Opiate of the Masses

In the September Vanity Fair, Nick Tosches goes on a thirteen-page quest for the brocade-curtained opium den of his dreams. With excuses in hand from his doctor and his priest, he drains his expense account trotting about the Far East looking for “the flower of joy,” which he says he can’t find in New York or Europe, even through his network of seedy friends. After side trips to tweak the nipples of bug-eating Bangkok prostitutes, he winds up, at last, “somewhere in Indochina, in a crumbling city whose streets have no names,” puffing away and disappointed that the opium den turns out to be a “dive.”

He could’ve saved himself the trip. Tosches’s bemoaned “turn-of-the-century opium-free New York” is, in a word, poppycock. After years of being beyond the reach of even the most jaded and hooked-up, opium is, if not exactly common, no longer the eye-widening rarity it once was.

“It’s kind of like heroin lite,” says Mikey, a boyish 29-year-old guitarist decked out in his dad’s cast-off work pants and a wife-beater. (Names have been changed.) “Junkies like it ‘cause you can smoke it all night and not feel all crappy the next day.”

It’s a rainy afternoon on the Lower East Side in his friend Sadie’s apartment. She just got a gooey supply of opium from her pot dealer. Sadie, 27, who has Rita Hayworth hair and works rather lackadaisically for a dot-com, came upon opium last fall. “I went to buy weed and the guy said, ‘Hey, you guys want to buy some opium?’ ” she recalls. She did: “It was the last unconquered drug territory.”

It costs $60 for a chunk half the size of a piece of Bubblicious. “Depending on how many guests I have and how generous I am, it lasts between two and five days,” she says. “It’s sort of like a cross between getting stoned and getting smacked out.” Mikey and his friends use it like Nicorette, to cut down on their heroin snorting. Mikey knows of several routes to Tosches’s “paradise of the pipe,” none of which involve accruing frequent-flier miles. “A lot of people get it in Woodstock” – one guy has stuff that’s red and crumbly, “like old, dried-up lipstick”; the guy’s dad used to have a kind that was yellow and lumpy, the consistency of “a ball of snot and earwax.” There’s a dude out in Sharon, Connecticut, who sells big chunks for small prices, but it’s “weak” and looks and smells like “old tires or melted plastic.” Sadie’s friend Kitty has an old boyfriend who’s growing poppies on his Christmas-tree farm in Virginia. The best opium is soft and dark, the smell and texture of hash or undercooked brownies with an odd fishy edge. That’s the kind Sadie has. Her dealer says he gets it from a gang in Chinatown.

One thing that’s definitely missing is the “vintage opium pipes … imperial specimens of carved ivory and gold, white jade and rare shagreen” that figure in Tosches’s opium fantasy. Today’s opium-eaters stuff chunks into emptied-out gelcaps and swallow. Mikey knows of a Brooklyn piano player who makes opium suppositories and “stays high for three days.” Kitty smokes hers through a glass bong. Mostly, though, it’s smoked “chasing-the-dragon style,” a method long deployed for heroin or cocaine: Tinfoil is shaped into a cup, a lighter is flicked underneath, and the smoke is inhaled through a straw.

With its red-painted walls and bodega candles, Sadie’s apartment sort of passes as an opium den (and is only a short walk from the Broome Street spot Tosches identifies as the “last known opium den in New York”). She buzzes about emptying ashtrays, changing clothes, switching D’Angelo for John Lee Hooker on the stereo. Mikey crafts another tinfoil pipe while halfheartedly arguing with his girlfriend. A blonde in a Powerpuff Girls T-shirt leans against a British guy everyone thinks someone else knows as they inhale what Tosches describes as “that delicate perfume of unknown flowers.” Sadie says she read the Tosches piece. She was a fan of his Dean Martin book, and based on that, “I thought he might be kind of a partying guy,” she says. “But he turns out to be more anal than I ever realized.”

Opiate of the Masses