Monday, March 29, 2010

Karen: Another from the "Streets"

I think people tend to either see themselves the way other people see them, or they seek out people who see them the way they see themselves. I've always done the latter because of my problem with impossibly high self-esteem, masquerading as low self esteem. It's hard to tell the difference. Some people may not do their hair or wear makeup, they may do drugs, sleep all day, and say that nobody loves them because they have low self-esteem. Or, like me, they may not feel that they need makeup or styled hair. They may do drugs because they're isolated in their little tower of greatness, and they're lonely, and they sleep all day for the same reason. As far as nobody loving them, well, they know that's not true but making that up frees them to do whatever they want and not have to think about hurting people. It's a fine line. It occurs to me that I was not ever as great as I thought I was but I made every effort to find people to whom I could be great. That's why I befriended Karen. Some of you reading this may remember her.

Karen was a drug dealer, and I use that term loosely. She was more of a drug connector really. She never had any money and we were forever having to travel all over the city to meet this person or that person and sometimes she couldn't get anything at all. She was an old black woman, I say old but she could have been anything from 40-60, probably in her 50's. You can never really tell, heroin keeps you looking young, until you don't have any of course. I spent a lot of time at her apartment, usually just waiting for something to happen. She could smoke an entire cigarette and only ash it twice. She could have been a surgeon with those steady hands. I liked her because she liked me. She was always impressed with how I kept up with my bills and always paid people on time and how I held a job and went to school. Finally the recognition I deserved.

I've always liked being around black women because, in my experience, they assume a type of authority that I've never had myself. Karen was like that, she always spoke her mind and although she was a drug addict and connector she had morals, she was polite and demanded that others be polite too. She used to get so offended when people would walk in to her apartment and not say hello to me (or anyone who happened to be there). If someone came in and started talking to her she would lean back, her eyes would get all wide and she'd snap "how you gonna walk in here and not say hello to my guest?!" It always embarrassed me.

I dealt with her for years and they say that nobody in the drug world is really your friend and for the most part that's true. I don't know that I have any friends who I met doing drugs who I still keep in touch with or worry about or even think about. Karen is the exception. She always kind of took care of me, I felt. She would never let anyone particularly unsavory talk to me or be around me. I guess that would seem odd reading this, not ever having experienced the drug world, but some people are worse than others. Most are just people who get sad and sit around and talk about how much they love their parents, some are really bad, scary. To quote a preacher I heard one time, who was referring to the same type of people, "they've gone too far and stayed too long." Those are the ones you want to steer clear of. When you don't know how to spot them, it's good have a Karen.

One time she and I were at a house, a house that should have been condemned. I don't know if the people "living" there were squatting or what. There were a lot of people there though and it was obviously not a good place to be. A guy walked in whom everyone seemed to know but Karen told me to go, to get in my car and get out of there. She, of course, stayed behind. So I left and called her later. She said that after I left he tried to rob everyone and one of the guys there shot him, killed him.

This was the first time I had ever heard of anything like this happening in real life. I was fascinated. I asked Karen non-stop what would happen now. Would there be some sort of gang war? In the movies there are always gang wars. She thought this was hilarious. Well, would the police catch the guy who shot him? That was just as funny. Well what then? What happens now? "Nothing happens now," she said.

When I moved away she called me a few times and I would call her to tell her Merry Christmas and stuff like that, then we just lost touch with each other. Last I heard she had gotten clean. I hope that that's true. Like me, I always thought that she was way too great to live the way she lived.

Friday, March 26, 2010

People I've Known

Most of you know that I've had a drug problem; for those of you who don't, I did. That was years ago now and I think a lot about why I've made it through while so many others haven't. The conclusion I've come to is this: I always saw my addiction as something separate from me, something temporary. Of course it's something I have to always be aware of, but I'm Annie and I'm many things, not just an addict. Some people give up on those other things and become just an addict and they aren't lucky enough to have people who love them around to remind them. I know that there are a lot of people out there who will disagree with me on this but I think that the drug abuse causes the alleged "addictive personality," and not the other way around. I never planned on being a drug addict, never really even saw it coming. Drugs took me places I never thought I'd go and introduced me to a lot of people I never thought I'd know. Not all of them were bad, some of them were. I'd like to introduce you to some of them.

When I finally landed in rehab it was a place called "New Hope" which was tucked into a little locked hallway in Lincoln Park Hospital. A man named Jake ran it. Jake was tall and skinny, he wore designer suits and shiny, pointy shoes that looked so soft they could have been made of discarded foreskin. He also slicked his hair back. We kind of suspected that he sold drugs on the side just to keep his hallway well-stocked with suffering children and his back account well-stocked by blindsided parents. Most of the people who worked at New Hope were barely qualified for the job. My councilor was named Edna, she was an Asian college student who never understood a word I said, not because English was a second language but because she didn't understand addiction as a whole or how all of her hard work had landed her in a chair across from someone like me. Other employees there were just recovering addicts themselves which qualified them to guide others into sobriety. The doctor was Jake's best find though. His name was Randy, a former heart surgeon and crack addict.

Randy was in his 40's, a short and round man with a kind of "chin strap" goatee (as one of the other girls called it). He could have been a heart surgeon, he could also have been a failed rapper. He was always wearing baggy jeans and heavily logo-ed sweatshirts and gold chains. When I first met him it was when I got out of detox and I had to tell him my medical history. He acted like it was the most interesting information he'd ever gathered. For some reason he was always seeking me out and sitting next to me at meetings, during which he would talk non-stop and show me all the crap in his wallet. Sometimes he was in charge of watching the ward and would always let me into the staff area to play on the computers in sit in the comfortable chairs.

When I got out I figured that was the last I'd see of Randy, but he really took me under his Sean John-clad wing then. He was always showing up and taking me to museums and meetings and out to eat with lots of people who couldn't seem to remember who they were before they were addicts, and instead decided to settle on just staying addicts, but sober ones. Randy was a kind of guru to them because, well, he used to be a heart surgeon and had lost a lot more than the rest of us by far and because he insisted that he was "recovered," which anyone in the recovery community knows is heresy. We'll NEVER recover, we're in perpetual "recovery." It's bleak. But Randy had broken that cycle and had a message for all of us: "It's horrible, everything is horrible." He said it constantly, but in a cheerful way.

At a certain point, probably after my relapse and subsequent ICU stay, Randy decided that I had not yet hit rock bottom and the only way to make sure I stayed sober was to have my dad pay him to stay with me round-the-clock, which, as my dad later pointed out, he would have done for free if we had allowed it. When I asked him where I was supposed to sleep he said I could stay with his sister. His sister looked exactly like him, was just as weird, and didn't even try to tell people she used to be anything like a heart surgeon. I don't know what she did, or did before that and I was not going to sleep in her apartment or his, which, incidentally was the men's halfway house which Jake (remember Jake?) also owned.

I think that was about it for Randy, I don't remember exactly what happened with that whole situation, I think that the whole "pay-me-to-stalk-your-daughter" proposition pretty much ended it for my parents and once they were sufficiently creeped out I was ready to be done too. I do know that I left my entire CD collection in his car, an event from which I've never really recovered. I can't walk into a music store without seeing a CD I used to own and imagining Randy driving around with his gold chains and puffy coats looking for people to look up to him so he could tell them that "it's horrible, everything is horrible." What in the world could have ever happened to that guy? He's probably in prison, and if he's not he probably should be.

Thursday, March 25, 2010


I've not posted anything in a while because nothing has happened in a while. I sat down today to write something, but then realized I have nothing to write and that I should first explain why there are no new census stories anyway. I've been avoiding that because I'm writing about the government and it occurs to me that I could get in some sort of trouble by some sort of agency that keeps tabs on these sorts of things. Here's the explanation anyway (I'll keep it short though, no rants about the injustice of it or how slighted I feel or anything about any lies we were told because, for the record, I love the government): When I got hired I knew it was temporary, they said there would be enough work for 5-8 weeks. That was fine though because I'd be making enough to save a little and have some money in the bank while I looked for another job. They were right, there was enough work for 5-8 weeks but they made us do it in nine days. There is allegedly another "operation" coming up in April during which we would be seeking out carnivals and campgrounds and other places "transients" live for which I'm allegedly going to be called back. However, I've gotten a few emails from some concerned members of my family and some stern "you-are-NOT-doing-that-job" phone calls from friends (and that was only for knocking on doors of actual houses not climbing around under bridges looking for transients) so I think that if I do get called for the next "operation" my life might be in danger if I DO accept, although for the money it may be worth it to me. So, for now there are no new census stories, and I'm back to being unemployed which is a shame because I really had a lot of fun with the census stuff and it was the first time in my life that I was actually getting paid what I thought my time was worth, I only wish I had the original 5-8 weeks of it. So I'm sitting here thinking about how best to entertain you, and myself. I'll let you know when I think of something...

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Scary Story

There are two kinds of census-takers: those who like getting the heavily-populated areas with well-travelled roads and lots of people answering their doors, and those who like the sparsely-populated areas with the logging roads and the feeling of dread as you walk up to an old shack praying that nobody will actually come to the door, if in fact someone could even really live there. I fall into the latter catagory. It maximizes my driving and music-listening time and minimizes my human-contact time and makes me feel like I'm getting paid to explore parts of the country that have never been discovered before, except of course by the people who live in those particular parts, who probably live there for exactly that reason.
There are of course those people who live in those parts because they're doing something, or various things, that they do not want people knowing about. They're not adventurers or explorers or one of the dedicated few who feel philosophically obligated to live off the map and support themselves by hunting and gardening. They simply do not want to be found out and they are the ones, though they seem to be surprisingly few and far between (I, of course, figured everyone who was living 50 miles from any significant population center fell into this catagory), that make my job particularly scary. And I stumbled onto one of these residences the other day, I think.
It was actually in a kind of neighborhood, as in there were neighbors, not in the kids-playing-kick-the-can-and-backyard-barbeques sense. I was at the house next to the normal-looking but instantly creepy house when the "lady of the house" was taking the trash out. Usually if people see me driving slowly and squinting to read addresses behind my dash covered with maps and papers that are too big to balance successfully on a dash they will stop and smile and ask if I need help or at least acknowledge me in a friendly, if somewhat amused, way. This woman looked at me, saw me pulling out of the neighbors driveway and pulling tentatively into hers and walked right back into the house only to emerge seconds later with a man who followed her to the suspiciously nice looking black Prius directly behind which I was then parked. In my friendly "I-work-for-the-government-but-I'm-still-one-of-you" voice I asked the woman what her address was and she rattled it off without looking up or breaking stride. I told her that I was just dropping off her census packet and thought maybe she would come get it, as I was holding it out the window offering it to her but the couple just got in "their" Prius and actually started backing up. I had to throw my car in reverse to get out of their way to keep from getting hit. So after they left I pulled back into the driveway, outraged, resolved to drop the damn thing on their doorknob, just to show them I was mad and not to be trifled with. If they did not want to fill it out, fine with me but they were going to get the envelope.
As I approached the house I realized that it was they who were not to be trifled with. The first alarm bells atarted going off when I noticed that the garage had its own electricity box, which in and of itself is not too weird but the windows were all covered with dark paper and duct tape so that it would probably have made a wonderful little meth lab. Then between the garage and the house there was a huge pacing, growling Rottweiler, which scared me enough to quicken my pace to a kind of goofy trot. When I got about ten feet from the front door the smell hit me and I really was scared. I've never smelled a dead body before but I've driven through that smell of recently dead things starting to turn and this was something like that only about 100 times stronger and it hung in a thick fog around the whole house. No longer propelled by anger or spite but out of simple inertia and my brain being gummed up by whatever it was that I was breathing I made my way to the door and hung the envelope on the doorknob. Then in a moment of clarity, no longer caring how goofy or terrified I looked, I turned and raced back to the safety of my car, shoved my maps out of the way and headed off to the next house on my block.
That's it. Kind of anti-climactic, eh? You're probably left wondering if I've reported this or have made any attempt to investigate further and the answer is: I haven't. I'd love to give you some amazing story about how I snuck back in the dead of night and climbed in through the chimney and discovered it crammed with old skeletons but I'm just not capable of that kind of bravado. I've got kids and I figure it's none of my business anyway. I watch the news now and then and Forensic Files religiously and if I see that house or those people on either of those shows I'll probably lean forward and say something like "Oh my Gosh! I knew it!" And I'll tell the story for years about how I stumbled upon a house that contained a dead body and it will never occur to me to be embarrassed about not doing a thing about it. I'm like the characters of Seinfed in the last episode. Why does my mere presence require me to take some sort of action, right? Of course I say all that while sitting here wondering if there is maybe something I should have done...too late now...

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Brute Ass, Revisited

My job requires me to reach each and every house on my map area no matter what scary thing is painted on the bumpers of the beat up trucks in the driveways, whether I have to walk, climb, or in this particular case, simply find a different road. I was nervous about having to face the person who paints such things as "Brute Ass" on the front bumper of their giant, rusted out, beat up truck and when I drove up to the shanty-town like property and singled out a small house as the main dwelling, a little log cabin with various hunting items, cans, and dogs all over the porch and yard, and saw three guys standing around another truck drinking beer who looked like very skinny versions of ZZ Top with about ten teeth among them I did not feel any better about it. I stopped and rolled my window down (doors locked) and asked for the address so I could give the owner his envelope and get out of there. The man who approached the car, Brute Ass himself, did not know his address but was very helpful in directing me to his mailbox up the road so that I could figure it out myself. So I went on up the road and studied a stack of mailboxes and chose an address that seemed to fit the description of the dwelling. I drove back and handed him his envelope and headed on my way.
I'm not a good reporter because I hate interviewing people. I don't like asking them questions and I don't like feeling like I'm interrupting their lives, but as I thought about this I also thought about the three men standing around drinking beer and talking and thought they looked like three guys who have been standing around drinking beer and talking for about a decade just waiting for someone new to drive up and ask them to tell them a story, so I turned around.
When I drove up for the third time they looked amused and like they were all prepared to give the out-of-towner directions through the maze of trails they themselves had probably blazed as teenagers. But when I asked them, "just out of curiosity, is there a story behind 'Brute Ass' over there?" they all started laughing, and the owner, I never did get his real name, came up to the car to tell it. He was smiling like the day had finally come when he could tell the story to a person who had never heard it before. As it turns out I wasn't far off in my first assumption, so close in fact that I feel a little bad about possibly seeming condescending in my "outlandish" hypothesis.
He had built the truck from scratch himself. He said that he used to have a little girl and the two of them had named it Brutus ("Like the guy who killed Caesar?" "Yeah, yeah, exactly!") One day she decided she wanted to paint the name on the front bumper so he gave her a can of yellow paint and a paint brush and thus "Brute Ass" was born. He said that that was a long time ago, but he just keeps repainting it on there over her original. When you look at it you can see that while the truck is obviously rusted and worn out, the paint is relatively fresh.
I don't know what happened to that little girl but her memory lives on in "Brute Ass" and in her father sitting there in the yard every year or so painting over her words that frighten and beckon the odd passer-by to ask for the story behind them, which her father seems delighted to tell.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Brute Ass

As I said before I'm driving up and down and back and forth on old logging roads seeking houses that house people who clearly do not want to be sought. Today I had to drive about 20 miles south of my "block" and then west to another state highway and then back north another 20 miles to try to get to this one house that could not be reached from my original mapped road, or the other mapped road that may have gotten me there had it been passable. I settled on County Road 5550 and it was at least drivable right up to a rushing creek. Just on the other side was my house. I could see it, but I could not get my car across the creek. The "house" was really a trailer with all kinds of additions in a suspected attempt to make it look more house-like but succeeded only in making it look more shanty-town-like. In the driveway were many cars, one of which was a huge truck with the words "Brute Ass" painted in yellow paint on the front bumper. I guess I could have rolled up my pants and waded to the other side but I wasn't sure I wanted to go head-to-head with "Brute Ass" with me and the safety of my car separated by four feet of rushing water. In the interest of never assuming the worst about a person the owner of the house could have just been a down-on-his-luck aesthetically-challenged proud student of ancient Roman history and demolition derbies who went to a Montessori school and was taught to spell everything phonetically. Even so he is still on the "bad" side even historically speaking and I didn't want to be Caesar today. I had to let that one go.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

This Could Happen Anywhere

Here's a bit of news from the Little Rock area: The other day a woman got a call at work from her adult mentally-challenged son who was at home. He said that there was a troll in his closet. She dismissed this and said there was no such thing and that she'd be home after work. He called again and insisted that there was a troll in his closet. She again insisted that there was no such thing and that she would take a look when she got off work. She received several more calls throughout the day about the alleged troll and I imagine was at least a little curious about what was going on in his head (or in his closet) when she finally arrived home after work. When she went into his room she found all his furniture pushed up against the closet door. I'm sure that his explanation was that he had trapped the troll. Even more curious and a little frightened (again, I'm only imagining her state of mind) she started moving furniture. When she finally got to the closet and opened the door she found an unusually short Jehovah's Witness. He had apparently come calling to share the Gospel and had instead been accused of being a troll and herded into a closet where he remained trapped all day behind a mountain of hastily stacked furniture.

Census Taking

So, it's day three of actual census-taking. I thought that $11.25/hour was a really good deal for just driving around all day putting information on people's doorknobs, but now I don't think I'd do it for a penny less. In fact, I'm wondering if I'm crazy to be doing this at all. Apparently there are people who live on logging roads in the middle of the National Forest, and I assume that they all have cars that are not eight-year-old Hondas with bad tires, because mine is struggling. They've got me out there forging creeks and blazing trails down the sides of cliffs to get census packets to a cluster of houses that look like they were built out of pieces of other houses. I'm terrified. I was scared at first of dogs and people wanting to shoot me, which are still very real possibilities but the more imminent danger is getting stuck on one of these roads, having to hike about 15 miles to the top of a mountain to get cell phone reception, managing to get someone to answer the phone, and then trying to explain exactly where I am (some road that is actually a ten-year-old four-wheeler trail in the middle of the Ozark National Forest), then starving or freezing to death waiting for someone to find me. That's the worst case scenario, of course.
When I'm not nearly frustrated to tears or worrying about who will take care of Story when I'm gone it's a really great job. I like driving (paved roads anyway) and listening to music and the Ozarks are very pretty. I've seen some amazing landscapes and have even started bringing my camera along with me and am feeling bad because I'm not good at taking pictures and these sights really deserve a professional photographer. Some of these old roads with the burned-out grain elevators or lone rock chimneys in the middle of open pasture are so amazing and sad because they look so lonely-like but it makes me happy that I get to be out there to see it, and may be one of the last ones to see it, really. I hope that I can take some good pictures that will at least give you a vague idea of what I see everyday. Makes me kind of want to find a spot of land in the middle of the forest and build a house from pieces of other houses, but I'll have the road paved. I'll keep you updated.