On the plane down to Florida, I sat next to a middle-aged woman who wore too-big glasses and had pulled her slightly graying hair into a bun. She was kind and curious. I remember what I told her: I was flying south on assignment. I worked for magazines, I said. You know, the life of a writer. It's a bitch. I spend more hours than I can count in airport lounges and Holiday Inns. It's kind of lonely, but that's reality.
That was in October 1997. I was 25 and had spent the years since I graduated from college focusing all of my desperate energy on my career as an intravenous drug addict. I was 6 feet tall and weighed less than 150 pounds. That entire year, I had cleared $3,192 in legal income. I worked for a coffee shop and a liquor store and a couple of bookstores, never lasting at any job for more than a couple of weeks. At one point, I gave confused, occasionally incoherent English lessons to Japanese academics visiting Harvard. (My eternal apologies, Mr. Kobayashi.) I hadn't done any real writing in years, and the last time I'd traveled on anything resembling a magazine assignment had been the previous summer, when Details had shipped me off to Mexico for an experimental, two-day rapid detox program that was supposed to miraculously cure my heroin addiction. It failed spectacularly. Now I was on my way to Delray Beach with a bag of clothes, a bag of books and an admission ticket to a long-term treatment center.
We landed in West Palm Beach. She said, Good luck and take care of myself. I rushed down the gangway so she wouldn't see the goon sent to grab me from the plane.
It had been three years since I first tried heroin, snorting a bag by myself on a brisk Sunday morning the fall after I graduated from college. I was living in New York City, and within weeks I was using every day. It had been two years since I had moved back to Boston, ran out of money, and began shooting up. I had been almost laughably lucky _ I had friends who brought me to the hospital when I overdosed; I hadn't tested HIV-positive; no one I'd tied off had ended up dying on my floor. Now, after about a dozen hospitalizations, a handful of overdoses, more than $10,000 in credit card cash advances, and thousands of dollars stolen from my friends and lovers and family, I was cashing in my last remaining chip. My parents agreed to front the money for the Renaissance Institute, a hard-core treatment center in Boca Raton that specialized in intractable addicts. I knew it was the last chance I'd get to try to start over and that if I didn't take it, I'd die.
A little less than four months later, I was thrown out of Renaissance for having sex with an 18-year-old from Alabama who worked her doctor for prescription pain pills and her parents for second chances. I was given two black Hefty bags filled with my clothes and told I had 10 minutes to get off the property. I had no money, no credit cards, no place to live. But I'd also been clean for more than three months, and for the first time since I started using, I felt like I could stay sober. The actual physical detox _ the diarrhea, the sleeplessness, the anxiety and paranoia _ was over, and I was slowly reining in my racing thoughts.
When I had come down to Florida the previous fall, I kept insisting I'd never live in such a wasteland for more than a month or two. Now that I was out of rehab, I didn't even think of trying to leave. In fact, I didn't think about much of anything at all. I had learned some basic survival skills in treatment _ how to cook a few entry-level meals, how to stick to a budget, how to keep on top of bills _ but mainly I'd learned that all I could do to keep from falling over was to keep on walking forward.
The first job I had in Florida was working as a day laborer. I'd line up in a parking lot at 6 a.m. with a bunch of migrant workers and a handful of active junkies and wait for the slow procession of pickups to pull in, grabbing two guys for this job, five for that one. I lasted less than a week. I didn't know how to dig a ditch any more than I knew how to file my taxes: I'd jab my shovel straight down into the ground instead of rounding it out and as often as not ended up tripping over my own feet. I was spraying sweat within minutes, so soaked that one of the other guys I was working with actually asked me if I was high.
Next, I landed a gopher gig in Office Depot's corporate headquarters. I was sharing a bedroom in a one-story house down by the railroad tracks for $50 a week; my landlord was a Mexican who said he was sober but kept bottles of rum on top of the fridge, and my roommate was a 32-year-old blond man with feathered hair and delicate hands. He had a low-grade pill habit and a fiancee still in the local community college. I had to navigate Delray's skeletal public transportation system to get to work, and the multibus trip took more than two hours if I didn't time the connections just right. It never occurred to me that it would have taken less time to just walk to work.
Office Depot had a business-casual dress code, which for me meant too-tight chinos (I had gained almost 50 pounds since quitting the heroin diet) and a rotating collection of pale-blue button-down shirts from J.C. Penney. I didn't know you were supposed to wear undershirts, and usually my shirts were covered with conspicuous sweat stains by 10 a.m. Every morning, I'd collect hundreds of pieces of interoffice mail and painstakingly sort them into slots that were organized by rank, not alphabetically. I'd have lunch in the cafeteria, go back and do it all again.
Eventually, after missing my connection one too many times and showing up an hour late, I was fired. My supervisor solemnly called me over to her cubicle after lunch one day and said the "executive team" was thrilled to have someone with my education and intelligence working for them, but the bottom line was that she needed someone who'd show up on time to file the mail.
I wasn't enormously surprised. The overblown combination of insecurity and arrogance I'd nursed since junior high was slowly being replaced by a more bracing realism. I cleaned out my desk, took a bus back into town, and began applying for jobs at the touristy restaurants in downtown Delray.
By this time I had moved into my own place, a one-room efficiency a block away from the ocean. It barely fit a queen-sized bed and a TV, and I kept the shade shut and my clothes in a pile in the closet. There was a tiny fridge that could hold either a carton of milk or a bottle of juice, but not both. The previous occupant, a 5-foot-2 woman, left her bicycle behind, so now I had a means of transport as well, so long as I didn't mind occasionally hitting myself in the chin with my knees as I pedaled. A friend from rehab got me a job as a busboy at the Hoot, Toot & Whistle, an upscale restaurant modeled after the Orient Express. The busboys had to wear tux shirts and bow ties, and I fed myself off leftovers and ruined entrees.
Every night when I got off work, I'd bike home, climb into bed, turn on all the lights and watch NYPD Blue reruns and smoke. Usually I'd wake up the next morning with the TV still on and an ashtray balanced on my chest. After years during which my emotional life had been circumscribed by the space between getting and needing a fix, I was still debilitatingly raw. I'd cry during Toyota commercials because the notion that a father wanted to buy a car that would keep his daughter safe on trips to soccer practice seemed overwhelmingly poignant. I didn't wash my sheets because I was only dimly aware that sheets needed to be washed. Many days, it seemed like getting dressed in my monkey suit and getting to work was too much too handle.
Southern Florida, way down at the bottom of the country, jutting off into the ocean, is a place where people come when things don't work out elsewhere. A lot of times, people do start anew. The miles of identical strip malls, the seasonless years, the ocean and the palm trees, and the swampland seem to serve as a balm for souls that can't find quietude elsewhere. But just as often, instead of starting over, people simply fill their lives with bluster. Actors who had a cameo in a Julia Roberts movie talk about how they'll take over Hollywood. Chefs who blew their seed money for a Manhattan restaurant on a crack binge swear they were about to get tapped as the executive chef of a new Trump hotel.
I still said I was a writer, even though I didn't have the attention span or discipline even to keep a journal. I told people that before I came to Florida, I'd spent my nights interviewing rock stars. Now, I said, I was about to head off to Cuba on an undercover assignment for Rolling Stone.
One day, I was leaning against my bike on Atlantic Avenue, Delray's main strip. A finely muscled pretty boy who said he worked in fashion was introducing himself to a group of us on the sidewalk in front of Delray's token cafe. He was about 10 hours off the plane, and he wouldn't shut up. Punk, I thought. He's finished, he just doesn't know it. He'll never go back to New York, just like that 40-year-old actor will never even audition for the local community theater. Because they're all too afraid of what it would mean to try and fail. I had written the script to his entire life when I realized it was my own.
The next day, I called up the one person I knew who had a computer and printed out a couple of features I'd written years earlier for Addicted to Noise, an early rock 'n' roll Webzine. I ginned up a resume that glossed over the fact that I hadn't held a job in years. And I sent off my sad little packet to the city editors of the Palm Beach Post and the Sun-Sentinel, Fort Lauderdale's daily paper. I figured that I wouldn't get any responses, but at least then I had tried. Fred Zipp, the Post's city editor, called me the next week and asked me to come in for an interview.
I dressed in a heavily starched white shirt and a black tie. I got a haircut at Supercuts. And I got a friend to drive me up I-95 to the Post's newsroom, an airy, antiseptic place whose over-air-conditioned smell seemed like the most romantic scent in the world. I told Zipp and Tom O'Hara, the Post's managing editor, that I had come down to Florida to visit friends and had fallen in love with the ocean and the weather and the lifestyle. They seemed willing to believe me. Still, this masking-taped explanation didn't cover up the reality that I had no experience working at a daily newspaper. But for whatever reason, Zipp said, they liked me enough to give me what amounted to a working audition. So, for $1,000 I could work two trial weeks on the metro desk. After that, they'd decide whether to hire me on full time. I was surprised to get the offer and tried not to be too hopeful. I told the headwaiter at my restaurant I needed a couple of weeks off but didn't want to give up my shifts.
My first day of work was my 26th birthday, April 27, 1998. I was sent to a local middle school where Kate Shindle, the reigning Miss America, was speaking. I filed nine stories over the next two weeks _ about the World Series of Scouting, about a groundbreaking at a new children's hospital, about the onset of the love-bug season _ and then I returned the car the Post had rented for me, went back to the Hoot, Toot & Whistle, and waited for a call. It came a week later. It turned out Zipp was about to take off for Texas: He'd gotten a job at the Austin American-Statesman. But then Susan Bowles, a gentle woman with fine, blond hair and a pixie face who was taking over as metro editor, called me one afternoon. I was at a friend's apartment when I picked up the message, and I curled up on the couch before I called her back. I have some bad news, Bowles told me. The job we talked to about, the night cops beat, has been filled. Okay, I thought, still curled up into myself. I still have my job at the restaurant. I can try to freelance, and eventually I will get a job. But Bowles wasn't done: We really liked you, she said, and we'd like you to work in our South County bureau, covering Boca Raton City Hall. I biked over to the restaurant that afternoon and quit.
I began my job at the Post on May 18. After briefly trying to convince myself I could afford a $17,000 Jeep Cherokee, I ended up buying an '85 Cadillac Eldorado with no muffler, no radio, an immovable front seat and questionable brakes. A guy was selling it from his front lawn for $1,000. It was perfect.
Even with a car and an efficiency, I still had trouble passing as a fully engaged member of the real world. Within about a week, the Eldorado's back seat was piled 2-feet-deep with papers and magazines and forwarded mail and empty fast-food cartons. Since I didn't have a proper refrigerator, I bought OJ and milk and cereal and a bunch of plastic bowls and spoons and kept them at the office. I'd get there early every morning and make myself breakfast. I stayed at the office late most nights _ I didn't have a computer and had missed years of the Internet, and I spent hours scrolling through Web publications and fan sites. Later, I found out my editor thought I was living in my car and had asked whether the Post maybe should see what they could do about helping me find a place to sleep.
I eventually moved in to a real apartment and cleaned up my car so it didn't look like I was living in it. I kept filing stories, many of them unique to life in southern Florida: Nap-Deprived Neighbor Fouling Boy's Hoop Dream (June 20, 1998), or Disabled Condo Owners Finally Get Their Elevator (Dec. 11, 1998). I screwed up the courage to visit New York. And by the spring of 1999, I began looking for other work. That May, after a year at the Post, I moved back to cover City Hall for the Forward.
It's easy to obsess about what might have happened when there are only two possible outcomes. But when you're not exactly sure what futures you're choosing between, whatever path you end up on finally feels inevitable. About two and a half years ago, I was in Lake Charles, La. I was on assignment for Newsweek, interviewing the warden at a local jail. He was explaining why they had so many lockdowns. These guys, he said, were lowlifes. Crackheads who sold their daddy's furniture. Dope fiends always working an angle. Most of them have no future. He was about to launch into a story about the latest mook he'd had to reprimand when he stopped himself. You wouldn't know about any of that, he said.
Seth Mnookin is the author of the new book, Hard News: The Scandals at The New York Times and Their Meaning for American Media. He can be reached through his Web site, www.sethmnookin.com.