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The White Noise


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Haunted by Emily: When Addicts Disappear

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty and prostitution in NYC. For more on the series, look here.

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Emily: Jackson Heights, Queens
Emily, Jackson Heights. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.

Her eyes were frightening, wide, confrontational, their color stolen by lenses the shade of milk. Her form was lithe, young, perfect and on display on Roosevelt Avenue, Queens at 2 a.m. where she sashayed with a fellow taxi club dancer.

On approach, she eyed me before gripping my sleeve to pull me aside, her tongue pouring profanities on the street’s men (she sometimes prostituted), once leaving me to dodge across the drunken traffic to buy dental dams, mouth protection for giving oral sex.

Emily, I eventually gathered, it was Emily, shepherded me around the corner speed-talking, tears building, steeped in an addled despair.

The 19-year-old spoke on a jangling wish to kill herself, conversation falling into a mania fueled by stimulants — coke, pills. I was her miracle for caring enough to talk. I was put in her path that night for a reason. I was her angel.

She had killed someone, she said, but it was out of defense. She was protecting her friend, and wouldn’t I do the same? But no matter, she wanted to go to school. She was almost done with semester finals at her community college. But what could she do, how could she finish classes when she had to go to court for her charges? How could she do psychology now? She was estranged from her family who lived in Manhattan. They were nothing to her.

Assaulted under her speech and emotion, we steered back down the main of Roosevelt Avenue, until we reached her club. A bouncer topped a tall stool leading into a hallway awash in eerie blue light. He one-armed Emily away and advised her not to talk to me, or to Chris Arnade, who spoke to and photographed others nearby. Anger tensed her frame and she began shouting, stalking up to the club’s guardian and away, yelling obscenities.

She was beyond reach, not to be lured to dance for two bucks that night. She clutched at my arm, begging for connection, which I promised. She enfolded my business card into her bra.

I never expected a phone call or for her to remember me, though I thought of her a lot, Emily with the polarizing charm and destruction.

A week later I began receiving calls from an odd number, taking days to decode messages as to the identity of the ghost on the line. It was Emily.

I agreed to meet her alone (she didn’t like men) near a Duane Reade on Times Square a week later. Before we could meet, I came down with the flu and asked to reschedule. She replied:

We planned another meeting (my writing in blue, hers in white).

In the interim she sent me sweeping text messages, tombs of streams of consciousness, speaking of a vacation, a storm, a beach.

The next week she arrived home.

In mid-August, Emily’s line stopped working. Just like that, she was gone.

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On the streets, addicts flicker in and out, bound by their drug and, sometimes, by their forms of psychosis. I dream of Emily with her “Envy Me” tattoo at least once a week, chasing her through alleys, spotting her in door frames of seemingly unrelated thoughts.

I often think in flip-book of the last, or only, time Chris and I see someone: Bernice, Courtney, Elizabeth, Emily. I remember vivid details — the street, the time of day, the stories, my state of mind.

The tangible — a photo, an audio recording — reminds me that it happened, that they’re real, these men and women spectres who shape how I conceptualize addiction. In this parallel reality existing on the streets, true vanishing, in a life mummified by an addiction so heavy that people breathe for a fix, is forecasted. Connection exists in wisps.

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More NYC Addiction Writing
Writing Beyond Addiction in NYC
Chris Arnade’s Photos and his Facebook feed

Cassie Rodenberg About the Author: I write on culture, poverty, addiction, and mental illness: I explore things we like to ignore. I also teach public school in New York City's South Bronx. Follow on Twitter @cassierodenberg.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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  1. 1. aidel 2:30 pm 10/31/2012

    I hope she’s not dead. These stories are heartbreaking, but I still have hope for every single addict. The old cliche: Where there’s life, there is hope. Thank you Cassie for doing this important work.

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  2. 2. JeanneGarb 8:07 am 11/1/2012

    Such a sad story, Cassie. It is so hard to understand how these drugs take over these young lives, and I want to hope that there is hope for them. Thanks for sharing, this work is very important.

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  3. 3. janedoeinco 10:29 pm 12/23/2012

    Cassie: Do you have any updates on Emily?
    I found you via someone sending me a link about Chris’ blog and documentary. I have been reading the stories of all of these guys and gals and would like to know if you have made contact with Emily again?

    Link to this
  4. 4. cassierodenberg 1:04 pm 12/24/2012

    @janedoeinco I haven’t seen Emily or heard from her again, though I continue to think of her and wonder…

    Link to this

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