Street Smart Chicago

The Man with the Golden Arm: One man’s addiction takes him deep into Chicago’s West Side

City Life, Essays & Commentary Add comments

By Tristan Deerman*

I’m like most Chicagoans you know. I get up every day, stumble a few blocks to the Division Blue Line stop in Wicker Park and ride a packed subway car into the Loop, where my office is located. I work hard, but, like most, would rather be spending my day in some other leisurely fashion. However, unlike most Chicagoans, especially of the professional set, I am a heroin addict.

For me, heroin has been remarkably effective in eliminating all of the anxiety, pain and stress that I feel, be it the daily stresses of life, or the deeper wounds I carry from childhood. The amazing part is that it does so before you even have dope in hand, because no matter how much emotional pain you might be experiencing, the need to obtain heroin trumps it. Everything else becomes trivial when you don’t have heroin. And when you do have it—how to describe?—it’s just smooth sailing. The endorphins already start rushing when you hit that first vein and watch the blood curl up into the syringe’s chamber. Then, when you push it in, it takes only seconds before you feel the rush simultaneously in your heart and mind. It’s a quick rush of euphoria, followed by an absolutely all-encompassing feeling of satisfaction.

The magnitude of the amazing high is matched only by the depth of the low that comes with not having any. And in recent months, it has become progressively more difficult to find heroin in Chicago.

And so now I’m on a mission, one which will lead me from the relative safety of my home in Wicker Park to the more dangerous neighborhoods that make up Chicago’s West Side. The reason for the journey: my conventional sources have either been eliminated, or become ineffectual, and as each moment goes by, my body cries out for its medicine.

For reasons unknown to me, the city of Chicago has changed. It’s likely tied to local politics, and as each area affected slowly dried up, I followed the trail left by other addicts in search of their fix. First the North Side, known for its brown heroin served wrapped in tinfoil, and rumored to be smuggled into Chicago by Nigerians. As the police set their sights on the most active areas located in East Rogers Park and Evanston, the dealers have been forced to move indoors.

Initially, this was not a problem, as I could simply call ahead and arrange for delivery, or if I was feeling impatient, arrange a meeting up north. But one by one, my dealers were arrested. I tried to meet new ones, taking the Red Line up to Morse Road, and canvassing the area looking for anything resembling an open air market, but due to my skin color, I was greeted with suspicious looks at best. Usually I was ignored altogether.

Because I lived down the street from the infamous Cabrini Green housing projects, I figured that my prospects were good for scoring closer to home. Because of the high police presence, coupled with my reluctance to enter the towers where most of the trade was conducted, I had to try another tactic. I needed to find runners willing to cop for me in exchange for a finder’s fee. After much trial and error, I established relationships with a few trustworthy individuals; people who actually returned with my precious dope knowing that more business would be had the next day. Over time, I found that middle-aged women tended to be the most trustworthy with my money. And they didn’t ask much in return.

For several years the area was teeming with dope. There were so many different kinds, but I preferred the kind called “Anthrax” sold out of the building located on Larrabee, just across the street from the police station. Sometimes the wait was long, as buyers lined up waiting for the “pack man” to show up with his “jabs.” The gang-bangers running the towers took business seriously. When the police raided the building, lookouts would yell “B up!” and the workers would quickly make their way into apartments designated as safe houses.

It seemed as if the police only raided the buildings while my runners were in there with my money, which caused me much anxiety, making it all that much sweeter when the runner would finally return, always smiling at a job well done, ready to collect their payment in return. Over time, I came to know some of the runners well enough to begin paying them up-front, saving them from having to make a risky second trip into the building to get their own drugs of choice.

Sometimes, the runners would take as long as an hour to get back, having traversed from building to building searching for someone working. Those days were the most difficult for me. One day, I met my favorite runner, Vicky, who was anxious to make her run. She had heard that the Anthrax bags were huge that day, and that the dope was very pure. Standing on Division Street, we turned to the building, only to see flames and smoke pouring out of the windows on one side of the building. Police and firefighters were beginning to arrive en masse. I was disappointed, assuming that the building would be shut down. “Let me go check things out,” Vicky said, and took off in the building’s direction. I walked into the nearby Starbucks, expecting a long wait, but just as I was getting settled in, there was Vicky marching back, fist clenched. It took more than a raging fire to shut down the heroin trade in that particular building.

“The Greens,” as residents referred to the projects, served me well for a couple of years, but soon the wrecking balls came, and one by one the towers came down. So many towers came down that Vicky and I had to start making the trek all the way to Halsted, where they sold powerful white dope that came in five dollar capsules. But the police began raiding the building so frequently that it no longer became feasible to shop there, especially once the capsules disappeared.

Another of my runners, Camille, suggested the South Side. “The dope there’s better anyway,” she said. True to her word, over the next few years Camille dutifully returned time and time again with dope from the various buildings located in the Ickes, Dearborn Homes and Ida Wells projects. Over the years there was: Reaper, Big 50, Drop Dead, USDA, Mike Jones, Fantastic Four, Purple Haze, Renegade, Opium, Girls Gone Wild and many others.

As my addiction progressed, I spent more time on the South Side. In any given week, I may have spent the equivalent of a full business day waiting at the eastbound Cermak bus stop located at 22nd and State, a dangerous area. Just as was the case at the Greens, I didn’t dare enter the buildings myself. I knew that any white person seen exiting any of the buildings by the police was guaranteed to be stopped and searched. And since I was usually at the beginning stages of withdrawal when I went south to shop, the strong police presence pretty much assured that if arrested, I would spend the next twenty-four hours in jail progressively getting more and more dopesick. Cook County only provides methadone to inmates already formally enrolled in a methadone maintenance program. I was therefore more than happy to pay the finder’s fees my runners charged.

It seemed like a good situation, excluding the broader issues surrounding the problems in my life that my addiction to heroin was causing. My finances were in tatters; my social life nonexistent. I was no longer sexually active, or even dating, being hesitant to even begin any relationships for fear of the inevitable moment when my track marks would be revealed.

However, the police began stepping up their sweeps in the buildings, driving the drug dealers either further indoors, further south or out of business. It may have been a delayed response to the well-publicized spike in overdoses caused by fentanyl-tainted heroin. I was fortunate enough to have a good source at the time who regularly bought the “Reaper” brand of dope for me, which was served in an ugly, brackish-colored bag that was jam packed with dope. The dope was so strong that any longtime user would have thought their money well spent on bags half the size of what was actually being sold.

Another possibility is that the police were responding to a number of murders that had taken place in the buildings. Gunplay is common all along State Street in that area, but several of the locals I spoke with stated their belief that, because a white man had recently been killed in one of the Ickes buildings, the police were responding with a heavy hand. Upon hearing this, I was shocked simply to learn that a white person had had the guts to even walk into one of the buildings. Even in my desperate state, I would never consider this. It’s a simple numbers game—if the police see a white person exiting a building, said white person will get stopped and searched. And the area is absolutely crawling with police in marked and unmarked cars. The ones in the unmarked Crown Victorias are referred to as “slick boys” by area residents due to their uncanny ability to show up at the worst possible times.

It was not uncommon for me to witness several unmarked police cars screech to a stop at the entrance of the building closest to “my” bus stop, and for police to burst into the buildings, guns drawn, yelling for their targets. On one occasion I watched as police broke up a fight taking place in the middle of Cermak. One of the combatants was cuffed and on his knees, prompting the other to take advantage of his vulnerable state, and strike him with great force. My stomach turned from the sound of the crack of the fist connecting squarely with face, loud even from fifty yards away. One of the arresting officers responded by nonchalantly kicking the assaulter in the crotch and cuffing him in one swift motion, as if he had done this countless times before.

Over a period of several months, the South Side projects, which had been so fruitful for so long, became barren. I would arrive in the mornings in the hope of catching an open window of activity only to find a group of would-be customers anxiously grouped around the doorways, waiting in vain for someone, anyone, to show up with a jab. I often overheard the other customers discussing their situation, “Well, I guess I’ll go west. Should’ve went there to begin with.”

Unfortunately, I had no contacts on the West Side, but out of desperation, decided to make the trip. The conventional wisdom for heroin addicts who move to a new city and need to find dope is to go to a methadone clinic several hours before it opens, where dealers are known to hang out. Many methadone clinics employ security guards to monitor the area outside the clinic during business hours. I also knew to look for the universal sign of the presence of drug dealers—tennis shoes hanging from phone wires.

I researched and planned carefully, using the Internet to find out where most arrests for heroin possession occurred on the West Side. I was inadvertently assisted by the Chicago Police Department, which posts a geographic histogram of narcotics-related arrests on its Web site. I noticed that Pulaski Street seemed to be the epicenter of drug activity on the West Side, but Pulaski is a long street, and I had to narrow my focus. This was accomplished simply by choosing my mode of transportation, which was to be the Blue Line train, which stopped at Harrison and Pulaski.

I boarded the train, nervous yet optimistic. This was my last chance. The methadone clinics closed shortly after noon, so if I was unable to score on this trip, I was destined to spend the rest of the day feeling worse. I would be unable to sleep that night, which would prolong the agony, and would be unable to eat, which gave me headaches. The combination of all the elements of heroin withdrawal would make that night miserable.

As the train left downtown and rose above ground, my first view was of the Eisenhower expressway, and the surrounding buildings. As the train continued west, the atmosphere became more desolate. The streets seemed empty of residents, and the houses appeared run down. Many of the homes that caught my eye seemed abandoned, yet I could see the former grandeur within them. They were large stone structures, seemingly no different from the multi-million dollar brownstones and greystones that line the streets of the prestigious Gold Coast neighborhood in which I had once lived. Individually, the homes could appear beautiful, but within their surroundings, they looked bland and unattractive.

As I exited the train at the Pulaski stop, I was thankful that it was early, as I would have been hesitant to make an appearance in this area at night. At the same time, I realized that I was more easily identifiable as a white person during the daytime, which could attract the unwanted attention of the police. Already I was attracting strange glances from the area’s residents.

While debating which direction to head in, I spotted a panhandler familiar to me from the Loop. I considered tailing her as she turned south on Pulaski, but then decided against it. Then, a stroke of luck—another familiar face. And this time it was someone I knew was in the area to cop, as I had seen him numerous times near the South Side projects. I hesitated for a moment and then began following him, staying ten, twenty yards behind. The area seemed desolate though, so I took a seat at a bus stop on Harrison, and twisted around to watch the man from afar. The man walked quickly, passing a grocery store and then turning left towards the alley. He stopped to say a few words to a few transient types seated at the alley’s entrance, and then disappeared. I lit a cigarette and contemplated my next move. As I debated my options, one of which was to approach the crowd loitering around the gas station across street, I saw a young white girl, dressed in a long green jacket, follow the same path that the other man had just taken. She, too, disappeared down the alley.

I decided to head that way, not sure who or what to ask for. I would play it by ear, probably just being honest in the end, as I had so many times in the past with residents near Cabrini or the South Side projects. The difference with the West Side was that there were no projects, so the dope spots could literally be anywhere.

I walked towards the alley, ready to ask the people seated there to point me in the right direction. I was unsure as to what kind of response I would get. I was careless about watching for police, because the area seemed so empty and desolate, that I was lulled into feeling a sense of security. I got to within fifteen feet of the alley. At that point, auto-pilot was kicking in. A middle-aged man stood up and asked me “How many?” Could it really be that easy? After all these years of getting beat on the streets, and playing the waiting game near projects, was it really just a matter of taking the train to Pulaski and walking a hundred yards to the nearest alley?

The answer was yes. I asked for eight bags. “Alright then, come on,” the man responded. I followed the man a few feet into the alley, at which point he reached under a fence behind someone’s garage and pulled out a crumpled paper bag, in which was a sandwich bag absolutely packed with dime bags of dope. Upon seeing this I felt a tremendous burden lift from me. The man handed me the bags, receiving eighty dollars in return, and he recommended the safest way back to the train, which was to walk further down the alley and then cut back through to Harrison, keeping my head down and pace quick back to the train station. The entire process took about a minute.

I smiled and exhaled as I walked through the turnstile in the station. While waiting for the Loop-bound train, I noticed that I could see the dope spot, and customers arriving, from the platform. Every station on the West Side must have a spot nearby, I thought to myself, let alone all that real estate in between.

I held the bags in my hand for the entire train ride back to the Loop, lest they fall out of my pocket unnoticed. At work, I rushed to the bathroom, and finally found the relief I had long been denied. It may seem petty to many, but the ease with which you can get heroin on Chicago’s West Side just made my life substantially more tolerable—in the short term. I was aware of this, but the short-term versus long-term tradeoff was far from my mind. The last few days had been hell. It’s just another one of the ironies of the dope game that is probably emblematic of the city’s drug problem.

The spot near Harrison and Pulaski became my spot. I’ve returned repeatedly, sometimes more than once a day. Only once was one of the workers hesitant to sell to me, not having seen me before. But thanks to the magnitude of my habit, it didn’t take long for the whole neighborhood to become accustomed to me, which is good because, as I later discovered, that block is controlled by two or three teenagers who put neighborhood residents to work, as they periodically patrol the area by car, circling the same block over and over again.

Not long ago I showed up late one night only to find nobody working. I decided to circle the block, taking me off of Pulaski into the darker side streets. I got robbed, but I left feeling fortunate that I suffered no serious bodily harm. As I rode the Blue Line home that night I realized that I would have been better off exploiting the earlier loss of my heroin connections by going to rehab or entering a methadone program.

Do something. Anything.

I fear not having heroin in my life. In the earlier days of my addiction, whenever someone I met on the street offered me a phone number and a steady connection, I turned them down, for fear of having a steady supply of dope nearby, knowing how easily my habit could take off. But over the years, I lost that sense of urgency—the fear of being a full-blown heroin addict. By now it’s a function of inertia. Even on those rare days when, for whatever reason, I just don’t feel like using, I still go out and cop, simply because using again is inevitable. It’s a difficult cycle from which to extract yourself.

I decided to admit myself into a detox program and spent two weeks sweating it out as the drug left my system. During that time I was able to put things into perspective. In spite of all the misery I had inflicted upon myself, my family and my bank account, maybe I was lucky. In detox, my roommate’s luck had almost run out—he was served up heroin that had been cut with meat tenderizer, causing him to suffer a minor stroke while driving on the Ike. When I asked him where he had copped, he replied, “On the West Side.”

Still, today, I wake up every morning with the notion of jumping on the train and heading west, but as the day goes on, the craving diminishes as I slowly convince myself, “Not today.” I usually achieve some level of inner peace by the afternoon, and I am slowly beginning to find joy again, mostly in the little things life has to offer. I suppose that as long as Chicago has a drug problem, so will I. But as an addict, I try not to spend too much time thinking about tomorrow.

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