A Baltimore addict escapes the city for the South in hopes of getting clean
by Kenneth Stone Breckenridge
Illustrations by Krysten Hayes
John, a 36-year-old handyman from Baltimore County who describes himself as a “dope fiend” needs a ride to Myrtle Beach, and I’m it.
A friend told me their neighbor is trying to leave Baltimore and they want to leave the next day. “[A] guy needs a ride to South Carolina. . . . If you want to do it, I’ll give him your number and y’all can work it out,” my friend’s text said.
I call John (editor’s note: City Paper decided to omit John’s last name and the names of his girlfriend and daughter to keep them relatively anonymous), we have a quick conversation, the gist of which is that he’s trying to get his mother’s house to detox from his chronic heroin use. His girlfriend, who was also a habitual heroin user, left town with their daughter and he’s going to join them and shake off his habit.
What a story, but what about the money? Well, John has none. However, his mother, whose house he’ll be staying at in Myrtle Beach, will happily pay me for the trip when we get there.
“I’ve never been that kind of person to screw people over. I’ll screw myself over. I’ll get high and ruin my life,” he said, in hopes of persuading me.
It’s clear that this is a trip of necessity and that he’s not in the least bit interested in the warm climate, sand, and leisure of Myrtle Beach.
“When you are on heroin, you don’t have emotion anymore,” John said. “They just go away. The only emotion you know is sick and high. Seeing, [my daughter] happy—that makes me happy. Not a lot of things make me happy anymore. I don’t want her to go down a wrong path and repay for something I did.”
His resolution to shake his addiction feels genuine and although I could be getting played, I agree to drive John to South Carolina. I rideshare on the side and before this I was a cab driver—in this gig economy, I’ll take someone down to Myrtle Beach if the money is right and especially if I can help him get his life in order.
John’s late. I have been sitting in my car for 20 minutes in old Dundalk waiting when a slender white guy in a T-shirt and camouflage pants walks up.
“Hey bud, sorry man. I had to stop up the Farm store,” he says.
We walk into his house and I hear the distinct barking of a small dog—a lively Dachshund shuffles around with a tennis ball in her mouth.
“Her name’s Sissy. She’s a lovable, good dog, but she’s very protective,” John says as he walks through a small, nearly empty apartment converted from a single-family home’s bottom floor.
He steps over a pile of blankets as a television blares “Let’s Make Deal.” Sissy follows, looking up at him the whole time, her jaws still clenching the ball.
He hastily fills a small tote and the room is mostly spartan, save for scattered toys, blocks, and a few children’s books. He’s talking but I can’t hear him over “Let’s Make a Deal,” Wayne Brady yapping at some contestant dressed as a pine tree car air freshener.
“Sorry for running so late. I’m just bringing a few things down there,” John says.
Another 20 minutes later, my tiny Prius is filled to the gills with boxes, garbage bags of clothes.
“She won’t get into nothing. We might need to stop once or twice to let her pee or something,” he says. Sissy lies between us, somehow balanced between the edge of my seat and John’s seat for the whole trip.
Before we hit the highway we stop at Royal Farms again. John has a box of Krispy Kreme donuts open on his lap and plows through several of them, scraping every molecule of the chocolate icing from the top with a plastic knife.
The first half hour of our trip is marked by an awkward silence. I break the ice by asking how he was making ends meet—earlier he’d told me he wasn’t working.
“I sold a lot of our stuff. We don’t need it and I figure we can get furniture, dishes, and clothes again,” he says, still working on his Krispy Kremes. “My mother was going to buy me a ticket [to Myrtle Beach], but I couldn’t bring Sissy and I wasn’t sure I was going to leave yet. I was going to rent a car, but my birthday was a week ago and my driver’s license expired, so they wouldn’t let me.”
Soon we get to talking about his heroin use and how long he has struggled with it.
“It’s just since my daughter’s been born,” he says still eating, answering mid-chew. “She’s five.”
He sets the box of donuts on the dashboard and begins to reflect.
“I grew up an ‘80s baby,” he says. “Nas, Mobb Deep, all the best rappers are storytellers. I love that era to be able to tell a story and it’s the God’s honest truth. I can tell that same story. I’m not rapping about someone else’s story. I can tell my own story and every bit of it’s the truth and it’s good and bad, you know? Life isn’t always good. Life is a roller coaster. It’s up and down.”
His mother, who John describes as “more of a friend that took care of me than a mother,” was a regular associate of the Pagans, a notorious One Percenter motorcycle club.
“My mother was always around drugs,” he says rubbing Sissy’s head, revealing significant scars on his hand. “So I grew up around drugs. It was always a part of my mother’s house. Always people over. Always just a nonstop party. I watched everything.”
Bathtub crank not baby baths are what John remembers most about growing up in his mother’s care. He recalls parties where the bikers would make crank in the bathtub. “They’re just zombies walking around the house. PCP smells like nail polish remover or something. Always having that smell in the house. Always having people walking around.”
By his teens he was dealing: “I used to get a little quarter pound or half pound of pot and sell little dime bags. Just enough to keep smoking [marijuana] and it not come out of my own money.”
And then in his late teens his hustle matured: “I met this guy and he was selling coke. He was like, ‘Look, this is a white neighborhood. I’m black. I kinda stick out here. Why don’t you take over this spot and I’ll give you the stuff to do it.’ So I did that. The first day I went home I had a bag [of crack] that I could have smoked for two weeks. I made a pipe and everything. I saw money and I said no. I’d rather have the money. I said no one time and I never touched drugs for 15 to 20 years. [Now] I’m paying for my good time.”
The further south on 95 we travel, the more of the sun we see. It matches the high energy in John’s voice as he talks about what he calls his “heydays.” From the time he started selling coke until his early 30s were the best times for him. He smoked, drank, and occasionally took a bump of coke himself, but he avoided addiction, lived the good life, and made a lot of money.
I ask him how much money he made.
“All of it,” he says. “Your connection makes you who you are. If you have grade A stuff, and it was always on point, and it was always the same and the bags are fat [you will do well]. I would cook it up for some and sell it as powder to others. Probably until I was about 28. You can ask anybody that lives in Baltimore County in the St. Helenas, the Dundalks, you can ask any of those people who have ever been around drugs that all through the ‘90s and the early 2000s there wasn’t nobody fuckin’ with me in the coke business. It was the greatest time of my life.”
John straightens himself in his seat, drawing Sissy’s eye as she wags her tail. He begins to brag.
“I bought diamond rings for all eight fingers,” he says with a slight grin catching my eyes through the rearview mirror. “I had a chain that would hang down real low. I had a lot of jewelry. Once in a blue moon I would wear it. I had about 50 grand in the bank and I had about 20 [grand] on my personal and I bought a house when I was 23 and some of the money went to bills and remodeling my house. I bought a lot of four-wheelers and stuff like that.”
Mid-story, he asks to make a stop so he and Sissy could pee. I pull into a Wawa in the middle of Virginia.
“I’m going to let Sissy pee and make a phone call real quick,” John says right before jumping out of the car with Sissy in his arm. He takes her to a grassy median between the store parking lot and the street. I grab a snack, hit the bathroom, and head back to the car and wait for John, who is in a heated conversation. Finally, he returns to the car, still on the phone.
“I figured yous would be happy I was coming. I just wanted to show up and surprise you,” he says to whoever is on the other end of the phone.
He ends the call and tells me he’s actually surprising his daughter, his girlfriend, and his mother. He says his mother is most likely tired because she’s been taking care of John’s girlfriend and daughter as his girlfriend detoxes.
He reassures me that I will still get paid despite his mother’s displeasure with his unexpected arrival.
As we get back on the road, John looks mighty pale in the face and is sweating heavily. I assume he’s spent and has had enough of his reflecting with me so I tell him he could drop the subject if he wanted. He rejects my offer and continues to divulge the incidents and circumstances that led him to the front seat of my car.
“This is cool man. I don’t get to talk about this often,” he says. “If I talk about it to them, blah blah! They don’t want to hear it!”
John sold drugs until his late 20s and then quit, he says: “I heard the police were looking for me and I just started workin’.”
Along with dealing, John says he had been doing construction and home improvement for most of his adult life, so it was a relatively easy transition, until he got addicted.
“I got hooked on dope from taking Percs,” he says. “I’ll tell you how it happened. I used to go clubbin’ with my friends every Saturday night and four-wheeling every Sunday. I would go to work real sore on Monday. We change the four-wheeling to Saturday so I could rest on Sundays. Someone gave me a Perc and it took the pain away and I was doing everything I did before. It was a routine. Chill around the house on Sunday and take a Perc.”
Addiction came quick: “One day you wake up and you’re like, ‘I don’t have none, it’s no big deal,’ and you’re shitting yourself and you are throwing up everywhere, you can’t move. You know your body is hooked on it.”
From there he dove deeper.
“First you eat stuff, then you sniff stuff, then you shoot stuff.”
He says he was hanging out with a friend of his mother’s one night and they decided to get heroin and get high.
“I copped five of them and he copped one. I was always scared of needles, he [shot] one and you could look at him and tell he was messed up,” he says. “You know how many people said ‘I will never stick a needle in my arm’? I told myself that. People tell you the stories about how you get sick from ‘em. [So] I sniffed four and I thought, ‘Damn, I’m not feeling nothing,’ I was like, ‘Hey, can you get a new needle and do what you did to you, to me?’ Eating it could take an hour [for effects], sniffing takes about 10-15 minutes, shooting it is IN-STAN-TANEOUSLY! The second you let the tie go, you’re high.”
We cross over into North Carolina, the sun’s a few hours past its peak and daylight’s fading and so is John. My air conditioner is blasting but John asks me to raise the temperature. He’s cold, he says. John slowly grabs a Coca-Cola and pulls a few pills from a small ziplock bag. He says that they are just to make him feel better. I’m not sure what the pills are but considering the rectangular “bar” shape, it’s presumably Xanax.
John begins talking addiction again, though his voice is quieter and his tone more subdued: “It’s like strapping a bunch of weights to ya where you can’t move, you have no energy—you can’t get comfortable. You turn into an insomniac. You don’t eat for a couple of days. It’s like a five-day detox. That’s how long it take to start eating and going to the bathroom again. It’s like the flu time a thousand. They need to come up with a way to get it out of your system faster. Most people don’t have a place to just sit up for a month. But it doesn’t take a day, a week, and it doesn’t even take a month. It takes three to six months if you want to get back to normal. The bare minimum is 90 days to be able to go to sleep at night and just wake up in the morning and eat three full meals and use the bathroom like a normal person. We don’t know what taking a shit is. We go seven to 10 days without shitting.”
He is not a fan of Methadone treatment: “Do not get on Methadone. You will be on it for the rest of your life. On the methadone program [someone] can get 120 milligrams [of methadone] every single day, you’re puttin’ that in your system and it’s building up and building up and building up. How the hell you get off of it? What are you supposed to do?”
He says people are appalled by the addicts who are visibly high in public, but he says they probably are not on heroin: “All those people that are nodding out at a bus stop with their head on the ground, they’re not on heroin. They come from a Methadone clinic and come from a doctor with a prescription for Xanax and some blood pressure pills. The meth program has so many people coming in there they just dose ya and you leave. It’s a sick cycle, man.”
John says most people who get locked into that sick cycle never to escape. He says Baltimore clinics hurt more than help and that heroin is too ubiquitous in Baltimore to stay.
“It’s everywhere down there. I know where to get it all over the damn place,” he says. “You can get it on any of the corners in the city. It’s everywhere.”
For the rest of the trip in South Carolina, John is mostly silent, though he keeps asking me to stop so he can go to the bathroom and requesting that I raise the temperature in my car, and eventually he falls asleep.
It’s dark when we pull into his mom’s neighborhood full of neat and trim lawns, single family homes dwarfed by pine and palm trees, and a couple of kids riding their bikes. We have arrived.
“We are here, bro,” I tell John, who slowly wakes up.
Sissy jumps out of the car and runs to the front door as if she’d been here before. John walks into the house with me right behind him.
“Daddy!” his daughter shouts.
John picks her up and gives her a kiss.
“Hi. How was the ride down here?” John’s mother asks me. I tell her it wasn’t bad, trying to make small talk.
“You are welcomed to some tacos if you want,” she says and points to a container of ground beef and a tray of hard taco shells and toppings.
John goes to my car to carry his things in and his mom asks more about the trip and how we met. I tell her.
“How much did he say he was going to give you?” John’s mother asks while pulling money from her wallet.
I’m surprised John even communicated our agreement to his mom and I’m stunned she is giving me money.
I go out and help John unload my car and say goodbye.
“You are more than welcomed to stay the night here and head out in the morning,” John’s mother says.
John and I do one of those hand-shake half-hug things. His embrace is half-hearted and he seems distant.
On my drive home, one thing John said echoes through my head for the nearly 500 miles north: “I wish I could live in Baltimore and not get high. It’s sad.”
Two weeks later, I call to check up on John. I want to see how he’s doing. I had briefly discussed writing about our ride and about him and want to make sure he’s still OK with it all.
His girlfriend answers the phone. John’s asleep, but we start talking.
“It was rough,” she says of John’s past two weeks. “He had seizures. It’s getting better each day. We been trying to get clean since we been getting high. I had a year clean because I had to go to the hospital because I shot some bad stuff and almost had to have my foot cut off. My foot has all its tendons removed.”
John had said they are not in a formal relationship and his girlfriend describes it as “off and on.”
“We met, I was 13, he was 18,” she says. “I’ve been eatin’ Percocets since I was 16, 17. I came here because I knew he would have followed.”
She reflects on John before his habit: “He always had his stuff together. Fifty grand sitting in the bank. He always did good with himself. He owned a business and owned a house by 23. [Drugs] took him away, period. It wasn’t even him no more. He was a shell. He lost everything.”
She estimates that they spent nearly $200,000 on getting high: “When I think about how much money we spent on that, it makes me sick. Didn’t care to save money. Before it was make sure these bills are paid on time. When you’re getting high it’s like, who cares. He is still a good guy. He has a big heart. The drugs never changed him as a father.”
She says her recovery was rough also, but now she can clearly reflect on what she and John have done over the years.
“We both ended up pretty bad off. We have gotten clean many times, but we never up and moved. I guess if this is what it takes to get clean, then we up and move. I don’t think we’ll come back to Baltimore. I don’t want my daughter around that. It’s all about her,” she said. “[Drugs are] everywhere, but in Baltimore we grown up there our whole lives. We know how to get it. [In Baltimore] if you subject yourself to that kind of life, it kinda finds you, but [in Myrtle Beach], as long as you don’t look for it, you’ll be alright.”
In the background, I hear John. “He’s up now,” she says. “Hold on.”
John answers the phone with a sleepy “Hello?”
“I’m getting better,” he says. “I don’t sleep, dude. Actually today you got me on a good day. I haven’t slept since I’ve been here. I may have slept two or three hours since I’ve been here, total. That’s no bullshit. They had to dial 911!”
He says the hospital told him his blood was toxic and he had a urinary tract infection. For a while, he didn’t eat. He couldn’t remember the seizures from the first few days, but when he saw a “knot” on his head, realizing he’d fallen, he decided he’d listen to his doctors.
He misses Baltimore.
“I love Baltimore, I love the idea of being from Baltimore, I love the Ravens. I love the city. I’d have to get on a bus and when I’d get downtown and get on the subway; I loved that. You don’t get that down here. Baltimore’s my favorite place in the world. But what I’m going to do is I’m going to sit here and try to find a job and see what I can do here,” he says. “My daughter hasn’t seen me sober—she only knows the one kind of me and I’m just kind of happy to just show her the other side, you know? I’ve already lived my life. I can’t go back to bangin’ girls and selling drugs and having a great time.”