Heroin (and Heartache)

A Young Couple Struggles With Love, Addiction, and Loyalty in Tompkins Square

Terry has two loves. One is Juliet, a pretty 25-year-old with a baby face and a voice like gravel. His other love is the white powder he shoots into his veins. Juliet has gone and come and is going again. Heroin doesn't give much love back, but if you've got $10 in Tompkins Square Park, it's always there for you.

Juliet loves Terry too, but she wants to be alone. She's been in relationships constantly since she was 16. She has frequently measured herself—defined herself—by a man. "I want to find out who I am now," she says. In early June, the couple parted ways, saying their goodbyes in Tompkins Square, where they met a year ago. He was supposed to be heading to Boston. She left for Jersey to see her family before traveling again ("I might hitchhike to Philly and hop a freight train to Wisconsin"). Believing Terry was long gone, she passed through New York one last time in mid June.

"They told me Terry was still here," she says. "I knew right away he was strung out." She found him on a park bench, dirty, thinner than ever, with a six-bag-a-day habit. "I have to get him clean before I leave," she says. "If I leave him now, he'll get in really deep." Getting him clean won't be easy—the sooner he kicks heroin, the sooner he loses her. Then he'll be left with no love at all.

This is a story about four days in the lives of two individuals. They have much in common with New York's quarter-million heroin addicts, with thousands of homeless living on city sidewalks, with the hundreds more travelers stealing into the city each spring with the first warm breezes. Still, their lives and their story are unique; they are a young couple at a turning point in their struggle with love, loyalty, and addiction on the streets of the East Village.

Terry and Juliet

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"Hey, you wanna come back to my sleeping bag?" Terry asked Juliet last May, in what passed for their courtship. He was a homeless gutter punk from the West Coast, a brawler and drinker, in and out of jail. She was an art school dropout from Jersey, hanging out with the travelers, punks, and wannabes who populate a narrow band of the East Village from 8th and Broadway over to the East River.

A few weeks later they were headed out on the road. "He taught me to hop trains," she says. "He took me all over the United States. I'm a lot more outgoing now—I was really quiet, shy when I met him." With Terry as her guide, she became part of a loosely connected nationwide community of young homeless travelers, many of whom are now her best friends.

She, in turn, nurtured and grounded him. "Before I met Juliet, I never had a reason to stay clean," says Terry. "I'd make it to a city and spend half my time in jail—resisting arrest, disorderly conduct, public drunkenness, stupid shit." Since they met, he's spent only a few days in jail, in New Orleans. She panhandled to bail him out.

Juliet stands five feet tall. In a torn tank top, wisps of purple hair peeking out from under a bandanna, she looks like a vulnerable teenager. And there is a youthful sweetness to her (when, one afternoon, her friends want to dispatch a wounded pigeon by smashing its head against a tree, she spends half an hour tending to it before it dies). Yet she has been toughened by her time on the streets, the drugs and the violence, and the men who have tried to persuade her to trade her body for money or food or a ride down the highway. [see page 36]

Her face is punctuated by large rings through her nose and lower lip. In moments of quiet, she idly picks at an abscess on her right arm; a dozen other circular scars—self-inflicted cigarette burns—form a large horseshoe on her forearm. "It brings me clarity," she explains.

A middle-class kid from a stable family, she is on the streets, she says, because "I always rejected middle America. Nobody questions anything. Why are things the way they are? Everybody says it's so, so it is. I hate that. Me, I have no set way of thinking. I'm just gathering facts."

"I need a break from relationships in general," she says, speaking of her desire to leave Terry once she gets him clean. "I still love Terry, but . . . life is about new things. We had a lot of fun, getting drunk in the squats in Arizona, riding the freight trains—ending up in some bumfuck town in the South. He's looked out for me. I want the best for him. But he's completely self-destructive, he fucks up everything. Terry wants security and commitment. . . . I want to get better at my art, travel, see other countries."

"I really can't live without her," Terry says, sitting alone on a park bench one afternoon. "She's my other half. I've been with her every day for a year; we've shared everything. I married heroin first. But I love Juliet more than anything—I don't know how I'm going to go on without her."

Smart, funny, and charming, Terry is rail thin, with the energy of a clock wound too tight. In combat boots and a dirty undershirt, he exudes a combination of raw sexuality and fearlessness. His right forearm reads "Irish Pride," his knuckles say FUCK. A local college girl, smoking an unfiltered Camel, a vine tattooed around her ankle, stands near him one evening. "I see him around here all the time," she says. "I just want to take him home."

Terry's story is similar to many you hear on the streets: "My mom's an addict. I think my father's still in prison. They beat me and locked me in my room when I was a kid. I've been on and off the streets since I was 12." After his second shot at the ninth grade, he left school, and married at age 17. Now 22, he's got a wife and four-year-old son in L.A. "I'd have no problem e-mailing her," he says of his wife. "But she doesn't want to have any contact. She's tired of me getting high." The patch on his ripped camouflage pants reads, "No government can ever give you freedom." Then again, neither can a bad heroin habit.

Drugs

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Terry rattles off the drugs he's used over the years: "PCP, ketamine [an animal tranquilizer], nitrous, methamphetamine, Robitussin, marijuana, crack, alcohol—they all fuck up your brain." And, of course, heroin. "Heroin does not affect your brain at all," he claims. "It makes me feel so good, it's the best feeling in the world."

"The thing with heroin," says Juliet, "is you use it a couple days on and then take a couple days off, so you don't get hooked." Once Juliet left him, Terry started using every day. Now she's reducing his intake, the first step in getting him clean. By Monday, she has him down from six bags a day to two, and she's shooting half of each bag herself to further cut his intake. She has substituted pot, alcohol, downers, anything to keep him high and ease the comedown. "Last night we shot some really good coke," he says with a smile. If she can get him down to a bag of heroin a day, she can take him to her parents' house in New Jersey, far away from Tompkins Square. A week in the isolation of south Jersey and the worst of the cravings will pass.

A Summer Day

It is late on Tuesday afternoon. A hot breeze rustles the oak leaves above the aging homebums sprawled on the benches, wet circles under their armpits. Most days are spent like this: A loose circle of travelers, punks, and junkies lounges on the grass. Nic, a tall, introspective traveler, is lying against his pack, smoking a hand-rolled cigarette, talking with Juliet about their days in New Orleans: "Those fuckin' kids from New Orleans were wild! They just drank all the time, stayed fucked up, fighting and acting stupid."

Charles, one of the few African Americans on the scene, saunters over with a bag of dope. Someone helps him hit a vein and he relaxes, his face flushed, and he begins to recite a poem he wrote about a black cat stalking him as he walks the streets. A paranoid woman dressed in black is complaining about the city shelters: "They treat you like a fucking baby. You gotta get up when they tell you, eat when they tell you."

"Just like a fuckin' baby, like a three-year-old," adds Juliet. "They make you pray, the Covenant House in New Orleans, they got all these rules you got to follow. I was there like two days and I left."

Terry is leaning against her, their hands and legs intertwined. Their packs with all their worldly possessions are on the ground nearby. Juliet decides he needs to shave, finds a razor and some soap, and together they walk to the fountain erected in 1891 by the Moderation Society. The four sides read, Charity, Faith, Hope, Temperance.

Juliet begins to lather up Terry's face when the patrol car pulls up. "You can't shave here," calls out a beefy female cop from the passenger seat. "This is a public water fountain, not a bathroom."

"The bathrooms are closed," says Juliet. "We're just trying to get cleaned up."

"You don't leave now, I'm gonna give you a summons. And you probably don't have ID on you, which means I run you through the system. You want to go to jail?"

"Hey, no problem, we're leaving," says Terry, then under his breath to Juliet, "I just got busted last week [for shooting up on the sidewalk]. I can't go back to jail."

"Where you from?" the cop demands of Juliet.

"New Jersey."

"Why don't you go back to Jersey if you don't like it here? Go back to Jersey."

On the grass Juliet gently shaves Terry using water from a kit given out by the local needle exchange. Two white kids from Vermont saunter over looking for someone to score for them. A few minutes later the girl is sitting alone, crying softly by herself. The Puerto Rican rumberos on a bench nearby are pounding out rhythms on their congas, their call and response to the spirits filtering through the air.

Terry had only half a bag that morning, his "wake-up bag." As Juliet cuts back his intake, he's getting dopesick; his head hurts, he's nauseous and irritable, walking in stutter steps, speed-talking in unfinished sentences. "Man, I really want . . . Pedro's out today, got good shit, Tornado, Bill did some earlier, says it's good. . . . Juliet, help me make up a $10 bag?" Juliet tries to calm him but he can't sit still. She pulls him close and gives him a hug. "All right, baby," she says, as she pulls on a filthy white thermal. "No good to show track marks when you panhandle."

They spange (beg for spare change) on opposite sides of 8th Street. They can cover twice the ground, and no one will give Juliet money if she's with a guy. "Could you spare some change?" Juliet begins to call out gently to the passing hipsters. She looks forlorn and harmless, a kewpie doll with a nose ring. Almost immediately a passerby puts some change in her hand; a moment later, another gives a dollar. She bums a cigarette from a man who stops to chat.

Across the street, Terry is a bundle of manic energy, his gutter-punk persona in overdrive, his illness making him desperate. "Hey man, hey man," he calls out, walking behind the passersby, "you got any change?" They look back in fear, or ignore him.

"Sorry," one man says softly.

"Yeah, you sure are sorry, but do you have any change?" Then, breaking into a rant: "I fucking hate that, they don't even look at me, like I don't fucking exist. I'm wasting my time here; they give the girls 10 times as much money. The guys get nothing."

Ten minutes later, Juliet has nine dollars, Terry's collected a buck-fifty. Juliet spends long minutes finding a place that will cash in the change—drug dealers don't accept quarters. In the park the heroin has been bad lately, nothing strong enough for a good nod, just enough "to get well" ("You should have been here last week, the whole park was nodding out," says Terry) and the dealers won't bring out the next batch until the old one has sold out. The dealer selling Tornado, "the good stuff," is nowhere to be found.

They buy a $10 bag of Headhunter from a woman with sores on her face and return to the grass. The white powder is emptied into two bottle caps, and water is added to each. Terry pulls the plunger from a rig (needle) and carefully mixes the heroin and water, then puts the needle back together and draws the milky solution up into the syringe, hunting around in the bottle cap for every last drop. He taps it carefully, pushes the air out, wraps a length of surgical tubing around his biceps. The vein on his forearm stands out like a swollen blue stream. He slides the needle in, pulls the blood into the syringe, then slams the mixture home.

At his side, Juliet is doing the same. She has chosen a vein in the top of her hand, but she goes too deep, piercing the underside of the vein. Her hand begins to swell with blood until there's a bulge half the size of a golf ball. She curses. Terry finds a vein in her arm and shoots her up. The needles are barely out of their arms when they undergo a pronounced shift; for the first time all day, Terry becomes calm and peaceful as he sits talking and laughing with his friends.

Fireflies glow gently about them when the female cop returns an hour later and shatters the drug-induced tranquility. "Off the grass, now!" she barks. "And take your garbage." One homeless punk doesn't move fast enough for her liking, and the cop demands the young woman's ID. In moments half a dozen officers are surrounding her, threatening arrest. After a lengthy interrogation, and after her ID is run through the computer, she is given a summons for "disorderly conduct."

Most of the punks and travelers average two to three run-ins a day with the police. The police hand out tickets like candy, running IDs at every opportunity, looking for outstanding warrants and keeping the pressure on the travelers to leave town. Rob, from Philadelphia, shows seven summonses he's received in as many days. A purple-haired woman shows a ticket for "failure to control an animal," the animal in question being the pet white rat she keeps in a box. Nic was ticketed for putting his backpack on the bench, an infraction defined in the summons as "obstructing a park bench."

On Wednesday night, Terry lay in his sleeping bag over in the park by the East River where he and Juliet sleep. As clear as day, he saw a man with an ax coming toward them through the trees. As the man drew near, he began to chop at the other travelers sleeping nearby. Terry heard their screams and saw the blood and body parts. But he was unable to move—"sleep paralysis," he calls it. He watched as the killer came closer, then stood over Juliet and raised the ax high in the air. It was then that he sat bolt upright.

He knows the time is near now, the time when they will be leaving the park. His enforced rehab in Jersey is closing in, and with it the end of the relationship. The night before, he had flown into a rage (for some reason that he can no longer fathom) and smashed his guitar to pieces. "I have this dream that we'll go out to Arizona. We'll live in a squat. I'll play my music and she'll do her art. I just wrecked my dream—where am I gonna get another guitar?" he asks.

The travelers ask little from society; they help each other "clean up" when necessary. Their low-cost alternative to an expensive stay in rehab is simply to go to a place where drugs are unavailable. So Juliet finds a phone booth and calls her father in New Jersey. He agrees to pick her up Thursday afternoon over on Broadway. She mentions that she has a friend she wants to bring home for a few days. Her family lives in rural New Jersey, three miles from the closest store.

The next day, Juliet again tries to get Terry through the day without dope; by early afternoon, he's jittery. "My head hurts, my stomach feels bad, I'm scared this is gonna be really bad. I'm trying to get some Klonopin [a powerful tranquilizer] or some methadone." Juliet helps him panhandle the money for one last bag.

Saying Goodbye

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Over on the grass, a group of hardcore travelers is gathered. Bodies, necks, and even faces are heavily inked and pierced. The air smells of sweat and beer. A tall, garrulous guy with a Mohawk is saying, "So my girlfriend gets locked up in New Orleans. While she's in, I get rid of my lice. She comes out, and I get them back. I get locked up in Arizona, I get rid of them again. I get out, she gives them back to me. I told her, 'Girl, get rid of your damn bugs.' "

"Hair lice is much harder to get rid of," says another in the group.

"Scabies," someone else calls out, "Scabies is the worst!" To this there is general agreement. Several others have scored, and they sit in a semi-circle with their needles, the row of spikes in their hands like a picket fence. Terry pulls his kit and begins to mix his dope, his hands working feverishly.

"Hey Terry, it's been a bad day," says a man with part of a syringe forced through each earlobe. "Can I get a corner of your bag—just a small shot?"

"It's my last before I kick, we're leaving for Jersey in half an hour."

"Oh, I totally understand. Try to take some pot to help you through it."

A sweet-faced kid from Boston, short on money for a fix, is sitting nearby saying plaintively to another traveler, "But I couldn't go panhandle, I had to baby-sit the rat." There's some friendly haggling over the dope, but they're friends; as bad as the need can be, they don't let it come between members of the community.

Almost in unison, Terry and the others pull back their plungers, sucking in the blood, then push the narcotic mixture smoothly into their arms. A purple-haired woman gets up to vomit casually on the grass a few feet away, then returns looking pleased.

Terry and Juliet pick up their packs. Others stand and offer embraces and advice. "Try to get a good whiskey binge going."

"Yeah, just stay drunk and smoke some weed for a few days."

"Klonopin and methadone helped me."

The couple work their way through the crowd, then walk out through the park with the light filtering softly through the trees, past the fountain reading Charity, Faith, Hope, Temperance, and head up 8th Street to meet her father. As they wait on the corner of Broadway, they're given one last summons. "Obstructing a sidewalk," this one reads, a final goodbye card from the NYPD.

"Others talk about 'the love of their lives,' " Juliet had said a few days earlier, as she stood on Avenue A. "I don't think things have to be lasting to be meaningful. It's not true that I don't love people—they're always with me, the connection is always there." If she can get Terry clean, she'll leave him with nothing, he says. Nothing but a fresh start and a broken heart. But then he never had much more than he carried on his back.

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