Heroin in the East Village
Richard Hell was born Richard Lester Meyers in the late 1940’s in Kentucky. He took on the stage name later on in life, after he had ditched high school for New York in the 1960’s and went on to become one of the major players in the East Village’s punk scene. He played in various bands and clubs throughout New York in the 70’s, 80’s, and early 90’s, but the focus of this post is not on his music career.
No, the focus of this piece is heroin usage and Hell’s own personal journal on heroin. Unfortunately the Fales Library was unable to place a date to the artifact, but based on what I was able to read from Hell’s ridiculously tight cursive writing, I believe it was written later in his time in the punk scene, perhaps late 80’s or early 90’s.
The journal was clearly written over a long period of time, with the notebook being used for various things on top of Hell’s own personal experiences and research on heroin. There are random addresses written in the margins, some simple arithmetic done at the tops of pages, and one page looks like his young daughter Ruby scribbled on it and then practiced writing her own name.
Hell was married to Ruby’s mother, Patty Smyth, from 1985-1986, so we can assume Ruby was born in 1986, making me think that she scribbled on the page around 1990 or so, if you want to pin down a specific date for the notebook. There’s also a note left behind to time, simply reading “I’m @ Greg’s sweetie xx heart”. I wonder who left the note and who Greg was, but we will all probably never really know.
Considering it was probably last written in in the early 90’s the journal is in surprisingly good condition. Sure, the pages are yellow and the cover is falling off, but the fact that it’s managed to hold on for close to 25 years, weathering whatever boxes and drawers it was once kept in, is very impressive.
Backtracking a bit, heroin is still a part of the East Village culture today, although it first gained prominence all the way back in the 1950’s and reached its peak in the 1980’s. Heroin was also a big part of the music scene, starting with jazz musicians, and later continuing on to rock musicians. According to a 2016 study, heroin is on the rise again with 948,000 Americans using heroin in the past year, 170,000 of them for the first time, nearly double the 90,000 first time users in 2006.
We are living in a time where opioid addiction is one of our most pressing domestic issues, making Hell’s journal a rather timely artifact, despite being written practically 30 years ago. Hell spent time documenting his own experiences with heroin and did not sugarcoat a thing. From what I was able to read (his handwriting really is way too old-fashioned) he was honest with himself and about the effects heroin was having on his body. I assume by this point in his life, using heroin was not a choice, but something he had to do to appease the disease of addiction.
He describes the after effects of using heroin as “in some sense it makes you give up on yourself”. Now as someone who has never used heroin, or anyone opioids for that matter, I can not offer any of my own experiences. However, with Hell, you don’t really need to. His writing helps you imagine what it would be like to be truly dependent on using heroin to get through the day and it is not a pretty picture. He paints a picture of despondency, exhaustion, and complete loneliness.
Skimming through the journal took me back to what it must have been like to be in the East Village during the Heroin Epidemic of the 80’s. I live on the corner of 7th St and 2nd Ave and I can imagine there would probably be a dealer stationed on the corner, perhaps over by Paul’s Da Burger Joint or maybe selling to people coming out of The Orpheum. Tompkins Square Park would be littered with broken needles, junkies would be passed out on the streets any time of day, and Avenue D was apparently “the world’s largest retail drug market”.
This is not a time I would want to go back to and it is certainly not a time that should be romanticized. I worry, though, that this might be a taste of our future again, but this time it is not the increasingly gentrified East Village’s future. Now this is the future of rural small towns all across America who have inadequate medical care and too much access to pain pills. This is a future that should be prevented and perhaps Hell’s heroin research could play a part in it.
I do not think artifacts should just be things that gather dust for the rest of eternity. Historical artifacts serve a purpose: teaching us about the past. Hopefully we learn everything we can from the past and prevent ourselves from making the same mistakes in the future. That’s the purpose Hell’s heroin research should be fulfilling. His journal should be transcribed and published online for the whole world to see. His words should be taught in classrooms and anti-drug lectures. His research can even help the government as they finally start tackling the opioid epidemic.
In conclusion, I think Hell’s journal serves a much higher purpose than to sit in the Fales Library and be a part of some student’s class project. There is so much to learn from all of his many journals and papers, but this one in particular is special. This journal reflects what is currently going on in the world while taking us back to a past that luckily no longer exists (and hopefully it stays that way). And it further takes us into the East Village, shining a light on what I imagine must have been its darkest days.
“Heroin.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Apr. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Heroin#History.
National Institute on Drug Abuse. “What Is the Scope of Heroin Use in the United States?”NIDA, Drugabuse.gov, Mar. 2018, www.drugabuse.gov/publications/research-reports/heroin/scope-heroin-use-in-united-states.
“Patty Smyth.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 1 Apr. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Patty_Smyth.
Petrus, Stephen. “Greenwich Village Fights the Heroin Epidemic, 1958 – 1963.” THE GOTHAM CENTER FOR NEW YORK CITY HISTORY, The Graduate Center, City University of New York, 21 Dec. 2016, www.gothamcenter.org/blog/greenwich-village-fights-the-heroin-epidemic-1958-1963.
“Richard Hell.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 31 Mar. 2018, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Richard_Hell.
Schneider, Martin. “Brutal, Intimate Photos Depict the 1980s ‘Heroin Epidemic’ of the East Village.” DangerousMinds, Dangerous Minds, 3 Mar. 2015, dangerousminds.net/comments/brutal_intimate_photos_depict.