From the sweaty summer days of a junky's nightmare to the bittersweet success of true surrender and emergence into a new way of life, Border Junkies paints a searing, first-hand portrait of addiction, poverty, and recovery on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Series: Inter America Series, Howard Campbell, Duncan Earle, and John Peterson, series editors
The drug war that has turned Juárez, Mexico, into a killing field that has claimed more than 7,000 lives since 2008 captures headlines almost daily. But few accounts go all the way down to the streets to investigate the lives of individual drug users. One of those users, Scott Comar, survived years of heroin addiction and failed attempts at detox and finally cleaned up in 2003. Now a graduate student at the University of Texas at El Paso in the history department's borderlands doctoral program, Comar has written Border Junkies, a searingly honest account of his spiraling descent into heroin addiction, surrender, change, and recovery on the U.S.-Mexico border.
Border Junkies is the first book ever written about the lifestyle of active addiction on the streets of Juárez. Comar vividly describes living between the disparate Mexican and American cultures and among the fellow junkies, drug dealers, hookers, coyote smugglers, thieves, and killers who were his friends and neighbors in addiction—and the social workers, missionaries, shelter workers, and doctors who tried to help him escape. With the perspective of his anthropological training, he shows how homelessness, poverty, and addiction all fuel the use of narcotics and the rise in their consumption on the streets of Juárez and contribute to the societal decay of this Mexican urban landscape. Comar also offers significant insights into the U.S.-Mexico borderland's underground and peripheral economy and the ways in which the region's inhabitants adapt to the local economic terrain.
Southwest Book Award from the Border Regional Library Association
- Chapter 1: Viajes
- Chapter 2: Arrivals
- Chapter 3: Down and Out
- Chapter 4: Assimilations
- Chapter 5: La Navidad
- Chapter 6: New Millennium
- Chapter 7: Insanity Repeats Itself
- Chapter 8: Migrations
- Chapter 9: Vigilance
- Chapter 10: Endings and Beginnings
Opium expands what has no bound, lengthens the illimitable, deepens time, furrows pleasure, and fills the soul with dark wearisome felicities more than the soul can hold.
Charles Baudelaire, The Flowers of Evil (translated by Keith Waldrop)
The lineage of opiate narratives in Western societies stretches from the nineteenth century to the modern era: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Thomas de Quincey, Charles Baudelaire, Arthur Rimbaud, Jean Cocteau, William S. Burroughs, Alexander Trocchi, Piri Thomas, Richard Hell. Across decades and centuries, the experience of opium, morphine, and heroin addiction has generated its own logic. Existence is reduced to the cellular need for dope, punctuated by bouts of euphoric delirium. Excess baggage is discarded or pawned as the junkie desperately acquires the money needed to buy the next fix, get high, and repeat the cycle. The literary re-creation of this quest reflects both the bare, obsessive hunt for junk and its opposite, the blissful rush of opiate-induced satisfaction: florid details are disdained in the lean, narrowly focused prose of the panicked, hustling search to cop, but lush colors describe the pandemonium of opiate dreams, and a dark palette sketches in the excruciating pain of withdrawal and the inevitable physical and mental deterioration.
Often, the ethnographic portrait of a heroin user mirrors its literary counterpart in its depiction of the single-mindedness of the addict. Anthropological accounts of addicts, however, pay much more attention to the economics and practical details of junkie life and less attention to the lyrical or morbid inner landscape of the addict—with some exceptions, especially the verbal poetry of the "righteous dopefiends" in Bourgois and Schonberg's brilliant study.
Comar's narrative echoes the stark realities, the depths of despair, and the sensations of instant glory that permeate the classic opiate literature, and its emphasis on survival strategies and oppositional cultures contributes to the social science literature on addiction. While avoiding the narcissistic excesses of popular heroin-chic memoirs, Comar chronicles the specific dilemmas of the junkie life amid the transnational, bilingual context of the U.S.-Mexico border.
In the process of absorbing this fine account, the reader experiences the roller-coaster ride of heroin highs and lows, gains insight into the underworld cultures of border dealers and addicts, and obtains a street-level sociological vision of drug trafficking and addiction in Ciudad Juárez, currently the world's most dangerous city for murder and kidnapping and home to one of the largest drug cartels in the world. Border Junkies will be of considerable interest to students of the mental dimensions of drug addiction, the cultural bases of junkie adaptations, and the dynamic and evolving societies of the U.S.-Mexico border.
Ciudad Juárez, the quintessential Mexican border city, has been an important center of contraband smuggling since at least Prohibition. In the aftermath of Prohibition, Ignacia Jasso de González (alias "La Nacha") built a powerful heroin-smuggling organization from her home near the Paso del Norte international bridge that links Juárez and El Paso. Despite the visibility of her operation—physically observable from the U.S. side of the Rio Grande (Río Bravo)—La Nacha sold one-hit doses of Mexican black tar heroin to American GIs and Mexican addicts for immediate consumption, and larger quantities to smugglers who took La Nacha's product far into the heartland of the United States. Although both the Mexican and U.S. governments pursued her aggressively, La Nacha resisted attempts to extradite her, and though she served several stints in Mexican prisons (including in the infamous Islas Marías), La Nacha did not let go of the heroin business until she died, a multimillionaire, of natural causes in 1977.
Although La Nacha's business was robust and multinational—linking the opium fields of Sinaloa and Durango through various clandestine processing laboratories in Jalisco and elsewhere to smuggling routes all the way to Chicago—domestic consumption of narcotics was relatively low in Mexico until the rise of the cocaine cartels of the 1980s. La Nacha had maintained street dope-selling corners in Juárez since the onset of her business, but it was not until the 1990s that the evil bloom of the tiendita ("little store") system spread beyond the central city to encompass much of the surrounding areas.
The Juárez cartel, founded by a federal police commander and a butcher in the 1980s, became a major international drug-trafficking organization, far exceeding the scope of La Nacha's drug business. In the 1990s, the cartel's supplies of illegal drugs so far surpassed even the gargantuan demand of the American market that the cartel, then controlled by Amado Carrillo Fuentes, the "Lord of the Skies," began dumping product on the local market by selling through the tienditas located on the barrio streets of Juárez, from the windows of run-down buildings, inside small retail businesses, etc.
La Nacha's old whitewashed adobe house still stands in the Bellavista neighborhood, the historic and contemporary center of the barrio heroin trade in Juárez. Comar's odyssey took him through the maze of unpaved alleys, trails, and dusty concrete streets of Bellavista as well as nearby Altavista, Felipe Angeles, Colonia Postal, and Arroyo Colorado. These frontline border neighborhoods have provided soldiers for the Mexican Revolution, workers for the ASARCO copper smelter of El Paso, undocumented immigrants fleeing north, and combatants and victims in the drug wars of the current era, including the massacre of seventeen gang-related addicts at a drug rehabilitation center in 2009. These areas, including one of the most notorious drug selling points in all Juárez, La Cima ("the Zenith"), present a startling panorama of poverty and degradation as well as resilience and hope to motorists speeding down Interstate 10. The freeway parallels the international boundary embodied in the Rio Grande (Río Bravo), which both separates and brings together the United States and Mexico.
From border neighborhoods, Juárez residents can clearly observe the comparatively stunning wealth of El Paso and its large state university, the University of Texas at El Paso, where Comar is now a graduate student. Perhaps nowhere else in North America are the contradictions and binational causes—supply and demand, inequality and dependence—of the international drug trade more evident. Comar's searing account of junkie life on the streets of El Paso and Juárez puts a human face on the border drug debacle that has claimed more than 6,000 lives since 2008.
Important ethnographic studies of drug abuse (and related trafficking issues) include Philippe Bourgois, In Search of Respect: Selling Crack in El Barrio, 2nd ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003); Philippe Bourgois and Jeff Schonberg, Righteous Dopefiend (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2009); Michael Agar, Ripping and Running: A Formal Ethnographic Study of Urban Heroin Addicts (New York: Academic Press, 1973); and Lee Hoffer, Junkie Business: The Evolution and Operation of a Heroin Dealing Network (Belmont, Calif.: Wadsworth, 2005).
This book concerns cycles of addiction, surrender, and early recovery. It may seem repetitive because the spiraling descent one experiences while actively addicted to narcotics tends to occur in repeated patterns. Its emphasis is on my own lived experience in Ciudad Juárez, México, and El Paso, Texas, from 1998 to 2003. This story is not just my story; it is also the story of those whose experiences paralleled my own. It is the story of my progressive and downward spiral within the whirlwind of active addiction, my ultimate surrender, and my emergence into the "new." Because both change and reflection are essential elements in the process of recovery from active addiction, this book focuses on them through my analysis of past and present. (Note: "Active addiction" refers to the condition in which an addict is pursuing the substance he craves; in recovery, a former user is still considered an addict, just not an active one.)
Faded and forgotten, my lived experiences are too numerous and elusive to recall in their entirety. In this narrative, I have attempted to share some of the basic trends and patterns of active narcotics addiction along with my life experiences on the U.S.-Mexico border. In no way do I wish to glamorize or minimize the pains, fears, and uncertainties associated with the lifestyle of a drug addict. Many of these feelings are indescribable—and practically impossible to reproduce within a written account.
Sometimes it's better to stick to what you know.
When things go wrong, they always seem to go wrong at the worst possible time. One morning, in the late summer of 1998, I was driving through the streets of Colonia Felipe Angeles in Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, with my girlfriend's brother Jorge. Jorge and I were about a minute away from his family's place. We had just copped five globos (small balloons) of Mexican black tar heroin and made an extra stop at the pharmacy to buy insulin syringes, jeringas. As we headed back to Jorge's, two Juárez municipal police cars approached us from the opposite direction, passed us, did an immediate U-turn, and pulled us over. The cops searched the car and found our jeringas, but didn't find the dope, because Jorge had swallowed it before I stopped the car. That didn't matter to them—they arrested us anyway. The car had New York plates, and they must have thought that they could get an easy mordida, or bribe. My girlfriend was at work and had left Jorge and me to babysit her daughter. Because the eight-year-old child was in the back seat of the car, the cops brought us to Jorge's family's place so we could drop her off before they took us in. They could have let us leave the car, but they towed it in instead. It was a decent car, a Nissan sedan, but since we didn't have the mordida money then and there, the cops took us downtown.
For a junkie, it is a nightmare to get busted two minutes before you are about to shoot up your morning fix. The Delicias Municipal Jail in downtown Juárez was an impregnable fortress built of stone. It was nicknamed Las Piedras, "The Rocks." The cops put us in a room full of younger guys who were delirious after being locked up all night, drunks with hangovers, and junkies going through the various stages of heroin withdrawal. Cement benches extended around the perimeter of the bare, rock-walled holding cell. Las Piedras was dingy and hard, and I just wanted to get out of there as fast as possible. Jorge and I sat there for three hours until my girlfriend finally showed up and got us out. My car was parked outside the jail. Laura, my girlfriend, seemed angrier at the police than she was with Jorge and me. Her mother was there, cursing the cops out in Spanish for not letting us go in the first place. I think the real reason the cops ran us in was because we were short fifty pesos—that was about five U.S. dollars—for the mordida. Laura's mom was pretty upset about the whole bust, but she too directed her anger at the municipal police rather than at us.
I was just grateful that I had given Laura a thousand dollars just in case something went wrong while I was living with her and her family. As we drove back to the house, the conversation quickly turned to Jorge and me and how we had screwed up. Together, we concluded that we should have taken the main road back to the house from the pharmacy instead of the back road that paralleled the Rio Grande. Silence followed. Back in Felipe Angeles, I parked the car, and Jorge and I decided that this time we would just walk over to the heroin connection's house.
Moving to Juárez to live there with Laura and her family was an attempt to remake my life. I grew up in New York State and in Hartford, Connecticut. When I was thirteen, my family moved from New York to Connecticut. Sometime before the move, I began experimenting with marijuana with some of the neighborhood kids. My parents were from upstate New York and had met each other at community college. They were both from large, low-income, rural families and had moved up the American social hierarchy from lower- to middle-class status. I see my own childhood as having been a transition from country boy to city kid. The move to Connecticut put my family in the partially integrated community of Bloomfield. It was not long after our arrival there that I began to hang around with other kids who were using drugs and alcohol. This was around 1979, when the influence of rap music was spreading from New York City into the tristate area. Although I had grown up on rock music, I became heavily involved in the local drug culture that associated itself with rap and hip-hop. After I was expelled from two high schools in the Hartford area and another in upstate New York, I ended up in a long-term rehab program in Hartford. I spent six months there.
As a teenager, my life was full of chaos. I stopped living at home when I was sixteen. For a while, I lived with another family in Hartford and then tried to live with my grandmother in upstate New York. Both experiences were marked and marred by drugs, alcohol, and chaos. By seventeen, I was in the long-term rehab program. Rehab was great: it steered me away from the ignorant path of adolescent self-destruction and put me on track with life. I got a GED (general equivalency diploma) while I was there, and I began to work full-time, changing tires at a local auto shop. One day, about a week before my eighteenth birthday, a friend from the tire shop told me that I should leave the rehab and move in with him and his family. My goal was to keep working, get a place of my own, live independently, and pay my own way.
I went AWOL from rehab and began my adult life in the working world. A month later, I got laid off from the tire shop. Business was slow, so the main office, which was located out of town, was cutting back. But the guys at the shop introduced me to one of the regular customers—a guy named Mario, who bought tires from us for a fleet of furniture-delivery vans. The very next day, I had a job delivering furniture for a furniture distribution center. The guys at that job were either into drugs or alcohol, which were all one and the same to me. I worked as a driver's helper, delivering furniture, and most of the guys I worked with drank and smoked reefer all day, every day. I ended up working with a guy named Richard, who did not smoke weed and drank only on special occasions. I developed a stable work routine as his helper, but one day, while delivering to a very upscale home on Cape Cod, we broke a very large crystal chandelier while moving a sleeper sofa up a set of stairs. When we picked the sofa up after breaking the chandelier, a piece of the crystal got wedged between the sofa and my finger and sliced my finger pretty deep. That night I was at the hospital getting stitches.
I was too young to know about workman's comp and decided to quit after a week of light duty. I worked odd jobs around Hartford for a while until I found a job at a moving and storage company. Working for the moving company changed my life. I applied myself, worked hard, and became friends with two drivers named Gary and Woody. Gary's wife, Betty, was the union steward, and it wasn't long before they taught me how to drive a truck and I became a member of the Teamsters. I worked obsessively during my late teens and early twenties. By the time I turned twenty-one, I had left the union and begun driving for different van lines and trucking companies. I was lucky: the way I learned to drive a truck, on the job, was probably one of the last vestiges of the tradesmen-apprentice relationships formerly found in the Northeast.
Life in Hartford gave me a multidimensional perspective on class, gender, and race. The room I rented was in a boardinghouse populated by lower-income working-class men. My neighbors were black, white, and Puerto Rican. Everyone there drank and used drugs. I watched the drug use in the neighborhood switch from marijuana and heroin to cocaine and crack cocaine. Sometimes the guys in the boardinghouse stayed up drinking and smoking crack all night. In those days, I smoked reefer and drank, and although I tried crack cocaine, I really did not like it. When I was not at work, I mostly hung around with the guys from the rooming house in the Parkville neighborhood on Hartford's west side.
In my early twenties, I began driving a truck cross-country and worked my way up in the business from being a company driver to an owner-operator, still mostly moving furniture. Eventually, I owned my own truck. If I could have accepted this move up the social scale—going from living in the boardinghouse to owning my own truck—as my destiny, I think I would have had a very solid and stable life as a truck driver. But at this point, I saw Hartford as my home, and I just couldn't conceive of leaving the streets and the people I knew. My job driving back and forth across the country conflicted with my microscopic vision of success, which demanded that I settle down in Hartford and have a social life outside of work. One day when I was off the road and relaxing in town, a friend of mine from the boardinghouse turned me on to some heroin. It was "China white" powder, so we could sniff it rather than use a needle. I soon started sniffing China white during my breaks from work.
The little cellophane bags that the stuff came in had nicknames stamped on them, names like "Rush Hour" or "DOA" (for "dead on arrival"). Most of the stamps had connotations of death, trauma, or paradise. Once, I bought some dope in New York City that was stamped "Tropicana," just like the Tropicana orange-juice label. I rationalized sniffing dope by telling myself that it was okay because I wasn't shooting it up. But whether you sniff it or shoot it, heroin is highly addictive. In my early experiences with heroin, I did not use enough to become hooked. I used only occasionally and recreationally.
Around this time in my life, I became involved with a woman named Marilinda. Marilinda was older than me and had two daughters. I was introduced to her by the guys from the boardinghouse. One of my friend's brothers was living with Marilinda's sister. Marilinda was pretty, and I obsessed over her. I was inexperienced with serious relationships and saw only what I wanted to see. We had some good times together. Marilinda had grown up in Puerto Rico, and we traveled there a couple of times. Despite the good times, our relationship was a dysfunctional roller-coaster ride.
It was during one of the lows of that ride that I got hooked on heroin. During one of our many breakups, I began to use every day. One day I woke up feeling really crappy and just couldn't shake it. One of my running partners told me it was the dope and that I caught "a chippie," or a small habit. I sniffed some more dope and felt better. Before I knew it, I was really and truly hooked and progressing further into addiction. I continued to move furniture, but I used dope before, during, and after work. If I went out of town, I tried to bring enough dope with me to make it through the trip. This never worked, of course, and I went through my first detox while I was on the road in Georgia and Florida. It's really messed up to try to move furniture while detoxing from heroin, but I was still new to the whole experience, and my body was bounced back because I had not yet been debilitated by years of active addiction.
Eventually, my addiction progressed to the point that I got sick and stayed strung out all the time. It wasn't long before I got busted for heroin possession in New York City. After that, I stopped driving and moved back to Hartford. The dope was synthetic, so my lawyer got the charges dropped, but the company I was working for did not want to deal with me or my problems. As a result, I began to lose all of the money I had saved and all the material possessions that I had accumulated over the years that I worked. I went in and out of various treatment centers and programs, but still could not kick the habit. Subsequently, I found myself alone and hooked on methadone.
Methadone is like liquid heroin. You drink it once a day and it holds, or maintains, you and keeps you from experiencing the pain of withdrawal. The problem with methadone is that it gets you just as high as dope and hooks you into another physical dependency. Withdrawing from methadone is worse than withdrawing from heroin. Some methadone facilities try to systematically lower the dosage so that addicts can withdraw gradually, but this takes a lot of discipline on the part of the addict. At the methadone clinic in Hartford, the addicts would line up every morning, take their daily dose, and go about their business. Many of us met up at a large McDonald's near the clinic and sat there half the morning drinking coffee. Coffee enhances the effect of methadone, helping it kick in faster. Many of the people on the methadone program used heroin also, but they did not have to if they did not want too. I was taking fifty milligrams of methadone daily when I decided to detox. The clinic tried to bring my dosage down slowly, but I messed up that plan by continuing to use heroin on the side.
The first time I shot up heroin with a needle was long before I was on methadone. It was after I got good and hooked from sniffing. A couple of guys I knew taught me how to use a spoon and needle, and my first time mainlining felt real good. The stuff hit me fast and gave me an instant rush of satisfaction, followed by a nod: the sleepy sensation that someone under the influence of heroin experiences. It is similar to falling in and out of sleep. Sometimes the sleep is intense and deep, and other times it is light and short, like a catnap. Using a needle and nodding out with a lit cigarette between my fingers drove Marilinda away from me. Most people are terrified of needles and people who use them. At that time, I thought I would be hooked on methadone and heroin forever and that my life was pretty much finished.
By the end of 1997, I had resolved to clean up, detox, and go back to work as a truck driver. The people at the methadone clinic all looked half-dead. I looked half-dead myself. I was in my early thirties and on the fast track to the graveyard. During the winter of early 1998, my father took me to a house he owned in upstate New York, near Vermont and Canada, where I had parked my big rig the year before. Now I wanted to stay there, detox, and then drive the truck to Chicago for a new job that I had lined up. My father left me there alone and told me he would be back in a month. I had walked off the methadone program when my daily dose was down to fifteen milligrams, but I had also started to shoot up again. In upstate New York, so far from anywhere and anyone familiar, there was no way to find any dope. I ended up so sick from withdrawal that I did not sleep for three weeks. There was some food there, but I was so dope-sick that I could not eat for the first week. I did force myself to eat some oranges. Of all the bad withdrawals I went through, and there were a lot, that was one of the worst. It was very cold that winter, but after a while, the long solitary walks in the cold northern woodlands felt refreshing, and I knew that I had finally kicked the habit!
First Trip to Juárez
That spring I was back in business, driving my truck again. I had assumed that my addiction was behind me and that my life was changing for the better. I was hauling household goods from Texas to the Northeast, and on one of those runs, the company sent me to El Paso. I had been to El Paso a few times before, during the late 1980s and early '90s. During the summer of 1998, I went on a trip to Juárez with a small tour company called Bandit Lady Mexico Tours, which operated out of a local truck stop. The Bandit Lady called out to all the truck drivers on her CB radio, telling them to come on over for a tour and a "good time." I decided to check it out. The tour lasted only a few hours, but it was the first time I had ever been to Mexico. I got laid that night, and afterward, I drove back to the Northeast with pleasant memories of El Paso and Juárez. When I reloaded, I was happy to discover that my next run included a one-week layover in El Paso.
As soon as I got back to El Paso, I went back to Bandit Lady Mexico Tours and said that I wanted to stay in Juárez for five days. When I got to Juárez, I went to the Pink Lady bar, and one of the local tour guides took me to rent a hotel room in downtown Juárez. I could tell by his frantic manner that the guide was a cokehead (someone who uses cocaine). He tried to get me into one hotel, but it was full. Finally, we ended up at the Plaza Hotel in downtown Juárez on Calle Ugarte.
Calle Ugarte is a great place; it's a busy downtown street, full of buses, street vendors, taco stands, and small stores. I spent my first day wandering around, drinking at the bars and trying out the food at various restaurants. On my second morning there, as I was leaving the hotel lobby, I heard a young woman's voice speaking to me from behind. The voice asked me, in plain English, how was I doing. It was the voice of a woman named Laura, who was at the hotel visiting a friend who worked at the front desk. I did not have any plans, so I talked with the two girls for a few minutes. Laura asked me whether I wanted to go get something to eat, and I was happy to accept her offer. She had a car, and the next thing I knew, she was driving me around Juárez and telling me all about herself. Laura worked for a dairy company, taking orders from supermarkets. I liked tagging along with her to the different markets around town. She was a bright person, and it was nice to meet someone who was from Juárez and knew her way around.
The next day, Laura picked me up at the hotel and took me to meet her family. They lived in a neighborhood called Felipe Angeles on the west side of Juárez. Her mom was quite lively, and we drank a few beers while she cooked a nice dinner for us. That night, Laura spent the night with me at the hotel. We had become good friends real fast. I spent the next night with her at her mother's place, which had a main house with two smaller cottages behind it. Laura lived in one of the small cottages, or casitas, and her younger brother, Jorge, lived in the other. In the main house lived Laura's mother and younger sister. Laura's daughter lived with her, but while I was there, the daughter slept in the main house with Laura's younger sister. I ended up spending the rest of my layover in El Paso with Laura in Juárez. When it was time for me to go back to work, I told her I would definitely be back in a few weeks.
The rest of the trip was a blur: Florida, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and then back to Hartford, where I finished my run and parked my truck. It was late August by then, and shutting down for a while, after running the road for the better part of the spring and summer of 1998, seemed like a good idea. I was still clean, and the thought of returning to Juárez kept me from hanging out up north for too long. One of my moving partners, a guy named Roger, said that he wanted to go along with me to El Paso. Roger was an old road hand who had worked the moving and storage business all his life. We had lived as neighbors at the boardinghouse in Hartford and had known each other for years. Roger had also run the road with me as a driver's helper, and his efforts had helped me pay off my first truck. The thing about Roger was that he liked to drink, and he drank every day. He walked with a limp and had a bad wrist, which he wrapped in a heavy bandage when he worked. The younger guys at the local moving companies called Roger "Captain Hook" because of his limp. Roger always shared tales about being on the road, which he told like a pirate telling tales of trips out to sea. Roger was my helper and friend. He had practically killed himself working for me on some of the big moving jobs we did together. I think the thing that kept him alive was his beer. He did love to drink beer and move furniture.
In 1998, I hooked up with Roger after returning to Hartford from the Juárez trip. He helped me deliver the trailer-load of furniture from the return trip from Texas. I told him that I was going back to El Paso and Juárez to hang out with a girl that I just met and asked him whether he wanted to go. I knew he would take the trip because of his predicament.
Over the years that I knew Roger, he had lived in truck stops, abandoned cars, and various rooming houses. He was practically homeless for many years of his life. In fact, he had been staying at one of the homeless shelters in Hartford when I returned that summer from Texas. He told me that he had just been approved for Social Security payments and that he had enough money on him to pay his own way once we got to El Paso. Because he knew that I had been strung out on dope, he was happy to see me clean and back on the road again. Subsequently, the two of us left Connecticut, picked up a car in New York, and drove straight through to El Paso. It took us just two and a half days to make the trip in a little Nissan sedan.
Once we got to El Paso, Roger checked into a motel room near the truck stop, and I went back to Laura's place in Felipe Angeles. Laura was excited to see me, and I brought Roger over to visit them and have a few beers with her mom. I cooked spaghetti for everyone that night. It was still summertime in Juárez. I remember Roger, after he had had a few too many beers, grinning from ear to ear behind his large plastic-framed glasses and saying that "this was the life." Roger was French-Canadian; although life had dealt him a shitty hand, he was no pushover. I once watched him attack four guys in a barroom brawl, running at them while shouting at the top of his lungs. He seemed to enjoy El Paso and Juárez. And when I told him that I planned to stay in Mexico for a while, he decided that he would stay in El Paso.
During those first few days in El Paso, I periodically went back to check on Roger at the motel room. He was spending his money too fast, so I helped him rent a room from a nice family in El Paso's Lower Valley. He got his Social Security case straightened out and settled down there at the room. I think it was the best thing for him. Roger smoked when he drank, and the stench from the cigarettes must have driven that family crazy. I was happy that I was able to introduce him to a place where he had a chance to experience something beyond the homeless shelters of Hartford, Connecticut.
Meanwhile, back at Laura's house, I became familiar with her family and their friends in Felipe Angeles. I found a part-time job in El Paso and began to work right away. At this time, I still owned my own truck, although it was parked in New York, and still had my commercial driver's license. When I was looking for something to do to make money, Laura told me, "Sometimes it's better to stick to what you know." So I found work at a local moving company in El Paso. After my first week of crossing the bridge every morning in the little Nissan and working at the moving company, the weekend became a festive reprieve from the bump and grind of the daily routine. Yet it was good to be out working. Moving furniture in El Paso seemed easy compared to moving the large estates and homes of New England. Most of the work was on Fort Bliss in military housing, and most of the houses there did not have any stairs.
However, the weekend after my first week of working in El Paso was a major turning point for me. I was staying at Laura's, and she had to work that Saturday. I was bored, pacing the floor, planning to go out for a ride just to get out of the house for a while. On my way out I decided to stop by and visit Laura's brother, Jorge. I knocked on his door, and he welcomed me into his casita. He was there with a few guys from the neighborhood, including one named Víctor, who was going out with Laura's sister. I noticed a spoon on the dresser with some brown liquid in it. It was then that my not too distant past caught up with the present. Next to the spoon sat a needle, the type of syringe that a diabetic uses to inject insulin. The needle was small and not as intimidating as the big needles that are used to give flu vaccinations. And it was all there for the taking. It didn't take long to break the ice with Jorge's buddies; I had walked in and caught them in the act. They were even more surprised when I showed them some of the old track marks on my arms. Just the sight of the dope in the cooker gave me an internal rush. They began to pick up where they had left off when I walked in, preparing the heroin in the spoon and putting it in the syringe. They did not have to ask me whether I wanted any because I was already asking them where to get more. A moment later, I was sticking the needle in my arm. It was in that instant that I threw away about six months of clean time and reverted to the allure of the instant euphoria that had almost killed me the previous year.
Over the next few days, life at Laura's became very different. I was hooked on heroin and began to shoot up every day. Jorge and I were arrested by the municipal police. My addiction progressed into a daily habit, and I stopped going back to Laura's casita at night. Her sister's boyfriend—Víctor—became my dope-shooting partner; we spent a lot of time together, and he became like a brother to me. It wasn't long before I was really strung out again and losing weight. One day as we walked back to Felipe Angeles after copping dope in nearby Altavista, Marcos, a friend of Víctor's who spoke some English, told me that once I was accepted by the people—the Mexican people of Juárez—I would be like family and it would be a beautiful thing. Marcos had lived in Denver for a while, and his English was good. We always got along, and he translated for me when we hung out with other guys from the neighborhood.
Marcos, Víctor, and Jorge all belonged to a gang called La Quinta ("The Five"). The gang had peaked a few years before I arrived, but the feeling of oneness and solidarity among its members was still there among the dope addicts in Felipe Angeles. Many of the gang members had become strung out on heroin and lost their warrior stature. Jorge once showed me an old picture of the gang, its members all carrying sawed-off shotguns and pistols. The neighborhood of Felipe Angeles was even nicknamed "La Quinta" because it had been controlled by that gang. Part of the Altavista neighborhood, where heroin was sold, was known as La Quinta Loma because the same gang had controlled that area as well. I bonded with the guys from the neighborhood. Yet out of all the guys there who were strung out on dope, it was Víctor who became my regular running partner.
Laura was patient as I became a junkie again. Maybe it was because she didn't know anything about my life before we met; maybe she felt bad because I had returned to Juárez just to be with her. Anyway, by the time I was good and hooked, I didn't really care what she felt. The dope was good, cheap, and plentiful. As fall arrived, I was spending most of my time hanging out at Víctor's and shooting dope at least three to five times a day. We set up a small camp on his family's property and used it as our own little shooting gallery. After a couple of weeks, I went back to Laura's and tried to kick the habit. As I felt the withdrawal setting in, I knew that getting back to normal would involve a painful detox. I still had about a thousand dollars deposited in a Mexican bank, and because I knew I had to do something fast, I withdrew the money and closed the account. I visited the office of a Mexican doctor, who prescribed some narcotic pills that were supposed to ease the pain of withdrawal, and then I tried to go cold turkey at Laura's casita.
It was no use. I was too sick, and as soon as Laura left for work, I got either Jorge or Víctor to go down the block and cop some dope from the neighborhood dealer. After a week of this, I decided that I needed to leave Laura's. I packed my stuff and left one day while she was at work, leaving her a note that thanked her for her hospitality. It was early November, and the weather was turning colder, and I decided that I had to get back to my truck and make some money. I had about four hundred dollars left when I finally drove away from El Paso that night, leaving Roger there.
To take the edge off the withdrawal, I took some of the narcotic pills that I had got from the doctor in Juárez; by the time I got to Indiana, I dozed off at the wheel and totaled the car. I still had some money, so after spending the night going through withdrawal in a small-town Indiana motel, I rented a car and drove obsessively through the night to New York City, where I went to the Bronx and picked right back up where I had left off in Juárez. The most insane part of it all was that I still had to return the rental car to Indiana. I drove upstate to my mom's and dropped off my luggage; then I drove down to Hartford and picked up what I thought would be enough dope to make the trip back to Indiana. What a mess! There I was, lying to myself about what I was going to do and what was going to happen. The next thing I knew, I was riding back from Indiana on a Greyhound bus and going through heroin withdrawal. The trip took forever, the bus stopped at every small town and crossroads, and by the time the bus arrived in Philadelphia, I could practically smell the dope getting closer and closer. When we finally arrived in New York City, I took the subway up to the Bronx. The next thing I knew, I was being woken up by two paramedics after nodding out in a Dominican restaurant. I had ended up face first in a plate of rice and beans, and the restaurant owner had called an ambulance. I told the paramedics that I was all right, just a little overtired from too much traveling. They looked me over, decided that I really was okay, and left. With nowhere else to go, I went back to my mom's house and spent Thanksgiving withdrawing from heroin. I remember the smell of the food making me feel even sicker.
By December, I had the strength to drive my truck again. I drove to Hartford and found Marilinda, my old girlfriend, and we took a trip, moving furniture to California, for Christmas. I had scored more dope in Hartford after withdrawing, but by the time we got to Tennessee, it was gone. The sickness from the subsequent withdrawal was painful, but in Albuquerque, New Mexico, I managed to score some more dope, which lasted until we got to California. There is lots of heroin in California, and I stayed hooked while Marilinda and I spent Christmas together at a Motel 6 in San Jose. On the return trip east, Marilinda and I even stopped in Juárez to visit Víctor in Felipe Angeles. Víctor and I copped and ended up spending the day together talking about life and enjoying the moment. The dope lasted all the way back to New York, where there was always more. I dropped Marilinda off in Hartford, not knowing that it was the last time that I would ever see her.
Then I hauled another load of furniture out to California and stopped again in Juárez on my way back. As I approached El Paso and Juárez from the west, I began going through heroin withdrawal. By the time I got to Juárez, I was real sick. I showed up at Víctor's place barely able to walk. Víctor invited me in and told me to lie down and relax while he went out and got some dope. A few minutes later, we were cooking the shit up in a spoon and I shot myself up, despite the sweats and the shakes. I stayed at Víctor's for a couple of weeks, then decided to go back east. Once I was there, I tried to reload for California again, but my drug habit was getting the better of me and really interfering with my ability to work.
It was during that last run back east, that last attempt to keep my footing on what had become an insane treadmill of van lining (cross-country furniture moving), mainlining, and outright lying, that fate finally caught up with me. Someone may have called the company and said that they had seen me driving around New York City with a junkie hooker from Hunt's Point (in the Bronx). Or it may have been all the money that I blew over the course of the weekend. But whatever it was, the company cut off my fuel card, which I used to draw cash; and without any fuel money, the trip was over. Deciding to pull the plug myself, I called the company from New Jersey to tell them that my truck had broken down and would not pass inspection.
The next withdrawal was not as bad as it could have been, and it surely wasn't as bad as the methadone withdrawal. I used very small amounts of heroin to bring myself down incrementally. Perhaps this is why it was a little bit less painful than the other withdrawals I had experienced; moreover, it was certainly less painful than some of the subsequent withdrawals that I would experience. It wasn't long before I thought of returning to Juárez. Life up north was a drag, and I just didn't feel as if there was anything there for me anymore. I felt empty and aimless and wanted a change; I wanted to experience something different, something more out of life than what it had offered me so far. I believed that the kind of newness and opportunity that I was looking for was there in Juárez, and I set my mind on returning there.
I sold my truck during the spring of 1999. My rig was the last link to my success as an owner-operator in the moving and storage business—the last link to my struggle to find regular employment and make ends meet while living in a boardinghouse in Hartford. Everyone who knew me from those days would have spoken of me as a success story, the exemplification of the Horatio Alger idea of pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. All those years of visions, hopes, and dreams faded into the past as I relinquished my truck for a quick five thousand dollars. It didn't really matter to me at the time, because I was eager to leave everything behind.