A Junkie's Work is Never Done

Ever since his first jolt of painkillers 17 years ago, Curt has been meaning to get clean. Soon.

Curt Saxton--not his real name--is staring out the second-floor picture window that takes up most of one wall in his hotel's lobby. It appears that he's lost in thought, gazing absently over that stretch of downtown Minneapolis's Hennepin Avenue that's seedy masquerading as upscale--or the other way around. Then something catches his attention."Is that him?" he says, more to himself than anyone else.

Down a flight of stairs and across the street, a man is walking up the sidewalk carrying a Styrofoam leftovers container. He plods along slowly, propping himself up with a cane. "He's one of my dope dealers," Curt continues. "Looks just like him. I dunno if he had a cane. He did walk like that."

Curt's large, brown eyes seem to pop out of his head as he studies the man. Then he jerks his hands up and waves away the thought of the man. He's looking down at his hands as he lights up a Winner 100. Taking the first drag, he looks up again.

David Kern

"Motherfucking shit," he exclaims suddenly. The man has turned. He's coming back. Curt cranes his neck and leans forward to look back out the window. "I'm just going to pretend that's not him," he announces after some deliberation. His forehead wrinkles. "Now I can't think."

It's as if his mind has been flooded with a vision, no doubt of himself sprinting down the dim, narrow stairwell of the hotel and across the street to score something, anything, that will make him feel better right now. Make him well.

The fact that he doesn't have any money is a problem, of course, though that hasn't stopped him before. There have been times--as recently as six months ago, he says--that Curt has been out on the street begging for change. Or in Marshall Field's, primed to boost a leather jacket.

"I had a dribble of methadone this morning," Curt explains, then stops for a moment. "Or was it last night? Last night. And it's already like, wooo." He exhales loudly and rolls his eyes upward. "In a couple of hours..." he trails off, turning to look at the neon Bud Light clock on the wall. In a couple of hours he's supposed to be at work.

Time turns in on itself when you're an addict. And Curt is an addict. "I'm a Scorpio," he ventures proudly. "That means I'm into drugs, sex, food--anything that feels good." At age 31 he has been addicted to opiates--pain pills and heroin, mostly--for almost half his life.

"See?" he continues, holding out his right hand, lit cigarette dangling. "I'm starting to get really shaky." He lists the ailments that he knows will arrive with withdrawal, when his body figures out it won't be getting the substances it's accustomed to. Diarrhea, teary eyes, a runny nose, a congested throat, nausea, vomiting, headaches, pains. "Every hole in the body runs," he says. "The worst part is the anxiety. No matter where you are, it's like lightning is going to strike."

At five-feet-seven-inches tall, Curt is relatively slight, yet he's dressed in an oversize T-shirt and long, baggy shorts. His dark hair, closely cropped, is coarse and unkempt, as are his bushy eyebrows, mustache, and beard. It's mid-afternoon on an early September day, and Curt has only just managed to pull himself out of bed. His pace is off balance, as if he's fighting the flu. Yet he is still the picture of courtesy. "Coffee? A soda?" he asks, nodding toward the coffee pot and vending machine that flank one side of the living room. "I'm buying." Curt perches on a stool and explains his current conundrum.

He's scheduled to report to the workhouse next week, punishment for violating his probation in Anoka County for an old drug paraphernalia bust. He's afraid that if he does the time, when he comes out to go to work, he'll try and prevent withdrawal by using heroin. "I wouldn't make it," he says. "If I go back, I'd be thrown in jail. If I don't go back, they look for you."

The only answer, in his mind, is to get on a methadone program. But there's another problem. Curt attended such a clinic in Hennepin County for about a year (he was introduced to methadone by his girlfriend, also a heroin and cocaine addict), but was booted off in April for cocaine use. At the time, he says, his counselor gave him an option: either go to inpatient treatment for two months, or get off the program. Curt argued that he didn't want to go to treatment because he'd lose his jobs (light housekeeping at the hotel, a union gig cooking at a nearby restaurant). The counselor wouldn't yield; Curt was banned from the methadone program.

Since then Curt has managed his addiction through black-market methadone ("You hope no one's tampered with it, poured half of it out and filled it with water") and shooting up on average once a week--just to get through the rough patches, he says.

This week he was able to get only about three-quarters of his usual amount of methadone. "The other day I thought I'd be better off doing the full detox when I'm at home and can at least be comfortable," he begins. "I had the last drop and thought, It's better to go cold turkey. But now I'm sick, and I think a slower detox is better. Or maybe it would be better to do it in the workhouse, when I don't have a choice.

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