Heroin Be the Death of Me
He's tried that several times before, of course, and it hasn't stuck. Tonight, though, will be different. Tonight will be the end of the bad and the beginning of the good. "Your last memory must be your most beautiful," he murmurs, his decorum flawless despite the tortured symptoms of withdrawal. As he speaks, he twirls a clove cigarette in one hand, wielding it with the grace of a conductor's baton.
David is one of South Beach's best-known nightclub party promoters, a creator of alternative realities, fond of decorating clubs with flowers, of sneaking Gregorian chants under the techno rhythms of disco music, of spouting stream-of-consciousness poetry and spontaneously breaking into dance. He has themed this special evening around a particularly bleak reality: his addiction to heroin.
He was clean of heroin for two and a half months, though cocaine had taken its place. Then four days ago he returned to "chasing the dragon" -- sucking up the smoky curlicues produced by heating heroin on a bit of aluminum foil. If David continues to smoke, he knows he'll be consumed, fried to a crisp by the dragon's searing but seductive breath. He's not yet 25 years old, but to many people on the Beach who have noted his progressive dissipation, he has already self-destructed. David has heard them whispering behind his back, has seen them avert their eyes. Sylvester Stallone was the kindest. "Get some new role models, kid," the actor told him.
But tonight will be the end of it. He says he's going to quit once and for all, going to leave town and simply stop. Cold turkey. Ever the publicist, he's even invited a reporter to observe his narcotic version of the Last Supper. But not to reveal his true name. (David is a pseudonym. The names of some other individuals in this article have also been changed.)
"Everyone thinks the heroin high is so incredible, but it's nothing like that," he says. "It's like falling asleep and being dead. You just become numb. You don't feel anything and you just fade away." During the past few months, six of his friends and acquaintances have permanently faded away as a result of heroin overdoses. Among the dead: the owner of a popular nightclub, two young models, and the granddaughter of Victor Posner, one of Florida's richest men.
According to the Dade County Medical Examiner's Office, 30 people died of heroin-related overdoses in 1994, a startling jump over 1990, when only one such death was reported. And in the first two months of this year, at least nine people have died of overdoses involving heroin. During the past four years, the number of emergency room patients reporting personal heroin use increased about 300 percent. Jim Hall, executive director of the Miami-based Up Front Drug Information Center, says those figures, while small in comparison to New York and Los Angeles, reflect heroin's rise in Dade County.
Long known as a reliable marketplace for high-grade cocaine, Miami has never seen much in the way of top-quality heroin. What local smack could be found was usually dirty and weak, its purity levels hovering around four percent. Until recently, that is. According to the Drug Enforcement Administration and other law enforcement agencies, the Colombian cocaine cartels have diversified their product line and are now marketing an extremely potent brand of heroin. They're employing the same recession-proof strategy they used to sell cocaine in the early Eighties: Pitch heroin as a glamour product and target young, sophisticated drug-users. With the right mystique surrounding the substance, the suburban market will sell itself. "This is almost a drug for the cognoscenti," remarks Hall, adding that most young people trying the new, deluxe Colombian heroin have already dabbled with cocaine.
"I'm seeing it all over and I can't believe it," notes Brian Antoni, author of the novel Paradise Overdose and a well-known South Beach social host. "It's become part of the scene as far as I'm concerned." Antoni, who does not use heroin, says those who are experimenting with it are generally well read and highly educated. "The people I'm seeing it hit most are people who consider themselves to be living on the edge. They want to go back to the whole Paul Bowles romantic thing, which is really stupid, considering what happened then."
Another nightclub promoter, Sam Zaoui, concurs: "A few years ago heroin was very difficult to get on the Beach, but now it's all over." While Zaoui himself has never tried the drug, he says he has seen plenty of people chasing the dragon, the telltale flash of a cigarette lighter under foil briefly illuminating a club's dim corner.
For long-time junkies who ridicule the notion of "heroin chic," the increased availability has eased much of the hassle associated with scoring dope. Three Miami Beach friends -- Debbie, Mike, and Jack -- all shoot heroin rather than smoke or snort it. And they've done so for years. "In the old days, it was really dangerous copping in the city," recalls Jack, an artist. "I've been stabbed like six times. I've been shot at once. Ten years ago, before heroin started hitting the Beach, before it was fashionable like it supposedly is now, I was one of the few people who was getting high. I used to go to Overtown. I used to ride my bicycle to Liberty City. There was no dope in Miami Beach. Now, in the last two years, there has started to be dope. So it has become a lot safer to cop."
Safer and more convenient, too. In fact, Jack and Debbie have just scored some heroin from their dealer at a prearranged spot near Epicure market on Alton Road. Back in the dim South Beach efficiency apartment shared by Mike and Debbie, the trio prepares to shoot up.
Debbie bubbles with excitement as she opens the teak box in which she keeps her needles and then arranges a small bottle of bleach, a dab of cotton, a candle, and a teaspoon. "Hurry up, hurry up," she giggles. As Mike heats the teaspoon -- filled with a small mound of heroin and water -- above the candle flame, Debbie does some energetic deep knee bends, her sundress billowing. Pretty and petite, with delicate bones and long brown hair, she smiles apologetically, explaining that she doesn't have any veins left in her arms, so she's going to shoot the heroin into her thigh.
Within a matter of minutes, all three have injected, cleaned their needles, and are now blissfully calm. Debbie huddles in a chair, her knees drawn up close to her chest. Asked how she feels, she smiles and languidly drops her head: "Um, nice." Several weeks earlier she and Mike had decided to quit. They even drove down to Key West, rented a hotel room, and waited out the painful, flulike symptoms of withdrawal. But after being back in Miami Beach a few days, they decided to try just a small amount of smack to see if they could get away with it. They couldn't.
Mike admits that he hates being hooked. He used to operate his own business and was making $40,000 a year. Though he had experimented with heroin occasionally, he only began shooting up regularly after he met Debbie. "My lifestyle has dropped a few notches," he says quietly. "I never thought I would live in a place like this. I feel trapped. I feel imprisoned by this drug. And it's not me, it's not in my makeup."
But if they don't shoot up every day, they immediately feel sick, and Mike will miss work at a local restaurant. Their bills will go unpaid. So now they are doing just a little bit in order to maintain. "It's kind of stupid," Debbie concedes. "But it makes you feel normal." Without the drug, she says she feels exhausted. "After five days, I may not be in pain any more, but I have no energy, and that drives me crazy."
Some users of the new heroin become addicted in a matter of weeks or even days. Others, like David, spend a couple of years as "chippers" -- social smokers -- until one morning they wake up with a voracious habit. Quitting, they discover, is so painful it only intensifies the longing for heroin's illusion of death.
Tall and lanky, with a full head of straight, dark hair, David would be conventionally handsome were it not for the ravages of unabated drug use. His skin is pale and oily, his shoulders hunched. Obsessed by the continual need to control his attraction to heroin and cut back his intake, his eyes have assumed the beseeching aspect of an animal caught in a trap. His movements are either too fast or too slow, as if powered by an unreliable battery. His drug dependency is so great that even gradual reduction causes physical distress. This past December he spent ten days in an Oklahoma rehabilitation program, part of an unsuccessful attempt to kick heroin. The experience, he says, was like surviving brutal combat: After the initial euphoria of kicking his addiction, he began to experience post-traumatic stress.
"I went for two and a half months with a dead body," David recalls. "I mean dead, like paralyzed. I was sleeping 48 hours a day." He struggled to keep up appearances and continued to plan and promote nightclub parties. But he was so exhausted that he'd sleep through his own events. "I tried everything -- antidepressants, wake-up soap, wake-up shampoo, wake-up rosemary, wake-up sea salts. There's an aromatizer by my bed that's supposed to be an energizer, and energizing drinks in the refrigerator. If you look in my bathroom, there are probably 30 products there. Everything energy, energy, energy. I just couldn't find it." He inhales from his cigarette and squints at the ceiling.
"What I fell into was cocaine. It started with one bump lasting for two hours and led to eight grams a night, just to stay awake. You can imagine! The whole month of March I did that. Just yesterday I was in the emergency room. My nose went all the way through -- the cocaine ate it. My nose has been in pain for a week now and I've been sticking it up there anyway. I tried taking apart an antibiotic and putting the cocaine in the capsule and eating it, and that didn't work. I tried drinking it. I tried everything for energy and it didn't work. The only way it works is through your stupid nose."
And as the pain spread outward from his nose, David sought relief. He found his way back to his heroin dealer.
Heroin. Be the death of me.
Heroin. It's my wife and it's my life.
Because a mainer to my veins leads to a center in my head, and then I'm better off than dead.
Lou Reed's raspy voice rises from David's stereo. While in rehab, he listened to that notorious 1967 song over and over again in an effort to stifle his urge to get high. But the tune reminded him too much of the early days in his relationship with heroin, when his pharmacological love affair was young and innocent and sweet, and he believed he could walk away if things got too messy or complicated.
David first tried heroin in the early Nineties, hoping it would lead him to an intellectual precipice, to the dark side of Margaritaville. He had experimented with other drugs -- marijuana, acid, Ecstasy, cocaine -- fervently believing they were opening the doors of perception, intensifying his aesthetics. His was a personal trip, a spiritual journey, an intimate exploration of self, not a textbook progression from stoner to cokehead to junkie, and certainly not some Pavlovian response to a cartel-inspired marketing campaign -- or so he believes and will assert with conviction.
"You start out doing perception-enhancing drugs like acid and Ecstasy," David explains. "But once we've developed our senses and we've created the ability to love at a fucking high range like you can't imagine, and we've learned to really, really appreciate detail and beauty, we now also have the ability to unfortunately see the pain and horrors that we never really noticed before. And you fall into a certain amount of pain. And heroin is calling you."
Two friends -- young, female, and beautiful -- have gathered around David as he speaks. They nod sympathetically. The waterfront apartment, located in one of Miami's most exclusive condominiums, is filled with antiques, paintings, and tapestries.
A gilded French candelabra adds an air of decadence. Lou Reed'sVelvet Underground gives way to ethereal organ music as two men arrive and head for David's bedroom at the back of the apartment. He continues his story without acknowledging them.
"Do you want to the know real, honest, truthful reason I got into heroin?" he says, hesitating with embarrassment. "The physical reason I got into it was honestly to enhance sex." For a year he would snort a touch of heroin before making love. The act was so subtle that many of his girlfriends didn't realize what he was doing. Just a dozen or so grains spilled into a small silver spoon.
By repressing feelings of self-consciousness, heroin also eased David's anxiety during work. He stopped feeling stupid and gawky. He was no longer worried about what people thought of him. And carelessly, he began to violate the rules he had set for himself to prevent addiction. Instead of once per week, he would use smack three times. He would do it on successive days.
Then it happened. He met a girl on a Friday. He snorted some heroin. They made love. "Saturday you're with the same person, and you know you can't do it [heroin] the next day. But since you're on your down day, you're not only not able to have sex like you normally do. You're even worse because you're on your down day. In other words, you probably won't be able to have sex for more than, honestly, ten seconds. She's like, 'What's wrong?' And you humiliate yourself. So you go into the bathroom and you do just one little baby line. Like that." He holds up his fingers, centimeters apart. "It's not going to kill you." That weekend he used heroin every day.
When he woke up on Monday, his eyes were watering, his nose was running, and his hands shook -- all classic symptoms he recognized as heroin withdrawal. "I was addicted that day," David admits. He had a business meeting scheduled that morning and he didn't want to arrive doped up, but he decided to bring along an emergency supply just in case. Halfway through the meeting, he began to tremble and his eyes began to tear. "People are looking at me like, 'Are you crazy?' I had to literally excuse myself and go into the bathroom and do a millimeter of heroin just to be normal." Once he realized he was addicted, his habit seemed to take on a life of its own, and expanded until he was spending $8000 each month on heroin.
At this point David pauses, excuses himself, and disappears into his bedroom. Forty-five minutes later he and the two male visitors return to the living room. One of them, Frank, is a nationally known actor also addicted to heroin. The other, though not introduced as such, appears to be the long-awaited dealer. Frank sits down. Like David, he says this will be his last night using the drug. He started snorting six years ago in part to calm nerves badly jangled by cocaine abuse. "I was really in the phase -- like the song says -- 'I want a new drug,'" Frank explains. For years heroin barely interfered with his work. Then last winter he lost control. He began to nod out, to fall asleep in the middle of conversations. Heroin began to affect his ability to act. This past January he left California and entered a drug treatment program. "I left under the worse possible circumstances," he says. "No car. Being evicted by the landlord. Me, a guy who's in the movies. A supposedly responsible, dependable person." Tonight is the first time he's lapsed. And, he claims, it will be the last.
Frank squirms when Colombia is mentioned. He doesn't want to talk about the source of tonight's heroin. Who cares where it came from? David avoids the subject of sources as well, except to provide a detailed description of some blood-and-feces-covered condoms he once saw at a dealer's apartment. The condoms, which had arrived from somewhere, were stuffed with heroin.
Users may shrink from discussing their supply, but the federal Drug Enforcement Administration has little doubt about the origins of high-grade Miami heroin. "Most if not all of the heroin we seize at the airport in conjunction with customs is coming from Colombia," asserts Jim Shedd, a spokesman for the DEA's local office. Shedd adds that the powder has been exceptionally potent, 98 to 100 percent pure.
Last year airport agents nabbed 101 people who carried heroin somewhere inside their bodies, "body packers," as they are known. That figure represents a dramatic increase from 1990, when only one body packer was arrested. And body packers account for only a fraction of all airport heroin seizures. "It's like an ant army," Shedd says. "They're swallowing it, bringing it in their shoes, stuffing it into false-bottom suitcases. Every day there's a seizure of heroin that's being made."
While Colombia supplies a relatively small portion of the U.S. heroin market (around fifteen percent, according to a recent narcotics intelligence report produced by the DEA in collaboration with eleven other federal agencies), the nation is the world's fourth-largest source of opium poppies. Because it is far more lucrative to smuggle heroin than cocaine, experts believe that Colombians are simply adding heroin to their existing network of cocaine distributors. According to the intelligence report: "Colombian traffickers used a variety of tactics to establish mid- and retail-level outlets for their heroin. In addition to providing heroin of unusually high purity, Colombian traffickers offered free samples of heroin to potential distributors, offered to front [on credit] ounce and multi-ounce quantities of heroin to first-time buyers, and persuaded their established cocaine distributors to purchase and sell heroin as a condition of doing business." To avoid competition from ethnic Chinese and other established heroin importers in major markets like New York City, the Colombian cartels have expanded into smaller metropolitan areas such as Hartford and Bridgeport, Connecticut; Providence, Rhode Island; as well as Atlanta, New Orleans, and Miami, the report states. Pressure on Miami's cocaine dealers to recruit new heroin customers may explain a couple of last year's more puzzling overdoses.
On September 26, Marianne Hebrard returned home to find her husband, Paul Flandrak, lying on the bed in their master bedroom, cold to the touch. According to police reports, on the nightstand next to the bed were five plastic bags filled with small amounts of white powder. A line of powder had been traced out on top of the nightstand, as if waiting for the next sniff up the nose. From the white residue caked near Flandrak's nose, there was little doubt for whom that line was intended.
An autopsy revealed that Flandrak, 42-year-old owner of the popular South Beach nightclub called Dune, had died of a cocaine and heroin overdose. A former owner of the successful Paris club Le Boy, Flandrak had recently moved to South Florida and was renting a home in Bay Harbor Islands while he renovated a Mediterranean-style mansion he had purchased on Pine Tree Drive in Miami Beach. Although Flandrak had admitted an earlier problem with cocaine, he claimed he was now clean. "I never saw Paul doing drugs," recalls promoter Sam Zaoui, "and I saw him many times during the course of an evening." Nevertheless, he concedes it's possible that Flandrak may have occasionally lapsed from his no-drugs pledge. This time his dealer may have talked him into trying some of the new heroin along with his coke.
By the time David learned of Flandrak's death, he says he had already resolved to quit. But heroin's new-found popularity made that difficult; nearly everywhere he went, smack would make an appearance. "There's a very rich man who lives in Palm Beach who has some big parties there sometimes," he remembers. "I was coming down, trying to do less and less heroin every day, so I was very tired, and I felt like shit all the time." A man David describes as "one of the richest people in the world -- not the owner of the house" -- approached him at a party and invited him to get high. Thinking he was being offered a bump of cocaine, David followed him into a bathroom. "Literally, this guy pulls a piece of aluminum foil out of his pocket and starts smoking heroin, and for me to, uh, protect my image I have to say, 'Heroin! Oh my God, are you crazy? That stuff will kill you, man.'"
Indeed, David believes heroin is killing him. Around one in the morning, after his guests have left the apartment, David heads out as well, hoping to collect on a few outstanding debts so he can pay his bills before leaving town. First stop is Bar None at 411 Washington Avenue, where he mingles briefly before rushing up the street to Risk. He has no luck there either, so he returns to Bar None. At every nightclub it's the same story: The people who owe him money have always left just before he arrives.
David begins to fret. Without the money, he'll have difficulty leaving Miami. Yet he's certain that the longer he stays, the more drugs he'll use and the more difficult it will be to get clean. "I'm at the point where I just built a new business, and I can't walk away from it right now," he says. "I have investors waiting for results, and there's money that needs to come in every week. So I really have to keep destroying myself every day, and every day I know it's going to be harder by the time I go to rehab."
But his drug use itself has also been hurting his business. His extended trips to the bathroom, where he struggles to shove cocaine up his damaged nose, have not gone unremarked. If he yields to fatigue in public, snoozing, for example, through mindless chatter in a nightclub VIP room, he's accused of nodding out on heroin. Most offensive, he says, are the frequently repeated stories that he's foisted heroin on young models, rumors he hotly denies. Enough people apparently believed them, however, to alert the Miami Beach police. This past November 20 David was arrested outside Amnesia, the massive nightclub in the South Pointe neighborhood.
Although the ostensible reason for the arrest was an outstanding warrant for driving with a suspended license, one of the police officers later testified he had received information that David was dealing heroin. According to the police report, David quickly incriminated himself by readily admitting he was a heroin addict and was carrying "a small amount" to stave off withdrawal.
David's own account of his arrest does not contradict the police report, though he adds some details. He was in a nearby parking lot, he says, when a police officer approached him and started asking how much money he was earning. Then the officer suddenly announced that David was going to jail, handcuffed him, and placed him in the back of a squad car. While David sat there, another officer, whom he describes as a friend, opened the door and urged him to hand over any drugs before he was booked. Believing that his friend wanted to do him a favor, David turned over a piece of aluminum foil he kept in his wallet. It was coated with traces of heroin.
"I told him, 'Listen, man, I've been addicted to this shit. I swear to God I'm trying to quit.' I thought this cop was going to throw it away for me," David recalls, shaking his head at his naivete. He was promptly charged with possession of heroin. Eventually he pleaded guilty to avoid extended probation, which would have restricted his freedom to travel outside Dade County. In return for his plea, a judge sentenced him to time served (the one day he spent in jail), and did not adjudicate him guilty, so his record is clean.
Almost immediately after his arrest, David entered the rehab program in Oklahoma, and within days of returning to Miami, he learned that another friend had died from an overdose.
In her last fashion show, held at Coconut Grove's Ensign Bitters, Anna Tchernycheva sashayed out on the nightclub floor wearing a lacy white teddy. Prancing between two male models, she added a bit of verve to what was really nothing more than a glorified nightclub act. That December 8 appearance would be the last for the 25-year-old Russian model.
According to friend Lucy Marchany, who also modeled that night, Anna complained of feeling sick after the show, but she insisted on going out anyway. Marchany says she begged off, and Anna left with two male friends. According to a medical examiner's report, sometime during the night she overdosed on opiates and cocaine.
A police investigation revealed that Anna had left Ensign Bitters with a man named Hector Ferrera. Several of Anna's friends say they do not believe she was dating Ferrera, who had been arrested in 1992 for selling cocaine. (He pleaded no contest and was ordered to serve six months probation.)
Around 8:00 p.m. the next night, Ferrera dialed 911 to report that Anna was lying unconscious in his house on NE 77th Street in Miami. The story Ferrera gave the police was succinct, even terse. He said they had gone out drinking after the fashion show and had returned to his place after dawn. They went to sleep, and when he awoke that evening, Anna did not appear to be breathing. She was pronounced dead at North Shore Medical Center. After a brief police investigation, her death was determined to be accidental and the case was closed. (Ferrera could not be reached for comment.)
"I want to find out what the hell happened that night," Marchany angrily says today. She and Anna's other friends say they knew she had been unhappy with her career and that she had admitted snorting cocaine, but as far as they knew she was not using heroin. She had been part of the first group of Russian models to work in the United States following the collapse of the Soviet Union. But after an initial flurry of publicity, including appearances on several television talk shows, the gimmick grew old and the girls had a hard time finding jobs. Anna ended up marrying a photographer and moving to Miami, where she worked as a runway model. A year later her marriage broke up and she began to seek solace in South Beach nightlife.
Drug use, an inseparable part of the club scene, is also not uncommon in the modeling business. "I had the idea that some of them used cocaine to stay thin. It was almost an occupational hazard," says Gary Khurtorsky, an ex-boyfriend who identified Anna's body for the medical examiner.
Anna's death obviously had little effect on David, despite their friendship. He began using cocaine to the point of physical damage, and then turned back to heroin to ease the pain. "Want to see something scary?" he asks as he sprawls out on the floor of his bedroom. "Listen." He wiggles his nose from side to side with his fingers. The bone and cartilage crackle as they rub together. It's early morning. Since his unsuccessful nightclub foray to collect money, he has compulsively been cutting lines of cocaine. When the pain in his nose becomes too great, he takes a tiny puff of heroin.
"You're probably looking at me thinking, 'Why are you doing all this to come down, just to come back up again?' What if I told you it was two different things," he says in a effort to justify his behavior. Then he gives up. "It's no excuse at all. It's really stupid. Do you realize I literally snorted an eight ball [one-eighth an ounce] one hour before? See, I am consciously, purposely letting you see what it's really like." He sniffles loudly, the air reverberating inside his scarred nose like a vacuum cleaner. "This sucks, man. This really sucks."
After this long last night of heavy drug use, David remains remarkably lucid, though his thoughts are scattered. He turns back to the subject of his rehab experience this past December. He most difficult part, he says, was returning to Miami Beach. He was greeted with knowing smiles and insincere comments: "It was like, 'Oh David, I'm so proud of you. You look great. I was so worried about you. I love you.' And a minute later, when they thought I wasn't listening: 'So fucking stupid. Fucking heroin addict. God, the kid's so fucked up. Just comes out of rehab and he's on the shit a day later.' And I wasn't. I was just so tired."
So tired, and in so much pain, and heroin is calling.
At ten o'clock in the morning he tries to sell some of his antique furniture. Sensing desperation, the potential buyer suggests a paltry $300. Furious, David turns him down.
He is determined to find a way to leave Miami.
Only one more day of maintaining, then he'll quit forever.
But four more days will pass before he finally escapes to Europe. Far from the nightlife crowds. Out of range of his dealer's beeper. Somewhere, he hopes, beyond the call of heroin.
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