On the inside of writer James Salant’s left forearm is a tattoo, in classic Old English Style, that reads “Dirty Jersey.” As a young man who grew up in Princeton, the son of prominent professionals, who went to southern California to combat a serious drug addiction but ended up becoming a crystal methamphetamine addict, Salant got the tattoo because he wanted to project a tough or “hard” image to his friends and acquaintances, many of whom were convicts.
The arm, and the tattoo, is emblazoned on the cover of Salant’s new book, “Leaving Dirty Jersey,” a memoir of his descent from his affluent Princeton life — where his father, Nathan, a psychotherapist, maintains offices in Manhattan and the Princeton area, and his mother Lydia, a former professor of Russian literature, also has a therapy practice — to the underside of the southern California drug culture, as well as his return to New Jersey, sanity, and a clean life focused on learning.
In the memoir, which will be officially released on Tuesday, May 8, Salant takes the reader through freakish sexual encounters, con-on-con violence, the seediness of hotel rooms, trailers and cheap apartments, and the day-to-day anguish of trying to satisfy a craving that could never be satisfied. After undergoing a psychotic episode, Salant came back home, turned himself in, pled guilty to charges of drug distribution, and served a three-day sentence in Mercer County Jail before entering his last six-month rehab program. He also had to serve four and a half years of probation. The possession charge came from a 2002 arrest in Princeton; Salant was sent by the court to a rehab program in Riverside, California, and when he relapsed after leaving rehab, he violated the terms of his New Jersey suspended sentence.
Salant will be making an appearance and reading from his book on Thursday, May 10, at Barnes and Noble at Marketfair. The next day he appears at Barnes and Noble in Greenwich Village in Manhattan.
Salant, 23, says he has been clean for almost three years. He now lives in Princeton Junction with his girlfriend and spends most of his days in a voracious quest for knowledge — reading, writing, and studying, “trying to get the education I did not get when I was doing drugs.”
His story is just more proof that unlike the picture painted by those who have crafted our frankly racist and classist “war on drugs,” it is not just the poor or minorities who fall victim to the drug scourge. It can also happen to people like Salant, a self-described “fat kid from a rich white family.”
Reading Salant’s book is like driving by a car wreck; it’s scary, tragic, and harrowing, and you don’t really want to look, but for some reason you can’t turn away. Salant’s prose is matter of fact without being sensationalistic, and dryly humorous as well. He chronicles — sometimes disgustingly and disconcertingly graphically — years of drug use, going from pot to heroin to crystal meth, as well as his involvement with decadent characters.
He doesn’t glorify drugs. He just tries to understand why he, and others like him, including his older brother, Joe, were unable to stay away from them.
Salant was born in Manhattan and moved to Princeton as a young boy. His parents provided Salant and his older brother, Joe, with a safe, comfortable atmosphere while growing up. It was his older brother, the more popular and athletic Joe, who turned Salant on to drugs, but the author blames his parents for not being more strict with him. “Sometimes I wish they would have just smacked me upside the head once or twice,” he says. In fact, Salant admits, Nathan and Lydia Salant don’t come off looking too good in the book.
Salant says he believes that a major reason for his entry into the drug world was simple rebellion. He was rebellious against his parents’ liberal, permissive manner and their affluent lifestyle. “It was somewhat hard to explain,” he says. “Some girls get tongue piercings, and their conservative fathers blow their tops. I sometimes joke with my parents that with how liberal and open-minded they were, I could have gotten a tongue ring, or a tattoo, or I could have been gay, and they wouldn’t have even flinched. For me to really shock them I had to kind of go all the way. The thing is, it wasn’t really conscious on my part.”
Nevertheless, Salant is very grateful to them for their support — emotional, financial, and otherwise. “Yes, they should and could have smacked me when I needed a smack,” he says. “But the flip side of that was these 100 percent open-minded liberal parents were just what I needed when I finally began to clean up my life.”
Armed with a $75,000 advance for his book, Salant spends most of his days studying Latin and writing. He believes he has a lot of learning to catch up on in his quest to become a novelist. “My biggest passion now is writing,” he says.
He has spent time as a counselor at Mercer County’s alternative high school, where he spoke about drug use and tried not to be too preachy to the students. “I just tried to get one message across. No matter where you have been, or what you have done, there are better things out there. There is a light at the end of the tunnel for you.”
Princeton has changed too since he was a student at Princeton High School. He hears from students and others about the drug and gang problems that have intensified since he was in school, and he is dismayed. “It’s worse than it was when I was doing all of the stuff I did there, and that was worse than it had ever been before. There is something wrong with the youth.”
Frequently, those who are involved in drugs or other addictions but find themselves a way to get clean often ascribe their success to spiritual means. While Salant does not discount this — his brother is now a born-again Christian — he says that in his case spirituality was a minor, not major, factor. “I am not religious at all,” says Salant. “I am more of a devout secularist and agnostic, but to be fair, when I was getting out, I was more vaguely spiritual. (In many rehab programs), I can see that the way they encourage you to to believe in something other than yourself is a powerful and maybe even necessary thing.”
To get himself clean, Salant went on a workout binge. He spent so much time at Momentum Fitness on Route 206 in Montgomery that the staff there gave him a trainer’s staff shirt and allowed him to help train clients. He says he began working out shortly after moving to California to his first rehab facility and has continued to do so today.
As someone who has been a drug user and gone through the rehabilitation and criminal justice systems, Salant has an insider’s perspective on the national discourse on drugs. He is not fond of the way the United States deals with the drug problem. “I think our drug policy is terrible,” he says. “I do not think (drug use) should be criminalized. The amount of money spent on interdiction and incarceration relative to treatment is way disproportionate. They think of junkies as tough guys and outlaws, when really they are nothing but pathetic and lame.”
The war on drugs, Salant says, is simply not working. “There are 2.2 million people in prisons, most of them black men in for minor drug offenses. This is destroying whole communities and neighborhoods.”
“Leaving Dirty Jersey,” booksigning by Princeton Junction author James Salant, Thursday, May 10, 7:30 p.m., Barnes & Noble, Marketfair. 609-716-1570.