The Confessions Of A Junkie

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I first became a junkie when I was nine years old, but I was finally forced to give it up when I reached fourteen. Although almost everyone around Denver’s Curtis Park was a junkie in those days, no one seemed as deeply involved as I was. For five long years it was touch and go every Saturday morning, week after week, until mid-July in 1934, when my junking came to an abrupt and nearly tragic end.

Pablo Perez was my most constant fellow junkie, and Mario Siletto would join us now and then, whenever he could manage to stay out of reform school. Having never been caught flagrante delicto, Pablo and I miraculously avoided reform school all those years. Perhaps I’ve made junking seem more serious than it really was, because in those permissive times it was actually semi-legal or only quasiillegal, depending on one’s semantic bent. Indeed, most of our junking merely involved collectingjunk (mainly whiskey bottles and discarded clothing and shoes) in the back alleys of Denver and reselling it to the rag-andbottle dealers on Larimer Street; but occasionally we would go beyond mere “collection” and engage in outright theft, especially when Mario came along to give us the benefit of his fine Sicilian hand.

I mention the word “Sicilian” rather casually, but I must frankly admit that our junking activities were strictly regimented by a kind of teen-age mafia that informally assigned specific alleys to all the junkies in our neighborhood; and pity the poor fellow who poached on another man’s preserves. The older boys—Julius Lavio, HalfCracked Mendez, Pocho Lujan, Stump Fresquez, and Fatso Garcia—quite naturally assigned themselves the better alleys behind the big hotels and apartment houses or that very special alley behind the red-light district on Lawrence Street. These were the plush areas where you could usually find or steal the higher-priced junk such as empty whiskey bottles, broken jewelry, and dirty underclothing. Poor Pablo and I were relegated to the lesser pickings in the middle-class areas off Colfax Avenue.

The mafia, however, was not entirely sacrosanct. Once in a while Pablo and I would rebel against our assignments and would boldly go junking in one of the better districts. On one such occasion we were nearly involved in a kidnapping plot. Unknown to us (or almost anyone else, for that matter), a prominent Denver millionaire had been kidnapped and was being held for a fifty-thousanddollar ransom. The kidnappers had asked the family to place a paper bag filled with unmarked bills in a trash bin of a house on Franklin Street. On the very morning the ransom was supposed to be collected Pablo and I decided to scavenge for junk in the alley where the designated trash bin was located. Just as we had expected, the first four or five ashpits and trash containers were well stocked with empty bottles and other salable items, and we were bubbling with optimism. But when we started to open the lid of a large, green wooden trash bin near the middle of the block, four men suddenly jumped from an adjacent garage and pounced on us.

“’All right, you punks!” shouted the apparent leader. “The jig’s up. You’re under arrest.”

“But I’m only ten years old!” Pablo screamed. (He was always given to non sequiturs, especially in the presence of cops.)

“Shut up, punk! I’ll do the talking. Now you’d better tell us who sent you here and where we can find them. And no monkey business neither.”

“Julius—Julius Lavio!” Pablo was in obvious panic. So was I—but mine was a shell-shocked and mute panic. “Julius gave us this alley … but only for today. It’s really Fatso’s alley. Most of the time it’s Fatso’s alley.”

Finally I found my voice. “We’re only junking,” I stammered. “Julius tells us what alleys to junk in so nobody goes in somebody else’s territory. We’re only junking, mister officer.… There’s our wagon.”

Two of the officers grabbed the wagon and quickly rummaged through the bottles and old clothes we had already scavenged. “Maybe they’re right, Sarge,” one of them said. “They’re just junk collectors—that’s all. Maybe we jumped too soon.”

“We got the wrong guys,” said the other.

On a second try the kidnappers got their ransom, and the abductee was promptly released. The news account of the first attempt mentioned two unidentified Mexican boys. “I’m sure glad they didn’t put our names in there,” Pablo said, ’”cause Julius would give us hell for taking Fatso’s alley.”