The sound of aerosol was followed by a miserable sensation torturing my senses. My eyes felt as though they had been sanded down with an industrial sander. Every pore had its own fire that consumed the nerves inside my skin. My eyelids squeezed together tightly as I felt around the dark oblivion. Then, a bright spark lit up my new world and knocked me to the ground. My head made the sound of a coconut bouncing on cement when it hit the concrete. Handcuffs tortured my wrists while my ribs were being kicked in and I could feel them breaking up nicely. After a few kicks in the head, I was knocked out. Black outs are nothingness and nothing is never cruel.
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I awoke in O.P.P., Orleans Parish Prison, and felt phantom fires rolling across my skin. Making bail is a pipe dream rarely even dreamed when neither you, nor your friends, can ever afford it. Before they threw me in the “drunk tank” the cops beat me down some more. It so happened that I was wearing a shirt that read: “Nation of sheep, Ruled by pigs, Governed by wolves.”
“So ya’ll still call us pigs, eh?” The fat one said putting his boot in my stomach.
“Did you just call me shorty, punk?” The short one asked before knocking the wind out of me again.
There were three holding cells full of drunks. The cells were so crowded that you had to stand. The weak and elderly that could stand no longer had people standing on them. Coming from many different paths, people of all sorts met at this junction. Poverty brought us all together. Almost every one of us was picked up in the Quarter for intoxication in public. Is anybody in the French Quarter sober at two o’ clock on Sunday morning? Are we to believe that the upper class doesn’t drink? Like those people in suits stumbling out of Pat O’ Brien’s just have some sort of walking disorder. Why not just shut down the quarter at midnight? Have cops pull up in vehicles the size of school buses on Bourbon and Decatur and collect every drinker. Have a siren like the ones for fire stations to let everyone know that it was time to round up.
Twenty-four hours later I was booked, strip searched, and in a cell with five people, including me. There were four beds so the junky having heroine withdrawals and I shared the cold concrete. Opiates make you constipated, so the junky was releasing all that was held back for the last week of his life. I slid into my private night to the sound of diarrhea and the smell of gas.
In jail I never learn about doing the “right” thing, but I learn better ways to get away with doing the “wrong” things.
The jailers can be worse than cops. They use tactics of psychological warfare. The only books that they allowed on the book carts to be passed around were westerns and they were horribly boring. They were so dull and empty that they left tumble weeds blowing through my once exciting mind. I would read them anyway. The endings were always a disappointment because the jailers would rip out the last chapter of every book so that you would never know what happens at the end.
A few days later I was released. Before I walked through the steel door I stopped at a window to sign for my belongings, which wasn’t much. I had had about thirty dollars that I accumulated from panhandling, but they denied it. They asked, “How do you know if you had money when you were drunk coming in?” What could I do? How could I challenge or contest it when I didn’t even have an address? I could hardly prove that I exist. They were nice enough to give my shirt back, but only after they sprayed it down until it was soaked with mace and pepper spray.
I was ready to leave New Orleans, but not yet ready to abandon my squatter way of life. We were called squatters because we didn’t stick around long. Most migrate like birds, going up north during Southern blistering summers and south to escape the penetrating winters. Instead of bumming around the same town, like those that we would call ‘home bums,’ we were only popping a squat. We would rest and have a little fun before the next journey.
City officials abhorred us because they were afraid we would clog their money flow. They thought fewer tourists would come spend their money if we were seen. We were worthless to them. We had no income for them to tax. The way they would deal with this is to try and keep all of us in jail. As long as we were in jail they were making money through taxes off of each of our heads everyday.
I knew from the start that I was going to quit squatting when I would reach twenty-five years of age, if I made it that long. That is when age begins to show. People give you their spare change when you’re young because youth is a form of hope. They think that maybe you will turn things around. The older you get, the fewer parties you would be invited to because nobody wants some old wino, home bum around with slurred speech and black holes eating away at their memory like a cancer spreading.
During this period of my life I enjoyed squatting and I cherish the experience, the good and the bad. It was a release. Even all of the nights spent sitting in jail, I remained autonomous in my mind. I saw that social status was a cage that we build around ourselves from the inside. By the time we see what was built you are locked in. All of the energy that people put into their worldly possessions is set free. Having no possessions opened a window and let me see how petty all of those items with price tags were in comparison to priceless moments that people miss while paying homage to the material world. After living beyond the bounds of media control for so long, I still get nauseous when I watch television because I see a different reason for why they call it programming. Though I was sliced up, beaten, infested with scabies, and even living sick more than well, I understand better now. From money to sweat to blood and tears, people pay many kinds of prices for the things they want in life and the amounts vary on how much they choose to gain. I had to pay a high price for what I know now.
I found Germy on the River Walk and we hopped the next train heading west.
“I don’t remember the day before yesterday,” Sugar sang as she strummed her
beat-up acoustic guitar.
“I don’t remember yesterday at all,” she continued, nodding her green dyed hair
over her eyes. The fire held a melody of its own and cast shadows dancing across our
“So give me some money for beer and I won’t remember today.”
I had zoned out of her lyrics and began to see her. Her real name, of course, was
not Sugar. When you squat, everybody has nicknames. Most are runaways or, like
myself, had a collection of warrants built up from hitchhiking and riding the rails. Cops
are known only as “pigs” and with squatter’s honor, which simply means we don’t talk to
pigs, they were lucky if they could even get a nickname out of one of us. If we had some
form of identification, we weren’t stupid enough to carry it.
This beautiful girl with hard-luck lyrics was a runaway. She must have been around sixteen. Like most girls on the streets, Sugar had left home because she was being raped.
Sugar reminded me of a falling angel. Her skin was unweathered and when she would sweat, she gleamed like porcelain. These were signs that she had not been away from home for very long. The innocence left in her was quickly deteriorating. It wasn’t too late for her, but soon it would be and that feeling of powerlessness was humility knocking at my door. The streets have a way of changing you. You can see it in the eyes. If you look deep enough you can actually see the soul eroding.
This squat was nicer than most, but in Austin everything seemed a lot nicer than
New Orleans. There were a lot of hippies here and that alone made the area
much more laid back. We weren’t in an abandoned building; we were in the
hills next to Duncan Park just off of 24th and Lamar. We were only eight blocks from
Guadalupe Street, known as the Drag. The University of Texas was there
with a long stretch of bars filled with friendly college kids who had no qualms with
giving us money or inviting us to the occasional party. I would often drink on the steps
of a head shop and watch the haunting image of the notorious clock tower in the sky.
Sugar finished playing her song and she handed the guitar to Ash who
began to jam. I was ready for sleep so, I crawled off where it was cold, dark,
and quiet. I rolled onto my back. Through an opening in the canopy of trees
I watched the stars. They seemed to shine brighter in the cold, like they were
frozen and glistening with ice. I wondered who else out there was sharing this sky with
me. I would be connected with anyone who just happened to look at the sky at that
moment. I thought of the girlfriend I had left behind without a word, and I slipped
Jeremy, a.k.a. Germy, and I hit Guadalupe Street looking to get drunk. Jeremy
had been with me on this trip all along. I grew up with him. Growing up, everyone
thought he was crazy, but I didn’t care. Here, all of the other street kids thought he was crazy as well, but I understood him. Besides, he was great to “spange” (ask for spare change) with because he looked a lot like Jesus.
“Don’t you think it’s funny how everyone gets dogs?” Jeremy asked me.
“No,” I said. “Not really. If you’re on the streets, you get a dog
for two reasons. For one, you get a dog for protection, and the other is so that when you
sleep on the street you won’t get thrown in the drunk tank by the pigs, you know? The
pigs are too lazy to go through all of that paper work just to impound some mangy mutt.”
“No, I don’t mean for us. I mean like for the others.” He shook his hands in
exaggerated fear. The “others” he spoke of were the nine-to-fivers, the ones that pay
their taxes and go to church on Sunday, the gears, nuts, and bolts of a machine that we
could scarcely remember ever being a part of.
“So, what’s so strange about them having dogs?”
“Because they just buy this furry package of life just to tell it what to do. They
bring it home and show their expressions of love for it right away with “sit, roll over,
fetch this, and play dead!” It’s like they have some authority complex disease, like what
people catch before they decide to become cops.”
“I guess it is pretty weird,” I laughed. “You got a point.”
Jeremy and I had conversations deeper than oceans to more shallow than dirty
bathwater that day. We made fun of others and ourselves. We laughed and we drank
until the afternoon sky turned the color of rust.
Sugar had joined us and was strumming her guitar while free-styling lyrics about
the passer-by. In an hour she had made more than Jeremy and I combined. All was
fine and good until the cops pulled up to the curb and one beckoned with his fat, curling
finger. “Get your ass over here,” he said.
We all stood, not knowing which one of us, or if he meant all of us.
“Just the girl,” he smiled behind mirrored sunglasses.
“Damn it!” Sugar said to us. “My step dad must have found me.”
She handed Germy her guitar and hugged me goodbye. I never forgot the last
look that she gave me before getting into the backseat of that patrol car. She looked like
an angel getting her wings clipped.
Jeremy and I walked back to the squat without a word. We were both hoping that
the Hollywood version of a cop had picked Sugar up. I hoped that maybe she would heal and grow strong enough to do something with herself. It wasn’t too late to get off of these filthy streets and become a musician, a model, a good mother, or anything besides some junky prostitute. I had come to learn that wishes and prayers cannot penetrate the infernal pits of Hades. I’ve seen the best of wishes turn to ash like moths void of free will.
Sugar had found us sometime later that night. Jeremy and I could hear her feeling
her way around in the dark. I followed her sound and told her it was me. She fell against
my chest and I led her back to the camp.
We sat by the fire and her hands kneaded me like kitten paws. She was shaking
faintly. Her blue eyes were like glass reflecting the fire, wide and vacant from shock.
She wasn’t crying anymore. Her face was sticky with tears that she may never be able to
cry again. Her sweater was covered in crusty spots of semen.
“I have no virginity left,” she said in a broken voice. “They put it everywhere.
They said they would carve out more holes in me to fuck!”
“Shhhhh …They won’t find you here,” I said. “I got you.”
The last time I had seen her on the drag with that confused look in her eyes, she
had looked ten years younger than the person that I was holding that final night in Austin.
Something in her had died. Maybe some ignorance, sincerity, or perhaps her spirit he was stolen, misplaced, or even erased. Her very soul, once fluid and mysterious like the Mississippi, no longer flowed into the ocean.
I followed her wide-eyed gaze up into the stars. I don’t think that she was seeing
those heavenly spheres at all. She was looking straight through them and into the infinite blackness beyond. I laid down with my arms serving as protective walls around her quaking body and slipped back into the blackness that hides.