Reflections on “Addicts Who Survived”: Teddy’s Narrative

Editor’s note: After introducing the series last week, I’m pleased to present the first of the excerpts from Addicts Who Survived chosen by our guest bloggers.  Eric Schneider made extensive use of the oral histories collected by Courtwright, Joseph, and Des Jarlais in his 2011 book, Smack: Heroin and the American City.  Asked to choose one particular passage from Addicts Who Survived, Eric has recommended the recounting by “Teddy” of his teenage experiences with the world of illicit enterprise.  Tomorrow, Eric will offer his own reflections.–Joe Spillane


Teddy was born of black parents in Savannah, Georgia, in 1927. His family life was extremely unstable. His absentee father drank himself to death, and his mother tried repeatedly to foist Teddy on other relatives: “ I was like a burden to her.” Eventually she ran away to New York City, but he found her and joined her in the mid-1930s.

When I was a youngster Harlem was alive. You could hear laughter. The streets would be full of people. Lenox Avenue, Seventh Avenue, all had businesses: there wasn’t an empty store front along there. Seventh Avenue was like Broadway downtown. There was dope in Harlem, and crime, but it wasn’t like it is now: people weren’t getting mugged. Sure, there were fights, but it was basically just fights.

Harlem, 1943
Harlem, 1943

The section I lived in was integrated. There were white people living right down the block on 132nd Street, and on 134th. I went to school with white kids. We even had gangs or clubs with the white kids in them. The people who owned the stores, most of them were Jews or Italians; they used to bring their kids there in the morning, and the kids would go to school with us to grammar school. When they’d complete grammar school, they’d go someplace else. I went to P.S. 89: it was the first school I’d gone to. I didn’t go all that much down South-there wasn’t nobody to make you go down there; it was left to your family. It wasn’t compulsory to go to school the way it was here in New York. So my mother had to take me to school. I went as far as the eighth grade. I started ninth grade but I was just going, if you know what I mean: I went when I wanted. There was no one there to guide me; there was never no one home. My mother worked as a maid on Long Island. She would leave in the morning to go to work, or whatever, and she might come home two days later. So I’d be runnin’ around on the streets and stealing. At that time you could go to all the five-and-ten-cent stores, where they’d have cookies and candies just laying on the shelves. I’d go and pick them up and eat them. It was like a picnic. Everything was in the open-it wasn’t like it is now, where everything is in cases.

I had run-ins with the police, like for stealing cases of soda off of trucks. See, back then the police had a different system. The police knew just about everybody on their beat: all the kids, where they lived, who their mothers were, and their fathers. This way, if something happened in the neighborhood—if someone said, “Why, them kids stole so-and-so” —he’d round up all the kids in the block and find out who it was. Most of the time they’d take you home. But if your mother wasn’t home, they’d take you to the precinct, slap you around, beat you up, and send you on home. Then they’d notify your parents and say, “Listen, Teddy did this, this, and this.” That’s when I was getting to be about thirteen, fourteen years old.

The first time that I actually got arrested was for cuttin’ a guy. I was in a teenager’s gang; maybe I was about fifteen. It was a territory thing:  we’ve got this block, this is our block, and you can’t come in this block unless you’ve got permission from us. We were fighting, but we weren’t fighting really to kill one another, even though we had sticks and knives.  You had to carry this stuff. If you stuck somebody, it made you a big guy.  If you stuck so-and-so, they’d give you a name like “Ice Pick Slim” or “Killer Ray.” You’d try to get a nickname for yourself. The police would take us in, and line up all the clubs, and ask, “Who did this?” So you’d say, “I stuck the guy,” right? It was a thing where, if you did it, you told them. You did it because it looked good-you’d get a name for yourself, you know. People would say, “Teddy sticked that guy, yeah,” or “Teddy’ll kill ya,” or “Don’t mess with Teddy, ’cause he’s a bad guy.”‘This is how you started to get that rep, or that bad-guy image.

I started with dope around fourteen, but I wasn’t actually using it. I was handling it. First, I have to tell you that dope back then was handled entirely differently from what it is now. People that were dope fiends,  you’d never know that they were dope fiends, for the simple reason that they didn’t nod on no corners, they weren’t greasy, and if they stole anything, you would never know. They were clean, their clothes looked good, and they only stole the best. They kept money in their pockets, and nobody talked, nobody said, “Dh, listen, there’s Teddy who’s a dope fiend.” It was a quietly kept thing. How did we find out about it? Well, by being kids in the block, we knew everything: we knew who took numbers, where the whiskey was. I was making whiskey in a bathtub. The person that started me handling dope was the same person with the whiskey. They used us kids because we were better to use than an adult: they could give us twenty-five or thirty cents, or a dollar, and that seemed like big money. They’d let us run the stuff, and the police would be less suspicious of the kids, you know.

I was working in this house that dealt in sex, alcohol, and drugs. There were girls there, and whiskey for sale, and narcotics. The police knew this was going on, but they didn’t arrest anybody because they’d come buy and pick up their payoff. My position was more or less a hanger-on-er or a flunkie. I used to put the liquor in the bottles. I’d add one shot of brown sugar that I cooked up on the stove to make it look just like whiskey. I would sit on the stoop, where I had a string with a bell. When somebody wanted some whiskey, they would come up in their car; I’d go up and get it, bring it out. I was a lookout man. If the cop came, I’d ring the bell and start running.

The johns who came to this house were mostly white people. It was downtown trade, not uptown. In fact, we didn’t want to deal with the blacks at all because you’d have to hassle with them. They’d want to come in and try to make love to the girls, stay all night, make a home. With a white person, they’d come in and do what they gotta do and leave. No problems. Get in their car and-phewww!-they’re gone. There was no argument about, “I paid this amount of money and I don’t think she did it right.” And most of the time the blacks who would come for the girls would be drunk on alcohol, and that would be a problem. You can’t just tell them, “No,” so you have to deal with them some way. If possible, we’d try to steer them away: “Hey, man, why don’t you go across there to so-and-so.”

These white johns were mostly in business or, if they weren’t businessmen, they were well dressed when they came up. Usually they’d come in twos, sometimes even in threes. I guess this was a safety thing, although we had a policy not to beat nobody—nobody’d come in there and get robbed, because if they got robbed or something, the business is gone. So as long as they were in the house with us, they were protected. The block was the same way: once they left the house, nobody’d do nothing in the block. They were protected, and that kept our business going. This was a thing also with the people who were using dope. They didn’t tell who they copped from. If they got busted, they didn’t say, “Well, I went over to Teddy and got it.” You got busted, and that was it. The police used to deal different with people who used dope, because their addiction wasn’t a known thing. The only time a guy would get found out was when he got sick.

The only narcotics they sold in this house were heroin and cocaine. Marijuana was never big, it wasn’t a good seller, business-wise. There was nothing in it. But heroin and coke just turns over-on Fridays, Saturdays, you had people who were like regular customers going in a store. They had their hours; they’d call up and say, “Listen, I’ll be there,” or, “Could you get Teddy to drop this off at this place for me.”

The people who bought the drugs were mostly black men and women: waiters, musicians, showgirls. Some of them were hustlers. They would go downtown and shoplift or pickpocket. This is what you call slickness; very few would rob somebody, or actually cause bodily harm. ‘Cause, like I said before, every store in New York was opened up, things weren’t chained down. Shoplifting was the big thing-you didn’t have no muggings.

When I first started working there, I didn’t know what dope was. I’d go into the house and see people shooting it in their arm, and I thought itwas medicine. It wasn’t until I was sixteen that I used my first dope. I’d run errands for the prostitutes upstairs, if they wanted something from the store. Every time I’d do this they’d give me a tip. So one day I went up to the third floor, and the girl had this white powder on her table. She was doing it in her nose. I said, “What you doing?” She said, “You want some?” And I said, “Yeah!” and I snorted some heroin. The first reaction is hard to explain. I got a big itch in my groin; I started scratchin’ and scratchin’. I don’t know if I got high, or what, but I had to scratch. The girl said, “What’s wrong with you, boy? What you got, the crabs? You been fuckin’ around, or something?” I said, “No man, but my mother-fuckin’ thing’s itching down there!” Then I got sick. Your stomach feels upset. I felt like I was going to bring it all up, like my stomach was floating in shit. And when I did bring it up, it was all green, if you know what I mean. After I got over the scratchin’, and the first sickness, I was fucked up one way or the other for damn near all day. See, the grade of heroin they sold back then would probably O.D. a couple of people out here now.

A couple of days later I tried it again. Why? Curiosity. It was there, you know. And within these crowds, you don’t want to say no. You want to be known, you want to be down, you want to be hip, to know everything that’s going on. Say, if you drank and it’s all right for you, then, why not, I’m going to try it too. If it made you feel good, it’ll make me feel good. Then it’ll give me something to talk to you about on your level; I’m coming up. I’ll say, “Well, shit, we had that same stuff, and it was good, man,” and you’ll say, “Yeah.” I can’t relate it to you if I never tried it. To talk about it, I have to know what I’m talking about. This way, if people said, “We have something here that we want to get tested,” somebody would say, “Well, we can go get Teddy. He’ll test it. He’s all right. He knows what’s happening.”

It was like coming up through the ranks. That’s what they did for the black kids coming up back in them days. The majority of us, we didn’t have no plans or no future. We never planned anything. We never expected no more than what we were. The only thing, if you were lucky, you would say, “Wow, if I finish high school, I might be able to get me a department of sanitation job.” That was about the biggest: there were very few black conductors. In fact, on 125th Street, there were very few black salesmen in the stores. All the stores in Harlem had white clerks. There was no future to look for, like there is today. They’re paying kids to go to school now; all the colleges and everything have opened up. Your parents now could send you to college and it doesn’t cost them anything. But when I was coming up, it was a scuffle just to try to get through high school. So the kids were running in the street like I was. It was a relief for the parents to get rid of us: this was a responsibility they didn’t have to worry about. And we’d do whatever the people in the block were doing—if they were writing numbers, or selling dope, or whatever. It was a part of the neighborhood. You either did it, or you got out of the neighborhood. A person who worked, or went straight—what we’d call a “square”—would go his own way. Most of them were better off than we were in the long run. Look at what happened to me. I wish I was a square—I wish I was a square now, but not before. Back then I thought it was the hippest thing in the world to be with somebody that shot dope, or drank whiskey, or smoked reefer, rather than to be with somebody who had a job.

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Joe Spillane is Professor of History at the University of Florida. He has authored Cocaine: From Medical Marvel to Modern Menace in the United States (Johns Hopkins Press, 2000) and co-edited Federal Drug Control: The Evolution of Policy and Practice (Haworth Press, 2004).  More recently, he authored Coxsackie: The Life and Death of Prison Reform (Johns Hopkins Press, 2014). His current drug-related research agenda includes: the history and development of drug abuse liability assessment; reflections on the nature of drug epidemics; and examinations of drug war “harms” in historical context.

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