Smoking Crack In Paris: EXCLUSIVE Unpublished Excerpt From Bill Clegg's 'Portrait Of An Addict As A Young Man'
Literary agent Bill Clegg's new memoir, "Portrait of an Addict as a Young Man," comes out today, June 7, and offers a fascinating look into the life of a crack addict who doubles as a successful agent. Here, from the cutting room floor, is an exclusive unused excerpt about Clegg's exploits on the streets of Paris.
It's August and Noah and I have swapped the apartment in New York for a flat in Paris on the Place des Vosges. The place is owned by an antiques dealer, and the sleek little one-bedroom is jammed with midcentury plastic and walnut mixed with shiny fabric-covered, gold-leafed Louis-the-something pieces. The agency has been open for two years -- it's making enough money to pay the employees and I'm starting to draw a salary large enough to begin paying Noah back the money he has loaned me. He's been covering my portion of the maintenance at the apartment and has spotted me cash every so often when I don't have enough to keep pace with my credit-card bills and our steak-and-many-vodka nights at the Knickerbocker.
We will be in Paris for three weeks and then go to London for a few days so Noah can meet with a Russian actress he wants to cast in the film he's written and hopes to direct. The film is based on his father, a muttonchopped Peter Pan party boy who, when Noah was young, loved having his kids around but often disappeared into rooms filled with pot smoke and young women. The story is about a Russian mail-order bride who lives with an older, southern philanderer. He's always getting caught and always apologizing, and the crux of the story is her wrestling with the decision to either stay and put up with his chronic cheating or leave. At the end of the movie, she makes him pull the car they are driving to the side of the road, and without a word she gets out and walks away. Noah has worked on this film for seven years and he's very close to getting the long-elusive financing to make it. There's a sense from his producers and investors that if he's able to cast this Russian actress, they'll be able to set a shoot date and finally get the picture made.
So, Paris. The temperature hovers between 90 and 100 degrees and the air is muggy and thick. We check out a few museums -- the Musée d'Orsay, the Picasso Museum -- and wander the Marais and nearby neighborhoods, but mainly we read and go to movies. We see an old '30s screwball comedy by Ernst Lubitsch about a bachelor in Paris and a girl he's after. Noah explains"the Lubitsch touch" to me and we see several current romantic comedies that clearly don't have it. I want to see "The Incredible Hulk" and Noah refuses, so I go alone. Of all the movies that August, it's this one I remember most. However outlandish the plot or absurd the dialogue, I'm spellbound by it, especially David Banner's terrible loneliness, which I'd somehow forgotten about in the TV show, and his always fear that he'll lose control and his skin will turn green and his muscles will burst from his clothes. I remain in the seat long after the credits roll over the last shot of him walking, alone and away, down the road as he did at the end of every episode -- the green monster inside making life with anyone else impossible, keeping him forever at the edge, banished.
The evening before we are set to go to London is more beautiful than any other night since we've arrived. The humidity breaks sometime in the early afternoon and as we walk along the Seine toward dinner, the light rises -- off the water, the buildings, the trees -- like a gold-and-pink halo. Noah's pale blue agnès B. shirt glows, and near him I can smell his particular scent of Speed Stick, fresh laundry, and cigarette smoke. I rub his back with my hand and have a sudden, acute desire for time to stop. To stall forever in the celestial light, never arriving at dinner, caught in a perfect hour of expectation and dazzling air.
At the edge of some bridge I see a bar with outdoor tables that face the Seine, and beyond, the city. I suggest we stop, and though Noah resists, I race toward a suddenly open table with what looks like the perfect view. I sit down before the waiters clear the table and Noah lingers on the street. C'mon, I encourage, and eventually he comes. The waiter grumbles something as he clears the dirty glasses and soiled napkins, and because my French is awful I ask Noah to order me a double vodka with ice and a lime. He does and asks for a glass of wine for himself. As we wait for the drinks to come and look back to where we just were, I notice the light has shifted, and the magnificent air of a moment ago has now dulled.
Noah is antsy and ready to go before the drinks arrive. We'll be late, he says a few times, and when our drinks come, I somehow transmit to the waiter that I'd like another before taking the first sip. Noah's face falls and he reminds me that we're meeting friends of his after dinner, at the bar overlooking the courtyard at the Louvre. We're on vacation, I say, and threaten playfully to order a third. I drink the first vodka in a few big gulps and wait for the next. Noah doesn't touch his wine. We don't speak as the second drink arrives and I down it immediately. When the waiter passes, Noah signals for the check. Let's go, he says after only a sip of his wine. He counts the money, puts it on the table, and stands to leave.
We walk in silence to the restaurant -- a place very close to the Eiffel Tower called La Fontaine de Mars. It's one of my favorite restaurants in Paris and I've been looking forward to eating there for weeks. Noah is not a fan -- the place is a little touristy -- but I love its yellow walls, delicious chicken smothered in truffles, and small fountain in front where people wait for their tables and drink wine. We are twenty minutes late by the time we arrive; still, the waiter is friendly and directs us to the fountain and asks us to be patient while he finds us a table. Noah stays silent but I rub his bald spot and poke his belly to get him to loosen up and eventually, against his will, he does. We each have a glass of white wine and in a few minutes Noah is being sweet and we talk about London and what we will do there after he meets the Russian actress. By the time we get to the table, Noah is a little tipsy and speaking excitedly about making his movie -- he's so close now, finally -- and allowing himself to imagine distribution deals and awards and even the movies he'll make after. The ease we had on the river has returned and I'm grateful.
We order the chicken and a bottle of wine, and a few hours go by swiftly. Noah finishes two glasses of wine -- the first from the fountain and one from the bottle -- and when he leaves the table to go to the bathroom, I signal the waiter and ask for a second bottle. It arrives, is opened before Noah returns, and when he gets back he goes cold. We sit without speaking as I drink the bottle down and he waves for the bill. My blood is roaring with alcohol and I no longer care whether or not he's annoyed or unhappy and have no interest in cajoling him back into a good mood. Too much work. I suddenly want to be away from him, alone and on my own in the city. And just like that, I know I will be. As we get up I tell him my head is hurting, that I've had too much too drink and something isn't sitting right. I tell him to go on and see his friends and that I'll go back to the flat and sleep it off. I can tell he is both wary and disappointed but also relieved to be rid of me. So within minutes of leaving the restaurant and saying hurried good-byes, we're both in cabs streaking away from each other into the lit city.
My cab driver is in his twenties, olive-skinned -- Moroccan or Algerian -- and when he asks me where I want to go, I say somewhere where I can get high. He asks me to repeat what I've said a few times, and when he realizes what I'm saying, he laughs and says, You don't have to go anywhere. We have just crossed the Seine, back to the Left Bank, when he says this. I try to get a better look at him through his reflection in the rearview mirror and decide he has the most beautiful face I've ever seen -- dark, wavy hair, green eyes, enormous eyebrows. What do you mean? I ask him and he says he has more hash than he needs and right away hands me a bag with two small sugar-cube-size bricks of the drug. This can't be happening, I think, but even as I think it, I ask him where in Paris I can find crack. He doesn't know what I mean, and after I pantomime how one does the drug and shout SMOKE COCAINE, he says, and somberly, I know where to take you. I don't know Paris very well but it seems like we are somewhere near the Marais, not far from where we are staying. We pull up a street lined with prostitues and dull neon signs advertising sex shows. He sternly says as I leave the cab, You find what you want here. I forget to thank him for the hash.
It's just after midnight and as I weave through the narrow streets filled with not-so-young ladies and the men who will hire them, I realize I'm much drunker than I thought. A wave of nausea passes over me and I rest against a building and cool my face against its damp cement. The street is crowded, and for a moment I consider going back to the flat, smoking a little hash, and crawling into bed before Noah gets home. But as I start to look for a taxi, I see a door with a green bulb above it and three men shuffling inside. Something about the huddled, jagged project of them makes me look closer. There is a grayness to their skin, a jerkiness to their movements, and an overall wretchedness that I recognize. I turn my face to the night sky and say, out loud and loudly, Thank you, God. Before I approach the door I find an ATM machine and take out 600 euros, nearly all the cash I have in my checking account. With the cash in my pocket, I head back to the door, and when I get there the guys are gone and the door is locked. I knock and a short, muscular man with black hair peeks his head out. I ask him if he speaks English and he says, Of course. He ushers me into a small foyer with a desk and chair and behind it a large dark fabric covering the entrance to a doorway. What do you want? he asks, and I answer -- somehow knowing he has these things -- Crack and a place to smoke it. He asks if I am a cop and I say no and show him my bag of hash to reassure him. He excuses himself and twenty minutes later returns with another short, muscular man with black hair. My buzz by this point has collapsed and I feel groggy and tired. A headache is beginning to rumble at the back of my head and several waves of nausea by now have come and gone. I don't remember this next conversation but I remember it is long, suddenly combative, and involves the figure 800 euros. I go to the cash machine again, have a difficult time finding my way back to the door, hand the second guy the money, and wait for what seems at least an hour. I'll be convinced of many things during this hour -- that the attractive forty-something man who arrives minutes after they leave is a cop or a drug agent of some kind and that I'm about to be arrested. He will step into the building without a key, without knocking, and stand there for several minutes eyeing me and then, abruptly, leave. But mostly I'll believe I've been robbed, that the whole thing was too good to be true, and I'll realize that in my tipsy stupidity I have asked strangers for crack and given them hundreds of euros. As I am about to leave, a young woman -- late twenties, no more than thirty -- comes from behind the curtain. She looks Iranian or Egyptian and her hair is dyed a color that is closer to gold than blond. Two or three inches of dark roots ring her scalp, and with the stiff golden hair above it she looks like a pagan skunk. Actually, she looks like a young Lili Tomlin -- she has the same smug smile and half-closed eyes. In flimsy robe and heeled slippers, this two-toned Tomlin gestures from the doorway for me to follow and I do. She takes me down a long, dimly lit hallway to a narrow stairway. Throbbing techno music, short bursts of laughter, and the sound of scraping chairs come from behind the walls and closed doors. We go up two flights and down another, even less lit hallway before we arrive at a door that she unlocks with a key which I notice is attached to a plastic bracelet around her wrist. The room is large and has an enormous four-poster bed draped in what look like disco-era mosquito nets. There are several couches covered in faded tapestries, lit candles everywhere, and a powerful and unpleasant incense burning. I notice the floor is uncovered and cheap -- the kind of faded linoleum you see in diner or gas station bathrooms. She shuts the door, takes off her robe and pulls a small red lacquer box from under a pillow on the bed. She is now topless, wearing panties only. She motions for me to join her on the bed and I do. Sitting close to her now I can see how heavy her makeup is, how tiny her breasts, and I wonder when I see a few hairs poking from a mole above her lip if she is a man in drag or a transvestite. I don't care one bit, but I do care about what's in the red box on her lap. She strokes my hair and pats my chest and it takes all my willpower not to tell her to just get the fucking drugs out. It's almost two in the morning and Noah and I are supposed to leave for the airport at eight a.m. to fly to London. I'll be here just for an hour, I think, and then be back at the flat by four, sleep a few hours, deal with Noah's anger, and we'll go.
From the box she pulls a small Ziploc bag -- just like the ones in New York -- jammed with crack. The drug looks yellow in this light and I wonder at first if this is actually heroin, which I have never tried and have always been terrified of. Crack? I ask and she puts her finger to my lips to shush me. Slowly, unbearably slowly, she packs an oily, much-used glass stem, and taps the excess into the bag. She tends to the freshly packed stem like a florist meticulously sprucing an arrangement -- she wipes the stem, packs it a little tighter, puts a little more in, smooths the surface, flicks the loose bits into the bag. I close my eyes while she is doing this because I am about to come out of my skin with impatience. Finally, finally, she holds the unpacked end of the stem to my lips and with the other hand lights a lighter and draws the flame close. My hands are free while I draw in the first blast of dense medicinal-tasting smoke, which I hold in as long as I possibly can. I can feel the drug charge through my lungs and awaken every tired and foggy inch of me. By the time I exhale, my hands are all over her. She pushes me away at first and takes her own hit which she exhales into my mouth. She puts the stem and lighter down and we kiss and grope for a few minutes of seedy oblivion. Right away my fingers figure out she's not a transvestite or a man and I'm both relieved and disappointed. I get up and pack another hit and as I'm drawing on the stem -- too hard, too fast -- the end closest to the flame cracks and the ash soils the sheet between us. She bolts up off the bed, wipes away the ash and broken glass, throws on her robe, and rushes out the door, presumably to get a cloth or sponge. I immediately grab for the bag and break off a chunk of the drug and put it in the chest pocket of my shirt, just in case she throws me out or tries to hoard what we have. While she's away, I pack a huge chunk from the bag into the end of the broken stem and do my best not to pull so hard. The stem, now just a few inches long, broils in my fingers and I rest it on top of the small red box. I exhale a huge plume of smoke and scan the ceiling nervously for smoke detectors. I lie back on the bed as every inch of me prickles with desire. I pack another hit and try not to think about where she's gone. She comes back with two warm beers and a sponge, and after wiping off the sheet, she pulls a clean stem from her robe pocket and packs a hit. She holds the bag up to the lamp next to the bed and groans, flashing me a furious but not surprised look. She smokes her hit, sips her beer, and pushes me back on the bed and, without touching my legs or knees or any other part of my body, begins to give me a blowjob. As I lean over her to get the clean stem and pack and light another hit, she is utterly undeterred from her task. I smoke two hits and lie back to watch her. Her two-toned hair barely moves as she methodically sucks and strokes what could (generously) be called a flag at half-mast. I notice her hand shaking and as gently and tenderly as I can I push her away. She reaches for her warm beer, takes a sip, puts her robe back on and taps her watch. It's three-thirty and the bag is nearly empty but I've pocketed the broken stem and still have the large chunk in my shirt pocket. I finish the warm beer and wonder where I'll be able to do the remaining drugs. I'm shaky and can't remember where in the city I am and for a few minutes can't remember how I got here. I have 100 euros in my pocket and I take 50 out and put them on the bed. She has already stashed the bag in her box and clearly has no intention of letting me have more, which annoys me at first but I'm now just focused on getting out of this place without difficulty. I turn to say good-bye but she has turned her back to me. I say good-bye again but she is frozen. I tread gently to the door and into the dark hall. The entire building seems empty now and there is no music throbbing from behind closed doors, no hum of activity above or below. I have a difficult time remembering how I got to her room and several times see shadows that I mistake for the guys I first dealt with when I came in. I'm suddenly aware of how vulnerable I am to being robbed or beaten, and as the high I had from the bedroom crashes, I feel the blood pound loudly in my neck and head, and my chest pulls tight. It will be well after four a.m. by the time I make my way out onto the now very dark and empty street.
I duck into doorways and behind Dumpsters and smoke as much and as fast as I can to stave off the dread of facing Noah. I wander for a while and accidently stumble onto the Place des Vosges and wrestle with the code and key to get into the flat. Noah is waiting, awake, and desperate with worry. He insists I come to London and I refuse. He lies on the couch when I go to bed, and fifteen or so minutes later I light up in the bathroom when I think he's asleep. Just as I exhale a huge cloud of smoke, he comes in and yells -- not an angry yell but one that is horrified, exhausted, familiar. Before he leaves a few hours later he tries again to persuade me to come with him. I tell him no. That I will see him back in Paris when he's done and not to worry. Eventually he goes.
The morning and day are a blur. I find three bottles of wine in the kitchen and drink them. After smoking the last of the crack, I discover the bag of hash from the taxi driver and reel with wonder that I'd been carrying it the whole time and had forgotten. I smoke the hash from an empty Coke can and then walk into the Place des Vosges as drunk and high as I can remember ever being. I careen through the beautiful garden in the hot midday sun and within minutes find a red-haired twenty-something Parisian real-estate agent who agrees to come up to the flat. We spend the day drinking, having sex, and smoking hash. Eventually, he leaves. It's now eight in the evening and the drugs have been smoked, the wine drunk. I begin to crash, and as I do, I remember the walk yesterday toward dinner, the magic light, Noah's glowing shirt. I see that same shirt on the back of a chair next to the window and I pick it up and smell that particular smoky laundry Speed Stick smell that is Noah's alone. I am then, and not a minute before, overwhelmed with shame. I see his tear-streaked faced pleading with me, just hours ago in this same room, to come with him to London, and I know this is too much and I've gone too far. I sit back down on the bed and look out the window to the early evening light as it gentles the buildings across the street.
At some point I get up from that bed, grab my passport and wallet and little else, and race into the street to hail a cab. I tell the cab driver to go to Charles De Gaulle airport as fast as he can and pray that there is a flight to London with an open seat. There isn't. The first flight out is at six a.m., so instead of going back to Paris, where I know I won't be able to resist going back to that door with the green lightbulb above it, I buy a ticket for what seems like the cost of the ticket from New York to Paris, and check into an ultramodern Sheraton that is somehow located inside the terminal. With its enormous windows and space shuttle-chic furniture, the room looks like something from the future. My body is shattered, but somehow the desperate taxi ride, ticket and hotel room purchases, and constant movement of the last few hours have held back the crash I know is coming. I order two bottles of vodka, a bucket of ice, and French fries from room service. I stay up all night drinking in bed, where I buy and watch without the desired effect all the adult movies they have. Every once in a while, I stand at the window and look down at the nose of the jumbo jet parked below. It looks like a 747 -- the plane my father flew for TWA between London and New York. I stand at the window and watch the red and yellow and green lights flash from the runway, the parked planes, the sky.
Morning comes, finally. I leave the hotel room without checking out and, drunk, get on the British Airways flight to London. It's after ten in the morning when I show up at Noah's hotel and convince the front desk attendant to let me into his room, which is empty and neat as a pin save for a just-slept-in bed. I pace the small space and touch his clothes, his overnight bag, his toiletries. I grab a handful of aspirin, swallow them down with the half-full glass of water on the nightstand, and finally, after two days with no sleep, crash into the bed and pass out.
I wake to the sound of a key scraping the lock on the other side of the door. It's early evening and it takes me a moment to figure out where I am. London, Noah -- I remember -- and begin to panic. He must have met with the Russian actress by now. He must know whether she'll star in his movie; be the one who asks the car to be pulled over in the final scene, the one to step out into the night, alone and away from this man she loves who cannot stop betraying her.
The lock rattles as he fumbles with the key. Will he throw me out? Will he be relieved to see me alive and believe me when I tell him this was the last time? I sit up in bed and wonder if this is the end of us.
He would struggle with that lock a long time.