Sunday, August 31, 2008

Steppin in the School of Hard Knocks: part 1

By about the third pedestrian who walked past, the urge to flee hit me like a whiff of gasoline to the sinus cavity. I had been riding on this God-damn Crazy Train for too long, and its twisted unethical appeal was starting to wear thin. Maybe it was the two or three heavy misdemeanors, or the serious felony charge that started to hang around my neck like a bunch of putrid albatrosses. This gig was starting to rot alright. Rot right to the bone.

I smiled and said hello to the man in the Calvin Klein overcoat walking his pampered shih tzu. Anxiously rocking on my heels, I try looking as white as possible, as my darker compatriot rattled the fence behind me. It’s times like this that one must use racial stereotypes to their advantage. “Do you know where the closest Starbucks is?” Or , “Vote Obama!” They know that model citizen’s name in this city. But if I want to cast my own soiled vote for the man, I better figure out something quick!

Fortuna alone couldn’t have carried you this far. Quit winners they say in Vegas. But those words also carry their own weight in an Eight-ball city alley like this. How did I end up in this game? What will be my honest patriotic story for the authorities?

What started as a half-assed back up for my foiled plans of driving to Detroit, and shooting the graveyards of the dying automobile giants, eventually brought me to a dirty South Chicago alleyway. I was drowning in an XL hoodie that belonged to my former roommate. A fine way to blend in with the locals, I thought, also plenty of room to hide my expensive camera. I was minding my business and shooting pictures and anything dirty and detestable to those who have enough money to “pretend” the world is a clean and pretty place.

Out of the corner of my eye, the brain registered a human figure beside the delivery truck that was parked to my right. I made an awkward double take and noticed two vagrants sheepishly waving a signal of truce, a sign that they meant me no harm and they respected how fragile my social confidence was in their neighborhood. I waved an arm back to show them I was not afraid, and walked over to the truck. They were propped up against the building wall, sitting with their legs underneath the trailer of the truck. “We’z just takin’ a break from tha wind”, said the woman.

“Well I’m just taking some pictures back here.” They seemed to ease up and sense that I had no authority in this land. I thought about playing the “surveyor” role to justify my presence. That might provoke them, I thought. I have no connection with the city, or any third party private contractors. Yes, play it legit and curious. This could go somewhere.

I took a seat next to them, on a piece of cardboard that was probably dirtier then the concrete below it. “You’s have any batt’ries ta spare for a radio?” I told them that my camera battery would not be compatible with their 1976 General Electric hand radio. Even though I couldn’t solve their radio problem, they took an interest in me.

“How cums you didin run off?”

I explained that I was trying to capture some photographs of the side of the city no one wanted to look at. “This is where it’s at, this is something real that can’t be replicated into a franchise!” They must have been thinking of a different definition of “real”. Another angle then; people forget about this part of the city, and they should see what it’s like on the other side of the tracks. This connected.

We introduced ourselves. Derek was in his late thirties, but the street made him look about ten years older. He reminded me of a young Bernie Mac, if I would have known a young Bernie Mac. I noticed he was missing his index finger on the left hand. “What happened there?”

“I gots this from whoppin’ a niggas ass!” he shot back. “I was in a fight and this nigga pulled out his Boy Scout knife. Stuck me in the hand. Aftah about two weeks of digging in the trash to eat, she had to come off!” Gangrene. Infection cuts off the blood flow to the affected appendage. Wet Gangrene sets in, causing the finger to be saturated with stagnant blood which promotes the rapid growth of bacteria. After a two hour wait sitting at an inner city emergency room, the verdict for immediate removal will be served. Yes, mankind has come a long way. His right wrist was a bit crooked as well. The results of a three story fall while running from the police. I didn’t ask for the details.

Jasmine, at least I think it was Jasmine. She reminded me of a Voodoo temptress whose game was over 15 years ago, and now resigned herself to the hard times that the spirits of misfortune cast upon her (I have no factual grounds for spirits of misfortune being part of the Voodoo belief, but I know I’ve met one or two in my life). Speaking in a twisted vernacular that I could barley decipher, she was impossible to quote. So for a fluid story, I have named her Jasmine. Derek and she had been married for almost ten years, but the exact date eluded them.

A silo of King Cobra was passed in my direction. “Ah, is this like O.E.?” as I took a swig from her can.

“Shit, this boy no where it at!” she exclaimed as the moorings of some commonality took hold. The comfort level increased a notch.

I feigned out some story of mild destitution. This was not to pretend I could relate to them. I could never fully relate to them. This is something almost every “average” white adult needs to understand. The idealistic open minded liberal will have no clue what day to day city vagrancy is like, no matter how many seasons of The Wire they’ve watched. This disclaimer is mentioned only for the purpose of clueing in the reader that I am not actually that na├»ve. I will however play that card to any officer of the peace who requests to explain myself, while I wait to be processed by holding. No, this story of a poor college student was spit out for self preservation. “I have little to offer”. “Robbing me is not worth your time.” This is the subtle message I was trying to convey. Did they understand? Maybe the years of street life was causing desert-like hallucinations, where I appeared to them like a Thanksgiving turkey, covered in $100 bills. I wasn’t picking up any hostile vibrations.

My story was of no consequence. Just some quick points that I was couch surfing with a friend in Palatine. I was a photography student who wasn’t sure if he could afford next semester. I had been living off Ramen Noodles for three weeks and I was worried about my cholesterol. A story far from the truth, but close enough to not reek of exaggeration. These two were not stupid. No. That is another thing that most white people need to get through their heads. Street hustlers may not have much of an educational record that can be accounted for by diplomas or certificates, but a smooth Mack can “manipulate and con” ten bucks out of your hand faster than any 14 year old daughter who is going to the mall with Julie’s Mom! No, the mall is far from here, and the option to get lost in the innocence of a Claire’s is not available at this time. I only learned this for myself the hard way. After a couple instances as a wide eyed high school punk, loosing somewhere in the neighborhood of $15 over multiple instances, I quickly gave credit where credit is due. These were not your Madison bums who can be cast off with a wave or a cold shoulder, these were Chicago hustlers. Hustlers who work for their money and so have my fair amount of respect. I still reserve my right to every damn dollar that I worked for though. No dog and pony show alone would pull a “charitable contribution” out of my hand.

Jasmine asked me a question. I think so anyways. She wanted to know if I smoked something. I wasn’t familiar with the terminology, but she reverted to the term “weed”, to compensate for my ignorance. “Ah, yeah on occasion, but I’ll just stick to beer today”. I need to keep all my wits about me. I could sense by our chemistry that this was only the beginning of a much longer engagement. I may not be sneaking around empty factories in Flint, MI, but I might be on the trail of something now. Yes the smell of adventure was strong in the air, among other odors, and I could only see one course of action. I will try to convince Derek and Jasmine to be my ambassadors to the mean streets of South Chicago.

After inquiring about my mode of transportation, I was driving the Tacoma, Derek politely asked for some assistance in acquiring some “wire” that was “just given to him” by a contractor up north in the downtown high-rise area. “Listen, he’s just giving it me. Serious, just given it to me, I just don’t have a vehicle to bring it back down here. I gotta guy who will give me $20-30 for it. I can give you a part of that for your troubles.”

I may be from a small, all white town of 700 people, but I’m not stupid either. He was talking about “scrapping”, but I showed no objection to the reality of his request, and instead well, played stupid. I agreed to help them and their eyes lit up. They promised that they would show me the bridge, which they lived under, and that I could get all kinds of great photographs that would make me “famous”. The chance of great photographs was no doubt a given. Getting famous for them, well that may only happen when old age finally pushes my ambition into publishing mode. A long and painful experience that I like to believe impedes a many young visionary like myself, who get through the day on self deprecation and cheap beer.

A note for the reader about “scrapping”: My first experience with the term “scrapping” was during St. Patrick’s Day, 2006. I was slinking around the downtown area of Chicago like shifty weasel trying to enter the hen house. I was looking to enter my own hen house of sorts, an 18 story sky scraper that was still under construction. “What a great view of the city at night”, I thought. Soon I found myself over the fence and tiptoeing around the first floor, looking for the stairwell. Shortly after realizing that the stairwell was locked up against riffraff like my sorts, a figure moved in the shadows to my left. A brief moment of panic held me stiff while I went over my options. Bolt for the fence that took at least 45 seconds to scale, or stand strong and approach the man with the white flag of peace.

I had no white to show, I was dressed in a conspicuous black hoodie and black combat pants. I raised an open hand instead. After approaching him as just another curious photographer looking to get a great shot of the city, he eased up. “I thought you were a scrapper”, he said with a sigh of relief. He informed me that a scrapper was usually some bum who tries to steal tools and supplies from construction site in order to pawn them off for food or crack money. “Usually crack” he assured. The guy was humble and held no grudge against my trespasses. He even offered to unlock that gate for my exit, and then instructed me on how to drive to the abandoned Projects. “You ought to get some great shots over there!” I thanked him for all his help and left promptly with the lucky hand I was dealt.

But back to my original story: Yes, I understood quite well the gravity of the situation I was stepping into, but that was why I was stepping in the first place. It’s only through irrational decision making and audacious behavior that can spawn the fruit for a story such as this. I’m about to ride one mean bull of unpredictability, but if I can make it just those 8 symbolic seconds, I may come out of this thing with only minor lacerations, but the heart of a lion. So I stepped.

First things first, we needed more beer. I informed them that I had a little bit of cash, and could go for a cold brew myself. The King Cobra was about as warm as any desert snake sitting in the sun. We walked out from the alley and rounded the block to my truck. In the excitement at their turn of events, Jasmine asked if I believed in God. I told her that I was agnostic, but I could see that it wasn’t registering. I tried to tell her that I wasn’t sure what to believe, but that I was open to the idea that maybe there is something out there. She proclaimed something to the effect that I was a blessing sent from God for them that day.

They still seemed a bit baffled that I was so approachable and hadn’t run from them as if they were rabid raccoons (I only now realize the racial connotations of that statement, but fuck it, I find it funny without the racial context). I told them that unlike many of white peers I knew that the odds of me being attacked or caught in a hail of gang related cross-fire was still slimmer than getting rear ended by some 19 year old fraternity member who absolutely must send an emergency text message before parking the car. They weren’t too sure about the dangers of texting and driving, but they assured me that with “a brotha by my side” that no one was going to fuck with my Kool-Aid (now if you think that has racial connotation, just go back to watching “The View).

We saddled up in the Tacoma, Derek riding shotgun and Jasmine crammed back into the extended cab. The closest ghetto liquor store was our first destination. Parking in front, I noticed that there were about eight to ten guys hanging outside. As big as my hood was, I stuck out like a white dove in a park full of some hard pigeons. Derek asked me twice if I locked everything up. I assured him it was.

Inside I gave them a $20 limit. A six pack of Budweiser, a pouch of cheap tobacco, rolling papers, some assorted snack sized bags of chips and a half pint of Vodka were brought up to the counter. The clerk looked at me with what appeared to be a sense of disgusted pity. Did he know something I didn’t? Was he familiar with Derek and Jasmine? Was there writing on the wall that I couldn’t read? I had read plenty already. This is stupid. You are going to be robbed. They will leave you naked, if not dead, and then blow out your transmission as they take a crash course in driving a manual pickup. No. I assured myself that he was only reading the same red flags that I have, he just couldn’t grasp the twisted logic I had subscribed to this day. By heeding to these blaring stereotypes that have been reinforced by the evening news, was I not limiting my ability to experience “the other side of the tracks”? True, it’s hard to see past irrational social fears without jumping in the snake pit once or twice. But, don’t forget that snakes come in all colors, and with varying degrees of venom. That “fear” is just Mother Nature reminding you to watch your ass in foreign territory.

As I pocketed the change and we headed out to the truck, an old drifter approached me, stating he had a question for me. Before I could utter a response, Derek lashed out with a rebuke that about knocked me over. “Fuck off old man, he’s with us! DON’T talk to him.” I ignored the man and moved to the driver’s side door. Derek continued to belt him with obscenities. He appeared senile, but that could have been an act, and he moved away.

In the truck Jasmine cracked open two cans and gave one to me. “Juss cuff it.” She explained that by pulling your sweatshirt cuff over the beer, you could easily conceal it. So, a baggy hoodie comes in pretty useful, and I was glad my former roommate was built like an ox. I was now violating the open container law, as well as drinking and driving, but my cuffs were large. Just an everyday risk one takes on the streets, if they even have a car that is.

Jasmine now wanted to get something to smoke. I told her before that I wasn’t going to smoke any weed today, but I wasn’t going to stand in her way of making that decision for herself. $8 was what she needed, and with some spare change I managed to come up with it. How much weed can you get for $8? A joint? That seems kind of pricey, but this is Chicago, Michigan Avenue was only a couple minutes north. I am not familiar with the black market economic system of this town, so I asked no questions. Derek navigated and we found ourselves parked a mere half block from the Projects. Jasmine headed out towards the complex while Derek waited inside with me.

“I love her man… but that bitch is crazy!” Derek pulled back his shirt to expose a scar on his chest. “She stabbed me in the chest. Put me up in the hospital for a week, a damn week. But when I got out, she had me a thousand dollars! She’s a real hustla yo. I take her up to Soldier Field, a million men, she’d come out with a million dollars.” I wondered what services rendered could be bought from Jasmine for one dollar, or if she was just haggling for a buck until some poor stiff from Nebraska shells it out in an effort to get her off his back? I didn’t ask. Derek also explained that she was bi-polar, and that she was not one to be crossed, but he still loved her.

“You smoke weed, what about the other stuff?”

“What, crack?” I asked rather bluntly. I was on the same page. I told him that I’ve used coke, but that it always gave me a wave of paranoia that my teeth were about to explode like superheated rocks.

“No shit!” he replied with a grimace that exposed a number of vacancies in his mouth.

Jasmine finally returned and we headed off north to recover the wire. Or so I thought.

Derek was navigating again. Our course was heading right towards downtown, as expected, until I was ordered to turn east. Why are we getting of the main drag into this neighborhood? We were out of the ghetto, but still far from any Starbucks. After a couple more turns Derek had me turn left into a parking ramp. As we pulled in, I couldn’t help but notice a vacant parking booth and the dimly lit interior.

There were no lights at all for that matter. Every one burnt out, or maybe the power was out. What is all this garbage on the floor? Why are there no other cars parked here? Is this where the wire is? Please Jesus, tell me this is where the wire is! The answer to all of these quickly manifested. Craig, here is where they take your everyday amenities, and leave you for dead!

I tried keeping my composure while the dread crept up behind me like a black widow. Any false move could provoke disaster. “What are we doing here, getting the wire?” I asked as confidently as possible.

“We just takin care of business”

You put your foot in the butter this time, Craig! You wanted action and adventure, well ya got it. Get ready to play the role of “innocent bystander” in a cruel plot that has nothing to do with your pointless life. You’ll be lucky if you even get mentioned in the credits, much less the evening news. The best you can hope for is some page 4 article of the Local section explaining that you were found visibly distressed and lacking sufficient clothing for a windy day like today.

Fight of flight was on stand-by. If you can get away without so much as being castrated by a dirty “Boy Scout knife”, you better start believing in a higher power. I had no blunt object within reach. Does my insurance policy cover “car-jacking”? Yes, prepare to flee at the scent of any “real” danger. This was not a potential misunderstanding with some drunk at the end of the bar. This was two complete strangers in your truck who could jab you at any moment with a rusty cork-screw.

Derek told me to back up to the light. The only light was about a one foot gap in the concrete that exposed to the outside ground level. My lights were to be shut off. This was it alright, the site where the body would be found. Straight off the set of “C.S.I. Fucking Wherever”! Jasmine leaned forward between the seats with an open hand, into which she poured about five rocks.

Thank the good Lord himself, whoever that may be! You don’t want to kill me. You only want to smoke crack cocaine inside my vehicle, hidden in the confines of this ominous parking ramp. Go right ahead! I’d join ya myself if I didn’t have to work in the morning.

Quickly after my sudden relief, I came to face the reality of what I was witnessing. Crack cocaine was being lit up inside my truck. How would the D.A.R.E. program dramatize the outcome of this one? I remember the first time I saw cocaine, it struck me a with the biting notion that there were many things out in the world that don’t reside in just some primetime crime drama. But this was CRACK! This is not some indie-kid nose candy I was witnessing, this substance that apparently ruined the lives of even those who looked at it. A plague that pushed the white man out to the suburbs, and forced him to start driving big menacing SUVs, all in an effort to hold onto the American Dream that seemed to be rotting from a terminal infection of racial segregation and a war-machine that seemed to be grinding up poor young men of any color. Crack was one of the sharpest teeth biting away at the strong American prosperity and Christian morals that we thought everyone had in the 50’s.

I took comfort though in the knowledge that U.S. Sentencing Commission had recently pushed for the easing of crack cocaine penalties. They later on voted to retroactively apply this to existing inmates being held on crack cocaine charges. It only takes five grams of crack to snag the same minimum mandatory sentence as 500 grams of powder cocaine, effectively making the sentence 100 times more severe. Because most crack offenders are black, and most powder cocaine offenders are white or Latino, civil rights leaders and many judges have proclaimed the disparity is discriminatory. New evidence also proved crack was about on the same level as powder cocaine, as far as health risks are concerned. This made me feel a lot better.

Opponents claim; "Retroactive application of these new lower guidelines will pose significant public safety risks. Many of these offenders are among the most serious and violent offenders in the federal system and their early release . . . would produce tragic, but predictable results." Besides, many prison guards might get laid off … until they can overturn the U.S. Supreme Court decision Lawrence v. Texas (2003) and turn sodomy into a national felony. I grew up with Nancy Reagan explaining the horror that vicious narcotics can wreck upon one’s life. “Just Say No!” Just say NO to this conservative rhetoric. It’s misinformed information like this that forces people to lock their doors at 6pm as they page through the latest issue of Reader’s Digest. Full speed ahead I say. Let’s ride this train all the way to the end of the line.

As soon as Jasmine finished smoking, she locked eyes with me as I munched on some pork rinds. A torrent of incoherent babble started to come out of her mouth. I managed to make out that she accused me of not believing in God, and that the all Seeing Eye is watching me. Watching everything I do. Being how I have up till this point never had a crack head acquaintance, or even watched someone smoke the shit; I wasn’t sure what kind of behavior to prepare myself for. Her eyes seemed to stare not through me, but into me. She was still spitting up some kind of strange tongue that for the most part sounded like an ancient curse that might cause me to lose my first born, or maybe just cause me to regularly piss blood every full moon.

I noticed that Derek was watching her intently. We both looked at each other and he broke the silence with a “told ya that bitch was crazy!” After some verbal venom between the two and a few slaps for good measure, Derek was finally able to get the pipe from Jasmine. In reaching for the pipe, Derek let out a cry. “Shit!” He dropped one of his rocks. I looked over my shoulder and saw what appeared to be a piece of road salt in the random garbage of my backseat.

“I got it!” I came up with the little white nugget in my fingers.

“God damn, would you look at Craig.” Derek exclaimed with a gratified smile. Not only had I bought them crack cocaine, and provided a safe harbor for them to smoke it, but I also made sure none went to waste. My mother tried to raise me right.

To be continued...

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