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God, I hated it when they would try to give me the self motivating pep talks with all the answers on how to get on my feet again. Apparently it would be really easy for me to get my life back together.
“Are you new to this area?”
“Uh, no, I was just curious if you could spare some change.”
“You know that there’s a shelter about 6 blocks east of here,” said the man wearing suit and overcoat, holding a cup from Starbucks.
“Yeah,” I said biting my lip and looking down.
“Well, if I were you I might go check into a shelter or a soup kitchen; it’s free.”
“Well, if I were you I wouldn’t stand here in your fancy suit and special little coffee that probably cost the better part of ten dollars. I’ve been to the shelter, we’ve all been to the shelter and the shelter, isn’t working for me anymore. All I asked for was some spare change that will probably end up under the seat of your car or in a little change dish your kid made in art class.
“You’re insane,” the man said with a furrowed brow trying to figure out why he had stopped in the first place.
“Why did you even stop in the first place?”
“I was just trying to help, “said the man who obviously had not thought this far along in operation-give-bum-hope.
“Help? What help? I have probably lost money talking to you. I think you should have to give me something.”
“Why?” said the man
“Because you stopped, if you had no intention of giving me money you shouldn’t have stopped, its panhandling etiquette.”
The man thought about it for a second, reached in his coat pocket and gave me a dollar. I wasn’t sure whether he just wanted to get the hell away from me or if he had actually embraced panhandling etiquette. I’m sure he went right home to boast about how he helped a homeless man that day.
I was not at the pinnacle of my life. I was 37. I had been on the streets for eight years, no job, two pairs of pants, four shirts and a duffle bag. All the family I had had long given up on me after paying for four failed stints in rehab; I had a small heroin problem. It should go without saying that there was no love interest in my life either. When I had the money I would usually stay in seedy motels and live out of my duffle bag. Other times I would stay with friends in their motel rooms. I used to go to the men’s shelter when I was clean. It sounds like a stereotypical bum, but I’ve even slept on park benches in the summer. I didn’t have newspapers covering me though.
I had been staying with a friend at his room, at the Montgomery. That place was the anti-rehab. Life is fairly routine at the Montgomery. During the day we would go out and do what we do to scheme the money we need to score. There are a lot of creative ways to get money. Besides trolling for cans it comes down to robbing, stealing, or begging. I didn’t have the personality to rob someone. The guilt would be too much for me. I’d feel bad for a victim’s parents to have to hear such news. I would steal, but not from people. I had no problem stealing from stores and I used to have a way of justifying it but I don’t remember anymore. For the most part I would beg. If I found the right place I could make over a hundred dollars a day. The money wouldn’t last me too long, most of it went in my veins and the rest is spent on food and cigarettes. I generally liked to work outside of convenient stores early in the morning. There are lots of people leaving in a hurry with change in their hand.
One morning I was out in front of a 711 collecting for my cause when a man pulled up in front of the store in a modest grey work truck. I waited a couple seconds before walking towards him. I had to have my timing down where I would meet him halfway to the door.
“Pardon me, sir, you don’t happen to have any spare change?”
“Oh, uh, no I don’t,” the man said patting down all his pockets.
“That’s alright, thanks anyway.”
“I’ll have some change when I get through inside, wait here.”
“Sure, okay, thanks.”
“Hey, give me five numbers,” the man turned and said, with his body halfway inside the store.
“Five numbers, what do you mean?”
“Just say five numbers, any numbers.”
“Alright, uh, six, nineteen, thirty seven, twenty two, and uh, one.”
The man repeated the numbers to himself over and over as he walked to counter. I had never been asked that before. I watched him the whole time wondering what he was doing. Once he was done at the counter he walked out holding a pack of cigarettes, some slips of paper, and a five dollar bill.
“Here you go,” the man said as he gave me the five dollar bill and one of the slips of paper.
“Thanks a lot man, I really appreciate it. What’s this though,” I said inspecting the paper slip.
“Powerball, that’s what the numbers were for. I was getting some for myself anyway and I thought I’d test you’re luck.”
“I really do appreciate it man, but luck obviously isn’t a strong point of mine.”
“Hey bud, just play the ticket.”
“Yeah, you’re right, thanks again.”
“No problem, take care, remember to check those numbers,” the man said as he got into his truck.
That was a first for me. I had never been given a lottery ticket. Hell, I had never played the lottery.
The traffic started to slow down at the convenience store, so I made way back to the Montgomery. That five dollar bill had put me just over thirty dollars, which was enough to go score. I walked down the street towards the corner where a kid was always standing. He couldn’t have been more the 13 years old. When I got about ten yards away I nodded to him and held up two fingers. He nodded back and ran behind a building. A second kid came around on the other side to greet me. I gave him a discrete handshake as I looked back over my shoulder and my transaction had been processed.
I got back to the room and found a friend and a few strangers passed out inside. Two were on the bed, one with a needle still in his arm, while two more were on the floor. I made my way towards the bathroom, stepping over the motionless bodies. I reached down into my duffle bag and grabbed a small rectangular metal tin. I shut the door to the bathroom and set up in the bathtub.
I awoke some time later; I just assumed it was the next day. My neck was sore and I had a bad taste in my mouth. There wasn’t any noise coming from the other side of the bathroom door. Once I crawled out of the tub I bent down to the sink to get a mouthful of water before opening the door. The room was empty and it was 11:00 a.m. I had been asleep in the tub for nearly sixteen hours. That would happen from time to time. It must have been a mixture of all the drugs, malnourishment, and lack of sleep. I guess the body just needs to shut down for awhile from time to time. Sleeping that late had made me miss the morning rush of people at the 711.
After I had gathered myself and cleaned up a little, I sat on the end of the stiff full size motel bed thinking about what to do next. I reached in my pocket for a smoke and felt a piece of paper. It was the lottery ticket from yesterday. I have always been skeptical of lotteries, jackpots, sweepstakes’, and anything else like that. People like me never won anything. I have never even met anyone who had won anything significant. The only people who ever win are old people, people who don’t need the money, or offices where everyone pitched in to buy like a thousand tickets. I had nothing to lose and I nowhere to be so I started walking towards the convenience store. I figured I would at least get a little panhandling in to not make this trip a complete waste.
On my way I passed by the kid on the corner.
“You alright?” the kid said, leaning against the building with his hands in his pockets.
“I’m good right now, you’ll be here later?”
“I’m always here.”
I kept on walking towards the store hoping that there would be enough people there so I could fix on the way back to The Montgomery. The few people that were in the parking lot when I arrived ignored my advances. As soon as I made to the door and pushed it open I could hear the clerk.
“You no allowed, customer only,” he said pointing at me over the beef jerky.
“I am a customer today, well kinda.”
“What you want?”
“I need to check this Powerball ticket, “I said, waving the ticket at him.
“Okay, okay, give me ticket.”
I stood and watched expecting nothing as he held the ticket underneath the laser barcode reader until it beeped.
“Wow, wow, lucky you.”
“You big winner.”
“No bullshit, ticket wins.”
“Five thousand dollars? I won five thousand dollars? It’s mine?”
“This is un-fucking-believable.”
“Yeah, now you don’t need to stand in front of store, scare customers.”
I didn’t even respond. I had never won anything. Five thousand is no two hundred million dollar jackpot, but five thousand dollars to a homeless heroin addict is a lot of money. My mind began to race, thinking about what to do with the money. I could buy enough heroin to last a couple months maybe, get some new clothes and motel by myself. It probably wasn’t a good idea to let anyone know about this. Friends or not, if anyone I knew found out about this I would most likely be robbed. When the clerk came back he gave me a check for the five thousand.
“I thought you were going to give me money”?
“We don’t have five thousand in cash, take check to bank, they cash.”
I took the check and rounded the corner to a bank a couple blocks down. Luckily the bank teller was lenient with me about identification. All I had was an expired military I.D. She accepted it and didn’t stand in the way of my new found luck.
Once I had my money I wasn’t even going to go back to The Montgomery; I was just going to find another room alone. Before I found a new room I passed by the kid on the corner again. He saw me coming and stood up straight. I nodded and held up four fingers this time. He ran behind the building and the second kid came out on the other side with product in hand.
“Entertaining tonight?” the second kid asked.
“Oh, just a little personal celebration I guess.”
“Cool man, have fun.”
“You bet,” I said turning away.
“Hey! You’re gonna die,” said the first kid running up behind me.
“What?” I said, turning around.
“I said, you’re short five.”
“Oh”, I said with shocked and pale face, handing him a five.
After walking for awhile I settled on a motel called The Arbor. This place was no Hilton but it was a step up from The Montgomery. The Arbor had a television, a working air conditioner and nicer towels. I unpacked my duffle bag and searched the room for a good hiding place to put the money. When the air kicked on I noticed that one of the vents in the wall was rattling. It was loose so I pulled it out to find plenty of room to hide the money. Having done that, I took a long overdue shower and then sat on the bed and turned on the television. There wasn’t too much on so I left it on the local news. They were showing footage of a building being imploded across town so it could be rebuilt. After the drugs and the room, I still had about forty seven hundrerd dollars left. There was an overwhelming feeling of what to do with the money. Having this money reminded me of the life I had before heroin. It reminded me of how I let my family and everyone I love down. They had so much hope for me; they were so positive every time I went to rehab only to be left with shattered hopes of a lost son and a huge bill.
Every time I thought about getting clean I remembered detox. Detox was horrible; I have never felt worse in my entire life. It was a hundred times worse than any bout with the flu I ever had. Sweat, shiver, puke, and dry heave, that’s it. I picked up my pants off the floor and dug around in the pocket and pulled out the four capsules and went to my duffle bag to get my tin. Not possessing the will power I needed, I explained to myself that doing it would be okay, and I would think about things more in depth the next day.
I opened my tin and pulled out my supplies; a bent spoon, an old silver Zippo lighter, a thick rubber band, and a syringe. Once I pulled the needle out of my arm I pushed my body against the headboard with me feet. The television still had footage of the building imploding. That was that last thing I remembered.
I had overdosed. Apparently, when I didn’t answer the door for the cleaning woman she used a key to come inside, yeah, the Arbor had cleaning women too. There I lay on the bed next to my heroin kit with vomit all over my face and neck. She called 911 and I was taken to the hospital.
A bright light in my eye woke me up. It was the doctor checking, pointing a pen light in my eye. Once I was coherent he told me of my traumatic event and how if that housekeeper hadn’t found me I would be dead. I fought the urge to cry while thinking about my family having to deal with my death. I know they wrote me off a long time ago, I understand, but me dying would remind them of their son’s wasted life. I spoke with the doctor regarding my options. It turned out I really only had two. I could keep living how I was and die or change my life dramatically and live. He told me about a not for profit rehabilitation center affiliated with the hospital. It wasn’t a high quality treatment facility, but it was free.
I spent five weeks there. Detox was just as awful as I remembered, but I did it. I still have the itch sometimes but it is easier to overcome these days. Some of my weight has come back to me and I’m smoking probably twice as many cigarettes as I used to. My room at the Arbor was available and my luck was tested once again when I found near four thousand dollars inside the vent. I needed to get some transportation to look for work so I bought an old El Camino for seven hundred dollars. Every day I want to call my mother to tell her of my metamorphosis but I don’t; it’s still too early to tell what will happen.
As I drove back to my room, I stopped at a convenience store to pick up some cigarettes. When I pulled into the parking spot I saw a man leaning against the side of building watching for people. I could feel him eyeing me. I got out the car and proceeded towards the door where the man met me halfway.
“Excuse me, do you have any spare change you could give me,” the man said with a touch of shame in his eyes.
“Uh, yeah man, wait a second, I’ll have some when I come out.”
“Okay,” the man said looking around for other people.
“Hey, give me five numbers.”