My former drug dealer has died
...and I don't know how to feel about it except crushing sadness
That’s what life was, a long series of things that didn’t go down the way you thought they would.
I’ve called him John whenever I’ve written about him, but now that he is dead, I suppose there is no harm in telling you his real name, which was Rob.
Rob Gray or Grey.
He grew up in the Timmins area, and by the time I learned he was dead, his family (as is their perfect right) had already transported his dead body back up to where he grew up and interred him. I would’ve gone to the funeral, but by the time I learned Rob was dead he was already six-feet under.
He was either slightly below 50 years old or just over 50, I could never be sure. He had done time in prison - a 10-year stretch for assault (male on male assault, Rob didn’t hit women) where he learned to be an auto mechanic. For as long as his parole lasted, he worked at an auto shop. As soon as they stopped watching him, he started selling heroin, which over time became fentanyl (Rob himself never added anything to his heroin/fent…whoever was shaking the fent into the heroin, like an Italian cook shaking Parm onto penne, was a step or two above Rob on the ladder.)
ANYWAY I first met Rob when I just got completely and totally sick of a dealer I had @ College & Roncesvalles who, on a good day, would make me wait an hour. Three hours on a bad day. And he lived on the second floor above a store. All he had to do was walk down ONE flight of stairs and hand me the heroin, and this more often than not, took him hours.
So one day I finally said “fuck it.” I knew how difficult it was to find a new heroin dealer, but it was Sept 2017 and the news was reporting that a new Safe Injection Site was opening, so I walked to this recently opened site @ Moss Park where I met one of the only heroin users I’ve ever met who hasn’t fucked me over. I told him “Look, I need a new dealer. If you can introduce me to one, I’ll buy you a point.”
That guy was known as “Pops,” aka Leon Alward. Here’s a picture of Pops:
He was always at the Moss Park site, either helping out or getting high. But he was reliable. He was there every day. Pops, like me, was hopelessly addicted to heroin when I met him. He had a 19-year old son who was also hopelessly addicted. The 19-year old son’s mother had died of an overdose sometime around 2010. Pops never had money to buy his own son food. This made me sad, but not sad enough to buy the kid a burger myself.
Now, before you get all moralistic about this, you need to understand the pull of the drug we were hooked on…the media often says fentanyl is 50-100 times stronger than heroin. I personally don’t think it could possibly be THAT much stronger, but IF it is, it would therefore be 50-100 times harder to quit. And I can attest to the difficulty of quitting fent v. quitting OxyContin. The cold turkey thing, which I’d done 14 times when my D.O.C. (Drug of Choice) was OxyContin, suddenly became a wholly different beast on fentanyl.
It was no longer just sweating in bed for a week, not sleeping, diarrhea, vomiting, and no appetite. Trying to come off fentanyl was…feeling like I was actually dying.
Of course, Pops himself died of an overdose on Saturday May 25 2019, in the midnight hours, somewhere on Queen St West, long after all safe injection sites had closed. He’d introduced me to Rob later the same day I asked him to. Rob was still going by his old nom de crime, which was “Wrong Rob.”
I liked Rob immediately. I liked the whole Moss Park scene. There was no judgement, just a kind of shared bewilderment that we’d all fallen as low and hard as we had. That maybe we weren’t strong enough to stop. That nobody was.
Y’know, I used to say to my friends, the tsk-tskers, “Okay. You think I’m weak? How about this. Go out and acquire yourself a fentanyl addiction. A short one. Do one point a day for 3 months. Then see if you can stop. Then you can tell me how weak & pathetic I am.”
By 2019 I no longer said shit like that. I wouldn’t have wished a fentanyl addiction on my worst fucking enemy. I resisted for so fucking long what we users, or the more well-read among us, call “the dubious graduation” to heroin.
Y’see, in mid-2016, all of a sudden nobody could get OxyContin. Nobody. You could maybe get a few NEOs. But I was used to doing 3 40 milligram crushable Oxy pills. I’d crush & snort 2 all at once, then wait til bedtime to crush & snort the third. Oxy NEOs were IMPOSSIBLE to crush, so you couldn’t snort or inject (not that I ever injected Oxy).
I have a terrible needle phobia. If I didn’t, I have no doubt I’d be dead. During the worst of my fent times, the addiction was stronger than the phobia, and I let someone (whom I trusted) inject me (using a brand new, unused CLEAN needle straight from The Works or Moss Park Safe Injection Site, I made sure of that) about 10-15 times in total. And yes, it was stronger than snorting, but not as different as I’d been told to expect. Because, as I said, I’ve snorted $400 of heroin in one night. That’s 2 grams. So, injecting me with a point or a point and a half felt good and I liked it, but it was not a continent of difference. I still think the highest I’ve ever been is, either in the early days or sometime more recent than that, when I actually blacked out for 36 hours & sent messages, not inappropriate, but completely incomprehensible, to people, which scared a few of them and seemed to piss the rest off.
Anyway, in the short time that I knew Rob, which was about 5 years or so, I watched him transform to the most industrious, energetic, get-up-and-go, punctual drug dealer, to an absolute fucking mess who was getting arrested every month or two, getting robbed of all his money and drugs every month or two, and was constantly on the verge of eviction because the last two years and a half of his life he was living at Have-a-Nap Motel @ Kingston Rd & Brimley Rd in Scarborough.
And it wasn’t fentanyl that changed Rob from a totally organized, punctual, considerate (he’d have his points organized into flaps that he cut from lottery papers) into a guy who…you’d go to buy from him and have to knock on his door for half an hour cuz he’d finally fallen asleep for the first time in 3 days.
It was crack that completely ruined Rob, took over his life, scrambled his brain, and by the last few months of his life, I’ve been told that no matter what time customers went to buy from him, he’d be crying, disorganized, and somehow unable to find the heroin that just five mins previous he’d weighed out on his scale for said customer.
He became a broken man. Then, a month before his death, he suffered either an overdose or a stroke, which cost him the use of both hands. He just woke up one day with both paddles bollixed. He could sort of open a doorknob, I’ve been told, but he couldn’t break off point-sized chunks of fentanyl from a bigger chunk, that requires dexterity. Now he had to rely on his partner, who I won’t name, to help him, but this woman was about as helpful as an alligator chomping on your penis. She was utterly useless, and in fact is the reason he got so wrapped up in crack.
Rob had found her ten years previous, homeless, abandoned, and crying, and he just felt like helping her out. He told me that the first two years, any time he lifted his arm she would cower, as if afraid he was gonna hit her. She was obviously horribly traumatized by a previous domestic abuse situation, and it took a long time for her to come out of her shell. But it wasn’t a sexual relationship, neither was it businesslike because this women was just…so bad at life. She couldn’t even call 911 one time when Rob got stabbed right in front of me.
I was once privy to a fight Rob was involved in that turned nasty very fast and he got stabbed just below his left armpit - stabbed, not slashed. I tore my t-shirt off immediately and used it as a tourniquet but I was too afraid to check how deep the hole in Rob’s side was. I couldn’t bear to check the wound. I just tied it off. His partner’s job was to dial 911 for an ambulance, and even that proved too difficult for her. She’s just one of those people who can’t seem to do anything. She was crying hysterically and hitting the wrong numbers and dropping the phone. She was useless and Rob carried her for years.
As I said, it was a non-sexual relationship (you often find yourself in these weird non-sexual relationships when you’re on heroin because your sex drive has been annihilated by the opiates. So at least there’s no sexual frustration or sexual hunger on your part.
Anyway, this woman wasn’t much of a help to Rob and honestly, because crack was her D.O.C. (I mean drug of choice, in this case, not department of corrections), I can’t help but hold her at least partially responsible for Rob’s slide from the most organized dealer I’ve ever seen to a crying shell of a man.
In 2017 he’d be at Moss Park every day at noon, stopping by Broadview Station @ 11:30 to sell a gram to some Bay Street bully lawyer who bought the same amount every day, then he’d sell another gram to a construction worker guy, then he’d get back on the subway and be at Moss Park for noon. And because I was always working late in those days, typically 430pm-2am or something like that, Rob became my daily drug dealer.
But then he started showing up later and later until I was calling into work saying I’d be a half hour late. It’d be 4:45 and Rob was just arriving at Moss Park. Other users started hearing about his tardiness and began to take advantage, selling fake shit, Stevia or something, to desperate customers. I myself got burned more than once that way.
Then he started going long periods without answering his phone at all. By 2019, he wasn’t making the trip downtown at all anymore. You had to go to him, which sucked because he lived at Danforth & Dawes, meaning you’d have to go to Main Street Station, then walk 10 mins to get under his window. The round trip was just over two hours for me. He’d send ____, his woman down to collect the cash, then he’d toss the fent out of his window in a old smoke package. It began getting harder and harder to stay “with drugs.”
And when I couldn’t get to Rob, cuz he wasn’t answering and I had to start at 230pm and work a wedding til 230am, I suffered every minute of those shifts, shifts that felt a hundred hours long, just so dopesick and having to wear a fake smile because weddings are such singular events. You never want to make a bad impression on someone at a wedding. It’s just verboten. And that’s my own inner morality speaking, not something that was drummed into me by the corporate entity I worked for.
By the time Rob moved to Have-a-Nap Motel, chances were 50/50, every day, as to whether you could even get ahold of him. I used to just go, take the now 3 hour round trip, just hoping
he was there
he had drugs for sale
Often I’d arrive and see through a tiny crack in the curtains that he was dead asleep on the bed, so I’d have to pound on the door for 20, 30, 45 mins. One December a cop pulled up and asked me what the fuck I was doing. I said I was trying to get ahold of a friend of mine, because usually he was up by 3pm on any given day and now it was 6pm and he wasn’t answering his door.
First, the cops ran my I.D., because they’d seen me peeking through the curtains and thought I was trying to rob Rob’s room. Everything came back okay, no pending charges, but now the two cops were talking about doing a wellness check.
“Does he use drugs?” they asked.
I made a hesitant face.
“Son, we just wanna do a wellness check. I don’t care if he’s a drug user. I’m not going to arrest him unless I see a gun in there or a Scarfaced-size brick of cocaine, okay?”
I had to trust the cop. He was gonna do that wellness check with or without my permission. “Okay. Yes, he’s an intravenous drug user.”
One cop went to the office to get Rob’s room key, while the other cop began pounding on the door, loud enough that probably each guest in all 14 rooms could hear it.
“ROB GRAY!” shouted the officer. “This is a wellness check! Please open the door if you are able.”
The door comes flying open. Rob is squinting. “Hi.”
The cop points at me. “Do you know this man?”
“What’s his name?”
“Okay, can you just open the door a little bit wider, please? I just want to make sure there’s no one behind that door holding you here against your will.”
Now this was bad, because to open the door wider would be to show the cop the desk where Rob cut all of his fentanyl into points and put them in either paper flaps or dime bags.
Rob opens wide the door.
“Okay. You have a great day Rob Grey. You too Danny.” And the cops walk off. I can’t believe it. I step into the room and shut the door behind me.
“Rob,” I stammer, “I’m s-so sorry man. I would never bring the cops to your place intentionally. The cop saw me knocking on your door a-and started asking all these questions and I just…I didn’t…I….”
“Hey,” Rob said, sounding unusually calm. He must have laid off the crack for at least 24-hours and gotten some healthy, natural, regenerative sleep. “Hey. Dan. It’s fine. It’s fine.”
And he hugged me.
(Believe it or not, Rob and I hugged very frequently. I am a man but I still have “daddy issues” and I tend to project those onto any older males in my life. So Rob had definitely taken on a role as a surrogate father, despite how out of control he was those last two, two-and-a-half years. Maybe this demonstrates how badly I needed, and still need, a father influence in my life.)
I hugged him back.
“It’s nice to know somebody gives enough of a shit about me to actually…check, y’know?” Rob chuckled.
We stayed hugging for…probably a good 10 seconds, despite the fact that Rob was always shirtless in that motel room and his B.O. would waft up from his armpits like the gradual smell of toast coming up from a toaster. There was like…a smelly heat rising off of him all the time. But, gross as it may sound, once you get to know somebody, their bodily smells become slightly less gross and less intrusive than those of a stranger. It’s just a human thing. You can stand your girlfriend or wife’s farts far easier, and vice versa, than some stranger’s farts on the bus, some random whose flatulence actually makes you wanna vomit.
See, because I’m no longer in the network of daily drug users, it took a while for the news to find its way to me. But when I found out Rob was dead I called around to get ____’s number, the number of the woman Rob lived with, and took care of, the last 10 years of his life.
“I don’t know, honey. He woke up…” she sobbed, “…and he stood up from bed, and fell right down onto the floor, no hands out to break his fall, it was like someone or something turned off a light switch inside him. I called 911 and they came and got him and within an hour they told me he was dead.”
“What…what? What was it…an O.D.?”
“Pulmonary embolism, they said.”
A pulmonary embolism. Fentanyl overdoses are easier to survive than pulmonary embolisms.
The cause? Probably because Rob was a fiftysomething regularly injecting fentanyl and smoking crack. He was speedballing almost every single day the last 2, 2.5 years he was alive. His heart didn’t know whether to slow down and chill or start running.
Unbelievably, they were still living at Hav-a-Nap when Rob died. That was costing him $100 a day. Why he didn’t just find a fucking apartment…well, the way he and his partner looked, I’m sure it would have been difficult.
Anyway, that’s the story of Rob & me. I don’t have a picture of him, but I have a morbid tendency to try and keep something from people and pets who have died (I once took a dead cat who’d been hit by a car out of the freezer and out of the garbage bag acting as her shroud so I could hug her one last time).
So a few weeks ago I called Rob’s old cellphone # (I still knew it off by heart, for there had been a time where I didn’t have a cellphone and had to call him from pay phones all over this filthy, sad, packed city…his # was 647 772 4203). I called him with the aim of recording his voicemail, just so I would always have a reminder of his voice, of what he’d sounded like. I set up Garageband and everything.
But I was too late. His phone had already been cut off. I’d never hear him again.
I no longer have Rob’s partner’s number either (I’d deliberately, in anger, deleted her #, for sometimes she’d call me looking for someone to cry to about this or that), so I’ll likely never come across any likeness of him ever again, or a snippet of that voice. It was such a young voice he had. Young but gravelly, the voice of an avid smoker, young at heart. Young at larynx. Like that old lady in James Cameron’s Titanic says about Jack: Rob exists now only in my memory.
I’m sure some people think this post is inappropriate, given the ostensibly parasitic relationship between user and dealer, but I don’t think it was like that with Rob. We truly did like each other and there were many times when we said we loved each other.
I’ve bought from many dealers who themselves do not use fent or heroin (which is why they can leave you standing on a streetcorner for 4 hours and think nothing of it. They don’t understand). That’s why Rob’s minimum was one single point. He knew the suffering addicts go through because he was one himself. That’s why Rob would come to my work sometimes when he knew he’d missed me at Moss Park. He’d come to make things right, walking soooo slowly with his partner, but getting there in the end, usually by 8pm when I was beginning to double over in stomach pain. He came knowing I was struggling through a 12-hour wedding shift. Rob didn’t “rob” me of the last vestiges of my youth or my health or my money with evil intent. He sold me drugs. But he never called me asking when I was gonna come by and purchase fentanyl. I called him. Whenever I bought a large quantity he’d warn me to “slow down.” Whenever he had a new or different batch he would tell me, warn me, so I knew to be careful with it.
Rob was a fent user, but he injected, unlike myself. He also smoked crack, which fogs the brain even when it’s not keeping one up for days and days. He was stuck in the same hell I was, and for him it was even worse because he never knew if a tender moment was real or just manipulative…someone trying to squeeze an extra point of two of drugs out of him.
R.I.P. Rob. For now your struggle has ended. In death, “Wrong Rob” lies in righteousness, for he’d been robbed of so many good years & good times himself. Like me, he was started on Oxy from a doctor. Like me, he resisted heroin as long as he could, until one day he just didn’t have the strength, mentally or physically, to endure yet another cold turkey detox, and so he eventually, like me, bought his first bag of heroin.
Within a year they were spiking it with fent, something I didn’t know until I’d been using what I believed to be heroin once a day for 11 months. I went in for a urine test because the dopesickness was becoming unbearable and I suspected maybe it wasn’t just heroin I was being sold.
Sure enough, my urine test showed the doctor that I’d tested positive for fent. When my doctor told me, it felt like my stomach fell through the floor. I’d had no idea. Neither had most of the addicts I knew. Neither had Rob. Or Pops. Or Pops’ son. NOBODY willingly said “I want some fent. Gimme some of that shit that’s 50-100 times stronger than heroin.” None of us said that or wanted that.
I am grateful to hear Rob’s hustle has ended, even though I am sad I’ll never see him again. I am grateful that he’ll never see the inside of a jail cell again. I am grateful that now he is sleeping, not staying up for days smoking way too much crack, way too many cigarettes, and doing God’s knows how much damage to himself. The awful cycle is over.
I just wish I’d had the chance to say goodbye.
He exists now only in my memory.
There comes that phase in life when, tired of losing, you decide to stop losing, then continue losing. Then you decide to really stop losing, and continue losing. The losing goes on and on so long you begin to watch with curiosity, wondering how low you can go.