I don’t mean there’s a crackhead outside that I can see through the window. I mean there’s a crackhead pressed against my office window. He’s up on the ledge, a few feet above the bushes, his face pressed flat against the windowpane, one eye staring down at me, the other wandering. I hear him talking, watch his lips as they move, his breath fogging the glass. I can barely catch what it is he’s saying – the noise of the passing traffic on the street below is loud. But when it subsides I can hear him describing, in detail, a litany of problems, talking about all the people who are out to get him: the police, the FBI, the terrorists and something about an unholy, immoral, Jesus-hating Jahad.
From the pained expression on his face, it’s like I’m looking at a cornered animal, only he’s the one outside, nothing but the sky at his back. I’m the one caught in a room with only one way out.
His wandering eye stops moving. For a millisecond we make eye contact. Then he begins mumbling again.
My phone rings. I answer. It’s the front desk.
“Mister O’Neil?” asks the receptionist, “is there somebody outside your window?”
There’s a crackhead at my window. I can hear his fingers beating an unhurried melodic rhythm against the glass, the rumble of this morning’s traffic accompanying him like a throat singer’s slow vibrato. I can hear the receptionist breathing in my ear, the phone receiver cold and impersonal against my face. There’s some sort of static, there’s an annoying hiss, there’s people talking in the lobby. I want to hang up. I want to ignore everything that’s going on.
“Hello?” she says, “you still there?”
“Yes. Yes, I’m still here.”
“A neighbor from across the street, actually the bartender who works at the bar on the corner, called to report someone lurking on the side of the building. Just to be on the safe side, I had someone from maintenance go outside to check. He said that there’s a man on the ledge outside your office. Is that true?”
There’s a crackhead at my window. He’s busy drawing stick figures in the mist his breath leaves when he blows on the glass. The tip of his finger turns white as he moves it against the window in a circle forming the stick man’s head. I’m wondering if he’s drawing his life story, or maybe it’s a sketch of those people who are out to get him. Either way, before he can finish, the figures disappear, leaving small greasy circular marks.
He looks down at me. I look up and wave, point to the phone, mimicking that I’m busy talking. I get the feeling that he understands, because he goes back to breathing on the window while drumming his fingers. Tap, tap, tap, and then this little double da-da, like he’s dashing out Morse code.
“There’s a crackhead at my window,” I say and listen as the receptionist holds her breath.
“Yeah, I do believe he’s a crackhead. He’s certainly not a speed freak, definitely not a dope fiend, too spaced to be just a pot smoker, and way too coordinated to be a drunk. So yeah, he’s a crackhead alright.”
“What should I do?” she asks.
I hear a phone ringing in the background. Apparently she’s too preoccupied wondering what to do about the crackhead to answer the incoming calls.
“What do you mean, do?” I ask.
“Do you want me to call the police, the firemen, the paramedics…?”
There’s a crackhead at my window. His shadow hovers across my desk blocking out the sun. With one finger he points at me, then he points at his head. There’s so much pain in his eyes, it’s unnerving. He shakes his head and repeats the same cycle, pointing first at me, then his head, me, his head – over and over again.
I put the phone receiver down, stand up, and walk closer to the window.
“What? I’m in your head?” I ask.
He nods yes, blows on the glass, writes “hepl” on the mist his breath has left. I pick up a pad of paper and write the word help and show it to him. He breathes on the window, writes help backwards, and smiles.
I sit down at my desk, the pad of paper still in my hand. I’m thinking maybe I should be feeling all warm and fuzzy after having shared such a tender moment with a stranger, but I don’t.
Looking through the smudged glass I see the crackhead’s scabby face, dried spittle forming lumps at the corners of his mouth, the whites of his eyes, bloodshot and yellow. Behind him the San Francisco skyline: the new federal building, the Holiday Inn, the high-rises of downtown.
There’s a crackhead at my window. He’s standing there and I don’t know what to do. After all what are my options? Give him money so he’ll go away, probably to buy more crack? Call the cops and let them deal with him? Keep smiling, waving, ignoring him until he loses interest, leaves on his own accord? None of these are feasible options, none of them the right thing to do.
The clock reads eleven forty-five. Fifteen minutes until lunch. Fifteen minutes of us staring at one another. I get up, face the window, shrug my shoulders and wave goodbye. The crackhead looks puzzled, like he’d never expected this to happen. I can’t sit here with him standing over me any longer. My office feels strange and I’m beginning to feel self-conscious. My window is now a mass of fingerprints and smudges.
Stepping out into the hall, I run into one of my co-workers.
“How’s it going?” she asks.
“There’s a crackhead at my window” I tell her, then turn and walk into the lobby.
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Originally published in Blood Orange Review Volume 2.3, June 2007
Recently I found myself backstage at a show. I’m not really into shows anymore, especially not large ones. I used to work in the music industry and I have attended more than my fair share of loud rock and roll concerts. But last week when my friend invited me and I tried to make an excuse not to attend, she countered with, “come on, it’ll be fun.” And even though I knew that it wasn’t going to be fun, I somehow let her talk me into it. It’s not just that I don’t really go see live music anymore, it’s also that I’m not the social type. I don’t really enjoy standing around making small talk in a room full of people. And yes, my friend is here, and so are her friends, and friends of friends, but it still feels awkward. And now here I am stuck in the corner a of a crowded dressing-room, surrounded by people drinking a ton of alcohol, as some wannabe Hollywood scriptwriter that I have just been introduced to, yammers away about herself. Feeling trapped and disingenuous I try to nod my head in response at the appropriate moments, yet all the while wishing I were anywhere else but here.
These types of situations are why alcohol was invented. And years ago if I was stuck at such an event I would have headed straight to the booze and after a few quick shots, none of this would have mattered. Only I no longer have that card to play. I used up my “getting loaded” allotment a long time ago. Besides alcohol just wasn’t doing it for me, I needed something much stronger. I needed to feel the warm rush of heroin, and only then was I comfortable enough to deal with life and all the people in it. Yet, the same old story prevailed, my addiction took over and what had once helped me cope was now ruling me. I went from being a musician/artist to junkie/criminal, and then my addict career abruptly ended when I was arrested and incarcerated.
I make some lame excuse to free myself from being corralled by the wannabe scriptwriter and slowly back away. But when I turn around I’m face to face with a table full of junk food. Band riders always call for snacks, and this one is no exception. There are bowls of chips, cold cuts, pizza and the customary cookies and candy. And herein lies my other addictive behavior—eating. Years before I ever discovered drugs or alcohol I learned to abuse food as a way to suppress my feelings. My parents were more involved in their lives than they were in mine and I was left alone a lot. This led to many hours spent in front of the TV while shoving copious amounts of food into my mouth in an early attempt to lessen the pain of abandonment. Yet something about overeating triggered a self-loathing that was years ahead of my then adolescent self, and I soon found myself purging the junk food I was eating. This led to a learned behavior that I didn’t even realize others suffered from. It was something that I thought I had invented. Only my binge eating and purging faded away when I found that drugs and alcohol worked a lot better. Yet now here I was an adult in his fifties with fourteen years clean off drugs and suddenly I’m dealing with bulimia all over again.
It was quite a shock when my “dormant” eating disorder returned. I had switched careers and moved to a different city with the idea of reinventing myself. Although I had no connections and little in the way of support, I had high hopes and many expectations that I would be able to piece it all together. Luckily things did come together, but not without a lot of stress. Plus I was attempting to achieve greater goals in my life than I had ever tried before. And with this all came an anxiety that I was ill prepared for. I experienced panic attacks for the first time in my life, and then, seeking that old familiar solace, I started abusing food. Segue to four years later and I was purging on a daily basis, only with years of recovery from drugs and alcohol under my belt I figured I should be more evolved than that, which led to even more guilt and shame, and instead of seeking help I pretended it just wasn’t there. But my teeth and gums were suffering, I was not losing weight, I was gaining, I was getting more and more depressed and I constantly felt that I was living a lie.
Eventually I was so stressed out that I told my Narcotics Anonymous sponsor. He has worked with me for years and even though this wasn’t about drugs, it was about my addictive behaviors. Surprisingly, well at least to me it was, my sponsor totally understood, in fact he himself has issues around overeating. Yet when he pointed out that the first step of NA states: “We admitted that we were powerless over our addiction; that our lives had become unmanageable.” I realized just how powerless and unmanageable my life had once again become. But this also gave me hope. I have fourteen years clean off drugs and alcohol and I have kept clean by attending meetings, working the 12 steps, and maintaining a rigorous involvement in the program. My situation had originally seemed so hopeless, yet here I was years later still off drugs. I could do this with my eating disorder.
A week ago I went to an Overeaters Anonymous meeting. It had been years since I’d attended one, and unlike that first time when I was new to the idea of recovery, and not quite able to grasp the concept that it could also help me with my bulimia, this time I felt totally at home. Instead of just being a silent observer I introduced myself and shared my struggle. I was given a newcomer packet and phone numbers. And I walked out of there with a renewed sense of hope. I have yet to implement an OA plan of recovery, but I am taking it one day at a time, and feel like I am finally in the solution.
I survey the food table and spot a platter of crudités, arranged around a bowl of gloppy blue cheese dip. I fill a small plate with broccoli florets, celery stalks, and baby carrots and slowly start eating them. Having something healthy to munch on takes my mind off the junk food, which lessens the cravings, and I am able to not indulge in any of the other snacks that I know will trigger another episode of purging. A quick glance across the room and I see that the wannabe scriptwriter has captured another victim, and the crowd by the liquor has grown considerably. The show is now over and the backstage area has become incredibly even more crowded. I casually make my way towards the exit and walk outside. The cool air hits me and I toss the empty paper plate into the trashcan. I have another day of not eating badly or purging, and I know I can do this.
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Originally published in Make Peace With Food 9th May 2015
The rain’s pouring down, streaking black soot across my window like rivulets of runny mascara tears. I touch the glass and feel the cold outside, another winter afternoon and everything is gray. The only color a neon Budweiser sign glowing red from the bar across the street. An unmarked police car slides to the curb as a wino pushing a shopping cart stops to snatch a discarded umbrella off the street.
I press my face to the cold glass to get a view down the alley that runs into the parking lot behind my apartment building. Strips of faded white paint designate where cars should be parked. But there aren’t any. There’s only the flattened yellow crime scene tape broken free and plastered to the ground in front of where the cops had cordoned off the area around the body by the chain link fence. I stand on my toes to see if there’s a chalk outline on the asphalt, but can’t see one, not even sure if they do that any more, and besides the rain probably washed it away if they did.
Heard three gunshots last night. Then screams. Then sirens. Saw the police response, lights flashing. By then I was out back by the alley with a few of the other tenants. At least the ones that weren’t too loaded to get up and go see what all the commotion was about. It’s like those nights someone set off the building’s fire alarm. Everyone out there bitching, waiting for the firemen to tells us we could go back inside. Only this is a little more real and we’re all just staring at the cops and the paramedics standing around.
“Know who it is?” I ask.
“Ya mean was?” says the lady from apartment 10. Black doo-rag wrapped so tight she looks like a pinhead. In one hand a diet coke, the other clutching the floral print robe to her chest.
“What the hell ya think?”
The droning helicopter is blocks away and still the vibrations hit the air around us. Its searchlight approaching faster than the sound, and suddenly we’re all illuminated in a bright white light.
“Fuck… never get to sleep tonight,” says the kid from next-door, saggy pants and baseball cap all tilted backwards. First time I’ve ever seen him without a joint in his mouth.
“Hey dude, you gots cable?”
“Do I what?”
“Gots cable? Aint a quiz. Either ya got it, or ya don’t.”
“No man,” I say. “Don’t watch TV.”
“Don’t watch TV? What the fucks wrong with you?”
“Man, shut the fuck up.”
“What kinda mutha-fucka don’t watch TV?” He says, but no one answers.
I ignore him and turn back to the woman from apartment 10. “So, they got shot, they’re dead?”
“You kinda quick tonight, huh?”
“No, I’m just… I’m just asking.”
“Look, there a pay-per-view fight tomorrow night homie, wanna see it,” says the kid from next door.
I check him out and wonder just what the hell his story is. The little I know is he smokes a shit load of weed, plays heavy metal, and hangs out with at least one slutty chick that screams a lot at night when they’re having sex.
“I can’t help you, man.” I say.
“Who the fuck don’t watch TV?” He says and wanders off in the direction of his apartment.
“Never mind him,” says the girl from upstairs. “Dude’s a douche bag extraordinaire.”
She’s got a kind of slutty look to her and I wonder if she’s the one that screams at night.
“What happened?” She asks, and lights a cigarette.
“Girl got murdered,” says the woman from apartment 10.
“You know that building across the alley?”
“One with all them junkies?”
“Well, wait, which one?”
“Stucco one got methheads an’ gangbangers. Brick one fulla junkies and ho’s.”
“Yeah, yeah. Brick one. Know that girl with all the tattoos?”
“Honey, you gonna hav-ta narrow it down a bit more than that. All them bitches gots tats. All over them.”
“She the blonde, work the corner by the liquor store.”
The helicopter booms overhead as it makes a complete circle above us in the sky. For a second we’re all lit up. The downward shaft of light causing dark shadows under our foreheads and chins, momentarily we all look like dead-ass zombies and then we’re in the dark again.
“That fat girl with the boob job?”
“Yeah, think so.”
I know her. She gots kids, and shit.”
“Now that’s a shame.”
“I think her name was Martha?”
“Martha? What kinda hooker be named Martha?”
“Well, sure as hell she didn’t go by that. They all do Candy, and Monique and shit like that.”
“I know, right?”
“That girl was fat though. Don’t know how she do it?”
“Honey, men will fuck anything. Oh, sorry, no offense, didn’t mean you, babe.”
“None taken,” I say, and then walk towards the back gate.
“None taken?” whispers the girl from upstairs. “Don’t he talk all funny, and shit?”
The helicopter hovers over the courtyard and lights up the bushes. Shadows play across the walkway, and down from the balconies. I fumble with my keys trying to get them in the lock. Door to the adjacent apartment abruptly opens up.
“Look man, So ok, I knows I ain’t the best neighbor and all that, but I really needs to see this fight.”
“Dude,” I say. “Not lying man, I do not have cable.”
“Yeah, but wait a minute. Why the fuck don’t you have cable?”
“Can’t afford that shit.”
“Then why you think I can?”
“You white, right?”
“What the fuck are you?”
“Well, I ain’t white like you’re white.”
A gust of wind hits as rain spatters the window. The cop car is still there and the wino’s trying to get the umbrella to stay open. I didn’t know Martha, if that was her name. I couldn’t tell you which one of the hookers she was by the liquor store. They all look a mess and one by one had given up on asking me if I want a date. Sadly, I’m amazed that anyone has sex with them. Even more amazed anyone pays for it.
There’s loud banging as someone hammers on my door. I pull it open about to tell the kid next-door to leave this pay-per-view fight thing alone. But instead I’m staring at two cops in plainclothes. One of them shows me his shield. The other asks if I know anything about last night’s murder.
“Know someone’s dead. Think her name was Martha.”
“You knew her?”
“Then how you know her name?”
“Girl lives upstairs said it.”
“She gotta name?”
“Don’t know it.”
“What do you know?”
“What I just told you.”
“Think her name was Martha.”
The cop stares at me hard for few seconds and we stand there in silence. I shrug my shoulders and raise my hands, palms up.
“Like I said, that’s all I got.”
“Hope someone cares more about you when it’s your turn to die,” says the other cop that until then hadn’t said anything.
“If I’m dead?” I say. “Not gonna give a shit.”
“Where can I find that girl, one knows the deceased?”
“Lives upstairs, don’t know the apartment.”
“Just what do you know?”
“Already asked me that. Told you.”
“You fuckin’ people…” says the first cop as they both turn and walk away.
I lean against the doorframe and look up at the sky. Rain is still pouring down flooding the courtyard. Glancing down I notice the center walkway is under water.
The kid from next-door opens his door just a crack.
“Why you snitchin’ bro?” He whispers and I can see into his apartment. There’s an unmade bed, clothes tossed on the floor, and some horrid dropped D tuned Cookie Monster metal turned down low playing in the background.
“Why you such a dumbass?” I say, and we lock eyes before I break it off and go inside and close the door.
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Originally published in Sparkle & Blink 42 5th August 2013 and translated and published as “Elle S’Appelait Martha, Je Crois” in Bookalicious February 8th, 2015