- Prison and Justice Writing
- Annual Prison Writing Contest
- Prison Writing Award Winners Archive
- PEN America Prison Writing Award Winners: 2022
Life. In Pieces
Frank Kensaku Saragosa was awarded 1st Place in Fiction in the 2022 Prison Writing Contest.
Every year, hundreds of imprisoned people from around the country submit poetry, fiction, nonfiction, and dramatic works to PEN America’s Prison Writing Contest, one of the few outlets of free expression for the country’s incarcerated population.
I didn’t hit bottom. I hit The Bottoms.
That’s what I did. I left rehab and headed straight for The Bottoms.
They call it the East Village. That made me laugh at first. I lived in Manhattan and I know the East Village. This is not the East Village. I mean, it’s got that Space for Art, it’s got a cool performance space, it’s got cool new bars and restaurants, it’s got a gritty, industrial vibe. There’s a lot of new construction, but if you go far enough south and far enough east, to the very corner of downtown, right where the East Village hits Barrio Logan on the south and Golden Hill on the east, where Vinnie’s is (St. Vincent de Paul’s), and the Neil Good Day Center, and the Alpha Project Tent – that’s San Diego’s skid row, it’s the heart of darkness, it’s where homeless people go to shoot up right on the street, out in the open, it’s where everything goes down, where whatever you’re looking for, black, or white, or rock, or powder, or roxies, or blues, or e, or china white that’s not really china white really it’s fentanyl, you can find it, right there, on the street, but not for strangers, you get hurt asking for shit like that people you don’t know don’t know you, if you do know, then you know where to go. It’s not dirty there, it’s grimy. But for people like me, it’s the place to go.
Homeless, sure. But place matters.
There’s downtown, where most of the homeless stay. But there are different parts. There’s the west side of downtown, closer to Broadway and Horton Plaza, there’s the homeless people who stay downtown near City College, and the ones who stay in Balboa Park — a lot of them don’t like people, don’t like interacting, don’t like thinking they always gotta watch their back, they like the park cuz they can get to the stuff they need, it’s right there, to score or come up or trade or sell, but they don’t stay with the rest of us, they stay in the park, they keep apart.
The Food Stamp office, the Health and Human Services Agency’s Family Resource Center is at the MTS Building at 12th and Imperial, you can apply for food stamps there, but not for General Relief, to get GR, you have to go to the HHSA FRC at 10th and C, which, technically is probably part of the East Village, the East Village kind of starts around 10th, or maybe 8th or 9th, but 10th is kind of the East Village, but really, that far north, by Broadway, it’s more like City College, or pretty close, and it’s also the southern edge of Balboa Park, so you get those cats, too, the ones from the park and the ones who stay by the college, it’s kind of a crossroads between the west side over by Horton Plaza, the East Village, and City College and Balboa Park, and even the highways all cross right there, the 5 and the 163 and 94 all kind of pass and cross and intersect and exit all right around there.
And then there’s The Bottoms, not the entire East Village, just a corner of it, weird sort of square, or maybe it’s a rhomboid, in the southeast corner of downtown, right on the edge of Barrio Logan on the south and Golden Hill on the west. Starting from the library, go east on K street all the way down to 17th, you’ll pass a big Ace Parking lot on your right, and a whole lot of new buildings just done or almost done, and then the MTS Yard where all the buses pull in every night and pull out every morning, and then at 16th and K there’s the little tiny liquor store, and you walk up the hill, Crack Alley, on K between 16th and 17th, and K dead ends onto 17th street. Turn right, and head south down toward Imperial, you’ll pass Neil Good Day Center on the left, and the clearing above one of the highways, the 5 I think, maybe right where the 15 runs into it, behind Neil Good where a bunch of cats post up and get high, and then the big parking lot that used to be an empty lot that used to be a great spot but now you gotta go on the other side of it, and run across the highway, and there’s the Alpha Project tent there, now, too, right at the corner of 17th and Imperial. Turn right on Imperial, but if you walk a block more, you hit Commercial, and it’s bumping on Commercial, or at least it used to be, and it sometimes still is, especially for the old-timers who still walk around thinking the block is the same as it used to be before the area got hot and savage with cops. But if you walk down Imperial, walking west toward 12th, you pass on the left Saint Vincent de Paul’s Father Joe’s Villages, two or three blocks of a complex of homeless shelters, low-income and transitional housing, and services for the homeless, and on the right, the MTS Yard. When you walk by Vinnies courtyard there’ll be lots of cats posted up in there, lot of ‘em homeless, a lot of ‘em in the shelter or in one of the programs, but buying a little, or slinging some, people got stuff spread out on the street, stuff they stole or came up on or found, clothes, maybe, theirs, the stuff they brought to San Diego when they came here from out of town, or what they had in their duffel bag, but it’s too much to carry and they need the cash so they’re gonna sell those jeans they love, or that jacket their sister got for ‘em, it’s nice, real leather, but you can’t shoot up leather, but the 20 buck or maybe 10 you get for you can, or maybe they raided a donation bin for a thrift store, grimy motherfuckers trying to make a buck offa clothes they stole from a charity, and you pass people selling 5 dollar packs of smokes, you pass people drunk or high or psychotic or mad or all that, maybe someone’s got something good they wanna sell or trade, a brand new cell phone charger, or an Obamaphone that works, sell it for 10 bucks, people walking down the street talking to themselves or asking you for something, or yelling at somebody but it’s not a real person, past people slinging dope, past the two big Ace Parking lots, two or three folding tables set up, one at this corner, one down the street, one across the street, all giving out Obamaphones if you have ID and proof you get benefits, you pass your homie, ghost-riding a bike, huge grin on his face, can’t stop, he’s looking for Shadow or Louisiana or someone who’ll hook him up fat for a bike, and you pass the Greyhound station, and then you’re at the 12th and Imperial Trolley, you can catch all three lines there, the Green or Orange out to East County, or the Blue line down south, all the way to TJ if you want, and the little trolley shop the Arabs run, they’re cool to talk to to but shystie as fuck, they buy merch but they lowball like a motherfucker, especially if you’re hurting, if you walk in dope sick, dirty, with that one piece of merchandise that they said they’d pay 30 for, 30 bucks for a pair of brand new women’s size 8 Ugg boots for dude’s wife, or Chanel cologne for 25 bucks but it’s like 80 or 90 in the store, but they look at you and know you’re desperate, they say they don’t want it, say come back tomorrow, even though they told you they wanted it, told you what they’d pay, and you went out and got it and you were counting on that 20 or 25 , and now you’re hurting and you can’t wait till tomorrow, so you say can you help me out here? and I got exactly what you wanted, and they’ll make a show of pulling out their wallets and say I only got 5 bucks on me. Bullshit, 5 bucks. They got a whole register of cash, and when they want, they reach in for it, but you’re just a worthless homeless junkie, never mind that you got a brand new $125.00 Adidas jacket, or a $300.00 Michael Kors bag, or a pair of brand new size 11 Air Jordan’s, price tag still on all your shit, so they know it’s new, they can see what it’d cost ‘em at Macy’s or Nordstrom’s or Dick’s Sporting Goods but they won’t pay a fair price, they won’t even pay you what they promised. If you’re lucky, they’ll only lowball you a little. And if you’re hurting and desperate, they’ll give you bullshit, 5 bucks or 10, and it’s not enough, not for the risk you took or the time, but you need that money and you don’t know how long it’ll take to find someone down here, down at The Bottoms, down on the block, who’ll pay you what it’s worth, but with a few bucks in your hand, you’ll have some shit and a needle real fast, right there, the perfect spot to get dope, so you say yes, you take that 5 or maybe 10, ask ‘em to throw in a sandwich or a soda and they say they will so you don’t feel like you got totally raped even though you did.
From the trolley station at 12th and Imperial, walk up the hill, up 12th, but it’s really Park, walk along the trolley tracks, past the new condos and apartments that were just completed right when the pandemic hit, the big Ace Parking lot across the street, folks used to camp all around it, but the cops got people out of there at 5 or 6am, and now they don’t even let people stay overnight – a few, maybe, but not a whole block of tents and blankets and people spread out down the street, not anymore, not with all these rich folks moving in – and you walk up a couple blocks and you’re back at the library, where, before the pandemic, people posted up in there, taking naps until a guard woke you up, but I think they prefer you quiet to making a ruckus or arguing with ‘em, people clustered around outlets, charging phones and portable chargers and tablets and cordless razors and anything else they have, and using the free wifi, or at the public computers on the second and third floors, and on the stairwells, sitting behind the elevator shaft, smoking a bowl or buying a dub, or in one of the bathrooms bird-bathing, or shooting up, or jacking off, or around the outside of the building, bumming a smoke, or looking for their homie so they can go out and do a lick, or for their girl, they got into a fight last night and now he’s trying to find her, she’s got my charger or I need my phone.
To me, that square-maybe-rhomboid is The Bottoms. To other people, it’s just 16th and 17th Street between K and Imperial, but most people down there, they call that The Block – you know where Chicago Joe is? Yeah, he’s on The Block. or He’s in front of Neil Good, or He’s at Vinnies courtyard, or He’s on Commercial.
Imperial and Commercial, between the 12th and Imperial Trolley and 17th Street, The Block, the two Ace Parking Lots and all the people posted up in them or around them.