The rain is lashing the window next to our booth. The diner is nearly empty. Trucks on Route 206 roar past, their headlights a blur in the rainstorm. Pagano, 31, has worked all day in a deli and bakery. She was up at 6:30 a.m. Her hands are cupped around a glass of unsweetened ice tea. Her dark, auburn hair is pulled up in a neat bun. Her eyes are carefully lined with mascara.
Her drug use began when she was a 16-year-old in high school, after a classmate confessed to the school guidance counselor that she had had sex with Pagano's stepfather. Her mother's marriage, and with it whatever stability it provided in Pagano's life, imploded. The story about the classmate and Pagano's stepfather became public in her rural community in northern New Jersey. She felt humiliated. She began to snort heroin. She dropped out of school and worked to feed her habit. She got into a drug treatment program in 2007. She got sober. She lived in a group house in Brick, N.J., where all the residents promised not to use drugs or alcohol. She met a man who had just gotten out of prison and was also in recovery. They set out to make a life together.
She worked in a diner and got a cosmetology certificate. She and her boyfriend rented a house and bought a car. She became pregnant. After she gave birth she stayed home with her son.
"I was a new mom," she says. "I had no idea what I was doing. I was really overwhelmed. I don't remember ever really thinking about using or drinking, but I was never all right. I was never really OK with who I was. I always felt not good enough. And even as a mom, with ... this beautiful child, I never felt OK. I use to bite my nails all the time. I was very anxiety-ridden."
She and her boyfriend went regularly to meetings for those in recovery from addiction. They stayed clean for four years.
"I remember the day that my son's father and I decided it would be OK that we had a drink," she says. "And it was like totally normal. We were in our house in Sussex. Our neighbor came over and she didn't know I was in recovery. And I never bothered to tell her. And she had a bottle of wine in her hand. And we barbecued and I drank a glass of wine. ... And I did not want to drink any more. I was still pretty coherent enough that I didn't want to be drunk, because of my son."
She thinks her boyfriend, who was working for a tree service company and was a member of the electricians union, was secretly taking the opiate Oxycontin. He suggested they go "doctor shopping" to get pills to sell. Her boyfriend's family had a history of addictions. His father had died in the jail on Riker's Island in New York. His sister was a heroin addict and a prostitute who worked for a well-known New Jersey pimp called "Prince" who drove a Rolls-Royce and a white Cadillac with flashy rims and white carpeting. "He would walk into this bar in Jersey City called Ringside," Pagano says. "He would go, 'The champ is here.' "
She and her boyfriend started taking pills together. A month later they switched to heroin. It was cheaper. She snorted it for a week, and then her boyfriend shot her up with heroin. It was her first time with a needle.
"He called his sister and his sister told us where we could get heroin," she says. "And she lived in the heart of Jersey City. So we went down there and in the beginning we were selling the pills to support the heroin habit. And then our heroin habit got too big for the money. This was the first time my son's father told me that I should go out on the street with his sister."
She accompanied her boyfriend's sister, known by the street name "Baby" on Jersey City's Tonnelle Avenue, Route 1 and Route 9, where there is a string of cheap motels. Pagano, who is white, wore a short, shimmering gold skirt and adopted the name "Gucci." Prostitutes on Tonnelle Avenue, which is close to the Holland Tunnel, connecting Jersey City and Manhattan, made $50 for oral sex and $100 for vaginal intercourse, "but if it goes any longer than 10 minutes you're charging them more." An hour cost $250 and a full night cost $1,500. To the Wall Street traders, business executives and bankers who are the area prostitutes' main customers, money never seemed to be an issue. Their wallets were stuffed with cash. On her first night Pagano hailed men headed home to the suburbs from New York City but then burst into tears or fought them off once she was inside the cars.
"I think the first night I actually never went through with it, but I ended up making money because I was a sobbing mess in these cars and guys just gave me money," she says. "Most of them had a lot of money 'cause they were coming from the city. So then my son's father got the idea that if I couldn't do it I would ... make them get a room, act like I was gonna do it -- and he would kick the door in -- and rob them. We did that a couple times until I couldn't keep track of who I was robbing. And the last time I went to do it I had already robbed the guy [on an earlier night] and he started beating me up in the room."
It took her two weeks to begin having sex with the "tricks." She slowly began to build a regular clientele and mastered the survival skills that come with walking the street.
"A couple times I got to stay in this really nice suite that overlooked Newark Airport," she said. "Some of them had a lot of money."
She would buy heroin after a night's work -- she and her boyfriend together had a $500-a-day habit -- from a dealer named "Kiss."
"Kiss would come out no matter when I called 'cause he knew he was getting his $500 from me," she says. She would drive home, often around 4:30 in the morning, and shoot up with her boyfriend. Her relationship with him deteriorated into that of "drug partners" and little else. They fought frequently, something they had not done while sober.