On the plane down to Florida, I sat next to a middle-aged woman who wore too-big glasses and had pulled her slightly graying hair into a bun. She was kind and curious. I remember what I told her: I was flying south on assignment. I worked for magazines, I said. You know, the life of a writer. It's a bitch. I spend more hours than I can count in airport lounges and Holiday Inns. It's kind of lonely, but that's reality.
That was in October 1997. I was 25 and had spent the years since I graduated from college focusing all of my desperate energy on my career as an intravenous drug addict. I was 6 feet tall and weighed less than 150 pounds. That entire year, I had cleared $3,192 in legal income. I worked for a coffee shop and a liquor store and a couple of bookstores, never lasting at any job for more than a couple of weeks. At one point, I gave confused, occasionally incoherent English lessons to Japanese academics visiting Harvard. (My eternal apologies, Mr. Kobayashi.) I hadn't done any real writing in years, and the last time I'd traveled on anything resembling a magazine assignment had been the previous summer, when Details had shipped me off to Mexico for an experimental, two-day rapid detox program that was supposed to miraculously cure my heroin addiction. It failed spectacularly. Now I was on my way to Delray Beach with a bag of clothes, a bag of books, and an admission ticket to a long-term treatment center.
We landed in West Palm Beach. She said, Good luck and take care of myself. I rushed down the gangway so she wouldn't see the goon sent to grab me from the plane.
It had been three years since I first tried heroin, snorting a bag by myself on a brisk Sunday morning the fall after I graduated from college. I was living in New York City, and within weeks I was using every day. It had been two years since I had moved back to Boston, ran out of money, and began shooting up. I had been almost laughably lucky—I had friends who brought me to hospital when I overdosed; I hadn't tested HIV-positive; no one I'd tied off had ended up dying on my floor. Now, after about a dozen hospitalizations, a handful of overdoses, more than $10,000 in credit card cash advances, and thousands of dollars stolen from my friends and lovers and family, I was cashing in my last remaining chip. My parents agreed to front the money for the Renaissance Institute, a hard-core treatment center in Boca Raton that specialized in intractable addicts. I knew it was the last chance I'd get to try to start over and that if I didn't take it, I'd die. I felt more unique than I really was, but then that was always one of my problems. Just because I'd never had to start over didn't mean that hundreds of people didn't do it every day.
A little less than four months later, I was thrown out of Renaissance for having sex with an 18-year-old from Alabama who worked her doctor for prescription pain pills and her parents for second chances. I was given two black Hefty bags filled with my clothes and told I had 10 minutes to get off the property. I had no money, no credit cards, no place to live. But I'd also been clean for more than three months, and for the first time since I started using, I felt like I could stay sober. The actual physical detox—the diarrhea, the sleeplessness, the anxiety and paranoia—was over, and I was slowly reining in my racing thoughts.
When I had come down to Florida the previous fall, I kept insisting I'd never live in such a wasteland for more than a month or two. Now that I was out of rehab, I didn't even think of trying to leave. In fact, I didn't think about much of anything at all. I had learned some basic survival skills in treatment—how to cook a few entry-level meals, how to stick to a budget, how to keep on top of bills—but mainly I'd learned that all I could do to keep from falling over was to keep on walking forward.
The first job I had down in Florida was working as a day laborer. I'd line up in a parking lot at 6 a.m. with a bunch of migrant workers and a handful of active junkies and wait for the slow procession of pickups to pull in, grabbing two guys for this job, five for that one. I lasted less than a week. I didn't know how to dig a ditch any more than I knew how to file my taxes—I'd jab my shovel straight down into the ground instead of rounding it out and as often as not ended up tripping over my own feet. I was spraying sweat within minutes, so soaked that one of the other guys I was working with actually asked me if I was high. Next, I landed a gopher gig in Office Depot's corporate headquarters. I was sharing a bedroom in a one-story house down by the railroad tracks for $50 a week; my landlord was a Mexican who said he was sober but kept bottles of rum on top of the fridge, and my roommate was a 32-year-old blond man with feathered hair and delicate hands. He had a low-grade pill habit and a fiancee still in the local community college. I had to navigate Delray's skeletal public transportation system to get to work, and the multibus trip took more than two hours if I didn't time the connections just right. It never occurred to me that it would have taken less time to just walk to work.
Office Depot had a business-casual dress code, which for me meant too-tight chinos (I had gained almost 50 pounds since quitting the heroin diet) and a rotating collection of pale-blue button-down shirts from J.C. Penney. I didn't know you were supposed to wear undershirts, and usually my shirts were covered with conspicuous sweat stains by 10 a.m. Every morning, I'd collect hundreds of pieces of interoffice mail and painstakingly sort them into slots that were organized by rank, not alphabetically. I'd have lunch in the cafeteria, go back, and do it all again.
Eventually, after missing my connection one too many times and showing up an hour late, I was fired. My supervisor solemnly called me over to her cubicle after lunch one day and said the "executive team" was thrilled to have someone with my education and intelligence working for them, but the bottom line was that she needed someone who'd show up on time to file the mail. I wasn't enormously surprised. The overblown combination of insecurity and arrogance I'd nursed since junior high was slowly being replaced by a more bracing realism. I cleaned out my desk, took a bus back into town, and began applying for jobs at the touristy restaurants in downtown Delray.