Talking Heroin, Fame, & ‘The Heroin Chronicles’ With Author Jerry Stahl

It’s ridiculous out there. It’s so cold that I saw a cab driver explaining something to a potential fare and his middle finger froze. It’s so cold that my lawyer put his hands in his own pocket. OK, OK, I’ll stop. It’s hard to get people to go anywhere when it’s like this. January and February can be rough on clubs and bars and such – especially in a world where homes have so many ways to entertain: thousands of TV channels, the World Wide Web, and other etceteras I cannot mention in a family column. 

Tonight I will brave the weather but stay in Brooklyn. Jerry Stahl, the author of Bad Sex On Speed, will be reading from his new book: The Heroin Chronicles. According to Zoe Hanson, my fierce friend who contributed to this book, Jerry is… the man. The event will be early, at 7pm at Word in Brooklyn, 126 Franklin St. Brooklyn Brewery is providing it’s product. The tome is available on Akashic Books. If you can’t make it tonight, they’ll do it again tomorrow night at St Mark’s Bookshop, also at 7pm. The crowd that gathers to hear these tales will be super hot and smart and cool…all those things noticeably absent at most joints in town. Dress warm, juice up on some yerba mate, and join me. 

I asked Jerry Stahl a few questions.

Was heroin ever chic? Is it always chic? Does it give the users a certain badge – a certain credibility – or is it just a very bad thing?
Heroin involves a lot of puking on your shoes. And, I think we can all agree, nothing says ‘chic’ like shoe-puking. I never bought into the heroin chic thing myself. I mean, a real dope fiend has to try not to look like a dope fiend, or risk being busted. So anybody who actually wants to look that way is either a poser, in a fashion spread, or Keith Richards. Keith is the exception that proves the rule – plus, he always had the dough for lawyers who could get him off, or a judge who figured setting a charity concert was better than sending him to jail.

On the other hand, an old-time needle jockey once told me how he went to see Charlie Parker in New York, and hours after he was supposed to go on, when the crowd was ready to split, an announcer stepped up to the mic and said, “Ladies and Gentlemen, Mr. Parker is just pulling down his sleeve….”  Which – I can’t lie – sounds pretty goddamn glam. But the truth is, "Bird" was probably backstage wiping puke off his shoes.

Are the stories chronicled success stories or screams or what?
I would describe them as successful screams. Or, in the immortal words of Jonathan Swift, “crawling is performed in the same position as climbing.” I have no idea how this applies to your question, but it’s a great quote, and – if you kind of squint – it does sort of apply

Is a junkie always a junkie, even after the using is chronicled in the rooms/at meetings?
Well, junkies are like veterans. They all share that wartime experience, but not all of them are still living in the jungle 20 years after the war’s over. 

Model Diary: Rituals of Toilette—Toil or Treat?

When, at the end of every shoot, I face the mirror and begin to remove the beautiful hair and makeup that professional artists have taken several hours to perfect, I am always reminded of Jonathan Swift’s Corinna from the poem “A Beautiful Young Nymph Going to Bed.” Not that I’m comparing myself to a venereal-diseased prostitute, but our rituals are eerily similar. Where Corinna removes her artificial hair and eyebrows, I remove hair extensions and fake eyelashes. She takes out her glass eye; I take out my contact lenses. Her boobs drop down when she removes the rags that hold up her cleavage; my boobs shrink down to their lowly B cup when I take out the Victoria’s Secret inserts. And just as it becomes obvious, as Corinna climbs the four stories to her lonely home and goes to bed, that the “beautiful young nymph” isn’t quite the jewel of Covent Garden that her clients believe her to be; so too do I walk away from the glamorous persona I feign in front of the camera (all the while ripping off my fake nails on the subway), to climb the three floors to my apartment, make some popcorn, and watch 30 Rock on Hulu in bed.

Swift wrote the poem in 1734 to expose and critique the artifice associated with beauty that was often denied in polite society. I compare myself to Corinna here to show that, almost 300 years later, not much has changed. How much of what we consider beautiful is contrived? Visual representations in the media aside, what about our own daily beauty rituals? The very idea of it being a ritual implies that our own beautification is a series of actions; actions we take to change our real selves. I don’t think it’s a bad thing. It can even be a great thing (I’ll get to this in a sec). It’s just a fact that I sometimes forget about because my daily, hour-long beauty ritual has become so routine, so…natural.

For me, mornings involve a hairdryer and straightening iron for my naturally unruly curls; contact lenses for my near-blindness; concealer for the dark blue half-moons under my eyes and an eyelash curler and mascara to make me look “awake”; and, of course, pressed powder for my ever-shiny forehead. A trip to the colorist for highlights comes every two months (and even then my hairdresser calls me low maintenance). Let’s not forget the occasional wax and, everyone’s favorite, the “extraction” segment of a facial. All to look and feel like a normal (properly groomed) woman.

Most of these tools and procedures are not burdensome; they’re indulgent. We’ve come a long way from Corinna’s archaic beauty methods. But in understanding these self-beautification rituals as indulgences, I often forget that I put so much damn time and effort into looking good. The fact that my own efforts contribute merely a fraction of what is then done to me on a photo shoot, further proves how unrealistically the idea of beauty is portrayed in print and on television.

I do believe, however, that once we acknowledge the artifice, we open ourselves up to a world of play and performance that allows us to express, rather than deny, our real selves. Makeup and hair dye can move the idea of beauty and image from artifice to art, in which we become our own canvases. A very simple example: I experimented with my image a lot as a teenager. I spent $500 on dreadlocks during my Grateful Dead phase; at my most angsty, I dyed my hair black in my bathroom and lined my eyes with kohl; then decided to go fire-truck red when I thought I was punk. Those descriptions are reductive, I know, but I still see all those artificial changes as expressive of who I was at the time.

Today, on a much more subtle (and mature) level, I’ll still use makeup as an outlet for whimsical emotions. And on set, when the hair and makeup artists demonstrate their skills in color and form, I am always in awe of their talent. Their creations inspire my performance in front of the camera. When they say that the photos look beautiful, though, I always respond with “it’s all you.” Because it is. My job is impossible without M.A.C., Bumble and bumble, and the liquefy tool on Photoshop; and, of course, the skilled artists who use them. It’s important to be aware of that, I think. Understanding the unnaturalness of beautification is significant not only for keeping a critical eye on the media and fashion, but also for appreciating “beauty” and its various man-made products in their capacity for creativity and expression. That’s what differentiates our beauty routine from Corinna’s, and prevents us from experiencing her beautifying burden.