All right, this place will do. It’ll have to do. I don’t have time for anything else. Fortunately, I still know all of my old haunts. This building is one of them. I used to crash here from time to time. It’s one of the few good ones I found by myself. Charlie told me about all the rest. I kind of stumbled onto this one – literally. I don’t have time to tell you the story. Basically, it was a case of bad dope and one of my psychotic breaks. I think you get the idea.
“This place will do for now. We can get in here through the back door. Follow me.”
“What is this place?”
“It’s an office building. One of the older ones. It’s at the far edge of our sector. Not many people come over here at night, so you’ll have it to yourself.”
“What do you mean, ‘Our sector’?”
“That’s where you’re allowed to go when you’re homeless.”
“What do you mean, ‘allowed to go?’”
Oh, this is going to be fun! Stand by for the first two hundred thousand questions! Too bad I don’t have time for it. She really needs the crash course in skid row living. I know I did when I first wound up out here. I’m sorry I don’t have time to give it to her.
“When you’re living on the street, you have to stay in certain areas. A lot of us call those areas the sectors. There are different sectors during the night. This one’s in our sector during the day, so you won’t have a problem in the morning if they see you around here.”
“Why’s that? Why do you have to stay here, I mean?”
“Because if you wander out of our sector at the wrong time, you’ll get your ass kicked. Big time!”
“Hell, yes! Either the cops or some security guard will put the boots to you in a fucking heartbeat. And they won’t care if you’re blonde and cute. They won’t care how sad you are or how much you plead or how much you cry. They’ll kick your ass just the same. They don’t want the homeless going anywhere they want. It’s their job to keep us in our place, and a lot of them like doing it.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I wasn’t gonna say anything, but you look like you got beat up pretty bad.”
Yeah, the sight of me looking like this is probably scaring the living shit out of her. If the roles were reversed, I’d be wondering if I was going to end up looking that way. And of course, I would. Sooner or later, I would. So will she. No matter what I do, sooner or later, she’ll get the same. Or worse.
“I did. I got the living shit kicked out of me. But it wasn’t the cops. Not this time, anyway. Look, there’s a lot of assholes out here who’ll beat the living shit out of you just for the fucking hell of it. And if they get the chance, they’ll do a hell of a lot worse to you, if you know what I mean.”
“I think I do.”
“Good. You need to watch yourself around everyone out here, and I mean everyone! That means the cops, the security guards, the storeowners, and especially the homeless motherfuckers. Got it?”
“I got it. Does it hurt?”
“Does what hurt?”
“Your face? It looks…”
“Don’t worry about it. Living on the street; you get used to it.”
OK, even I didn’t believe that one.
“No. No, you never get used to it. And I don’t want you getting used to it.”
I think she’s learning. At least that’s a good sign. All right, we’re at the back door. I just need to shim the lock. A small strip of spring steel is all it takes, and I always carry one with me. They’re pretty valuable out here, so when you find one, you hang onto it. Slide it between the latch and the hole and…yes! We’re in! See what you learn when you live on the street? Burglary 101. It’s sort of a required course.
“All right, we’re in. Just follow me and keep your voice down. This door leads to the stairs down to the basement. It’s the only stairwell from the outside, so you don’t have to worry about people coming in here from all sides.”
One of the really nice things about this place is that the basement lights come on by themselves and they stay on all night long. They’re cheap little bulbs that don’t put out a lot of light, but they’re enough. It’s a good thing, too. This stairwell’s pretty steep, and if you’re not careful, you could slip and fall straight down to the basement door. They’re steel and concrete, so it’s a great way to break your neck and end up paralyzed.
“Hey, Miranda? How’d you get the key to this place?”
“We don’t need the key. All you need is a tiny little shim for the lock. It’s pretty fucking cheesy. I don’t know why, but they never put a better one in. Be thankful for that. Most places around here have locks like the shit they’ve got at Fort Knox.”
“How do you know about this place?”
“I used to crash here sometimes. All right, wait while I shim the door lock. And don’t make any noise! If there’s anyone in there right now, we don’t want them to hear us.”
All right, we’re inside the basement. I don’t see anybody and I don’t hear anyone. So far, so good. It’s clear, as usual. This place was one of my better-kept secrets back when I was on the street. It was a good place to get out of the rain at night. I tried not to use it too much, though. I didn’t want to burn the spot. Use a spot too much and they come to realize that some homeless asshole is crashing there. I don’t know how, but they do. I couldn’t afford to burn this one. This place literally saved my life a few times during a really bad winter a few years back. I didn’t have any better options, so I kept it for emergencies only. Charlie’s teaching at work again.
“See? It’s nice and warm in here. They’ve even got lights. And there’s a bathroom at the far end. Just don’t flush the toilet unless the heater’s running. You don’t want anyone to hear it. The lobby’s a pretty good distance from here, but in these old buildings, sound can travel in some pretty weird ways. I don’t know if they can hear it too well from up there, but you don’t want to find out. No unnecessary noise. Understood?”
“I understand. What are we gonna to do here?”
“Not ‘we.’ You. You’re going to stay here. You’re going to stay here until morning and try not to make any noise. That shouldn’t be too hard.”
And here we go! Stay with me, stay with me! Yeah, I was exactly the same way when I first wound up on the street. As much as I never fit in with people, I couldn’t stand to be alone. I was too scared. She’s probably not a loner like I was. She doesn’t sound like it. That means it’s a hell of a lot worse for her than it was for me. Too bad, honey. You’re just going to have to tough it out – if you want to survive, that is.
“Look, I don’t have a lot of time. I wish I had more, but I don’t. I’m going to have to dump a lot of shit on you fast, and you’re going to have to remember it. There’s no time to explain. You’re just going to have to listen and do exactly what I say. Write it down if you have to, but do exactly as I say, if you want to get out of here alive. Do you understand?”
“All right. Now, you can stay down here for the rest of the night, but you have to stay down here. Don’t go up to the ground floor under any circumstances! And I mean it! I don’t care if the fucking building’s on fire; you don’t go upstairs! If you have to get out of here, you go out the way we came in. Got it?”
“I got it.”
“Good. Now, you can move around in the basement if you want. The alarms don’t work down here. They work on the upper floors, so that’s another reason why don’t go up there. This place has twenty-four hour security guards. They stay on the upper floors and do regular searches, but if you set off the alarm, then you’re fucked. They’ll be down here in a heartbeat. Got it?”
“You’ll be OK down here. It’s warm and it’s safe, and the lights stay on all night, and nobody can get in here without you knowing about it with plenty of warning. Besides, that’s not likely to happen. Nobody else on the street knows you can get in here, so nobody’s going to fuck with you. Nobody’s going to come looking for you. Just keep your voice down and don’t wander around too much and you’ll be fine. And for God’s sake, don’t go pressing any buttons or throwing any switches on that fucking heater! If you’re too cold, just sit closer to it! Don’t fuck with it! That thing is for the whole building! You’ll end up breaking it, and that’ll bring a shitload of people down here! You got it?”
Great! I’m already scaring the shit out of her! But it can’t be helped. Just keep going, Miranda. Give her as much as you can in a few minutes. Give her what she needs to know the most. What she needs to know right now. And hope to God that she listens!
“Now, don’t worry about the security guards. There’s two guys who work the graveyard shift, and they’re both major fucking drunks. Whichever one is working tonight, I guarantee he’s passed out in one of the offices by now. He’s already done his routines. Trust me, they never come down here. But the cleaning crew does, because they store all of their shit down here. So you’ll have to leave in the morning when they get here. That’s at about seven o’clock. You got a watch?”
“Good. Hide it. Someone will steal it if you don’t. Now, if you can do it, you want to be out of here before the cleaning crew starts their rounds. Sometimes they show up early. Sometimes they don’t come down here until almost noon. Either way, don’t worry if they find you. Just play it cool and you’ll be fine. They won’t call the cops on a woman. They’ll just tell you to get the fuck out. Besides, you still look human. You could pass for someone who works here. Just don’t freak out if someone finds you, OK? Just smile and say you got lost and thank you very much and leave when they tell you. Be polite and don’t give them any shit and you’ll be fine. Got it?
“Yeah, I got it.”
Jesus, imagine if they found me down here, looking like I do right now? They’d call the cops in a fucking heartbeat!
“Good. Now, being a junkie, I know you’re probably getting sick. You’re going to need to slam pretty soon or you won’t be able to stand up. You can’t let that happen. You don’t want to know what happens to women who can’t stand up out here.”
“I think I got a pretty good idea already.”
“No, you don’t. And you sure as hell don’t want to find out.”
“I believe it.”
“Good. How are you holding on, right now?”
“It’s not too bad now, but…”
“Yeah, believe me, I know. I’ve been there myself. Plenty of times. The clock’s ticking and you’re running out of time. How much have you got on you?”
“I ain’t got nothing.”
“I don’t mean dope. I mean money. Have you got enough for a taste? It’s ten bucks out here, and don’t be expecting the good shit. Do you have enough?”
“Good. Fortunately, dope out here is like sand on the beach. It’s everywhere. There’s plenty of places where you can score. Here’s what you do: when this place opens up and it’s daylight, you get out of here and go to the front of the building. Leave the fucking suitcase in here. It’s a dead giveaway that you’re new on the streets. And don’t hang out in the alley! Trucks come through there in the morning and a lot of the drivers are assholes. They’ll think you’re a whore and they’ll fuck with you big time. If you’re really unlucky, they’ll just fuck you, period. You know what I mean?”
“So stay the fuck away from them! Don’t go getting into one of their trucks, no matter what they tell you. If you get in, they’ll definitely think you’re a whore and they’ll expect you to fuck them. If you say no, you’ll probably end up getting your ass kicked or getting raped. Or both.”
“I hear you.”
“Good. Now, you go straight to the front of the building. Go down the alley the way we came, turn right, and then turn right again at the end of the alley. That’ll put you in front of the place. Then you walk straight up the street for four blocks. Not three blocks. Not five blocks. Four blocks! One-two-three-four! You got it?”
“Four blocks. I got it.”
“Good, because you don’t want to go anywhere you don’t have to. Not in this sector. Don’t worry; the blocks in this part of town are pretty short. You won’t have far to go. Now, whatever you do, don’t talk to anybody on the street. Stay out of the alleys. Stay on the sidewalk. Don’t worry about the cops. Don’t worry about the assholes. Just stay cool. Guys out here are going to be sizing you up. Every guy you see out here is going to want to fuck you. If they think you’re weak, they’ll do it. They’ll rape you. They’ll rape you in broad daylight and they won’t give a shit about it. You’ve got to look like you can take care of yourself. You’ve got to look strong.”
“I don’t know. I’m not very strong.”
Yeah, that much I figured out, already. She looks like a fucking meal that’s ready to eat. And you’d better believe that plenty of these motherfuckers out here are plenty hungry!
“That doesn’t matter. You need to look like you are. You need to look like you belong out here. You just need to pull it off for a few minutes. You walk down that sidewalk like you fucking own the place! Don’t talk to anyone. Keep your eyes open, but don’t look anyone in the eye. And for God’s sake don’t eye-fuck anyone! You lock eyes with someone out here and give them a hard look and it’ll be the biggest, most painful fucking mistake you ever make! Got it?”
“If somebody tries to stare you down, you just blow them off. Don’t stare back. Don’t stop for anything. Just keep walking and look like you don’t give a fuck. Act like they don’t even exist. They’re nothing! They’re nothing and you don’t give a flying fuck about them! You just keep walking! Do you understand?”
“Now, when you get four blocks up the street, you turn right. Go straight down that street for six blocks. Six blocks! You got it?”
“Just remember: four up, six right. Four up, six right. Can you remember that?”
“Good. Now, things are going to get pretty shitty once you turn right. You’ll be heading right into the heart of skid row. It’ll be like nothing you ever saw before. It’s a fucking freak show! Don’t get distracted. Don’t get drawn in. That’s not for you. That’s not why you’re there. You’ve got to watch yourself. You’re going to stand out. People will definitely try to fuck with you. Don’t let them. You keep going until you get where you’re going and you don’t stop for anything! Do you understand?”
“Sure do. Uh, where am I going?”
“Someplace where you can get some dope. One of the safer places. Well, as safe as you can find in this shithole. Now, after you’ve gone six blocks, you’ll see an alley on your left. You can’t miss it. It’ll be the biggest fucking alley you ever saw. You could land a jet plane in it. There’ll be a shitload of people in there. That’s Grand Alley. If you get lost, find the most harmless looking older motherfucker you see and ask him where Grand Alley is. Every asshole in our fucking world knows about it. They’ll tell you how to get there.”
“Grand Alley. Got it.”
“At that time of the morning, it’s not too bad. There are a lot of trucks loading up in there. Ignore the truck drivers and you’ll be fine. Turn left into the alley. About a block and a half down, on the left, you’ll see a big orange building with beige trim all over it. It’s huge. It’s ugly as sin. It’s the only building in the whole fucking city that looks like that. It looks like the Great Pumpkin or something. In fact, that’s what they call it. You can’t possibly miss it.”
“Orange with beige trim. Got it.”
God almighty! I can’t believe I’m actually sending this kid into Grand fucking Alley! Even in the daytime, it’s not someplace you’d ever want to go. And she’s brand new out here! Am I doing the right thing? I don’t have a choice. It’s the safest place for her to make a quick buy and get the fuck out of there. It’s the only real option.
“Good. Remember: four up, six right, Grand Alley on the left, the Great Pumpkin. Now, at the base of the pumpkin, you’ll see the loading docks. They’re the big bays with the trucks parked in front of them. Somewhere around there, you’ll see a skinny little Salvadoran guy with slicked-back black hair and a goatee. He’s about my height, and he’s younger than me. He’s not much older than you. He usually wears a gray windbreaker. Don’t worry if you don’t see him right away. Just keep looking around. He’ll be there. He’s there every fucking morning; rain or shine. That’s Rodolfo. He deals the heroin. For God’s sake, don’t go to anyone else! Just Rodolfo. He’s the closest thing to a decent guy you’re ever going to find in a dope dealer. He won’t hurt you, and he won’t rip you off. He’s into money; not violence. If you’re buying, he’s selling. You tell him I sent you. You tell him Miranda sent you. Tell him you want a taste. Give him ten bucks. Not twenty; not fifteen. Ten fucking bucks. That’s the going rate out here. If he gives you a hard time, just tell him it’s for me. If he thinks it’s for me, he won’t fuck with you. He knows me, and he knows better than to fuck with me. You got it?”
“Yeah. Tell him it’s for you.”
“And what’s my name?”
“Good girl. I usually can’t remember a name for more than two minutes.”
“That’s OK. Uh, I’m Helen, in case you forgot.”
Oddly enough, I didn’t forget her name. But I wasn’t kidding. I really do forget people’s names ten seconds after being introduced to them. I’ve always been that way. My fucked-up brain at work, again.
“OK, so you give him ten bucks and not one fucking dime more. Don’t worry. He won’t try to rip you off. Rodolfo wants all of the customers he can get, and he just loves to meet new ones. He’ll give you the dope. I don’t know how they do it where you come from, but out here, the dealers keep their shit in their mouths. He’s going to pull a little balloon about the size of a pea out of his mouth and hand it to you. That’s the dope. Take it and stash it quick. Yeah, I know it’s disgusting. You’re on skid row now, honey. Get used to it.”
“Now, whatever you do, don’t open the fucking balloon and check it. You don’t have the time, and it just pisses the dealers off. You need to get the fuck out of there as fast as you can. You never know when the cops are watching. Don’t worry. It’ll be dope. It won’t be great, but it’ll do. He won’t rip you off. Especially if you use my name.”
“Good. You don’t want to fuck around in Grand Alley if you don’t have to, even during the daytime. That place is dangerous in more ways than you can imagine. Now, have you got any works?”
Yeah, I was afraid of that. That means another stop. Shit! The longer she’s out there, the worse it’s going to be for her! But she needs a spike. She can’t just eat the shit, and she sure as hell can’t smoke it. You can’t smoke heroin unless it’s the top-quality shit, and there’s none of that around.
“OK, here’s what you do: as soon as you get your dope, keep walking north through the alley. That’s straight up the way you came in.”
“When you get to the first street, turn right. Go down the sidewalk about a block and a half. You’ll see a parking lot. There’ll be a blue and white van there with a shitload of people crowded around it. There might have a table set up; there might not be. Whatever it is, you can’t miss it. The crowd will be fucking huge, and the van is always the same. Go there.”
“What is it?”
“That’s the needle exchange program. The do-gooders ruin it every day. They’ll be there bright and early; passing out needles to the needy. You don’t have to have one to exchange. That’s just the bullshit they tell people so they won’t know they’re handing out free spikes like fucking gumballs. Just tell them you need one and they’ll give it to you; no questions asked. Shit, they might give you a dozen. They’ll probably give you a cleaning kit, too. Whatever they give you, you take it and go! Don’t fucking hang around that place! Do you understand?”
“Now, a lot of assholes are going to come up and try to talk to you. You’re a young girl, you’re good-looking, and it’s pretty obvious you just got here. Watch yourself! These guys aren’t looking for a conversation. They’re looking to rob you and fuck your brains out. And they will, if you give them half a chance. They’ll do things to you that you can’t fucking imagine.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean shit you don’t want to know about! Shit you don’t ever want to know about! They’ll do shit to you that you won’t see in a fucking porno film! And they won’t just do it once! They’ll do it over and over again! They’ll fuck you so many times, you’ll be oozing cum out of every hole in your body for a fucking month! Do you hear me?”
“Yeah. I hear you.”
She looks scared. Good! She should be. I’m not exaggerating anything, here.
“The only safe people around out here are the old-timers. Do you understand? You don’t talk to anyone else. Just the old-timers”
“Who are the old-timers?”
“You’ll know them when you see them. They’re the old, gray-haired guys who’ve been on the streets for about a thousand years. One look at them and you’ll know. When you meet them, you show them respect and you listen when they talk! If you can get on their good side, they just might look out for you. That’s what you want. Hell, that’s what you need!”
“Now, most of the old-timers are black guys. Is that going to be a problem for you?”
“Good. Because out here, we’re the minority. We’re even more the minority because we’re women. That makes us big, fucking, juicy targets! There’s no shortage of assholes out here who love to fuck with the white girls. Especially young ones like you. We draw all of the wrong kinds of attention, and you don’t know how dangerous that is. You stick to the old-timers! You got that?”
“I got it.”
“Remember: don’t trust anyone under fifty. I don’t care what they say or how they look.”
“OK. Do you have a pen in that purse?”
“Do you have something to write on?”
“Yeah, I got something.”
“Get it out and write this down. Oh, and when you leave here, lose the fucking purse.”
“Lose my purse?”
“No one carries a fucking purse out here. If anyone sees it, it’ll mark you as a fucking cherry. Being young and blonde is bad enough. You already stick out like a sore thumb.”
“Tell me about it.”
“So did I when I first got here, and I’m not even blonde. Anyway, take what you need and stick it in your pockets. Then dump the purse. Take what you need, put the purse in a trash bag, and dump it in the garbage. If you stash it with your suitcase, you’ll be tempted to carry it around later on. Don’t fucking do it!”
Stripping her of the tokens of her old life, one at a time. Just like I went through, only nobody bothered to explain it to me in advance. I had to learn this shit the hard way.
“OK, I’ll dump my purse. What do you want me to write down?”
“All right. This is what you write down: after you slam and you’re back on your feet, you go to the Shepherd Mission. Write that down: the Shepherd Mission. It’s another four blocks down the street from the needle exchange lot. Four blocks down and then you turn right. You can’t miss it. It’s three stories tall, it’s powder blue, and it’s fucking huge. It’s huge like you wouldn’t believe. It’s probably the biggest building out here. It takes up the whole damned block. It looks like a fortress. It’s got a big neon sign outside. Everyone knows it. You go straight there. You don’t go anywhere else. You go straight to the Shepherd Mission! Got it?”
“Once you get there, you go inside and ask for Dolores. Write that down: Dolores.”
“Dolores. Who is she?”
“She works intake. She handles the women who come in. There are other people who do it, but they’re not as good. She’s who you want to talk to.”
“Now, some assholes might come up to you and say they work at the mission or some other do-gooder place. Don’t believe them! They’re fucking scammers! The missions are full of them! They just want to fuck you over. It’s an old trick they play on the new arrivals. They’ll tell you that you have to pay for this and that. They’ll say you have to pay for a meal. You have to pay for a bunk. You have to pay to use the fucking toilet; whatever. Don’t fall for it! It’s all bullshit! Nothing at the mission costs anything. They’re all about charity. If anyone asks you for money, it’s a fucking scam. Just remember: everybody who really works for the missions or any other do-gooder group on skid row has an ID card hanging around their neck. It’ll have their picture on it. It’ll look official. It’ll look expensive. I won’t look like some shit somebody made up on their fucking computer. If you don’t see the ID, then they don’t fucking work there! Tell them to fuck off! And forget about anyone wearing a jacket with official-looking shit on it. Anybody can get their hands on those jackets. They don’t mean shit. You need to see the ID! You got it?”
“I got it.”
Yeah, I wish I’d known that the first time I set foot in a mission. They took me good! I fell for every fucking trick in the book!
“Now, you need to speak with Dolores. Don’t worry, she’ll be there. I’ve been out here damn near seven years and I don’t think she’s missed a fucking day in her life.”
“What does she look like?”
“She’s about fifty-five or sixty. Something like that. She’s a big black lady with salt and pepper hair and a really gravelly voice. Everyone there knows her. Every woman on skid row who isn’t stark-raving mad knows her. She’s kind of a legend. You go straight to her.”
“All right. So what do I tell her?”
“You start by telling her the truth. Whatever you do, don’t fucking lie to her! She’ll rip your goddamned head off if you lie to her! And make no mistake: she’ll know if you’re lying! She’s heard every fucking lie that’s ever been told at least fifty thousand times. There’s no way in hell that you’re going to put one over on her. She can see right through you! She can read your fucking mind! Remember that.”
“OK, but what do I say to her?”
“Like I said, you tell her the truth. You tell her you just got here and you’re a junkie and you’ve got nowhere to go and you’re scared shitless. She’s going to ask you a shitload of questions. You’re going to answer every single one of them. Don’t complain or ask how long it’s going to take or give her any grief about anything. Whatever she says; you do it. You don’t complain. You don’t hesitate. You don’t give her attitude. You just do it. If she tells you to stand on your head and recite the Declaration of Independence; you fucking do it! Do you understand?”
“She can help you. She’s one of the few people out here who can. But you have to give her a reason to do it. She doesn’t want your money and she doesn’t want your tears, and she sure as hell doesn’t want your bullshit. God knows she got enough of mine. You start by telling her the truth – about everything! I don’t care how embarrassing or scary or disgusting or whatever the fuck it is; you tell her everything! You have to be straight with her. Don’t think for a minute that you can bullshit her. She’s heard more bullshit than the two of us could shovel in ten lifetimes, and she’s got absolutely zero tolerance for it.”
“I won’t. I’ll be straight with her.”
“Good. And don’t be embarrassed; no matter what’s happened in your life. Believe me, there’s nothing you can tell her that she hasn’t heard before. And whatever’s happened to you; she’s heard shit that’s ten thousand times worse. Take a look around this place and you’ll understand that.”
“I believe it.”
“You’d better believe it. Now, if you don’t try to fuck with her, she’ll probably try to help you. The first thing she’ll do is try to get you a place to stay. She might be able to; she might not be. If she can, you go there. Wherever it is; you go there. If she finds you a corner of a fucking broom closet to stand in for the night, you just take it and be grateful. Trust me, it’s a lot more than most people out here get.”
“I will. What about the women’s shelter?”
Oh, there’s the mark of a complete fucking noob!
“You stay the fuck away from the shelters! Those places are a fucking pit! They’re worse than the missions! They’re a great place to get your throat cut! Trust me, you wouldn’t last five minutes in there. The ones for battered women are OK, but they’re not around here and they won’t take you as it is. You need to be referred, and anyway, you’re not battered. And you want to keep it that way. That’s what this is all about.”
“Now, Dolores is going to know you’re a junkie from the second she sees you. She can spot us a mile away. So you tell her you’re a junkie and you want to quit. You don’t lie to her, either. You really have to want to quit. She isn’t going to lift a finger to help you if she thinks you’re just going to hit the streets looking for dope the first chance you get. You have to want to quit. Do you?”
“Yeah! Yeah, I do! I tried before, but…”
“I know. It’s hell. You probably can’t do it on your own. So if she says she’s going to set you up with something to help you quit, you fucking take it. She’ll probably try to get you into a program. Methadone. Did you ever take that?”
“No. I heard about it, though.”
“It makes it bearable. It’s not perfect, but it’s better than detox. It doesn’t work miracles, but it does help with the pain. Now, whatever you do, don’t fucking shoot dope and take methadone at the same time! It can really fuck you up.”
“Program or no program, it’s going to be hell, but you can do it. If I can live through fucking detox, then you can clean up on a methadone program. And you have to get clean. You won’t make it as a junkie out here. A girl like you? They’ll turn your ass out in a heartbeat.”
“What’s that mean?”
“It means they’ll turn you into a fucking whore. You won’t have any choice in the matter. Before you know it, you’ll be fucking guys in doorways for five bucks a throw. Then you’ll end up with AIDS or hepatitis or whatever.”
“Did they do that to you?”
“No, but it wasn’t for lack of trying.”
“How’d you get out of it?”
“I got lucky. I got hooked up with someone who was able to keep me out of that shit. One of the old-timers. I don’t think you’ll be so lucky. And I don’t want to find out. Do you?”
“No! God, no!”
“Good. So unless you want to make a living on your knees sucking dick while you get fucked from behind, you need to get the fuck out of here – fast!”
“Where am I supposed to go?”
“You need to go home.”
“I told you before. I ain’t got no home.”
“I know you don’t. But you’ve got a sister. You need to go back and ask her to help you out.”
“But she can’t…”
“I know, I know. She’s broke and she’s got a kid and she’s living in a fucking shoebox. But you can sleep on the floor if you have to. You go home and you tell her that you hit rock bottom and ended up on the street. You tell her that you got yourself into a program and got cleaned up, and you’re never going to touch a fucking needle again as long as you live. You get yourself a job waiting tables or mopping floors or digging ditches. I don’t care what it is. Anything straight that pays a few bucks so you can kick in for the bills.”
“OK, I’ll try.”
I think that scared her more than everything else I’ve told her so far. I can relate. But there’s no other way. I know.
“See that you do! Now remember: I said straight job! Don’t fall for some bullshit about being a dancer. Guys out here will tell you they can set you up with a job as a dancer. Fuck them! There’s no such thing as a dancer anymore. You’re a fucking stripper! You start stripping in those clubs down by the airport; you’ll never get off of dope. I wish I had a nickel for every one of those girls I saw down here when she was too fucked-up to earn a buck on a pole anymore. They went from stripper to whore in one fucking move!”
“I understand. But going home…I don’t…I don’t know if…”
“Yeah, you can do it! Believe me, I know what you’re feeling. I felt it, too. And I wish things were different so I could beg my family for help. I didn’t do that when I had the chance. Now it’s too late. Don’t wait until it’s too late for you. You need to get this done – now!”
“So what do I tell her?”
“You tell her the truth. If you tell her that you crashed and burned and hit rock bottom, I think she’ll help you out. Even if it’s just a roof over your head and a bathroom to shit in. Believe me, you don’t know how much that’s worth until you don’t have it anymore. Give it a week out here and you’ll know exactly what that’s like.”
“How do I get home? I ain’t got no money for another bus ticket.”
“Where are you from?”
Great! I forgot about the rule where you don’t want to know where anybody’s from. I guess it doesn’t matter. I’ll never see her again after this.
“All right, Dolores might be able to help you out with that.”
“First: you do not mention this to her under any circumstances! You do not tell her I told you this! If she takes a liking to you, then she might ask her church to pass the hat and get you a bus ticket home. She doesn’t do it very often, but she’s got a soft spot for women on the street. Especially the young ones like you.”
“She’d really do that?”
“She might. But you can’t ask her and you can’t tell anyone that she does that shit. I mean it! She’d get in big trouble if they found out. She’s not supposed to play favorites.”
“How come she didn’t do it for you?”
She did. But by then I was so far gone, I couldn’t bring myself to accept it. See what it got me.
“I don’t…it was…you know, it was too late for me.”
“I don’t have time to tell you the story of my life.”
“I got nothing but time. And you look like you really need to sit down. You got beat bad. Worse than anyone I ever saw. You’re a mess, Miranda. I think you need a doctor.”
Jesus, I really walked into that one! I’m definitely slipping in my old age.
“Look, it just…it is what it is. I can’t go back. But you can. This place doesn’t have its hooks in you yet. But it will. It won’t take long. It can happen fast. Christ, it can happen in a day. You need to get out as fast as you fucking can. You can’t do it by yourself. You’re going to need help. You do what I told you and you stay the fuck away from people and maybe – just maybe – you’ll get out of here.”
“You really think so?”
“Yeah, I know so. Look, I know you’re scared. I’ve been right where you are now. Let me tell you, the fear doesn’t go away. It never goes away. Look at my face. Do you want this to happen to you? Do you want to live like this for the rest of your fucking life?”
“Good. At least one of us is sane.”
“Never mind. You remember what I told you. You write down anything that you think you might forget.”
I hate to leave her fucking defenseless. Even in the daytime, Grand Alley can be a motherfucker. And one look at this girl…wait a minute! Where’s that knife I found earlier? I’ve still got it. It’s cheap, but it’s better than nothing.
“Here, take this. Use it if you have to. Whatever you do, don’t pull it on anyone unless you mean to stick them. We play for real out here. No bluffs. No threats. You pull a weapon; it’s kill or be killed. For real! Understand?”
“I never cut anyone in my life.”
“Well, here’s hoping you won’t have to. But if you do, don’t fucking hesitate. Trust me, none of these motherfuckers will.”
“I don’t know how.”
“And I don’t have time to teach you. Just remember: never lead with the knife. Hold it this way: close, with the blade pointed down like an icepick. It’s a knife; not a sword. You can stab faster this way and it’s harder to knock it out of your hand. If the other guy reaches for you, grab his wrist with your other hand and cut his arm as hard as you can. He’ll be open after that. That’s when you attack. Hit him hard. Don’t think a gash on the arm is going to put anyone down. Not out here, it won’t. Don’t focus on his weapon. Don’t focus on his chest or his belly. See his whole body as a target. Cut him or stick him wherever you can. There’s no place you can cut someone where it won’t hurt like a motherfucker. Trust me, I know. If he lunges for you, you step to the side, move past him, and stick him in the back or the ass or cut him deep across the back of the leg. If you can, cut him deep behind the knee. It’ll take his leg out. He’ll drop straight to the pavement and he’ll stay there. If he can’t stand, he can’t hurt you. And he can’t chase you, either. Fight if you have to, but run like hell if you can. Do you understand?”
“I think so.”
“All right, then. That’s it. You stay here until just before eight. Get some sleep if you can. You’ll be OK down here. You’ll be out of the rain. Then do exactly what I told you. You take care of yourself, OK?”
“Where are you going?”
“I’ve got something I’ve got to do.”
“Can’t I come with you?”
Yeah, sure! We can both jump together. Wouldn’t that be fun? A double suicide? We’d probably make the news.
“No, you can’t. I’ve got to do this by myself.”
“I can’t. Besides, where I’m going; you don’t want to go. Trust me on that one.”
“Will I see you again?”
OK, how the hell am I going to explain this one?
“No. I have to be…you know. I have to leave. I won’t be around here anymore.”
“Where are you going?”
“I’m…not really sure yet.”
Hey, at least that much is true. It’s either heaven or hell, but I won’t know which one until I get there. I guess you could say that suicide is the ultimate blind date. How’s that for profound?
“So why can’t I go with you?”
“Because I have to do this alone.”
God, it’s like talking to a five year old! Then again, I used to do the same thing with Charlie. It drove him nuts sometimes.
“Because things might not work out the way I’m hoping. It could…it could all go to shit in a damned hurry. See my face? It’ll be a lot worse if this doesn’t go right.”
“So don’t go. Stay here with me.”
“I wish it were that simple. Look, I don’t have time to explain it to you. Be thankful you don’t understand. You don’t know how lucky you are.”
“Are you in trouble?”
“Yeah. Yeah, I’m in trouble. Big trouble. And I’ve got to try and get out of it.”
“Is there anything I can do?”
“Yeah, you can do everything I told you and get the hell out of here and have a nice life.”
“I ain’t sure I’m cut out for a nice life.”
“Sure you are. Believe me, after this shit? Anything counts as a nice life.”
“Yeah, I can believe that.”
“Good. Don’t ever forget it. It’ll keep you focused. You take care of yourself, Helen. I really hope you make it.”
“I wish you were staying.”
“I know. I just can’t.”
“I know. You said so already. But I wish you were anyway. Thanks, Miranda. You’re the nicest person I’ve come across in a long time.”
Jesus! If I’m the nicest she’s come across, then she must have come across some real assholes lately! I thought I was the only one out here that unlucky.
“You don’t have to thank me. It’s the least I can do. Someone…someone did the same thing for me when I got here. He’s the only reason I made it this far.”
“Is he your boyfriend?”
“My boyfriend? Are you kidding? He’s like eighty years old!”
“Well, you never know? May-December romance, maybe?”
Oh, God! That actually got me to laugh! Me and Charlie? Just thinking about it is fucking hysterical! You don’t bang the old guy who taught you everything you know! That would be like…I don’t know…it would be like banging your father!
“Jesus, Helen! You’re fucking crazier than I am!”
“You don’t look crazy to me. Anyway, it’s kind of nice to see you smile. You know, you ain’t smiled since I met you.”
“Neither have you. Until now. You’ve got a nice smile. Don’t lose it.”
“Whatever you do out here, you watch your fucking back. Watch your back, don’t trust anyone, and don’t give up no matter what happens. You can still get out, but you’ll only get one chance, and it has to be soon. Don’t blow it, OK? I mean, one of us should make it, right?”
“Right. Don’t worry, I won’t blow it. I promise.”
“I have to go.”
“Goodbye, Miranda. I hope whatever you’ve doing works out for you.”
“Me, too. Thanks.”
“Hey, you got…I don’t know, any other advice? You know, before you go?”
What else can I give her in five seconds? There’s no magic formula. No secret spell. No plan that’s guaranteed to work. There’s so much more, and even I don’t have it all. So what can I give her?
“Yeah, I’ve got one more for you: pray! It can’t hurt, and I hear God’s a pretty good listener.”
“I wish he’d do more than listen.”
“I’ll talk to him about that when I see him.”
“Never mind. Take care of yourself, Helen. Don’t give up. Not even if you have to.”
Because you will. You will have to give up. Sooner or later. It’s inevitable. God, I wish it weren’t true, but I know better. It’s my fucking curse. And now it’s about to become yours. And there’s not a damned thing I can do to stop it. God, I hate this world! Oh, how I fucking hate it!