Cathartic Phrasings From Needle Park: A Junky's Swiss Holiday
The night is clear, calm, but there's an uneasy tension closing in, not human inspired, but otherworldly. I thought about calling a loved one, someone, anyone, just to hear a voice; a normal voice! But I didn't. I couldn't. I wouldn't. Besides, there's less than one Euro credit left on my burner phone. I'm sure as hell not going to waste that on calling a loved one.
Beneath a torn, blue tarp is a series of interchangeable branches used as uprights, support beams, firewood... anything. It is surrounded by mud, but not as much as one might think, and to its side, is a decently-sized birch tree. Its branches are brittle, but if you climb it carefully and perch in the crux of the trunk's collar, you can almost see the methadone clinic.
Tucked away in the back corner of the sheltering tarp, as far away from harsh reality as one can possibly get in these parts, is my bed. My bed is... well, let's just say there's a reason why girls don't come around to visit. I think it's the bloodstains and cigarette burns that turn them off the most. The place has a nice view though; the tributed Renaissance opulence of the National Museum is just metres away from my front flap, the meditative trickle of the Limmat river is nearby, it will double as my bath should I ever decide to take one, and the dot-to-dot gleam of the city lights at night, well, take away the hordes of miserable junkies and this would be the most romantic spot in the fucking world.
Welcome to Zurich. If my mother could see me now.
Needle Park doesn't exist anymore, in any form. But when it did, it was government sanctioned. Zurich had a heroin problem, and thus, the Swiss government and the local council joined forces to progressively march towards a harm reduction future. The sentiment was there, but the method was poor. Rounding up all of the city's junkies and placing them under and around an urban bridge in the centre, was a disaster waiting to happen. Not for me though, at the time, I kind of liked it.
I first heard of Needle Park while hanging out in London, slinging dodgy Indian food in a restaurant kitchen for a megalomaniacal boss. He sucked. I lasted 7 days on the nose before I told him to go fuck himself. That's a long time for me. A new friend of mine, Adem, from Bosnia, had told me about Needle Park the day before I quit. Perhaps, in hindsight, learning of the legal junky community was the catalyst for me to leave dreary old England. Probably. I still had some money left, and heroin in Switzerland was dirt cheap. So I was off. Drugs are too expensive in London anyway.
That's the problem with the Needle Park concept. The authority's hearts were most certainly in the right place, but rather than curbing the problem, they multiplied and gentrified it. Needle Park became a tourist attraction. A holy pilgrimage site for smack addicts. Like Jim Morrison's gravesite in Paris, drug addicts from all over the world flocked to Zurich to get pinned cheaply, and without judgement. I just had to see this for myself.
When I arrived in Zurich, I felt ill. Hideously. It was day 2 of yet another opiate withdrawal, and because of such, I very nearly wasn't let into the country. I looked disgusting, I felt disgusting, and to an efficient Swiss-German customs agent, I must have been acting very peculiar indeed. But junkies can act. We're the best. Plus, the Swiss are actually pretty nice. So, eventually, despite my tourettes-like twitchiness and zombie demeanour, I was let through. I desperately needed Needle Park right there and then. And despite arriving in Zurich at close to midnight, that's exactly where I was headed. After that, I had no plan. I didn't care. It hadn't even occurred to me where I would sleep.
Having just chaotically shat through the eye of a needle once more, I pushed my way past some annoyed looking Europeans to the first available taxi. I made no effort whatsoever to hide my pain, shame, or where I was heading. I just blurted it out, "Platzpitz Park, now!" The driver wasn't stupid. He knew what I was. Everyone did. He just shook his head in a gesture of pity, bricked the accelerator, and did his utmost to not make eye contact with me in his rear view mirror. The thought of doing a runner entered my head, yep, I'm scum, but I couldn't do it. He was the first cabbie in a while not to outwardly judge me.
Arriving at Needle Park was like a scene out of Requiem for a Dream. It really was. As I launched myself from the taxi, almost forgetting to pay the poor guy, I was skidded to a halt by a slow, almost excruciating, procession of half alive, half dead zombies. Of course, I'd seen all of this before, but not on a scale of this magnitude. The zombies roamed in clusters. Giant, spectral and ghosting clusters. This was some surreal shit.
It was difficult to see through the dark, but on first impression, there was no park. Just a bridge, some train tracks, and a river. No more. But as the stark light of day hit my nodding, non-existent pupils some hours later, as I slouched against a concrete pylon stuck with drying blood and other mysteries, I could clearly make out that there was indeed some semblance of a curated landscape. Later, I was to learn that the once gorgeous, undulating grassy knolls of the park now belong to the more senior junkies, and if I was to stay, it would be much wiser of me to set up shop closer to the bridge or the train tracks and out of harm's way.
Once I started to feel more comfortable with my surroundings, perhaps after day three, I started to realise that there was nothing sinister about this park at all. The police were relaxed and foreign in that they were actually there to help, and the general public didn't seem too offended by our morbid actions. If anything, we were theatre. Lunchtime audiences would often collect by the rails above in an effort to satiate their own perverse and morbid curiosities. Injecting in front of an inquisitive audience became the norm. I was now just a part of the show, so, in accordance with the situation, I would really ham up my injecting practices. Heroin has forever accommodated my darker, more sinister side, thus my favourite act was to fake an overdose. The reactions were always so priceless. Poor saps.
To be technically correct, this was not the real Needle Park. The real junky haven was shut down in the mid-nineties. This was a Needle Park offshoot, still on Platzpitz, but much further away from the general public meeting area and closer to the river. Essentially, my section of the park was under a bridge. My camp, a blue tarp and tatty old backpack, lay next to a rubbish pile, an offensively smelling mud puddle, and an oversized plastic tub filled with clean needles. I nicknamed it Mother Mountain. I had prime position to those bad boys. It was disgusting.
Each morning, I would wake before dawn to the sound of early peak-hour traffic. That was my signal to begin my ritual. The beauty of Needle Park is this: To a heroin addict, the junky life very quickly becomes a religion or a sport. One must plan each day meticulously, and depending on relevant connections, or where one might live, the process of scoring the drug can stretch out to be an all-day activity. Like the fastidious submission to all religions, it's difficult and one must forever remain conscientious. There's always the chance of arrest, or the lack of dealers on the street, or a transport strike, or your car breaking down, or worse. To score heroin successfully and efficiently, every single mechanism of your day's construct must operate like clockwork. Perfectly. The longer it takes, the sicker you become. Again, it's like a sport. An extreme one.
But Needle Park is different. Especially when you live there for five glorious months such as I did. Wake up early, still feeling pretty mellow from the activities the previous night, crawl out from under the tarp, walk fifty metres, say hello to the nice policeman standing guard, score your drugs, walk ten metres, pick up your implements of choice, walk back to the tarp, and shoot up. If all goes smoothly, and it always seemed to in this junky mecca, you could be back under your tarp and nodding your way to blissville within five minutes. Now this is living!
Before long, amid the hardliners, drifters, smack tourists and wannabe scenesters, I became a regular fixture in the area, and eventually, I was even allowed to hang with the cool kids on the grassed area. No more bridge for me. This was much better suited to my ideals, because now there was a constant supply of heroin streaming straight through my tarp flap. My dealer knew my dose, my injecting habits, my ritual, when to come knocking and when not to bother me. His name was Peter, although I think that was an alias. He was Dutch, and one sly dog. If I actually owned possessions, he would have stolen from me for sure.
Residing in this paradise, I was never ill. Ever. I had everything I could possibly want, all within a stone's throw. I was happy. But I knew that one day this utopian lifestyle would eventually come to an end. Visa regulations. So, the generous Swiss social workers enrolled me into the methadone program to try to wean me. I didn't even know I was eligible!
So now, each day, I could wake up, get my daily dose of methadone only two-hundred metres away, return to my tarp, sleep, wake up with mild heroin cravings, and go and score. The methadone was free. I saved a bundle!
But the whole thing was absolutely pointless. I defy any junky to successfully turn around a chronic addiction within three months. And as the days drained away, closer to the inevitable, like sand graining through an egg timer, I became fuller and fuller with opiates. I was going to leave Switzerland high as a kite. But I would arrive back in London as sick as a dog.
Ultimately, all I could ever think of in those last few days was how the hell am I going to get out of this one alive? So it was decided; I would simply overstay my visa. So I did. What I didn't realise was that the authorities perform random visa checks in the Platzpitz precinct. Then one day, it came. I was evicted. Not just from my Needle Park, but from Switzerland itself. There and then. I begged with the police to let me score before I left, but to no avail. I was dragged, nicely, to the airport, made to pay a fine which, including my compulsory ticket back to London, all but wiped me out. By the time I arrived back in London, I was back to square one. Hanging out like a motherfucker.
Somewhere, within the plank-walking split-second timeframe of my grinding mind, Needle Park really happened. Make no mistake, it did. But a five-month long heroin dream can only deliver so much reality, and as I think about those times oh so long ago now, nothing feels real. Was I ever really there? In body I was, but in spirit? Perhaps not. But to those who were there, those who looked after me like newly recruited cult members performing their leader's bidding, I thank you for one, and one thing only. You have proven to me that no matter how wretched, no matter how depraved and drained one's life and condition might become, if we are accepted into the mainstream like those surreal and occasionally wonderful times in Zurich, that a community of desperately sick addicts can still live in relative harmony and look out for one another. You, if you're all still with us, are the reason that I decided to dedicate a portion of my life to the pursuit of harm minimisation in the drug world, and why my faith in certain sectors of humanity will forever remain just that, faithful.
To the rest of you, the non-addicts who couldn't possibly understand, and to those who don't even try to understand, know this, whilst Needle Park was a failed experiment for the purpose of harm reduction, it was an unwitting and wholly successful experiment in how simple and harmonious life can be. Let's not forget, junkies are human too, and with just a small amount of tolerance, and a pinch of acceptance on a societal plane, the so-called heroin scourge can at least be maintained. Humanity prevails, and I put this to you; who is the bigger human? One who uses heroin but remains free and with an open heart, no matter how sick he or she might be, or one who is narrow and foolhardy and refuses to accept this disease for what it is, a serious illness.
Together, Zurich proved that if law enforcement can work with front-line social workers, who in turn can mediate with the addicts, and the public is at the very least accepting of this system, then for the most part we can begin to cure this horrible disease once and for all, in a humane, caring, and socially acceptable way. Because how it is now, in most parts of the world, to put it bluntly is a fucking inhumane joke.
For the record, petty crime around the Needle Park precinct in the late eighties to early nineties, during the operation of the harm reduction experiment, was the third lowest in all of Zurich. Switzerland also has one of the lowest HIV rates in the world. How's your war on drugs looking now?
A titanic spike rush grazes the tracks,
Beneath the bridge we spark,
Ummagumma plays on the two-tone radio,
This is Needle Park.
The paranoid words of William makes the rounds,
As the itch once again starts to bark,
Scenes of a bombed Beirut, ghosting in dreams,
This is Needle Park.
In the cage, we perform,
Character acting to play the part,
Every matinee, a rousing success,
This is Needle Park.
Through what remains of life,
Of soul, of shattering, and of smarts,
What shall always remain,
Are the diseased memories of my home,
The blessed Needle Park.