The Quick Fix

A smack addict tries to become an overnight success

It is late morning on the kind of beautiful, clear day that compels artists to paint the San Francisco Bay. Bob is in the bedroom of his home, meticulously taking stock of the contents of his luggage. He and Fran, his wife of 17 years, have talked about this trip so much that it's literally become the single focus of their lives in recent weeks.

Bob darts around the house, checks the time, again, and then disappears somewhere outside. Fran, meanwhile, makes a last review through the house, an immaculate, sort of middle-class Martha Stewart affair, where fabric is tastefully coordinated and cats play under the rocking chair.

They arrive at the airport with plenty of time to spare, but that's where the schedule tilts. The plane is an hour late leaving San Francisco, which means that it will be an hour late arriving in San Diego, which, in turn, means that Bob will get to Ensenada, Mexico, an hour later than he's planned. An hour is a long time for Bob. Every day of his life revolves around a schedule: 6 a.m., noon, 5 p.m., 10 p.m. An hour will change his habit.

The plane takes off while Bob is still weighing a run for the door. It has taken a long time to get here, and he's promised Fran that he won't back out. Somewhere in a hospital in Mexico, a doctor he's never met is waiting for him. But, man, does Bob want to call this thing off. He paces the aisle, his head feeling as though it might explode.

Down the aisle. Talk to the stewardess. Dart into the restroom. Out of the restroom again. More talk to the stewardess. Back up the aisle.

Finally Bob returns to his seat with a white plastic bag on his knee and leans his head forward over the Budweiser on the tray table. Less than an hour to go. Someone announces a "gradual descent into San Diego." Finally the plane hits the ground.

Bob recognizes Arturo immediately at the gate, though they've never met. Arturo drives the two hours between his home in Ensenada and San Diego three times a week delivering the afflicted, and then sending them back into the world again. A quiet gentleman with formal manners, Arturo is so unobtrusive as to be almost unnoticed in the crowd, except for the square cardboard sign in his hand. Today, Bob's initials are on the sign.

"Let's talk in the car," Bob says, shifting his canvas bag from one hand to the other. "I'd kind of like to get going."

Arturo pilots a small brown minivan out of the airport parking lot and heads toward the border, with Bob and Fran in the back seat. Bob asks how long it will take to get to Ensenada, even though he knows. The air is thick and warm. Arturo looks over his shoulder and smiles.

"Is a good decision you are making," he says, filling the quiet with the small talk of an experienced guide. They would be next to the ocean most of the way down the Baja coast, he says, sometimes you can see whales, and sometimes the Border Patrol searches your luggage when you cross into Mexico.

Bob leans forward. "That's OK. I mean, I have prescription medication, though. Prescription medication is OK, right?"

At the border, a chaotic mass of cars breaks into sectioned lanes. Someone waves Arturo aside for inspection. A cop shines his light around the luggage in the back of the vehicle for what seems like too long. Arturo is calm and polite, decidedly oblivious to the tension inside the car. "Turistas going to Ensenada," he tells the cop, who motions him through the orange pylons that lead the way into Mexico.

The heroin in Bob's suitcase has gone as undetected as his habit has for the past decade. A glance at his tiny pupils tells all about the 2 1/2 grams of smack Bob shot into his body -- before he left the house this morning, then followed by a final booster at SFO. But now, and not without a certain desperation, Bob crosses the border between two countries linked by geography and drugs, between psychology and science, between addiction and hope.

San Francisco radio personality Alex Bennett is a regular part of Bob's day. In August, Bob was particularly captivated by one of Bennett's guests. Bryan Zavell, admission director of the Center for Research and Treatment of Addiction (CITA Institute) in Los Angeles, was in town on a marketing mission, talking about something called Ultra Rapid Opiate Detoxification (UROD). Bob was all ears.

Zavell is hard to turn off. He's a former car salesman, professional pool player, and drug counselor with 21 years of shooting up himself to talk about, all of which has left its mark on his personality. Bob listened to Zavell describe CITA's treatment.

CITA views opiate dependency as a central nervous system disorder, and the theory behind its treatment is that eliminating the physical withdrawal from opiates, primarily heroin, is the key to success in cleaning up the afflicted. Patients undergo treatment in a hospital intensive care unit, during which time a patented combination of chemicals is pumped through the body to remove opiates (CITA will not reveal the exact chemistry involved). The patient is sedated during the six to eight hours of the procedure, and therefore doesn't feel the agony of withdrawal.

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