I get on the train. I’m in Wilmington, Delaware. My dad is in the parking lot in his Prius.
I have a duffel bag with me, a Korean one I bought in Los Angeles at a surplus store. Inside my bag is everything I own. I am headed for New York.
Through the door at the top of the stairs, I come into the train car. All the seats are empty. I sit near the entrance, in what would be the window seat, but there’s no window since this is the first seat in the car. A couple other people get on behind me.
In New York is Maxwell Interactive, my new job. I’ve been staying with my dad in Delaware. My sister lives in New York. Previously, I’ve made this same trip from Wilmington to New York to interview with Maxwell Interactive. I wore two different-colored shoes to the interview—one red, one blue. I got the job.
My duffel bag is on the floor, between my legs. I read the text of some warning labels on the wall of the train.
Flowing through my veins is Depakote, my new bipolar medicine. I haven’t been formally diagnosed with bipolar disorder, but my dad’s doctor examined me and interviewed me and that’s his best guess of what’s wrong with me. So he gave me a three month’s supply of Depakote, enough to get me started in New York and hopefully I can find a doctor of my own in that time. I think about the medicine, try to intuit whether I can feel a difference in my mood. It’s supposed to even me out, make me less prone to highs and lows, which my dad and his new wife think they’ve been observing. My dad’s new wife gave me a book on bipolar disorder, called An Unquiet Mind, by Kay Redfield Jamison. I’ve read some of it, and the pages read like my diary. The similarities between her story and mine are compelling: I am no diagnostician, but the evidence seems to point to me having bipolar disorder.
How I ended up in Delaware with my dad is that I was living in a crack motel in Hollywood and I ran out of money.
Before that I had been in film school.
Before that I was working as a software developer.
I better go back to the beginning.
I was an A-B student all the way through the ninth grade. I was the star student in my first high school. I had the highest grade in my AP Biology class, the hardest class in the school. I got the only perfect score on our 100-question geometry midterm. My scores on standardized tests were always in the 98th or 99th percentile. I won first place in the science fair multiple years. My SAT score was the highest in my class; my PSAT score was the highest in the history of the school. I won city-wide oratorical contests. I was the lead in the school play. My photographs won awards. My short stories won prizes in contests for grown-up writers and I was paid for their publication in grown-up magazines.
Then we moved from Philadelphia to Dayton, Ohio, and the quality of the schooling dropped drastically. Instead of reading and writing assignments, our English teacher handed out crossword puzzles. The first day of school, when I was given a crossword puzzle in English class, I decided to stop trying. I went from being an A-B student to an A-F student: if I decided to try, I got an A. For everything else I got an F.
After high school I went to Ohio University and was similarly disappointed. They weren’t teaching anything at school—not anything I was interested in learning. I dropped out after two quarters.
I went to live with my dad. My parents had gotten divorced and the children went to live with a parent along gender lines. My mom bought a new house and took my two sisters. My dad kept our family house and lived with me.
As soon as I came home from school he wanted me out. We would have movie nights where he would show me old classics and eat hot dogs but there was always the nag of, Matt, you need to find another place to live. Except that’s not how he stated it. He yelled at me, like he had growing up. He expected me to rent an apartment when I didn’t even have a job. He said, “Matt, how do you expect to be able to support yourself?” I didn’t know.
Even the neighbors got in on the game. The woman across the street caught wind that I had left college and she derided me, building up her own career as a schoolteacher as though it was the best thing in the world. Her path in life was great; mine was nothing. I would never “make anything of myself” if I didn’t go to college.
The fact is I did want to go to college. Just not OU. I couldn’t stand being around the party scene. I didn’t drink. People were vapid. I felt alone and I wanted to be around my family. The old family, before my parents got divorced.
I got a job. I found work at a small software development firm that made products for the rail transportation industry. We made software that tracked trains. I had been programming since I was a small child so the work was easy. I was better than my boss, a fact confirmed by the company’s owner giving me, not my boss, responsibility for the critical portions of our system.
I bought a car. It was the cheapest new car I could find, a Chevrolet Metro. Driving home from the dealership was one of the sweetest moments of my life. I didn’t have to borrow my dad’s van anymore. I was one step closer to being free of him.
My job was unsatisfying. I tried to start a business. I cold called the National Security Agency and pitched my artificial intelligence products. Based on what I said over the phone, they invited me to Fort Meade to present my technology. My girlfriend Ashley and I drove through the night to Maryland. I met with NSA scientists and they encouraged me to apply for funding, but I didn’t follow through.
Before I could find an apartment, one winter, my dad went on a rage. He cornered me in my room and banged on my door. He yelled at me. He was angry that I hadn’t found a place to live and he wanted me out right away.
I took him seriously. When he calmed down and went away from my door, I got in my car and drove down one of the avenues of Dayton, Ohio. It was two in the morning. I found a real estate agency mini strip mall and parked my car by the dumpster in the back. I hadn’t brought blankets. I slept in the cold, clutching my own body to keep warm, but at least I didn’t sleep at home.
I slept there all night, till it was light. Then I drove back to my dad’s and snuck into my room and under the covers. When he woke up, he asked me where I had been last night. I told him I slept in my car and he was mystified as to why I had done that. He had no recollection of telling me to leave. I don’t know what his diagnosis is, but my dad is mentally ill.
After the divorce, my dad leaned on me emotionally. Even though he was the parent and I was the kid, I was his emotional support for the two of them splitting up. He would talk with me, cry with me, and I listened and hugged him and said comforting words to make him ok.
I switched jobs a few times. Each time I negotiated a higher salary. My motivation was to make more money than my dad. To prove to him and our neighbor that their college degrees didn’t mean anything. I was going to make more money than them without one.
I moved out. Had girlfriends. Broke up with girlfriends. Moved to better and better apartments. My drive to work was the saddest time of the day: when I knew I was heading in to deal with people who thought that developing software was the most important and glamorous thing in the world, people with over-inflated senses of self worth. People who read technical magazines every day, who geeked out on trivial features of the programming languages we used. I was more alone working than anywhere else, the people made no sense to me.
I got into drugs. It was a way to leave myself, to hang out with people who cared about something other than making money and buying a house on a golf course. I started with pot, then tried ecstasy. Then one night me and my girlfriend took ecstasy together and she went into a coma and died. She came to my house to do laundry, hang out, and take ecstasy, and left on a stretcher, that took her to a hospital, where she slipped into a coma that she never came out of. I met her parents for the first time at the hospital. There was no brain activity. They decided to pull the plug.
Rebecca’s parents could have prosecuted me for giving her the ecstasy that killed her, but they chose not to. I could have been convicted of involuntary manslaughter.
I changed my name. It was a way to distance myself from my family, to deny them. To rebirth myself as a new person, with me as my own mother. And it was something I did while I was on drugs. I mean I wasn’t on drugs when I went to the name change hearing, but in general, in that period of my life, I was on drugs. Changing my name was also a way to say goodbye to Rebecca. Rebecca had called me Matthew. No one else was going to call me that ever again.
Changing your name is a weird thing to do. Especially changing your name from Matthew Temple to Inhaesio Zha. It’s one more reason you’ll have, after reading this book, to think that I’m nuts. My own parents were very accepting of my name change. Some in the extended family were harshly critical. Generally, I don’t care what you think. I am proud of both my names. In actuality, during most of this story, people called me Zha, or Inhaesio Zha, or some variation thereof. For simplicity, since I use the name Matthew Temple now, I will act as though that had been my name, throughout.
Something else you should know: I made the choice to be homeless. Someone in my position, a different person, could have made different choices that would have led them to be a middle-class salaryman living in Ohio or New York or any number of places. There is something crazy about me that caused me to choose to be homeless instead. If you would never let yourself become homeless, then we are different, and that is why I am crazy, and you are sane.
So skip ahead a little. I apply to Antioch University, wanting to have the college experience that I never had. I’m accepted, but can’t get student loan money because I made too much in the previous year. 9/11 happens. I go on a road trip with my long-time friend Shringara. There is a falling out between me and my friend Julian and I decide I’m done with people. I move to Athens, Ohio and refuse to tell any of my family or friends where I am. That lasts a few months. Then I move back in with my mom.
I work in Ohio, work in Pennsylvania. At one point I save enough money to live for six months without working, and I take my chance. I move to Arizona and live in a tent in my friend’s back yard. This is one of my flirtations with homelessness. The first is sleeping in my car after my dad kicks me out of the house. It’s a moment where I say, fuck you, I’d rather sleep in my car than listen to you yell at me. And living in a tent in Arizona is me saying, fuck you, options trading company that I worked for, fuck you, dead end job—I’d rather live in the desert and sleep on the ground than have you waste my time. I didn’t even respect them enough to tell the truth in my resignation letter. I lied and told them I had optioned a screenplay and was moving to LA to try to write another. That was something a bunch of options-market scamsters could understand. They thought I was making my decision to leave based on the suggestion that I would make more money (which of course they encouraged and approved of).
That was an easy discussion to have, a lot easier than if I had told them I was moving to Arizona to be with this girl and live in a tent and hike the mountains and do my own programming projects that I would never monetize, that I did purely for my own enjoyment. So I lied and said I was going to LA when really I went to Tucson to finish my book, after picking up Shringara and her daughter Clover in Dayton. The three of us smashed into the only seat my truck had: me on the left, Shringara on the right, and Clover in the middle, with one leg on each side of the stick shift. We drove the country. We slept at rest stops. There weren’t enough blankets and Clover (and all of us) got too cold to sleep. After that I left the truck on all night so we could use the heat. It was worth paying for the tiny amount of extra gas. And after a few hot days and a few cold nights, we were in Arizona.
Even though I didn’t have a “job job,” I wasn’t idle in Arizona. I bought a tent and set it up in the back yard. In that tent I wrote my first novel. It became a rare first experience with being able to put my stamp on something completely, to master a creative project, and to make it good without some no-talent coworker getting in the way.
I was doing well at these jobs, too. They loved having me work there. At LexisNexis I built monitoring tools that they couldn’t have purchased at any price. At XIG I had perfect code reviews. Not good. Perfect. When I wrote code, no one could find a single error, an improvement, anything to comment on. Everyone there said it was the best job in the world, and for a while I drank that Kool-Aid too. They offered me a lot less than I was making in my previous positions—but I needed the job so I had to take it. On top of the insult of making me take a honkin’ pay cut, the work I was assigned was—shall we say—dog shit. I had done way harder stuff in way larger places and I resented them for treating me like a baby.
Years later I tried to get a job with them again and they gave me the runaround. They said they didn’t need anyone with “my capabilities,” yet their job board listed open positions for programming all around the world. So remember, friends, you may give a shit about the corporation you’re working for. You may make or have to make commitments to them. But don’t ever think that a corporation has made a commitment to you. They will drop you like a cigarette butt, smash you with their heel to extinguish your spark, and walk on down the road, forever forgetting your name and every piece of work you ever did for them.
I always looked for a job that would take me places, that would grow with me, but I found static environments, dead ends. I think some people are just working for the money. I was never like that. And without the motivation of making money, the jobs I was working were hollow. We weren’t doing anything of consequence to humanity, we were just helping our clients scam people, or in some cases we were scamming our clients.
I got increasingly fed up. Once I accused my boss of lying, of stealing my idea and taking credit for it when he presented it to the owner. The owner fired me. It was worth it in my mind, a good hill to die on. I’m a smart person, a creative person. I deserve credit for my ideas. If my boss is going to steal my ideas and lie and say they’re his ideas, then that company can fuck itself. I’d rather not work there. I would literally rather starve.
After I got fired from that job I went to film school. I had always wanted to be a film director since I saw Indiana Jones, as a kid, so I found a film school in Hollywood and applied. Before I ever got accepted I put my girlfriend and all my possessions into my Honda CRX and drove across the country. I had decided I was going to that film school no matter what. And if they didn’t accept me then I would live in Hollywood and somehow find a way to make movies. We got the call somewhere in New Mexico that I was accepted.
I polished my novel while I was going to film school, but couldn’t find a publisher. I was laughed at by literary agents. My novel was too “experimental” to be published. They didn’t get it. They didn’t see what I was doing. It killed me that it wasn’t going to be published, so I published it myself.
I broke up with my girlfriend, started doing coke. I excelled at film school. My films were consistently critiqued glowingly; I was at the top of my class. Cocaine was a drug I always said I’d never try—that and heroin. Once I started doing drugs, I thought I’d be ok as long as I never did “hard drugs,” and to me those were heroin and coke. Someone in my apartment complex during film school offered me crystal meth (“ice” he called it). I tried it. It was wonderful. I faltered in my directing lab exercise the following Monday. I told myself I would never do crystal again—it was just too good.
I spent my student loan money on cocaine and ecstasy instead of paying rent. I sat in plush movie theater seats on ecstasy and watched In Her Shoes eight days in a row. I would take my ecstasy at the bar in the movie theater—part of the thrill was taking it in the open, where everyone could see, and just defying them to try to stop me. But no one ever did.
I started working on creating new types of cellular automata, a kind of 1-dimensional mathematical system not unlike a fractal. I flew back to Dayton to have sex with an old fuck buddy and do cocaine all weekend. I would do lines of coke in the attic with my fuck buddy and her friends, then sneak downstairs to take a bath, nurturing my high. All the while I was programming on my laptop, creating these new systems and posting my results to the appropriate internet boards. And people were amazed. I came up with tons of new systems. The coke was helping me think; when I got high I could go further into the abstract worlds of cellular systems. So I kept doing it.
I flew to Wilmington, Delaware to visit my dad over school’s winter break. Edited my thesis film on a laptop at his kitchen table. My friend Mick called me and asked me if I wanted to try heroin. He had made a connection and gone back to doing it. I said yes. The excitement in my stomach as I sat in my dad’s basement thinking about my decision to try heroin, was amazing. I have rarely felt more excited. It is on par with the excitement I have felt at knowing I would have sex with a new partner who I loved. So I flew back to Hollywood.
When I got there, my apartment was locked. There was a notice on the door that said I had been evicted and that the contents of the apartment were now the property of such and such management company.
I went to my friend Mick’s apartment and shot heroin. Then I moved into a crack motel.
It was the only place I knew to live. I still had a little money and I was still going to classes at The LA Film School. There were several weekly motels in the neighborhood and I stayed in all of them. You could only stay in any one for up to three weeks, so I moved between them.
My car was parked underground about a block from the school. I stopped paying for my parking pass and I just walked away from that car. For a while, when I would walk through the garage, it would be there. And then eventually it wasn’t.
One day I ran into my ex-girlfriend on the street. I took her to my room and we fucked. I had a Playstation and we played some games. We watched The Piano without the sound and laid in bed together. Then she took pity on me. She didn’t like me living in the crack motel, so I moved in with her. I thought we were together on account of her talking about us getting married and picking out a chapel to do it in and such, but when she started not coming home because she was fucking another guy, I left.
I moved in with Mick. We did lots of drugs. We did cocaine, first we were just snorting it and eating it but then one day Mick discovered one of his heroin needles and shot up in the bathroom. He came out looking like he was near death. He wouldn’t tell me what he had done. Only once he came down from the high did he tell me. He described the high to me and I wanted to try it. We went to a needle exchange and got clean needles, tourniquets, cotton balls, bottled water. Mick and I shot several things—coke, heroin, crystal meth—but of all the things we shot, coke hit us the hardest. It got us into the roughest cycle. At first we would shoot up and be high for six hours, taking pictures all over his apartment. We’d get high and go to the grocery store and take pictures of fruit. Or get high and go play around at Kinko’s. But the highs got shorter and shorter. Pretty soon we were shooting up every half an hour. Then it would be every twenty minutes. Every day we’d swear it was the last day and every day we’d buy more. I borrowed money from my dad and spent it on drugs. I was supposed to be looking for a job and a new place to live and I was doing that, but I was also shooting coke with Mick, and that was our major occupation.
I found a job in Burbank. I rode the bus and a taxi to my first day at work and I was high on coke the whole time. Once I got my first paycheck I moved back into the crack motel system to get away from Mick, because I wanted to stop shooting coke and he didn’t. So I was living in these crack motels, and living out of a duffel bag, and working a full-time job doing software for this dinky company in Burbank, and it was dismal. My office was shared with two other people and it didn’t have windows. We were making software to inventory windows and to do that I had to learn a bunch of terminology about different types of windows that just cluttered up my brain with all this trivial information and I had stopped shooting coke or doing any drugs other than alcohol, which I drank every night in the most expensive restaurant I could find. I would drink a bottle of wine a night. Eat a steak. Just barely have enough left to stay in the crack motel and buy a bus pass to get back and forth between Hollywood and Burbank.
I ate lunch with my coworkers and it was dismal. The most boring conversations, the flattest lives. Seeing myself side by side with them made me wonder if I was becoming like them.
My last night in LA I met this guy in front of the crack motel. He asked me if I was looking for some fun. I asked what kind of fun. He said crystal meth. I looked up at the sky, and I thought about my job, and I thought about sleeping alone in my room in the crack motel and I looked at that guy and I said yes.
So we went to his room and I bought some crystal off him. He let me use his pipe. I offered some of it, to get high together. He said that’s your shit, then he smoked some with me. We laid down on his bed together. I felt the lightness of the crystal, that lightness in the lungs it gives. We talked. He told me about himself. He had been kicked out of his grandmother’s house, with all his stuff packed away in the room at the crack motel, selling meth to try not to become homeless. The money I had given him would keep him off the street for a couple more nights—and it had dipped into what I needed to pay my rent. Then we were quiet for a while. Then he unzipped his pants and took his cock out. And I unzipped mine. And we put our hands on each other’s cocks. We were like that for a while and then he got up to go to the bathroom. And he never came out. So I left.
I went to Hollywood Boulevard, to a smoke shop, and bought an “oil burner” (crystal meth pipe). Stopped by a porn shop and bought an artificial vagina. Went back to my room and turned on the porn channel on the TV and got high and fucked my artificial vagina. Eventually the guy who I had bought the meth off of knocked on the door and said my name. I didn’t answer. He went away. And I went back to fucking my artificial vagina. I developed a relationship with it. It comes with some baby powder to keep it fresh and I kept applying the baby powder and pretending like I was fucking a virgin, sticking just the tip of my dick into the rubber hole, smoking just the right amount of crystal meth and applying just the right amount of baby powder and putting my dick into the hole just the right amount to give myself the maximum amount of pleasure and I did this over and over and over again.
I didn’t sleep. By morning my penis was raw and my leg muscles were sore from kneeling on the bed all night. I felt terrible. I thought about going to work and then I decided to call in sick. I called and told them my father was sick and I needed to go be with him. They totally understood. Then I called my dad, borrowed some more money, and bought a plane ticket to Delaware.
I took a cab to the airport, and sitting in the back seat of that car, hardly able to move for my soreness and rawness, seeing the buildings of LA go by, I wondered what I was coming to. I was moving in with my dad. I had no plan. I didn’t know what I was getting into, I just didn’t want to become homeless.
My dad picked me up from the airport. By then I could hardly walk, I was still coming down off the meth, and he could see what bad shape I was in. His wife left me alone. Dad showed me to a room in his basement that had been his stepdaughter’s room. I closed myself in and slept for three days.
Even though I was coming down from meth, it was my coke experience that haunted me. Lying there in that girl’s bedroom, with unicorn wallpaper surrounding me, I could still feel the coke high just by remembering it. It was so vivid that I could all but get high again just at the thought of it. I would go through the process of loading the syringe with liquified cocaine, of finding the vein, of sticking the needle in. And then I’d press the plunger, and I’d get high, in my mind, in that basement room. Then I’d sleep some more.
I went to Narcotics Anonymous meetings in Delaware. My dad would drive me to them. And I’d listen to people share their experiences but I couldn’t relate to them. The meetings I went to were in Wilmington, Delaware, and the drug experience that these people had gone through was so different from mine, and these people had had such different lives than mine, that their stories didn’t make much sense to me. After meetings I would look around to see if I could hook up with anyone there to get drugs, even though I didn’t have any money.
Mick eBay-ed a computer screen I had left in LA and sent me the money. My dad wanted me to give him some of the money, but I didn’t. I needed to have something to feel like I had options.
Then I just stayed in my dad’s basement for a while. I watched movies, and one movie in particular I watched over and over. That’s Proof. As one of my girlfriends pointed out, I tend to gravitate toward genius-in-trouble stories.
One day me and my dad were flying a kite. The kite got stuck in a tree. I cried.
Then I found a job. It was in New York, and it was for a company named Maxwell Interactive. I rode to the interview on the train, and stayed in Queens with my sister and her friend. And I got the job. They liked me. They didn’t mind that I wore two different-colored shoes to the interview. The liked what I had to say. I was to help them rebuild a system for a charity that was originally built in PHP and would be moved to Java. I believed in the charity—it was a nonprofit allowing people to donate to schools—and the owner seemed friendly and smart.
And that’s how I find myself on this train, which heads north from Delaware to New York’s Penn Station, filling gradually as we approach the city.
I think about the job, and I think about where I’ve come from, and I get excited about being able to make money and live in New York. I’ll live with my sister a while and then find my own place. I’ve always wanted to be a New Yorker.
The train gets to Penn Station. I grab my bag from between my legs and put the straps over my shoulders. Getting off the train, I feel the New York energy. There’s a certain speed at which things operate, and you find yourself calibrating to that speed as you go from one place to another.
Everyone stands up. I’m at the front of the stack of people. We rush off the train. Fill the platform. Up the stairs and soon I’m in the open air, buildings of New York all around me. I look up. Stripes of sky. Blinking lights. Streets full of cars. Crosswalks always busy. People jutting out into traffic, daring vehicles to strike them.
The past fades with time, and coming out into the city, I feel brand new. I feel the possibility of this place, which my sister says has no memory. I am here to spend time with my sister. I am here to start a new life. I am here, now, so forget about the past and give everything to learning the city and loving my little sister and doing well at my job.
I have today to get settled at the apartment in Queens. Have the train instructions that Suzanne gave me right here on this little strip of paper. Then tomorrow to make a test run on the subway to my job so I make sure I know how to get there. The afternoon to buy clothes. Then Tuesday, my first day at Maxwell Interactive.
My last day is three months later.
I work the best I can under the circumstances of the job. I ride the train from Astoria, Queens to Union Square every day. I work at a tiny desk with no phone. Conference calls with the client are part of the job, but I’m expected to use my own phone to participate. I demand a phone from my boss, and eventually he gets one for me and my coworker to share.
The culture of the company is to get into work around ten a.m. and work until about ten p.m. with no lunch. No one in the company takes a lunch. Except me. I spend an hour midday exploring the many restaurants within walking distance of our office. I get dirty looks from the owner when I come back from lunch. Lunch isn’t part of what we do here.
Each Friday there is a farmer’s market in Union Square, and each Friday I buy a cactus from one of the vendors. I place it on my desk with the others I’ve bought before. They are a reminder of my time in Arizona, when I lived on my savings, not working. And the ever-growing collection of cacti on my desk is also my expression of how ridiculous the working conditions are at Maxwell Interactive.
Maxwell doesn’t pay me. You know, like at a normal job where you get a paycheck every two weeks? That doesn’t happen at Maxwell Interactive. My first two weeks pass and no one pays me. A third week passes and I’m starting to wonder if we only get paid once a month. I send a chat message to the secretary.
I haven’t gotten paid yet. I’m wondering if I need to do some additional paperwork, or..?
No, we have your paperwork.
How often do we get paid?
I don’t know. comes her response. Then she tells me I haven’t been paid either!
Olivia started around the same time as me.
You haven’t gotten paid?
No. I was thinking about asking Maxwell about it.
Hold on. I say. Let me talk to him.
I go to Maxwell’s desk. There’s a pot-bellied pig under it, the company mascot.
“I’m wondering when I’m going to get paid.”
“You haven’t gotten paid? Talk to Olivia about it.”
“I did. She doesn’t know anything. Does she do the payroll, or..?”
“Don’t worry about our payroll. Just keep your focus on your work. You’ll get paid.”
I wait. Maxwell’s eyes are on his monitor. I go back to my desk.
When Maxwell hired me, he didn’t hire me straight out, as a regular member of the company. He put me on a “probationary period,” which means I have no health insurance, no benefits. The probationary period is supposed to last one month. But it never ends.
At the end of the first month I ask Maxwell if I’m off the probationary period. He says let’s wait and see. I’m going to work like everyone else, programming my ass off for his client, and I’m thinking the least he could do is put me in the payroll system. But he never does.
The process of getting paid at Maxwell Interactive is the process of waiting until it’s a week beyond when you should have gotten paid, then embarrassingly going to Maxwell’s desk to beg for a check, then a couple days later Maxwell writing a one-off check which I then rush to the bank to deposit. The Bank of America I go to, even though it’s still a Bank of America, is in a different state than where I opened my account, so there’s a ten-day hold on all of my checks. It’s almost a month into my employment before I get my first money.
The project I’m working on is defrauding a charity. This charity organization whose website allows individual donors to give to classroom projects of their choosing, needs their website to handle high volumes of traffic. It was initially built in the PHP programming language. Instead of beefing up their site in PHP, Maxwell Interactive has decided to rebuild the entire site from the ground up in the Java programming language. Java programmers are more expensive than PHP programmers—by a lot. There is absolutely no reason to build this site in Java. It’s a waste of the client’s money to the tune of millions of dollars. But it’s profitable to Maxwell Interactive, and that’s why we’re doing it this way.
When I suggest to the client, and to Maxwell Interactive, that there’s a cheaper way to do this project, people get very angry. The client has trusted Maxwell Interactive to tell them the best way to do this project, and now here’s one of their engineers saying that we’re wasting money with the current design. Everyone’s too invested to see that what I’m saying is true, that we’re wasting millions of dollars in developer salaries and billable hours. I mean some of the people we hired for this project never should have been hired—we didn’t need them.
To make matters worse, the people we had weren’t skilled at what they were supposed to be doing. Our database administrator, for example, was this gentleman named Jonathan Caesar. Jonathan was the project manager, he was also the database administrator. He had experience at neither of those crafts. Database administration is a very specific area of expertise. Not just anyone can do it. Not just any programmer can do it. It requires knowledge of the specific database platform that you’re using, how to tune it, what its performance capabilities are, etc. You can’t just throw the average person into the position of database administrator and expect stellar results.
So our project was over budget and off track. Development meetings were a clusterfuck. It was taking programmers a month to develop a module that would send an email message to a user of the website.
And all the while everyone “acted professional.” We acted professional when we worked without pay. We acted professional when we were defrauding a charity organization. We acted professional when Jonathan Caesar fucked up his database administration. We just smiled and nodded and acted like he was the most capable database administrator in the world. You have to understand how these organizations work. It is all about giving good face. The ultimate sin isn’t lack of ability, it isn’t lack of integrity, it’s unprofessionalism. You can be sitting in a pile of shit with flies in your eyes as long as you smile and make a pleasant report to your boss. You’ll never get fired for being a no-talent fucktard, but you will get fired for being unprofessional.
And make no mistake, calling your boss a fraud for wasting his client’s money is considered unprofessional. When I started making those suggestions, things changed for me at Maxwell Interactive. My boss told our client not to listen to me, not to take my suggestions. He sold me out, cut me off at the knees. Suddenly none of the other developers would listen to me, even though I had more experience than they did in the domains in which we were operating. When things were going wrong and I saw a way to fix them, my ideas were ignored. I was used to working at the likes of LexisNexis, where real software process and science was in place, and now I was working at a cheesy marketing firm with no collective software development experience.
I’m sitting at my desk. My collection of cacti blooming. I sneak into the break room and grab a cup of water. I take my Depakote in secret, hoping no one will notice I’m popping pills at the office. If they find out I’m bipolar they will have a way to explain away my temper, my mood swings. They will dismiss me and I may be deemed unable to work here anymore.
I look over at Tony, one of the developers on my project. He’s chatting with Cindy on Facebook. Cindy sits two seats down from Tony and the two of them were getting flirty at a company outing last weekend. Cindy got very drunk and was offering to go home with Tony, me, anyone.
Foosball? I text Tony.
He turns around. He smiles. We both get up. We go to the foosball table in the middle of the room. It’s dark outside, blue horizon showing through the windows.
He takes black. I take red. I completely ignore Maxwell and the pot-belly pig.
“So how’s the donation screen coming?”
“I’m almost done. How’s your message module?”
“I’m running into some problems,” Tony says.
Then Jonathan Caesar is at my side.
“You guys must be almost done if you’re playing foosball!”
“Nah,” Tony says. “Just needed a break.”
“You’re staying late tonight, right?” Jonathan Caesar asks me.
“No I’m not.”
I wack the foosball into Tony’s goal.
“So you’re done with the donation screen?”
“No. Not done.”
“So you’re staying late then.”
“Jonathan, I’m not staying late. The whole project’s late. I’m not gonna bust my ass for a couple hours while the whole fucking system’s derailed.”
He just looks at me.
“And you sold me out. You fucking sold me out.”
“What do you mean?”
“You’re telling Don not to listen to me. I can feel it. There’s been a distinct shift in the way the conversations have been going around here.”
“What exactly are you saying?”
“I’m saying you and I are supposed to be on the same team. You’re taking Don’s side. You work here. I work here. You should have my back, not be selling me out with the client!”
Wack! I hit the ball through Tony’s goal again.
Maxwell pushes the pig aside and comes to the foosball table.
“What’s all this?”
“You’re accusing Jonathan of selling you out?”
“Not just him!” I say.
My fingers let go of the foosball knobs. I turn to Maxwell. The other developers are listening now.
“Did you tell Don not to listen to me?”
Maxwell looks like a little boy caught in a lie.
“I just told Don that we appreciate your work for us but that from now on your input will be limited to the donation screen and other screens that you’re acting as developer on.”
“That’s not what we agreed on when you hired me.”
“We hired you as a developer—”
“If I wanted to do assembly line development I could do that anywhere! I came here because I believed in this project and I thought I could help us do it in the most efficient way. Not to do cookie cutter bullshit. You want someone to design screens you can find anyone else. You’ve seen my résumé! It’s a waste if I’m just pigeonholed making screens. Get Tony to do screens.”
I hit the foosball table.
Maxwell says, “You want to step into the hallway so we can discuss this?”
“Fuck that. I’m not having a private conversation with you. If you have something to say to me, say it now.”
“Why don’t you take the night off. Cool down. Come back tomorrow rested.”
“I don’t need you to give me the night off, Maxwell. I’m taking the night off anyway. You guys think all-night hero coding is the way to get things done. You’ve never been a part of real software process. You’ve never learned that good design is the way you get things done, not working till ten o’clock every night! This project is fucked. Nothing short of a complete redesign is going to get it done.”
“We respect your software experience, Matthew.”
“You want to know why the deadline keeps moving out? It’s because Chen and those guys aren’t real Java programmers and Jonathan, sorry Jonathan, but Jonathan is not a fucking D.B.A. You need to get a real D.B.A. in here as one of the first things you do on this project! Jonathan’s not going to cut it!”
Jonathan Caesar looks at the floor.
I point my finger at Maxwell.
“And you telling Don not to listen to me is bullshit. Bullshit! You sold me out! I’ve never had anyone do anything like that to me before. The one person you’ve got here who knows how to build software and you tell them not to listen to me! Chen doesn’t know shit! The only programmer you have around here who knows shit is Loren, and you’ve got him building ad servers for fucking Yahoo! Fuck! Get Loren on the donation project. Me and him can build the whole thing in PHP in three months! You don’t need ten guys to do this project! You need two!”
“You want to go home and cool down?”
“How can you sleep at night? Knowing you’re having them spend all that money on a system they don’t need? You just like to geek out over Java that much that you’ll have your friend’s charity pay a million dollars for a website that doesn’t work?”
“We’re making it work.”
“It’s never going to work, Maxwell, not the way we’re going. You really pissed me off with that Don shit. Come on, Tony, let’s play another game.”
Maxwell says, “You woke up on the wrong side of the bed.”
“No. I didn’t wake up on the wrong side of the bed. This is the result of months of coming in here and seeing you and you” (I look at Jonathan Caesar) “fuck things up royally because you think you’re a D.B.A. and you think you’re a software architect, when you’re fucking not. You’re not!”
I drop the ball in the middle of the table. Tony and I play another game. Jonathan Caesar kind of stands there dumbly and eventually wanders back to his seat. Maxwell goes over to the pot-belly pig and sits down. Tony and I play game after game after game, and Maxwell gives us dirty looks, because we’re supposed to be working, not playing, and every time I drop the ball in the middle of the table I look over at Maxwell and make sure he knows that I don’t give a fuck.
After work I go to Washington Square Park and buy coke from a homeless man. I go into the park, look around, and see a bunch of black dudes sitting along a certain wall. I go up to them and sit down. They ask me if I’m looking for something. I say yes. A man named Thomas tells me to meet him around the block. I do. I give him a few bills in exchange for some shitty coke that I do in a Burger King bathroom.
Coming out of the restaurant, my nose burning, I see Thomas is still there.
“Did you like that coke?”
“You wanna smoke some crack?”
So we hang out. We go to a porn shop together and jerk off in separate booths, videos of gruesome porn playing. We sit on a loading dock in an alleyway and snort coke together. I get a little high. He shows me his watch, that his father gave him, his most prized possession. We talk about life, his life being semi-homeless, sleeping outside, sometimes in an apartment in Harlem, how cold it’s getting at night now. And I tell him about my work, mostly about how it sucks and how I’m unfulfilled and I really want to be doing something meaningful with my life.
And Thomas listens, and empathizes. He really gets me, and I get him, and Thomas makes more sense to me than Maxwell or Jonathan or Chen, his lying unaccomplished ass. We start to feel like brothers, even though we just met, and I feel like I could sit on this loading dock forever, just swapping stories with my brother, snorting weak cocaine.
We ride the train to Harlem and walk through a very scary neighborhood where we buy crack through a slot in a wall, then we go up to his apartment, where he stays. There are people sleeping on mattresses in the middle of the room, people passed out in the stairwell. It looks like the most badass movie set ever, it has so much character. I’ve never been in a place like this before.
And it’s scary, smoking crack with three black dudes watching who knows what on television, and not sure if I’m welcome here or if I’m going to get my ass kicked at any moment. But Thomas is true, and his friends don’t mess with me, and we smoke our crack and get really, really high—the cool, even feeling that comes with that drug. Eventually the sun comes up and light comes through the windows and I decide to go.
I’m disoriented. Even standing up is a chore. I wonder if I can sober up enough to go to work. Thomas gets real emotional when I start to leave, and he starts telling me about his dad, and we had a real good connection that is even more special because he’s black and I’m white, and we’re not supposed to get along. He gives me his watch. I put it on, we hug, and I head down the stairs.
I feel vulnerable in the neighborhood, trying to find a subway station. I’m the only white person here, and I don’t have Thomas with me. I find my way underground, and somewhere down there make the decision that I’m not going back to work, not this day, not any day.
You might wonder why I went to Harlem to smoke crack with Thomas. I don’t know completely. But I think it was a way out. It was a way to get away from the hell of work, from the prison of work, from the world of no-imagination, fraudulent, soulless motherfuckers I’d been working with all my life.
Somewhere in Manhattan I switch trains. I head for my sister’s apartment in Queens. The train is underground for a while, then it comes up, into the light, and I think of how I’m going to do something different. Never do drugs again in my life. Move to Arizona maybe. But the freedom in my chest is palpable. I’m never again going to have to listen to Maxwell’s voice or be jerked around by him. I don’t have to deal with Tony’s smiling ineptitude or Jonathan Caesar’s idiocy. They don’t deserve a two-weeks notice, they don’t even deserve an email. Fuck ’em. I’m packing my things and I’m going.
The train arrives in Astoria. I get off at the last stop, leaving Thomas’s watch on the seat for someone else to find.
The walk from the platform to my sister’s apartment is painful. My muscles ache from clenching. My eyes and lips are dry. The whole world seems pointless. Just as a crack high is indescribable, so is coming down off crack. Believe this: it hurts.
It isn’t just the feeling of coming back to normal. It’s the feeling of being depleted of everything good and the only way to fix it is to smoke more crack.
But you can’t smoke more crack. Because you ran out. Because you ran out of money. Because you’ll die. The only thing that will fix you is sleep.
I hope beyond hope that my sister and her roommate won’t be there when I get to the apartment. I need to sleep—even though I know sleep won’t come. That is one of the hells of using certain drugs: not being able to sleep. Awake for days, consciousness becomes a torture. The best way to do it, if you were planning ahead, is to save some Vicodin for the end of your trip. It puts you to sleep and eases the physical symptoms, lets you down slowly. But you rarely plan ahead.
Even if I had some alcohol it would make things easier. But where am I gonna get alcohol this time of day? The sun is barely coming over the buildings. Stores are closed.
When I get to the apartment I fumble with the key. My hands are shaking. Opening the door is an epic journey of reflexes and creaking joints and squinting my eyes to keep them from dusting over.
I go through the entry room. I open the inner door, to apartment A. I can see into Summer’s room. No one there. Suzanne’s room. No one there. I go into the bathroom and drink water from the sink. Lie down in my sister’s bed—this is where we sleep, together, because my sister was nice enough to give me a place to stay and there’s nowhere else for me to be than in the same bed with her.
I put my pillow over my head, slip off my shoes. I cover my body with an afghan and hope for sleep.
But I don’t sleep. I lie there for hours in a half-dazed, trance state. I ask myself why, oh why did I smoke crack with Thomas last night? I could get myself killed going into Harlem. It was my first time ever smoking crack and that is definitely a drug I said I’d never do. Crack is for hardcore losers and black people. Not a civilized drug. And the high had been amazing, but in the most horrible way. It didn’t last but a minute, and you were wanting more. It sort of turned down the volume on the world, adjusted the levels so everything was ok. The regular world is too intense; crack makes it bearable. But only for a minute.
Then it turns the world into a horrible place, a world where you’ve smoked crack when you never wanted to and you can’t sleep and everything aches and everything is impossible and there’s no solution. Except awful, awful time which creeps by second by second. You look at the clock. It’s 8:17. You look at the clock again. It’s still 8:17. You close your eyes, put the pillow over your head. You deal with your thoughts. You think about what you’re going to do today. Got to go to the camping store. Certain things you have to buy. Gotta get a plane ticket, too, get a plane ticket out of New York. Then you think about how New York has been a failure. You fucked up in LA on crystal meth, had to live at your dad’s, came to New York and this was going to be different. This time was going to be different. This job was supposed to be different. You could have made it work at Maxwell Interactive. Then you look at the clock. It’s 8:17.
I lie there, and in a series of one minute increments and three minute increments and five minute increments I get through a few hours. I enter into a semblance of sleep. I’m totally aware, but I’m still like you are when you’re asleep, and my thoughts quiet down. I’m not planning my escape; I’m staring at the back of my eyes. I’m hoping my sister or Summer doesn’t come home, because I don’t think I could pretend to be sane at the moment. But they don’t come home, and I lie there most of the day.
Around four o’clock, I wake up. I actually slept! I look at myself in the mirror. Wet my lips with water. I don’t look as bad as I thought.
I’m feeling better. In fact I’m feeling a little hungry, so I decide to go out to eat. But first I have to stop by the camping store to get a few things.
I leave the apartment, less creaky now, still not feeling tip top, but feeling like there’s a chance I could feel normal again someday. I take the train to Union Square.
At the camping store, I take my time. I walk through every aisle on each floor before making my selections. I read the labels on sleeping bags. I observe the weight of various tents. I’m thinking I can stay with Courtney, in Tucson. I once lived in my friend Shringara’s back yard in a tent..why can’t I do the same again. I haven’t spoken to Courtney in years and I don’t have her contact info but I figure Tucson is a small enough town, I’ll be able to find her—right? I buy a hiking backpack, a warm sleeping bag, and a tent. Both the sleeping bag and the tent fit into the backpack with room to spare. I’ll pack a couple pairs of clothes and that’ll be it! What else do I need?
When I check out, the guy asks me if I’m going on a trip.
“This is a pretty warm sleeping bag. Are you sure you need that in Arizona?”
“Well it gets cold at night,” I explain. But not as cold as New York, I’m thinking, or Ohio. You can’t camp in the winter in those places. If I have to be homeless, I might as well be homeless in Arizona! It’s relatively warm, I’ve lived there before. To have a home you have to have a job, and those aren’t working out too well for me. I take my things and go.
And walking down Park Avenue wearing my camping backpack, with warm sleeping bag and tent inside, I feel like I own myself again. I have a plan. It’s not what my dad would have chosen. It’s mine. I have enough money to fly to Tucson and get started. I’ll live outside for a while. I’ll find some sort of a restaurant job, dishwasher maybe. Something I can do honestly, without selling my soul. Yes, Park Avenue looks nice today, with all its pretentious businesspeople going to and fro. That guy probably has a million dollars. I have almost none. Soon I get to my favorite restaurant, and I hardly feel like I smoked crack the night before.
Charles comes out from behind the host station. We bump the rock.
“Charles, Charles, Regular Charles. What’s going on?”
“Nothing much, my man, just putting together a little demo on the down low, you know what I mean.”
He shows me his phone. He’s editing audio, or video, or something.
“Excellent, excellent. Well you know I had to come see you, right?”
“You want some of that rattlesnake pasta!”
“And a bottle of wine?”
“You know it.”
“Just have a seat at your regular table, I’ll have that bottle over for you—your usual?”
“Ok, you got it. Have a seat, ok? Hey, what is all this? You going camping?”
“Yes I am.”
“I want to hear all about it,” Charles says, and he leaves to get the wine.
I take off my pack and sit at my regular table, one in the corner where I’m out of the way. Megan is helping another customer, and I know they’ll switch it so that I’m in her section. We have this routine. It involves Megan, Charles, the rattlesnake pasta with double chicken and double sauce and double jalapeños, and a bottle of chianti. Sometimes two bottles of chianti.
Megan comes over.
“Am I taking care of you today?”
“Yes you are.”
“What are you reading?”
I hold my book up for her.
“Touched With Fire,” she says. “What’s it about?”
“It’s about the connection between the artistic temperament and bipolar disorder.”
“Is there a connection?”
“According to this woman, yes. She’s a doctor who also has bipolar disorder herself. She’s a psychiatrist. I read her other book which is also really good, it’s called An Unquiet Mind, which is her account of living with bipolar disorder, personally.”
“So is it good, Touched With Fire?”
“Yes. It follows the genealogies of famous artists, especially writers, especially poets, and traces the history of mental illness throughout their families. It talks about incidences of suicide among the various types of artists. It’s fascinating. She’s suggesting that, basically, to be a poet you have to have bipolar disorder.”
“Wow. So are you having your usual today?”
“Extra chicken, extra sauce, extra jalapeños?”
“You know it.”
“And a bottle of wine?”
“Charles is getting it.”
“Great! I’m gonna be back in a minute to hear more about that book.”
I think about this table, how many times I’ve sat here. I’ve drank a million bottles of that same chianti until they ran out and had to get more. I’ve only ever ordered the rattlesnake pasta at Uno for as long as I can remember. When Charles or Megan isn’t working I get sad. And I get very sad, on two bottles of wine, and write some of my best poetry.
I wrote a play here, an entire play, day after day after day of coming here, one scene per day.
Megan asked me out at this very table, and I said yes. We went on one date and then decided to keep it professional. She as server, me as diner. We didn’t click.
I ate here with my sister for her twenty-first birthday—the other sister, the youngest one. She was in New York for just one night and we both ate rattlesnake pasta and she drank and I was the sober chaperone..for part of the evening.
I have lived a little part of my life around this table, and this is my last night here.
Before my food gets here I get in some reading. Kay Jamison’s book reminds me of everything I know about bipolar disorder, which is a growing body of knowledge since practically everyone I know thinks I have it. I’m starting to take it seriously. I remember the signs of mania. Excessive happiness. Do I have that? Usually. Sudden changes from being joyful to being irritable? Often at work. Restlessness or increased energy? Yes when I’m on crack! =) Talkativeness? Yes. Distractibility? Not sure. Racing thoughts? Don’t know what a racing thought is. High sex drive? Unfortunately nowhere to vent it. Tendency to make grand and unattainable plans? No, my plans are attainable. Move to Arizona with almost no money, live in a tent, find a job as a dishwasher..that’s attainable. Tendency to show poor judgment, such as impulsively deciding to quit a job? Check! Grandiosity? Not really. Reckless behaviors such as spending sprees, sexual indiscretions, abuse of alcohol or drugs, or ill-advised business decisions? Yeah. Yeah. I have that.
All this thinking reminds me I need to take my Depakote. I take it with water and put my prescription bottle on the table for Megan to clear. That was the last pill. There’s no way for me to get more because I have no health insurance. Oh well.
My wine arrives, and then my meal. I talk with Megan and Charles together. When I tell them my plan, they look worried. I explain to them that it will be no problem, that I lived in a tent in my friend’s backyard before and that it’ll just take me some time to get set up and then I’ll be living like normal in Arizona. Charles leaves and it’s just me and Megan.
“Do you have friends in Arizona?”
“I have my friend Courtney! I’ll find her and live in her yard and then I’ll get a job and find a place. It’ll be fine.”
“Does she know you’re coming?”
“Well, I lost her phone number, see? But I remember where she used to live. She’s prob’ly in the same house.”
“Matt, I have to tell you I don’t think this is a good idea.”
That’s because you have no sense of adventure! I’m thinking.
“What about your job?”
“I’m not going back there.”
“What happened? Did they let you go?”
“No they didn’t let me go. I’m just not going back. It’s full of idiots trying to make a buck. Boys’ club. I can’t do that anymore.”
Megan stares at me.
“But you have to have a job.”
“I’m going to have one. I’m going to be a dishwasher.”
She just looks at me.
“I think I’m going to have a glass of wine with you. Ok? Don’t go anywhere I’m going to get a glass.”
“Won’t they get mad at you if you drink on the clock?”
“I’m clocking out. We need to talk.”
So Megan clocks out and Charles takes her tables and Megan and I sit there until after they close and we talk about my job and my other jobs and what I think I’m going to accomplish by moving to Arizona and Megan is very sweet and has more than one glass of wine and even invites me to stay at her place that night but I refuse. I’m very drunk and very full by the time I leave the restaurant. Megan and I walk to the station together and we take our separate trains. That’s the last time I ever see her.
When I get home both Summer and Suzanne’s doors are closed. I use the bathroom and sneak into Suzanne’s room. I can see the bed by light from the hallway. We sleep on a futon, side by side, using different covers of course. Suzanne is sleeping—a light snore comes from her. I take off my shoes and strip to my boxers, then pass out.
I have the apartment to myself the next day. I go through all my stuff (which isn’t much) and I get rid of all my papers I had printed from work. I have a few books, which I place on the stoop. It is most difficult to decide what to do with my notebooks. I’ve collected a couple during my stay in New York and written on some of their pages. And clothes: who needs clothes? I pick out three shirts and two pairs of pants. The pants are eight-pocket cargo ones I got in Los Angeles, and they’re my favorite pants ever. I will keep two changes of clothes in my bag, and wear one. That’s all I need.
I lay out the toiletries I’ll take. Shaving cream (don’t want to look like a bum). One razor. One toothbrush. One tube of toothpaste. Deodorant. I haven’t owned a comb since high school—that’s one less thing to pack. I throw away my mouthwash, dental floss, and other toiletries. Too heavy. Unnecessary.
I pack everything into the bag and put it on. It fits well, it’s not too heavy. I’m wearing Converse. I think I can be homeless in Converse. Probably better than boots, in Arizona. I’ll be the only homeless person in Tucson with red Converse.
Then I get on the internet. I buy one one-way ticket to New Orleans from New York’s LaGuardia airport for the next day. I leave at 10:57am arriving in New Orleans at 8:16pm with one layover in Atlanta, Georgia. I’ll fly into New Orleans to see some friends, then take the Greyhound from New Orleans to Tucson. Then I’ll start my new life.
About seven o’clock Suzanne gets home.
“This is my traveling backpack.”
Suzanne raises an eyebrow.
“You plannin’ on doin’ some travelin’, brother?”
“I’ll tell you about it when Summer gets here. I’ll tell you the details. I’d like to tell both of you together, to save time. But yes, I am planning on doing some traveling.”
“That’s exciting, bro. I will of course wait to hear the details at the appointed time but nice pack! Looks like it’s of the camping persuasion.”
“It is of the camping persuasion. And inside it are all manner of good things. Do you want to see?”
“Of course, of course, but let me get a little wa-ter before we begin.”
She gets water and sits cross legged on the bed.
I take off the pack. I show her every little thing, from the notebook I decided to take to the two pens I will be carrying to the toothpaste to the Arctic-rated sleeping bag.
“This is so light,” she says of the bag.
“I know. I found this lovely little item—as I did all of the camping items—in the Squaria.” (That’s the Union Square area, which we call the Squaria.)
“Ver nice. Ver nice.”
She gives it back to me.
I show her the tent.
“I am really curious about your trip, my brotha!”
“So am I!”
“You ok?” She puts her hand on my knee.
“Yeah, I’m just thinking. Of California, and the mess that I got in there. I mean, Suzanne, I never thought I was ever going to do drugs. I didn’t even drink till college. Never drank in high school, never smoked pot. And I mean I can’t get some of this drug shit out of my head.”
“Like shooting coke, mostly. I mean it was such an experience, and..an experience which I hope you never have, by the way—”
“I don’t plan to.”
“Good. I mean good. You shouldn’t have to go through that. No one should.”
“It was unpleasant?”
“Coming down was.”
“And doing it was, too, in a way. It was scary. I thought I was going to die every time I did it, just because the rush is that intense.”
“Yeah, it’s like sometimes I would just lie on the floor because it was so intense and my friend Mick who I did it with would be like holding my hand and I’d be feeling the carpet texture because I thought that if I focused on the texture I would like stay on this plane and shit, basically. I didn’t want to leave. But the coke sometimes made me feel like I was going to.”
“But you did it anyway.”
“Yeah, you do it anyway because it feels so fucking good. It’s this incredible head rush, and in your body too, everything feels good. It messes with your sound—it makes everything sound like you’re in a tunnel. We used to do it to music, get the song in the right place right when we shot up, just to hear the music in that weird tunnelly way. Or I’d sit on Mick’s kitchen floor looking at my Moroccan Interiors book and just think about how awesome it would be to have a place like that in Morocco. Sometimes when Mick was at work I’d lie in his bed and shoot up like six times in a row. I mean with time in-between them, but just shoot, then coast, shoot, then coast. I’d be watching weird stuff on TV just to keep me company. I was so high in bed one time I could hardly get the needle ready, my hands were shaking so much. You have to mix the powdered cocaine with water and then suck it into the syringe, and I could hardly do that. Getting the needle into a vein was an entirely other matter. But I managed to do it. So fucked up you can hardly shoot up. Pretty pathetic for your older brother, huh?”
“No, I can understand why you get into it. It makes you feel good, right?”
“That and being lonely. You know? I was just lonely and Mick was my friend and Mick was shooting coke so I shot coke and then Mick and I shot coke together. It was just being done with film school and having no job and being scared, really. Just being scared. And having something that could take you away from that for one minute. If things were going better in my life then I wouldn’t take drugs. I mean if I was part of the system and felt like I could get ahead and have a house and a car and a wife and all that shit then maybe I wouldn’t do drugs, you know?”
“I’m sorry things have been hard for you, brother.”
“I’m sorry I haven’t been a more responsible older brother! I mean I’m supposed to be a role model to you and Amy or at least someone you can look up to and I’m a drug-addicted loser!”
“You’re not a loser.”
“Yes I am.”
“You’re not a loser to me.” She smiles.
I lean forward and we hug.
Suzanne wipes a tear.
Just then Summer comes home.
“Hey, you two! Looks like some serious brother-sister bonding going on in there. I brought us a movie!”
Summer has shopping bags from H&M. She holds up the movie.
“What is it?”
“Eight Below Zero!”
We all cheer. Eight Below Zero is all of our favorite Disney movie about a guy who goes to Antarctica to rescue some bobsled dogs or wolves or something. We like to watch it and cry.
“Are you in? Are you in? You want to watch it tonight?”
“Yes, Summer, but I have something to tell you first.”
“Oooh, this sounds exciting.”
“Does it have something to do with the camping backpack you’re sitting on?”
“Yes.” I smile.
“You’re so crazy, Matthew, I love that about you.”
Summer drops her bags and comes into Suzanne’s room. She sits on the bed next to my sister.
“So. What is it?”
I look at them.
“I’m going to Tucson. To live. Tomorrow.”
I think about saying more but decide to leave it at that.
“Who are you going to stay with?”
“I’m not. I’m going to live outside.”
“I have a tent and I’m just going to find some land maybe along 5th Avenue, there’s some land there that no one’s using that’s not too far from the city. I have a warm sleeping bag for nighttime. That’s pretty much it. I just wanted you two to know that I’ve really appreciated you letting me stay here and I’ve enjoyed the time we spent together and I’m wishing you both the very best in New York with your jobs and just..the very best of everything.”
“What happened with your job?”
“Nothing happened I’m just..I’m tired of dealing with people whose values are so inverted from mine, Summer, you know? These people are evil, in my view. They’re actually evil. I think the owner of that company is a sociopath—”
“What do you mean he’s a sociopath?”
“I mean he cheats people out of their money and it doesn’t seem to bother him. He’s a liar—”
“Wait, Matt, you can’t just go to Tucson and be homeless. What are you going to do for work?”
“I’m going to be a dishwasher.”
“But you’re a programmer. A really good one, from the sound of it. What about finding a programming job in Tucson?”
“I’m through programming.”
“Well you have to make money. You can’t just— This is not a good idea, Matt. Why don’t you at least stay here while you try to find a job out there. When me and Suzanne moved to New York we were not just winging it. We had jobs. We had a place to live. We both had money saved. Not as much as we’d’ve liked, but we weren’t worried about where the next meal was going to come from.”
“I have a little money.”
“And no place to stay! Why don’t you stay with my parents?”
“I don’t want to be a bother.”
“Be a bother! Matt! You can’t just live on the street! I am not going to allow this!”
“Summer, I’m not asking for your permission. I’m telling you what I’m going to do. I’m thanking you for your hospitality and apologizing for staying so long—”
“You can stay here as long as you want! I’m sure Suzanne feels the same way.”
I look at Suzanne. She nods.
“I know what I’m doing seems strange. But I need to go to a healthy place. New York isn’t working for me. It’s the wrong speed.”
“And you think Tucson is going to be a healthy place for you?”
“I just think you need to stay here a little longer, maybe patch things up with your work—”
“I’m not patching things up with them, Summer. We’re at right angles.”
We’re all quiet for a moment.
“Did you say you’re leaving tomorrow?”
“Yes. I’m leaving in the morning, tomorrow.”
Summer looks at me.
“I think this is a really bad idea Matt.”
“I know you do.”
We wait another moment.
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah. I’m serious. You’ve been a great housemate, Summer, and a friend. I hope to see you again someday.”
“Yeah. Maybe when I visit my parents, right?”
“Why don’t you let me call them. Maybe you could stay at their place a few nights.”
“It would just be a stopgap measure. I’ll be ok.”
Summer shakes her head. “If you say so.”
We all make eye contact. Then we all hug.
“Are you ok with your brother doing this?”
Suzanne says, “Yeah.”
She’s a stoic like me, she’s bold, she’s an adventurer.
“Ok,” Summer says. “Well, you guys wanna watch a movie?”
“I’d love to.”
So we turn Suzanne’s futon sideways and all get in it and we watch Eight Below Zero on a tiny TV and we laugh at the funny parts and pretend we care about the romance but mostly we like to see the actor dogs and how cute they are and how well they behave onscreen. At the end of the movie Suzanne is asleep and we turn off the light and Summer and I are in the kitchen and she says, “Are you sure you’re going to be ok?” and I say, “Yeah. This is going to be a good thing.”
Then we hug goodnight.
The next morning I fly to New Orleans. I check my bag for convenience. I’m going to have to be carrying it enough, I might as well give myself an easy time now.
In Atlanta, I write. I write about New York. I summarize my reasons for leaving Maxwell Interactive. I reflect on what I hope to accomplish in Tucson. Get a job (an acceptable one). Get a place to live. Live a quiet life, unbothered by people.
I drink on the plane, maintaining an acceptable hum in my brain of alcohol and its effects. I don’t care what the couple next to me thinks. Fuck them. There’s a reason they serve alcohol on planes. That reason is people like me.
When I get to New Orleans I go to the baggage claim. It’s a familiar airport. I wait for my bag. And wait, and wait, and wait.
My bag never comes.
A woman in blue shirtsleeves tells me I have to fill out a form, and I’m greeted by that strange New Orleans accent. People are so friendly here. I already feel like I’ve made a good move, just by coming here.
“We’ll call you when we find your bag, sir.”
“You don’t have to call me sir.”
“I call everyone sir.”
“You have pretty eyes, you know that?”
“You really think so?”
“I wouldn’t say it if I didn’t think it.”
“Well. A sincere gentleman. Is this your cell?”
“Hopefully it comes in on the next flight. But I can’t make any guarantees.”
“So would I have to..come pick it..here?”
“Do you mind telling me when the next flight is?”
“No problem, sir.”
She taps in a computer and tells me.
“Well, fuck it,” I say. “I’m going to the French Quarter!”
“That’s the right attitude. You don’t want to wait around here.”
“Nah, it’s just stuff.”
It’s everything I own in the world.
“That’s right,” she says. “You can’t take it with you.”
“That is true. That, my friend, is very true. Well, have a good night! Thank you for helping me!”
“You too, sir. Enjoy your stay in New Orleans.”
I want to be upset that my bag is lost, my laptop, my phone charger, literally everything I own. But I can’t. Fuck it. Less for me to carry.
I take a cab to the French Quarter. Less than an hour from when my plane touches down, I’m doing shots out of test tubes. The way they do it is this: They hire some fine-ass chicks to stand in the doorway of the bar. When you walk by, through all the lights and noise and madness of the French Quarter, these chicks draw you in with suggestive expressions, and the next thing you know, this woman is feeding you a shot with her mouth through this test tube. It’s almost like you’re kissing. Your face gets really close to her face. It’s intimate. And that’s what you’re paying for.
I do a couple of those, then head on for a different bar. I want to listen to music, so I zig and I zag along tiny streets listening for my next venue.
I watch the people. Most are couples, there for the weekend or a couple days of fun. They’re carrying theme cups from the first bar they went to—bright blue funnel-shaped cups, for example. These people are very drunk, but they’re the kind of folks who get drunk off one drink.
There are hustlers, easy to pick out if you’re halfway sober, running scams at the entrances to the Quarter, that usually start with a simple, “Hey Mister.”
Then there are locals. You can tell them because they’re walking quickly, with no drinks, zipping up onto the sidewalk and then back down to follow the path of least resistance with the crowd. They duck into doors with no labels. They stop to talk to no one. They wear muted colors (no Hawaiian shirts or big collars). Locals are hard to spot.
There are heavy drinkers. They’re carrying plain to-go cups from bar to bar, drinking bloody marys.
Then there’s me. I’m not a tourist, hustler, cop, or local. I am a heavy drinker, but I don’t drink bloody marys. I’m a lost child, a stranger. I’ll be gone in a day—and no one will ever know I was here.
I find a place. Music is flowing from somewhere within it so I pay the cover and wander as far in as I can go. A four-piece jazz band is belting out some of the most righteous jazz I’ve ever heard. I sit at the only empty seat back here and it’s obvious that everyone in the small crowd knows someone else but yes!—I walked in alone. A waitress immediately comes up to me and I order a gin, straight.
“Gin, straight?” she yells.
I drink about six of those.
The club is shifting and foggy by the time I leave. I double check my pockets to make sure I’ve still got my wallet. If I lost that I would be in deep shit.
There are still people on the streets; it’s as crowded as before.
I think about calling Tatiara but it’s too late. I think about getting a hotel room, but don’t. I have enough money, but I need to save it. Besides, I’m gonna be sleeping outside, I want to get used to it. I can’t explain it. Maybe it’s something wild in me. But I want to sleep outside.
I walk what seems like three blocks but what I discover the next day is about ten. I find a park, one block on each side. It has lights around the edges but I find a dark spot at the midpoint between two of the lights. There is a thin hedge. I lie down on the dirt next to it, tucked as much as possible under the leaves.
I’m wearing a hooded sweatshirt and I put the hood on. I pull my arms inside, next to my body. I hope nobody walks by.
I lie there for a long time.
A couple passes on the walk. I don’t think they see me.
I imagine getting robbed. Other homeless people are sure to be out. Someone might find me while I am asleep and get the first blow.
I’m scared—I won’t lie. But my fear takes the form of a hyper-alertness. Every sound is meaningful. It’s important for me to stay still, to be harder to spot. When I hear someone coming I am vigilant, super-awake.
I feel bugs. Something is crawling on me. I flick the first one off, then give up. I’m sleeping in a bush. There’s going to be bugs.
I figure my saving grace is that I’m drunk. I’ll pass out soon. And I’m right, I do. I wake up sometime later—I’m too afraid to check my phone for the time—and I just lie here, listening to the hum of the lights. No one’s walking now. There aren’t any police around here. If somebody decides to kill me, they will. I lie here with those kinds of thoughts for what is probably an hour. Maybe two. Just thinking of how cold I am and hoping that sleeping bag does the trick in Arizona. I put my hands in my armpits and that helps a little. I’m probably going to get sick staying out here all night. I’ll wake up with a scratchy throat. It’ll all be downhill from there. Then I spend the longest time just trying to be tired, to get back to sleep. Sometimes when I drink I wake up in the middle of the night.
Finally the littlest bits of dawn lighten the sky and I realize this isn’t the kind of bed you lounge in until ten o’clock in the morning. I get up, I brush myself off. I try to pick all the bugs and gunk from my hair, and I start walking.
I call my friend Tatiara.
“How are you?”
“I’m good. Well. I’m in the French Quarter.”
Silence on the line.
“Did you just say you’re in the French Quarter?”
“Yes. I am. Very much so. In the French Quarter right now. I figured, if you have time, well, I might be here a few days and..”
“Where are you. We’ll come get you right away.”
I look down the empty street, blue light on the sides of buildings, and I try to find a street sign.
They pick me up, Tatiara and her friend Marcus and Tatiara’s daughter Destiny. We go for bloody marys in the Quarter.
“I don’t usually drink bloody marys.”
“Yeah, but these are really good.”
Tatiara sees the skeptical look on my face.
“Forget everything you know about bloody marys,” she says. “And try one of these. I mean there’s bloody marys..and there’s these.”
“I’m trusting you.”
“Do, dahling. You vont be disappointed.”
We get bloody marys in to-go cups. We take them in the car. It’s the first time I’ve ever drank alcohol in a car, and it’s especially exciting because we’re in Tatiara’s minivan which has no seats in the back.
“Isn’t New Orleans fucked up?” she says. “It’s really fucked up.”
This is right after Katrina.
“See that? That used to be a McDonald’s.”
“Yep. That used to be a McDonalds. This whole area is like a bombed-out war zone now. I used to let Destiny ride her bike home from school but we don’t do that anymore. You should see the neighborhood I’m taking you to—where we live? Marcus will back me up on this but we live in a bad neighborhood. The guys next door are drug dealers. They straight up deal crack. Cars coming and going twenty-four hours, hun, I mean all night. Do you remember the neighborhood that me and Marcus used to live in in Ohio?”
“Well that neighborhood is a palace compared to the shit we deal with down here. I’m telling you, I don’t know if this place will ever recover. We were living in Wisconsin for a year—do you know that?”
I do know. Their whole family was taken in by people in Wisconsin after Katrina hit. They were almost homeless, but at the last minute a friend of theirs had a house they could live in. They lost most of their stuff. Every time I see Tatiara she points out that my painting I gave her is one of the things they saved. She ran into a flooding house to get it.
“So wait? When did you get in?”
“Did you stay in a hotel?”
“I slept outside.”
“In the Quarter?”
“Yeah, in a park. Way back from where the touristy stuff is, in a neighborhood. Found some bushes to sleep under and just stayed there.”
“You could have called.”
“I know, but I kind of wanted to stay outside.”
“Right on,” Marcus says.
“Marcus was homeless for a while, in Seattle.”
“I might be homeless too, soon.”
“Are you going to stay in New Orleans?”
“I don’t know what I’m doing.”
“Stay with us! We’ll show you the place. It’s a shotgun style, there’s plenty of room. Destiny’s room is in the back, so you wouldn’t have to walk through her room. We stay in the middle. And there’s a front room, we’re really not doing anything with it. Don’t answer now—I know what you’re thinking. You don’t want to be a bother and blah blah blah. But you could stay here, get a job with us at Starbucks, and if you wanted your own place you could save and move out! Marcus wants to live in the Quarter. Maybe you two could get a place together!”
“Thanks, Tatiara. It’s good to be around my people again, you know? I’ve missed you..so much. I’ve been around all these crazy work people who have no soul and it’s been killing me.”
I take a sip of my bloody mary. I look around at Destiny, Marcus, and my old friend Tatiara.
“Just wait till you get to the house. Then make your decision.”
The house is the last house on the street in a terrible neighborhood. Cars with no tires. Men riding children’s bicycles. Between the houses are jungles of weeds. When we get out I see crack vials on the sidewalk.
“It isn’t much,” Marcus says. “But it’s home.”
We go inside. The house smells like cat piss. You can see all the way to the back, through every room. Garbage bags full of clothes flow out onto the living room floor.
“Do you want anything to drink?”
“We have water and..Marcus do you have any alcohol?”
Destiny goes to her room and Marcus and I sit on the front porch drinking a forty.
“We had some problems with the neighbors. Well, the problem was that some guy got shot right next door. There were these German exchange students? They were here for the summer. Those cats start buying crack off these guys on the next block? Then one day one of those German exchange students winds up dead. Police were all over here. We heard they shipped his body back to Germany.”
Marcus smiles and hands me the forty. Marcus has gold teeth.
“I want to move out of here and get a place in the Quarter. Get me a little studio there? That way I can walk to work. And of course be in the Quarter to hit up a coupla bars on the way home? That be the shit.”
“That sounds nice.”
“Yeah. But the problem is, we don’t have enough money. Me and Tatiara barely be holdin’ down rent on this place. And with Destiny goin’ to school, she don’t want to switch her in the middle of the year. So I’m kinda stuck here for a while.”
“Well, you’ll get there, I know.”
“Thanks. So what be your plans?”
“Well. I think I’m going to go to Arizona. To Tucson. I miss the desert.”
“Yeah, I love the desert.”
“I always loved it, too. When I lived there, I felt more at home than anywhere else I’ve lived.”
“Wait, so you lived there before?”
“Yeah, years ago. I had saved up some money from this shit job I had in Philadelphia. I moved there and lived for six months without working. It was the best time of my life.”
“No work sounds bomb.”
“It was. It was. If I could figure out a way to live and not work I would be the happiest man alive.”
“Man, you and me both, bro.”
“So you were homeless for a while?”
“Yeah. In Seattle. That’s a hard life, bro, a hard life. Sketchin’ for food. Spendin’ all your money on stuff you shouldn’t be spendin’ it on, you know what I’m sayin’? I had to get out of that shit. Came back down here to live with Tatiara. She and I are like soulmates.”
“I know you are. You two have always been close.”
“But it’s more than that. We have a connection. We was meant to be together.”
“Are you guys like..romantic?”
“‘Cause you’re gay, right?”
“Since the day I was born.”
“I didn’t know if you were like bi, or..”
“Nope. Just like dudes.”
“Tatiara, you got that pipe ready?”
Tatiara yells from the other room: “Just putting on some music!”
She comes out. The three of us smoke pot from a wooden pipe of Tatiara’s that I remember from Ohio.
“Matty is thinking of going to Arizona. What was it? Tucson?”
“Awww. You’re not gonna stay here?”
“I just feel called to Arizona.”
“I know you liked it there before. You know some people there?”
“Not really. Well, one friend from before. I’m gonna camp in her yard.”
“That’s good. You’ll be ok, I know. You’ve always been very..resilient. Are you going to do computer work there?”
“No, I think I’m done with that.”
“I can’t work with dead people. I can’t. I mean back in the day when I worked at LexisNexis I at least had you guys. Some spiritual connection to have in the evenings and on weekends.”
“Our potlucks! I miss our potlucks.”
“I miss them, too, Tatiara. I miss them too. I mean I’ve never found spiritual people like I’ve found in you and Astrea and Shringara and Zochae.”
“Yes, Rebecca. She might have been the most spiritual of us all. Thanks for not being afraid to mention Rebecca.”
“Why would I be?”
“Well some people are afraid to mention a dead girl’s name.”
“Oh, you know we don’t stand on convention like that around here!”
I smile back.
“I think this is gonna be good for me. I need a break from what I’ve been doing. I can’t sit in an office sixty hours a week with my thumb up my ass. Some people can do that. I just can’t. That’s never felt like home to me.”
“I hope you find your home, like we have here. Marcus, let’s say a prayer for Matthew.”
“Great Spirit, bring life to our friend, as he travels, as he searches. Help him find what he is looking for, spiritual work, and spiritual people he can connect with, like Rebecca. Rebecca, I pray to you, keep an eye on your Matthew, be his spirit guide as I know you always were. Keep him safe. Guide him with your stars. I think that’s it. Yay!”
We all squeeze hands.
I get my bag through a series of phone calls to the New Orleans International Airport and a really nice guy in a Buick who drives the bag to Tatiara’s house and brings it right to our front door. I finally have my stuff, and can continue on my journey.
I stay with Tatiara one night and the next day they take me with them to Starbucks.
“You can walk to the station from here.”
“Come visit us!”
I turn my back to them and walk with my pack through the French Quarter, through downtown New Orleans and to the Greyhound station. I buy my ticket and sit down in one of the rows and rows of empty seats. A few people who I assume are bums are also sitting here. I reach in my bag to grab a new pair of socks and cut myself on my shaving razor. When I pull my hand out it’s bleeding pretty bad. If I was in civilization I would use a Band-Aid. As it is I press a sock against it and hope this isn’t a bad omen.
I ride the bus from New Orleans to Tucson. It’s a long ride. My bag is underneath the bus and I find myself wondering if it’s still there. All my stuff is in that bag and I can’t have it getting derailed to Saskatchewan or something.
It’s nighttime. There’s a woman sitting next to me telling me her husband just left her and she’s moving to Houston to start a new life. She’s got a pocket full of money and one suitcase and I instantly relate.
The woman puts her hand on my knee. Her name is Candace.
“I’m working on a screenplay,” she tells me.
“What’s it about?”
“Well I can’t tell you what it’s about ’cause you’ll steal my idea!”
I look in this woman’s eyes.
“What can I say to convince you that I’m not gonna steal your idea?”
“Um..you can tell me that you’re not that kind of person and you’ll forget all about it once I tell you.”
“Candace. I’m not that kind of person. I’m not gonna steal your idea. I’m prob’ly gonna forget all about it once you tell me.”
“Ok,” she begins.
And she tells me her screenplay. Which is about a woman with a chainsaw who pretends to be a gynecologist and she fucks up women’s vaginas during the exams. It’s a horror movie, and, as Candy explains, no one’s ever done a horror movie about a gynecologist with a chainsaw before. Candace gets close to me as she talks.
And as she talks more, we get closer and closer. And she’s not half bad. She has blond hair and isn’t that much older than me and I’m thinking with that crazy screenplay idea that she’s really good in the sack.
She brings out a pill bottle.
“Just a little something. Why, do you want one?”
“I’ve been drinking.”
“This would just put you to sleep.”
We talk some more about her life and my life and I tell her I’m a writer.
“You are gonna steal my idea.”
“I promise, Candy, the moment I get off this bus I will pretend like I never heard your idea. I hope you write it and make millions of dollars and your movie gets made and you get famous and everything.”
Candy puts her arm around mine.
“You really think it’s good?”
“I hope I see it in the theater someday. Candy?”
“Can I have one of those pills?”
“Yes. I knew you were gonna ask. Just don’t fall asleep. I like..this,” she says, and she squeezes me.
After I take the pill we get really friendly. I have my hands on her and she has her hands on me and we’re talking about getting off in Houston together!
“I know this place..well, there’s lots of places. We can get a room there tonight and you can go on to Tucson tomorrow morning. I promise I’ll only keep you for a little while. We’ll get some booze and do a few more of these and then we’ll fuck.”
I lick Candy’s ear. I speak to her in hot breath like I used to do to high school girlfriends in the seats of cars. Next thing I know Candy’s waking me up.
“We’re in Houston!”
I can barely comprehend what’s going on. We get off the bus and I’m lucky to remember my bag. Candy and I walk the streets of Houston till we find a hotel, a real seedy one with red neon in the lobby and an attendant behind bars. I’m getting excited because I’m going to get to fuck this strange woman with her chainsaw screenplay and I can’t wait to get off.
“Do you have IDs?”
“I need to see some IDs.”
I get mine out and show the guy.
Candy is fumbling in her pockets.
“I had it here somewhere! Can’t we just go up?”
“State law. I need to see IDs of anyone renting a room.”
“What the fuck!?” Candy is saying. She whispers in my ear: “I lost my license back home just see if you can get this guy to let us up.”
I’m starting to feel terrible, what with the pills and the booze and Candace might have AIDS. What am I thinking? I’m just going to fuck some woman I met on the bus? It seemed like a great idea five minutes ago.
“They’re not going to let us up.”
“Let’s find another hotel.”
“All the hotels are gonna have this same law.”
“Fuck!” Candy says. She strokes my dick. “I wanted to sleep with you.”
“I want to sleep with you, too, but where are we gonna go?”
“We could go to my sister’s house.”
“Is that where you’re staying?”
“I don’t think your sister would be happy to see me.”
“She won’t mind. Come. Cum. Cum with me, Matthew. Don’t you wanna feel the inside of my pussy?”
“Yes I do. But I’m not going to your sister’s house. Can you call her to pick you up?”
Candy stamps her foot.
“Dammit, I wanted to have sex with him,” she tells the attendant.
His expression doesn’t change.
“Fuck fuck fuck. You,” she tells the attendant, “I’m coming back for you. Don’t think I won’t remember this.”
“Candy,” I say. “It’s ok. We’ll always have our bus ride.” I hold her face. “You’ll always be special to me because of the way we talked. We had fun, didn’t we?”
“We had a lot of fun. We could have had more fun if it wasn’t for this asshole!”
I kiss her. It’s delicate—not at all the kind of kiss you would expect from a woman with that screenplay.
I take my bag and go. Candy is yelling at the attendant as I step onto the street. In my drugged and drunken state I make my way back to the Greyhound station.
I sober up waiting for the next bus. I would have fucked that woman. I would have fucked a complete stranger without a condom and loved every minute of it. Me and Candy in a hotel all night would have been a good thing.
On the bus ride across Texas, I jerk off secretly in the darkness, leaving my cum inside my boxers, and I feel some satisfaction.
When I wake up we’re in New Mexico.
Greyhound busses don’t take the most direct route to where you’re going. They don’t just stop in big cities. They stop in little towns, population 8, to pick up a lone guy with a duffel bag on the side of the road. I travel another full day and it’s night again by the time we get to Tucson.
I come alive driving through the desert. This country gets beautiful to me, traveling west, when you hit New Mexico. Something about the sand and the bleakness and the big sky gets me every time. Little outcroppings of rock. No one around for miles.
In Tucson, I find a cab waiting outside the bus station.
“Take me to a hotel, you know where all those hotels are, by the highway? Take me to one of those.”
He pulls up in front of the Super 8.
“This is fine.”
I have to ring the bell to get someone to come to the desk, it’s so late, and by the time I get to my room I have just enough energy to flop down on the bed and fall asleep.
In the morning I take my time. I can’t afford to stay here but just the one night, so I’m going to enjoy my comforts of a long hot bath and a few moments in a quiet room by myself. It’s ten o’clock by the time I leave.
I cross under the highway through a long tunnel and I walk through the neighborhoods toward the city center. My bag gets heavy, and I adjust the straps. It’s cactus everywhere, no grass, just sand and pebbles for lawns. The houses are set far apart, not like in the east. There are no cars on the streets.
Gradually I come to Fourth Avenue, which is where I like to hang out in Tucson. It’s a strip of tourist shops and bars, vintage clothing shops, coffeehouses, skate shops. I go to the Epic—not my favorite coffee shop but it has a large message board with jobs and housing opportunities. I get an Italian soda with blackberry syrup, which reminds me of the old days when me and Shringara and Clover used to sit outside this coffeehouse and drink them. I sit inside this time and get my laptop out. My huge hiking backpack makes it hard to fit in the crowd of tables.
I check my email. There’s one from my sister wishing me happy travels. I smile.
I look for jobs. On a whim, I check Craigslist for software jobs, thinking it wouldn’t be bad to make some real money. I like to live here and it would be good not to struggle. I find a few and I apply for them. One looks pretty good and I’m confident I’ll get it. My online résumé is impressive, I have good skills and work history, I’ve worked for some large companies. I start to feel good about my prospects.
Then I look for apartments, and I know I’m being optimistic since I don’t have enough money to rent one, but I want to see what’s out there. In Tucson a cheap way to rent is to find guest houses, which are basically one-room apartments behind someone’s regular house. I see one that’s extremely cheap and I go ahead and send them an email. I explain that I’m a writer who just moved back to Tucson and I’m looking for a place. Then I lie and say I’m a vegan, because in their ad they say they’re vegans and I know vegans like to stick to their kind.
Toward the end of the day I go to the Paradise. It’s a crack motel on 6th Avenue in Tucson. It’s right on a bus line, it’s a little scary and a little far out of town, but it’s what I can afford.
I pay for a week, get my key, and find my room. Standing in front of the door, before I go in, I remember a day long ago when I dropped Rishi off at this motel. She wanted to leave the house we were living in—where she was staying in the back yard in a tent—and so I dropped her off in my truck and helped her unload her things. Then Rishi lived in this crack motel for weeks, where she could have her peace and quiet.
The door opens easily. There’s a large gap at its bottom. I go in. It has two rooms and a bathroom. You could say it has a kitchenette but the stove is beat beyond recognition. I don’t even try to see if it works.
The couch is ripped, missing cushions. There’s a table with a phone book on it. No phone. The mattress in the bedroom has blood on it. There are no sheets. The floor was tile, but is now just rough concrete. There are bars on the windows.
I ask for sheets at the front desk and they give them to me. I make the bed. For dinner I eat at the McDonalds up 6th Ave. I dine in, not wanting to go back to my room. But the desert is beautiful as I walk back to the Paradise, and I can see the north mountains where I once hiked. All my things are still in my room when I return, and I decide to take inventory.
Put the bag on the bed. Unbuckle it. Reach in every pocket where I have stored every thing. Place them on the bed.
I have my laptop.
Two pairs of pants.
Two pairs of socks, one dirty.
Two pairs of boxers.
My paper journal.
Two Pilot Precise V5 rolling ball pens. (The best pen known to man.)
My warm sleeping bag.
A wool hat.
A stationery box containing my passport, Social Security card, name change documents, birth certificate. Everything I should need to get me back alive, with a job, a place to live, and a life.
I couldn’t afford to take any books, but if I had I would have taken Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. But I’ve read it enough times it doesn’t matter.
The other thing I have in my bag is a bottle of wine and a corkscrew, which I bought on Fourth Avenue. I open the wine and drink it.
Once I’m drunk I decide to call my friend.
“Hello, my friend, how are you?”
“I’m great, Ash. How are you?”
“Good, good. So what’s up?”
“Well, I moved to Tucson.”
“Wait what? Did you just say you moved to Tucson?”
“Yes I did.”
“When did this happen?”
“Well that’s—that’s great! I mean I know you like Tucson. Wow! I never know where you’ll be calling from!”
“Yeah, I’m a little scared because I don’t have much money but I just had to do it, Ash. I had to.”
“Well you do what you’ve gotta do!”
“Exactly. I’m excited, too, though, Ashley. I really think I can make a life here, that’s..better for me than the life I had in New York. I’m really hopeful. I even applied for some jobs today!”
“That’s good! Anything interesting?”
“Yes, actually, this one company that looks really good.”
“Well that’s great! So you have a place to stay and everything?”
“I’m staying in this kind of hotel/motel thingy.”
“Is it nice?”
“It’s pretty nice, Ashley, if you like roughing it!”
“Oh, that bad huh.”
“It’s a crack motel, what are you gonna do?”
“Oh, a crack motel! Are there people there actually doing crack?”
“Right beyond these walls, I fear there are.”
“Are you doing crack?”
“Well try to stay away from the crack, ok?”
“I will, Ash. I will. So tell me about you.”
“I will. But first I want to hear about this crack motel situation you’re staying in.”
So I tell her. I tell her everything. From the blood stains on the mattress to the fact that Rishi used to hang out with the crackheads when she stayed here and said they were her favorite people in the world. We talk for a long time, and I wish I had another bottle of wine, and too soon we’re saying our goodbyes and I’m charging my phone in the dingy wall outlet and lying down on the bed with my bag beside me and my wool hat on my head.
I stay awake for a long time. Gradually, I realize it’s because I’m cold. The room isn’t heated and there aren’t any blankets. I close the tiny window at the top of the wall. That doesn’t help. Finally I get out my sleeping bag and snug myself inside.
Just my head is sticking out—and I have my hat. The sleeping bag lives up to its rating, and I get some sleep.
The next morning I wake up early. I need to do laundry. I repack my sleeping bag and walk up the street. The laundromat is empty except for one woman doing three loads of clothes. She’s in the back. I set up in the front, doing my small load of all the clothes I own.
I think. And I write in my journal. I think of how glad I am to be back in Tucson, with the mountains and the desert—it does something good for me. I like the dry air. I don’t think I get sick as often here. Then an idea for a film strikes me. Two children, lost in the desert. Who knows why they’re lost there, but they head out on an adventure. Maybe one follows the other. But it’s their journey in the desert. You could film the whole thing here, use all local actors. At the end there would be a rescue helicopter. That would be the only expensive part. But the rest would be totally low budget.
I get into the plot a little deeper. I work out the details of why they head off into the desert. They would be in the mountain part of the desert, up in the north mountains. Filming would be tough because you’d have to hike up there every day, or make camp. But we could film at locations near roads. Make it look like they were in the middle of nowhere when they really aren’t—you know.
I’m thinking this could be something really salable. Shoot it on digital video, of course. I could prob’ly borrow the camera. The actors would work for free, just to put it on their reels! I just need a kick-ass script, something that really pulls at the heartstrings. The relationship between the girl and boy. One of them makes a sacrifice for the other, maybe loses his arm in a fight with mountain lions! But whatever it is, there will be some type of sacrifice that one makes for the other, because he loves her. By the time my clothes are ready to go in the dryer I have a pretty good outline.
I’m feeling good about this script. This is something I can make, in Tucson, with not much money, and it can get me started as a film director. I just need a day job to keep me alive long enough to get it made. I’m thinking this is gonna be a simple life. I’ll live at the Paradise, work at the McDonald’s up the street, and spend my free time writing. I’ll work on the script for the desert movie—maybe even write some other screenplays! I don’t need to have a big-money job, I just need enough to pay rent at the Paradise and—boom!—I’m living in Tucson. Things could be ok for me here.
There’s such a part of me that wants to get away from the high-stress lifestyle. That’s part of why Tucson has always appealed to me. It’s out of the way. It’s not hip. Nothing happens here. I want to live in a place where nothing happens. I have enough going on inside my mind. Ideally, I would live in a camper on some land east of Flagstaff, where there is literally nothing going on. No plumbing. No electricity. Just snakes and sand.
I almost cry, thinking of the simplicity that my life could have here. I can wash my clothes at this laundromat where it’s just me and a woman who minds her business, I can work at the McDonald’s and live at the Paradise. I can get used to that room. It’s rough but it’s liveable. I can even eat at the McDonald’s, most of the time. My life can be this little triangle of laundromat, work, and sleep. No one will bother me. I won’t have any friends. My family will never visit. It will be perfection.
I finish my clothes and am sad to leave the laundromat. That was a nice little pocket of time, in there, journal writing, coming up with new ideas, not talking to anyone. I schlep my bag and head up the street.
They begrudgingly give me an application at the McDonald’s. Everyone behind the counter is hispanic. I sit in a booth with my bag facing me and fill it out.
I lie about my job history, because no one at McDonalds’s wants to hear that I made more in a year than they make in ten. It begs the question: why do you want to work here? I put down my previous dishwashing job and leave it at that.
I take the bus into town. Head down 5th Avenue. There’s a sign in front of the Grill that says, “NOW HIRING.” I go inside.
People with large packs on their back aren’t that rare a sight in Tucson. Veterans live here, eeking out their checks, some of them homeless. People camp here. So I don’t feel that out of place approaching the counter and asking for an application.
“We’re not hiring,” the woman says.
“But your sign says—”
“That sign’s been up there forever. We should prob’ly take it down.”
“But you’re not hiring.”
“Well I’d like to get some lunch.”
“Right this way.”
She takes me to a table and I eat two eggs over medium on sourdough toast with tater tots on the side. It’s the only thing I’ve ever eaten at the Grill.
No one is dining here. The place is empty except for me. One half of the restaurant is closed off. I can see the kitchen through a wide delivery window. There is one cook working. And one dishwasher/busser. Three people to run the entire place.
When I’m finished, my server, the same woman from before, brings me my check.
“You know,” she says, “Bahir might be looking for a new busser. This guy kinda sucks.”
“Is Bahir here?”
She looks at me.
“But he likes to hang out at the Epic. He’s prob’ly down there.”
“Thank you..” I read her name tag. “..Austin. That’s a nice name by the way.”
“Thanks. You can pay at the front.”
When I’m paying I ask her what Bahir looks like.
“He looks middle eastern,” she says. “You’ll find him.”
Bahir is not hard to spot. He’s the only non-white person sitting outside at the Epic, gesturing wildly, talking to a black-haired woman. I get an Italian soda and sit outside. When the woman gets up to go to the bathroom, I walk over to Bahir.
“You don’t know me, but I’m looking for a job, and I heard you might be looking for a new busboy at the Grill?”
“Yeah, our busboy sucks.”
“Well I’m available to work and I’m a hard worker. I’ll do anything.”
“This isn’t just a busboy position, you see? It’s busboy and dishwasher. Have you ever washed dishes before?”
“Yes I have.”
“Well we get kinda busy. Friday and Saturday nights, we’re slammed. Especially after midnight.”
He looks at my pack.
“I’m living in a motel right now.”
“I backpacked all over this country. Especially out west. There’s nothing like sleeping outside to tell you who you are. You just get into town?”
“Yes I did.”
“Where you from?”
“New York?? What did you come here for?”
“I’ve lived here before and I liked it.”
“You staying at the Paradise?”
I laugh. “Yes.”
“I’ve stayed in the Paradise. When I first moved here.”
“Where are you from?”
“Oh, I went to film school in LA.”
“No shit. Where at?”
“The Los Angeles Film School in Hollywood.”
“Never heard of it. Buddy of mine went to UCLA.”
“Yeah, UCLA’s more of an academic school, mine is more like the fast food joint of film schools, but it worked well for me because I didn’t want a lot of theory. I just wanted: here’s a light, tell me how to use it. Here’s a camera, tell me how to use it.”
“I’m an actor.”
“Really? Well we should talk more about that. I have a film project I’m trying to get off the ground. It wouldn’t have major parts for adult actors but I might need someone to play a dad.”
“I’d like to hear about your film sometime, but this is my lady friend here. Kitty, this is my new dishwasher.”
“And I’m Bahir. Did, uh, Austin send you?”
“Well listen, Matthew, come by on Friday, around ten o’clock, we’ll break you in.”
“Great! Thank you, Bahir. And nice meeting you, Kitty. You guys enjoy your coffee.”
I go back to my table. I finish my Italian soda with pride. I got out of my shell, I went up to him and I got the fucking job. I’m making it happen. I respect the Grill, it’s my favorite restaurant in Tucson. The back of their menu has a whole bunch of small text that espouses their philosophy of the restaurant and it’s great! It tells you the rules for eating at the Grill and it even makes fun of vegetarians and everything! I’m gonna work at the Grill.
The fresh air is amazing and my bag feels light as I leave the Epic and head back down Fourth Avenue. I pass the Casbah Tea House, where my friends used to work, and I make it up in my mind to apply there, too. Couldn’t hurt to have two jobs. But I don’t go in today; today has had enough success already.
There is a tunnel where Fourth Avenue hits downtown, for cars and people to go under the train tracks. I cross through that tunnel and then it’s the Hotel Congress on my right and this one live music venue on my left, with apartments for rent on the second story of the building. Wouldn’t it be nice to live downtown? Live a block from work, walk everywhere. I wouldn’t even need a bike.
I go back to the Grill and ensconce myself in a booth. I get my laptop out and I work on a play I’ve been writing for years. I write one scene per year, and it’s taken me seven years.
Austin brings me a glass of wine. I drink it and order another.
“Are you like gonna be sitting here all night and drinking wine?”
“Is that ok?”
“That’s great, I just wanna know if I should keep bringing you glasses when you run out.”
“Yes you should.” I smile.
Austin and I talk a little, and I have dinner. I get something new this time, I’m feeling so adventurous, and it’s pretty good.
I drink a lot.
“You should have just ordered a bottle.”
“Can I do that?”
“Yeah! Don’t worry I’ll give you the bottle price.”
I thank her and I think of how nice she is and how in LA or New York no one would ever just give you the bottle price after you’ve had four glasses of wine. This is what I need. A more easy-going town, where people aren’t so wrapped up in business that they forget the personal. I feel myself breathing out, my whole self, just breathing out. I scoot up in the corner of the booth and drink my wine and type my words and think how many more years will it take me to finish this play. I don’t know if anyone will ever see it produced on stage, but I’m going to write it just the same.
A few days later, I text my friend Sarah. Sarah and I lived in the same house in Tucson a few years back. She agrees to meet me at Time Market, this little pizza shop/grocery store on University Boulevard.
I’m sitting at a table by the window when I see her. She rides up on a bike. I stand to hug her.
“How are you?”
“Good. How are you?”
“I’m good, I was just looking for jobs and stuff.”
I close my laptop.
“So,” I say, “tell me everything.”
“It’s good to see you. I wasn’t sure I was ever gonna see you again.”
“Yeah, well, Tucson drew me back.”
“Are you living here now?”
“I’m in the process.”
“Do you want some coffee?”
“No, I’m good. Do you think they’ll mind if I sit here without drinking anything?”
“So when did you get back?”
“Uhh..less than a week ago.”
“Are you liking it?”
“You know what I love, Sarah..is that mountain. Every time I see it I know I’m supposed to be here. I’m having a love affair with that mountain. What about you, are you happy to be here?”
“No, I’m leaving.”
“Yeah, a friend of mine in Seattle is loaning me her apartment. For three months. So I’m moving to Seattle!”
“Like moving moving?”
“Yeah, I’ll prob’ly stay there. I figure I can use these three months to find a job and my own apartment.”
“So you’re tired of Tucson?”
“I’ve lived here all my life. I long for the big city. Do you think I’m crazy?”
“No, I think it’s great.”
“I mean just picking up and moving to a place I’ve never been.”
“That’s what I’m doing, but..I mean I’ve been here before but just picking up and moving. Not enough people do that. I mean you’ve got people stuck in Ohio who hate the snow..but they never move.”
“It’s easy to get stuck in a rut.”
“Are you stuck in a rut?”
“Yeah, I live with my grandmom, and it’s a beautiful house..”
“Where is it?”
“Outside of town.”
“Did you ride your bike all the way here?”
“How long did that take?”
“A couple of hours.”
“Geez..thanks for taking so much time to come and see me.”
“I like my bike. I ride it all the time. Sometimes I just drive around the desert, little windey streets out there. Do you know there are flowers that grow in this desert that don’t grow anywhere else in the world?”
“No, I didn’t know that.”
“Arizona is one of the most biodiverse places in the world. There are so many species of plants and animals here. People think the desert is barren but it’s not.”
“I remember hiking in the north mountains and seeing a bunny. A little white bunny! I had no idea there were bunnies here.”
“Yeah, we have rabbits, elk, all sorts of things.”
“I guess there has to be something for the snakes to eat.”
“You mean those white bunnies?”
“Aww..I don’t like to think about that. But I guess you’re right, they probably do eat those. Poor little bunny!”
“So where are you staying?”
“The Paradise. It’s this little motel—”
“I know what the Paradise is. So you’re doing ok?”
“Yeah I mean I’m looking for jobs, trying to get set up.”
“But you’re gonna be ok, right?”
“I think so. I met with a guy the other day about a job.”
“What is it?”
“It’s this website. I found them on Craigslist. It’s the Tucson Historical Society and they want their website beefed up.”
“And you’ve done that kind of work.”
“Yeah, this is easy, easy website work. Way less complicated than stuff I’ve done before.”
“And it pays ok?”
“It pays by the hour, and it’s a good rate for Tucson. I’m not expecting to get what I could get in a bigger city. But for here, it’s good.”
“Are you gonna do it?”
“I think so, yeah.”
“Can you work from home?”
“I could, but there’s no internet at the Paradise, so. I’m going to work there, they’re setting me up a desk.”
“Is it enough to live on?”
“No. I’d need to find something else but I think I’m going to be a dishwasher at the Grill.”
“Yeah, I think it’s going to work.”
“You’ll like working there. I waitressed there for a while. Good atmosphere.”
“I always like going there.”
“Yeah, you’ll fit right in at the Grill. Is Bahir still the manager?”
“Yep. So what kind of job do you think you’ll find in Seattle?”
“Oh, retail. Just anything really. I’m not particular. I just want something to pay the bills so I can be livin’ the life in Seattle!”
“Yeah, Seattle sounds cool. I’ve never been there. Well, as a kid. But it’s one of the few big cities in this country I haven’t been to.”
“I’m excited and scared.”
“I’d be a little scared, too! But you’ll do alright.”
“I’m sorry I’m leaving Tucson right as you’re getting here!”
“Me too. Me too. But well keep in contact. I’ll see you again at some point.”
“Do you ever talk to Shringara?”
“Some. Mostly email. Some phone. Do you?”
“Yeah we email all the time. I love that girl. I wish things hadn’t gotten so chaotic in that house and we could have all lived together.”
“I think you me and her had a good thing going.”
“Yeah, we did.”
“You seem sad.”
“I’m just thinking.”
“What you thinkin’ about?”
I shake my head.
“This job I had the other day.”
“Do you ever feel like it’s the first day of school, in like the first grade, and you have that nervous out-of-place feeling like you really don’t belong?”
“I felt that the other day.”
“Matt, what happened?”
“It was this job. It was this political job. I found it on the message boards at the Epic. It was a get-out-the-vote thing. You go, one day, two days, they put you in a van and ride you out to the suburbs where everyone votes republican. And you have these flyers, and a script. They drive you to a neighborhood and then you go door to door knocking on people’s doors and if they’re home, you read this little script and you try to convince them to vote democrat. If they’re not home you just leave a flyer. It’s hot as hell, we have no water, and we’re wandering through these neighborhoods knocking on doors. So at first I’m with this girl, and we’re knocking on doors together, and she’s this real gung-ho political girl she’s got like a t-shirt on that supports the candidate. And I’m like: this isn’t for me. I’m letting her do all the talking, because I mean I’m a democrat and I care about the issues and I want people to vote democratic and I still don’t want to do this. These are people, in their homes, just watching TV or petting their dog and then we come along, and even in the homes where they agree with us I’m feeling terrible for knocking on their doors. I mean this political shit isn’t for me! I don’t even want to have a political conversation with someone who agrees with me, much less try to convince someone who doesn’t. So I’m hating my life out there, and I’m thinking about the tiny amount of money I’m going to get for being out in the sun all day, and I split up with this girl. Say I’m going to cover these houses and you cover those. And I hide in a drainage pipe. There’s this large pipe underneath the road with water running through it and I hike down the rock slant and get into this drainage pipe. And I wait out the rest of the day. I see the supervisor driving around the neighborhood and I go farther into the pipe! There is no way that I am going to knock on another door with someone else’s political agenda. So I just sit there. And I have to pee real bad. But I just hold it. I wait. I wait until the sun is starting to go down and I think it’s time for the van to be picking us up to take us back to Tucson. And I sneak out of this pipe. And I walk onto the street. And I act like I’ve been knocking on doors all along.”
“I don’t think I can make myself do that kind of work, Sarah. Maybe that makes me privileged, but that’s who I am. I felt like the first day of school. I haven’t felt that scared and alone and out of place since the first day of kindergarten, probably.”
“Did you get paid?”
“Yeah, I got paid for that one day. And they were all, ‘Are we gonna see you tomorrow?’ And I was like no, thank you, I have something to do tomorrow.”
“Yeah. Sit in a bar and drink. I’d rather starve than do that kind of work, honestly. It reminds me of this job I had in college. It was winter break, I was working in the mall. At this computer shop. Families would come in looking for something to buy for Christmas. And they’d have their eye on the most expensive computer. And I’d tell them, that one’s nice but if all you’re gonna do is play games and do word processing this one over here is just as well. So I’d sell them a computer, but it would be the less expensive one. And they’d walk out of the shop happy and with a computer that was going to do everything they needed. But my boss—he didn’t like that. He wanted me to sell everyone the most expensive computer, even though they didn’t need it. He would rail at me after every sale. Why didn’t you sell them the top of the line? It felt terrible, working there, knowing the only way to please my boss was to lie to families, with limited income, about which computer they needed. The only way to make him happy was to lie. I quit that job after one day.”
Sarah takes my hand in hers.
“You’re a very sensitive person. Am I right?”
“Yes I cry at commercials.”
“Yeah. You don’t have a hard shell. You’re not meant to work in a place like that. You’re not a salesman.”
“No I’m not.”
I almost feel like crying right now.
Sarah looks into my eyes.
“You need to be doing something where your sensitivity is honored.”
“Like what though?”
“You’re an artist.”
“Yes. I knew that about you from the moment we met. I can tell by the way you talk.”
“And the way you treated Shringara. You’re a lover, man! You need to stay as far away from boring workplaces as possible!”
“But how do I live?”
“I don’t know, but you’ll figure it out. I have to go.”
I wipe my eyes.
“Are you sure you have to?”
I wish her a good bike ride back. We say our goodbyes outside Time Market and I come back inside to waste time before going to the Paradise.
I order a slice of pizza and don’t have enough cash to cover it.
“You’re forty-seven cents short.”
“I’m sorry, can you just put it back?”
She slides the slice of pizza to me.
“Don’t worry about it.”
I take my piece of pizza with sausage and feta and I eat it by the window. It tastes extra good tonight.
My first night at the Grill is Friday, and it is busy like Bahir promised. I knew it to have been busy on weekend nights from when I lived here before. The rest of the week: desolate. Friday and Saturday nights: chaos.
And when I say chaos I mean both parts of the restaurant open, every table filled. People waiting outside to get in. Three cooks, one dishwasher, one bartender, and four servers. The dishwasher is also the busser. Bahir is one of the cooks.
“You say you’ve washed dishes before?”
“Well things move fast around here.”
“You look ready. See this station? Servers bus the dishes to here. You bus them from here to the kitchen. There’s one here and there’s one there. Keep these stations empty. Waitresses don’t like to have to bring dishes to the kitchen, which they will do if these trays are full. Let me introduce you to Pete. If you have any questions about where anything goes, ask Pete. Don’t ask me. I don’t like to talk when I’m on the line, not to dishwashers anyway. Leave me alone when I’m on the line if you want to keep your head intact. Pete! This is Matthew, he’s our new dishwasher.”
Pete and I shake hands.
Bahir shows me the dishwasher station. It’s backlogged—plate after plate of the nastiest food remnants: half-eaten steaks; half-eaten burgers; stale, soggy pancakes. Bahir takes a step forward.
“Lift this up. Trays go in. Some places do all glasses together, all plates and bowls together. We don’t have time for that. Put every motherfucking thing in together. Run it through.”
“Do you have special soap for utensils?”
“You mean sanitizer? We don’t have sanitizer. Just use regular soap. You musta worked in some high-class joints.”
“Well forget about the sanitizer. Let me show you the kitchen. Around here we have strainers, funnels, big spoons. Pots and pans go here. Stack the pans properly. When I’m on the line and I go for a pan, it’s gotta be right where I expect it. See how all the handles are going the same way? Do it like that. We’ll see how long you last.”
Bahir shows me the trash, which is my job to empty. I take the trash out back to the dumpster, I put a new bag in the trash can, I tie it a certain way. He shows me the employee closet, where I put my bag. He shows me the bar, introduces me to the bartender.
“Nice to meet you,” I say, even though we’ve met before. I used to come here as a customer and she’d serve me drinks. She doesn’t recognize me.
Ophelia explains to me where to put each of the types of glasses they use at the bar. Like Bahir, she likes her things in a certain place, and promises to get mad if I mess up. I ask her to be patient with me for the first night and she says she’ll be patient with me for the first hour. After that, I’m on my own.
Since the Grill only offered me part time, I had to take a job at the Casbah too. The way I got the job at the Casbah is kind of funny. I ate lunch there, and mid-way through my meal I asked her if they were hiring a dishwasher. From where I was sitting I could see dishes piling up in the kitchen. She says yes, they are, and comes back with the owner.
“You wanna be our new dishwasher?”
“When can you start?”
“Ok, when he’s finished, bring him back. We’ll get you on the timesheet.”
And that was it—I started right then. I went back to the kitchen and got them out of their slump. I even washed my own dish that I had eaten lunch off just a few minutes earlier.
Bahir was skeptical that I also worked at the Casbah.
“You work over there?”
“How in the fuck did a guy like you get a job over there?”
“I asked for it.”
“You work with a bunch of two-bit tree-hugger hippie commune motherfuckers..at the Casbah Tea House..and you expect to hold a job at the Grill?”
“I need both jobs.”
“You work with a bunch of pot-smoking, mother-Earth, feel-good motherfuckers..and you think you can hack it at the Grill??”
“I’m going to try.”
“Let me get this straight. You work with a bunch of vegetarian, save-the-planet, hemp-wearing, coyote-loving mother fuckers, and you come into my restaurant and ask for a job??”
Ophelia walks by behind me. “He’s just messing with you. His girlfriend works at the Casbah.”
“Who’s your girlfriend?”
“Do you know a little girl name of Pearl?”
“Yeah, I met her today.”
“Well..tell that little traveling circus bitch that if she thinks she can hire one of my employees to work in that sad excuse for a restaurant..she can’t do that! You’re mine! What if your schedules conflict?”
“I only work there in the morning.”
“Ok, well, look, if you want to work in a restaurant that’s on the way down, go ahead—but the Grill is on the way up. This a classy joint.”
Bahir throws a spatula in the air and catches it behind his back.
“Well get started!”
I do. I turn to the dishwashing sinks and I get started. I wash the hell out of some dishes. I empty the trash. I clear the bus stations. I bus tables that waitresses don’t have time to bus. I restack every pot and every pan exactly as it’s supposed to be stacked. I stock the glasses in the bar, and Ophelia corrects me when the handles on the coffee mugs aren’t in perfect alignment, so I align them. It’s faster pace than at the Casbah, but the Casbah is hard too. At the Grill, you have your standard plates cups silverware. At the Casbah, you have teapots and rammekens and seven types of bowls. The Casbah kitchen tools are more complex, too. Where the Grill just has skillets and spatulas and knives, basically, the Casbah has all manner of odd-shaped tupperware, millions of types of spoons, more complex coffee glasses, and cauldron-sized pots. Each set of kitchen utensils has their own flavor, just as each set of employees do. The Casbah is mostly vegetarians; everybody at the Grill eats meat. I wonder which crowd I fit better with, but mostly I’m just glad to have work.
At the Casbah, I get called into the office.
“My name’s Luke, I’m the kitchen manager here. I guess Paula hired you?”
Luke looks at me sideways.
I put my hand on the bottle in my back pocket.
I take it out. It’s clear glass, labels in German, clear liquid inside.
“Is that..what I think it is?”
“Oh! I thought we had an alchy workin’ for us now!”
“Nope, just water.”
I put the bottle back in my pocket.
“The reason I brought you in here, is, I like to talk to all the new dishwashers..all the employees really..anyone who works in the kitchen. I wanna make sure we’re on the same page. About the kind of work we like to do here at the Casbah. Now, you may have worked in other restaurants and learned all kinds of behaviors that aren’t..well that wouldn’t work here. I think you know what I mean.”
I nod. I’m looking around the room as he talks.
“Now I noticed right from the beginning that you have the right attitude. You’re a go-getter. I saw the way you washed those dishes. You just started today, right?”
I nod. I’m reading the labels that are next to or on almost everything in the room, and I’m having the strangest sensation reading them..which is that I recognize the handwriting. And I instantly know where from. It’s Rishi’s handwriting—my ex-girlfriend, who used to work here. She did our kitchen the same way, labels over everything, perfect curly handwriting on masking tape.
And I’m listening to this guy talk—Luke—and I’m realizing that I resent this conversation. I resent being praised just so he can assert his dominance. I resent the fact that he’s younger than me, and he’s lecturing me. But I need the job, so I just smile and nod. I later find out he’s not even the kitchen manager.
One other thing about the Casbah that I resent. I resent being yelled at by Jesse, who doesn’t introduce herself as such but I later find out really is the kitchen manager. Jesse yells at me from the first day.
“MATTHEW! Do you like to be called Matthew or Matt?”
“Well Matthew, who put this dish away?”
“Come here. I’ll show you where it goes.”
And then a few minutes later:
“DID NOBODY SHOW YOU HOW TO PUT AWAY A FUCKING RAMMEKEN? THIS IS THE WAY WE DO IT. NOT LIKE THIS! NOT LIKE THIS! THIS, OK?!”
Then a few minutes later:
That night I go to dinner with my Casbah workmates.
“How was your first day?”
“Bet you’re tired. Go home and get you some rest for tomorrow.”
“I am tired. But I work at the Grill later.”
“You work at the Grill?”
“I start tonight.”
“Oh, you’re gonna hate it. Their kitchen is really messy compared to ours.”
“I could never work at a restaurant that served meat.”
“Are you a vegetarian?”
They’re asking me.
“We’re all vegetarians. I think everyone here is a vegetarian. I could loan you a book on it if you want.”
I say that’d be nice.
We’re eating with the Hare Krsnas, who have a cheap vegetarian restaurant as part of their practice. Luke is there. Jesse is there. I meet Steve, our chef who is on heroin. And Kat, who isn’t pretty but who I’m attracted to. I think she would have sex with me.
Everyone is on juice fasts. Luke has been on his the longest. He’s doing a green juice fast which means he eats only blended-up spinach and celery for a month. I wonder if this is why he’s such a dickhead. I want to suggest that some of this fasting might more properly be called an eating disorder but I keep my mouth shut.
I need both these jobs. They’re both part time and neither one provides benefits. It’s important that my workmates like me.
I almost didn’t go out with my Casbah crew because I didn’t want to spend money on food, but I decided it was worth it to get to know them. I have to say I felt very alone at that table.
At four a.m. the Grill starts to quiet down. I make fewer runs to the bussing stations, some of the tables are empty, and Bahir even makes me a shift meal. You get one meal per shift on the house, and I’m going to make mine a good one. I get a hamburger, rare, with blue cheese and an egg on top. Side of tater tots. I sit at the bar and eat.
Around six, I’m taking the last of the trash out. I stand in the alley looking up at the moon and the last remaining stars. First the Casbah, then the Grill, I got my jobs and I worked ’em. I’m gonna make it. I can handle being a dishwasher. I’ll get an apartment, work these jobs, and write.
For a few minutes I sit down on a parking bumper. The kitchen can wait. There’s only a few people drinking and Ophelia can handle those.
I have a feeling of joy, and I think more than anything it’s that I’m in an out-of-the-way city where family isn’t likely to bother me and I can be myself. I’ve needed this kind of space. Like the time I moved to Athens, Ohio and didn’t tell anybody about it. This is that but less severe. Maybe, sometimes, for a certain type of person, you need to be alone.
I finish my work at the Grill and Bahir says good job. It isn’t till I’m walking down the street that I realize the busses aren’t running. I zip up my hoodie and tighten my pack for the walk home.
I wake up at noon. It’s my day off. That means no being yelled at by Jesse and no endless pile of dishes at the Grill. It also means I won’t get paid, and I need to work as many days as possible. In truth, I wish I didn’t have a day off.
I look at the ceiling. Ages of decay, never maintained. It’s an army of cracks. And this..what is this? Someone has managed to get a blood stain on the ceiling. Or maybe it’s vomit. Someone threw vomit up there. I’m shivering in my sleeping bag and I really don’t want to get out of bed but I also don’t like spending time at the Paradise when I’m awake. It’s a dismal, dismal place.
When Rishi stayed here, she made it her own. She nested. She had them remove the bed and she slept in a pallet on the floor. Her books were in here, her shrine. Rishi has a way of making every space her own. I am frustrated with myself that I don’t have that same ability, or drive. To me the Paradise is a dump. I don’t even feel comfortable walking on the floors. The kitchen is disgusting. The mattress has blood stains on it, for god’s sake. I don’t ask for much, but I do ask that my mattress be free of blood stains.
I get up. I’m freezing. I open my bag and put on a fresh pair of clothes. When I open the door, it’s warmer outside. The complex is empty, save for a few people sitting in lawn chairs outside one of the rooms. The sky is blue. No clouds.
I breathe in. This air is perfect.
I leave my door open and sit on the bed a while. I breathe out. I think of Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Right practice, right attitude, right understanding. I’m feeling pretty zen in my eschewal of almost everything I own to roam the desert with a camping backpack. No books, even—who gets rid of their books? Do I feel lighter having fewer things? I feel a little too light. I brought only my favorite shirts, cotton ones, one my sister gave me years ago that has holes in the sleeves. If I was staying someplace that had internet I would sit here all day. As it is, I’m going into town. Besides, my aunt is coming to visit me today.
I take my bag with me. It’s the only way I can carry my laptop without it being exposed and I don’t want to leave all my things in the Paradise anyway.
I lock the door behind me, nothing in the room but what it comes with, plus sheets. I’m walking across the courtyard when someone yells:
I keep walking. But it comes again:
“Hey! Hey you!”
I turn around. Someone is waving in front of one of the rooms. It’s the three people sitting on lawn chairs. The one in military fatigues is waving at me.
I point at myself.
“Yeah, come here!”
I think about it a second, then decide to go. As I approach the trio I see it is two men and a woman. One man in military fatigues, one in sweatpants, very skinny, and a woman in a torn black dress. There’s dirt on the dress like she’s been sleeping outside.
“Want a beer?”
The military dude is offering. I don’t really drink beer but I think it would be rude to refuse.
“What’s your name?”
“Matthew,” I say, cracking my beer.
“Just move in?”
“Yeah, a couple weeks ago.”
“Beautiful place, isn’t it?”
I can’t tell if he’s being facetious or genuine.
“Yeah, it is,” I say.
“This is Marley.” (Marley waves.) “I’m Bud.” (That’s the military guy.) “That’s Frank-O.” (That’s the crack smoker-looking motherfucker in the sweatpants.)
“Where you from?”
“Yeah, Queens. Where are you from?”
“Marley’s from Miami, aren’t you, Marley?”
“I’m from Ruston, Louisiana. Frank-O’s from right here in Tucson.”
“Do you all live together?”
“No, no. I camp, and Marley and Frank-O live here.”
“We’re not together or anything,” Marley says.
“So what were you guys talking about before I rudely interrupted you?”
Everyone gets all quiet and glancey.
“Forget I asked!”
“It’s ok. You’re not a cop, are you?”
“If you are, you have to tell me!”
“I’m not a cop.”
“If you’re lying, it’s entrapment!”
“You don’t need to tell me anything, ok? But I’m not a cop.”
“Bud, he seems cool.”
“Yeah, he does. He seems a little too cool. That’s what worries me.”
I look at Bud. I say, “What is this guy, in a detective movie?”
Marley laughs. “Just tell him, Bud.”
Frank-O bites his nails.
I sit down on the pavement to make everyone more comfortable. I sip my beer.
Bud puts his hand on my shoulder.
“Do you smoke crack, son?”
“Good, don’t get started!”
“Why, do you smoke crack?”
“I don’t—well, just a little. But them two do.”
“Do you have some?” I ask.
“I thought you didn’t smoke it!”
“He does. He does! I knew it. You look like you do.”
“Well, you look cool, that’s all I’m sayin’. Why, do we look like we smoke crack?”
“I like this one, Bud. He’s cute. You’re cute! Do you have a girlfriend?”
“You should have a girlfriend. You’re blushing! Haha, made you blush, made you blush. Here, cheers my beer. Cheers my beer!”
Marley holds hers out. I cheers it.
She slurps her beer.
“So is the reason you don’t have a girlfriend because you’re gay or something?”
“Marley! Don’t ask him that!”
“It’s ok I’m not gay. I just moved here and I haven’t met anyone yet.”
“You met us.”
“Did you have a girlfriend in New York?”
“No,” I say, and I start to think that the reason I don’t have a girlfriend goes beyond not knowing anyone.
“I wouldn’t date any of those New York girls, either,” Marley says. “Too stuck up.”
“You like girls?”
“Girls and boys, either way, it doesn’t matter.”
“She likes his dick, ain’t that right, Frank-O?”
Frank-O looks away, shaking.
“Would you shut up, Bud? No one wants your input.”
“So you say you camp?”
“Yeah, around here.”
“In that wash.” Bud points.
“How long have you been doing that?”
“Since I retired. Say, you couldn’t loan me some money, could you? I don’t get my check until the first and it’s a long time to the first, if you know what I mean.”
“I can’t, I’m sorry.”
“That’s ok. You don’t look like you have much money.”
“I don’t. I wish I could help you.”
“You got a job?”
“I wash dishes.”
“What did you do in New York?”
“I did software engineering?”
“I knew he looked smart. What exactly is software engineering?”
“It’s programming computers? You type in instructions and the computer does what you say. Like making websites and stuff.”
“My cousin’s gonna make me a website. He’s a genius. Wouldn’t you say my cousin is a genius? Listen, Matthew, we just need..how much do we need? Not much. Just a little. You can smoke with us. Tonight. We like to smoke in the evenings. So if you could spare just..maybe..like—”
I shake my head. “I can’t. I’d really like to smoke with you all but I have something else to do this evening. So..” I set my beer on the concrete. “..I hope you have an excellent day, enjoy this weather, and good luck finding the money you’re looking for.”
I stand up.
“Now look what you did, Marley, you scared him away.”
“No,” I say. “Everything is fine. I sincerely enjoyed meeting you but I just have this other thing I have to do, so I’ll see you around, ok?”
“Ok, Matthew, don’t be a stranger.”
“Come by tonight later if you’re free.”
I smile and go. Turn a few steps later and wave. I’m not going to be going back tonight nor any night. The last thing I need to do is spend the little money I have smoking crack with the locals. I’m already sunk—I don’t need to be sunk any deeper.
Riding the bus downtown, I swear I’m through with all that shit. I’m never going to smoke crack again. Might even stop drinking.
A woman with a cane asks me if I can spare something and I give her a few bills.
I get off the bus at the transit center. I want to stay sober for my visit with my aunt and I don’t want to spend any more money, so I walk all the way to the University of Arizona computing center, where the engineering department has a bunch of computers anyone can use for free. It’s supposed to be for students only but they don’t check IDs. I stand in line with my heavy bag and get a computer.
I do some programming. I work on several new types of cellular automata. I’m trying to come up with as many variations as possible on the original theme of fundamental cellular automata. I’m logged into a shell account on a machine in New York which I keep so I can program from anywhere. It’s five o’clock when I look up from the screen—I have to meet my aunt!
I go to the Casbah and Kristen, the night hostess, seats me in the back, the part of the restaurant made from tents. I stash my bag behind me and sit on a low chair that was imported from Afghanistan. When Susan gets here it is with smiles and raised arms and a big hug between the two of us.
“Hello, my nephew!”
“Hello, my aunt!”
“Is this us right here?”
“Yeah, is this ok?”
“This is fine, I just want to know what we’re doing.”
“Yes, I like this table, it’s by that fountain-thing.”
“Yeah, I like that fountain-thing! Is that Buddha?”
“I..think so. Or it might be Krsna or Kali or something. I really don’t know.”
“Ok! Well we’re just going to pretend that it’s Buddha. Because I’ve heard of him. Those other guys you mentioned..not so much.”
“Thanks for coming, Susan!”
“Thanks for having me. I wasn’t not going to see my nephew while I’m here in Arizona.”
“And you’re on your way to Sedona, right?”
“And that’s for a spiritual retreat of some sort.”
“Yes, it’s a one-week ‘immersive’ spiritual enema.”
“Hey I’m not making this shit up, you want to see the brochure?”
Just then Pearl comes over.
“You have the night off?” she asks me.
“Well tell Bahir that we might need you some nights here. Paula wants to expand this whole back area with another tent.”
“Yeah. So see if you can get Mondays and Tuesdays off from the Grill. We could prob’ly get you enough hours so you didn’t have to work there. Paula’s thinking about upgrading you to prep cook.”
My insides grumble. I don’t want to be a prep cook. I want to be a dishwasher.
“So, can I get you two some tea to start with?”
Susan picks up the menu.
“Our teas are right here.” Pearl points.
“Jasmine..black rose..what do you get here?”
“I get the chai,” I say.
“What exactly is..chai.”
“It’s great. It’s got cardamom, cinnamon, milk. You wanna try something new?”
“Sure! Two chais.”
“We’ll have a pot,” I say.
“Did you just say we were going to be smoking pot? ‘Cause I can leave if you two want to..”
“I’ll be right back with your chai. And see if you can get those days off?”
“So you’re working two jobs?”
“With the possibility of a third. I’m trying to do some computer programming as well.”
“Matthew, I’m gonna cut the crap. I’m worried about you.”
“And I want to make you an offer.”
“Maybe we should order food first.”
Susan looks at her menu.
“I recommend the seitan cheesesteak, but the Brazilian black beans are also really good.”
“Did you just say satan?”
“Seitan. It’s wheat gluten.”
“Ohh..wheat. I’m kind of doing the gluten-free thing right now.”
“The Brazilian black beans are gluten free.”
“What are you having?”
“I’m having the seitan cheesesteak.”
“Ok the Brazilian black beans are good enough.”
Susan scoots closer to me. She waits until we’ve ordered and eaten our food, and she’s tried chai for the first time and we’ve ordered a second pot. I wonder what her offer is going to be, but I put it aside and enjoy the meal. We talk about her retreat, her spiritual ‘enema,’ and I say how much I like Sedona and she says she’s never been and I say the sunsets there are beautiful. When Pearl clears our plates Susan begins again:
“Your mom called me. Suzanne talked to her and mentioned that you were camping in Arizona and your mom mentioned it to me.”
I exhale. I’m tense.
“Franky, camping in Arizona doesn’t sound like a very good plan.”
“Well I’m not camping now.”
“Where are you staying?”
“In a hotel. Where are you staying?”
“At the Hilton. Look, I know you have work and this is a very cute little restaurant. I can see the attraction that you have to it. It’s quaint. We’re sitting on the floor in a tent. I get it. But I walked up and down this street before I came here and..Matt..I know you’ve had problems with drugs. This doesn’t seem like the best atmosphere for you to be in. It looks like a place where you could easily meet people..and I’m not saying these would be bad people..but they might be people who were doing drugs. And I just don’t think a little hippie street is the best place for you to be..right now..when you’re vulnerable.. Is all your stuff in that bag?”
“I guess what I’m saying is, when I get back from Sedona, I’m gonna be driving through Tucson—not to see you, just because that’s the way I’m going. And if you wanted to put your bag in the trunk of my car and ride with me to Baton Rouge..well..you could stay there for a while.”
“I don’t know if I want to live in Baton Rouge.”
“I respect that. I do. But you’d be around people who love you in a drug-free environment, that I think would be safe for you. You don’t have to answer now, but think about it. We have an extra room and you could watch TV and write your plays and maybe even find a little part-time job if you wanted to make some money. Bob and I would love to have you. And GranGran..she would be delighted if you came to live with us, I’m sure. We could use a little youth around the house. Think of it as an artist-in-residence program.”
“Ok, I’ll think about it.”
“Do that. I’ll be coming back through here in ten days. You have my number. You can text me or call me or you can call your mom and she can tell me. I love you, Matthew.”
She sips her chai.
“I love you, too. I appreciate your offer, very much, and I want you to know that if I say no, it isn’t a reflection on you or Bob or GranGran. But I’ll think about it.”
“That’s all I’m asking.”
“I do feel alone, sometimes. And it’s great to know that I have a backup plan, if what I’m doing doesn’t work out. So thank you. You reaching out to me like this means a lot to me. Thanks for coming by, and thank you for sharing a meal with me! It was wonderful to talk with you. I love you, Susan.”
“I love you too, Matthew. I wish only the best for you.”
We finish and Susan heads back to the Hilton. I sit at the Casbah for a long time, drinking more tea and going to the bathroom, drinking more tea and going to the bathroom.
I think about Susan’s offer, and while I’d love to be closer to Susan and Bob and GranGran, I know I’m going to say no. Their house in Baton Rouge is too isolated..it would be hard to live there on foot. I wouldn’t be able to walk to jobs. I don’t want to be stuck in the suburbs, especially in the south—I hate the south. I hate the politics. It seems so podunk to me. But the major thing is I want to be independent. Better to be camping in Arizona—if I have to—than living as a house pet at my grandmother’s.
I leave the Casbah in time to catch the last bus down 6th Avenue. On my ride home, with my bag beside me, I feel as if I own the world. When I get back to the Paradise, those three are still lodged in front of their doorway. They wave to me, but I don’t go over.
I have a little money left but not enough to rent another week at the Paradise. My week runs out. I spend my last night on the blood-stained mattress. I pack my bag. I turn in my key at the desk. And I walk up 6th Avenue. I’m not riding the bus because it’s too expensive. I’ve heard there’s a shelter where 6th Ave meets the highway, so I head that direction. The sun is instantly hot and I’m sweating carrying my bag. I think: this is it, I’m homeless. I don’t know where I’m sleeping tonight. I feel a thrill, and I feel like, what have I done wrong? Why am I now one of the people who are homeless, when before I was one of the ones who are not?
Right as I leave the Paradise, right as I’m heading up 6th Ave, this kid who is walking faster than me talks to me.
“Y’on the the streets?” he asks.
I look at him. He’s wearing brown fabrics that almost look like leather. He is dirty. His hair is every which way.
“You on the streets?”
“Yes,” I say.
I think he’ll laugh at me but I tell the truth. “Five minutes.”
“I’ve been out five years. Tryin’ ta get back. Aaron.”
“Where you headed?”
“I’m looking for a shelter. I hear there’s one up here by the highway.”
“So it’s up here?”
“Yep, that’s right. But you won’t get in.”
“Why won’t I get in?”
“‘Cause they’re full. They full every night. I used to stay there but you have to be in early and out early and they’re gonna steal your stuff, man. That looks like a nice bag. You can’t stay there with that bag. They’ll steal your stuff.”
I don’t know what to say. I’m going to this shelter whether Aaron likes it or not. I walk beside him for a mile with mostly him doing the talking, then he heads up to wherever he’s going and I continue on to the shelter.
The shelter turns out to be waaaaay up 6th Ave, too far to walk everyday into town. You’d basically have to live at the shelter. And that’s no good. I have two jobs. I’ve stopped seeing bus signs, but maybe there’s another bus that goes out this far, that I could walk to, then take my normal bus into town.
My shirt is soaked with sweat by the time I get to a large building which looks like it could in fact be the shelter.
I walk up to it and a man comes out to me.
“You lookin’ for a place to stay?”
“We don’t allow children. No women. No drugs. No drink. You have to be in by four and there’s a lottery system in the morning. You have to be here by ten to take part in the lottery. Ninety-nine beds, not everyone gets a place every night. You been on the streets long?”
“Well there’s a few things you need to know. These niggas in here’ll take your stuff. You can’t be comin’ in here with that nice bag. Won’t have no bag in the morning. You got family that can take you in?”
“You ain’t got no family around here?”
“‘Cause if you did I was gonna tell you stay with them. You been on the streets for one day, huh? What kind of glasses is those?”
“Nah nah nah, what does that say? Versace? You can’t have no Versace glasses in here.”
“Niggas’ll rip those off your head! Sell ’em for crack. You better hide those.”
“So tell me about the part where you have to be in at four. Four p.m.?”
“What do you think? You have to be in at four p.m.! That’s all there is to say. You not here at four, you get no bed!”
“But what if I work? I have two jobs, and one of them is in the evening. I wash dishes at the Grill. I get off work at six a.m. so I couldn’t be here by four.”
“Then you get no bed.”
“So what do people who work do for a place to stay? Are there other shelters that let you come in later?”
“If you a man, and you in Tucson, this is the shelter. There ain’t no other shelter for men. You work?”
“Yeah, I work two jobs.”
“I don’t know anybody who stay here who have a job. Much less two jobs.”
“Then how does anyone get out of the hole? I mean how do you become not-homeless if you don’t have a job?”
“You talkin’ about some philosophical shit up in this mo’fu’er. I got ninety-nine beds. Lottery is at ten. Curfew is at four.”
“Ok, thanks,” I tell him, and I go.
I walk all the way down 6th Avenue, slowly, knowing I’m getting sunburned by being out this long.
The Historical Society calls me and asks me when I’m coming in to work on their site. I’m feeling overwhelmed with my newly-homless status and I tell them I can’t do it. Their job pays at the end of the contract; I’ve had to take work that pays sooner. I’m sorry to let them down and I hope they find someone better suited to the job. Weighing on my mind is the possibility that I need to sell my laptop, and if I do that I won’t be able to do computer work anyway. The guy from the Historical Society reminds me that it’ll be hard to find other computer work in Tucson. I tell him I just can’t do the job.
I figure I have time, it’s a long walk back to town and I don’t know where I’m going, so I call my mom. We talk as I walk and the conversation makes me forget that I don’t know where I’m sleeping tonight.
“..so it’s very beautiful I mean you should see today it’s a little warm—not exactly the day you want to take a long walk—but..it’s nice. Clear sky. Not a cloud up there. And the mountains, Mom, the mountains to the north of this place especially..they’re breathtakingly beautiful.”
“Do you ever go hiking?”
“I did when I was here before. Haven’t had a chance to do that this time. But I will. I definitely will.”
“You sound good, Matthew. You sound very good. I don’t usually say this but I think this sounds very good for you.”
“I think so too, Mom. I find Tucson to be a very..healthy place for me. I mean some of the things I’ve gotten into before, I just don’t get into here. This has always been a healthy place for me. I don’t know if it’s just because my first experiences here were when I wasn’t working and things were going relatively well for me, or if it’s the health-nut kind of vibe that goes on here, or what..but this has always been a very healthy place for me.”
“I’m happy to hear that, my boy. And I’m very proud. I see good things for you. Just take care of yourself and remember I’m always here for you. For you! And if there’s anything..anything I can do, you would let me know, wouldn’t you?”
“Of course, Mom. Thanks for being there for me.”
“I am here for you, my Mattmew. Anything you need you ask, ok?”
“Well it’s been great talking with you!”
“You too Mom!”
I end the call with sadness. I wish I was at my mom’s house, in Pennsylvania, up in the mountains with lots of snow and a cup of hot cocoa in my hands, watching cable with my mom right next to me, in the other chair, finding some mindless TV or a movie to watch.
I finish my walk into town, crossing under the train bridge onto Fourth Avenue. I skip the first bar, which is a bar for preppie U of A people, and I go into the very next bar on the street.
I set my bag at the base of the bar and sit on a stool. I order chili dogs with extra chili and a hamburger with chili on it. I drink straight shots of gin and I drink quite a few of them. I play pinball between shots, and I take some of my shots to the pinball table to drink while I play.
I know I’m in denial but what better way is there to spend your last few bucks? If I’m gonna be hungry soon I might as well be full now..drunk and happy too.
I stay at the bar as long as possible, talking with the bartenders, male and female, making friends with them all. When I feel it’s embarrassing how long I’ve stayed here, I pay and go, schlepping my bag across a crosswalk on Fourth Avenue.
Drunk, I think I see Courtney driving a truck down the very street I’m walking on, and then I realize it is my friend Courtney, with her kids in the cab of a red pickup truck, and I wave.
She waves back. She smiles. She stops the truck.
I walk over to her and we talk. She says these are her kids who I met much earlier in their lives—Julian’s kids—and that she was just out getting milk and they’re going home to have movie night!
“Well,” she says, “would you like to come over?”
So I ride in the back of the truck and we go a few blocks. It’s the strangest experience, going into the house, because it seems familiar..and..yes! This is the house that Shringara and Rishi used to live in. They rented it here years ago. And Courtney rents it now. Small town.
Courtney makes the girls milk and hot dogs and I explain that I just had hot dogs and the girls laugh. I sit with them at their table and Courtney and I talk while the girls eat. Courtney tells me about her husband, how she’s found love since Julian and someone who really cares about and can help take care of her kids. He’s away on a job right now. Courtney and I catch up on old times and then all of us watch The Princess Bride together. While the movie plays Courtney talks low about her sex life and how excellent it is with her current beau. The talk gets me turned on and I hope that Courtney is freak enough to have sex with me while her husband is away but finally I realize it’s just my fantasy and she’s not going to break the rules and I’ll always just have to wonder what it would be like to have sex with Courtney.
After she’s done telling me about how great it is to fuck her husband, I say:
“What is it, Matthew?”
“Do you think I could camp in your backyard for a while?”
She leans back on the couch.
Courtney came to stay at the house I was living in when she and Julian and baby needed a place to stay and I hope that the favor will be returned.
“I can’t. I’m sorry to tell you that, but the landlord lives next door and she would not be cool with it.” Courtney shakes her head. “I’m really sorry. I would love to be able to say yes.”
“I understand. I had to ask.”
“It’s also an issue with my husband. I mean even if you were just coming in the house to take baths and use the toilet, I don’t think he would be comfortable having another man around the house—especially someone I’ve had a connection with. You and I do have a connection.”
“I’ve felt it since Austin.”
“I know. I have too.”
Courtney puts her hand on mine.
“I think it’s time for you to go.”
Her kids watch the movie while I heft my pack and Courtney and I go to the door. She gives me a big hug.
I’m stepping off the porch.
She says: “Do you have a place to go?”
I turn, and I’m trying to think how to answer this question, but I just say, “Yes.”
I close the gate on my way out of their yard. The night air chills my arms, and I pull my hat from my pocket and put it on. I head down the block confidently, even though I have no idea where I’m going.
I start to see the city in different ways, tonight. Every piece of property becomes a possible place to stay.
I see little leaf overhangs, where a viney bush creates a pocket of darkness, and I think I could sleep there. I go down alleyways instead of regular streets. I could sleep behind those trash cans.
Everything is so exposed. Everywhere I see to sleep could be easily seen by someone walking by. If I sleep in the open I might get beat up. Some other bums might try to rob me. I keep searching.
The best place to sleep seems to be in a dumpster but what if they empty it while I’m in there? I could be sleeping one second and in a trash truck the next second, getting compacted. Can’t sleep there.
People’s yards are so inviting, especially back yards. If I was inside someone’s fence people wouldn’t just walk up on me. But what if the people who own the house have a gun, and they kill me for trespassing? Can’t stay there.
I think about going up to the university. There’s lots of grass and bushes there. I could find a hedge of bushes up against a wall, sleep there. Nobody’s going to be on campus at night, except security guards. But the more plant life there is, the more I’m scared of snakes. We are in the desert. I don’t want to get bit by a snake while I’m sleeping.
I come to a parking lot. On my right is Time Market, where I met Sarah. On my left is a Methodist church.
I instantly scan the church for places to sleep.
I see a ramp, a wheelchair-access ramp that doubles back on itself, and there appears to be a two-foot wall at the base of the ramp. If I could get on the other side of that wall, I would be hidden from the view of passers by.
There are people walking on University Boulevard. I don’t want anyone to see me getting into my spot, but the best way to be hidden is to act normal. I walk up to the church, go up the wheelchair ramp, and drop my bag. Then I lie down on the concrete.
Did anyone see me? I sit up slightly, looking over the wall. No one there. The alleyway empty. Parking lot with a few cars. I lie back down.
There’s a door at the top of the ramp; that’s right by my head. The lights are off inside the church. My other side is covered by the wall. Good. I’ve found a secret place to stay. All I have to do is hope no one walks up this wheelchair ramp in the middle of the night. If no one does, I’ll stay hidden.
I unzip my pack and reach down into it, trying to find my sleeping bag. I grab the nylon sack that contains it, slide it out, careful not to let my head rise above the level of the wall. I pull the sleeping bag out of its container, spread it out on the concrete. I decide to sleep in my clothes; anything else seems unsafe. I get into the sleeping bag and zip it up around my head. I have my hat on, so the only part of me that’s exposed is a small part of my face.
What if someone comes up here and tries to steal my backpack? I’ll be defenseless in this sleeping bag; I won’t be able to stop them. Or if they decide to kick my ass. I shake my head. I just have to hope that that doesn’t happen.
A couple walks by in the alley. I stay down. They sound like they’re right on top of me, but they can’t be. They’re laughing and joking and heading home, no doubt, to be warm and have sex and enjoy all the comforts of home. As I hear them fading I look above the wall. They’re nowhere near me, it just sounds like it.
I lie back down. I feel pretty snug in my sleeping bag, though the concrete doesn’t feel too good on my back. I experiment with lying on my back, on my side, on my other side, and eventually I settle on a position that’s halfway in-between sleeping on your back and sleeping on your side. That position seems to cushion me best on the available fat so that my bones don’t rub on the ground.
As I lie there a while my warmth fades. This bag is good enough to keep you from freezing in cold temperatures, but it’s not going to keep you toasty warm. First my legs, then my butt, then my chest are cold.
I pull my face inside the bag. Breathe it warm. Ideally, I stay awake all night to protect myself from any danger. And with this cold it might happen naturally—I might not be able to sleep.
I wish I had some alcohol. My drunk from earlier has faded. Some alcohol to make me pass out would be nice. As it is I’m way too sober and way too awake.
I lie there for about an hour. It becomes clear that the major hurdle to overcome in getting to sleep is getting over my adrenaline-spiked hyper-aware super-vigilant mode and relaxing enough to lose consciousness.
I try visualization exercises, imagining all my problems and possible dangers put in a tiny suitcase and that suitcase being thrown into the ocean and swallowed by a whale, forever beyond my reach.
I try regulating my breathing. In through the nose. Out through the mouth. Counting, holding. Someone walks by in the alley. This one doesn’t talk, and I wonder if it’s another homeless person. I might be in someone’s spot! The weight of just not knowing gets to me. When you’re sleeping in your bed at home, you think you’re safe. You might not be, but you think you are, most of the time. When you’re sleeping on the streets, you just don’t know.
I start to think I’ve chosen a bad spot. Anyone who wanted to could come right up to this two-foot wall and look over it and see me. But who would do that? Who would walk up to a wheelchair ramp in the middle of the night and do that? But they might. You just don’t know.
Several hours pass. I look up at the stars. I hear more people go by. It gets very very very quiet. I’m afraid to look over the wall anymore, in case someone is right there waiting for me; I commit not to look over it any more tonight.
I think of what I’ve come to. I’m sleeping outside in Tucson, no home, haven’t been paid for my jobs yet, almost out of money. If the people I’ve worked with could see me now, they’d think I’m crazy. But I have to admit, I like the cool air, I like looking up to see the stars. If I can sleep here every night I may have found a relatively safe place to stay. My mom is a minister; it feels right to be sleeping at a church. Churches are supposed to help people, right? Tonight they’re helping me.
I entertain some fantasy that as long as I sleep on church grounds, nothing bad will happen to me—but I know that isn’t true. It isn’t safe for me to sleep this night—or any night—outside in Tucson.
When I wake up the sky is blue—and I actually slept! It was full of fits and starts and waking up here and there to adjust on the concrete but I slept! I feel rested and happy. No one’s going to jump me this time of morning.
I change clothes on the wheelchair ramp, staying below the wall. While I’m pulling up my pants I notice an old man standing inside the church door that I’ve been sleeping by.
He knocks on the window.
I turn back around to my business, pulling up my pants. I’ve got nothing to say to him.
He opens the door.
I’m sitting, looking up at him.
“You have to leave.”
“You shouldn’t be staying here.”
I think about ripping him a new one about where the hell am I supposed to stay, but he’s an old man so I don’t say anything. He stays at the door while I pack up my sleeping bag and put my dirty clothes inside my pack. When I’m going down the ramp he closes the door and lowers the Venetian blinds. Looks like I won’t be staying there anymore. Asshole’ll probably call his security guard and have him check that spot to make sure no one’s sleeping there.
I cross the parking lot. Time Market’s open. I go in and sit down. I’m not going to be buying anything. I warm up for a minute then take my bag and go to the bathroom.
At Time Market the bathroom is in the back behind a bunch of stacked crates of orange juice and wine, and I try to sneak back there as much as possible. I have to piss violently and take a shit, and I’m going to try to bathe while I’m back there.
I go in the bathroom and close the door. I’m on a clock. I have five minutes before anybody suspects there’s something wrong. I brush my teeth very quickly. Then I take off my shirt even though it’s freezing and I wash out my armpits with water. I put on deodorant and put my shirt back on. I need to shave but there’s no time—there’s no way I can shave without tying up their bathroom for a long time and possibly getting banned from Time Market for being a bum. So I don’t shave. I splash water on my face and wipe the sleep out of my eyes. My hair is wild—it will have to stay.
I piss and shit. My shit is the stinkiest in history, possibly due to the abundance of chili and gin in my diet yesterday.
I pack up my bag and put it on my back. I make sure the bathroom door is open wide, and hope a few minutes pass before somebody else tries to use it. I try not to let anyone see me come out of the bathroom, because of my stinky shit and because I don’t want them to realize I’ve been bathing in there. I sit at a table mostly hidden from the cash register so they won’t notice I’m not ordering anything.
I check email. I’m looking for jobs when my phone rings.
“What’s shakin’, bacon?”
“Oh not much. I slept outside last night.”
“As in, you slept..outside.”
“As in you’re homeless. I hope you’re not offended that I use that word.”
“No, Ashley, I am homeless. I am without a home. I slept by a church last night and froze my ass off. But I am working two jobs and I’ll have a place soon, so everything is on the up. I got to see the stars..she sky is beautiful here, as you know. I can’t think of any sky I’d rather sleep under.”
“Why don’t you come stay with us.”
“That’s nice of you, Ashley, but—”
“Come to Phoenix.”
“I don’t really like Phoenix, I’ve always been more of a Tucson kid.”
“Yeah but..sleeping outside? I mean you can’t do that. What if something happens? There are dangerous people outside. I mean— Matt—”
“It’s not ideal, I agree, but what am I going to do? I don’t have money to properly move from place to place. So I have to sleep outside for a while. Maybe things aren’t fair but this is my lot in life—”
“This is not your lot in life. Come stay with us. You don’t need money here, I’ll buy groceries, you can meet Faith. You’ll like her, I promise!”
“Yeah I’m sure she’s gonna want me staying with you two, stinking up your bathroom—”
“We have separate bathrooms.”
“Well I’d be stinking up your bathroom.”
“You can stink up my bathroom anytime, friend. I haven’t talked to Faith but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind. Let me come pick you up and you can stay with us a while, figure out what you’re gonna do, maybe find a job—”
“I have two jobs! I have two jobs right now, Ash. Shouldn’t that be enough? Once I get paid I’m gonna find a place.”
“But I know those are dishwasher jobs and they don’t pay very much—”
“Shouldn’t a person be able to live as a dishwasher? Do I have to be a software engineer to be of use to this world? What about the people who can’t be software engineers and have to be dishwashers? What do they do?”
“Well I expect their lives are very hard.”
“Yes, I’m sure you’re right. I can’t, I’m sorry, I can’t come to Phoenix. I would love to see you and I would love to meet your friend, but..”
“You want to make it in Tucson.”
“Yeah. I think this can be a healthy place for me. I just need a few weeks until I get paid and then I can put a down payment on an apartment—”
“Are you going to have enough?”
“I don’t know, Ashley. I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go along.”
Silence on the line.
“Well if you change your mind.. Like I said I haven’t talked to Faith about it but I’m sure she wouldn’t mind.”
“Ok, Ashley. I appreciate it. I’m sorry for being so stubborn but I just got to work this out on my own for now.
“I hear you, my friend, and I respect that.”
I sit at Time Market all morning. I buy a Wall Street Journal ’cause it’s the cheapest thing to buy and I don’t want to get kicked out. I wait till it’s sure to be warm outside before I leave. I return my Wall Street Journal to the rack it came from so someone else can read it. The coffee smells good and the pizza is just starting to come out of the oven by the time I leave.
Outside, the air has warmed up and the sun hits my head as I walk away from the Market. I take off my hat.
Right there is Surfer Dan, a 35-year-old homeless guy. No bag, no phone, no extra clothes. Looks like he sleeps in the dirt. He makes sculptures out of the palm leaves and sells them to sympathetic citizens. He’s a signpost, a local symbol. People buy him sandwiches from the Time Market, and wonder if he has any family, wonder where he came from, wonder what happened.
Surfer Dan asks me if I have any money and I tell him no. I stand there staring at him for a minute and he doesn’t even notice. He’s become a fixture in my mind, from way back in the days when I lived here before. Now he’s too close to home, a reminder of myself. Before when I lived here I bought palm leaf sculptures from him. Now I’m on a mission: never, ever become Surfer Dan.
I’m washing dishes at the Casbah. I’ve pretty much learned where all the dishes go. Learned my extra duties: carrying food to the walk-in, taking out the trash. Crushing cardboard boxes that produce comes in is one of my duties. Everyone else just tosses them over the fence in the back. I flatten them and put them in the dumpster.
When I’m washing dishes, I rarely have to talk to people. Most of my talking has been asking where things go. That doesn’t happen as much now. I’m mostly in my own world, running load after load of cups and plates and plastic bowls through the machine.
I get into a routine. I wash certain things first, the bigger things. I develop a micro-philosophy of life based on dishwashing that says you always tackle the bigger problems first (the bigger dishes), then get to the small things. More precisely, my philosophy states that whatever’s in your way, you move first. If you keep reaching into the sink to grab cups but every time you reach there’s a giant pot in your way, then stop and wash the giant pot first. Get it out of your way. Then do the cups.
I’m pretty happy with my philosophy and soon I start thinking that everything I need to know about life I could learn from dishwashing. Every action I take becomes a metaphor for some larger life dynamic. This is it! I needed to become a dishwasher in Tucson, Arizona to learn all the secrets of life! There is suddenly a spiritual dimension to everything and then:
Jesse comes over to the dishwashing area.
“Where did you put my mixing spoon? Large, plastic spoon about yay big? And don’t tell me you don’t know because it’s your responsibility, as the dishwasher, to get it where it needs to go! Where is it??!!”
“I’m not sure. I’ll help you look.”
Jesse storms off and I follow her.
A few minutes later:
“These are serving plates. These are meal plates. Serving plate. Meal plate. Meal plates don’t go with the serving plates and serving plates do not go with the meal plates! Get it right!!”
Then a few minutes after that:
I turn around and Jesse is there.
“Did anyone tell you to scrub EVERY SURFACE of the pots and pans? They have to be scrubbed inside and out.”
“No one told me but that’s how I’ve been doing them.”
Jesse looks at me for a long time.
She walks away.
“So don’t fuck it up!” she says on her way into the kitchen.
I follow her into the kitchen. Her back is to me.
She keeps mixing dough.
I tap her on the shoulder. “Jesse?”
“I’m taking my break.”
“Ok, just, don’t hang out in the tents. Go out back where no one can see you.”
I nod. I take off my apron and go out the side door of the Casbah. I walk two blocks down Fourth Avenue and come to my destination. The North bar. Dollar-fifty well drinks Monday and Wednesday.
I go inside and sit at the bar. It’s dark. The bar is exquisitely stocked. I order a well gin.
The bartender looks at me like I’m crazy and goes to pour my drink. When he brings it back he tells me it’ll be a dollar fifty.
I dig in my pocket. There I have the tip-out money the waitresses at the Casbah have given me for washing their dishes. It isn’t much, but it’s enough to get drunk off dollar-fifty well drinks at the North.
After my second gin the bartender starts talking to me. He asks where I work and I say the Casbah.
“You work down there? With Jesse and all them?”
“Kind of a fag restaurant, isn’t it?”
“Yeah,” I say, but then I resent him calling my workplace a fag workplace and I wish I wasn’t even talking to him.
“You don’t look like you’re from around here.”
“I’m not. I’m from New York.”
“Liking the desert?”
“Yeah, I love it.”
He turns his back to me.
“What about this? Is this a cool place to work?”
“Yeah,” he says. “If you like fights on the weekend, drunks every night, college kids getting drunk off dollar-fifty shots and trannies turning tricks in the bathroom.”
“Sounds nice,” I say.
“So you work tonight?” he says.
“I’m working now,” I say.
The bartender laughs.
“You on break?”
“Yup. And I’ll take another one of those well gins.”
He knocks the bar. “Comin’ right up.”
I drink five well gins and consider switching to tequila to get me really fucked up, then the bartender says something that makes me listen.
“I used to be a drifter,” he says. “Started out in California. Hitchhiked across this country nine times. Met hookers, bikers, truckers. Met this little skank from Mississippi that became my wife. She was blowin’ truckers when I found her, damn near sucked my dick off the first time she did it. I had to tell that bitch to slow down, take your time with it. Now she sucks dick like an angel. Anway. I seen you, I knew you was travellin’. You got that look about you. If you’ve been there, you can just tell, you know. I know what it’s like. Lookin’ for places to sleep, tryin’ not to become really homeless. I bet you work two jobs.”
I tilt my head.
“I worked three. Worked cleaning bars after they close. Used to clean theaters. And waited tables, if you can believe that. You couldn’t make me wait tables now. But it paid for my first apartment, and the rest is history. Almost own this place now. Pretty soon, I’ll have two bars. Just work hard, keep your head down, don’t drink too much, and try to get laid once in a while. You want another shot?”
I look at this guy. I’m not sure if I want to tell him thanks or sarcastically say, I’m happy for you, you smug motherfucker. So you succeeded and got yourself out of the hole. That doesn’t make it any easier for me right now. You almost own a bar? Isn’t that like kinda being pregnant? Fuck. If I wanted a pep talk I would have gone to church.
He’s still looking at me, in this glazed, fatherly sort of way.
“Sure. I’ll have another shot.”
I round it off at six and head back to the Casbah. I’m a little top heavy on the walk up the street. My field of vision is fragmented. I go in through the side door and go straight to the dishwasher station.
Jesse says something to me but I ignore it.
Then she’s by my side.
“Matthew! Matthew. Look at me.”
I turn around.
She looks in my eyes. She looks from eye to eye.
Does she know? I’m trying not to breathe so she won’t smell the alcohol.
Jesse points at me.
“You. Right now. Follow me.”
She heads out of the room.
“What’s going on Jesse?”
She holds her finger up. We’re in the middle of the dining area, the tents. People are eating. Jesse pulls me close by my shirt.
“You need a safety meeting.”
She turns and continues toward the back. I follow her through all three tents, out the back gate, and into the walk-in freezer.
Jesse closes us in.
There’s a dim light and we both sit on produce bins. Jesse digs in her bag. She pulls out a glass pipe. She empties it on the floor of the walk in. Slowly, carefully, she takes out a sandwich bag of weed and packs the pipe. She hands it to me with a lighter.
“I don’t usually—”
“You’re going to now.”
I look at Jesse. I spark the pipe and take a long inhale.
“Take another one.”
Jesse waits until I’m good and high before she smokes.
“Now tell me about you.”
“What’s to tell.”
“Tell me about that bag of yours.”
“That bag..well..that bag..”
“It’s ok. A lot of people camp around here. It’s accepted. You have a good spot?”
“I have an ok spot.”
“Just watch out for gangs. You won’t have much trouble downtown but these west side gangs.. And don’t even go to the south side.”
“Is that where you’re from?”
“I’m from the west side.”
“What’s it like over there?”
“Well..gangs. Punker gangs that’ll fuck you up with chains, knives..they will fuck you up. That’s the type of shit I grew up with. On the way to school. I learned how to fight. You do not want me on the other end of a chain. And I always keep this.”
Jesse shows me her knife.
“You had to use it often?”
She takes another hit. Hands it to me. I wave it off.
“You are going to smoke this. I’ve seen you. You are a stressed-out motherfucker. I need you safe. In that kitchen, you’re my responsibility. I need those dishes washed. Are you gonna be safe with me?”
I smoke the last of the bowl.
“Good. Do I need to pack another one?”
I feel like I’m tripping off the pot.
“No, I think I’m good.”
“Are you safe?”
“I can’t have no bullshit breaking out in my kitchen. I need everybody calm. Now you know you can take a drink anytime you want it. Not the chai, but juice is ok, espresso is ok. And don’t tell Paula I said this but if it’s late, and we’re not that busy, have Steve make you a shift meal. We don’t do shift meals here but just say it’s for a customer and have him make you a seitan cheesesteak or the Brazilian black beans and eat it back here. Don’t call it a shift meal. And don’t let anyone see you, especially Paula. And if you tell her I said this I’ll kill you. But do it if you have to. Just don’t ring it up and it’s like it never happened. Do you have a knife?”
“Get you a knife. Sleepin’ around here, somebody’s gonna get to you. I hate to think of you gettin’ fucked up.”
“It’s nothing personal. I just need you here to wash dishes.”
“No problem. Now take three crates of tomatoes inside on your way in. I’m making salsa and I need some tomatoes.”
Jesse leaves, and I just sit in the walk in for a minute, freezing, trying to get a handle on my high. I carry three crates of tomatoes to the kitchen then go back to the dishwashing station. For the rest of my shift I’m disoriented, uncomfortable, unable to focus. I have to will myself to wash each dish, all I want to do is quit, and I’m hoping that will be the last of my compulsory safety meetings.
As soon as we’re back in the kitchen, Jesse resumes her yelling. It’s “MATTHEW!” this and “MATTHEW!” that. She stands in my face, shorter than me, and yells at me in front of the line cooks.
My shift finally ends with Jesse barking, “You need to go home.” Has she forgotten I don’t have one?
I leave a pile of dishes and the floor un-mopped and I head back to the North. My bag is leaning against the wall. I play pool by myself and drink tequila.
Sometime in the night I must have texted Luke, because he comes by the bar to pick me up. His juice-fasting, raggedy-head self comes up to me at the pool table.
“I got your text.”
“Great! Want a drink?”
“Actually let’s get out of here.”
“You sure you don’t want to play pool?”
“The North isn’t really my scene. Why don’t you come over to my house?”
I make a shot.
“I want to show you some videos. Stuff I made. And I’d like to watch your stuff from film school, if you have it online.”
I shake his hand.
I finish my tequila and heft my bag and me and Luke go to his house. He drives, in a nice old car, and soon I’m sitting on the floor in front of Luke’s couch and he’s showing me videos he made in high school. They’re long and boring and Luke is very excited about them. He talks all the way through and there’s no alcohol at his house. He’s asking me questions and I’m saying nothing because I’m so drunk and bewildered at having to watch these pointless videos. It’s a metaphor for my life, sitting at a screen watching something I hate, and being too polite to look away.
Luke is asking me if I liked it. I just lie down on the floor and look at the TV sideways. I feel the carpet texture. I’m spinning from the drinks, afraid to close my eyes because that will make me even dizzier. I just look at the last frame of Luke’s video, on pause, and wonder how I got here.
The next morning I wake up on the floor. I take a shower and put on the same clothes as before. Luke is in his bedroom sleeping, and I sit on the couch with a headache waiting for him to wake up. Finally I speak to him and he rolls over. It takes him about an hour to get out of bed. We eat breakfast at his house, which consists of him blending up a bunch of celery and me eating one half of an un-toasted English muffin. Luke takes a forty-five minute shower. He never once asks about my film school videos. About the only conversation we have is him asking me where I want him to drop me. And driving down Speedway, in his vintage car, I am pretty sure I wish Luke had never come to the North, and I had passed out drunk in my sleeping bag last night, under the stars.
My notebook fills up, so I buy a new one at a stationery store on Fourth Avenue. It’s recycled paper with a cardboard cover and a drawing of Alice shaking hands with the Mock Turtle.
I sit in the park and write. I think of the other day when I worked that political job, riding in the van to the suburbs.
I enjoyed seeing the mountains from a car driving in Tucson—I like the highways here. The feeling of one’s life is about/determined by what you do/see/who you know on a daily basis..hence there are many different Tucsons, many different New Yorks, etc.. I think maybe a car should be among my first purchases here: I can even sleep in it for a while. It’s like the important thing is what do I want to be around..like washing dishes at the Casbah I’m ok with, since I like the vibe of the place. Seeing those mountains today I’m like: fuck Hollywood. Fuck the movie industry. I can make movies my way. I’d rather have a truck, sleep on a little piece of land in the desert, and do my own thing, than be part of all that. Plus there’s this whole pressure surrounding the movie industry..like I have to succeed in that..forget that, there’s no schedule (except mine) no rules (except mine).
I like writing, logic, art..I’m not into politics. And I don’t really like to be around people who are into politics. It’s the political aspect of my jobs that I have been worn out by, and that I haven’t been as good at. It’s like I’d somehow like to be able to focus on just the work—the parts that involve smoothing over or convincing of people tire me.
I can’t work with common people. I like them ok in a five-minute conversation, but interacting with ordinary people in a work situation is intolerable to me. My experience as a taxi driver was impossible..I just don’t want to believe that the world is like that, that the world is composed of people like that (even though it largely is). Maybe as a dishwasher I can at least not have to talk much.
I think about the Marcus disappearance, which is in Indiana Jones. Marcus is Jones’ friend. Marcus escapes, and Indiana Jones taunts the bad guys, telling them they’ll never find him.
Marcus? He speaks twelve languages, knows every local custom..he’ll blend in, disappear..
My thoughts of Marcus’ disappearance, as I apply the Indiana Jones quote to myself, are as a demonstration of my ability to leave behind my past. That I could be as free, as able, as Marcus, to become, in an unfettered way—to survive, Marcus must transform instantly, totally, and genuinely..and the idea suggested is that he can.
Of course the joke in Marcus’ disappearance is that Indiana Jones is lying. Marcus can’t speak twelve languages, he doesn’t know the local customs. They cut to a shot of Marcus in a crowd, drawing all sorts of attention, sticking out like a sore thumb.
What is the psychology behind my wanting to disappear? Why is it that I want to go somewhere/(become something) that no one I know knows about?
It could be that I want to demonstrate that my success, my becoming, is no one’s but mine.
Or it could be that I just need the space to do some growing in a new direction (without the shackles of the ideas and expectations of those who know me).
It could also be, as I claimed to Mom the other day, that I am embarrassed, and I want some privacy, like a dying dog. He crawls under the porch to have a secret place to die (or heal).
The Marcus disappearance is, however, most like this type of disappearance: a demonstration, a proof, an exercise, of independence..Marcus is independent of his culture of origin, even..he can become (chameleonically) what he needs to become to survive.
Got a room at the hostel for a week. If I get my check from the Grill I will have enough $ to rent another week there, which should get me to the next Casbah paycheck. As long as I work 30-hour weeks at the Casbah I will have enough $ to stay there, I believe. I won’t have money for food, really, but I can eat from the employee shelf at work, so I should be ok.
My phone’s going to cut out (unless I get a check from Maxwell Interactive)..also my website. I don’t want the website to go out, as it contains my cellular automata pages, which I want to be available to the world. Maybe I can mail my hosting provider a money order with my little extra Casbah $.
If I stay at the hostel, I should be able to be plenty rested when I go to work, which should allow me to keep my head better than I have there the last two days. I suppose there’s no law against my finding a different job if I like. It might be a huge mistake (and I’m not even sure I can get one) but it would be nice, it seems from my current point of view, to be making software-type rates. Then I could get a place to live and a car and pay off my debts. There’s nothing saying I’d have to keep that job forever. It’s tough because I want to do something different (than software) but how can I afford to live on what I make at these restaurants?
From now on I need to at least have a shower every day and clean clothes..no more staying outside, I hope.
I don’t want to tell anyone what I’m doing anymore. Like if I get a software job, that’s my business and the business of whoever I work for..partially because it’s embarrassing and I would consider it a failure on some levels. But it could be an ok step in the direction I want to go: if I had internet and $ to invest, I could do online trading and make money that way. I could also set aside some amount per month to use to repay debts.
I feel nostalgic about my apartment on the 10th floor of the Commodore in Dayton.
Always remember the Star Wars music, the Jedi theme (in my mind): dun dun dun daa, daa, daa-dee-daa, daa, dun dun dun daa, dee-daa, dee-daa, dee dee daa! dun dun daa, dee-daa, dee-daa, dee-daa! dey det doh doe, dey dot dee, dey dey dot dee. Hum it when I’m walking, and remember that each time Darth strikes me down, I become more powerful than he can possibly imagine.
I wrote recently that this will be a period of rapid change, where some things will change fluidly and often, while others will be put in place and thus remain. Where I live will probably change three more times before I get a house, maybe two. My job may change more times than that. I have had a tendency in the past to hang on to things that aren’t working (for too long). I cannot do that now.
I also can’t make anymore flying leaps.
Flying leaps are what my mom calls my tendency to move to a new city with nothing and attempt to start over.
That means that I can’t feel that it is disloyal to maintain one job while looking for the next. In fact, for a while, I should always be looking for my next job, actively, even from the first day of my current job. Casbah is great. But I’m not going to get stuck there.
My dream is independent wealth and my starkly beautiful movie.
I can’t allow myself either to feel stuck or to be stuck with my current job. Until my job makes me enough $ to live in privacy and comfort that will enable my projects and movie planning, I will be constantly in the process of upgrading my work. And part of that is making more $ at each job.
My loyalty lies with me (and with me only). What is “going on” as I work (what is going on with the company) isn’t the thing. The thing is what I’m doing. So when I work a day canvassing for the democrats, I am surrounded by all these discussions involving ideas of what those people are doing. But I must always remember that what they are doing is not what’s important to me. I’m not creating a vegetarian restaurant or doing juice fasts or anything like that. I am making myself independently wealthy and making a starkly beautiful movie. Everything I do is to support me and what I am doing. Work is just work. And I decide what I do and when I stop.
From now until I have $10 million in the bank, I always have a job (definition: something I do to generate income), I always find the next one while I’m still working the first, I never speak of quitting until the day I put in a two-weeks notice, and when I quit that is final and without discussion.
Also: I never socialize with people I work with. I never drink any alcohol, smoke pot, or do any other drugs. I eat hardly any sugar.
One of the things I want to do as soon as possible is get all my stuff into one place, where I live. That means collecting stuff from Suzanne, Mick, Dad, my safe deposit box in Los Angeles, and I think that’s it.
I want to fix my credit, so I need to pay off all my credit card debts, my Honda financing, my Verizon bill, my school loan, and anything else I owe on.
I want to lie and withhold information. For instance, I don’t want people I work with to know where I live, so I may continue to tell people I’m homeless. I might keep Dad in the dark about stuff like that as well. He doesn’t need to know where I am or what I’m doing. For people not in the same city as me, I think the fake Alaskan fisherman blog is a great idea. It would really give me some space, psychically, from people’s ideas of me.
I’m thinking of making a fake blog where I pretend to be working on an Alaskan fishing boat, as a cover for my real activities. That way people will have some idea of who I am without bugging me. I will give the blog address to my family and friends when they ask what’s up. They needn’t be concerned with the actual me.
I am, as Andrew pointed out, very much a transcendentalist. I am, in a Thoreau sense, self-reliant. I like some contact with certain people but I can live alone in secrecy and be ok..or, rather, thrive on space from riffraff chatter.
Sometimes I have bittersweet, sad, scary, nostalgic memories of being at Mick’s house shooting cocaine.
I want to start spending only cash. I don’t ever want to receive mail at my house.
Rachel, photojournalism student, is taking pictures of me for her class project.
Make peace with everyone, but interact with each person to the level I desire. Maintaining certain distances, respecting them, is part of sanity.
I want to return to Saint Martin, to ride my bike up the street from Marigot to Baie Rouge. And this time I want to have long money. So I can live in leisure. Privacy. Boundaries. Health. Creativity. House in Tucson: base of operations. And I’ll travel all the time. Marigot. Europe. Japan. Asia. Morocco. Matthew Temple, Import/Export. Make money trading in goods. And simply investing. Just make money from having money—that’s the smartest thing to do.
Life is the fusion of surprise and cohesion. The cohesion is in place for me..I’m actually going to up the surprise component. So many people place too much value in remaining the same, in consistency, when I feel they veer in that direction to the point of stagnancy.
Midas’ touch. Everything I touch turns to gold.
Dreams I was having sex with Christina. But her in her old body, when she was plush but still shapely. Taking her from behind. And her in pleasure!
I will remember..that this is not the end of my life..it’s much more like the beginning. What I have yet to do will eclipse what I have already done.
Ideas of having a snake again as a pet. A California king, probably. I would have it from when she was a baby.
Obi-Wan Kenobi. Film directing. Technology entrepreneur. New Kind of Scientist. Part of me wants to build a more specific, genetics-based, sexual reproductive, evolution-type system that is somewhat open ended in terms of the genetic possibilities, but more structured than a cellular automata world—more designed into it in the beginning.
How do people who are not born rich, become rich? 1) They start a business. 2) They write or create something copyable or licensable. 3) They win the lottery. 4) They make money through saving. 5) They make money through investment. 6) They get into high-dollar jobs, like directing films, CEOing, stock trading, movie starring. 7) Patent an invention.
When I see old, crazy men I hope I’m not on the path to becoming them.
I’m not part of any world. Like I’m not in the theatre community, or the film community, or some academic community.
I’m struggling with feelings of worthlessness and hopelessness..and I feel like there’s no structure in which I can succeed. I’ve done some things, but I’m not sure if any of it matters, if anyone cares. I’m so mad at/hurt by my dad that I want to kill myself to get back at him. But suicide is stupid, as a statement to the living; it should only be done for oneself. At the same time, I feel like I haven’t done anything. Jean-Paul Letourneau has more of an academic career than I, but what has he done? I mean sometimes I can classify, understand, and minimize my cellular automata contributions, but they are more fundamental and more substantial than JPL’s, no question. I judge myself by an impossible standard, but I accept limitations and humanness in others. (What’s up with that?)
Poor Rebecca..I mean I’m doing well by comparison. She had to take a year off college to go to an intensive treatment center of some sort. And still she continued her bulimia and killed herself with drugs. The point is I’m like her. I need help from my family..but my family can’t give it to me.
From Gleick’s “Genius” (p. 216): The dean of a university urges a professor to give a non-attending, brilliant student an F. “He judged correctly that the grade would come to haunt the professor more than it would the student.” I hope that my former employers’ negative declarations about me are similarly viewed.
Feynman decides to only do things for the fun of it.
I write plays that no one likes and make abstract logical shit that no one cares about.
[some notes trying to solve an impossible factoring problem]
[many pages of diagrams]
[ponderings on the awesome implications of solving the factoring problem, comparing it to the invention of the atomic bomb, and pledging, in writing, to give my solution to the United States government because I believe they are monitoring my notebooks and will receive my message]
[declarations never to sleep with my ex-girlfriend, who I’ve been calling recently]
[an admission that I’m too chemically delicate to fuck with alcohol or even caffeine]
[record of a conversation with Paula, owner of the Casbah, where she tells me to chill the fuck out about work stuff—I’m a dishwasher for god’s sake! and I’m still taking that shit too seriously]
Then this note:
I do think a priority must be placed on diagnosis and maintenance of my mental chemistry. It would be perfectly acceptable to live with someone (friend, family) for a while to “get into a better state.”
I close my notebook and look up at the sky. I’ve had enough reflection for the day.
I stay at the hostel for a week. Then I’m back outside.
I wake up in the wash. In Tucson, a wash is a sunken area used for drainage of flash floods. It’s rocks and plants and big pipes that run under the road. You’re not supposed to go in them which is why they make excellent places to stay when you’re homeless.
I wake up freezing. It’s getting colder and colder outside as the fall approaches. It’s warm in the day, but at night it’s brutal.
I pack my bag and go straight for the Epic. I’m the first person to get here. In fact I get here before they open. I sit outside on the ground, back leaned against the wall of the coffeeshop. When they open I hear the lock click in the door. I stand, lift my pack, and go inside.
I take my time. I find a place to sit. I set my pack down. I use the restroom. Then I go to the counter.
A beautiful woman with a shaved head is waiting for me to order. I look around the wall behind her, reading the chalkboard menu. There are blackberry Italian sodas for sale, cakes, coffees, espressos, sandwiches. They even have a breakfast casserole. There’s a bowl of fruit in the display case, pineapples, grapefruit, banana. I look at this woman with the shaved head. She has an urban quality about her, but she could never actually exist in New York. This woman is too relaxed, too smooth, to exist in a place like that. I want to fuck her. I do. I want to strip off her overalls and hold her bare head in my hands and I want to fuck her. I need a girlfriend; she will do. She even looks like we would be kindred spirits. I shaved my head once. Now, I could be the one who has hair in the relationship. She’s looking at me, waiting for me to order.
“I’ll have a cup of hot water please.”
I try not to cough. I wonder if she knows I’m homeless.
She brings me the hot water and tells me to enjoy my day. I’m expecting her to tell me how much it costs but she doesn’t. I look at her. She has this plain look in her eyes, sort of caring, not judging, like I imagine a young Mother Theresa would be.
I sit down, and I warm my hands with the cup. The water is still too hot to sip, so I sink back into this huge couch and feel myself thaw. I watch the first few customers come through the door. They order confidently, they pay for their food. They have normal lives. They have homes. None of these people slept outside last night. I wonder what is wrong with me that I can’t just keep a job. I should have stayed at LexisNexis, and been a bonehead, and gotten a house on the golf course.
The place fills up and I drink my water. I think about the girl with no hair. She empties the trash, serves people at the counter, goes to the bathroom. I want her. I want her to be my girlfriend. I want her to notice me.
When the time is right I grab my bag and go to the bathroom. I wait till a few people use the bathroom in a row, then I go in, hoping that no one will have to use it while I’m in here. I double check the lock; it’s locked. I strip down and put on a new pair of clothes. I check myself in the mirror: do I look homeless? My hair is matted down from being under the hat. But my skin is clear. No, I just look like a traveling kid. When I leave the bathroom it’s only been a few minutes. No one is waiting.
I sit back down on the couch feeling a bit better with fresh clothes. My empty cup sits on the table in front of me. I think of asking for another but that would be too much. They’ve already given me enough.
I get out my laptop and look for apartments. Me and Kat, from work, are going to get a place together. I scope out ones near the Casbah. There’s one on Fourth Avenue, within walking distance, that I think we could rent together. It’s a one bedroom, but I’ll sleep in the living room, I don’t give a fuck.
I look for jobs. I browse the “Software Engineering” section on Craigslist. I find a few. But I can’t get a software job—I’m homeless! I need a place before I can get a software job. You can’t just show up to those jobs looking like you slept in the wash! Need money to get a place. Need a place before you can get a job. Need a job to get money! Why, oh why can’t I make it on a minimum wage job?
I close the laptop. I lean back on the couch. I rub my face with my hands. The woman next to me is talking on her phone.
“..no, I don’t know who you’re talking about. Wait. The one with the brown hair? I never met anybody named Star at the ITL. That’s all her name is, Star? You mean last Saturday? Oh, you mean the girl with the big tits!! I didn’t know her name was Star. She is? You’re kidding me. She is homeless? Are you sure? How do you know? Oh really. She did? Wow. But. Wait. She can’t be. She just can’t be! She’s too attractive to be homeless!!”
Then the woman next to me laughs. And I can hear her friend laughing on the other end of the line. They go on to discuss how homeless people are never attractive, they always look beaten down. I just sit and listen. I’m not angry. I just wonder what the fuck this woman sitting next to me knows about being homeless.
I go to the Casbah. Paula is in the office. I squeeze through the crowded doorway with my pack.
“I have something for you,” she says.
She swivels on her chair and hands me my check. I look at the amount. It’s less than half of what even a cheap rent would be. There’s no way you can make it on one job—you can barely make it on two. My saving grace is that Maxwell Interactive owes me for my last week of work. With that, I can make a deposit on an apartment.
“I want to talk to you about something.”
“Yes?” I say.
“How’s dishwashing going for ya?”
“It’s going fine.”
“Well, what do you think about doing some cooking?”
“I don’t know..I mean, I like dishwashing.”
“It pays more,” she sings. “Come on. This would just be two days a week, you’d still get to wash dishes the rest of the time. And on those two days, you’d be at the higher rate. Get some more money into your pocket.”
“You’re dependable. You do a good job on dish. I need you in the kitchen. You can help Jesse do her prep work. She’ll show you how we make seitan, how to do the Brazilian black beans. So you’re good with it?”
“Alright. Good work.”
“You workin’ today?”
“Well enjoy your day off!”
I leave the office. There’s Kat—you remember, the coworker I thought would have sex with me? She’s not pretty but she has this way about her.
“What’s up, Kat?”
She hugs me.
“I found some places on the internet!”
“Yeah! I found one right up Fourth Ave. It’s a one bedroom but they had pictures and it looked nice.”
“Where on Fourth Ave?”
“Just one block up from Epic.”
“What? That would be perfect! We could walk to work!”
“I know! You want to see? I saved the pictures.”
I show Kat the pictures and we make ourselves espresso.
“I have to get out of this current situation,” she says. “We have house drama to beat house drama. At first it was fine, of course, but then these personalities keep coming and it’s like, oh my god, can you please shut up?! We have this one guy, his name is Cecil, he never cleans up the kitchen. Are you messy?”
“No, I’m clean.”
“I mean I’m not like nitpicky clean but I keep things clean.”
“As long as the kitchen’s clean you can do whatever you want in your room. But if you lived in the living room you’d have to keep it clean.”
“Don’t worry. I like clean. It helps my mind think. You know that feeling of a clean room or a blank sheet of paper?”
“Yeah. Totally,” she says, and we have this moment, a long look in each other’s eyes.
I’m wondering if she’ll fuck me.
Then she says, “What are your roommates like?”
“That bad huh?” Kat laughs. “I know what you mean! I’ve had some shitty housemates. This one guy..”
Kat and I sit close. We drink our espresso. She tells me stories about all the shitty housemates she’s had and I listen and smile. I’m thinking if Kat and I get a place together she’ll be naked coming out of the shower and we’ll have that roommate closeness..you know, where you get all familiar with each other and it doesn’t bother you that you’re half naked around them? And eventually that roommate closeness will turn into us fucking each other and pretending to everyone at work that we’re still just housemates, but really we have hot housemate sex every time we can get our hands on each other.
Then I snap out of it. Kat’s not that pretty. She’s below me. I’m looking for a housemate and that’s it. I’m just lonely, and I’m looking for any way I can to have company, and my fantasies about fucking Kat are just that: fantasies of having company, of not being alone, of having someone, anyone!
“Are you excited?” she’s asking me.
“Kat, I’m so excited. I mean having a place where we can walk to work and that would be peaceful with no house drama..it’ll be great!”
“I’m excited too. I’m going to get a truffle.”
Kat gets up and it’s just me sitting on the floor of the coffee station before we open. Andrew, one of the line cooks, peeks in.
“Do you have a minute?”
“Of course, Andrew. What is it?”
Andrew comes in and leans against the counter.
“I couldn’t help but overhear..that you and Kat are looking for apartments together?”
“It’s none of my business but do you really think it’s a good idea to room with a coworker?”
“Just listen to me for a moment. You spend all day with this person, and then you go home..and they’re there. You have to put up with this person at work..and we all are putting up with each other to a certain degree. Then you go home..and it’s the same person. Day and night, day and night, you’re with the same person. And any drama that happens at work, you take home with you. And any drama that happens at home, you take to work. All I’m saying is we have enough..drama..going on around here already. To add another element like you and Kat living together..I just don’t want to see destabilization..of the Casbah. Of the crew. You know?”
“I see what you’re saying, Andrew. I respect everything you’re telling me. I think you’re right in some ways. But Kat and I get along—not great, but we have a certain click. I don’t have anyone else that I know to get a house with. Kat is looking for a place, I’m looking for a place. It’s that simple. We’re gonna have a peaceful house and it’s not gonna bring any drama into the Casbah. I have a good feeling about this. I think it’s gonna work out.”
“Maybe,” he says. “You may be right. Maybe there is no drama at the house. But have you considered this angle: she’s female. She’s a girl. And when a guy and a girl live together, things happen. Sometimes they do! Are you going to willingly go into that situation? Knowing that if the two of your fuck, there will be drama, because all good things must come to an end, my friend. And when she—or you—decides that it’s time to stop being fuck buddies, what happens to the Casbah then? That’s drama with a capital ‘D.'”
I stand up.
“I’ll think about it, Andrew. I’ll think about it.”
I’m looking for the funky jester. It’s this wine I like. I call it the funky jester ’cause it has a picture of a jester on the front. It’s a very cool label. It has the name of the wine, which is Domaine des Blagueurs—it’s a syrah. And then there’s this line drawing image of a jester with two heads. He has one on the top, and one on the bottom.
I look through the shelves. I know they have it. I ordered a case when I lived here before and they’ve been stocking it ever since. This is the wine I used to get for the weekends—in fact it’s the only wine I ever drank in Tucson, really. When I lived in a tent in my friend’s back yard I used to have bottles and bottles of it set beside my sleeping bag.
Those were good days. Julian and Courtney lived with us, and their baby Acacia. Me and Shringara and Julian and Courtney and Acacia would have parties on top of the garage..push a chair up to the wall and climb up. We’d drink wine and look at the stars and be happy. I gave Julian this antique watch, as a sign of friendship, and he wore it every day. Even when I moved to the apartment I kept Domaine des Blagueurs. I’d drink it in the morning and write, or program, and it had a calming effect on me. Rishi more or less accepted it. She had her cigarettes, I had my wine. And anything that kept me calm was a friend to my friends. So a glass of wine in the morning was routine.
Looking..looking..looking..found! There it is, the funky jester. Right at eye level, end of the shelf. I grab a bottle. I’m newly paid, so I can afford a few niceties. Once I pay, I put the bottle in the pocket of my cargo pants. The top sticks out a little, but it’s secure.
I jaunt down Fourth Ave like that, with a heavy bottle in one pocket and a corkscrew in the other. I’m headed for Lindy’s, a great burger restaurant. That’s gonna be my special meal. I’ll get the mac ‘n’ cheese burger, with tater tots. The thought of it wells up in me, all that beef. It’s just goodness, and I’m gonna get to have it. This is what working earns you—treats!
There are a couple other people eating at Lindy’s, but there’s still space at the bar. I drop my pack and sit on a stool. My bottle of wine tilts, but doesn’t fall out of my pocket. The waitress comes over.
“You want a beer?”
I tell her what I want.
“I’ll have that right up for you. You sure you don’t want anything to drink?”
I shake my head.
She places my check on the bar. Lindy’s is that kind of place. No formalities. You pay at the register. The place doesn’t look like much but they make great burgers.
There’s a show on the TV behind the bar about motocross racers flying up into the air and breaking their faces when they land. The couple next to me is watching it.
I step off my stool and walk to the bathroom. It’s through a hallway past the kitchen. I’ve been in this bathroom before. “HELLO MY NAME IS” stickers with the word “FUCK” written in as the name. Graffiti in silver marker. The shittiest paper towel dispenser in the world.
I lock myself inside. Take out the bottle of wine. Get my corkscrew. And prepare to chug seven hundred and fifty milliliters of the funky jester, Domaine des Blagueurs, all in one smash.
I would sit on Fourth Avenue drinking it, but I’d prob’ly get arrested. I can’t drink at work. Where else is there?
I cork the wine and put the cork in my pocket. I smell it through the narrow top of the bottle. Then I drink. It takes me several goes. The first time I only take a sip. It’s hot, and spicy. The second time I go in for it I manage to take a few chugs, swallowing it like water. I take a little break and then I really go, with a long chug, chug, chug. Half the bottle gone. I’d hate to see myself when this kicks in. I manage the second half of the bottle pretty easily, and pretty soon, it’s gone. I keep the bottle with me so that, say, the cook doesn’t go in and see an empty bottle of wine and they find out that someone’s been drinking in their bathroom. I go back into the restaurant. Did anyone notice that I was gone a long time? I don’t think so.
Sitting here watching motocross, the buzz comes on. But it doesn’t come gently. It comes down like a fist, grabbing me around the head. I feel everything fogging. I’m going slower. By the time my burger gets here I’m happily drunk.
I eat my burger in bliss. I savor everything about it. The tater tots are crispy, the mac ‘n’ cheese is warm, and the beef is fantastic. It’s way better than any shift meal ever tasted. Something about buying things with your own money makes them taste better.
I finish my meal and stumble down Fourth Avenue. I feel like sleeping. I wish I could just curl up in a ball on the sidewalk and take a nap. The world is so much more bearable this way. I feel soft, like nothing can hurt me, and I’m relaxed. Just look at the way I’m walking! There’s no stress in these shoulders! There’s no pain in these ankles! I’m a dancer, man. I sashay. I’m Gene Kelly in Singin’ in the Rain! People are looking at me, too. This girl back there, she looked at me. She could see the verve. She knows I’ve got it..and—BANG!—she wants me to give it to her! Even little kids can see it. Hi, little kid! Hi, other little kid! Let me shake your hand. Oh! Your mother doesn’t like that? She’s a whore. Fucking bitch, won’t even let her kids shake hands! Perfect strangers, schmangers. I’m Gene Kelly motherfuckers!!
I need to calm down. Have to work in a minute. Get yourself together. Get normal. Get calm and very, very serious. Can’t be acting crazy, now; can’t be acting drunk. Gotta wash dishes with the best of ’em. I can do my Gene Kelly routine in the kitchen! I’ll be a star!
I skip down the street even with my heavy bag on my shoulders.
I will survive!
I’m in the perfect town!
Everything about today is perfect—even work!
It was meant to be!
I get to the railroad bridge, and going under the dark overpass quiets me down. Then in the middle I scream! I let out a huge yell: AHHHHHHHHHHH! I don’t think anyone’s watching but then I look across the street and on the other side, where the other walkway is, a startled twelve year old has a crumpled brow.
I get to the Grill. I walk straight in. I put my pack in the employee closet and put my apron on. I go to the dishwasher station without saying anything to anyone. The previous dishwasher has left a backlog. I work, and I’m in my own world. I’m thinking of what a genius Gene Kelly is and how I’m going to be great someday. Someone’s going to produce one of my plays, or recognize my book, or something. My book is good, it’s good, it’s just that no one knows it yet. If I could only get it published. But all the publishers said no! How can I ever get anywhere when no one has any vision??
I look around the kitchen. The line cooks are doing their thing. Would they like my book? I mean, as a target audience, are line cooks my thing? My book is kind of cryptic, maybe it’s too much for the common mind. Fuck!
I’m banging plates all over the place and I drop one on the floor.
“Are you alright?”
“Fine, fine. Just a case of the nerves! I get nervous sometimes when I watch Singin’ in the Rain.”
“Have you ever seen Singin’ in the Rain? Very nerve wracking. All those musical numbers? Someone’s liable to get hurt. When I think of a man..swinging around on a lamp post, in water, and moving his feet like he did..I get nervous.”
The line cooks just look at each other. I turn back to the dishes, happy as a frog—or no, no, happy as a lamb—lambs seem happy! A little lamb on the prairie. Have you ever seen Oklahoma!? That’s a good musical, too.
“How’s it going over here?” It’s Bahir.
“Fine. Just fine. How’s it going with you?”
“Fine. I heard you dropped a plate.”
“I did, yes, dropped a plate.”
“Do you know what happens to people in my kitchen who drop plates?”
“I suppose you’re going to tell me!”
“They get plates thrown at their heads.”
“That’s great, Bahir, I haven’t had a plate thrown at my head in quite some time, so.”
“He’s serious,” says one of the line cooks.
“I’m serious,” says Bahir. “The last dishwasher worked your shift got plates thrown at his head all the time. Handle the dishes with care. This isn’t your momma’s kitchen. This is the Grill. You drop one more plate I’m gonna smash a plate against this wall..that’s if you duck it. Are we clear?”
I want to laugh. This motherfucker is going to throw a plate at my head? I’m Gene Kelly, motherfucker—I’ll dodge that bitch! Besides, who throws plates at people, anyway? This isn’t the Sudan. We have rules here! It’s called civilization! We settle our disagreements through talking, Bahir! You’re gonna throw a plate at my head?! I might just quit on your ass, then where would you be? I decide what I do and when I stop! Got that! Fuck this guy. Fucking Bahir. Thinks he’s the big man. Watch how you treat people you depend on. I wash these dishes every night, wash ’em good, put ’em all away, and I drop one dish and you’re mad at me? You drop saucepans all the time, flippin’ ’em behind your back! I drop one dish and this guy gets pissed.
Kevin comes up beside me.
“Have you read the new Pynchon novel?”
Kevin is this server. Both Bahir and I hate him because he’s too (in Bahir’s words) “buttery.” Like he’s just too soft. You would feel sorry for him except he’s too annoying to feel sorry for.
“No, I haven’t read the new Pynchon novel.”
Kevin starts off on this diatribe about how Pynchon is the greatest and nobody except Pynchon can write a sentence.
“Kevin, that’s just not true.”
“Yeah, but his sentences..really, no one can write a sentence like Pynchon.”
“Lots of authors write sentences.”
“But not like Pynchon.”
Kevin goes on to tell me all about Pynchon’s sentences and he continues to insist that, actually, no one but Pynchon can write a sentence. All this while I’m trying to wash dishes and I’m coming down off my high and I’m starting to feel tired off the wine. Kevin spins himself out about Pynchon and goes back to serving tables or whatever he’s supposed to be doing.
I hear laughter behind me. I turn around. Bahir has a plate in his hand and he’s acting like he’s about to throw it at me.
“Drop one more plate,” he says.
I watch him bouncing around like a monkey making fake quarterback-like moves at me. He thinks he’s soooo funny.
“Bahir, I’m gonna take my break.”
“O-kay,” he says, “rest those hands. I gotta have my dishwashers sharp! Can’t be droppin’ no dishes ’round here! Hope your reflexes are good, son.”
“Your plate-dodging reflexes,” the other line cook says.
And I say, “Ha ha.”
I find the employee closet. It’s right next to the bar, and I can see Ophelia pouring a Jameson. She looks over at me as I’m lying down on the floor and putting my head on my backpack. Ophelia’s another one I’d like to get to know better. We used to talk in the old days; now I’m just the dishwasher. I watch her replace the bottle of Jameson on her shelf. She turns it so the label is facing outward.
I close my eyes and think of many things. I think of how everything is made better with a little drink, and how I should drink more often. All the time, if possible. I cobble together a fantasy of Ophelia mixed with Alice in Wonderland, white pinafore, suicidal cuts on her arms and legs, and I imagine us holding hands in the forest, talking. I peek out and look at the real Ophelia, our Ophelia, the Grill’s Ophelia. She is happily stacking coffee cups and shot glasses, oblivious to me. Probably everyone knows I’m homeless by now, since I carry around this bag. But who cares? I’m doing my best, and my best right now is homeless. I’ll get a place with Kat soon and I’ll be a normal citizen again.
I lie there for a long time, longer than my break, and I think about asking Ophelia to give me a shot on the sly. If I did that she might tell Bahir, though, and I might lose my job. I imagine Ophelia and I drinking together on the customer side of the bar. I get sleepy. I’m in that pass-out phase of being drunk and if I’m not careful I’ll konk out right here on the floor of the employee closet. Let yourself sleep, you need it. This floor is way more comfortable than sleeping on rocks in the wash. In my fantasy, Ophelia orders us more drinks—this round’s on her. And I’m drifting, and drifting, and I make myself sit up. Blink my eyes. I can’t fall asleep. I’m not a loser. They’re paying me to do a job and I’m going to do it. The real Ophelia watches as I get up, put my bag against the wall, and go back to the kitchen.
The walk to the wash is getting too long, and I’m afraid of snakes. Sleeping there every night, I snuggle deep into my bag and use my hood to cover my face, but what’s to prevent some cold-blooded snake from slithering in with me to keep itself warm? As soon as I roll over, the snake will bite me, and that will be the end of me. Died in the wash, of snakebite, 2006.
So I look for a new place to sleep, closer in. I wait till dark then walk around the university. Not right on campus but in the streets around. I find a parking lot I think is perfect.
It might not be obvious why I think this parking lot is perfect. It’s just a normal parking lot. But it has a low wall running the length of one side, about waist height, and that’s what makes it. On one side of this wall is the sidewalk. On the other side is the parking lot. I can sleep on the parking lot side, right up next to the wall, and no one will see me. That’s what I think.
As I walk up on it, there are no cars in the parking lot. I sit on the wall and wait. People are walking by, in ones and twos and threes, and I wait till there’s a break in the traffic. No one looking? I jump over the side. The parking lot has lights in it, so it’s bright, but if no one parks here at night, then no one’s going to see me, right? And my reasoning for the people on the sidewalk is: how often do you look over a wall that you’re walking next to? You don’t. You assume nothing’s there and you walk on by. No one’s gonna see me.
On the ground, I slip off my pack. The lot is paved with asphalt but around the edge the asphalt stops and there’s gravel with random weeds growing in it. I’ll sleep in that.
I open the pack, quickly remove my sleeping bag, listen for pedestrians. Someone’s coming. I hold completely still. The person goes right by me, but on the other side of the wall. They don’t see me. I wait for their footsteps to recede and I straighten out my bag.
I slip inside my sleeping bag. Reach one hand out to push my bag flush to the wall. Then I scoot myself right up next to the wall. This is where I’ll sleep.
I lie there for a long time, on the gravel, listening to people walk by. I can tell how many people are in a group, except for larger groups, and I catch fragments of conversation. People coming home from parties, people studying, people concerned about issues. Then there are the silent walkers, one set of footsteps, and I wonder what they’re thinking. Are they going home to a lonely apartment? Do they live with their mom? Wherever they’re going, they’re going home. My home is right here, in this parking lot, with my bag and my notebooks and my change of clothes. There is no one waiting for me. No one’s keeping the light on. No one’s going to have sex with me. No one’s going to know if I die.
The gravel gets hard against my back. I turn on my side and that’s worse. I can feel every pebble with my shoulder. My skull grates against the rock when I move. I can feel my weight, every ounce of it pulling me into the rocks. I try sleeping on my stomach, thinking that might be better, but my neck is crooked at a rotten angle and my chin is on the ground now! The sleeping bag offers no protection from the hard ground. It offers heat, but no padding. And even the heat is questionable. It keeps me from freezing, that’s about it. My legs especially get cold, and I find myself moving them to circulate the blood. I do kind of a scissor kick every ten minutes or so, and that takes the edge off the cold. But then it creeps back, like a stone hand, crushing me.
Hours pass. I come to the conclusion that I’m not going to get to sleep in this parking lot, that I’m going to be awake all night from the cold and worrying about people seeing me. I really do not want someone to look over this wall. I’m vulnerable enough, sleeping here; I don’t want some date couple to look over the wall and see a homeless man sleeping in the weeds. I don’t want anyone to see me like this. I want to hide that I’m like this from the world. I just want to be alone, and to sleep in peace. That’s all I’m asking for.
Worse yet is if some frat boys happen by. I could get my ass kicked. Some happy-go-lucky, drunk, Daddy-boy motherfuckers, if they walked by, could do some damage. Beat somebody up just ’cause they’re there. I definitely do not want to be seen by them.
Just as I’m worrying about frat boys the unthinkable happens. A police car pulls up in the parking lot. He parks right in the middle, keeps his headlights on, and sits. At first I think he sees me and that’s why he’s there, but then he doesn’t get out of his car, so I’m not sure. I have a red bag and a blue sleeping bag and I’m right out in the open, from his point of view. How can he not see me?
I start imagining what would happen if he did see me. He would probably arrest me for sleeping on church property—for it is a church parking lot I’m sleeping in. Then I would spend a night in jail which would be good because it would be warm but would be bad because I would get arrested. I’m sure that at any moment he’s going to get out of the car and arrest me. I’ve always hated police.
I enter this kind of battle in my mind: does he see me or does he not see me? Maybe he’ll leave me in peace. Then I realize there’s a darker possibility. I might surprise him, and he might shoot me. Police shoot people for no reason. He might see me, and think I’m a threat, then shoot me. I stay perfectly still, looking at the cop car. I’m hoping my hat and hood camouflage my face. But he must see me. Maybe he’s calling for backup. Sleeping outside sucks. You can’t just lie down and sleep. People are always bugging you for some reason.
I am wrapt at attention, watching this police car, scaring myself to death with my fantasy of being shot. I really think that is going to happen; it has become the only eventuality for me. This is how I am going to die: shot by a police officer in Tucson, Arizona because the fucking cop had to get his gun off. I’m killing myself with fear, eyes wide open, short breaths, body tensed, when another police car pulls up. This one’s facing in the opposite direction. Side by side, they’re parked so they can talk. I’m sure this new cop is going to notice what his partner hasn’t, and I’m going to spend the night in jail. I start hoping for it, start thinking I should get out of my sleeping bag and go toward the cop cars and beg for them to arrest me. But if I did that I’d definitely get shot.
Eternities pass. Eternities of thought, of my freaking myself out mortally, worried about police violence and wishing they were doing something useful instead of sitting in a parking lot talking. We should dismantle the police and put them all to work at soup kitchens. I don’t even know of a soup kitchen in Tucson. Maybe I should find one. If I did, though, it would probably be too far to walk to. I’m gonna get shot.
Somewhere, though, I stop worrying. And I take another view on this sleeping-in-a-parking-lot thing. I might get shot tonight, I’m definitely going to freeze my ass off. I never thought I’d be sleeping in gravel and weeds, but here I am. I think this thought: no one I know has slept in a parking lot. I’m the only one I know who has ever slept in a parking lot. If I can do this I can do anything! If I can make it through this, and it doesn’t kill me, what else can I do? What other hard, impossible, terrible things can I do? Sleeping in the wash didn’t kill me. Sleeping at the church didn’t kill me. Begging for a cup of hot water at the Epic didn’t kill me. I’m still here. I’m still me. Nothing has stopped me from being here and being me. Maybe nothing will. Maybe there’s a part of me that’s indestructible, that gets up every time it falls, that always stays lit no matter how hard the wind blows. Maybe not everyone gets up every time they fall. But maybe I do.
I check my phone. It’s four in the morning. I’ve been up all night worrying about this police shit, I’m going to be tired at work tomorrow, my day is going to suck. Eventually one police car leaves, then the other. I have no idea if they saw me.
I drift to sleep, sleep till about five-thirty. The sky gets light and I extricate myself from my sleeping bag. My phone rings. It’s Ashley.
“Hey. I figured you’d be up.”
“Yeah, look, I’ve been meaning to call you.”
“Why didn’t you?”
“I didn’t want to burden you.”
“You’re not a burden! You hear me? You’re not a burden.”
“So. How’s it going?”
“Where are you?”
“In a parking lot.”
“Did you sleep there?”
“Matt, I think you should come live with me and Faith in Phoenix. I talked to Faith and she said it’s ok.”
“Will you consider it?”
“Yes, I’ll consider it.”
“But that means no.”
“No, it doesn’t mean no. I’m considering it. I’m definitely considering it.”
“Well, just know, that if you want to, the option’s open.”
“Ok. Thanks Ash.”
“Did your sleeping bag keep you warm?”
“I worry about you, Matthew.”
“I know you do, Ash. I’m sorry I worry you.”
“I just think..you don’t have to do everything on your own, you know?”
“I wanted to make it here, Ash. I wanted to come here and start a life and everything be ok for once. I just want a simple job and a simple place to live and time to write. I’m gonna make a movie someday, Ash.”
“I know you are.”
“Thanks for believing in me.”
“I do. You’re one of the most amazing people I know.”
“Thanks Ash. So are you, to me.”
“Well just keep in mind our offer to move here. Faith would love to have you. She’s all about the idea of having a homeless person live with us!”
“Well I haven’t always been homeless.”
“And I’m not always going to be homeless.”
“Alright Ash, well look, have a good day.”
“You too, my friend.”
We say goodbye. She texts me a few minutes later. Says one of her friends knows some people in Tucson I could stay with for a few nights, and could she give them my number?
I text her back, “yes.”
I debate calling the guys. They’re Ashley’s friend Tim’s friends. Ashley gives me their number. I’m supposed to call Pete. I’m sitting in front of Time Market when I finally do call.
“Yeah. Who’s this?”
“This is Matthew. Tim’s friend? He said you might have a couch I could sleep on for a couple of nights.”
“Yeah, yeah. When you do wanna meet?”
“Is now ok?”
“Sure. Let me give you the address.”
He gives it to me. It’s just a few blocks from Time Market. When I get to the house I stand behind a tree, trying to be invisible. I don’t want to go to that door. Me and my bag, begging for a place to stay from strangers. Finally I get up the courage to go.
I knock. A guy opens the door.
“Yes, hi Pete.”
“Hi. Come on in.”
He leads me into their living room, which has four couches in it. Three are arranged in a C shape facing the television. One is set behind all that, against the back wall.
“This is the couch,” he says.
“Let me show you the bathroom.”
“Sink. Toilet. Shower. Feel free to use my shower gel. It’s this one. Do you need razors or shaving cream or anything?”
“No, I have those.”
“Cool. So you’re good. You can use the kitchen if you want to. Just rummage around to find things. This is the dining room. We usually use this to study but if you need to write or anything feel free to do it in here. I guess that’s about it. We’ll leave the door unlocked so you can come in any time. Tim says you work late?”
“Yeah, I work at the Grill.”
“I love the Grill! Do my late-night studying there! You a line cook?”
“Cool. Well. You’re welcome to stay here right now if you need to sleep, but I’m headed back to U of A for class.”
“No, I’ve got work, but I’ll be by later to sleep.”
“Right on. Well I’ll see you later!”
“This’ll be unlocked?”
“Yep. I’ll make sure it’s unlocked when I go to bed. Just call me if it’s not. I don’t mind.”
“Ok, Pete. Thanks. I really appreciate this.”
We wave and I go out the door. I walk back to Time Market and charge my phone. Then it’s off to the Casbah and the Grill. On my walk from the Grill to Pete’s house, at six a.m., I feel like I’ve given up. I’ve failed at being homeless. I’m sleeping at some guy’s house who has his life together way better than me. He’s a student, he has a place to live, he has a car. He probably has a girlfriend, and a big dick, and a tight-knit family. They probably do every Thanksgiving together at some big house in California or Colorado or back east. He’s going to have a degree and a good life. He’s going to get married and have kids. And I’m going to be the guy that slept on his couch for three days—because that is the time frame I give myself. Three days I will sleep on Pete’s couch, and that’s it. I’ll be back on the street after that, back on my own, back not depending on anybody and not needing anybody for anything.
When I get to the house I’m sure the door will be locked. They will have forgotten about me, going about their student lives, and I’ll have to sleep outside during the day. But the door isn’t locked, and I go in silently. There’s no one downstairs. I take off my bag and sit on the couch. Someone has placed a couple of blankets there. I take off my Converse and lie down. I cover myself completely with one blanket, then the other. I even cover my head. I lie there in a pocket of warmth and hope that when the housemates wake up, they don’t notice me.
I turn on my side. The couch is plush and comfy. I love it. In fact when I get a house someday I might sleep on a couch. It’s all I need. It’s better than rocks! I laugh, and hope Pete doesn’t hear me from upstairs, his crazy homeless boarder laughing to himself in his sleep.
When I wake that afternoon, the house is empty again. I brush my teeth and consider taking a shower but I don’t want to shower in this strange house, with the potential of some roommate I haven’t met coming in and surprising me. I change socks, grab my pack, and go.
The next night when I come in there are people at the table. I drop my pack and try not to look at them.
“Hi. I’m Micah. This is Francy.”
“Hi Cutter. Hi Francy. Hi Micah.”
“We’re just studying. Big journalism test tomorrow. Feel free to watch the TV.”
“Oh no, that’s ok. I’m tired.”
“I hope we won’t bother you.”
“No, I sleep like a rock.”
“Pete’s going to be home later. We’re glad you’re staying with us!”
“Thanks. Yeah. I really appreciate your generosity.”
“It’s no problem!”
“Yeah, no one uses that couch!”
“Well, thanks. It’s nice not to sleep outside.”
“I bet. So are you looking for jobs?”
“I have two jobs.”
“Oh, good! Well, we’re going to get back to studying.”
“Ok. Nice meeting you.”
I sit down on the couch. I don’t brush my teeth. I just take off my shoes and cover myself with the blankets.
I listen to them “studying.” Mostly they just talk about who’s fucking whom and what they’re doing for Thanksgiving. Cutter is going to Camden with his family. Francy is spending it with her girlfriend here in Tucson at her girlfriend’s parent’s house. They’re going to be doing a lot of drinking—Francy’s girlfriend’s mother drinks a lot. Apparently from sunup to sundown, so they’re expecting a wild time. And Micah, he’s going to Portland, where his family lives, and they’re making stuffing (which Micah likes the best) and green bean casserole (which Micah likes second best). Micah’s little sister was just in a car accident and broke her clavicle. Micah flew back last weekend to visit. His sister is doing fine.
As far as who’s fucking whom, it’s very complicated. The other day Micah caught Pete looking at him in the shower so Micah thinks Pete is gay. As to whether Micah would ever fuck Pete, Micah has this to say:
“I wouldn’t care if his asshole was tighter than a fourteen-year-old Britney Spears, I would never fuck that asshole.”
“Now come on, if it was tighter than a fourteen-year-old Britney Spears, you would have to fuck it. You would have to. You’d be screaming for more. You would,” Francy says.
Cutter claims to have met a pair of twins at the university that he is interested in. They talk a lot about fucking twins and what the dynamics would be. They would have the same exact pussy so you couldn’t really tell which one you were fucking “by dick alone.” The only way to tell which one was which would be when they spoke, so of course you would put duct tape over their mouths.
“Stop,” Francy says. “Stop. You’re never gonna fuck those twins.”
“If they let me I will.”
“Yeah but they’ll never let you, that’s the problem.”
Cutter claims that he’s already fingered one of them and that the smell was atrocious, so he’s waiting around to finger the other one so that he can finally know if twins are alike in all regards.
I’m lying here, under my blankets, hoping it will all stop, that study hour will end and I will have the quiet of last night. I want to stand up and scream at them to shut their mouths, you stupid over-privileged college assholes! You’re thinking about fingering twins I’m thinking about where I’m going to sleep the day after tomorrow! What is wrong with this world? People with privilege don’t realize it and they waste their privileged time sitting around talking about how tight fourteen-year-old Britney Spears’ pussy is!
I do breathing exercises. Visualization. All kinds of tricks to try to make me ignore the conversation in the room and go to sleep. I focus on just one thing. I imagine myself as a fish, in the ocean, swimming among algae and finding a nice protected place among some rocks. My fish is breathing through his gills, breathing water, in, out. Then my fish gets sleepy—and hopefully I get sleepy. But it doesn’t work. I lie there until study time is done, and Francy goes home and Cutter and Micah watch TV.
They’re still in the same room as me but I’m able to ignore their TV choices more than I could ignore their talk. They’re watching some show where one man has to choose between like twenty women, and they compete for his affections and think he’s the only man they could possibly be with in the whole world. Cutter and Micah say things like “nice tits” and “nice ass” and that’s how I keep up with the show.
I eventually fall asleep.
The next night when I come home there’s a party in progress. Pete answers the door.
“Matthew, Matthew, come in! Can I get you a beer?”
There’s people everywhere, even on my couch, girls, boys, freaks, punks, everybody.
“You want a beer?”
“Alright everybody let’s clear off this couch! This is where Matthew sleeps! You: off. You: off! I said off the couch. This is our friend Matthew, he’s sleeping here for a few nights and he needs his sleep, so off the couch!”
People are staring at me, with my huge pack and my drifter-looking wool cap. My shoes are destroyed from working at the Grill, black grease all over them.
“If you want a beer, just help yourself.”
“Thank you, Pete.”
“Sorry about all the noise.”
“It’s no problem.”
“You wanna stay up, meet some people?”
“I’m kinda tired.”
“Understood, man. Understood. Well don’t let us bother you. Just do your thing.”
So I do. I do my thing. I skip my teeth brushing ’cause people are in the bathroom and I lie down on the couch in the middle of this party and I cover myself with both blankets and I try to sleep. And I don’t really, but I rest subtly over a long period of time. I listen to people talk about me, about the humanoid shape on the couch.
“What’s he doing there?”
“I don’t know!”
Later I hear someone say: “Pete’s got a hobo staying with him!”
Hobo! They actually use the word “hobo.” A hobo is someone in a Popeye cartoon with a sack tied to the end of a stick slung over his shoulder. I’m not a hobo. I’m a homeless person. Get it right.
“What if we just sit down on him?”
Then someone pokes me.
“Don’t do that!”
“What? I’m just seeing if he’s alive!”
“Leave Pete’s friend alone.”
Then someone touches my knee and moves my leg! I’m getting kind of angry. I want to sit up and confront whoever it is but they’re a laughing college student with nothing to lose and I’m the hobo on the couch under two blankets who desperately needs to not be sleeping on rocks for a few nights. How’s that conversation gonna go? Them laughing at me, is how.
So I lie there, under two blankets, and I listen to students laugh and laugh and get drunk and flirt with each other and talk about the homeless man on the couch and I just think: I can ignore you all. I can ignore everything you think about me. I can ignore everything you say. I can ignore the insulting difference between you and me, between your life and mine. And somewhere in there I wonder where I went wrong. I should have gone to a decent college, had the full college experience of learning and getting laid instead of dropping out after two quarters and having to play catch up ever since. Everyone else seems so happy and I can’t get my shit together. Am I going to be the guy on the couch for the rest of my life? When is my time to shine, basically. Will I get one?
I wake up to someone punching my shoulder.
“Hey! You’re snoring!!”
I roll over on my side, so my back is facing the room, and I dig in, mentally. Nothing can hurt me. Nothing they say can do me any harm. Just wait it out. They can’t drink forever. Soon enough they’ll be going home and the housemates will pass out and the house will be quiet again.
The next morning I leave while it’s still dark. I change my socks, put on my Converse, and rip a page out of my notebook. I write a note to the housemates thanking them for their hospitality, and I leave, and that’s the last I ever know of them.
Paula gave me the key to the Casbah so I could clean the oven. It hasn’t been cleaned in ages, so for some extra money she said I could clean it when they were closed.
The streets are empty. Every business is closed. I walk down the middle of the street—no traffic—and I think of all the people in their homes, enjoying the holiday. People will be preparing food and getting drunk and hanging with their families. I will be cleaning the Casbah oven, by myself, on Thanksgiving.
I let myself in through the front door and turn on the lights. The empty dining room looks odd: every table neatly ordered, all the chairs pushed in. I have the whole place to myself. I have all day to clean the oven. I can sit here and journal write if I want, or sleep, or eat from the employee shelf.
I set down my bag. I walk through the Casbah. Dining room, kitchen, office, dishwasher station, coffee area, and tents. Beyond the tents lie the dumpster and alley. I go to the coffee area and switch on our industrial espresso maker. It takes a while to warm up. I sit on the floor. Look to my right. The dishwasher station is perfectly clean, no dishes whatsoever, floor mats rolled up and leaned against the sink. I look up. Coffee pots and teapots hung from the ceiling, and some strainer things whose exact use is unknown to me. Everything is quiet. I have a feeling I can’t quite put my finger on. It isn’t fear; I’m not afraid I’ll be harmed while I’m here. No one is out—who’s going to harm me? I think it’s simple loneliness. Out-of-sync-ness. I am the one person working on Thanksgiving while everyone else has the day off. Paula is probably smoking pot and feeding her chickens. Kat is dealing with her horrible housemates. Steve is shooting heroin and glad he’s not cooking. Bahir is planning his escape to California, where he can be an actor, not the manager of the Grill. And me, I’m alone, on Thanksgiving, supposed to be cleaning the Casbah oven.
Alone is a dangerous place for me. I remember being really lonely at film school after Rishi and I broke up. She came by the apartment after she had moved out, to talk, or fuck, or whatever, and I knew that having her there would make me even more lonely than if I was just by myself. We had a nice codependent conversation in the lobby of the Alto Nido and then I sent her away. In the morning they were shooting a movie with Scarlett Johansson in my building and I wanted to catch a glimpse of her, so I settled in for an early bedtime.
My neighbor knocked on my door.
“How’s it going?”
“Problems with the girlfriend?”
“Wanna do ice?”
“Wanna. Do. Ice?”
“I don’t know..I’ve never done it.”
“You’ll love it. Come on.”
So me and this neighbor go on a quest to get ice, which I pay for and he has the connection for. We end up smoking it in his apartment since he has a couch. His girlfriend is away.
“Do you feel that?” he asked after my first hit.
I felt a lightness in my chest like—you’re gonna laugh, but, like—angels’ wings. It was like the burden of my existence had been lifted, and I was lighter now, enlightened. I had never felt anything like it before—nothing even close.
Then it got sexual. My neighbor touched my nipple through my shirt. Soon I was sucking his dick. We moved to my apartment to avoid his girl. The meth was getting to our heads and we wanted to fuck! Neither of us had ever buttfucked a guy before but on meth it seemed like a good idea. We tried to Craigslist some bitches to come over and do crystal with us. We failed. His girlfriend left and we watched porn together in his apartment. Then we came to our senses a little and decided that two straight guys buttfucking each other wouldn’t be the best idea. I went to my apartment and he stayed in his. I stood with my hands against the wall of my bathroom and felt so sexual, so feminine, I really did want something up my ass. Or to be used, was more it. I wanted to be used like a man uses a woman. It was the best feeling in the world.
I masturbated for hours to hardcore rape child porn without cumming and loved it. I was watching things that off meth I would have found disturbing. On meth I found them extremely sexual. I felt like a maniac, loving these things. I had some guilt about it. But mostly I had pleasure, miles and miles of pleasure. I would get myself to the point of cumming, then stop, over and over and over again, because not cumming on meth feels better than cumming normally, and I wanted to keep that feeling.
My neighbor came back to my apartment and touched my asshole. He said it was too small for him to fuck anyway.
That was a time when I was alone. So alone that I did crystal meth with my neighbor just to have company. Alone is a dangerous place for me to be.
And before that, there were lonely times before that.
I felt lonely at LexisNexis, where I worked for two years, because I was working day in and day out with people I couldn’t relate to and who couldn’t relate to me. They’re geeks: they read Slashdot every day and subscribe to engineering magazines. They think the simplest things are interesting. Their whole lives are geared around being a coder, and yet they can’t write code to save their lives. The code I encountered there was laughable, it was ridiculous, like a Dr. Seuss book is ridiculous. I was shocked to learn that these people had four-year degrees. They had wasted their money! Either the school didn’t teach them anything or their brains couldn’t absorb it, but in my view, when it came to programming, these people sucked. And I never went to school—I had taught myself from the time I was a child—so this is one more reason I have such a low opinion of schools. People conflate education and smartness, when in fact they’re distinct. Getting a degree doesn’t make you one iota smarter. I felt alone because I wasn’t a geek—I spent my spare time painting and writing poetry and, yes, programming, but I had other interests! I was a well-rounded person. I had far more talent than anyone I worked with, though, and that made me lonely. There’s this divide, when you’re smarter than someone, where they don’t understand you and by definition you can never explain your way across that divide. By definition they will never understand you. It’s as if they are looking at you through venetian blinds, and you are looking at them with the shades open.
I also felt alone when my whole family moved to Dayton, and then my parents got divorced, and then, one by one, everyone in my family moved away but me. My mom moved to Pennsylvania. Suzanne moved to New York. Amy moved to Erie. Dad moved to Delaware. And it was just me, with no family, living in Dayton, Ohio for years.
Before that I was at OU, and I was the only person on my floor who didn’t drink. Everyone else was drinking in their rooms, going out to parties and bars. I was in my room writing philosophy. I remember this time my hallmates attacked the Coke machine in our dorm lobby, stealing the cage that held everyone’s quarters, and as I listened to the clinking of them counting their loot, I thought: what am I doing here? My hallmates ostracized me. They thought I was gay when I wasn’t. They accused me of masturbating in the shower when I wasn’t. Now I can see that they were just outcasting me because I didn’t act like them, but at the time it was a very lonely place to be.
My college professors, with one exception, weren’t teaching anything. The classes were ridiculous. I took a computer programming course and wrote poetry the whole time, occasionally arguing with the teacher over his careless and false statements about the nature of programming.
In high school I had friends but my academic performance put a wedge between us. Young kids tend to resent it when you consistently score the highest grade in the class on tests. It’s nice being the smartest person in the class, but then who are your friends? Who do you relate to? You are alone.
You know what else makes you feel alone? Eleventh grade, walking home from school. I cross a four-lane street where a crowd of kids is waiting for the bus. There’s at least twenty kids there. One guy shoots me with a Super Soaker. I ignore him, walk right by him, didn’t even respond. I guess he and his three friends thought the appropriate response to me ignoring his dumb ass was to pick up branches from the tree by the bus stop and beat me into the ground with them. They were hitting me baseball-bat-style in the face and yelling about how when they shoot me in the head with a Super Soaker I can’t just walk by—yeah, I get it—the whole point of spraying water in someone’s face is to humiliate them and I wasn’t about to give these four assholes that satisfaction. They beat me until my left eye wouldn’t focus (and still doesn’t) and I was bruised and bloody everywhere. After a while I just curled up in the dirt and covered my head, waiting for it to end. But we’re talking about being lonely, right?—that’s not what made me lonely, that some students from my own high school decided to go four-on-one against me when we didn’t even know each other. No, what made me lonely that day was those twenty kids back there waiting for the bus. They stood and watched while four idiot boys worked out their misdirected anger by fucking me up with a bunch of tree branches when I wasn’t even fighting them back. That’s my community—those are the people I’m stuck with on this planet—a bunch of juveniles who accept the world’s violence and in fact are entertained by watching other people’s pain. I was lucky—most crowds wouldn’t have just stood around doing nothing—they would have stood around doing nothing..and cheered.
I felt alone when my dad yelled at me and no one came to my defense. Everyone else was locked in their rooms and it was just little boy me being yelled at by big man him.
I felt alone when we moved from Dallas to Philadelphia and we went from a predominantly-white academically-ok school to a predominantly-black academically-retarded school. As a fourth grader, listening to the teacher teach those stunted lessons, being stuck in that classroom thinking I would have to spend years of my time not learning anything, completely unstimulated..it was one of the scariest, loneliest things I’ve ever felt.
But go back even further. Second grade. The girls used to chase me around the playground but I grew tired of that. So I asked the teacher if I could spend my recess in the library instead. I read books on hypnosis and magic, and heard the screams of children from safe inside the school.
The last day of first grade. Arianna Garner was chasing me and I was running. Running as fast as I could. Her little pigtails bobbing. My shoes hitting the dirt. I make a sharp turn and run inside a giant pipe that some designer saw fit as a children’s toy. Arianne doesn’t see me. I hit my head. I kneel. I put my hand to my head. Horrible pain on the top of my skull. Take my hand away. Look at it. Blood. I look around and can’t see anyone. The sound of playing stops. I look at the blood on my hand. And I sit all the way down. She was chasing me. I was running. It was her and me, and now it’s just me, inside this tube. And I am bleeding.
I remember where I am. I’m sitting on the floor of the Casbah, waiting for the espresso machine to warm up. I stand, make myself an espresso. I drink it, trying to imagine what everyone in my family is doing for Thanksgiving. I go through each one, even my dad, and think of them eating turkey or sushi or whatever it is they’re likely to be eating.
Then I get the chemicals out. If I’m gonna clean this stove, I’m gonna do it right. I start spraying degreaser on the oven top. I remove the grease trays and empty them in the garbage. I scrub every inch of that oven, inside and out, and it takes me hours. I forget to use gloves and the chemicals end up fucking up my hands—they’re rough for weeks. Parts of the oven seem impossible to get through, but I do them section at a time, congratulating myself each time I finish a section. Paula said the oven hadn’t been cleaned in years, and I believe it. It’s two in the afternoon by the time I finish. I have mixed feelings of resentment that the chemicals fucked up my hands and pride that the oven looks so good. I’m looking forward to the extra money, too. But the main thing cleaning that oven gives me is a sense of ownership in the Casbah. Now, then the line cooks cook on that oven and love how clean it is, it’ll be because of me. When I walk by and see it clean, looking good, I’ll know it’s because of me.
During the cleaning, I can’t help but think about food, and how much I like my mom’s. We had good Thanksgivings growing up, not too much fighting and excellent food. I picture my mom wrangling seventeen dishes starting at six a.m. and making us all a wonderful meal. I like dark meat, by the way.
Then I think of this thing my mom said. She said she sees me talking to some people, like my dad, as though they’re listening and comprehending, when they’re not. But it wasn’t just about my dad, it was about other people, too. She was talking about people not getting me. And she was using the analogy of stuffed animals, saying it’s like I’m talking to my stuffed animals and getting angry at them for not talking back.
My mom is a smart woman, and I think there’s something to that analogy. Maybe I’ll get it someday.
I finish the oven and push it back into place. I shut down the Casbah and sit out front for a while. I set my bag next to me and sit on the step, looking up Fourth Avenue. It’s empty; not a single car. I take out a pack of cloves I picked up at the Hippie Gypsy. I spark the lighter. I smoke a clove.
I don’t complain about my lot in life. You miss things that way. I’ve enjoyed family Thanksgivings but I’m enjoying this one, too. I’m free, I can breathe. My heart’s still beating and I just made a little extra money. I have my bag, clothes, a notebook, and a clove.
I exhale and watch the smoke in the air.
The sky is blue. It’s cool but it’s a beautiful day.
I enjoy the privacy of no one being out, and I sit on the step for hours. I lie down some and look upwards. I go in my bag for my notebook. I write down some ideas. I smoke more cloves. I love the taste of them, the smell of the smoke, even the flavor the manufacturer has put on the tip of the cigarette to tempt my tongue.
I decide not to think about where I’m going to sleep tonight—to save it till after dark. Be in the now, save my worries for later sort of thing. And it is one of the most peaceful moments I have had all month: being able to work alone, to do a good job at something that matters, to rest afterward. For a few hours, I am at peace.
Paula will pay me tomorrow, I tell myself. In truth, she never brings it up (even though she compliments the oven) and I have to mention it to her. We have a long talk about how great the oven looks and how I did a good job and how I should have known to use gloves with those chemicals and it’s all so distracting that she barely remembers to pay me. When she does, it’s half of what we agreed on.
I wake up in the dirt by the train tracks. I’ve taken to sleeping up here because even though visually it’s out in the open, it’s fenced in. The movement of the trains makes me feel safe, somehow.
I wake at five a.m. It’s already light and I actually slept. Dirt is better than rocks or asphalt, or the concrete of the church. Still hard, but deal-with-able.
I pack my sleeping bag up and sit by my bag with my back against the fence. I have a little bit of cash. I could wait for the Hotel Congress to open its breakfast room at six, get a drink from the bar. But I don’t have enough for a drink. I could beg them to let me wash some dishes to make up the difference, but they’ve already got a dishwasher, and that would just be sad. I’ll have to wait till I get paid by the Grill or the Casbah, and I shouldn’t be spending my money on drinks anyway.
I call my sister. It’s early for me but it’s a couple hours later in New York. I figure she’ll be up, or almost up.
“How’s it going, Suzanne?”
“Oh, alright. I just got up.”
“I hope I didn’t call too early.”
“Oh, no, no. I’ve been waking up for years.”
We both laugh.
“And how is my bruugie?”
“Uh..alright. I’m kinda having a rough time of it, Suzy Q.”
“Aww.. Wanna talk about it?”
“It’s just that..I don’t know how to do what I love in this world. I can’t connect, Suzanne. I mean my bosses make no sense to me. I cleaned this oven, on Thanksgiving, for my boss at the Casbah..and when it came time to pay me she paid me half of what we agreed on.”
“Yeah! I was like..is this how we do business at this little vegetarian, save-the-world, peace flag-flying, Bob Marley-loving little restaurant? I mean I expect that kind of thing from a Maxwell Interactive, but..”
“Did you say anything to her about it?”
“No, I didn’t. Because I don’t think I should have to. I mean she clearly committed to one amount..if for whatever reason she fails to follow through at that amount that’s her problem, you know? I don’t want to have to hold her hand through paying her employees. But it’s shitty, it’s just shitty.”
“Where am I going to fit in? If I don’t fit in making software and I don’t fit in washing dishes, where am I going to fit in? What do I do? I have to be able to do something to make money.”
“Why don’t you fit in washing dishes?”
“Everyone smokes pot! Or throws dishes at your head! The kitchen manager at the Grill was doing that the other day: threatening to throw a plate at my head if I messed up the dishwashing.”
“Yeah he’s crazy. I mean he’s not crazy he’s just..himself. And I’m just myself. And myself doesn’t like people who threaten to throw plates at my head.”
“Yeah, that’s loco. Can you talk to his boss?”
“His boss is the owner and the owner is never around. I just have to deal with it. And I’d be able to deal with it if I had a thicker skin. But I don’t, Suzanne. I never have. I’m sensitive!”
“I know, brother! Me too!”
“I like that Jewel song, ‘I’m sensitive and I’d like to stay that way?'”
“I haven’t heard that one.”
“That’s how I feel. Like a silly Jewel song! But I can’t hack it. I can’t hack the tough world. I’m not built for that shit. In New York we were defrauding a charity! I can’t be a part of that. It’s a no-no for me, it’s outside..the limits of what I’m willing to deal with. But that’s these people’s business! That’s how they make money. And if you’re the one guy in the room who says, “Wait a second,” you’re out! You’re. Out. To survive in a place like that you’ve got to go along with the company line—which is fraud. You’ve got to put your head down and be silent and do shitty coding on a shitty project and inflate your billable hours so the boss can afford to live on Park Avenue with his fucking pot-belly pig and his nasty wife and they can be the overlords while you’re just their fucking slave. I know I’m going off but I just don’t see how I can live in this life, Suzanne. I can’t live like I was in New York. That’s why I left. But I can’t live like this, either. I’m sleeping in the fucking dirt. I don’t have enough money to eat. I’m working two jobs and I don’t have enough money to fucking eat!” I shout, and look around. It’s just the train tracks listening.
“I think you should call Dad. Dad or Mom. Don’t take this the wrong way but I think you need help.”
“I think I do too. I don’t wanna die because some psychopath kills me in my sleep because I’m sleeping outside.”
“I don’t want that either. Promise me you’ll call one of them.”
“Ok. I will. Which one should I call?”
“I guess Dad ’cause he has more resources?”
“Ok. I’ll call Dad.”
“Matt, I’d call him right now.”
“Ok, I will. I’ll call him right now. I’ll talk to you soon?”
“You call me when you’re done talking to him, tell me what happened.”
“Ok, I promise. I’m hanging up now.”
So I hang up and call my dad. I put my bag on and walk to the railroad overpass. I sit on the ledge above the cars while I talk to him.
“Hello, this is Van.”
“Hey, Dad, it’s me.”
“Well hello, Matt. I was just thinking about you last week, wondering how the Big Apple was treating you.”
“I’m in Arizona, Dad.”
“I’m in Arizona.”
“Decided to take a little vacation?”
“No, I moved here.”
“But. What about your job?”
“I quit that job.”
“Well, Matt, we talked about this. You weren’t to make any drastic moves without talking to me first. Did you forget about that?”
“I couldn’t work there anymore, Dad. They were doing things that were illegal.”
“I doubt that Maxwell Interactive would be involved in anything illegal!”
“They were, Dad. Maxwell is a fraud. They’re building completely unnecessary and overly-complex systems for their charity client and charging them for it. I mean even if you only look at the billable hours..it’s a lie.”
“I just can’t imagine that Maxwell would do a thing like that.”
“Do you think I’m lying to you? Believe it! Maxwell is a fraud, Dad! Are you going to believe him or me?!”
“I just think that sometimes people with bipolar disorder—”
“We don’t know that I have bipolar disorder!”
“Sometimes people with bipolar disorder have what are called ‘fixed delusions.’ I was reading about this with Eva in our book. It’s when a bipolar person gets an idea in their head that’s false and they proceed as though it was true. And nothing can convince them otherwise, that’s why it’s called a ‘fixed’ delusion.”
“Oh, Dad, whatever. If you want to believe that Maxwell Interactive is on the up and up, go ahead. You didn’t work there. You don’t know what they do. They weren’t even paying us. I had to beg him to write me a check.”
“I’m sure he paid you, son.”
“Why did I call you??”
“So tell me how you’re doing!”
“I’m doing great. I slept in the dirt last night, Dad.”
“Where did you sleep? The phone is breaking up.”
“I slept in the dirt.”
“Doing some camping, that’s great!”
“I’m not camping. I’m homeless.”
“Well. Get yourself a job.”
“I have two jobs, Dad.”
“Rent yourself a place! I hear real estate is cheaper out west. Until you get to California, of course. Then I hear homes are going for, oh five or six—”
“I’m homeless, Dad. I’m telling you I’m homeless.”
“Well, Matt, if you have two jobs, why don’t you rent yourself an apartment.”
“It doesn’t work like that.”
“I don’t have enough money to rent a place.”
“I thought you said you had two jobs.”
“So what’s the problem?”
“I don’t make enough money to rent a place. It requires a deposit and there’s no way I can save that much on what I make.”
“Now, Matt, I know you like to party. And I know you’ve been into drugs.”
“I’m not doing any drugs now!”
“Are you going out to eat a lot?”
“I’m not eating out, Dad! I make minimum wage. I’m fucked!”
“Well what do you want from me, son?”
“Oh, I don’t know. I don’t even know why I called. I guess I want some sympathy.”
“I can’t send you any more money.”
“I didn’t ask you to send me money!”
“I sent you money in film school and you spent it on drugs.”
“I know, I’m sorry.”
“And I can’t let you come live with me again. Karen is coming back home to live with us—she got a job—and she’s going to be using her room.”
“I don’t know what else you want from me, Matt.”
“I guess I just wanted to call you.”
“Well, things are fine here. Eva’s having some trouble at her work—politics. I’m remodeling the kitchen. Well, I’m taking out a wall. Want to be able to see behind the house so I’m putting in a picture window—you remember those picture windows we had at the house in Dallas. This is like that but much bigger. Eva doesn’t like the dust but I’ll be done in three or four weeks. Well, you remember the house! Remember how the kitchen had one small window facing toward the back of the house? I’m replacing that wall. It’s going to be a very big window right there, covering almost the whole wall.”
He goes on talking about his house renovations for what seems like ten minutes. He’s done with me. He won’t listen to any more of my homelessness or moneylessness. He’s moved on, and my subjects have become irrelevant, and he will just pretend that everything is ok, and that everything is my fault, and that he and I have a real relationship.
When he’s done talking I say, “Well, Dad, that sounds amazing. You’ve got some great projects going.”
“Thanks for calling me, my Number One Son! It was really good to hear from you and you enjoy yourself in Arizona—have a great time.”
“Ok, Dad. Thanks.”
“Talk to you later.”
“Talk to you later,” I say.
I always convince myself that there’s this chasm forming between me and Dad, but the truth is that chasm has been there all along.
I go out for drinks with Andrew at Che’s. We get to talking at work and find out we both like to write. He has a comic book he’s working on. He thinks I might be able to help him write it.
He orders a beer. I order a straight gin. We sit in the corner by the arcade machines.
“So this idea I have,” he begins. “I started working on it when I was in high school.”
He takes out his notebook. He shows me the drawings. Page after page of beautiful pencil sketches. Heroes and villains, weapons, settings, a whole world laid out.
“I have the basic story,” he says. “But I have trouble writing the dialogue. And I think someone with your mind could do the dialogue plus flesh out the story into..”
“Detailed elements,” I say.
“Exactly. Let me tell you the story.”
So he does. He tells me the story of this world, where the heroes came from and why they’re fighting the villains and how the battles ensue and what the results of the battles are. He has it all laid out, he just can’t write it. And he thinks I can. And I start to get excited about the project.
“So when Uthureal encounters Plankomine, why is it that he defeats him this time?”
And Andrew goes into a lengthy explanation of how Uthureal has evolved to be able to defeat Plankomine, one last time. I’m leaving out the details of the comic book world because Andrew swore me to total secrecy. I may already have said too much.
We drink our drinks, and Andrew insists on paying (“because this is a business meeting”). When we’re on our third round he says, “Do you think you can do it?”
“Well, let’s do this. Can you let me hold this book? With all your notes?”
“Let me read your notes, and I’ll put together a first chapter, of text, of what I think should happen to make your vision come true.”
“How long do you think that will take?”
“At least a week.”
“Are you sure? Do you have time to do this?”
“I have plenty of time right now.”
Andrew holds his beer out to my glass.
“This is exciting,” he says.
“I think so too.”
“I think it’s right in line with your playwriting.”
“I think so too!”
“I think this is gonna be great, actually.”
“I think so too, Andrew.”
We cheers and drink.
“Have you given any thought to what I said? About you and Kat?”
“Before you say anything, just know that my advice was given in the spirit of helpfulness. I just don’t want to see any drama at the Casbah. But I’m not trying to get in your business unnecessarily. So what’s your thinking on that currently?”
I set my drink down.
“First of all, I didn’t get that check from my last job. So I don’t think I can move in with her anyway. I was hoping they’d send me what they owe me and I gave them my address at the Casbah but I haven’t seen a check. So. I don’t know what’s going on with that. But it’s not looking good for me to be able to move in with anyone. But I did think about what you said. And I think you’re right. After some time, and after some observation of Kat and the way she always ends up mad at people she previously used to like, I have also come to the conclusion that Kat and I would not make good housemates..or..that I don’t want to live with her.”
“I’m glad to hear that.”
“When you say you gave your address as the Casbah..where are you staying?”
“Here and there.”
“Like staying with friends?”
“Are you sleeping on couches?”
“I’m sleeping outside.”
Andrew leans back.
“Huh. Staying outside like you’re without a home?”
“At the moment, yes.”
“Where do you stay exactly?”
“Parking lots, little places I find, just wherever I can find a secret little place where I won’t be noticed..just..around.”
“That sounds kinda dangerous.”
“No I mean that sounds really dangerous.”
“Yeah, well, it’s the best I can do right now.”
“But you can’t keep doing that.”
“What else am I supposed to do, Andrew? I don’t have enough money to rent my own place. I don’t really know anyone in Tucson who has a place I can stay at. I was planning on camping in my friend’s back yard but that didn’t work out. I won’t do this for long, believe me. As soon as I can get a place, I will. It’s just a temporary thing.”
“How long has it been?”
“I’m not sure. Over a month.”
“A month??! You’ve got to find a shelter or something!”
“I tried, the shelters require you to be in by four o’clock. I have to work.”
“I don’t see how you’re working while you’re..homeless.”
“Well what am I going to do? Sit around all day and wait for things to change? I’m trying to make enough money to get out of this hole!”
“Ok, ok, chill. I’m just amazed that you’ve been at this that long.”
“One day at a time, man.”
“Still, that must be hard. Where do you go to the bathroom?”
“Places. Restaurants. Time Market.”
“What if you have to go in the middle of the night?”
“I pee outside.”
“What if you have to go number two?”
“I hold it.”
“Gee, man, I never realized..I mean I work with you every day and I never knew. Does Paula know?”
“I doubt it.”
“Holy shit, man, how come you never told anyone?”
“What are they gonna do?”
“Maybe you can stay with someone we work with!”
“I don’t want to impose.”
“But you’re homeless!”
“I know! I know. I’ll get a place soon.”
Andrew shakes his head.
We look at each other, and without saying anything I get up and go to the bar to get myself another drink.
When I come back he’s in comic book mode.
“There are forces of darkness,” he says, “waiting for you. You have to watch out for the darkness. With you sleeping outside, you see what I’m saying, there are forces trying to get you.”
“What do you mean.”
“People..trying to hurt you! Whenever there’s light, there is always darkness. And the darkness feeds upon the light..it needs you to survive! You need to watch out that the darkness doesn’t get you. Will you do that for me?”
“This is my sister,” he says, and I turn around.
A woman with dark wavy hair who looks just like Andrew except female. Delicate nose. Lively face. Not super thin but not fat. She sits down.
“This is Alexis,” Andrew says.
“Alex,” she says.
“This is Matthew. We work together.”
We talk, and we drink beer and gin (Alexis tries a sip of my gin). We all crowd around one of the arcade games and play a game that hasn’t been played in twenty years. Alex’s arm touches mine, and she looks at me, and it’s no accident. When we come back to the table Alexis and I dominate the conversation. She tells me of her travels and I tell her of my writing. There is genuine interest. Andrew tells her I’m living outside and her interest deepens. She never shows the slightest sign of pity, only admiration. Without bragging, I tell her the details of my journey so far. She watches me with big eyes. Andrew tells her he knew I was camping but had no idea I was homeless! He repeats what he told me about being a transcendentalist, and Alex agrees.
“A real Thoreau!”
“I don’t know if I’d go that far.”
“No, you are.”
“You are,” Alex agrees.
We raise our glasses. Clink.
The two of them have to catch a certain bus to get to their house and they say they would invite me over but it’s their aunt’s house and they’re already full.
“Maybe you could sleep on our couch!”
“No, thank you. I’ll be fine.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes. Good drinking with you both. Alex, nice meeting you.”
“Will I see you again?”
“Yes, I’ll stop by the Casbah tomorrow. See you then?”
“See you then.”
Andrew looks over us like a proud mother.
“See you Andrew.”
And I’m left alone, in Che’s, to play a few more rounds of Galaga and drink another gin. I really liked their company, both of theirs. Andrew’s comic idea was good and Alex..Alex..it was nice to be around a woman. I think of her face and imagine what it would be like to make love with her as the colors of the arcade game reflect in my face. Then, as I’m out of money, it is time for me to leave.
I walk a long time that night, until my feet hurt. I walk over to where some student apartments are, check out their dumpsters. I’m thinking I’ll find a place to stay, but everything is too well lit. I pass a hotel building with all its neon and I think: most of its rooms are empty tonight. Empty rooms everywhere, and yet I have no place to stay. I go back into the neighborhoods to scout.
I finally find it, and when I do I keep on walking. It’s almost too good to be true: a law office in a house whose porch has a raised wall running parallel with the sidewalk. Unlike a house, no one’s likely to be in a law office this time of night—so I’m less likely to get shot by a vigilant homeowner. And the raised wall will hide me from the street. Just like in my parking lot, if I sleep right up next to the wall, no one will see me.
So I walk by, then make the block, then come back around. I check to make sure no one’s looking. There’s a guy across a big street and I decide to take my chances. I step up onto the porch and fall to the ground. I take my bag off. I lie there for a minute.
I look above the wall, across the street. No one there. No one saw me! I’m in my safe spot for the evening. It’s very cold, and I pull out my sleeping bag. I slide inside it, put my hood up over my wool hat. Make sure my bag is hidden from view: it’s right at my feet, behind the wall. And I settle in to sleep.
But sleep I do not. I’m imagining some employee getting there in the morning and calling the cops. I’m imagining there being security cameras (even though I can’t see any) and some security guard monitoring them. So every second I’m envisioning getting caught, stuck in my sleeping bag while someone holds a gun at me or yells at me to get off their porch. And to make matters worse, the temperature is dropping.
It drops. And drops. The concrete porch is freezing. I can feel it coming through the bag and touching my legs, my butt, my back, my head. I stay completely still, to try to let the heat congregate around me, but it doesn’t work. I get uncomfortable and have to shift my body, then the collected heat goes away.
There is no comfortable way to sleep on a concrete porch. We are so used to mattresses. But when you’re faced with actually falling asleep while all however many pounds of your body are pressing into a slab of concrete, your prospects are grim.
I’m happy though. Yes, it’s cold, and yes, this concrete is hard, but look on the bright side: I’ve got a spot where I’m unlikely to be detected. Some goon isn’t going to just walk by and peek over the top of this wall. I feel safe, even though I can’t sleep.
All night I spend checking over the top of the wall to see if anyone’s there and fearing that some overzealous lawyer will come to work before I wake up. They’ll see me like this, helpless in my bag, lying on their porch. They’ll be showered and dressed and arriving at their power job, and I’ll be some guy who is on the outs, who doesn’t have his shit together, who is prob’ly just a lazy bum.
Somewhere in the night I come to this conclusion: that it is crazy that I might get in trouble for sleeping here when I have nowhere else to go. That, if anything, is an injustice. There are people with no place to go, and they get in trouble for having no place to go. What is wrong with us?
I don’t sleep. I’m up all night worrying. When the first light shows itself, I am happy to pack up my bag and get off that porch.
I do my usual routine, get hot water at a coffeehouse, sit as long as possible in the warm air, then go to work to hang out before my shift.
As I approach the Casbah, I’m excited to see Alexis. She and her brother are sitting on the step holding coffees.
“Good morning, Alex!”
Alex stands up and comes to me. She puts her hand on my arm.
“Where did you sleep last night?”
“On a porch.”
“Were you safe?”
“Yes, perfectly. I was hidden away. Tell me, how was your evening?”
I take out my cigarettes.
“My evening was boring, compared to yours. We watched TV and I wrote in my journal. Can I have one of those?”
I light the one in my mouth and give it to her.
“Thank you. Andrew was telling me you’re going to help him with his comic.”
“Yes, I’m going to write it, he’s going to do the pictures from his wonderful story and we think we might have something.”
“I’m so happy for you two!”
“Thank you, Alex. What type of things did you reflect on in your journal, may I ask?”
She tells me, and while she talks I can only look at her lips, her bright eyes, her long wavy hair. She is beautiful to me, there are no two ways about it, and it is simple to see—by body language alone—that she likes me. It is one of those connections that happens right away and without reason. And it is one of those pure connections that can only happen between whole people, where there is a desire for sex but not vampiric sex. We would make love well, you can already tell, just from the way we talk and move. I listen to her as she shares her journal entries with me and I fall a little bit in love.
We share several cigarettes—and I like a girl who smokes. It shows that she’s adventurous, that she isn’t afraid to get her hands dirty, that she has a common touch. That she’s not a perfectionist, that she’s not obsessed with purity. Alexis has all these things, and I like her even more.
Andrew nicely sits to the side, letting me and his sister talk. I imagine they talked about me after they left last night, and that Andrew knows that his sister likes me, either because she said so or through that way that a brother knows a sister.
Alexis grows on me as our conversation grows, but creeping in my mind is the thought that this is impossible. She lives with her aunt; I am homeless. I am homeless! That, more than any other reason, is why this can’t work. I don’t have a place to invite her to. She might not shower every day but she isn’t gonna like a guy who’s dirty. Her fascination with liking a homeless guy will surely wane when she gets more acquainted with the guts of what that actually means. I can’t always charge my phone. I never know where I’m gonna be. Sometimes I haven’t slept and I don’t have the proper energy to converse. I’m hungry. I can’t take you out on dates. You’ll always have to pay.
All these thoughts are running through my head as I watch Alexis’ beautiful face. It makes me want to get a software job and be done with all this. You miss out on so much being homeless. But maybe most of all, you miss out on love.
I’m hanging out in front of this pizza shop and I’m working on Andrew’s comic and journaling about how fascinating Alexis is after just a few conversations and I’m making lists of things I want to accomplish and my mind is racing I keep having these ideas!
There are so many things I want to do, work at NASA is one of them. I’ve always wanted to work at NASA, mission control—maybe I could be a programmer for the space shuttle! Alexis could come to Houston and we would make babies and work on the shuttle and be fine. Or maybe she would want to live in the desert. I could make money on a stock trading algorithm that I would pull from the depths of my mind, and it would be the best stock trading algorithm ever and we would make billions of dollars. Not millions. Billions. Maybe even a trillion. I would see things in the market that nobody’s ever seen, find nuances in the patterns, crack it wide open. I have some ideas from a few years back. Maybe I can repurpose those, program it all at the U of A on borrowed computers. Wouldn’t that be something? If I programmed my trading algorithm on desktop computers at the U of A, using all free computer time, and I could run the whole thing out of my shell account. It would trade from there! That’s it. That’s how I really need to make money. Stock and options trading. A single algorithm. Something genius. Something only I could have come up with.
People are walking by on Fourth Ave. I’m sitting at a table inside a walled-in area. There are other tables. They’re mostly empty. I’ve never eaten at the pizza place behind me and I’m not eating here now. I haven’t ordered anything. I’m just sitting at their table. I’ve been here for about an hour and no one’s said anything.
I think about Alexis, and I wonder how adventurous she is sexually. Would she let me tie her up with little white cloths, bite her nips? She doesn’t seem like she’s been with that many guys. Maybe she’ll become homeless with me and we can sleep in the dirt. It would make it a lot more palatable to sleep outside if I had a girl in my sleeping bag with a vagina. If we got arrested we would get arrested together, and in the daytime we would dumpster dive behind the food co-op for fresh produce. She would support me in my playwriting, we would read the parts aloud by our fire and have great sex that only freezing homeless people can have. Maybe our baby could be homeless too. We would start a revolution, become political figures. Homeless people would take over Washington and the world would be a better place.
About this time a sweet little girl comes over to my table. She has long brown hair. She’s dressed for the desert: a light dress and sandals. I wonder if she’s wearing any underwear underneath but I can’t see.
“Oh, just thoughts, my thoughts, whatever comes to mind.”
“I keep a journal.”
“You do? What do you write?”
“I write about what I want to do someday.”
“Me too. What do you want to do?”
“I want to fly.”
I think about asking her to be more specific but I like her answer just the way it is. I look at this girl and I imagine her a bird. There is the slightest bit of wind and it sways the hem of her dress. She turns on one foot.
“I have to ask you to leave.”
“I’ve been asked to ask you to leave, actually. If it was up to me you could sit here all night. But my boss..”
“That’s fine,” I say, blissfully.
“Yeah, I mean, you’re just doing your job.”
“You seem very nice,” she says.
“You also seem very nice. But if your boss wants me to leave, I will leave.”
“Ok. I’m really sorry,” she says, and kind of curtseys.
“You have a nice night,” I tell her.
“Ok, you too. And good luck with your writing.”
“You’re a dear,” I say quietly, and I imagine her blushing.
I close my journal and pack it away in my backpack. I leave the walled-in area and am back on public property: the sidewalk: nowhere to sit, nowhere to lie down, just endless walking.
I cross the street and find a wall. I set my bag against it and sit on the ground. I watch the people and picture where they’re going. To the Guatemalan restaurant. To the North bar. Home.
I imagine myself with them. If I see a group of four head into North bar, I imagine I’m their fifth. I get an idea from the look of each person what they would be like. Would they be my friend? My enemy? Would she be the girl I had already slept with? The one I wanted to sleep with? I see myself with them playing pool, me buying the next round of drinks, everyone laughing. I even see the menu at the Guatemalan restaurant, and I laugh at trying to pronounce the names of all the dishes.
The sun is setting and I see the outline of Tucson’s few downtown buildings. The people in those buildings have lives. They have cubicles where they make middle-class money. They drive Acuras and have in-sink garbage disposals. They have love lives—pathetic ones, but they have them.
I start thinking about robbing banks. Then my fantasies take a realistic turn: I picture myself going into the Jack in the Box and begging for a hamburger. A cold one. One someone drove off without paying for. Maybe they would tell me to go around back and, in secret, would give me some leftover food. I salivate. My mind is filled with flashes of all the great food I’ve tasted: rattlesnake pasta at Uno, the mac ‘n’ cheese burger at Lindy’s, god even the tater tots at the Grill. I select the ingredients I’m going to have on my next shift meal burger. Or maybe I shouldn’t even get a burger. Maybe I should try the tortellini pasta—that looks good.
Then this guy sits down next to me. He’s dirty, doesn’t have a bag, and he looks right at me.
He takes a glass pipe from his pocket and a lighter and sparks the pipe. The smell of meth fills the air.
He’s skinny. His hair is insane; it’s sticking up.
He offers me the pipe.
And I think about it. I would love to smoke some meth right now. Feel light, feel connected, feel not-alone. But what am I gonna have to do for it? People don’t just offer you meth for free. He’s gonna want me to suck his dick, or give him money, or at the very least he’s gonna want my company and I don’t exactly feel like giving my company to random meth heads in Tucson right now.
He holds the pipe closer to me, and the smoke rises and fills my nostrils. I look him in the eye. He looks crazy. He looks like he’s been smoking the stuff for years. I look away.
“No thank you,” I say.
He smokes another hit, lets his pipe cool, and gets up.
I shake my head, talking to myself out loud, telling myself, “You really dodged a bullet on that one.” I could have woken up in south Tucson with my bag stolen and my box with my passport and name change documents stolen and I would have been in a shit lot of trouble.
I get up and take my bag. I walk in the opposite direction of my friend. I walk till it gets dark, then I head to the church.
My church, my Methodist church, where I stayed the first night I was homeless in Tucson, and where I’ve stayed a few nights since. I decide the wheelchair ramp is too unsafe—I want to be more hidden than that—so I just walk straight into the bushes.
There are a bunch of bushes about three feet tall. I drop my bag and lie down right in the middle of them. I keep still. I hear people walking by. I peek above the leaves. Not many people, just a few on the porch of Time Market. I lie in the dirt.
I lie there a long time, looking up at the stars. I’m afraid to get out my sleeping bag because I don’t want to be seen setting it up, so I pull my arms inside my hoodie and stay as still as I can so the heat builds up around me.
I remember this class I had as a kid, in a planetarium, inside this science museum. It was a circle of chairs with a complicated-looking machine in the middle, and they would dim the lights and it would project the stars on the ceiling. The teacher would use a laser pointer to show us the constellations. I remember Cassiopeia, and Leo the lion, and Orion with his belt, and the big dipper and the little dipper and the north star. She showed us how two stars on the big dipper can form a line that points to the north star. I look for my constellations now, in the real sky.
I see Orion. Those three stars are his belt. I see the big dipper. And I see the north star. I think of that class and how much I loved it. Loved sitting in the dark in movie theater-style seats and reclining my head and looking up at the stars. I had a chart back then that showed the constellations, and I gladly memorized them. At the end of the show our teacher would slowly raise the lights while she played the theme song to Chariots of Fire.
And here I am now, looking at those same stars, and they are my friends, and they are my home. We are on a tiny planet in the middle of huge amounts of space and we are hurtling along at immense speeds, and our company is the stars. We can look up at them to gain humility—for what are we, in comparison to the stars? We are tiny balls of flesh in an infinite multiverse of possibility. What we do is so insignificant, in a cosmic sense. We wrap ourselves up in drama and pain, but what does it matter? It doesn’t matter if I sleep with a certain person or work at a certain office. There are bigger matters at hand. The universe doesn’t care if I’m homeless! To it, I’m just another person, living out my particular life. A tiny little ant sleeping in the bushes. The universe has no shame. Why should I? Why should I feel shame at sleeping in the bushes? I am a child of this grand universe, and I deserve to be here just as much as any other. Sleeping here doesn’t make me any less; it doesn’t make me any more.
I cuddle up next to my bag. Put my hands in my armpits. The cold is getting to my bones. I can feel my neck creak when I move it. And it’s only going to get colder as the night goes on.
Eventually this child of the universe has to pee. It’s very late now, two in the morning, so I just kneel and take a few steps away from my bag, unzip my pants and pee in the dirt. It runs toward my bag, so I kick some dirt over it and lie back down. Then I hear a voice.
A man’s voice, can’t tell which direction. Oh, god, please don’t be talking to me. I thought I was hidden! He must have seen me when I got up to pee. My nose is freezing.
Sounds like it’s coming from that direction, over by the alley.
“I’m gonna get you, fucker!”
Oh shit. Glad I didn’t get my sleeping bag out. Might have to make a run for it. I’m rapt with adrenalyne.
“Fuckhead I see you!”
I decide to look. If he already sees me what harm could it do? I need to see what I’m dealing with. I kneel and look to the alley.
There’s someone there, coming toward me, not walking very well.
“Asshole! I’m gonna kick your ass!”
Then he comes closer and I see who it is. It’s my friend with the meth pipe.
“YOU TOLD THE POLICE!” he says, and I grab my bag.
This is not the kind of mind I want to interact with. I stand up and put my bag on. He’s running toward me now.
“I’M GONNA FUCKING KILL YOU!”
“I didn’t tell the police anything!”
Then he tells me I’m gonna die.
I run across University Boulevard. I’m thinking where can I go? With my backpack I’m gonna run slower than him. All that’s this way is an apartment complex and then neighborhoods. If he wants to chase me he’s gonna be able to. Where are the police when you need them? My phone isn’t charged or I’d call 911!
I run across the street and stop. I look behind me. He’s still coming! This raggedy, lumbering run of his is going to catch up with me! This fucker is high on crystal meth with a bloodwish!
I look down Fourth Avenue. Epic is closed. Everything is closed. It’s just me and this meth motherfucker and open streets. People right behind those walls are sleeping peacefully and I’m getting chased by some crazy drug fiend! I think about knocking on someone’s apartment door but they’re not gonna let me in! I decide to run.
I run up University as fast as I can and meth motherfucker is still chasing me. I start to get out of breath. This is not how I wanted to spend my night. I just wanted to sleep peacefully in the bushes by the church—is that too much to ask? No, the world has to be filled with insane drug-fiending motherfuckers who chase you because you refused a meth pipe! My mind is full of the possibilities of getting into a physical fight with him. That ain’t gonna end well. I’m not a fighter, and this guy is high as fuck. I come to a cross street, Euclid Avenue.
No one is out. There is a car waaaaaay down the street at a stoplight. I look back. The guy is running at me.
I run into the middle of Euclid. Start running towards the car. I’m in his lane. I’m gonna stop whoever it is and ask for help. Maybe they have a phone. Maybe they’ll call the police.
I can hear footsteps behind me, slapping on the asphalt, and I don’t look back.
I get another block and I can hardly run anymore when I see that the car is a cab. I wave my arms. The cab comes to a stop.
“This crazy motherfucker is chasing me!”
He rolls down the window.
“This guy is fucking chasing me!”
“Get in,” he says.
I open the back door and throw my bag in. I get in the car and slam the door. The cab peels off.
I watch as we pass my friend. He tries to kick the cab, ends up just giving us the middle finger. The cab speeds away down Euclid.
“Thank you. Thank you. I don’t have money for a ride but that guy found where I was sleeping and he started chasing me! He’s high on meth. Crazy motherfucker said he was gonna kill me! I’m sorry I have to tell you I don’t have any money, but could you just drop me in the neighborhood back there and I’ll find another place to sleep.”
“He was chasing you?”
“Yeah, he just came out of the alley and was like, ‘I’m gonna kill you motherfucker.’ I don’t know if he could have but I don’t like to mess around with motherfuckers who are high on crystal meth, you know?”
“Yeah he’s high. Jesus. When I smoked crystal meth I never tried to KILL ANYONE!!”
The cab driver takes me into the neighborhood and lets me out. My heart is still beating from the encounter.
“Thank you, thank you. I can’t thank you enough. You saved my life, man, you really did. I’m sorry I can’t pay you.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
So he drives off, and I’m in this residential neighborhood where everything is either fenced in or just sand. There’s no decent place to sleep around here. But I can’t go back to the church, clearly. In fact all of Fourth Avenue is off limits tonight. Fuck. I’m never sleeping outside again after tonight without a gun. And if someone messes with me, I’ll kill the motherfucker.
I wander the neighborhood for hours, looking for somewhere to lie down. The only places I see are people’s front yards, and I can’t just sleep in the open.
Every step I take, I’m on guard for the meth motherfucker. I think that around every corner, there he’ll be. Nothing seems safe to me tonight. All my usual spots would require me to cross Fourth Avenue, and I just won’t allow myself to do it. I end up kneeling against a fence; it ensures that no one’s coming up behind me. I hold my bag between my legs and rest my arms on it. I hold my head upright, checking to the left and checking to the right. I don’t sleep this night.
As soon as I get paid at the Casbah, I rent a room at the hostel for a full week. The hostel is called the Road Runner, and it’s a few blocks from downtown. It’s made from an old, big house and there are three dorm rooms, two for guys and one for girls. When I walk in there are people lounged on the couch watching Blue Velvet on a large-screen TV. A woman stands up.
“You checking in?”
I follow her to the kitchen table and we do our business. I pay her for the week (there’s a discount if you pay for a week in advance) and she tells me the rules of the house. You have to be out by ten in the morning and stay out till one in the afternoon. This is when they clean. Other than that, you can come and go as you please. Respect the other guests. No outside bedding. Label your food. There’s room in the fridge but I don’t have anything to put there. She shows me the laundry room and the back porch and the room where I’ll be staying. Even though I’ve taken this tour before I let her explain everything to me. She shows me the computer area: two computers, old as shit, with a thirty-minute limit for surfing the web, checking email, etc. Then she shows me my bed.
When we go in, there is already someone sleeping. Loud snoring fills the room. This woman makes my bed with fresh sheets and shows me the compartment under the bed where I can keep my stuff. I’m in the bottom bunk. She places a nametag on my bed that says, “Matthew,” and the she goes back to watching Blue Velvet.
I take off my pack. I get out fresh clothes, my shaving cream, my razor, my toothbrush and toothpaste. There are three bathrooms: two with just toilets and sinks and one with a sink and a huge shower. I go into the one with the shower.
I set my things on the sink. I strip. The shower has two heads and I turn them both on. The shower curtain doesn’t close all the way and there’s no lock on the door, so I feel a little exposed, but I bathe anyway. I use soap that was already in the shower and I don’t care who used it before—I’m just happy to get clean.
I wash my hair. I wash my butt crack. Then I jerk off as quickly as possible. It’s been a while so it doesn’t take long. I cum in the shower to a fantasy of Alexis and I fucking on white sheets, her legs spread and me just pounding her pussy.
I watch the cum drain. I step out of the shower. I dry off with my dirty clothes—the hostel doesn’t provide towels.
Then I shave, and it is glorious. To have a freshly-shaven face feels so good. I run my hands along my cheeks and look in the mirror. I look good like this, younger.
I put on my clean clothes. They have the smell of having been cramped in a backpack but they smell great to me. I feel my body against the fabrics, clean on clean, and it feels like I’m human again.
I exit the bathroom, hoping I didn’t take too long. But no one rushes into it so I think I’m ok.
I smash my dirty clothes into my pack and head into the living room. There is a chair open. I sit there for a while and watch the rest of Blue Velvet. When it gets to the rough parts some of the women in the room object—they weren’t planning to watch a movie like this. I get the idea that the one who objects the most is the one who picked the movie out. The hostel has an extensive collection of VHS tapes.
I just sit there, and watch that great film, and listen to the childish objections from the people sitting in the room. There are five of us. The woman who checked me in, the woman who picked the movie, another girl who is very quiet, a guy, and me.
When the crazy parts of the movie happen, everyone exclaims except me and the quiet girl. So naturally I become fascinated with her. I steal little glances at her. I imagine us fucking in secret in one of the bathrooms. I’m hoping she’ll notice me. Then I just watch the movie. I’m so starved for company I’d probably act stupid if we did get to talk to each other.
When the movie is over everyone splits up. I go to the computers to check email, then I grab a notebook and head to the back porch. The quiet girl is there. There are several seats in a circle around a low table. She doesn’t look up when I come out. I sit down and open my book.
She’s writing in a journal, too, a very small one, and I think this is something else we have in common. But I know I’m just lonely and looking out for any connection I can get, over a journal, over anything. I set aside my ideas of fucking her and do my own writing.
But eventually my loneliness gets to me and I’m aching to say something to her. I know she’s just trying to do her writing but I feel it would be a great loss if we didn’t speak, if we spent a night in this hostel together and never interacted. I finally decide to just say:
She looks up. She does kind of a little wave. “Hi.”
“Sorry to interrupt your writing I just wanted to say that.”
“It’s no problem,” she says, and I’m overwhelmed at her niceness.
She puts her pencil down.
“Everyone went crazy over that movie,” she says.
“Yeah, they didn’t seem to like it.”
“I thought it was ok,” she says. “I didn’t think it was worth making a big deal over.”
“I mean, get outside your comfort zone. Watch something a little different. Just ’cause it wasn’t Bridget Jones’s Diary..”
“Exactly. Had you seen it before?”
“I’ve seen it a million times. Had you?”
“No,” she says. “But I would watch it again.”
“Dennis Hopper is great. Everybody in it is great. I love David Lynch.”
“You like movies?”
“I guess I do.”
“I like ’em ok.”
Then our conversation takes a lull. We look at each other for a second, then look away. She plays with her pencil. I think about writing again but I want to leave the air open in case she wants to say something. A long time passes and I think our interaction is over, then she says:
“Where are you headed?”
“I don’t know.”
“I mean where are you traveling to?”
“I’m— I guess right here. I think I live here now.”
“Where are you from?”
“Oh. I’m from back east too.”
“Big town or small town?”
“Small. But I can’t go back there.”
“I hear you. How long have you been in Tucson?”
“Since yesterday. I’m leaving tomorrow. I’m catching a bus but I don’t know if I’ll make it. It leaves at three in the morning and I might sleep in. I mean I might not be able to stay up that late and I don’t have an alarm clock.”
“Where is your bus headed?”
“El Paso. After that I don’t know.”
“Why did you leave Pennsylvania?”
“Well, it’s complicated. I have a boyfriend there—an ex-boyfriend. That’s part of the reason. I just get so tired of things, you know? Have you ever lived in a small town?”
“Well it’s hideous. Everyone knows your business. You see the same people everywhere. Like your hairdresser is also your kid’s babysitter, stuff like that.”
“You have a kid?”
“No, I’m just saying. Everyone knows everyone. You can’t leave the house without seeing someone you know. Everyone knows everyone’s business. Like this breakup. You’d think that could be between me and him, but no, my boss knows about it, gives me a hard time about it. It’s just small town podunk bullshit. Where are you from? Oh right you said New York. That must be nice.”
“It was too crazy for me, really. I don’t fit with the fast-paced lifestyle. I mean my boss didn’t believe in taking lunches. I like to eat lunch.”
“What do you do?”
“Well, I was a programmer. What do you do?”
She hesitates. “I work as a stripper. Don’t think less of me.”
“I don’t think less of you!”
“I had to, I needed the money. I live with my parents, or..I lived with my parents. It’s the only way to make money where I live. Took some getting used to. I’m a naturally shy person.”
“You don’t seem shy.”
“I am. I don’t like people. Especially people I know. It got to where me and my parents were fighting every day like they didn’t want me to stay at my boyfriend’s, and they definitely didn’t want me having him over. So I left. I said, ‘fuck it,’ and got on a bus. I’ve been traveling ever since.”
“How long ago was that?”
“Three weeks ago.”
“You like traveling?”
“No. It sucks. In Kansas I slept at a gas station. Like in the parking lot. It got dark and everyone went home and it was just me on the edge of this parking lot. I put on all my clothes just to stay warm, and I was still cold. Couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t. Stayed up all night until the gas station owner came by and let me inside.”
“I’ve slept in parking lots.”
“Then you know what it’s like. It’s no fun. Fuck. I know I should go back to Pennsylvania but I can’t. I can’t do it! There’s too much history. And my ex-job, they hate me for quitting.”
“Your stripper job?”
“No, this diner I worked at. Couldn’t stand the people. Constant nagging and gossip and just..bullshit. You know? I can’t deal with that.”
“I know what you mean.”
“I think you do. How long are you staying at the hostel?”
“A week. I’ve been living outside but it starts to suck. I work two jobs but I don’t have enough to rent an apartment.”
“That fucking sucks, man.”
“Yeah. A few nights ago this crazy motherfucker jacked up on meth was chasing me. He found my spot. He was chasing me through the streets saying he was going to kill me.”
“That’s messed up. That’s bad news, there.”
“Yeah, I can’t have that type of thing happening. I don’t mind sleeping outside but I don’t want to die, you know?”
“You need to be careful. There’s some crazy motherfuckers out there.”
“I’m trying. But what can I do? I don’t have the money.”
“I’m running out of money.”
“Yeah. It’s prob’ly about time I start heading back to Pennsylvania. Maybe that’s what I’m doing tomorrow. I don’t know.”
“Would your parents have you back?”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you talked with them?”
“I don’t have a phone. I just walked out of my old job. Just walked out while I was doing a dance. So they’re pissed.”
“Everyone in that town is pissed at me!”
And she goes on, and she tells me all the details of why everyone in her home town is pissed at her. I can’t get it out of my mind: this girl, stuck in Kansas somewhere, putting on all of her clothes to keep warm as she tries to sleep in a gas station parking lot. I’ve slept in a parking lot. But somehow imagining this other person doing it, and imagining a girl doing it, I have so much sympathy for her. She seems like such a good person and she had to do that. Why? Why did she have to feel like such a stranger in her town that she left on a bus and ended up sleeping in a parking lot?
Eventually she asks me if I have a phone.
“Yeah, I do.”
“Can I borrow it? Not to make a call. I just need something to wake me up so I can catch my bus. It’s ok if you say no.”
But I’ve talked with her enough that I feel like trusting her, so I give her my phone.
“I’ll set it behind the stereo, in the living room? There’s a little cubby in there where I’ve been hiding my wallet. I’ll wake up with it and then I’ll put it in that cubby and you can get it when you wake up.”
“Thanks. You’re saving my life,” she says, and she gets up to leave. When she gets to the back door of the house she turns around and looks at me. Then she goes inside.
I finish writing then go to bed. It is a snoring party in the dorm room. I lie awake thinking about that girl, and my phone, and wondering if I’ll ever see it again. The sound of six men snoring is very hard to fall asleep to. I stay up for a long time getting tired. I imagine myself as the girl sleeping with all her clothes on, and I think how much cooler it would be to be homeless if I was a girl.
It is a long night. Many wakeups of the door opening and letting light in, people snoring, people slamming the door when they come back from the bathroom, and even here I’m cold, sleeping with a single blanket by a window. But it’s better than the street—way better.
In the morning I’m sure when I look behind the stereo the cubby will be empty, no phone, some nameless girl having stolen it. I have to wait till the living room is empty to check. But when I do slide the stereo out from its spot, my phone is there, just like she said it would be.
I’m better now at looking for secret places. I can hide in the open, sleep right in front of people and they’ll never see me. I rarely get my sleeping bag out anymore, I just sleep in my clothes, in a cold kind of half sleep, and it’s enough to keep me going in the morning.
I know just when to start looking for places, just when it’s dark enough that no one will notice me. I sleep right next to work, the Casbah or the Grill, so I spend less time walking with my heavy bag. The alley behind the grill is perfect, even though I would have never slept there when I started out. While I’m sleeping, people are parking their cars and going to work, and I don’t even care if they notice me. But they don’t notice me—that’s the thing. They don’t see me as some guy sleeping leaned up against the side of a building. The don’t see me at all! They’re busy doing their thing. Business people you don’t have to worry about.
I leave Time Market, my phone charged. It’s about ten o’clock. Go through the parking lot, across a street, then into an alley that runs parallel to Fourth Avenue. I like this alley. Lots of bushes, lots of dumpsters. You only have to be hidden a little, I learn. Most people aren’t paying attention. They’ll walk right past you, three feet away, and never see you. As long as you’re low and covered, no one’s looking.
I go down the alley, through a fence, into some new construction. Homes that are being built for the rich. I slip between framing and stand next to a wall. I’m inside a house, or a condominium, that is half built. I unzip my pants and take a piss on the wall.
I wanted to own a house once. I almost bought my dad’s house when I worked at LexisNexis. What a different path that would have been, if all this time I had been working for LexisNexis and living in a house in Five Oaks in Dayton, Ohio. I try to imagine myself stagnating in an office, in the same cesspool of workers, rarely getting any outside influences, rarely learning anything new. Some people are perfect for that, but I’m not one of them.
A couple walks by in the alley and I don’t even try to hide—they won’t look over here! Why would they? They’re in their own world. No one looks. I think sometimes the best place to sleep would be on a roof. No one looks on roofs. You could sleep there all night and as long as you didn’t fall off you’d be ok. But I can’t get on a roof with my bag. It’s too much to carry. Maybe I should get rid of my bag. But I don’t want to do that. I don’t want to become Surfer Dan. My bag is the one thing keeping me from being truly homeless. The difference between me and Surfer Dan is a phone and clean clothes. I can still get to my jobs. I can’t imagine if I wasn’t able to call my sisters or my mom. Then I would be truly stuck, truly alone.
I can see the Casbah from here, the back of it. It’s just a fence and a dumpster and some boxes from here. I’m not going to sleep in this house—too obvious. That’s where homeless people sleep, in half-built houses. I don’t want to run into meth motherfucker again.
I slip through the fence, cross the alley. There’s one box that I left out when I was breaking down the boxes the other day, and tonight I’m going to use it. It’s a large white box that we received heads of lettuce in, and I can fit inside.
I drag the box from next to the dumpster to right next to the fence’s door. There are some broken-down boxes lying flat on the ground, and I set the lettuce box on top of them. I position it so the opening faces the corner between the Casbah fence and the neighboring business’ fence. This way if someone walks through the alley, or if someone opens the Casbah gate, they won’t see the opening of my box.
No one is around. I put my bag inside the box and get inside myself. My feet stick out a little but I can lean against my bag and recline. I pull my arms inside my sweatshirt and relax.
Someone walks through the alley. I listen to their footsteps come and go. I have a perfect spot. I feel certain no one’s going to come up to this box and look inside. I might even get some sleep tonight.
The music from the gay club next door to the Casbah floods out of their doors. People leaving the club. They stand there talking for a while, and I feel like they’re right on top of me. I automatically hold still and quiet my breathing. They last thing I need is to be harassed or hit on by drunk people. Then I go through an elaborate fantasy where I get discovered by some gay dudes and they take pity on me and one of them decides to take me home so I have a warm place to sleep. But then he wants something in exchange, and I’m forced to make that choice. The more they talk, the more elaborate my fantasy gets, and then I realize that the bottom line to all this thinking is that I’m cold. Maybe later I’ll get my sleeping bag out, around one a.m.
Those guys leave, and it’s a new set of footsteps I’m hearing, and they’re coming closer. I feel like they’re about to step on my box and their voices, too, are so close that I think they must have found me.
“That’s not a real fast,” the woman says.
“Yes it is.” A male voice.
“If you’re drinking tea, it’s not real.”
“I’m drinking tea. Herbal tea. It’s real.”
“If you want to go on some cop-out fast, go ahead. But when I juice fast it’s all juice. One-hundred percent juice. No herbal tea.”
“What does herbal tea have to do with anything?”
“It’s not juice.”
Then I recognize who one of the voices is. It’s Luke, my Casbah co-worker who pretends to be the kitchen manager and who let me sleep at his house that one night. Luke, with the high school video projects that made me want to kill myself. It’s Luke.
He and this woman are standing right next to me. Luke is fumbling with the lock on the Casbah gate.
“Fuck,” he says.
“I can’t remember the combination.”
“You don’t know the combination?”
“I think it’s Paula’s birthday. I’m pretty sure it’s Paula’s birthday, or her Social Security number or something.”
“You don’t know your own combination?”
“I never go in this way. Shut up.”
I’m completely silent in my lettuce box. Controlled breathing, absolutely no movements. My feet are probably visible from where they are but I don’t move them. Don’t want to draw attention. If Luke finds me in this box it’s going to be really embarrassing. He’s the kind of guy that would make a big deal out of it. He might tell Paula.
I look around my little box. It’s my home for the moment. It’s protecting me from Luke and his girlfriend. It’s keeping the wind off me. It’s just the right size for me. If I could sleep in this box every night things would be ideal. But that won’t happen. Luke will see it, and tell me to break it down, and I’ll have to throw away a perfectly good box. Then I’ll be back sleeping on porches.
I’m completely heightened. Senses sharp. I notice every sound. My eyes are fixed on the fence before me. Everything about me is super aware.
“Got it,” Luke says, and I hear him opening the gate. It’s a tall wooden fence with our walk-in freezer just on the other side. It’s too tall to climb or I would have climbed it already.
Luke and his friend start laughing and continue arguing about which one of them is on a “real” juice fast, and I hear their voices recede toward the Casbah.
I know what I’m going to do. As soon as I’m convinced they’re inside the building I quickly crawl out of the box. I look at the gate—yes! The lock is hung through the latch, unlocked, and I go up to it and look at the combination. It’s four digits. I read it three times. I convince myself that I have it memorized and that it’s not going to rearrange itself behind my back, and I duck back into the box.
I pull my feet all the way in this time, and I wait. I wait a long time. I don’t know what Luke and his friend are doing in there, but they’re taking their time. I wait an eternity of people walking by and the gay club doors opening and closing and more drunk people talking and me wondering if Luke and his girl are getting it on in the Casbah. After one of the longest twenty minutes in my life, the two of them come back out the gate and lock up. I hear the lock clicking closed and Luke spinning the digits. Then Luke and his girl stand there for what seems like an hour discussing whether or not broccoli is a legitimate ingredient in a green juice fast. Luke thinks it is. His girl thinks it isn’t. Something about the zinc content, I don’t know. This conversation goes on forever, and I start getting angry at them for not having it at one of their houses. I’m freezing my ass off in a box, and I’m stuck here because these two assholes want to have some ridiculous discussion that isn’t going to affect the world in any major way..and they have to have it right here!
But I wait, because it’s all I can do. I hope against hope that they don’t hear me, or see my shoes, or decide to look in this box for any reason. I imagine the look on Luke’s face, when he discovers me. In a grand sense, I don’t care what Luke thinks, but Luke could make things very difficult for me at the Casbah if he wanted to. I just want to keep my job.
Eventually they leave, and I wait a long time before I get out of the box. What if they come back? What if they left something inside and they go back to get it?
When all is quiet, I unpack myself and stretch my legs. I grab my bag. I go to the Casbah gate and finger the combination lock. I never know if it’s Paula’s birthday or her Social Security number or what it is but the lock opens. I let myself in and pull the gate to. All I have to do is make sure I’m gone before Paula gets here and I have the whole back of the Casbah to myself. Three tents with benches, chairs, pillows. I take a few of the pillows and line them up on one of the back benches. I get my sleeping bag out. I take off my shoes. Now this is a good spot. No one’s going to try the Casbah gate. I can sleep in peace and safety, with my only risk being sleeping in and being seen by Paula or Jesse.
I get in my sleeping bag and immediately notice how much warmer it is to sleep off the ground. The raised bench keeps me away from cold concrete and I’m finally able to get warm. I look up at the stars. Things are going well for me. I have two jobs, a safe place to sleep, enough food to stay alive and I have me—myself—who I’ve been traveling with all this time, from the moment I was conceived to now, spiraling around the sun, keeping myself company all along.
I look up and I see my sky there, guiding me. I zip my bag up all the way and adjust the earflaps of my wool hat. My body starts to warm. I look around at this fenced-in area and think I am in heaven. I can still hear the club music from next door but its members are no longer a threat. I settle in and do my evening meditation. And I slip into a long, fitful sleep.
I have many nights in the back of the Casbah, letting myself in with the combination and locking the gate shut when I leave in the morning. Most days I wake up naturally early, plenty before Paula arrives in the morning, and I arrive for work a few hours later as though it was my first trip to the Casbah that day. One day I sleep in and wake to the sound of the back gate being opened. I lie frozen in fear as Paula comes in holding several packages. She walks right by me without noticing that I’m lying there, in her restaurant, in my sleeping bag! That day I quickly stash my bag above the walk-in freezer, put on my shoes, and pretend that I just got to work early.
As the days go on it gets colder, and some nights I find that my sleeping bag doesn’t cut it. I search the back of the Casbah hoping to find a blanket. What I find is a pile of old rugs. Imported from Afghanistan, about six foot square, Paula has this stack of twelve decorative rugs. I ditch my sleeping bag and burrow in-between them, with half of them under me and half on top. It’s dusty to the point of almost not being able to breathe, but it’s warm, and for a while I think I’ve found paradise at the Casbah.
Days off work are the worst. No employee food shelf, no shift meals. Work gives me something to do, somewhere to be. I’m happy when it’s over but it also means I have to find somewhere to go, somewhere to wander or somewhere to hide before everyone goes home and I can settle in at the Casbah for the night.
Paula and Bahir change my schedules from time to time and this time it means I have three days off in a row. Three long days of sitting at Time Market using their internet and buying nothing, sitting on benches at the university, and sitting at a computer in the university library programming my cellular automata.
Some nights I can’t sleep at the Casbah because the other dishwasher doesn’t finish up till four a.m. Those are long nights, because I don’t know when he’s gonna get off, so I’m waiting around in the Casbah alley peeking in to see if the lights are still on.
I make good progress on my cellular automata, inventing new systems and posting them to the New Kind of Science website, one of the few forums in the world where anyone would be interested. New ideas are always coming to me when I’m sitting up not-sleeping in some alley or at the church. It seems there are infinite variations on this idea of simple 1-dimensional cellular automata. I pull my notebooks out at the church, sitting up to make drawings of the systems I want to program next time I’m at a computer. I’ve almost filled my Alice notebook; soon it will be time to buy another.
When I am at the computer I type furiously, filling in lines of code that I planned out the night before. I make dozens of new systems.
I think about the people reading my posts. Most of them are professionals or university students. Would they imagine that the person behind these posts is sleeping outside?
One day I wake up at the church. I haven’t bathed in weeks. It’s the third day of my three days off from both the Casbah and the Grill. I’m tired. I’m tired from not sleeping and I’m tired from not eating. I’m gonna have to break down and buy food today. I heft my pack and start walking. I think about going to the Casbah to eat off the employee shelf but pride prevents me. I don’t want to be the guy that goes in there to eat off the employee shelf on his day off. Fuck. It’s a matter of finding the cheapest place to eat that will get me the fullest. I settle on Jack in the Box.
It’s a struggle to get myself to actually go into the restaurant. I walk around it a couple times, watching people in the parking lot eat in their cars. They have cars! If I had a car I would sleep in it. Leave the engine running all night and the heat on and I would just sleep there. Even the times I’ve spent sleeping in the front seat of a car were more comfortable than sleeping on concrete! Maybe instead of renting a place I should get a car. Save a few paychecks, get the cheapest car I can find, and sleep in that motherfucker.
I finally go in. I have to eat. There’s a short line. I stand at the end with my bag up against the door. I listen to what everyone orders. Combo meals. Cokes. Curly fries. When it’s my turn I stammer:
“I’d like an ultim—ultimate cheeseburger please.”
“Bacon ultimate or just ultimate?”
“You want the combo or just the sandwich?”
“Just the sandwich please.”
They make it. I watch the guy in the back. I hope he gives me the biggest beef patties, the best bun. Maybe he’ll mess up and put an extra slice of cheese! When they hand me my tray I feel the burger with one hand. It is warm.
I sit in a booth. I put my bag down opposite me. I make a trip to the condiment station and fill six cups with ketchup to take back to my table. I’m going soup up this burger. I open the bun and slather it with ketchup. When I pick it up ketchup falls out onto my tray. The first bite is holy—the first thing I’ve eaten for days. The meat, the cheese..Jack in the Box has invented the perfect hamburger. I chew my bite for a long time, making sure to taste every bit of flavor. I hesitate to swallow it because that means it will be over. I’ll only have so many bites left. I eat the whole thing like this, making each bite a religious experience, and when it’s over I am truly sad.
I sit in the booth a long time, long enough that almost everyone who is there when I sat down is gone by the time I leave, the exception being one girl who is obviously studying something—she has her books out on her table. Mostly I’m enjoying the free heat. Part of the cost of my burger has gone to heat this building, and I’m gonna take advantage of it. Part of my burger cost has gone to pay for this booth, and I’m gonna sit here as long as I like.
I think. Mostly I think about how I’m gonna have to sell my laptop. It will be painful to part with but I need the money. With that money I could prob’ly put a down payment on an apartment. It’s unpleasant but it has to be done. I’m going to eBay it in the next week or so.
I leave the booth at Jack in the Box and throw away my trash. I have eaten every morsel of cheese stuck to the wrapper, every stray piece of beef that fell off the burger. It’s a tough goodbye, leaving that Jack in the Box, knowing that my next meal won’t be until tomorrow when I work at the Grill.
Tomorrow comes soon enough, though, and I’m back at the Grill’s dish station, washing endless stacks of plates, removing wet napkins from cups, separating out the silverware from the cups from the mugs from the saucepans from the cocktail glasses. Kevin is still talking about Pynchon and Bahir is still threatening to throw plates at my head—just a regular night at the Grill. I’m hungry, still thinking about yesterday’s ultimate cheeseburger, and willing my shift to come to an end so I can have my shift meal. I’m not gonna get another hamburger—I’m thinking about tortellini pasta. It has pesto and it’s green and it’s one of the most popular things on the menu. Some of it comes back uneaten in the large bowl it’s served in and I think of eating it.
Then I get to thinking: why am I not eating it? All this food comes back to the dishwasher station, and I’m the dishwasher, why don’t I grab a forkful of someone’s uneaten tortellini pasta? Bahir already probably knows I’m homeless—would it be too much for him if he caught me eating off dirty plates?
I can’t let him catch me doing it. It would be too much. I don’t want him to think less of me. I don’t want to look desperate. But I am desperate! I’m hungry, man!
I look at Bahir: happily cooking someone’s steak, gabbing with the other line cook. I grab the uneaten pesto pasta bowl and hold it right in front of me. I walk quickly to the employee closet and stash it on a top shelf. Ophelia isn’t looking—she’s serving two greenish-blue concoctions to bar customers. I go back to the dish station and do a load of silverware. It’s a long time till break. I do load after load of dishes, thinking of my tortellini pasta waiting for me. As an appetizer, I grab a fry off someone’s burger plate. I wouldn’t want to eat where they had bitten off, but the rest of the burger is still good. I start keeping an eye out for the least-eaten, least-disgusting return plates. There are some really good ones. A plate almost completely full of tater tots! Just shove them in the microwave and you’d be good to go! A chicken breast with about three bites taken out of it—who are these people? Order a chicken breast at a restaurant and only eat three bites?? The madness! Here’s a salad and there’s a crouton going on my mouth! Washing dishes can be fun! It’s a parade of uneaten food paid for by others! I start to see my job in an entirely different way. And I start to eat off more and more plates. Just little bites at first, then I’m checking to see if Bahir’s not looking and I lift an entire BLT to my mouth.
I think I’m waiting till no one’s looking but Kevin catches me as he’s bringing a load of dishes to me. I’m taking a bite of a reuben and he gives me this terrible look like I just snapped the neck of a kitten or something. That’s ok, I don’t care what Kevin thinks. That Pynchon-loving pseudo-literary wanna be writer. What does he know? If he was hungry he would do the same thing. He probably has an apartment and a boyfriend and shops at Safeway. He doesn’t know about sleeping under dirty rugs and living off a single hamburger for three days.
I get bolder and bolder, until I’m not even checking behind me to see if Bahir is looking. I grab a tater tot, then an onion ring, then I just go over to the silverware trays and get myself a fresh knife and a fork and I cut into some asshole’s steak. He paid more for that steak than I make in four hours and he left half of it on the tray. Mmm it’s good. Even better ’cause it’s free.
I finish off a couple of bites of the steak, standing at the dishwasher station like it’s my own personal buffet. Bahir comes up beside me.
My mouth is full. “Sure am.”
“You know you get a shift meal in six hours.”
“Isn’t it a shame,” I say, “that all this food goes to waste?”
“Do you want your shift meal now?”
He says it with a gentleness, a kindness, and I realize Bahir is on my side.
I look at him.
“No, I can wait,” I say.
“Ok,” he says. “Why don’t you take your break.”
So I take off my apron and Bahir and the other line cook watch while I leave the kitchen. I go to the employee closet and take my tortellini pasta off the top shelf. I sit leaned up next to my bag and I look at the food. It’s glorious—even though it’s cold. I pick up one of the rings of tortellini with my fingers and eat it. Then I pick up another, and another, licking my fingers after each one. As I’m slurping and chewing and licking I look up and there’s Ophelia, looking down on me, watching me eat. I smile at her and she just smiles back. I’m too hungry for any more politeness, so I bow my head and go back to my food.
I notice it while I’m sleeping at the Casbah. It starts with a general weakness, then a headache, then a horrible cough. My muscles ache, my joints creak when I move. At first I think I have the flu, then I notice this terrible taste. When I eat anything, it tastes like shit. There’s this iodine taste to wine—so bad I can hardly drink it. Food tastes bland, and like it’s rotting. I think there’s something seriously wrong with me.
It affects my work. I’m sluggish, everything hurts, I can hardly get through a shift. Dishes pile up at the Grill. I’m taking more and more trips to the employee closet. Ophelia finds me napping there.
“I feel like shit.”
“You want a drink?”
“No. Everything tastes horrible.”
“I haven’t tried whiskey.”
She pours me a small glass of Knob Creek.
“It still tastes like shit.”
I hand it back to her.
“You don’t want it?”
“Ophelia, I can’t drink it. There’s something wrong with my taste buds.”
“Tell Bahir you’re sick. He’ll let you go home.”
“I can’t go home.”
“Problems at home, huh?”
“Yeah, something like that.”
The next day at the Casbah Jesse notices my cough.
“That sounds bad.”
“Ok, just go outside when you cough. I can’t have you contaminating the food.”
When I’m outside coughing Jesse yells at me.
“MATTHEW! GET YOUR SHIT TOGETHER AND COME BACK HERE AND HELP ME STIR THESE BEANS!”
I come back.
“Do you need a safety meeting?”
“No, I couldn’t take a safety meeting right now.”
“WHAT IS IN YOUR HAND?!”
“I TOLD YOU TO GET CUMIN! WE DON’T PUT CURRY IN THE BEANS!!”
“Sorry, Jesse, I’m a little off today.”
“You’ve been off for a week! Have you seen a doctor about that cold?”
“I don’t think it’s a cold, Jesse. I think I’m infected. My taste buds are affected. I think there’s something burrowing inside my brain.”
“See a doctor.”
“I don’t have one.”
“Don’t you have health insurance?”
“I can’t afford it.”
“That’s ok, I don’t have health insurance either. DON’T PUT THAT IN THE BEANS!!!”
I look. I have a can of cayenne I’m about to dump into the Brazilian black beans.
“YOU need a safety meeting.”
“I can’t right now, Jesse. I feel like shit.”
“Do you need to go home?”
“No, please, just let me cook.”
So Jesse and I cook up batches of the Brazilian black beans, then put them in little containers in the refrigerator. That’s our dirty little secret—a lot of the food here isn’t cooked fresh.
As I’m putting the containers away Jesse yells:
“WHAT ARE YOU DOING??”
“Putting away the beans!”
“THAT’S not how we do it. THIS is the way we do it.”
She shows me how to stack the beans.
I think I’m doing it right but then she yells at me again:
“MATTHEW!! I’LL SHOW YOU AGAIN! THIS WAY! NOT THIS WAY! SEE? RIGHT. WRONG. RIGHT. WRONG.”
“Now you try!”
“You can’t yell at me like that.”
She looks at me with this scary expression.
“What did you say?”
I shake my head. “You can’t yell at me like that. I’m sorry. But I can’t work while I’m being yelled at like that.”
“I yell. That’s what I do.”
“I know. But you can’t yell at me. Any more. We have to be through with that.”
“We do, do we?”
“Take your break. Come back in here ready to cook.”
“Take your break.”
I go to the office. No one’s there. I sit down on Paula’s chair and look at the time cards. There I am, punched in at the prep cook rate, promoted from dishwasher, when all I ever wanted to do was wash dishes. Not have to talk to anybody, remember? I should have never accepted the promotion. I should be back washing dishes, letting Jesse handle her own Brazilian black beans. I’m a dishwasher, see? Not a prep cook. If I do well at prep cook they’ll promote me to line cook, and I definitely don’t want that.
I take my time card off the wall and punch out. I put the card back in its slot and go back to the kitchen.
“Are you ready to work now?”
“I’m quitting, Jesse.”
“Don’t fuck with me, Temple.”
“I’m not fucking with you. I clocked out. I’m quitting my job as of now. I’d like to work the rest of the day without you yelling at me. Since I don’t work here anymore I don’t see how you can justify raising your voice at me, since I’m working for you today on a volunteer basis.”
“Are you serious?”
“JESUS CHRIST TEMPLE!”
“If you yell at me again I’m leaving. I’m a volunteer prep cook for the rest of the day, since I like working here and I believe in the food we make. So you and I have to be on a no-yelling basis for me to help you. So you wanna make some beans or what?”
Jesse lets me know with her body language that she is good and pissed, but she doesn’t yell. She hands me a spoon.
“Stir,” she says.
And for a while we communicate with single words. She gives me a single-word command, I respond with “Ok.” We get through the Brazilian black beans that way, and by the time we are making seitan she gets a little more talkative. Once we’re making salsa she’s as cheerful as a daybug, not yelling, telling me about her children and the rough neighborhood she grew up in and and showing me her tattoos and I’m thinking if every day here could have been like this I wouldn’t have had to quit. But I savor every minute of that day, the day that Jesse and I cooked together without yelling.
Jesse’s kids show up, with Jesse’s boyfriend in tow. Jesse introduces us.
“This is Michaela. This is Toby.”
“Aww..cute names! Cute kids, too!”
Jesse picks up Michaela.
“Say hi, baby.”
Michaela makes the quietest, “Hi.”
Me and Jesse and her kids and boyfriend all stand around the Casbah kitchen tasting salsa and smiling and laughing and it’s the best moment I’ve ever had here. I wish Jesse’s kids could come to the kitchen all the time. And Jesse speaks to them with the gentlest voice—watching them it’s hard to imagine she ever yells.
Soon they’re talking of going home and Jesse tells me I can take off for the day.
“I quit, remember.”
Jesse smiles. “Will I see you tomorrow?”
“No,” I say, and I turn around.
I get Andrew’s drawing book out of my backpack and place it on Paula’s desk. I put a little piece of paper on it that says, “Andrew.”
I put on my backpack and walk through the kitchen. Jesse sees me go and I wave to her on my way out the door. As I go down the sidewalk, I say my goodbyes to that place. I never go back, even to pick up my check.
I go to the Grill where everyone but me is doing cleanup day. I was excused since I have another job. When I duck in the back door Pete looks up from mopping. Bahir is there. Ophelia is there. Kevin is there. All mopping, scrubbing, or wiping something down.
“Hey! How are things at the Casbah?”
“Ok. Can I talk to you?”
“Keep cleaning everybody!”
Bahir puts down his mop. He comes over.
“I’m quitting, Bahir. I like working here and I’m sorry to leave you without a dishwasher, but I have to. I’m sorry, man. I have to.”
Bahir just looks at me a moment, in this kind of really understanding way, and he puts his hand on my shoulder.
“We’ll find another dishwasher.”
“Good.” I smile.
“Take care of yourself.”
“We’ll all..we’ll always think of you well. I’m wishing you the best, man.”
He turns around and picks up his mop.
“I want this place to shine,” he says. “Like the ring on my finger.”
Everyone’s heads are down except Ophelia. Everyone else is focused on their cleaning; she’s looking at me. She smiles at me and I smile back. Then I walk away.
For the longest time I just sit on the U of A campus thinking about how I can’t take another night of being homeless. I feel like a failure. I was supposed to move to Arizona and get a job and get a place to live and have a nice life here, but I can’t make it work. I don’t want to give up and I don’t want to ask for help, but I don’t see any other way out. I was doing ok until I got sick. But working two jobs and sleeping outside may be hard when you’re feeling well—when you’re sick it’s damn near impossible.
I cough. It feels like I’m hacking up a fungus that’s growing inside my lungs. Very meaty cough. I don’t want to get sicker and die. At this point I think my health is at risk. It’s cool to be homeless and all, but it’s not cool if you get some degenerative disease and fall to your death. That can’t be the story of me: went to the desert and died.
I shake my head. I’ve made hardly any progress on my screenplay. What happened to making a starkly beautiful movie? I was gonna get actors and a crew together and become a filmmaker. I feel like a loser.
I debate the call I’m about to make. Both outcomes are bad. I don’t want to get stuck in Phoenix, but I also don’t want my sickness to get any worse and possibly have permanent effects. If only I hadn’t gotten sick, I wouldn’t even be considering this. But I can’t let myself continue sleeping in the cold while I have whatever this sickness is. I’m a bit of a hypochondriac—I overreact to sickness—I always think it’s worse than it is. At least if I had a warm place to sleep I might heal.
So I watch the University of Arizona students walk on the mall, and I think of them going to their dorm rooms to sleep and study. I wish I just had the smallest apartment—one room—where I could live, so that I could get to work and heal my sickness and live in Tucson. But I don’t.
I get my phone out. I haven’t used it in a while and I haven’t paid my bill in months—I’ll be surprised if it even works.
I call my friend. She picks up.
“How are you?”
“I’m ready for you to come pick me up.”
I hear her breath. She gets emotional.
“I’m— I’m so glad. I mean you’ve been doing this for so long and there’s really no reason you should have to. I can pick you up tonight—if you’re ready.”
“Good! Good. I just hate to see you suffer. You know? When you’ve got places you could go.”
“I don’t know that I have that many places I could go.”
“You have this one.”
“Thank you, Ash, you’re saving my life.”
“Where can I pick you up?”
“The Grill. Do you know where that is?”
“Of course. I just have to look at my map to see which exit to take. I’ll be there in a couple hours.”
“Alright Ash, bye.”
“Bye, my friend.”
I can hear her smiling on the other end of the line. I’m not sure I’m ready to smile yet, myself, because I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing. This could be a really bonehead move. I could get stuck in Phoenix and not be able to find a job. I’ve never seen Ashley and Faith’s apartment; it might not be within walking distance to anything. Faith might hate me.
I wait on my bench at the U of A until the sun goes down. I don’t know if I’ll ever see the campus again. When it gets dark I walk across town to the Grill.
They’re finished cleaning and the place is open again. I get a table and order hash browns and tater tots—the plainest thing I can think of eating so it won’t taste horrible with my sickness. I slather them with Tabasco sauce but the whole mixture tastes like fungus. It tastes exactly like when I used to eat hallucinogenic mushrooms. That’s what everything tastes like now, and I’m convinced it’s due to to some neurological degeneration.
I order a few drinks and try to sneak them in before Ashley gets here. I don’t want her to see me drinking 1) because I don’t want her to think I spent all my money on booze while I was in Tucson and 2) because I clearly have a drinking problem and I want her to think I’m being responsible. I drink three straight gins and even those taste terrible. I bus my own glasses so they won’t be there when Ashley arrives.
I enjoy the Grill as a customer for once, get some journal writing done, and it isn’t long before Ashley’s standing in front of me and I’m standing and we’re hugging and she’s asking me how long it’s been since I had a shower. I grab my bag, pay my bill at the front, and take one last look at the Grill. Thank you, I say in my mind. Thank you.
“I’m glad you called me,” Ashley says, as we’re driving north on the highway.
“I’m glad I did, too.”
She puts her hand on mine.
“I tried to make it work, Ash.”
“I know you did.”
“If I hadn’t gotten sick, I’d prob’ly still be out there.”
“Yeah, what is it, do you think you have the flu?”
“I don’t know.”
“Well maybe we can get you to an urgent care.”
I cough. It’s this deep, cavernous barking sound.
“You sound horrible.”
“I feel horrible. I was doing ok—for a while. My taste is messed up, Ashley. I think there’s something wrong with my brain.”
“I doubt there’s something wrong with your brain.”
“I just remember this one time, when I was on LSD, water tasted like salt, and it makes me think there’s some neurological damage that’s messing with my sense of taste.”
“Sometimes when you’re sick things taste funny. Don’t you ever get that?”
“Yeah but this isn’t like that. It’s really severe. Everything tastes like mushrooms.”
“I really don’t think you have anything to worry about. I know you’re feeling terrible but in all likelihood you’ll get better. Try not to worry.”
I put my head against the window.
“Well,” I say, “at least this way you and I are going to get to spend some time together!”
“I know! I’m looking forward to that! I’ve missed you, my friend.”
“I’ve missed you, too, Ash. You’re my oldest and bestest friend.”
“We’ve been through a lot,” she says.
And I say, “Yeah.”
Ashley is my longest-time friend. I’ve known her since Ohio University days. She’s the first girl I had sex with—we used to make love for hours on the top bunk in her dorm room. She’s someone who was there when Rebecca died, there in the hospital room with me while that poor girl was in a coma. She’s someone I’ve had many long talks with, about what we want to be when we grow up and what we’re going to say in our Academy Award acceptance speeches. And perhaps not least of all, she gives the best blowjobs in the world—no one can make me cum with her mouth like Ashley.
We get reacquainted, this old friend and I, as she takes us out of the city and past the foothills and into the desert night. The lights fade outside my window and the restaurants and homes and streetlamps go away and it’s just the two of us speeding along, isolated, next to miles and miles of sand.
For a week I lie in bed at Ashley’s place. Bed is my sleeping bag on the floor of Ashley’s bedroom. I sleep twenty hours a day. They rest of the time I’m coughing.
I want to go to the doctor but can’t without health insurance. I try eating Rice Chex but the milk tastes rotten. I eat it anyway. The sickness seems like it’s going to last forever. When I come out of my daze Ashley introduces me to her friend and apartment mate, Faith.
“It’s desert fever,” Faith says. “Desert fever? Valley fever? You’ve never heard of it? People here get it all the time.”
I look up valley fever and all the symptoms match. It’s a fungal infection. You get it from sleeping below ground level, or sleeping in the dirt. I immediately think of those dusty rugs I slept under at the Casbah.
“You just have to let it run its course,” Faith says.
I like Faith. Ashley secretly tells me Faith is still a virgin, and I have dreams of taking her virginity. She looks like a Disney character—big eyes, big smile. She’s kind, and she welcomes me into her home.
I go back to bed, knowing now that I have desert fever, and that I’m not dying from some neurodegenerative disease, and that I’ll get better with time. Even my sense of taste is supposed to return.
Ashley works during the day, processing claims for an insurance company. Faith works for a politician. Both want to be actors and dream of moving to Los Angeles.
During the day I have the house to myself. As I start to feel better, I use Ashley’s computer to check email and do some programming. I take long, glorious baths. I scrub away every evidence that I’ve been homeless. The only thing that doesn’t wash away is my feet. My heels are cracked and calloused from walking and not washing. I haven’t taken a bath since..oh, before New York. I never took baths in that cramped apartment and I never took baths when I was homeless. Reclining in Ashley’s tub one morning, I add up the time from when I left New York to now. I have been mostly living on the streets for two and a half months.
One morning I’m sitting at Ash’s computer, which is located under a loft-style bed. Faith comes in.
“What are you doing?”
I keep my eyes on the computer because I’m about to cry.
“Oh yeah? What are you thinking about?”
Faith sits on the floor cross-legged.
“Wanna talk about it?”
I turn to her.
“It’s just— When I think about my life— And sometimes I think about the things that I’ve done— And I wonder— Faith, I mean— Life is so hard, you know? I try to go to work and make money and be a big brother and all those things, but..I suck at all of them! I mean I just can’t..I can’t work in an office where we’re stealing money from a charity. I can’t do that! I’m sensitive! That kind of thing hurts me. It hurts me, in my soul.”
I’m bawling at this point, choked up uncontrollably.
“When I grew up it was just me and my mom and my sister because my dad was at work all the time. We went to the library, you know? We did sensitive things, we learned. We played pretend in the back yard. That’s how I was built—to care about people, to love people! Not to bullshit and connive and try to get ahead. I can’t stand all this trying to get ahead. There’s nowhere to go! It’s just people and feelings and feeding people and caring for people and housing people but nobody lives like that! Everybody just wants a Ferrari. Fuck Ferraris, you know? Fuck them. I can’t live like that. And I’m not going to live like that.”
I breathe in hugely and sniffle. Faith goes and gets me a tissue. She sits there and listens to me talk for about twenty minutes about how horrible the world is and how I can’t take it. When I’m done she stands up.
“I don’t want to leave you here alone today.”
“Why don’t you come to work with me.”
“I don’t have any work clothes.”
“You can wear that.”
“Won’t your boss mind?” I ask, sniffling.
Faith laughs. “I’m sure he’d love to meet you.”
“Yeah, I already told him all about you.”
“What did you say?”
“I told him my roommate’s friend came to live with us.”
“You didn’t tell him anything bad?”
“I don’t know anything bad about you, silly.”
Faith smiles. And that’s it. She takes me to work with her and I sit at one of the computers and work on some artificial intelligence programming I’ve been meaning to do. Faith does her thing and I do mine. It’s just me her and her boss and his secretary in an entire floor of an office building. They all introduce themselves and treat me like a regular human being. I cry when they leave to go do their work, like they were my sisters and I was never going to see them again. Faith finds me for lunch and we eat outside on a bench in an empty office park. After lunch Faith shows me the balcony. There’s an open part of the floor they’re on and you can look out over Phoenix and see the mountains.
I sit up there for most of the afternoon. I just think of how different people’s lives are. You could be a politician with an entire floor of an office building to yourself and a hot girl like Faith working for you, or you could be a homeless man like Surfer Dan, with nothing. I am somewhere in-between.
That night the three of us cook dinner together, me, Faith, and Ashley. We make pork chops and I’m glad that both of them eat meat. Faith buys wine and I drink a glass even though everything still tastes like shit.
“To our new guest.”
“Thank you. Thank you Ashley for having me here and thank you Faith for being ok with it!”
“We’re glad you’re here.”
“Yes, because now we can talk about all the things I’ve been meaning to talk to you about,” Ashley says.
“I’m looking forward to talking with you as well.”
“Plus,” Ashley says, with food in her mouth, “Faith has always wanted to help a homeless person.”
We all laugh.
“Yes, ever since I worked on houses in Austin. We did a mission trip there with my youth group when I was in the eighth grade and I always felt so deeply for the people we were helping.”
“So you see,” Ashley says, “you’re helping Faith fulfill a lifelong dream.”
“Well I’m glad I can help!”
“We’re just glad you’re not on the streets anymore,” Faith says.
“I’m glad I’m not on the streets anymore either,” I say, and it sounds funny saying it. Was all that real? Did I really sleep in a parking lot? Was it really necessary for me to have that experience? Why hadn’t I just come to live with Ash in the first place? I somehow felt that it was inevitable that I be homeless, that there was no other choice. I did what I thought was necessary at every point.
I start to get better from the desert fever, and as I do, I start to have more fun. Ash and Faith and I go out to eat. We have so much fun at the restaurant that our server says he wants to hang out with us. At the end of our meal we take a picture with him. We have that kind of fun that makes no sense and you can’t explain to anybody but makes sense to you when you’re having it.
We pick out a Christmas tree at Walmart. Ashley and I couldn’t care less about having one but Faith says it’s mandatory. Ash and I stand back in the aisle while Faith takes every tree off the shelf.
“What do you guys think about this one?”
Ash and I grumble.
Faith takes another tree off the shelf. We’re looking at only artificial, small ones. She takes a picture of each one (“for reference”).
“I just think a Christmas tree is part of the overall experience. When I was little we always had real trees. But I don’t think I want to be bogged down with the mess of a real one—do you?”
“Besides we don’t have a truck,” Ash says.
“And we don’t have all night,” Ash says.
“You are just a Scroogey McScroogerton, aren’t you?”
“Can we go already?”
“I don’t think you’re in the proper Christmas spirit, Ashley!”
“I left my Christmas spirit at home.”
“Do we need to drive back to the apartment and pick it up?”
“No, we need to pick a tree so I can get home and pee.”
Ash hops on one leg.
“I’m serious Faith can we go?”
“I pick this one,” Faith says, and taps it on the head.
We walk to the register, Faith carrying the tree, Ash and I tagging along behind. On the way home Faith drives Ash’s car and we almost get into an accident. Someone changes lanes on the highway and Faith swerves to avoid them. Faith screams, “Fake accident!” and it’s just so ridiculous that we all bust out laughing. I mean it looked like we were going to die. Faith just livens things up.
After we set up the tree, Ash goes to bed and Faith and I stay up watching The Biggest Loser. We sit on the couch together with a box of tissues between us. She’s crying at the show and I’m crying at the show and life in general. I’m so thankful for the experience, just being inside, in the warm, with company. It’s been so long since I’ve done something like this: watch a movie with someone, watch TV, anything. Every minute is blessed. Just being with a gentle person, watching fat people lose weight, it’s inspirational. I’m not sure if I’m crying because I’m happy or because I’m sad—probably both.
The emotional release of being around Faith is due to more than her being female. I can talk with Ash but I cry around Faith. Faith is like me: she’s an artist in her life. She’s not practical. She has a big heart. We have the same Myers-Briggs personality type, Faith and I. ENFP, the champion idealist. Warm, enthusiastic, bright. Believe in a world of possibilities. View life as a special gift. ENFPs may seem directionless, but their direction is their values. An ENFP has to feel that everything they do is in line with their true self. Faith and I are like that, and it’s part of why we get along from the moment we meet.
Somewhere in here I email Maxwell Interactive and demand that they send me a check for my last week of work. Maxwell himself writes me back and I imagine him resting his feet on the pot-bellied pig when he does it. He hems and haws and asks me, in a series of emails, whether I think I “deserve” to be paid for my last week of work, since I abandoned the project. I tell him I do deserve to be paid for all the days I worked and I tell him what days those are. He mails me a check. One day when Ashley and Faith are at work, I walk twenty blocks to a grocery store with a Bank of America in it. They tell me there’s a ten-day hold since it’s an out-of-state check. I need the money sooner than that but what can I do? I give them my check and walk the twenty blocks home.
I sell my laptop on eBay.
I apply for a job at the Safeway that’s two blocks from Ashley’s apartment. I envision myself working in the produce section and walking to work and saving money to rent an apartment in Phoenix? I don’t know what I’m planning.
I hike the mountain behind Ashley and Faith’s apartment. It’s something between a hill and a mountain—one of these many small mountains that are all around Phoenix. At the top, I feel like I’m sitting with god. Everyone’s at work, or living in all those little buildings down there, and I’m sitting up here with the wind and the sky and this incredible view. People who work in offices are suckers, I tell myself, to miss all this. You only live once. Are you gonna trade in a life of sitting on mountaintops for a life of staring at a cubicle wall? You’d have to be insane to make that trade.
I can see many mansions from up here, in the neighborhood behind Ashley’s. They’re blocky, modern, and I want one. I convince myself that all I have to do is want it bad enough and I’ll have one within a year, Anthony Robbins-style. Make yourself a millionaire, the American dream. I believe, in this moment, atop this mountain, that it’s possible for me.
Once I’m all better from desert fever it’s boring to sit around the apartment all day, so I start applying for jobs, real jobs. I look in LA because that’s where I really want to live. I only left because of my drug problem and running out of money. I’m not doing drugs now, I miss making money—so why not? I get optimistic about the world of work again, convinced there’s something out there that will suit me. I look on Craigslist and Monster and all the other job boards and I set up as many phone interviews as possible.
Ash and Faith and I imagine what it would be like if all three of us lived in LA. I’ll go out first as soon as I find a job, then the two of them will move in the summer once Ashley’s job lets her work remotely. They’ll get to pursue their acting careers and the three of us will hang out and have great fun in LA. We start to lean on each other, and I become part of the family.
In the evenings I do phone interviews, pacing around the living room acting like I know what I’m talking about as far as programming is concerned. Actually I do, and it’s nice to be talking about it again, running through hypothetical scenarios with possible future bosses, being quizzed by fellow programmers on my technical knowledge—I see the possibilities again. Programming is something I love to do. It’s the other stuff that goes with it that I hate: the meetings, the bullshit, the dealing with assholes. But at the moment I’m just excited to be out of the hole I was in in Tucson, and I have hopes that I can once again live a regular life.
I get an in-person interview with a company in LA called Optimistic Solutions. I talk with the boss on the phone, then the boss’s partner, and they both like me. Faith and I go shopping and pick out some shirts and a pair of pants. For shoes I wear my red Converse. Faith wants me to get a tie but I insist it’s not that kind of company.
Ashley takes me to the Greyhound station in Phoenix in the middle of the night. My bus leaves at two a.m. She drops me out front and wishes me luck. Then it’s horrible, horrible waiting. Waiting for the bus to leave, standing in a jagged line inside the Greyhound station so I’ll get a seat, then waiting on the bus for it to take its circuitous route to Hollywood, via every small town in Arizona and California the bus driver can think of.
There’s no one in the seat next to me and I stretch out though I don’t sleep. I write in my journal. I try to refresh my programming knowledge in my mind. I think of how great it would be to live in California again. I could go to the beach. I could go to the movie theaters I like. I could eat lunch at Franco’s every Saturday and drink wine and eat that shrimp and penne pasta I like so much. The possibility of it is overwhelming. I am determined to make this interview go well.
The wait in Los Angeles is the worst. You have to change busses in downtown LA to get to Hollywood and waiting in the lobby there is unbearable—knowing you’re so close to Hollywood and yet you just have to sit here, waiting for Greyhound to get its shit together. It’s light by the time I get to Los Angeles. I sit in a chair and wait for the line for my bus to form. A homeless man has a seizure. He falls to the floor and flaps around next to some travelers. No one does anything, including me. Eventually the police carry him away.
I can feel the energy of Hollywood even before I get there. I remember the tourist areas, how crowded and buzzing they always were. I remember living there within walking distance to my film school. Going to the farmer’s market every Saturday, living with Rishi, making love with her. And Molly’s. I remember Molly’s. This lovely little hot dog stand there I used to go and write at, staffed entirely by Asians, with the best chili dogs in town.
On the way to Hollywood my bus gets stuck in traffic. I worry that I won’t make it to my interview. The 101 is a parking lot. We creak along at a pace slower than I could walk. But we get there, turning into the Hollywood Greyhound station, and I can see the bustle of Hollywood Boulevard, just like I left it.
I walk quickly up the street, past shops that sell suits, wig shops, book shops, smoke shops. I get close to the tourist area before I reach my destination: the Quota Rent-a-Car, right in the middle of Hollywood.
“I need to rent a car.”
“Full-size, mid-size, or compact.”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“I need to see your driver’s license.”
I show it to her and within minutes I’m driving a compact Nissan up the 101. I’ve been up the 101 before but never this far. I printed directions to Optimistic Solutions from Hollywood on Ashley’s printer and I refer to them as I drive. Basically: go way the fuck up the 101. Go past where it meets the 405. Go past Encino. Go all the way up to Calabasas and then keep going. Keep going. Keep going. Eventually you’ll come to a place called Westlake Village. Take a left off the exit. Drive though some of the most beautiful hills you’ve ever seen. And then you come to a lake, Westlake Lake. And on that lake is the office building of Optimistic Solutions.
The lake is full of sailboats and ducks and lining the lake are the most expensive houses. There are no big signs like in most of the country. Just little, muted signs that blend in with the buildings so everything looks nice.
I park next to a Lamborghini. Seriously. I park in the back of the parking lot and there’s a Lamborghini parked there, diagonally, over several spaces.
I check the time. I’m a few minutes early. I search the office park and find the right building. My future boss’s office is on the second floor, overlooking the lake. I come around the corner of the catwalk and see he has a full bay of windows facing lakeward.
I knock on the glass.
No one answers.
I knock again. I can see the waving of a hand telling me to go around to the side door. When I go in my boss is watching Survivor.
“Hi, I’m John.”
“Hi, John. I’m Matthew.”
“Did you find us alright?”
“Yep, just fine. Drove straight up from Hollywood.”
“Is that where you live? Because I thought when we talked on the phone you said you were from Arizona.”
“I’m living in Phoenix right now.”
“Do you have a family there?”
“No, I live with a couple of friends.”
“Are you working?”
“Not at the moment. Just hanging out.”
“You and your friends share a place?”
“We do. I just moved in with them recently. They’re people I’ve known a long time and I wanted to spend some time with them, so I figured, why not?”
“Why not? Well I appreciate your coming all this way to talk to us.”
“Happy to do it.”
“We were very interested in your résumé. Well, you spoke with my partner, Bob.”
“Yes, we had a nice conversation.”
“Were you at all interested in our company based on what he and I have said?”
“Yes, I’m very interested, especially in the games aspect.”
“We thought your AI experience might be very useful here.”
“In what specifically?”
“Well we’re developing inference systems, for use in games. These systems would tailor a gamer’s experience to their particular characteristics, based on their behavior.”
“We’ve hired Jill Benny, from ETS, you may have heard of her? She’s our chief scientist on the project I have you in mind for. She would oversee you but you would have complete freedom as far as the programming was concerned. In fact we were hoping you might bring some of your algorithmic knowledge to the table. Any thoughts?”
“Yes! I’ve developed systems for others that might be applicable here. From what you’ve said about gleaning gamer characteristics from game behavior I would think you might want to use a combination of several techniques. Just speaking off the cuff—”
“Yes, please, go ahead.”
“I’d say you might want to use a genetic algorithm to do the actual learning..but with various types of classifiers that you would plug into the GA. So you would have this GA, and it would be evolving functions, essentially, that classify the gamer.”
“Tell me more about the classifiers.”
“The classifiers would be of many types. You would have a neural net, you would have some Bayesian classifiers, you would have classifiers based on all types of AI disciplines, and the GA would evolve parameters for each of these types of algorithms. For instance, the neural net classifier would have options, essentially, that the GA controlled. So the GA would be inherently picking between these various types of classifiers. It’s having the machine decide which AI technique to use, on the fly, in a very organic manner. And I would suggest that using CA classifiers would probably yield good results.”
“What’s a CA?”
“It’s a cellular automaton. It’s a kind of mathematical/logical system that’s been around since the days of von Neumann, but there have been some interesting developments lately. It’s a classifier function—or can be thought of as a classifier function—that is highly generalized and has the advantage of being logic based, not numbers based.”
“Why is that an advantage?”
“Because when you build your classifier functions—or write a program that builds them—you want to have as little of the human influence as possible. Numbers are a very human creation, more so than binary logic anyway. You want to take a hands-off approach and let the program have as much freedom as possible to do what it wants to do. That’s a problem with many AI methods: there’s too much of the human built into them..too many human assumptions remain in the mix. With a CA you have very few human assumptions built in. Very few. I’ve used them as classifiers in other contexts with good result. I’d be happy to show you what they look like if you’re interested in more detail.”
“What language do you use?”
“That’s my choice too.”
“Yes! It’s the best,” I say.
“You ever use higher-level languages?”
“Only when I have to! You can do everything from C++ in C using pointers and patterns, and it’s a simpler language! C, in my opinion, is the sweet spot for developers doing performance-oriented development.”
“We feel the same way here. We do all our core development in C.”
“I was on a project recently, they were rebuilding a PHP web server in Java, just because they wanted to gee whiz over Java and it cost the client a lot of money that they wouldn’t otherwise have spent.”
“I’ve seen that happen a lot,” John says.
We go on to talk about team formation, agile coding strategies, business direction. We click on every subject. Then the conversation shifts to reality TV.
“You might have noticed I was watching Survivor when you came in.”
“It relaxes me. I like to keep the TV on while I work. You watch much TV?”
“Sometimes. I used to watch The Real World and I still watch the season where they go to Austin. I have it on my iTunes and I think it’s the best season of The Real World, hands down. But if you like reality TV, have you seen Last Restaurant Standing?”
“It’s on BBC America and it is supreme. They have nine restaurants, created solely for the purpose of the show, and each week they close one of the restaurants. It’s amazing! There’s so much on the line! And the narrator has a good voice.”
“I’ll have to check that out. You know what I like, is ANTM, have you seen that?”
“America’s Next Top Model? Sure.”
“I love that show. I can’t put my finger on what it is, but I think it’s how crushed those little girls are when they get eliminated. Do you think that’s sick of me?”
“Not at all. I like women’s gymnastics in the Olympics for a similar reason, I think.”
“It’s the glory of the victor,” John says.
“I mean they spend their whole lives wanting to be that one thing, and then it’s crushed, in a moment, because of some judge.”
“I have a theory about reality television.”
“What is it?”
“It’s simply this: that house drama, à la Real World, is inherently more interesting than the contest/elimination format. Maybe I’m wrong, but I miss the old school shows. Have you ever seen Bad Girls: Tokyo?”
“No I’ve never seen Bad Girls: Tokyo. It’s an interesting theory. I’m not sure I agree with it, but I’m glad you told me. I always like to hear what smart people think about things.”
And that’s our interview. Pretty much. Things go well so I ask what benefits the company provides. He says they’re a growing company and they haven’t provided health insurance up to now but they’re going to. Soon. Very soon.
I shake John’s hand and stroll out of his glass-walled office. I take a moment to look over the lake. I hope, hope, hope that I will be working here soon. I take in as much of the atmosphere as I can. This could be my life, parking beside Lamborghinis and working with a boss who understands language choice and reality TV and who watches TV while he works. That’s probably a good sign; he’s probably relaxed. In terms of “click,” it’s the best interview I’ve had in my twenty eight years. I’m optimistic.
I drive back to Hollywood feeling wonderful. Finally, someone who speaks my language. John would make an excellent boss.
I’m on a side street in Hollywood when someone rear-ends my rental car. He gets out and apologizes. He gives me his name and phone number but not his insurance information, and I’m too dazed to remember to get it. I drive the slightly-dented Nissan back to Quota and return the car. When they check me in, they notice the dent and say Quota will send me a bill. Quota does. I get it months later and it’s for an amount equal to the cost of the car. I never pay it.
I walk to my old film school and Mick is waiting out front.
We shake hands, then we hug. You’re allowed to hug if you’ve done heroin with them.
“Wanna get into some trouble tonight?” Mick says, enunciating the last “t.”
“What you got in mind?”
“How about a little coke,” he says. “The other other white bitch.”
“You mean that white bitch.”
“That’s the one!”
So Mick and I rent a room in a Super 8 right in the heart of Hollywood, and we hole up there and do a healthy amount of coke. We’re sitting on the bed watching Down in the Valley with Ed Norton and Evan Rachel Wood. Mick brought his laptop because he wanted to show me this amazing sex scene between the two of them. The movie is creepy but has good father-daughter scenes between David Morse and Evan Rachel Wood, and the sex scene is amazing. A nubile Evan Rachel Wood shags Ed Norton—she’s on top and it just makes you want to have sex with a teenager. We watch it several times.
Mick has to work in the morning, so he tries to sleep on the bed while I attempt to do the rest of our cocaine.
“Are you gonna save some of that for tomorrow?” he says from underneath a pillow.
“Just one more line,” I say.
Mick rolls over and I go into the bathroom. I take some of the coke and a Victoria’s Secret catalog I found in the trash at Ashley and Faith’s place. I find a choice model on page sixteen. She’s from the Victoria’s Secret Pink collection and she looks like a teenager I’d like to fuck. I imagine her taking it up the puss with my cock and how innocent and sweet she’d be. I start to develop a relationship with her, kneeling there before the toilet trying to time my orgasm to my coke high. I think about how we would look into each other’s eyes while fucking and how excited I would be to see her face when she came. We wouldn’t break eye contact. I do a line of coke, then try to jerk off to completion. But I can’t cum on the coke, so I end up just almost cumming like a million times. At one point, Mick says:
“What are you doing in there, masturbating?”
“I just didn’t want to disturb you, so I came in here.”
“Get out of the bathroom. Freak.”
I stay up all night. I’ve done too much coke to sleep and by morning I’m in a hell of consciousness, aware of every second that ticks by, hating the sunlight, nothing to do but wish I was sleeping. I hate myself for having done coke again. Why did I say yes when Mick suggested it? I know what it does to me! The initial high is great but then this happens..this endless awareness, endless awakeness, that’s unbearable.
We check out of the motel and I walk Mick to work. My bag is unzipped and a pair of boxers falls out in front of the film school.
“Aren’t you going to get those?”
“No,” I say morosely. “I don’t want them.”
So this pair of my underwear just lives here in front of the Los Angeles Film School while students come and go and people walk by on the sidewalk and Mick and I smoke a cigarette.
“Feel like shit?”
“Me too. Get some alcohol.”
“I just want to sleep.”
“Sleep on the bus.”
“Yeah, I hope so.”
But I don’t sleep on the bus. I wait in the Hollywood bus station, on a hard bench, slumped down, unable to close my eyes. I wait for hours for my bus to come. When I get on it it’s a quick ride downtown, then I have to change busses again. I think of the man who had the seizure and wonder where he is. I wait in the downtown bus station watching people and wondering why I’m such a fuckup. I had a good job interview. Why can’t I just choose that life, of nine to five and status reports and getting paid a decent amount? Why do I have to fuck with drugs?
I guess the answer is I just fucking love drugs. I’m a degenerate. I don’t care for the rules that say “you can’t” and I’m not lying to myself that drugs are all bad. They’re hard to control, is all. If I could just discipline myself to do one line of coke, and stop, then everything would be fine.
The bus ride from LA to Phoenix is a discipline in not letting myself get depressed. I feel extremely low. I use every technique I can think of to talk myself into believing that things are ok—or that they’re going to be ok. I review the job interview. I convince myself they’re going to hire me. I tell myself that in a few hours I’ll be normal again, and able to sleep, that tomorrow morning I’ll wake up feeling great. But you can’t talk your way out of that kind of low. It’s in your body, and in your brain, and it only goes away when the chemicals run their course.
I don’t hear back from Optimistic Solutions. Two weeks pass, two weeks of hoping I get hired by someone, John from Optimistic Solutions, Safeway, anyone. I’m beginning to hate Phoenix. I wonder why I ever came here.
I look for other jobs and I even do some interviews, but none of them have that click that I felt with John. For me, it becomes that job or no job. I decide that if Optimistic Solutions doesn’t hire me, I’m not going to do tech work anymore. This is my last shot at the industry. The possibility there seemed so good that if I don’t get that job, my heart’s not going to be in a second-choice job. After two weeks I decide to email them.
I email John saying I’m looking at other opportunities and have they had a chance to think about whether I might be beneficial to their efforts. Three days pass. Nothing. Then I get the message. It’s a go. They want to hire me. They make a salary offer. They reiterate that they don’t have health insurance now but they’re working on getting it imminently. The salary is less than I’ve made before, but it’s still a good salary—it’s way more than most people make. I write them back and accept their offer.
Ashley drops me at the Greyhound a second time. I have one bag and I’m ready to move to LA and start a new life. We’ve said our goodbyes and Ashley and Faith have promised to move to LA in the summer, so they’ll see me then. Riding from Phoenix to LA, I take a solemn vow that this will be the last time I ride the Greyhound. Anywhere I go from now on will be by car or foot. Or maybe plane. But never, ever the Greyhound. I’ve had my fill of schizophrenic seatmates and stopping in every tiny town along the way to pick up travelers.
In LA I take a cab to the Burbank airport and rent a car from a different car rental company. I splurge—I get the Mustang.
I drive to the apartment. Mick’s picked it out and rented it and he even has a mattress for me to sleep on. We’ve always said, after I stayed with him after film school, that it would be fun to get a place together. He waited through me living in New York and me being homeless and now we’re finally doing it. I borrowed money from his dad to pay my half of the deposit. It’s in Valley Village, an hour’s drive from Westlake Village. I can’t afford to live any closer to work.
I pull up outside the apartment. We’re on the second floor. I take my bag and go to the door. Mick answers.
“My dad’s here.”
I go in and drop my bag. Mick’s dad runs across the room and puts his hands around my neck. He pushes me against the wall.
“Six weeks!” he says.
“Well—” I cough.
“We agreed on six weeks!”
I grab his hands.
“It’s— It’s gonna take me a bit longer than that because I only get paid every two weeks and I need to rent a car. That’s a lot of money for that car.”
He tightens his grip.
“Six weeks you pay that money back!”
He lets go. His eyes are red.
“Are you a deadbeat?”
“Are you a deadbeat?”
“I’ll pay your money back as soon as possible.”
Mick’s dad punches the wall next to my head.
“You better pay it back sooner than that.”
Then he starts laughing. His smile gets really big and he’s having himself a great ol’ time. He claps.
“So, are we gonna go to dinner or what? You’re buying!”
“Uh, dad, we were thinking we’re gonna set up the apartment, so why don’t you go on ahead and I’ll call you later.”
“Is that what you want?”
“Alright. Well don’t let this guy take advantage of you. Says something about a fella if he needs to borrow money. Don’t you ever borrow money or I’ll kill ya.”
Mick’s dad leaves. Mick goes outside to say goodbye and when he comes back he says:
“Sorry about that.”
I’m rubbing my neck.
“Just pay him back in reasonable time, he won’t bother you.”
“Mick, no offense, but he better not.”
“So you wanna see the place?”
Mick shows me his bedroom, my bedroom, the kitchen, bath. It’s a medium-sized apartment, lots of windows, plenty of room. Mick already has furniture for us, a couch, a reclining chair, a TV. The mattress he has for me is in good shape.
“There’s just one thing,” Mick says.
He turns the mattress over.
“It’s Courtney’s period blood.”
There is a large stain in the middle of the bed where Courtney must have leaked out some night.
“I mean the mattress is ruined,” Mick says.
“What are you sleeping on?”
“I got a new one. Do you think you can sleep on this?”
“Yeah, I don’t mind.”
“Are you sure? Isn’t that a little weird, you sleeping on a bed that has my ex-girlfriend’s period blood on it?”
I look at Mick. I’m not sure he understands. I’ve been sleeping in parking lots. I’m just happy to have a bed.
I place the mattress at a diagonal, so one end of it is in a corner and one end is in the middle of the room. Mick looks at me like I’m crazy.
“Always the free thinker,” he says.
I lie down on the bed with Courtney’s period blood on it and look at my room. I have a room! I’m not sleeping outside, I’m not in a hostel, I’m not even in someone else’s apartment. I’m in my own apartment, in the city of my choosing, and things are good.
Mick leans in. “Wanna celebrate?”
We go downstairs and I walk toward the Mustang.
“What?? This is your rental car?!”
“You have to let me drive.”
I laugh and toss him the keys.
“You’re making the big money now. How much do you make?”
I tell him.
“Holy shit! That’s more than I’ll make in a lifetime! Damn right you got the Mustang!”
Mick drives crazy. We’re just going down the street about ten blocks but he takes it like he’s on a race track. He runs a red light. I’m glad I put on my seatbelt because I might be about to die.
“That was a red light, buddy.”
“Ok, buddy, just having some fun.”
“Well have a little less fun I didn’t get the insurance on this thingy.”
“Oooooh! Living dangerously! I think my insurance would cover it anyway.”
“Let’s not find out!”
“Ok, buddy, just seein’ what this baby can do.”
“I’m driving on the way back.”
“Then you won’t mind if I do this..!!”
He pulls through a yellow light and peels us into the parking lot. I can smell rubber burning.
“You know what to get.”
“You’re coming with me.”
“I’m staying here with the car, buddy!”
“Mick, will you please come inside with me?”
“Yes, Matthew, I will.”
Old married couple. That’s what Mick and I are like. We don’t have sex, we bicker all the time, and we’re great company for each other. We go into the store and buy a bottle of Ketel One. I let Mick drive home and he is slightly more reasonable on that leg of the trip.
At home, Mick opens the bottle with a spin of his thumb and takes a swig.
“I never imagined I would meet someone like you at film school, buddy. I thought it was going to be all film school faggots.”
“It was, mostly.”
“When you were talking about drug shit on the first day I was like, this is going to be my best friend. And here you are, and we are best friends. Have a swig of this.”
I take a swig of the Ketel One. I think about drinking with Mick at film school. We’d buy those tiny little bottles and drink about three each, then go to class. We’d do coke in the middle of auditioning actors—we didn’t give a fuck.
“You surprised me, Mick.”
“Well at first I thought you were kind of immature.”
“I am immature, buddy!”
“Honestly I thought you were kind of a maniac.”
“Right again! Ding ding! But you fail to grasp something about this situation.”
“You’re a maniac, too, buddy! What’s that you say..it takes all kinds..”
“It takes one to know one.”
“Takes one to know one. That’s right. Have another swig of this, buddy.”
“You know what I’m happy about?” I say.
“Tell me, buddy!”
“I’m happy about how we did our thesis project. I think we did that right. Small crew, small set, drinking on set. Keep it relaxed. The way everyone does their thesis projects is so contrived.”
“What’s that mean?”
“Artificial. Or unnatural. Fake.”
“Our thesis project was the best,” Mick says.
“We schooled those motherfuckers!”
“You know who turned out to be a good director, that surprised me?”
“Yeah, Erica is hot. She liked you.”
“No I mean she liked you, buddy. You should have gotten with that shit.”
“Didn’t you like her?”
“As a friend.”
“As a friend! You never wanted to bone her?”
“I might have wanted to bone her once or twice.”
“I knew it!”
“When we went drinking tequila I wanted to bone her!”
“There you go, buddy!”
Mick hands me the bottle. I drink.
“You remember that time Rishi sucked your dick in the theater?”
“Of course I remember.”
“You don’t think that’s a maniac thing to do?”
“I don’t know.”
“You could have gotten kicked out for that.”
“It was worth it,” I say.
“Does she give good head?”
“Did you cum?”
“No I didn’t cum! I was too busy watching bad student films, I couldn’t cum.”
“My point is that if you think I’m a maniac, you should look at yourself. Like you say, it takes one to know one. Remember Home Depot?!”
“You know which time. ‘Watch yourself?'”
Mick is talking about this time some asshole brushed the back of my bookbag with his cart and didn’t say I’m sorry or excuse me or anything. I told him that he needed to watch himself when he went out in public. The dude got really pissed because I was making him look bad in front of his girlfriend but he didn’t do anything.
Mick and I always used to talk bad about people in restaurants. Like if someone sat too close to us we would talk loud enough for them to hear and say how they were faggots and they had no business wearing those clothes and this guy should never have been with that girl..that sort of thing. The running joke was which of us was going to get us both shot.
One time in a movie theater I was showing Mick The New World, a movie I really like, and this jerk behind us kept talking ’cause he was too immature to handle something that wasn’t an action picture. I turned around to him and said, “Shut. Your. Mouth.” in this real condescending tone. The guy shut up but after the movie was over he sat there in his seat looking down at me like he was going to do something. But he didn’t. His girlfriend made him leave. I had fun condescending to that motherfucker. He deserved it.
Oh and Mick and I used to drive around with a lead pipe under the seat of our car, and when people acted up in parking lots we’d get out and threaten them until they moved. Like if someone was blocking the lane or something. We were a class act.
Toward the end of the bottle our talk turns to what I did in New York and what I’ve been doing since. I’ve already told Mick I was homeless—we talked on the phone in Tucson. He avoids saying the word when he talks about it.
“..so when you were..ah..in Arizona..were you like..I mean..are we talking about you didn’t bathe, didn’t shower sort of thing for like..how long?”
“Wasn’t that difficult?”
“I got used to it.”
“Man, I’m sorry you had to go through that.” He shakes his head. “I wouldn’t wish that on anyone. I mean you were..you were..”
“I was homeless, man. That’s what it was.”
“Well you have a place now.”
“Yes, thank you for making this happen.”
“You’re paying half the rent, buddy!”
“Thanks for picking the place out, I mean.”
“Do you like it?”
“It’s great Mick! It’s got good light, it’s a good location.”
“Kind of far to work for you, though.”
“That’s ok. I’ll reflect in the car.”
“Yeah, you always liked your reflecting.”
“It’ll be ok.”
“I hope so. But hey we’re close to Hollywood, right?”
I take another swig from the bottle.
“I have to tell you,” Mick says, “I’m really impressed.”
“That you could do that, all that time. That you could be homeless. That must have been hard. I don’t know if I could have done that and not come out crazy.”
“Well I am crazy, so.”
Mick laughs. His phone beeps. He sends a text.
“My friend is coming over, Mario. Have you met Mario?”
“I don’t think so.”
“Well Mario is a big ol’ boy. Me and Mario go way back. You don’t mind if we have company?”
So Mick and I finish our bottle and Mario comes over. Mario has ecstasy and oxys. We all hang out and roll. It’s the oxycontin that puts me over the top. I go from social, hanging-out me to locked-in-my-room, up-all-night, hating-consciousness me. I’m so wired I can’t possibly sleep, so I’m stuck with my thoughts which mostly are how stupid I am and why did I ever do ecstasy again after I said I was never going to do it. I masturbate but can’t cum. Mick knocks on my door and I tell him to leave me alone. I hear him and Mario laughing and talking but I don’t want any part of it. Why do I have to mix drugs?
In the morning Mick and I go to Wells Fargo to set up a joint checking account because we think that will help us pay bills more easily. The attendant who’s helping us looks at me with a concerned expression.
“I’m sorry but there’s a problem.”
“What’s the problem?”
“You came up in ChexSystems.”
“It’s a system that tells us about your banking credit. If you come up in ChexSystems you can’t open a bank account.”
“But I already have a bank account.”
“You can have an account and also be in ChexSystems.”
“So what do I do?”
“You have to resolve whatever problem exists with your previous bank and then we’ll be able to open your account.”
“So we can’t open an account here today?”
“He can. You can’t. Let me go check something real quick, I’ll be right back with you.”
Mick looks at me.
“You look like shit.”
“How do I look?”
“You look like death,” I say.
“It’s like all the joy is drained from your face,” he says. “I don’t ever want to see you like this again. You shouldn’t take ecstasy because it drains all your serotonin and you feel like this. I’m never gonna do this to you again.”
“I have drug problems. And you at least have drug..issues. I don’t ever want to put you in a place where drugs are at the house and you have to choose whether to do them. That’s no choice. If it’s there, you’re gonna do it. Same with me. I like Mario but I’m not gonna invite him over any more. I don’t ever want you to be in that situation again.”
“I mean that’s our place. Like our home. That’s not cool. I’m sorry, man.”
“Fuck this place, I’m not setting up an account here.”
“You want to go?”
“Yeah. Let’s go to CPK.”
So Mick and I go to California Pizza Kitchen and we both get the barbecue chicken pizza ’cause it’s the best pizza there. We drink mojitos and reminisce about old times and talk about all the stuff we’re going to do to our apartment. We’re going to get curtains. We’re going to get a large-screen TV. We’re going to always keep the kitchen stocked with good food and alcohol. It’s going to be our safe and fun place where we watch movies, fuck women, and sleep.
It’s probably dangerous for two drug addicts to be friends with each other, but it doesn’t feel like a choice to me. Mick is my friend. I like him, and that’s that.
My first day at work I arrive early (or course). I march up to the third floor to suite 304 and turn the door handle. It’s locked. I got here too early.
I go downstairs to the sandwich shop on the first floor. The place is filled with snack food, model trucks, sports jerseys, drinks, and some basic groceries. There’s a TV on which is playing Fox News, but I decide to shop there anyway. I get an English muffin with egg and cheese and jalapeños. I take it to the balcony on the second floor and eat looking out over the parking lot. The lake is on the other side but so is my boss’s office. I don’t want to look too eager.
The sandwich is good, and I think I’ll make a habit of getting one each morning before work. This could be a good routine for me. Do a good job, get to know my co-workers, make some money, make a good life. I somehow know this job is going to be different. The conversation with John went so well. If that’s a portent of things to come..it could be good. I swear to myself that I’ll never get too personal with my workmates, that I’ll keep business business and pleasure separate. I won’t let them know anything about me; I’ll just talk work. That’s all they need to know. I’m gonna do a good job.
Every half an hour or so I go upstairs to check on the door. It isn’t until sometime after ten that it opens. Rachel greets me.
“Welcome. You must be Matthew.”
“I’ll show you your desk.”
It’s a small office, just six desks. There are no cubicles. There’s a glass-walled conference room in the back. Our windows overlook the lake.
“This is yours,” Rachel says.
“If you need anything, pens, pencils, any office supplies, let me know. I do the order on Wednesday and it comes in on Monday. Do you drink coffee?”
“No, thank you. But I will get some water.”
“It’s right this way.”
Rachel leads me to the break room and we talk about John and the office and the origins of the company and how she always wanted to work here since she saw the lake.
“I said, that’s where I want to go every day. And I found John, and I asked him to hire me, and he did—and the rest is history!”
“It’s great to be part of an environment that inspires you,” I say.
“I think so, too! Are you familiar with the movie The Secret?”
“No, I’m not.”
“John’ll prob’ly show it to you. I won’t say any more! I don’t want to ruin the surprise!”
“Well I look forward to it then.”
“I’m going to return some emails. Just come get me if you need anything.”
I sit at my desk for a while. There’s a computer with two monitors, an overhead cabinet that I plan to use for books, and my chair. I swivel around and look at the blank wall. Then I go to Rachel.
“You know what I could use?”
“I was looking at that blank wall—”
“We’re gonna get you some art. John has it picked out I just have to order it.”
“What would be even better than that, for me, is a whiteboard.”
“You want a whiteboard?”
“You got it. Here’s the catalog. Just circle the one you want and I’ll get it for you.”
“You’re very welcome.”
I check email and wait for Andy to arrive. Andy is the tech lead. John has told me that Andy will introduce me to their products and give me my first assignment.
“When does Andy get here?” I ask.
“Usually around eleven.”
Rachel goes back to her email.
Around eleven-thirty I start to get hungry again. The graphic designer, Sara, has arrived, and I’ve introduced myself and made small talk. Two of the other programmers have arrived and I’ve gotten to know them a bit. I go to Rachel’s desk.
“Is Andy coming in?”
Rachel holds up a finger. “I’ll call him.”
She dials a number from memory.
“Andy? It’s Rachel. Matthew is here and he’s waiting for you. Are you feeling ok? Oh, ok, I’ll tell him.”
Rachel hangs up.
“He’s on his way.”
I sit at my desk until twelve twenty-two, at which point Andy comes in wearing motorcycle gear and carrying a helmet. He puts the helmet on his desk, talks to no one, and goes into the break room. He comes out with his coffee and walks into the conference room. He doesn’t sit down. He drinks his coffee standing up. Then he starts banging on the glass wall separating him from the rest of the room. He’s looking out at the office at no one in particular.
He bangs harder.
“Rachel!” he says.
Rachel comes over to my desk.
“Andy will see you now.”
I stand up. Rachel goes back to her seat and I go into the conference room. Andy picks up a marker and starts drawing on the whiteboard.
“We’ve got a session server built in C. This sits on top of the transaction layer, also built in C. The session server manages one-thousand twenty-four threads, so it’s a heavy hitter. I design the session server, you won’t have any part of that. Did John tell you about our ad system?”
“Well he should have told you about the ad system. This is a dynamic content delivery system that is embedded in a game that allows us to change assets on the fly in a completely data-driven manner. John didn’t tell you about the ad system?”
Andy sighs. He looks at me for the first time.
“John doesn’t know shit about what we’re doing around here. You want answers, come to me. Me or Michael. John thinks we’re doing statistics for Nielsen—that’s the extent of his knowledge. This business is really about assets. Dynamic assets. We’re putting together a game prototype that will demolish everything else out there. I’ve got a lighting model that will blow away anything out there. Do you do OpenGL programming?”
“Then you know about shaders, render managers, render pipelines, vectors, sub-pixel variance, things like that.”
“Well I’ve got a lighting model that I’ve been working on, it’ll kick anybody’s ass. I want you to study it, see if you can find any flaws. Areas for improvement. You won’t find any. Look anyway. The code is in our secure CVS server located at my house.”
“You have source code at your house?”
“It’s a condo, really. Bought it with my wife. Total bitch. You married?”
“Have a girlfriend?”
“Not at the moment.”
“Well this bitch, she cheated on me, and ever since then I kinda got tired of fucking her. Seeing as how she likes to fuck other men. What are you doing tonight? You wanna come out for drinks? Me and Kamesh are going to this little place up the road. Makes the best vodka cran. You drink?”
“I do sometimes.”
“Well come out with us. Kamesh can tell you about our web properties. And I’ll show you this really fly little cocktail waitress I’m trying to get with. This bitch has tits you wouldn’t believe. Have you ever fucked a stripper?”
“I haven’t, no.”
“Me either but I’d like to! You me and Kamesh will go to the strip club, drink—do you smoke?”
“Only very occasionally.”
“Well you’re going to have to start smoking if you work here. What kind of cigarettes you smoke?”
“I sometimes smoke cloves.”
“Cloves? That’s original. You seem like a bright guy—from what John’s said. I need somebody bright, who can understand my code, who can keep up with my pace. You type fast?”
“Pretty fast, yeah.”
“I type like lightning. John always says he can tell a great programmer by how they talk and how they type. Fast, and fast. So are you coming out tonight?”
“Maybe. So tell me more of what I’m going to be doing here.”
Andy turns back to the whiteboard. He tries to draw something. The marker runs out. He throws it on the floor and picks up another one. Three markers later he finds one that barely writes.
“This,” he says, “is the threading model. We have a very complex threading model. I custom built thread pooling systems to optimize the transaction layer. Nobody else is running this many threads. No one. I looked at the Steam server. It’s running maybe thirty threads. That’s peak—when you’re downloading something really big. Our server manages thousands of threads. How did we do this you ask? It’s all here.”
He taps a box that’s part of his diagram.
“This is where the magic happens. This is Scion, our thread pooling manager. This is Arcturus, our transaction manager. And this..is Hercules, the data abstraction layer.”
He starts drawing tons of lines on the board. They look like a rain shower.
“These,” he says, “are connections. Millions of motherfucking connections. This is a client. This is a client. These are all clients. And Arcturus—a powerful transaction manager—holds all this in memory.”
“How many servers do you run?”
“I’m telling you Arcturus is powerful. I designed it. There’s nothing else like it in the entire world. Oracle doesn’t have shit like this. Intel doesn’t have shit like this. Are you familiar with Intel’s work in real time ray tracing?”
“I’ve read a couple of papers.”
“Garbage. Garbage. They suck. They know shit. Intel is a fag when it comes to real time ray tracing. A fucking..prom queen bitch with one glass slipper waiting to get her cooch reamed out by..who? By who.”
“I don’t know.”
“By me! By Andy Cunningham. That bitch is about to get her cooch reamed out by Andy Cunningham, the designer of Arcturus, Hercules, Scion, Athena, Zeus, and every motherfucking system you’re going to see at this company. Think Kamesh knows how to program? Zero. Think Michael knows how to program? Zero. He’s a fucking zero. They’re all zeroes. So are you coming out tonight or what?”
“Maybe. Which part of the system am I going to be working on?”
“I want you to build message handlers for the web portion of Arcturus.”
“Yeah, it’ll give you a chance to become familiar with our code, and give me a chance to see what you’re made of, so I can decide whether to allow you access to our code repository and then maybe, someday, if you’re as smart as John says, you can help me with some of my code. Maybe. But John hires a lot of people and they don’t last long.”
“Why is that?”
“They can’t cut it around here. We work at a fast pace. Most people can’t handle this type of environment. And I guess also the fact that John has never been able to hire someone who can compete with me.”
“Cool. Well, I’d like to get started on those message handlers. Can you show me where to get the code?”
“Well..there we have sort of a problem.”
“I don’t grant access to the code repository until you’ve been here a while and I can trust you. You could be a spy. We don’t allow access to just anyone.”
“How am I supposed to work if I can’t get to the code?”
“Talk to Kamesh. He can check out a copy of the code on his machine and redact all the sensitive sections. You’ll work on a skeleton copy of the code and then when you’re done you relay your changes to Kamesh and he can check them in for you.”
“Ok, but how do I debug?”
“You won’t be able to.”
I’m speechless. I’m a developer but they won’t give me access to the code? Andy’s session server runs one-thousand twenty-four threads? Here’s something you have to understand: a computer processor can do one, maybe two, things at a time. If you try to make it do a thousand it’ll just choke up. The threading model is a joke. It’s designed by someone who doesn’t know what he’s doing.
I sit there and listen to Andy go on and on about how fucking great he is and how Intel with its thousands of PhD employees hasn’t been able to accomplish in decades what Andy whipped up in an hour. He brags about his pilot’s license and claims to have flown a Black Hawk helicopter. He explains how he’s “in” with the Los Angeles branch of the FBI and says he can get them to do favors for him. He’s a classic egomaniac, and egomaniacs can’t work with others. They’re always getting their feelings hurt when other people have good ideas. They have to be the only person in the room. They’re poison for a team.
I’m leaving out the details of Andy’s software systems because if I didn’t, Optimistic Solutions would probably sue me. Just know that they are absurdly complex pieces of shit designed by someone with a confused brain. As I sit listening to Andy speak, I wonder what I’ve gotten myself into. I want to work with John—not this guy.
After my meeting I go to the downstairs office and meet some of the other programmers, including Kamesh. Some of them are just getting in to work. They like to avoid the morning traffic, and that’s a big deal for some of them. Kamesh drives from Long Beach—a two-hour drive from Westlake Village. He makes that commute every single day. I muse on that a second. John has the money to live in Westlake. The owner of the company has a nice ten-minute commute while the workers drive in from Long Beach—four hours total commute time each day.
But I get to work. They’re paying me and they deserve good work in return. I get the code from Kamesh and clean up Andy’s message handlers. I make progress right away. I’m delighted to find out that the time away from programming hasn’t stunted me.
My hope is that John will see my work so that he will know I’m doing a good job. But Andy controls everything. Andy reviews my work and then he meets with John, in John’s office, with no one else present. I start to see how this is going to go. Andy will get to say whatever he wants to John about me and the other programmers, and he’ll modulate that information so that he remains top dog.
Optimistic Solutions will never provide health insurance, the entire time I work there, even though they promised they would. Andy will call me for rides to work because he’s too fucked up on pills to drive—and he’ll lead meetings that way. In a couple years’ time, John will be found to be a fraud—using Army money to develop non-Army projects. The colonel responsible for getting us this money is in on the scam—he’s an old friend of John’s and has plans to come work for the company when he retires. Optimistic Solutions will lose its funding and lay off its employees.
None of that I could have predicted. But I could have read the signs of John and Andy from the very beginning, and listened to my intuitive reaction to that first tech meeting. In retrospect, the best thing for me to do would have been to quit that job on the first day.
But I don’t quit. I don’t want to be homeless again and I want to please my dad by working a regular job and paying him back the money I owe him from film school. I would work any job, no matter how insane—and I will work this one, for two years.
I rent cars at the airport until I save enough to buy a car, hoping my workmates don’t see me in the parking lot and notice I’m driving a new car every two weeks. I’m embarrassed that I don’t have my life together, that I don’t own a car—all my workmates own their cars.
When my first check comes, Rachel emails me. I go to her desk. She’s holding a sealed envelope.
“How does it feel?”
“Your first check!”
“It feels good! I have some things I need to buy with this,” I say, and take the check from her.
I don’t go back to my desk right away. I go down by the lake and sit on the grass and watch the ducks. I think about what it took to get me here from where I was a few months ago. It took the help of a friend. It took me being white, smart, and first world. If I was homeless in Africa somewhere there wouldn’t be an easy way out. Even though I struggle with finding meaningful work, and that struggle is real to me, my cousin Joel has called me “the most employable person he knows.” And it’s true. Programmer is one of those jobs that you can do in any major city. If you have a good résumé, you can find work. And even though I’m not making top dollar at this company, this one check is worth way more than all the money I spent and made the entire time I was homeless.
As I sit by the lake, I worry about my increasing problems working with Andy. He blames me for things in my code that turn out not to be problems—the problems are in his code. But while he is mistaken about this, he treats me with such bile that I don’t know if I can keep working with him. It isn’t how I was raised to treat people. This might sound funny coming from a bipolar-disordered drug addict, but he has emotional problems. And he doesn’t take ideas from anyone’s mind but his own. That might be something Michael and Kamesh can put up with, but it is not something I can put up with. I have good ideas; I need them to at least be considered. If I don’t get to share my technical skills and work in a collaborative environment, this job isn’t so great after all.
If all I’d wanted was to do shitwork and get a paycheck, I could still be at LexisNexis with a house and a car and the comforts of eating out all the time. But since the very beginning I’ve wanted more, and I’ve been searching for it. Work has never been satisfying to me—it’s always been a sham.
I walk a bit. The lake curves around and I look at the houses on the other side. Rachel has told me Judge Judy has a house here, but I’m not sure which house. I pass a restaurant I didn’t know was there, with secluded lakeside seating, then I come to Zen, another restaurant, this one with a bar. There is no one seated in their outside area—it’s too cold for Californians. I go inside and sit at the bar.
“I’m Tiffany, what can I get for ya?”
“I’m Matthew, Tiffany, I’d like a shot of Tanqueray Ten.”
“Coming right up!”
She smiles, chills my shot, and keeps a little of it back in the metal shaker.
I taste it.
“It’s the best, isn’t it?”
She wrinkles her nose and nods a little bit. She pours herself some of what was held back in the shaker and we clink glasses.
“Do you work around here?”
Tiffany has long black hair that she lets flow free—no ponytail or anything.
“I just started working upstairs. At Optimistic Solutions?”
“Oh, we get them in here all the time. Are you friends with Andy?”
“We’re not exactly friends.”
“He’s kind of an asshole,” Tiffany says.
“Yeah. He’s more than kind of an asshole. He’s a serious, bona fide, solid gold asshole if you ask me.”
“That sucks that you have to work with him.”
“Yeah, I’m making it through, Tiffany, I’m making it through. This helps.”
I drink the shot.
“You want another one?”
So I drink another, and another, then I drive to the bank. I say goodbye to Tiffany and she says she hopes she sees me again and I say that yes, she will. She’s the nicest bartender I’ve ever met. Bar none. Just a really sweet, real person. I’m sorry she ever has to deal with Andy and I decide right then and there that Zen is going to be my new hangout.
I drive, a little fuzzy, to the bank. I’m just sitting here in the parking lot of this Bank of America thinking about Tiffany and how there really are bright spots in this dark world. There are those people like Andy who stink up everything they touch, yes, but there are also people like Tiffany who, even though you barely know them, light up a moment and leave you feeling better than before you met them. I think it’s a choice, of which kind you want to be.
I have my check on the dashboard of my rental car and even though Andy sucks and the thought of interacting with him every day makes me want to shoot myself, I feel a swell, and part of that swell is the possibility that I can imagine—all the great things I can hold in my mind about what might come next for me. But part of that swell is the possibility I can’t imagine—all the things, great and not so great, that are really about to happen to me.
Simple things will happen. I will get into Volvic and Penta water, taking advantage of the wonderful supply of bottled water carried in almost every LA grocery store. I will buy whatever alcohol I want, whenever I want, stocking the top of me and Mick’s fridge with gin and wine and whiskey. When I shop, I will fill the grocery basket with food, fresh fruits, meats, juices. These are things I could only dream of doing when I was homeless.
I will write a screenplay during my Optimistic Solutions employ. I tell myself I have to write even though I’m working a programming job. I write in the evenings, drinking gin, and I finish my third screenplay.
I will be invited to speak at a conference on cellular automata, based on my inventions in that field. This will feel like vindication for spending so much of my time playing with what Mick called “snail puzzles.”
I will drink so much Bacardi 151 that I can’t make it to work. I will call Ashley, bawling, asking her to pick me up because I’m so mindstompingly drunk that I can’t take another step. She will pick me up and take me to her place to sleep it off. I will come to the conclusion that I cannot deal with the real world, no matter how accommodating it may be.
I will endure a week of manic programming on cellular automata projects, at home, where I hardly sleep and have extraordinary amounts of energy and excitement. My mind will be ultra sharp, allowing me to make unexpected leaps in the systems I’m creating. I will call the NSA again, this time convinced I have found new and unique ways to profile terrorists. The NSA will want nothing to do with me. I will watch The Truman Show on a loop. I will drink ridiculous amounts of alcohol, but nothing will slow me down. My brain is speeding. The mania must run its course. When it does, the shock of coming off that high is so jarring and so terrible that I can only think to kill myself. I’ll call a suicide hotline. Police will come to my apartment, handcuff me, and take me to a mental hospital. I’ll spend six days there and receive my first formal diagnosis of bipolar disorder.
I just won’t show up to work because I’m in a mental hospital. I don’t even call them to let them know what’s going on. I figure I won’t have a job by the time I get out. But John doesn’t fire me. He goes with the flow because I’m doing great work. I make things for them that nobody else could make—because it’s all original work, original inventions based on cellular automata technology that I pioneered. I make a lot of money for that guy—but ultimately I quit because I think the company’s bullshit.
In the hospital I apply for emergency health insurance so I can get the medicine my doctors prescribe. I’m able to take my medicine for a month, then my health insurance is cancelled because I make too much money. I try buying my own insurance but can’t get coverage because I have bipolar disorder. So here I am, bipolar now, unable to get my medicine. I spiral.
I never do drugs while I’m homeless—I don’t have enough money. But when I have money again, I start doing drugs again. Not right away, but when the stress of work becomes too much. I seek it out.
I start by stealing some of Mick’s girlfriend’s Adderall. It’s my first time taking it. It’s like legal speed. Seriously, the high is just like a toned-down crystal meth high. And she takes this all the time??
After Adderall, I’ll find my way back to meth. I’ll reconnect with my old drug dealer from film school (one of them). I’ll get high on meth and when I’m coming down get in touch with my anger for my dad and call him and leave these insane messages. Tell him I’m going to kill him if he ever disses my sister by not inviting her to Thanksgiving again (as he did once). Tell him I’m going to go to Wilmington, Delaware and kill myself on his doorstep just to get his attention. I wanted my dad’s attention for years. He files a restraining order against me and cites, for the reason he doesn’t want me around, that I’m suicidal. What a champion. Way to come to my aid, Dad. I will ultimately let go my expectations of him and let him slip away. He writes me one email a year and I do not read it.
One day I feel like my heart is going to stop, on meth. I call an ambulance and flush the rest of my stash. As I’m running around the apartment trying to keep my heart from stopping, I think of my little sisters, and what it will do to them if their big brother dies of a drug overdose. That is what I think about, in the moment I think I’m gonna die—those two girls, and how much I will have let them down.
I’m really disrespectful to my boss. I hang out at my drug dealer’s house for days, calling in sick every day, doing coke and meth. I am so lonely I’ll sleep with my drug dealer, not fucking, just sleeping next to each other on her bed, keeping each other warm. When I finally do make it to work, I’ll be training Eric and have him tell me that I have coke on my nose. I’ll go to the bathroom and see it—cocaine, in my nostril, while I’m at work.
But after all this John never fires me. He keeps me around with the requirement that I see a psychiatrist. As long as I’m programming, he’s happy.
I will continue to do too much meth, then call an ambulance on myself. I will go to the ER (for which I only have flashes of memory), be transferred to a medical detox, be released while I’m still fucked up, and go home to freak out thinking I’m being chased by people who aren’t there. I will jump off my balcony, breaking my wrist, and run across four lanes of traffic while still high. With the help of neighbors, I’ll make it back inside my apartment where I hallucinate for another thirty-six hours. When I come out of it, I beg a friend to take me to the hospital so I can get my wrist looked at. I never pay any of my medical bills from that time. I still owe.
One day I’ll kick Mick’s bedroom door in while drinking, splintering the wood. I’ll be pissed at Mick for talking trash about me behind my back. He’ll want me to move out ’cause he can’t take the crazy. I’ll live with Ashley again—this time in LA—while I look for an apartment. When I move out she and Faith will find a million little liquor bottles in the cabinet where they were letting me keep my clothes. I steal their alcohol, too—slowly drink all of their rum and have to replace the bottle once pay day rolls around.
One night at Ashley’s I come home drunk, steal Ashley’s Vicodin that she needs for her knee, and pass out. When Ashley comes home I try to have sex with her in a blackout drunk. Ashley goes to sleep in Faith’s bed that night, and in the morning I get to hear Ashley tell me the story, how aggressive I was being, the horrible things I was saying to her. I admit I stole her Vicodin and it hurts the friendship.
I will do meth again and be high one morning coming to work, talk to Rachel in the sandwich shop below the office. I will think my heart’s going to stop, and be planning my last moments, positioning myself in the spot where I want to be found dead, thinking through everyone discovering, upon my death, that I’d been doing crystal meth. Thinking what everyone will think about me for doing it.
I’ll meet a Kenyan stripper named Mercy and fuck her without a condom. She’ll tell me Kenyan fairy tales before bed and I’ll think I’ve found love. Then I’ll learn she’s just using me for a green card.
John and I will get into a routine. When he wants to talk to me, he calls me at the bar. When he calls, I’ll leave the bar, go upstairs to our offices, and talk with him. I’ll be drunk the entire time, and he will love every minute of it, as me drunk is way more cogent than any of his other employees, and I actually get stuff done. He never says anything about my drinking.
As a company exercise, I and three of the Optimistic Solutions developers will do a week of basic training on a military base in South Carolina. Andy and the other two developers will quit on the first day. I will endure five more days of being yelled at by drill sergeants, and love every minute of it because when push comes to shove, all of Andy’s braggart paramilitary talk comes to nothing, and I win.
I will sleep outside in LA even when I have a place—because I’m wild. I’ll sleep in dangerous places, too, just curl up in the plants outside the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood. People will walk by and I won’t care if they notice me. I’ll drink, sleep outside, wake up and drink again. Some part of me was formed in my homeless days in Tucson that will never be unformed. That part of me that sees sleep spots in the urban landscape, that feels at home anywhere, that doesn’t give a fuck what people are thinking about me because I believe I’ve already sunk as low as I can go.
I’ll move into one room of a mobile home near work and break all the rules. I’ll steal their liquor, I’ll come home with a crystal meth pipe and meth and smoke in the bathroom while the mother and daughter I live with are sleeping. High, the sound of my lighter will be deafening to me, and I’ll be sure that it’s deafening to everyone else in the house—even though it’s not. While the mother and daughter are gone on vacation, I’ll be drunk and high on a ton of the mother’s Prozac, stealing panties from her daughter and jerking off with them, then going into almost a coma of sleep and waking up days later. While drunk I will hold the mother’s gun and be afraid I will shoot myself because I am so out of control.
One night I’ll be so drunk leaving Zen that I’ll throw my phone into the middle of Westlake Lake. Maybe I’m manic, too. I sleep on an anthill that night, under a bush next to the building I work in.
I’ll spend a night in jail after calling 911 on myself when I’m walking home drunk from the bar. Cops pick me up. They consider taking me to the mental hospital but I tell them I’ve already been there and it didn’t do any good. So they let me sleep it off in a jail cell, without arresting me, as I hadn’t committed a crime! In the morning I walk many miles home, through rich neighborhoods, contemplating why some people have it together enough to buy mansions and Ferraris while there are people like me who have nothing, can barely keep a job, and have no root in the material world. When I get home I meditate for days because I’ve run out of money till my next paycheck. I have no food. I drink water to stave off the hunger, eat pretzels at work. I do this until the next paycheck when I can start the cycle all over again.
One night I bite a hole in the skin around my wrist and tell everyone I was bit by a coyote. I tell the police, I tell my family. I go to the hospital to be treated for a coyote bite. I can’t explain this, it’s just what happens.
I try to sail out of Westlake Lake on a stolen sailboat to see my friend in Oregon. I think I can make it if I can get to the ocean. The only problem is, Westlake Lake isn’t connected to the ocean, and I don’t know how to sail. Tangled in rigging lines, I abandon ship.
I get drunk and send antagonistic, confessional, and lying emails to my boss. He asks to talk with me the next day and I can’t explain myself. I’m not businesslike, what can I say? Everyone else keeps their mouth shut and slides by under the radar; I get in your face. My boss doesn’t fault me for this—he knows it’s part of my character. In fact, when the company falls apart and he lays off most of his employees, he keeps me on at half salary and encourages me to look for another job. He also says we’re still going to build our systems, that Optimistic Solutions will make a comeback, and he hopes I’ll be there when it happens. But I get tired of the bullshit of working with Andy and I feel guilty taking John’s money while I’m not really doing anything in return, so I quit.
I move back to Tucson, get an apartment. I smoke a little crack one night. I kiss a guy while I’m drunk. I see a homeless man on a couch in the alley and I go to my place and get one of my two wool blankets I sleep with and give it away. I start going to AA meetings. I manage to stop drinking first for one month, then two, then three. I start liking sobriety, I meet some people who are also sober, I hang out with them, I stop seeing my old friends. I get in a good pattern.
I run out of money and can’t find a job. I ask to go live with my mom. I drive across the country, west to east. I change a flat tire in the desert. I drive through Utah for the first time and am overwhelmed at the geography. I stand crying at an overlook. There’s a sign that says, “STAY ON DESIGNATED PATH,” which is certainly something I have not done, metaphorically, in my life. I sleep in my car at rest stops and four days into my drive my car has become my home. I stop being afraid at night and sleep soundly. My car drives off the road in Cleveland and I learn I need new axles. Suzanne wires me money—she saves my fucking life. I think about drinking in Cleveland but don’t. Finally I get to Mom’s house.
At Mom’s house I recover. I keep not-drinking, I watch a lot of TV, I do a lot of nothing. Mom just lets me chill. Then I write a book, my second novel, and then I write another. I think I’ve written all I have to write, so I decide to get out of Mom’s hair and move to New York. I’ll be homeless at first, then get a job, then another job, then I’ll find a place to live, and eventually I’ll be set up living in New York! It doesn’t go that way. In my first hour in New York I relapse on alcohol after eleven months. A few hours later, I’m doing shitty Washington Square Park cocaine and calling my sister sobbing from a payphone. Suzanne comes and rescues me and I drive back to Mom’s house the next day.
Mom takes care of me. She gives me more time to figure things out. We cook our favorite meal together (enchiladas). I cook for her some nights and it is a blessing to be able to do something for her in return. I write another book at Mom’s house.
Then I move to Vermont. I live there for a year. I’ll tell you about that later.
I live with my sister Amy for a while in Portland. I’m hospitalized again. Then I move to Baton Rouge, Louisiana to stay with my aunt and uncle and grandmother.
I get back on medicine. It helps me. My mood swings go away and I don’t feel suicidal. I just feel normal and good—every single day.
I continue to write novels and I get one published. It’s with a small press, but it means that more people will be reading my work. And I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful this path I’m on, of writing based on my experiences and my imagination, will be one that works for me. I’ve finally found work, even though it doesn’t make money like my job jobs, that I can complete happily without my efforts being ruined by inept coworkers. I don’t make much money. I make in a year with my books what I used to make in one hour programming, but it’s work I love.
I apply for disability based on multiple hospitalizations for bipolar disorder, but I am denied. They say that I may not be able to work as a programmer anymore, but that I should be able to take less challenging work. Which I suppose means they think I should work at Taco Bell. But I’ve seen too much, been paid too much, to make that a real possibility. It’s too much to ask of your citizens that they be downwardly mobile, that they take jobs that make vastly less than their previous jobs. Someone who can write, who can program computers, is expected to work the take-out window at a fast food place? I’m sorry, but my mind is too big for that. It’s just not possible.
In moving in with my family, in recent times, I have done something that I never thought I could or would do when I was homeless—ask for help. Back then, I took it as a matter of course that I had to do it on my own, that I had to be completely self-sufficient. Now I see things a little differently. I hope to be more self-sufficient again in the future, but for now I am glad to have the help of my family, and I’m glad to not have to work a job that saps my soul, and I’m glad to have a bed to sleep in at night and not be running from some crazy drugged-up meth freak who thinks I talked to the police about him. Those times were interesting, and I guess the universe thought I needed to have them, but I don’t ever want to be homeless again. Once was enough for me.
Back in the car, in the parking lot of Bank of America, with my check on the dash, I’m thinking of what I’m going to buy. I’m going to buy a new computer to replace the laptop I sold. I’m going to go to the grocery store and buy everything I want. I’m going to go eat at that Italian place I like in Hollywood. Or maybe get sushi. Or maybe Indian. Or maybe all three! But I am going to take such good care of myself! I’m going to get everything my heart desires with this money—everything that money can buy.
I take the envelope. I get out of the car. I walk toward the bank.
And I open the door and go inside to deposit my check.