Ours is the God of the Flood and the Famine

The first time my mother ran away from home, she was eleven.  At some point early in the morning, while her parents and a few other men from the neighborhood drank in the kitchen, she went through her mother’s purse and then let herself out the front door of the apartment.  She took thirty dollars, a pack of Pall Malls, and a tube of lipstick.  She stuck to the alleys until she got to the Marcy Avenue subway station, and in the stairwell up to the platform she put on the lipstick and smoked a cigarette.  Then she jumped the fence onto the platform and hid under a bench until the train came.

They didn’t know she was gone until they sobered up and couldn’t find the cigarettes.  Her father went door to door in their building, bumming cigarettes and asking about a little girl, and eventually he took a break to drink.  Her mother telephoned her two brothers, hard-working men who had always been good to their niece, and they drove up and down the avenues of Bushwick and Brownsville asking after her on street corners and in subway stations.

 

Later that night one of her uncles found her smoking a cigarette on the platform of the Flushing Avenue station.  She still had all thirty dollars.  He drove her home, and by the time they got up to the apartment, her father was drunk and her mother had long since stopped crying.  The uncle left, reluctantly, and my mother’s father scrubbed the lipstick off her face with a bottle of whisky and the sleeve of his shirt before giving her a few hard slaps across the face.  He broke her nose, and it stayed crooked after that.

 

The second time she ran away from home, she left a kitchen knife stuck between her father’s ribs.  She ended up in Union City, New Jersey; God knows how.  She had a lot more to bargain with that time.  She had the nose, for one thing: men will hedge their bets on something like that.  You know she’s seen worse.  She made it to Union City and no one heard from her for two years.

 

When she finally called her mother, she was pregnant, six months, and broke.  She hadn’t had much bargaining power since she started to show.  Her mother met her at the North Bergen Park and Ride and offered her three hundred dollars to come home.  My mother refused, on the grounds that her father wasn’t dead yet.

They sat on a bench at the Park and Ride for three hours and her mother prepared her as best she could.  Dilation and contractions.  Water breaking.  Cash for a cab.  What prayers to say.  If she doesn’t make it to a hospital, stop the car in a parking lot, or bring the sofa cushions into the bedroom.  Take three or four Demerol if you can find them, but nothing else.  Don’t drink.  Watch the cord around its neck.  Breathe.

 

I was born on a towel in the apartment of a hairdresser.  The hairdresser was named Amara, and she and my mother had met through a pimp and become close over a shared, uncompromising, and often violent hatred of men.  That morning Amara had left for work under the condition that my mother would promise to call her immediately if and when her water broke, and she did promise, although her water had in fact broken and been cleaned up in the bathroom earlier that morning.  My mother went into labor shortly after Amara left, on a towel at the foot of the bed, and when the contractions got bad, she put on a tape of Diff’rent Strokes at full volume to hide her screams.

 

When Amara came home that afternoon she found me on the floor, crying.  In hysterics, she called her aunt, who drove in with her husband from Jersey City.  They brought me and my mother, who had died from hemorrhaging shortly after delivery, to Christ Hospital, where I was washed and fed.

 

My grandfather, the one with the scar along his ribs, put his stock in the Bible.  We’d start with Mark, then Matthew, always in one sitting; then John and Luke, in another sitting.  Then, for three days, we’d read Acts through Revelations, in order, but he always saved Galatians for last.  He was interested in the works of the flesh.  After Galatians, we moved into the Old Testament.  We would read Deuteronomy twice.  It took us a month to read the whole thing.  The year I learned to talk we read it eight times.  After my grandmother died we read it through ten times.

 

Every morning before school kids played a game called suicide.  We played with a tennis ball against a brick wall at the back of the parking lot.  The goal was not to fumble the ball.  If it bounced off the wall and you messed up catching it, you had to sprint to the wall.  If someone threw the ball against the wall before you got there, you got a strike.  If you got three strikes before the bell rang, you had to march up to the wall and stand there with your hands against it, while everyone else got a chance to whip the ball at you.  One morning a kid named Sammy got hit so hard in the back of the head that he fell forward and cracked his forehead against the wall.  Another time a kid tripped while he was sprinting to the wall and broke his wrist so bad it looked like a Tetris piece.  If you took your punishment, you were alright.  But if you didn’t, or if you cried, or if you flinched too much, you’d catch a beating.  Probably lose your money or your headphones.

The kids who did the beating and the taking, we called them puffies.  They sat on steps or car bumpers and wore big headphones and big, puffy jackets.  Most of them didn’t go to school anymore.  Some of them had weed in their jackets, or handfuls of money.  One guy, Ray, would wave around a knife.  But they didn’t mess with us too hard before school.  When we were in class, older kids—they would have been in high school—divvied up eighths and dime-bags of weed and sometimes a few Percocets or little crack rocks among the puffies.  When school let out, most of us went straight home, but every once in a while a puffy would get the attention of a kid hanging around the parking lot, or fall into stride with a guy walking out toward the bus stop, and those kids usually only had a week or two of school left in them.

 

By the time I was in middle school my grandfather had started to go.  He was done drinking, but he didn’t breathe so well anymore, and couldn’t stay on his feet for very long.  When I was eleven he got disability and stopped going to work.  He still read the Bible, and he watched a lot of TV, but he couldn’t use the remote very well and he usually forgot to turn it off.  He didn’t go shopping anymore, and he didn’t really make any food, either.  He ate rice and chicken breast and a lot of cereal, and coffee ice cream.  I bought plastic silverware and paper plates and bowls after most of our other stuff broke or got so crusty I couldn’t clean it.  One day the fridge started leaking.  I opened it and everything was warm and rotten.  I took five dollars from his dresser and paid a guy on our floor to help me carry it down to the street.  One afternoon I found a paint can full of piss under his bed.  After that, I took his wallet and went to a bodega where I knew the guy, and started cashing the checks that came in the mail.

 

I was in seventh grade when I finally got hit up.  A tall kid in a white puffy stepped out in front of me as I turned out of the gymnasium door after school.  I walked straight into his jacket.  He pushed me back, hard, and fronted like he was going to hit me.  I squared up and tucked my chin and put my fists up, but he was already smiling at me.

“Ey, cuz,” he said.

I knew this kid, Yujhan, in elementary school.  He used to sit in front of me and mess around, draw on his desk and things like that, pass notes to girls as they walked past.  One time, I remember, he turned around and winked at me, before raising his hand.  Our teacher called on him, and when he stood up, he had one hand down his pants, and his little finger sticking out of his fly.  I remember, he says, “Miss James, can you turn up the heat?  I’m freezing.”  After that he got sent to the office and a couple of weeks later he stopped coming to class.

He was a tall kid now, a puffy.  He put his arm around my shoulders when he introduced me to some older kids, and I remember the sound of air squeezing out of the sleeve of his jacket.

 

They paid me five dollars a day to shake down my classroom.

 “You ever smokin weed?”

“You ever smokin crack?”

“You ever skip school?”

“You got a brother, huh?  What he do?”

“Your parents be fightin?”

“Your daddy fuck with you?”

“You got a daddy?”

“You got some money?”

“You wanna make some money?”

Most of us that were still in school didn’t do that stuff, but we had family problems.  The only thing worse than being at school was being at home.  Outside of either of those, you needed protection, respect.  Sometimes I gave a kid a dollar just to show I had my shit right.  I made a profit.  I still sat in class, but now I passed girls notes with fifty-cent chocolates in them.  I drew on my desk.  Kids knew my name.

 

Kids still played suicide, too.  We gave them the tennis balls.  We paid attention.  If he was tough, if he took his punishment, if he had good hands, if he was big, we’d stop him after school.  Shake him down, feel him out.  Smoke with him.  Get him a girl.  That was the game: comb through the parking lot, through the classroom, for ambition, unrest, anger, and when you find it, add fuel.

 

You can buy an ounce of Marcy project weed for $180.  A quarter pound runs $600.  It breaks down into $35 eighths.  To buy an eighth, you just have to know where to stand.  To buy an ounce, though, you have to know people.  If you know people, in an eight-hour school day, you can make $150 selling eighths and dime-bags.  On a Friday night you can tack on another $100 hanging outside the community center, and if you have pills or E or crack you can make another $50.  Do that for a month, skipping a day or two of school a week, and you can buy in quarter pounds.  Start lifting weights, get a puffy, a nice walkman, a fitted hat, don’t talk much.  Get high.  Buy a chain.  Learn the rules: names, numbers, prices.  Where to stand.  What to wear.  Who to listen to: Nas, Big, Jay, Mobb, Pun, Meth.  Get out of your apartment, leave the screaming and the drinking and the beating, the babies, the poverty.  Earn something.

 

They got me when I was sixteen.  Behind the school with half an ounce bagged up and a wad of cash.  They charged me with possession with intent to distribute.

The guy in the holding cell across from me had a fat bandage down the side of his face.  Every few minutes, he would stand up against the bars, and yell down the hall at his girl, who was in another cell.  She didn’t stop screaming at him the whole time, and it was easy to put together.  He beat her up pretty bad, and they both just came from the hospital.  After he hit her around, she’d called up her cousin, and he and some guys stomped the boyfriend out.  At some point, she took a car key to his face—that’s what the bandage was from.  I couldn’t see her.  No one tried to shut them up, but a few other guys in holding cells started cracking jokes.  How he can’t run his bitch, how he got keyed up, how he got a little bitch voice.  After an hour or so, he started apologizing—he didn’t mean to fuck up her face, she’s his girl, she’s his baby, she’s the mother of his son.

They brought us juice and sandwiches in wax paper.  The guy with the bandage got up against the bars and told me to give him my sandwich.  I didn’t look at him, just stared at the wall.  He tried spitting blood into my cell.  They came down and yelled at him for that.  Someone told me to come to the bars so they could see me.  Another guy told me not to give him the sandwich.

They took the girl out around midnight.  Her stitches had come loose.  The guy with the bandage started crying, and someone called him a faggot.  I got arraigned in the morning and sentenced to six months at juvey and a year of probation.

 

When I got out things looked different.  I didn’t enroll in high school.  The only kids I knew were drug dealers, puffies.  A couple of them were in juvey.  Yujhan was in jail.  They told me he stabbed a kid in a fight.  I went back to my spot in the parking lot.

Drugs had changed, too.  Weed was more expensive.  The kids I used to sell to, older kids, wanted crack and meth.  And the cops were out.  Dealers had beepers and safes.  You sold alone and didn’t trust anyone.  I bought my first bag of junk from a skeleton of a white boy at a playground in Bushwick.

Squid—that’s the skeleton—he fixed me up the first time.  It happened quick.  He cooked it with a Bic, it in a spoon with a band-aid around the handle, and soaked it up with a piece of cotton ball.  I closed my eyes while he tied my arm.  When I looked again, he had the spike in me, and I could see my blood mushrooming up into the brown.  A second later, he gave me half, and then finished me off.

At first I thought I pissed myself, from the warmth.  Like my blood just came out of the dryer.  Everything went purple.  Hot gold flooded through me.  I was beautiful and separate and numb with pleasure.  I listened to the bottom of the ocean and smelled flowers, I sank through clouds, I touched my face and laughed.  My skin felt like soft glass.  My hands were as heavy as dumbbells, but they floated like they were tied to balloons.  Behind my eyes I watched a black canvas swirl and splotch and melt.  And inch by inch, heartbeat by heartbeat, everything disappeared, until there was nothing left, sweet nothing, and the warmth.  Nothing, that’s a junk lullaby.

 

A couple years down the road my luck ran out.  I was riding on a six bag a day habit when I got jumped in Prospect Park on my way back from Squid’s.  Two old white guys fucked me up good, broke my nose and took everything, my junk, my jacket, my shoes, even my fucking cotton ball.  After they left I puked all over the sidewalk.

I got the sickness bad.  For two days I stayed well on shots I begged off the skeletons I was living with.  Then they cut me off.  I couldn’t sleep.  My bones scraped and my skin itched like wool.  I made it two days.  Then I attacked them.  They were high, on the couch, and I beat them for as long as I could stand it, dry-heaving and crying, with a golf club we kept around for protection.  I shot up their last two bags in the bathroom before I left.

I came down that night outside a Duane Reade.  I had nothing, no junk, no money, no jacket, and I was getting sick.  My shirt was soaked with freezing sweat. My bones were bruised.  My stomach was tied up with twine.  My legs and feet were crawling with ants.  I puked on the sidewalk and a cashier came outside and told me to leave or she’d call the cops.

 

I had nowhere to sleep.  My grandfather was two years dead.  I’d been living on the couches and floors of other junkies since he died and selling weed and pawning furniture to cover the junk.  I didn’t have a phone or a driver’s license.  I left Duane Reade and walked to Prospect Park.

It was dark and Squid wasn’t at his bench.  He’d probably been back on his couch for hours, dead to the world.  Instead there were gangbangers standing in groups and smoking cigarettes.  I stayed out of the light.

I got sick again in a trash can at the west end of the park.  I walked down Prospect Park West looking for an alley, or a dumpster, or an open cardboard box; anything to sleep in.  I saw an old Chinese guy rifling through a dumpster off 16th, and I started to walk toward him, but he shuffled away, dragging something.  I climbed on top of the dumpster and pulled myself onto the roof of a building, some kind of restaurant.  The roof was gravel.  I was still sweating, and shivering, and when I tried to stand my legs cramped up.  I crawled from vent to vent until I found one with hot air.  On that bed of nails I curled up against the pain.

 

I was getting a fix about three times a week.  It wasn’t enough to get high, but it was enough to stay well.  The rest of the week, I’d drink enough to sleep, and recycle bottles.  If the opportunity arose, I’d rob a sleeping drunk or an unlocked car.

 

The new kids will break your heart.  They come from drunk dads or bus stations with backpacks and sleeping bags.  They get soaked by sprinklers in the park.  They stay up late, trying to beat the night, drinking and bumming cigarettes, and get their backpacks taken in the morning when the rest of us are up.  The girls get used up for crack and meth.

One night a new kid, fresh out of a project hallway, took another guy’s doorway.  Didn’t know any better, but the guy whose doorway he took was a junky, a sicko, a Vietnam vet who used to turn tricks with fake papers for the fags on Bergen Street.  He found the kid sleeping on his cardboard.  Started kicking him, spitting on him, screaming like an animal, talking about stabbing him, killing him.  I was still awake at the time, looking for a spot.  The kid couldn’t get up, just kept getting kicked.

I took two beer bottles from my recycling bag.  I got up behind the guy and smashed the first bottle against the back of his head.  He crumpled into the doorway, on top of the kid.  I dragged him off and broke the second bottle over the side of his face.  There was blood all over the cardboard and I told the kid to leave it unless he wanted to get sick.  I got my stuff and we left the neighborhood.

There’s things you learn out here.  Where to sleep, how to eat, where to shit, where to wash up, how to stay out of trouble.  If you’re lucky, someone will teach you.  Two layers of cardboard over cement can keep you warm enough to sleep.  Parks have sprinklers.  Brush your teeth.  Avoid drainage pipes, sewers, park benches, and alleys.  Don’t take someone else’s spot.  Leave a few hours before nightfall to scout one out for yourself.  Get to bed early.  The kid’s name was Rene.

 

I don’t know what you’d call it, but me and the kid stuck together.  And sometimes, every once in a while, as the sun came up, early in the morning, on Linden Boulevard or at the edge of Prospect Park; after I took my shot and eased the sickness, and looked around at the black bodies and the sun-burnt faces, drinking from water bottles and taking cover from the heat; as we shuffled, dirty armies in loose formation, looking for that stretch of sidewalk or patch of grass, a little space on earth, one found pockets of comfort; in the slow heat, there passed moments of calm.

 

Rene didn’t have junk before he came to the streets, but it didn’t take him long to find it.  He and I stuck together, but I didn’t start him on it—I barely had enough to stay well myself.  He was a skinny little kid, Haitian I think, but he was tough, and smart.  Sometimes we scouted together at night; with two of us, we were safer, and it opened up a lot more places to sleep.  He’d be gone when I woke up.  He turned tricks, I think.  He’d get beat up sometimes, but he made enough to pick up a daily junk habit.  I don’t know where he got his shots, but he never brought it back to me.  Bless his heart for that.

One night, though, he got it bad.  He’d turned down a guy who came around a lot, a big biker, a fag, who was positive.  The kid told him he only did clean.  That got him in trouble.  Don’t know who got involved, but they worked him over pretty good.  When they were done, they’d broken his arm, broken a few ribs, messed up his face.  I found him up on the roof of a bakery where we sometimes slept.  I don’t know how he got up there, with his arm.  It hung loose at his side, with the elbow propped lamely against his ribs.  He had his kit laid out in the gravel, and a ball of tar about the size of a marble on his spoon.  Must have been more than a gram.  More than he could handle.  He didn’t say anything to me; I think his jaw was broken, but he looked down at his kit, and then his arm, and then back at me.  He wanted me to prep him.

I got out my knife to cut off a piece of the tar, but Rene shook his head, so I cooked him up the whole ball.  He had a clean spike, a big 1cc allergy needle.  There hadn’t been a needle exchange that night, so he must have bought it from a drug store.  That stuck with me.  I found a vein in his good arm.  He closed his eyes while I gave him the shot; first half, then the whole thing.

 

After that, it got dark again.  We all took it pretty bad.  This life has its share of indignities, and they pile up on a body over the years.  But there’s things that people can’t accept.  I knew a guy who slept under an overpass who still paid for a proper haircut every month.  There’s a family I squatted with that would set a picnic table, week in and week out, with the fork on the left and the knife on the right, and say grace before eating, even though they got most of their food from a Key Food dumpster.  There’s respect for that kind of thing out here, decency, consistency.  Sometimes all it takes to stay sane is a toothbrush or a pair of sunglasses.  The kid was no better than the rest of us, but he kept himself clean.  He had papers.  That made him something.  He still would have gotten by, with a few more tricks a day, but it’s the deals we cut with ourselves that matter in the end.  By the grace of a clean needle, he had his lullaby.

 

For some of us it’s junk.  More and more, it’s crack, or meth.  We all need coffee and cigarettes.  Some need a fifth a day to kill the shakes.  And we’re sick.  HIV, AIDS, Hepatitis, Tuberculosis.  Lice.  Then there’s the crazies: the schizos, the scribblers, the screamers, the moaners.  We’ve got scars, burns, track marks, and rat bites.  We carry knives, cigarette butts, napkins, needles, and, if we’re lucky, HIV-negative papers.  If not, you can buy them for forty dollars in Crown Heights.  We have no burials for the dead.

 

So many have fallen here.  We stumble all night over the bones of the dead, feeling nothing, tending fires.  We lead one another, blind before blind.

 

This is what I have seen.  It peers out of stairwells, with dirty hair and dead eyes, and clings to blankets; it is cruelty with a human heart, and jealousy with a human face.  I am not a wise man but I understand that ours is the God of the flood and the famine, of secrecy and terror, of eyes and teeth.  His city is a forge, sealed with wool and cardboard, and from it we rise, and march, and fall, singing of weakness and of woe, and we return to the gorge no less hungry than when we emerged.  On playgrounds and in project hallways, under street lamps and between holding cells, in footsteps and heartbeats and the chattering of teeth, throughout these streets, echo our songs.