June 8 - June 14, 1995

Geronimo Junkie

Dark Tales From A Tucson Landmark

B y  S c o t t  F r a n k

FEW PEOPLE ARE alive to remember it today, but the opening of the Geronimo Hotel early in 1919 brought on a storm of local controversy. How dare anyone name a public building after a renegade Indian who brought Arizona so much trouble so recently, the newspapers thundered, while Anglo veterans of the Geronimo campaign took to the streets in protest over the honor given to their now-dead enemy. Frank Lockwood, an English professor at the UA who had long studied Arizona's Indian wars, thought the name perfectly appropriate; after all, southeastern Arizona had honored another Apache fighter by calling itself Cochise County, and those were the old days anyway, far from the modern Tucson of well-fanned hotels, streetcars, and cozy bungalows.

What the Apaches thought of the whole business is lost to history, and in any event the controversy faded. (A similar controversy would emerge half a century later when the equestrian statue of Pancho Villa was erected in the heart of the city center.) The Geronimo Hotel, too, faded into that forgetful desert dream state of badly patched adobe walls and buckled floorboards, and by the early 1970s it had become a dilapidated home for drifters, junkies, and those whose luck in life had run flat out.

Scott Frank lived in the Geronimo--since renovated to house a succession of well-heeled shops and restaurants--in those flyblown days, "spending a couple of years studying English and music" while nursing a heroin habit that would introduce him to the darkest corners of Tucson's dark side. Now 44 years old, Frank, the veteran of local mid '80s bands Survivors of Incest and The Current Name, does not apologize for the past. "I feel," he says, "that people have been cowed into silencing criticisms of the drug war. I'm showing that intelligent, literate thought about drugs can still be expressed without toeing the party line."

In this passage from Tales from the Geronimo (Grove/Atlantic, $20), Frank recounts the early days of his descent into addiction and the leaps of bad faith that come with it.
--Gregory McNamee

MY LEFT ARM was so sore, the tracks on it so lengthy, that I'd started shooting into my right arm. Being normally right-handed, I found it a bit awkward at first. I hated producing extra welts because of trouble hitting the vein. Now that I was shooting every day, sometimes twice a day, these marks were adding up. I'd seen addicts who no longer had any veins in their arms to speak of. They'd hit other places: the backs of hands (a favorite for parolees because it's harder to detect) and hard-to-find veins in their legs. I heard stories of prisoners injecting stuff into their necks using primitive tools made from broken lightbulbs. And rare references to veins under the tongue. While I stuck with the disposable, plastic diabetic syringes, everyone seemed to have his own preference in this matter. Nazi Paul was very attached to his old glass hypo with round wire finger grips. Others swore that the traditional eye-dropper and fit technique was really the only way to go (the fit is the little piece of paper which firmly holds the needle point to the dropper). Squeeze the dropper once, and it registers blood to show proper vein placement. Squeeze it again, and the stuff flows smoothly in. Using physics to improve daily life. I now had my own real live habit, which I was a few weeks into. Though I noticed that I often awoke feeling sore, especially in my lower back, and that sniffles and miscellaneous throbbing pains asserted themselves when I hadn't had a shot for a while, I hadn't suffered any real break in my supply. I hadn't experienced what a true lack of junk was like. Despite awareness of my addiction, I assured myself that being merely a few weeks into it wasn't that serious. In fact, I was still interested in asserting my independence from the drug, and one day I decided I would just stop using it for a while. I still enjoyed getting high; I simply wanted to show myself that I could stop whenever I felt like it.

I assembled some over-the-counter analgesics and borrowed a good book. After buying a few snacks, I made up the brass bed and generally pictured myself lounging through a brief period of abstinence. This project began one pleasant, sunny winter morning.

Upon opening my eyes, I was immersed in a mental battle to keep from indulging in what had become one of my favorite pastimes: the breakfast shot. If I could get past that urge, the rest of the day wouldn't be as hard. I took some aspirins. It was irritating having to wait for them to relieve the collection of backaches and neck pains that I'd become accustomed to erasing each morning. After an hour I realized that aspirin did virtually nothing for these annoyances. The thought of eating breakfast was unappealing; my appetite was nonexistent.

Groaning, I forced myself over to the bathroom. Constantly wet nose and eyes forced me to stockpile toilet tissue by the bed. Getting my tissue, stamping raw earth from my feet, I fell back with a moan onto the mattress. My eyes drifted to the window high on the wall. It was warm outside; gently swaying bushes showed that the pleasant temperature was enhanced by a breeze. The idea of ruining a lovely day added to my torment. Wistfully I recalled how much I'd enjoyed the previous days, satisfying good appetites, moving fluidly through gentle winds and cottony air. Whenever I started to read, I became too impatient to cover more than a couple paragraphs.

Somehow I made it to early afternoon. The doldrums lay in these hours. Nighttime and sleep seemed a minor eternity away. I listened to weekday traffic wisp by on Euclid Avenue. Sometimes a car swept past the alley window, and I watched the dust settle until I couldn't see it move anymore.

I decided to smoke a joint. Urging myself to the desk, I fell into the chair and listlessly regarded rolling papers and a little bag of pot. "Why am I doing this to myself?" I asked aloud. Ignoring the question, I manfully went about rolling up the joint. When I took the first puff, I felt the only real relief I'd experienced all day. It lasted about five seconds. Then the weed seemed to magnify all my unpleasant symptoms.

Suddenly I had a rare illumination, a glimmer of forthright logic that appears in only isolated moments of a lifetime. This gem of intuition, this simple clarity of thought must've been what Ptolemy felt as he watched shadows progress inexorably over the walls of his cave. Then he suddenly realized that the sun circled the Earth! Feeling the thrill of briefly being in real touch with the music of the spheres, I verily quivered with excitement as a single, simple thought boosted its profound message into the desperate hollows of my mind: "Why suffer?"

A eureka-like laugh fluttered at what could have only been my previous obtuseness. An old joke prodded me, the one about the man who hit himself in the head with a hammer because it felt so good when he stopped. The simple answer to my problem had surfaced to rib-tickling reality! Gasping thankful breaths at finally being allowed to come up for air, I haphazardly dug into desk drawers and gleefully piled shooting implements in front of me. In my fervor I fought to keep my shaking hands from sending things flying onto the floor.

Never was the smell of boiling heroin so sweet! Never had the sizzling, noxious cloud of blue smoke from lighting a whole book of matches been so irrelevant! The quick, sharp pain of the needle breaking skin had never bothered me less. And, yes, the utter relief at having that stupid, self-inflicted torture finally end had never been so welcome.

With the medicine in, I sat back and panted with pleasure as it pulsed through my limbs and trunk--a most exquisite, rolling sensuality. Tears of joy flowed from my grateful psyche. Passing a hand over my forehead, I became aware of beads of sweat formed there. So intent was I that I didn't even care if the needle clogged up with blood.

And, as I felt an appetite returning, I stepped outside to tread those balmy desert breezes; through cotton dusk I resumed my noble path. I caught echoes on my now calmed pond as it gently rippled to the skipping of my philosophers' stone: "Why suffer?"

THAT EVENING I sat out on the third-story porch, now becoming a favored place. The few extra hours I'd forestalled my daily shot let me feel it that much more, and I was lolling in a languid, well-medicated state. Though I didn't wish to dwell on my failed attempt at stopping, the implications of this defeat would not stay buried. I wasn't bothered that I'd again have to see that madman Manny; I knew that Yaqui Jim's quaint little household couldn't supply me forever, but neither did that worry me; the monies from in-town drives and packing sessions already needed replenishment, but I dismissed that as a problem that would, as usual, somehow take care of itself. In the face of my failure to stop the first time I tried, my adept rationalization abilities came to the forefront, allowing me to pursue a pleasant set of nods and dreams, bathed in soft, charitable postmidnight air.

There is a quality of wind so gentle, so cottony, that it titillates with its stroke; so perfect in temperature that it doesn't even register in the tactile range, and so sweet that beautiful music would interrupt its melodious play upon our ears and skin. In this sympathetic, pastoral setting, I let my mind wander the structure of illusions that I insisted remain standing. Heroin was indeed, I reticently acknowledged, a greater force than I'd originally given it credit for being. I thought about how boring and flat things were without it--I didn't remember things always being like that. True, there had often been for me a lack of satisfactory mental occupation, the sense that I owned powers that were thirsting for use, and often I found myself discouraged from trying to cross the enormous chasm between ability and opportunity. But it wasn't until I found the incredible mental stimulation of junk, until it had verily joined the senses of physical and mental euphoria, that I perceived life as stale in the absence of these beauties.

Listening to lulling winds sweep through the old maple trees grazing my perch, I realized that no one, not even a Superman, could resist the kryptonite-like powers lying hidden beneath junk's seductions. So many have tried, yet in the end almost all have gladly given in to its sirenlike lure. It's a shame, I mused, that this real-life kryptonite is illegal. Half its power drain is from feeling pressure to keep its use secret or from having breaks in one's supply. Why are the most stimulating, best-feeling things always withheld from us?

My first experiment with altered states: nine years old, inner-city Philadelphia. I found that by getting as close as possible to traffic on six-lane Broad Street I could feel a pleasant dizziness as the cars sped by. Wistfully I remembered Superman comics (kryptonite) and old sci-fi mags of my 1950s childhood. Dated, stylized cartoon frames filtered through my mind: post-nuclear war worlds, evolution mutated by radioactive genes, the entire midwest population beside themselves with terror on encountering a new breed of human--strange children with abilities beyond the five senses, routinely Seeing the Threads. A line of thin youths without hair and with tall foreheads weave an orderly march through the rubble of some demolished city, sending hidden, bearded, ragged normal citizens into paroxysms of fear. Cries rend the air, warnings of The PSIs," "The Espers!" And finally, with a face so panicked, so spasmed with horror, so desperate to escape that it can't even be contained by the frame of the comic book, one bearded cracker screams, "Good Lord!"

First science facts: eight years old, and I stand under gray, inner-city smog. A 1958 Weekly Reader shows a double-pointed green arrow between the sun and Earth, labeled "93,000,000 miles." Even then I realized that the span is sometimes greater, sometimes less than that exact number of miles. So great is this distance, I read, that it takes light from the sun eight and a half minutes to reach us, and I shuddered at imagining the sun suddenly blacking out. We'd have only minutes of warning before all life here stopped abruptly. I filled many hours by replaying these last few minutes of consciousness, trying to grasp the enormity of being frozen in place, in blackness, for eternity. It made me dizzy.

My second- and third-grade teachers provided encouragement through repeated calls to bolster our country's ranks of scientists and engineers. I wanted to cooperate. What lad wouldn't want to grow up wearing a white lab coat and holding test tubes or spend his days running trains? The hard streets of Philly faded behind old black-and-white World War II newsreels on TV. My young impression of the 1940s was that everything stood in long, neat rows. "American Industry on the Firing Line!" yells the announcer; satisfied, happy squares of civilian tradespeople parade on the TV screen. "Plumbers on parade!" Formations of plumbers, huge wrenches riding their shoulders like rifles. "Milkmen on parade! " Battalions of milkmen effortlessly carry metal baskets of glass bottles, all smiling, dressed in white, black visors tipped jauntily on their heads. "White Blondes on parade!"--

I snapped to.

Hadn't realized that I'd fallen asleep. A voice still rang in my ears: "Fighting for a decent world!" It contrasted with the deep, neutral silence of University Blvd. A gentle wind rustled the leaves above my head; sighs escaped me as it stroked my skin. A subtle, blue glow had grown on the horizon, but the street lay dark and empty below me. One of those moments when time takes a breather. I needed a breather. These were my hours. Why did they seem so well earned? How could I command such pleasure yet have such a sense of slipping control? Why did I see flies on the wall so clearly when I awoke in the mornings?

"My God! What's going to happen to me?"

I lit a cigarette, making a mental note not to shove the contents of syringes so rapidly into my arm. It seemed to lead to anxiety. I reviewed my stocks of supplies. I had the upcoming day's doses, and with my old cottons, I could probably scratch enough together for the following day. I had a little money left so, if push came to shove, I'd simply buy some more. It was preferable, however, to supply myself through dealing profits instead of spend what little cash I had. But after I took these stronger, more generous papers to Mark and Luke, I knew that they wouldn't be needing anything for a while. Of course, there was always the possibility of setting up that drugstore deal with Richard. I told myself that it could happen anytime, easing back on a dream of a rich supply of free pharmaceutical dope. With all these possibilities, I soon soothed myself into expertly barricaded comfort. Since I had tomorrow's stuff, I really didn't have any problems at all.

Geronimo Junkie is excerpted from Tales of the Geronimo. Copyright©1995 by Scott Frank. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission of Grove Atlantic Press.

Illustrations by Joonhee Lee

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June 8 - June 14, 1995

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