As the butane torch flame vaporized the cocaine in the bowl of a glass smoking pipe, Amir Vik-Kiv inhaled deeply, held the smoke in his expanded chest, then exhaled in a breathless rush. Suddenly, his eyes bulged and his hands trembled. Beads of sweat broke out on his forehead, and perspiration stains formed under his arms.
Moments earlier, in what has become one the most bizarre rituals in the annals of drug abuse, Vik-Kiv, a 38-year-old former television cameraman, had "cooked" a gram of cocaine in the kitchen of his Northeast Washington apartment. Refining the powder with a simple recipe of water and baking soda, he had reduced the substance to a potent, insidious form known as "crack."
Within an hour he had "burned" about $100 worth of the drug, but what had happened in his brain just seven seconds after taking the first hit was more like an explosion. Although he had not eaten food in a day or had sex in months, he was no longer hungry for either.
"This is good," Vik-Kiv said, licking his lips for whatever residual drug had collected on them. "Not the best I've ever had, but satisfying."
What would happen when the dope ran out was another story, and before long Vik-Kiv would be crawling around the kitchen floor, searching for bits of cocaine that might have spilled. When he found anything white, he would smoke it -- and gag at the taste of what could have been anything from a burning bread crumb to a smoldering roach egg.
Long after the cocaine was gone, Vik-Kiv continued to heat his empty pipe. This sort of compulsive action is, relatively speaking, the lighter side of a gathering scourge. Cocaine abuse has become a major health problem here, with freebasing or smoking crack one of the leading causes of drug-related emergency room admissions.
When Vik-Kiv began his hunt for cocaine yesterday morning, he was looking for what America's drug culture now deems the "ultimate" sensation, an instant euphoria said to be similar to but more intense than being gassed with nitrous oxide by a dentist.
There was no doubt that the drug helped Vik-Kiv forget his problems, a main one being the realization that he had once been riding high.
The son of middle-class professional parents, he has lived in Washington since the age of 3. He was graduated from McKinley High School and went to work as a mechanic for Malcolm Durham, the first black factory-sponsored drag racer.
Vik-Kiv had been an award-winning television cameraman and photographer, traveling to Africa for Ebony Magazine and working for WDCA-TV (Channel 20), NBC, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Cable News Network. He had formed his own nonprofit media company, started his own vegetarian sandwich company and hosted a radio show on station WPFW. He had been photographed with presidents Nixon and Carter, and with the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
On congressional letterhead stationery, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) wrote of Vik-Kiv in March 1983: "On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, Amir produced a national forum on the 'Crossfire' show, from which I discussed the King holiday bill with hosts Tom Braden and Pat Buchanan. Because of Amir's unceasing efforts and sense of responsibility, we were able to seize the most opportune time to call on the consciousness of America. I am thankful Amir provided us with that moment."
Less than three years later, Vik-Kiv had sold virtually everything in his apartment -- including four Nikon cameras, a stereo and a color television set -- to support his 1 1/2-year-old crack habit.
Before taking his first hit yesterday, Vik-Kiv explained his state of mind:
"Now I am depressed," he said. "I have a son who is an invalid and I can't do anything about it. I had worked for a white guy who was genius in electronics, but he made jokes about the Ethiopian famine and referred to me as 'boy.' My parents don't understand me, and there is an emptiness in my life -- I can't put a finger on it. I think I need a lady to help get me straight."
Then he hit the pipe.
"This is a serious pickup," he said, wide-eyed and smiling. "I don't mean to sound poetic, but this temporal condition is the epitome of happiness."
Yet he was aware of the downside, a steep plunge into sleepless depression followed by severe guilt at having sold his most treasured possessions for a few minutes of pleasure.
"What I want most is to get help," Vik-Kiv said as the high began to fade. "This thing is like a rusty knife being twisted in my brain. I wish I had the intestinal fortitude to say no, but I can't. It's not like I'd kill to get another hit, but when that craving sets in, nothing gets in my way."
Last November, he began seeking help. But frustration over the paucity of drug treatment facilities in this area made his problem worse.
The cheapest program he found was Seaton House at Providence Hospital in Northeast Washington -- $8,000 for 30 days.
There were six-month waiting lists for bed space at other hospitals. He tried Narcotics Anonymous but left after two sessions.
"It was like going to a Boy Scout meeting," Vik-Kiv said. "You get a pat on the back and a merit badge if you stay off drugs for a year or six months or whatever.
"What I need is serious help."