Shooting Stars: Memoirs of A Hollywood Junkie

By James Brown 05/02/11

"This River"  is one of the season's most acclaimed addiction books. In an exclusive excerpt, James Brown recalls breaking down and shooting up with the junkie dealer who used to be his sponsor in A.A.

Pins and Needles: A Junkie's Journey Through L.A.

I park behind the broken down Mercury Marquis in the driveway of my drug dealer’s house.  Ironically he is also my onetime A.A. sponsor.  At the door I press the button on the intercom.  I look up at the fake birdhouse mounted in the corner of the sun deck above me.  Inside it is a camera, and I want Eddie to see me, so he doesn’t panic and stick his 9mm in my face when he opens the door.  He’s done it before.  The scratchy sound of his voice comes over the intercom.

“Who is it?”

“It’s me,” I say. “Jim.”

A few seconds later the door opens.  He’s wearing a ratty tank top, but what I notice most are the syringes hanging from his shoulders, one on each side, the needles sunk into the head of his deltoid muscles. On the left, it’s loaded with heroin.  On the right, it’s cocaine. I can tell the difference because one syringe contains a dark colored fluid while the other, the coke, is a milky white. If he needs a bump up, he depresses the plunger on the milky white side.  If he needs a bump down, something to even him out, it’s the dark side.   

I follow him upstairs to the living room.  Eddie gets right down to business.

“What do you want?”

“What do you have?”

“Black,” he says. “Coke.  Crystal.”

“Some black,” I say.  “A gram.”

He clears a spot on the coffee table, which is a mess of empty beer cans and ashtrays full of stale cigarettes butts, and carefully sets up his scale.

“This is good stuff,” he says.

This stuff is Mexican Black, mostly commonly referred to as tar. In its uncooked form, it resembles a lump of brown dirt, but it turns black, like tar, when you heat it up. 

I drop three twenties on the table and then head to the kitchen and come back with a glass of water and a spoon.  I pinch off a small chunk from my purchase.  Eddie shakes his head. 

“I’d use about half that and see how it hits you.  This batch is stronger than the last.” 

It’s a ritual, from weighing the junk to parceling it out and cooking it, and this process heightens the urgency of the act.  The procedure is simple: You place a small lump of junk into the spoon along with a piece of cotton, or just a bit torn from a cigarette filter.  You add a little water to it.  Then you hold a lighter under the spoon. When it begins to bubble and liquefy, you insert the needle into the cotton and draw it out into the syringe by slowly pulling back on the plunger. In this way you eliminate many of the impurities that might otherwise clog the needle. 

The heroin is turning black, absorbing into the water. Carefully I set the spoon down on the coffee table, unwrap a syringe from its package, and extract the dark liquid into it.  Because it’s easy to miss the vein or go through it, because it can make for a bloody mess, even causing the collapse of that vein, I stick it in the middle deltoid.  Over the years I’ve come to like it, the sting, knowing the promise of euphoria is right at the other end.

I feel it first in the body, a warming from deep inside, filling my chest, then spreading out into my legs and arms. It comes in waves, this sweeping warmth, and as it seeps into the mind all my worries, all my problems and concerns, immediately disappear.  Heroin is the most seductive of the narcotics, bringing calm where there is anguish, ease where there is discomfort.  The heart slows.  Breathing becomes shallow. 

Eddie makes a fist of his left hand. Even with the syringes still dangling from his shoulders, he’s searching for a vein between his fingers, to mainline, to get the most powerful rush possible.  Again and again he misses, extracts the needle, then jabs it back in. Blood fills the crevices between his fingers and curls around his wrist and drips onto the carpet. 

I press my hands together.

So he can see better, he kneels on the floor before the table lamp.  He searches, and in the dim light, head bowed and blood leaking from his wounds, it looks as if he’s engaged in some grotesque act of prayer.  Though I’ve seen worse, junkies stabbing into an oozing abscess, or sticking the jugular, even I’m repulsed by all the blood.

“Eddie, man,” I say. “Forget it. You’re making a big mess.”

But he ignores me, that or he’s too obsessed with finding  a vein to hear me. Finally he succeeds. His eyes roll back into his head and then his lids slowly close. He’s far away now, in a fine place where no one can reach him.  He won’t miss me.  He won’t even notice when I gather up what I came for and leave.

"Instructions on the Use of Heroin" is an excerpt from James Brown's memoir, This River, published by Counterpoint Press.  Brown is also the author of  The Los Angeles Diaries: A Memoir, also dealing with the addiction and alcoholism, which was chosen as a Best Book of the Year by Publisher's Weekly, The San Francisco Chronicle, and The Independent in London.  He teaches in the M.F.A. Program at Cal State San Bernardino.  Permission to reprint this excerpt is granted by Counterpoint Press.

Please read our comment policy. - The Fix
James Brown Author Photo by Nate Brown (2).jpeg

James Brown is the author of the addiction memoirs, Apology to the Young AddictThe Los Angeles Diaries and This River. He has received the Nelson Algren Award for Short Fiction and a National Endowment for the Arts Literature Fellowship. His writing on addiction, suicide and madness has been featured in Words Without Walls, The Fix, Los Angeles Times Magazine, and The New York Times Magazine. Brown is an English Professor at California State University, San Bernardino.

(Author image by Nate Brown)