Passing Virgil: My Journey Into The Heart of Addiction

By John Lavitt 12/01/16

Over the course of almost 10 years of addiction, I spent thousands of dollars on those streets and wiped ounces of spittle from my palm.

Passing Virgil: My Journey Into The Heart of Addiction
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Nobody embraces drug addiction like a friend coming over for dinner. You always believe that you will be the exception to the rule — it won’t happen to me. This is just a lark, a bit of fun, a walk on Lou Reed’s wild side for a little while. There’s nothing to worry about, I promise. Really, I’m fine.

For the vast majority, however, when hard drugs like heroin and crack are involved, nothing could be further from the truth. In my case, the threat of this truth was cast aside in favor of the smart set drunk on literary allusions: My descent into the dark depths became a fairy tale. 

As I drove downtown night after night to score crack and heroin on the street, the jocular analogy of a fairy tale wiped away with the sweat of shaky palms. No longer a story to parry back and forth between friends, I was alone and took no notice of Virgil Avenue and the sweet bitter inferno. I still can’t believe how quickly I became one more enslaved example of that everyday desperation. My unsettled hands, trembling, cared not for metaphors; I only wanted to score and get high.

I first heard about what came after Virgil Avenue when I stumbled across a tragic woman who told me everything I needed to know, more on her later. Virgil Avenue is a north-south street in Los Angeles that crosses the major boulevards as you head downtown, the last major street before you hit MacArthur Park and the section of the Mexican barrio that is closest to the heart of Hollywood. The center of the drug-dealing street trade back in the 1990s, it begins at Alvarado Street and goes east to include Bonnie Brae Street, Westlake Avenue and Burlington Avenue; the streets where the drugs are actually sold. 

This is where you could easily buy heroin and crack on the street back in the day. The dealers—mostly kids under the age of 18 so they couldn’t be prosecuted—kept the drugs in their mouth. As you drove up with an open window, they would spit the drugs into your hand in exchange for cash. The black tar heroin would be wrapped in mini-balloons, but the crack came in flakes, dripping with spittle. But I never cared about such things. All that mattered was getting the drugs and getting home, not only to use, but to shit as well. Man, scoring drugs on the street triggers a cycle of needed defecation, an incredible relief almost as good as the first hit. So much of my biology became subjugated to the sirens of addiction. 

Over the course of almost 10 years of addiction, I spent thousands of dollars on those streets and wiped ounces of spittle from my palm. I first learned about scoring drugs there from an unlikely person. Although I sometimes did a little cocaine here and there, it was not until she told me her story that the descent into the harder drugs truly began. Like with most beginnings, it took only one seed to be planted for that dangerous and delightful idea to take root. I longed to be wicked.

As a wannabe screenwriter in a successful set, I always believed that my golden ring was waiting around the next bend. I just had to bide my time on the carousel of Hollywood dreams. Biding my time meant researching new screenplay ideas; searching for the most enticing stories.

When a real life story fell in my lap of a lovely Ivy League girl fallen from the heights of those Ivory Towers to the dirty drug dens of the Los Angeles barrio, I jumped at the opportunity. Always a wild child, the young woman once had been featured in Playboy’s "Girls of the Ivy League." I now longed to discover how she had descended into addiction and became entangled with crack and heroin dealers in some of the scariest places in the civilized world. 

When she told me her story, I was shocked to see how those recent experiences had aged her. Her good looks were now overwhelmed by a rattled desperation. In between sobs and wretched pleas to take her downtown to buy heroin, she described how a boyfriend had gotten her into the hard stuff. He first took her on the drive downtown to try crack because it was such a thrill. Once that path was taken, the heroin quickly followed.

As a beautiful blonde, she realized she had power over the dealers at first. When the boyfriend sunk into the abyss of failed drug relationships, she began going to the barrio on her own and staying there. The swiftness with which she went from being a sensual damsel walking on the edge to a degraded addict was downright alarming. But not alarming enough to stop me from wanting to try it all.

Although she did not provide many of the details, it was obvious what had happened and I will not recount that sordid tale. At the same time, it was not a story for me. Way too dark for Hollywood, I did not believe it would ever sell. But the addict waiting within was intrigued by the proposition of scoring on the streets; I wanted to try it for myself. The lure of taking a tour of those depths was so damn enticing. Whether it was the addict lurking within or just the fool ready to fall, I knew I wanted to try it for myself.

When I told my best friend about it, he was just as intrigued. Excited by the dark prospects, almost to the point of being jittery, he exclaimed that we had to make the drive. His enthusiasm was the permission that I had been looking for. Drug addicts in the making, as well as in the depths of their addiction, are always looking for validation. I want to find someone to sign off on my shit so I can pretend it’s not shit. This is one of the deepest levels of manipulation. 

When we first took the drive downtown, my friend pointed out the cosmic irony of passing Virgil. The name of the street signified the Roman poet Virgil for us. In Dante’s Inferno, Virgil, author of The Aeneid, is Dante's guide through the Nine Circles of Hell. Later, Virgil also guides Dante through Purgatory. Since Virgil died before Jesus Christ was born, he was never baptized. As a result, he could never enter Paradise. Since Virgil led a good life on earth, he was given an eternal resting place in the Hall of Kings within the first circle of Limbo with virtuous pagans. Virgil represents the noble virtues of the perfect Roman gentleman, his reason balanced with wisdom makes him the perfect guide through Hell.

A big fan of Dante, my friend would expound on how passing Virgil signaled our descent into the Inferno of the drug-dealing barrio. Unlike the rest of the boring world, we were willing to cross this line and take this chance; two white boys dancing with danger. By marrying the experience to a metaphor, it seemed so much more acceptable. With casual smiles, we would leave Young Turk parties in the Hollywood Hills to head downtown once again. After all, the squares could stick to their booze and pot. Once we had a drink in us, we knew what we wanted. We wanted to cross Virgil.

That’s so often how addiction starts. A friend or two giving you the thumbs up by your side, you are buoyed above the fearful waves of common sense. You are able to toss aside the ingrained warnings of a conscience, of normative civilization, of school and parents, and cross that line. Once Virgil is crossed the first time, it seems so much easier to do it again and again and again. The horror of addiction is in the swift institution of routine.

Addiction removes the need for people as the wanting and the shame take dual control. Sometimes I would score with my friend, sometimes we would even take people from those Young Turk parties on tours of the barrio, acting like brave big shots on the edge of Hell, but more often than not, I soon was alone. All I wanted was to have the wet flakes of crack safely in the palm of my hand, a dark sacrament that could be used upon my return to what once was home. Addiction strips everything, even home, of meaning as the sanctuary of my study, devolved into my own little crack house.

Every single night—week after week, month after month, year after year—I would drive downtown to score, and soon passing Virgil meant nothing to me. I took no notice of the street beyond the jittery acknowledgment that I was closer to my momentary destination, the streets on which I could score the drugs I needed. All I cared about was the trembling of my hands and the debased wanting within that needed to be satisfied at all costs. The smart set knew nothing. Nothing smart was left behind.

Growing up in New York City as a stutterer, John Lavitt embraced writing as a way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the American poet Robert Lax (1913-2000). As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John is the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix.

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Growing up in Manhattan as a stutterer, John Lavitt discovered that writing was the best way to express himself when the words would not come. After graduating with honors from Brown University, he lived on the Greek island of Patmos, studying with his mentor, the late American poet Robert Lax. As a writer, John’s published work includes three articles in Chicken Soup For The Soul volumes and poems in multiple poetry journals and compilations. Active in recovery, John has been the Treatment Professional News Editor for The Fix. Since 2015, he has published over 500 articles on the addiction and recovery news website. Today, he lives in Los Angeles, trying his best to be happy and creative. Find John on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn.