OK, what have we got here? Something’s up. Over there! Across the street! Did you see that? That guy? Where the fuck did he go? He was right there! Over by the dumpsters. There’s no one there now. Shit! I could’ve sworn there was someone there! Christ, am I losing my fucking mind? Like I said, it wouldn’t be the first time. I hate to admit it, but invisible people aren’t exactly new to me. But I can’t let that happen tonight. Jesus, can you imagine that? My last night on earth and I’m going to crack up completely? Yeah, that would be par for the fucking course for me. The one night when I have to keep my shit wound tight and I come unglued. I can’t afford that. I need to keep my wits about me. Jumping off of a roof isn’t as easy as it sounds. You really need to focus. Well, unless you’re totally fucking drunk, that is. Then all you have to do is fall.
All right, here’s a typical skid row sight: two guys beating the living shit out of each other. See them? Over to the right, just inside the mouth of the alley? Yeah, we have about a hundred or so knock-down/drag-out fights every day. Living in hell kind of gets on your nerves, and people tend to take that shit out on whoever happens to be within arm’s reach. That’s the main reason why I try never to stand too close to anyone. I’ve been on the receiving end of too many of those beatings. Those two are just going at it with their fists and feet, but just keep watching. As soon as one of them starts losing, he’ll either pull out a knife or grab something nearby and bash the other guy’s brains out with it. There’s no such thing as a fair fight on skid row.
Yeah, there we go! See the guy in the white t-shirt? Well, it used to be white. Now it’s asphalt gray. He just took that nasty hit to the face, so now he’s going to try to get back by going for a weapon. And there he goes! He’s got a two-by-four! And now the other guy’s looking for a weapon. Too. Bad move! Don’t take your eyes off of the asshole who’s trying to bash your brains in! Ouch! See? That’s why you don’t do that! Whacked right on the head! Oh, that had to hurt! And there’s another hit! Damn, right on the collarbone! That guy’s in trouble! He’d better get the fuck out of there if he wants to stay in one piece! But you know something? He probably won’t. People out here are too scared of looking weak. If you look weak, you get targeted. Not only that, but word gets around fast that you’re weak. I say fuck that shit. If running away is the best way to keep from being raped, beaten into a coma, or killed, then just suck it up and run like hell. And you notice how nobody’s breaking it up? Yeah, that’s because you never break up a fight out here. That’s a good way to wind up in the emergency room. You see, the guys doing the fighting won’t care that you’re trying to be a Good Samaritan. They’ll start wailing on you just for getting in the way. The only way a fight out here gets broken up is if there are more people trying to break it up than there are doing the fighting, and that doesn’t happen very often. If you’re a fight fan, then you’ll love it out here. Our fights always go the distance. And down he goes! The unarmed guy’s down and he’s hurt bad! See how he’s just trying to cover up? He can’t fight back anymore. That hit to his collarbone probably broke it. He’s fucked. If that other guy wants to finish him off, there’s not much he can do about it. He’s definitely getting in a few last licks. Ouch! A full-power shot to the gut! Getting hit in the gut with a two-by-four hurts like a motherfucker. I speak from experience. Well, I guess he’s not in a mood for murder because he’s letting the victim go. He’s headed down the alley. He’s not even taking the two-by-four with him. The other guy’s just lying there in a pool of his own blood. Congratulations, you idiot! You managed to live another night. That’s assuming he doesn’t have any internal injuries that’ll kill him in a few hours. Yeah, that happens a lot out here, too.
So what was that fight about? Who knows? I wouldn’t be surprised if those guys didn’t know. People just go crazy out here. The slightest insult or offense is cause for a fight to the death. When you don’t have anything to live for, why not fight to the death? When prison’s better than this place, why not risk a prison term just for venting your frustrations on somebody for no particular reason? I mean, what can they do to us? What can anyone do to us? If God sends us to hell for the shit we do out here, do you honestly think it could be much worse than this? It might even be better. Who knows? Like I said: leave your logic and reason at the door, because they aren’t’ worth jack shit in this place.
We need to head over that way: west. That’s where all of the shit’s happening. Think of it as the trendy area of skid row. Hey, everyplace needs a trendy area, right? Seriously, I need to find Charlie as soon as possible. The sooner, the better. Something tells me that this is going to be the hardest conversation I’ve ever had, and I’d rather do it now while I’m still lucid than try to do it later when I’m not. I’m really afraid that as the night goes on, I’m going to start becoming unhinged. That happens to me when I’m under a lot of stress, and what could be more stressful than knowing you’re going to die in a few hours? I’ve been over it a billion times, so I’m as calm with it as I’m ever likely to be. I’ve made up my mind, and it definitely helps. But that doesn’t mean that the closer it gets, the more it’s going to fuck with me. Right now, that’s my single biggest concern after finding Charlie.
Oh, shit! People are running! They’re scattering! That’s usually a bad sign out here! People running means serious danger. What the…? Hey, I know that guy! That’s Mike!
“Hey, Mike! What’s going on?”
“Anywhere! Fucking cops are doing a dope sweep! You better haul ass before they grab you!”
Jesus, that’s all I need tonight!
“Thanks for the heads up! I’m gone!”
OK, time to get gone. Trust me, you don’t want to get caught up in that shit. Dope sweeps are an everyday occurrence out here. The cops swoop in and jack up everyone on the sidewalk for about half a block. They put you down on your knees and go through your pockets. If they find any dope, they hook you up and take you away. Then they make up a story about how they saw you buy it or how it was in plain sight or whatever. There’s no such thing as an unlawful search out here. Everyone and everything is fair game.
Fuck! That cop sees me! Damn it! Here it comes!
“Hey lady! Stop!”
Shit! So much for getting out of here before they grab me. It’s going to be one of those nights. God, I just hope these guys don’t bounce my head off a fucking windshield. Once was enough for one night. Fuck! He’s got his gun out! I’ll never make it between the buildings in time. I guess I’m going to have to go through the whole fucking drill.
“Hands in the air, lady! Let me see your hands!”
This could be a serious problem. I don’t know these guys. I know a lot of cops out here, but these guys don’t look familiar. That could be a good thing or a bad thing. At least he put the gun away. I probably won’t get shot.
“Lady, you got any dope on you?”
“You got any needles or razor blades?”
“No, sir. Well, I’ve got a pocketknife.”
“Right front pocket. See?”
He’s going for his nightstick! Oh, shit! Please don’t hit me! I don’t want a repeat of the last time. That’s right, officer. Just pull it out and don’t beat the crap out of me.
“Whoa! This’ll do some damage! What are you doing with this, lady?”
“It’s just a pocketknife, sir.”
“Like hell! This ain’t a Boy Scout knife, honey. Jesus! Look at this thing! It’s fucking razor sharp! You could take somebody’s head off with this!”
“It’s no big deal.”
“And you just use it for opening boxes, right? Yeah, turn your pockets out.”
Ah, yes. The pocket search. Normally they’d do that themselves, but some cops don’t like reaching into a woman’s pockets. They can get in trouble for that. They’re supposed to have a woman officer do it, but there aren’t a lot of them working in this part of town. All right, turn out your pockets and show the psycho officer that you don’t have any dope or needles on you. Nice and slow. I don’t want a skull fracture on my last night on earth.
“See? I told you. I don’t have anything on me.”
“You got any warrants?”
“I’m clean, sir. Ask Officer Loomis. He stopped me a little while ago.”
“Why’d he do that?”
“Same reason you did, I guess.”
“Hey, Miranda! How’re you doin’ honey?”
Huh? Oh, it’s Villanueva. Now him, I know. He makes an impression. Mister macho. He thinks he’s God’s gift to women. Hey, he’s not bad to look at. I mean, look at the arms on this guy! Christ, he must live in the gym!
“Hey, Officer Villanueva.”
“Hey guys, you’re not bothering my girl here, are you?”
“Is she one of your girlfriends, Marco?”
“Of course she’s my girlfriend! They’re all my girlfriends!”
You know, he probably believes that. To be honest, I kind of like him. Oh, not like that. I’m not looking for a boyfriend. No, I mean he’s crude but not sadistic. He’s never once put the boots to me. That rates highly in my book.
“You out here buyin’ dope, Miranda?”
“No, I’m just walking. Same as every night.”
I see the cop who stopped me isn’t buying that one.
“Hey Marco, is she walking or working?”
“Hey, Miranda ain’t no whore! She just likes to walk. She’s like a…what do you call it? A globetrotter.”
“Yeah, right! I’ll bet she’d do us both in the back seat for five bucks.”
Fucking asshole! I get that shit a dozen times a night from the cops! God, I hate that shit!
“You’d lose that bet, pal.”
“What’s the matter, baby? Don’t you like me?”
Just bite your tongue, Miranda. You’ve got enough problems. Just shut up and smile. Oh, hell! I think I hurt this guy’s feelings! Now I’m fucked!
“I asked you a question, bitch!”
Christ! I can’t even listen to my own advice! Nice going, Miranda! Get ready for pain!
“Your little bitch has a nasty mouth, Marco.”
“Hey, take it easy. She’s OK.”
“Not if she’s out here, she isn’t.”
Oh, this guy’s a real winner. I just hope Villanueva can keep a leash on him. I really fucked up just then. Come on, Villanueva. Do the crazy junkie girl a favor. After tonight, you’ll never see her again. Just give me this one break.
“Ease down, guys. Did you find anything on her?”
“Just a knife. She says Loomis jacked her up already.”
“Is that true, Miranda?”
“Uh-huh. Hey, who’s that guy he’s working with tonight?”
“Loomis. Who’s his partner?”
“I don’t know. He’s one of the new guys. Why? You want his phone number?”
“Hardly. No, I just want to know who he is. He damn near put my head through a fucking windshield.”
And now the peanut gallery is cracking up. Fucking assholes. Why they get off on me getting my ass kicked is a mystery, but they do.
“How come? You bust his balls?”
“I didn’t do anything. He saw the knife in my pocket and freaked.”
“Yeah, well, he’s new. You got to cut him some slack.”
I’d like to cut his fucking throat from ear to ear.
“The guy’s got a hell of grip.”
“What? He put a C-Clamp on you?”
“More like a fucking vice grip.”
“Hey, if you’re gonna hang out in these dope spots, shit like that’s bound to happen.”
“He didn’t have to take my fucking head off! I would’ve given it to him if he asked.”
“Oh yeah? What would you give me if I asked?”
“How about a kick in the nuts?”
“Thanks, but I can get that from my wife.”
“You must be doing something wrong.”
Well, they’re still laughing. At least they’re in a good mood. Even the main asshole’s laughing. I guess I made a good impression.
“Listen, Miranda, you better get out of here. Some of these guys are going to jail. You don’t want to join them.”
“Good girl. Get lost.”
“Can I have my knife back?”
“Yeah. Just don’t stick anyone, OK?”
“Only if I have to.”
I think I just caught a break. At least I can say one good thing happened to me on my last night on earth. That’s something, isn’t it?
Well, that was fun. Jesus, they’re really out in force tonight. Something’s definitely going on. I guess I picked a hell of night to kill myself. If the cops are jacking up everyone in sight, it’s going to be a lot harder to find Charlie. He won’t be around as long as they’re doing this shit. Most of the cops won’t bother him, but the younger ones will. The new ones don’t have any respect for him. How the hell can they not respect Charlie? He’s always respectful to them. He doesn’t bother anyone. And he’s been out here forever. Still, he isn’t going to want to spend the night on his knees with his hands behind his head while some cop fucks with him. He’ll find someplace to lay low. Shit! That could really fuck things up for me. I know most of his hiding places, but not all of them. If he doesn’t want to be found, then he isn’t going to be. And I damn sure don’t want to get caught up in another sweep. Villanueva won’t drag me in for the hell of it, but a lot of them will. I know. They’ve done it before. That’s how I ended up in detox. I hate fucking dope sweeps. They’re like catching fish with a big net. They just grab everybody they can find, whoever the fuck they might be. They’ll take twenty, thirty, even fifty people in one shot. They put these plastic handcuffs on you that look like a giant garbage bag tie and cinch them down until they cut off the fucking circulation in your wrists. I’m not kidding. Sometimes your hands actually turn blue. They have to cut them off with wire cutters because there’s no key. Charlie showed me how you can do it with a piece of string, though. If you’ve got a piece of string and they’re not paying attention, you can get away. That’s if you’re lucky. If you get grabbed in a sweep, you end up spending the whole fucking night in the police station sitting cuffed in the hallway with twenty other people while they decide what to do with you. And if you piss them off, they’ll put a case on you in a heartbeat. That’s definitely not how I want to spend my last night on earth. We’d better clear out of here fast. This place is definitely trouble tonight.
It’s funny when you think about it: there are a thousand stories about how people spend their last day on earth. They’re usually pretty romantic – the stories, I mean. They go for walks in the countryside, they look at the trees and listen to the birds sing, they drink a bottle of fine wine, they listen to Bach or Beethoven, and then they watch the most beautiful sunset of their lives. And then it’s over. Peaceful. Beautiful. Simple. At least, that’s the storybook version of it. I don’t know if any of them are true. I can’t imagine many people actually find themselves in this position. Most people don’t know when they’re going to die. They like it that way. That’s a good thing. People shouldn’t know when they’re going to die. It makes it hard to focus on living. Even if you knew it wasn’t for fifty years, you’d still be counting down the days. You’d never get it out of your mind. I’ve spent way too much time thinking about dying and let me tell you, now that it’s here, it’s fucking bizarre. It’s a strange feeling, and that’s coming from someone who’s known a lot of strange feelings in her day. Even I can’t put it into words, and that’s one of the few things I’m really good at. Maybe as the night goes on, I’ll come up with something? I don’t know. I guess maybe I thought there would be something romantic in it for me, even in this fucking place. But of course, there isn’t. I guess there never is. It doesn’t matter where you are. Dying romantically works in books and movies and shit like that. Reality is another story.
Of all the places you might think to spend your last day – or night – on earth, a filthy alley has got to be the furthest from your mind. And yet here I am on the last night of my life and I’m spending it roaming alleys in this Godforsaken place. Of course, it’s not just to get around while I’m looking for Charlie. No, there’s a purpose to it. I wanted to see these places one last time to try to get some sense of it all. These streets and alleys are the last chapter of my life. They’re sort of the conclusion of a very long and painful journey. It’s no hero’s journey, that’s for sure. It’s not mythical or anything. But it’s my life and as much as I hate it, I can’t just pretend it didn’t happen. So I have to at least try to figure it out. I‘ve never been able to just accept things. Maybe if I could, I wouldn’t be killing myself tonight. Maybe I wouldn’t be here at all. But that’s not me. I need answers. I need to know. I need to know why. I know the how. God! Do I ever know the how! But I want to know the why. I want reasons, not just facts. I want to see these places that have come to define me and see if maybe I can find some of those answers. God knows I’ve been looking for them ever since I got here. Maybe now that I’m at death’s door, it’ll all finally make sense to me? Why me? Why did it happen? Why couldn’t I stop it? Why couldn’t I fight through it? Why couldn’t they fix me? Why did God make me in the first place if this is how I was destined to end up? Does God make mistakes sometimes? Did he make a mistake when he created me? And is it really wrong to kill yourself when your life’s not worth living and you’ve reached the end of your rope? You tell me. But if the answer is yes, then you’d better be ready to explain why.
Now, you probably think that I’m out of my fucking mind for looking for answers to life’s major questions in a bunch of alleys in the asshole of the world. Well, you’re right. I am out of my fucking mind. But the truth is, these alleys fascinate me. They have since the day I got here. They’re so unlike anything you’ll find in the normal word that I just can’t turn away from them. They’re amazing. They’re terrifying and disgusting and dangerous and hilarious all at once. I know. It’s fucking crazy. But it’s true. And it’s not just the alleys. It’s this whole fucking place. Sometimes I sit in here and try to comprehend it all and suddenly I just start laughing my ass off. You know why? Because you can’t do it. Nobody can. You can’t comprehend it. There’s really no way to explain how all of this shit is even possible. You have to see it – no, you have to live it – in order to truly understand it. I swear, all of the words in all of the languages in the world can’t possibly explain what this place is and how it got here and how it exists right alongside the normal world and what the fuck it does to you. It’s so much more than just bricks and asphalt and concrete and streetlights and dumpsters and whatever. The whole is definitely greater than the sum of the parts. It’s funny, but I think the total, fucked-up strangeness of this place played a big part in keeping me going all of these years. It sucked me in. It made me want to know everything about it. This place. This ugly, fucked-up place. This place that’s been my home, if you can call it that, for seven years now. Seven fucking years! Seven years and I still don’t get it! It’s a whole different world out here, especially at night. It’s a whole other reality. I’m not exaggerating. None of the normal rules apply. Even the people who live here can’t explain it. That’s another thing I’ve never understood. I mean, we made this place, but at the same time we didn’t. We belong here, but at the same time nobody belongs here. We hate what this place is, but at the same time we know that we wouldn’t have it any other way. Christ, we couldn’t survive if it were any other way. We need it to be exactly what it is, no matter how much we hate it and no matter how much it destroys us. Even though it destroys us in a hundred million different ways, we need it to be this way. Maybe the strangest thing about it is that while we made this place, it wasn’t our idea. It’s like it’s something we were required to do. Something we were destined to do. You see, no one just comes here. Something terrible has to happen to you, and then you end up out here. You can’t get here unless something terrible happens to you back there. Back in the normal world. So in a way, this place is something that was done to us. Maybe not on purpose, but it was done to us all the same. It wasn’t something we had any control over. And once we got here, we went out of our way to make damn sure we deserved it.
People in the normal world never try to see beyond the externals of this place – and that’s if they see this place at all. I don’t blame them, but I think they owe it to themselves to at least ask the right questions. They’ll never understand what’s going on here if they don’t ask the right questions. For instance: what is skid row besides a place where homeless people congregate? That’s a good question. Unfortunately, I think if I tried to answer it, I’d die of old age before I got finished. Shit, Methuselah would die of old age before that! It’s so big and different from anything you’ve ever experienced that you just can’t put it into words. You can’t wrap your head around it. And being part of it makes it harder to do that, not easier. Why is that, you ask? It’s because out here, the mind is often of little use. That’s a big contradiction, seeing as how a lot of us have to live by our wits if we want to survive. But it’s true. A lot of people think everyone who lives on the street is stupid, but we’re not. Well, most of us aren’t. We just don’t have much need for a brain. You see, the brain is about reason and logic and understanding. More often than not, those are three of the most useless fucking commodities out here. Ladies and gentlemen, leave your logic and reason and understanding at the door, because they damn sure don’t apply out here. This place transcends that shit. Hell, this place took that shit and flushed it down the fucking toilet. Take away all the logic and reason and sanity and humanity and faith and hope in the world, throw in a pinch of mysticism and a hefty portion of violence and cruelty and outright sadism, add a bucket of despair, a barrel of degradation, a truckload of hallucinations and a shitload of dope and you’ve got this fucking place. Science doesn’t have a name for it. Philosophy doesn’t have an explanation for it. And take it from me: no one has an answer for it.
Someone once said that when Don Quixote went out into the world, it turned into a mystery before his eyes. I wish I knew who said it. Charlie told me about it. He read it in a book, but I don’t know which one. Anyway, skid row always struck me the same way, especially at night. Night and skid row and unfathomable mystery go hand in hand. That’s one thing that separates night from the day around here. This place loses a lot of its mystery in the daylight. It’s still the same shithole, but during the day it’s just a shithole. It’s like some unholy monster took a giant stinking shit on a few square blocks of downtown. We’re the infected, mutated survivors trying to dig our way out. How’s that for a pretty picture? Seriously, it’s a lot more than that at night. Like I said, it’s hard to explain. Part of it is what the night brings with it, but it’s also what the people out here bring with them. Don’t ask me what it is. I don’t have a fucking clue. Christ, I’ve lived here for years and I don’t have a fucking clue. The French would call it je ne sais quoi, which is what they say when they don’t know what the fuck something is. Whatever it is, it scares the shit out of most people. Hey, it scares the shit out of us, too. Only the very unlucky few can handle it. That’s why you rarely ever find anyone out here at night who doesn’t belong in the night. One look around and you’ll notice that everyone out here at night looks like they belong here. That’s because they do. There’s no place else for them. You couldn’t turn these motherfuckers loose in the daylight. The only other place you could put them is in a cage. Actually, a lot of them have been in a cage. Lots of cages. They call them prisons. Prison and this place are like two sides of the same coin. But a lot of people can handle prison. Not so much with this place at night. No, it takes a special breed to survive this place at night. And you can’t just be here at night. You can’t just take up space. If you do, you’ll end up as someone’s dinner – or worse. The Emerald City at night doesn’t tolerate bystanders. They’re just victims waiting to be victimized. No, you’ve got to be a part of this place. If you’re going to be out here at night, you have to be an active, functioning, disgusting, evil part of it all. You’ve got to serve a purpose, even if you don’t know what that purpose is. There are no free rides out here after dark. There are no bystanders. There are no observers. When the sun goes down, you and this place are one.
There’s a strange transformation that takes place in the city at night. Not just in this city. I’ll bet it happens in every city. Most people never notice it, but I do. I noticed it as soon as I wound up out here. It seemed really powerful to me. It’s kind of hard to explain. You have to experience it from my perspective. It’s like a changing of the guard. You see, during the day, the city belongs to the normal people. It ought to. They built it. They built it for themselves; not for assholes like me. But the normal people leave it at night and that’s when we take over. Then it’s ours. Well, most of it is. We’re not confined to the four or five miserable little blocks around the missions anymore. Oh, there are still some places that are off limits. We don’t go into the Emerald City. We don’t go near the crystal skyscrapers or the manicured walkways or the marbled plazas. Not unless we want to get the shit kicked out of us by the cops or the nighttime security guards. But as for the rest of it? It’s ours. When the night comes, we can spread out like a disease. Skid row grows by about two dozen square blocks after sundown. And that’s when the city changes. It changes for the worse. As bad as this place is in the daylight, it’s a thousand times worse at night. It’s uglier, filthier and a hell of a lot more dangerous. When the sun goes down, no one is safe. Not us, not them, not anyone. Not even the cops. A gun and a badge are no guarantee of safety in this place. Cops have been killed out here. They get stabbed and get their throats cut just like we do. They get their heads caved in with pipes and bricks and all kinds of shit. Sometimes they even get shot. The people out here at night are incredibly dangerous. They’re violent, they’re angry, they’re stoned out of their minds and they’re fucking psychopaths. They’ll kill you just as soon as look at you. Some of them already have. Others are just waiting for an opportunity. They’ll probably get it, too. Hunting people is a favorite pastime out here at night. Look around and you’ll see the really evil ones stalking their prey like a fucking lion stalking a gazelle. For the most part, there are only two kinds of people out here: predator and prey. It’s the ultimate blood sport. If you’re looking to kill someone, this place is the fucking land of opportunity.
So how do you avoid becoming someone’s “opportunity?” Well, let’s get rid of the bullshit first. Forget about being the strongest. Strength helps, but it’s not enough. Not by a long shot. One of the first things Charlie taught me is that no one is strong enough or mean enough to make it on their own out here. He’s right. Even prison isn’t enough. I’ve seen guys who spent years in fucking gladiator school end up dead within a week. Think about it: even the strongest son of a bitch has to sleep, and that’s when the weakest fucking weasel can slit your throat. It happens all the time. And being a tough motherfucker won’t stop some psycho from putting ground glass or antifreeze in your food at the mission. That happens, too. So brute strength isn’t enough. You need luck. You’ve got to be lucky to survive. Too bad you can’t buy it or steal it. Beyond that, there are the rules. They’re nothing like the rules in the normal world. They’re completely fucking alien. And believe me, there’s a lot you have to learn in order to make it out here. Charlie really stressed that. He said you have to learn fast and you can’t take unnecessary chances. Caution is important. You have to be damned careful if you want to survive out here at night because even little mistakes can kill you. And that’s the operative word: survive. You don’t live out here. You survive. That’s an important distinction. Living means a lifetime. Survival is day by day. Sometimes it’s minute by minute. The best you can hope for is to make it through another night. In this place, nothing and nobody can guarantee you any more than that. On a bad night, the best you can hope for is minute by minute. And you can’t begin to imagine what it’s like to try to survive from one minute to the next. I know. I’ve had my share of bad nights out here.
The first rules you need to learn are the ones about what not to do. Rule number one is that you never trust anyone. Not ever. Not for a second. Don’t trust anyone. Charlie is the exception. Most people trust him. They should. He’s unique. But don’t ever trust anyone else. Not the cops, not your best friend, not your husband or your wife, not your girlfriend or boyfriend, not the Bible Thumpers from the missions, not the guy who hid you from the cops or saved your ass in a fight, and above all, you never ever trust your partner in crime. That’s always the least-reliable motherfucker out here. Never forget that today’s partner is tomorrow’s snitch and you’re the one he’s going to roll on. Out here, loyalty isn’t a myth – it’s a fucking joke. Rule number two is that you never let your guard down. Just because you don’t feel threatened doesn’t mean you aren’t threatened. The threat you see is bad, but the threat you don’t see is worse. It’s the asshole you don’t see who’ll rape you or kill you or maybe both. Out here, you keep your guard up every second of every minute of every hour of every day. The instant you drop your guard, I guarantee some asshole will be there to make you pay for it. I learned that the hard way – more than once. So you stay alert and you keep your distance. Distance is important. Don’t let anyone get close enough to grab you. That’s especially true for me, since almost everyone out here is a lot stronger than I am. If someone gets a good grip on me, I’m halfway to being raped and God knows what after that. What else? Oh, you always look away when you pass someone. You keep an eye on them, but you never look them directly in the eye. That’s a big deal out here. You’ve got no business looking someone in the eye. The eyes are the mirror of the soul, and you’ve got no business looking into someone else’s soul. Not out here. Out here, that can get you killed. A lot of things can.
You have to learn how to live with fear. You’ll never overcome it, so you have to learn how to live with it. If you can’t, it’ll destroy you. Out here at night, fear is ever-present. Show me someone who isn’t terrified and I’ll show you someone who’s either a stark raving lunatic or a diabolically evil son of a bitch straight out of the ninth circle of hell. Believe me, we’ve got plenty of both. For the rest of us – the vast majority of us – there’s the fear. On a good day, it’s just frightening. The other three hundred sixty-four days of the year, it’s sheer fucking terror. I know. I’ve been scared out of my mind since the moment I got here. In this place, anyone is fair game and a woman makes a far more tempting target than a man. Out here, men outnumber women by about five hundred to one. So in addition to worrying about being robbed, beaten or killed; I have to worry about being raped and sodomized and who knows what else. Thank God I’ve never been raped, but it’s not because no one’s ever tried. Plenty of people have tried. I’ve got the scars to prove it. I’ve come closer than I care to remember on more than a few occasions. Even Charlie couldn’t prevent that.
The first time was two days after I ended up on skid row. I still looked like I belonged in the real world, which must have made me stand out like a sore thumb. It probably made me a really attractive fuck, too. Some guy grabbed me and dragged me into a stairwell in a parking lot not far from the police station. Can you believe it? A guy tries to rape me a block and a half from the fucking police station in broad daylight! That tells you a lot about this place. Anyway, he punched me in the face, ripped my shirt off and was going for my pants when I clawed him in the eyes. I just dug my fingers in as hard and as deep as I could. I have no idea how I managed to do that. I wasn’t much of a street fighter before I got here. He grabbed his eyes and lost his balance and that’s when he let go of me. He landed on the stairs pretty hard, which is probably the only reason why I got away. I ran out into the street screaming my fucking head off. Picture this: here’s this woman with her shirt ripped off, her face bleeding and she’s screaming like a banshee and running through the middle of traffic, and does anyone help? Does anyone call the police? Do the fucking police who are only a fucking block and a half away come to help? Hell, no! No one lifted a fucking finger! By the time the cops showed up about a half hour later, it was because someone complained that some crazy bitch was running through the street and fucking up traffic. One of the cops actually wanted to write me a ticket! I tried to report what happened, but they weren’t a damn bit interested. Some piece of shit tried to rape a woman on skid row? Big fucking deal. We don’t care. NHI, baby. That’s cop speak for “No Human Involved.” You hear that one a lot out here.
Sometimes I think rape is practically the national pastime of skid row. Well, besides murder, stealing, and getting high. Maybe I just obsess about it because I’m a woman. Is that so surprising? Hey, I may be crazy, but I don’t want to get raped. No one’s that crazy. Not only that, but out here rape is frequently followed up by torture and murder and I don’t want to be tortured and murdered. Does that surprise you? Actually, it makes a weird sort of sense. You see, just because I’m suicidal doesn’t mean I want someone else taking my life from me. I’ve had so little control over my life as it is. I want to decide how and when I go. That’s important. It’s all I’ve got left. And I sure as hell don’t want to be strangled or stabbed over and over while some filthy piece of shit is ramming his dick between my legs and drooling on my face. Yeah, that happens out here a lot. I’ve heard the women screaming in the alleys in that way that tells you exactly what’s happening to them. I’ve seen them staggering down the sidewalks afterward, looking like someone broke their soul and wishing that they’d just suddenly die because the thought of living another second is too much to bear. Nothing else looks like it. You can always tell. Christ, I don’t even like to think about it. I guess it’s just that it’s the one thing nobody’s ever taken from me. I don’t think I could handle it. Once I thought I could. Well, something kind of like it. It was something that happened a couple of years ago. It was…I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s just say I was never so wrong in my life. Anyway, I have to be careful out here. I have to have eyes in the back of my head. That’s the price of being a woman out here. One thing I’ve learned is that the best way to avoid danger is to see it coming in time to get the hell out of the way. Oh, I can take care of myself if I have to – and I’ve done it – but I don’t have any illusions about how big or how strong I am. Most of the people out here could tear me to pieces without breaking a sweat. A lot of them have tried. I’ve had assholes use me for a punching bag as well as try to use me for a sex toy, sometimes at the same time. I’ve taken beatings that should’ve killed me. Even the paramedics said so. Sometimes I think I’ve had my ass kicked more than anyone else out here. Maybe that’s because I usually end up on the losing end of it. In a knockdown drag-out, I’m definitely at a disadvantage. That’s why I always carry a knife.
I carry a knife just like everyone else out here, but I don’t know if I could really stick someone. I mean to deliberately kill them, that is. Cut them, yes – I’ve done that a lot times. I’ve slashed a few people right down to the fucking bone and then some. I cut one guy across the face so deep that he nearly died. There are more than a few assholes out here with scars named after me. One asshole grabbed me and I ended up cutting off two of his fingers. Over the years, I’ve earned a reputation for being pretty handy with a knife. Practice makes perfect. But I never stuck anyone. You see, cutting someone isn’t the same as sticking them. You cut someone in self-defense. You stick them if you want to kill them. Oh, you can kill someone by cutting them. Trust me, one good slash across the throat will do it. But it doesn’t always mean you meant to kill them. Out here, cutting someone isn’t considered a big deal. It’s just what we do. Normal people punch each other. We slash the shit out of each other with knives. I’ve been cut a few times. Some of them were pretty bad. I’ve got a nasty scar on my left leg a few inches above my knee. It almost gave me a permanent limp. I’ve got a thin little scar about four inches long on my left shoulder right near my neck. That one was a box cutter – You know, the ones with the razor blades. I’ve got three on my left forearm and two on my right. Lots of scars. But most of them didn’t mean anything. I know that sounds crazy, but this is our world I’m talking about. Shit, out here, people will cut a forty-stitch gash down your arm just to get your fucking attention. But there’s pretty much only one reason to stick someone. You jam five or six inches of razor sharp steel into someone’s chest, it stands to reason that you want to kill them. A punctured lung and a perforated heart are not meant just to get your attention.
I think the closest I ever came to sticking someone was one time when this asshole tried to rape me a few blocks from here. Big surprise, huh? It was four years ago. I was talking to this guy across from the Big Lot and all of a sudden he grabbed me by the throat, slammed me to the ground, and reached his other hand down my pants. I thought I had enough space between us, but he closed the distance in a heartbeat. Damn, he was fast! I tried to break free, but he was big and he had a grip like a fucking vice. He wasn’t just trying to keep me from getting away, either. He was strangling me. He was going to kill me. This motherfucker knew what he was doing, too. He had his thumb pressed hard against my windpipe. I couldn’t breathe. Not being able to breathe makes you panic. I was almost too scared to fight back. I thought this was it for sure, but while he was busy pulling my pants off he let up on my throat. I held it together just long enough to get my knife out. I slashed him across the side of his neck – big time. I cut that motherfucker good! The gash was at least four inches long and really deep. The cut spread open wide and even I could tell I hit a lot more than just skin. It was fucking disgusting. Blood started pouring out of his neck and running down his shirt like a river. It dropped him pretty quick. For a minute, I thought I’d killed him. That actually freaked me out more than being almost raped. It turned out it wasn’t bad as it looked, though. I hit him on the side of the neck rather than across the windpipe. I missed the artery, too. Of course, neither one of us knew that at the time. He grabbed his neck with both hands, trying to stop the bleeding. Then he started to panic. He started heaving like he was going to puke or something. I just sat there, holding my knife and staring at him with this insane look on my face. I was so freaked out, I couldn’t run. I couldn’t even bring myself to pull my fucking pants back up. I was frozen. I just sat there shaking with blood all over me. Christ, there was blood everywhere!
The next thing I know, this asshole starts begging me not to kill him. Can you fucking believe it? I was furious! It was like, what? Are you telling me you didn’t mean it? Are you saying this was just your way of saying hello? You fucking piece of shit! You know, I should’ve killed him. I should’ve at least sliced his dick off to keep him from doing that to anyone else. I could have. I could’ve killed him easy. I mean, he fucking deserved it. And there was no one else around. No witnesses. Jesus, I could’ve stabbed him right through his fucking heart and left him for dead. God knows I wanted to. I wanted to kill that motherfucker so bad I could taste it, but I didn’t. Maybe I just couldn’t bring myself to do it, no matter how much the son of a bitch deserved it. I mean, defending yourself is one thing, but cold-blooded murder is something else. I guess growing up in my parents’ house kept me from crossing some lines no matter what. Anyway, I let him go. I pulled my pants back up and kind of staggered away. Not very smart when you think about it. The last thing you want out here is a reputation for being soft. You may as well hang a sign around your neck that says, “Take advantage of me.” That sort of thing gets around fast.
Afterwards, I was angrier at myself for letting him go than I was at him for sticking his fucking hand in my pants. Christ, how’s that for crazy? Most people have regrets in life, but failing to kill someone usually isn’t one of them. But I couldn’t let go of it. Why didn’t I kill him? It really made me think. Could I kill someone? Do I have it in me? Or is there a line I can’t bring myself to cross? I started having all these doubts, and out here it’s not good to doubt yourself. Jesus! As if I wasn’t already beating myself up for all of the miserable failures in my life! Now I was kicking my own ass because I couldn’t bring myself to kill some piece of shit who clearly deserved it! I really am my own worst enemy. And besides, even if I did stick the son of a bitch, who says it would’ve killed him? Oh, I know where to stick the knife to take someone out, but something else you learn out here is that a blade is far from certain. Don’t get me wrong: it’ll kill you, all right, but it’s not like shooting someone in the head with a load of buckshot. That’s guaranteed. I know. I’ve seen it. But knives are a crapshoot. Like I said: everyone out here carries a knife, and I’ve seen a shitload of people get stuck – in the chest, in the gut, in the back – you name it. Most of them didn’t go down right away. Some of them didn’t go down at all. Some of them died, but a lot of them lived. Believe it or not, some of them came back in no time like nothing ever happened. Talk about fucking crazy! It’s like, someone crams five inches of steel into their gut and a week later they’re back on the street, showing off their new scar. I guess it makes a great conversation piece. Jesus, sometimes they’re even showing it to the guy who stuck them! I’ve said it many, many, times since I ended up out here: this is one weird fucking place.