Pharmacies of New York
200 Water Street
New York, NY 10038
The pharmacist won’t tell you over the phone if the store has in stock the controlled substance you need. The pharmacist won’t tell you anything about controlled substances until you’re inside the pharmacy, prescription in hand. Todd, your doctor, says that pharmacists think you’re calling from a payphone down the street; you’ll signal your boyfriend, and he’ll enter the pharmacy with a note and a gun and rob it. But you don’t have a gun or a boyfriend. You have a prescription for 200 30-milligram oxycodone pills and don’t want to run all over Manhattan with a migraine looking for them. But you do have to run all over Manhattan, head pulsing like a rabbit heart because the pharmacist won’t tell you whether she has your pills or if another store has them or if any Duane Reades have any oxys at all. Start, like you always do, at the Water Street Duane Reade. You can see it from your boss’ office windows. You’re pretty sure the Water Street Duane Reade doesn’t even stock C-IIs but test it anyway. Imagine how different—how tranquil, how balanced—a life you could lead if your oxys were only a step across the street, as accessible to you as are antibiotics and insulin and birth control pills to their consumers. The pharmacist here is a young guy, blond and bland as a Saltine cracker. “Do you have…this?” you ask in pharmacy voice. Pharmacy voice sounds like hurt. Pharmacy voice amplifies the pain that you modulate your everyday voice to conceal. Step on that effects pedal in your throat and distort it. Add in some reverb, a little quiver on the last syllable. The pharmacist at the Water Street Duane Reade leans in to listen; he gives your script a glance and asks someone something you can’t hear. He shakes his head. “We don’t stock that medication,” he says. He looks a little apologetic, but mostly he looks at you like all pharmacists look at you. He looks at you like you’re a junkie. Nod and knead your temples with your index finger and thumb. Ignore the judgment in his eyes and say, “Thanks.” Pharmacy voice on a feedback loop. Pharmacy voice obscures how badly you’d like to punch the pharmacist on his smug little mouth as he tells you he can’t tell you which drugs other Duane Reads keep on their shelves. You’re no longer a voice on the phone—you’re a 27-year-old woman wearing sunglasses inside and clutching a legitimate prescription—but you’re still a suspect. Walk out angry and hopeless despite having known when you walked in exactly how the scene would play.
129 Fulton Street
New York, NY 10038
Next, check the CVS across from the Fulton Street subway station. Its pharmacist is a middle-aged black man who wears a white knit kufi cap and affects an exasperated expression, like he can’t believe you’ve dared enter a nationwide pharmacy chain to ask for a drug. You’re careful to hold onto your prescription. The same pharmacist once took it and refused to give it back. He said it looked suspicious. Your prescriptions are always already suspicious because you’re young and able-bodied, and you’re getting an awful lot of the instant-release oxy 30s that junkies covet. In the Fulton Street CVS, everyone looks suspicious. Everyone looks like they live in Yonkers or New Jersey. There is a PATH train on this street, but there are PATH trains on lots of streets, and those places don’t feel like portals to 1999. Join the drab, defeated people in scrunchies and elastic-waisted jeans on line at the pharmacy counter, beside a scuffed-up display that doesn’t make sense because aren’t all CVS displays the same, and doesn’t the one at 14th Street look clean and even a little bit glamorous? You’ve never actually filled a prescription here, but you came close once. You couldn’t find your pills anywhere but at this CVS, which had 60 of them. You asked the pharmacist, again and again, to grant you an IOU or to hold the 60 pills so you could try University Chemists before you gave up two-thirds of that month’s prescription in exchange for a six-day supply. While you waited for his final refusal, a scraggly, heavyset blonde offered to meet you in the morning and spit some of her methadone into your mouth. She scrawled her phone number into your Moleskine and you knew you had to find oxys somewhere; if you didn’t, you might actually call her. In the hour you spent traveling to and from the Lower East Side, someone else took CVS’ oxys. You didn’t have enough pills to make it through the next day, let alone the week that could pass before the pharmacies restocked their opioids, so Todd wrote you a temporary supply of Dilaudid, which you filled at the Beth Israel Duane Reade. Since then, the pharmacist at the Fulton Street CVS says, “We’re out,” every time you bring in a prescription. But you have to try. Everybody takes a day off sometimes.
Duane Reade: Beth Israel Medical Center
10 Union Square East
New York, NY 10003
Get on the train at Fulton Street and head to Union Square. Usually, you can count on the Duane Reade in the lobby of the Beth Israel Medical Center at 14th Street to fill your script. Todd has admitting privileges at Beth Israel. He tried to convince them to let you use the actual hospital pharmacy, but the actual hospital pharmacy is for actual hospital patients. Sometimes you imagine getting yourself admitted to the hospital just so you can use its pharmacy; you imagine shelves and shelves of narcotics upstairs, shelves and shelves of pain relief stretching out of your grasp like something out of Alice in Wonderland. But there’s a pain management practice in the huge glass Beth Israel building and the miniature Duane Reade you’re allowed to patronize stocks painkillers to service its patients. If it services you, shove the crinkly white bag into the bottom of your purse and clench your right fist around the oversized leather bag’s beat-up straps. Your pills could net between $3500 to $9000 on the black market. Someone might kill you for that. But more and more often, Beth Israel tells you they’re out, too. Most of the people you see in the Beth Israel Duane Reade are pain patients: elderly and in wheelchairs, wearing casts on their arms, walking with canes. You are ruthless, darting past a decrepit old man so that you’ll make it first to the pills you know he’s gunning for, too. You might feel bad when you hear the man ask the pharmacy techs where he can get his prescription filled—he doesn’t know the geopolitics of it all—but don’t dwell on his problem. You are just like him, only younger and faster and nastier. And he doesn’t look like a doctor shopper or a drug seeker the way you do. The pharmacist doesn’t assume that patients with leg braces or walkers or full heads of grey hair just want to get high. At Beth Israel, the pharmacist is a Chinese-American woman shaped like an apple. She’s flanked by two young techs: a girl who pulls her sandy-brown hair into a tight ponytail and a good-looking black guy with impeccably-tattooed forearms. The guy will fill your script without giving you shit, but the girl always has the pharmacist’s back. Once, she called over the pharmacist to ask whether your doctor’s signature looked a little different than usual. “His signature always looks a little different,” you said. “Pull up his signatures. Look. They’re all a little different.” The pharmacist called Todd’s office anyway. The practice had closed almost two hours earlier, and she made you wait while his answering service paged him. The pharmacist got Todd on the phone and honored your prescription, but she also clucked her tongue and claimed that your doctor was “none too happy with you.” Her words devastated you. You and Todd sign off on emails with Love. He shows you his crocheting projects and pictures of his curly-haired dog Teddy. He uses himself as an example to convince you that no drug is as scary as you think it is. When you were afraid to try Prozac, Todd said, “I’m probably being unprofessional here,” and described the depression that followed his parents’ sudden deaths. “It didn’t make me a different person,” he told you, “but it cleared the fog.” He said that without Prozac he wouldn’t be your doctor; he wouldn’t be anyone’s doctor because he wouldn’t have made it through medical school, and he might be dead. You know you’re trouble, but Todd likes a challenge, and you are like a puzzle whose pieces never quite fit together. He’s always saying, “I wish I could do more for you,” as if he doesn’t know he’s doing everything. After you got your script from the Duane Reade tech with the cheerleader ponytail, you emailed to let Todd know you had your pills. You told him what the pharmacist said and apologized for whatever you’d done to upset him. I hope you know I would tell you myself if I were mad at you, Todd replied in an email later that night. If just once a pharmacist called to ask me about a drug interaction I missed or tell me about a cheaper generic I could have prescribed, I wouldn’t mind so much, but it’s always some petty shit that makes you stressed out and me angry. He started switching you back and forth between 20 and 30-milligram oxys so you could get new pills before the requisite 27 days had passed, and he lets you pick up your scripts a week early so that, when you go to fill them, every pharmacist’s shaking head won’t send you spinning into crisis mode.
145 4th Avenue
New York, NY 10003
You’re never able to stop yourself from dropping in on the Walgreens at 14th and 4th if Beth Israel fails you. Even though you’ll never fill a prescription here, you’re sure that the day you skip this Walgreens will end up the only day in the store’s history on which it’s stocked oxycodone. Its aisles are narrow and its shelves low; you can stretch your neck and see the toothpaste stacked opposite the hair dye. Hurry to the pharmacy at the back of the store. It’s desolate there, as though the pharmacy holds nothing at all and so everyone knows to avoid it. Show your prescription to the pharmacist, a kind 50-something with a salt-and-pepper crew cut, and ask if he can fill it because you never know. Except you do. He can’t. Your pulse ticks off the minutes you’ve wasted. You feel stupid for even bothering. But it’s too tempting: a pharmacy, right there at the corner of hope and your breaking point.
77 7th Avenue
New York, NY 10011
The Duane Reade across from Washington Square Park must at least sometimes have your pills. The store is huge. The store is its own city block. The pharmacy counter is long and clean and as tall as you are. Behind it sits rows of medications in white boxes. That a cache of oxycodone isn’t hiding among them seems impossible. Stand on the tips of your toes so the pharmacist can see you. She’s one of those women whose age you can’t guess because she’s probably looked the way she looks now since she turned twenty-five and probably won’t age until she hits her sixties. She’s thin and angular and appears as if she pairs red-soled stilettos with her white coat. Her speaking voice is small and quiet, but her verdict is firm. “No, we don’t,” she says when you ask her if they’ve got 30-milligram oxys. Keep your script in sight so that she knows why you’re asking, but after Beth Israel, you quit caring about judging pharmacists and began panicking about your pills. The pharmacist consults a computer for a long time. She consults the shelves. She goes back to her computer. “We might get it on Wednesday,” she says. By Wednesday, you’ll be in withdrawal. “Sorry.” She says it in the tone you use when people ask you questions on the train and you just want to read your book undisturbed. Sometimes you skip this Duane Reade. It’s too sad, and it compounds your pessimism. Not because they don’t have your painkillers. You never expected them to have your painkillers; you’re just checking in case by some fluke in the supply chain they got Beth Israel’s. This Duane Reade is sad because it feels abandoned. The pharmacist looks so bitter and lonely that you almost feel sorry for her. But don’t make a habit of feeling sorry for pharmacists. For all you know, she’s sitting on the oxycodone, waiting for you to leave so she can laugh with her tech about the desperate addict she turned away. Picture it, how she’d stick her chin in the air and say, “We’ll never be like that hole-in-the-wall Beth Israel branch.”
931 Lexington Avenue
New York, NY 10065
You used to go north if you couldn’t find your pills at Beth Israel, but now you don’t even bother with pharmacies above 34th Street. They never have anything. During one especially frustrating hunt, you tried a Metro Drugs on the Upper East Side. You had picked up the habit of snooping in medicine cabinets from an opiate-addicted ex, so you know that rich people usually keep at least one narcotic prescription in theirs. Surely, you thought, pharmacies in affluent neighborhoods kept themselves better stocked than their downtown counterparts. Where else would New York’s elite get those bottles filled with Vicodin and Xanax? But your assumption proved incorrect. Or maybe the pharmacists asked themselves what you were doing so far from your doctor’s office, which is just north of Houston; they might have deemed you a pharmacy hopper, decided you’d come all the way up to 68th and Lexington because all the NoHo pharmacists red flagged you. Pharmacists lie all the time. They call it “using their discretion.”
74 University Place
New York, NY 10003
You’ll find out about University Chemists after the pharmacy situation gets so bad that Todd makes Ethan, his office manager, call pharmacies for you. Pharmacists admit to medical personnel things they would never tell a patient. Ethan looks for pain management centers and calls the pharmacies that service their patients. University Chemists is an independent pharmacy, which means both that they operate under more empathetic guidelines and that they don’t know whether you filled a month’s supply at Duane Reade three or 30 days ago. The pharmacist, an older man of Middle Eastern descent, gives you all the oxys he has, and if it doesn’t cover your full prescription, he lets you come back and collect the rest when he gets a new shipment. He keeps track in his head of when his patients will next need their meds; if no one else needs what you need that day, he’ll hold your pills until you make it there to pick them up. If he doesn’t have any, he’ll point you to pharmacies that probably do, even if it means losing your business that month. Sometimes he’ll call around. Walking into University Chemists feels like entering someone’s home. It doesn’t look like a home. It looks like a pharmacy built in the 1980s and never fully updated; it doesn’t have a computer or a self-swipe credit card machine or even a waiting area. You can wait on a folding chair by a tiny rack of greeting cards or wander the aisles that hold only essentials: vitamins and NSAIDs, feminine hygiene products and diapers, deodorant and soaps. There’s no refrigerator full of ice cream sandwiches and microwave pizzas or entire row dedicated to pet supplies. No table fans or magazines. Reach across a low counter to hand your prescription to the pharmacist, who treats you like a person instead of a problem. Once you learn about University Chemists, make it your first stop, or wait until Ethan calls to tell you he found your oxys there. Put down the phone and tell your boss you’ll be back in half an hour; a pharmacy has your pills, and you can’t risk letting them go to someone else. Hop on the 5 train or the A, limbs quivering with animal fear. Even when Ethan promises that University Chemists can fill your script, you don’t feel safe until the pharmacist says, “Do you want to wait on it?” You always do. Sit in the folding chair and try to concentrate on your book until he hands you the bag and you wrap your hand around the bottle to confirm it’s in there. You walk back to the subway nearly out of your body. You aren’t happy exactly; finding your pills isn’t like buying weed in college when you looked forward to putting your feet up on your coffee table and getting high on fresh greenery. Leaving a pharmacy with painkillers in your purse is like surviving a car accident sans seatbelt. You feel grateful, relieved, and—just for a second—invincible. But it doesn’t last. The cycle starts up again the minute you’re back in your cubicle, always late because you exit out the wrong side of the subway and don’t know where you are. You are here. Collect 200 pills and two weeks of peace. Land on Water Street. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
Amy Long earned an M.F.A from Virginia Tech’s Creative Writing program in 2016. She holds a B.A. in English and Women’s Studies and a Master’s degree in Women’s Studies from the University of Florida. Amy previously worked in communications for drug policy reform and free-speech advocacy groups in Santa Cruz, CA; Washington, D.C.; and New York City. Currently, she serves as a contributing editor to the drug history blog Points. Her work has appeared in Atticus Review, Best American Experimental Writing 2015, and Heavy Feather Review, which featured Amy’s essay on lithub.com. She lives in Austin, Texas.
Silas Breaux holds an M.F.A. in Printmaking from Tulane University and a B.F.A. in Printmaking with a minor in Painting from the Savannah College of Art and Design. He also studied figure painting and figure drawing under Costa Vavagiakis at the Art Students League of New York. He has taught at Tulane and held positions at Photograve Workshop and Tandem Press. Silas’ work has been exhibited at the Louisiana State University Museum of Art; International Print Center of New York; Ten Gallery, Octavia Gallery, and Carroll Gallery in New Orleans; Hall of Awa Japanese Handmade Paper in Tokushima, Japan; BECA Gallery in Albuquerque, New Mexico; and Liu Haisu Art Museum in Shanghai, China, among other venues. His pieces are in the permanent collections of the Southern Graphics Council International, the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design, and Savannah College of Art and Design. Silas is a 2013 Awagami International Miniature Print Exhibition Prize-Winning Artist. He lives in Corpus Christi, Texas.