By Jeanne McInerney
The depressing thing about my overdose on heroin that night is that I did not have a wondrous near-death experience. I did not go to the light. There was no Jesus. No spiritual force coaxed me to return to my earthly work. Nope. As a matter of fact, for many hours there was no memory at all. In the actual near-death dawn, I did somehow grasp that, with full consent, I had engaged in a really stupid and dangerous act. Yet the only memento of my luge ride into Hades was a pounding headache and a rabid thirst.
I was nineteen in that post-Vietnam, post-Nixon, post-trust summer of 1974. Like a moth to the glowing flame, I had descended into the underbelly of Chicago’s South Side. I grew up there, with its block after block, mile after mile of modest three-bedroom houses. My life was woven into the unraveling fabric of bulging Irish Catholic families and solid middle-class expectations.
My underbelly friends lived much darker and shadier lives than my friends from high school. The latter group had all managed to apply to college and was pretty much living the freshman dream: enjoying campus life, decorating their dorm rooms with Hendrix posters, setting up stereos and hanging Indian Batik. Weekends when I wasn’t working some part time job at the Ford City Mall, I would drive down to Western Illinois University and hang out at kegger parties smoking bongs. Truth is, I wished I were there, too. I was vaguely ashamed that I had not gotten it together to slog through the application process. I guess no one thought I was college material anymore. Eventually it got tiring pretending to their new friends that I maybe, sort of, went to school—somewhere. I visited less and less. I wanted us all to be back on the South Side tooling around in my car, windows down, wailing out to “Jeremiah Was a Bullfrog.”
Water finds its level—even sewer water—and I found mine. My new friends rarely woke before three in the afternoon. It was like living in an episode of Dark Shadows. What remained of the day was spent trying to figure out what we would get stoned on and where we could hang out without being hassled by cops or parents. We probably spent more time on these decisions than most people spend choosing a spouse. This particular weekend was showing promise. With the moon in the seventh house and Jupiter aligned with Mars, love was steering the planet. My wild, crazy-ass boyfriend Larry had scored big. Enough to provide drugged-out bliss for everyone. One of the guys’ parents left for Michigan, thoughtfully providing an empty house. What could be more perfect?
I have no real way to single out much about that night. I know we had some pizza, made a beer run and took a couple of red pills to get the party off its feet. I remember The Doors and Savoy Brown playing on the stereo. Everyone took music very seriously. We didn’t just consider ourselves fans—no, more like co-creators. With our air guitars and broomstick microphones we were right up there on stage with Gregg Allman or Jim Morrison. Legends, all of us. I have more than once considered entering an air guitar competition. I actually owned a pair of JBL professional studio monitor speakers. Each one was the size of a bathroom vanity and could blow whatever brain cells were still intact right out into the universe.
Around ten o’clock a disgusting clarity kicked in. Memory is a funny thing that way: one minute it feels like it’s coated in Teflon and the next it’s painted with super glue. Larry asked me to go the bathroom to help him get off. This was not a sexual term in 1974. Looking back I wish it were. It meant I was to tie the tourniquet tightly around his skinny arm so that his vein popped out enough to inject the heroin he was cooking. He brought this habit back from Vietnam like a souvenir. Curiously, I found something darkly alluring about it all. Always drawn to the forbidden, I would have certainly died at Sodom and Gomorrah; without a doubt, I would have looked back.
So there we were, Larry and me squished together in the tiny dark bathroom at Billy’s parents’ house. Larry sat on the toilet seat absorbing the rush of the drug through his body. Heroin is pretty immediate, not like a Tylenol where you have to sit around and wait twenty minutes. I was so easily seduced in those days. Seduced by the music, the pills, the anger, even by Larry who was a pretty squirrelly character in the light of day. Mostly, I think I was mesmerized by danger, like a kid always sticking a knife in a socket.
So, like I said, there we were. I still don’t fully know why but, for no apparent reason, I decided right then and there to have my ultimate what-the-fuck moment. I wanted some heroin, too. Right then. Larry obliged. He was very generous. Even his obituary said so.
But don’t worry—he doesn’t die here.
As a child of an alcoholic father and mentally ill mother, I had figured out those force-fed Catholic values weren’t going to save them or me. Horrified by the hypocrisy of it all, I engaged in increasingly histrionic risk-taking: hitch-hiking across country, staying out all night, reckless driving, and of course there were the drugs. Lots and lots of drugs. Despite my proverbial cry for help it was miserably apparent no one was listening.
It happened so quickly. He tied the band tight around my arm, heated up the spoon and injected. Then the big nothing. No rush through my body. Only a crash into the door as I went down for the count. I am still not sure if Larry continued shooting up despite my collapse, or if what we did was tainted. All I know for sure is that his best friend Chris, who looked just like young, good-looking Christopher Walken, heard us both hit the ground: thud number one and thud number two.
Chris was a junkie too, and thank God because he knew what to do in case of an overdose. I have no recollection of Chris giving me mouth-to-mouth for eight hours along with ice treatments down my chest. Not sure what the ice was all about but, hey, I’m still here. Sometime around six in the morning I came to. That’s it, pulled from death with my top torn off, the cutest junkie in the crowd with his lips on mine for eight hours, and no memory whatsoever. Everyone at the party seemed relieved that the medics and the cops did not have to get involved. They would have all been in deep shit if I had died.
There is an awkward after-party moment when daylight is streaming in and morning has clearly insinuated itself. There you are, somehow still at a party that is clearly no longer a party and you really, really, really need to go home. You need to leave so badly that you’re willing to embark on the Walk of Shame: you don’t have a ride, you are in the same clothes you wore the night before and you feel absolutely dog-doo dreadful. So there you go, in the harsh light of day, sometimes for miles, sure that every car that passes knows your sordid story. You hope against hope that no one you know drives by and God forbid offers you a lift.
The Walk of Shame does give you time to think. In my case I thought a lot, and then thought some more. I knew I had to get straight and that I was living a life that was the afterbirth of anger and disappointment. Without a doubt my parents were never coming to my rescue. They couldn’t even rescue themselves. My choice from that morning on was to live—or not. That was it.
A mandate to survive seemed to take charge of everything. And all the years of Irish Catholic values I scoffed at? I now believe those roots held me fast while the rest of my life blew away. I remember knowing only one thing: there would be no second chance. I had to choose, right then, right there. Naked before the raw power of divine forgiveness, I chose to be grateful. I chose to live. I chose redemption. That’s why I am here to write this. I never saw those friends again.
Life’s detours lead in strange directions. Within the week I had applied and was miraculously accepted as a camp counselor at Camp Hastings YMCA Camp in Wisconsin. Maybe I looked good on paper. I arrived towing those massive JBL studio monitors. I hooked them up in our tiny cabin. My twelve-year-old charges spent the summer crushing on boys and growing boobs. I spent the summer advising them on their young love lives, and figuring it all out. Together we would blast "Desperado" by the Eagles over and over until it became the theme song of the entire camp. I am not going to pretend life was a straight-line from then on; it wasn’t. Yet somehow I managed a back door escape.
Not everyone made it out of that dark place that year. Vietnam took its toll on a lot of the South Side boys. They left—the sons of cops, firemen, electricians, city workers—and came back with pinned eyes and track marks. Those of us a smidge younger glamorized it all. We wanted to feel what they felt, feel the music, the pain, the flow of their anesthesia through our own veins.
And so it spread like Black Death. The brother of the Christopher Walkens lookalike died setting himself on fire in his parent’s garage. My high school prom date just back from the army shot himself in the head. The host of my near-death party was lost to an overdose. Maybe they were the lucky ones: my junkie boyfriend recently died falling off a bar stool—God’s honest truth. It is rumored that the gorgeous Chris has finally succumbed as well but I cannot verify this.
This is where my story should conveniently end. I live, I learn, and I am profoundly changed. But it doesn’t.
Ten years later I am on my way downtown to meet my young husband for dinner. Yes, he knows all about my past. But what can you say about a fool in love? It was an absolutely beautiful crisp fall day. I jumped on the L train from our house near Wrigley Field with a plan to meet at State and Jackson. All I really remember is being in a fantastic mood—I love going out to eat. I was carrying my new Eitenne Aigner handbag. It was maroon leather. I felt fashionable.
After the first seven stops, the L rode underground at Chicago Avenue. With just a few stops to go, the doors opened at Grand Avenue and four very hopped up junkies got on and scanned for prey. I was alone in my seat. In an instant, I knew I had been marked. It felt like a scene from The Lion King: the hyenas were on the attack and I was their next dinner. I felt the seconds tick. I was about to get mugged. The leader of this unlikely pack moved in and sat facing me with the girl (there’s always a girl) while the other two guys stood to my side, blocking the aisle. They operated as a trained and disciplined team orchestrating a strike. Terrified, I scanned the half-full train for someone who might step up. Every single person in that car looked away, conspicuously relieved it wasn’t them trapped in the human cage. So much for the damsel in distress look—I was on my own in the Serengeti.
Pulling into the Lake Street Station, I noticed the blue of his eyes, that kind of ice-blue that almost hurts your own eyes to look at. I stared with intensity, straight into them. “Chris” I said. “It’s Jeanne. Remember—from the South Side? Larry’s old girlfriend? Remember when we used to party together?” Please God. My heart surged like an ocean while time stood totally still. Our eyes locked in recognition, ebbing back through ten years of divergent paths. His gorgeous looks had turned haggard. Deep lines etched into his stony face. It must have been a tough ten years. At Monroe Street Station, Chris quietly waved his hand at his posse. I had been saved, perversely, by the same person who was responsible for saving my life a decade earlier. Inexplicably, we managed to utter a few mundane niceties. I have never been great at small talk, but in that out-of-body moment I was thankful to utter something.
At Jackson Street, I said my goodbyes and emerged from the train. I’m not sure how I managed to keep walking. What keeps any of us from falling to our knees? In a gut-wrenching encounter with my past, I glimpsed what might have been my future. In that frozen moment I had become a modern day version of Ebenezer Scrooge. “Come, Jeanne. This was to be your future.”
I found my way to the dirty dark stairs that led up to street level. It was still a spectacular sunny day. At the top of those stairs my beautiful husband was waiting.
Jeanne McInerney grew up on Chicago’s South Side. She finished her undergraduate degree at Northwestern, got turned down in thirty-five job interviews, opened a restaurant, taught diversity classes, got her graduate degree at DePaul, has three kids and a happy marriage. She is currently producing a play at the Royal George Theatre.