I first met Matthew outside a coffee shop in the French Quarter. I was sitting at a little table outside, reading and drinking an iced coffee. He walked over and sat in an empty chair beside me. He pointed at the cover of the book I was reading.
“Celiné, nice,” he said. He reached into his backpack, pulled out an extremely worn copy of Dharma Bums by Jack Kerouac, and set it down on the table. “I’ve been getting really into the Beats lately, this is my fourth Kerouac book I think. But I heard he really liked Celiné, so I want to read his stuff too.”
“This book’s good,” I said. “Want to give it a shot when I’m done?”
“Sounds good. I’m trying to quit heroin, so I have a lot of time to read. I just sit in coffee shops all day, and it’s so boring if I don’t have something good to read. Before, I would spend all my time trying to scrounge up $60 and waiting on dealers.”
“I’m on suboxone, which helps, but it’s still hell,” he said. I nodded blankly, having never met someone who was addicted to heroin before.
After that, I’d see him outside that coffee shop a couple times a week, always reading. Sometimes I’d lend him books and he’d always return them to me in terrible shape, but I didn’t mind. I found it impressive that he was spending his days reading novels, and when he was finished the books he always had a unique take on them that I hadn’t thought of.
One day, as I was walking past the coffee shop, he walked over to me. He looked nervous and upset.
“Listen man, I need to ask a favour from you.”
I felt instant terror, so I just looked at him and nodded, not commiting to anything.
“A friend of mine died last week. We were shooting up together in my squat and when I woke up in the morning he was just laying there dead. I had to call 9-11 and they came and picked him up.”
“That’s awful,” I said. “Did he do a massive amount or something? Can you just die like that out of nowhere.”
“Well he had quit for a while, like me. But then we both met up, and decided, you know, why not? So we did our usual amounts and his body wasn’t used to it. He had no tolerance. But we did the same amount. That could have been me,” he said, shaking his head.
“What did you want to ask me?” I said.
“Well his second line is going to be this afternoon and I have to go. I need to. But his family hate me. They think this is all my fault. So I’d really appreciate if you came with me. All you need to do is walk through the streets with me, and maybe sing a little if you like. I’d feel a lot less nervous if I had someone with me.”
So I went with him. First he went into the coffee shop washroom and changed into a crumpled dress shirt and some new jeans. We walked to the place where the second line was starting to form. Once we got there, people started yelling at him. The dead boy’s mother was screaming at him to go home and leave the family alone. People were giving him incredibly hostile looks and I wasn’t sure whose side I was on. He just put his head down and scrunched up his face, trying to stay composed. He was determinded not to leave. So we walked through the streets with a crowd of around fifty people and at one point I looked over and saw him crying and singing “When the Saints Go Marching In” with everyone else.
After that we walked back to the coffee shop and sat down. Before pulling out a book he looked at me.
“I’m finished with heroin of course. There’s no way I could go back to it after that.”
It wasn’t true. The next time I saw him the first thing he said to me was, “In case you’re wondering, I’m strung out again. I have to because my life sucks.” Then, laughing, he added, “Well, that’s a little bit of a chicken or the egg situation, isn’t it?”
After my experiences talking with Matthew, I became more sensitive to the fact that New Orleans’ heroin problem is getting worse. At the beginning of August, three boneheads were arrested for trying to sell heroin on Craigslist. Just last week, police
responded to a man and a woman found passed out from a heroin overdose in their Toyota Camry, while their two young children were in the back seat. The articles on local news sites about deadly overdoses in the New Orleans area seem endless. The last national study by the Center for Disease Control reported that 15 people per 100,000 people die of overdose yearly in the state of Louisiana – one of the highest rates in the nation.
New Orleans EMS keeps records on calls when technicians administer Narcan, a drug that reverses the effects of an opiate overdose. In the first quarter of 2013, Narcan was administered 100 times. In 20 of those cases, patients admitted to heroin use. In the first quarter of 2014, those numbers increased to 148 Narcan admins and 61 patients admitted to heroin use. The most recent EMS data for May 2014 shows an even higher climb, outpacing early last year with 25 confirmed heroin users out of 77 Narcan interventions.
I was sitting on my porch when Matthew came skidding around the corner on his bike, panting heavily with a large grin on his face. His bike had no brakes, so he dragged his feet on the ground until he came to a stop directly in front of my house. He raised his arms triumphantly. “I did it,” he said, “I pulled off The Heist.”
He’d told me about his plans for what he called “The Heist” earlier in the day when I ran into him at Washington Park, where he spent a good chunk of his time.
“I’ve got this great idea to make a bunch of money,” he had said in the park. “I sell heroin to this guy. I act as a kind of middleman because he’s too big a pussy to meet a real dealer. But he’s a true fiend. He has some high paying job as an accountant or something and he buys like $600 of dope off me every couple days.”
I said I didn’t like where this was heading.
“Not even. I’m going to give him something fake that looks like heroin and take off with his money. I’m moving to California tomorrow so I’ll never see him again and he won’t notice a thing until he gets home. By that time it’ll be too late, and I’ll just turn off my phone for a couple of days. There’s practically no risk.”
I had laughed, imagining how easily a plan like this could probably backfire but, maybe five hours later, he was standing in front of me, waving a big wad of cash in front of my face.
“So how’d you do it?” I asked.
“I went to a coffee shop and got some coffee whitener. Then I went to a pharmacy and stole a box of those little sandwich baggies. I took the whitener and the baggies back to my squat and filled them up in a way that looked like the size of the bags he usually buys off me. That was the hardest part, really. Filling those stupid bags.”
“Coffee whitener looks like heroin?” I asked.
“Yeah, close enough. So I meet him and give him these bags, and he doesn’t suspect a thing. Then he gets home and I guess tries to use the shit and then a little bit later I get a text from him saying he thinks I gave him fake shit.”
“No, no. This guy smokes his stuff. So this guy keeps texting me saying he needs to get a real fix tonight. He’s freaking out. So I tell him I’ll go to a different dealer and get him some real stuff and then he can meet me and pick it up. So I go to my dealer and get him some actual heroin, meet him, and sell it to him for another $400.”
“He spent a grand in one day?” I asked.
“Yeah, crazy huh? He’s rich as hell though. But here’s the good part. I meet him the second time and he’s kinda skeptical and mad. So I start cursing my dealer to him, calling him a crook and stuff. And then I tell him, all sympathetic, that I’m going to sit with him and watch him smoke this stuff to make absolutely sure it’s good. So I sit with him and he smokes it and says it’s good, and then I take off and we’re on the best of terms. He thinks I’m a great guy.”
“Jesus,” I said. “So you’re still heading to California tomorrow? With $600 in your pocket?”
He looked at me sheepishly. “Well, no. More like $300. See, I had to buy enough dope for myself to last me the trip out there without getting sick.”
I told him to have a good trip and I started walking into my house. ”Hey!” he called out.
“Grab me a book real quick to take with me, will you?”