Sometimes what seems like bad luck can save you from ruining your life, or even start you on the path to recovery. That was my case when I tried my hand as a drug dealer at age 19.
I had started smoking marijuana and drinking alcohol at the end of my junior year of high school, right around the time my parents split up. I was suddenly living with no adult supervision; I’d already been accepted into college, so I didn’t have to try very hard in school anymore. I had no clue about what it meant to be a drug addict and an alcoholic. Most days, I’d stumble out of bed around noon and numb away my feelings with a joint or a can of beer.
I was a newly-arrived freshman at Cornell University in upstate New York, but I was in no frame of mind to study. I didn’t fit in at my prestigious college, but I was able to find a peer group. They sat every day on a stone wall by a savings bank on the edge of campus, smoking pot and drinking.
Burnout Steve, the incumbent drug dealer on that side of town, was a former Cornell student who had stopped-out of his classes. He showed all the signs of chronic pot smoking: a sallow complexion, dark rings under bloodshot eyes, distressed hair and budding male breasts.
Vijay, who was born in India and made some small money tutoring physics and math, had dropped-out entirely and overstayed his student visa. He usually carried a bottle of schnapps in a brown paper sack, along with whatever thick science fiction novel he was reading at the moment.
“What is a smart person like you doing on this wall?” he asked when we first met.
“Wasting my life,” I said, and we both laughed.
Weaver, the oldest member of our crew, was the new friend I most wanted to impress. He appeared to be about 30 years old and ran a lunch truck painted with psychedelic colors. With his ponytail, leather vest and love beads, he looked to me like a true hippie, not some weekend phony.
A Risky Proposal
I was thrilled when Weaver offered me a ride back to my dorm one day, and flattered when he proposed that we go into business selling pot. “I could help you move some weed from my truck window,” he said. “Just get your hands on some bulk quantity.”
As it happened, I’d recently heard a similar pitch from Joey, a big, goofy ex-jock and former high school pal back on Long Island. For $1,700 he would deliver a pound of primo Colombian that I could sell to my classmates for $70 per gram. We could go in 50-50 and each clear close to $15,000.
Joey’s offer was tempting, but it wasn’t until Weaver stepped in that I decided to go through with it. The year was 1974, and New York’s harsh Rockefeller drug laws guaranteed ten years in prison to anyone caught selling a pound of pot. However, with Weaver taking care of the sales, I convinced myself I could avoid the risk.
Plus, I was greedy. My absent parents had sent me to college with a couple thousand dollars to live on, but how long would it last? With $15,000, I could spend the summer on a beach in the Caribbean, buy a fast car and maybe even attract a girlfriend.
So I called Joey and said, “I’m in.” I wired him the money and made plans to meet him at the Greyhound bus station to pick up the goods. Joey never showed, and for the rest of that week he didn’t answer my phone calls. Then a friend from home called me with the bad news: He’d run into Joey, who was bragging and laughing about the way he’d ripped me off.
Waking Up to Big Trouble
For the first time in more than a year, I felt all the fear and anger I’d been covering up with pot and alcohol. I was a soft, gentle young man who rarely spoke above a whisper. I knew Joey could beat me senseless, or maybe even kill me if I confronted him. Thanksgiving vacation was coming soon, and I had nowhere to go. How would I survive with all my money gone? I didn’t yet understand the concept, but I was catching my first glimpse of the bottom.
I knew I needed to change my life, but I decided to get high one last time. I walked over to the bank wall to look for some pot, but I found only Vijay sitting there drinking in the cold.
“Where’s everybody?” I asked.
“Didn’t you hear the news?” he questioned. “Weaver turned out to be an undercover policeman. He arrested Burnout Steve and two other kids. They’re all going to prison.”
“No kidding?” I said. My head was spinning with images of iron prison doors slamming. “I was going to sell some stuff to Weaver, but my supplier didn’t come through.”
I remember the kind but crushed look in Vijay’s eyes, and the smell of alcohol on his breath.
“It sounds like you got lucky,” he said. “You know, you don’t have to turn out like me.”
Those were words I took to heart in the better days ahead.
Jonathan Cohen is a technical writer in the computer software industry. He is an advocate for people with mental illness and their families, and volunteers with the National Alliance for Mental Illness (NAMI). He lives with his wife and stepson in San Jose, California.