Better sleep with a sober cannibal than a drunken Christian.—Herman Melville, 1851
When you’re booked into the Los Angeles County Jail, they put you in a cage with a wire gate, and you have to wait while they type up a whole bunch of stuff. You lie there and sit there, and then, when enough people are ready, the guards call out the names and you walk to another section, where they take your fingerprints. They do each finger and your whole hand, and they take your picture. Then you wait again, and there’s no place to sit. You lie on the cement floor, and people get sick—they’re vomiting. I was sick before I got busted—I was sick before I went and hocked my horn—so I was deathly ill by the time I was waiting. And it took thirty-six hours to be booked in.
The agony of kicking is beyond words. It’s nothing like the movies, The Man with the Golden Arm, or things you read: how they scream and bat their heads against the wall, and they’d give up their mother, and they want to cut their throats. That’s ridiculous. It’s awful but it’s quiet. You just lie there and suffer. You have chills and your bones hurt; your veins hurt; and you ache. When water touches you it feels as if it’s burning you, and there’s a horrible taste in your mouth, and every smell is awful and becomes magnified a thousandfold. You can smell people, people with BO, their feet, and filth and dirt. But you don’t scream and all that: “Kill my mother, my father, just get me a fix and I’ll do anything you want!” That’s outrageous.
The depression you feel is indescribable, and you don’t sleep. Depending on how hooked you are, you might go three weeks or a month without ever sleeping except for momentary spells when you just pass out. You’ll be shaking and wiggling your legs to try to stop the pain in the joints, and all of a sudden you’ll black out and you’ll have a dream that you’re somewhere trying to score. You’ll get the shit and the outfit, and you’ll stick it in your vein, and then the outfit will clog, or the stuff will shoot out the rubber part of the dropper, or somebody’ll get in the way—somebody stops you and you never get it into your arm. I used to dream that my grandmother was holding me and I was hitting her in the face, smashing her in the mouth—blood came out of her face—and I could never get the dope in. You’d have terrible dreams: you’d flash to a woman, your old lady; she’d become a dog and she’d have a peepee like a dog instead of a cunt like a woman; and all of a sudden you’d come and immediately you’d wake up, and you’d be sticky and dirty and wet.
The first time I went to the county jail I went seventeen days and nights without sleeping at all, I was so sick. I kept vomiting and couldn’t eat. Seventeen days and nights, and all they gave you was aspirin. You could get three of them at night when they had sick call come around. And at night they had salts and soda. You could get either one. Salts to make you go to the bathroom or soda to settle your stomach.
Twelfth-night (The King Drinks), by David Teniers the Younger, c. 1634–1640. Prado Museum, Madrid.
In the county jail for a while they had a kick tank. They’d lock you up in a solid cell all alone. I knew a young Chicano cat who got put in the kick tank, and he started vomiting. He vomited and vomited, and he called for the guards, but they ignored him. He kept vomiting and he ruptured a blood vessel in his stomach and bled to death, choked in his own blood. That’s the treatment that the dope fiend got.
I was once in jail with a Chinaman. He had been shooting “black” (opium) for years and years. Chinese didn’t get busted for a long time because the Chinese as a whole are much stronger than the whites and the blacks. But then some of the young Chinese got out and started shooting regular heroin, hanging out with the other dope fiends, and they got Americanized. And so, when they got busted they ratted on their elders. This Chinaman was an older guy; he looked like a skeleton, and he was really strung out. He was shaking so much he could hardly walk. They assigned him to a cell but he said, “I can’t bear the cell. Just put me on the freeway.” The freeway is the walkway that goes by the cells. They put him out there, and for two weeks he did nothing but sit in one position. He didn’t eat one bit of food. Every now and then he’d drink a little something, take some broth out of the stew. For two weeks he sat with his feet on the floor and his arms around his knees in a corner on the freeway not saying a word to anybody, sweat pouring off his face. When he got a little better I talked to him, and he said that he was trying to put himself into a trance, to leave his body, to get over the misery. I’ve seen guys put their pant legs into their socks and tie strings around them so no wind could get to their bodies. Then they would walk up and down the freeway for days, walk all night long, and they wouldn’t sleep for weeks except for these horrible moments.
So kicking is the most insidious thing. It’s a million times worse than they portray it. It’s not an outward, noisy anguish. It’s an inner suffering that only you, and, if there’s any such thing as God, like, maybe you and He know it.
As I said, when you’re sick the sensation of water touching your skin is like a physical pain. So the first thing they make you do, they force you into a shower, a funky shower; the floor is filthy, and the soap they use is yellow soap that you wash clothes with, floors with. Then after you’ve showered and you’re shivering and your pores are wide open, before you get a towel, you walk out and they’ve got trustees there with the guards. The trustees have big cans with long handles on them, like fly spray cans, and they make you raise your arms and they squirt this bug juice underneath your arms, and it’s so strong it goes right into your pores and burns. They make you pick up your balls and they squirt it all around your joint. They make you bend over and spread your cheeks, and they squirt it in your ass, and it runs down and burns like fire. They squirt it on your hair, and it’s horrible-smelling stuff. I made the mistake of thinking that trustees would be cool so I said, “Could you go easy?” As soon as I said that they shot more on me. Then they give you a towel to dry yourself. You put on these clothes that they give you that don’t fit, and then you go to the linen room and get a mattress, a “donut,” they call it. You get an old, funky blanket and a filthy pillow that smells of urine and vomit and come. You get a mattress cover that you use as a sheet and an old, beat towel.
I was so sick by that time I didn’t know what was happening. You go to the hospital and they have you stand there and drop your pants, grab your joint, and squeeze it to see if you’ve got a venereal disease; if you don’t, that’s it. They take you to whatever cell you’re going to. I was white and I was a heroin addict, so I went to the white hype-tank. That was 12-B-l. As you walk up to the front of the tank the guys come and look at you and they give you the coldest looks imaginable. And then you go inside. They finally open the gate, and you walk inside.
If you have money, anything over six dollars, they put it with your property, with your rings or your watch, but you can keep six dollars on you, cash, to buy candy and cigarettes. They give you an envelope: it’s like an ID and it shows your charge, your name, and how much cash you kept. If you’re a narcotics addict they stamp an n on your envelope so they’ll always know you’re an addict. Then, if you go for visiting and you get underwear or socks or anything, they’ll soak them first in water because people sometimes cook up heroin and pour it in an agreed-on spot in the shorts or whatever, and when the guy gets them in he can cut that part out and put it in the spoon. If you’re an addict everything is soaking wet when you get it.
© 1979 by Schirmer Books.
From Straight Life. Pepper starting playing the alto saxophone at the age of twelve, and within a few years, in 1940, he was one of the only white musicians among the players who performed in the thriving jazz clubs on Central Avenue in Los Angeles. He took his first studio-recorded solo in 1943 and served two years in the military during World War II. Pepper first tried heroin in 1950 and was arrested in 1952, later spending several years at San Quentin State Prison. He recorded his most celebrated albums in the late 1950s.