Longtime heroin addict shares a slice of his life

December 06, 1992|By Joe Nawrozki | Joe Nawrozki,Staff Writer

Under the shade of a small-brimmed hat, J. D. glides into the Fells Point diner wrapped in the warm embrace of a heroin injection administered minutes earlier at his kitchen table, down the street, past the late afternoon traffic on Aliceanna Street.

He oozes into a rear booth, sits with his back to the wall and orders a coffee and a monstrous wedge of strawberry shortcake. He scratches his arms and legs while talking to two men in the booth. Freshly fueled heroin junkies crave sweets and scratch a lot.

J. D. requested his name not be published because he still engages in criminal activity to support his habit. Every so often, the narcotic causes his eyelids to droop, like a pair of rowhouse windows with their shades partially pulled against the intruding sunlight.

He's 55 now and has been shooting heroin in Baltimore across four decades. He's a dinosaur and perhaps a frightening preview of things to come.

Since the 1980s, when cocaine converted major sections of America's cities into contested marketplaces and violent killing fields, heroin addicts like J. D. nodded out of America's conscience. That was when the so-called "War on Drugs" was the panacea heard from town halls to the White House, not the eventual $32 billion failure described this year by a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee report.

As it turns out, law enforcement and treatment officials say, cocaine use is on the decline in some portions of society but heroin is making a strong, unprecedented return to the streets.

"It's like a supermarket out there," J. D. says with a smile, referring to Baltimore's heroin scene. "I can get high, a minimum high, on $10 now. Everybody knows me. I been around."

J. D. rolls up his trouser leg and shows his needle scars and sores, much as an old soldier would display his medals. Nearby, in his cluttered back yard, a dog of indeterminate breed scratches incessantly in a patch of sunlight.

When J. D.'s not running to purchase heroin for himself or others, or when he's not shoplifting items like razor blades, he plants flowers in his neighborhood or collects winter clothes for some of the homeless of Fells Point.

People who know J. D. well say it's a medical wonder he's still alive: a tribute to incredibly good luck and a special resilience found woven through his tragic existence.

"We were teen-agers together in East Baltimore shooting dope," says Richard Lane, a recovering addict who for the past 18 years has been executive director of Man Alive.

"I've seen him at his very best and very worst, and now he's at his worst," Mr. Lane says.

"He's a very lonely person. The only people he knows are on the streets or in prison. He's actually a very generous person, a compassionate man. But heroin is his life, his family, his lover."

J. D. served as an altar boy at St. Casimir's Catholic Church until an alcoholic father forced him to drop out of school in the seventh grade and leave home.

At 13, he cut logs for fence posts and worked on a produce wagon. Three years later, J. D. was in Baltimore City Jail charged with armed robbery.

It was there he celebrated his 16th birthday. The jail was also were he melted down his first quarter-grain morphine tablet in water and injected it.

Between stints in jail, he hung out with other junkies and shot morphine and heroin. He stole furs, ran heroin and operated check scams to support his habit.

And in so doing, he ran into his share of violence.

At last count, J. D. has been shot, cut, nearly beaten to death, lost a finger and spent years in prisons and hospitals because of criminal behavior related to his addiction.

He, too, has stabbed a few and delivered a couple of errant gunshots at people who wanted his drugs.

He suffered, he thinks, more than a half dozen near-fatal overdoses -- one galvanizing moment coming in the late 1960s when he went unconscious after shooting up, was wrapped in a large carpet and left for dead.

His addict acquaintances were going to dump J. D. and the rug along a remote highway until J. D. came to and, "Christ, I was rolled up in this carpet. I just unrolled myself," much to the shock of his nodding colleagues.

He also lost his wife and stepson to heroin overdoses during a one-year period while he was in prison.

To avoid discussing those deaths, he rolls down one of his socks, displaying a purple sore the size of a quarter just below his calf muscle. "I have a couple of abscesses," he says, "but I gotta shoot up in my legs. I ain't got no veins left in my arms."

When he leans over, there's another reminder of his criminal life -- across the top of his head, through the thinning gray hair and running from ear to ear, there's a gigantic scar.

"I had five operations and I got plastic inside my forehead," he says. "I got jumped by guys in New York who hit me in the head with a baseball bat and a piece of pipe. . . . I don't know what came first."

"I think sometimes," J. D. says, taking a short drag on a cigarette, "now that I'm 55, that I should go on a program and stop this mess, but I'll probably go back to firing. I love it.

"It seems like a lifelong thing, shootin' heroin."

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