INSENSIBILITY TO PAIN: a review of joe clifford’s junkie love
The wife was out of town and I was all set to watch “Reservoir Dogs”, which I have never seen and which she won’t go near. However, a book had arrived that afternoon and I had a look: Junkie Love by Joe Clifford. I still haven’t seen the film, but I finished the book.
It is a page turner, partly because JC is an aficionado of pulp noir. He’s as direct as a hypodermic, and he likes the “dog bites man” approach. Man buys drug. Drug bites man. Man bites the dust. Man turns into a dog who walks around with his nose to the ground and lives in the streets. Clifford says that for years he was looking at the ground, “scanning the pavement,” whether looking for cigarette butts or feeling like a loser with a dead-end life. If he could have dedicated a song to his wife, heroin, it might have been “I Wanna Be Your Dog”:
When you’re an addict without any money, as opposed to, say, Keith Richards, it doesn’t take long before the assumptions of civilized behavior start to crumble and erode. It leaves something more animal than human, living in the most dirty and disorganized circumstances, stealing from anyone. An addict is a wolf-man.
The last thing the author wants to do is romanticize the life of addiction. He writes about himself with the drop-dead honesty of someone who spent six months in recovery in various facilities, including endless therapy sessions where you have no illusions about yourself. Your life is blown, and as a survivor you’re an open flower of vulnerability and confession.
So how does one convey the life of a junkie without making it sound like a roller coaster in a haunted house, albeit one that goes off the rails now and then? How does one convey what it is like to inject a morphine derivative (which was formerly used as a painkiller and sedative) without losing the reader – especially if the addict is staring at his shoes or the ground or nodding off or having boring conversations? How does one convey the monotony of a routine which repeats itself every day for years? An addict is possessed by an anesthetic ghost which only wants to replicate itself over and over at his expense. He is a pawn in that process, like smokers when they finally realize “my cigarette wants a cigarette”. It is dehumanizing, like an alcoholic on the slippery slope of brain damage who can’t stop drinking. People want to blame it on outside forces, rather than the humbling fact that alcohol is stronger than us, both in its seduction and destruction of the body. It’s an unromantic view of things, like the notion that we only exist in order for the bacteria inside us to proliferate.
So where does heroin come from? Opium poppies, most of which are grown in Afghanistan. Opium production was drastically reduced by the Taliban, but there is more of it than ever thanks to the U.S. military: making the world safe for addiction.
Also, heroin is linked to Bayer aspirin:
“From 1898 through 1910, diacetylmorphine was marketed under the trademark name Heroin as a non-addictive morphine substitute and cough suppressant. Bayer marketed the drug as a cure for morphine addiction, before it was discovered that it rapidly metabolizes into morphine.” (from Wikipedia)
Later, as with Aspirin, Bayer lost some of its trademark rights to heroin, following the German defeat in World War I.
The word “heroin” comes from the Greek word for hero, “allegedly so-called from the feelings of power and euphoria which it stimulates.” It is worth noting how often the author was feeling less than heroic.
A book about heroin addiction written by an old librarian might sound different than one written by a young man with a rock and roll fixation. The adrenaline running through the prose (speaking of drugs) is a reflection of the author. But there are gaps in the story which suggest a lot of dead air and lost weekends. He was in San Francisco through most of the 1990’s, going from crystal meth to heroin. You wonder — and I think he wonders — what he did with the time. I would have preferred a more linear narrative as he jumps around, back and forth, but then I realized it was indicative of a man whose memory has been damaged. It’s like the fragments of a broken mirror. Clifford admits he can’t remember the sequence of certain events, sometimes saying “it could have been…” because he doesn’t know for sure. There is some mention of nerve damage from meth.
You can live to old age doing heroin. “Like most opioids, unadulterated heroin does not cause many long-term complications other than dependence and constipation.” What makes the life so miserable is when you’re broke and being treated as a criminal. If you have an income, you can more or less maintain. All of the members of Cream were hooked at one point or another. I was reading about Jack Bruce and there was some reference to a woman novelist in London who did heroin for 40 years and wasn’t living out of garbage cans.
In the late 1990’s, I was working for an attorney on the edge of North Beach. When I left work I would walk up the sidewalk a few doors and pass an addict who was living on the sidewalk. Sitting in front of a lamp store for light, he was one of our clients, or had been. He would tell me about his life — how he had a $20 shot in the morning and a $20 shot at night, and couldn’t be bothered applying for a $400 a month government handout. He would find odd jobs with the bars and strip clubs on Broadway. He avoided other homeless people. This was around the time that Joe was on the streets with his own habit, but in another part of town.
When the author describes looking for a vein, being unable to find one, poking around with a needle, it is not for the faint-hearted. He notes the desperation and disorientation, how sometimes he would inject anything because “shooting is its own addiction… once that needle penetrates the skin, the brain gets fooled into thinking drugs are about to be delivered, so it produces a high, the flip side of phantom pain for an amputee.” There are scenes which a disturbed movie director would like to get his hands on: a woman is boiling cat-heads on the stove to use the skulls for something while a man with one arm (he lost the other to flesh-eating bacteria) is stealing the wedding ring Joe wants to give to his wife, who is having a schizophrenic episode from doing coke and screams about mind control and brain coral at the bottom of the ocean while Joe is selling his guitar so he can run off with another woman who he loves as much as heroin, but it’s hard to tell since they shoot up together. I may have overlapped a few things here, but you get the idea.
For those who are careful about what they put into their bodies, consider this: “With speed it’s all about the rush, and there are so many under-the-sink chemicals in its manufacture — jet fuel, rat poison, red phosphorous, acetone, gun bluing, ammonia, and God-knows-what-else…” Ironically, he tried to kill himself by shooting up $500 worth of heroin, but it didn’t work — the heroin had been cut with something and was weak.
Having failed at suicide, there was nothing left to do but to quit. The phrase “kicking the habit” comes from involuntary spasms in the limbs. Clifford had been in rehab 17 times, but what the hell. As Charlie Parker said, “They can get it out of your blood, but they can’t get it out of your mind.” It takes months, and only 1 in 34 make it. He had spent ten years “looking for cohesion, some unifying principle,” which turned out to be the one-track mind of an addict. In the end, though, he found another habit, another cohesion — that of writing.
Steven Gray has been living in San Francisco since 1849 and has rent control. Self control is another matter. He reads his work on a regular basis in venues throughout San Francisco. Sometimes he accompanies other poets on guitar. He is co-editor of Out of Our, a poetry and art magazine, and has two books of poetry: Jet Shock and Culture Lag (2012), and Shadow on the Rocks (2011).