Thursday, June 11, 2009

Soup Kitchen Bum Surfing

1987. Privileged Cheeverish town in Connecticut. An odd place to be down and out, but I promise, you can find the homeless, the hungry, or a band of penniless liquored-up losers anywhere. Even in Fairfield County, they don't all drink like bull-market Minotaurs in labyrinth mansions. Read the post just prior to this and you'll know my basic situation: fresh out of high school, college deferral, "friends" of the worst sort, rent to pay, and a dawn-past-dusk job that had me too dog tired to work toward fixing the mess I was in or really even to complain about it. I would just come home, step around the cases of Black Label, and try to get some sleep before having to get up and do it all again. The jerks who lived with me—nay, who mooched off me; who turned my first apartment into a flophouse and got me evicted—were a pathetic bunch. Of course, I was even more pathetic for playing hostess to them. I did it in part because I'd fallen in love with one of these freeloaders when I was just a bit older than fifteen. At that age, I thought you could fix anyone with good intentions. I thought that "potential" was a worthy mate, trumped the flesh-and-blood mess in front of you, because if you just believed in the person with enough ferocity, they could attain that other, higher self. I wanted to save the object of my desire, to make excuses for him (misunderstood artist, dysfunctional family . . . ). I was also stubborn in relationships: despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, I persisted in believing that if I was loyal, the guy in question would come around, see me for what I was, love me back. But what I was, was a naive fool. Come to think of it, I guess he did see that, and he took full advantage. So, we lived together, but then there were the others: the so-called friends who also knew a sucker when they saw one. None of them were employed. One was a runaway drug addict from Ohio (she'd left a husband back there somewhere), another a good-looking guy with a quick sarcastic wit, a top-notch education, and an axe to grind with his parents. He reminded me of Judd Nelson in The Breakfast Club. We were a bunch of punks, literally, in terms of musical taste and fashion; upper middle-class kids, none of us older than nineteen, raised with advantages and rebelling with out much cause (if any). But at least I held down a job, while they preferred to work a system of outreach programs and quid pro quo with the local bums. Here's what they'd do: since there was never any food in the apartment (I ate in the restaurant where I worked), and since the only money came from me and went to the rent, they surfed the local soup kitchen to accomplish their two-fold aim, which was to feed themselves and to find someone old enough to buy alcohol for the night. I remember I went with them one time, on my day off. The homeless shelter and soup kitchen in Westport, Connecticut, opened around 5:00 or 5:30 in the afternoon, just as everyone was waking up. This was an interfaith operation, staffed by eager women who seemed to be suffering from empty-nest syndrome; we were treated like surrogate children in some respects, yet also held at arm's length. The food was decent, but not much more than that. I remember the runaway wife from Ohio, sitting across from me, wearing a red plaid shirt and army pants, combat boots planted firmly on the floor, hunched over a plate of rice and beans and holding her fork like a shovel. Things then go down according to the established routine. Mr. Breakfast Club finds one of the known bum-addicts and launches his proposition; next thing you know, we're on our way to "trenchtown" or "T-town" (a neighborhood to score in, a few towns over to the northeast), with some scraggly guy missing a tooth or two sitting in the backseat of someone's car. First, the alcohol. Our jonesing friend takes his middle-aged self into some package store and buys the wino wine or the grain alcohol or the case of beer that's on tap for the evening. Next, the score. I remember thinking this was going to be about hash, and the surprise I felt when the needle came out. The fear that we would be caught with a junkie shooting up on the spot, after he'd melted down his ration with a metal spoon and a lighter. I have always felt lucky to get in and out of that car unscathed; people as innocent as I, stupid enough to put themselves in the wrong place at the wrong time, have done much worse. I remember sitting next to the window, behind the passenger seat, looking pointedly out into the deserted parking lot, away from the site of the injection, away from addled euphoria coursing the veins of the desperate man we'd taken for a joyride. I remember thinking—knowing—that I didn't belong there, and that what I wanted more than anything in that moment was to go home. Not to the stinking crash pad my apartment had become, but home where my family lived. And yet, I was still too proud to tell them I was in over my head. I was too proud and too tired and too much in the habit of unrequited love to say out loud what I knew in that instant: that the hand I then felt on my knee—the hand of the lost boy I once thought I could rescue—was not one that thrilled me at all anymore. No, not in the least.

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