No matter what kind of game you find yourself in, no matter how good or bad the luck, you can change your life completely with a single thought or a single act of love.— Gregory David Roberts, author of Shantaram, a novel.
The little beads of sweat were always on Paulie’s forehead by the time he called his mother. She always gave up the money. “Mama, I’m sick.” “I can’t help you this time.” “If you can’t help me, I’ll kill myself. It’s the only thing left.” A pause. I would watch Paulie. He wouldn’t look at me. No knowing wink. Nothing. Then I would see his head pick up. “Thanks ma. I love you. This will be the last time. Honest.” I had to hand it to Paulie. He always sounded sincere when he said that. Every time. We would hop in my truck and fly over to the house. Claire would hand us a check and a bag with two or three sandwiches in it. “You boys always look so skinny,” she would say. “You should eat more.” Then she would look at me. Pat my arm. “Take care of Paulie. You know Dean, when he’s with you I always feel like he’s okay. You are like a son to me. If Paulie had a brother, I know he would have been like you.”
I really did love Claire. I just want to make that clear. She still writes to me on a regular basis. And thank God for that. Hardly anyone else does. She came to visit me not long ago. I know she’d come more often but there would be trouble if her family found out. I guess it’s hard for them to understand. They knew Paulie at the bank. It was kind of a regular thing. No I.D. necessary. Once one of the bank people called Claire up. She must have given them hell. After all, Paulie was her son. One time Paulie was too sick to even go to the bank. Claire made out the check to me and gave me a note explaining that I could always cash her checks. She treated me just like I was Paulie’s brother. Naturally I didn’t abuse the privilege I picked up the cash and headed right into the Great Brook Valley Projects for the dope. The dealers all knew me. So did the cops. I took care of business and headed back home. If no one else was home Claire would let Paulie and me take off there.
Paulie started getting sicker and sicker. He was always depressed, even after getting high. It was like the dope had stopped working for him but he only did it because that was all he knew. He didn’t even like to hustle with me anymore after we got high. I started doing scams with Jackie while Paulie kicked back at the apartment. Jackie was a guy in his mid-twenties who worked as a plumber when he wasn’t out hustling with me. He had built up a good business but it was all going down the tubes because he spent more time running to feed his habit. This was one monkey that never had enough to eat. Jackie looked straight. In the projects people were always mistaking him for a cop. He’d usually send me in to score because of the hassle he had. It was always risky going in but it was worth it because if I could get a deal it meant a few extra bags. It’s split the extra dope with Paulie.
Paulie’s morning call to Claire got to be routine. It was the jump start so Jackie and I could go out and get paid. Jackie would never come with me to meet with Claire. She would want us to stay and talk sometimes. Paulie would start to cry. Clair hugged him and gave him the check. “Dean, take care of him. Make sure he doesn’t get in trouble,” she would say. “I sure will, ma. Don’t worry.” She liked it when I called her ‘ma.’ She’d give me a hug and slip me a ten spot.
“Just in case,” she would say. I had a bad feeling when Claire first mentioned Al-Anon. She went to her first meeting one day right after she gave us some money. Jackie picked up a little street heater and brought it home. It was a twoshot snub-nose .38. He and I went out to a dope house on Charlton Street and posed as undercover. We picked up seven bricks of heroin. Paulie didn’t have to call Claire for a little while. The time blurred past. I came up sick one morning and there were burns all over the place from dropping cigarettes when I nodded out. I had one burn on my fingers that looked like it went down to the bone. Paulie was dry-heaving in the bathroom. Jackie must have saved a wake up shot because he didn’t look as bad as us. The pistol was on the table by the telephone.
The telephone. Paulie got on the telephone with Claire. “Mama. You gotta help me. I’m sick. Gotta come over for a check.” There was silence for a few moments. “What? Mama, I can’t believe you’re telling me that.” It was like the tears rushed to his eyes and spilled down his cheeks so hard that I thought they were going to cut furrows in his face. “No, no, mama. I’m too sick. I’ll kill myself if you don’t help me. I swear I will.”
Same old play. I started putting my old sneakers on. I knew we would be heading to get the check any minute. I heard Paulie whining into the phone. “I don’t care what they told you at the meeting mama. I have a gun in my hand and if you don’t say you’ll help med, I’ll do myself. I swear I will.” At that I looked up. I don’t know what she said next. All I know is that he lifted the gun to his head. The noise shook the house and there was blood and brains all over the room. The day before the funeral I called Claire early. Told her I was sick. She said for me to come right over. It was a closed casket funeral. Claire was crying all morning. I hugged her. She slipped a fifty into my hand and told me to take care of myself. “Thanks ma,” I said. She looked at me through the tears. She looked right into my eyes.. “Anytime son,” was what she said.
Almost two years have passed since then. Between Jackie and I, Claire gave us fifty large. Emptied one of her accounts. Had her bouncing checks too. She would do anything just to keep me from following Paulie. After all, I was the only son she had left. Jackie and I went to jail for extortion after her remaining family pressed charges. Claire was hospitalized a couple of times. Jackie got out of prison after a year. He always like to bang up two bags. Never tested the dope first with a small shot. Never. He died of an overdose his first day out of prison. Claire is sneaking in to see me today. I hope they don’t stop her. Maybe she’ll leave some money on my books. I’m getting out soon.
“Look down, LOOK DOWN along that junk road before you travel there and get in with the Wrong Mob” — A word to the wise guys — William S. Burroughs
Heather took the gun from her pocketbook, pumped one bullet into the chamber, spun the cylinder and placed the gun to her temple. She pulled the trigger. There was a hollow click and her laughter filled the air. As usual I watched her with a mixture of amazement and fear. How the hell can she do it? It was like she tempted fate with every turn of the screw. She filled the gun with bullets and tucked it into her jeans and the dangling blouse concealed the weapon. I parked the car around the corner from the pharmacy. It was early evening and the small country town was quiet. The mom and pop pharmacy, almost legendary in its rarity, beckoned to us with hidden promise. The neon sign flashed the word “drugs” over and over. Heather pointed to the sign and chuckled with soft sensuous laughter. We entered the store. The old woman was near the cash register and the bespectacled, gray haired gent was behind the prescription counter. Heather strutted up to the register and, with one swift practiced movement, put the gun in the elderly woman’s face.
“If you want to live, you’d better give,” Heather said and looked at the old man in the back. “We just want the dope. You can keep your money and your worthless lives.” Heather held the gun to the bridge of the old woman’s glasses. The old lady’s eyes were bugging out of her head. The pharmacist stared at the gun and pleaded with us not to shoot his wife. His wife didn’t say a word. She couldn’t take her eyes off the gun. I moved quickly behind the counter and handed the pharmacist a pillow case. I told him to fill it with just narcotics. I just wanted him to do it so we could all go home alive. As he opened the narcotics cabinet and began filling the case I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye. The old lady was moving. I heard the shot and she slammed back against the cough syrup counter. Blood covered the old woman’s face and she fell to the floor. The gun in Heather’s hand looked like it was smoking. My mind went wild. The pharmacist was staring in shock and disbelief.
I leaped toward the old man before he could react and pushed him down. I grabbed the pillow case from his hands and swept the contents of the narcotics cabinet into the bag. The pharmacist struggled to rise. Heather ran towards us and all I could see was the gun in her hand. I yelled for her not to shoot but the sound of gunfire echoed in my ears again. The old man jerked backwards and crumpled up like an old rag doll. A wave of paralysis washed over me. The drug bag dangled from my hand. My eyes were glued to the wreckage around me and I couldn’t believe what my vision was telling me. I stood immobilized until someone grabbed my arm. Heather pulled me to the door.
We jumped into the car. My hands were shaking as I fumbled the keys into the ignition. The engine roared into life and we raced down the street. I looked at Heather and she looked back at me. I asked her to fix me because my nerves were blown into the cosmos. She started laughing and pulled the morphine shakers from the bag. She popped the plungers out of two syringes and dropped three tabs into one, two tabs into another, and drew water into both syringes from our drinking jug. She whipped a belt around her arm. Her veins rose like rivers during flood season. She plunged the spike into her arm, drew back the plunger; blood register, she slammed it home. Her eyelids looked heavy and she smiled as she cleaned the blood out of the hype. She lit a smoke and handed me the belt. I tied off and she tapped the point into my vein. I kept one hand on the wheel. My heart was pounding as red blood ballooned into the barrel. She slipped the plunger and loosened the belt with one quick motion. I felt myself moving away from the world and my vision became blurry. I heard a horn blow. There was a screech of brakes but no impact. Heather was shouting at me and I forced myself to a state of partial attention.
Heather reached over and placed a lighted cigarette between my lips. She smiled at me. Her face was glowing. The excitement of the past events had brought us to a state of arousal and she made a soft, growling sound in my ear. I looked at her and her pinned eyes were gleaming. She fondled the gun; she spun the cylinder. She was so beautiful. She placed the barrel to her temple. She pulled the trigger and the roar of the gun filled the car.
It was 3:30 in the morning. Simone and Dum-Dum sat at the entrance to the alley-way watching the late night traffic on the boulevard. Dum-Dum reached into his trousers and took out his stash bottle of Maddog 20-20, uncapped it and took a long pull on the jug. Rivulets of red ran down his whiskered chin. Simone tapped him on the shoulder and motioned toward the bottle. Dum-Dum thought about the long, dreary night ahead without liquid warmth and shook his head. He took another hit off the jug. Simone stared into the street, looked back into the alley and saw the dumpster. He fingered the blade in his pocket. With what passed for a thought to a ravaged wino, Simone withdrew the shank from his pocket, unsheathed it, and in what seemed to be one fluid movement, grabbed the jug of wine from Dum-Dum and plunged the blade into the old man’s chest. He steadied the bottle and stabbed Dum-Dum again, again and again.
The passion slipped away. There was a death rattle that issued forth from DumDum’s throat. Simone leaned back and took a long pull from what was now his bottle, wiped the blade on the other wino’s shirt and put it away. He rifled the dead man’s pockets for cash and smokes. Half a pack of cigarettes and two buck. Great night. He sucked on the bottle again.
He carefully placed the jug by the wall, grabbed the body by the feet and dragged it towards the dumpster. At the dumpster he paused. He examined DumDum’s shoes with care and pulled them off. Checked to see if they fit. Too damn small. Disgustedly, he tossed them into the dumpster. Hefted the frail body, and there was a thump and the rustling of garbage as the body disappeared into it’s metal grave in the dark alley.
Simone grabbed the jug and took one last pull, draining the spider. He looked at the bottle reverently and, like the symbolic handful of dirt thrown into a new grave, he tossed the empty jug into the metal tomb. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust. Simone casually meandered down the boulevard. Sweet wine dreams drifted through his head. He disappeared into the early morning dark. The sun was just tipping over the horizon as Jake and Anna wheeled their shopping cart down the boulevard, both of them keeping a keen eye out for deposit bottles. They arrived at the entrance to the alley and saw the dumpster in the light of the dawn.
Jake signalled to Anna, winked and made his way down the alley to the dumpster and peered in. He saw it. A case of empty beer cans. Couldn’t quite reach it so he climbed into the dumpster. His foot struck something soft as he reached down for the cans. Something was in his way. He rolled it aside. Dum-Dum’s blank eyes stared up at him. Jake paused for a minute. Looked down the alley to check on Anna and then rifled the pockets of the dead man. Shit, empty. He reached for the cans, rolled the body out of the way. Using Dum-Dum’s face as a stepping stone, he climbed out of the dumpster. He hefted the case of cans and smiled as he walked toward Anna. They had enough deposit cans for a jug of wine. It was going to be a great day.
“We save things when it is perhaps ourselves we mean to save from extinction, from time; we hold on to what we have lived, hoping to stall the hangman.” — Dan Woods.
The frigid wind whipped Bobby’s face as he pushed open the door of the package store. Sleet beat a staccato rhythm on his skin and he clutched the bottle tightly against his body. His worn winter coat was no defense against the biting cold. The temperature had plummeted into the sub-zero zone as the day wore on. The sky darkened and the city became a neon freezer. Bobby ducked into a nearby alley and took a long pull from his jug. He walked down the boulevard as the storm came in, the powdery snow blanketing the city with a vengeance. As Bobby trekked the boulevard, he saw Anna moving slowly toward him, laboriously pushing her heavy shopping cart through the freshly fallen snow. He greeted her with a nod and a toothless grin. She stared blankly ahead and moved her lips soundlessly.
A few days past, or was it weeks now? It was hard for Anna to remember. She had been roused from her chemical stupor by the feeling of weight and wetness. Her long time lover and partner, Jake, was lying across her body, the odor of stale urine had been overpowering. She rolled him off of her. His face was frozen into a horrifying grimace. Jake was dead.
The screaming had started in her head. Anna remembered being taken away in the haze. The screaming would not stop. They stuck her with needles, strapped down in a windowless room, her tongue swollen from Haldol. She choked. They gave her Cogentin to alleviate the muscle-stiffening side effects of the powerful tranquilizer. Her screaming had shaken the psych ward. One day her vocal cords simply wore out. She could no longer scream out loud. Thinking Anna had finally come to grips, they gave her a bottle of pills and sent her home to the streets.
Anna walked past Bobby. He was like a ghost in the night. Something wet and cold peppered her face. Her lips moved bu no sound came out. The screaming still echoed in the stripped corners of her mind. She found herself hoping Jake would come back soon. Bobby walked past and shook his head. The snow was getting deeper, soft powdery fluff. He remembered when he was a child. This was his favorite kind of snow. He used to lie down and make angels in the snow. Bobby moved down the boulevard, occasionally taking a tug from the bottle. He felt so overwhelmingly lonely. He could no longer feel his feet; he seemed to be walking on wooden blocks. He rubbed his face and stared at his reflection in a darkened store window. There were white blotches all over his cheeks. He shivered violently and almost dropped the bottle. His fingers were numb.
He moved into the alley to get out of the biting wind. The thought of a shelter briefly crossed his mind, but he cast it out of his mind immediately. They wouldn’t let him finish his bottle there. He felt so tired. He sat down in the snow that covered the floor of the dark alleyu, held the jug between his palms, and drank deeply of the liquid relief. His fingers no longer ached from the cold. In fact, he could no longer feel them. The wind howled, the snow fell and the temperature continued to drop. The snow piled up around Bobby and he began to feel a new warmth. He remembered when he was a child. This was great stuff, this kind of snow. Bobby used to make angels in the snow. He stretched out, extending and moving his arms and legs in his head. The bottle vanished in the snow. He felt so wonderfully warm. He dreamed he was making angels in the snow, and like the snow, he drifted. He lay still and the snow covered his face. Bobby was an angel in the snow.
“Their eyes stay open. Nothing can carry them into the sleep they want. Over and over I prepare the potion to take the sisters into the other world. They can’t get enough of obllivion.” — from the poem Snow White published in the book “Resurrection” by Nicole Cooley, 1996
Dawn felt for the door handle. She could feel the john staring at her. There was no way she was going to meet his pig eyes with hers. The money was in her pouch. She opened the car door and stepped out onto the boulevard. She heard the car pulling away and spit twice in rapid succession but the foul taste lingered in her mouth. The boulevard was quiet. The sun was just peeking over the horizon. It was just past 5:30 in the AM. Dawn was having trouble getting rid of the feelings, the heroin just wasn’t working like it once did. Maybe she should up her dose. No, no, not again. It was hard to keep up her nine bag a day habit as it was. If she increased it, then it would mean one more date a night. She was having trouble dealing with those creepy, night-crawling johns now. The last thing she wanted to do was to add one more to her agenda. She felt tears coming to her eye corners, rubbed them away. She wished it was as easy to wipe away the hollow ache in her chest.
Dawn saw the newspaper truck pull up and dump its load in front of the smut and tobacco shop. She passed the pile of papers and looked at the front page. It was the 7th of August. The old feelings came like a mighty flood. For one thing, it was the anniversary of her grandmother’s death. She headed toward the old stone church and twisted the Rosary that hung on her wrist.
As Dawn entered the church, she smelled the incense. It brought her back to when she was younger. She remembered attending Mass with her grandmother. She would sit and watch the pomp and ceremony in quiet fascination. Those were happier days. It seemed that, all of a sudden, her grandmother began to experience rapid weight loss. One day she had been rushed to the hospital. She had never come out. Dawn’s life had changed from that day on. She was placed in foster home after foster home. She remembered the strange smelling stepfather coming in and touching her private places in the middle of the night. Then there was the running from place to place, bus station to train station. No matter how fast and far she went, there was no way to get away from the feelings that felt like they were stabbing her heart. Then she came to the big city. There was the man who whispered; the heroin, the heroin, and the feelings retreated into the dark night of her dying soul.
Dawn was sitting in the rear pew. She heard a noise and looked up. A priest was walking towards her. She sat still and watched him approach for a moment. She wanted to stay, to talk to him, she felt the tears coming. Then the panic slammed into her like a locomotive. The priest was a man. If he pulled down his zipper he would be like all the others. She was crying, she was running, she was flying through the door of the church. Dawn ran down the street. Her high heels twisted her ankles as she ran. She was dope-sick. Her feelings rose from the burial ground. Tears blurred her vision. She was gutwrenched with the agony of her long submerged awareness. She didn’t see Anna pushing her shopping cart, mumbling to herself. She didn’t see the garbage on the boulevard. An alley cat jumped quickly out of her way as she ran.
She wasn’t running fast enough, her feelings were keeping the pace. They passed her. They overwhelmed her. She saw the alley. She rounded the corner and entered it, ran past the dumpster, and she was hidden by the dumpster from the street. Dawn sobbed those deep cries wrenched from the depth of her gut. She fell to her knees next to the dumpster and clutched the rosary tightly. She was praying to a God that she did not understand. She prayed for the soul that was dying daily within her. She was crying into the sad empty morning. A fix, she needed a fix. She knew it was the only birthday present she was going to get.
Her body was wracked with convulsive crying as she remembered that her grandmother had died on her birthday. Yes, it was her birthday today, a celebration of sorrow. After all, she was just a working girl, only time for a fix and a prayer between the johns and the tears. How fitting a present for a working girl on her fifteenth birthday. Dawn kneeled in the shade of the dumpster in the alley. Nearby, a tattered alley cat cleaned it’s paws with a rough tongue.
“I prayed to rediscover my childhood, and it has come back, and I feel that it is just as difficult as it used to be, and that growing older has served no purpose at all.” — Rainer Maria Rilke
Alan and Phil caught the attention of the shop-keeper while Andrew and I stuffed out pockets with candy bars. We wanted to be well-stocked for the trip into the Jersey meadows. Alan paid for the sodas and we walked out of the store. We had nine candy bars in all. It was a good hall. We crossed River Street and walked down the dead end that bordered the railroad tracks which ran through the swamp. It was a steamy late summer day. Earlier in the week we had been talking about how was almost time to return to school. None of us could figure out how the summer had got by us so quickly. It seemed like yesterday that school had let out and the long summer stretched in front of us. Where had it gone? No time to waste; we headed down the tracks. I pulled the .38 out of my pocket, snapped the cylinder open and filled it with ammo. Andrew was doing the same with our new acquisition, a .22 pistol that he had stolen from his father’s collection of guns. We were going to have a great time shooting those rats that lived in the dump. There was a wine bottle laying by the side of the tracks. Andrew popped off a shot at it.
He missed. He fired again. The sound of shattering glass filled the air. It didn’t matter how many bullets we used for the .22 pistol because we had a shitload of them. On the other hand, bullets for the .38 were precious. We only had nine left and we didn’t know where’d we were going to get more.
The smell of the giant dump assailed our nostrils. Phew, what a stench. I thought of the bums that lived in the meadows. I wondered if the smell would sink into them and never go away. I never got really close to one yet but I heard my parents say how dirty they were and that I would smell like them if I didn’t take a bath. I always wondered where they came from. What did they do during the winter to keep warm? We cruised the giant piles of garbage, guns at the ready. It always made me feel weird when I had the pistol in my hand, like no one could touch me. Funny thing is, no one ever called me four-eyes while I was holding the gun, yet at other times, the teasing never seemed to cease. Yeah, I liked the feel of the gun. When I was shooting, it felt like it was an expression of my arm. I hated to give it up to anyone else for that reason. It seemed like all the rats started moving at once. Andrew was blazing away. He emptied the gun. Three rats lay twitching on the ground. One limped away into the garbage heap. I moved the .38 quickly and took careful aim. I knew these bullets were more precious than preying mantis cocoons. The gun kicked in my hand as I fired. The rat flew into the air, bounced twice and then lay still.
We ran over to it. The bullet had gone in one side and ripped out the other. The rat’s guts were hanging out. Alan kicked it and stuff came out of it and got on his shoe. We all started laughing.
Phil said we should cut off their tails and hang them up as evidence of how many we had killed. My stomach turned at the thought of touching these filthy beasts. I remembered one rat that we had shot as having millions of tiny bugs on it. Andrew said that the bugs were blood-suckers. I backed away from the dead rat. Andrew pulled out his knife and motioned for Phil to take it. Phil said that Andrew should do the cutting. Andrew argued that Phil should do it. After all, he thought of the idea. Phil shook his head and backed away. We all started to tease him. He glared at us but I could see the tears welling up in his eyes as he turned away. I wondered why Phil always came with us. He never asked to do any shooting, yet he seemed fascinated by the hunt. I mentioned to the others that Phil should have to make a kill if he wanted to stay in the gang. Everybody chimed in, “Yeah, yeah, great idea. It’s Philip’s turn to blow away a rat.”
I even said that he could use the big gun if he would do it. I watched him, he was staring at the gun in my hand. I held it out to him. He hesitated for a long moment and then took it. He held it gingerly in his right hand. He then stroked it with his fingers. Suddenly Andrew started yelling and pointing at something. We all turned to see what it was. The bum seemed to come out of nowhere. He moved slowly toward us. There was a bottle in his hand. I started and turned away so I could flee. Alan was already backing away. I looked at Andrew. He was standing still. He stared at this frightening figure as it approached us. He seemed paralyzed by the sudden appearance of the guy. Then I heard the sound of the .38 crack into the air. I whipped around and saw Phil. He stood there with the gun pointed at the disheveled figure. The bum had stopped moving. He clutched his stomach, screamed and fell.
Suddenly everything was deadly quiet. We were all riveted to the spot. We stared at the man on the ground. He moaned and rolled about on the dirty earth. Phil started laughing and pointed the gun at the guy. He pulled the trigger again and again as we watched with disbelief. The man’s body twitched at the impact of the incoming bullets. Then there was only the sound of Phil’s laughter and the hollow click, click, click that the .38 made when it was empty. I ran over and threw Phil to the ground. The gun bounced away from him. He started to fight back for a second and I punched him hard in the face and he stopped. I started yelling at him; what had he done; what had he done. What are we going to do now. I felt a hand on my shoulder. I turned from Phil. Andrew was standing next to me. He said that we had to get out of there; get rid of the gun. We would be in deep trouble if we were caught.
Then Alan spoke up. He said that no one would miss this guy because he was just a bum who lived in the dump. We could drag him up a big garbage pile, cover him up and light the pile on fire. He would burn up and that would be that. Bury him in the garbage, burn the body, and then never talk about it to anyone. We all nodded in agreement. It was the only idea that seemed right. I wondered what it had been like for him to die. What does it feel like to have metal punch into your body? Did bums think and feel like normal people do? Too many goddamn questions. I shut off my head. It felt as if time had stopped, the sun just appeared to sit still in the sky. The thought crossed my mind that if time stopped we would never have to go back to school. I laughed out loud at the stupid idea. The other guys were staring at me. I guess they must have thought it was a weird time to be laughing.
We all took hold of the bum. His skin felt real strange. He was clammy to the touch. I couldn’t bring myself to look at his face. The gravel crackled beneath us as we dragged him to a big mountain of garbage. We started up the hill of paper bags filled with trash. I didn’t know which was worse; sinking up to my knees in the smelly garbage or the touch of this dead guy’s skin on my hands. I hated taking baths, but I wanted to take one real bad. I couldn’t wait to get out of here. The rats started moving in the garbage as it shifted under our feet. Andrew pulled out the .22 and started shooting wildly. The rats were all over the place. We dropped the bum three-quarters of the way up the mound and ran down the hill of garbage to get away from the rats.
The bum was laid out on the side of the mound. You could hardly make him out from the rest of the garbage. Alan took out the cigarettes and put one in his mouth. He lit up an entire pack of matches and held it to his cigarette, then he bent down and held the flame to the pile of garbage. The pile caught fire and the flames licked hungrily up the great mound. Alan passed some smokes to each of us. We all lit up and watched the fire. There was something about a big fire that made you stare at it. It was hard to look away. Suddenly rats started fleeing the mound. Andrew was reloading. I pulled out the .38 and fingered the few remaining bullets. I chucked them into the burning mountain of trash. All of a sudden there were three fire cracker sounds, one right after the other, and we all started to run. My chest was tight with fear. I focused on the footfalls of my friends as we ran. We ran out of the dump and down the railroad tracks. We passed a dog and a dirty swamp pool where we sometimes fished for kellies, tiny fish that swarmed in these waters, and I paused and threw the gun with all my might into the swamp. There was a splash and ripples spread out from where the gun had disappeared into the deep murky water.
We stopped at the edge of the meadow to talk. We decided that no one should speak of this day ever when anyone else is around. Phil listened quietly as we took the vow of silence. We decided not to come back here for the rest of the summer. I thought of the rats running from the burning pile. They had been moving so quickly. I remembered a story where the rats had been leaving a sinking ship. I pictured them running over the ropes leading to the dock as the ship rocked in the water. Alan gave me a nudge and said that we should get out of here. There were rats running in my brain. We jumped down the hill that the tracks were built on and ran out of the meadow. We didn’t stop running until we came to River Street. The rats in my brain were still running. I thought of the dump. I thought of the bum. I turned and looked back. There was smoke rising in the sky.
Just arrived in San Francisco for the NASNA (North American Street Newspaper Association) convention. We’re all staying at the YMCA in the Tenderloin District. Of all places. The last time I was here I was ripping and running, strung out on heroin, shooting up with this crazy junket in a burnt out room with a Black musician who was about 60 something. He had so much trouble getting a hit that one of us would have to bang the spike into his neck for a main vein. Whew The streets are meaner and leaner than they ever were. Folks sleeping on the sidewalk, the lost, the lonely, men and women pushing dope and shopping carts down the urine-soaked boulevard. We’re a throwaway nation. We toss the best and brightest into the heap. Everybody is so fucking crazy and if you don’t fit into the accepted insanity, you get beaten, belittled, berated, discarded, disregarded, and finally dismissed. Maybe you get locked up.
Maybe you pick up a substance to ease the pain so you can function in the village of pillage. It’s not about anything spiritual nowadays. It goes like, “I’ve upped my income so—UP YOURS!”
I’m just going nuts here. I can look out the window and see people doing things in the street. In the first hour I saw the undercover cops shaking down one guy and a dope deal happening right in front of me. Then this little Black guy wearing a blanket tried to hit on me. I can feel the energy coming in through the window in my room. It’s calling me into the wilds. It says, “C’mon baby, I got what you want.” One bad decision. That’s all it takes. I can have everything they have. I can be homeless again. I can be strung out on heroin again. I can get shook down by the undercover cops. Dirty clothes. No place to go. No one to turn to. The daily death of the soul. Yeah, I can have it all if I want it. The convention begins at 4pm tomorrow. It is sponsored this year by Street Sheet, the homeless paper of San Francisco. I’m glad to be here, deep in the Tenderloin. It’s early, just half past nine. The streets are just warming up. If you can burn in hell, you can certainly burn in the Tenderloin. Hell is where you find it.
26th of July, 2001
The music of Velvet Underground with Nico’s voice haunting me. I just came back from an early morning walk around the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. It’s hard to comprehend how there can be those with so little in a town with so much. I walk past a giant bank with iron gates in front of it. It is haunted, empty. Pigeon shit covers the iron, the walk, the impressive entrance. It is abandoned, the financiers fleeing to a more lucrative territory. The morning streets smell of urine. Bodies litter the sidewalk. There is a woman, younger than me, maybe about 30, deep in a junk nod wrapped in blankets on the sidewalk. A man, much older than her, wrapped in blankets like her, is trying to kiss her. She pulls away a little, yet there is a resignation in her movements which says, “I have nothing but today’s high; I am nothing, there is no escape from anything.” I am astounded at the number of people on the streets. They live here, on the filthy sidewalks. The streets look as if no one cleans them, no one cares. In front of the YMCA on Golden Gate Boulevard, the place where I stay for the conference, two Black men, one is called Louis, weave in a horrid body movement; it is as if they hear a tune no one else can hear. They are going through someone’s wallet, peering about with feral eyes as they do it. They make no effort to hide it from me. Louis bends slightly forward, then to the side, he weaves like a cobra as he goes through the wallet. The other man stands behind a metal newspaper box, I notice he has another wallet. I wonder who the victim was. Was he some junkie in recovery like myself who decided to relapse and chose the wrong night, the wrong face on the street to approach, the wrong moment when no one was around to watch his back, the wrong alley to walk into with the person who had no intention of giving anything back? Louis looks at me as he goes through the man’s wallet. He makes no attempt to hide what he is doing. Both of them dance to their inner hellish rhythm and they have synchronicity. Louis, the cobra, looks at me. Our eyes lock for a moment. It is a snake’s look, he wants me to come to him, “I can get it for you,” and he knows what I am too. One bad decision away from the filthy sidewalk. I can have everything they have and less.
Only five minutes away by foot is the United Nations Plaza of San Francisco. They set up little tents as I walk towards a coffee shop. I ask a man what is going to happen here. He says, “Every Thursday they have a swap meet or a flea market here with collectibles and antiques for sale.”
Workers spray down the sidewalk and a giant fountain casts geysers of white water into the air, the water rolls down the intricate cement structure. The United Nations Plaza is right next to hell. I can’t imagine what they can do overseas, in other countries, when their backyard is littered with street ghosts. On the outskirts of the plaza a man pushes a shopping cart filled with his life’s collectibles. Every now and then he stops and gestures crazily, waving his hands about and speaking to invisible entities. He rubs one hand wildly through his hair and then begins to push his carriage across a street. He looks both ways, traffic is coming yet he crosses anyway. Is he daring the cars to run him down, I wonder? Or has he already been run down, crushed and entangled buy the nightmare world we all take for granted?
My thoughts drift back to the woman nodding on the sidewalk. She had reddish hair. She is someone’s daughter, someone’s hopes, someone’s dreams. She has become a street ghost, a shadow entity beckoning to the dark world, she has crossed the river Styx and is already in the land of the dead. Reporting to you direct from the Tenderloin District in San Francisco, hell’s stronghold existing right next to the United Nations Plaza, early in the morning while I listen to The Black Angel’s Death Song by the Velvet Underground. The streets are calling me. They know me better than I know myself.
Still July 26th— much later.
San Francisco – was it ever the City of Light? At the bus stops they have put in tiny benches that flip up so it is impossible to rest on them. At night, when everything shuts down, no homeless person can sleep undercover on those bench mutations. Rents skyrocket just like in the Boston area. More and more people face eviction. Street ghosts. So many of them. I am ashamed to be a part of a civilization that thinks it can throw everything away. When it breaks, throw it out. When it breaks, throw it out. I reach into my chest, break my ribs out of the way, place my callous claw on the sump pump in my chest beating like it might be a heart and cast it out. Watch me now. I won’t fall. Now I’m just like you.
July 27th, 2001
Even the pigeons are tattered here. I was up early, out taking pictures. I’m still blown away by the tragedy I witness here on the streets. A woman in her sixties in torn clothing leaning against a wall begging for spare change for coffee. I give her a dollar. She looks directly into my eyes and thanks me. What kind of people have we become that we can let this happen? We degrade and destroy the world around us. Is our ‘civilization’ falling into an abyss from which we will never rise again? Humanity mocks balance. The horror of it all is we still may be able to turn it around yet those who govern (rule) us fail to speak to our hearts. Did you know that the mailing preceding the W. Bush tax cuts just to let all good Americans know how much they (only those who make more than $25,000) will get, cost the government (that’s u.s.) over 33 million dollars? Maybe that should have gone into housing. Most people who are eligible for the tax rebates will only get from $300 to $600. I didn’t realize we could sell the soul of a nation so cheaply but there you are. A few nice nights out to eat, maybe a weekend in the mountains or a monthly payment on an SUV and the nation’s homeless can rot in hell. Everyday. One day at a time!
July 28th, 2001
On the street this morning. Stopped and took some pictures of people literally camping on the street with tents and all. We chat for a while. My friend Josie from the paper “Loaves and Fishes,” which originates in Maryland, goes for coffee with Jerome while I chat with Myron. While I stand there two other fellows, both starkly skinny, come up to a tent and ask if “the turkey is available.” Myron calls into the tent and says, “Hey baby, grease the turkey” and a female voice calls out, “Send ‘em in,” and the two guys disappear into the tent. I don’t know what went on in the tent but, when the guys came out, neither of them could keep the lids off their eyes. If it was sex it was really good sex and if it was dope, it was killer.
Still July 28 but almost midnite now.
The streets are full of the homeless. In Japan, that’s how they say it. The Homeless. We’ve earned the right to be a noun. We all just came back from a demonstration against the “San Francisco Chronicle.” They have become an organ of the establishment and are guilty of homeless bashing. We demonstrated in front of their building for about two hours after a short march from the intersection of Powell and Market street. Finally the Editor made an appointment to interview three homeless activists on Monday. No other media seemed interested in the protest. According to corporate media, it was a non-event. It’s dark out now and people are kicking back on the sidewalks. Some of them urinate and shoot drugs right out in the open. I’ve never seen anything like this in Boston. Yet. It’s almost midnight and I feel like going out to see what’s happening. The urge is like a tractor beam pulling me, tugging me back into a world once very familiar to me. In 1983 I was here, shooting heroin and living on these mad streets. It’s much crazier now. I recall the guy sitting on the sidewalk earlier today with his pet rooster. I’m sitting at the computer now shaking my head in wonder. Out of my room, to the elevator, seven floors down and out the main door into the streets. They’re shooting dope openly on the Golden Gate Boulevard. I could join them, just like that. Maybe I could pry the elevator door open on the seventh floor while the elevator is on the first floor, leap into the shaft and scream all the way down. Maybe I’ll just shut down the computer and go to sleep instead. I’m totally exhausted. I’m in a room all by myself listening to the Velvet Underground. The music will put me to sleep. I won’t be able to hear the cries of the homeless just outside my window. Street ghosts. People walk by them just like they aren’t there.
July 29th, 2001.
It’s Sunday morning. I look outside my window. The tents are set up on the sidewalk. Did you know that many people become homeless for lack of a high enough pay scale or mental illness and then are exposed to drug use on the streets? When everything is falling apart in one’s life, it is easy to pick up a substance to ease the intense emotional and psychic pain. Which came first, the chicken or the egg? Which cam first, the addiction or the tragedy of having no place safe to live? And how do we begin to solve the immense problem of homelessness? Obviously there is no one solution. Building more affordable housing, street papers, drug treatment, guided living centers for mentally ill, halfway houses that treat people with dignity and, last but not least, reaching out and becoming a friend to our neighbors on the street and helping them find what they need to become housed in a safe environment are just a few of the required actions on our parts. Should we choose not to take these actions and more on behalf of the unhoused, then we must re-examine our worth as a spiritual civilization. The homeless are the chosen ones. The way we treat them today is the way we are treating God today. We need to look into our hearts and lift them up. For us, for all of us, time is getting short.
Every Other Person from User’s News, Australia, Issue #44, Spring, 2005 “About my relapse in February 1998 after being clean since March of 1994.”*
As I run out into the street with three bags of heroin clutched tightly in my hand, I remember the relapse group in the detox center near Worcester, Massachusetts (Adcare). I recall everyone sitting in a circle when the counselor asked us to shut our eyes and said,”Everyone who thinks they will stay clean after they leave here, please raise your hand.”
I raised my hand, determined to be one of the people who stayed clean. Then he said, “Leave your hand up, open your eyes and look around the room.” Almost everyone had their hand up. Could it be that everyone was as determined as I had been? Then the counselor said, “Look around you. At least every other person in this room will relapse, according to the statistics.”
A part of me wanted to throw the bags of heroin away. A part of me never wanted to go back to the old haunting ground, yet if felt as if a strange, inexplicable and powerful force guided my feet back to the fateful place where I knew the connection came. I told myself I just wanted to see how my friends were doing. I told myself I just wanted to check in at my old hangout. I told myself I wasn’t going to get the stuff; I was strong enough. But inside my stomach was crawling, craving, the hunger hit me like a moving stone wall racing faster than my thoughts. Now here I was skittering down the street toward my room, my bowels turning to jelly as I anticipated the relief of that first shot.
Just this time, I pleaded to some unknown deity, just this once and I’ll be all done with it. Into the rooming house. Up the stairs, two at a time. I feel so excited, I want to scream, to yell, to dance. My hand shakes so much I can barely get the key in the door. Open. In the room. Shut the door. The telephone. It starts to ring. I get out the hypodermic needle I saved from my last run “just in case”, take a spoon out, place it on the edge of the sink. My hands tremble so much I can barely get the water in the glass.
I rip open one bag, shake the powder into the spoon. Cotton. Where the hell is some cotton? I am frantic now. I tear the edge off a filter on a cigarette and throw it into the spoon. Danger! I know the filter is made of something related to fiberglass but I just don’t care about anything right now. The needle bangs against the bottom of the spoon over and over from the tremors in my hand as I draw up the potent liquid. The telephone rings again, incessantly, like it is someone who knows what I am about at this moment. I place the needle above my vein. Someone starts knocking at my door.
I hold my breath. Maybe they will go away. I plunge the needle in and, like magic, a spot of blood appears at the bottom of the syringe. I draw back the plunger, redness flows up the barrel, and then I slam slam slam it home. Nothing can hurt me now. There is someone knocking at my door. I will tell them to wait a minute, put everything away in a drawer, light a cigarette, swing the door open. It is one of the recovery people, a guy named Lenny, who I met while in detox.
He says,”I was just swinging by to see if you wanted to go to a meeting.” I look at him, slowly reaching up to scratch my nose. “Tomorrow,” I say, “How about tomorrow?” He looks at me. I suck smoke from the cigarette, look back at him.
*”The relapse lasted from Feb. of 98 until April of 1999.”
The temperature is soaring. In the Northeast water tables are going crazy from all the rain we’ve had. The sun, like a malevolent eye, glows hot in a hazy sky as the world thermometer climbs; mercury like spinal fluid rising, rising, then bursting through our heads, our brains exploding under pressure.
Humans pack the city streets, panting with heat as power stations go down trying to feed the electric monster of civilization, sucking hungrily while every air conditioner in the city growls and strains. The highways are jammed with hot engines that spew carbon dioxide. Elsewhere, in Brazil and other countries, forests are eaten by chain saws and bulldozers; rain forests burn, soon to become barren desert.
We have seen the future and it is heat. In Greenland the ice is melting faster than it ever has; the polar icecaps are shrinking. Global warming, global turbulence is upon us and we, in the United States, fail to take action, spurning the warnings of scientists all over the world and spitting hot air from the mouth of a President who might as well be a red-headed stepchild. We pull out of the Paris Accord and the world environmental summit in Kyoto is dead to the United States.
I have a new heroine and she is only 15 years old. Her name is Greta Thunberg and she is the most vocal of all of the Global Warming protesters. She skips school every Friday to protest the coming Extinction Event and do-nothing politicians all over the world.
But why should she go to school on Friday when the world she will grow up in is threatened by all of us who continue to act as if nothing has changed in our world? The giant fires in California have destroyed the city of Paradise, an ironic name that now stands for Ashes, California.
The exhaust pipes from all of the cars are lined up on all the interstates around the world and we are sucking down all the fumes as they heat up our atmosphere. If you took all the exhaust pipes from cars and trucks and SUV’s in the Boston area and fused them into one pipe, how big would that pipe be? I’ll bet you can’t even imagine it, can you?
I can tell you one thing and that is our noses are stuck up that giant unimaginable exhaust pipe. Greta Thunberg knows this is true and she is standing up for what she believes in.
Greta has been protesting for more than a month and she has no intention of stopping. She wants to wake up the world and shake us out of our complacency! Before Sweden’s parliamentary election on September 9th, she began her Friday strike from school, sitting on the steps of the Stockholm parliament building. She has done this every Friday during school hours. She goes back to school on other days, but every Friday she demands that the government take a radical response to Climate Change which is not creeping up on us but roaring our way with the intensity of a category 5 hurricane.
Greta Thunberg’s parents are Svante Thunberg, an actor, and Malena Ernman, a well known opera singer and writer in Sweden. Greta’s mother has written and published a book describing both of her daughters’ special needs. Greta and her younger sister, Beata, have been diagnosed with Autism, A.D.H.D. and Asperger’s Syndrome.
As Greta states, she sees the world in black and white, not in shades of grey. In her own words,”I see the world a bit different, from another perspective,” she states in English. “I have a special interest. It’s very common that people on the Autism spectrum have a special interest.”
Climate Change when she was nine and in the third grade. She says,”They were always talking about how we should turn out lights, save water, not throw out our food. I asked why and they explained about climate change. And I thought this was very strange. If humans could really change the climate, everyone would be talking about it and people wouldn’t be talking about anything else. But this wasn’t happening.”
Greta began to study Climate Change in depth and has stopped eating meat and buying anything that is not absolutely necessary. In 2015 she stopped flying on airplanes and a year later her mother followed her daughter’s example which meant that she was giving up an international performing career.
The family installed solar batteries and they have started growing their own vegetables on a planned space outside the city. They bicycle almost all the time and have an electric car which they use only when necessary. They don’t just talk the talk, they walk the walk, and I am totally impressed with them.
Sweden’s parliament reached a consensus that rich countries should cut their emissions by fifteen percent a year. Greta Thunberg calls bullshit on that because, in Sweden, actual emissions have gone up 3.6 per cent in the first quarter of this year. Greta says, “Sweden is not a role model”. She points out that even the best plans to address Climate Change make no attempt to look beyond the year 2050.
“By then,” Greta says, “ I will, in the best case, not even have lived half my life. What happens next?”
In the United States our Trumpian president is a Climate Change denier and he hasn’t even tweeted about it! Greta states, “I can become very angry when I see things that are wrong.”
When Greta Thunberg is at her Climate Change protest post outside of parliament, many people come by to chat with her and bring her food. She really likes falafel and noodles. Greta Thunberg is my new heroine and I hope the whole world takes radical action to avoid the Extinction Event that is hurtling towards us like a rocket ship out of control.
Greta says, “The climate is not going to collapse because some party got the most votes. The politics that’s needed to prevent the Climate Catastrophe—it doesn’t exist today. We need to change the system, as if we were in crisis, as if there were a war going on.”