The message line in the email read YOUR LOSER FRIEND — all in caps — and I didn’t open it right away. I thought it was from Jimmy’s father, whom I’d kept in touch with but who had stopped talking about his oldest boy years ago. Now I assumed there was news. Bad news. That Jimmy had been found somewhere — on the streets, in jail again, in some urine-laced crack house in the ghetto. Or maybe — and this I feared most — maybe my best friend was finally dead.
But the email came from Jimmy, not his dad. Jimmy wanted money. He’d lost his I.D. on the streets of Seattle and needed 45 bucks to get another one; he couldn’t get a job without identification. Sounded like b.s. to me. Sounded like an addict going to the well of yet another friend to get money for a fix. But I didn’t say no right off the bat. Maybe it was my turn to finally help him.
Jimmy had never hit me up for cash before — we’d been out of contact for years — but he’d been squeezing money out of his parents for decades. Then he started ripping off his siblings. I’d even heard stories of Jimmy robbing his Aunt Katie, who took him in after he got out of jail and whom he repaid by cadging her money for crack.
I wondered what would happen if Jimmy suddenly showed up on my doorstep in Indiana. Loud welcome. Tinny laughter. I imagined Jimmy casing the dining room and kitchen to see if any cash or silver was lying about. He wouldn’t want to rip me off, but addicts don’t have a choice. “What’s up, Dude?” he’d say.
Jimmy had turned me on to drugs when I was a teenager in 1970s Chicagoland. First pot, then other things. I’d promised my parents and coaches that I’d never do drugs. I’d sworn to just say no to drugs forever. But at the end of my sophomore year Jimmy jetted in from Colorado, so smiling and hip and handsome that cannabis seemed like a legitimate choice for a boy whose parents had divorced and whose basketball career had gone south for the winter.
Jimmy was my hero. Street-smart and smooth talking, sharp-eyed and absolutely un-virgined. His cowboy boots and Deep Purple records startled me like exotic pets. So did the big fat joint that he rolled out the first night in our basement. I got superhigh with him, then supersick. So sick that you’d think I’d never smoke again, but pot introduced me to a brand new laughing world. And I liked escaping the other world I inhabited, which had started causing more and more pain.
Jimmy’s dad separated the world into winners and losers. Ten percent of Americans owned half the dough, he said. One percent had most of the power. Mister Jim, the master salesman. Tall. Hearty. Optimistic. Full of bluster.
“You can’t con a conman,” he often said to me, although his language was much saltier than that. And I didn’t try. Besides, he took care of me when I visited Jimmy in Colorado. Put me up in his condo at Purgatory, bought me lift tickets and spaghetti dinners. Least I could do was listen to his spiel on making lots of money and getting into the right college — which was just one college really: Notre Dame. Mister Jim had gone to ND and was about as rah-rah as they get. He loved the Irish. Loved Touchdown Jesus and Fair Catch Corby. Loved the 11, count ’em, 11 national championships — the most in college football.
Mister Jim lit candles at the Notre Dame Grotto and prayed that one of his five kids would go to school there. But I did instead. It wasn’t clear I would at first. I had the grades — I’d always loved reading books, and my parents’ divorce made me curious about the world at an early age. But maybe, I thought, a small liberal arts school in the Rockies would be a better fit.
I flew to Denver to visit Colorado College. Jimmy met me at the airport. He’d broken his foot or ankle in an accident and hobbled around on crutches, but his face beamed like a saint who’d found his master. And he had. He dumped scads of cocaine out on a mirror in the airport parking lot and carved the pile into long, feathery caterpillars. My hands trembled when Jimmy rolled a $20 bill and gave me the honor of first snort. Was I on the road to junkydom?
I took the bill and inhaled, one burning shot in each nostril. For the next week I snorted three squares daily. All on the house. Jimmy was already dealing back then, buying six, eight, 12 grams of coke at a pop and cutting the stash with baking powder so we could party all day and night for free.
I liked coke at first. Liked how it squashed my every teenage doubt. Liked how the tart drips crept down the back of the throat and turned me superhuman in seconds. I’d been taught to always put off pleasure. Delay gratification. That was the mantra of capitalism and Catholicism and even America once upon a time. But Jimmy seemed to have it all at 18, and I wanted to join him.
I remember one afternoon when Jimmy’s girlfriend came over to play pool and listen to Frampton Comes Alive. I couldn’t stop looking at her lank blond hair and playful smile that made me feel like the only boy in the history of Colorado. But she snorted a few lines of coke and climbed naked into Jimmy’s bed. He gave me a wink and hobbled in after her, leaving the door open, inviting me to watch. Instead I played 8-ball in the rec room. Must have played a dozen racks, listening to Jimmy’s play-by-play in the bed next door, listening to Peter Frampton sing from the 8-track: “Do you feel like I do? Ooh, that’s true.”
Mister Jim rode his son hard that spring. “C’mon Jimmy! You’re a loser if you don’t go to college!” And so Jimmy jumped through the hoops, gave his dad many sweet assurances. Nobody could b.s. Jimmy’s dad like Jimmy could. Later, before coke ravaged him, Jimmy would sell thousands of children’s books with his dad, although neither he nor his dad really read them. “Anybody can write a book,” Mr. Jim would say, “but it takes a genius to sell one.”
A couple weeks after the “loser” email, I wired Jimmy 50 bucks. Even on a teaching salary, I can afford it, a pittance really. Still, I hate where the money might go — sucked up my best friend’s nose. For days I anguished over better ways to help him. Fly out to Seattle, urge him back into rehab? Yet in the end I did what most Americans do when they won’t take the time or energy to really help out. I floated him the money.
“Hey Jimmy,” I said in an email. “I hope this doesn’t go to dope, but even if it does, dope sounds like the only way you’re getting any relief these days. Just wish I could give you something more to staunch your pain. Seems like yesterday we were listening to Simon & Garfunkel and watching fighter planes soar over the Glenview Naval Air Base. The Age of Aquarius. Laughing and shouting and flying high on your father’s trampoline. I always thought of you as a winner, Jimmy, not as a loser.”
We had so many of the same experiences, so many of the same privileges. How did Jimmy snort himself into a black hole? He did surprise all of us by getting into the College of Santa Fe, but got kicked out for drugs. His dad blamed Jimmy’s habit on the West. Too liberal, he said. Too soft. If he hadn’t moved his family to Denver in the late 1960s, Jimmy would’ve soaked up more of those sober Midwest values.
I wasn’t sure. I’d known plenty of crackheads right here in the Heartland. I could’ve joined them. But I started to hate coke. Hated how it made me grind my molars and clench my jaw. Hated how I worked my lips like a reptile.
“Hey Dude,” Jimmy wrote me later. “What’s it like being a professor?” And there was awe in the question, as if I’d drunk a magic potion and won a kingdom. He’d struck the same tone in high school when he’d introduced me to his friends out in Colorado. “This is my best friend,” he’d say, “and he just got into Notre Dame!”
“Hey Dude,” Jimmy asked in his email. “Can you do me a favor?” He said he’d entered another rehab program and needed a friend to stand by him. Be his coach. All I had to do was write a couple times a month. Not much to ask. Not much to give. So I promised. I told Jimmy to write as often as he liked. Told him to call if he needed a voice. “Take care, Jimmy,” I said. “Take good care.”
I haven’t heard from Jimmy in a long time. Maybe he’s doped up again. They say 90 percent of addicts in rehab fall back on their habit. They say addicts have to hit rock bottom before they can really help themselves. Maybe, though, Jimmy has found a higher power and is working the steps. Sometimes I think of him and that time we spent in Colorado, the spring before I went up to Notre Dame.
Our last day together we checked out the Garden of the Gods. A moonscape of giant red rocks and world-class beauty. We scrambled up a ridge, fueled by coke and youth and the sweet burning scent of sagebrush. At the summit we howled out like Kerouac and Cassady. Then we shot back down to the car. I took the lead, racing down the rocks. Jimmy hobbled after me on his crutches, falling behind a little, then a lot. My best friend, struggling to keep his balance. Sweating. Grimacing. Calling out to me on his way down.
Peter Graham is an assistant professor of English at DePauw University.