While the men talked sports and sang at her bedside, One Hand Diane prepared to serve another customer. Although her left arm and right leg have been amputated, she is considered by many to be the best "hit doctor" in the city.
"Bring it on down," said One Hand, motioning to the customer with a heroin-filled syringe, which she held like a throwing dart. One Hand lay on a mattress, about 80 pounds of abscessed flesh wrapped in a sheet and resting on a circular hot water tube. A syringe was stuck in the nub of what had been a leg.
The customer lay across her bed, facing a nicotine-stained ceiling light that gave the room a putrid haze. "Hit me in the neck -- now!" the customer commanded. One Hand held the syringe in her mouth and fingered for veins.
What was about to be injected into the customer was anybody's guess. A buy had been made minutes earlier at the corner of 14th and W streets NW. It was a $30 bag of something called "Cincinnati." It was assumed to be heroin, but when the syringe began to fog up One Hand paused.
"Hey, what's that?" asked another customer, who was holding an alcohol-soaked paper towel to his neck.
The customer who was about to be injected winced, then said, "Oh, it must be cut with cocaine -- or something." One Hand shrugged, raised the syringe like an ice pick then made the hit. True to form, she never even looked at the customer's neck.
The increase in this city's heroin addict population has made people like One Hand Diane popular and powerful. Because many junkies are afraid to inject themselves, they pay someone else to do it. One Hand charges $5 a hit. Her associates say she earns more than $800 a day, half of which goes to support her own heroin habit.
Her apartment is well known to D.C. narcotics officers, who have raided it several times. Located just off the Howard University campus, near the Highway Christian Church, it is just one of hundreds of what are known as "oil joints," formerly called "shooting galleries." While police were occupied elsewhere, word got out that One Hand was cool again.
Around this site, a junkie life style has mushroomed that belies the myth of glamor often associated with drugs. Women congregate around One Hand's bloodstained bed, tending to her needs in hopes of receiving free hits. Men nod, scratch at open sores and vomit through their noses.
And in the midst of it all is One Hand Diane, a grotesque symbol of the living death that is heroin. She had started, like most others, with a casual sniff, a fit and full-bodied woman of 180 pounds searching for relief. Now, at age 37, she looked like a corpse, a decomposing body, with movement only in her eyes and that one hand.
A few years ago, she had taken a "bad batch," heroin that had been cut with iron or quinine. Some people lose their voices when this happens; others lose their lives. One Hand had lost an arm and a leg. But who cared?
She didn't. Heroin addicts care about heroin, and how to finance that next hit. One Hand had found a solution to that problem as a successful oil joint house mama.
"Don't chuck your guts in here," she warned a customer who staggered around the room in search of a trash can.
"This is good stuff," the customer said, stumbling toward an open window, where he began to vomit.
One Hand was doing a bustling business; customers were lined up at her bedroom door. "Ya'll coming from everywhere tonight," she said, stuffing dollar bills into the sheet next to her body. The smell of burnt bottle caps had combined with her personal malodor to create a gut-retching stench.
Worst of all, children stood in the doorway to One Hand's bedroom -- singing along with the groaning junkies, discreetly peeking at what was going on.
"When that depression hits you, this just takes the world away," a customer told a child as One Hand finished a hit. One Hand passed the customer a paper towel then pointed to a bottle of rubbing alcohol.
"Damn! My neck! Is it swelling up?" the customer asked. Nobody even looked up, except One Hand, who was holding out her hand for a payment, and a child who stared curiously at the blood dripping from the junkie's neck.