Tuesday, March 11, 2003

Shawna is a crack whore. I don't mean that to sound derogatory, it's just the most succinct way to introduce her. Like you might do at a party, to give your friend something to get the conversation rolling.

"Oh really," your friend might respond. "How long have you been maintaining a crack habit?"

"Eleven years this May," Shawna would reply. "It's really what keeps me going. It's like the best hug you could possibly get. It's very loyal." I think she would mean to say it's very reliable, but who am I to interpret -- I've never done crack.

"I've never done crack," your friend admits. "It sounds fascinating. And what about your job -- what was it you said you did -- whoring?"

"Yeah," Shawna confirms somewhat less enthusiastically. "But I'm not a tramp slut ho," she clarifies, "I'm actually a bitch ho. It's all about respect. I demand it. I'll check anyone who doesn't respect me, and if they don't like it they can fuck off."

"Why yes, I'm sure they would be more than happy to do so," your friend smiles knowingly. "And how is the bitch ho business these days, you know, with the economy the way it is?"

"Well, I'm pretty sure I don't have AIDS," Shawna says positively. "But I have Hepatitis C, which is just as bad. But you know, you don't even really have to fuck. Like, if people want me to beat them or whatever, I'm happy to do that. San Francisco is a pretty strange place. Last week, a trick wanted me to pee on him." She giggles. "Then he asked me if my bottom was full." She gives your friend a minute to catch the implication. "He said he wanted it to be realy full so I'd go for a long time. I haven't tried it yet, but sure, I'd shit on him for the right price."

"Wouldn't we all," your friend nods wistfully, but then adopts a look of concern. "Hepatitis C? How did you get that?"

"Oh, at a Dead show. I was tripping on acid when I got this tattoo, and I didn't know you had to use clean needles or stuff like that. The guy was really fucked up too, the needle really tore up my leg."

Shawna's laugh turns into a cough, coming from deep in her lungs. Her efforts are rewarded by three jewels of phlegm -- one is a brilliant golden yellow.

"I've got pus in my lungs," she excuses herself. "I think it's pneumonia. Ever since that night where I did like five hundred dollars worth of crack. Normally I use a water pipe, like a bong, but that night all I had was a glass pipe." She looks down at the broken car antennae she's been fidgeting with. "Later I was smoking crack in the shower and I dropped it -- it broke, and I had to push all the glass into one place and put on my thongs!" She points at her open toed platform shoes. "So now I'm smoking out of a metal pipe, like a real crack-head." she says, holding up the antennae. She shrugs, "But it works."

"I suppose if you're going to be a crack-head, you may as well be a real one," your friend says supportively. "How did you get so much crack all at once, anyway -- is your job so lucrative?"

"Well, it was this one guy -- he was a cop, actually, the one who put me away for soliciting the first time. I knew he liked me then because he visited me in jail. Anyway this time I don't think he recognized me, but he was really nice. He put me up in a motel for a few days, and he wanted to do some crack too, so we got really fucked up."

"What a delightfully entertaining story," your friend nearly claps her hands together, but thankfully stops short due to the empty plastic cup in her hand. "Hey listen, I'm going to go get some more punch and mingle. You should really meet my friend Paul. Hey Paul," she calls toward a trio of men chatting nearby, "meet Shawna, she's a crack whore." And then back to Shawna, "Paul is a compulsive gambler and a marketing manager, I'm sure you'll have lots to talk about."

I'm sure God was invented on a night like tonight. It may have been as simple as the introduction of the meme, "God damn it!" or as mystical as the feeling that everything happens for a reason, even if we can't tell at the time what the hell that reason might be. Certainly the expression "God has forsaken me" would have been on the tip of the tongue of the first person to have such a night. If, that is, God had already been invented.

I own a motorcycle. I don't want to own a motorcycle, but nonetheless I own one. I would rather have some money than a motorcycle. If I sit down on some money, I have very little fear that I'll die. The thought of tipping over and breaking the money never even occurs to me. I don't worry that money will hit a patch of oil and slide off the road, and money doesn't make my fingers white with cold.

Someone in San Francisco wanted to trade me some money for my motorcycle, so I donned my sexy leathers and braved the cold 65 mph wind and the homicidal drivers to show it to him, since I was headed there anyhow.

Unfortunately I was running late, and he'd only allowed ten minutes for my audience with him, so the meeting was canceled. This was the first bad thing of the evening: God damn it #1.

Returning from dinner with James, who was flying back to India this evening, I noticed that my motorcycle key was not in my pocket. Nor was it anywhere else I'd been since dismounting the bike. God damn it #2.

I hadn't had the foresight to have a duplicate made. God damn it #3.

It would cost $200 to have a new key made in the middle of the night. God damn it #4.

My insurance didn't cover it. God damn it #5.

After looking everywhere twice, including the entire sidewalk I'd followed since stepping off the bike, it was too late to call anyone in the city who might let me crash at their house. Actually it wasn't too late, I just wasn't in the mood to share my evening with anyone; I wanted it all for myself, thank you very much.

I'd been reminding myself, during times of stress, to watch the drama as it unfolded in my life -- rather than get caught up in it -- so I found myself with a front row seat to a brilliant piece about a night in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. The working title is "Crack Street," although alternates are being considered. (My personal favorite is, "Crack and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance.")

The first act opens with a young man in worn black leather sitting down on his backpack. He stares glumly at the sidewalk between him and the street bike parked at the curb. He's hoping a key will appear before him. He's prepared to wait all night, if that's what it takes. And if hoping doesn't work by morning, he'll give in and call a locksmith.

I interrupted my brooding for a moment to take note of my body language. I was slumped against a wall, hands clasped in my lap, my bent knees defining the horizon over which I gazed blankly. I decided this was an expression of waiting hopelessly. After about five minutes, I got bored of waiting hopelessly, and began to wonder whether I could manage to continue waiting hopelessly for eight more hours, or whether I'd fall asleep right there on the sidewalk.

"Really, though, what's the difference between me and all these homeless people sleeping on the street?" I asked myself. "Just a motorcycle key."

I adoped a cross-legged position and closed my eyes.

"Are you meditating?" came the voice of a passing girl.

I opened my eyes. "Kind of," I answered, thinking to myself that it was rather like asking someone whether he's sleeping.

"Does it work?" she asked, looking back without slowing her pace.

"It helps calm the mind," I answered. I smiled to myself at a discussion of the inner experience taking the format of a street greeting, not meriting so much as a pause.

After some time, I stood up. The street was active with people. Most of them were black. Some had duffel bags, some had shopping carts, some had nothing more than the clothes on their backs.

A car was parked across the street, garnishing the attention of a large black man and a white woman in tight trousers. Presumably a deal was struck, and the driver, asian, drove off.

Men walked by, and without making eye contact offered me an array of rocks, pills, smack, and unidentified tiny plastic baggies.

"No thanks," I would say. "All I need is a motorcycle key."

A woman in white hip-huggers and platform thongs made her way up the street, coughing. She paused to spit on the sidewalk directly in front of me.

"Excuse me," she said, noticing me, and offered a half smile. She was missing a few teeth, but had a nice smile. Unlike most of the cold, distant eyes on the street, hers were bright and warm.

"No problem," I smiled back, bemused by the contrast between the feminine charm to which her clothes aspired, and her indelicate hocking of a loogie. There was something unhealthy about her, I thought, but wasn't sure what it was. The texture of her skin, perhaps; pale and transluscent, pockmarked, and punctuated with red blemishes. Her skin alone brought her age from twenty-something to pushing forty.

She eyed me for a moment, as if deciding whether I merited any further interest. "Nice dreads," she commented, apparently giving me the benefit of the doubt.

"Thanks." That was the second compliment I'd received that evening. To the first, I'd been too preoccupied worrying about the key to respond, until my admirer, also dreadlocked, reprimanded me from across the street. "You're welcome!" she hollered pointedly.

The woman with the chest cough continued with friendly curiosity, "How do you keep them from falling out?"

I answered the dreadlock cultivation questions to the best of my ability.

"I had dreads when I moved out here," she recalled.

"When was that?"

"Ninety-two. Eleven years ago," she calculated. "They cut them out when I got arrested the first time. Thought there might be dope inside."

"What were you arrested for?" I asked. She didn't seem shy about sharing, so I wasn't shy about asking.

"Possession," she answered, forgiving the dumb question. "I came from Oklahoma. I started a new life here, but I never grew roots. A tree can't survive on just water, you know. It needs something solid, something to hold on to."

"I know what you mean," I said, feeling a similar imbalance in my own life. "You feel like you're just floating."

"Well, not really floating. More like sinking. I mean, I can do anything I want. I'm good at things. I'm an artist, I do sculpture. But I can't get out of this life. I need some direction," she confided. "Any suggestions?"

My eyes lit up. I love giving advice.

"Well," I began, "In general you have to follow your heart. What do you love?"

The question was never really answered, but instead came four hours of exploration. She revealed with an unself-conscious honesty her reflections on her life as a crack addict and a prostitute. She repeated again and again how she knew it was going to kill her -- that it was already killing her -- but balked at any discussion about concrete steps she might take to move on.

"You're strong," I told her. I wasn't just trying to give her encouragement; she expressed a strength in the way she spoke that was more than just the confidence she had to show to get by on the street.

"Yeah, I'm string," she agreed. "Bullet proof. Nobody can get to me."

"Actually there are two kinds of strength," I said. "One is the kind you get from armor, from being unreachable and untouchable. It separates you from your environment. The other kind of strength comes from vulnerability. It comes from inside of you, from being able to show your true self. People with that kind of strength don't use it to hurt people, they use it to help people. You can help people with that strength. Just by showing them an example."

"I'm afraid to let go of this life," she admitted. "I need that escape. I deserve it -- my life is hard, I sacrifice myself, selling my body on the street. Crack makes me feel good, like I'm loved. It's like getting a hug from your mom."

Her body was in pretty poor shape. She was thin. Her vertabrae protruded from her skin like marbles. She told me there was a pain in her heart that came from her spine being misaligned. I felt her back to see, and one of her vertabrae was so far out that I couldn't find it at first; there was just a gap.

She had sores on her face and her arms. She unzipped her pants to candidly show me an infected wound in her pubic area, at the crease of her thigh. "I learned that you could inject there when I went to the hopital," she explained. "It's like a jugular. If the veins in your arms are blocked, they use that one.

"My heart stopped beating for 38 seconds. They pumped me full of electricity with those pads, but they didn't tell me what had happened. When I woke up, my chest was covered with this greasy stuff. I just thought someone had been feeling me up, and I forgot about it."

She talked of a dream she had while she was unconscious in the hospital. Her father was there. In reality, he'd died of liver failure, an alcoholic's death, with a pending police brutality case; she was supposed to be the beneficiary of half a million dollars, if he won. In her dream, he was telling her, "Go back. If you don't go back, you won't get the money."

"I'm afraid to find out," she said. "I'm afraid of what will happen if I get it, and I'm afraid of what will happen if I don't. I haven't talked to my family since I left.

"I need to make a change," she resolved. "I'm going to die if I keep living this way."

"Well, you're going to reach God eventually, there's no question." I assured her.

"I'm an angel," she agreed. "A fallen angel."

"So all you need to do is make a tiny step at a time in that direction. Towards what you want, what you love."

"Right. Baby steps. Like when I called my parole officer and left a message, even though I never called him back. I think if it weren't for that, I'd still have all those bench warrants for failure to appear."

"Exactly," I said. "If you do nothing, nothing happens. But if you do even just a little, things are far easier than they seem."

She seemed to genuinely appreciate an outside opinion. A part of her really wanted to find a way out, in spite of the power that her lifestyle had over her.

"I wondered why I stopped to talk to you," she smiled. "Now I know."

"Yeah," I related. "I've been wondering why I lost my keys tonight. Perhaps this is why." Her openness with me had given me the feeling of a bond with this woman, so different from me and yet confronting all the same challenges that every human does.

We gave each other a long, warm embrace. If only this were more real to you, I thought to myself, than the next hit.

The whole time we were talking, the street was alive with its night trade. Shawna knew all the crack dealers and hustlers on the street, and had stories and opinions to go with each.

"They're not really my friends," she qualified. "I keep them all at arms length."

"Do you work with anyone?" I asked.

"No, I'm a renegade. I don't have a pimp, no one buys me anything. I work on my own," she asserted her independence. "But some of these guys watch out for me, help me out if someone starts trouble."

"The water is contaminated," she explained. "They disinfect it just enough for drinking, but they leave enough parasites so that if you inject it you'll get infected. I know so many people with their skin rotting off, some even have to get amputations. Like this," she brushed her hair away from her right cheekbone. The wound was as big as a quarter; a dry, shallow cavity. "You have to pull it out -- if you let it stay it won't heal, it'll get deeper and deeper. I know a girl who has a hole in her leg that goes all the way to the bone. Like a shovel came down and just sliced the flesh away. If you pull it out slowly, it just grows deeper, eating away the skin. If you pull it quickly, it segments itself, like a worm. It's intelligent. It eats away at you from the outside."

"Man, some people don't have their shit together. They can't handle themselves when they're high." She indicates one of the crack dealers who's been making the rounds. "Like him, for example. He works all night until he passes out on the sidewalk. We have to wake him up or drag his ass to somewhere the cops won't find him. One guy, man, he was so fucked up he was walking like this, making tiny steps looking like a robot. Me, I know how to hide it. I went to a restaurant to get something to settle my stomach, you know, oatmeal or something. I went to the bathroom to smoke. When I got out I didn't act all crazy or anything. They're trained professionals. They know what to look for. When they're watching me, I play with them. I shake my ass when I walk, you know. I know how to hide it."

She was keeping the conversation going nearly by herself. I guessed she was probably on speed.

"I never wanted to grow up," Shawna explained, "I'm really still a child. I guess I got pushed out of my childhood too early."

"Yeah, I never wanted to be an adult either," I agreed.

"I always hated being controlled by adults, being told what to do. I still hate it."

It was hard to express the irony I saw in her life: that her rebellion from being controlled by her parents led her to being controlled by drugs.

"I have an addictive personality," she informed me. "When I'm in jail, it turns to food. I gain so much weight in there, I look like I did when I was fifteen. They feed you so much starch, and you can buy candy bars at the commissary -- sometimes I'll eat a hundred dollars worth a night, or close to. By the time I get out, I got my titties back, it's like going through puberty all over again when they get bigger and bigger. And I get some booty too, I come out of jail with black girl butt."

"How old are you?" I asked.


"I'm twenty-nine."

She grinned. "I'm giving you a preview," she joked. "This is what you'll be doing in two years."

What are the chances, I wondered idly. I don't suppose anybody intends to become addicted to something. It's just whatever you do that ends up controlling you. Some people are controlled by their jobs, some by sex, some by security. What am I addicted to?

"You're not free from freedom," a swami in India criticized me when I told him why I was leaving his ashram. He was right, of course. True freedom comes neither from being in control nor from being out of control; it's the ability to find perfection in each moment, regardless of the role one happens to be playing. I have to admit, I had trouble seeing perfection in the moments of hunting for my motorcycle key.