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The above are all excerpts from Heroin Chronicles, an unpublished work-in-progress by 56-year-old Rick Ortiz.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.