This is the 1970s, lower East Side in New York City, between 1st and 2nd Avenue. Grime, abandoned cars, and ramshackle tenements blight the streets much like other parts of the city; Central Park’s hard dirt and disrepair is hazardous during the day, a war zone at night, and the South Bronx resembles Dresden in WWII. Down here, bruised and beaten Bowery drunks stagger around cars at stoplights smearing windshields with oily rags hoping for handouts.
The city closed its last opium den in the late 50s in a highly publicized raid that netted a couple of kilos of opium paste and some heroin, but this is New York City. If it exists anywhere, it exists here. And this opium den exists here on E. 1st St. because nature's original elixir, “the breath of God” that has beguiled and transfixed humans since the beginning of time will always find its place amongst the connoisseurs of a mindful, if manufactured, paradise. Especially for those with enough money and desire.
It’s dark. The few working streetlights cast dim shadows on this hot and humid night. The stench of urine from a nearby subway station thickens the stale air. Midblock, a set of stairs lead down below street level to a steel door, bolted from within. Periodically, a taxi arrives and a man -- almost always a man --gets out, descends the stairs, and knocks a code. The door opens, and he goes in.
This time the man was John Jakes. He lays adrift now on a cot inside, wearing dark Marc Jacob slacks, Ferragamo tasseled loafers, and a wrinkled Brooks Brothers ecru dress shirt, “JJ” embroidered on each cuff (he had left his Rolex at home). Jakes has been wearing these clothes since he arrived here a few days ago. Other prone figures lay on platforms surrounding the room, sucking in opium vapors from caramel dollops of kneaded goo heated just so in a clay pipe that hovers above a gas lamp. The scent of roasted hazelnuts rides the smoke. It is very quiet. Flower courtesans, beautiful Asian women, carry trays back and forth serving their customers.
Jakes is in an opium dream, a beatitude, a dizzying evanescence in its vanishing entirety, inside and outside of him, a heavy weightlessness, a blind vision, a silent hallelujah of release. He doesn’t just live for this. He is this, until he isn’t. And then he starts again.
As a young boy at the Tingley School in New Jersey, Jakes had experimented sexually with some of his mates. Not an uncommon thing for young adolescent prep school boys confused by the strange longing in their loins but still uncurious about, much less attracted, to girls. But when all his friends found that attraction, Jakes didn’t. He long wondered why, and fretted when, but it never came because he learned finally, to his great horror, that he was a “mo” in the parlance of the times, and nobody could know. His social world would not allow it. The closet beckoned, and he went in.
Even as he enlarged his inheritance as a savvy financier on Wall Street, married a wealthy socialite who gave him two boys and two girls, went to all the right parties, cultivated all the right people, and lived on an estate in the rolling hills of New Jersey horse country, he simmered with schizoid rage. You wouldn’t know it. Handsome, auburn hair combed straight back like Barrymore, impeccably dressed, and affable to a fault, those who knew him best would say he was such a sweet man, a kind man, a suave and cultured treasure at any party.
Which is why, when he would stay overnight on “business” in the city, nobody questioned it. He could stay away, be himself for a few precious hours, go to the right bars, enjoy men, and be in his chosen
demi-monde that his other life would abhor. Returning, he would pick up his old role, and start to die just a little more each day.
His wife, Barbara, spent so much time on the golf course and charity balls and bridge tournaments that she didn’t care to question her husband’s growing silences when they were alone. All the kids were either grown or in boarding school, and the two could co-exist easily in their big house for days without talking to each other. Barbara neither sought nor offered sex, and Jakes was thankful for that small favor. But in his absences she had begun meeting other people, very hush-hush, and finally had an open affair with another socially prominent divorcee that led to the ultimate breakup of their own marriage, not to mention feigned shock and dismay throughout their social world and headlines in the NY Times society pages.
Finally freed from his wife and with his kids absent, Jakes went full demi-monde, making up for lost time. He would disappear for weeks, and as he managed his own investments with the help of a private firm, no one really knew where he went or what he did. They certainly would never have imagined John Jakes lying on this cot and dreaming this dream, or that a demon roamed the same streets as John Jakes, or that the elegant and impeccably groomed John Jakes was beginning to rot from inside out.