More On: FDNY
David says, 'I'll just take a quick shot, and then we'll go in.' We are sitting outside the Queens Place Mall in Elmhurst, in a dark hallway that wraps around an old, brutalist coliseum. Inside, a mix of mostly middle-class Hispanic and Asian kids just out of school are looking at clothes and shoes, meeting up with friends, and milling around.
David is here to steal things from a popular department store to pay for the 10 bags of heroin he takes every day, which he started doing almost 20 years ago.
"One more shot will calm my nerves and make it easier for me to steal, but I also want to do one because if I get caught, I don't know when I'll be able to do another," he says as he sits on a concrete ledge and pulls out his drugs.
Heroin is sold in little white envelopes made of glassine that can be folded flat. A "bundle" of ten of these envelopes is often sold at a discount because of the large number. David's bag is held shut by two ID cards, and as he carefully opens his wallet, he falls asleep with three or four orange-capped needles still in his hand. He was smoking a Newport, and it was burning between his fingers, dangerously close to the filter.
He wakes up after a few minutes, lights another cigarette, and asks, "How long have I been out?"
Chasing his dreams
David Gonzalez, who is 42 years old, grew up on Staten Island. He went to Catholic school and college for two years before joining the FDNY as an EMT in 2000. He worked in Midtown and drove an ambulance from East 27th Street's Bellevue Hospital.
"I loved it and thought it was great, but I wanted to be a firefighter. Dealing with life-and-death situations was more daring and more what I wanted to do. I would have quit by now."
As a firefighter at Engine 76 on West 100th Street in Manhattan, he helped deliver a baby whose umbilical cord was wrapped around its neck. He says that he saved the child's life while his partner stood still in shock. People said David was good at this kind of work, and he didn't seem to be bothered by the bloody scenes.
But Gonzalez also had trouble with the police. After a fight with a man outside a bar in 2004, he ran away from the police and hit one of them.
"After 9/11, they started giving drug tests to firefighters because a lot of young people were drinking and driving and fighting with police in bars," he says, leaving out the fact that he was arrested.
He tested positive for cocaine, and the FDNY doctor gave him a choice: quit and lose three-quarters of his pension, or get clean. David said he went with the second option, but he couldn't stop doing drugs.
David started working in construction after he left the FDNY. He started taking "Roxies," which is one brand name for oxycodone, a strong opioid painkiller. He says it helped him get through long hours of hard work.
"I was buying Roxies on the street for $10 a pill, which is a lot of money. He says, "It costs less to do heroin." He thinks that heroin is usually three times stronger, and he can buy bundles of 10 bags for $80 or $90, or sometimes as low as $40 or $50.
David's life is like the national crisis of drug use and overdoses that has been going on for decades.
A report from the CDC found that the first wave of the current overdose crisis began in the 1990s with prescription opioids. The second wave started in 2010 with heroin, and the most recent wave started in 2013 with a big rise in deaths from overdoses involving synthetic opioids, especially those involving fentanyl that was made illegally.
The US Department of Health and Human Services says that in 2019, about 10.1 million people aged 12 or older had abused opioids in the past year. In particular, 9.7 million people abused painkillers that were prescribed to them, and 745,000 people used heroin.
In 2020, 91,000 people died of drug overdoses. Of those, 68,000 were caused by opioids. Officials say that the rise in deaths is due to the spread of fentanyl. In New York state, the number of drug-related overdose deaths went from 3,617 in 2019 to 4,965 in 2020, which is a 37 percent increase.
David is not the only person who steals to pay for his habits. Even though laws and prosecutors in Albany have made it easier to steal, complaints from businesses in New York City have gone up by 81%. A lot of this crime is what keeps the drug trade going.
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 few floors up, outside Target, an NYPD officer in uniform is talking to a female employee. When David gets off the escalator, they stop talking. The officer looks at him as he walks into the store. Once inside, David looks at everything and makes his choices as he walks around. He moves slowly through the store, looping around the aisles to get a bag to put things in and then putting things in the bag as he moves through the different 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 doesn't have any fear of employees. He even asks them for directions, and they give them to him with their eyes narrowed. Once he has enough things in his bag, he heads straight for the exit and tries to find one where there are no active checkout lines or security guards. He waits for the elevator, but it takes a while to come. So, he finds an exit door that leads to an elevated outdoor parking lot and then to stairs that take him down to street level. He walks with purpose, taking long steps, and he holds his bag of electronics tightly in his hands.
After walking quickly for a block or two, he grins and says, "That was fun, wasn't it?"
During the day, this process is done over and over again. The goal is to get items worth between $1,500 and $2,000, which can be sold at an electronics store in Midtown for a set price 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 finances are in a mess. Bills are stuffed into pockets without any order. He loses money and then finds money. It becomes clear that it is not a valuable thing that needs to be protected. Instead, it is a source that can be used again and again.
I was afraid he would ask me to pay him to go with him, but he never does. He offers to buy me ice cream instead. He says, "People are jealous because they work a week to make $1,500, but I make it in three days."
David is ready for another shot before he goes to the next store. We walk around the mall trying to find a quiet place away from people, and he sits down at a bus stop near the Long Island Expressway.
He carefully opens the bag and pours the bright red powder into a bottle cap full of bottled water, which he then puts on the bench. Wind is blowing behind us, but he doesn't seem to care that the cap is being blown off. His fingers and eyes are busy mixing the heroin and drawing it back up through a cigarette filter. When a woman who is waiting for a bus sees us, her eyes get big and her mouth opens wide. He feels her eyes on him and says, "Let's go, some people have problems." We turn the corner and go to a quiet street with tall buildings where people live.
He adjusts the sideview mirror of a parked car to help him find a vein in his neck where he can inject the bright red liquid. When he is finished, he pushes the mirror back to where it was before. I think he'll pass out again like the last time, but the heroin isn't as strong this time, so he's still awake and ready to go to the next store.
People are walking around and clothes hangers are sliding across racks and banging into each other, making a low, steady sound. The store looks like it would be easier to steal from because it is messy and there are piles of mismatched items and extra stock all over.
David grabs a big leather duffel bag from a shelf and puts shirts, pants, and underwear in it. He asks a worker where the True Religion jeans are, and when no one is looking, he puts a pair in his bag. No one seems to notice how easily he gets around the store. Once the duffel is full, he heads toward the door. As he does, a young man and a woman who work there quickly come up behind him.
They catch up to him at the front door, which leads out to the street. They yell at him to stop, but David keeps running and says, "This is my stuff." The man yells back, "Oh, that's your stuff? The stuff you just stole from the store?!" The man turns to the woman, who looks like his boss, and says, "You're not going to stop him, are you?"
She says, "It's not worth it" with a sad face.
A mother’s pain
Sandra, David's mom, lives on the East Shore of Staten Island in a small apartment. She worked with people with disabilities for many years before she retired. She speaks with the patience and kindness of someone who has been through a lot.
She found out about David's drug use for the first time when he became a firefighter. When he came over, his nose would be dripping, so she thought he was doing cocaine. But as time went on, she saw that he was also doing other drugs. She says that the Fire Department sent him to rehab several times, but it didn't help.
Sandra says he's still allowed to use FDNY's health care and mental health services, but she thinks he's ashamed and thinks he'll never be the same person again.
Sandra figures out that David started using heroin after he broke up with the mother of his son when he was in his early 20s. They met at a club and started going out together and getting high. She wanted them to stop using drugs when she got pregnant, but David couldn't. She took their son in the end and left with him.
"That's all. He had lost everything. From then on, he got worse and worse," says Sandra.
David's voice changed when he started taking heroin. He wasn't possessed by demons, but the drug would take over."
She has tried different things over the years, but in the end, she has chosen acceptance over reprimand.
"There was a time when I didn't talk to him because I thought that would help, but it didn't. That's a load of crap," she says. "I'd rather know how to reach him and where he is."
She says it was really hard at first, and David has overdosed more than once. When she was in the hospital, a nurse pulled her aside and told her to keep going to see him because many parents stop going when their kids start using drugs.
The nurse told Sandra, "Don't give up on him," and Sandra took that to heart. She doesn't try to push him away; instead, she tries to keep him close. They talk on the phone a lot.
"Every time I see him, I tell him, 'David, I love you. You know that you are kind. You have to stop, though. You'll kill yourself.' I don't want to force him, though. I stop if he tells me to because I want him to talk to me. I want him to be able to say whatever he wants, and I'll give him the best advice I can."
Sandra thinks back to happier times when she looks at old pictures of David. "I wanted to cry when I saw some old pictures that broke my heart," she says. "Because I saw him and remembered how nice it was for him at that time, you know. It hurt me a lot. But I can't stay stuck in worry or tears. I just can't. The way I see it, I have to be strong for him. I want to have courage for him. And I want to be there for him all the time. If he gets sick, I want to be there right away. I don't want to run away, but some people have to. I'm ready for anything."
She says that meeting with other parents at her church who are going through the same things with their kids helps to ease the pain and worry.
"We talk," she says. "Sometimes we look at each other and say, 'Will it ever stop?' It's good to talk to other people. We know that addiction is powerful. We can only look at each other and do nothing. All we can do is wait and hope for the best. We stick together and keep praying."
Sandra says that her son's experiences are hard, but she hopes that one day he will be able to use them to help other people who are addicted to drugs. She still thinks of David as a good boy who loved the outdoors, collected turtles, didn't want to hurt anyone, "not even a bug," and would get up early to go fishing but throw back the fish because he couldn't kill them.
"He loves a lot and is very patient," she says. "He has a good heart, but it's locked up. I'm just waiting for it to be released."
David has been caught stealing before, and store security has warned him. Sometimes, they even make him sign a paper that says he'll get more serious charges if he comes back.
He says, "When they do that, I usually stay away for a while." "I'll stay away for a good while, like six or seven months. Because that's what they mean. I think that's what they mean. This is what Macy's really means. There, they had their own jail."
He says that most days he only steals from bigger stores, and when we go to a small mom-and-pop cosmetics store to buy blue hair dye, he is polite and kind to the woman at the register who is looking at him suspiciously. "Some things in life cost money, and you can't just take everything," he says.
Even if you have an open mind, it is shocking and upsetting to see people shooting heroin in Midtown, Manhattan, in the middle of the day. Soon after I meet David, he says he wants to do a shot. We stop near 36th Street and Broadway, where he starts getting the drugs ready.
After giving himself a shot in the neck, he bends over to pack up his things and says, "Life isn't so bad right now." He then slowly falls onto his jacket on the ground.
He tries to talk, but his eyes close and he gets lower and lower until he's in a balasana, or child's pose, with his legs crossed. I have no idea what to do, so I just wait. After a minute or two, I realize that he might be in trouble and start shouting at him, shaking his shoulder roughly a few times, and calling his name.
Passing office workers start to gather and stare. I can see him breathe because his back moves up and down, but it's hard to see his face because it's buried, and I'm not sure if his mouth and nose are blocked. He mumbles a few words that don't make sense, but that doesn't tell me he's OK.
After another minute or two, a woman calls 911, and paramedics arrive quickly. They startle David awake, and he snaps to attention, as if waking up from a dream. He rubs his eyes. They have him sit in a chair from a nearby cafe and ask him a series of questions, which he answers clearly, but he slumps between each one and they have to nudge him a few times to keep him from falling off.
One of the paramedics asks him to remember the number 7. He does, and they ask him to say it to them a few times during the conversation. They tell David he might fall asleep and never wake up again, but he doesn't want to go to the hospital. At some point, he realizes he doesn't have to stay. He grabs his jacket and starts running away as if he's late for an appointment.
The EMTs are still trying to convince David to get help, but they have a look on their faces that says they know they can't stop him or any of the other people like him, and soon we'll be on our way 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
David often falls asleep in public, but he doesn't live on the streets. He stays at a Safe Haven, which is a type of temporary housing run by the city. Instead of checking in every day, like at a traditional homeless shelter, he only has to do so once every three days.
Safe Haven doesn't make people stop using drugs or stop stealing. How long will it be before David dies from exposure, being ignored, or taking too much of something? The Department of Health thinks that about 187,000 people in New York are addicted to drugs. How many people are in the same loop 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.”