Stroke A Slain Warrior

I’m trying to kick up this blog again. It’s been months.

Starting off easy, but interesting. I came across an old book log I kept back in the early Aughts. I read over some of them, and one in particular really impressed me. The review was of a book, Stroke a Slain Warrior, that I borrowed from my first wife when we were dating and which I have hung onto ever since. The book is a 70s era collection of interviews that the author, Frank Cortina, did with long-time heroin users.

The review is maybe 1000 words, but only the last paragraph is actually about the book. Instead the review is my recounting of an experience going out with field workers in a project on heroin users in Kensington that I was involved with at the time. This was maybe 2002, when heroin in Kensington was simmering but still a long ways from blowing up.

I had forgotten about the episode, and read my account like it was written by someone else. Writing is rough, and I kept in some expressions I would edit out if it were posted on something more than a blog. I was pleasantly surprised at how much I liked the piece, and finished it wondering where I would be today if I had continued down that line of research.


Frank M. Cortina, Stroke a Slain Warrior. 

Read this story today after hanging out in Kensington with Annet and Winston who were doing outreach and screening for the 037 project.  My first prolonged exposure to heroin addicts in a very long time.  Sat in on several interviews and then stood outside with Winston and a group of five or six people looking to interview for the program.

I felt immersed in this world for a short time.  3rd and Cambria was the area we were at, urban decay to the max, heroin all over the place, as well as cop cars as the result of Operation Safe Streets.  Cops were just a constant presence but it was a factor that seemed to be endured and which seemed more a nuisance than anything else to the copping process.  Things were very slow, very quiet for the first while until one guy came, heavyset anglo-looking Hispanic guy who had relapsed about 3 or 4 months ago after a time in prison and then in a rehab program.  He was interested in the program because “I never did any of those things that I wasn’t supposed to do until I got out of jail and I relapsed . . .”  Very open and cooperative in the screening interview describing a $450 a week habit he was now into, along with risk behaviors.  And that rehab stint got him, stayed in his mind to the point of where he knew the damage it was doing to him as he continued with the habit.

He brought several other people over.  Apparently the lure of a quick ten dollars they could quickly take a few blocks down Cambria St. to cop led to six or seven people milling about the van where the interviews were being held.  I hung outside with these folks and listened to what they had to say.  Mostly bullshit.  One guy explaining how he almost got a BA and was studying to be premed, all so that he could write prescriptions.  Another guy staying in a halfway house talking how he had been accused wrongfully of taking someone’s watch.  So since he was accused he went ahead and took his silver chain and ring.  About ass whoopin’s and mugging people and time in jail and various drug related stuff.  One guy thought he had an abcess in his foot.  Tough crowd, yet in that line it seemed like there was a truce, that they could relax, let their guard down ever so slightly.  Like a coffee break almost, from their job.  That’s what using copping scrounging money and all the related stuff seemed to be, a job to be doggedly pursued, one day after another.  Maybe it was the promise of ten dollars, of the imminence of getting some money that will take care of one more fix. 

I was impressed how smooth the talking was.  Guys nonchalantly letting on in one way or another how they could take care of themselves.  Either dish stuff out or endure pain and punishment when such became inevitable.  Talking of time in jail, of dope sickness and of other common denominators and the level of comfort of these roles, of these poses, was striking to me.  Talking of people whom they’d cheated and who were after them, how they couldn’t, shouldn’t go down to Somerset, a few blocks away, because of people who were after them but they went there anyway.  The wariness, the feeling of being hunted by others by cops, and then the constant need to produce dope to fix.  The common denominator among that crowd, the basis of a camaraderie that seemed to entail a sense of belonging but I and they all knew was paper thin.

I felt in on that to a degree but also felt very much like an outsider.  Comfortable at hanging with the folks but not really feeling like I could hang.  Liking to be, for those few hours, part of that milieu but also very apart from it.  I remember reading in Burroughs how he could sense, smell out, be aware of the presence of another junkie and I thought of that while looking at them.  I couldn’t do it.  The first guy seemed soft, vulnerable, everyday working class guy who, after he talked a little about himself looked like he was a bit different from his crowd in that he liked to use heroin and then after awhile it became apparent that heroin was his life, and one wondered how he handled this and living with his parents, with his girlfriend whom he said didn’t use.  A double life, or was it.  The others, who looked much more like street types but whom I wouldn’t have necessarily picked out as heroin users.  I was changing a flat tire later at a McDonalds near Front and Lehigh and looking at the crowd there and wondering how they looked the same, and whether anything about them made or didn’t make them into addicts.

So, last paragraph, on Cortina.  This personal engagement with addicts, after so long sitting behind a computer screen, drew me to read a chapter in Cortina.  He interviews a man who sold drugs extensively and was in jail during the interview.  The theme was why he used drugs and being honest with himself.  He talked of a need for excitement and of something different than others, and appeared to show insight in recognizing that his feelings of being different, of needing to fit in, were cop outs, excuses for using.  He talked about the rationalizations addicts can employ and the remark was made that addicts are so good at reading and manipulating others, yet so poor at understanding themselves.


Stephen Metraux