Chapter 1: The Woman in the Alley
I’ve never claimed to be sane. It doesn’t appeal to my sense of self. I always been the type of person that saw myself having some kind of royalty lineage, deserving of all things fabulous.
And that just sucks; how we twist ourselves into shapes that no longer resemble ourselves to please others. I was just never good at that.
As a result, here I am all twisted up and wondering what went wrong.
In retrospect, I guess I never should have started hanging out with Dick Cherry. I mean the only thing he cared about was getting high. Nothing else mattered to him.
Dick Cherry was a good guy, but also a burned-out pseudo hippie who probably still operates on the outer fringes of organized crime. He hailed from an old part of Brooklyn, where the neighborhood is made up of those circa 1920’s one family houses.
Cherry never really left the neighborhood much, at least until he went off to college. That’s what he told me, anyway. Then again, Cherry’s remembrances may not be a true rendition considering his many years of uninterrupted drug indulgence and hustling on the streets. The only trips he had ever taken were of the LSD variety. And yet his pupils dilated in darkness and in the end found light. All my eyes found was misfortune.
Hanging out with the wrong people always starts a downward spiral. But then one day he just disappeared. Poof! He was gone without a trace. Maybe I moved on. Maybe he did.
But still, he had always seemed to have time for me, at least when he wasn’t busy ironing a straight crease into his Guess jeans or polishing his sneakers. I’d heard he somehow had landed a job with the Food and Drug Administration. He had made it out. I wasn’t so lucky. My life had become routine. Wash, rinse, dry… repeat. Not being heard probably became my reason for silence.
Deep down inside I knew that diamonds are found only in the darkest depths of the earth, and truths are found only in the depths of thought. My sparkle was long gone, and any clarity that I once had was gone along with it.
The sound of people starting their cars up to go to work is what usually woke me every morning. I stayed on a street on the lower east side of the city where there were several abandoned homes, and where many of the residents got up early to start their day. Nearby there were entire streets that were abandoned to drug activity, homelessness, and crime. I stayed off those streets.
I could feel the frost-bitten grass crunch beneath my feet as I jogged through Central Park as a means of staying warm. It was a crisp autumn morning. Colorful scenes filled the area and squeals of joy and laughter filled the morning air. People seemed content flying kites and talking to one another on the many benches throughout the park. I wished I could be as happy as those people were. But I never could be. I couldn’t let go of the past and I couldn’t fathom the future.
Yes, I’m a street kid. I learned to fend for myself the day I moved to New York from LA. Now, five years later, I am used to it. It’s my life. Today’s challenge lay ahead… finding food. This was a daily task but it never got any easier. I had survived off the streets for the last few weeks and I was ready for some actual food! I ran through the cross-streets of the upper east side searching for an over-flowing trash can. Nothing. Not so much as a crumb.
As I ran by a café a few minutes later, a half-eaten sandwich lay on the table. Quickly I scooped it up as I ran by. It was a desperate move, but I was determined to eat some actual food! Throwing away the lipstick bitten end, I ate the other part. My teeth sunk into the fresh bread. It had been so long and I hadn’t realized how much I had missed it! But it all seemed too easy…The shop keeper saw me and had obviously judged me by my tattered black hoodie and torn jeans. He yelled out in an angry voice. “Bastardo!” I heard him yell as I rounded the street corner. My heart was pumping. What would happen if I was caught? Jail? I ran, with the rest of the sandwich in my hand. To him, I was probably just some loafer, I thought to myself as I picked up my pace.
I jogged past some elderly pedestrians as they stared me down. I was used to this sort of thing. Many years of death stares and stereotyping had hardened me to this. They didn’t understand what it was like and never will. They just don’t understand what I have endured in my short life. After all, I live by affirmation even more than I do by bread.
I continued, unfazed by the stares. People muttered as I jogged past. Typical. I looked up; I was almost home after my long day, a tiny studio apartment just south of Bleecker Street in “The Village.” I’d made it back just in time. It had started to rain. I reached the trees in front of the brownstone, their leaves draped like a roof over my poor excuse of a home.It was a simple, four story building. Once upon a time, it had been painted a buttery, sunshine yellow, but the color had worn off over time. Now, in the rain, it looked gray just like everything else. A little girl in a yellow jacket and boots splashed around in some puddles. She laughed and shrieked, never taking any notice of me. I leaned against a tree and watched her. She reminded me of a girl from long ago. A little girl with the same curly blond hair and big, round blue eyes. I leaned my head back against the tree and closed my eyes. I disappeared again. I left the cold, the rain, the hunger. The sound of the girl’s laughter seemed to fade away as I traveled through time, back to my youth. I reached down into the depths of my heart and pulled out a memory to re-live. I stood there in the rain, thinking. Thinking, remembering, dreaming, and wishing.My thoughts were souvenirs of a time long faded, like the sun.
If you’ve never been homeless, it’s tough to describe that first night sleeping on the street. The fear and disillusionment are almost paralyzing. You just go through the motions, but at the same time you’re beating yourself up for being in this situation. It is very surreal because no one ever thinks they will become homeless. No one.
Most times I didn’t have a penny to my name, I would walk around the streets and occasionally I would see an alcove or something. And I’d think, that’ll be good, that’ll be a good spot for me when I’m homeless.
I’ll never forget my first night. Suddenly and without warning, I had found myself homeless in New York City. I was sober, but I had no money, no place to go and no one I could call for help. I was officially homeless. Being homeless is like living in a post-apocalyptic world. You’re on the outskirts of society, and the only upper crust you care about is the heel of a loaf of bread.
This was all new to me. I had no homeless training. I had no clue how I was going to survive. Just six months earlier I had a well-paying job in the film industry, writing screenplays with my old friend Cherry. But now, I was the one who had suddenly landed on bankrupt. The irony was painful. I had managed to get off the streets and had ended up in this dive of an apartment building. Somehow. “If only I had…”
I thought a lot about life and how it could go just one of two ways really. If you don’t get heaven, you get hell, right? Heaven is Harvard, and hell is a county community college. If you finished high school, they’ve got to take you. Except that in hell, survival skills were really the only diploma you needed.
I remembered my old Sunday school lessons, where they talked about how heaven had “the light” that was full of warmth and love. Well, it sounded nice, but it kind of sets you up for disappointment. I guess it’s during our darkest moments that we really have to focus to see the light.
Well, what did I expect, anyway? I used to go to church and all, but I wasn’t much of a stickler on, like, telling the truth and helping my neighbor. Lots of looking upon women to lust after them, especially at the Victoria’s Secret level. Kind of the normal sins. I was sort of hoping they graded on the curve -- I figured I was bound to make the top half. But no, it’s straight percentage, you get one question wrong and you’re out.
What was my other choice? Hell, right? I start looking around, wondering if Dante was just making it all up and if not, which circle would I get into? Was my life going to be heaven or hell? Heaven would be nice for the climate, but if I wanted to see my friends Hell would be the place.
The answer is, Dante didn’t know squat, there are no circles. You just find yourself on a street in Hell and you go up to a door (and it’s always the same door, no matter what the street is) and you see people going in and out, dressed to the nines, and you think, Cool, there are good clothes in Hell, which stands to reason, really, and you go up to the door and you knock and the guy looks at you like you’re a worm and he says, “Name?”
So, I say my name and he makes this gesture with his mouth like you sort of passed your expiration date about a month ago, and he says, “Please, don’t waste my time,” and he starts to close the door in your face. My shelf life in New York had been about as long as a carton of milk in the hot sun.
“Wait a minute,” you say, “I’m in hell, right?”
“Hades,” he says, and you can taste the contempt.
“Well I didn’t make heaven, so you’ve got to let me in.”
“No,” he says, and then with a kind of faux patience he explains, “The place where, when you go there, they have to take you in, that’s home. Not hell. We don’t have to take just anybody. We’re all about class here, nobody wants to look around and see you. There are real celebs inside. Stalin. Hitler. Caligula, for heaven’s sake -- oops, did I say that?”
“I’m not asking for the best seat in the house.”
“There is no table insignificant enough for you.”
I did a quick calculation -- how many people ever lived on earth, how many would likely fail the entrance exam for heaven, and how many first-rank sinners would be ahead of me in line. “But ... what do I do?”
“You bogey off and stop blocking the door.”
“What do you think this is? Studio 54?”
He laughs. “Oh, no, it’s much worse. It’s like junior high. And you ... ain’t ... cool.” I wondered what Cherry would have done in a situation like that.
And then you get a big hand planted in your chest and he pushes you back onto the street. That’s when it begins to dawn on you, you’re stuck in hell and you’ll never get back in. You try a few other doors and the same guy is waiting behind every one of them to bounce you. And it’s starting to rain. A thin cold drizzle, and you are getting cold and damp, and you feel like you have been left out in the cold, which in fact you have. Just face it, schmuck. You’re not going to get in. The clouds had drifted in long ago, and the storm never left.
Not that I was alone out there. There are a lot of streets in hell, and lots of homeless people wandering around filling those streets. And they seem just about as crazy as the normal people. A few who look like they’re waiting for a drug deal to go down, but I knew they weren’t dangerous. If they had ever been truly dangerous, they’d be trading stocks and bonds down on Wall Street. Then there were the ones who looked like hookers. They’ve really got nothing to sell. But let’s face it. Neither do the ones living their lives in heaven.
Then there are the crazies, shouting and preaching about Jesus and the end of the world. But it dawned on me quickly that they aren’t crazy -- I mean, they’re preaching because they’re trying to tip the balance the other way, to show how righteous they are, denouncing sin, calling out the name of Jesus -- or whoever, depending, but most of the shouters were, like, born again, only it apparently didn’t work out the way they thought. This was the end of days, at least for me. My apocalypse had arrived.
I remember watching people, hoping to pick up some clues as to where I might have gone wrong, and no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t find any. It began to dawn on me just how long eternity was going to be, stuck on the streets. I tried street after street, only nothing changed except the faces.
Eventually I began seeing the changes I was looking for… signs that life was going on. Things changed position. Garbage cans were in one place and then they were in another. Cars were parked somewhere and then they weren’t. But you never actually saw them move. Nothing moved. It was like when they were in motion, they disappeared. And it occurred to me that it was like long-exposure photography. You set the exposure time for as-long-as possible, the aperture very small, and the only things you get are the things that don’t move. Pedestrians, cars, anything that moves is gone.
It’s like when your life is a living hell, time passes so slowly that living people are invisible to us. I had it figured out!
“Hey, mister!” shouted the little girl, interrupting my thoughts. “Hey, mister! Are you hungry? My mommy’s making chocolate chip cookies and warm tea. Come and have some!” I pulled away from her. “Oh, no. I doubt your mother would like that idea very much.” I turned my back to her as I walked up the stairs and into the building. Now Cherry probably would have taken her up on an offer like that.
But for me, every day was the same. Just as one cloud would dissipate, another forms. There was hardly one day in a thousand of real joy and bright sunshine.
But this was a good day. I was very happy I was able to eat but tomorrow would be different, and I knew that it wouldn’t be as easy. I slowly unwrapped the small box of bath salts I had found earlier during one of my dumpster dives. I snuggled down into my bed and began to chip off the salts and quietly inhaled them, before drifting off to sleep. Basically, my bed was a pallet: a rotten collection of filthy blankets and sleeping bags I had heaped upon an old wooden pallet to create a cushion on which to sleep. As I lay there I looked around the room. It was an upstairs bedroom. There was grimy plastic over the cracked windows. Over in one corner, some ghost from the past had gotten cold enough to risk a fire. The charred plaster and wood seemed to stare back at me.
Several hours later, unable to sleep through the night, I was standing in the dark corner of my one room apartment staring out from the filthy blinds. The only illumination was the light of the flickering streetlamps through the pouring rain. I had been standing there for a long time, almost as if I was waiting for something. It hadn’t occurred to me to wonder what it was that I could be waiting for. More than likely I was waiting for the bath salts to take effect.
There I stood in the dim light that struggled to reach me through the softly shimmering plastic window. The hardwood floors that had once been so magnificent in their prime were now greasily coated with time objectified. I knew from experience that if my skin touched that floor, it would stick to it. I had been revolted by the sensation, and from that moment on I had always remembered to wear shoes when standing and only be barefoot on my pallet.
I often wondered what had happened to the people that lived here before me. There was no evidence left behind, or if there was, a previous tenant had cleared it out or sold it. I imagined that several families had lived in the apartment over the years. It saddened me, for reasons unknown, that the brownstone had lost favor with normal people. It seemed to deserve better.
As I watched the filthy streets becoming cleansed by the deluge of rain, a door leading to the alleyway from an abandoned theatre opened. Through the rain, I could just make out the shape of a woman leaping out into the night. She was followed by a much larger stronger looking shape, which I assumed was a man.
The man grabbed the woman’s wrists and backed her against the brick wall of the alley. Much of the noise they made must have been blocked by the steadily increasing rain. Still, I could see fear in the woman’s face and anger in the man’s.
It all seemed to as if it was happening behind a curtain at that theater. There are such curtains that drop in life, and usually when the show is over. The world seemed to me as if it were made up of bad actors.
I realized that I should help the woman just after she was hit square in the jaw by the man. The cruel of heart have their own black happiness. He appeared to be smiling as he ran towards the back of the alley to make his escape. Her soul trembled on her lips like a drop of water into my dripping bathroom sink.
Cherry would have tried to help her. That much I’m sure of. The woman slid down the brick wall and collapsed on the ground. I should have run down the stairs and helped her, but my head was spinning and everything was becoming blurry. Moments later, I collapsed onto the gritty floor and my head hit the radiator. Then the lights went out.