Once I knew what to look for, I saw the signs of the Mission’s drug culture everywhere. Heroin accounted for the sidewalk markets that sold clothes and books and records, all of them, I deduced, stolen by the junkies, sometimes casually, from housemates or friends’ apartments, sometimes via old-fashioned breaking and entering. Heroin accounted for the woman who slept on our doorstep, pillowed by copies of the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which she carefully re-folded every morning. Heroin accounted for the gunshots we heard one night in Julian Alley, which I, innocent that I was, mistook for a car backfiring. I was fairly sure that heroin explained the guys who stood on the corner of Sixteenth and Mission, but in fact this led me to an embarrassing situation, later on.
Briefly: there were two kinds of mutterers on that corner, the people who sold “works” and the people who sold “late nights.” I knew what “works” were: the syringe, and maybe also the rubber tie-off. I assumed that “late nights” were some kind of cocktail: heroin and speed, maybe, to keep you going through the dark hours? So, one sleepy evening, when Erin and I were drinking together in the back room of the Blue Study—this was after I fell in love with her, but not long after, and trace amounts of love still circulated in my bloodstream—I suggested, jokingly, that we could get some late nights.
“And do what?” Erin asked.
“Party,” I said.
Erin looked at me curiously. “Do you know what late nights are?”
“What are they?”
I had to admit that I didn’t know.
“Late nights are bus transfers,” Erin said. “They’re called that because they’re good all night.” She laughed. “You thought they were drugs!”
“I don’t get it,” I said. “They sell bus transfers?”
Yup,” Erin said. “Careful you don’t get hooked.”
“For real,” Erin said. “So, you want to, uh, party?”
For months and possibly even years afterwards, Erin made fun of me for not having known what late-nights were. “Late-nights, late-nights,” she muttered when I approached. When she took the bus somewhere, she made sure to tell me not to worry. “I choose to take the bus because it’s fun,” she said. “I don’t need the bus. I could walk, if I wanted. Most of the time I do walk.”
“OK, OK,” I said, “you’ve made your point.”
But Erin rarely gave up a joke once she knew that someone else found it unpleasant. She didn’t let go of the late-nights until much later, when Josh was using cocaine, and not in an entertaining way. By then, it was too late for me to feel much relief.