Without even trying, I tend to be attracted to literary and film characters that, like me, share a nihilistic view of life and morality. Pretty ironic, given the fact that my day job requires me to uphold and enforce laws enacted from a bunch of handed-down, subjective truths. Perhaps it’s a bit of the Preacher’s Kid Syndrome in me, but there’s a part of me that envies those pesky trickster figures that get everyone all up in a twitter. You need ‘em to challenge the status quo; to point out the ideological hypocrisies of personal values. But above all, they’re just a heck of a lot more interesting to have around.
Back in my undercover days, I had one of the most succinct, albeit brief, conversations about this very topic with the unlikeliest of persons: a coke addict. For the past month, I’d been meeting “Ken” (not his real name) in his sad, flat apartment where, beneath the seizure-inducing flicker of a dying fluorescent light, I’d hand him $160 in exchange for an 8-ball of cocaine. Quick and simple. In-and-out.
But it’s a common misperception that dopers are reliable. You’d think that out of all of society’s busy little worker bees, a drug dealer would be among the most unflappably disciplined; the most Captain von Trapp-ish-ly punctual. So, imagine my surprise when I arrived at Ken’s apartment at our agreed-upon time, only to find that he wasn’t home. The guy who answered the door; a tall, wraithlike figure with a shaved head stood staring at me in the small, chain-locked gap of open doorway.
“I’m looking for Ken,” I said. “He here?”
“I’m supposed to meet him. Do you know where he is?” I’d never seen this guy before. In fact, I’ve never seen anyone at Ken’s apartment other than the gleaming faces of porn starlets staring back at me from the covers of DVDs.
“He’ll be back soon,” he answered.
The thought that Ken might be lying in a battered, bloody heap on his dingy carpet just behind the door began to creep in. Sure, he sold drugs ‘n all, but Ken had managed to endear himself to me in a funny, Beavis-and-Butthead sort of way. He was your garden-variety, street-level dealer whose milquetoast approach to slinging made him a de facto target of more ruthless types. In fact, the very informant who had introduced me to Ken in the first place predicted that Ken was setting himself up to get licked; a slang term for getting robbed. “You’d be doing him a favor by busting him,” the informant had said. I wasn’t crazy about giving him mouth-to-mouth, but I wouldn’t leave him to die.
“Mind if I come in and wait?”
His shriveled Ping Pong ball eyes looked me over. “Who are you?”
“Corey,” I said, giving my undercover name. “He’s supposed to hook me up.”
He closed the door and unchained the lock. When it opened again, I found the apartment in its usual state, with none of the sour-smelling mounds of composting clutter appearing to have been disturbed in any way.
“Ken’s on his way back,” the wraith said. “I’m Phil. What you getting, weed?”
“Did he say where he was at?”
“He was going to the store when I got here.”
We both sat down to wait. Giving no consideration to what was likely the mission control center of Ken’s personal masturbatorium, Phil settled back onto the worn and threadbare sofa while I chose what seemed the safest alternative; a turned-over milk crate. He shook a cigarette loose and offered me one.
“You live here, too?”
Phil shook his head. He was here for the same reason I was—well, maybe not the same reason. It was safe to assume that Phil wasn’t wearing a wire nor had he been keeping supplemental reports on his transactions with Ken. He was here to get high. He liked getting high. But he liked it so much that the lines between like and need had started to become blurred for him. And so, like so many other users across the country, he was playing the odds of scoring without getting caught. Turns out Phil had graduated with a degree in philosophy (don’t get excited, I already checked and the name Philip doesn’t have anything to do with philosophy but instead means horse lover or some shit) and, without the funds to go to graduate school, had been unable to find work aside from working at a tanning salon. Sure, we’ve all had dreams of one day working in a tanning salon, but apparently the killer salary, constant funk of hot, coconut oil-lathered skin, and overall prestige just wasn’t enough to keep hard-to-satisfy Phil from wanting just a little bit more out of life.
He bought cocaine from Ken on occasion but what he really liked was ketamine; part of a class of drugs known as dissociatives and a cousin of PCP; the drug that once made Helen Hunt jump out of a second-floor window in an after school special. I cited the horror stories I’d heard about ketamine, or, K, as it’s called. Phil stated that it wasn’t K itself that he liked, but the reflection of his experience afterward that helped him to “make sense” of life. “Just about the time when I start feeling bad about life, (ketamine) reminds me that it’s all for naught anyway. When I re-recognize this, everything else that follows or doesn’t follow is okay. And so I remember that I should be doing what I want.”
Before seguing into a rambling lecture about Epicurus and the achievement of tranquility, he explained that following his experiences on ketamine, he felt much more willing to face life without the constraints of social competitiveness. In other words, Phil was, what my grandfather would call, a “bum”. But he was a bum who at least articulated himself well.
Was Phil a true nihilist? Given his ability to casually pimp-slap me with obscure philosophical doctrine as well as his gray-sky outlook on life, I’d say perhaps. But I always found his reliance on drugs as a catalyst for such thoughts trivializing and cheap. Still, I was willing to cut him some slack when he uttered this little nugget of an observation:
“We’re all part of one big cosmic joke. And the fact that only a relative few of us even get the joke at all makes us part of an even bigger joke. You need guys like me to help remind people of that.”
Phil eventually decided he couldn’t wait anymore which left me–an agent of the government, after all–alone in the apartment of a guy that I was trying to build a criminal case against. I phoned my sergeant to see how he wanted me to proceed. “Just lock it up and head back to the office. We’ll come back later,” he said.
The next time I saw Ken we were sitting in a police interview room together. With the tangy scent of heavy-duty Gojo Natural Orange soap lingering in the air from having had the fingerprinting ink scrubbed from his hands, Ken was a little grouchy. I couldn’t resist asking him about his friend Phil but Ken, either not knowing what I was talking about or merely pretending not to know, shrugged and said, “Who?”
The fact that there seemed to be no entry of Phil into any of the police mug shot catalogues or intelligence databases makes me wonder if Phil was even…you know…real. The writer in me likes to think that perhaps he was one of those characters that just pops-up in stories from time to time. The ones who keep the story moving. The ones, you know, who keep things interesting…