An Encyclopedia of Little Abominations

Emily Carter's flirtation with drugs led her from Park Avenue to a bad marriage with the festering streets of New York's Alphabet City. Now, in a collection of stories, Carter recalls the ABCs of addiction--and spells out the terms of a new life in Minnea

The Staten Island Ferry might be the least romantic vessel in New York City's fleet of public transportation. All day long it shuttles bone-weary commuters and automobiles from Manhattan to the borough that many New Yorkers would rather see go away. On a rare clear day, the trip offers unbeatable views, and more often than not, one finds a trigger-happy tourist or two braving the swill to get a glimpse of the city's gaudy skyline. On most occasions, however, the brackish arrival ports and swooping gulls erase any postcard images from the mind's, or camera's, eye. Smart folks go to the Statue of Liberty for their pictures.

In the mid-1980s, Emily Carter was one of the ferry's most loyal passengers. Born and raised in New York, Carter was not sightseeing on the cheap, nor did she live in Staten Island. Rather, the hulking barge had become her refuge from the world. "There were days when neither my friends nor my parents would let me into their houses," she says. "The only place I could go then was the Staten Island Ferry and I would just take it back and forth. I'd bring enough drugs and money and I would hide. I spent days on there getting progressively fucked up."

A decade later Carter tells this story from the bar of a Thai restaurant in Minneapolis's Warehouse District. Wearing a slinky black tank top, flame-red boots, and hip-hugging jeans, she doesn't quite fit in with the mid-afternoon bar set. In fact, from her go-go appearance, one might surmise, incorrectly, that she hasn't quite left the using life behind. Pulling on a Marlboro with dramatic flair, she grudgingly tosses off anecdotes of the drug life, a bomber over the ruins of Cambodia making one last run before turning the B-52 home. But she's not quite there yet.

Teddy Maki

Next week Carter will embark on the publicity tour for her debut collection of stories Glory Goes and Gets Some (published by Minneapolis's Coffee House Press), which lays out the aftermath of a dozen years spent abusing alcohol and drugs. While the book draws on Carter's experiences in recovery, the rehashing of what came before it--however painful that may be in its umpteenth retelling--looms as a necessary prologue. As a veteran of therapy--she started seeing a psychologist at age four--Carter certainly has the equipment for personal confession. But as a writer and a person who has fought to get to her current state of sobriety, she'd rather keep conversation in the literary realm.

"This little book is 11, 12 years worth of work. I'm glad to get it done, but you also can't imagine how, in some ways, embarrassing it is to have all these things I've written 8, 12 years ago. I am a totally different writer now." Carter, approaching age 40 with wisps of gray at her temples, was also a different person then. "I ran around looking like Valerie Solanas, a wretched little beatnik," Carter said in a Poz magazine profile two years ago. "I hung out at the Horseshoe Bar. A more obnoxious drink-cadging slut they never came in contact with, and there was stiff competition."

Though it's probably safe to say that no one's parents expect to see their tots turn into junkies, Carter's pedigree in particular would seem to have put her at a safe remove from the skuzzy dive bars of Manhattan's Alphabet City. Her mother, novelist and feminist thinker Anne Roiphe, descended from the Van Heusen family of clothiers. Carter's stepfather, Herman Roiphe (she never knew her biological father) is a well-known psychotherapist. Together her parents built a happy home off Park Avenue. In the words of her younger sister, cultural critic and author Katie Roiphe, "we had a sort of warm, chaotic household--two dogs, cats, five girls. We were a patched-together family of half sisters, stepsisters." Carter was destined to be the black sheep of this clan.

She acted out early, bouncing from one pricey Connecticut boarding school to the next and then right out of New York University. Attention deficit disorder and depression were the culprits, Carter says now. In retrospect, she believes her drug abuse was a way to cover up those two, often-linked, conditions. But the Band-Aid solution created an even worse problem: Carter's compulsion to drink was overwhelming. "I knew early on my reactions to them weren't the same as those in my peer group," Carter says coolly. "My attraction was much more intense. When I was 13 years old, I went to a party of much older kids and I was trying to tag along with my older sister. I got really, really drunk and woke up the next morning on the beach with some guy who was like 21. My feelings about it were not, 'Gee, I did something really foolish.' My first thought was, 'Where can I get more alcohol?' I liked the feeling that it gave me that much."

Throughout her 20s, Carter progressed from one drug to the next, from alcohol to cocaine, and then to heroin. But she also continued to write. To finance her habits--the writing and the drugs--she worked a variety of odd jobs, stole a painting out of her parents' living room and resold it to a gallery, and moonlighted as a stripper. (She eventually dabbled in trading sex for drugs.) Katie Roiphe remembers her sister's fleeting presence in these years: "She would sort of come back and leave, come back and leave. She seemed to me very glamorous and wild. I think she was always interested in me and my younger sister. I remember when I was little she wrote me this story with photos about our family. She was having a hard time."

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