THE TASTE, 2000 by PAUL PAX ANDREWS
The best heroin was in Cabramatta, a suburb forty minutes south-west of Sydney. The early-morning trains were full of junkies, mostly sick and hanging out, checking each station and counting the seconds until our collective nightmares would end for a moment, any relief. For just one minute. A rolling sick car of very strange community, huddled, ticket-less. Each of us with our last twenty-five or fifty… Eager to spend it on the only thing that matters. None of us were making eye contact but each is keenly aware of the other. The heroin-dealers were often Vietnamese or Chinese, trying to make a living in their newfound freedoms, yet mostly didn’t use H themselves. That is why the deals were consistent. Sometimes we could get a half a gram for a hundred bucks that would hold us for a day, or twelve hours at least. We’d knock on a garage door and a hand would come out from underneath, take the hundred and subsequently push out a tiny foil wrapped cube of white heroin.
The Liverpool train, 8am.
Blokes with whipper-snippers and stereos or power tools to hock and sell; they carried laptops and phones, turntables and cameras. Chicks with bags of shoplifting, batteries, razors, hair products, cigarette lighters, film, clothes, toys, perfume, anything that we might trade for a few dollars, to finally end up with enough money to stop being sick for a few hours. We have done it all for one minute’s peace, twenty-five or fifty bucks. A junkie starts shoplifting early in the morning, while the punters sleep. Only once or twice a month did we have enough for a half weight or a gram. Then it will be on again, the whole madness of the day from my first moment to my last thought—Heroin twenty-four seven, a dollar at a time, hustling around the Eastern Suburbs Line, the Cross, Central, Cabramatta, Town Hall and Martin Place. We met our dealers everywhere and anywhere anytime, day and night.
More train ticket dodging and cops at Cabramatta Station, everywhere junkies, dealers and chemists. A number of dealers would be there waiting when we stepped out of the railway station. Shop windows are showing grotesque hanging red ducks or fish tanks full of giant crabs. Trays of pork buns. Exotic food restaurants all around us but we don’t stop to look and we’re not hungry, although we hadn’t eaten in days. Asian street dealers everywhere (they would sell a twenty or a fifty but usually tiny amounts). “No. Motherfucker!” We could barely walk, yet at this point and with fifty in our pocket we would go a hundred more miles in our heroin trance, by now we were locked into each step. Get on—get on—get on—get on, get a shot. Through the back streets of Cabramatta, away from the station toward blocks of sixties flats, brown flats, “keep going man.” Nearly there. No cops? (in contrast to the amount of heroin in Cabramatta, there were very few police indeed). Syringes in the garden beds, I could smell heroin now. Heart racing but my legs are failing. If Chan was on we could get a fifty that would hold us for a couple of hours, and we’re nearly there. “You OK baby? Almost there!” Meanwhile I’m hoping, “Please man’. Chan. Be home!”
“Hello?” Number 4 on the intercom (two buttons are missing). “Hello Chan?” The dodgy speaker crackles. “We have friends in town.” (The password.) What is that smell? “Yes?” “Thank god he’s there! Thank God.” “Chan? A fifty thanks.” Yes! I hold my breath ‘till we reach the fourth floor. The smell of the apartment block is sour and damp and the door opened only for a moment. A hand, an eye, some aluminium foil. “Thanks!” We went down one flight and she had the spoon out. Oh my God, heroin, beautiful smack. “Water?” Between my teeth I rip off the cap of the plastic, distilled water bottle. We would have it mixed up and in the fits, ready in one minute or less. On the stairs, right there.
Next began the drama of getting a vein. After three years we were running out of solid veins and sometimes I would miss. Fuck! All hell would break loose and we would need another shot. I am ripping at my belt to remove it. Pumping now, excited, my heart is racing with anticipation but “What is that fucking smell?”
A Cabramatta stairwell; my old belt wrapped tight around my arm, one end held in the mouth to leave two hands free, slapping my forearm. I find a likely spot and try to raise blood, nothing. Again I jab the sharp under my skin and pierce the vein. “Fuck that hurts, motherfuck.” Try the other arm, she’s got hers and sighs, “Mmnnooohh” “You OK, babe?” This time…Yes! “Ohhh!“ I watch the swirl of red shoot into the fit. My belt slips from my mouth as the vein accepts the tiny shot.
“Oh… nice… oh, oh, oh, oh! Fuuuck yeh! Oh man. Ahh… So fuckin good. OHH—Ooh, FUUCK…”
Relief, peace. Breathe. The instant rush. Oh beautiful rush. Fuck Yeh! ………”Oh baby, so good! How are you?” Her eyes are closed and she is slumped in her own reprieve, the first release from horror cramps and pains. Relief in all our muscles, from the incessant craving. Beautiful saviour! Heroin peace.
A sense of total disbelief now arises and takes over my thoughts. Where the fuck am I? At last it’s me… Me! Man, at last I can feel me. Paul, beautiful me. How beautiful are you man? “You insane motherfucker. What are you gonna do?” Fuck. You gotta get clean, man. “What the Fuck?” My freed mind now races through the questions and answers. Wishing I could keep my relief for more than just a few fleeting hours, now that I feel so good. Not an insane junkie, just me. Broken me, and I’m OK, at peace now you know, I’m OK. I’m not sick any more, I’m just lost and don’t belong here.
We’d shoot up anywhere, just as soon as we scored; in toilets, on trains, in doorways and parks, gardens, anywhere. We just needed relief, now. Right now! There is no time to be polite, not now. Not here in Cabramatta, not on these stairs… not in this filthy stairwell, littered with swabs and picks and spoons, fits, and water bottles and silver foil, shit every-where… and the smell of filth, stale filth, tobacco mixed with damp carpet filth. We had our hit, right there in amongst it all. This can’t be! What the fuck am I doin’ here in this shit-hole and how did I get here? Why?
“Who the fuck are you?”
Yes… It is what it is, man! Why? Forgive me.
“Please forgive me.”
“There must be a way out, I want out! Anything, I will do anything!”
This is a rude awakening that I face, each time I have a shot. Each time I send the demon away, each time I find peace again. Each shot is my last shot, always, my heartbeat is each shot, nothing between; only numbness or pain, nothing between shots, only… horror. Absolute disbelief and the panic of constant running. A sense of endless racing. Wholeheartedly onward, unstoppable, heroin-fuelled. Relentless. Going nowhere. Nothing between heartbeats, nothing. Nothing that matters.
Only heroin and relief. Occasional relief.
Yet oh, such relief. My whole body would go into dreamy ecstasy as soon as the rush was over; the rush is some ride… The only thing is, once started, I can’t get off. A ride I never wanted to get onto. Ever. Never. Not now and not ever. Why? To waste my life and throw it away, on that first taste. How had I become the person I least wanted to be? Totally broken, insane for sure, sleeping in gardens and doorways, eating with homeless drunks, people just like me, desperate now. Lost. My heart is bankrupt. Empty-hearted, yet I’m doin’ my best. Maybe I wouldn’t be good enough? Self doubt and self-loathing pervades.
Does it matter? Maybe I would be good enough. How? If I couldn’t find the real Paul, I’d never know, not now. Not ever.
“How can I see out of this darkness?”
My first move; change my playground, a geographical. Jason’s death hit me hard. (My twenty-five-year-old nephew had overdosed in a car at Cabramatta.) I was completely depressed and it seemed this was my fate too, an overdose or worse, the continuum of this nightmare until I am in jail. I did not want to live, not now. I didn’t want to die either but how can I escape this quicksand existence? She is so sick too, yet I can’t think of saving her, only myself. How the fuck can I get away from all this? I must leave Sydney, but how?
Each second Thursday we received the dole and on December 27th we each bought two Greyhound tickets, one to Perth and another to Coffs Harbour. After scoring our shot and saying a brief goodbye, I boarded my escape and watched her beautiful face for the last time… I finally got to Western Australia after four days of laying in the aisle, Sydney to Perth. My very last shot was in Adelaide but I was barely able to hold my own weight when I arrived. The bus driver had threatened to throw me off in Eucla on the Nullarbor. Vomiting and cramps, pain, diarrhoea and totally insane. Very ill—so sick. Sad.
PERTH ONCE AGAIN, 2001
I had been away thirty years. My beautiful mother and my twin sister; I had been away so long, yet Sue and Bill had taken me in on Christmas Eve 2000. Beautiful Sue. What a gift. What a talent. (She is a visual artist, a wonderful talent with a great sense of composition, colour and line.) My brother Terry and his wife Ann, my sisters Carol, Jean were supportive through the first months. They just seemed glad to have a brother again. I finally got clean; in Fremantle after twenty days of nightmare, no sleep and mental torture. Eventually I made it to my first NA meeting and attended two hundred ‘Narcotics Anonymous’ meetings during the next six months! My first meeting was on the 31st of January 2001 in South Fremantle. Sometimes attending three meetings a day, I made getting clean my career, for twelve months. Total abstinence, with not even a beer and everyday a meeting or two, sharing my experiences. (One day at a time.) Richard Hamersley and other members of NA in Perth helped me stay clean. I wanted Nat and Gabi back in my life so much, so many tears in those first weeks. I needed to address my spirit, find it again.
Acceptance. Purpose. Find my song. Fremantle is good to me and accepts me as an old friend.
My new birthday was December 28th, 2000. I have a lot of work to do. How can I apologise for ten thousand lies? Yet already my friends are so generous, so gracious. How can I apologise to myself? My life is so good now. I am truly sorry for betraying friendships and family. Make a list of all the things in my life that I am grateful for. “I am fucking glad I have stopped using!” number one! Only about six percent of long-term heroin users survive and that makes me one lucky bastard, that’s for sure.
By Easter 2001, I wanted to play again and started listening to Coltrane once more… It is four or five years since I last played seriously, but I’m listening again—Miles and Bird. I heard the saxophone and the desires came rushing back. Art Pepper’s joy. Cannonball’s style. Bird’s genius. A friend took me to see the ‘Buena Vista Social Club’, Ibrahim Ferrer and Rubén González full of music, full of life at eighty years old and wonderful. I wanted to play again, but how? Then Chris, a friend of a friend of a friend said casually, “I’ve got an alto under the bed.” Amazing to think I could have another go. (Big thanks again Chris!) I wanted to sing. I was penniless but this five hundred dollar horn felt like a new Selmer after not playing for so long. I hit the beach, every morning playing to the waves to get my sound back. South Beach; to the mole and back. Took three months before I got a sound that was reminiscent of the old days, but then the swing feel thing didn’t quite seem right, somehow. I just couldn’t feel it! I needed new ground but in the meantime kept working on my sound, loving practising again. In awe of this piece of plumbing and the millions of possibilities, once I breathed into it.
I felt alive and excited when Natty turned me on to St Germain and some other Electronica. I discovered the dance floor and Kruder & Dorfmaster, LTJ Bukem, David Holmes and Plump DJs. Discovering the Club scene, dance. Ambar and Geisha, Metropolis for Drum ‘n’ Bass was really something and I started to dig the Two-step thing. Dub-step. Artful Dodger, the Streets, David Holmes, Roni Size and World House. Nu-jazz with ‘Flanger’ and on to fresh new ground, from Detroit and Germany. Darren Moore turned me on to it when he returned from London and was hip to the drum and bass too. I started playing over the mix with DJ Tasty Beats and DJ Gear, Wax n Sax, around Perth. If I can get up in the mix, this is the tightest rhythm section I could hope for. Consistent audiences too, giving one hundred percent. A rare commodity at a jazz-gig! (In Australia anyway, jazz audiences are so polite and reserved and often seemingly unaffected.) In a dance-club we are there for the music, young and old together, excited, in a place where we can just listen together and bliss out. Total respect. I heard Jamiroquai live; we were seven thousand happy listeners. Dance is one of the truest cultures I have seen in Australia. A sense of coming together, in total abandon, for music. Where had I been my whole life? (Not on the dance-floor, yet.) This is functional music at its best. Tribal in origin, combined with a rare touch of modern community, acceptance and love. World leaders should maybe get together on the dance floor. (At least once)
“Go for it Johnny! Wake up. Find some bliss somewhere. (For all our sakes.) George? Get up and have a boogie.” Ecstasy is only a point of reference, but a valuable reminder of our ability to bliss out.
I started blowing over the mix and realized I was listening to a bran-new direction for my jazz. I had spent my whole life playing long lines, now I need to find the loop. Three notes or four, in a catchy phrase or a lick that I can work rhythmically for five minutes, not allowing myself too much freedom once I locked in. When it worked, I could take the raging room up another five percent with my sound and a little heart. It was sensational working the room… I could play in amongst the people, on the floor… Three notes. I was so excited. By 2001, I wanted a trio, so to hear the Perth locals, especially the younger players, I looked in at the West-Australian Academy of Performing Arts, Monday lunchtime. WAAPA.
When I first heard Dane Alderson and Andrew Fisenden, both were seventeen and inspired me with a sea of rhythms. I wanted to play again for sure! I was hearing this wonderful energy, so I offered them a gig. We never had a rehearsal, ever, but each night the band became tighter and more exciting. Adding two other great youngsters, Ooki Effendi and Simon Phillips we recorded an album ‘Thanksgiving’ (paxrecords is born). I wrote two tunes for the band: ‘Kick’ and the title track which was inspired by Pharoah Sanders and is meant to progress from bliss to horror through ugly beauty, then back again. The band laid down a great feel and we created from there. I just gave them three chords. ‘Kick’ is about freedom and joy, just two contrasting keys. I was playing the five hundred dollar alto and a soprano that Clive had lent me. I was struggling, but it sure felt good. Nearly had a heart attack—they played so phat. (I revisited the wha-wha pedal on some tunes too.) Thank God for Stephen Manassah, who has mixed the album and allowed us to hear fifty or so minutes of that gig and some sensational playing. They gave me their all, those young men. A few months later, James Morrison discovered them (Dane and Andrew) and they joined his band. (Around the world in eighty days.) I owe them, big time. They helped me save me, and they had been listening to the drum and bass too, which turned me on, big-time.
In August Sue introduced me to Richard Hill, a wonderful person who has been a major figure in my life ever since. Ric was born with spinal muscular-atrophy, can move just two fingers and is in a wheelchair. I started caring for him (and his two grandmothers) thirty hours a week. He had never had a support worker before, so we learned together. (A day gig.) I realized acceptance, just for a start. Many gifts have followed.
Each day a gift. I get to practice ‘leaving my ego at home’ (not easy for me). We celebrate eleven years as a team now, happy years and together we can do anything. I spend thirty hours a week practising my compassion and observing my attitude and intention (as often as possible). Now we both tell our stories to all kinds of groups. He is “The luckiest guy alive” too. Just ask him.
from Without A Song © 2012 Paul Pax Andrews
Ebook available @ Smashwords
This excerpt appears in Contrappasso Magazine #2, December 2012
Photography (CC) by Jason Flores @ Flickr