Thursday, April 17, 2014

Midwestern Heroin: Tales from the Heavy Road

"Who let's a ten year old smoke cigarettes?" my passenger asked rhetorically.

"I guess... the state of Ohio does," I pitched in.


At our company you start to get paid only when you arrive at the first residence to pick up the first client of the day. The commute to that client is unpaid, sort of like your commute to work if you worked at a McDonalds. Except that I don't work at a the arches with a fixed location and actually drive for a living. So my crazy logic would demand to get me paid for work-related driving.

But, goddamn... "it is what it is" as a fatalistic Russian peasant would say if he knew that American expression.

My first pickup for this Thursday was in a small town about an hour from where I live at 7:30 in the morning. So I got up at six and left home at 6:20 am knowing that the next hour would constitute my work-related yet unpaid trip as if traveling for hours to small Ohio towns at the break of dawn is something I would do on my own accord.

When I arrived at an old farm house split up into apartments, I called the number listed for the client but it was disconnected so I knocked on the door with a black cat peaking at me from behind the glass. I waited for ten minutes for my first passenger.

To be perfectly honest, my thoughts were dark and growing increasingly bitter, "maybe this lack of punctuality is part and parcel of why you failed in life and now live on government assistance" I thought as I sat in my car loading nicotine juice into my fancy vaporizer.

You see, its not like I intrinsically care about people failing in life or living off of taxpayer money. Life is hard and unfair and I don't judge people. But I was judging now.

Not because my time was being wasted (though it was) but because this Russian company that pays for my labor tends to overbook clients into the driver's schedule. One some busy days, you could expect to be ten to fifteen minutes late even if you are doing everything right, but if your client is late your whole schedule is fucked and you end up rushing from place to place, picking up passive-aggressive folks who are late to their appointments- a distasteful lateness whose presence you will know through the soundtrack of back-seat grumbling.

Just the other week I waited for twenty minutes for my first client who was supposed to be ready for departure when I arrived at 7:45, finally at 8:06, she graced me with her presence after my third nervous call inquiring about her progress of getting her ass out of the house. When she came out she was accompanied by her silent boyfriend who was catching a ride with us to his work downtown.

When we arrived to her doctor's office, she advised me to make a turn behind a KFC.

Suddenly her silent man perked up, "Do I fucking work behind a KFC?" he asked her. The bewildered douche was expecting her to go to a different place, but it looked like they didn't work out the trip logistics beforehand.

"Don't curse here," she admonished him.

"I'm going to get fired for this shit. I just lost my fucking job because of you."

She left the car without continuing with this fruitless exchange. The trick for me was that this entitled asshole remained seated next to me in the car.

"You need to leave," I said.

"Man, you passed my work."

"I'm on a schedule and now 20 minutes late to for my next pickup."

"Where is it?"

"It doesn't matter, I have to go now."

We sat there for a few tense moments.

"Can I see your phone?"

"No, I have to go."

He left the car, slamming the door.

In a few minutes I had two pick up two ladies and take them to their divergent doctor's offices. Both were frustrated and annoyed with the service. The Russian grandma wanted me to call the office and have them send someone else for the second lady and have me take her directly to her doctor who she feared would cancel her visit because she was now looking at being half and hour late.

She demanded to talk to my supervisor, when I reached him with her request his words to me were, "Fuck it, Ivan. Let her call the White House and talk to Obama if she wants to. I won't speak to her. She can call our main number and talk to the dispatchers. Give her the business card. We have no one else to pick up your other client, they have to ride together."

I managed to get them to their destination and it looked like both were on track to receive their medical services, but the whole event left a bad taste in my mouth.

When I brought this up to one of the other drivers, he unleashed his curse-ridden philosophy on the matter, "Fuck," he began in Russian, "if I am late, I don't fucking give a shit. Its not my problem. I just drive. These motherfuckers already get their shit free (we mostly carry people on government assistance). Fuck em..." he trailed off.

I however could not absorb his care-free attitude through Soviet osmosis. These drivers they hire to pay them next to minimum wage (less than I made stocking shelves at a supermarket) mostly don't even speak rudimentary English. When I took a state-mandated class with them so we could legally drive people with disabilities, these fuckers sat there bashfully smiling when the instructor asked each on of them to read one sentence from a provided sheet of paper listing the rights of people with mental and physical disabilities.

Comprehension of those rights was not demanded. All that the moment required was to read a few words of English laid out in front of them. Clearly to these drivers even understanding what was needed from them was a struggle because they turned to me, asking in Russian, "what does he want from us?"

Finally, I pointed out the paper they needed to read and one brave soul read out the right of disabled people to have romantic relationships without interference from their caregivers with the broken English worthy of a James Bond villain.

On the comprehension test -the answers to which everyone copied from me- had an open ended question at then end. "What qualities make you into a good driver for people with disabilities?"

"What should we put there, Ivan?" everyone asked in unison.

"Write 'compassion'." I advised.

"Da... how do you spell that?"

This ridiculous class that, according to Ohio law, had to last for eight hours was over for these ambassadors of compassion in less than three. And all of us -included this student- fully expected to be paid for the full eight hours of instruction.


So these guys -not blessed as I was- to be linguistically integrated into the mainstream of their adopted homeland, didn't have to worry about the back-seat grumbles of their tardy English-speaking clients, they were shielded from all that by an iron-curtain of cultural ignorance. Their passengers sat in the back with morose detachment knowing that all their potential vocalizations of discontent would would be met with an impotent silence from their driver.

I wasn't as lucky, my curtain of separation was pathetically weak, thinner than toilet paper, consisting of basic courtesy toward an apologetic, totally Americanized stranger taking you to your doctor... thirty minutes late.


Now I sat in this small Ohio town with a syringe filled with Banana-flavored nicotine juice awaiting a congress with my "Vapor Zeus" device. I looked at the cat who was studying me from behind the glass door and asked myself why was I here and why did I have to care about events out of my control. I would get paid my 8.50 an hour whether I was late or not. The government paid my company and the company paid me, the delivery of the person to their destination on time was a secondary consideration in this happy scheme.

Human motion made itself evident behind the door and with a quick, "sorry, about being late" a woman who looked like she was battered by life entered my car.

I do feel angry often, but I almost never (with an exception of one of my family members) hold on to that emotion. In this case, all my judging was flushed out of me in an instant.

We got to talking and toward the end of our hour ride she said with a smile, "I just told you my life story. I have nothing to talk about now with my psychiatrist (her destination today)."

A quick synopsis: abandoned by her mother at the instructions of her "pervert" step-father to be a warden of the state at age ten. Started smoking (which apparently was encouraged among the youth by their new parent- the state of Ohio) at twelve. Quit when she was thirteen but resumed a few months later. Felt sad about not spending Christmases with her family at first but now it doesn't hurt anymore. Became a heroin addict.

Experienced a clinical death after an overdose and was revived after multiple injections and electric shocks. Came back to life as she heard the faint voice of paramedics recording her time of death.

The first thought post-resurrection was about the fate of the percocets she had hidden in he bra that were now missing. Has no "shining light" memories of her near-death experience. Three months clean of heroin. Was diagnosed with lung cancer. Was smoking when she was walking out of her tiny one-bedroom apartment where she rooms in with a couple; a couple that is so dirty that their carpet turned black.

"I still smoke," she said with a smile, "now, it doesn't matter anymore. I don't give a shit."

Apologized for having a "potty mouth." We talked a little about religion (a topic prohibited for discussion in our company policy). She is a Baptist who nevertheless believes in reincarnation. Asked me a few questions about my "Buddha-ism."

When I told her about another one of my clients, a mother of five children my age whose husband had died and who lived in the Over the Rhine neighborhood in Cincinnati - a notoriously crime ridden place- and witnessed a drive by shooting, my current passenger said, "Hell,  I've been shot."

One time when she wanted to hitch a ride when she herself was "Over the Rhine" a man pulled a gun on her demanding sex. She told him he could have sex with her dead body, calling his bluff.

He shot her. She passed out bleeding as he raped her. She had to carry a colostomy bag for a few months afterwards.

Our ride was over. She said I was a very cool person and left the car to roll her cigarettes outside of the mental clinic.

Heroin and Ohio are two things that didn't go together in my mind until today. But three of my passengers today mentioned the heroin epidemic here.      

A nice guy who has seizures on almost daily basis told me that he held his friend as he was dying of an overdose. An old lady told me about her forty-five year old neighbor who died from her addiction to the big H; a mother who left behind two teenage kids.

So yes, I have an interesting job and meet great people with stories that touch the hear and leave a mark. My proficiency in the English language has its benefits after all. One lady gave me a two dollar tip saying that I was a good driver.

Another called me a beautiful person, repeating this a few times after I helped her carry groceries to her second floor flat.

She touched my hand and held it for a few moments.

Depression prone, I never censored out this world from my day-to-day life. But now I was closer to it. And mentally prepared with my abstract, melancholy ruminations about the brutality of human life, I drew an outline of this reality in my mind long ago and now the real thing fit perfectly into this prepared crevice and left no scars on my psyche.

I love people, despise our world and hate being late.


With a wish to free all beings
I shall always go for refuge
To the Buddha, Dharma and Sangha,
Until I reach full enlightenment.
Enthused by wisdom and compassion,
today in the Buddhas' presence I generate
the Mind for Full Awakening
For the benefit of all sentient beings.
As long as space remains,
As long as sentient beings remain,
Until then, may I too remain
And dispel the miseries of the world.

~The version of the Bodhisattva Vow that H.H. Dalai Lama often uses when giving it to people in ceremony.


  1. As ordinary as Budweiser, as gritty as an Edward G. Robinson film, and rendered as heartbreaking as Shostakovich's "Largo" from Symphony # 5 through your gift for language and storytelling. You were born to write.

    Full disclosure - Ivan did not pay me to say that.

    1. Thank you, Mark! If I write I book I'll definitely ask you for a quote for the cover or maybe just use this one.

  2. I got my first electronic cigarette kit on Vaporfi, and I think its the best kit.