Cocaine and Me: A Memoir

It all began when I got that job at the Mutiny Hotel

Around town the lure of easy cash was leading friends to dabble in the drug trade's quick-strike opportunities. Guys I knew who were perennially broke and literally stealing food from the backs of parked Holsum bread trucks weeks earlier would drop by my job in brand-new BMWs, waving their Rolexes in the air. Some had been driving coke shipments to New York or Chicago for their employers, others had been unloading boats by moonlight. It was remarkable how they shrugged off the risks and bragged only of the money.

While visiting my father in California, the winter before I began working at the Mutiny, I'd been in a car accident and sustained a back injury. When the insurance settlement came through, Maritza and I decided to get married and throw a fancy party to celebrate with our friends and show off our sudden wealth. The money from the accident didn't compare to some of the scores our friends were making as part-time dopers, but we stupidly pulled out the stops to make an impression.

My shoes alone, a pair of custom-fit, burgundy-toned Martegani's I bought at Eppy & Eppy's on Miracle Mile, set me back 300 bucks. We rented the Presidential Suite at the Four Ambassadors and were informed by the concierge that Richard Nixon had signed some laws on the same desk where we were going to fill out our marriage papers. "Damn, that's really outta sight," remarked Pupi, our lesbian notary.

Everyone got so ripped that when we woke up the next morning, we found about twenty friends passed out on couches and in the suite's other rooms. Once everybody was awake, we were starving and decided to scrape up the leftover booze and headgear and caravan it over to the McDonald's on SW 32nd Avenue and Coral Way for a postnuptial brunch. While waiting for their Egg McMuffins, friends snatched up the small plastic coffee spoons from the counter because they made such sweet snort scoops.

We had done it up big and still had enough drugs to cap the bash at home with the hard-core stragglers we knew wouldn't disappear until the coke had dried up. When I went to the photographer to pick up the wedding pictures, he confessed he'd been so lit he shot eight rolls of film without taking off the camera's lens cap. Ay, Dios mio, I thought. The only cash left was the $150 deposit the photographer returned. As far as wedding swag, it amounted to one crystal ashtray a cousin gave us. All of our friends had shown up with dope, and we mowed through it instead of saving a stash. Over the weekend, we'd blown $5000. We never had a honeymoon.

Soured on the crazy scene, I left the Mutiny after nine months and ended up driving an ambulance for Randle Eastern. The company had been on a hiring binge, advertising "career opportunities in the emergency healthcare field" and accepting applications from people with no experience. I remember thinking it would provide a wonderful chance to learn a vocation and maybe go on to become a firefighter or a paramedic.

Since the rigorous emergency-medical-technician training and certification was not necessary for employment, Randle simply offered six-week crash courses taught by one of its administrators. The company buttressed our training by sending us on "hot experience" clinicals, consisting of three ride-alongs with the Metro paramedics. We still needed to be licensed but could work while the certification process went through the channels.

My kid brother Iggy and I signed up. The classes were a breeze, and before long we were vested members of the emergency-response community, earning minimum wage — with a promise of all the overtime hours we could handle at time-and-a-half pay as an incentive.

I was twenty years old, Iggy still in his teens, and we soon found that with the exception of some grizzled, vacant-eyed old-timers, the road crew was mostly a frat pack of quick-buck, in-and-out punks, which accounted for the company's turnstile turnover.

The work environment tilted toward the seedy; you couldn't leave anything lying around in the wagons or the station house without the stuff getting kiped. Fights broke out between ambulance partners all the time, and most of the veteranos were packing weapons. It was a haven for street-smart operators with the sense to stay out of trouble, but it could get pretty ugly for the rookies. Igs and I received valuable counsel from some of the elders: If you greased the dispatchers, you could spend most of the shift sleeping while the rookies were run ragged handling the bulk of the nonemergency calls.

We were supposed to work an eleven-hour shift and then take a day off, work a 24-hour shift and then take two days off in a patterned schedule, but the attraction for many was the option to stay on the clock for months at a time. A lot of guys did just that to buy a car or scrape together enough cash to get out of Dodge. You could eat gratis at the hospital cafeterias, and there were company crash pads and hospital rooms all across town where you could sleep rent-free.

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