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 Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
Takeesha. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.
Just before Christmas, Takeesha got a new apartment, one just across the expressway from the streets she works and the drugs she buys.
The 40-year-old had moved from her old home, a fourth floor apartment in an infamous gang-and-drug-infested structure, because she was told to leave. Before that, she lived in an abandoned house operated by a few crack dealers.
This was the nicest place she and her boyfriend Steve had lived in four years.
Inside, her new home was kept neat.
Her small kitchen had a window, working appliances and food -- cold cuts, Peanut Butter Cap'n Crunch, microwaveable dinners.
In the living room lay a pallet-bed for a friend who had gotten kicked out of the nearby homeless shelter for drug use. An array of suitcases and boxes ran along the living room wall, the top box open and filled with books. Otherwise, the space was bare.
The bedroom had more life: a double bed; a vanity and chair; and a small TV stacked atop a DVD/VCR combo. She and her boyfriend Steve watched the free channels, mostly sports, and action movie DVDs with Denzel Washington. Steve played video games (Tetris derivatives) on his phone. The bed was their lounge and nexus.
And so, it happened that the bed was where Takeesha smoked and shot up. Less than she used to, but still a necessary component of life. A few bags total a day.
She stood next to the vanity to smoke. Steve sat propped on the bed, immersed in his slide-phone game.
After a full hit of crack through the pipe, smoke rising through steel wool mesh, Takeesha exhales only once, languidly over 15 seconds, some coming out in bursts of laughter. She calls it a psychological dependence, the feeling not great anymore. A sickening sweetness smell meanders through the room.
After injecting or smoking it, crack hits the body within 10 to 15 seconds, as opposed to the 10-to-15 minute trajectory of snorted cocaine. The high is brief: 15 minutes on the best of days.
In the day-to-day pipelines of the body, the nervous system releases dopamine in the brain, a neurotransmitter involved in the feeling of pleasure. Normally, dopamine transporters carry dopamine to receptors, which trigger good feelings when stimulated. After receipt, the dopamine is reabsorbed by a neighboring neuron.
Instead of the usual simple relay passing, the crack molecules latch onto dopamine's transporters, preventing the neurotransmitter's pick up and delivery for reabsorption. So, with no means of transport, the dopamine builds up in the synapses and continually stimulates the receptors.
Crack users feel a euphoria.
Takeesha Smoking. Photo courtesy of Chris Arnade.
She has no mania, exhibits no paranoia and carries on with normal conversation. She does another hit and a half. "I act pretty much the same on drugs." She goes on to speak about work, how regular "dates" are often more dangerous than strangers, how they expect price cuts and harbor jealousy.
Like most under the influence, Takeesha doesn't realize her different states. For her, though, heroin is the stunner -- a couple of hours after the crack, she does three bags. Mixes the white with water, watches the white turn brown; heats it with a tossed-over lighter; slides it up her arm. Each day, she shoots heroin to avoid being physically sick from withdrawal.
The opiate makes her rock backwards and forwards, near-trance, close to a window overlooking the raised 4, 5, 6 trains below. She picks up band aid paper as if in a vat of glue. Questions are answered briefly, eyes crescents, weakly open.
Asked if tired, she shakes her head slowly. It takes about an hour for Takeesha to come down, an hour spent sitting, slowly cleaning up her shooting trash. She comes out hazily and doesn't remember being apart from herself.
Later, over dinner in a Mexican restaurant, she downs two bottles of Heineken, a rarity. She doesn't usually drink alcohol. She's giddy, jumping outside, making schoolgirl references to sex with her boyfriend, demanding a radio station change in the car -- what is this shit? -- dancing in the backseat. The first time all day she's appeared happy from a drug, a hollow look at the party girl she might have been.