A Walk Down Misery Street

Sickness was particularly true because many students suffered from serious chronic illnesses: hypertension, diabetes, asthma. A few of them had AIDS. Moreover, because most of them had been clean for only several months, the alcohol and drugs have not yet fully evaporated from their pores—not to mention their brains.

So, then there was Peter. He had a good build, straightforward and angular facial features, and short light brown hair neatly combed to one side. The reddish bristle around his mouth and on his chin gave Peter a somewhat aristocratic look. He smiled broadly, showing his uneven yellowed teeth. Or to put it more accurately, he didn’t smile—he snarled.

At that time, he told me he and his wife were in the process of divorcing. He worked the night shift as an assistant to a substance abuse counselor at a rehab clinic. He took me under his wing. As a “psychologist” (his degree earned at the University of Real Life), he immediately had me pegged as a guy who knew nothing about the drug world but was academically strong.

Soon Peter admitted to me that, once upon a time, he had smoked a lot of weed and now had memory problems as a consequence. I didn’t know if it was from the grass or not, but Peter really couldn’t remember many of the technical names and clinical terms that we students needed to know.

Peter and I had a mutual regard since the day we met. He started calling me his “Russian brother,” and I assumed the role of his “helper.” I helped him on the quizzes and exams as well as I could.

By contrast, Peter (salute to him!) was like a walking encyclopedia. He knew words and terms that were not found on examinations, but often slipped off the lips of both students and teachers: dope, boy, coke, blue, sour, booze, blow, and so on. In short, the unabridged dictionary of an American addict opened up to me, and there were so many priceless treasures!

“What’s dope?” I asked Peter, hearing a brand-new word.

He smiled broadly, spreading his thick reddish scruff to each side. He looked at me with the kind of love a father must feel when he watches the first steps of his one-year-old son.

“Dope—this is heroin, my friend. You know, the grayish powder in a little plastic bag.”

“Aha. And what’s coke?”