Reading about Bill Cosby’s fondness for using Quaaludes to drug women he wanted to assault sexually brought back vivid memories of my life in Manhattan in the late Sixties and early Seventies. The bottom drawer of my dresser was crammed full of pharmaceutical samples, including Quaaludes, and one night at Max’s Kansas City, a movie star sitting next to me offered me one from his stash, saying what a marvelous drug it was, then promptly conked out and fell to the floor unconscious.
About those drug samples: in one of the many part-time secretarial jobs I took to sustain myself while seeking fame and fortune as an artist, I worked for a physician in a prestigious group practice at the corner of Park Avenue and 79th Street. He and his colleagues had an upscale clientele, including several Rockefellers. A couple of nights a week after regular office hours, I came in to transcribe the case notes he recorded on an old-fashioned Dictaphone. I quickly picked up the medical terminology and abbreviations, and I got a vicarious thrill from all the intimate details—who was a heart attack waiting to happen, who had terminal cancer, who was on the verge of a breakdown. Even the mundane details of physical examinations and blood tests fascinated me.*
The doctors occupied a rambling corner suite on the second floor that had once been a luxurious apartment for some Park Avenue dowager. Down the hall from my office was a spacious bathroom with white porcelain fixtures and walls clad in white tile. An enormous old claw-footed bathtub dominated the room, and it was always overflowing with packets of pharmaceuticals dropped off by the sales reps from the drug companies. The drugs were tossed helter skelter into the tub with no attempt at organization, and the supply never diminished. On the contrary, it kept on growing.
Even at the height of the Sixties, I was never heavily into drugs—alcohol was and still is my preferred vice. But I hated to see all those pills and capsules go to waste. I figured some of my friends might enjoy them. Besides, some of the uppers might come in handy when I was scrambling to finish paintings in time for a show, and the downers could help me sleep. I began smuggling out a few samples when I’d finished my transcriptions, and before long I was bringing them out in tote bags. No one seemed to miss them.
I focused on Dexamyl, Dexedrine and Eskatrol, all manufactured by SmithKline & French, all featuring amphetamine as the primary ingredient and all touted as weight-loss drugs. Dexamyl also included amobarbital, a barbiturate to moderate the effects of the speed, and was marketed as an antidepressant. The triangular purple pills became wildly popular street drugs, known as “purple hearts.” The FDA and the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, the predecessor of today’s Drug Enforcement Agency or DEA, began cracking down on weight-loss drugs that contained amphetamine, and they were all banned by 1973.
I gleaned the information above from Wikipedia. Back in the day, I barely knew what amphetamine was. Like the doctors prescribing the stuff, I knew only what I read on the inserts in the sample packets. But I was inherently cautious, and I took the drugs seldom, in small doses, and only when I needed to paint late into the wee small hours.
In the late 60’s, six-packs of Quaaludes began showing up among the other goodies in the bathtub, and I began taking them home to stash in my bottom drawer. But that’s another story, and this post is turning out to be longer than I expected, so I’ll save my Quaalude experiences for the next post. If you haven’t yet subscribed, please do so now by clicking in the menu on the right. That way you’ll get an email notification, so you won’t miss the next exciting installment.
*This was my first job in the medical field, and there were many more to follow. For a couple of years I was the office manager for an urologist in another Park Avenue office. I wore a white nurse’s uniform, and for the sake of propriety I stood watch in the exam room when he examined women and stuck stainless steel rods up their urethras. Years later, I picked up an M.A. in art therapy and embarked on a genuine professional career, working in a psychiatric hospital and founding my own home care agency, but that’s another story.
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