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A Modern Opium Eater
American Magazine, Vol. 77 (June, 1914), 31-35.
Five years ago I was editor and manager of a metropolitan daily newspaper. To-day I am a convict serving my second penitentiary sentenced "two-time loser" in the language of the underworld, my world now. Between these extremes is a single cause-opium.
For five years I have been a smoker of opium. For five years there has not been a day, scarcely an hour, during which my mind and body have not been under the influence of the most subtle and insidious of drugs. And now, after weeks of agony in a prison where an honest warden has made it impossible to secure the drug, I am myself again, a normal-minded man, able to look back critically and impartially over the ruinous past. If I can set down here fairly and simply the story of those years, I shall have done something, I think, that may save many an unfortunate whose feet have turned toward the road I traveled.
Few people in the United States realize the extent to which opium and kindred drugs are being used to-day in this country. You, my reader, may have read of the Federal Government's strict prohibitive law against the importation of smoking opium, and concurred idly and without interest. But do you know that the United States Revenue Service has a roster of over three thousand known users of opium in San Francisco alone? Countless other thousands are unregistered. Every other great city in the country has similar rosters, and numbers its "fiends" by thousands and tens of thousands. Hundreds of cans of the contraband drug are sold daily in New York, Chicago, Denver, New Orleans, Salt Lake, and Port-land. The United States army posts have been invaded, and thousands of the wearers of our country's uniform are users of opium, morphine, and cocaine. The severest penalties have not seemed even to check the habit.
Starting at the Presidio in San Francisco with transports returning from the Orient, the drug habit has spread among the enlisted men in the army by leaps and bounds. The reason is easily found. Not one man in a hundred, once he has tested the peace, the mindease, the soothed nerves and the surcease from all sorrows, disappointments, and responsibilities that come from a first use of opium, ever again has the will-power to deny himself that delightful nepenthe. Opium is like the salary loan shark-a friend to-day, smoothing difficulty and trouble with a free and easy hand. Tomorrow it becomes a master, exacting a toll a hundredfold more terrible than the ills it eased.
My first experience with opium was accidental. As a San Francisco reporter I had specialized in Chinatown and Chinese subjects. Not a licensed guide in the city knew the real Oriental quarter as I knew it. I had taken scores of friends to opium dens on slumming parties, but had never touched a pipe nor been tempted to do so. When I became a newspaper executive and finally attained the chief position of responsibility on the - I naturally spent less time in Chinatown, but I still kept in touch with my news sources, sources that scored many a good "beat" for my paper.
At the time of which I write I was overworked. I was the one experienced newspaper man in an office of "cubs." Every line of copy in our eight-and ten-page sheet passed through my hands. I wrote the more important headlines, planned the "make-up," and in addition directed the efforts of the business office force. In short, I was doing the work of three or four men and the strain was beginning to tell on me. When my day's work was done I was always utterly exhausted. I slept brokenly and sat down to my daily task absolutely unrefreshed. I was approaching a nervous breakdown and knew it, but conditions on my sheet were such that I could see no immediate relief.
One evening I attended an important dramatic opening that I did not care to intrust to any of my inexperienced cubs. From the theater I started for the club where I passed a few hours occasionally. On the street I met a fellow newspaper man, a dramatic critic, who, like myself, has since passed into oblivion.
"Take me for a stroll through Chinatown," he asked. "There are some things I want to see first-hand, and you're the one man I know who can get behind their doors."
We went. During our trip my friend suggested a visit to a "hopjoint." I led the way to one little known to ordinary slurnmers. The mummified Chinese in charge was an old acquaintance of mine and welcomed us warmly. He was smoking opium when we entered and the unventilated cell in which he lived was heavy with the fumes of the drug. I took one deep breath of the pungent, sweetish, smokeladen air. My friend squatted on the bunk chatting with the Chinese. Again and again I inhaled the smoke fresh from the pipe, taking it in thirstily to the very bottom of my lungs. To my amazement, my weariness, my nervousness, my brain-fag slipped from me like a discarded garment.
"Say, Lee," I demanded, when I realized the delightful exhilaration that was stealing over me, "cook me up a couple of yen poks" [pills]. "I'm going to smoke a few."
Willingly he toasted the brownish syrupy drug over his dim lamp, rolled the pill into shape, deftly attached it to the bowl and then handed me the pipe and guided it over the flame while I drew into my lungs my first pill of opium.
In sixty seconds I was another man. My barren brain, in which I had been conning over an introduction to the criticism I must write before I slept, leaped to its task. The ideas, the phrases, the right words, which, until then, had eluded my fagged mentality, came trooping forth faster than I could have written them had I been at my desk. My worries and responsibilities fell from me. I remember even to-day that as I smoked my third or fourth pill the solution of a problem that had been a bugbear for days came into my mind like an inspiration.
I smoked six pills before we left. As my friend and I separated he looked at me curiously.
"I've often wondered how you do the work you do and hold up," he said. "Now I know. I'm going to try that myself the next time I'm stuck for my Sunday page story. My brain is virile and as clear as crystal and I didn't take a pill-just breathed the air. I've surprised your secret, old man. Good night."
I didn't tell him he had seen me smoke my first pill.
A half hour later I wrote a column of dramatic criticism that was quoted on the billboards and I reeled it off as fast as my fingers could hit the typewriter keys. I was never at a loss for a word. The story in its entirety seemed to lie ready in my brain. My task finished, I went to bed without my customary drink, and dropped asleep as peacefully as a child. For the first time in weeks I slept soundly and awoke refreshed and clear-minded with a zest for the day's labor.
That was the beginning. After that I visited Lee, first at intervals of several days, then, by degrees, more frequently, until finally I became a daily user of opium. I shall never forget one conversation with the old Chinese den-keeper on the occasion of my third or fourth smoke. He looked up with his bland smile of welcome as I came in. It was evident that the man expected me. This nettled me. Nothing could have convinced me then that the drug could ever become a necessity to me.
"Well, Lee," I said throwing myself on the bunk, "chef me up a few extra big ones to-night. I'll take more to-night, for this will be about my last smoke. I'm going to quit."
In silence he adjusted my favorite bowl to the pipe. In silence he deftly toasted the pill, completed the operation and twirled the ivory mouthpiece around to me. Greedily I drew the fragrant smoke into my lungs. He noticed my eagerness. Indeed, I could not even pretend to conceal it. He watched me inhale the smoke until my lungs puffed out like a pigeon's breast, then exhale it slowly, in little puffs, regretting each. At last he spoke.
"You no quit," he said softly. "Every man alleetime say he quit. Every man alleesame you. Smoke one time, smoke two time, smoke tlee time, then smoke alleetime. Chineman, white man, chokquay" [negro] "alleesame. No can quit. Birneby you die you quit. Bimeby maybe you bloke , _no more money, no more fliend bollow money, no can stealem money, maybe you quit one, two days. Bimeby maybe you go jail, no got fliend bling you hop, no got money givern policeman catchem hop, you quit. You got money, no go jail, you no quit. I heap sabe. Bimeby you see."
I laughed at his warning. Had I but known it, the wisdom of ages, the experience of untold thousands of wrecked lives were summed up in the halting words I allowed to pass me unheeded.
When I became a regular smoker I bought a "layout"-pipe, bowls, lamp, tray, yen hocks, everything-and indulged my habit in the "joint" of a white smoker where I was a favored patron and could lie at ease, privately, without fear of discovery.
By this time the cost of opium had become a very appreciable and permanent expense. From a few pills at first I increased my allowance day by day until it took thirty or forty "fun" (a Chinese measure; there are 76 fun in an ounce) to give me the mental relief I craved. The physical craving-the body's demand for it-can be satisfied with approximately the same amount each day. The mental craving-the mind's demand-increases daily. What satisfies tonight is too little to-morrow, and so on. To feel even normal I now needed three or four times the half-dozen pills which at first had given me such exquisite pleasure. To get the exhilaration, the soothed nerves, the contentment I craved, I, like each of the millions before me, had to use more and more each day.
Thirty-six fun of opium at retail costs, at an average, three dollars. A fif ty-cent tip to my "cook" and a quarter for the privilege of the room in which I smoked made my habit cost me about four dollars a day, which made a ghastly hole in even the good salary I earned. I began to buy my opium by the can, paying from $25 to $30 for tins averaging 460 fun. The elimination of the retailer's profit helped temporarily, but the ever-increasing demands of my habit Soon overcame the saving.
I had been a user of opium about eight months when I first began to realize a mental change in myself-a new moral viewpoint, so to speak. I handled a story of the arrest of a criminal with real regret, while the news of a clever crime with the perpetrators safely at custody before night, but there isn't a man who wears a star who will believe the truth. When he says he didn't see you at all and has been traveling around with an empty machine, they'll laugh at him. Meanwhile lie close at Pierre's. They'll never look for you within a mile of here in identically the same kind of a house. It's too simple for their complex intellects."
As I talked, looks of startled wonder flashed from his heavy, puffed eyes.
"Man! " he cried. "Are you a mind reader? First you locate me here, then you tell me word for word the exact idea I had in mind."
"I'll tell you more," I said laughingly. "You'd be hidden in a little furnished house somewhere instead of here, if the experts hadn't come on you so unexpectedly."
He leaped to his feet.
"You're uncanny," he cried. "I did intend that. Thank heaven, you're not one of those police hounds. Are you an opium smoker?"
"Are you?" I retorted, ignoring his question.
"Yes," he said, and we smiled together.
This brings me to the crux of the incident, the reason for its telling. It is proof of the most important point I wish to make, which is that an equal number of brain convolutions plus an adequate amount of opium will invariably produce precisely the same impulses and ideas. Take two men of similar intellects and propound a problem, preferably in criminality. If both men are users of opium their minds will arrive at exactly the same result by exactly the same mental processes. I have tested it scores of times and the results were the same nineteen times out of twenty.
In this lies the proof of the terrible power of opium over the mind of its slave. It controls his every thought and impulses as absolutely as the brain controls the muscles. And opium-made plans, plots, inspirations-call them what you will-are devious, tricky, shrewd because of their abnormality. No one but another smoker will ever come within leagues of guessing what a "fiend" will do under any given set of conditions. A normal brain and an opium brain have nothing in common.
There is but one exception to this rule. An opium smoker suffer-ing for the drug and lacking the money to buy what alone can still the frightful agony in nerve and limb is as simple as a coot. He will try anything that promises money. The more foolhardy the stunt, the more it appeals to him.
Returning for a paragraph to the absconder, he made his escape exactly as we had planned. A year later he returned from the Orient, deserted by his companion and broken physically and financially. He surrendered himself and went to prison. Another niche in Oblivion for a slave of opium. I remembered, as I read of his fate, the similarity in our ideas on that foggy morning out at the little French roadhouse. But now I was too close behind him on the road to the penitentiary to worry myself with the future as long as I had opium and plenty of it.
This fugitive's confession was the last dividend granted me by the drug by which I was now enslaved. Thereafter, and always, it wrested from me bit by bit everything that a man holds dear and sacred, giving nothing in return but the temporary power to forget. The paper on which I worked was absorbed by another and I passed out of the newspaper business forever. I was rather glad at the time. I had just that many more hours a day to lie musing by my layout.
What were my thoughts during these hours? I have never read anything, not even De Quincey's "Opium-Eater," that gives a truthful and lucid impression of what "opium dreams" really are. The ordinary conception of them is miles from the truth. There is no riot of wonderful and strange colors dancing before the eyes. There are no visions of Orientalized beauty, no loving women, sweetlyperfumed, no luxurious air castles filled with jewels, gold and sensuous luxury. Instead, the brain works automatically on the important projects of everyday life. It plans and plots, rejects and reconstructs-always trickily and by devious means-and, finally, evolves a clean-cut idea. The intervening difficulties are lessened, the ultimate rewards accentuated.
All this is absolutely without effort. You lie quiescent, your whole being apparently deep in lethargy, your eyes half-closed and unseeIng. You are perfectly content, at peace with the world and yourself.
Meanwhile the brain, working of its own volition, independently of you, exactly as if it were a distinct personality, raps out with Gatling-gun rapidity various solutions of the problems it has set itself. It works always, however, in devious channels. If there is a direct road between two points, it mistrusts and rejects it, taking the crooked path.
Time ceases to exist. Night after night I have lain down after the theater to smoke. Finally rousing myself to leave, believing it midnight or a little later, I would look at my watch. Five o'clock! Impossible! Not until I raised the curtain to a gray dawn could I believe. Night after night this happened. I smoked for five years and was surprised anew each time when the day seemed to come hours before its time.
And now I was ripe for the final stage of the opium habitcriminality. I had sunk step by step morally until there remained no semblance of the character that once had won me trust and respect. After I abandoned newspaper work I dabbled in many semi-legitimate businesses. I occupied myself with prize-fight promotion, gambling clubs and stock tricks, all verging on swindles, but permeated with the subtleness of the drug that created them.
At last there came a day, inevitable in the history of all drug fiends, when I found myself without the money to buy the opium my body and brain demanded. My credit was gone. I was a derelict with but a single purpose, to relieve with opium the anguish of a thousand tortured nerves.
I stepped into a store, wrote a bad check, passed it and took a taxicab to the joint. The latter is characteristic of the habit. Provided enough money remains f or the smoke immediately in prospect nothing else matters. There is no future in the Land of Opium.
Having smoked and being once again mentally alert I realized keenly my danger of arrest. My mind, acute as ever, warned me that check-passing could lead ultimately to but one fate-a striped suit. I resolved never again to take such chances. It was not that scruples troubled me. My opium-sated brain simply refused to countenance such idiocy.
Three days later, again needing money to satisfy my habit, I drew another worthless check and entered a prominent book store. Almost at the threshold I met a detective whom I knew well. We chatted for a moment. Then, deliberately, I entered that store, ordered a complete edition of valuable books sent to a fictitious address, and in return for my check received $37.50 in change. In twenty minutes I was in the joint, breathing in the smoke that was more to me than liberty. Under the stimulus of the drug my brain kept ringing its warning. It is difficult to explain this mental duality. Given its opium, my mind was like a guardian, a mentor, pointing out reprovingly the folly of that same mind, committed while in want of opium. I hid myself in an obscure hotel and was safe while my money lasted and I had my drug. That gone I walked brazenly down the main street of the city intending to pass another check. I was arrested by the detective I had chatted with before the store, convicted, and sentenced to a year in the penitentiary.
I do not intend to exploit here the horrors, the ignominy of that year. What it means to "do time" is subject enough for an article such as this. It is sufficient to say that I was able to secure opium while a convict. Meanwhile I lived in an environment and under conditions, both moral and physical, that create criminals instead of correcting them. I was discharged, uncured of the drug habit, and returned to society a hundredfold more dangerous a menace than before.
By this time I had many friends among professional thieves. From the very first I had been "right," which, translated, means that my loyalty to the underworld was established, that I was held to be above the suspicion of being a "stool-pigeon," no matter what the cost or reward. When I left prison I was received with open arms and was offered "work" of various kinds on a number of different criminal "mobs."
Once, moved by some fleeting impulse, I applied for work to a paper on which I once had made a reputation. My rebuff sent me flying back to my layout and thiefdom, never to return. I "joined out" with a mob and we prospered financially. Given plenty of opium, I was a good money getter. I took the minimum of risk and made the maximum of money. I lived on opium. Physically, I was a wreck. Mentally, I was as scheming a criminal as ever wore stripes. Months passed. Untroubled by conscience, ignored responsibilities and broken faith, I went on downward-living to smoke, smoking to live.
Then the inevitable happened once again. A heavy gambling loss took our reserve fund. The arrest of one of the mob for a triviality was the excuse for police extortion that took the remainder of our "bank roll." Our money gone, we were warned to stay off the streets, and had not the means to travel. One night the opium ran out. I secured a can on credit. That was soon gone.
I endured twelve hours without the drug; then, with a companion, went down-town, induced a man wearing several thousand dollars worth of diamonds to accompany me to a room in a prominent down-town hotel, and at midday without a mask and with my photograph in the police gallery of "known criminals," I deliberately put a revolver to his head and told him to put up his hands. He did so. I took his diamonds and money, bound and gagged him, and then blithely walked out of the place, passing hundreds of men, including two detectives.
The brazen effrontery of the crime staggered even the police.
Stopping only to lay in a supply of opium, we boarded a car and in half an hour were in the little furnished house I had rented, with the "long-stem" (pipe) passing round and round the circle. I smoked heavily and dozed. When I awoke it was night. Our circle was still unbroken, the pipe still passed from lip to lip. But now, opium once again having made me as near normal as was possible, I sensed danger, imminent, immediately impending. It was not alone the knowledge of guilt, it was something more definite, something intuitive. In the underworld there is a species of foresight termed "hop-head hunches." They are regarded with superstitious awe the country over. Knowing that something threatened, I scattered the boys out, sending all but one down-town. We two remained. We had slept while the others smoked, and now needed more opium, and, needing it, no danger could drive us from the layout until we were satisfied. We intended to leave the moment we finished smoking, but before we had inhaled a dozen pills a heavy knock, peremptory, insistent, sounded on the door.
We both knew its significance. Snapping off the lights, I peered out into the night. Everywhere were armed detectives. The entire house was surrounded. We were trapped. Their gleaming gun barrels proved they expected a battle, and had I needed opium just then instead of being newly saturated with it, they would have had it. It is upon such chances that life and death and murder turn in lives such as mine. Being near enough to normality to realize the absolute futility of resistance, I turned to my pal.
"It's the pinch, old boy," I said.
In that moment, facing arrest that could only result in a long term in the penitentiary, there was but one thought, one anxiety in my mind. Would the "plant" of opium I carried on my person for emergencies such as this escape detection, I wondered. Beyond that I was unconcerned. That thought is as eloquent as a volume in explanation of a drug user's mind.
I threw open the door and admitted the officers, who covered evident nervousness with a show of brusqueness. The stolen gems were not found, for during the afternoon, having smoked, my opium self had warned me to hide them safely. The usual police methods"third degree" some call it-were tried, but without result. Each of us was told that the other had confessed and each was offered leniency at the expense of his comrade. That neither of us weakened proves that there lies even in humanity's dregs the remnants of decency. There is really loyalty and honor (according to a strangely twisted code) among some thieves. Incidentally, the diamonds were not found until returned by us voluntarily.
Trial and conviction followed after the usual delays, and to-night I write this in a penitentiary cell. No one who has never lost the freedom of the "outside"-that perpetual elusive dream of every convict-can realize what "doing time" means. But even the horror of prison life, the monotonous, hopeless sameness of each hour, each day, each month, each year, is not too great a price for what it has given me. For I am freed from opium's shackles.
In this institution the drug traffic that makes many like places mere colleges for crime has been absolutely stamped out. Being unable to get opium or morphine, and being given intelligent and humane medical treatment during the agonizing weeks during which the body and mind are breaking away from a habit almost as deep-rooted as life itself, men here are cured of the opium habit. I do not know what more can be said in laudation of any penitentiary.
I was asked a few days ago to describe the sensations of the opium "habit," the word with us meaning the anguish that follows the need of the drug. It is a difficult task, for it is like no other suffering. In the first stage come restlessness, irritability, eyes that stream tears, and the mental incompetency I have tried to make plain heretofore. This quickly passes into the most exquisite physical torture. Thousand pound weights drag each separate joint apart by infinitesimal degrees. Every jangling nerve throbs and twitches the muscles with a pain that would make a toothache seem perfect ease. Every pore in the body drips a clammy perspiration. The bodily functions are entirely disorganized. Abdominal cramps follow nausea. An irresistible force seems to be slowly dragging each muscle and nerve apart.
Meanwhile the brain fights for the drug as life fights death. A million impossible schemes for getting opium suggest themselves as some inner force seems to be expanding within the skull until every bone is strained to the breaking point. A weight like a gigantic hand seems to be squeezing the naked brain as you would squeeze a sponge. Hundreds of drug fiends have committed suicide in jails where they were confined without adequate medical attention. Three tried it in one week recently in a single jail in the West, and hundreds more will follow in their footsteps if they can secure a weapon. This merits attention.
The final stage of the "habit" is insanity. The fiend becomes a raving maniac if unrelieved, but here the physician forestalls this by ever so slight a margin and with a hypodermic injection of morphine send the unfortunate off to sleep. The next day it is the same torture over again until the needle again saves tottering reason. But each time the injection is lighter and finally the torture, too, lessens, imperceptibly at first, until the system begins to try to readjust itself to the new conditions. The mind, however, remains rebellious to the very last, crying out for the drug even after the body has begun to mend.
I do not believe that any man with an opium or morphine habit of years'standing can deny himself the drug if it is within reach.
I do not believe that any man, no matter what his previous character may have been, can use opium continuously and not have the impulse to be crooked. He may not be crooked, he may lack the nerve or the necessity to steal, but the impulse will be there, and if it ever becomes a question of theft or a "habit" he will thieve. I do not say this because of my own experience. It is the history of every opium smoker I have ever known.
That I have been freed from the servitude of the past years seems almost too unreal to be possible, and yet I confidently believe that this is true. For nearly a year I have not touched opium in any of its forms and all physical need for it disappeared long ago. But what about the mental craving? If I were free now to use it or not, would I do so? I believe I would not. I believe I am free from opium forever for this reason: I fear it too intensely. My mind now is free from the taint of the drug. My will is not undermined and controlled by it. Being normal mentally, I am able to realize fully what it has cost me. And so I believe that I could keep a bottle of morphine in my cell and never be tempted to touch it. But if I were to take just one dose-that fatal first pill-I believe I would slip rapidly and irretrievably into my former condition of absolute thralldom. I repeat that I fear opium and its power too deeply ever to test myself with that first pill.
I am the fourth man I have ever known who has escaped-if I have escaped. Each of the four was saved exactly as I have been, in an institution like this where honesty of purpose is placed above the easy money that can be made by letting the drug traffic go on behind prison walls. It would surprise most readers to know how many penitentiaries are managed without such qualms.
And now one final word. If ever you are invited to try a pill of opium or to still a pain with morphine, or, most important of all, to give your children any medicine, patent or otherwise, that contains opium, morphine, laudanum, heroin or any of their kindred alkaloids, remember the old Chinese lying beside his opium layout and mumbling his warning.
"You no quit.... You smoke one time, then smoke two time, then smoke tlee time, then smoke allee time.... You no quit. I heap sabe. Birneby you see."
That, reader, will be as bitterly true for you as it had been for me if you ever try that fatal first pill.
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