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.

Despite the shaky beginnings, Curt managed to stay sober for two years--his longest stretch to date--before another back injury put him on painkillers again. For the half-dozen years since, he's bounced in and out of sobriety, putting together a year here, nine months there. "It's hard to put this all into exact chronological order," he says. "There are periods of time that are just a blur."

But he does remember the big things: falling in love with his ex-fiancée, the birth of their son, the suicidal bender he went on when they left him. The disappointment of waking up after he tried to kill himself by overdosing. Living on the streets--in shelters, under loading docks, in a cozy, hidden stairwell at the hospital--begging and stealing the money for drugs. Meeting his current girlfriend at a support group for heroin addicts. Getting on methadone. Getting kicked off it.

"Every time I get clean, I get a home, a job, start dating someone really sweet," he says. "Then I relapse and flush it all down the toilet again."

David Kern

"There is no way to fix an addict," Curt declares flatly. Just last week, he offers, he got up one day at 5:00 a.m. to do his chores at the hotel and make it to the county's chemical dependence assessment center so he could apply to get back on methadone. He arrived at 6:15 a.m.--already the tenth person in line--and was there until about 10:30 a.m. As he was walking back from his assessment, he passed a corner notorious for pot and cocaine dealing. He figured it might be his last chance to score before going to the workhouse. "I had money. I thought I'd buy some coke to shoot," he admits. "I went back, talked to someone, then eventually left. I'm getting better. It's more likely that I'm not going to use. But there's still no guarantee."


Curt whispers goodbye to his girlfriend as he closes the door to their room. He is excited as he spills happily out of the hotel onto Hennepin Avenue. At first I'm guessing his cheeriness stems from the good news: It's not confirmed yet, but it looks like he'll be allowed back into the methadone clinic after all. He will, however, have to go to treatment for three weeks. Even so, he says, that's better than two months.

But that's not why he's so chipper today. He's been thinking about scoring since 1:00 a.m. Only nine hours, he thought while looking at the clock. "I have the money," he explains. "And I really want to get high.

"It looks like I'm going to treatment next week, and after that I really want to get my shit together," he pledges, then offers an addendum to the oath. "I'm not going to say it's the last time."

He has already called his dealer in north Minneapolis to let him know he's on the way. On the drive, Curt rolls down the car windows. "Don't worry, I'm not going to throw up," he insists. "I have very good control over my vomiting."

Once he arrives in the designated neighborhood, Curt strolls over to a pay phone. It's out of order. "There's another one over there," he says, pointing across a parking lot. As he strides toward it, he taps an unopened pack of cigarettes on the palm of his hand. "I think I do pretty well for an addict," he boasts. "Most people just spend all their money and fuck the rent. I still manage to bring my girlfriend flowers sometimes. Buy food, get cigarettes. It's a miracle. Only through 13 years of doing this have I figured out how to manage it."

At the pay phone, his fingers glide across the buttons in a pattern that's obviously familiar. "You sit with your fingers crossed that he hasn't turned the phone off or sold out," Curt says.

He's instructed to walk to a corner a couple of blocks away. There's a man pacing there, and Curt wonders if the dealer is there already. But no, it isn't him. Curt crosses to wait at the bus stop. A young man strolls to the corner, says hello to Curt, and then notes a police car coming up the street. At the same time, a bus is pulling up. It opens its doors just as the police car turns the corner. Curt pretends to ask the driver directions, but before he can get a word out, the doors close in his face. The young man walks away. The police car pauses at the end of the next block before turning another corner.

After a few minutes, Curt walks up to a man on a bicycle coming toward him. "Is $45 okay?" he asks the rider. When he steps back he's got the heroin in his hand, wrapped in paper like a tiny piece of saltwater taffy. If cops showed up, he says, he'd shove the heroin in his belly button. No one has ever searched him there, he says with a puffed-up bravado, letting loose a dissonant, brash laugh that sounds like Harpo Marx honking his horn.

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