When I met Stephanie, I was supporting myself by writing copy for a friend I’ll call The Sociopath. I’d known this friend for thirty years, and during that time, we’d worked on many projects together. We sold French diet pills and “Jumbo” 144-square-inch towels and Miracle Hair Growth Spray and insoles that would help you lose weight as you sat at your desk. We sold the Kensington Center Lucky Lottery System. We sold splinters of wood from Jesus’ crucifix and holy water from Lourdes and prayer cloths from the Holy Land. We ran contests, sweepstakes and beauty pageants. Our one attempt to make an honest dollar was 1–900-The-Pope, where callers would hear a daily inspirational message from Pope John Paul II at a cost of $3.95 per minute. No one called. If only we could have convinced the Pope to predict the daily numbers.
Getting shut down by a postal inspector or State Attorney General was part of the business plan. When that happened, The Sociopath would skip town and I would leave the country or return to selling drugs. Occasionally, he’d end up in prison, doing longer and longer sentences each time. Then, when he got out, he’d go somewhere new to start an even bigger, more brazen venture.
Our reunion in Northampton was completely coincidental — he just happened to be living one town over — but well-timed, for me. I began working with him on a sweepstakes that was somehow connected to the O.J. Simpson murder trial, though I can’t remember how.
Luciano was marginally employed when I met him, doing work, on and off, for a friend. I wasn’t exactly sure what this work was — he was vague about it. Some kind of writing for his friend’s business, which he’d alternately refer to as “advertising,” “marketing,” or “direct mail.” It took me a little while to understand that the friend he was working for was a criminal and his line of work was mail-fraud. I didn’t get it: This guy had a family — a partner and step-kids. Plus, he was obviously smart, and a good businessman. Why didn’t he just do legitimate work? To this — as to most of the questions I’d ask about this friend — Luciano would say, “It’s hard to explain. You’d have to know him to understand.”
Actually, this friend needs a name: I’ll refer to him the same way the indictment did, twenty years later, when he finally got arrested — spoiler alert — for the brazen criminal act that brought him down, and Luciano, peripherally, along with him: [REDACTED].
Number one on the list of Frequently Asked Questions people have about my relationship with Luciano is some variant of: Why didn’t you run? At any given point along the way, including the beginning, when it was all there, laid out in front of me by Luciano himself, in the stories he loved to tell: The history of drug use; the history of chronic lying; the involvement in illegal activities; the attraction to the dark side — why didn’t I?
Most people who’ve met Luciano get it — especially if they knew him from back then, before addiction and mental illness took over the narrative and turned The Outrageous, Amazing and Entertaining Story of Luciano into The Sad, Stupid, and Tragic Story of What Happens When Untreated Bi-Polar Disorder Meets Methamphetamine. To the others, my answer is the same as Luciano’s, about [REDACTED]: “It’s hard to explain. You’d have to know him to understand.”
Back then, Luciano was a new boyfriend — not my mate; and I accepted his working with [REDACTED] as just another piece in the collection of outrageous, larger-than-life things that defined Luciano — and that I even, secretly, admired. A writer myself — one who tortured myself to make my words say exactly what I meant, who’d work for hours to render a single moment in lapidary emotional detail, sometimes only writing four or five sentences a day — I was frankly envious of the way Luciano could sit down — and this was before the Internet — and write pages and pages on topics he knew nothing about. He’d even written a novel (published by [REDACTED])— The Hartman Family Murders. It was a quarter-inch thick and its solution was in a bank vault along with one hundred thousand dollars in cash, for one lucky winner — who could be you, if you just kept finding the blatantly obvious clues in each chapter and sending in $9.99 to advance to the next round.
I remember watching as he banged out copy for The Amazing French Diet Secret.
“But how do you know this stuff?” I asked.
“I don’t,” he replied.
“So you’re just going to make it up?”
I can’t remember his exact answer, but it was, essentially, yes. And, something to the effect of a) His part wasn’t the illegal part — he just wrote the copy; and b) People were idiots. If they wanted to send money for something that was obviously a scam, or if they didn’t read the fine print, or know how to do high school math, that was their problem. Sometimes he’d feel a little bad, he admitted. Like, when you could tell by the spindly handwriting and the name on the check that it was a really old person, probably sending their last dollar.
I met The Sociopath in 1980, when a girl who had a crush on me brought us together in a suite at the Gramercy Park Hotel to negotiate a $20,000 loan, from him to me, for illicit purposes. He asked me if I had any cocaine. I produced a small amber vial and watched in horror as he put it under his nose and snorted the entire gram.
“You look so sad,” he said, making an exaggerated frown. “Don’t be sad!” He began jumping on the bed and singing the theme song to Petticoat Junction. He called room service and ordered us up three ice cream sundaes. Then he dialed an outside line and arranged a delivery of Quaaludes and more coke.
Strangers often tell me their confessions. I might be waiting in line to use the bathroom at a club or sitting on a flight to Newark, when the guy next to me will start telling me about the big night of Russian roulette he just survived or how a couple of home invasions would surely take care of his money problems. That night at the Gramercy, my new friend told me that he was a psychopath. He said that he felt no guilt, that he had no love for anyone, and that he felt nothing inside. Also, that he was the smartest person I would ever meet.
Despite this — or maybe because of it — we became good friends. It was true: He was possibly the smartest person I’d ever met. And the funniest. I enjoyed his quick mind, his satirical outlook, and his verbal agility. And, we discovered, we had many things in common. In a world of mediocrity, we found each other extremely interesting. We agreed: Crime did, often, pay. We both liked luxury, but were also comfortable with seaminess and depravity. Neither of us thought much about tomorrow, for different reasons. Being in love was out of the question. We both felt like men with very smart brains who’d been born into the bodies and lives of a couple of dumb guys. We discovered that the idea of death got both of us through many a bad night. Neither of us was afraid of risk. I taught him how to make a fake passport. He taught me how to weigh bundles of cash to ensure you weren’t getting ripped off, when there wasn’t time to count it.
My bipolar disorder and his pathology somehow complemented each other. The Sociopath had a need to own people, which he mostly did through money, but my manic depression kept me at enough of a distance that he could never completely have me. I was the only person who could go neck-and-neck with him. We’d have a run—working, traveling, making a lot of money — then I’d disappear.
But in a weird way, we became family — the kind you might only go back to every five or ten years, but when you did, it was like you’d never left. We stayed in touch for more than thirty years, and while I should have known better, I often took him up on his promises of fast and easy money.
There was something that bothered me about Luciano’s relationship with [REDACTED] and I couldn’t quite put my finger on it. Something besides the illegality of their pursuits. Luciano, so headlong and heedless and full of bravado in almost everything else he did, seemed cowed by [REDACTED] — a little confused or off-balance, at times. It was as if [REDACTED] had some weird kind of hold over him. He definitely manipulated Luciano — by withholding money, for example; and lying about why. Or demanding tasks from Luciano that crossed the line into servility — sometimes, seemingly, just to see if he could. The strange part was the way Luciano, whose attitude about everything else under the sun was, essentially, Fuck it, would become disarranged by this; how discomfited he’d get when I’d ask him why he didn’t just say something to [REDACTED].
“You don’t understand,” was all he would say.
Actually, this story is full of spoilers: After Luciano reconnected with [REDACTED] twenty years later and essentially lost everything he had, while [REDACTED] egged him on, I’d finally see more clearly, though I still don’t know that I completely understand. But, after knowing Luciano for so long, after riding the scary and exhausting roller coaster of his bi-polar illness along with him to the point that I knew it very well, even when I didn’t have a name for it, what I came to believe was that, in some way, [REDACTED]’s sociopathy was Kryptonite to Luciano’s own fragile psychology.
That, similarly to the way Luciano’s brain would go haywire anytime he added drugs, when his bi-polar disorder came into contact with [REDACTED]’s sociopathy — especially for any prolonged period of time — it would seem to tip him off-balance, start him down a bad road toward negativity, bad decision making, and — under the influence of meth — some serious depravity of his own.
When, this time, we were forced to shut down after The Sociopath tried to bribe a detective with four counterfeit World Series tickets, I began selling off my possessions one by one to hide my destitution from Stephanie. When I ran out of things to sell I answered an ad in the local paper for someone with a “knowledge of HIV/AIDS and injection drug use” to be an Outreach Worker for the local family planning clinic.
My skill-set as a former drug user got me the job. My main duties were to run a needle exchange and to babysit drug users. This was in the early days of “Harm Reduction,” which basically refers to reducing the harms associated with marginalized behaviors. At first, I tested users for HIV and gave them their results. Soon, I graduated to running groups for young intravenous drug users, veterans, and exotic dancers, then designing programs, gradually taking on more and more responsibility. Eventually I’d become involved in research, policy reform, academia; and end up running my own agency. In harm reduction, I was fortunate enough to have found a home among some very interesting and bright people, many whom made a profound difference in the health and well-being of countless individuals all over the world. All in all, I found harm reduction both interesting and appealing and I was proud to be a part of it. It required a high level of critical thinking that kept me on my toes and feeling challenged.
After [REDACTED] left town, Luciano found work doing “Outreach” for the local family-planning agency, which meant borrowing my car and driving to a strip club in the woods to nurse ginger-ales and hand out condoms and STD testing cards to the dancers. This was the start of his career in Harm Reduction — a public health approach that stresses practical strategies over punitive policies to reduce the harm of drug use, with focus on respect for the drug user. Harm Reduction would come to play a huge part in our lives — for both good and bad.
Eventually, Luciano would start his own non profit organization to do this work, becoming well-respected, well-connected, and known for the effectiveness of his programs. He loved the work and he was good at it. Soon, this work brought him international attention and high-paying consulting gigs.
This quick rise to the top was an expression of one of Luciano’s best qualities: his ability to turn impulse into action, get people excited to join in, and to plow through the parts of a thing he didn’t know how to do, till he did. You could call this ability “flying by the seat of his pants” — or, even,bullshitting — and sometimes it was, but that wouldn’t be giving it the credit it deserves: Luciano had the ability — at his best, using only his energy, his bravado, and his flexible approach to the truth as tools — to create something out of nothing.
Though I’d understand later that these qualities were also symptoms of bipolar disorder, and would end up causing Luciano terrible problems in his life, there was also something to admire in them — and to learn from — and I actually ended up adopting some of them, myself, at times, to break through the barriers of fear, inaction, and ingrained obedience to the rules that held me back from achieving the things I wanted to.
Harm Reduction was often the topic of our dinner-table conversation: Luciano would bounce ideas off me; we’d strategize about how to bring his efforts to scale. Our conversations would often devolve into argument, though, when I’d balk at what I saw as a fundamental problem — that many of the policy ideas, while useful in theory, didn’t translate that well into real life.
“No drug is inherently bad,” is something I heard a lot. “The problem with drugs isn’t drugs themselves, but the way people use them.” Luciano would get angry with me when I’d question the practical usefulness of that position: Maybe so, but what do you do about the seemingly very real fact that drug use often ruins lives?
Our arguments became even more intense when the meth epidemic — or, the so-called meth epidemic, if you were talking to Luciano— hit.
All those social workers can’t be wrong, was my position: What do you do about the people “on the ground” reporting the ravages of the drug on families, on children that they were seeing?
The dangers were over-hyped by the media, Luciano would insist. Meth was no worse than any other drug.
My insistence on pressing the point would enrage him, but I thought it was an important conversation: If you can’t explain your ideas to me, how are you going to get them across to the public? To funders? Stakeholders? Skeptics?
It was never a conversation we could get through, though, ironically, Luciano would end up acting it out in our real life—and carrying it all the way to the very, bitter end.
This Is Your Marriage On Drugs is a memoir about marriage, methamphetamine and mental illness. A collaboration between Luciano Colonna and Stephanie Rosenfeld, please visit www.stephanierosenfeld.com to view additional short stories, essays and novel excerpts by Stephanie.