The latest drug burning through America is a lethal mix of dope and embalming fluid, but this ghastly high turns out to be a fresh mask for a hideously familiar face.

(Details, May 2002. Photos: Rueben Cox)

MIKE McARDLE PROWLS the grubby corner of Westheimer and Montrose, a grim intersection just two miles from the pristine skyscrapers of downtown Houston, trying to score a four-dollar joint. Mike, 20, is a street kid, one of dozens who troll this peculiar strip of galleries, gay bars, upscale cafés, and porn shops. To survive, they panhandle, sell drugs, roll drunks, or hustle their young bodies to leering chicken hawks in SUVs before hunkering down in a supermarket bathroom or heading back home to the local Covenant House. It’s a slow day in The Montrose, as the area is known, and Mike, wrapped in a wool coat against the January cold, has nothing but time to kill.

For six months, Mike has avoided crack and heroin, the hard stuff that used to chew up his life. Now, despite a chronic pot habit, he hopes to become a nurse. Yet even as he extols the virtues of relative sobriety (he recently got his GED), Mike wouldn’t mind getting “wet” again.

“As long as I don’t see it, I don’t want it,” he says, sliding his wary eyes over the Taco Cabana where several street kids loiter on cement picnic tables. “But temptation is really hard for me.” Mike is referring to his fascination with what may be the strangest high to seep from the fanciful mind of American drug culture. Wet is a caustic liquid that contains, among other toxic chemicals, formaldehyde, the active ingredient in embalming fluid. The drug is aptly named: A user soaks a joint or cigarette in the fluid and then smokes it. The smell is awful, an acidic reek of ether—of which there is plenty—that sears the mouth and lungs. The buzz is intense. It can leave users numb for eight hours, in a hallucinatory state, or make them feel euphoric and powerful. Wet can also cause psychotic episodes and brain damage.

“Feel like you Superman when you smoke it,” says Mike, a hulking, hoodlum Elvis with Rat Pack sideburns, gaudy costume rings, and a railroad track of ragged scar bisecting his back (courtesy of a two-story dive he took off a girlfriend’s balcony a year ago while “fucked up”). “Like you can take on the whole world.” He nods to his weed dealer crossing the street. What Mike dislikes about wet is the brain pain: “Sometimes you just frozen,” he says, rolling red ash off his smoke, “just staring at a crack for hours, watching leaves dance on the ground.”

Depending on where in the country you buy it, wet has several street names: dank, sherm, amp, illy, water, dip, and, most notoriously, fry. It is what’s known by the Drug Enforcement Administration as an “episodic” drug. It pops up here and there, then disappears, only to re-emerge. Wet use was first reported in Trenton, New Jersey, in the early seventies; the last epidemic occurred in Connecticut in the mid-nineties. It is not a drug that people tend to take—like cocaine or heroin or crack—for years at a time. It is not seductive. The pioneers who try wet rarely smoke it more than half a dozen times. The people who get hooked are a rare and scary breed.

But there are indications that this breed is multiplying. In the past few years, wet has gained a foothold in Houston and several other U.S. cities, including Philadelphia, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Kansas City, and Bridgeport, Connecticut. It has become, according to drug epidemiologists such as Dr. William Elwood, who produced an exhaustive 1998 study on the Houston trend, a national problem. Unfortunately, few users know that wet—a clear liquid usually sold in tiny brown vials for $20, or soaked into $10 cigarettes (called sherms) or $15 joints (fry sticks)—is a new drug that owes much of its juice to an old drug, a drug responsible for a rash of psychotic violence in the 1970s: phencyclidine, or PCP, more commonly known as angel dust.

Considered among the deadliest substances ever to hit the streets—even worse, say many in the DEA, than heroin or crack—dust has crept back into the hands of teens in this cloaked identity. Children of the seventies, of course, remember the made-for-TVhorror stories: people jumping off buildings to fly, users facing down a fusillade of police bullets. But younger experimenters, drawn to the macabre allure of smoking embalming fluid, have yet to connect their new buzz to the old scare. “This is a drug that people quit using twenty years ago because it had such awful side effects,” says Dr. Jane Maxwell, a scientist at the Center for Social Work Research at the University of Texas at Austin and a former chief of research at the Texas Commission on Alcohol and Drug Abuse. “But there’s this generational forgetting—and it’s returned again in this new guise.”

The effect of such ignorance is difficult to quantify. Most states that track PCP use do not distinguish between pure dust and the embalming-fluid strain. Yet the wet trend, says Elwood, has clearly contributed to an outbreak. PCP— often in the form of wet—is making a quiet comeback across the nation, with emergency-room cases soaring in 2000 to a five-year high of 5,404. Incidents at Dallas hospitals doubled over a two-year period, affecting 120 people in 2000. That same year, the proportion of men arrested in Houston who tested positive for PCP hit 5 percent, up from one percent seven years earlier. Last year, half of all PCP cases reported to the Connecticut Poison Control Center were from smoking wet; in Kansas City, which reported a similar breakdown, the number of emergency-room PCP cases climbed to 224 in 2001, up from 140 in 1994.

Despite these surging numbers, few wet devotees know what they’re really smoking. The mid-level dealers who cut raw PCP with embalming fluid—it’s cheap and burns well—certainly aren’t passing their trade secrets to the street. In fact, not one of the twenty users Elwood queried for his 1998 study knew that wet contained PCP. And only one of the seventeen wet users I spoke with knew their buzz was in fact a PCP high. “I know what’s in it,” says Mike, as his dealer shakes several hairy marijuana buds into his scarred palm. “I had friends who did it for years.” He pauses, picking through the buds. “They’re so far gone they ain’t never coming back.”

THE STRIP IS A WEEDY BUS STOP ON WESTHEIMER BUZZING WITH KIDS IN DIRTY JEANS and Enyce pullovers. It is a tiny slice of the Montrose, but serves as its primary meeting place. In the summer, gay men parade by in G-strings, and the teenage male tricks are “better looking than the women,” as one cop told me. But only the hardest kids are still here in the winter, when the rough trade has slowed and the Montrose turns inward. The party pulls to a near halt and the kids are left to prey on each other. Houston has long been a Shangri-la for runaways. Sitting on Interstate 10, which threads through Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Jacksonville as it runs along the southern rim of the United States, the city offers easy rides with truckers, a warm climate, and a raucous party circuit for thumbing travelers. Houston also serves as an incubator, hatching new drugs and propelling them from the ghetto to the suburbs and onto college campuses. Though wet is primarily limited to the lower rungs of society, officials are concerned that its appeal is likely to grow. And the Montrose, where white teen runaways mix with inner-city kids selling drugs, is a perfect petri dish.

“It’s just like music or fashion,” says Elwood. “Young urban people can start drug trends that quickly get picked up by fashionable partyers in the suburbs.” (The rapper Master P blasted wet in his 1996 song “Bout It, Bout It II”:“I mean they dyin’/ I mean they fryin’/ Gone off that juice (formaldehyde) and leave their mothers cryin’”).

On a Tuesday night in Houston, the shift from black to white is already under way. I am on the Strip with Mike and his girlfriend, Amanda Segarra, 19, a short, aggressive blonde who keeps Mike on a tight leash. We are trying to find some wet heads. Mike, who can be clever, menacing, and funny in a single sentence, is sullen tonight. He’s just learned that Amanda’s Covenant House curfew has been moved from 8 P.M. to 11 P.M.; but he still has to be in by 8. He doesn’t want to go in without her.

“What the fuck, ’Manda?” he says. “I ain’t leaving you out here by yourself.”

Amanda spins away from his grasp: “I ain’t by myself, bitch. Let go of me.”

Mike throws up his hands and skulks off with three other guys, all of whom need to make curfew. It’s a pathetic scene, this grown man—who saw his mother get “hit up” in the neck with a syringeful of coke when he was 8 years old, who will later confide that he killed a man when he was 14 because the guy stole from him—reduced to adolescent simpering.

Amanda isn’t moved. “He thinks everybody wants to fuck me,” she says. Amanda came of age in Houston’s mostly affluent Bellaire section, but with her green tongue stud, black raver pants, and street-player tattoos, she fits in here. Amanda is the drug world’s version of viral marketing: She says she first smoked wet, unknowingly, two years ago at a keg party thrown by an Arab diplomat’s son. Soon she was accompanying her high-school pals in their new Mercedes, with Tupac blasting, into the city’s mostly black South Park area to buy cigarettes dipped in wet.

“We hung with the ghetto kids and they always knew where to get it, how much it was, how good it was,” says Amanda, who has smoked the drug seven times. “A lot of the white kids were doing it at parties.”

Amanda is bipolar and takes the mood-stabilizing drug Depakote, but she’s high on her independence tonight. Already inured to her provocative statements, I ask why she thinks everybody wants to sleep with her.

“ ’Cause I’m so damn cute!” she screams at the guys walking ahead of her.

“Lord, it would be so much better for me if they just fucked each other.”

Amanda drops down beside a young black man in a long leather coat and jeans, who’s inadvertently kneeling in the splatter of migrating blackbirds. His name is Jo Jo. He is the weed dealer from the Strip, a stoner prophet who blasts teen prostitution and laments the street-kid life.

“Jo Jo,” says Amanda, “where can we git some wet?”

Houston is a big sprawling city, laid out, according to one resident, “like an egg that was dropped from the sky and went splat.” There are plenty of rough neighborhoods where you can buy wet, as one undercover narcotics detective told me, but being white and not knowing anyone is likely to get me robbed, pistol-whipped, or worse. Jo Jo, who recently won a violent turf war with two other weed dealers, ignores the question and eyes me suspiciously.

“You’re a cop, right?” he says in a gentle voice. At 27, Jo Jo Dancer (the nickname is from the 1986 Richard Pryor movie; when Jo Jo runs from the cops it looks like he’s dancing) is older than any other street hustler here. A native of Philadelphia, he says he arrived three years ago to escape “legal trouble.” He was on his way to Mexico when he stopped in Houston and found he could earn $1,000 a week on the Strip selling weed.

Once I’ve assured Jo Jo that I’m not a cop (he doesn’t entirely believe me), he flags down Stephanie, a sad-eyed teen clutching a brown puppy in her arms— and the only person on the Strip tonight who knows where to find wet. We pile into my rented Suzuki and head onto a dismal stretch of Interstate 610 ,which rings Houston. It is lined with flea markets and Wal-Marts. Thirty minutes later we exit into a mixed industrial area on Houston’s Near North Side, a wretched stretch of welfare shacks on cinder blocks and shadowy figures beneath skeletal trees. It’s a subdivision called Acres Homes, one of the most run-down in the city. At one swaybacked house, Stephanie picks up a scrawny kid with a greased-back Little Richard do. His name is Li’l Smoke. He is 16 years old and he is messed up on lean, or codeine cough syrup, a popular drug in hip-hop circles. We drive aimlessly because Li’l Smoke can’t tell left from right. “Turn left, kinfolk!” he yells over the music, as he points right.“Aw, damn, you missed it.”

In low doses, wet can distort perceptions of time and space and lead to emotional states that alternate between lethargy and agitation. But at high levels, the PCP can cause brain damage and acute psychosis that resembles schizophrenia. Li’l Smoke, a regular wet user, is clearly damaged.

We finally pull into a crumbling apartment complex in the middle of a desolate rural landscape. When we stop at a splintered door, I ask Li’l Smoke if I can come in. “They’ll fuck you up, kinfolk,” he says with a scowl. “White man knocking a nigga’s door in this place?” says Jo Jo from the back seat. “Naw, you ain’t a cop.”

There are, according to Houston police, perhaps hundreds of such wet houses across the city. Inside, the wet, which is transported in baby-food jars, is poured over cigarettes and marijuana cigars (called sweets after the cigar brand Swisher Sweet) placed on a screen so the excess drains into an aquarium or glass bowl for re-use. The cigarettes and cigars are then wrapped in tinfoil and placed in a freezer to keep the fluid from evaporating. Sometimes, wet houses, which are run by two or three people, will have video games; users will stay there and smoke their stash and play Grand Theft Auto. Li’l Smoke comes out with two brown vials the size of bullets, each costing $20.

Back at Li’l Smoke’s house, we drive onto the bald dirt yard. Several men and women spill out of the house, along with four young children. The women are drunk. Soon a boom box appears, blasting R. Kelly’s “Ghetto Queen.” The women start dancing. Stephanie goes to work. She twists the black cap off one vial. I’m a foot away and the smell is awful. It stinks like gasoline, like . . . dead people. There’s nothing pleasant about this stuff (funeral-home workers wear gloves when they handle embalming fluid). She prepares a sherm, rolling a Camel Light between her palms to loosen the tobacco, then twisting the tip until it looks like a candle wick.

“Now watch,” she says.

Pinching the cigarette between her fingers, Stephanie bites down on the white cotton of the filter and tugs it out with her teeth, smiling, leaving the brown filter paper intact. “That’s so the wet don’t get filtered out,” she explains. Then she puts the sodden cigarette in her mouth and blows it like a miniature trumpet, spreading the wet southward through the tobacco. She asks for a light and I offer my lighter. “Hell, no,” she says. “That shit’ll blow up in your face. You need to use a lit cigarette.”

Soon, Stephanie and Li’l Smoke are puffing away. The smell is worse when it’s burning. It reminds me of the Houston oil refineries that stretch for miles near the waterfront. It’s metallic and acrid. Jo Jo “hits” it once, but Amanda passes. Within minutes, the smokers are slurring their words. Their eyes turn vacant. When I talk to them, they have a hard time grasping my meaning or forming their replies.

Stephanie can barely keep her eyes open. I ask how she feels and she gives me a dopey smile. “I felt already,” she says, and then frowns at her own words. “I’m . . .” she continues, frowning more. Li’l Smoke, who started doing wet two years ago, is already a little paranoid. I ask him if he’s all right. “Shit, but I ain’t . . . you know, kinfolk,” he starts, trying to lasso his thoughts. Then he flaps a dismissive hand at me. “Hell, yeah. I’m kinda feelin’ it,” he says. “It’s tight, nigga.”

On the twenty-minute drive back to my hotel, I start to develop a bad headache. I call a friend in New York on my cell phone and find I can’t think straight. The conversation is fuzzy. My brain is like steel wool. I’m listening but not following. Standing just a few feet from the wet smokers, I got a contact buzz. I can only imagine how fried my brain would be if I’d sucked this stuff into my lungs. I even get a little freaked when a mile-long freight train crawls across the road and I have to sit for five minutes to wait it out. A police car pulls alongside me and it’s all I can do to keep from panicking.

“I DON’T LIKE PEOPLE ON THIS STUFF,” SAYS DENNIS GREEN AS HE SPEEDS THROUGH Houston’s decayed Third Ward in his silver Dodge Stratus. “They’re out of their minds. When I find a guy on it, I put the cuffs on him right away.”

Green, a ropy, muscular, laid-back narcotics detective, has spent nine years ferreting out the “lowlifes” who sell coke, ecstasy, and heroin by the kilo. He once had several guns stuck in his face during an undercover marijuana buy. His assailants backed off when they discovered he was a cop. Green, 34, knows wet can be found in every neighborhood in Houston, from the affluent River Oaks area (home to Enron ex-honcho Kenneth Lay) to the run-down Third Ward. As a result, says Green, “it’s like a zoo out here. Lot of zombies.”

As Green drives, a loose wrist over the steering wheel, he explains the appeal of wet to inner-city kids. “A lot of them do it,” he says as we pass a group of hooded dealers on a littered corner known as the Drug Store, “when they want to do something bad, like confront someone. This gives them balls. It’s like liquid courage.”

PCP was first used in the fifties as an anesthetic, but it was discontinued because patients became agitated and delusional. It was later prescribed as an animal tranquilizer and then taken off the market after widespread abuse in the seventies. It is a dissociative drug. Users feel disconnected from reality, numb. It stimulates the production of adrenaline and can also cause frightening out-of-body experiences, paranoia, and violent seizures.

Historically, illicit PCP manufacturing and distribution has been controlled by a small group of gang members in the Los Angeles area, primarily the Crips and the Bloods. The DEA considers the drug so insidious that it regularly hits these cells and locks up the leadership. The cells are so small that a handful of busts can effectively dry up the supply to the entire nation.

“As opposed to cocaine, where everybody is involved in the play, PCP you can get a grasp on and control to some extent,” says Tom, a special agent in the Los Angeles bureau of the DEA (who declined to give his last name). Tom helped put a number of dust dealers behind bars in the mid-nineties. “After we do these sweeps, there are periods where nobody can get PCP.”

Typically, two or three gang members will collect the raw chemicals for the drug, drive out to the Southern California desert, and conduct a “burn,” mixing the noxious liquids in Rubbermaid trash barrels. (Making PCP in urban areas usually leads to quick busts; the awful smell draws attention. The lack of wide open spaces in the urban Northeast is one reason, says the DEA, that PCP production has never taken off in places like New York City.) It takes 24 hours to make about fifteen gallons, which is transported in five-gallon gas cans and sold locally at about $5,000 a gallon. The price escalates the farther it travels. (In Houston, a gallon of PCP can cost $10,000.) It is then diluted further for distribution.

Mid-level dealers cut the PCP with embalming fluid to make it more profitable. As a result, wet is usually only 7 to 15 percent PCP. “That’s why we’re not seeing people run down the street naked,” says Bob Dimambro, a 21-year veteran of the Houston narcotics squad, “or jumping off buildings like we used to see twenty years ago.”

It’s hard to say how much PCP is on the street, as local law enforcement does not pool national data on seizures. (Dimambro snared two gallons of PCP in a wet-house raid early last year, but has not seen any since. Last October, cops in San Jose, California, discovered a PCP lab, the first they had seen in a decade. A month later, Chicago police broke up a PCP lab that sold a modest 50 vials a day.) Given the drug’s cyclical nature, the DEA troubles itself with PCP only sporadically. In 1995, the DEA and the U.S.Attorney’s office shut down the operation of the nation’s top kingpin; as an indirect result, the number of emergency-room cases involving PCP, which had stood at a staggering 5,963 that year, dropped by more than a third to 3,441 a year later. The agency has seized paltry amounts over the past few years, from a trickle of three quarters of a gallon in 1998 to 1.3 gallons last year.

That trend has now reversed itself. “Right now we are starting to see another resurgence,” says Tom. “People who were arrested ten and twenty years ago are starting to get out of prison on supervised release. Someone who’s been away that long, their options are limited. They go right back into it.”

In pockets across the country, police have also seen rises in PCP-style violence by wet users. Elwood, the drug epidemiologist, has been asked to testify in three murder trials involving suspects who were allegedly high on wet when the crimes were committed. Last August, a 20-year-old Seattle man went on a deadly rampage after bingeing on sherms, killing a man and a toddler and beating a 6-year-old girl with his pistol. Around the same time, the Web site warned that fry was being used as a date-rape drug, and cautioned women to be careful of what they smoked at parties. Amanda says the man who slipped her wet the first time also tried to rape her. (That said, lucid smokers should be able to detect the pungent odor of a tainted joint.)

NO ONE HAS STUDIED THE NEUROLOGICAL EFFECTS OF SMOKING EMBALMING FLUID. In fact, it’s unclear whether the substance offers any high at all beyond a swift head rush. Dr. Marc Bayer, chief of toxicology for the state of Connecticut, which saw a wet epidemic in 1994, believes the effect is superficial, tricking users into thinking they’re kicking up their high. “Formaldehyde is an irritant, and when you smoke it you get a sting,” says Bayer. “That’s what they’re experiencing. It’s not a high at all. It’s the same strategy that coke dealers employ when they lace their product with anesthetic or even strychnine. You get that little buzz and burn, so people think they’re getting pure coke.”

Embalming fluid is a toxic mixture of formaldehyde, methanol, and ethyl alcohol. Separately, these chemicals serve a range of commercial uses (methanol as antifreeze, ethyl alcohol as the buzz in your bar drink). For a corpse, this cocktail is beneficial. It keeps flesh from rotting by replacing the moisture in cells and inhibiting the growth of bacteria. If the fluid is consumed or inhaled, however, the effects can range from bronchitis and tissue destruction to lung damage, brain damage, and death.

While methanol’s chemical action on the brain is not well understood, inhaling it, Elwood notes, produces symptoms that are similar to those brought on by other types of “volatile inhalants,” such as gasoline. Though Elwood cautions that he is not a chemist, he disagrees with Bayer about wet’s mind-altering powers.

“The highs you get off smoking wet are different from what you get off straight PCP,” says Elwood, who is the director of the nonprofit Center for Public Health and Evaluation Research in Key West, Florida. “It’s the unique combination of all these chemicals that causes the effects it does on people.”

In any case, there is clearly a widespread belief that embalming fluid can get you high. Elwood reported that workers at funeral homes, morgues, and hospitals in Houston siphon the fluid from 55-gallon drums and sell it to dealers. His field-workers, most notably a street-tough Health Department worker named Daphne Moore (who first brought the drug to Elwood’s attention),also found a chemical company that sold the fluid to people who showed up at its doorstep.

Funeral homes have also reported thefts of the substance. In the past year, mortuary groups in several states—including Ohio and Washington—have warned members to “keep a close eye” on the fluid and make sure none of it gets “misplaced.”

That hasn’t stopped some would-be users from trying to get some. In September 1996,four teenagers in Sanger, Texas, were arrested after they broke into a funeral home to steal embalming fluid so they could mix it into their cigarettes. When they couldn’t find any, two of the teens cut a finger off a corpse and tried to squeeze some out. Last October, two gun-toting men stormed a Little Rock funeral home and stole a dozen bottles of the fluid. Art, as it often does, has imitated life: Joints soaked in embalming fluid recently turned up in a plot line of HBO’s Six Feet Under.

Houston police are keeping an eye on the wet problem, but say they have their hands full with more familiar drugs like cocaine, ecstasy, and heroin that cross the border from Mexico. Occasionally, undercover cops who work alongside Dennis Green will take down an entire wet house, seizing a gallon of PCP here or there before it’s cut with embalming fluid.

“I don’t like dope dealers, period,” says Green as he careers past the Montrose street kids. “I don’t like what they stand for, man. But there’s no way we’re gonna get all this off the street. It’s far too big for the locals.” He pauses a moment as we pass a group of guys smoking a sweet. “I just look at it like this,” he says. “I’m gonna have job security as long as I stay in narcotics. It’s here and it ain’t going away.”

“WHEN YOU OUT HERE,” SAYS MIKE, GRIPPING A 40-OUNCE OLDE ENGLISH, “YOU really feel alone. It’s, like, a known thing, it’s you against everybody else. Bigass world, dog-eat-dog. Why is it like that? Because people are greedy, selfish—everybody is about themselves, not about the next person. I don’t even have any friends. I just have associates. ’Cause when it comes down to it, you sink or swim, it’s me or them. Survival of the fittest, surviving on the streets.”

It’s a Friday afternoon and we’re back at Acres Homes. There are about 30 people packed on the front yard. Stephanie is again preparing sherms. Mike and Amanda are on the rickety porch arguing about the drug. Mike sniffs the tissue full of marijuana in Amanda’s hand and she shoves it in his face.“Nigga, take a big sniff ’cause that’s as close as you gettin’ to this shit today,” she says. Mike obediently sniffs, licks her palm, playfully whimpers.

On the drive over, Amanda told Mike, “I’m tired of this life.” But soon they are both smoking wet, and Amanda has become an eight-timer. When I ask why, she says, “Why not? Ain’t got shit better else to do.” Soon, a dozen people are zonked, their speech slurred, their eyelids heavy. Before he came up here, Mike told me his secret to staying off wet: avoid the people who do it. “If you doin’ it, I don’t want to be around you,” he said. “I don’t want to watch you gettin’ high if I’m not gettin’ high. You be in a barber shop long enough, you gonna get a haircut.”

When I ask Mike why he finally gave in, he simply says,“Fuck it.” Later that night, Mike will flip out on wet. He tells me about it the next day. Hanging out on the Strip, he felt powerful and agitated. He jumped out in front of traffic on Westheimer, threw bottles and stones at cars. He yelled at people that they were fat and ugly and stupid. It went on for three hours. At one point, he leaped alongside a car stopped at a red light and tried to pull a “scared preppy-looking dude” from his white Nissan Optima. “I was just like, ‘Come here, let me choke you,’” says Mike. “‘Come here, let me feel your neck. Come here, bitch, get out that fucking car so I can choke you.’ Felt like I was Superman.”

Mike grabbed at the man’s door handle and the driver floored it through the intersection. “I think I woulda really choked him if I’d opened that door,” says Mike. “His eyes got real big and he went through that motherfucking red light and got the fuck out of Dodge. I was chasing his ass. ‘Come here, bitch!’”

We are standing in the dirt parking lot of the Oven, a punk nightclub–cum–pizza joint a few hundred yards east of the Strip on Westheimer. I’ve run into Mike and Amanda as they were coming out of an alley after having sex near the Dumpsters behind a Japanese restaurant called Osaki. They both have huge hickeys on their necks. As we stand in the warm air, a man in an adjacent parking lot, dressed entirely in leather, is cracking a bullwhip repeatedly. Another man, on a back porch, is angrily reciting Hamlet in a hoarse voice. A homeless man pushes a shopping cart full of cans over the rutted dirt. Jo Jo is cleaning his last handful of weed in the back seat of a car while Stephanie, holding her puppy, is eating Fritos bean dip, which she stole from Kroger’s (where she slept in the rest room the night before), with her fingers.

Mike says he’d like to smoke more wet but doesn’t have the money for it. Amanda snaps at him, “I ain’t no wet head.” Stephanie hears her and says, “I’m not either.” Then she reconsiders and says dejectedly, “I guess I kinda am.”

“Your parents, your friends, they gonna come and go, gonna let you down,” says Mike, as he watches life go by on the Strip. “But drugs, man, drugs will always treat you the same. Same drugs you saw the other night? You love those drugs for being there. After so long you get dependent on them, you form a good relationship with them. I mean, they outlast parents, they outlast girlfriends, outlast friendships. Any time you ever was down and out, or something troubling you or under your skin, you can always fall back on drugs. Everybody knows where drugs is at.”