WE FINISHED OUR CANCER STICKS, closed out our tab and made it out just as the bar was starting to fill with annoying yuppies. Alex’s apartment was on the Upper East Side just off of Third Avenue. He was a Manhattan kid, growing up right in the heart of one of New York’s most sought after addresses. His parents were well off and gave him a nice upper middle class upbringing, although they weren’t “rich” by New York standards. He was the product of a Jewish father and an African American mother. In Facebook pictures his family looked like the stereotypical liberal cosmopolitan Manhattan family, the kind that wouldn’t be all that hard imagining in a sitcom. He had a younger brother that I had never met.
I decided to lock my bike up on the street and take the subway with Steve to get to Alex’s apartment since bringing my bike on the train during rush hour would be impossible. I still had time on my monthly Metrocard that if I didn’t use would all go to waste. So we hopped on the subway for the short ride from Midtown to the Upper East Side, stopping to get some orange juice on the way to mix with Alex's vodka. We made the trip up the three flights of rickety old stairs to Alex’s apartment in his prewar brownstone. I knocked on Alex’s door and he opened a second later.
“Yo what’s good?” Alex said with a big smile. We palmed and patted each other’s backs in typical New York fashion. Alex always showed mad love to his friends. He did the same with Steve, even though they weren’t as good of friends and Alex and I were.
“We got a bottle of OJ,” I announced. “I thought we’d make some screwdrivers.” I then realized Alex had a lady over.
“This is Daniella,” Alex said. She was a Dominicana, New York style, sitting on the couch with her legs crossed watching the TV on low. She had glasses, big tits, and some extra fat around her midriff. I knew Alex liked his girls generally on the bigger side. It must have been the black in him.
“How do you do Daniella?” I asked being cocky and purposely animated.
“We met at work,” Alex said.
“Oh nice,” I replied.
We all got situated on the two couches in his tiny living room and I started making drinks. Steve and I were already sufficiently wasted, and everything Steve said was at maximum volume. I was actually worried in the back of my mind that Steve would get a little out of control since he was such a lightweight with his alcohol. The last thing he needed was vodka. Alex and Steve got reacquainted since it had been some months since hanging out. I got reacquainted with some vodka.
“Steve! Take it easy on the drinking tonight, alright?” I yelled from the kitchen. “I don’t want you getting crazy on us.” Although Steve was a little guy, only about 5 foot 8, he was often quick to start a fight when drunk.
“Dude, I’m fine man. I can handle myself,” Steve shouted back.
“You can’t handle your liquor, that’s what I’m worried about.” I served us all drinks, making note to water Steve’s down a lot and we all sat on the couch.
“Alex. What’s going on man?” I said in a slightly drunken stupor, “You still working in sales?”
“Yeah, although I just got into a fight with my boss last week,” he said. “Check this out. They wanted me to work both Saturday and Sunday and I said I couldn’t do it. Then they told me that if I didn’t work both those days they’d fire me. So I told my boss, who’s a total bitch, I was like, ‘Listen, I can’t work seven days a week. I need a life. I’m not working Saturday and Sunday. You can fire me if you want to but I’m not working seven days a week.’ So I didn’t work, I didn’t show up. And you know what? They didn’t fire me. They were bullshiting. They can’t fire me and they know that. But now I’m on their shit-list at work because unlike everyone else, I spoke out. So I still might have to look for another job soon.”
“Holy shit that’s fucked up,” I said. “You know what? I just got fired from my job earlier this week.” Alex and Daniella’s eyes grew twice their sizes.
“Your serious?” Alex asked.
“Yeah, I have no job now.”
“What happened?” Daniella asked.
Taking a big sip of my screwdriver I replied, “Well just like your job, my job was stressing me the fuck out. I was working 60 hours a week and getting paid for 40 of them. And my manager had the nerve to complain about me out when I made tiniest mistake. I mean he wasn’t a total dick, but I was being handed eleven hours of work a day and paid eight hours to do it, so of course I’m going to cut corners. But you know how it is in the IT industry, if you forget one thing, it could snowball. So anyway I started losing my motivation for that job. And they complained that I had lost my motivation. Well yeah, when I have to work twenty hours a week that I don’t get paid for—every week, what the fuck do you expect? So they fired me.”
“Wow that’s fucked up” Alex said.
“I’m alright about it,” I redressed, “because honestly, I was about to quit that job any day. So fuck it, let’s have a good time.”
“Fuck yeah!” Steve shouted. He was always down to party and get fucked up, and I knew what that usually entailed.
Just then Alex’s phone rung and he stepped into the kitchen. “It’s my boy, hold up.”
I took the time to ask Daniella how he knew Alex.
“So you and Alex met at work right?” I asked.
Then the inevitable happened.
“Yo I think we should definitely get some coke tonight,” Steve had said with his hand over my ear while still talking loud enough to be audible to all.
“Coke?” I replied with a look of disgust on my face. “Oh man. I don’t think I should be doing coke right now.”
“C’mon man, it's exactly what we need right now,” he insisted.
“I don’t have any cash on me,” I replied. It was a lie. I had twenty dollars and change in my pocket but I didn’t want to spend any of it on coke now that I didn’t have a job.
“I got you man,” Steve insisted with the utmost confidence. And just like that my only real excuse evaporated.
“You sure know how to bargain Steve.” He could be annoyingly insistent in getting his way, which usually entailed getting drugs or getting more drugs. I contemplated his offer for a few moments before I finally caved in.
“Why not?” I said gesturing defeat. Steve immediately started looking through his phone to his dealer.
“I got a guy here in right in Manhattan who delivers,” he said. “He’s got good shit.”
So he called his connect and told whoever he was on the phone with to come by in fifteen minutes. I wasn’t a real big drug user. I had smoked my first blunt when I was literally eight years old. My older sister was the culprit. In high school I started smoking cigarettes and smoked pot occasionally until I got to my early twenties when I started doing ecstasy and coke. But I always remained a recreational drug user, never letting myself get addicted. Steve on the other hand was a borderline full blown addict.
Alex, who had been in the other room talking loudly to someone on the phone, came back from his call. Before he could say anything Steve told him what’s up.
“Yo, we’re getting coke. My boy will be here in fifteen minutes.”
Alex didn't seem particularly excited but was down for it and Daniella barely said a thing. He did coke but only once in a while. He was not at all on the same level as Steve was and did it even less than me, and I barely did it. He was one of those guys who only did it when it was free, and Steve was buying for everyone—or so it was assumed. Come to think of it I can't even remember Alex ever paying for the coke he did the handful of times we did it together. Being in finance Steve made decent money and was never short. Although back in college I remember he used to be stingy and cheap.
So I was going to do coke tonight, I thought. I didn’t quite intend for this but that spontaneity is what makes life so exciting, isn't it? The coffee table was cleared and wiped down in preparation. The coke arrived earlier than expected, which was very pleasing because once you get the idea that you’re going to do coke in your mind, you really don’t want to have to wait long to get it, and dealers are usually late. It had been at least several months since I had done it, but when it arrived I did the honors of chopping the rocks up on the table. It brought back that ritual feel of those weekend nights back in college: crushing up the rocks with a lighter, emptying out the bags, and chopping it all up. The process is fetishized in a way for cokeheads. I remember comedian George Carlin saying how ritualistic doing coke was. Cutting it up was big part of the excitement. And it’s such a social drug too. Whenever I did it we’d all get drunk, smoke cigarettes and argue politics, religion, and philosophy, and sex—whatever came to mind. That was the only reason why I ever liked doing it.
After I had cut up three equal portions for us three amigos (Daniella didn’t partake) I did my first line in months. The nasal sting brought back memories. Steve did two lines in rapid fire — already off to a head start. I never knew what separated the recreational drug user such as myself from the addict. It must be some kind of genetic or neurological difference. I raised my screwdriver and proposed a toast.
“Cheers guys. To an awesome summer!”
“So Alex, tell me. What is the meaning of life?” I asked him. He paused as if at a loss for words and then looked up and searched for an answer.
“The meaning of life…..is.....to be happy,” he said.
“Happy?” I responded. “What’s happiness?” After another long pause he answered.
“Happiness is doing what you like. It’s doing what you were put here for.”
“Do you think we were all put here for something? For a reason?”
“I do,” he said quickly. “I’m not religious but I believe in a creator. I believe in a God, and I believe that we’re each put here for a reason by God.”
“And what’s that reason?” I asked.
“It depends. I think it’s to do good and to do what you’re talented to do.”
“Do you think God put you here to do good?”
“Yes I do.”
“What about people who think that the purpose of life is to just make as much money as possible?”
“Woa,” Steve interjected. “Was that a reference about me?”
“Well you have said in the past that your main goal in life is to get filthy rich,” I fired back.
“That’s not all I care about,” Steve quipped, as if to repudiate his entire lifestyle. Sometimes when the realness of our lives are made sober it’s ugliness smacks you in the face.
“So what’s more important than making money Steve?” I asked with a cocky snarl. The coke apparently had already taken effect. Steve didn’t hesitate to answer.
“Just like Alex said, to do good in the world.”
“Do good? How do you plan to do that?”
“I want to create my own company in the importer/exporter sector. And I want to run my own bar. That will create jobs and it will facilitate trade which helps everybody.”
I had heard these plans before. Almost every time Steve and I hung out it usually came up. He’d bore me with details but I rarely could pay attention through the whole thing. Business just never interested me. Although one time he almost convinced me to go into business with him into owning and running the bar.
“How will owning a bar do good for the world?” I asked.
“By creating jobs. It puts people to work.”
“I get that creating a job will help someone out. But—”
“Plus it will help people get laid,” Steve enthusiastically interrupted. “Think about how many people are alive today because their parents met in a bar.”
“OK, I can see that,” I said. “But it seems to me that the real reason is that you want to get rich, and this ‘doing good’ is just a...side effect. A convenient side effect.”
“Why do you always think that I’m not capable of doing good. Both are good.”
“Well it’s because I know you and I know what gets you motivated, and making tons of money motivates you a lot. More than anything else.” I was speaking from the heart.
“Look. I’m a capitalist, what can I say. Don’t try to deny that you don’t want to get rich. You know you do.”
“Well I think it’s natural to want to get rich so of course I do. It’s how you get rich that matters. I would never fuck millions of people over like Wall Street bankers do in order to make a million. In my opinion there are just some lines you don’t cross.”
“I agree with that,” Alex said. “I would never kill and torture animals for money.” Alex had been increasingly concerned about animal rights. A subject I never really explored.
“That’s very noble of you Alex,” I said with a slight sense of exaggerated praise. “What about you Steve? What wouldn’t you do for money? What’s on your no-list?”
This stumped Steve. He looked up for several long seconds, struggling to search for an answer. Then came back with what seemed like an obvious cop out.
“I wouldn’t kill anybody,” he said.
“So only murder is off the table for you?” I asked. “Literally everything else is on the table?”
“I don’t know. I’d have to think about it,” Steve said.
“So. We all agree that the meaning of life is to do good, or at least it contains doing good,” I said to everyone. “I’ve been thinking, and I just told this to Steve, that life can’t be—it shouldn’t be about making tons of money. And it certainly shouldn’t be about working your whole life in a shitty job just to survive. What about doing good just for the sake of doing good, where you get no financial reward for it whatsoever? Isn’t that truly the noblest of goals?”
“I agree with that,” Alex said. Alex was a Christian. Although he wasn’t particularly religious, and certainly wasn’t devout, he believed in a God who created the world and that there was a person named Jesus that had something to do with it. But this ‘something’ wasn’t exactly clear. Non-reciprocal altruism apparently tickled his fancy.
“There we go. We’re on the same page,” I said. I continued, “There is something wrong with our culture today. It’s too obsessed with money and materialism. You look at the kind of people this culture is producing and you’ve got a mess. No one gives a shit about anything or anyone but themselves. We’ve become a culture of narcissists. I mean look at us. All we care about is how cool we look, how much money we make, and how much sex we have. And look, I feel the pressure too. I’m not immune to the pull of materialism and self indulgence. I just think there’s something bigger and more important to all this.”
I chopped up another line of coke and snorted it into my nose. Then I finished my drink and got up to make another cup. Steve was already done with all his. His tolerance was so high. That was me back in the day. I was glad that wasn’t the case anymore. Daniella stayed a quiet spectator almost the entire time with only the occasional whisper or comment and almost nothing of any real substance. I poured a new drink, a little stronger than I wanted to, and sat back down on the couch in the living room.
“You don’t believe in God do you?” Daniella asked me. This was getting interesting.
“No. I don’t,” I bluntly responded.
“So how do you find meaning in life?” she followed up. I always found that question slightly insulting. As if, without a God to worship there cannot be any meaning in life. Rubbish! But I wasn’t feeling defensive.
“Until recently I thought life was all about being successful and making money. I mean, in the modern world we’re raised to think that financial success is the only measure of a human life. That if you’re a failure, or if you stay mundane, or if you don’t make a lot of money then you’re just a waste of space.” I paused for a moment. “I bought into all of that for a long time, but now I’m reconsidering it. I don’t think being ridiculously rich or famous or even achieving high social status should be the end-all be-all of life. I think this mentality leads to many of the horrors we see in the world today, like for example, what happened with the banks during the financial collapse.”
“That was due to straight up greed,” Alex said.
“Fuck yeah it was,” I affirmed.
“And it’s a damn shame none of those motherfuckers went to jail,” Alex yelled. “If I get caught urinating on the sidewalk I can go to jail. These guys ruin millions of lives and nothing happens to them. Making sure this shit changes is my meaning of life.”
“That’s a very noble goal,” I said. “You were down there during the Occupy Wall Street protests right?”
“Yeah I was. I slept in the park for three days. Then I’d go home and go back.”
“I wish I went,” I said. “You know I’ve never attended a single protest in my life.”
“No. And I have the freedom to do so. In fact, people have given their lives for me to have the right to protest. That’s definitely on my to do list.”
“Steve what do you think about occupy Wall Street?” Alex asked.
“You know, what did they achieve? Nothing. That’s not the right way about doing it.”
“But do you agree that what the banks did was fucked up and people should go to jail?” I had to ask.
“Yeah. There were definitely illegal things going on. But I don’t think putting a few bankers in jail is going to solve anything.”
“I don’t know!” he fired back with some aggravated intensity. “But people should have known that they were unqualified to take those loans.”
“The people were scammed and lied to,” Alex said. This shit was starting to get intense. I knew how much Alex hated the banksters. I seemed to have more in common with him, a liberal Christian, than I did with Steve, who as was basically an agnostic.
“Look,” Steve said, “if you’re not capable of paying back a loan, you shouldn’t be in the business of taking one out — for anything.”
“So you’re saying the onus is on the people to know better when they’re being scammed and the scammers shouldn’t have any responsibility at all?” I asked.
“It’s your responsibility to know whether you can pay back a loan,” Steve said.
“Oh boy,” I said. “This is exactly why conservative economic views are so poisonous.”
“Let's change the conversation,” Steve said.
Another drink, another line of coke. I had half a line left at this point. But I was buzzed alright. It had been since New Year’s or so since I snorted blow. It felt great, but I knew it wouldn’t last. It was almost nine o’ clock. The sun finally set to expose the darkness outside. I had absolutely nothing to do tomorrow. I could in theory party all night but I wasn’t sure I wanted to. I then remembered that I still had to pick my bike up where I locked it up in Midtown. That was going to suck. I knew I was not going to be riding it home under any condition. As the night wore on I drank some more and worked up a pretty good coke/alcohol buzz. The conversation evolved to trivial things which I was fine with entertaining on coke. That’s the thing about coke. It makes you versatile. It makes you feel like you can conquer any social situation. You become Social Super Man. And that’s what made it so addictive and thus so dangerous. I definitely didn’t plan on doing coke frequently again like in my college days, and that probably meant I had to limit my time hanging out with Steve, who was clearly the cocaine instigator. Working had provided a natural barrier to this because I was busy most of the time. Being unemployed removed that. I needed better company. I needed to get negative elements away from me. I needed to start searching for the wisdom I needed. My regular cast of characters certainly wasn’t going to do it. I made a promise that the next day I’d find how to make that happen. But for the moment I had to find a way to get home.