Opium Fiend could be the first alternate history memoir

In this excerpt from new memoir Opium Fiend, journalist Steven Martin describes how he went from antique collector to drug addict. In Martin's case, the gateway drug was his extensive collection of antique opium pipes, which led him into an addiction to opium so severe he lost almost everything. His memoir is a kind of alternate history, where addictions of the past erupt into the present unexpectedly.

I had all but stopped collecting. Indeed, I'd been selling off some of my minor pieces in order to afford more and more opium. However, there was one piece of paraphernalia that as a smoker I could not do without: the pipe bowl. In my collection there were literally hundreds of bowls, but almost none were of any use to me. This was because while in use long ago, the seating of one pill after another upon the needle-hole had caused a barely-visible enlarging of this tiny aperture. The needle-hole is crucial to the vaporization process: if the hole is the right size, the opium will vaporize efficiently and uniformly. However, if the hole is too large because of having become worn from use, opium gets sucked into the bowl without being vaporized, wasting significant amounts of the costly drug with each inhalation.

The two pristine antique bowls that I had bought on eBay years back–the ones discovered behind the false wall in Victoria's Chinatown–were both in use. Wili had one and Roxanna had the other. The chances of finding more of the same were very slim, but I put the word out to a handful of antiques merchants and waited.

In October I received an email from Alex, my long-time dealer in Beijing, with photo attachments of some opium pipe bowls he had on offer. . . . . As always, Alex's price was fair. He would sell me all three bowls for a hundred dollars. I agreed immediately. The transaction was the best kind–one of those in which both the buyer and seller are sure they've gotten the better deal. At a glance I knew the three bowls would have generated little interest in anyone other than myself. Their ceramic surface was covered with blackish and whitish stains from mineral deposits that had leached out of the soil in which they were once enveloped. Neither ornamented nor fitted with brass collars, the bowls lacked the two features that collectors usually look for. However, when they arrived in the mail, I saw that my observations had been correct: the bowls had pristine needle holes that had never been used.

My guess was that the pipe-bowls had been new when their original owner decided to ditch them, perhaps throwing them down a well or digging a hole and burying them. I cleaned the bowls under a running tap, using a soft-bristle toothbrush to scrub away the lichen-like encrustations from the terracotta surface. After an hour of gentle scrubbing, the bowls were clean and looked like new. Next, I picked through a drawstring bag full of spare brass collars, looking for three that would fit snugly onto the necks. Once this was accomplished, there was only one thing left to do: take the bowls for a test drive.

All three worked perfectly, burbling sonorously as I drew opium vapors into my lungs. I marveled at my good fortune in finding them, and vowed not to share them with anybody. With luck, a well-made pipe-bowl might last a year or more, and so I figured that I had at least three years of not needing to worry about this essential piece of paraphernalia. Then, extraordinarily, Alex emailed me again with two more bowls that he wanted to sell. Immediately I noticed that these two new bowls had the same exact patina as the first three. Had somebody in China found a cache of "dead stock" pipe-bowls stashed away in a cave? The thought intrigued me.

I had already decided to buy these latest offerings, but I feigned hesitation in order to extract more information from Alex. As we conversed via Skype enhanced with cams, I saw that he was bundled up against the chill of a Beijing autumn and laughing nervously. Alex at first pretended he knew nothing about the pipe-bowls' provenance. Then, after some goading, he finally admitted that he thought all five bowls had been robbed from the same century-old grave. "Tomb bowls" was how he began referring to them.

"The smokers in old times were buried with opium and tools to smoke," Alex explained, "so they will not suffer in the afterlife."

I asked, "Would the family of the dead smoker buy new paraphernalia, new tools, or use old pieces?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe one or the other. Maybe a favorite pipe and lamp but also maybe some new bowls for use when the favorite bowl no longer works."

This made perfect sense. I surprised Alex by jumping at the newly offered pipe-bowls. He again laughed uneasily and asked if I wasn't afraid of ghosts. I was not. On the contrary, it wasn't just that the bowls were in perfect condition and would improve my sessions by preserving precious chandu. I was also morbidly fascinated by the idea of using paraphernalia that had for a century been cradled by a corpse. I imagined a link between myself and this long-dead smoker whose spirit was soothed by the presence of opium and paraphernalia with which to smoke it. It was true that some rude spade had shattered his time capsule and grasping hands had desecrated its sanctity; but a smoker is a smoker and I was sure that the original keeper of these bowls, if he had some way of knowing, would break into an admiring smile upon seeing me put them to work.

That night, in the darkened living room of my apartment above Bangkok's Chinatown, I drew vapors through one of the pipe-bowls and marveled at its perfection. The taste was superb–not a hint of brimstone. What would the ghosts of Raw Ghost Alley think? There was no mistake–I could hear them cheering me on. Their roar of approval could not be confused with the noise of inane carousing which at that moment was emanating from the booze cruises on the nearby river. In my increasingly withdrawn state, the sounds of human revelry had begun taking on a sinister quality, while in my head the imagined shouts of encouragement from the neighborhood's old opium spirits rang with the familiarity of family.

The world outside the confines of my apartment now seemed a hideous and brutal place. Every night I became Charlton Heston in the 1970s film Omega Man, living in an elegantly appointed mansion that also served as a fortress. Inside the mansion's thick walls were sanctuary and civilization: Heston's character, dressed in a smoking jacket, plays chess with a bronze bust and sips scotch, while outside chalky-faced mutants clad in soiled cowls shriek and howl for him to come out and face them. Once in a while Heston might step out onto the balcony–the mere sight of him causing the mutants' keening to crescendo–and pump a few rounds from a high-powered rifle into the orgy of flapping robes. Yet for the most part Heston simply ignores the rabble.

Okay, the shooting part was taking it too far. Of course I didn't hate people, but my feelings of uniqueness at being able to smoke opium had somehow morphed into a cold sense of superiority. I felt no kinship with people. Their concerns were not my concerns; their worldly joys and desires struck me as absurd. People were lining up for blockbuster movies or to eat in trendy restaurants or to buy the latest version of some video game–and I saw no point in any of it. To the contrary, my one great joy was knowing that I didn't need any of it. There was euphoria in what felt like the ultimate act of rebellion against modern society. Opium was setting me free.

Even the eventual demise of my libido felt liberating. The ability to see beauty in the human form was still there, but all consequent sexual desire had vanished. It felt no different from admiring marble nudes in a museum. Yet to me this didn't seem like loss–quite the opposite–it was as though I had conquered a base instinct and risen above it. Like some Buddhist ideal, this extinction of desire brought about an end to suffering. Except that a single desire remained: I needed a fix every few hours or my mind and body would go to pieces.

Want to read more? You can pick up the book today in bookstores, or on Amazon.

From the Book, OPIUM FIEND by Steven Martin. Copyright © 2012 by Steven Martin. Reprinted by arrangement with Ballantine Books, an imprint of The Random House Publishing Group, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.