Thursday, May 3, 2012

Birds of Prey

 I have had a long and twisted relationship with cars. My stories demonstrate good choices and bad ones. In other cases, they are simply about being in the wrong place at the wrong time. A few car stories stand out among the others. My very first car was a huge blue gas guzzling Buick Oldsmobile, and it was the embodiment of all the  strangeness and frailty to come in my life.  It also serves as marker in my tumultuous history with my grandfather. Back then, he thought it was so important for me to be able to get around on my own. Over the course of the next twenty-five years my Grandparents would witness my hard luck with multiple cars. They decided to leave me their car in their will; it was a way for them to ensure that I would have a stable, functioning automobile after they had passed. Years later, my grandfather, out of anger from a life of ninety-two years, gave his car away a few days before he died.  
When I turned sixteen, I was in no hurry to get my driver’s license. I also did not have any means to do so. I finally got my license closer to the age of eighteen. I drove a car twice before the driver’s test, and borrowed a friend’s car to use for the road test. Once I did get my license, I had nothing to drive for a few months. Then my grandfather found the Buick Oldsmobile for me. He negotiated a five hundred dollar price. Thinking back, I never really wanted this car or any car for that matter. Yet, there I was, standing in a driveway while my grandfather went over the car with me: the rules of the road, how to do oil changes, and other automobile advice and stories. Owning this car did allow me to get a job a few towns away at a Mexican restaurant. After a few months, the premise of car ownership started to grow on me. I could drive to work, or to my boyfriend’s house or to do teenage-type things, like hanging out in an empty parking lot. After a few weeks, the car began to make funny noises. It smoked and clanked. Then various pieces started to fall off as I drove. When the car went in for its first repair, I was instantly turned off from the whole process of having a car. I dreaded everything from the buying of gasoline to the prospect of breaking down. I was perfectly comfortable being a perpetual passenger. That being said, I had been working in a real restaurant and reaping the benefits. I was stowing away money for a better car, one that was a bit smaller and that did not break down. Hyundai had just started marketing their affordable line of cars, and I was saving up to make a down payment on a four door red sporty sedan. I had for the first time established credit. This would allow me to finance. I was only eighteen, so this was a huge feat. Unfortunately, this purchase would never happen.
After several repairs, the blue car died for good. The car expired one day as I drove along the highway. It started to go so I pulled over, crossing the four lanes of highway to the shoulder. It died right there in the middle of the median. I gathered up a small bag worth of belongings and simply walked away from it on the side of the highway. It would sit there  for months, causing great and regular disappointment to my grandfather.  
I was eighteen years old at the time, and dating someone who, by no fault of his, would cause much hardship in my life. While other eighteen year olds were leaving their adolescence to pursue college or family or full time employment, I was on the edge of something else. In a very short time, I would find myself immersed in a life of a hard core drug addiction. I would lose all sense of who I was and drift away from any sense of human connection. Perhaps this is why today I treasure my connections to others so much. From one moment to the next, I went from being a sheltered, naïve, shy girl from a Connecticut suburb to being a strung-out junkie that would steal, lie and manipulate. As I piece together this intense part of my life, my thoughts and words are, without a doubt, raw. They are coming from a place that I have never revisited. Those particular years of my story are not only difficult to relive, but they are rightfully a little hazy. I am telling the story from the end; the end to this particularly gritty, hard chapter of my life. I will go back and fill in the beginning eventually, piecing it all together. Back in those days, months would turn into years, and certain days seemed like a lifetime.  
After leaving my job at the Mexican restaurant, I stopped saving any money. For the next several years, I did not own or drive a vehicle. Any money I came across went to my addiction; to get a fix. The acts of working, saving, driving, and living in any normal eighteen-year old way were things that were no longer part of my world. Several times in those years I would make attempts to pick myself up and force myself out of the of the dark world I was living. Eventually, I was able to get a job as a waitress. 
This leads me to the story of my next car, the car that stands out the most in my life, the Ford Thunderbird; the car that will always be synonymous with Carlos.  I bought the car from Carlos. I met him while I was working at a local dinner during one of the attempts of getting clean. He was a solid twenty-five years older than me. He was Brazilian and stood over six feet two inches. He had dark features: a large dominant nose, a tousled jet black head of hair and dark eyes. He carried himself with confidence, and seemed to affect a prowl-like manner. He would sit at the counter in the same seat day after day. His eyes fixed on me. I was a very young, blonde waitress. I stood on the other side of the counter with a look of being lost in my eyes. I would chain smoke at the end of that greasy counter where there were little, dirty ashtrays parked under the countertop. I doodled on my waitress pad. I was dressed in traditional server attire: black pants, white buttoned down shirt and black apron. Carlos ordered a bowl of split pea soup and coffee every day at the 11:50am, just before the lunch rush. After weeks of this, he spoke to me. He mentioned that I looked tired. He preceded to hand me a tip, and underneath the dollar bill tip was a gram of pure cocaine wrapped neatly in a ball of cellophane wrap. He said it would help, and that it was “on the house.”  I was his prey. He had been discreetly watching me, and then moved in. I made it so easy. He continued to come in every day for lunch, and had the same order and left the same tip. A few weeks went by, and then one afternoon he only left me a dollar. I asked him where the other part of the tip was. He looked at me, and said: “oh, now sweetheart... You have to pay.”
I began the fast life of a cocaine addict. Speed was never my thing, being a person with a naturally high energy level. So I was an out-of-control cokehead. I declined quickly and would go with whoever would support my habit. I would stray from Carlos in the beginning, and then end up back with the heroin addicts. He would pick me up off the street and put me up in a local motel, leaving me there for days. I would wake up to the sight of some tacky framed picture lying next to me in the bed. It had been removed from the motel wall to provide a surface to snort cocaine from.  The glass frame would be covered in hundreds of white little lines. When I would be strung out, Carlos would always appear with a pill, a joint or some other safe offering. Somewhere in my head, I think I expected that one day he would eventually kill me. 
In a sense, Carlos did save me from one bad thing: he continued to get me off the street and off heroin. He pulled me away from the street life, but brought me into the bigger, richer world of cocaine. He also wanted me all to himself. He would pick me up and carry me off somewhere in his van. It was a white van with only one tinted round window in the back top corner. This vehicle would become a fixture in my world during that chapter of my life. I have many stories about those unsavory days with Carlos, but today I am limiting myself to the story of the first car I ever bought.
Carlos eventually stopped giving me cocaine. He forced me to go to a Detox center, wrenching me away from the town and people I knew. He would give me marijuana, shelter, and false security at a job at the local truck stop.  Carlos was drug lord disguised as an entrepreneur. He was in car sales and owned a mansion. Improbably, his mansion sits right behind the current home of the grandparents of my son in what seems like a lifetime later. Carlos would use his cars in an unexpected way: they were often driven across various state lines in the middle of the night, only to meet a person in the early hours of the morning. His crew would remove the lug nuts and pull off the car’s tires. They would be filled with drugs. Once the tires were removed, the car would be set ablaze. I witnessed this many times in the early morning hours in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. I had also been an unknowing participant in some of these operations, driving a car filled with drugs to one of these dark locations. He gave me a fake ID, and told me if I got pulled over while following him to hand over everything in the glove compartment and that he woud be back for me. I am certain that if I had been pulled over while driving one of these vehicles, I would still be in jail today. 
 I worked hard at waitressing, and even harder at trying to get myself out of the world that I had so abruptly plummeted into. I saved one thousand dollars and bought an old Thunderbird from Carlos.  As a former hardcore junkie, saving money serves as a remarkable test to a person who is no longer using, and no longer caught up in that world. Even after two decades, I still give myself gentle praise when I see a pile of money on my kitchen table, and when I drive to the bank to make a deposit. I slowly began to pull away from Carlos, and assert my independence. As I made my own money, I was able to have less and less use for him. This in turn angered him. I also was not entirely ready to let go of my relationship with this man who I hated, but at the same time thought I needed for my survival. He offered me the car for free, but I knew nothing was free from Carlos. I counted out each single dollar bill and insisted he take all the money. He ultimately still had all the control. I drove to my new apartment that was across from a local biker bar and the railroad tracks. I began seeing a regular guy. He worked as a cook at the truck stop. We went hiking, drank coffee, listened to Jimi Hendrix, and smoked pot together. This was one of my first of what would become many connections with “restaurant people.” The diminishing push-pull relationship between Carlos and I was starting to crumble. He was like an embarrassing family member. He would show up in his white van, and insist that I come over to talk to him while I was with my new friends. I would spy him in the van driving by on an adjacent street while I was doing an errand. He wouldn't go away, and I wouldn't leave. Unfortunately, I continue to relive this dynamic, but without the drugs, even today. 
Carlos would tantalize me with marijuana, the way he lured me in previously when I worked at a dinner, only that time it was with cocaine. I owned the Thunderbird for a few months and felt a slight feeling of normalcy, though I was working the graveyard shift from 11pm to 7am in the morning. I never could get it right. I felt the pressure of Carlos. He had given warnings, and was not happy with me. One night when my new friend was over, he went out to his car only to find that all four tires had been slashed. Other friends that I tried to make connections with grew weary of Carlos and his constant sneaky presence. I woke up one morning and walked out my driveway. The car was not there. I knew immediately that he had taken it. I ran into the house to see if the title to the car still there, knowing that Carlos would be shrewd enough to take both the car and the title. It was gone. I stood in my kitchen with a sinking feeling deep in my stomach. I dialed the phone, and Carlos answered my call after only a half of a ring. I shouted in the phone: “where is my fucking car?!!” He said to me in a loud, sarcastic but calm manner that it was down the road from my place of employment. I got a ride over to the partially abandoned roller skating rink parking lot. As I rounded the corner, I noticed black dust covering several nearby cars. I followed a line of parked cars. I found my Thunderbird. Each windshield had been shattered. The roof was caved in down to the back seat. The insides of the seats were ripped apart with large knife cuts. Foam and shattered glass shone on the blue finish of the outside if the car. Each car door was punched in with what looked like a sledge hammer. A thick black coating of burned car interior coated the parking space and covered the white lines where the car had been dumped. My personal belongings in the car lay splattered over the dashboard.  The air smelled of burnt rubber and other toxins. I stood for a moment, glaring at the pile. I took one deep breath, and reached into the shattered glass to retrieve a small rock that I had found recently on a hike. I brushed off the black soot, pushed the small stone deep in my pocket and turned around towards my ride who sat quietly in his idling car, waiting. As I looked over my shoulder one last time, I felt a weight lift off of me , floating away with the smoke that still lingered in the air. The years-long relationship with a scary and powerful man, my drug lord, my life lord, my twisted puppeteer had finally come to an end. I had finally broken free. There in the rubble was the end of Carlos, the end of my painful years as a captive, as an out-of-control drug addict. 
I walked away taking slow, deliberate steps, knowing that I would never see or speak to Carlos again.


  1. You amaze me!! You are strong now, and you were strong then!

  2. Dear Heather,
    Your writing continues to amaze me! You never fail to bring tears to my eyes in relating the story of your young life! Though it makes me sad to read this, I take comfort in the fact that you have turned your life around and have given your son a good role model along with your love. Love to you!!! Pat