By the late 1990s heroin was cheaper, purer, and stronger than it had ever been. Twenty dollars would buy two bags, or “enough to make a beginner feel good all night.” As youth icons Kurt Cobain and River Phoenix succumbed to romantic and widely publicized heroin addictions, the fashion world glamorized a beauty ideal known as heroin chic. Junk was intrinsic to the zeitgeist of the age
In prior decades, a heroin high was achievable only through direct injection, but the potent heroin of the 90s was easily smoked or snorted casually at parties. Unsurprisingly, the decade witnessed a surge in casual teen use of the drug.
The Partnership knew what they wanted as their poster child for heroin addiction: a nice suburban teenager from a typical all-American family. They needed a kid who had gotten hooked on heroin the 90s way—not by shooting up, but by snorting or smoking the drug once at a party—and who was now a full-blown addict. The Partnership needed to make an example of someone for America’s youth, and they needed a junkie with puppy dog eyes to serve as a warning.
Jon knew that junkies love sugar and money. He went to Tompkins Square Park and advertised that he had more than enough of both; soon, Jon had booked two solid days of meetings with homeless addicts. He held the interviews at the old opticnerve™ studios on 22nd Street with a large bowl of cookies, a wallet full of $20 bills, and the help of his pretty assistant.
Jon still has a stack of DAT tapes of these interviews stored behind the DJ booth in the studio. There is no DAT player; the tapes haven’t been heard in years. What they contain, Jon says, is “All real sad, all real desperate.”
After two days of unhappy stories, Jon found five young addicts who fit the profile The Partnership wanted. He told them each that, if selected, they would need to go to rehab after the shooting was done. All the kids had been in and out of rehab more than once and Jon asked each one why this time was different. Johnny said it was different because this was national television. “Nobody else said that,” said Jon. He believed in Johnny the most.
Jon called Johnny’s family to ask their permission to shoot. Johnny’s father said he was a good kid and not to trust him at all. Johnny’s tiny Italian grandmother gave Jon her blessing.
Johnny never got high, only sick when he didn’t have heroin. Once you’ve done enough heroin, you never get high.
Heroin costs money, and you do different things to get it. Some junkies steal meat from large chain grocery stores and sell it to the bodegas that line Manhattan’s streets– they call this cattle rustling. Johnny stole lots of things, but mostly books, because he liked reading; there’s a name for that too, but Jon doesn’t remember what it is.
Jon needed to keep Johnny in one place and out of prison for a week so they could film. Jon got Johnny a motel room and paid him to stay there. Not wanting Johnny to overdose, Jon sent the money to the motel in $20 increments via his assistant. He didn’t know how much heroin $20 would buy or for how many people; Jon’s assistant told him she needed to go there every three hours, and she did.
This arrangement seemed to work out well.
Once the week was out, Jon had the footage he needed. It would be two weeks before the government-run rehab had an opening. Jon gave Johnny $150 and told him to take the PATH train back to New Jersey and call when he got home. Johnny promised. They had become very close. They hugged goodbye.
Jon waited by the phone all night and into the early hours of the morning. The phone didn’t ring. Johnny didn’t get home.