Not having a place to live is a form of violence. The constant feeling of being something so other’d and letter’d that not even some empty space on the floor, let alone a couch, is something anyone can spare for you and your tired body and your tired mind and your tired heart. The constant feeling of hunger. Not just for food, but for kindness or a moment to wash clean and clear the mind. The constant paranoia of running out of options or time or friends or constructive thoughts. The constant needling in the heart and head about poor choices and how “if only” should be tattooed on your forehead for all to see and read as a warning for every interaction.
I didn’t really know Smitty, he was a friend of Chongo’s and a friend of the Professor. I only knew what I thought I knew—he and Chongo apparently pulled a dopey-as-fuck heist on the place Chongo and I worked at and stole a few thousand dollars, he was a junkie-in-training, his mother was a shrink and they had some money—and even that knowledge didn’t line up for a bingo when he killed himself. There were stories, obviously, but I never knew what to believe once Chongo got high and started to spin yarn. One minute he’d be telling me about the visions he had, the next he’d be telling me about how he wanted to sing like Craig Wedren from Shudder To Think, and then he’d tell me tales about Smitty. The Professor never talked about Smitty, he’d stay quiet when Chongo would talk about him and then mumble something about talking to Smitty’s mom on the phone often and how he missed his friend.
Desperation makes people do terrible things they would never think they would do. When I was on the street I used to go to church fountains at night and fish out all the silver so I could stay in smokes and some food here and there. Other people’s wishes were my wish to eat. Other people’s loose change my staying off a hustle and away from possible jail time.
When was the last time you looked a totally desperate person in the eye?
You should do it. Go on.
When I was in Minneapolis this year for the big AWP writer’s conference thing, I noticed so many interesting things about my peers. I watched them slough off the homeless and the out-of-luck constantly. Minneapolis has a pretty large homeless community from what I saw, and because the conference was downtown, they were out and about, looking to see what they could get from people.
I didn’t see them get much.
There had been an article in the local paper talking about how the conference was going to infuse the local economy with millions of dollars. I watched people, that’s what I do. I watched people act like the people who were hungry were invisible. I watched people make faces at passed out people at bus stops. I watched people throw so much money around in a city that isn’t theirs and act like the locals who were asking for help had the fucking plague.
We can do better, indeed.
I was in Smitty’s house once, when the Professor was housesitting and a few of us went back there one night to drink and soak in the hot tub. I saw pictures of him as a little boy on the walls. I saw piles of envelopes with his mother’s handwriting on them, doodles and curses and monetary amounts. I saw his room, the way he left it, like that cliché that always shows up in a movie or television show where a child dies and the parent cannot accept or move forward. There was a guitar in the corner on a stand and I’m the kind of motherfucker who cannot resist picking up a guitar and playing on it, but as soon as my hand wrapped around the neck to lift it and play it, the Professor shouted at me to put it the fuck down.
“It’s his, dude. Don’t.”
I used to like to go sit in silence in bars full of ghosts when I had nowhere to sleep for the night. Something about watching other people trying to fuck or fight or destroy themselves made me feel less alone, less like the end was around the corner.
I was sitting with a friend on a bench outside of her hotel talking while we waited for a buddy of mine from high school to show up. A guy was pacing back and forth and mumbling and trying to get my attention. I could feel him and his want and his need and so many other things. I knew he was coming to me, for me, and this was a scene that has happened and will continue to happen to me for ages and lifetimes and all time and space.
He started out by asking me if I had seen the video of the young man shot in the back by the police, asked me what was happening to our country, asked me why the police could get away with so much murder. I spoke to him openly, honestly, a little cautiously. We went back and forth on it for a while before he asked me for a smoke. I started to ask him questions—slowly at first—and he started to answer and started to stop and started to open up and started to get riled and I could feel every nerve in his body on fire and every emotion in his heart full of tears and fear and hunger. I kept on looking at my friend, to make sure she was okay, to make sure she was with me, to make sure she was witnessing.
Chongo somehow ended up with Smitty’s car, a rundown white Toyota Celica with torn seats and bad brakes. We’d drive around getting high and listening to Stevie Wonder and Chongo would pull into gas stations, fill up the car, and then drive off. We would drive up mountainsides and sit in the car and on the car and look at stars and get higher and higher and he would start to talk his magickal mumbo-jumbo shit about his visions and he would get quiet and pat the hood of the car and put his cheek on it and cry.
The guy’s name was Rob and he was on the street and the city was grinding him down and he would bounce between crying and laughing within the same breath. I got him to talk, and I got him to open all the way and tell me what his options were, where he could stay and where he could not. Rob kept on telling me how hard it was to be on the street, how I couldn’t possibly know what he was living. Then I told him. I told him and told him where I was from and everything shifted. He started to listen to me about maybe going to a church and asking them if they had room for a volunteer or someone to do work on the grounds. He told me about a shelter that was eighteen bucks a night and I slipped him some money and he looked me in the eye and I watched him well up and all of this was going on while people were walking by us and making faces, going about their business thinking the dollars they were spending were juicing the local economy.
When my high school friend started to walk up, Rob puffed up and said “that’s a bad dude, I don’t know if I like him,” but then I told him we’d known each other since we were kids and he lightened up and started laughing some more. Rob and my friend talked a bit and Rob loosened up again, but when he hugged me he said—loud enough for everyone—“You want me to do him? I’ll do him. For you.” We all laughed and Rob laughed and he asked me if he could speak to my friend and he told her she was beautiful and cool and then that was it—Rob was going to go to the shelter and get a bed and a hot meal and we were off to hang out in hotel bars with ghosts.
The story as I heard it is this: Smitty walked into a house party full of people from a bar he hung out at and walked right into the middle of the room and put a gun in his mouth and pulled the trigger. Nobody saw it coming and nobody thought he was really depressed and people just thought he was making a joke with a gun but then it went off and they went off to never be the same again. I never met nor did I know anyone who was at this party. I only knew two of his people, Chongo and the Professor. I only met the guy twice, if that, and I thought he was just a weird gangly kid with social anxiety. Rumors flew after, that he was a heroin dealer and he carried the gun because he was afraid to get robbed and he had been having a lot of trouble with women and had been beaten up by some dude for flirting with his girl and all sorts of other shit.
All I kept on thinking about was his mother. That poor fucking woman.
Still no idea how Chongo ended up with that car.
A few hours later I was getting into a cab outside of another hotel and I saw Rob, invisible to everyone around him, shuffling between people looking for butts to smoke.