If you’re here to stop me from jumping, don’t bother. You’re a little too early. Then again, you’re also too late. Too late to talk me out of it, that is. Oh, I’m going to jump, but not right now. Not just yet. Not until just before sunrise. See? I’ve got it all planned out. Yeah, I know. It all sounds pretty melodramatic. Well, what do you expect? Suicide’s a pretty melodramatic thing. So why am I going to kill myself just before sunrise? It’s simple: I don’t ever want to see the sun again. That’s why I’m here now, in the afternoon. I came up here to get one last look at it. Just the sun, up in the sky. I figured I ought to see it one more time. One more time before I die. So that mission’s accomplished. It’s kind of weird knowing that I’m going to die tonight. But I am. It’s a lock. The fall will see to that. Seven stories straight down to the sidewalk. No one could survive a fall like that. It should kill me instantly, like flipping off a switch. At least, that’s the idea. But not just yet. I’ve got a few things to do before I go. I’ve got to wrap it all up, and I’ve got one night to do it. Standing up here on this rooftop reminds me that I’ve come full circle, so to speak. It sort of began here, so I guess it’s fitting that it ends here. So don’t waste your breath trying to talk me out of it because my mind’s made up. This is it. This is my last night on earth.
But where are my manners? I haven’t even introduced myself. My name is Miranda. Welcome to hell. What? You think I’m kidding? Well, I’m not. Not by a long shot. This place is hell on earth, and that’s putting it mildly. Hell would be insulted if it knew I was comparing it to this shithole. You wouldn’t think it was so bad, looking at it from up here. But down there? Well, that’s a different story. Down there is a place you’ve probably seen a million times and I’ll bet you don’t know a damn thing about it. That’s how it should be. That’s how it’s supposed to be. It’s by design. It’s a big part of the reason why this place is what it is. You probably don’t believe me, so I’ll prove it to you. I’ll show you. I’ll give you the grand tour. Then you’ll see I’m not making this shit up. Hell, once you see what this place is really like and you know a little more about me, I’m pretty sure you won’t try to stop me from jumping. In fact, you’ll probably want to give me a push.
So what’s a not-so-nice girl like me doing up on the roof of a downtown parking building and planning to do a half-gainer seven stories straight down to the pavement? Why here? Why not a bridge or an overpass or something? Well, I’ve always had a weird connection to this place. I sort of discovered it soon after I got here. “Got here” is a gentle way of saying “ended up crazy and ruined and living on skid row.” That’s right: this is skid row. The end of the line, where society sends its human trash. I’ve spent a lot of time up here over the last few years. It’s one of the few safe places in this sector after dark. It’s far enough off the beaten path that most people don’t come around here. Why should they? No one parks here at night, so there’s nothing to steal. That’s pretty much the only reason anyone goes anywhere around here. They’re looking for something to steal. Hey, if you can’t squeeze something out of it, then why bother? I guess I’m a little different. I come up here to be alone and look at the stars. They’re about the only beautiful things left in my life, and this is the only place where I can get a good look at them. Once the sun goes down, it’s pitch dark up here. The homeless broke out all the lights years ago so there’s nothing to ruin the view. Besides, everywhere else around here is too fucking dangerous. I’d spend too much time looking over my shoulder to ever get a look at the stars.
I like to look at the skyline, too. You get great view of it from here. I’d say it was beautiful, except it reminds me too much of just where I am and how far I’ve fallen in my life. It’s kind of like rubbing salt in the wound. That’s true for a lot of us. It looks almost close enough to reach out and touch it. But it’s a lie, like damn near everything else out here. You can’t touch it. You can’t have it. You can’t even go there; not even for a few minutes’ peace. There’s a lot more than just distance separating this place from that one. There’s a line between them that you can never cross. It’s kind of hard to explain. I think you’ll understand later, as the night goes on. For now, let’s just say I’m here and they’re there, and that’s all there is to it. All of us look at the skyline when we want to torture ourselves, which is pretty much every clear night. We call it the Emerald City. Well, some of us do. We call it that because over there, it’s big and beautiful and shiny and it looks almost magical. Like the Land of Oz. Of course, that being the Emerald City doesn’t mean this is Munchkin Land. Fuck, no! Hell, even the Wicked Witch wouldn’t be caught dead in this place. I guess it’s fitting that I take one last look at the Emerald City because that’s where a lot of us came from. Well, maybe not that particular city over there, but the normal world, if you know what I mean. I did. I came from a place kind of like that. Oh, it wasn’t a big city, but it was a lot like that place. It was nice and beautiful and peaceful. It was normal. It was ordinary. In a way, it was paradise. And now I’m here. I’m here and like everyone else out here, I’m here to stay. I can’t go back. There’s no Yellow Brick Road leading home. Not from this place. None of us can ever go back to the normal world. You see, we crossed the line and once you’re here, you can never leave. It’s a cardinal rule of skid row. It’s a one-way trip no matter what anyone tells you. The only way out of here is in a body bag, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to get one. You’ll understand that better as we go along.
This place. This fucking place. It has a name. Hell, it has a lot of names. Most people know it as skid row. We call it that. We call it other things, too. We call it the zone, we call it the sector, we call it the fringes, and we call it the badlands. Sometimes we kind of cycle through them just to keep things fresh. We’d call it the filthy-fucking-homeless-psycho-junkie-shithole, but that’s a bit of a mouthful and most of us are way too fucked up to go for acronyms. Sometimes we call it the end of the line because that’s exactly what it is, though we’d rather not be reminded of it. God knows we’ve got enough reminders of that. And of course, we call it hell on earth. We know it’s not the real hell because a lot of people who deserve to go there never seem to end up here. That’s not to say that we don’t deserve it. Most of us do. Trust me, we deserve to burn for all eternity for the shit we’ve done out here. That includes me. And even though this isn’t the biblical hell, the devil spends a lot of time here. I know. I’ve seen him. Spend enough time here and you’ll see him, too. I just pray to God that after tonight, I don’t ever see him again.
I call this parking garage Miranda’s Place. I named it after myself. I don’t think it has another name anymore, and what the hell? I’m pretty much the only person who goes there. I don’t think I’ve seen twenty cars in there the whole time I’ve been out on the street. Besides, it’s a better name than the seven story parking place off the dead-end street. Maybe it really does have a name and an address and everything, but I don’t know it. I don’t care, either. I always kind of felt like I owned it, as crazy as that sounds. I even scratched the words “Miranda’s Place” on the wall. We do that a lot. Out here, that’s practically like having the legal deed to the place. Anyway, it’s on the far end of skid row. Why the fuck someone built a seven story parking lot in this sector is beyond me. We’re at least two blocks from anything but a couple of empty warehouses that have been boarded up for about a thousand years. And it’s fucking skid row! Jesus, it’s not like they didn’t know what this place was when they built it. There must be five hundred parking spaces in the place and I’ll bet you couldn’t find fifty people brave enough or stupid enough to park their fucking cars there. Shit, I’ll bet you can’t find five. But it’s here and no one else goes here, so I go here a lot. When you live on the street at night, solitude means safety. Having no one around means having no one around to beat the shit out of you, rape you, kill you or just make you feel worse than you already do. There are plenty of places out here that’ll do that for you. I’ll show them to you.
I’ve always been a solitary person, even before I crashed and burned and ended up out here. It’s one of the many side effects of being crazy. You heard me mention that already. It’s true. I’m fucking crazy. What? You don’t believe me? Hey, I’ve got the diagnosis to prove it. My parents have a pile of psychiatric bills going back to when I was a teenager to prove it. That’s pretty much why I’m out here. It’s why a lot of people are out here. Nothing trashes your life faster or worse than mental illness. Most of the people living out here are crazy to some degree. Some of us are a little bit crazy and some of us are completely fucking bonkers. I’m talking about card-carrying members of the tinfoil hat crowd. They’re the ones you expect to see living on the street. I’m somewhere in between. Actually, I’m the worst kind of crazy. You see, I’m just crazy enough that it totally destroyed my life, but I’m sane enough to realize it. I realize every fucking, miserable little bit of it. There’s nothing worse than being crazy and knowing it. It’s like that old adage about how if you’re going to be blind, then you’re better off being blind from birth so you never know what you’re missing. Believe me, I know exactly what I’m missing. I mean, it wasn’t like I was born here. I wasn’t always roaming the alleys of skid row. I wasn’t always a fucking lowlife junkie. And I wasn’t always suicidal. No, I fell long, far, and hard to get here. I’ll tell you about it if you’ll listen. The truth is, I’d kind of like having someone to talk to. Someone who’ll actually listen to me. I’ll try to make it interesting.
And it is interesting. This psycho world of ours is a lot of things, but boring it ain’t. All of the horrible shit aside, this is without a doubt the most amazing place I’ve ever seen. Christ, I never imagined that a place like this could exist. Most people don’t. That’s by design, too. The whole idea of skid row is to keep all this shit far away from normal people. I don’t blame them. Believe me, most people don’t want to know what goes on out here; particularly at night. I’ve seen things out here that no one would believe in a million years. The days are bad; the nights are worse. But then again, the nighttime is the most interesting time. That’s because everything changes at night, and I mean everything. It’s like the changing of the guard: the daytime world dies and this freak show comes to life. You won’t find a trace of the daytime world after dark, and that’s just the way we like it. And if you’re like me, that’s how you need it to be. Darkness is the refuge of the mind that won’t stop screaming. Besides, our nighttime world can’t exist at the same time as the daytime world. Shit, this world can’t exist in the same fucking reality as the daytime world! It’s like matter and anti-matter: they cancel each other out. Violently, in fact. That’s to be expected. Violence is a big part of our world out here. Violence and pain and degradation and disaster. It’s like a fucking skid row mantra. God knows I’ve experienced all of them. I’ve got the scars to prove it: mental and physical. But there’s a lot more to it than that. Believe me, you’ll never find a place with so many contradictions and impossibilities and horrors and wonders as this place. What was it Alice said about believing six impossible things before breakfast? Trust me, one night here and you’ll do a lot more than just believe them. Think of this as Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s Inferno and you’re on the right track. And that’s just the beginning.
So if I’m going to show you this hell on the last night of my life, I guess that kind of makes me Virgil to your Dante. Oh, don’t worry. Virgil got Dante through hell in one piece and I’ll get you through it, too. A word of warning, though: don’t get too close to it. You see, our world doesn’t tolerate visitors too well. By that, I mean this place plays for keeps. You can lose yourself here. You can lose your mind. Most of us probably lost our minds long before we ended up out here – I know I did – but this place is like a disease. It affects you. It infects you. It gets in your blood. It gets in your soul. It becomes you. It becomes you and you become it. And once that happens, that’s it. It’s got you. You’re a part of it. From that moment on, you can never leave. Not ever. You can’t become one of us and go back to being one of them. And don’t think for a minute that you’re going to make the best of it or find a silver lining somewhere because there isn’t one. There’s no upside to this place. There’s nothing good about it. It doesn’t make you better for having been here. This place is about destruction, not redemption. Remember the inscription above the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno? It said “Abandon all hope ye who enter.” You’d better fucking believe it.
We’d better get moving. It’s a short walk over to the main part of skid row. OK, now like I said, my name is Miranda. Don’t ask me what my last name is because I won’t tell you. Most people out here who really understand this place won’t. Besides, you don’t need to know it. Out here at night, no one has any use for last names. Last names are for real people. Normal people. Not us. Not the fucking zombies who wander around here. We don’t need them. Out here, last names are trouble because the only thing they’re good for is getting your ass thrown in jail. Cops are the only ones who want to know your last name. They’ll jack you up and ask you your name at least a dozen times, every fucking night. They already know it, but they’ll ask you anyway. Then they’ll either hook you up or just beat the crap out of you. Either way, they need your name for the paperwork. And you have to tell them. They’ll beat the living shit out of you if you don’t. Of course, they’ll beat the shit out of you if you do. I know. It’s happened to me more times than I can count. As far as the people out here are concerned, your last name is just a painful reminder of who you used to be and what you failed to become. It’s like the key to the house you don’t have anymore. You’ve still got the key, but you can never go home again. It’s not your home anymore. It hurts just to look at it. Yeah, it’s like that. Take it from me: out here, you’re better off without a last name.
Now, I mentioned that I’m crazy. That’s important, because that’s at the heart of it all. That’s why I ended up on the street. That’s why I became a junkie. That’s why I failed at every fucking thing that matters. Being crazy ruins everything. It’s as simple as that. I don’t know why or how I ended up this way. I mean, I didn’t start out like this. I was a pretty normal kid. Well, as a little kid, anyway. By the time I was a teenager I was pretty fucked up. I knew something was seriously wrong with me, but I never thought it would lead to this. No one did. My parents sure as hell didn’t. I just wish I knew how it happened. I mean, I didn’t have brain damage or a head injury or anything. There wasn’t any history of insanity in my family. I didn’t have a traumatic experience or get molested. I didn’t drop a shitload of acid and go on a permanent freak out. Something just went wrong, that’s all. Something broke. Something malfunctioned. I grew up middle class normal and ended up skid row psycho. I don’t know why and neither does anyone else. Believe me, the not knowing makes it a whole lot worse.
I can’t blame my family. It wasn’t their fault. Like I said, I wasn’t neglected or abused or anything. A lot of people out here were abused, but not me. Shit, I had a great family. They were the best. I had a mom and a dad and three older brothers. Growing up, we were like something out of Leave it to Beaver. They all loved me. To tell you the truth, it hurts me to think that they still do. You see, they don’t know I’m here. They have no idea what happened to me. I never told them. When it all fell apart, I just vanished. I didn’t tell anyone I was on the street. I didn’t tell anyone where I had gone. How could I? How could I tell my mom and dad that I was out here? How could I tell them about the things I’ve done? The things I had to do and the things I chose to do? I’ve done some really fucked up shit out here. I was too ashamed to face them. Sometimes I imagine them out there searching for me. I’ll bet my brothers are. Even after all this time, I’ll bet they’re out there looking for me. God, I loved them. I loved them all so much. I was the youngest and the only daughter. Mom and dad always kind of doted on me, seeing as I was their little girl. And since I was the youngest, my brothers always looked out for me. Well, most of the time, anyway. Big brothers will be big brothers. But it was exactly what it was supposed to be. I had an average life in an average family in an average neighborhood. No life-shattering trauma, no monumental turning point, no horrendous decision that ruined my life. I should have turned out perfect and instead I turned out like this. It was a long, slow and steady slide right to the bottom and I don’t have a fucking idea why. For whatever reason, I went left while the rest of the world went right. I guess that’s what being crazy does to you.
A lot of people don’t believe me when I tell them I’m crazy. That drives me right up the fucking wall, but it’s understandable. That’s because there are so many degrees of craziness out here and mine’s not as visible as the kind you see in the tinfoil hat crowd. They’re sort of a fixture out here, and anyone can tell they’re crazy just by looking at them. But not me. There’s nothing about me that screams “psycho” to the casual observer. That’s a bad thing, because it makes people think you’re full of shit and there’s really nothing wrong with you. You don’t know how infuriating that can be. It’s like, if they can’t see what’s wrong with you, then there must be nothing wrong with you. Bullshit. You can’t see cancer just by looking at someone who’s got it, but it’s there and it’ll kill you. Insanity is like that. Maybe you can’t see it, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. People think that because I can carry on an intelligent conversation, I must be sane. Yeah, I wish! But it doesn’t work that way. They’re confusing lucidity with sanity. That’s a mistake. It’s like confusing motion with action. They’re not the same thing. They might look the same, but they’re not. Being lucid has nothing to do with being insane. You can be both. It just means you’re crazy and you know it. Like I said, that sucks worse than just being crazy. And in my case, it was a fucking engraved invitation to spend the rest of my life on skid row. Too bad it’s an invitation you can’t refuse.
Of course, there have been plenty of times in my life when I wasn’t very lucid. That’s especially true since I wound up in this fucking place. There’ve been times when I completely lost it. Shit, I’ve been downright delusional on a few occasions. I’m talking full-blown hallucinating! As if being out here wasn’t bad enough! And as for being intelligent? Big fucking deal! Believe me, plenty of crazy people are intelligent. You don’t believe me? Look at serial killers. They’re supposed to be very intelligent, or so I’ve read. But they’re also fucking psychotic. We’ve got a few serial killers wandering around out here at night. I’m pretty sure I’ve seen them. Hell, I’ve probably even hung out with one or two of them. Does a double-murderer count? I’ll tell you about him later. He was a trip. Anyway, take it from me: you can be intelligent and psycho at the same time. And being intelligent doesn’t help you one damned bit. It lets you know what’s happening to you, but it doesn’t help you understand it. It doesn’t help you make sense of it. I’d rather be sane and stupid than crazy and smart. Anymore, I just wish I knew how and why I turned out like this. Honestly, after tonight I hope God will explain it to me. I certainly plan to ask him when I see him in a few hours. After all I’ve been through, I think I’ve earned an explanation.
So here we are on the street. Take a right and the first left, just a few feet away. OK, the best place to start learning about skid row is in an alley. And you’re in luck! This is an alley! Think of this one as a beginner’s alley. You’re not quite ready for the advanced ones yet. You need a little seasoning first. Don’t worry, I’ll be taking you there, too. I promised you the grand tour. Anyway, this is one of the longest alleys out here. Hell, it may be the longest fucking alley in the city. It goes on for something like two miles at least, with a couple of little breaks thanks to construction over the years. Some people call it the Grass Alley because there’s a fair amount of grass growing in the cracks in the asphalt. Grass, hell! It looks like a shitload of weeds to me. This thing will take you right into the heart of skid row, which is to say it’ll take you to the main drag where most of the missions are. Talk about a straight line to hell! The strange thing is, as skid row alleys are concerned, it’s pretty lame. By that I mean no one deals a lot of dope in here and not many hang people out and shoot dope, either. And there aren’t many murders in here. Christ, and we think that’s a bad thing! Can you believe it? Like I said before, this is a pretty fucking topsy-turvy world.
OK, stay sharp! We’ve got company. That’s Mr. Conroy. He knows me. Don’t worry. He’s one of the good guys. We do have them out here. The rest of us just outnumber them by about six hundred to one.
“Hey, Mr. Conroy. What brings you this far out?”
I didn’t expect to see him here. Mr. Conroy is one of the volunteers at the missions. He’s what we call a do-gooder. I don’t mean that in a negative way. I’m not ripping on him or anything. Where the hell would we be without them? It’s hard to believe that a guy his age is out here trying to save the souls of the fallen. Christ, he must be at least eighty! You’d think he could find a better way to spend his golden years than roaming around this fucking place, ministering to a bunch of junkies, thieves and whores. Maybe he’s got a lot of sins to work off? No, you’d have to be a fucking serial killer with twenty bodies stashed in the basement to have to work off your sins out here.
“I’m lookin’ for the lost souls. I go wherever they go. I haven’t seen you in a while, girl. Where’ve you been?”
“I’ve been around. How’s the soul-saving business going?”
“I’m doin’ God’s work. That’s its own reward.”
That always brings a smile to his face. The faithful love it when you give the Lord his due. Mr. Conroy is a died-in-the-wool Bible-Thumper. You’d be amazed how many of them we’ve got out here. Sometimes I almost think they outnumber the junkies.
“Amen. Listen, I’m glad I ran into you, child. In fact, I came here ’cause I thought I might find you. You always did like that parking lot.”
“It’s my place. The closest thing I’ve got to a place of my own.”
“I remember you told me that. So listen, I heard you got the notice. Is that true?”
Oh, shit! How the hell did he find out about that?
“Who told you that?”
“A friend of mine works over at the Social Services. He told me they done gave it to you this week.”
Never underestimate the skid row grapevine. You’d be amazed at how much information there is about everything that goes on out here. It’s truly mind-boggling.
“I guess it’s true what they say: bad news travels fast. Yeah, I got it the other day. I knew it was coming. All good things must come to an end.”
“So they done served you already?”
“I’m afraid so. The paper’s back in the room.”
“Dear Lord! They can’t give you no extension or nothin’ like that?”
“Nope. I guess they figured I’m a lost cause. They figured right.”
“Nah, you ain’t lost, girl. Ain’t nobody lost to the Lord.”
“Too bad the Lord doesn’t head up Social Services.”
“So they’re puttin’ you out on the street again?”
“Don’t they always? Besides, it’s not like I ever really left.”
He seems genuinely broken up about it. That’s kind of weird. I mean, it’s not like he’s never seen this before.
“That just ain’t right, girl. I had hopes for you.”
“Well, they told me it was temporary when they set it up. They probably figure if I don’t have a job and a future by now, they’re just wasting their time.”
“You didn’t ever find a job?”
“Nope. I tried. It’s not easy to get a job when you’re crazy. The track marks and the arrest record didn’t help, either.”
Hey, would you hire a junkie who lived on the street and had an arrest record? I wouldn’t.
“I’m so sorry, child. I was prayin’ extra hard for you. Prayin’ that it wouldn’t never come to this.”
“Well, I appreciate it. And hey, it wasn’t your fault. It wasn’t anybody’s fault. That’s just how the system works.”
“Don’t I know it? Don’t I know it, girl! So you know what you’re gonna do?”
Oh yeah! I know exactly what I’m going to do, but I’m sure as hell not going to tell him! Men of God frown on suicide. You know, that whole “mortal sin” thing.
“Uh, not yet. But don’t worry. I’ll think of something.”
“Well, if there’s somethin’ I can do, you come see me, you hear?”
“I’ll do that.”
I can’t just let him go like that. After all, he’s one of the good guys. I owe him plenty of favors. There aren’t many people out here who’ve gone out on a limb for me the way he has over the years. Shit, you could count them on the fingers of one hand. He’s been really nice to me ever since I met him. I owe it to him to at least say goodbye.
“You were always really good to me. I don’t know if I ever told you how much that meant. You made it a little easier, you know? That’s no little thing out here. I just wanted to say thanks. For everything.”
“Oh, you don’t have to thank me. I got nothin’ but love for you. Nothin’ but good thoughts. God loves you, Miranda. Don’t you ever forget that. God loves you no matter what.”
“I hope you’re right.”
Jesus, I hope like hell he’s right! In a few hours I’m going to find out firsthand just how forgiving God is. Or isn’t!
“It ain’t about hope, child. It’s about faith. Like the Lord says, ‘If ye have faith, then ye can move mountains!’”
“I don’t suppose it can turn back time?”
“What you mean by that?”
“Nothing. Crazy thoughts. You know how it is with me.”
“Well, you come see me tomorrow, you hear? First night back, I want to make sure you’re OK.”
“You don’t have to worry. I’ve been there before, remember? I’ve been here a long time. Nothing ever really changed.”
“Lord, don’t I know it! You really took to livin’ out here. You learned the ways of the streets. A little too well, if you ask me.”
“And I never left, did I? I mean, all I’m losing is a bed. Nothing’s really changed, has it?”
“Yeah, there you go. Tryin’ to be all tough, like them fools out there. You ain’t made of stone, you know.”
“Just my head.”
“OK, then. You have it your way. But I still want to check on you later on.”
“Are you afraid I’ll go back on the dope?”
“As a matter of fact, yes. You don’t need to be doin’ that.”
“Why? Are you afraid I’ll get all strung out and start whoring myself out?”
“Tell me you’re not thinkin’ of doin’ that.”
I really shouldn’t have put that picture in his head. What the fuck is wrong with me? Why would I say something like that to him?
“Don’t worry. I never did and I never will.”
“Well, thank God for that.”
“Look, I’ll try to come see you tomorrow night. If I can.”
“You do that. God bless you, Miranda. You take care of yourself, you hear?”
Oh, I’ll be taking care of myself. Permanently. He’ll find out soon enough. I’m glad I won’t be there when he does.
Well, at least I got to say goodbye to Mr. Conroy. Of course, he didn’t know it was goodbye. Like I said, I wasn’t about to tell him that I’m planning to kill myself in a few hours. He may be an old man, but he’d have knocked me down and sat on me until sunrise to keep me from cashing in. I wasn’t about to chance it. Besides, I wanted his last memory of me to be a good one. At least, I wanted it to be as good as it gets when you’re dealing with me. Admittedly, that’s not much. You know, I probably wouldn’t have given a shit what he thought about me two days ago, but when you’re looking at imminent death, you tend to see things a little differently.
I guess I need to explain a few things to you. Mr. Conroy mentioned that I “got the notice.” That’s skid row speak for “They’re kicking you out of your state-sponsored bunk and throwing your worthless ass back on the street because they’re fed up with you.” Yeah, that’s what happened to me. That’s pretty much why I decided to kill myself tonight. Oh, I’d been planning it for a long time now, but that’s what pushed me over the edge – no pun intended. You see, I lived out on the street for years. I was a regular, like everyone else around here. I was a junkie and a psycho and a loser and a thief and a worthless piece of shit. I still am. I’m all of those things. But for the last year, I’ve had an actual roof over my head – such as it is. You see, when you’re homeless – and if you’re damned lucky – you get put on a list for a room at an SRO here on skid row. That’s a Single Room Occupancy. It’s basically a fleabag hotel in the middle of skid row that’s been bought by the city and turned into a subsidized shelter for the homeless. Ah, yes! Your tax dollars at work! Well, I finally got one of those rooms. It was the first good thing that happened to me since I ended up out here that didn’t involve a needle. I can’t begin to tell you what it was like to sleep in a bed for the first time in God only knows how many years. To tell you the truth, I was so freaked out by it all that I hardly slept for the first couple of nights. I just sat on the floor, shaking. To tell you the truth, I was more scared in there than I was out on the street. Fear of the unfamiliar, I guess. And other reasons.
Like I told Mr. Conroy, it’s not like I’m giving up much. I mean, I never left the streets. The building is right in the heart of this shit, and it’s definitely not a home. No, it’s just a place to lie down for a while. A place to keep the fucking rain off my head. It’s renovated, but it’s still pretty run down. Most of the residents are on parole and they scare the living shit out of me, the rooms are about the size of a hatbox and there’s only one bathroom on each floor. If I were six inches taller I could stand in the middle of the room and touch the walls on either side of me. Some people have closets bigger than that. But it’s reasonably clean and it’s almost safe sometimes and there’s a shower, thank God! You get to wash yourself and you can wash your clothes in the bathtub and you get to shit in a real toilet. After a few years on the street, that’s nothing short of paradise. The truth is, it’s a Godsend. But there’s a catch. There’s always a catch, right? The catch is that you can’t stay there forever. They expect you to get back on your feet and put your life together within six months to a year or else they rotate you out. Kick you out on your ass is more like it. It seems like the guys usually get closer to six months and the women get closer to a year. It’s about the only thing that’s good about being a woman out here. Anyway, I got the notice a few days ago. I have to be out by noon tomorrow. I guess I didn’t make the cut. I didn’t pick myself up by my own bootstraps and put my life back together and buy a pretty house in the suburbs. Yeah, right! They don’t take into account the fact that there are a million reasons why just getting a room and being clean for a change doesn’t put you back on your feet. You may be in a hatbox with a bed and a lightbulb, but you’re still here. You’re still on the streets. You’re still in the life. My SRO is right next to one of the biggest dope spots out here. Four people got killed in the building since I’ve been there. Two of them killed each other, if that makes a difference. I got to watch them do it. The cops shot a guy in the alley behind the place a few months ago. I saw that go down, too. Oh, and one of the guys in the building is a convicted multiple rapist who eye-fucks the shit out of me every time he sees me. I sleep with a big cinder block jammed against the door and a knife and a metal pipe right next to me. That’s when I can sleep. I only sleep during the day, like a vampire. And waking up with roaches crawling all over you in bed is no better than it is when you sleep in the street. I’m still afraid all the time. And there are plenty of reminders that you’re still living on skid row. I’ve found a couple of people who OD’d in the bathroom on my floor. The guy who used to run the place was an evil fuck who dealt crack out of the front office and enjoyed making me miserable whenever he could, which was a lot of times. Yeah, everything that brought you here in the first place is still right there with you, no matter where you go or what you do. It’s just more of the same, only with a place to park your ass when you sleep. All right in the heart of beautiful downtown skid row. Like I said before: once this place gets its hooks into you, you’re fucked. A room in an SRO doesn’t change that. I wish to God it did.
So anyway, my time is up. I have to leave, and you don’t just go from one SRO to the next. When you get the boot, you go back out on the street. You go right back to square one. Do not pass go, do not collect two hundred dollars. Well, I lived like that for years and there’s no way in hell I’m going back. I know what’s waiting for me if I do. That’s a fate worse than death, and for more reasons than I can explain. I think you’ll understand it before the night is over. It’s weird when you think about it: I don’t belong anywhere else and yet I can’t stand the idea of going back. I mean, it’s not like it’s a big change. It was just a bed and a roof. I was still crazy on skid row. I was still out here every night. I always knew I was just running out the clock at the SRO. It gave me a little room to breathe, but that’s all. Hey, out here, you take what you can get. Anyway, I know what’s waiting for me. I know exactly what’s going to happen if I end up back on the street full-time. I know what I’ll become because I’ll never forget what I was. I’ll never forget what it did to me. Living on the street destroyed me. What was left of me. Living on the street made me a junkie. It made me want to be a junkie. Living on the street made me hate myself in ways I never thought possible. It made me hate everyone in the whole fucking world almost as much. It made me do things to people that I never thought I could bring myself to do, and after I did them I didn’t feel a fucking thing. And then when I realized that, I felt worse than I ever thought possible. Living out here broke me. Plain and simple, it fucking broke me. It killed any shred of dignity I might have had left. It made me believe that I deserved every horrible, disgusting, and degrading thing that ever happened to me. This place made me evil. The brief respite made it so I didn’t have to be so evil. I won’t go back to that. I’d rather die. So I’m going to die. Pretty simple, huh? I’ll bet you never thought suicide could be such a rational thing. Trust me, out here, it is. It’s very rational. For most of us, it’s the only way out that isn’t too horrible to think about. It’s the only control over our lives that we’ve got left. You have no idea what that means. And besides, it’s long overdue. I should’ve killed myself years ago. I should’ve killed myself before I ever got here. Oh, I tried it a couple of times, but I always botched it. Typical. But this time I’ll get it right. This time it’s going to work. It’s about fucking time.
So shall we begin your tour of hell? We’ve been walking in the Grass Alley long enough. It’s time to show you what this place is really all about. Like I told you, this alley’s a straight shot into the heart of skid row. Even before you get there, you’ll know it because of the smell. It stinks. It fucking stinks like shit. Hell, some of it is shit. It’s not like we’re particular about where we take a shit or a piss. I know that sounds disgusting and believe me, it is disgusting. It’s enough to make you puke. We do a lot of that, too. Shit, piss, puke, and sweat. There’s a perfume for you. Then there’s the noise. Do you hear it? Sometimes I think Hellen Keller could hear it. Noise is a big part of skid row. It’s almost impossible to get away from it. It’s voices, mostly. Hundreds of voices talking, yelling and screaming all day and all night long. It never ends. It never changes. And once it gets into your head, it never goes away. Not ever. You come to think it was always there. You can barely remember your life without it. You hear it in your nightmares. It never leaves you. When that happens, it’s a sign you’re becoming one of us. Unfortunately, by the time you realize it, it’s probably too late.
OK, here we go. Take a look over there. That’s skid row. Just like you heard about, only this is the real thing. You can see them from here. The people, I mean. Look at them. They’re just standing there like they’re waiting for something that’s never going to come. It doesn’t really matter what it is. It’s never going to come. They’re just killing time while time kills them. How many do you think there are? Over a thousand? Probably. In this town the heart of skid row is only a few square blocks, but there’s an astonishing number of people jammed in here. More and more of them every year. That’s one of the constant things about skid row: every fucking year, there are more people. That’s one of the first things I noticed when I really began to get the hang of living on the street. There are never less people out here. Even when you throw in all of the motherfuckers who get locked up or murdered or move on to another city or just up and kill themselves, there’s never less people. Every year there’s always more of them. One disappears; two take his place. You know what scares me? The thought that someone will take my place tonight. It’s going to happen. Maybe not tonight, but it’ll happen. Some woman will find herself in this shithole for the first time and it’ll be the first day of the end of the line for her. She’ll be the new me. I wonder who she’ll be? Honestly, I don’t want to know.
The very center of skid row, or Ground Zero as the cops sometimes call it, is constantly alive. Other places out here pick up and die down at different times, but here at the heart of it all, it never lets up. Not ever. We’re out here twenty-four seven, rain or shine. We’re out here when it’s freezing cold and when it’s boiling hot. If the whole fucking place was on fire, we’d be out here roasting marshmallows in it if we had any marshmallows. That’s because there’s no place else for us to go. That’s one of the weird things you learn about living on the street: being homeless doesn’t mean that the whole city is your home. Not by a long shot. No, when you live on the street, you’re confined to the skid row sector. And I do mean confined. The cops and the normal people don’t want us invading their nice, normal world, so they corral us in here. There are no fences or signs or anything, but everyone out here knows the boundaries. You cross them at your own risk, and the risk is severe. That’s not an exaggeration. The cops don’t take kindly to us wandering off of the reservation, so to speak. If they catch you where you don’t belong, they’ll show you the error of your ways. Oh, they’ll get your mind right in a hurry! Nightsticks, flashlights, tear gas, Taser shocks and a few solid kicks in the ass from a combat boot are pretty fucking persuasive. Believe me, I know. I speak from long and painful experience.
Over there is the main drag. It’s literally the center of skid row. If there’s a tourist’s map for this city, I’ll bet it’s got a big fucking skull and crossbones right on this spot. God knows it ought to. Some people call this place the Causeway. I don’t know why. I mean, I guess it’s nicer than calling it the big fucking sidewalk where all of the homeless motherfuckers hang out. Some people do call this the Big Sidewalk, though. That refers to both sides of the street. The sidewalks aren’t much bigger than anywhere else, but there are so many people crammed onto them that you’d think they were as wide as the Grand Canyon. I’ll bet you never saw this many people hanging out on the sidewalk where you come from, right? I certainly hope not. Some of the cops have told me that there’ve been times when there were three thousand people crammed into this two-block stretch. That’s fucking unbelievable! Anyway, the reason there are so many people on the Causeway is because that’s where most of the missions are. Not all of them, but most of them. Look around you. All of these big buildings are missions. Maybe we ought to call it the Mission District? No, I think San Francisco would sue us if we did.
These missions are the center of life on skid row. Hey, you can’t have skid row without missions, right? It’s probably a law or something. The truth is, I don’t know what we’d do without them. They feed you, they clothe you, they pray for you and for the most part they’re happy to see you. God only knows why. Of course, they’re not happy that you’re out here. Oh, hell no! They wouldn’t wish this shit on the devil himself. But they’re true believers, each and every one of them. I don’t know where they get their faith. I’d give anything for faith like that. I’ve never stopped believing in God, but I gave up on him saving me a long time ago. I just couldn’t reconcile being so fucking crazy and all of the shit I’ve seen out here with a merciful God. Maybe that’s blasphemy, but you haven’t seen what I’ve seen. You haven’t done what I’ve done. Sometimes I think this place is proof that even God has his limits. Take it from me: when you’re crazy and your life goes to shit and you wind up on the street, your faith takes a hell of a beating. So I’ve given up on salvation. I’m just praying he’ll spare me when I’m dead. That’s not so much to ask, is it?
This may come as a shock to you, but the missions are some seriously dangerous places. It’s fucking crazy, I know. They’re houses of God, but we turn them into the devil’s den. That’s because we don’t stop being a pack of fucking animals just because we get a cot for the night in a house of the Lord. People get robbed all the time in those places. They get beaten and slashed and stuck and even killed. I know. I’ve had my ass kicked at least a dozen times in the missions. I’m not talking about being pushed onto the ground or anything. I’m talking about a serious ass kicking. I’m talking about two guys hold you down while a third stomps you senseless. I’m talking about having some lunatic hold your head in a doorway and slam the door on it. It was usually because someone wanted my seat or they ate all of their food and decided they wanted mine. They usually got it. For all their good intentions, the missions are a fucking pit. And there’s nothing the people who run them can do about it. After all, they’re dealing with a bunch of fucking scum. We’re talking people who are barely human anymore. They come here expecting something and if they don’t get it, they go fucking ballistic. It’s even worse after dark. I learned early on to stay the fuck away from the missions after dark. They’re even more dangerous outside. They lock the doors around nine o’clock, but there are always a couple of hundred people hanging around outside all night long, rain or shine. And they’re not here to pray. Well, in a sense, they are. They’re here to prey. They’re here to prey on anyone weaker than them. Kill or be killed is a very literal way of life out here. It happens all the time. People out here don’t think twice about killing each other. They’ll kill anyone literally for the hell of it. I’ve seen it more times than I can count.
The city shelters are even worse. They’re like the missions, only without the religion. There are a few of them around here, but they closed some of them because of budget cuts. At least, that’s what they told us. I don’t miss them. The shelters are pure hell. That’s putting it mildly. You might as well cut your own throat and get it over with. Prisons have less violence than the shelters. If you don’t believe me, just ask anyone who’s been in both. People get beat up, robbed, stabbed, raped, and even killed in there. No one does anything to stop it. I don’t think anyone could. It’s ironic when you think about it: they opened the shelters to help the homeless, but they’re about the worst places that the homeless can go. The rule in the shelters is the same as on the street: survival of the fittest. Survival of the strongest. Survival of the meanest. The weak don’t stand a chance. The strong and the vicious do whatever they want. Anything they can take from you, they will. Even your bed. Most people who go to the shelters do so because they just want a meal and a place to sleep. A bed. A stupid army cot. But you can’t even have that. You can’t even have your own fucking cot for one lousy night. Trust me, you won’t get one. It doesn’t matter how early you get there. It doesn’t matter if they’ve got five hundred of them. You won’t get one because even if you do, someone will take it from you. If you don’t give it up, they’ll just beat the shit out of you. Or worse. There’s always someone bigger and stronger and meaner than you, and you always find them in the shelters. And they always find you. They sure as hell found me. That’s why I don’t go there anymore.
The shelters always scared the shit out me, and not just because of the violence. There’s something about a human warehouse that scares me. I can’t explain it; it just does. That’s what the shelters are, you know: human warehouses. You’re packed in there like sardines. Think of five hundred people sleeping in army cots in a filthy high school gym with a guard that comes through every now and then with a flashlight and that’s what the shelters are like. I don’t like being that close to people. I sure as hell don’t like being that close to five hundred people. I have enough trouble being close to one. There’s no privacy. There’s no place to get away. No place to hide. When I’m in a crowd, I feel like there are people there who can tell what I’m thinking. Like they can read my thoughts. I can feel them thinking about me. Trying to get inside my head. I can feel their eyes when they look at me. I look down at the ground, but they won’t stop looking at me. I pull the blanket over my head, but it doesn’t help. I can still feel their eyes on me. It’s like having bugs crawling all over my skin. I can’t stand it. I just want to start screaming. Sometimes I do. But even then, they keep looking at me. They won’t stop. I can’t stand crowds. I never could. That’s one reason why I’m constantly on the move out here. In the shelters, there’s no place to go.