“I’m just going to do a quick shot and then we’ll go in,” David says. We are sitting outside Queens Place Mall in Elmhurst, in a dark corridor that wraps around an aging, brutalist coliseum. Inside, a mixture of mostly middle class Hispanic and Asian kids fresh out of school are looking at clothes and shoes, meeting up with friends and milling about.
David is here to steal items from a popular department store to support his 10-bag-a-day heroin habit he picked up nearly 20 years ago.
“One more shot will calm the nerves, make it easier for me to steal, but I also want to do one because if I get caught, I’m not sure when I’ll be able to do another,” he says as he sits on a concrete ledge and begins to pull out his drugs.
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Heroin is sold in glassine bags, tiny white semi-transparent envelopes that can be folded flat. Ten of these envelopes are sold as a “bundle,” often at a discount for volume. David’s bag is secured between two ID cards and as he carefully begins to open his wallet, he nods off, his hand still clutching three or four orange-capped needles. A Newport cigarette he’d been smoking burns between his fingers, getting perilously close to the filter.
After a few minutes, he stirs, lights another cigarette and asks, “How long was I out?”
Chasing his dreams
David Gonzalez, 42, was raised on Staten Island and attended Catholic school and two years of college before becoming an FDNY EMT in 2000. He worked in Midtown and drove an ambulance out of Bellevue Hospital on East 27th Street.
“I loved it, it was great, but I wanted to become a fireman. It was more daring, it was more what I wanted to do, dealing with life-and-death situations. I would have retired this year.”
As a firefighter at Engine 76 on West 100th Street in Manhattan, he helped deliver a baby in a bathroom whose umbilical cord was wrapped around its neck. He says he saved the child’s life while his partner froze in horror. David was told he had a knack for this kind of work, and the gruesome scenes didn’t bother him.
But Gonzalez also had run-ins with the cops, and in 2004 he was arrested for fleeing the police and striking one after a fight with a man outside a bar.
“After 9/11 they started giving drug tests [to firefighters] because a lot of young kids were going out and drinking and driving and getting into fights with cops at bars,” he tells me, not mentioning his own arrest.
He tested positive for cocaine, and the FDNY doctor gave him an ultimatum: resign with three-quarters of his pension or get clean. David said he chose the latter, but wasn’t able to stop doing drugs.
After leaving the FDNY, David started working in construction and began using “Roxies,” one of the brand names for oxycodone, a powerful opioid prescription painkiller, which he says helped with long hours of hard labor.
“I was getting the Roxies for 10 bucks a pill on the street, which is a lot of money. It’s cheaper to do heroin,” he says. He estimates that heroin is generally three times stronger and he can get bundles of 10 bags for $80 or $90, sometimes as low as $40 or $50.
The decades-long national crisis of drug use and overdoses is echoed in David’s own history.
A CDC report found that the first wave of the current overdose crisis started in the 1990s stemming from prescription opioids; the second wave began in 2010 with heroin; and the most recent wave began in 2013 with significant increases in overdose deaths involving synthetic opioids, particularly those involving illicitly manufactured fentanyl.
The US Department of Health and Human Services says that in 2019 an estimated 10.1 million people age 12 or older had misused opioids in the past year. Specifically, 9.7 million people misused prescription pain relievers and 745,000 used heroin.
In 2020, drug overdose deaths were the highest in history at 91,000; 68,000 were opioid-related. Officials blame the introduction of fentanyl for rising deaths, and in New York state drug-involved overdose deaths increased from 3,617 in 2019 to 4,965 in 2020 — a 37% rise.
David is not alone funding his habit with shoplifting. Even as Albany laws and district attorneys have lowered the consequences of stealing, complaints from businesses in New York City have risen 81%. Much of that crime is fueling the drug trade.
High on boosting
Outside Queens Place Mall, David is too high to do another shot of heroin and eventually gives up and decides to go in to start boosting. He walks quickly, his gait bouncy, in studded Doc Martin boots, tight black jeans and a sheepskin jacket over a black and white tie-dye T-shirt. Mall security sees him coming, mostly because of his pace and the way he’s hunched over, but they don’t engage.
A couple of levels up, outside Target, a uniformed NYPD officer is talking to a female employee and they pause when they see David get off the escalator. The officer’s eyes follow him as he enters the store. Once inside, David walks around, perusing items and making his selections. He works slowly, looping around the aisles, acquiring a bag to put things in, then dropping items in as he makes his way around various departments.
“I go mainly for electronics, I go for headphones, Bluetooth speakers, high-end hardware drives,” he says. “S–t, I can even get a laptop. The second thing is tools, the third thing is high-end kitchen supplies.”
He’s not afraid of employees, even asking them for directions, to which they oblige, eyes narrowed on him. Once he has enough items in his bag, he makes a beeline for the exit, purposefully finding one with no active checkout lines or security. He goes for the elevator, but it’s slow to arrive so he finds an exit door to an elevated outdoor parking lot, then to a stairwell that takes him to ground level and out onto the street. He walks with purpose, long strides, clutching his bag full of electronics.
After a block or two of brisk walking, he smirks, “That was fun, wasn’t it?”
This process is repeated over the course of the day. The goal is to get $1,500 to $2,000 worth of items, which can be fenced at a Midtown electronics store for a set amount of 25% of the sticker price.
Ultimately, David will get $500 from this process and he explains the math: “I can probably spend $200 on drugs and $300 I can pretty much save; $200 of heroin can last more than two days, but I got a girlfriend and I’m generous to her, which I shouldn’t be, but . . .”
A vicious cycle
His money is a mess. Bills are jammed into pockets in a haphazard way. He loses cash, he finds cash. It becomes clear it’s not a precious thing to be guarded, but a renewable source, a mere means to an end.
I had been worried he’d ask me to pay him to follow him around, but he never does. Instead, he offers to buy me ice cream. “People are jealous, they work a week to make $1,500, I make it in three days,” he says.
Before David heads to the next store, he’s ready for another shot. We walk around the mall, trying to find a quiet place away from people, and he settles in at a bus stop near the Long Island Expressway.
He carefully unwraps the bag, dumping bright red crystalline powder into a bottle cap full of bottled water, which he places on the bench. The wind whips behind us, but he seems unconcerned about the cap being blown away, his fingers and eyes engaged in the orderly ritual of mixing the heroin and drawing it back up into the needle through a cigarette filter. A woman waiting for a bus sees us and her eyes widen, mouth agape. He feels her eyes on him and says, “Let’s go, some people have issues,” and we go around the corner to a quiet residential street with tall buildings.
He adjusts the sideview mirror of a parked car to help him find a vein in his neck, into which he injects the bright red liquid. Once he’s done, he pushes the mirror back to its original position. I’m expecting him to pass out again like before, but this time the heroin is not as strong so he remains lucid and ready to go on to the next store.
The second store is full of shoppers, the low, steady sound of people milling about, clothes hangers being slid across racks and clacking against one another. The store seems easier for stealing because of its disorganized nature, piles of mismatched things and overstock strewn about.
David takes a large leather duffel bag off a shelf and fills it with shirts, pants and underwear. He asks an employee where the True Religion jeans are, and he puts a pair into the bag when no one is looking. He works his way around the store with ease and no one seems to notice. Once the duffel is packed to the brim, he makes his way toward the door when two employees, a young man and a woman, begin to quickly approach.
They catch up to him by the front door, which leads to the street, yelling at him to stop, but David doesn’t break stride, calling out to them, “This is my stuff.” The man yells back, “Oh yeah, that’s your stuff? The stuff you just took from the store?!” then turns to the woman, who appears to be his boss, and he says, “You’re not going to stop him?”
She replies, defeated, “It’s not worth it.”
A mother’s pain
David’s mom, Sandra, lives in a modest apartment on the East Shore of Staten Island. Now retired, she worked for many years with people with disabilities and speaks with the patience and compassion of someone who has been through it all.
She first became aware of David’s drug use when he became a firefighter. His nose would be dripping when he came over and she presumed he was doing cocaine, but she started seeing it progress to other drugs. She says the Fire Department sent him to rehab several times, but it didn’t take.
Even now, Sandra says he’s entitled to use FDNY health-care and psychiatric resources but she “thinks he’s ashamed and he believes in his own mind now that he’ll never get back to who he was.”
Sandra traces David’s heroin use to his early 20s after he broke up with the mother of his son. They had met at a club and began dating and getting high together. When she got pregnant, she wanted them to get clean, but David couldn’t stop. She eventually took their son and left him.
“That was it. He was broken completely. From that point on he really went downhill,” Sandra says.
When David started doing heroin, “His voice would change. Not demon-possessed but the drug-possessed him, it would take over.”
Over the years, she has tried different tactics, but in the end she has chosen acceptance rather than admonition.
“There was a time where I didn’t talk to him, thinking that’s going to work, but none of that worked, that’s baloney,” she says. “I’d rather be connected with him and know his whereabouts.”
She says it was really difficult in the beginning, and David has OD’d several times. One time in the hospital, a nurse took her aside and told her to keep visiting him, as many parents stop coming as their children descend into addiction.
“Don’t give up on him,” the nurse said, and Sandra took it to heart. Instead of pushing him away, she tries to keep him close, and they speak on the phone often.
“I always remind him, ‘David, I love you. You know you have a good heart. But you have to stop. You’re going to kill yourself.’ But I don’t want to pressure him. If he tells me to stop, I stop because I want him to open up to me. I want him to be able to say whatever he feels and I will give him the best advice I can.”
Looking through old photos of David, Sandra remembers the better times. “When I saw some old pictures, that broke my heart, I wanted to cry,” she says. “Because I saw him and I remembered that time, how nice it was for him, you know. It hit me hard. But I can’t stay stuck in worrying or crying, I can’t do it. I have to be strong for him and that’s how I see it. I wanna be strong for him. And I always want to be there for him. If he ever gets sick, I wanna be right there. Some people have to run away, I don’t wanna run. I’m going to face everything.”
She says meeting at her church with others who have similar problems with their kids helps ease the pain and anxiety.
“We talk,” she says. “Sometimes we’ll say to each other, ‘Will it ever end?’ It’s helpful to talk to others. We know addiction is very strong. We just look at each other and there’s nothing we can do, we just have to wait it out and hope for the best. We stay close, we stay in prayer.”
Sandra says her son’s experiences are challenging, but she hopes that one day there might be a way for him to help others with drug addiction by drawing on his own experiences. She still remembers David as a good kid who collected turtles, loved the outdoors and didn’t want to hurt a soul, “not a bug,” and who would wake up early to go fishing but would throw back the fish because he couldn’t bear the thought of killing them.“
He’s got a lot of love and patience,” she says. “He has a good heart, but it’s all locked up. I’m just waiting for the day that it’ll come out.”
David has gotten caught stealing in the past and threatened by store security. Sometimes they go as far as making him sign a document saying he’ll be hit with stiffer charges if he returns.
“Usually when they do that, I’ll stay away for a while,” he says. “Like a good while, a good six, seven months I’ll stay away. Because they mean that. Pretty sure they mean that. Macy’s really means that. They got their own jail in there.”
He says that most days he steals only from larger stores, and when we stop into a small mom-and-pop cosmetics store to buy blue hair dye, he’s polite and kind to the woman at the register who’s eyeing him warily. “You gotta pay for some things in life, you can’t just steal it all,” he says.
In Manhattan, seeing people shooting heroin midday in Midtown is jarring and disturbing, even to the open-minded. Shortly after I meet David, he wants to do a shot and so we stop just off 36th Street and Broadway and he begins preparing the drugs on the ground.
After injecting his neck, he hunches over to pack up his things and says, “Life ain’t so bad right now,” and begins to collapse, in slow motion, onto his jacket lying on the ground.
He tries to speak, but his eyes close and he gets lower and lower until he is folded over his legs, like a balasana, child’s pose. I don’t know what to do, so I wait. After a minute or two I realize he might be in trouble and begin to speak to him loudly, roughly shaking his shoulder a few times, calling his name.
Office workers passing by begin to gather and stare. I can see him breathing, his back rising and falling, but it’s hard to even see his buried face and I wonder if his mouth and nose are blocked. He mumbles an incoherent word or two, but nothing that tells me he’s OK.
Another minute or two passes and a woman calls 911, and the paramedics soon arrive. They jostle David awake and he somewhat snaps to, as if waking from a dream, rubbing his eyes. They have him sit on a chair from a nearby cafe and ask him a series of questions, which he answers lucidly, but he’s slumping between each one and they have to nudge him a few times to keep him from falling off the chair.
One of the paramedics asks him to remember the number 7, which he does, and they ask him to repeat it to them a few times throughout the conversation. They warn David that he may fall asleep and never wake up, but ultimately he refuses to go to the hospital. At some point he realizes he doesn’t have to stay and grabs his jacket and begins to rush off as if he’s late for an appointment.
The EMTs are still trying to talk David into getting help, but on their faces they have a resigned look that they cannot stop him or the many others like him, and soon enough we are off again.
I’ve never seen someone overdose and I nervously ask him at what point, if any, I should go get him help. He says, “If I start to turn blue, call 911.”
No end in sight
Even though David frequently nods off in public, he doesn’t live on the street. He stays at a Safe Haven, a form of transitional housing run by the city that allows him to check in once every third day instead of daily like a traditional homeless shelter.
Safe Haven doesn’t force anyone to stay off drugs, or even stop shoplifting. Without an intervention, how long will it be before David dies because of exposure, neglect or an overdose? The Department of Health estimates there are 187,000 New Yorkers suffering from drug addiction. How many are stuck in the same cycle as David?
As for David, he regrets not taking the deal the FDNY offered him — he could be earning a pension now, and maybe life would be different.
“I tried to get clean, but it didn’t work, I wasn’t ready for it,” David says.
He pauses. “I’m still not ready for it.”