A Fine, Fine Day
It was too late for the Avenue so I headed downtown to the corner of Jones and Eddy. There, the sidewalk is stain’d with the lives of the ones who were left behind. I stood on the corner in a vacuum just trying to catch some heat from the tailpipe of an idle taxi. I watch’d as the steam rose up from the sewer grates like the whole damn city was about to blow. Above the flop houses where the chicken hawks gather to feed, violent stabs of blinking neon were competing for my attention. In the Tenderloin district of San Francisco the vultures work right off the streets. They wade through the blood and the bone and the spit as the sirens scream through the night like the blood-curdling wails of wild banshees. The place is like Dali painting Bukowski on crack—endless shades of rage and desperation melting across an endless canvas of night ….
The evening exploded to life like the blast from a .44 magnum and punk’d the sun right out of the sky. For as long as I can remember the true stars of the night have always remain’d the same: sex, drugs, and violence. They were always the main attractions. The rest of us were just walk-ons who never had the stones or the talent for the big time. We were all just two-bit players doctoring illnesses that took years to perfect.
Junkies, whores, and thieves. Pushers, pimps, and grafters. Carnie-like barkers with rows of gold teeth and carnival names rip’d straight from the pages of Seuss. We were all down there for the same reason: to fill a hole in the middle of our souls that nothing but the twisted or perverse seem’d to fill.
Heroin, crack, and meth. Vials and baggies, syringes and bindles. Glassware and tubing. Back to the wind. Collars turn’d up. Shrunk down in our coats chasing the dragon’s tail across a piece of well-used foil. And to what avail? In the end it was all for naught. Every drug, every hit, every sip was just a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound and it was only a matter of time before we all bled out.
And sex? Sex was on every corner, in every store front. Neon tubing in purples and reds announcing the peepshows and twenty-five cent booths. Sixty-four channels of grainy, low-grade porn. Just cheap cuts of commercial beef set to the wah of electric guitars.
In the sex shops, the magazine racks were always overstock’d. From conventional porn to the rainbow rags, it was all there just spilling into the aisles. The more perverse, the higher the price. And believe me, no matter how vile or disgusting, there was never a shortage of buyers.
In the back rooms were the live nude shows where all that separated you from some runaway teen from Ohio was a filthy piece of glass. Girls with bruised thighs and needle track’d arms would tango in the nude as long as the quarters kept dropping. But none of those moments of counterfeit intimacy ever really deliver. Ten minutes later you’d be down twenty bucks and alone as you’ve ever been.
The higher priced girls were down on Larkin Street or in the classier joints like the O’Farrell or L.A. Gals, Big Al’s on Broadway or the infamous Condor Club. The only thing you’d find in the Tenderloin was the off Broadway crack whores performing on stages in alleys and doorways at $25.00 a whack.
The violence downtown was like jazz improv. Brutal shards of Montgomery and Mingus. Quick hooks and broken licks punctuating the night. But as ugly as it all seem’d, and as sad as it all felt, the violence was a necessary evil that served a vital purpose. It created balance, order, and value in a world that lack’d in all three. Without the violence we were like random notes of those broken licks lacking boundaries and value. Spenser, the English poet wrote, “Death is the mother of all beauty, for it is the possibility of loss which makes all things valuable.” On our little piece of the planet, violence was a disciple of death that gave structure to it all.
I was a chalk outline just waiting to happen. That’s about as best as I can describe my existence then. A landscape of horror both harsh and stark, the Tenderloin was just an outer manifestation of an inner nightmare. But there was no illusion of hope to lead me astray. What I saw was what I got, and what I got was a habit the size of the sun.
Dope is a tricky gig. You have to figure out how much it takes to kill you and then back it off just a little bit. So every high is a wild crap shoot. Throw snake eyes and the jig is up. But the cold, hard truth is that dope runs can only end in one of two ways: death or detox, with nothing in between. Measured against the high I couldn’t tell you if those are good odds. On the surface they appear to be fifty-fifty, but with dope nothing is ever quite what it seems and the house always has the edge. But make no mistake about it; a drug habit is more than just doing dope. It is a commitment, a commitment forged in desperate fires of misgivings. Then again, my whole damn life was nothing more than a torn and tatter’d canvas painted with misgivings. Looking back on the nightmare now, I can actually see the progression of destruction and work that went into building a perfect junkie. And you think I’d have seen it coming. It wasn’t a Rubik’s Cube of some deep Zen riddle. It was pretty straight forward, really, and my life went down like this:
Anger, rage, shame, pain. Fear. Doubt. More than, less than, better than, worse than. Rejection, dejection, despondency, and despair. Bested, molested and used and abused. Scars on my wrists and my soul and my dreams … Hospitals, puzzle houses, group homes, and jails. From prison to prison and place to place. From cell to cell and cage to cage … Misfit, outcast, pariah, and rebel. A perpetual volunteer victim in and of my own brilliant, tortured mind …
In the skids with the skells. On the backstreets and alleys or some rat-pack’d, crack’d-back, drug-infested hotel where the rooms feel like tombs and reek of piss and fear. In the Tenderloin we all wore that razor sadness that only grew worse with the merciless dirge of time. We were tragic cartoon people with cartoon names who watch’d the world with the eyes of those who ached for just being born. Then again there was nothing wrong with us that a fix or a sip or a hit wouldn’t cure …
October 31, 2003. Halloween. I remember that morning well. It was 5 a.m. and I was deep in the canyons of the city. Perch’d on the ledges of the urban buttes a conspiracy of angels was plotting to bring me home. Their tears of unyielding compassion rain’d down on my wash’d out soul.
Over the past three decades I have suffer’d no less than a thousand deaths. It’s those small spiritual ones that accumulate over time and eventually rip the wind from your soul. As I chip’d away at my habit, my habit chip’d away at me until all that was left of my life could not even fill a damn thimble. For thirty years my friends and family watch’d the needle and pipe use the man until the man was finally gone.
That morning, I watch’d as a seam of orange slowly began to pry away the relentless grip of night. That day the smart money was on the sun. I hop’d on the N train and rode down Judah St. to the end of the line. I spill’d out onto Ocean Beach and slowly padded my way across the sand. I watch’d as the seagull militia began to gather. The diamonds and pearls of Neptune were spread across the dark, wet velvet where the water caress’d the shore. I walk’d to the ocean’s edge and rested on my haunches. As I squatted there staring out at the waves I was struck by a thought that I carry with me to this day:
It’s morning, and I’m loaded and tired. But I am blessed with another day. A lot of other junkies were not. While I was running up and down the backstreets and alleys looking for another fix, other addicts pass’d away in the night like shooting stars on the periphery of life … Most of their prayers unanswer’d, most of their wounds unheal’d. A lot of other fine people pass’d as well. Folks who have done more good in a single day than I’ve done in my entire life. And their passing will be mourn’d by others with a profound sense of sadness and loss. So who really knows the how’s and the why’s of this harsh, crazy, beautiful life. Why God is God and why we are us, why are some of the most wretched souls afforded chance after chance to reconcile with life while so many of the good are truly taken from us far too soon. All I know is that I was saved by Grace and that somehow I needed to make my life worthy of such Providence.…
It was a pretty tall order for a gutter junkie but a powerful enough revelation that it has stay’d with me ever since. As I stood and flip’d my collar to the cold, I breathed in deeply the sweet salt air and took the first step of my journey down the Avenues of my soul to seek out the angels of my better nature. For the first time in my life I felt like the city was on my side. Bound for the downtown train, I knew it was the beginning of a fine, fine, day.…