I arrived in San Diego on the 4th of July, 1979, on a Greyhound bus I had boarded in Louisville Kentucky after two previous bus changes out of Port Authority. I was 27 years old, fresh out of Riker’s and I was in opioid withdrawal…. My mother and stepfather had recently moved to Chula Vista and my sister, Margie, was living in that South Bay city. However, I was about to pay a visit to a total stranger just about ten or fifteen miles south and across the International Border.… Junkies can smell heroin…. Once I was in TJ, it was all of 30 minutes before I connected and had a jackhammer in my arm full of the ever-so-needed heroin that my body, mind and spirit craved and needed.…
The year 1914 heralded two very significant events in this country. The United States entered WWI, a war that lasted for four years. We told ourselves we won then packed and left. The second event, with at least as far reaching consequences, was the Harrison Act, the first War on Drugs; in particular, opium and its derivatives such as morphine and heroin. Coca leaves were included in this prohibition. This was called the Harrison Act. Not law, but Act and at first, appeared to be no prohibition at all.
Hastily scrawled note in margin of manuscript:
Had addiction been defined by the American Medical Association (as it did decades later) as a disease, the world would be dramatically different today….
The above are all excerpts from Heroin Chronicles, an unpublished work-in-progress by 56-year-old Rick Ortiz. I met Ortiz in the summer of 2005, “in the rooms,” as they say in anonymous-recovery circles. Like myself, Ortiz was a recovering alcoholic, but with many years of sobriety and recovery from the use of narcotics. He was a substance abuse counselor at facilities from Rancho Labri (an expensive resort-style rehab) to Donovan Prison. A former amateur “Silver Gloves” boxer, and born in the Bronx, Ortiz learned that I was a writer and had published books. He introduced himself and told me of the “chronicles” he had been working on for some years. He asked for advice on publication and showed me pages of his manuscript — including the following:
Collectors at the Internal Revenue Service imposed a special tax on those involved with the manufacture, production and distribution of products and byproducts of the poppy flower and the coca leaf as well as physicians and pharmacists. Patent medicine salesmen and/or manufacturers were exempted. The bill was also a law to maintain order on the marketing of these substances, their compounds and associated salts and/or derivatives. The number of destroyed medical careers that ensued in a relatively short period of time is impossible to calculate.
More deaths, to say nothing of lives ruined, imprisoned and collaterally damaged have resulted from Harrison’s puritanical crusade in the past hundred years than the sum total of casualty lists of every war fought by this country in a commensurate period of time. Not hundreds of thousands, but millions. This says nothing of statistics impossible to obtain by polling anonymous organizations like Narcotics Anonymous or Cocaine Anonymous, to name two.
Both gritty memoir and extended essay, the nonfiction work-in-progress has grown in the three years since I first met the author. Recently, we became neighbors in Hillcrest and reacquainted ourselves. Rick Ortiz is of Puerto Rican descent, has a New York accent never softened by his nearly 30 years in San Diego, and while some may find the ex–New Yorker’s raspy, hoarse boxer’s vocal delivery a bit rough, I found it cinematic, as if he had stepped out of a 1940s Wallace Beery film. I recently updated that assessment to having stepped from any of several, more recent Al Pacino movies. Ortiz is a born storyteller; he has had me laughing during some harsh times with stories such as his arrest at 12th and Broadway years ago for assaulting a police officer who was, in fact, a horse he had punched à la Blazing Saddles. Some of his stories, all true and verifiable (he has no time for fiction, though he was kind regarding my own) as well as convincing, are not at all funny, but share a quality of resonance, in my case, that is resistant to the passage of time. Naturally, I asked him the question most writers fear most: “How’s the book coming?” His answer was to hand me a formidable stack of both handwritten and typed sheets. The first of these, beneath the word and numeral “Page 1,” read as follows:
I hadn’t noticed I had pissed my pants until we reached the 110th Street subway station. I was smack down in the middle of “El Barrio,” Spanish or East Harlem.
It was Chubbs, John Boy, and I somewhat and mercifully decompressing from the explosive trauma of just moments ago. The Harlem winter cold had a way of announcing that my jeans were soaked in urine, especially once we entered the much warmer train station one flight down from the icy streets still glistening from the previous day’s light snowfall. I remember thinking that a cold-blooded homicide and cold pee against your leg has a way of letting you know that the word has some horrifying variations.
“Where’s the motherfucking stash? Where’s the motherfucking stash? Stop lying, motherfucker! You got a lot more dope than this, you lying motherfucker!”
“I swear on my mother and my kids, that’s all of it!”
“I ain’t bullshittin’ you, bro! That’s all of it. They didn’t bring the package.”
On the kitchen table lay 10 or 15 “pasteles.” A few people were bagging up their heroin in aluminum papela in such a way that it would resemble a small Puerto Rican delicacy called pasteles. A Puerto Rican kind of tamale wrapped in plantain leaves.
However, the delicacy we came for, we cooked in a metal bottle cap, spoon or cut-away soda can — whatever would serve. Just add water and draw into a syringe. Most dealers were selling two, three or five dollar bags referred to as deuces or tres or pounds (nickels). Our guy had dimes, ten dollar pasteles and they were worth the subway ride down from the Bronx. Money, a few hundred dollars, lay on the floor along with a few fallen bags.
“¡Oye, maricón! ¡Yo le meto un pepaso a este puta!” He was threatening to shoot the woman tied up in a chair; the translation being, “I’ll pop a cap in this whore.” I’ll forever remember his jagged-looking teeth, jaundiced eyes, the sweat-streaks on his face, the odor in that apartment of cabbage, singed cotton and the carbon-smoked hot metal of spoons or the jagged bases of cans. I couldn’t in a million years tell you what his partner looked like. My focus was out-the-door. I rarely looked at the shooter but it took only moments to embed his face in memory. Not long ago and 38 years later I had some spoiled food left out for too long and it reminded me of that morning in Spanish Harlem, the stench in that apartment and the yellow-eyed killer all as if I were watching it in living color once again. PTSD in hi-def. ¡Oye, maricón!… That woman had been shot and was dead before he had finished the profane, insulting sentence. She had taken a large caliber bullet to the chest fired from a chrome-plated revolver.
It was loud. My right leg shook uncontrollably and I remember putting all the weight I could on it to hide that shaking. It was a kind of fear that gripped me that I had never before experienced….
I knew she was dead. I knew that her picture was in that photo album that lay on the counter-top or the kitchen table…the filthy floor, the dirty door to the refrigerator. Images so vivid, my eyes focused on them rather than the shooter and the dead woman, considerably older than her mate, her leg and arm, she bled profusely, and her pastel robe soaked in blood… ¡No, me mates!… The man sobbed. Hysterical. In that moment I was fully in touch with mortality as never before. Never until that moment. That crazy shit happened to other people. I was too hip, slick, and cool to be caught up in this kind of drama. Hip, that was my jacket, man. Not criminal, not junkie, not dead. I was 18 and living in the volatile world of heroin addiction.
People were being killed every day. Two years into the game, and I had managed to do a short stint on Riker’s Island and the Bronx County Jail and Detention Center. I had witnessed violence, had been a participant on both ends: street fighting with baseball bats and knives. I’d been stabbed but never seriously back then….
“¡No me mates coño!” The sobbing man is begging for his life and he tells them where the dope is. Right there, in the kitchen in a Bustello coffee can. The jagged-fanged man asked me how much dope I was there to buy. One dime and I was sixty-five cents short. I also had a few subway slugs, back in the day those slugs worked in pay phones and turnstiles. Chubbs was buying two bags for $18 and John Boy just one. That was considered a good fix in those days, though there was never such a thing as enough. It’s not a word in the vocabulary of addicts until they arrive at that address and look up, stunned.
Chubbs knew the other guy, the partner whom I had no vision of at all. Why he is a blank has, most likely, a psychiatric explanation that is none-too-difficult. I have never been, in any way, curious. No me mates BANG BANG.
There were a few pasteles on the floor. Faceless took all our money but gave Chubbs the pasteles. We were told to get out as they left as well. We did as I waited for a bullet to the back.
I still hear that pitiful sob and that phrase in Puerto Rican–accented Spanish in endless variations while dreaming. Please don’t kill me! And then BANG BANG. I don’t know where those shots landed but — he was killed.
37 years later I have quite a collection of horrifying memories but none measure up to that morning. Smells, sounds, images and cold piss and the relief my pasteles provided from them.…
Two years later John Boy was dead from an overdose. Five years later and Chubbs stopped talking about it too; he was dead from a gunshot wound to the head. No details provided. BANG BANG.
When I first read this, my instinct was to advise Ortiz, as I once had been advised, “Get that bang bang tone out of your style.” I decided against it.
In Ortiz’s apartment are stacked research materials and boxing magazines, as well as magazines about salsa music; his father, José Ramón Ortiz, was a famous figure in Puerto Rico and the U.S. as a salsa-music innovator. Rick hosted a radio program in Highland Park, Illinois, while working for his father at that station, WVVX-FM. The research includes several pages of the Harrison Act, a lengthy Consumer Reports document from the 1970s on that legislation, and brochures from the Harm Reduction Coalition in New York. One of them is called “H is for Heroin” and includes information such as: “Contrary to popular belief, heroin itself does not cause serious, long-term health problems….” and “Despite feeling like you’re going to die, withdrawal almost never kills anyone and is rarely harmful to a healthy person. It can be harmful, however to people with HIV/AIDS. It can also be harmful to the fetus.” Despite such passages, the brochure is in no way an apologia for or an indictment of the drug’s use. Here, also, is information such as, “A Safety Manual for Injection Users.” These were the top handful of materials in his disorganized pile.
As I read over the above sentences, I began to laugh a little, then went into a bad imitation of William Burroughs’s voice. I sounded more like the CO in the old Phil Silver show, Sergeant Bilko, an actor whose name I cannot remember. The quote (approximate) was from Burroughs’s cameo appearance in the 1980s movie Drugstore Cowboy:
“Drugs have been systematically scapegoated and demonized in this culture,” I intoned. “The idea that anyone might use narcotics without disastrous consequences is anathema to these idiots.” This produced some laughter, mostly mine.
Interviewing Ortiz, he told me, “I don’t think the public is that foolish. I think our intelligence has been insulted for such a long period of time. I’m not a conspiracy theorist, but if we have the technology to knock a man to the moon, why can’t we eradicate the coca leaf? The poppy? We still have the ability to do that. Like Colombia? Millions of millions of casualties annually because of cocaine. If it was oil, the only thing left there would be banana peels.”
To say Ortiz speaks with an animated passion might be understatement. He is burly and mustachioed, with the features of a bushy-browed conquistador, ex-pugilist that he is. His face bears some traces of that boxing career, but his arms, legs, and torso display scars from gunshot wounds, stabbings, and a history of IV drug usage, including several old abscesses. A populist voice in the wilderness, possibly, but he bears bodily evidence that he knows whereof he speaks.
“On the other hand,” he said, “ask any economist worth their salt, and they will tell you that the proceeds of drug money finance virtually everything you can name: the movie industry and the record industry, for example. If we stopped dope right now, the country would not only go into a recession, it would go into a severe depression. That’s how big of a spoke narcotics is in the wheel of our economy.
“San Diego is a major player in narcotics, just like Philadelphia, L.A. — probably more so. The reason this has been obscured is that it is a border town, agriculture, say. We’re too big. To put any shame on that, you’re messing with the powers that be. They do not want this book, for example. Not the powers that be, just people interested in the truth — or at least some perspective.
“One motivating factor that propelled me to continue with the Chronicles was that segment on the Oprah Winfrey show with the writer James Frey [author of A Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard, etc.]. I took exception to an embellished story about drug addiction, though I agree with you,” and here he laughs, “the book was written very well.”
I then asked Ortiz what he expected from the book: legalization?
“No. It’s too late. I don’t think it should be illegal, I think it should be decriminalized. It’s too late to be made legal, but it’s not too late to change some things. The vast majority of the people in jail in this country are there are on drug charges. There are an alarming number of people doing serious time for a dime of crack. It’s worse with heroin.
“I know everyone says this, but I hope to raise consciousness, yeah. I suppose the real reason for me to write this book is that it’s my personal redemption.”