IT WAS SAN FRANCISCO, Indian summer, the October sky blue and enormous. It was mid-afternoon in the Mission district. I had been unemployed for the better part of a year and my benefits were running out. I took a job collecting signatures on a petition trying to get an initiative on the local ballot, an initiative I didn't know or care much about. It was a desperate and largely futile gesture. I stood on Valencia St. for about an hour and was largely ignored, I imagine people in general sensing my apathy and disdain. In an hour's time I managed a handful of signatures, far short of my quota for the day. I fished around in my pockets and found I had enough coin for a beer, and decided to take a break. I visited a liquor store and bought a tallboy Coors then sat down on a bench at the 16th and Mission BART station and joined the rest of the broken.
And there we were: the lost and confused, the fuckups and the misfits, the runaways and the throwaways. The drug addled prostitutes with their hard sad faces and their raggedy pimps, all empty eyed and swaggering. The homeless, the destitute and the simply insane. All washed up here on this corner like castaways the ocean had grown tired of. Almost everyone had something to sell and all of it was worthless: battered VHS tapes, old batteries, musty porno mags, broken stereo speakers, miles of wire, piles of miscellaneous scrap, spoiled food, bad drugs, Jesus, Obama t-shirts and bruised and broken bodies. Anyone in the market for random garbage would surely find a treasure trove of it here. Meanwhile, the sane and the beautiful hurried up and down the stairs to and from the underground trains.
Three men with grand mustaches played mariachi music and a small, withered woman sold tamales and ice cream from a little wheeled cart. A prostitute in a short red dress stood with her foot on the head of another girl who was face down on the sidewalk. The girl on the sidewalk was crying. The woman with her foot upon the girl's head said, "I told you not to fuck with Marvin, bitch."
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," sobbed the girl on the sidewalk.
"I told you not to fuck with Marvin."
A crowd circled about them, barely interested. I watched from my bench, part of me feeling as if I should do something. But it was easier and more safe to just sit and watch, so I did that.
Eventually satisfied that her message had been successfully delivered, the prostitute removed her foot from the girl's face and sauntered away with her pimp. The girl made no immediate motion to rise but continued to lie on the sidewalk and cry. The crowd that had gathered shuffled back to their previous stations.
And then a woman was sitting on the bench beside me. I have no idea where she came from. At first glance she seemed to be around forty years old, though she was probably a fair bit younger. She gave off the immediate vibe of there being something wrong with her. Most likely an addiction of some kind. I guessed crack, mainly because it was common around the neighborhood. But I had no idea, really. I could only afford to drink. The woman wore dirty blue jeans with holes in the knees, a faded Van Halen t-shirt and a heavy leather biker jacket. Her hair was cropped short and dyed a dirty blonde. Having nothing else to do, I convinced myself she was moderately attractive.
"You got a smoke I can borrow?" she asked.
"No," I said, "sorry."
"Can I have some of your beer?"
"Sure." I handed her the beer. She took a big drink and gave it back.
"You sure you don't have a smoke? " she asked.
She didn't say anything for the next few minutes, just twitched a bit now and then, and looked nervously about. "You're kinda cute," she eventually said.
"Thanks," I said.
"What are you doing out here?"
"Working, kind of."
"Yeah? Me, too. You got any money?"
"Maybe. A little bit."
"Wanna go buy us a drink somewhere?"
I considered a moment. I had some money in the bank, but it was all needed for rent, which was already six days late. But I was about a hundred bucks short, so what did another twenty matter? In the next few days I figured I'd buck up and get the rest of the signatures needed for my petition. I'd get paid, and all would be right again for a little while. At that particular moment, going to get a drink with this woman seemed about the best thing going.
"Okay," I said.
I got forty dollars out of an ATM and then we wandered down Mission St. looking for a bar. It was mid afternoon and most of the bars had not yet opened for the day. It made no sense to me. Weekday afternoons seemed as necessary a time to drink as any other. People had no imaginations. We finally found a dark little Mexican place on 24th St. It was perfect, a wonderful place to hide from the day. A short, chubby woman with a kind face stood behind the bar pouring a bag of pretzels into little baskets. She smiled a decent smile as we walked in the door. A few old Mexican men with cowboy hats sat at the bar and glanced our way for a moment and then turned back to their drinks. A jukebox played Latin pop songs. We sat at the bar and I ordered a dark Mexican beer. She ordered a Jack and Coke. She. I just realized I didn't know her name. And just as I realized it I also realized that it didn't matter, but for the sake of conversation and conventions I asked her as we waited for the drinks.
"What's your name?" I asked.
"Huh?" she replied, feeling around the pockets of her jacket as if looking for something she feared was lost.
"Your name," I said.
"O," she said, "Jenny." She didn't sound too sure.
"I'm Jeffery," I said.
"Hi Jeffery," Jenny said, not sounding terribly interested. Fair enough.
We got our drinks and things immediately felt a little better. Jenny raised her glass and said, "Thanks, Jeffery. You're alright, man."
"Likewise," I replied. We drank our drinks and I got us another round. We didn't talk much, and it was good enough that way.
"Hey," Jenny said after finishing her second drink, "you like to smoke?"
"Sure," I said.
"If you gimmie twenty bucks I can get us some good stuff from a guy, and then we can go somewhere and smoke. Sound good?"
It sounded good enough. After a few drinks in the dim light of the bar it was easier for me to convince myself that Jenny was a decent and attractive person and that we were having fun. "Sure," I said. "Where we gonna go?"
"We'll go to Ed's," she said. "We'll hang out at Ed's."
"He's a guy I know. He's lonely, so he lets me stay at his place whenever I want."
"He's got AIDS, or cancer, or something, but he's not contagious...unless, you know, you fuck him or something."
"See, me and him, we took life insurance policies out on each other. When he dies I'm gonna be set. But I tricked him a little bit. I told him I was sick, too. I think he's hoping I'll die first."
"That's kinda fucked up."
"Yeah. So you wanna hang out or not?"
I was sad to leave the bar and be back beneath the sun but I got another forty dollars from the ATM and followed Jenny back to the corner of 16th and Mission. She instructed me to give her the twenty dollars and wait where I was while she found the guy with the stuff.
"How long is it gonna take?" I asked.
"Not long," she said. "He's always around. Just wait here."
She wandered off into the midst of the lonely circus that was the corner of 16th and Mission on a Wednesday afternoon. I got another beer from the liquor store and then sat back down on my bench and waited. I realized I wasn't even sure exactly what it was we planned to smoke, but decided that it didn't really matter. Anything that helped counter the cold and brutal reality of the day would be just fine. Twenty minutes had passed and I had nearly finished my beer and Jenny had not returned. I wasn't terribly surprised, but there was still a little part of me that was hurt. There's something about being used, even when you expect it, that leaves this dead little empty feeling inside you that stays for quite a while.
I finished my beer and wandered around, trying to decide what I felt like doing. I tried to convince myself I should try and collect more signatures but the momentary thought of it just made me that much more depressed. I went to the liquor store and bought a bottle of wine. When I came out I thought I saw Jenny across the street on a corner standing in a group of people. I walked over there, not knowing exactly why. When I got there Jenny was gone, if she ever was there. I stood a moment near a group of sneering thugs then walked back to my bench and sat down once more.
And then there was a large black man wearing a heavy parka. He wore sunglasses and had some kind of wire coming out of his ear, like he was listening to an ipod or some similar device. He was drinking a bottle of something out of a brown paper bag. He shambled about the BART exit offering a drink from his can to any pretty girl that came within his range. All of them refused. But he kept offering. Eventually something seemed to agitate him, and he stumbled from person to person, asking something that sounded like, "Where's my bear? Who's got my bear?" Eventually the man in the parka just stood in one place and repeated over and over, to everyone and no one in particular, "Where's my bear? Who's got my bear?"
At some point he sat down on the curb of a planter and let himself fall backward. He lay in the dirt beneath a sad little tree, his arms waving feebly about his sides, his legs stiff and stuck in the air. He looked like a roach that had been poisoned but not yet dead. He lay there like that making a noise that sounded as if he were battling some invisible demon that was slowly overtaking him. "Urrgghh...Urrgghh..." he moaned.
A few people glanced his way, but for the most part he was ignored. The exception was a nearby woman who was leaning against a building alongside a man with a long white beard and a shopping cart full of garbage. The woman was frighteningly skinny and wore what looked like a short dress made of black vinyl. She wore black stockings and amazingly high heels. Her arms were a mess of scars and bruises. She looked like she had few teeth remaining and her face wasn't trying very hard to be anything other than a skull stretched over with tanned leather skin.
The woman left her place against the wall and wobbled over to where the man in the parka lay in the planter, still making his noises. "Urrgghh...Urrgghh..." The woman stood above him a few moments and looked down upon him, a dubious angel. Eventually she started making the noises right along with him. Urrgghh...Urrgghh..." they repeated together, like some kind of mystical incantation.
This went on for a few minutes, until the woman eventually said to the man in the parka, "Hey, dude. Don't sweat it. I got blue balls, too." She leaned over and picked up whatever the parka man was drinking from his paper bag. She took a long drink and then held it in the air above her head. She swayed her skinny hips and started to sing, "I got blue balls, I got blue balls..." as if it were some old standard show tune. She set the paper bag down and really got into it, shuffling about as if she had carefully choreographed it all in advance. "I got blue balls..." she sang with true feeling.
Suddenly everything else seemed to fade and disappear and all the heads in the vicinity turned to the dancing, singing woman. Everything else just stopped. For a moment I had the feeling that everyone in the area was going to get up and join together in one big song and dance number to bring it all home.
But they didn't. All the heads eventually turned away and the woman stopped her song and hobbled tiredly back over to her place against the wall by the man with the beard and the shopping cart. And everything was back to the way it was before, the music gone like it was never there. I finished my bottle and decided that was enough work for the day. I rode the escalator down into the station and forged signatures on the train ride home.
by Chris Lawrence