The first person that I ever watched shoot drugs was actually my boss at the time. My mother and a friend of hers had helped me get a part-time gig, working in a small print shop in a really shitty part of Phoenix.
Actually — when I think about it now, this was also when I was going to night school. I had been removed from the regular high school I was going to, because I was skipping classes and being nothing more than a hurricane of disruption for my teachers. Not fully my fault — they were boring me to tears. I was banished to the “alternative” high school.
Basically, this guy, who I will call Don, ran this print shop that my mother’s friend used to print programs and stuff for her baton twirling competitions and newsletters and such. My sister was a baton twirler — a damn fine one, too. World Champion.
Anyway — they hooked me up with this Don guy and hoped I would “learn a trade,” since the betting pool on whether or not I was going to actually finish high school was growing daily. I was just this kid who felt like he was too fucking smart to play the games that schools wanted me to play, and by doing the whole learning of a trade thing they hoped to cut me off at the pass so that I wouldn’t spiral down into some weird world of working construction, pounding beers, and living in a trailer on the West Side of town by the time I was nineteen.
I often wonder how they would have felt about the trade I really learned.
Because my classes at school didn’t start until three in the afternoon, the plan was that I would work for Don from around half-past seven in the morning, until around two. My father would drop me off on his way to work, since his office was only a couple of miles away. My mother would pick me up in the afternoon, and then drop me off at school. The routine wasn’t so bad, actually.
For the first week or so, Don was definitely on his best behavior. He was very patient and kind as he taught me about all of my responsibilities at his shop. The way old school printing used to work, an image would be photographed with a really huge camera that was inside of a dark room [they used to call this “line photography“]. You would use certain chemicals and solvents to burn that image to a printing plate, which would then have to cure before being able to be used to print whatever it was that needed printing. Negatives were also used in a very mechanical cut and paste fashion, which used to be called “stripping.”
Don told me it would be a long time before he taught me how to do the stripping part. I had regular old grunt work like running to the greasy burger stand to get lunch, folding brochures, taking those line shots, cleaning the shop and other things to master first.
Part of me was really excited to learn all of this shit, because this was the industry my father worked in — I felt like maybe we would finally have something to talk about other than him being disappointed in my grades, or him being sick of me pulling the ball when I should have been raking it to every part of the field. I found myself, in those first few days, growing to like this odd little man who was teaching me all about his business. The first day I showed up I was wearing a shirt and a tie, and he mocked me, saying “You some sorta rich kid, Sean? You might wanna just wear jeans and a t-shirt working here — you’re gonna get dirty.”
After that, I would just show up wearing whatever fucked up punk rock t-shirts I had.
I arrived to work one morning in the middle of my second week to find the doors locked. My father had just driven off. I stood around by the front door of the shop, pacing back and forth, smoking cigarette after cigarette. Every now and then I would rap on the door, thinking that maybe Don was inside and working already — the last thing in the world I wanted to do was be late for work. Whatever little money I was making at this gig was paying for my smokes, weed, guitar strings, and pitching in on half-racks of cheap beer on the weekends with the guys in my band.
Obviously, this liquid income was very important to me.
I thought about going around to the back door of the shop and breaking into the place, but then my weed-addled brain remembered that Don had a Doberman he kept in the back room. One of my other responsibilities at this gig was to take the dog out into the parking lot twice per day and let him go to the bathroom. The dog, Alejandro, was really sweet-natured, but kind of dumb. No sense in me trying to break in and get my hand or face chewed off.
I didn’t wear a watch, so I really had no idea how much time had passed — it could have been an hour or it could have been ten minutes. All I knew was that I really wanted to be inside and not out on the street where some Cholo could up and rob my monkey ass [I was in South Phoenix — Cholos kind of ran things around that part of town at this point in history]. Every time a car slowed down and looked like it was going to turn into the tiny lot/driveway in front of the shop, I felt nervous and kind of ducked into the recessed part of the doorway.
Then a really beat-up looking conversion van pulled up right in front of me. I could see Don sitting in the passenger seat, looking like he had just risen from the dead. There was a much older woman driving the van, and as she parked I could hear her admonishing Don for something in a very stern and mothering way. Don slowly worked himself out of the van and stepped toward the front door, muttering something to himself while shaking his head. The old woman followed, looked me up and down slowly and then said “You must be my Donny’s little helper. I’m Dot — Donny’s mother.”
After following “Donny” and his mother inside, I proceeded to go about my regular routine — I checked through the outstanding work orders to see what I had to do that day, and got myself organized. Normally, I would have had my little cassette Walkman blaring some Black Flag into my ears, but I could tell from the tension in the room that I would miss out on something. I tried very hard not to make my eavesdropping obvious, and went to work in the camera room taking shots of shit to burn to plates.
I could hear Don and his mother arguing. She kept on saying things like “you have to stay clean,” and “I can’t afford to keep bailing you out,” while Don would mumble something incoherent and then shout things at her that made no sense. After about twenty minutes or so of this, Don’s mother told him she was leaving, and that she would pick him up in the morning to take him “to the clinic.”
Right as the door closed behind her, Don flipped the fuck on out — he threw his coffee mug against the wall, screaming at the top of his lungs. He kicked over his light table. Alejandro started to bark. Don went into the back room and started rough-housing with the dog — possibly trying to release some frustration and lighten up a bit.
“Goddamn it, kid! You get your ass back here and clean up this fucking dog shit, will you? I’M NOT PAYING YOU TO FUCK AROUND!”
As weird as Don was, this was the first time I had ever heard him yell. I felt awkward and a little scared, what with his explosion of emotions and everything. I took my time getting back there, making sure to snap on some rubber gloves.
As I worked my way around the corner into the back room, I saw Don standing on top of a step-ladder, his arm craned up and into some of the ceiling tiles. Alejandro was wagging his little stumpy tail at me as I reached down and picked up huge chunks of his waste and put them into a plastic bag. Don didn’t even pay attention or notice that I was there — he just kept on grunting and moving his arm back and forth, popping up ceiling tiles to try and find something.
I didn’t really give it another thought as I went outside to dispose of the dog shit.
Later on that day, I was folding boxes of brochures with my headphones on when a very large Mexican biker came through the front door. Not only did he not acknowledge my presence, he just walked his way on in to the back of the shop where Don was working. I lowered the volume on my Walkman, and could hear Don and this dude bantering back and forth, making small talk. I heard Don mention something about his mother, and then something about him being “good for it.”
The Mexican biker left five minutes later, and as he walked by me on his way out he gave me a little head nod.
“Kid — you got a lighter? All I got are matches — come on back here and gimme your lighter, can you?”
As I walked into the room, I could see that Don was up to something I had only read about before. On the light table in front of him was an unfolded foil wrap that had two twist-tied baggies in the middle of it. Next to that was a spoon, a torn-off filter from a cigarette, and a bottle of rubbing alcohol. Clamped between Don’s teeth was a hypodermic needle.
Now everything that had happened throughout the course of the morning made sense to me. Hell — everything that had happened since I started working there made sense to me — the weirded-out Doberman watch dog, the telephone calls where people would hang up, the multiple chains on the doors, his mother talking about “the clinic,” and “staying clean” — everything just fell right in line.
This motherfucker was a goddamn junkie.
I tried not to act too freaked out when I slid my lighter across the table to Don. He just sort of grunted at me, and started playing with the instruments of his addiction right there in front of me. I acted as if this was no big deal to me — like I had seen all of this before.
“You gotta get just the right mix of coca and chiva, otherwise you’re wasting good shit.”
Don was now cooking up his little mixture in the spoon, holding my lighter underneath to boil and bubble his drugs the way he liked them. There was a smell in the air that I couldn’t identify — it blurred out the ever-present scents of cigarette smoke, solvents, dog shit and mold that were in the shop. I watched Don take the cotton from the cigarette filter and stick it in his still-bubbling spoon, drawing the hot fluids into the syringe, which he then set on the light table in front of him.
I could not believe I was witnessing this — at this point in my fledgling little life, I had already read everything I could get my hands on by Burroughs, and was slowly working my way into Selby — but seeing Don’s face as he sunk that rig into the top of his hand was one of the most intense things I would ever see in my life. His face, which up until that moment had looked like he was in agony with every movement, suddenly filled with warmth, all of the hard and angular lines smoothing out. His eyes went from beady to glazed in half a second. Even his posture changed immediately as he slid down into himself in his chair, every muscle gone slack.
“You want some of this, kid? I can cook you up your own shot if you want.”
“No, Don. I’m cool. Thank you, though.”
Almost every morning was a repeat of that day — me showing up to find the place locked-down, and Don’s mother dropping him off around a half an hour later. His mother started feeling sorry for me, and would make sure she had coffee and donuts for us — kind of her way of apologizing for her son, I think. I also realized that it was her I was really working for. She really owned the shop, and this was her way of making sure her son had something to do with his time other than shooting dope into dead veins every day.
Don started to get very comfortable with shooting dope in front of me. I soon learned that the big Mexican biker’s name was Ruben, and that Ruben had given Don the dog as a gift for not ratting him out to the police when he got arrested for holding a bunch of dope that belonged to Ruben a couple of years earlier.
Don and Ruben would sometimes ask me to come into the room where they were, and would start asking me about my friends’ drug habits — trying to get me to sell stuff for them in my neighborhood. They knew that the neighborhood I lived in was full of kids with disposable income at the ready, and would often make jokes about how “white” I was. I would always be respectful and decline, even when Ruben would tell me that he would give me a fair split on the money.
After they would make more jokes at my expense, I would usually just put my headphones back on and get back to work. As much as I was fascinated to see these aspects of the drug trade right in front of me, it made me nervous as hell. I was just a kid who liked smoking pot — I’d tried cocaine a few times and found it to be a little crazy for me, and I had already had my battles eating diet pills being sold as speed. I certainly wasn’t about to start selling heroin and cocaine to the kids I ran with. The thought of that was far too much for my adolescent brain to handle. I had no idea what they meant when they were talking about “weight,” or when they would rattle off dollar amounts.
I just knew they were part of a world that I did not belong to.
As my father drove away one morning, I noticed the front door to the shop was open a crack. Instead of just walking right in, I walked around to the back door — something about the way the front door looked didn’t feel right to me.
Coming around the side of the building to head toward the back door, I saw a car idling near the dumpster that I used to throw Alejandro’s shit into. There was nobody in the car, and the driver’s side door was wide open. Looking toward the back door, I could see that it was open as well. I took my time walking toward the door, keeping my eye on the idling car as I crept slowly along the wall.
That’s when I saw the blood.
There was a streak of red on the wall next to the door to the shop, and a trail of it that went all the way across the lot to the idling car. On the ground in front of the doorway there was a massive puddle of it, and a pair of bolt-cutters laying in it. I tried to angle myself so I could see inside the open door, but I wouldn’t be able to do so without exposing myself if someone was still inside.
The sweat running down my back felt like ice water.
Looking back over toward the car and the dumpster, I could see two legs and a torso sticking out from behind the car. I tried not to make a sound but I must have gasped loud enough, because a very bloodied Don came stumbling out the back door. He was holding on to his side with one hand, and in the other was a very bloody pair of industrial scissors.
“Motherfuckers killed my dog! They killed Alejandro, those motherfuckers!”
Don was screaming, wild-eyed and obviously in shock. I had no idea what the fuck to do. I asked him if he wanted me to call him an ambulance, and he shot me a glare that would have melted steel.
“Ambulance? An ambulance will bring the fucking cops, you fucking moron. I’m waiting for Ruben to get here to help us get rid of that fucking dead motherfucker over behind that goddamn car.”
“Yes, us! Go the fuck over there and turn off that goddamn car — if there is a gun in there, bring it back over here to me.”
I just stood there staring at Don. Us? Me? What the fuck did any of this have to do with me — I was just some kid who was working for him part-time, not some fucking dope lackey hanger-on.
“Goddamn it, kid — GO TURN OFF THAT FUCKING CAR, NOW!”
As soon as he yelled at me my fight or flight response kicked into gear. I didn’t even think — I just acted. I marched right over to the idling car and yanked the keys out of the ignition, putting them into my back pocket. There was nothing in the car other than a pack of cigarettes on the passenger seat and some empty coffee cups on the floorboard. No guns to be found.
Stepping back out of the door of the car and closing it, I looked down at the blood trail that led to the body laying in the parking lot. I gingerly took a few steps toward the body, looking back toward the shop to see Don staring at me intently.
“Is that motherfucker dead?”
I looked down at the body — there were huge chunks of flesh missing from his forearms and bloody holes in his pants, obviously from Alejandro. The man was Mexican. There were large cuts in his throat and face, probably from where Don attacked him with the scissors. Three feet away from him, nearest the dumpster, was a small revolver. I pretended not to notice it. I did not want to touch it. I did not want to touch anything.
I turned back to Don and shook my head to indicate that the man was dead.
I am seventeen years old.
The inside of the shop looks like Beirut. Boxes and paperwork littered all over the place. File cabinets overturned. There is even more blood inside the back doorway than there is outside — I quickly realize most of it is Alejandro’s. The dog is dead in the middle of the room in a puddle of his blood, three gunshot wounds that I can clearly see from a distance.
Don was in the bathroom, pouring rubbing alcohol into his open wounds — apparently he managed to stab the attacker after getting shot in the side, but his hands were all cut up from the struggle with the scissors. It was a fucking horrorshow. I felt so nauseated. I had never seen so much blood before in my life.
“Don? I’m going to go over to that 7-11 over on the corner and get a cup of coffee — you want one?”
Don stopped what he was doing and put his hands on the sides of the sink, locking his elbows as his shoulders try to slump in on themselves. Head bowed with chin to chest, he takes a deep breath.
“Yeah, kid. If they’ll sell you a beer, get me a tallboy, too.”
At first I started walking at a regular pace, but with each passing car I felt a sense of dread building inside of me. What if more people were coming to get Don? What if they had been watching the shop for a while, and because I worked there decided that I had to go, too? I could feel my heart beating inside of my brain as I picked up the pace — first walking briskly, and then breaking into a dead run.
I was ten blocks away out of breath at a bus stop when I realized I still had the keys to the dead man’s car in my back pocket.
I didn’t panic as much as I wanted to just throw those keys out into the middle of the street. When the bus pulled up, I knew it was going to take me a long time to get home — but home was where I was headed. About an hour into my ride, I took the keys out of my pocket and shoved them into an air-conditioning vent next to my seat. I got off at the next stop and walked for a while, using my transfer to get on a different bus.
I called my mother at work when I got home, and told her that Don had closed the shop for the day, and that I took the bus all the way home.
I never went back to work for Don.
I told my mother that Don was using heroin in front of me, but I didn’t go into all of the crazy details. At first she didn’t believe me and thought it was just another one of my stories to get out of working. She stopped thinking I was up to no good when I quickly found another job, working at an Arby’s near the mall.
I kept on poring over the newspaper for a few days after the incident, looking for a report about a burglary/murder on McDowell Road — but there never was one.