OK, heads up! We’ve got company! Remember: you stay sharp until you’re sure who it is. So who’ve we got? Oh, fucking great! That’s Troy and Ronnie. Down there at the end of the alley. Even in the dark, I can tell it’s them. Watch yourself. These guys are some serious assholes. I’m talking violent motherfuckers. I’ve seen both of them fuck people up really bad. Either one of them would kill you just for the fucking hell of it. I’m not kidding. They’re probably good for a murder or two. They’re both ex-gang members: Piru Bloods. At least, that’s what they told me. They’ve been in and out of prison for years. They’re definitely not the sort of people you want to mess with. Anyone with half a brain would start running right now. You’ll notice I’m not running. How’s that for being crazy? Hey, mom! See who your little girl’s hanging out with? Aren’t you proud of me? Just the sort of boys you hoped I’d play with! Jesus fucking Christ! Believe it or not, I’ve always gotten along pretty well with these guys. They never tried any shit with me; probably because I never fucked them over or even tried to. Out here at night, playing straight with people is important. That’s because a lot of us don’t. But if you do, and if you get a reputation for being straight with people, it can definitely make things easier for you. Not much easier, but hey, you take what you can get. Troy and Ronnie know I’m not out to fuck them over, and I guess they respect me for that. But don’t think for a minute that I’m going to take my hand off of my knife. Not for a second. You never know.
“Hey, Red! What’s up, crazy girl?”
“Hey Ronnie. What’re you up to?”
“How’s it going, Troy?”
“Tryin’ to light this motherfuckin’ cigarette!”
“What’s the problem? You need a match?”
“No, I got it. What’s goin’ on, girl?”
“Just out and about. Troy, I haven’t seen you in a while. Where’ve you been?”
“Shit, I was up north for a little bit.”
Yeah, that’s what I figured. Out here, “Up north” means you were in prison. I guess they’re all up north or something.
“Nah. Stealin’ shit. That’s all.”
“Welcome back to Shangri-La. So what’s going on tonight?”
“Goddamn cops is goin’ crazy; that’s what! Motherfuckers are everywhere!”
“Yeah, they’re out in force tonight. Someone got killed.”
“Some dude got offed? So what the fuck else is new?”
“No, I guess it was someone who mattered.”
“Who the fuck matters out here?”
“Well, it certainly isn’t us.”
“Got that shit right. Hey, you wanna get in on a caper?”
“You just got out and already guys have got something going on?”
Judging by the look on Troy’s face, I’d say the answer is yes. I’m not surprised, either.
“We’re gonna pay a visit to Metropolitan tonight.”
Did he just say what I think he said? Oh, you’ve got to be fucking kidding me! Even these guys can’t be that stupid! Especially with the cops out in force tonight. You see, “Metropolitan” is Metropolitan Hardware. It’s a gigantic high-end hardware store about ten blocks southwest of here, over on Meridian Avenue. It’s legendary. It’s like fucking Xanadu for the homeless. Everyone talks about ripping that place off. It’s no wonder, since an armload of the tools in there could bring you a couple of hundred bucks at one of the swap meets easy. It’s also nearly impossible to get in there, grab anything, and get out before the cops are on top of you. Plenty of people have tried. It’s pretty much a guaranteed ticket to jail.
“You’re not seriously going to hit Metropolitan?”
“Guys, stay away from that place. It’s a fucking fortress. You’re going to get caught.”
“Nah, we got this shit figured out. We got a crowbar from that construction place near the St. Francis. We’re gonna pry open the bars on the window. Second floor. We’ll be in and out in a couple of minutes.”
“Famous last words, Troy. They’ve got cameras and alarms out the ass.”
“The shit’s covered. We just need a lookout.”
“And you want me?”
“All you got to do is keep your eyes open. You see the cops coming; you give us a shout. That’s all you got to do.”
“Yeah, right. I know a suicide mission when I hear one. You know the cops are going nuts tonight, right? Why do you want to provoke them? You know how they get when people try to hit that place.”
“Ain’t got to worry about that. We got this shit figured out. We just need someone to give us a shout if five-oh shows up.”
This really sounds like a disaster in the making.
“Come on, guys! That place? No way! They’ve got silent alarms and sensors and all of that high-tech shit! As soon as it goes off, the cops are at the door in about a minute! They always are!”
“Not this time. Ronnie’s gonna take care of it.”
Oh, this ought to be good! People out here come up with the craziest fucking schemes! You wouldn’t believe the things they try to pull sometimes.
“Really? And how are you going to do that?”
“I’m gonna take out the box by the back door. That’ll kill the alarms.”
See what I mean? Oh, he’s got to be fucking high! Who does he think he is? James Bond?
“Suddenly you’re an expert on alarms?”
“This dude told me about it in the joint.”
“Yeah, and he’s so fucking smart, he ended up in jail!”
“It ain’t like that, girl!”
“You know as well as I do it’s a fucking suicide mission! The cops block the alley and there’s no place to go! They’ll be on you in a heartbeat! Meridian’s six lanes wide and there’s nowhere to go even if you do make it across. And if you go back inside and try to hide, they’ll set the fucking dogs on you! Do you want to go to jail with an ass full of teeth marks?”
“Ain’t nobody’s gonna go to jail if you give us a shout.”
Clearly there’s no talking them out of it. I guess we’re all committing suicide tonight. It’s some kind of skid row symmetry, I guess.
“All right. What time are you planning on hitting it?”
“Right about three-thirty. That’s when the midwatch cops go home.”
Oh, what the fuck? If it goes to shit, I can just run. It’s not like they can take it out of my ass later for abandoning them. I’ll be dead before they get out of the lockup. And that’s if they get out of the lockup! With their records? I wouldn’t count on it. So why the fuck not?
“OK. If I can get there, I’ll do it.”
Well, that certainly put a smile on their faces.
“Sounds good, girl. We’ll see you out back. North end of the alley.”
“Yeah, it’ll be our own little Thermopylae.”
“Never mind. Bad joke. I’ll see you guys there.”
Remember what I said about “Go tell the Spartans?” There you go! Go tell the assholes, you who pass by, that here – because they were a couple of stupid-assed motherfuckers – Troy and Ronnie lie. Now that’s worth carving into a wall somewhere!
So now I’m up for one last caper on skid row. Oh, what the hell? I might as well do one final good deed for someone, right? Jesus Christ! Would you listen to me? Helping a couple of major assholes rip off a store is my idea of a good deed? Christ, if that doesn’t prove I’m crazy, nothing does! And why the hell am I taking a risk like that tonight? Yeah, I can run like hell at the first sign of a cop car, but that doesn’t mean I’ll get away. And if I get caught helping those two idiots, I can forget about doing my swan dive tonight. I’ll end up chained to a bench down at the police station with a nightstick up my ass, looking at a couple of years for burglary. Nice going, Miranda! God, I am a stupid bitch! I should’ve told them to fuck off; that’s what I should’ve done! How do I get myself into these fucked up situations? I can’t even count the number of times I’ve done stupid shit like this. Oh, what the fuck? Maybe I’ll just blow them off? It’s like I said: what are they going to do to me? Come looking for my ass? I know what they’d do if they caught me, but after tonight, that won’t be a problem.
My own stupidity aside, that’s pretty much how it works out here at night. Getting roped in on a crime, I mean. People ask you to help them out with some fucked-up scheme and you say yes. To be honest, almost no one ever says no. We’re broke and we’re homeless and we’re addicts and drunks, so we say yes because we’ve got nothing to lose and we need money and stealing it is the best way to get it. Oh, you can panhandle or maybe work for a dope dealer and if you’re a woman you can whore yourself out, but that’s real work and it comes with its own hazards. The best way to turn a buck out here is to steal it from someone else. Well, by that I mean steal something that’s worth a buck. Stealing cash isn’t usually an option. The just isn’t any out here to steal. There’s not really any cash except in the liquor stores, and I told you what happens to people who try to rob those places. The only other cash business out here at night is dealing dope, and what are you going to do? Try robbing a dope dealer? You’d be lucky if the cops ever found your body – or all of the pieces of it. No, ripping off shit that you can sell is the best way to put money in your pocket. Steal it, sell it, spend it, and then repeat the process. It’s a never-ending cycle. It’s sort of like the skid row eco-system.
You have to understand that stealing is an integral part of what passes for life out here. We steal everything! We’d steal the stink off of shit if we could get a dime for it. Remember: money makes the world go around even when you live on the street. No one out here has a job and none of us are likely to ever get a job as long as we live. We’re not what you’d call suitable candidates for employment. And you can forget about fucking welfare. You can’t get welfare without an address and as I told you before, they pretty much got rid of the whole “Dope-head Disability” thing. Ah, the good old days. Plus, welfare got slashed years ago and between that and budget cuts, there’s just not much money to hand out to the scum of the earth these days. The few people who are receiving it are getting chicken feed. No, if you want money out here, then you need to steal. But you can’t steal just anything. Not by a long shot. It’s got to be worth something. And what’s worth something in the normal world isn’t worth jack shit in our world. It’s true. Computers and TVs and shit like that are fucking worthless. You can’t unload them. Nobody wants them out here. The pawn shops in our sector won’t buy anything but jewelry from the homeless, and it had better be some seriously fucking untraceable jewelry. You come in with something that looks the slightest bit unique and they’ll throw your ass right out the door. Expensive watches? Fuck that shit! They’ve all got serial numbers. They’re traceable. And as for cameras and iPhones and shit like that? Forget it. They won’t even look at them. Not because they’re traceable, but because they’re just plain worthless. You see, crack ruined the whole stolen goods industry. It really did. It’s because crack is so fucking addictive and the high is so short-lived that people will sell anything and everything to get more crack. As a result, you can probably get a thousand-dollar laptop out here for a dollar ninety-nine. Hell, if you want, I can show you where to buy one. Welcome to the skid row economy.
I guess tools are the number two thing to steal out here. They’re great if you can get them; especially the really nice ones from Metropolitan Hardware. That’s because people can use tools. The funny thing is, you can’t steal anything good without them. Ronnie and Troy wouldn’t even think of hitting Metropolitan unless they’d ripped off that crowbar first. Crowbars are sort of the Swiss Army Knife of skid row. They’re remarkably useful. You can do a pry job or a tunnel job or just split someone’s head open with them. How’s that for useful? So we steal tools so that we can steal tools. Now that is fucking weird! We steal fancy tools like wrench sets and tool boxes and specialty shit because that’s what brings you the most money. You can unload them easy. During the day, you’ll see these day laborers come down here looking to buy stolen tools. Hey, they know where to find a bargain. Even some of the guys at the downtown construction sites will buy stolen tools from us if they’re good ones. And you’d be amazed at some of the tool sets you’ll see spread out on a tarp at a makeshift swap meet. And they’re all stolen! Every last one of them.
The best place to hit is a construction site. They’re always building something around here, so there are always plenty of them around, and a lot of the guys there don’t take their tools home at night. I guess they’re too heavy or something. They lock them up in a shed, and getting into one of them is pretty easy. But you have to be careful. A lot of those places have armed guards patrolling all night long, and those guys are every bit as mean as the cops. I’ve known a few people who got shot in those places, trying to rip off tools. Some of the security guards are even more trigger-happy than the cops. You can get some good shit in there, but you’re definitely taking your life in your hands. So if you want tools, your best bet is to steal them from a truck or steal them from a store. Most people aren’t stupid enough to leave their tools in a truck overnight, so you’re kind of stuck with stores, and the only store around here with a lot of good tools is Metropolitan. But like I told Ronnie and Troy: that place is just too fucking hot. The cops know it’s a favorite of ours, so they patrol it constantly. You set off the alarm and every cop in the fucking sector comes screaming up to the place in a fucking heartbeat. And they know how to catch you in there. It’s on a short alley so it’s easy for them to block it off. And if you’re stupid enough to try to run out the front door, there’s nowhere to go. The fucking street out front is six lanes wide and lit up like a football field. There’s nowhere to hide and nowhere to go. You’re busted for sure. Most of us won’t go for it no matter how desperate we get.
So stealing on skid row is a science, and I’m a fucking Ph.D. Christ, if my mom and dad ever found out how much I know about stealing shit, they’d keel over dead! No words, no hesitation, just boom! Dead! Their little girl’s become a master thief. Reason number umpteen thousand and one why I can never go home again. So what’s the number one thing to steal out here? Actually, it isn’t tools, even though they’re the best things to steal. That’s because the risk is too high. So what’s at the top of the heap? Well, let’s set the stage first. Drumroll please! The number one thing people steal out here is…scrap metal! No, I’m not kidding. Scrap fucking metal! Scrap metal is a total fucking cottage industry out here at night. Sometimes I think this whole goddamned place is founded on scrap metal. The recyclers down in the industrial district pay good money for that shit, and unlike the pawn shops, they don’t give a flying fuck where it comes from. They know it’s all stolen, but since they’re going to melt it down anyway, what do they care? Once it’s in the furnace, it’s untraceable. If it’s metal and they can melt it down, then they’ll buy it from you: steel, iron, aluminum, copper, lead, brass, whatever. They pay by the pound and I’m sure all of the scales are fucking rigged, but we’re in no position to complain. It’s thieves stealing from thieves. How’s that for symmetry? Some of us call the industrial district the Den of Thieves because that’s exactly what it is. Everything about the place is crooked; right down to the sidewalks on the streets. You’ll see an army of homeless motherfuckers pushing shopping carts full of scrap metal down there almost every day, like the Seven Dwarfs going to work or something. The cops know all about it, but there’s nothing they can do to stop it. I’m not sure they even care. I’m guessing a major scrap metal bust doesn’t exactly make the newspapers.
Almost everyone collects cans, but really the best place to get good scrap is from an abandoned building. God knows there are plenty of them out here. You can get all sorts of scrap metal from a building: iron, steel, brass, copper, and aluminum. Copper is the best by far. The recyclers pay the most for copper. It’s worth so much that they don’t even make pennies out of it anymore. It’s true. Pick up a new penny sometime. They actually feel cheap. Anyway, I’ve heard people out here talk about finding a whole bunch of copper pipes and shit, and to listen to them tell it, you’d think they’d found the legendary El Dorado itself. And it’s not just pipes and fittings they’re after. There’s a lot more copper wire out here than copper pipes. They rip the wiring out of empty buildings for the copper. Shit, sometimes they don’t even wait until the building is empty. That can be dangerous, because if the building isn’t abandoned, then it stands to reason that the electricity is still on. Ripping out the wires isn’t a good idea. But even the possibility of electrocution doesn’t stop them. No way! They’re like the old Forty-Niners: one of them makes a score and suddenly the cry goes out, “There’s copper in them there walls!” Then the rush is on. Oh, God! They’ll completely trash the fucking place to get at it! Once a building empties out, people out here descend on it like a swarm of locusts. They’ll strip the place of everything, whether it’s nailed down or not. They’ll tear out the walls to get to the plumbing and the wiring. They’ll rip the fixtures out of the walls and ceilings. If it’s metal, it’s gone – period! They can strip a three-story building down to concrete and drywall in less than a week. They’re like a school of fucking piranhas. By the time the owner can get a security guard to watch the place, it’s too late. Everything worth protecting is already gone. Some people are even crazy enough to try to hit the construction sites for scrap metal. How’s that for fucking ridiculous? Stripping a building before it’s even built! There has to be a metaphor in there somewhere.
Anyway, it’s a lot easier to steal the pipes and the wiring when it isn’t sealed up in the walls. It’s just lying there, waiting for someone to cart it away. Some people pull it off. Most end up in jail. And then there’s that annoying little problem of the guards putting some fucking bullets in your ass. Believe me, no amount of swag is worth catching some lead.
I told you some people try to strip buildings that aren’t abandoned. That can be pretty entertaining to watch. That’s because it usually means they try to get onto the roof and steal the air ducts and pipes and toss them over the side of the building. How’s that for absurd? Remember that bag of trash that nearly nailed me in the head? Well, multiply that by a thousand and that’s what it’s like when they throw that shit over the side of a building. Hell, I’ve seen guys actually steal the entire air conditioner! I’m not talking about some little box that fits in a window. I’m talking about a gigantic fucking air conditioner that’s so goddamned big they have to put it on the roof. A family of three could live in the thing with room to spare. Those things probably weigh at least a ton, but I’ve seen guys get up there, tear it out of its fixtures and throw the whole fucking thing over the side of the roof. When it hits the ground, it sounds like the loudest car crash you can ever imagine. Hey, you’re basically pushing a fucking Chevy off of the roof. What do you expect? It’s loud enough to wake the dead in China. Sometimes the pieces go flying everywhere like shrapnel. Sometimes it even lands on a parked car. Now that’s some funny shit! You’d think there’s no way to get away with it, but somehow they do it. They toss it over the side and tear it into pieces and then they stuff the pieces into a bunch of fucking shopping carts. Then it’s “Hi, ho! Hi, ho! It’s off to the recyclers we go!” Needless to say, if you bring them that much metal, you’ll be rolling in dough. Well, you’ll be rolling in dough by our standards. But it won’t last. It’ll go into a crack pipe or into your arm before you know it. It always does. Like I said, it’s an endless cycle.
The fact that these guys can get that shit down to the recyclers is nothing short of a miracle. You see, the industrial district isn’t around here. It’s at least three miles south of here, and that’s one hell of a walk. Hey, it’s not like any of us has a car, right? Imagine pushing a cart with a couple of hundred pounds of scrap metal three miles or so over busted sidewalks and potholes and shit. It’s like navigating a fucking minefield on the moon. But you have to do it. I mean, it’s not going to get there by itself, now is it? While I’m not into recycling, I’ve been down there plenty of times and I’ve always hated it. In some ways, that place is worse than this one. Everything down there can hurt you. That figures, since the whole area is devoted to destroying metal. If it can destroy metal, then it can sure as hell destroy you. How? Well, for one thing, there are the fumes. They’re always melting or burning something down there, and when you combine that with all of the toxic shit they work with, the stench is unbearable. It’s like the apocalypse or something. The fumes get so heavy at times that you can’t breathe. Sometimes you have to stuff a rag over your face just to breathe, and even that doesn’t make a whole lot of difference. You blow your nose and your fucking snot comes out black. The furnaces spit out that thick smoke day and night. You have no idea what’s in that shit. Hell, I’ll bet even they don’t know what’s in it. It’s probably ten different kinds of poison. Each breath probably takes a year or two off of your life, and I’ll bet it’s a slow, agonizing death.
Another reason I hate the industrial district is because it’s way too quiet there at night. Nobody lives near there, so it’s just the recycling plants. Once you get a few hundred yards from them, it’s dead solid quiet. I always feel like someone’s going to sneak up behind me. What sounds you do hear are all distorted because of the way it’s laid out. You can never tell what they are. You can’t even tell where they’re coming from. Somebody stands right next to you and shouts and it sounds like it’s coming from across the street. It’s a good place to get jumped. And it’s not easy to walk there. Between the constant traffic of big rigs and the lack of any street repairs for the last thousand years or so, it’s like walking through a bombed-out city. The terrain is rough and the sidewalks are all split open and there’s steel rebar and busted concrete and shit sticking out of the ground. There’s broken glass everywhere. I think someone dropped an atom bomb there and no one reported it. Every step you take is a risk. My sneakers aren’t enough to protect my feet down there. You really need a pair of combat boots. And it’s so fucking dark at night that you can’t see where you’re walking. There are almost no lights in that area. Some asshole probably stole them all and melted them down. The whole fucking place is like one big lethal obstacle course. God, I hate it! I got hurt every time I went down there. One night, I tripped over something hard and fell face-first onto something harder. I scraped my hands, smashed my knee, and I damn near broke my fucking neck! It almost knocked me out cold! You think pushing a shopping cart full of junk over hill and dale is hard? Try walking five miles over that fucked-up terrain with a smashed knee! It swelled up like a balloon and hurt like shit for more than a week! Every time I bent that knee, I screamed! Just bending it to sit down was a motherfucker. Charlie had to help me do it. I was in agony, and the fucking clinic wouldn’t give me anything stronger than Tylenol. I don’t know why, but they wouldn’t. I really thought I was going to end up with a permanent limp from that one. Oh, well. That’s life on the street for you. Anyway, that was my last trip to the industrial district. You’d better believe I won’t be dropping by there tonight. There’s nothing down there I want to reminisce about.
Still, there’s something profound about that place and the scrap dealers and the role they play in our lives out here. At least, I think there is. You see, it’s a place for machines and metal and junk; not people. People don’t belong there. But we belong there. The homeless, I mean. It’s a place for things, and the truth is, we’re nothing more than things anymore. We’re more like machines than human beings. Not even that much, actually. We’re more like cogs in a machine. We have a role to play and the machine will stop working if we don’t play it, but we don’t understand our role or even the machine any more than real cogs in a machine do. And it’s not just that. What we do down there, well, it’s a weird cycle when you think about it. That’s because it’s all about recycling. The people out here at night tear the city apart and sell the pieces to the scrap dealers who melt them down and make new pieces for the people of the daytime world to rebuild their city with. Isn’t that insane? I think it is. It’s fucking crazy. We’re crazy. They’re crazy. It’s crazy. But somehow, it works. Don’t ask me how or why, but it works. And if it ain’t broke, why fix it? Cogs in the machine. We just keep spinning and spinning like we’re supposed to until we wear out or break. Kind of like me. So did I wear out, or did I finally break? What’s the difference? The result is the same.
So now you know about scrap metal and skid row. The wretched refuse making a buck off of a pile of wretched refuse. Pretty poetic, huh? I told you this was one fucked-up place. Then again, what’s a society without an economy? That’s right: even the homeless have one. But enough about homeless economics. I’ve got shit to do. I’ve got to figure out what to do about this letter to Charlie. How do I write it? What the hell do I say? How the hell do I put it all in a fucking letter? I mean, it’s not like I’m writing one of those “scenery is here; wish you were beautiful” letters. This is important. This is the last thing I’ll ever say to him. And how the fuck do I even start it? Do I begin with “By the time you read this, I’ll be dead” or something like that? Do I start by asking him to please forgive me, or do I go right into the part about how I can’t take it anymore and I’m scared to death and there’s no way I’m going back to being like I was? I mean, I sure as hell didn’t plan for this shit. I never intended to write a suicide letter. Now I have to compose one on the fly? How the fuck do I do that? How the fuck do I tell him how much he meant to me and how much I owe him and everything? How do I tell him I love him and he’s been my best friend and a second father to me and I never would’ve made it this far without him? How do I tell him that he’s the only good thing that’s happened to me since I lost everything? That’s a hell of a thing to hear for the first time in a goddamned suicide letter. How can I just dump this on him like that? I just do it; that’s how. I’ve got no choice. He’ll understand. He’ll forgive me. It’s like Jefferson said: family forgives. Charlie’s the only family I’ve got anymore and I’m not telling him anything he doesn’t already know, even if I never came out and said it before. He’ll understand why I had to do it this way. Like I told you: if you don’t have the cards, you fold. And in the end, that’s what this is all about: it’s about me playing my last hand and folding. Forever. Charlie will understand that. Charlie understands everything. Even me.
All right, first things first: if I’m going to write a letter; I’ll have to get something to write with. I’ll bet you never thought something so simple could be such a major fucking problem, but when you’re homeless, it is. A lot of things are. To begin with, I don’t have a pen. Shit, I don’t know anyone who does. Well, Charlie always does, but he’s not here. God, he’d kill me right now! For not having something to write with, I mean. Charlie carries a pen and a little notebook everywhere. He says you should always have something to write with because you can’t remember everything. Take notes, motherfucker! They’re the best goddamned memory in the world! That’s what he always tells me. And he’s right. So what am I going to do? It’s too late to buy a pen. Anyplace that sells them is closed, except for the 7-11. That’s a hell of a walk, and the cops might fuck with me if they see me over there. It’s a bit outside of our designated roaming zone, and they’re going a bit psycho tonight as it is. Besides, what do pens cost anymore? Is three bucks enough? And for that matter, where am I going to get some paper? I can’t write this thing on the back of a paper bag, and I sure as hell can’t write it in the margins of a newspaper that I might find in the trash. I’ve got a lot to say and this is going to take some pages. This is the last thing I’ll ever say to Charlie. He’ll want to save it. He’d never admit it, but I know that deep down, he’s really sentimental. And it’s not like I ever gave him anything else. How could I? I never had anything to give him. Well, until now, that is. It’s not much, but he deserves better than to have it written on a bunch of torn scraps. So where the hell do I get a couple sheets of paper? The only people out here who have any are the cops. They’re always writing reports and shit. What am I going to do? Ask some cop for a few sheets of paper and a pen so I can write a suicide letter? Yeah, that would go over really fucking well.
OK, I’ve got to put the suicide note on hold for now. It’s time to get my guard up. Why? Because there’s someone over by that doorway up ahead. He probably thinks I don’t see him, but I do. Like I said, you have to learn how to see out here. He’s not moving. That means he could be waiting for me to pass by. That wouldn’t be a good thing. He looks familiar. Oh, wait a minute. I know him. That’s Kane. He’s not much of a threat to me. He usually hangs out a few blocks from here when he’s not stealing shit. Kane does a lot of rooftop break-ins. That kind of sets him apart from the average thief around here. He likes to think of himself as a cat burglar. The master criminal. As a matter of fact, that’s how I met him. I was sleeping on a roof and he showed up and tried to pry the stairwell door open with a screwdriver. He made so much fucking noise, he woke me up. I never did find out how the hell he got up there in the first place. I know he didn’t take the stairs like I did. He probably climbed up the drainpipe. Charlie taught me that’s a good way to get up onto a roof. He says he’s too old to do it now, but back in the day he was a regular human fly. I believe him. I did it a couple of times just to see if I could. I don’t recommend that you try it. Jesus, there’s me getting distracted again! Focus, Miranda! What the fuck is Kane doing over here? This is a junkie spot, and he’s no junkie. Well, there’s one way to find out: go ask him. Oh, Jesus Christ! Look at him! Look at his face! Look at all that blood! He got beat! Someone did a fucking number on him, but good!
“Jesus, Kane! What the fuck happened to you?”
“What? Oh, hey, Red.”
I’m surprised he can talk! Look at those welts! He looks like he got punched in the face at least a dozen times!
“What the fuck happened to you? You look like you got hit by a goddamned truck!”
“Yeah, pretty much.”
“You got hit by a truck?”
“No, some guys gave me a beat-down.”
Beat-down? He looks like first they beat his ass down, and then they stomped the living shit out of him! Jesus, he must’ve royally pissed somebody off!
“Some guys over at the Shepherd.”
“Damn! They really beat the crap out of you! You need to sit down! Christ, you need the fucking paramedics!”
“No, I just need to catch my breath. I’m OK.”
“The hell you are! Jesus, sit down, will you? Damn! What the fuck happened?”
“I don’t know. I was in the chow line and these guys just jumped me. A whole bunch of them. I was on the ground before I even knew what was goin’ on.”
Yeah, that’s the way it usually goes. People don’t need a reason to kick your ass. They just do it. And they usually don’t announce it before they start wailing on your ass.
“Maybe they thought you were somebody else?”
“Yeah, lucky me.”
Christ! They really got him good! He’s all fucked up! That gash above his eye looks really bad! And that blood coming from his mouth? Either he bit his tongue or his lip, or he could be bleeding internally. He really needs to go to the hospital!
“Your head’s bleeding like shit! Have you got a rag or something to put on it?”
“Uh…I got some newspapers. I think they’re clean enough.”
Ah, yes! Newspapers. The skid row bandage. Needless to say, they don’t work very well. They’re also so fucking dirty that they’ll probably give you an infection. But hey, when you’re bleeding like a stuck pig, they’re better than nothing. You worry about the infection later.
“Let me see them.”
“Take ’em. Shit! I think I’m gonna puke again!”
What the fuck? They’re covered in blood, too! He already used them. Jesus, he didn’t remember it! He’s got to have a fucking concussion! He’s even worse than I thought!
“Oh, Christ! These are soaked through! How long have you been bleeding like that?”
“I don’t know. A while, I guess. They bashed my head against the curb. I remember that much. I think I blacked out after that. I’m not sure.”
“You probably got a concussion.”
“Is that bad?”
“Uh, yeah! Shit, you might have a fucking skull fracture or something!”
“It feels like it. My head feels weird, like it’s throbbing. I think it’s gonna to explode.”
Yeah, that sounds like a concussion. If he puked after he came to like he said he did, then he’s definitely got a concussion. That’s a sure sign of it. He could die if it goes untreated. People out here do, sometimes.
“Then I think you’ve definitely got one. You’re going to need some stitches. Did they break anything?”
“You mean besides my head?”
“Yeah, besides that.”
“I don’t know. Maybe. My fucking gut hurts like shit! Fuck! One of those guys had army boots on!”
“They stomped you?”
“Big time! They got me good. I couldn’t cover up. I guess it’s a good thing they didn’t have a two-by-four.”
“Or a knife. Damn! They fucked you up good! Kane, you’ve got to get looked at! If you’ve got a busted skull, you could drop dead if you don’t get help.”
“Yeah, right! Like that’s gonna happen. I’ll be fine. It’s not the first time it’s happened, and it won’t be the last.”
Did I mention how absolutely fucking pigheaded the homeless can be sometimes? This is a perfect example!
“I’m serious! You need to get your ass to the fire station!”
“What are they gonna do?”
“Uh, they’ll bandage you up and take you to the hospital.”
“Yeah! You know, the big building with the doctors and nurses where they save your fucking life? That hospital!”
“You’re dreaming. They ain’t takin’ me to no hospital. Come on, Red! You know they never take street people. You’ve been there, too. I saw you! How many times did they leave your ass bleedin’ on the sidewalk while you screamed? Twenty? Thirty?”
At least, but I’m not the one who just got stomped within an inch of her life.
“Give me a break, Kane! As fucked up as you are, they’ll take you. One look at you and it’s a lock.”
“Not without a police report.”
He’s got a point. They won’t treat a beating victim without a police report. It’s procedure. You see what you learn when you live on the street? Sometimes I think we know more about police and fire department procedures than the cops and the firemen do.
“So flag down a fucking cop and file a report. Shit, they’ll get the ambulance for you! They might even lock up the motherfuckers who did this to you!”
“No way, Red. I can’t do that.”
My guess is he’s got a warrant or something. They’d lock him up if he tried to file a report. They’d get him treated and fixed up, and then they’d throw his ass in jail. That’s par for the course out here. It’s why a lot of homeless people are afraid to go to the fire station.
“Well, you can’t just sit here and bleed to death! You’ve got to do something!”
“Fuck it! I don’t want to do nothin’ about it. I just want to sit here and catch my breath. Can you let me do that, please?”
“You’re bleeding pretty bad. That gash in your head is fucking deep. It’s going to take more than a Band-Aid for that. You need stitches. It might be too late, though. They might have to just glue it shut.”
“Or staple it. Maybe tomorrow. I ain’t doin’ shit about it tonight. I just want to sit here and rest, OK?”
Pig-headed, stupid-assed motherfucker! You see what we’re like out here? You’ve probably been wondering why nobody interferes with a suicide out here. Well, here’s your answer! We’re all fucking suicidal! This idiot is living fucking proof! Fuck me! I should just kill him right here and put him out of his misery! And mine!
“Fuck tomorrow! You might not be alive tomorrow! At least go to the fire station and let them clean it! Fuck it! Just lie to them! Tell them you fell down the stairs or something! They won’t snitch you off!”
“Just leave me be. OK, Red?”
I should have guessed this. He’s not just being stupid or pigheaded. Well, he is; but it’s more than that. I can hear it in his voice. And I know exactly what he’s feeling. You see, when someone kicks your ass really bad, it makes you fucking miserable about everything; not just the ass kicking. It’s like you didn’t think you could be broken anymore, but now a bunch of assholes managed to break you again. It’s a kind of pain that I can’t even begin to describe. It makes you feel lower than you’d think was humanly possible. And when you feel like that, you just want to be left the fuck alone. I’ve been there a lot of times myself. I’d better not push him. But I can’t just leave him here. He never fucked me over, and out here, that makes him my friend – sort of.
“So what are you going to do? Sit here and bleed to death?”
“I’m gonna get the fuck out of here, that’s what!”
Oh, God! This is worse than I thought! Did you hear how he said that? And with that thousand yard stare on his face? Yeah, I know exactly what that’s all about. He’s dreaming. Dreaming about leaving it all behind somehow. Dreaming about getting the fuck out of the city and going somewhere else. Somewhere better. Somewhere that doesn’t exist for any of us. God knows we’ve all been there before. It’s one of the top ten pipe dreams of the homeless.
“So where are you going to go?”
“Anywhere but here. I’ve fucking had it with this shit!”
“Come on, Kane. You know better than that. No one gets out of here except in a box or a cop car. Anywhere else is just like here. It’s not going to be any different. It might even be worse.”
“There’s got to be someplace better than this shithole.”
“None that would let us in. We’re stuck here. Abandon all hope, ye who enter. That’s us. It’s a bitch, but hating it won’t make it any less true. Once you’re on skid row, you’re always on skid row. There’s just no place else for us.”
“There has to be.”
“There isn’t. Seriously, you know how it works. You’ve been here long enough. When you live on the street, one place is the same as the next. The only thing different is the weather.”
“What? Did Charlie tell you that?”
“Yeah, he did.”
“It sounds like him. Nobody knows better than Charlie.”
“Yeah, but there’s got to be someplace, Red. This shit ain’t even a life! We might as well be fuckin’ dead!”
“You got that right. But it’s not going to change anywhere else.”
“Just another hell with a different zip code, is that it?”
“You got it. Fucking right on the money. Now you’re the one sounding like Charlie.”
“Yeah? Well, I don’t give a shit. I’m getting the fuck out of here. I don’t care where. Just as long as it’s not this goddamned place.”
I guess there’s no convincing him. Maybe he’s right? Maybe he is better off somewhere else? Hey, it can’t be any worse than here. I mean, look at him, for God’s sake!
“So where will you go? I hear Florida’s nice.”
“Yeah. Maybe Florida? Miami. That’ll work.”
“At least you won’t freeze in the winter.”
“Sleep on a beach, look at the ocean, maybe even go fishing. Sounds pretty good to me.”
“So how are you going to get there? It’s, uh…it’s a bit of a walk, and you don’t look like you could walk three blocks.”
“I got that covered.”
“What? Have you got a car or something? Damn, Kane! Have you been holding out on me?”
“Don’t need no car, Red. Soon as this shit heals I’m headin’ down to the train yard.”
Did he just say what I think he said? No, he couldn’t be that crazy! Shit, I’m not that fucking crazy!
“You’re going to jump a freight?”
Christ! That blow to his head must have cause massive brain damage! He knows what those trains are like! Talk about a fate worse than death!
“Are you fucking kidding me? The trains? Shit! Do you have any idea what they’ll fucking do to you?”
“Come on, Red! That’s just a bunch of bullshit stories.”
“The hell it is! Those fucking maniacs will eat you for dinner! They won’t even bother to kill you before they do it!”
“Yeah, well, I’ll take my chances.”
I think he’s serious! He’s really lost it!
“Kane, think about it! You hop a freight and you don’t even know where it’s going! It could take you to some fucking winter wonderland! Did you think about that? What the fuck are you going to do when you end up in Chicago or Duluth or some sub-zero shit like that? Winter’s just around the corner. Do you really want to take that chance?”
“Look at me! You really think anything on a train is worse than this fuckin’ place?”
“Yeah! I do! Getting gut-ripped in a fucking boxcar before they fucking eat you! That’s worse!”
“Like that doesn’t happen out here every goddamned night.”
He’s got a point. But the fucking trains? Even Satan couldn’t handle the fucking trains! Compared to them, hell is fucking Tahiti! But even then, one skid row is as bad as the next. He knows that. He just isn’t thinking straight right now.
“It happens everywhere else, too. One skid row is the same as the next. Come on, Kane. You know that. This isn’t the first city you’ve been in, right?”
“So who says I’ll go for another city?”
“Where the hell else are you going to go? You can’t be homeless in the suburbs. You try living in somebody’s backyard and you’re going to end up with an ass full of buckshot.”
“How about the country?”
“Oh, give me a fucking break! What? You think you’re going to live out in the woods like some fucking mountain man?”
“Well, for starters, you’re not a mountain man. They don’t exist anymore.”
“I could learn.”
“I don’t think so. Wilderness survival isn’t something you just pick up as you go along. Besides, they won’t let you do it.”
“Because this ain’t the Wild West anymore, pal! It’s all been claimed. Every fucking inch of land in this country already belongs to someone. Either the government owns it, or some guy with a big fucking shotgun does.”
“So they won’t just let you park your ass in the woods and live off the land! Shit, they’ll bust you just for stealing fruit off of a tree or something!”
“Like they don’t bust you for bullshit out here?”
“It’d be worse. Believe me. When they bust you for bullshit out here, you do a day or two in the lockup. Out in the sticks, they’ll sock your ass away for a year, at least! Small-town cops don’t like vagrants setting up shop in their backyard. They get paid to keep motherfuckers like us out. And they’re pretty damned good at it. You think tonight was bad? Imagine what a bunch of small-town cops will do to your ass!”
“So you’re sayin’ this is it, then?”
It looks like his sanity is coming back. I don’t know if that’s a good thing or a bad thing.
“We both know it is. It sucks, but there’s no getting around it.”
“Then what’s the fuckin’ point, huh? You tell me, Red! What’s the fuckin’ point if this is how it’s got to be? How many times did I get my ass kicked since I got here? Hell, how many times did the same shit happen to you? And how many more times is it gonna happen? I mean it! If this is all there is, then what’s the goddamned point? Why don’t I just go down to the motherfuckin’ bridge right fucking now?”
“I’m afraid you’re asking the wrong girl about that shit.”
“Maybe I ought to just throw myself in front of one of those trains?”
“There’s better ways of offing yourself than that.”
“Are you saying I’m better off dead?”
Should I tell him the truth? I think he already knows the answer to that one. I’ll be dead in a few hours. It’ll be my last chance. You shouldn’t lie to people on your last night on earth.
“I don’t know. Only you can decide that.”
“Yeah? Well, I noticed you’re still here.”
“Yeah, I noticed that, too.”
“So what the fuck are we supposed to do, Red? You and me, we’re not like those other guys. We don’t have their mean streak. We’re always gonna be on the losing end of it. So are we better off just cashin’ it all in?”
“I don’t know. I really don’t. But if you figure it out, you tell me first, OK?”
“So are you going to get that shit looked at?”
“I said maybe tomorrow!”
Even I can’t let him die of sheer pigheadedness! No fucking way! If he wants to die, that’s his choice. But death by stupidity isn’t a choice. He’s getting that shit looked at tonight!
“Tonight, or I’ll fucking drop a dime on your ass! I mean it, Kane! I’ll go out there and flag down a fucking cop car and tell them what happened and exactly where you are!”
“You’d do it, wouldn’t you?”
“You’re damned right I would! Get your ass to the fire station. Just fucking lie to them and say you fell off of a roof or something. They won’t snitch you off. They won’t even care. They’ll patch you up and if you need to go to the hospital, they’ll take you. Hey, if you go in by ambulance, you know they’ll take you first.”
“Fine. I’ll go to the fucking fire station.”
“Yeah, I’ll go. I said I would, didn’t I?”
“See that you do. Look, I’ve got to get going. You watch your back, OK?”
“What the fuck for? You know what Charlie says: ’You watch your back and they just...”
“They just come at you from the side. I know. He told me that, too.”
“And he’s right.”
“He always is. You watch yourself anyway, OK?”
“Yeah, I’ll do that. You do the same.”
“I have to get going. You do what I said. Hey, do you need anything?”
“Why? You got anything?”
“Then I guess I’m good. Thanks, Red.”
“You’re welcome. Good luck, Kane.”
For a pigheaded son of a bitch, you weren’t half-bad. You take care of yourself, Kane. And you stay away from those goddamned trains. They’re the ultimate fucking nightmare. No one deserves to go out like that.