Day Job: I Was a Heroin Ethnographer

“Our challenge was to find white, upper- and middle-class users and study their usage in order to paint a more realistic portrait of who was using drugs.” (Photo: Adrianna Dufay/TueNight)

“C’mon!” my emaciated companion urged, grabbing my arm and speedwalking me towards a nondescript looking apartment building. We had been waiting across the street for the past 10 minutes, looking for some kind of a signal from the gentleman standing in front of the bodega on the corner. I had been trying to decide whether I was more afraid of the police or an angry drug dealer, but I guess while I was busy being paranoid we had been given the all-clear.

“Be cool,” Janet hissed as she hurried me on.

At one point Janet had been a successful corporate lawyer, but that was many years and countless bags of dope ago. Today, she was a 45-year-old junkie who lived off the largesse of her wealthy Upper West Side family, in a parentally financed apartment a few blocks from where she grew up.

We were about to purchase heroin together because I was working as an ethnographer on a government-funded anthropological study of heroin use in New York City. Most drug research takes place in the relative comfort of a needle exchange or rehab facility because there’s a willing population at the ready. You give them 10 bucks, they’ll tell you what it’s like to be a drug addict. Or tell you what they think you want to hear anyway.

The study my team was working on was different in several ways. For one, our job as ethnographers meant that we had to be out in “the field” with our subjects as they bought, sold, and used drugs. Another difference was that minority and low-income populations are more likely to pop up in drug studies because poor addicts were more likely to take advantage of social services where researchers lurked, and could be convinced to bare their souls—or a close facsimile thereof—for the price of a bag of heroin.

Being an over-studied population leads to the misperception that the poor and minorities were more likely to be drug addicts. No, our team posited, they were simply more likely to be studied. Our challenge was to find white, upper- and middle-class users and study their usage in order to paint a more realistic portrait of who was using drugs. Which is why I was standing on a street corner in Harlem, waiting to buy dangerous narcotics with a woman sweating her way into withdrawal.

As we approached the building, the surly looking teen standing guard gave us the once over twice, and after a few seconds of hesitation, grudgingly pushed open the door. Inside we were met by a third guy, even younger than the doorman, who silently led us up two flights of stairs and into an apartment.

As we stood in the kitchen, I noticed all of the windows had been taped over with newspaper. The door shut behind us. I tried not to pee my pants as I noticed a gun on the table.

“Who’s SHE?” a voice barked.

I looked away from the gun and saw its owner: a young, handsome black man who did not look happy to see me.

“She goes to school with me,” my companion squeaked at breakneck speed. “We were studying together and she’s cool, she’s cool, she’s cool.”

The guy looked dubious, but gestured for us both to sit down.

While Janet and my other study subjects knew exactly why I was there, we didn’t always share that information with the dealers we met, so there was sometimes a balancing act with the truth. No, I wasn’t a junkie, but I had to somehow assure these guys that I also wasn’t a cop. Most were understandably suspicious about a person putting herself at risk of arrest if she didn’t have a habit.

I looked around the sparsely furnished apartment and realized that the brown-paper wrapped packages lining the walls were carefully wrapped bricks of heroin. (10 bags of dope make a bundle and five bundles make a brick.) This crappy little one-bedroom probably had inventory worth as much as your average Nordstrom’s.

Janet chattered madly, desperate to get her fix, but the dealer had other ideas.

“What would you like,” he smiled at me.

“Oh, she doesn’t do heroin,” Janet volunteered.

I could see where this was going—the dealer was one of those guys who believed that a cop wouldn’t do drugs in front of him, so he was going to put me to the test. His smile went away.

Distracted by the money Janet was shoving his way, he handed her the drugs.

 Even though I wasn’t buying the drugs or doing them, the exhilaration I’d felt was its own kind of high. Being a heroin ethnographer might not have been the most glamorous job, but it was one of the more exciting ones I’ve ever had.

“You don’t do heroin?” he asked again.

My heart was in my throat and it was getting harder not to pee my pants. “No,” I said, worried that he was going to try to make me. “But I smoke a little weed sometimes.”

“Good girl!” he exclaimed happily. “You don’t want to end up like this one,” he said, gesturing towards Janet, who was too busy hoovering her first bag of the day to notice that her drug dealer was kind of being a jerk.

A knock on the door signaled that a new client had arrived and our time was up. Janet gathered up her purchases and we said our goodbyes. Just as we’d had to wait to get in, we had to hang out by the front door until the lookout made sure the coast was clear for us to leave.

The adrenaline rush I’d been held captive by for the past 45 minutes ended with a flood of relief as the subway doors closed behind us and we trundled back downtown. Even though I wasn’t buying the drugs or doing them, the exhilaration I’d felt was its own kind of high. Being a heroin ethnographer might not have been the most glamorous job, but it was one of the more exciting ones I’ve ever had.

Until it wasn’t.

I lasted three years—from 1997 to 2000—in the heroin underground. What had started off as a riveting adventure wound up being fairly depressing . . . go figure. I still remember the interview that convinced me to quit. This addict wasn’t one of my regulars; she was probably 35, had spent her life working as a prostitute and petty criminal, and was quite ill with AIDS. Her boyfriend lurked in the corner of the room, not saying much. She made sure to share that he was HIV-negative.

One of our major job requirements was a poker face. We absolutely could not be judgey about the people we dealt with, which wasn’t always easy.

Well, this woman melted my poker face. She was furious with everyone, including her boyfriend and me. She told me about the seven children she’d had—all abandoned at the hospital.  Obviously defensive about it, it was hard to get her to say much more than that she’d rather smoke rock and shoot dope than deal with kids. Her mom had taken in of a couple of them, but from what I could make out, the rest were just put into foster care, which was certainly a better option than going home with this woman.

Even though I knew I was treading on dangerous ground, I asked her about birth control. She rolled back her head and laughed at me like I was an idiot. Remnants of thrush lined her lips as she pointed at her boyfriend and said, “Can you believe this asshole won’t fuck me without a condom?”

Why, yes. Yes, I could believe that. But what I couldn’t do was keep it together any longer. I wrapped up our interview, gave her a couple bucks and turned in my notice.

Tell Us in the Comments

What do you think?

5 Responses

  1. Editor’s Note: It’s Just a Job I Do… | Tue Night

    […] Day Job: I Was a Heroin Ethnographer by Judy McGuire […]

  2. Charity Singleton Craig

    What an amazing and horrifying experience. I went on one drug bust as a cub reporter right of college, and I thought I’d never come down from the high. Until I did. Like you said. Some people’s lives are so unbelievable that looking them in the idea and recognizing their real is just too painful.

    Thanks for this glimpse.

  3. Photos: Our First Birthday Party! | Tue Night

    […] Golden, reader extraordinaire (She read I Was a Heroin Ethnographer, by Judy McGuire) handing out some of our birthday […]

  4. Editor’s Note: Thank You | Tue Night

    […] Day Job: I Was a Heroin Ethnographer, Judy McGuire […]

  5. click the next site

    Excellent article! We are linking to this particularly great content on our website. Keep up the good writing.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.