Soprano, my dirty, matted, little Maltese, ran ahead as I climbed the six floors. I had a few bags of dope in the front pocket of my jeans and a bottle of red wine in a plastic bag. Copping had been the usual cat and mouse game of waiting for the Dom Perignon heroin spot to open on East Second Street. Police cruisers and unmarked cars were out in full force. The second they left the block, junkies would file up both ends of the street, do the quick transaction and keep walking. When it was hot everyone worked together seamlessly, like a finely choreographed dance, like lanes merging into the tunnel at rush hour. I was part of a well-oiled machine that continued to run whether there was police presence or not. On a scale of 1-10, tonight was a 10 but often scoring drugs fell somewhere around a four. It could take up the entire evening and put an end to all my other plans. On these nights Soprano got a lot of fresh air and exercise even if it was putting a wedge into my marriage.
On the night of September 14, 1986, the streets were quiet. Every drug addict, drug abuser, and drug user in America was sitting in front of a television set. As soon as I entered the apartment, I locked myself in the bathroom. I came out comfortably high and whipped together a gourmet meal, carrying the plates into the middle room which doubled as our dining/living room and painting studio. We’d re-upholstered booth-style banquettes we found on the street and built a small table. In addition to this dining ensemble, there was a 13-inch black and white portable TV propped on a footstool, a large sheet of plywood leaning against a wall covered in a plastic tarp, a roll of canvas, and cans of paint. I put dinner on the table and poured the wine while my husband adjusted the focus and volume on the television. As much as I despised Reagan for his lack of interest in the AIDS epidemic, I was curious about the night’s speech.
A commercial preceded the President’s speech: “Crack cocaine hits the streets of New York City—news at 11.” Ronald and Nancy came on next, inviting us into their make-believe living room. This falsified down-home intimacy was hard to swallow. I pushed my plate aside, grabbed my wine, and sprawled out on the floor in front of the TV. Reagan droned on and on about the drug epidemic and the financial commitment he was putting forth to win his War on Drugs. Meanwhile the running commentary from the peanut gallery inside our small apartment rivaled Mystery Science Theater 3000. Every commercial break was filled with “Crack cocaine hits the streets of New York City. News at 11.” One thing was certain—the network knew who had tuned in for Reagan’s speech. I was in the bathroom shooting my last bag of dope when the president closed with a combination of political and biblical terms to declare the War on Drugs “a national crusade.”
There have always been myths, legends, conspiracy theories and truths. We’ve heard about heroin coming in on military planes during the Vietnam years, talk about corrupt cops who take all the stash but don’t bust the dealer and countless questionable connections between drugs and politics. Whatever game was about to begin on the world stage, I knew the War on Drugs wasn’t going to affect much on the street level.
Just when I thought nothing could get more surreal than the “at home” chat with Ronnie and Nancy, the news came on. Within five minutes, I knew what crack looked like, what it cost, where to buy it, and how to smoke it. News cameras panned intersections complete with street signs as they zeroed in on the hand-to-hand transactions. My husband and I looked at one another in disbelief. We’d just watched an advertisement for crack cocaine.
I’d been buying drugs in the East Village since the late 70s. I knew what blocks sold weed, heroin, and dime bags of coke. I’d never heard of anyone selling crack. Within two weeks, I could feel a new level of menace on the empty late night streets. I wouldn’t even walk on certain blocks anymore, day or night. Crack had happened.
One night I was killing time waiting for the spot to open when the wife of one of the dealers invited me to sit in her parked car. She pulled out a pipe and held a lighter to it. I took a hit. I’d never been a free-base fan; I preferred to inject my coke. Nonetheless, I took a second hit when it came around again. When it was time to go, I opened the door and thanked her for the base. “Honey, this isn’t base—it’s crack,” she said. Immediately I saw the face of Ronald Reagan and the crack commercial disguised as news. Their connection was sealed in my brain. I knew I’d never smoke crack again.
It turned out I didn’t need crack to hit the depths of despair. Shooting coke did a fine job on its own. At a certain point, as I watched everything I cared about disappear, heroin stopped getting me high. Coke came back into my life to fast forward my downward spiral. Without it, I may have never gotten clean. God only knows what horrors would have been in store for me with crack. Most likely, I wouldn’t have survived. Ultimately, I have Ronald Reagan to thank for saving me from becoming a crackhead. In my mind, it was always impossible to separate him from that drug.
Patty Powers is a sober coach, writer, and public speaker on addiction and recovery. She was featured on the A&E mini-series Relapse in 2011 and is currently writing a recovery book. She lives in New York. A version of this post originally appeared on her personal blog. Reagan photo courtesy of wjsamerica.