by Brett Kozma
“Get in, Brett,” he said, pulling up to the curb I had been sitting on for hours.
I got in the car, still in the tattered, wet dress clothes I had on when they kicked me out. I had been on the street for two days trying to figure out what to do. I didn’t deserve any mercy, pity or support, but Grandpa didn’t see it that way. When my Mom called him to ask for help, he didn’t hesitate to ask where I was and then didn’t hesitate to get into his car and drive two and a half hours to pick me up.
The Salvation Army Adult Rehabilitation Center was a great place for desperate addicts, and I most definitely was one of those. My brother and I both were admitted there a month earlier, after being given time outside of the facility I did not hesitate but to walk down Division St. in search of heroin. I took the $60 I had, bought needles and dope, snuck it back in and promptly got kicked out. Apparently I was nodding off during Church Service and subsequently failed a urine test.
When they kick you out they don’t bother to ask if you have anywhere to go, to them, you had been given your chance and there were other desperate addicts waiting for theirs. I walked away from the facility after hugging my brother, not depressed, sad or nervous; I had more dope to do. With a wave of the hand to all of my buddies still inside the facility I walked my wingtips two blocks down the road to a McDonald’s, not in search for food or drink, but to use the public restroom. I got high in the bathroom stall and started to think of my next plan of action. After deciding not to call my family for help, I walked to the liquor store, bought three forty ounce beers and went out in search for a place to drink and hopefully pass out for the night.
Back at the McDonald’s I saw a small patch of pine trees next to the parking lot and decided to camp out and drink where I was less likely to be spotted by unwanted eyes. Before leaving the Sally I had grabbed a few novels and a book light, so I planned on reading and drinking until the booze was gone or I fell asleep. I woke to rain that either started suddenly or I slept through its beginning. It took me a second to figure out where I was but when the sad reality hit me all I could think to do was check if there was any beer left. The answer to that was no, and that is when the feelings suddenly rushed in, no longer barred by the chemicals I was so dependent on.
Getting up, while simultaneously shoving my Tom Robbins novel in my backpack, I stepped out of the circle of pines to look either way down a depressing stretch of road. Red lights blinking, the rain coming in sheets, I slung the pack over my shoulder and walked back to the liquor store. I must have been a comical sight, wingtip shoes, nice suit marred by mud and pine needles, I kept my head down and shuffled as quickly as I could, not knowing what to do.
When I arrived at the liquor store there were two black guys talking to the clerk, I walked past as if I had a schedule I was intent on sticking to. Without much thinking, I walked to the end of the counter and grabbed two bottles of Nikolai vodka, I shuffled through the aisles acting as if I was doing my normal weekly shopping. When I was sure the clerk wasn’t looking I put a bottle in my waistband making sure to keep my eyes on the candy in front of me. With the bottle secure I walked up to the checkout area, tapped my back pocket, mumbled, “my fucking wallet,” and set the second bottle down on the counter with a look of frustration. After I completed my acting routine, I quickly walked outside, back into the rain, and back to my home amongst the only three pine trees on Division Street in downtown Grand Rapids, Michigan.
I don’t remember much more of the night, but found an empty bottle of lemonade the next morning and I assume I stole that too. Wet from the rain and covered in mud, I stashed my books, the contact case that I had used to mix dope, and my needle in my backpack and set the bag under a thick pine tree and started walking without a plan or destination. Shortly after assessing my options, I remembered my bridge card, Michigan’s Food Stamp card, was back at the Sally.
“Hey, will you get John for me, I need my food stamp card,” I should have been embarrassed, by my appearance and obvious desperation, but I was determined and spoke with aggressive haste.
The attendant, a resident recovering addict who witnessed my forced exit the night before, called the guy in charge and I was given my golden ticket shortly thereafter. Before leaving, I asked where the nearest grocery store was and was given directions to a market six or eight blocks away.
My feet were hurting already from the damaged wet dress shoes, but I walked into the store with a quick step, scanning the aisles for someone filling their cart.
“Ummm, this is embarrassing but I have to ask, would you be willing to let me pay for your groceries with my food stamp card, and you give me fifty cents on the dollar? I am desperately trying to make enough money for a bus ticket, my car broke down last night and I’m broke and live in Cleveland. I came up here for a job interview and had the worst night of my life as a result.” Eyes glued to the ground, I shuffled one foot back and forth, doing my best Tiny Tim impression. The husband, a mid-thirties Hispanic looked as if he could not care less about my sob story and I made a move to walk away.
“Yeah man, we have to grab a few more things, but you can follow and we’ll settle up in the parking lot.” I nodded, looking at their full shopping cart and doing the math in my head.
In the parking lot, I helped them put the bags in their crossover and waited while the guy shuffled through his wallet. We settled on a one hundred dollar bill even though he owed me $110, I didn’t care; it was a fortune to my short-sighted eyes. All I cared about was drowning my anxious desperation and forget about the hopeless situation I was in.
I was walking away quickly, not running, but it was obvious what had just gone down to Mr. Short Sleeve shirt and tie store manager, “Stop! Come with me!” He was jogging toward me with his hand in the air and his paunch swinging from side to side. I didn’t stick around to talk with this guy, I sprinted away, behind the store, through a shrub and down the residential street that backed the shopping complex.
While turning right at the next intersection, I pulled my suit jacket off and threw it on a hedgerow and shoved the hundo down my pants, between my ass cheeks and didn’t slow down until I couldn’t run any further. Somehow Mr. Manager managed to get in his car and follow me, I realized when he pulled up beside me a few blocks after ditching my jacket. Reluctantly I figured brute force and escape was not my best plan of action, and I got into his car and headed back to the store. He escorted me into his office, a closet with a desk in it, and called the police. When the cop came, I gave them my bridge card, acted contrite and pleaded for mercy.
“Where is the money?” The police officer asked once he had looked through my pockets.
“I threw it in a bush, with my jacket, while I was running,” This was not my original reason for ditching the jacket, but it seemed my best option.
I led the cop, whom I thought was receptive to my tale of desperation, to the hedgerow where he got out and walked to my jacket. I sat in the back of the cop car with fingers crossed on both hands and toes crossed on both feet while he riffled through the pockets and scanned the ground around the jacket. When he gave up he got back into the car and said, “Well, I’m not surprised, hundred dollar bills don’t last long unattended in this neighborhood.”
I stifled an urge to pump my fist and nodded. He ended up writing a report and letting me out there on Kalamazoo Avenue. I was stunned, the stars must be aligned for me today, I thought while I started heading back towards Division.
I immediately went back to the same liquor store and used my sweaty ass money to buy two half pints of Popov Vodka, a pack of Marlboro Menthols and an Arizona Sweet Tea. The bottle was out of the bag and cracked open before I was out of the store, and I did my normal first drink of the day routine: 1. Take a big breath and hold it. 2. Drink vodka until you can’t hold your breath anymore. 3. Swish the tea in your mouth and swallow, and then breathe and wait for the warm comfort to come.
Cigarette lit, I tossed the empty half pint in the trash by the bus stop and started walking South toward where I had bought the dope that got me kicked out of the Sally.
While walking, I saw two youngish black guys talking with the driver of a cheap car with expensive rims and walked in their direction. Keep in mind I wasn’t the most common sight in the world, I was a white kid wearing a suit that looked as if it was debris from a mudslide, so I felt inhibited and uneasy about just asking these random strangers if they knew where I could score some heroin. I walked by their car to the other end of the parking lot, stood behind the dumpster for a second, gaining the nerve to be bold.
“Yo, you know where to score some boy?” I nodded my head in their direction, trying way too hard to act nonchalant.
The driver of the car said his goodbye to his two friends, they walked away and I was beckoned to the driver’s side window.
I didn’t know if they had them as $20 packs or by the gram, so I quickly said, “Half a gram?”
“Lemme get a hunnerd and I’ll be back with it.” He put his open hand out to me. I had been ripped off before and knew I was an obvious target.
“All I have is $80, bro, can’t pay a hundred for it, and I definitely can’t let you just take off with my money.” I flexed my hands nervously waiting for a reply.
We ended up coming to a compromise, he said he’d get four twenty packs and I could ride with him, so I got right in the car for a two-minute ride. We parked on the road outside a small house a few blocks East of the Sally, and he went with my money into the house. I sat in his car, feeling upbeat, the vodka taking hold and only a minute away from the sweetest of all releases, a dull needle shot of tea colored dope.
Before I could feel that rush and release, a different guy came out of the house and walked up to the car. He asked what I was doing and I replied, “I’m with ole dude, he’s helping me out”. His retort was quick and frightening, “You been helped, now get out this car before I drag yo ass out, motherfucker.”
I realized what was happening quickly and got out of the car, not to fight but to walk away quickly and hope not to be pursued. FUCK FUCK FUCK I thought. My hopes of Dope Salvation quickly vanished and when I was out of sight I reached into my pockets to count my money,$3 and change. What the fuck could I do with $3? I drank the second bottle on the way back to McDonald’s to get my stuff and plan the next moves.
I grabbed my bag, reached in and pulled out the contact case that I used for mixing dope, unscrewed the cap and looked at the few cottons left in the reservoir. They weren’t tea colored, but I thought optimistically that they weren’t white either. That meant there might at least be a rinse left. I headed immediately into Mickey D’s and directly to the handicapped stall in the men’s room. Uncapping the only sharp I had left revealed a bent tip, I had no idea how it got bent but I put the tip in the toilet bowl nonetheless and tried to suck water into the barrel. FUCK FUCK FUCK the needle was broken, I finalized this hypothesis when it completely broke during my attempt to straighten it.
With no method of getting the theoretical dope residue into my vein, I desultorily walked out of the restaurant and headed toward the public library, a known homeless hangout.
There were three people on a bench next to the fountain in the library courtyard who looked like they were drinking, I decided to keep an eye on them and walked to the larger group of people milling about on the opposite side. I watched for signs of anything enticing, drug sales or use or anything to help me out. After a bit of observing, I casually asked a white guy about my age if he knew anywhere I could get a sharp. He looked oddly at me and I quickly realized he didn’t know what a sharp was, rather than waste time with him I moved to an older guy leaning on his duffle bag a few feet away. After asking him the same question he asked what he’d get if he got me a sharp and I told him honestly that I had three dollars and some change, I was thinking he would scoff at the amount but he simply nodded, got up and walked to a group of guys. I couldn’t see him without gawking so I stood there trying to be aloof and waited.
After a few minutes the guy returned and we made the exchange, one hypodermic needle for $3.62. I went towards the library, up the steps two at a time, and made my way to the tried, tested and true junkie activity center; the men’s bathroom. In the handicapped stall I popped the cap off of the sharp and noticed it was a long needle, I was used to shorts. I mixed the toilet water with my remaining cottons and drew up a dirty tan liquid and started stabbing my arm. I couldn’t get the long needle to find my vein, I was shaky and a bit drunk, and looked like a stabbing victim by the time I found it. A rinse is never as powerful as an actual dope shot, but it mellowed me out, so I cleaned myself up strolled out. A cigarette between my lips and a glance at the sun, it was the afternoon or early evening and I couldn’t just sit around with no idea where I was going to end up that night.
I walked back into the courtyard and sat down to look at EVEN COWGIRLS GET THE BLUES and figure out what the fuck I was going to do. I had done a good job of avoiding the inevitable terror of realizing what I had done to my life and where I must be headed. I was on felony probation for possession of heroin in nearby Muskegon County. I had been released after a few months of jail with orders to go to and complete the Salvation Army ARC, all the while staying in contact with my probation officer. I could do a few things, call my parents and beg for help, go on the run living like a stray dog, or… I looked down at the scars on my wrists, reminding me that there was still the ultimate escape. I had cut my wrists in a panic over very similar things six months earlier while dealing with dope sickness at KPEP, a lock-down jail alternative facility. I decided to keep that option as a possibility but vowed to try a few things first.
I got up and headed back toward the SALLY, Mickey D’s and liquor store #1. I found a payphone in the parking lot of a gas station and nervously dialed my parents collect.
“You did it again, I don’t know what to say to you Brett.” I didn’t know how she had found out and was disappointed I didn’t have a chance to spin her first impression of the incident.
“Yeah, I did, Mom I think I can get back into the Sally after two weeks. Unless you were found to have used drugs or alcohol in the building you are allowed to start the program over after a two-week period.” I remembered that rule as I was saying it to her, they had not caught me with drugs in the building. I was able to conceal the evidence, but unable to act sober or pass a drug test.
“Brett, your Dad and I are going to Phoenix on Saturday, and you cannot stay here unattended.”
“What am I going to do? I slept under a pine tree last night in the rain.” It sounded made up like I was fishing for sympathy.
“Not my problem anymore Brett. You are 24 going on 25 and we can’t help you anymore.” That sentence was the worst thing I had ever heard in my life. Worse than ‘hands behind your back’, worse than ‘You will be remanded to Muskegon County Jail for a period of eleven months.’ Worse, I thought than anything I could have heard right then. It wasn’t just the immediate implication, that I was on my own, but something deeper. I had burned a bridge with the most important people on Earth, the only people who were always there to kiss the bruise and help clean up the aftermath, my Mom and Dad.
Although I hadn’t been fishing for sympathy before, I ran out of options and started to play the guilt card.
“Mom, this is a bad neighborhood and I’m scared for my life. I’m a white guy in a suit with nowhere to go on Division in GR. I wish I had died…” Referring to the KPEP incident, now she was afraid of the ghetto getting me and me giving up. She sounded as if she was stifling sobs and I regret so deeply that I was happy to hear I had strung an emotional cord.
“What do I do?”
“I don’t know Brett, I can’t help you anymore.”
She hung up the phone and did not accept my collect call attempts afterward. I stepped away from the phone wide eyed and silent until the dam broke and I sat and cried, and cried. After a few minutes, I looked up from where I was sitting, on a curb in a gas station parking lot, with the sun glowing orange low in the Western sky. I did not care about probation, I did not care about the Sally, I didn’t care. I walked to the liquor store parking lot and started asking for money.
“I’m just trying to get enough for a taxi back to Muskegon, anything you can do to help…” I repeated countless times. The part of me that once would have cared about how I looked was gone, I realized it had been gone for a long time.
I spent that night in a dark place, both physically and mentally. Thoughts of going to prison were followed by thoughts of being that toothless homeless guy that sits in front of the library every day trying to bum cigarettes and wheels himself around the city in search of returnable cans. My Mom has kicked me out of the house in the past, and told me similar things, but this was something different because in the past she sent me out with kind words of hope and usually ended it with something like, “If you get to a place where you’re helping yourself, I will be able to help you.” Those words, even in my active addiction were solacing because it meant I could come back. This time it felt more serious, I was alone, in trouble, and scared.
I bought a fifth of Popov, stole a summer sausage stick and headed back to my three tree grove of pines with intentions on reading and drinking so I could slip to sleep without having to feel much of anything. When I got settled I realized with dismay that the rain had rendered my book light unusable, so I got drunk. I drank that bottle as quickly as I could, gagging at the end of almost every drink and wishing I had stolen a juice or soda instead of the summer sausage that I no longer wanted. I woke up, not to rain, but to extreme thirst and nausea. It was dawn, it was cold and I was in a bad place, nowhere to go, nothing to drink, no prospects of rescue or what I really wanted, dope.
I ended up getting a glass of water from McDonald’s as soon as they opened their doors, and walked, without thinking, to the pay phones. The nausea went away, and nervousness replaced it. As soon as the sun was completely up over the Eastern horizon, I dialed my Mom collect. She did not answer the first try, but that most likely has to do with the fact that it was seven a.m. I waited what felt like an hour but more realistically was probably ten minutes or so, hoping that gave her enough time to wake up and be ready for the phone. This time she answered, and I almost fell to my knees when she spoke first, “Brett?”
“Yeah, it’s me.” Already trying to speak over the sobs.
“You are okay? What did you do last night?” It sounded as if she truly cared, maybe she even lost a little sleep worrying about me. At that time, I did feel bad for having planted that ‘I’m in danger’ seed.
“I slept in the same spot, under a pine tree by McDonald’s and the Auto Parts store. What am I going to do Mom?” Hoping she had already figured my problems out and had a clear answer for me.
“You do think you can get back into the program after two weeks?”
“Yes, I know it, I’ve seen other people blow numbers on the breathalyzer and get admitted. My situation is no different.”
“Call back at 9, Brett, I will see if I can get a place for you to go.” She had already thought about this, the relief I felt at realizing she was still trying to help, that she still cared, was unlike any sensation I have ever experienced.
When I hung up the phone I sat, or almost fell, to the same curb I had cried on the day before. I cried this time too, and I cried hard, but it was different. I didn’t know what plan my Mom had for me and as long as it didn’t consist of turning myself into the police, I would go with it. In my head, I still had a chance to complete the Salvation Army ARC successfully and return to my probation officer to receive commendations for my hard work.
I sat on that curb for two hours or so, asking someone for the time about every quarter hour. I chain smoked the rest of my cigarettes and tore my cuticles nervously while trying to figure out how I was going to get fucked up when I got where I was going. Before I had the answer to that conundrum I called my Mom back.
“Tell me what intersection you’re at and stay there, Grandpa is going to come pick you up. He’s leaving work now and will be there in two and a half hours or so, so stay put.” I had to force myself to relax my face in order to be able to reply, I was smiling hard enough to hurt.
“Division and Hall and I will be right here. Am I going to stay with him in Livonia for two weeks?”
“Yes, he says he has some jobs that you could do, he didn’t ask too many questions. He just wanted to help.” She said it as a matter of fact.
My Grandpa, my Mom’s Dad, was a recovered alcoholic. I loved him something fierce, he was smart, funny as hell, and loved me and my entire family with more hugs and affection than I have ever seen from anyone, before or since.
On the drive to Livonia, my Grandpa bought me candy and a pack of cigarettes. He said those were two things I was going to learn to rely on, instead of booze and drugs. He called the candy ‘pokey bait’ for some reason, I never found out what that meant, but I ate the candy thankfully and I smoked a cigarette as soon as I got out of the car.
Over the next twelve days, my Grandpa told me his story and stressed that the key to his leaving the ‘Bullshit for the Bullshitters’, was simplicity. He said family, love, good food and passion for living are the keys to success, for anyone, addict or not. When I told him that I was far from having a passion for living, he told me that was what his job was. To teach me to have clean fun and that would lead to a passion for living.
I gained a few pounds, strengthened my smiling muscles, and watched the Tigers with him every night. I had fun, and felt comfortable with him and my Grandma Kathy, although I wasn’t magically fixed.
My cousin Ryan picked me up to watch U of M football at his house. Ryan is approximately a year older than me, so we have always been friends, but Active Addiction Brett doesn’t keep good friends for long. During that time at my cousin’s house, I found some Vicodin and stole six or seven of them. It must have been on his mind, because before he brought me back to our Grandpa’s he confronted me about it. I denied it, all the while scratching my face and staring at him with pinpoint pupils. He realized the futility in trying to get me to confess and brought me back with few words.
I arrived back at the Salvation Army on my first day of eligibility. My Grandpa pulled into the parking lot and said, “Brett, you don’t worry about the court, don’t worry about your brother, just worry about you. Fix you, and I will see you up north this winter.”
We hugged with a force to test bone structure, and I was able to keep the tears at bay until I was inside the building, and he was pulling away.