Homeless. Alone. Hungry. And Cold: Street Junky

A Street Junky’s Nightmare Before Christmas:
Broke & Breakfast With The Mob

Blog post author header image John Makohen recovery coaching in nyc

John Makohen
Arise Recovery Coaching in NYC

When I was living a street junky life I liked to think of myself as industrious. An idea’s machine. I had to hustle. No one was handing me bags of dope to keep from getting dopesick.

My ideas lived in a gray area between legal and illegal. Come on give me a break, when you got nothing you have to take chances and hope an idea works and you make some cash before getting closed down or pinched by the law. 

One year I had a killer idea to sell Chritmas Trees in downtown Manhattan without a permit or permission. 

I went for it and it didn’t turn out so well. It coulda been worse, you decide, so keep reading A Street Junkie’s Nightmare Before Christmas: Broke and Breaking My Fast with the Mob.

Do you ever wonder what it’s like for a street junky at Christmastime?

 

Like any day, it can be amazing, or it can suck. It all comes down to variables.When I was strung out on dope it all came down to where I woke up on Christmas morning and how much dope was in my pocket.

 

Christmastime in NYC was worse for me in the ’80s and early ’90s than it was after my relapse in 2007.  The city hadn’t experienced it’s the economic boom, so beggin’ (panhandling) on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning wasn’t as industrious as it is today.

 

Innovation is key.

 

 

Today’s, Arise Recovery Coaching blog post is an excerpt from my upcoming memoir– Street Junky: Homeless Alone Hungry & Cold.

 

It’s Christmastime and the needles on the tree a skinny Santa’s bringing something for me. — Elliot Smith

 

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Christmas morning had more pitfalls when I was younger. Everyone was home on Christmas morning, so it meant sneaking around, fixing up, and not enjoying the first shot of the day. The most important fix.

Of course sneaking around depended upon me having a fix to wake up with. It was rare for me to hold bags for the morning. I relied on giving my dope to whoever I was running with at the time to hold down for me. 

I knew the importance of my wake-up, but it didn’t matter. If I had dope on my I couldn’t sleep. It’s like the shit would haunt my dreams. Taunt me and call to me to fix it up, in the middle of the night.

Staying with the family meant I was on my own. It’s not like I could give my mom a bundle to hold onto for the morning.

In a perfect workd, I could just say, “Mom? Will you hold this for me until tomorrow morning?” I hand a small packet of glassine bags neatly rubberbanded together.and instruct her too, “not give it to me –NOT give it to me, no matter what I said, until tomorrow morning. Anytime after 6 o’clock AM is totally cool, ma. Thanks. Love you.”

“No problem honey. Whatever you need. I love you, too” 

There was nothing good about having to cop dope, in Utica, NY on Christmas morning. It meant trouble and frustration. First I had to find someone to meet me and then figure out how to do it fast. And nothing about copping dope, upstate is fast.

Once I fixed I had to be on my best behavior and avoid nodding out at the most inappropriate times. You all know you don;t get to decide when it is safe to nod out –that’s another perfrect world scenario.

Gratitude? Joy? Peace on Earth? Good will to men? Bah humbug.

Christmas morning lost its sparkle.  Gratitude and joy were no longer in my vocabulary. My issues with the Catholic , religion, and God drove a spike through all religoius holidays. I looked at the holiday as aburden. I wasn’t grateful or happy to spend time with family. Instead I was filled with regret, The day was a constant reminder of just how fucked up I had become.  I was earmarked for the bag of cool in my stocking year after year. It was a family holiday joke, but to me there was nothing funny about just how far I’d strayed from family values.

As far a Christmas presents gp, I would’ve preferred  several bags of syringes, bundles of dope, or a reliable car. Patagonia coats, CB ski pants, and other useless accessories lost their sparkle compared too, a needle full of heroin. I was

in love with a drug a drug that makes me numb. All I want is the drug the drug I had become. I really didn’t care anymore.”

A homeless street junkies nightmare before Christmas

After I left home for the nomadic street junky life, I feared to go around my mom’s or sister’s house because I didn’t want to get trapped off by a phone call to the local police department.

The bullshit tough-love tactic hoodwinked my sister, and she, in-turn, forbade my mother to see me because it would unbalance her the campaign. It’s sort of like a husband making sure his wife votes in an election for the same party, so she doesn’t nullify his vote.

Christmastime wasn’t any different. I knew I wouldn’t get any breaks from a 911 call, and then the chase would begin over the creeks and through the gorge back to the slums of Utica. It was easier for me to stay away.

It was my gift to the family. I preferred to be out of sight and out of mind. I hurt my mother enough, so there wasn’t any need to make her suffer during her favorite holiday.

I knew I wasn’t welcome in the neighborhood. I stayed away when I was doing good or bad. Some days, I wanted to see my mother let her know I was okay, have a cup of coffee, and get the local gossip, but it wasn’t part of the plan.

Showing up meant breaking her heart a little bit more.  Letting her see how fucked up I was confirmed, “I was a tramp — a bum, a low-life street junky,  And always up to no good.”

You know how it goes —its the bed you made, now sleep in it. No hard feelings.

Years ago, I hated my sister for believing  Nancy Reagan’s hype, “Just Say NO!” She also embraced the Tough-Love tactics of the 1990s. I’m over it. My recovery cannot sustain hatred, anger, and resentment. I always knew she didn’t know any better.

She struggled too. She was only trying to cope with my addiction the best way she could. It’s not her fault the addiction recovery resources in the early 1990s failed miserably.

 

In the 1990s, retail stores closed on Christmas Day.

 

If I was upstate on Christmas Day, I couldn’t walk into a Walmart and boost because it was the only day of the year Walmart closed.

Years ago, it was the only day of the year. Walmart closed its doors. I believe marketing executives bragged about this fact in their marketing copy.

I used to wish I had the balls to drive a pick-up truck full-throttle through the front doors. No one would’ve been in the store to hurt.

Would it matter?

After all, the reality was not getting dopesick. You might think its about getting gone, but once you’re strung out there is only one goal –staying ahead of the big bad heroin withdrawal.

 

Drive-thru Walmart Fantasy

 

I had it all planned out. I’d work up a shot. And feel the flame rising through my spine. Once I was ready, I’d rev the truck. The 6.7 liters Cummings turbo-diesel engine would be spitting fire and screaming loud. The exhaust poured out of the dual-stacked exhaust pipes towering over the cab. I’d pop the clutch. The tires would squeal and melt under the hard frozen parking lot.

The four concrete pillars in front of the store are no match for the power surging truck barreling down the lot. The snowplow attached to the front tears through the concrete, the metal pull-down gate, and the glass front doors like butter and I’d be inside. The fog lights on top of the truck illuminated the store, and I’d see the Pharmacy sign swinging from the cold winter air filling the store: first stop, pills, codeine-laced cough syrup, benzos, and opiate patches.

I tear out of the pharmacy and plow my way through useless displays set-up in the aisles. Christmas decorations rolls of wrapping paper, popular appliances, and last-minute gift ideas get plowed aside as I tear through the aisles to the back room of the store.  I’d seek out the electronics cage, rev up the RPM’s, and take out the fencing. I’d load as much as possible into the back of the truck.

 

Meanwhile back to reality…

 

In a perfect world, I’d have time to get smokes and road beers, too, But it’s not an ideal world so I’d bust my way out through a loading dock door and head out the back entrance to make my escape.  If all the movies were right, I had about three to seven minutes to make my escape after the call was made from the security monitoring service.

In my strung-out mind, it was a  foolproof plan. Luckily, I just lacked the balls to do it, primarily because for a while there I did own the truck sans snowplow, to pull the job off.

Would it work? Probably not. But I thought about it every Christmas morning I spent in Upstate NY, strung-out on dope.

Nonetheless, boosting was not an option, in Upstate, NY, on Christmas Day. I needed to have a stellar day in the stores on Christmas Eve day.  It wasn’t easy, especially when my habit was 25- 35 bags a day.

 

Getting my begging on!

Early in my addiction

When I was home with my family at Christmas, I would just feign happiness.  

Homelessness was easier to handle on holidays. I didn’t have to pretend to my family that I was still the same old Johnny.

Heroin and old age have stolen the joy and pleasure of the holidays. 

Let’s sell Christmas Trees in NYC.

One holiday, when I was leaving out of my truck with Crisis (this isn’t her real name, but it works perfectly), in NYC, the idea came to me to sell Christmas Trees. I didn’t think about permits or permission. You could bet on the fact that I would never think about the consequences of my actions. When “I’m rushing on my rush,” I’m a horse with blinders on.

Crisis and I drove upstate and went onto my brother-in-law’s father’s land. I chopped down about 40 pine trees, wrapped them in plastic, and loaded them into the truck.

a  street junkies nightmare before Christmas

An entrepreneurial enterprise: The Chinese golden cat was swinging its arm for me –Give me money. Give me money.

 

The bodegas were selling trees for $45.00 and up. I would sell my trees for $40 each. I should dump them in about a day. Then we would cop, head back north, to harvest some more.

I attacked this endeavor with such determination. When I get an idea in my head, I get determined, focused, entrepreneurial. I only had one goal for many years to drink methadone and shoot dope and coke. I was focussed and excelled at this end.  When I was hustling for my next fix, I was the epitome of the Protestant Work Ethic.

It almost felt like I had a sense of purpose. I was excited. I looked at Crisis in the passenger seat as we rolled down I-87, she smiled back at me. She had not done this in many months. She was eager and excited, too.

I looked over at her and said, “We got no chance of losing this time!”

We drove into the city.  I planned to pull ten trees out at first. Before we left Herkimer county I went into Walmart and stole some Whiteboard and an assortment of paints.–Reds, Greens, Gold, Black, and Blue– brushes, and a couple of Sharpee’s to draw my design. I designed two elegant Xmas Trees For Sale Signs. I took my time.  I didn’t want the signs to scream, loser, hustler, or Second-Hand Hobo XmasTree, Chop Shop.

I was so determined, I painted the signs first and then shot dope. I know it is unheard of, but I didn’t want to nod out and fuck up. The signs demanded respect.

 

“Let the morning time drop all its petals on me. Life, I love you, all is groovy” -Simon and Garfunkal

 

We came into NYC from the Bronx on the 59th St Bridge. The FDR was smooth sailing. There was always little traffic this time in the morning. I exited at Houston Street and made my way into the East Village. Once I parked the truck upon the sidewalk of the NorthEast corner of Third Avenue and Astor Place, I worked up a shot, cleaned myself up the best I could. I caught a slight nod, but it didn’t quiet the fear building up inside of me.

Dope used to make me feel unbreakable. Now it could hardly quiet any physical or emotional pain I felt.

I always get excited about my ideas and I knew this was a good one. I failed to account for my having to deal with people. I should have talked to Crisis about during the ride, but I forgot, too. Ha, another lie –I was embarrassed too.

Now I sat in the front seat of the truck, shaking –scared to death to show up and act. The real Johnny stepped in. I could feel all my imperfection and perfection, social ineptitude and self-doubt, distorted thinking and anxiety step up and cripple me.

 

I was frozen like the proverbial deer in the fucking headlights.

 

Bang, Bang. Bang. I hear the sound of someone rapping on my window.

I pop out of my nod and there is a businessman standing by my driver’s door. I roll the window down. I think to myself I hope he tells me I have to leave. He asks me,

“Are you selling those trees?”

Great he will want to see my permit. I look blankly back at him. I assume,  he will ask to see my permit. Does he sense my fear? I don’t get a chance to answer. He never takes his eyes off me as reaches into his back pocket and says,

“How Much?”

He totally caught me off guard. I wasn’t prepared to talk business with him. I wanted to pretend I was angry and defend my right to sell Christmas trees in NYC. I manage to say,

“Fo, For, Forty Doll Dollars each.”

“Give me 3. They’re huge and fresh.  Can you drag them around the corner for me? My wife and kids are standing on the lawn around the corner. They will wait with the trees over there.” He hands me 150.00 and tells me to keep the change.

Wham! The tone is set. I’m out of the truck in a flash. Ripping and tugging three trees off the truck. I drag the trees around the corner to 4th and set them on the lawn where a CVS stands today.

I come back to the truck with a sense of accomplishment. My fear is gone. I am trembling with excitement. Crisis smiles and puts a small straw between her lips. She holds it over a pile of dope on tinfoil and lights a lighter under the foil. I watch the white smoke disappear into the straw. She exhales. I shake my head and say. “You’re wasting it. Why can’t you just shoot up?”

I grab a cigarette and my gloves and head to the back of the truck to start pulling out trees.

I set them on a wrought iron fence. Behind the fence climbs a hilly lawn, with steps carved into the center of it, leading to a café. Art dealers, booksellers, and record dealers always set up here without problems, so I figured it would be a great place for me too. Tons of traffic, kitty, cornered from Ray’s Pizza, in NYU turf, a stone’s throw away from Cooper Union.

St marks Hotel 1990 blog post image a street junkies nightmare before christmas

Source: Gregoire Alessandrini HuffPost

We couldn’t lose.

 

While I was pulling the trees out, two more people stopped and purchased trees from me. I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t have to work hard at selling the trees sold themselves.  I walked to the front of the truck, told Crisis about the sales. She toked up another hit and went back to reading The New York Post. She had to read it daily. It was her escape from our impoverished life. I guess it gave her some semblance to her past. Her story wasn’t great, but it was much more predictable and straight-forward before I stepped into her life. She’d get angry with me if I forgot to swipe a copy from a newsstand on my to the truck after copping our morning fix. 

Positivity surged through my body. It felt good being industrious.

The St. Mark’s Hotel loomed across the street kitty-corner from I was parked. Images of old men and piles of dope and money popped into my head. I sighed and remembered all the good times inside the hotel. When I was younger, I made bank in those rooms turning tricks to get my fix. 

Old men worshipped me, but street life chewed me up and spat me out. I wasn’t the price piece of meat hanging in the storefront window like I was 5 years ago. I still tricked, but there was always someone younger, cleaner, and safer to choose from. 

 

Little did I know, but my nightmare before Christmas was just about to start.

 

A sleek black car pulled up in front of me, and two guys in suits got out. I assumed they were detectives. My business was about to be temporarily shut down.  Most likely, they would make me pack up and leave.  I would drive to a new spot and open up shop again. 

Something felt strange about these two guys. They didn’t carry themselves like cops.  They were unique, felt different, and had powerful energy coming off of them.  “How ‘yous doing?” The guy closest to me asked. The other one asked me, “How long ‘yous been here selling Christmas Trees?”

I ran my fingers through my straggly hair, and yelled to Crisis in the front seat of the truck, “Crisis these guys wanna know how long we been here?”

“Hey kid, you look nervous. Don’t get worried. We want to know how long ‘ya been here?”

 I told them I had been here for about an hour. “Do you guys want to be my first customers? The trees are only forty dollars and better than what’s across the street.”

The bigger one of the two stepped closer to me and leaned his strong face near mine. He looked around and spoke into my ear,

 

“Do you know what you’re fucking doing, kid?”

 

I just stared at me. I didn’t know what to say. It was clear these guys weren’t NYPD.

“We are going to be very nice because it’s Christmas, and your just some strung-out street kid without a fucking clue. Put the fucking trees back in the truck, and then we’re going for a ride.”

“Who the fuck are you?”

Figure out, kid. He leaned back against my truck, showed me the pistol hiding in a shoulder holster, and said, get your ass moving.”

The other guy leaned against the fence, smoking a cigarette. He looked over at me and yelled, “Hey, kid?” I looked at him as he slowly drew back his suit coat and showed me the piece that was tucked neatly into a holster, too. “Don’t make me shove this up your ass!”

The lightbulb tripped on. No, these guys weren’t cops. These two goons were the Italian Mob. Talking a mile a minute and freaking the fuck out. 

 

My attitude changed real fast.  

 

I quickly started grabbing trees and dragging them to the truck. I banged on the window and told Crisis to through them inside.  She began rattling off question after question.  I grabbed her and yelled, “Just fucking do it!” She yelled something back at me, but I was already on my way to grab more trees.

The bigger man said, “I’ma glad you com’a to yous senses.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a wad of hundreds. He handed me two crisp hundred dollar bills, smirked, and said, “I changea me mind. Yous gonna drive the trees to my restaurant-e.  It’s-a not far. Okay, let’s go.”

I loaded the remaining trees and got in the driver’s door of the truck. The guy who handed me the money pushed Crisis over and got in. He told me if “it’s better I ride with you. Nothing gets lost then.”

Smiling, I said, “I’m crazy, but not crazy enough to try and fuck you guys over. Plus, I can do work for you. My truck is legal.”

He winked at me and motioned to Crisis, who was crammed between us and unable to keep her eyes open. Shaking his head, he said, “Why don’t you make her wait somewhere?”

 

I told him that she goes where I go. 

 

He said no, and told me to pull over. Crisis got out on the corner of Avenue A and St. marks Place. The mobster gave her a bill as she got out fo the truck and told her to get something to eat. I watched her walking into the park. She had her purse, paper, and coffee. I hoped I would see her again. I wasn’t sure, though.  As we were pulling away, he rolled the window down and yelled at her, “You can’t buy food in the park. Buy food, not drugas.” He rolled the window back up and said to me,  “You two looked fucked up enough. You need to eat.” 

We got to his restaurant on 9th in between 1st and Second Avenues and went inside to eat. The restaurant wasn’t open yet, so we were the only three people in the dining room. I was scared shitless. I’d seen enough movies to know I was about to die in that spaghetti factory. I

After a while, I started to relax. The food came, and it was delicious. I had several cups of dark Italian coffee, hard fried eggs, with salami and cheese. It was evident that they had a blast making fun of me and my way of life.  I had them laughing and shaking their heads at all the crazy shit I pulled for my God, Heroin.

No work for the mob ever came my way from this chance meeting, but it was probably a blessing in disguise.

 

Today, I can joke and laugh about my street junkie lifestyle.

 

But on that chilly cold December day, it was a street junkies nightmare before Christmas. 

 

When I was living a ridiculous life, struggling from one fix to the next, nothing mattered. All I wanted was to keep dope in my veins. Heroin had power over me. Today, I respect heroin’s power over me. I don’t fear it, nor do I regret my past. I cannot change any of it. The only thing I can do is live a life of gratitude and thankfulness, humility and happiness, peacefully with respect. 

I still put on running shoes each morning when I wake up, but the difference is, today, I don’t run to the dope spot, I just run for the sake of running. I have a plan for recovery and do my best to create the greatest version of myself each day. I show up and act, falter, and make mistakes, so I get up and do it again.

There are days when I grieve and think about the old days, but I know I can never go back to that life. I don’t have another heroin run left in me. 

You can do it too. If I am anything in this world, I am living proof that recovery is possible. You can stop living on the rollercoaster of speedballs and schemes, sleeping on cardboard in storefronts, and fearing the perpetual fear of dope-sickness. 

Arise Recovery Coaching in NYC can help you forge a path to happiness, fulfillment, and recovery.

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