Why you should care
Traditional gender roles could get you killed.
One thing about Lou Reed — of Velvet Underground, black fingernail polish and the song “Heroin” fame — is that he made being dope-sick chic well before fashionistas followed suit in the ’90s. But in New York of the early 1980s, specifically down on the Lower East Side, it was anything but.
This was especially true in Alphabet City, so named for Avenues A, B, C and D. Now it’s gentrified beyond all recognition. But back in 1982, it was so bad that then Mayor Ed Koch had to ask the federal government for help fighting the persistent drug trade and its attendant problems: gangs, crime, junkies and, given the drug of choice pre-crack, dead junkies. Also, as a harbinger of what got it to where it is now, a healthy contingent of punk rockers, skinheads and assault troops of kids who were never going back to wherever they had come from.
I was 19, and, while I wasn’t going back to the Brooklyn I had come from, I was going forward, or at least back to Stanford. But during the summer of ’82, I was there. For the music, the mayhem and a girlfriend who had run away from home. After she got tired of hanging out with Prince in Minneapolis — his 1988 song “Alphabet St.” could be read as both a tribute to the Lower East Side neighborhood and the summer he spent there hanging out — she had decided to decamp to the streets, and soon after came our attempt at a relationship.
… blocks and blocks of burned-out buildings that housed garbage, scorched cars, squats and klatches of junkies, killers, the homeless and every and anyone else who needed walls and sometimes a roof …
She had a pink mohawk, and I had a mohawk, so it kind of made sense. In any case, it made her easy to find when we took day trips to the beach, where she would be surrounded by locals on the Jersey Shore who wanted to beat her and our friend Lisa up for being “lesbo,” “punk,” “sluts.” But that was the deal back then. Not schoolyard push-fights, but real predatory shit and street fights like you’re unlikely to see anywhere in New York today.
Which went nicely with the blocks and blocks of burned-out buildings that housed garbage, scorched cars, squats and klatches of junkies. Not to mention the killers, the homeless and everyone and anyone else who needed walls and sometimes a roof against city summers and bitter winter chill, but couldn’t afford much better.
“Lisa’s going to score,” she told me casually, both in total life-and-death drug-deal fashion.
“Score?” I wasn’t using drugs. I was out there, but if we all had roles, mine, if it could be said that I had one, was security. Insofar as I didn’t even drink then, used to lift weights and had trained in martial arts, so it just sort of made sense.
“YES.” She looked at me like I was stupid, something she did a lot. Usually before I got it. Which I finally did.
“Oh, God. Where?” And before she could answer: “Why?”
“She knows someone over on B. And she’s depressed about Paul.”
“Is she just going to get high, or …” I got the look again. “OK. And?”
“Well, we have to make sure she’s safe.” One of our friends, a one-time car thief, had a late-model station wagon that we sometimes cruised around in, especially those of us who came in from Brooklyn, where more often than not we passed out at our parents’ houses when we weren’t in the street.
The driver pulled out, and we drove deeper into the letters. Avenues A, B, C, D. The wet-plaster smell of collapse and neglect. Screams. Shots. Dogs barking. Street lights burned out.
“Pull over.” The driver pulled over, cut the engine and we sat. It was August. And none of the heat made this any better.
“Is she in there?” I nodded to the worst-looking building I’d ever seen, and my girlfriend nodded back. “OK. Let’s keep an eye out for her then.”
“Eye out for her?” She shook her head slowly. “No. You got to go in there and get her.”
“She’s not going to just get the shit and come back out?” I didn’t want to go in. I didn’t want to go in. I did not … well, you get it.
“Forget it,” she snorted, dismissive and straight to the heart of “what the hell are you good for anyway?” She made a move for the car door.
“OK, OK, OK. I’ll go.” I looked over at the driver, the only other man in the car. “You coming?”
“Nah. I can’t leave the car here.” And he was right. As a car thief, he knew better than most how easy it was for your car to disappear. “Besides, I’ll stay with her.”
Jesus. It was me. And me alone. I went trudging into the building. My engineer boots under normal circumstances would have been good against the broken glass and rusty nails and dog shit, but I was broke, and my boots had holes in them.
Inside there were huge sinkholes, craters, crashed-down stairwells and the sound of all kinds of scurrying. And it was pitch-black.
Another step in, the ground started giving away. Just to be clear: You got screwed in these buildings and you stayed screwed.
“Lisa? Hey, uh, Lisa?” Another step in, the ground started giving away. Just to be clear: You got screwed in these buildings and you stayed screwed. I knew this, but also knew I couldn’t come out without Lisa. Ten minutes later? I came out without Lisa. Better to come out without her than to never come out at all.
“What the hell were you doing in there?” No chill here at all. “We found her.”
Lisa had been in the one building on the block that was still standing. And in full-on Annie Hall fashion, when it was her turn to use a shared needle to shoot up, she got nervous, slipped, pressed the plunger too soon and shot her heroin everywhere but inside her arm.
Three days later, my girlfriend and I left New York for California. She’d later leave me for a hairdresser. I’d later graduate and become a journalist. Lisa had a kid with Paul. And Alphabet City? One of the safest places in the city today. Guess that’s called progress.