joked. “You is seriously fuckin’ strung.”

Nick stopped what he was doing and looked up at Roy. “I ain’t strung man. I gotta do this for my leg, okay? It really hurts man, it really hurts.” He sounded close to tears.

“I understand, man, I understand. I was just jokin’. Now you hurry up and fix. I got hurts too.” Nick jabbed the needle in three trips before he caught a vein. He let the drug slide in, his eyes closed, and let go of the needle. It hung in his arm, dark with blood. Roy warmed up some more. His fix took longer; he couldn’t find a vein. Nick finally helped him get a gal in the back of his hand.

“Yeah, baby,” said Roy, his eyes intent on the needle. “Don’t you ever gal, Jeff. Nick, you hear me, don’t let your brother gal. ’Course, you gotta let him do whatever he gonna do.” Roy pulled the needle out. Nick stood up. His weak leg was straight. He was straight. I never saw Nick high on heroin — every bit of the drug poured into the gap on the backside of his leg.

He leaned over and put his hand on my shoulder. “You all right, buddy?” he asked.

“Yeah, Nick. I’m okay.”

Nick held onto my shoulder. “Do you understand?”

Roy looked up. “Jeff,” he said before I could answer, “you never can know what a man need to do. ’Cause if you out here, trust me, you need something for the pain. That’s the only freedom you got left, buddy. That’s the only freedom you got.”

You buy crack on a stretch of Fifth Avenue Nick called Crack Alley. Buyers know who sells. Sellers know who buys. And everyone buys, sooner or later. “It ain’t just me, Jeff,” Nick said as we stood on a corner waiting to make our purchase. “I seen everybody in San Diego down here. I seen guys you wouldn’t believe. Guys in suits, ladies in skirts. They got the briefcases, or maybe they’re rednecks — you know what I mean. I see students down here, clean-cut guys your age, buddy. But mostly it’s us. Mostly it’s folks on the street, folks got pain and don’t know what to do about it, maybe don’t wanna do nothing about it.”

We crossed the street. A teenager passed by wearing frosted jeans and a thin gold chain. His whole body was scrubbed clean as if he didn’t even know what crack was. Nick’s arm trailed; eight dollars drifted back. Nick popped the crack in his mouth. We’d bought our fix.

We’d spent the lunch hour pan-handling down on the harbor. “Ma’am, Sir, down on my luck, get some food, get back on my feet, just got into town, my wallet stolen, sorry to bother you, I’ve never asked for money before, can’t you help? Can’t you help?”

I made 80 cents.

Nick made the eight dollars for the crack in 25 minutes. “It’s like this, buddy,” he told me. “You ask for work. And you’re polite, you show people some respect. They’re helping you out buddy, you don’t forget that. Some guys downtown, they get in people’s way. That ain’t fuckin’ cool, buddy. You just don’t do that. Not • me. I got my pride. I got respect.”

I gave Nick the 80 cents I’d made. He gave it back. “Buddy, another thing: You don’t ever take more than you need.” Later, after we bought the crack, Nick found 45 cents in his pockets. He left it on a bench.

On our way to smoke, we met a friend of Nick’s named Edward. Edward had a pipe but no crack. Nick had no pipe. They agreed to share.

Edward looked to be a few years younger than Nick, a tall black man made mostly of legs in too short blue jeans worn at the knees. His hair was puffed out into a small ’fro, which he kept covered with a dirty Chargers cap. He glanced over his shoulder when he walked. When he spoke, he stammered just a little, as if always ready to retreat from what he’d said. Unless he’d been thinking on it — if it was a theory of his, he’d stammer right on through. He’d apologize, but that was the truth, and there’s no escaping the truth.

We crossed Market and squatted beside a warehouse facing away from the Convention Center. I felt exposed. Nick undid his pants to show Edward the wound. Crack pipe in one hand, pants at his knees in the other. Cars driving by.

“Goddamn! Goddamn!” said Edward, looking at the gash in Nick’s leg. “Y-y-you gotta take care of that.”

“I know it!” replied Nick. “It’s hurting like a bitch right now. I can’t even think. Oh, Jesus, let me just get set up here. I ain’t right now. Oh Lord, I ain’t right.”

Nick had been fine until we’d got there. He’d been limping, but he’d joked with.Edward and explained things to me as we went along. But when he sat down, I saw he was just holding on until the next fix. Nick had sworn he wasn’t strung at the beginning of the day. By noon he said he used more than he liked. Three p.m., crack pipe in hand, wincing under Edward’s sympathetic stare: “I can’t think anymore unless I got it in me. It hurts. Oh Lord, it hurts!” He dragged hard.

“J-Jeff?” Edward said.


“You strung?”

“Don’t smoke. Don’t fix.”

“Tha-that’s cool, Jeff. ’Cause you gotta take care your brother here. He on a mission.”

Nick looked up at Edward, sitting on a small flight of steps. He handed him the pipe. Edward pushed the rock in with a bit of wire, heated it up, and pulled it in. He closed his eyes for a moment. When he opened them, he felt fine. Nick moved away when he smoked, got past the stammering, got past clarity into something that was as close as he liked to be to transcendence.

Nick became sharp. The first couple of fixes always went straight to his leg and, like he said, made him “right.”

“Edward, buddy,” he said, “what did you mean I’m on a mission?”

“Just that, yo-you on a mission. You fixin’ to death. Rock ain’t gonna help that leg.”

“But you don’t understand. I can’t think without a fix. I got to get a fix so’s I can help myself. Jeff here’ll help me get to the hospital. Goddamnit, I know I’m strung.” Nick turned around and looked at me. “I know I’m strung, Jeff. Goddamnit, I do.” He wasn’t talking to a reporter anymore, and he wasn’t talking to his little brother. I didn’t know how I’d gotten pulled in, but I was there, and I couldn’t separate myself from the filth or the crack or Nick. Nick knew it, and somehow, Edward knew it.

“You got to know who you are, Jeff. Lots of guys don’t. Nick, he know who he is, and he still on a mission.” Edward dragged hard on the pipe. “I been thinking a long time about what a guy said to me in the park a while ago. I was smoking. That’s what helped me understand, even though Lord knows. I’m strung. He says, ‘Ain’t no difference between God and Devil, and there ain’t nothing you can do about it.’

“First I thought it was blasphemous, and I asked Jesus to help me. Then, I got to thinking about it and it seemed like, if God and Devil same thing, then maybe I know a little bit about why I’m here. I used to ask Jesus how he let me do this to myself. Oh Lord, it hurt then. I just wanted help from Jesus and my mama. But I see it now.” Edward smiled at me, holding the pipe in my direction. “You see it, Jeff? You know who. you are?”

“No, man,” Nick said. “My bro’ don’t smoke.” Edward withdrew the pipe. I sat still. *

“N-n-no, Jeff,” Edward said. “It don’t matter who the Devil is, and it don’t matter who God is. It don’t even matter Nick on a mission. Maybe he know what he doing. Maybe not. You just find out where you belong, buddy.”

Nick clapped his hand on my shoulder, taking the pipe from Edward with the other. “He belong right here with his bro’,” he said. “And I ain’t gonna take him on no missions.”

Later that night, we took my car to see the acid freaks on Mission Beach. “I’ve seen plenty before,” I’d said to Nick when he’d suggested it.

“Not like these you haven’t,” he’d replied. “You wanna know what it’s like to need something so bad without even knowing what it is? Then you gotta see these folks on the beach.”

The streets around the beach were empty except for a few stragglers stumbling home from the bars bleary-eyed. The beach was deserted.

“Nick,” I said. “I thought you said this place would be crowded.”

“It usually is, buddy. I don’t know where everybody is. I got a friend down here, a real fine guy named Fat Tommy.

He’s always here. He must be further down the beach. Let’s walk down there.” I looked into the gloom. I didn’t see anyone. “C’mon, buddy,” Nick said. “Would I take you anywhere that wasn’t safe?”

We walked without talking down the sidewalk between the restaurants and the sand. Nick looked through his pockets for something, forgot what it was, swore, remembered, and began to look again.

I listened to the ocean and looked for acid heads.

Then my foot caught an edge in the sidewalk, not big enough to trip me, but enough to cause me to pause for a moment. Nick stopped and looked at me. I couldn’t see his eyes deep in his face, but I saw his shoulders pull back, his lips press together, and his head tilt. I didn’t know whether I should be afraid or ashamed. “What’s wrong, buddy?” Nick asked slowly. I didn’t say anything. “You scared of something?”

“No, Nick, it’s just that nobody’s down here.”

“I can see that, buddy. I can see that. But, Jesus, buddy, we’re here.” He paused, studying me. “Don’t get like the rest of them. Not now.”

“Yeah. You’re right. I trust you, Nick.”

“That’s good, buddy, ’cause I trust you too.”

That night, Nick slept on the train tracks across from the county administration building. I returned to my room at a budget hotel.

The next day I washed up, shaved, and put on some clean clothes. We went to Mercy Hospital. The VA, Nick said, wouldn’t take him anymore.

Neither would Mercy. He’d stayed straight to get in, but they’d seen the tracks, and he didn’t lie. The best they could do, they told him, was a reference to a clinic. Nick left the hospital crying.

He said he’d go to the clinic, but he needed a fix first. A little something to help him think, to let him walk in the clinic like a human being. He said I should go back to work and that he’d meet me at India and Date at 3:00 p.m. For once I didn’t believe him.

I waited until 5:30, but Nick never showed up. It was my last night in San Diego. I had to catch a plane back East that night.

I saw Nick on my way to the airport, down on Pacific Highway, as I returned my rental car. He was walking with a buddy of his, sucking on a crack pipe. “Jeff,” he said, hugging me goodbye, “I’m gonna go to the clinic tomorrow. This time I’m really gonna do it.”

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