Christiana Justice was awarded Honorable Mention in Memoir in the 2019 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. On September 18, PEN America will celebrate the winners of this year’s contest with a live reading at the Brooklyn Book Festival, BREAK OUT: A 2019 PEN America Prison Writing Awards Celebration.

Under The Bridge

Not too many things are difficult to deal with when you’re high as a kite, soaring above the crowds of people on the streets of DC. It’s no New York, but that suits me just fine. You can breathe a little better here in Chocolate City. I’m floating, wrapped in the warmest blanket you can only create with water and a needle. The only thread you need is your tie-off, and the contents of the blanket fit into a spoon. Or a bottle cap. Or even a tin can if you’re in a tight spot. Any junkie will be very resourceful when it comes to the love of their life. But even this warm blanket can’t keep the chill of a rainy night on the streets away forever.

See, when it rains in the city, all the best stoops are snapped up by the seasoned people on the streets—those who have been homeless the longest. I wonder if it’s because they feel the change in the air, so they know to find shelter, or if there’s some kind of underground communication by the street veterans when one of them catches the weather on a TV or radio. Either way, they’ve learned how to avoid what I’m going through now. The rest of us out here, fresh to the streets, new and uncertain, plus a scattering of hard-core alcoholics have to take the next best option.

Looking around in the eerie light, I’m surprised half of these people made it to cover. They might as well be sitting in the downpour for how inebriated they are; I’m not sure they would even notice the rain. I suppose since they’ve been doing this so long, that even in their incoherent state, they are creatures of habit. Though their minds may be gone, drowning in a bottle, their bodies know to scurry to the nearest bridge, to make it just marginally easier to get their next fix tomorrow. Begging for change is difficult if you’re extra rank from not bathing because your clothes are already damp. It becomes a losing battle. I should know.

It’s dark under here, our only light a flickering street lamp down the way, but my eyes have adjusted to it. I am eternally grateful that I have two blankets. One of itchy wool, the other of that crunchy, dark brown heroin. The heroin makes me less afraid of the night creatures I am surrounded by, and almost entirely accepting of the fact I’m sleeping under a bridge tonight. It used to smell bad under here, but I’ve gotten so accustomed to it I don’t notice all the bodies and their smells or even my own.

I’m far away from a quiet, suburban home with a white picket fence. I threw it all out the window just for one more fix, the price I paid for my true love, heroin. I traded my life and my soul to the devil, injecting him straight into my now non-existent veins. Last night I had to pay a fellow bum a ten-piece of crack to hit me in my jugular, because I can’t go in my hands any more, and the pain of shooting up in my feet when I’m dopesick is simply too much to bear.

One of my blankets is fading away, and the damp chill of reality is creeping up too fast for comfort, and I’m alone.