‘Straight Outta Tompkins’: The Resurgence of New York’s Drug Scene as a Film Genre


The drug scene has always been a central influence in New York culture. The City’s atmospheric seediness and drug-fueled greed, despair, and depravity is well documented in films like New Jack City, Kids, and so many others – New York is a movie genre unto itself that inevitably includes drug use. I’m not going to get into why that is, I’ll leave it at a remark a visiting friend of mine made, “how could you live in this City and not at least smoke weed?”

In culture, crack and heroin are portrayed as being more than just drugs, they are indicators of systemic faults and emblematic of societal flaws in the reality we’ve created. To paraphrase a response New Jack’s star & director Mario van Peebles gave in our interview with him, the drug user/drug dealer mentality buys and sells the citizenry as commodities. Once you’ve bought into that mentality, he asks, what you have become?

We rely on the arts to explore this question. However, it’s been a long time since a gritty and hard film has come out that genuinely reflects New York and isn’t OD saccharine. Enter Straight Outta Tompkins, a new film that seeks to re-establish pre-conceived notions of what it means to be a New Yorker in 2014. Straight Outta Tompkins depicts a Lower East Side teenager who gets drawn into mainlining heroin despite being a baseball star (replace baseball with basketball and you seemingly have The Basketball Diaries, but whatever).

Though I’m not a heroin addict, watching the trailer for Straight Outta Tompkins has me reminiscing about my own brush with New York’s heroin scene.

It was Summer of my 16th year on this Earth and my friend and I decided to ingest psilocybin mushrooms. We began on the Upper West Side near Central Park, and soon found ourselves in Tompkins Square Park (the movie’s namesake, I assume), which is on East 7th St. and Avenue A. The Park has a romantic connotation in New York lore, it was site of the 1980s anti-gentrification movement that erupted into the Tompkins Square Park Riot of 1988. I hardly perceived anything romantic about it, and the Park has been cleaned up in the last few years – i.e. all the homeless people were pushed elsewhere. Gentrification is rapid in this city. 

It was a beautiful day and we were enjoying exploring a part of Manhattan that we hadn’t spent much time in. So my friend and I posted up on one of the park’s benches, watching the crusties with their facial tattoos that look like they were done in a k-hole, wondering where these people came from. They seem to fancy themselves the classic American drifter born On The Road. Neverthelessas I came to see, they’re mostly just junkies.

These crusties were sitting on Tompkins Square Park benches adjacent and across from us. We watched a man shoot up, then another. Some other guy spilled a bunch of pills and proceeded to accuse yet another crusty of stealing them. It’s 1pm and my friend and I are sitting there zonked on mushrooms, thinking to ourselves, “what the fuck are we seeing?” It was harrowing and profoundly impacted my psyche. 

This was also the first day I realized there was White Trash in Manhattan.  Such a person was walking up the path towards us, freestyling, when his eyes rolled back in his head and he started convulsing. The kid OD’d right in front of us. He was standing there geeking out for a minute before some aide workers came through, who then helped him to sit down and gave him water. We had a conversation with one of the aide workers, who told us he was a recovering addict himself. We also conversed with a long-time local, who told us that until recently he hadn’t seen anything like this since the 90s. 

Later, a squad car rolled through and stopped next to him. The cop in the driver’s seat rolled down his window and asked, “buddy, are you alright?” Wordlessly, the kid stood up and began moving towards the car, only to be told “just sit down, man.” The police then just drove off.

Shortly afterward we departed the vicinity, I vomited. The image of the man jamming a spike into his vein just like in the Lou Reed song “Heroin” was seared into my mind. I was young, I couldn’t grasp exactly what I saw. Having pondered the experience for years, I can see how smack viciously shackles the id of our psychological apparatus. I don’t fully understand it, I’ve never been ensnared by such a narcotic, though it’s obvious that drug laws are woefully obsolete in treating drug addiction.

The Basketball Diaries, which stars Leonardo DiCaprio, is powerful in the potential the film has to open a dialogue about the perils of drug addiction. Based on the Lou Carroll book of the same name, DiCaprio plays a promising young athlete who becomes a junkie who gets his dick sucked for smack in subway stations. Because of Carroll’s vast skill with the pen, he was able to turn his life around and make something out of his drug-scene experiences. Many are not as fortunate, and end up succumbing to their addiction. My hope is that Straight Outta Tompkins will open a similar dialogue about New York’s dark underbelly, an aspect of the City that has been forsaken in favor of Taylor-fucking-Swift.

Watch the trailer for Straight Outta Tompkins below:

Ben Toren