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Lisa, Adam: Drug binds disparate lives

| Sunday, July 29, 2001, 12:00 p.m.

Her fingers form a peace sign against her thigh, a ''V'' gingerly teasing out a vein that snakes indigo just under skin scarred tougher than purse leather.

Lisa Adams aims a needle and winces, then stabs home her ''jolt'' of heroin.

''I'm going to die shooting dope,'' she said, swallowing a sob. ''That's no lie. With heroin, you're always on it, even if you're off. I'm going to die with a needle in me. I know that.''

She's 38. When Adams first shot up, Gerald Ford was the president; Glen Campbell's ''Rhinestone Cowboy'' ruled the airwaves; and Adam Lewis, a 22-year-old white junkie from Tarentum, was still three years from being born.

''I don't like any of it anymore,'' Lewis said. ''I want to get off. I haven't started shooting yet, but that's next, right• That's when it all comes to a dead end. I don't want to go there. But I'm heading there if I don't get help.''

Lewis and Adams are two junkies separated by race, class, age and geography. The only factor uniting them is heroin. And they're both hooked.

Lewis wants to get off the junk. So does Adams and every other addict interviewed by the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review in June and July.

They say they're tired of the dealers who take all their money, the drug that steals all their energy and the never-ending fear that street life will kill them.

On summer nights, whole blocks of the Hill District become a junkie ghost town. Broken windows flicker with candle glow as addicts cook down their rocks of heroin, cut crack with vinegar, mix it all together and then shoot the cocktail into their veins.

When the Hill's working-class economy nose-dived in the 1980s, homeless addicts turned ramshackle, abandoned row houses into ''shooting galleries'' for injecting heroin.

When Adams kicks the walls in her squatter's flat, she hears the scratching sprint of rats. Syringes pock the walls, and a forest of needles rises from the carpet. She urinates in a white bucket. She showers with a Dasani water bottle. She lives on a diet of Mike & Ike candy, Welch's grape soda, Newport Lights and cheap heroin.

The Hill's bargain-basement prices for low-purity heroin - sold in balloons for as little as $4 each - attract hundreds of nomadic street junkies like Adams to the one-way streets off Centre Avenue. To feed their round-the-clock opium craving, they toil as petty street dealers, couriers, prostitutes or beggars.

''People on the outside don't understand,'' Adams said. ''You don't have a choice. You just keep doing it. If I had a thousand dollars, I'd do a thousand dollars' worth of heroin. But I'll never see that kind of money. I'm lucky if I can bum a jolt. There's always the $4 balloons - the hard-luck balloons.'' At 13, Adams tried her first jolt. The daughter of a Seventh-Day Adventist, she grew up in the Hill District reading the Bible and minding her manners. Her sister has a good job, well-behaved children, a tidy house.

But Adams, prodded by men who shot up, fell into the junkie world by the age of 16 and never got out.

When it comes to withdrawal, she's a ''pussycat.'' Coming off her fix, she seizes up, her legs kicking, forcing her to run for the nearest dealer, vomiting along the way. Two decades of dope have left her with gouged abscesses, imploded veins, hepatitis C and a lengthy arrest record.

''As a junkie, like life, you get nothing free,'' she said. ''I've paid. Lord, I've paid. Look at me. Look at my body. Thirty surgeries. I've done a world of pain to myself. I can feel it all now, the addiction, the pain.

''I'll do anything for the heroin. The police come, so you swallow your balloon. When they're gone, you poop it out. It smells like crap. You want to throw up from the smell.

''But you shoot it. You know you're putting that smell into your blood, but you shoot it. You shoot it.''

Most heroin addicts, here and nationwide, are white men like Lewis. He recalls how four years ago a co-worker got him started popping OxyContin - expensive opium-based prescription pain pills usually reserved for dying cancer patients. Six hundred times more powerful than a hit of heroin, one pill, powdered and snorted, can last days. But it didn't with Lewis.

Lewis now has a $200 daily heroin habit and, like other junkies, realizes there's only one way to feed it: ''It all comes down to selling. You sell drugs, you sell stolen stuff, or you sell your body.

''Do I need it• Yeah, I need heroin. I don't want it, but if I don't get it, I'll want it,'' he said. ''But the pills were worse, the OCs. ... From there, it was straight to heroin because it was cheaper. That's why I'm on it.

''I don't have a job anymore. I don't need a job because I sell. I'm not big, just enough to get by. You sell a little, then you score what you need. ...

''I'll take the help, yeah. But now I just want the heroin.''

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