An Excerpt From ‘Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man: A Memoir’ by Bill Clegg — New York Magazine

Photo: Peter Hapak

Snow is falling outside the Holland Tunnel. Cars aren’t moving. Horns sound and drivers yell. My flight to Berlin is scheduled to take off from Newark in less than an hour, and there is no way I’m going to make it. Noah, my boyfriend, is already there, having arrived at the Berlin Film Festival directly from Sundance to show his film. I call my assistant, who booked a four o’clock car for a five-thirty flight, which I only now realize isn’t enough time. It is, of course, not his fault, but I tell him it is and that my life is about to change, and not for the better, as a result. These will be my last words to him, to anyone in my office.

I have nearly a full bag—three medium-size rocks of crack and a scattering of crumbs—in my pocket. A clean stem and a lighter, wrapped in a kitchen towel, are wedged somewhere in my duffel bag, between manuscripts, a pair of jeans, a sweater, and a pile of Kiehl’s products. The driver is a young, deep-voiced Eastern European woman, and I’ve already sung her my if-you-only-knew-how-important-it-is-that-I-get-there-on-time song to persuade her to work some kind of magic and levitate us past the traffic. She just stares at me through the rearview mirror. I wonder if she can see how strung out I am, how far over the line.

I know this is going to be the last straw. Even if Noah forgives me again, my business partner, Kate, will not. She and I started a small literary agency four years ago, and so far it’s been, for our authors, a lucky run of heated auctions, great reviews, book prizes, and literary best sellers. But now I’ve been out of the office for almost two weeks and canceled three meetings with Kate to go over our long-avoided partnership agreement and finances. I have told everyone—friends, clients, employees—that I have thrown my back out and am going to doctors, acupuncturists, and masseurs. But the truth is that I’ve been rattling around the apartment in a thick cloud of crack smoke. I’ve left the building only a few times, to run across 8th Street to the cash machine and to the deli for lighters and Brillo wire. The liquor store has made daily deliveries of Ketel One, and I’ve called the housekeeper to tell her I’m home sick and not to come.

Before getting in the car, I send Kate an e-mail telling her to do what she needs to do, that I’ve relapsed and that she should protect herself in whatever way is necessary. Before I press SEND, I look out the window at the thick flakes of snow coming down in slow motion between the buildings and think I am doing her a favor. Giving her permission to get out and move on. But I feel next to nothing as I end our partnership, our business, my career. I regard that nothing the same way you observe a cut on your finger just after accidentally slicing it with a knife but seconds before the blood appears. For a moment it’s like looking at someone else’s finger, as if the cut you made has not broken your skin, the blood about to flow not your own.

At the airport I race to the first-class counter. The woman there tells me right away that I’ve missed my flight. There’s another that goes through Amsterdam in three hours. Without hesitating, I buy a first-class, full-fare ticket. I have over $70,000 in my checking account, and I think, barely think, that five or so thousand is nothing. I ask her if there is a hotel at the airport, because I want to rest before my flight. She looks at me and pauses before telling me there is a Marriott a short cab ride away. In the cab, I call Noah and leave him a message that I missed my flight—The traffic was terrible, I say in mock frustration—but I’m booked on the next one out.

The cabdriver is a handsome, dark-eyed Hispanic guy, and I immediately strike up a conversation. How I get to the moment when I ask him if he parties, I don’t know, but I get there. He says Yes, and I say, With what? and he answers, Beer and pot. He asks me with what, and I come right out and tell him. He pauses and asks me if I have any on me, and I say yes. He asks if he can see it, and I reach into my pocket and pull out a rock. He laughs and tells me he’s never seen it before, and I ask if he wants to hang out. He tells me sure, later, after his shift, and gives me his cell-phone number. I take it, even though I know my flight will take off before he’s done. He doesn’t say his name, so I look at the driver’s I.D. framed in Plexiglas and notice it’s obscured by a piece of newspaper.

Adapted from Portrait of an Addict As a Young Man: A Memoir, by Bill Clegg (to be published in June by Little, Brown and Company). Copyright © 2010 by the author. Reprinted by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved. Some names have been changed by the author.

Photo: Ashley Consiglio

I get to the hotel room and shut the door behind me as if I’m closing the curtain on a great, terrifying stage where I’ve had to perform a grueling part, the skin of which I can now finally shed. I take off my coat and pack a big hit. I hold the smoke in for as long as I can. When I exhale, the stress of the last few hours disappears and in its place swells a pearly bliss.

I soon become aware of my body and feel restless in my clothes. They seem like part of a constricting costume for the performance on the other side of the door. I take my sweater off between the first and second hits. By the third, I’m naked, though I grab a towel from the bathroom and tie it low around my hips. I will always do this when I get high. I will always think my torso looks lean and muscled and sexy. I will always, many times, clock myself in the mirror and think, Not bad. I will, to be perfectly honest, turn myself on.

I scooch the towel lower down my hips and begin to get restless for company. I call the number of the taxi driver, but no one answers. I do this 30 or so times in the next hour. I put what’s left of the bag in an ashtray and thrill to what seems like an endless amount. I’m sloppy as I pack these hits. The bedspread and floor are soon speckled with crumbs. I know that at some point I will be on my knees picking them up, trying to tell the difference between crack crumbs and other debris. There will never be a time when I smoke crack that doesn’t end with me on my knees, sometimes for hours—hunched over carpets, rugs, linoleum, tile—sifting desperately through lint and cat litter and dirt, fingering the floor, like a madman, for crumbs. As I pack those lazy crumb-scattering hits in the beginning, I will, each time, think of the floor like a retirement account. Little bits neglected into a place where I will seek them out later.

In the room at the Marriott, as in most rooms where there is crack, porn flickers on the television. This time, it’s straight and soft and on pay-per-view. I pay for all six movies and flip among them as one scene disappoints or dulls. I have drunk the small bottle of white wine, the two beers, and both small bottles of vodka from the minibar by the time I realize I need to get back to the airport. Since there is still a large pile of drugs left in the ashtray, I wonder whether I should go at all. Noah has called three or four times, but I have not picked up, nor have I listened to his messages.

I don’t bother checking out. I go straight to the taxi stand and get in the only cab there. The driver is a big black guy—fat but muscular, linebacker style. Forty, maybe 50. The stem, still hot from heavy use in the room minutes before, burns in my jeans pocket like a little oven. Of course I ask him if he parties. He says he does, and I ask him if he ever smokes rock. Sure do, he says, and right then, within the first minute of getting into the cab, I know that I am not getting on the plane. That I will probably never make it to Berlin.

So let’s hang out, I say, and he says, Sure thing. I call Continental’s 800 number and tell them I’m sick and can’t make the flight and could they transfer the ticket to the next night. Unbelievably, they can and they do. I am booked in a first-class seat the next night at eight. Acres of time, a bag of crack, company lined up, and a hotel less than a minute away. I’ve just missed two flights, tossed my career down the chute, and stood up my beloved and no doubt frantic boyfriend. I’ve done all these things and I couldn’t be happier.

I leave a message on Noah’s cell phone saying they canceled the second flight and that I will be flying out tomorrow. Then I turn the phone off.

Later, the taxi driver and I sit in his cab behind a 7-Eleven somewhere in Newark. He’s anxious about being seen in the hotel because he picks people up there every day. I pack his hit—small because there is precious little left—and as he lights up, I tell him how horny I get when I smoke. He nods in agreement as he exhales, and soon zippers come down—mine first, then his. I take a hit and he holds himself and talks about his wife, how she blows him but never wants to fuck. I inhale so hard that I burn my forefinger and thumb. I should be over the Atlantic right now, I think, but instead I’m behind a 7-Eleven, in the shadow of a Newark overpass. What I want is the blurry oblivion of body-crashing sex, and instead I get a gloomy jerk-off session without enough drugs to get either of us high. As the bag empties, I start to feel shaky and it occurs to me that I’ve gone nearly a week without sleep. I ask the taxi driver if he knows where to score more and of course he doesn’t. I start thinking about whether I should go back to the city—to a hotel somewhere in Manhattan where I can call my dealer Happy. But the city seems time zones away.

Photo: Ashley Consiglio

The taxi driver drops me off at the Marriott, and I call Happy the second I get to the room. After much haggling, he agrees to drive out to the hotel, but only if I will spend at least $800. I say no problem. It is just after eleven when Happy and I speak. At 11:50, he calls me from the parking lot. I can’t remember his ever delivering this quickly in Manhattan.

I have a spectacular pile of crack in the little ashtray on the nightstand. This is the most I have ever had on my own, and I know I will smoke every last bit of it. I wonder if somewhere in that pile is the crumb that will bring on a heart attack or stroke or seizure. The cardiac event that will deliver all this to an abrupt and welcome halt. My chest pounds, my fingers are singed, I fill my lungs with smoke.

I phone the front desk and find out that the last call at the bar is at one. I shower and shave and clean up as best I can. I put in a new pair of contacts because when I’m getting high, no matter how much water I drink or how many eye drops I empty into my eyes, the lenses dry up and pop out. I wear my navy cashmere turtleneck because it’s thick and cabled and hides my rickety frame; it is also expensive and, I think, obscures the cracked-out truth of me. I wear my jeans, and even though I am now cinching my belt to its last hole, I still need to tuck the front of the sweater in to keep them from falling down.

I finally make it downstairs and am immediately disappointed that the bar is nearly empty and dotted with a few couples and business colleagues traveling together. I don’t see the vulnerable and restless loner I’m looking for—that magical kindred partner in crime, game for a long night. I slam three or four vodkas and begin to get shaky. More than twenty minutes without a hit is pushing it, and I’ve been downstairs for at least half an hour. Vodka usually eases that jittery feeling, smooths the little wrinkles of horror that slip in as a high teeters toward a crash, but it’s not helping much now. In any case, I’ve got the largest pile of crack I’ve ever seen waiting in the room.

The night swirls with thick smoke, and I go through nine of the sixteen bags by early afternoon. I have never smoked so much in such a short time—two bags, shared with at least one other person, would normally be a big night—and my skin tingles with heat. I’m aware of every breath and every heartbeat.

I ask the cabdriver if he parties. Sure do, he says, and right then, I know I will probably never make it to Berlin.

With three hours before the flight, I finally make my way down through the lobby. As I check out, I notice, near the door, five or six men between the ages of 40 and 60. Each has some distinct but unspecific quality—gray slacks, grim shoes, windbreaker. Head-to-toe JCPenney. They mumble to one another, and it seems—though it’s not exactly clear—that they all have earpieces with wires tucked discreetly into their shirts. There is no one else in the lobby. Only one cab waits at the taxi stand. I hear, “That’s him,” from one of them, or I think I do, as I make my way through the electric doors. As I get into the taxi, I notice all five or six of them heading toward cars. The driver gives me a knowing look and states more than asks, “Continental,” which is of course my airline, but how does he know? I ask him and he says, “It’s Newark, everyone flies Continental.” I look at his I.D. displayed in the Plexiglas partition and see that the photo, just like the one in the cab yesterday, is obscured by a piece of cardboard. I begin to panic. He starts the car, pulls away from the hotel, and, as I watch the cars filled with the JCPenney guys follow us, I know I am, right now, crossing over from one world into another. I can already imagine myself remembering this cab ride, how it will signal the end of the time when I was free.

I have a bag of crack and a very used pipe folded in tissue in the front pocket of my jeans. I don’t see how I can get rid of it. Throw it out the window? No, these guys, whoever they are, are right on our tail. Stash it in the garbage when we pull up? No, same reason. Stuff it in the seat cushion of a cab that is probably being driven by an undercover DEA agent? Obviously no. Swallow it? Maybe. But the glass pipe … what do I do with the glass pipe?

Photo: Ashley Consiglio

Before I left the hotel room, it seemed like a good idea to bring along enough crack to get high in an airport bathroom just before getting on the plane. As the terminal comes into view, I realize, too late, how insane this idea is. We pull up, and I notice that one of the cars is directly behind us. As I make my way into the building, my only thought is when. When will they tap my shoulder and ask me to empty my pockets and open my bags? At the check-in counter? In the security line? The gate? It doesn’t seem possible that I’ll ever make it to the gate.

Pilots in their uniforms walk in their particular way toward their flights. I imagine their sunny families, their sons who collect little model airplanes and show off by knowing all the names—Cessna, Piper Cub, Mooney, 747. I can see my father’s TWA captain’s uniform and hat hung up on the old-fashioned coatrack in his den and remember how handsome I thought he was when I was young, how he looked like a movie star in those dark pressed pants and crisp white shirts. My father. How did this happen? I imagine him asking when he hears about what is about to go down. How did it come to this, Willie?

I need to ditch the drugs and the pipe. I see a bathroom and make a beeline there. It’s empty. Two stalls and three urinals. I go to a stall with the intention of flushing the bag and the pipe, but when I get in, I see the toilet has only a trickle of water and seems to be running without stop. It won’t flush. The next one is the same. I think maybe they’ve disabled them so I can’t flush my stuff. I feel like a trapped animal. I hear someone enter, and quickly pull down my jeans and sit on the toilet. Minutes pass and I barely move. I try not to make a sound at first but then realize that of course he can see my feet and that I should pretend to behave normally. As if I am going to the bathroom. Whoever entered doesn’t leave, and I begin to imagine there is actually a whole SWAT team of DEA agents and police silently filling the room.

At some point, it occurs to me that the only thing I can do is wipe down the pipe and bag for fingerprints, wrap them in toilet paper, and place them under the plastic casing of the dispenser. It crosses my mind to throw the crack in the toilet, let it dissolve in the water and hope the residue disappears eventually; but there is something in me that holds back, that can’t bear to watch the drugs erode to nothing. I start imagining the difference in jail sentences—ten years with a bag of crack? Probation with just a pipe? Still, I wipe down the pipe and bag, wrap them carefully in toilet paper, and stash it all in the dispenser. I do this as quietly as I can and then open the door to the stall as if it is the last free second of my life.

Standing against the wall is an airport security guard. He looks right at me as I walk to the sink to wash my hands.

I try to keep calm after leaving the bathroom. There is no doubt in my mind that the security guard has headed straight for the toilet dispenser. I don’t look back, but I can feel the eyes of a hundred cops and agents on me. I watch the long line of tourists and businessmen and students waiting to take their belts and shoes off before passing through the metal detectors. I see a man wearing gray slacks, a nylon pullover, and plain shoes. He’s one of the JCPenney guys from the hotel, and now he’s here, several feet away, looking right at me. Just past him is an older woman, walking slowly, pulling a suitcase on wheels and talking into a cell phone. I notice the blandness of the suitcase, her shoes, her jacket. It’s kindred somehow with his. And then, in the minutes that follow, like seeing one water tower in a city skyline and then suddenly seeing them all, I see dozens of these people. Blandly dressed, middle-aged, suitcase-pulling, cell-phone-clutching zombies whose slow, deliberate movements all appear choreographed in response to mine.

I wander the airport for what seems like hours before getting in the line for security. I occasionally get brazen with some of the people I think are following me, look them squarely in the eye and smile, even joke several times that this must be a tedious assignment. They usually respond with a smirk or a rolled eye.

Photo: Ashley Consiglio; David J. Phillip/AP (plane)

Later, bone-tired from hours of pacing the airport in a state of sustained panic and crashing from nearly a week of getting high, I finally turn to one of these guys, a younger one, and ask, Why don’t you just get it over with? to which he chuckles and says, It’s much more fun later, once you’re somewhere else. Just wait. I am certain he says this. I freeze at these words and decide finally to get in line. It’s not possible that I will make it through security, and I’m now so wrung out that I just need it to be over.

But I do make it through and feel, briefly, cautiously, elated. Maybe it’s all in my head. Maybe it’s just the drugs, whose good effects have all fled, leaving the body that held them shattered and its mind delusional. The flight is already boarding. I hesitate a few times as I see, again, a few of the JCPenneys near the gate. The words of the younger Penney ring in my head, but I am desperate for a vodka and somewhere in my bag are sleeping pills. If I can just crash in that big plush seat and pass out, I will be okay. If I can just get away from these goons, I know I will be safe.

The stewardess speaks softly to one of the men. About me, no doubt. About the arrest about to take place right now.

My seat is on the aisle, and never has anything looked so welcoming. I sit down and begin to feel the high panic of the last two and a half hours slowly fade. And then, when I turn around to find a stewardess, the wind knocks out of me. I see them. The Penneys. One, two, three, four, at least five of them are sitting all throughout the cabin. At just this moment, one of the stewardesses leans down toward one and speaks softly. About me, no doubt. About the arrest about to take place in Amsterdam or Berlin. Or right here. Right now. The entire cabin suddenly seems to me like a set, like some elaborate stage prop created to replicate the first-class cabin of an airplane. The napkins seem to be flimsy fakes, the stewardesses actresses, and the Penneys androids—half-human, half-robot, emotionless and menacing.

A stewardess is at my side. She asks, in a tone that sounds mocking and insincere, if I’d like a drink. I’m frightened by the Penneys, but I’m agitated by her. Angry, even. I ask her if the plane is, in fact, actually going to be landing in Amsterdam. She looks confused, but not as confused as I think she should look, so I ask, Don’t you think this is an awfully complicated piece of theater for just one person? She excuses herself and walks away. Moments later, she returns with the captain, who politely asks me to gather my belongings and follow him off the plane. I can barely move. And even though I know this is the long-awaited arrest, I am relieved when the captain puts his hand on my shoulder and says, Let’s go. Like a scolded kid, and with everyone in the cabin watching, I follow him off the plane.

But there is no arrest. Instead, the captain explains to me that after 9/11 they need to be cautious and that what I said to the stewardess alarmed her enough that they don’t feel comfortable having me on the flight. I notice his jacket, its hokey military mimicry: epaulets, stripes. Like everything on the plane, his uniform—shabby compared to the memory of my father’s—looks like a slapped-together costume. He asks if I have been drinking, to which I answer yes, that I get nervous before flying. How I form these thoughts and words, I have no idea. I apologize for alarming the stewardess and just as I am about to make my way back toward security, a man in a white shirt with a binder filled with papers arrives. He says he is the head of operations for Continental at Newark and instantly apologizes to me for the confusion. He asks the captain to reconsider, and it’s immediately clear that, for some reason, this guy really wants me on the flight. The captain respectfully declines and begins to get visibly annoyed when the operations guy presses him further. Finally, the operations guy gives up, and the captain wishes me luck and heads back to the cockpit. I watch him disappear into the jetway and have to suppress the sudden urge to call out to him. I have no idea what I’d say if I did, but I know that when he’s gone, I want him to come back.

The operations guy makes a few phone calls, just out of earshot, and comes back to say that he’s booked me, first class, on an Air France flight that goes to Berlin through Paris. It departs in 45 minutes. He escorts me to the gate. I am there for less than ten minutes when the flight begins to board. At this point, things have moved so swiftly that I’ve barely been able to keep pace. I do, though, have a strong sense that someone—not just the operations guy from Continental—wants me on a flight tonight.

And then I see them. Three Penneys standing near the gate. Glancing my way, holding tickets, huddled together like the Three Stooges of badly dressed espionage. At first, I’m angry. And then the last words of the young Penney from before roar through my head. Just wait.

People continue to board until the waiting area is nearly empty. A few last-minute stragglers wander over, and several people rush to the ticket agent with their boarding passes, relieved not to have missed the flight. Finally, there are just the three Penneys and me. The ticket agent speaks to them. They remain near the desk but don’t board. One of the ticket agents comes up and tells me that it’s the last call for boarding. I tell her I get panic attacks and am not sure I’ll be flying tonight. I ask if everyone is onboard, and she gestures to the Penneys and says there are a few left but the flight is nearly fully boarded. I tell her I need a minute. Again, as before, I feel as if I am at some terribly important juncture. If I go, I might get arrested in Paris or Berlin. If I stay, I might get arrested here. If I go and don’t get arrested, all might be fine after a few rough days with Noah. If I stay here and somehow don’t get arrested, I will keep using. This I know.

So I stand up, turn away from the gate, and expect to get arrested. I look back once and see two of the Penneys walk over to see if I’m walking back toward security. I start heading out toward baggage claim. I know that I won’t make it to the taxi stand. I’m about to be swarmed with Penneys, police, airport security, and God knows who else.

I fish for my cell phone and see that it’s on its last bar, which is blinking red. I call my friend David. It’s after eleven, and his wife, Susie, picks up. I apologize. They are clearly in bed. David picks up, asks what’s going on. I tell him I’m about to get arrested for drugs at Newark Airport and that I need him to find a good lawyer. I’m probably shouting when I tell him he has to move fast because he shushes me and tells me to calm down, to just stay on the line and get in a taxi and come home. I tell him I’m not going to make it to the taxi, and then the line goes silent. The battery dies. I keep walking. No one is stopping me. I cross the departure terminal and into baggage claim. Suddenly the Penneys have all disappeared.

I walk through the automatic doors and cross the street. A taxi comes up. I get in. The driver asks, Where to? I say, One Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, but because I expect we’ll be pulled over before we leave the airport, I warn him it’s going to be a short ride.

I’m floating in a state of shock. Every second that passes, every inch the taxi moves forward without sirens and the glare of flashing lights seems like a miracle. Then it occurs to me that they’re all probably just waiting at the apartment. I ask the driver if I can use his cell phone. He passes it back, and I call David. I’m in the cab, I tell him, but I don’t know that we’ll make it to the building. He says he’ll meet me in the lobby and to calm down. I can picture the spectacle of police cars and unmarked DEA vehicles surrounding One Fifth, lights strobing and tenants’ faces lit with appalled interest. I wonder if Trevor, my favorite doorman, is on the desk tonight and what he’ll think when I get cuffed and carted off.

But there is no spectacle. Just David, with bed hair, bundled in a coat, waiting in the lobby. He looks exhausted and annoyed and says he’s spending the night. In the morning, we go to breakfast and he asks which rehab I want him to take me to and despite the grim concern I see on his face I answer, None.

We sit in the front window of a restaurant, on stools, and the day outside and everyone in it flashes like a taunt. This is a shiny world, I think, for the Davids and the Noahs, for people whose lives I can only see as unblemished and lucky. A place where I’ve been allowed a visit but cannot stay. A place I’ve already left.

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