I wonder how Hank’s going to like wiping his ass with a hook? Stupid fucking junkie! Hey, I tried. Maybe when the pain gets too bad, he’ll drag his ass to the fire station. He sure as hell won’t get any sleep tonight without something to kill the pain. I swear, people out here are beyond fucking stupid sometimes. Hank knows better, but he’s being a stubborn motherfucker all the same. What the fuck is wrong with him? He’s a long-time junkie. He knows what that is. He knows what to do. Does he really want to risk losing that arm? They’ll cut it off if it gets bad enough. It happens. Is he really that fucking stupid?
What you just saw back there is a common occurrence out here. I mean the infection; not the stupid-assed motherfucker. Well, they’re a common occurrence, too. But infections are everywhere, and they’re serious business. You don’t give them a minute’s thought in the normal world, but here it’s a different story. Between the filth and the dope and diseases and all of the other shit we get into, people get infections left and right. They’re usually no big deal if you get them looked at right away, but if you let them fester, they’ll turn into some serious shit. They can kill you, and it’s not a pretty way to go. Hank’s in serious fucking trouble whether he knows it or not. All of that pus coming out of his arm means he could end up with gangrene. That happens out here, too. You get gangrene and that’s it: you’re fucked. They chop your fucking arm off. It’s either that, or you die. If you’re wondering how I knew he had an abscess even before I saw it, it’s because I know Hank. He doesn’t just shoot heroin. He shoots speedballs. Remember what I told you about that? About the abscesses? There you go. I could smell it the minute he rolled up his sleeve. Why the fuck do they do that shit? Fucking abscesses happen to them all the time. I’ve seen speedballers with holes in their arms big enough to put your thumb through. I swear, you can see their fucking bones! It’s disgusting. Why do they do it? I can’t believe the high is worth all the shit that comes with speedballing. No high is worth that kind of shit.
I was actually hoping someone just broke his arm or something. That’s more common than abscesses. Injuries are a major fact of life when you live out here, in case you haven’t noticed. We get fucked up all the time. Bad dope, ass kickings, burns, knife wounds, head bashed in with a brick, cops fuck you up – you name it, we get it. Skid row breaks your body just as much as it breaks your spirit. Of course, we don’t have money or health insurance or anything, so we’re kind of limited in what we can do about it. The fire stations are about our only option at night. They’re open twenty-four/seven and they’re actually pretty nice to you. Well, most of the time. They’re good for splints and bandages and shit like that, but not much else. Sometimes they’ll give you medicine, but usually they’ll just tell you to go to the hospital. They won’t take you there unless you’re unconscious or shot or something like that. They tell you to start walking. I think it’s a regulation or something: “Just go to the hospital, honey. They’ll take care of you. Now get out of our fire station.” Yeah, right. The hospitals hate us with a passion. They hate to see us because we’re filthy and we’re assholes and they know we’re a bunch of fucking deadbeats. We don’t pay our bills. Unfortunately for them, they have to take us. It’s the law. That’s especially true if they bring you to the hospital in an ambulance. They can’t turn you away then. God knows they’ve tried. I speak from painful experience. But they can usually find ways to get rid of you if you walk into the emergency room on your own. Believe me, if Hank shows up in a hospital with that fucking abscess leaking pus and stinking like shit, they’ll find a way to get rid of him the second he rolls up his sleeve. They aren’t going to want to touch him with a ten foot pole. Hell, they don’t want to touch any of us with a ten foot pole. Like I said, we’re not the most hygienic people on earth. And even if they don’t manage to throw your ass out the door, the usual standard of care isn’t anything to write home about – if we had homes, that is. Homeless people aren’t what you’d call a priority for hospitals. As far as they’re concerned, we’re about as welcome as a fucking disease.
Like everything else out here, there’s a kind of strange ritual associated with going to a hospital. Hey, why should that be any different? It goes kind of like this: If you’re homeless and you manage to walk into the emergency room, they immediately figure that you aren’t hurt too bad. Hey, if you can walk, then how bad can it be? So that pretty much guarantees you’ll be seen last. It doesn’t matter if you’re on death’s fucking door. As far as they’re concerned, there’s no such thing as a walk-in in need of immediate attention – especially a filthy, piece of shit homeless walk-in. The next thing that happens is that you’re immediately directed to the admissions desk. It’s easy to find: you just follow the trail of puke and bloodstains on the floor. I know. I’ve contributed both in my day. Now, if you make it to the desk without keeling over, you’ll be met by the surliest bitch of a nurse on God’s green earth. I don’t care what hospital you go to; she’s there. She’s always there. There’s one in every hospital emergency room in the world and they’re all exactly the same. They must have a factory where they make them or something. Her job is to tell you to sit your ass down, shut the fuck up, and wait your goddamned turn. You could go in there carrying your severed hand in a sandwich bag and she’ll tell you to have a seat and wait until you’re called. No amount of pleading will speed things up for you. Then she’ll give you the forms. The forms from hell. There’s always a giant fucking stack of forms that you have to fill out. They’ve got a form for everything and even if that’s your writing hand in that bag, they’ll expect you to fill them out in triplicate. No forms; no treatment. It’s a hospital law. They worship it. I think Moses brought that one down from the mountain, chiseled in stone by the finger of God himself. The assholes at the hospital certainly think so. There are always about twenty pages of forms. You should see them. They’re enough to make you wonder just who the lunatics are: us or them? They ask you the most ridiculous fucking questions that nobody out here can answer. Who’s your regular doctor? Are you kidding me? What insurance do you have? Take a wild fucking guess, asshole! When was your last chest x-ray? Are you taking any medication? Uh, do you mean like illegal medication? Yeah, that too. What’s your blood type? Are you allergic to any of the following five hundred medications that you can’t even pronounce? Are you an organ donor? If not, then what the fuck is wrong with you, you selfish bastard? It’s insane. Maybe it’s a fucking literacy test: you know, only people who can read and write get treatment. Read and write English, that is. I have no idea what people who can’t speak English do with these forms, and there are a shitload of them out here. I guess they’re just out of luck. Like I said, if you want treatment, then you’ve got to fill out the forms. It’s like one of those laws of nature that can’t be broken, no matter what. You know, like how nothing can ever go faster than the speed of light? It’s like that. No homeless walk-in ever sees a doctor until the fucking forms are filled out.
So assuming you don’t pass out or bleed to death or just fucking explode while you’re waiting, eventually they’ll get around to seeing you. That’s not an exaggeration, either. A wait in an inner-city emergency room can take hours. Lots of hours. I’ve seen people with big fucking knife wounds held together with duct tape wait for the better part of the night before anybody bothers to look at them. One night I thought I broke my ankle and I waited for five and a half hours before they even said “boo” to me, and it wasn’t even a busy night. I was crying because I was in so much pain. I was so bad that the other people in the waiting room got uncomfortable sitting next to me, but it didn’t matter. They said they couldn’t give me anything for the pain until the doctor looked at me. Where was the doctor? Probably in the operating room, fucking some nurse. It was so bad, it was all I could do to keep from screaming my head off. My ankle was swollen up like a tree trunk. The skin had turned purple. When I finally got to see the doctor, the son of a bitch grabs my ankle with both hands, twists it like a goddamned corkscrew and asks me if it hurts. Uh, you’d think he’d have figured that out when I screamed like a fucking banshee! I screamed so loud, they probably heard me in the next fucking county! Why do doctors do that? Every time a doctor asks you “does this hurt?” you know goddamned well it hurts like shit! If it doesn’t hurt, then you’re either paralyzed or dead. Fucking sadists. It was all I could do to keep from sticking the son of a bitch right in his fucking gut. So after he finishes making my ankle hurt ten times worse than it already did, he tells me it’s just sprained and walks away. Then the evil Nurse Ratched comes in and wraps it with a bandage tight enough to cut off the fucking circulation, gives me some Tylenol, and has two security guards throw me out the fucking door. Bitch! It wasn’t even the good Tylenol with the Codeine in it! The whole thing took about fifteen minutes. They didn’t even bother to x-ray it. How did they know it wasn’t broken? To be honest, I’m not surprised they didn’t do an x-ray. X-rays are expensive and since I was just another deadbeat, why bother? I wish they’d given me a cane or some crutches or something. I know crutches make you a target out here, but even with the bandage, I couldn’t walk for shit. I had to lean against the wall just to make it to the door. You should’ve seen me. But they didn’t give me a fucking thing. I don’t think they paid a bit of attention to me as I hopped out the door. They were just glad to be rid of me.
Something I’ve learned out here is that doctors and nurses who work in the emergency room at night don’t seem to have a sense of humor. I don’t know why I noticed that, but I did. They all seem to be seriously pissed off, all of the time. Admittedly, I don’t spend a whole lot of time in hospitals so I’m not in the best position to make that judgment, but every time I’ve had to go to one everyone there seemed to be really angry about something. I guess working in an emergency room near skid row at night does something to you. Evidently, it makes you a surly motherfucker and you just want to take it out on someone else. Oh, that leads to another very important lesson you learn out here: don’t ever piss off the doctors and nurses! That’s important. You don’t want to learn it the hard way. You have to remember that no matter what, you’re there because you need them. They don’t need you. They certainly don’t need your bullshit. And make no mistake: if you fuck with them, they’ll fuck you. Notice I didn’t say they’ll fuck with you. No, I said they’ll fuck you. And fuck you they will! No one knows more about inflicting pain than a doctor. That Hippocratic Oath shit about doing no harm is a myth. Either that, or it only applies during the daytime, because on the night shift they’ll harm the living shit out of you if you piss them off. I remember this one time I was in the emergency room because I got a really bad cut on my hand. Some guy slammed a dumpster lid on it. The cut was really deep. So while they were stitching it up, the cops brought in this guy they busted. Apparently, he swallowed some dope. The guy was going off from the minute they brought him in. I don’t know what his problem was, but he had a serious fucking attitude. They put him in the bed next to me and strapped him down in four-point restraints. Anyway, this asshole starts giving the nurse all kinds of shit – just massive shit – for no fucking reason. Well, she just smiles at him. You know, one of those sadistic smiles like she knew what was coming next and he didn’t. So she tells the cops that she needs to insert a catheter into this guy’s dick because he swallowed the dope. I didn’t exactly know what a catheter was, but I’m pretty sure that what she brought back was no catheter. She comes back with this thing that looked like a goddamned garden hose! I’m serious! It was wider than the guy’s dick! I thought to myself, “She’s going to put that in his dick? No fucking way!” Then the guy gets this look of absolute terror on his face. He’s seriously freaking out. But he’s in restraints so there’s nothing he can do but lay there and take it. So this bitch starts snaking this fucking garden hose up the guy’s dick. I don’t even think she put anything on it – you know, to make it go in easier. She just jammed it up his dick, bone fucking dry! Painful? This guy let out a scream I don’t want to hear twice in my life. It was beyond horrible. It was primal. I guess you have to have a dick to truly understand the pain that this guy was feeling. I thought to myself, “Thank God I’m a woman so I’ll never know what that son of a bitch is going through!” Thank God is right! Christ, it hurts just thinking about it! You should’ve seen the look on the guy’s face through it all. It was like he was possessed. And those screams! The cops were falling on the floor, they were laughing so hard. They were telling him shit like “Hey, serves you right, motherfucker!” What a bunch of fucking sadists! And it seemed like it went on forever! I was trying not to watch, but I just couldn’t help it. The nurse kept shoving and the cops kept laughing and the asshole kept screaming in agony. She must have shoved that thing all the way up his dick and halfway through his intestines! I’m surprised it didn’t come out his fucking nose! Ten bucks says that guy is sexually ruined for life. He must be! How could anyone ever get laid again after something like that? I mean, I don’t have to be a guy to know that the human dick wasn’t designed for that shit! Holy Mother of God!
Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “How could a nurse be that cruel?” Easy! Hey, that’s what this place does to you. Besides, he did bring it on himself. He was there because he told the cops he swallowed his dope and they didn’t want him to drop dead. And then he went and pissed off the nurse. You just don’t do that shit. You want to give the cops a bunch of shit for hooking you up? Fine. Go ahead. They’re used to it. But don’t give the nurse a bunch of shit, too. She’s not the one who busted you. If he’d just gone along with the program, the most they would’ve done was pumped his stomach. Speaking from experience, that’s pretty unpleasant; but it can’t possibly compare to having five feet of garden hose shoved up your dick! But he just had to be an asshole! Well, they got his mind right: big time! You know, being a junkie, there’s this old Muslim saying about opium that I read once: “Opium is like the finger of God – it smites and it heals.” The emergency room is like that, too. They can heal you all right, but if you piss them off, they can smite the living shit out of you. This guy learned that lesson the hard way. But it’s like I said: whatever you do, don’t piss off the doctors and nurses. Everyone out here gets hurt pretty bad from time to time, and when it’s your turn, you’re going to need those people. Anyone can tear you apart, but they’re the only ones who can put you back together. Assuming you want to be put back together, that is. As you probably know by now, some of us don’t.
You can’t imagine what this place does to your body. It crushes your soul and it destroys your mind, but it has just as much of a devastating effect on your body. When you have to fight for your life almost every night, you tend to collect a lot of scars and other injuries. God knows I’ve got them. I’ve got scars on my hands and arms from all sorts of things: knife cuts from knife fights, getting hit with bricks and boards and steel rebars, and the usual wear and tear that comes from living in a place made of concrete and steel and you’re constantly working with your hands. I can tell you the stories behind almost every one of them, no matter how small. The important thing to remember is that they all hurt. Some hurt more than others, but they all hurt. And even after the wounds heal and all that remains are the scars, they still hurt. They hurt when you look at them. They’re permanent reminders of what your life has become. I look at the scar by my left elbow and I remember the first guy I ever slashed with a knife in a knife fight. I didn’t want to do it and I was scared beyond belief, but he was a rapist who’d decided that I was going to be his next victim and I wasn’t going to let that happen. I got him deep on his arm and I slashed him straight across his chest. He wasn’t wearing a shirt, so I saw his skin open up. It was horrible. I cut him deep, and if you’ve never seen a deep knife wound, then you can’t imagine how ugly it is. I almost puked right there. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind to stay in the fight until he took off running. Then I puked my guts out.
People in the normal world always talk about how we let ourselves go to shit. You know, how the homeless always look like shit? It’s true. We do look like shit. Some of us a lot more than others, but all in all, we all look like shit. For most of us, it isn’t by choice. For one thing, we’re living in the filthiest environment known to man. Everything out here is filthy. Dirt, grease, brick dust, asphalt dust, and God only knows what else. It’s everywhere. You can’t avoid it. Spending so much time in the alleys and diving through the dumpsters just makes it worse. And it’s not like we’ve got showers and places to wash our clothes. Hell, a lot of us don’t have more than one set of clothes anyway. What are we supposed to do? Stand there naked while we wash what we’ve got? No, dirt and grease and sweat and blood are your constant companions when you live on the street. You get used to it. Eventually, you get used to anything. That’s another one of those horrible lessons of living on the street: sooner or later, you get used to anything. Believe me, it’s not a good thing.
Then there’s the fact that most of us just let ourselves go. I’m talking mentally and physically. We just give up. This place crushes your soul, and when that happens, you really don’t give a shit about how you look or how you smell. You just stop caring. You stop caring about anything. You honestly can’t bring yourself to expend the effort to take care of yourself. That’s when you know that you’ve hit rock bottom. Your skin turns black from the alley grease? Who cares? Your clothes are so filthy that they become stiff as a board? So what? You stink so bad that you’d make a pig drop dead from the smell? Big deal! You’re on the street. You’re homeless. You’re never going to make it out of here. This is your life – forever. What difference does it make how you look or how you smell? You feel awful. You feel miserable. You feel like shit. You might as well look the part, too.
You’ll see a lot of the guys out here exercising. They can get pretty ingenious about it. They’ve found all sorts of substitutes for weights and shit like that, and if there’s a bar or a crossbeam that they can use to do pull-ups, they’ll use it. But it’s not about taking care of yourself. No, it’s about survival. Out here, the strong devour the weak. It’s almost as bad to look weak as it is to be weak. People out here are hunters. Predators. They look for weakness all the time. They know how to spot it. If you look strong, then maybe they won’t fuck with you so much. Oh, they’ll fuck with you anyway, but maybe not so much. And they do want to build up their muscles. They have to. You need to be as strong as you can be out here. Unfortunately for me, that never amounted to much. I’m a short woman. I’m never going to be able to bench-press five hundred pounds. That’s true of all of the women out here. We’re at a definite disadvantage. We have to make up for it with weapons and intellect. Those are the only things standing between us and being raped and beaten senseless every night. And even then, they’re no guarantee. I’ve managed to avoid being raped, but I’ve been beaten senseless more times than I can count. If it’s any consolation, so has everyone else out here. Even the strongest get thumped. For one thing, nobody’s stronger than the cops. They’ll beat the living shit out of you no matter how big and tough you are. They’re trained fighters, and they’ve got the numbers. If one or two of them can’t handle you, they’ll just call for backup and then it’s ten to one. Tough guys who try to go up against the cops always lose, and they lose big time! I’ve seen some of the toughest guys out here get stuffed into the back of a police car and they’re crying like babies. The cops are like everything else out here: they break you. No matter how tough you are, they break you.
Then there’s the fact that this place is tailor-made for taking out anyone. There are so many places to hide or set up an ambush that with a little bit of planning, a weak person can take out the strongest of the strong. I’ve seen that, too. I’ve seen some of our meanest, toughest sons of bitches turn the wrong corner and get a knife in the gut or a two-by-four right in the face. I saw a guy walking near a place we call the Sidebar and step right into a concealed pit with punji stakes in it. Charlie told me about those things. He saw them a lot in Vietnam. Spikes in the pit that go right through your foot. They went through this guy’s foot, all right. He screamed like you wouldn’t believe. The people at the Sidebar don’t like uninvited guests. That’s why I stay the hell away from there. And it’s not the only place like that. I’ve seen trip wires and shit like that all over skid row. There are so many ways to maim or kill you out here, and the people of the night know all of them. So even if you’re a big, tough motherfucker; they can get you. And they will. Sooner or later, they will.
Another problem with trying to keep yourself clean and healthy is that it marks you as a target. Most of the people out here who look halfway decent are newcomers. Everyone out here can tell you horror stories about what happened to them when they were new, so nobody wants to look like they just got here. It’s like having a neon sign on your head saying “rob me, rape me, beat me, kill me.” No thank you. I’d rather blend in. I always tried to keep my hair clean and my teeth clean, but for the most part, I looked like one of the living dead, just like everyone else. And when you get right down to it, that’s exactly what we are: the living dead. We’re already dead. Our bodies just haven’t figured that out yet. We’re waiting around to die. And in the meantime, we’re making absolutely sure that we all go straight to hell. That’s life in the inferno, Dante: waiting for something horrible that when it finally comes, you’ll probably never know it. Until you wake up in hell, that is. And for all we know, hell isn’t half as bad as this place.
Injuries are a big deal when you live on skid row. They’re inevitable, and you have to know how to deal with them. By that, I mean deal with them in skid row fashion. You see, we don’t have the same options that normal people have. For one thing, a lot of injuries out here happen while you’re running for your life. You can’t afford to stop and scream. You have to fight through the pain and keep running. Most of us don’t handle pain any better than anyone else, but we learn to fight through it. We can do some pretty amazing things when we’re in searing pain. I certainly have. That bullshit about mind over matter is just that: bullshit. You can’t will the pain to go away. It’s not possible. But you can will yourself to fight through it. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that we’re always in a lot of pain? We get used to it. We don’t like it any more than anyone else, but we get used to it. The pain’s still there and it hurts just as much as if you were sitting on the ground and crying your eyes out, but when your life is on the line – or worse – you can fight through it. Once you get away, you can sit down and scream and cry. We do that, too.
We also don’t have the luxury of going to see a doctor or head off to the hospital when we get hurt sometimes. For one thing, the nearest hospital is quite a ways from here. Hey, would you want to be in a hospital with a view of skid row? Getting over there isn’t easy. The real problem is that a lot of our injuries are caused by circumstances that would get us locked up in a heartbeat. If you show up at an emergency room or a free clinic with a knife wound or your head bashed in, they have to call the cops. It’s the law. And if you show up with some injury but you’re covered in someone else’s blood, then you’re guaranteed a visit from the cops and they’ll just lock you up for a few days and figure out what happened later. Been there, done that. Throw in the fact that a lot of us have warrants or are hiding from a parole officer and you can see why getting professional treatment isn’t always an option. That means that when you get fucked up, you have to deal with it yourself. Hey, why not? We self-medicate, so why not self-treat?
One of the first things you learn out here about so-called “skid row medicine” is how to stitch up a bad cut. Actually, it’s not much different than stitching up a rip in your clothes: you get yourself a needle and thread and you go to work. In hospitals, they use a curved needle that looks like a semi-circle, but we don’t have those out here. Trust me, it hurts like a fucking bitch! And you have to make sure that you don’t make the stitches too deep or too shallow. If they’re too deep, it hurts like you wouldn’t believe and you might end up making the wound worse. If it’s too shallow, the stitches tear out and that hurts like a motherfucker! Charlie showed me how to do it, and since then, I’ve had my fair share of practice. I can do it pretty good. So good, in fact, that a few people around here have come to me to have their gashes sewn up. It’s a great way to make a few bucks or get some free dope. And unlike the clinics, they know I won’t ask them any embarrassing questions or snitch them off to the cops. It’s a skid row maxim: survival of the fittest often means survival of the smartest. As much as my intellect has cost me over the years, it’s the only thing that’s kept me going out here. That and my knife, that is.
Broken bones are a whole other matter. We get a lot of them out here. If it’s just a hairline fracture, you can deal with it. You might not even know it happened, save for the pain. But if it’s something worse, then you’ve got a real problem. Setting a broken bone isn’t easy, and in some cases, it’s a bone that you can’t set yourself. And if it’s a bad rib fracture, it can kill you if you don’t get it properly fixed. In those cases, you’ve got no choice but to risk it and go to the clinic or the emergency room. You can give them a bullshit story if necessary and hope they’ll buy it, but you’ve got to get it looked at. And it’s not like you can make an arm or a leg cast out here. We don’t have a lot of wet plaster lying around that we can use. For the most part, all you can do is splint it until you can make your way to the clinic. The pain is some of the worst you can have, too. Most of the time, it’s a constant pain that isn’t sharp or anything, but it just won’t go away. You can’t think. You can’t do anything but scream or cry. You can try to find something to kill the pain – heroin works great – but most of the time, it won’t heal by itself. And God help you if it does heal, but heals the wrong way. Then you’re fucked up for life. We’ve got some people wandering around out here whose arms are bent in some weird positions. That’s a fracture that they didn’t get looked at, and now they’re crippled for life. That kind of injury usually means certain death out here, because if your arm or your leg is all fucked up, then you can’t fight back and you can’t run away. You might as well kill yourself right then and there.
If you ask me, broken ribs are the biggest motherfucker. I speak from experience. Not only do they hurt like a son of a bitch, but they make it nearly impossible to move. When you live on the street, you do a lot of moving around. Since there’s pretty much no way to move your body without moving the muscles in your chest or gut, a broken rib is guaranteed to hurt like hell. And when you live on the street, you often find yourself sleeping while sitting up and keeping your back against the wall. As bad as that is, when you finally doze off and you’ve got a busted rib, your head droops forward and that causes a pain like you wouldn’t believe. It wakes you up right away, and you usually end up screaming your head off. It’s hard enough to sleep out here because you’re so fucking scared all of the time. Try sleeping when the slightest movement is enough to make you jump out of your skin. Trust me, you can’t do it.
Beyond lacerations and broken bones, concussions are the biggest bitch. Again, I speak from experience. So does everyone else out here. I don’t know a single person who’s spent more than a week on the street who didn’t end up with at least one concussion. Inflicting head injuries is practically a national sport among the homeless. We just love to bash each other’s heads in. I don’t, but it seems like everybody else does. Concussions are a serious problem because they can kill you and you might not even see it coming. Sometimes it’s hard to tell if you’ve got one. If you take a serious whack to the cranium and you start puking your guts out, it’s pretty certain that you’ve got a concussion. But other times, you don’t puke. Your head hurts like shit and maybe your vision gets a little blurry, but it’s easy to overlook shit like that when you live on the street. Then a few hours or a few days later, you suddenly keel over and that’s it: finished. And even if it doesn’t kill you, it can lead to permanent brain damage. Believe me, the last thing anyone out here needs is more brain damage. We’re brain-damaged enough as it is. The other thing that sucks about concussions is the fact that you can’t show them off. People out here love to compare scars and shit like that. I’ve done it plenty of times. But how do you compare concussions? I guess you could say that concussions are a lot like us: absolutely worthless.
I mention all of this because in a strange way, our injuries are sort of symbolic of what we’ve become. When you’re all banged up, you realize how worthless you are. You don’t matter. Not to anyone. Since we’re not worth anything, we’re not worth fixing. It’s like that piece of furniture or whatever that you have in your house and if it gets broken, you just throw it in the trash. You don’t think twice about it. It’s not worth the time or the effort to get it fixed. It’s disposable, like us. People shouldn’t be disposable. People shouldn’t be worthless. Some people are so vile that the world would be better off without them, but that’s their doing. They didn’t have to be that way. But so many of us are out here because of a bunch of bad breaks and we try to hang on to some speck of our humanity, and people like that shouldn’t be consigned to the scrap heap without a second thought. But we are, and that’s the way it is and nobody and nothing can change it. I know. I’ve got the scars to prove it.
Oh, I don’t believe this shit! Over there! Across the street and about halfway down the block! That’s Cole! Fuck! Is he following me? He’d better not be. That’s one son of a bitch I wouldn’t mind killing. I don’t know…maybe it’s just a coincidence? I’ve seen him hang out around here plenty of times. This area is one of his usual haunts. Still, I’d better lose him in a hurry. I don’t think he sees me, and I want to keep it that way. Just the thought of him makes my skin crawl. Remember what I said about the world being better off without certain people? He’s definitely one of them. Fortunately, I know this area like the back of my hand. I can lose him between the buildings. That space over there leads to the alley, and there’s a broken window to the furnace room of the building that leads to the next street over. I can get away without him seeing me.
One of the few good things about being a short, thin woman is that you can fit in places where a lot of bigger people can’t. I’ve seen guys struggle to make it between some of the buildings that I can pretty much just walk between. This is one of them. I need to hurry. Cole knows this area, too. He’s been out here for a while. Not as long as me, but long enough to know the secret places like this one. Still, I’ve got a real advantage in that regard: I’m Charlie’s best student. He’s been out here forever. He knows places that nobody else knows, and he told me about all of them. It’s funny when you think about it: he’s so damned fat that it’s hard to believe he could ever fit through a place like this one. I sometimes think I would’ve liked to know him when he was younger, but he always says I definitely wouldn’t. He wasn’t always the kind, wise old sage of the streets. He got into some pretty serious shit in his day, and he said he’s glad that I never knew him when he was like that. I guess it’s for the best. I’ve never respected or admired anyone as much as Charlie, and I’d hate to learn anything that would make me feel differently about him. Then again, I don’t think that’s possible. I’ve done too many horrible things since I got here to judge him for the shit he’s pulled. You know what they say about people who live in glass houses. I guess you could say that skid row is the world’s biggest glass house. It doesn’t stop a lot of us from throwing stones, though. We just don’t throw them at the walls. We throw them at each other.
All right, I’m through. And I don’t see that fuckhead following me. Good! Now I have to get through the window. It’s right over there. I swear, I’ll never understand why they don’t fix this thing. It’s been broken for at least five years. I’m amazed there’s a single piece of equipment left in that furnace room. It should’ve been ripped off and hauled down to the recyclers a long time ago. This is exactly the sort of shit people on the street like to steal. But for some reason, it’s still here. And judging by the noise, it still works. I used to sleep in here from time to time when I couldn’t make it onto a rooftop. It isn’t the safest place for a woman to crash, but it’s a hell of a lot safer than sleeping in an alley. Check around and make sure nobody’s in here. The noise makes it impossible to hear anyone, so stop, look, and listen. Just like Charlie taught me. Let my eyes get accustomed to the darkness. There’s not much light in here. Just sit still and let it take. That’s it. It’s getting better. I don’t see anyone, and if somebody was waiting in here for their next victim, they probably would’ve jumped me as soon as I got through the window. I guess I got lucky. I’m still in one piece.
Hang on! I may have spoken too soon! Yeah, there’s somebody in here, all right. Over by the heater. That’s the first place you want to look in a place like this: the warmest spot in the room. If somebody’s using it as a crash spot, that’s where they’ll be. There’s just enough light over there for me to see him, but since I’m in the dark, he can’t see me. He’s an old guy. White guy. I don’t recognize him. I think I woke him up, though.
“Who’s there? Who’s there?”
Yeah, he heard me. I’d better introduce myself. I want him to know I’m not a threat. I don’t want a fight on my hands.
“Ease down, mister. I’m just passing through.”
Step into the light so he can see me. He’s an old guy, but he probably won’t be too worried about a woman. If I was a guy, he’d probably have a heart attack and drop dead. That’s it. Check me out. I’m not here to slit your throat or anything.
“Who are you, lady?”
“Just someone who needs to get out of here. Go back to sleep. I won’t fuck with you.”
Oh, hell! I can see the wristband on his wrist, and it’s not a jail wristband. That’s like what they give you at the hospital or the nursing home. I’ll bet he’s a dump. That’s a not-so-nice way of saying he got dumped on skid row. That’s been happening more often, lately. Hospitals and nursing homes kick people out and they’ve got nowhere to go, so they take them to one of the missions. Of course, the missions don’t want them, so they end up on the street with the rest of us. Is that fucked up or what? You can’t pay your bill or they just decide that they need the room and they throw your ass out on the street! And not just anywhere. No, they dump them in the middle of our little slice of heaven. The motherfuckers responsible should be thrown in prison for attempted murder! That’s what it is: attempted murder. Dumping some old guy who can’t take care of himself in this fucking place? What else would you call it?
“My name’s Miranda. How’d you get here?”
“They took me to the mission. I don’t know why. I didn’t want to go. And the mission said I couldn’t stay there.”
Uh-huh. That’s what I figured. He’s a dump, all right. God, he looks terrified! If he’s afraid of the sight of me, then imagine what’s going to happen when he sees some of our resident psychos! They’re going to eat him for dinner!
“Don’t you have any family? Someone who could come get you?”
“I don’t…I don’t know how to call them.”
Oh, great! He’s got fucking Alzheimer’s! He can’t remember his family or their number! Jesus fucking Christ! I’d like to get my hands on the son of a bitch who dumped him out here! I’d cut his fucking balls off!
“Why don’t you call the cops? I’ll bet they could find out your family’s number.”
“I don’t want to go out there. It’s dangerous out there.”
That’s the understatement of the millennium! What am I supposed to do? I can’t exactly call the cops for him. We homeless don’t have cellphones. And if I flag down a cop and tell them he’s in here, then they’re going to ask me how I know that. If I tell them I crawled through the window, they might lock me up. I can’t risk it. I know it’s a total shit thing to do, but this guy’s on his own.
“Well, this is a pretty safe place. I used to crash in here sometimes. If you stay quiet, no one will know you’re in here. But tomorrow, you should flag down a cop and ask him to find your family.”
“Would they do that?”
“For you? Yeah. You still look human. My advice? Get out of here before you don’t.”
“I don’t want to be here.”
“Nobody in their right mind does. What’s your name?”
“Well, it’s nice meeting you, Frank. I’ve got to get going.”
“Can’t you stay and talk for a while?”
There it is: he’s so scared that the idea of a crazy woman sticking around to shoot the shit seems like a good idea to him. I feel bad for the guy, but like I said, there’s nothing I can do. Certainly not tonight.
“No, I’ve got things I’ve got to do. You take care of yourself, Frank. Watch your back. Don’t trust anyone. And first thing in the morning, you find a cop and tell them how you got dumped out here. They’ll get you home.”
And with any luck, they’ll find the piece of shit that dumped you here and beat the living dog shit out of them! I swear, shit like that is why they should bring back corporal punishment! Twenty lashes with a goddamned bullwhip for that shit! That’s what it should be! But they probably won’t do anything about it. Hell, they’ve seen these guys get dumped out here! I know! I’ve been in front of the missions when it happened! Charlie said they never used to do shit like that, but times change. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to change for the better. Not around here, at any rate.
All right, I’m in the clear. No sign of that piece of shit Cole. There’s a weird vibe going on tonight. You learn to pick up on that shit after you’ve been out here for a while. Charlie always says you need to pay attention to feelings like that, and you should always trust them. If you feel like something’s wrong; it probably is. If you feel like you’re in danger – even if you can’t explain why – then you probably are, and you need to act right away. He said he learned it in Vietnam and it kept him alive more than once. He’s right. Once I learned how to do it, it was like a revelation. It was like all of skid row was talking to me constantly: the streets, the buildings, the alleys, even the air. I learned how to listen to them. I learned to trust them. I can’t explain it any better than that. You’d have to live out here in order to understand it, and that’s the last fucking thing you want in your life. Some people say it’s like having a supernatural gift, but believe me, some gifts aren’t worth the price.
Speaking of a weird vibe; there’s three cop cars over at the corner. What the hell is going on around here? They’re fucking everywhere! Hey, wait a minute! That’s Loomis! I may have lucked out! I can tell him about the old guy in the building and I know he won’t throw my ass in jail. He’s about the only one who wouldn’t. I just hope his rookie partner doesn’t slap another chokehold on me. That, I can definitely do without!
“Officer Loomis! Have you got a minute?”
“Sure, Miranda. What’s up?”
“Do you see that building back there? The brown one? I was cutting through the furnace room…”
“Why were you doing that?”
“I wasn’t stealing anything. I just had to put some distance between me and a creep. Anyway, I was cutting through the furnace room and I found this old guy in there. I think he’s a dump.”
“What makes you think that?”
“Because that’s what he told me. He’s got a wristband, like what they give you at the hospital. I don’t think he’s all there, if you know what I mean.”
“Is he injured?”
“Not that I could tell. He’s scared shitless. He says he can’t remember his family’s phone number, so he’s got no way to call them. You can’t leave a guy like that out here with us. You know what’ll happen to him.”
“Yeah, I think we both do. What does he look like?”
“He’s old. He’s a white guy. He’s got a green shirt on. He’s the only guy in there.”
Officer Loomis doesn’t look too happy that I dumped this on him. I’ve learned that a lot of cops hate it when you dump shit on them. Loomis is a good guy, but he’s no exception.
“All right, I’ll go see what’s going on.”
“Thanks. And if you find the guy who dumped him out here, could you kill him for me?”
“I’m afraid not. We just go around shooting people.”
“You could’ve fooled me. Don’t you have one of those throwaway guns you could plant on him? Dumping an old, crazy guy out here? That’s got to be worth a few bullets.”
“I’ll take that up with the chief. Thanks for the heads-up.”
“You’re welcome. I guess I did my good deed for the night. Does it get me anything?”
“God will smile on you.”
Uh-huh. I sure as hell hope so, because in a few hours, I’m going to find out.
I’ll bet you think I should have more compassion for the people out here. I mean, who knows more about what they’re going through than me? Who understands them better? The problem is, this place drains the compassion right out of you. It makes you cynical. More than cynical. It makes you spiteful. It makes you hate. You hate people. You hate the world. You hate yourself. You hate God. You hate anything and everything and no matter how hard you try, you just can’t stop it. You learn to look at the worst kind of suffering and all you can think is “better you than me.” I think it’s because you know that today it’s somebody else, but tomorrow it’ll be you. You don’t have any good days on skid row. You have bad days, worse days, and God-awful horrible days. That’s it. There’s no place for compassion in a world like that. It teaches you that there’s a difference between compassion and empathy. You can’t help feeling empathy because whatever pain you see, you’ve felt it yourself and you know you’ll feel it again. But that’s not compassion. Compassion is different. In order to feel compassion, you’ve got to have a soul. Unfortunately, this place kills your soul. It makes you something other than human. People say we’re subhuman, but I don’t know if that’s always true. We’re definitely other than human. A lot of us are less than human. Far less, in fact. But if you spend enough time out here, you’ll end up being other than human. I like to think that Charlie is the last human being out here, but he’ll tell you that he’s not. He’ll tell you that he used to be human, and then he became something less than human, and now he’s something other than human. Even he can’t explain it any better than that, and believe me, that’s saying something. So we’re something other than human, which means we don’t have souls anymore. For some of us, something evil took its place. For the rest of us, nothing did. There’s just this big, empty hole where our souls used to be. What does that mean? I don’t know. All I can say for sure is that it hurts. It hurts so much. It’s a special kind of pain that never goes away. I’m hoping that when I die tonight, I’ll get my soul back. I’ll get it back and it won’t be ruined by this place or the things I’ve done. I hope so. I pray so. Because a part of me believes that being the way I am right now, I could never get into heaven. That scares the shit out of me. I know it doesn’t say anything about that in the Bible, but I’ve felt that way for a long time and I just can’t shake it, so I have to believe that it might be true. Please, God, don’t let it be true. Just let me into heaven. Grant me peace. Let me forget. Let me leave it all behind. That’s not so much to ask, is it?