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Dope Sickby Walter Dean Myers
"He isn't going," the young woman said.
The door opened wider and I saw Santos standing behind the young girl. He beckoned to Jose and me as the girl whirled and disappeared into the apartment. As Santos put on his shirt, he explained that he was living clean and healthy, but his wife was nervous about him going out.
"One time is enough for me, man," he said.
Jose made a lame joke about marriage being like prison, and we laughed. On the way over to the projects, we had discussed Santos's recent release from a drug rehabilitation center in Kentucky. Santos was 20, about my age. He played a kind of box drum that produced as sweet a sound as you wanted to hear. We were going to an all-night party and hoped to jam with some other musicians.
As we left, the girl appeared again, this time with a baby on her hip. She was crying and pleading for Santos not to go with us. He reassured her that he would be all right, and we left.
The party was on Onderdonk Avenue, just across the Queens-Brooklyn boundary. The smell of marijuana was strong as soon as we reached the third floor walkup.
Inside, the music was already going. Several couples were dancing, and a sax player I recognized was sitting in a corner coaxing a low, slightly raucous, sound from his horn. I had been to the place before and knew that it was in the bedroom that the heavy drugs were being used. Some would be snorting cocaine; others would be passing around a hypodermic needle.
Most of my spare time was spent with the guys I played ball with. You couldn't use drugs and play ball. Guys who tried could play in short spurts, but generally speaking, their game would deteriorate quickly. I also spent a lot of time with musicians. Some of the players blew it big time, too. The chord changes stopped being automatic, or they would lag behind the beat trying to listen to the music instead of just feeling it. I played percussion at the time, and drug use was just another scene that I didn't fully understand.
I saw guys claiming that they just had 'chippies,' a light drug habit. Others were heavier into the hard drugs and didn't pretend otherwise. What I didn't understand was how the confirmed addicts kept going back to drugs once they had kicked. And they all kicked occasionally, either by being arrested, hospitalized or, like Santos, lucky enough to get into a rehab center.
I had drifted away from the music group after a particularly violent episode involving an attempt to kill a friend of mine. Fortunately, during the same year, Louis Dudek, the Canadian poet, accepted some poems from me for a collection he was putting together and I had my first publication. I was on my way to becoming a writer.
In writing Dope Sick, I recalled all the scenes I had witnessed, including the constant denials by guys who I knew had robbed their own families for drug money. During the times that they were clean, when they had yet another chance to turn their lives around, few of them had ever seemed to make it.
I knew that physical dependence could be beaten. And I didn't believe in what science was calling the "addictive personality." What I did believe was that the people I saw taking drugs had clear deficits in their lives which drugs eased, if only for the minutes that they were "high." It was these deficits which I thought they needed to deal with.
When Lil J meets Kelly in the seemingly abandoned building, it is the deficits in Lil J's life that come up magically on the television that Kelly controls. Like all of the drug users that I have known, played with, hung out with, the future is a dismal prospect that Lil J can only hope to avoid. For drug users, any hit might be bad, any transaction might lead to violence, any needle is potentially the carrier of a slow and painful death. And yet they go on using, and even more young people will join their ranks.
Santos was a marvelous drummer. There were a number of bands that were interested in his talents. He was good, but I also remember seeing him light up a joint and explain how it wasn't going to bother him because he wasn't hitting his veins any more. When he overdosed less than a year later, I thought about the girl with the baby on her hip pleading with him not to go with us.
Dope Sick is not nearly as ugly as I could have made it. But when the harshness of drug use is relayed accurately on the page, it so often seems to separate the reader from the reality of what it really is about self degradation, a constant flirtation with death, throwing away all of life's chances.
Ultimately I wanted to give my character Lil J a second chance. I would have liked for Santos to have had another chance, too.
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Walter Dean Myers is a New York Times-bestselling author and a five-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award, and he has received the Margaret A. Edwards Award for his contribution to young adult literature. His picture books include Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam, I've Seen the Promised Land: The Life of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, and Malcolm X: A Fire Burning Brightly. Mr. Myers lives with his family in Jersey City, New Jersey.