“As a child Sebastian Briglia wanted to be American, and luckily for him at the time, so did his parents. They emigrated from Bulgaria in 1991, not long after the fall of communism. As an adult, he wanted to be Bulgarian again, mostly because of his mounting legal troubles in America, though unfortunately for him at the time he was estranged from his parents and Bulgaria as he remembered it did not exist anymore. Later he began to suspect that Bulgaria as he remembered it never existed.
He has attempted to reach a balance between what he thinks he wants and what he thinks he needs by exploring spirituality and materialism both on and off drugs and new wave music, in urban as well as rural environments. All of this, of course, has been to no avail.”
New Wave and the Art of Heroin Maintenance I: http://amzn.to/Os0V9g
New Wave and the Art of Heroin Maintenance II: http://amzn.to/WFqh3d
A video of me reading a passage of “New Wave and the Art of… I” to clips from a heroin documentary and shots of surreal sculptures: http://youtu.be/aBx9ug7QSUA
Raven on Heroin
From “New Wave and the Art of Heroin Maintenance I”
by Sebastian Briglia
I had to fight off the advances of my eyelids along with my skin’s urge to be scratched. I thought I was winning, but that could have been on account of the dope too. I looked over to Raven for some reassurance. Her eyes were closed and she was scratching her nose. Then I noticed her eyebrows were up in a surprised expression.
“Yeah, downtown…” she said. I realized she thought her eyes were open. I wondered if mine were closed as well. I stepped on her foot and her big eyes threw their lids open like a fuzzy blanket that you kick off energetically at first, and then pull back half way.
“So you two are thinking of moving here,” Raven’s aunt Janine said.
We were on the second floor of a restaurant with a waterfall dripping down a marble wall in front of us. At least I think it was a waterfall—I remember it glittering with shiny spots. I was really high, so some of this could have just been a waking dope dream.
“I have an interview with a newspaper about a layout design job in a week,” I said.
“So you two have been staying in a hotel,” said Aunt Janine. Wow, she totally saw where we were going with this, that we were about to ask her if we could crash with her. She didn’t even care about my upcoming job in the glamorous world of journalism. Or how I was going to get permission to work in Canada. As if neither of those things were going to happen. Her smile had faded into an uneasy expression. “How is it?” she asked.
“How is what?” Raven murmured with her pupils hanging from the top of her eyelids like bats in a cave.
“The hotel,” Aunt Janine elaborated patiently, avoiding Raven’s retreating eyes as if she were trying not to stare at a missing arm.
“It’s by the big train station on Main Street.” Raven snapped out of it suddenly, though her effort to keep her eyes open was still apparent.
“Oh, bad neighborhood,” Aunt Janine said with a disapproving smile. It reminded me of Raven’s mother. Certain people have this way of smiling when they sense something even slightly socially inappropriate. As if they need to let you know how terribly unacceptable things like living in a bad neighborhood are in their world. Her smiles seemed to appear and disappear suddenly, and she defaulted to nervous, maybe even shifty glances. Now that I think about it, she was probably scared. I would have been. “I’d offer you two to stay over my house, but it’s very small,” she added.
“We just figure we should stop spending money on the hotel,” Raven chimed in with brand new clarity, as if joining the conversation for the first time. “Maybe we can stay at Uncle David and Aunt Christina’s until the interview. I should have deposit money coming from the apartment in Jersey…”
“Oh, theirs is even smaller,” Aunt Janine interrupted and started to take out her wallet to pay for the meal. “You should pay them a visit though, they’d appreciate it.”
But wait, how did we get here?! It went like this:
The first conversation we got into after shooting in the hostel had very much to do with tying the loose ends of anything imperfect in our life-stories. We were just going to get high to get moving. I was going to be a weed journalist while working on a book about the nature of reality. I had much of it written, the only reason it made no sense was because I was too out of control on drugs to pull out the gems from the bulk. Raven could use her banking experience and her business ideas.
We felt the smooth Chinese heroin (or a dilution there of), but not for too long because we had been taking Subutex, the detox medication we had brought from the States which had an opiate blocker in it. We had knocked off the blocker from our opiate receptors and the next hit would have a more complete effect, we knew this from experience (and Wikipedia). I grabbed some money and was about to be on my way to get some more. Then we’d really get moving with our lives.
But first, Raven pulled off my pants and went down on me. Just something that happens when heroin is around. After I was done, she asked if I was going to return the favor. That’s what it was—a favor, a gift of well being, like the dope. I said there was no time to do it, I had to catch Helen before she disappeared, she was the only connect I had so far. I was already using words like “so far.” Raven brushed her teeth, got dressed and came with me this time.
She couldn’t get too upset, after all—at the end of this journey into the ghetto, like a light at the end of a tunnel, there was the image of this room, this bed, sheets seething in sweat, and her lying down to receive a massage she would not need since chemistry would be rubbing her down from within her veins. Yet there I would be, kneeling above her bare backside, her shirt soaked and riding up, something wet and smelling like jasmine and Scotch tape on my upper lip, my tongue sore and rough. “More fingers,” she would say. “More fingers?” I would wonder to myself, puzzled because I would be sure I haven’t started the massage yet. I would look down and notice that the only fingers not in her already are my pinkie and my thumb. I would fix that quickly… “Claw down, like a bear looking for honey…” she would murmur in a hum that would drift into a dream world. I would know I’d have to turn her on her back—can’t let the mattress get too drenched by the fountain that would spring out of her, unlike my face, which had it coming… That effort would take even longer than the trip to cop we were now about to begin, and it would leave us dehydrated and sunken, though it would take us even longer to notice.
Striding through Strathcona, the hipster neighborhood that was still mostly ghetto, was now barely noticeable for me, though Raven did stop to look at the varieties of strange sea creatures at the Chinese market. Though I paused with her, my mind didn’t stop moving until we were about to cross East Hastings Street at the old Carnegie Library.
A lady in a black jean jacket, slightly bell-bottomed jeans and flip-flops was crossing the street from the opposite direction. She had a matching black canvas shoulder bag strapped on and seemed like a normal person with a bagged lunch in her hand. It was around noon, so the brown bag made sense. Her face, however, didn’t. Not immediately. She had a clown-like, exaggerated frown. From behind the blond curls in her face her jaw kept rolling, as if unable to swallow something, adding an emotional instability to her demeanor. Her tiptoeing didn’t do much for her physical balance either. She was tweaking.
Helen was by the entrance of the alley. She was looking down, hunched over, absorbed by the contents of her dirty nylon hoodie’s pockets. Above and behind her a web of iron rails and metal ladders connected the buildings on each side of the alley, almost a perfect latticework of wire and beams. The top of a street lamp hung down, suspended from a beam going across above the alley, without a pole. It looked as if someone had cut it off from an actual lamppost and connected it here, to provide some visibility in this forgotten corner at night. There were more street lamps just like it, at regular intervals behind it. So they were public works after all… Vancouver certainly wasn’t short on oddities.
Helen did not get startled when I tapped her on the shoulder. She spoke to Raven like she had known her forever.
“Don’t get ‘down’ from the guy with the pimples over there,” she said to us as we passed a blond scar-faced boy with pinned blue eyes. He tried to make eye contact but looked away when he saw Helen. “He’s a fiend,” she said in her sort of hollow, maternal voice.
We walked around through the alleys looking for the good stuff. She even took us across East Hastings in another alley behind the Regent Hotel. A gigantic vertical sign hung there, perhaps once illuminated, now covered in rust. Still a working hotel. Kind of. Eventually we found a mustached Spanish dealer, who had what we were looking for, as well as her payment in crack currency.
Dealers getting addicts to bring addicts to them was a common occurrence in the Downtown East Side. The idea was that dealers who are not addicts would take too much time being salesmen under the noses of the police. Of course, giving dope to dope fiends to sell had some very obvious disadvantages. Very often credit was extended to prostitutes, who sold drugs, but being addicts themselves, often got themselves in debt. The dealers shaved the heads of prostitutes who were behind on their debts to send a message. Sometimes they did worse.
They didn’t trust Helen to hold anything. Perhaps she had been problematic. She didn’t strike me as the problem type. She did seem to have a big generous heart, maybe on account of her always tweaking when we saw her. She asked us if we wanted some crack that time.
I appreciated my coke and dope, but if you asked me back then if I wanted to go out and get some crack I would have said no. The short duration and high intensity of the drug left we with mostly paranoia. And that was the high point—the paranoia that I can’t maintain the high that I feel. However, if you had some crack in front of me and passed me the stem, I would smoke it. After that, I would say yes if you wanted to go get crack, because the only thing that happens after my first couple of hits is a desire to have more. Being actually high wouldn’t even be an issue at that point. I only noticed the high when there was more waiting for me.
Helen passed Raven the stem, and then she passed it to me. A stem is a tiny glass vase sold in bodegas with a tiny fake rose in a bubble inside it. Nobody buys them for decoration. The same thing is used in the New York area. As Raven passed the pipe a realization that we were going to get high more than a few times while we were getting our lives together flashed in my mind, then disappeared. That thought had been so obvious it understated itself out of existence.
When the crack was gone we had to rush home to calm down with a shot of the other stuff.
“Why do you have to go home to do that?” asked Helen. We went home, but next time we wouldn’t. She would show us the alternative.
Raven called her relatives in the area. There were Uncle David and Aunt Christina, and there was another, older aunt, Janine. She wanted to meet with us.
I called Cannabis Culture Magazine and made an appointment with Marc Emery, The Prince of Pot himself. I was going to meet with him in a week. It was perfect. I had potential, in the future, an “I have a job interview with a magazine” story, and most importantly, a week to get my nerve up to ace that interview. I had defeated laziness and failure, I believed, and for some reason I wanted to defeat it again and again. We became daily fixtures on East Hastings Street. Helen took us under her motherly wing.
Once we visited Helen in the alley early in the morning and she was not hunched over. She looked much younger and her eyes were not puffy, you could actually see her blue, speckled irises. She did not slur her speech.
“Wow, you’re here early,” she said, and actually smiled fully. Her face was not stuck in a twitch, like it usually seemed to be.
“We’re out, we didn’t cop last night, so we have to do it this morning,” I said.
“We’re meeting with my aunt Janine, we have to get straight for that,” said Raven. Getting straight of course meant getting high.
“Hey maybe you can stay with her for a while,” said Helen. “That way you don’t have to keep spending your money at the hostel. You know, until you get that job at the magazine.” That, of course, was what we were thinking.
“You sound different,” said Raven, and by different she meant normal.
“That’s because I didn’t smoke yet, honey,” said Helen. She actually looked like a teenager that morning, at least two decades younger than usual. It was like a mask that she always wore was taken off. Did everyone around there wear masks like that, I wondered. I did not wonder about our own masks. Yet.
We got our “down” and some coke, Helen got her rocks, but we needed to go home and shoot up. It had been too long since our last fix to hang around. Just before letting some smoke enter her lungs to start a rapid chain reaction that would twist her face, make her slur her consonants and hollow out her vowels, she said what she meant to say last time we had to rush home:
“Hey, you guys don’t know about Insite, do you?” She took her first hit and walked us from the alley up the hill on East Hastings to a prewar style residential building with what used to be a store-front on the first floor. The broad windows were covered with Venetian blinds shut and amplifying stray rays from the sun in their spotlessness. It had that do-it-yourself, fresh paint job, a vibrant, glossy dark green that made it stick out in the rusty block. There was a stenciled picture of a syringe, with “Welcome to Insite” written above it. The word “Insite” itself was a logo, with a little flower instead of the dot above the “i.”
“It’s a government safe-house where you could legally shoot up,” she said as she opened the door. It was a clean white reception room with a young man in hipster style scruff behind an iMac on a desk. “You don’t have to give him your real names.”
“Why do they need any names?” Raven asked like a giddy girl who just had to say something, having entered what promised to be the playground of her dreams.
“Research,” he said. “What kind of drugs are you using today?” he asked. We told him.
“They have clean syringes, cookers, alcohol, tourniquets, and a staff of nurses to help you if you have trouble,” said Helen on her way out the door. The scruffy man smiled.
“I’ll see you out there,” said Helen as she disappeared into the cloud of blinding morning sunlight at the door, waiting for her as she opened it. She was already hunched over and grimacing.
Dirty junkies sat next to professionals on their way to work in the sterile waiting room. Each visitor seemed to regard the rest as a source of entertainment. “I wonder what she’s on,” we were all thinking. One of the assistants, a young lady in a lab coat with straight long hair and the attitude of a suburban elementary school teacher read fake names from a clip board. We were “Mr. and Mrs. Bean,” which was easy on her compared to some of the others—like Angelbitch, Funslave, Mystery Sin and Samba Del Diablo. Strippers? Prostitutes? Perhaps those names served no purpose; just burnt-out minds tagging reality so that someone may remember. One by one she took the members of our motley collection of street dwellers and working people into a hall that seemed to glow with a metallic shine, which flashed through the door as it opened and closed.
When we were guided through, the butterfly feeling in my stomach was already tickling my bladder with excitement. It was a large, windowless hall with mirrored booths separated by wooden panels. The glow came from the shiny metal tables. Lights lining the mirrors completed the dressing room ambiance, leaving the rest of the hall rather dim. There was another glow.
It came from the center of the room. It was a table-island stocked with baskets of syringes and convenient little cookers, not the bottle caps you’d find in a New York needle exchange tent. Little bottles of distilled water, professional rubber tourniquets, matches, the works. And in the corner, behind a hospital ward-style curved table were the nurses in their lab coats.
“You can go ahead to booth number 3,” the assistant told Raven, “and number 6 is ready right over there for you,” she said to me. They were sterilizing these booths after each user. The place was pristine.
I looked around once as I sat down, and did not get the urge to keep sneaking peaks. It was like watching woodland creatures going about their routine in their natural habitat. There was something calming and sacred about it. A dark girl with a disfigured, burned face was in one of the booths. I had seen her on the street—she always wore a shawl around her face and sped up her pace, turning self-consciously if my eyes accidentally fell on her. She looked calm and natural here too.
Normally medical sterility would be associated with oppression and all the rules and regulations of a hospital. This was my impression of hospitals before anyway—I had to either hide my addiction in them, so that I got the prescriptions I wanted, or they had to impose their will on me, if I was there to get the addiction treated. Here, however, the facilities served us in our oppression against ourselves. Like nature.