Jerry Stahl is the author of eight books, including I, Fatty; Bad Sex On Speed; and Permanent Midnight, which was adapted into a film starring Ben Stiller; and edited the 2013 collection, The Heroin Chronicles. His new novel, Happy Mutant Baby Pills, will be released November 5. He’s reading in San Francisco twice as part of Litquake. On Monday, October 14, he’ll be part of the series “Sometimes It’s Hard to Be a Writer: Stories About Doubt, Debt, Drugs, and Determination.” We invited Jerry to share a San Francisco–based memory in the spirit of that reading and got this excellent story in return, one involving smart drugs, smack, Nirvana, and a memorable old Tenderloin junkie. —Editor
Anyway, whenever I’m down, when my back’s to the wall, when it looks like I am completely feet-nailed-to-the-floor fucked, I remember Bo Washington, the 72-year-old San Francisco jazz man, Tenderloin denizen, and miraculously-still-alive ex-con and functioning junkie with whom I spent a few days in late 1985. December 27 to January 2, 1986, to be exact.
I remember the day because it was my one-year anniversary of kicking heroin. I was in San Francisco on assignment for Playboy, writing a story on smart drugs, which was, at the time, a trendy new addition to the inventory of still-legal pharmaceuticals devoted to the cutting-edge, next-big-thing field of brain enhancement. Or nootropics.
The drugs consisted mainly of anti-senility pharmaceuticals – hydergine, piracetam, and a nasal spray called vasopressin – bequeathed to me by smart proponents, one of whom was named Rocket Girl, or Ocean Woman, or Warrior Breast – something in that arena. I apologize for my lapse in recollecting – ironic given that the drugs were originally developed to keep memory intact. Clearly, I didn’t take them long enough, or maybe taking them all at once was not the best idea. Just because you’re not currently addicted to anything doesn’t mean you stop acting like an addict.
I do remember leaving my hotel – The Phoenix, at the very tip of the Tenderloin – feeling, if not smart, at least not stupid. An improvement over the fatigue-savaged state that I was usually kept in by the hepatitis C I’d picked up sharing needles with close friends in bus stations.
But I forgot to mention that Nirvana checked into the Phoenix the same time I did. Lost in wilds of smackdom from years preceding, I was less than suitably awestruck. (I boosted the odd stereo, but I didn’t listen to any.) I remember thinking that the blond guy looked so pinned, I wanted what he was having – even though I was not, theoretically, having any of it anymore.
Fast-forward, as they say, and I’m standing at the corner of Eight Ball and Eddy, listening to a reed-thin senior in a tattered sharkskin suit trying to hustle a street dealer. All I could think, in my newly smartened state, was that the shark who used to own that skin had lost it when Truman was president. Seeing me hovering, the old-timer waved me over. “Young man,” he said, with disarming formality, “I was just trying to tell this punk about the Bird discount. Unwritten rule – any cat who played with Bird gets the third bag free.” Taking his eyes off me, he pointed a flat, tea-colored, oddly tiny finger at the dealer. “Go ahead, shitbag, ask him.”
Not surprisingly, the kid didn’t ask me anything – except if I was the police – but I obliged the old man anyway. “I’ve heard about it,” I said, like I was used to stepping in, Solomon-style, to settle random dope disputes. “But I don’t know if it applies on holidays, and Christmas was two days ago.” “Whatever,” the kid sneered, “this old freak keep talkin’ ’bout Bird this, Bird that, like we livin’ in a fuckin’ aviary.”
And yes, I will freely admit, it was no doubt my own latent bigotry that made me double-take at “aviary.” So the kid was slinging dope, too young to buy liquor legally, and had the butt end of a nickel-plated piece poking out of the back of his pants. But did that mean he couldn’t own a big vocabulary?
The whole situation inspired me to kindness. I offered to settle the dispute by paying for bag – or, in this case, balloon – number three myself. Why not, I had a per diem from my writing assignment? When the old-timer I would come to know as Bo invited me into the King George to hang, I couldn’t say no.
Walk into a barbershop, and you’re going to get your hair cut. And sure enough, no sooner were we buzzed through the chicken-wire gate by the King George deskman that I felt the familiar taste at the back of my throat.
Ten minutes later, I was watching Bo sprinkle white powder in with a spoonful of soupy, shoe-polish-brown heroin, repaying me for my heroin kindness with some cocaine of his own.
Five minutes after that, it was three days later, New Year’s Eve, and I was still in Bo’s room. I hadn’t left except to hit the ATM and cop some more, and I was supposed to go to a rave with a gaggle of smart drug aficionados to see what a 21st-century party would look like.
Instead I hung in the King George at a 1950s party, listening to Bo regale me with tales of shooting up in San Quentin with Frank Morgan, copping with a bucks-up Chet Baker, and generally making the scene when smack was the smartest drug in town.
Until, at the stroke of midnight, there was a knock on the door, and in rolled a giant white guy in a wheelchair and a woman who might have been Tenderloin legend Carol Doda, if Carol Doda had let herself run to fat and inked up her 44 triple Ds with Heckle and Jeckyle.
While I watched, old Bo elbowed me and nodded like a man who’d seen it all but wanted to share a highlight. “This here’s Bingham,” he said. “He a Vietnam vet, and he’s paraplegic. Can’t talk, but he always find a girl to fix him whenever he need.”
Then, we watched, in awe and reverence, as Bingham’s friend took off her bra, wrapped it around the 300-pound paralyzed man’s throat, and fixed him in his jugular. Bingham could still move his mouth and neck, and before the needle was out, he shaped his lips into a transcendent smile. Later, when she passed out, he did it himself, with nothing but neck moves, biting, and a bra strap, in a way I still can’t fathom.
Then, the guns and screaming started – Happy New Year! – and Bo turned to me like he’d arranged it all to teach me a lesson. “That there,” he yelled, pointing at Bingham, then using the same dainty finger to wipe a tear from his own eye, “that there is the triumph of the human spirit.”
And so it was. Even in my smacked-out state, it hit me: if that frozen vet could manage to get a needle in his neck on a daily basis, with no functioning arms or legs, then maybe I could find a way, with all four extremities intact, to keep the needle out of my own.
Eventually, I did.