Monday, April 21, 2014

Life Outside of the Box


I can’t say when Harvey came into my life. It was probably during the summer of ’85. Most likely we met while waiting for the dope spot to open on one of those hot New York summer weekends when the streets were vacant and the cops were out, when dealers were taking a long time to re-up. I knew I’d be less conspicuous engaged in conversation on a street corner rather than standing alone clenching my guts, gazing vacantly down an empty block. Besides, with an expensive Maltese on a leash, two white people on a city slum corner may quite possibly have run into each other in a neighborly way. Not that either of us were white. Grey was more the operative word.

After our initial encounter, I ran into Harvey everywhere. Maybe he’d been in my periphery all along but it wasn’t until I needed him as a cover that I’d ever paid attention. Now we took on the role of longtime friends. He was an intelligent man whose opinions on art and politics made me almost forget he was a guy who lived in a box on the small traffic island at First and First. He chattered nonstop, the way only the lonely can, and every second dragged out painfully for me. Plus he’d started gifting me clothes he’d find on the street and disposing of them was becoming a complicated project since I couldn’t toss them on the next corner for fear he’d rediscover them.  I was earning a high salary in the art department of a fabulous nightclub and capable of buying designer outfits. To me, Harvey was a guy I knew from the streets. I had a husband and real friends.

Sometime after my first arrest, Harvey became the guy who would cop for me. That was Harvey’s main hustle—copping for people too afraid to go themselves. He had enough regulars at a dollar a bag who’d be back several times a day to support his own habit. He ran it like a business and took pride in the fact that people trusted him to never tap the product or rip them off. The East Village was experiencing a real estate boom and this conflicted with the heroin trade. Cops were everywhere and Harvey was, for many of us, a “get out of jail free” card.
One late September, so sick I felt like crying, I ran to his box and spotted it empty. Then I saw him coming down 1st Avenue. Even with poor eyesight, I could recognize his gait—a combination of a glide and a hobble. I gave a wave. When heroin addicts know there is money waiting, they move a determined stride as speedy as a horse’s trot. As Harvey waited at the light, I noticed for the first time how junkies—more than any other type of addict—develop a certain type of transparency. It begins with a gradual fading out process. As their clothes get old and everything black fades to dark grey, they start blending in with the grey concrete buildings and overcast white sky until, in the end, they are simply a hologram of vanishing color. Once heroin snuffs the spirit out, addicts stop emitting human presence. Without menace left in them, they’ll put in as long as it takes to convince you to trust them before disappearing with your money. A knife to the throat is more the calling card of the coke addict. I looked at Harvey and wondered how long it takes to become a hologram. Was there still light in my eyes?

That day, Harvey crossed with the green light and did something he’d never dared before: he threw his arms around my shoulders and pulled me close. “Patty,” he said, “you have no idea how glad I am to see you.” My body was aching with heroin hunger and though the heat of his body was soothing, he had the stench of the street on him. “You know that shooting gallery on Third Street?” he asked. I nodded but didn’t. “This morning,” he continued, “they found the body of a girl and I was worried it was you since I hadn’t seen you for a few days. She was around your age and your size. I asked what color hair she had but I guess she’d been dead for a while because the rats had already taken all of her hair and eyelashes by the time they found her.”

A sensation shot through me that can only be described as what it would feel like if your blood suddenly turned cold. I’d become someone people thought could turn up dead and hairless in an abandon building. The image of the rats burned into my psyche.
Within a year, the nightclub had closed, my marriage had ended and I had left New York. In 1988, I was living alone in a vacant building on Eighth Street west of Crenshaw in Los Angeles.  I tacked Mexican blankets over the glass-free windows and slept on an old sofa. In a moment of optimism, I’d covered the gang graffiti with bad murals of garden scenes. I found a kitten who would sleep on the palm of my hand and named him Peanut. A few mornings, I woke up to loud purring while Peanut kneaded his paws into my cheek and drooled onto my hair. Beside my face was a dead mouse. He was so proud I couldn’t help but chuckle. The mouse was more than half his size. I could only imagine the battle.

For the first time in my heroin career, I started overdosing on a regular basis. Rinsing out my works while the dope came on was as routine to me as breathing so when I started finding them clogged with clotted blood, I knew I’d fallen out of consciousness for a while. At my first sign of movement, Peanut would leap across the room and do the pussycat rub across my ankles. I wondered if he’d protect my corpse and keep the rats away from my hair or if he’d eat me himself. Some days I’d think of Harvey and the life I’d left behind. This place was my cardboard box.

In the fall of 1988, I packed up my LA life and gave Peanut to a regular at Nude Nude’s. I later learned that my cat had become known as the king of Venice Beach. In the early 90s, with almost five years clean, I returned to a very different East Village. Some days it felt like the gentrification had erased all evidence of my past, though I still had my beautifully haunted memories.

Once, at a 12-step meeting, I told the story of how a guy named Harvey had thought it had been my body found, hairless from the rats. I left out of my story how I’d withheld my friendship from him because I was afraid homelessness was contagious. But Harvey had gotten through my armor. His kindness had touched me. When the meeting ended, some people who’d known Harvey came over. They said he’d once been a powerful advertising executive on Madison Avenue but his addiction had cost him his career and he’d lost his family. He died of the AIDS virus shortly before I got clean. While we shared Harvey stories from back in the day, disquietude was among us. We knew that Harvey’s fate could have been any of ours.
(This story originally appeared on

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