Death in the Family

3 May 2013

When I stepped off the bus this morning, I was met by Metro. He had a grave look on his face, unusual for him. He said, “Joy is up there. She’s in pretty rough shape. She’s going to need some sympathy, her sister just died.”

I approached Joy and offered my condolences. She said, “Oh, don’t worry about that. I didn’t even like my sister; not like a normal human being would like their sister. She used to beat the shit out of me when I was a kid. She also used to think she was so much better than us. She was still a pot headed crack addict, but she didn’t hang downtown like the rest of us.

“I remember one time, when the father of her baby left her, she came to me for money. I said, ‘Well, do what I do when I need money.’  That when I was prostituting. I gave her a talk, we went to a certain corner. I told her, ‘When a guy comes along and asks you for something, work out a price then take him into the alley.’ She said, ‘I can’t do that.’  I said, “If you run into problems give me a shout.’ Soon I heard her shouting for me. I went into the alley. The guy was trying to take her from behind. That’s not what he paid for. I gave him a shot in the head, then we both beat the shit out of him. I  grabbed his wallet. She said, ‘Joy, I just can’t do this.’ I handed her the cash and said, ‘It’s your choice.’

“It was her creepy kid that tried to choke my son. I was in Montreal for the weekend and saw him again. He said, ‘Hi Aunty Joy, mom used to make me lunch around this time.’ I said to him, ‘Look honey, I may be your Aunty Joy, but I don’t do lunches and that sort of shit.’ When I looked into his eyes, bells started going off, like I’ve just reached the Bates Motel, you know, from Psycho. He’s psycho alright.

“When I first arrived in Montreal I took a cab to the address and saw my uncle Ronnie’s bike in the driveway. Nobody had told me what happened, just that I had to come to Toronto. It was important. I asked him, ‘So who’s dead? Is it one of my kids?’ I rhymed off their names and asked, ‘Which one?’  He said, ‘It’s your sister.’ ‘Shit,’ I said, ‘I wouldn’t have come all this way  just for her. He said, ‘You had to come, she made you executive (sic) of her estate.’ She’d put one last screw in me, even after she was dead. I didn’t even know what an executive (sic) of an estate did. I thought that maybe I had to live in her house, or something. Ronnie said, ‘You got to divide up her stuff, three ways.’

“I don’t know how to do that shit.”

“Joy,” I said, I’m not a lawyer, but just because she designated you as executrix, doesn’t mean you have to do it. Get some lawyer to look after it. That’s what they get paid for. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to.”

“Really? I talked to a lawyer in Montreal, but he didn’t know squat. I know lawyers here, but they’re criminal lawyers. I guess they could refer me to somebody.

“Christ, she has a niece that lives right across the street. Why couldn’t she do it? We were over there. I met her asshole boyfriend. He was yelling something at her. She was holding a kid on each hip, and her belly’s way out to here. I was holding one kid. There were a couple of others running around somewhere. I put the one I had on the couch. I walked over to the guy and punched him one in the face. He fell against the refrigerator. He was going to come after me, but my two sons came in. They said, ‘Don’t you dare touch our mother!’ I’m glad I had sons. Anyway, they pushed him out the back door and beat the shit out of him. That’s the last I saw of him all weekend.

“I have to go back there this afternoon at three.”

I asked, “How are you going to get there. Do they pay your fare?”

“No, there’s no costs involved. Ronnie said, ‘I’ll give you a ride, as long as you don’t mind riding on the back of a bike.’ I said, ‘As long as you got a belt.’ I really can’t say anything, but he’s way, way up with the gangs in Montrreal. He’s in town because he has friends in construction working on that highrise over there. If I wanted to move back there I could have anything I wanted, but I don’t want that life again. My friends, the ones I consider family, are here.

I had to get to work, Joy said, “If I don’t see you at noon, I’ll see you Monday. I haven’t told any of my other friends about this. They didn’t know her, and they sure as hell couldn’t help.”

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Shakes Returns

2 May 2013

At noon I was sitting in a shaded part of the park with my friends. Dan asked, “Has anybody seen Shakes? He didn’t come home last night. I have his keys, so he won’t be able to get into his place until I find him, or he finds me. I’m going to his office (the space on the sidewalk where he panhandles), maybe he’s there.”

I was admiring some of Wolf’s tattoos. He has Yosemite Sam and an eagle carrying a snake on one arm. On the other arm is the Tasmanian Devil. “Those were crazy nights!” he said. “One was done with a gun, the others with needles. They don’t compare with what I see on the street, there are some real artists working now.

Shaggy was making her usual fuss, barking for no apparent reason. Wolf said, “She’s got something to say. What is it Shag? Why don’t you go bite Jacques. Get it out of your system.

” It’s nearly time for her annual visit to the spa. She’ll get her nails done, her coat clipped. She’ll feel strange for the first while.

“She’s a smart dog, a Wheaton Terrier. The vet said she also has some Bearded Collie in her. She’s  bigger than a normal Wheaton and her coat is longer, but if you look up a picture of a  Wheaton Terrier, that’s her.”

Shakes wandered over. I asked, ” Where have you been, Shakes? Dan’s been looking for you.”

“I stayed at a friend’s place last night.”

“Did the cops treat you alright?” I asked.

“Yeah, they were okay. We just had a discussion, they took me to Hope Recovery, then I escaped, I even got my booze back.

“I was at ‘my office’ when this government dude came by. He’s had a hard on for me for a long time. I said to him, ‘I’ve been here since ’95. How long have you been here?’ He said, ‘Three years.’ I said, ‘So, I’ve got more seniority here than you do.’

“The people from the restaurant saw what was happening. They came over and the guy offered to drive me to his place. They take good care of me.”

Raven said, “Shakes, you’re wearing your leather jacket. You must be hot.”

“I’m always hot, that’s what the women tell me. If those two over there see you talking to me, they’ll get jealous.”

“Matches, you’re too funny.”

2 May 2012

Shakes said, “We were watching some people exercising last year, I was sitting on a bench at the far side, over there. There were some military guys, cadets, I guess you call them. They were doing calisthenics. That’s what they called it then. I joined in with them. I was able to keep up. My daughter yelled at me, ‘Dad, get away from there!’

“I was hitting on some women, so they made me leave.”

“Dennis, can you help me with this, my hands are shaking.” Matches handed me his plastic drinking container and a bottle of sherry. I asked, “Do you want it filled right to the top?”

“Yes, please. Could I also have some bus tickets? Sometimes I can hop on at the back door; sometimes I can’t. Last night I put a handfull of change in the ticket box and the driver said, ‘That’s not enough.’ I said, “It must be enough, I put over two bucks in there (fare prices are now $3.30.)  He wouldn’t move the bus. Some of the other passengers were getting perturbed. They said, ‘For Christ’s sake how much does he owe?’ A couple of guys put some money in for me. Then the bus driver started moving the bus.”


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Cops and Shakes

1 May 2013

I went to the park at noon. The sun was hot, almost uncomfortably hot. I shook hands with Dan, Wolf and his dog Shaggy, Jacques, Outcast, Chili and Gaston. I sat cross-legged on the sidewalk in front of Gaston. He has a soft voice so I had to move closer.

“I haven’t seen you for a long time, Gaston. How have you been doing?”

“I keep busy, doing some landscaping and a variety of work for elderly people. We have great conversations. I like to keep my own hours.

“My brother is in the military. I was talking to him about psychology, interpreting body language, that sort of thing. We talked about kids today, how they have no respect. You see them on the street with a glazed look in their eyes. They don’t connect. Kids like that I can’t teach.

“He proposed to me that I give a talk at the military base. There may even be full-time work for me there. That would make things easier for me.

“My other brother, his wife and kids came by from Montreal. I’ve been teaching a course at my house and have these yellow sticky reminders everywhere: on the fridge, on my walls in the kitchen, bedroom, bathroom. It’s my memory. I’ve even got reminders to look at reminders.

“I’m hoping to start a course at 507 to get homeless people more involved in the community. They’re capable of more than just lying around.” He nodded toward Shakes who was sprawled on the grass.

I was very involved in our conversation, asking Gaston about psychology and psychiatry. I asked him about specific titles and authors that he could recommend. Then I heard a loud noise beside me.

Two bicycle patrol cops had pulled up and were talking to Shakes. One had kicked his bottle over.

“Hey, Why did you do that to me?”

“You know you’re not allowed to drink here.”

“That was my Jack Daniels. It was my first drink of the day.”

“Shakes, if you’re sprawled on the grass like this drinking, people will complain then we’ll be called.”

“I understand what you are saying, but do you understand what I’m saying.”

“Just go someplace out of view of the public, someplace that we don’t patrol, and you’ll be okay.”

It was time for me to get back to work. Everyone else drifted away from the uniforms.

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Confrontation by the Cops

7 May 2012

On a low concrete wall, near the park, were Rocky, Shark and Irene, Alphonse, Loretta and Joy.

Shark said, “Did you see what they’ve done, ‘the bench’ is gone. We’re stuck with sitting here in the sun. Even the wrought iron garbage container is gone.”

Joy said to me, “Nick passed out due to insulin shock, so Chuck phoned 911. Nick should carry extra insulin with him, but he doesn’t. Also, he hasn’t eaten. He was more concerned with having a joint. The same thing happened at the barbecue Saturday. He has cancer and has pretty well given up on life.  I’d never do that,  no matter what condition I was in. I’m too much of a bitch.”

The paramedics arrived with an ambulance. They loaded Nick, onto a gurney, into the ambulance, then away.

The police arrived and complained to Little Jake about garbage near where the bench used to be. There was one plastic soft drink container, that someone had used to carry water for their dog. He said to the police officer, “For one thing, it’s not our garbage. For another thing the garbage container has been taken away and there’s nowhere for us to put the garbage.” The officer responded by pushing Jake across the sidewalk. He staggered and nearly fell.

Everyone was wondering what Chuck was saying to the police. Joy said, “That dude has verbal diarrhea. It starts first thing in the morning and doesn’t end until he goes to sleep. I’m going up there to get his dog. That’s all I need is for Chuck to go to jail and I’ll be stuck with V. Did I tell you how he got that name? Chuck was drunk when he bought the dog. He couldn’t remember what the previous owner had called it, so he just picked a letter from the alphabet.  I don’t even like him.

Joy went up to get V. Chuck said, “I’m not going to jail!”

Chuck phoned 911 again and said, “Officer D. Dubrovnik pushed my friend, and I’m scared he’s going to hit me with his billy club. I wish to make a formal complaint. Yes, I’ll stay on the line.”

Joy said to the officer, “Look dude, my friend is on a lot of pain medication for AIDS. That’s why he’s staggering. He’s very sick.”

“And how would you know that?” said Officer Dubrovnik.

“Because he’s my friend, dude. I know the medical histories of all these people here.”

“Why is it you’re not messed up like this guy?”

“Because, I choose not to be, dude!”

Jake was forced to walk to the opposite end of the bridge.

Joy, Chuck and V. returned to the rest of the group sitting on the wall.

Outcast said to me, “You should complain to the National Capital Commission about the removal of the bench and the garbage container. As it is, the closest place to put garbage is at the far end of the bridge. Also, the remaining benches are all in direct sunlight. You should tell them that you work in the area and like to sit in the shade to eat your lunch.”

“I could do that.” I said.

“How are you Rocky? Where are you sleeping now?” I asked.

“I’m staying at the Mission.”

“You’ve really got a great voice. Has it always been like that? I wish I had a deep voice like yours. Do you sing?”

“A lot of people have said I should be a blues singer, but I don’t sing that well. I just sing for fun, when I’m alone.”

“How was your weekend, Joy?”

“It was good. Saturday, at Chuck’s place, we had a barbecue for Jennifer’s birthday. She’s Inuit. We didn’t know that her birthday wasn’t actually until Sunday, but it didn’t matter. Her boyfriend, Steve came and Chuck’s dad. Chuck cooked some delicious pork chops. We had macaroni salad and regular salad. I can’t believe how much I ate. Usually I just pick at my food, but this was so good that I licked my plate.

“I have a real bed now and V. sleeps with Chuck. Saturday, Chuck will be leaving for a few days and he’ll be taking V. I’m looking forward to having the whole place to myself. I’m looking forward to the quiet.

“On the 29th of this month, I have a court appearance for the breach I got while I was in hospital. My p.o. (probation officer) wants to meet with me after court, but she’s going to be the duty officer that day. I could wait forever to see her. I said to her, ‘Why can’t you tell me in court, what it is you have to say?’ I’m going to phone her and say I’ll come in the following day.

“I’m going to the Bronson Center to have counseling for my anger management. I’ll be seeing a counselor one on one. It’s the place where chicks go for addiction treatment.”

At 6:00 pm, as I was waiting for my bus home, I saw Alphonse walking towards me.

“Good evening, sir,” he said.

“Alphonse, it’s so good to see you! How’ve you been? How’s Maggie?”

He put his fist to his forehead. Lines appeared between his eyes that welled up with tears. “I’m so agitated! Not frustrated, agitated! Magdalen is four months pregnant and tomorrow she’s going to see about an abortion.

“That’s why I’m drinking. That’s what we do, where I come from, when things get to be too much.”

“I understand, Alphonse, drinking helps to numb the pain.”

“It doesn’t though. I hurt so bad inside. I don’t know how she can do that to my child. I’m hoping that tomorrow they tell her she’s too far along and refuse to give her an abortion.”

“Alphonse, perhaps that will happen. I’m sure that will happen.”

“I’ll take care of the child myself if I have to.”

“I’m a father myself, Alphonse, but I can’t even imagine how much pain you are feeling right now. I’ll say a prayer for you, that everything works out as you wish it to. You’re a good man, Alphonse. You’d make a good father.”

“It’s helped a lot being able to talk to someone about it. Thank you, my friend.

“Take care, Alphonse. My heart goes out to you. Perhaps, I’ll see you tomorrow.”

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Pink Bandana

27 April 2012

Today is bitterly cold and windy, it’s also just a few days since check day;  two conditions that often cause Joy to stay home, but there she was in her usual spot, sitting next to Curt. Across the street was Marcus the Carcass.  In front of him was his usual  cardboard sign, HELP FIND A CURE FOR HOBOPHOBIA.

I asked Joy, “So, are you wearing your pink panties today?” (Yesterday, “the sandwich ladies” came by with extra toiletries, socks and underwear.  Joy scored a pink pair.)

“I had forgotten all about them. I was down here setting up, rummaging through my pockets, when they fell out on the sidewalk. The wind took them and I went chasing after them. The cab driver across the street was watching me. When I caught up with them I held them up and said, ‘See, underwear!’ He laughed.”

Curt was asking Joy, “So when did you last talk to Big Jake?”

“November. Rodent has been sending him money and been getting letters from him. I don’t even know where he is. Last I heard he was in Milhaven, but he may have been transferred by now. The last thing he said to me was, ‘You’re the reason I’m in here!’ I said ‘No dude, you’re the reason you’re in there.’

“So is it over between you and Jake?”

“No, that story’s not over yet, but we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. He’ll come looking for me.

“This weather reminds me of Winnipeg. Like that Randy Bachman, Neil Young song, Prairie Town, with the line ‘Portage and Main, 50 below.’”

“I remember how I met you,” said Curt. “I was panning on Portage Avenue and I asked someone where I could get some weed. They said, ‘Go to Central Park and see the woman with the pink bandana. She’ll fix you up.'”

“Yeah, that pink bandana was my signature. I used to buy ten grams of pot and split it into three bags. I’d sell each bag as five grams. That worked pretty well for me.”

Curt said, “I haven’t seen Outcast lately.”

Joy said, “You’re not likely to, either. He’s either hiding out or he’s left town. When you rip off a friend like Jacques, who’s giving you a place to stay and is feeding you, that’s pretty low. I remember being at Jacques’ place when Outcast was there. He was drunk and said some things I didn’t like. I chased him down the stairs, across the park, then ‘clotheslined’ him — straight arm across the throat. He fell back into the mud of the canal. If I knew then, what I know now, I would have jumped on his head and drowned him in that muck.

“He was only at my place once, before I knew what he was like. Big Chuck had his drugs and money there. I’d been responsible for bringing Outcast over, so if he’d taken Chuck’s stuff, I would have been in big trouble. I would have had to kill him. That would have been unfortunate.”

At noon it was still bitterly cold and windy. ‘The bench’ was deserted, but across the street I saw people at ‘the heater’: Jacques, Antoine (now deceased), Little Jake, Shark and Irene, Shakes, Chester, Rosie and Curt.

I greeted everyone and Shark said to me, “We were here earlier when the security guard chased us away. We stood on the island in the middle of the street until he left, then we came back. We haven’t seen him since. He’s probably on his lunch break. We’re on Candid Camera now.”

“He chased Irving and I away.” I said, “He allowed Irving to finish his smoke, then he kept checking back every ten minutes.”

“I was talking to Joy on the phone,” said Jacques. “She won’t be coming here. She says she’s not feeling well. She got her check today and was supposed to pay me the money she owes me. If she wants something she wants it ‘right away, now.’ If somebody wants something from her it’s ‘maybe later, maybe tomorrow.’ ”

Shark said, “That’s why I don’t give her credit, but I have a lot of respect for her.  I’ve known her since we lived in Montreal.  She’s the one who told me about the death of my first wife. She’d thrown herself in front of a train. Our fifteen-year-old son is living with my parents in Brantford, just one stop from Toronto.

“I don’t see him very often because I still know too many people in Toronto, around Nathan Phillips Square, Allen Gardens. I’d be back on the freight train, as I call it. I’d be back in ‘the life’ again.”

Jake asked, “What day was it yesterday?”

Curt answered, “What do you mean? It was yesterday. What do I look like, a calendar?”

“The only date I remember,” said Jake, “is Mother’s Day. That’s the 13th day of May. Am I right? I also remember my brother’s birthday and my parent’s anniversary, because I was just up there.

“Us kids had a really good time at the anniversary party. It was held in the barn. I say us kids, but I’m 41. My brother has three kids of his own. He did a lot of drinking at that party.

”When we were kids, I remember my brother and I going down to the creek and catching tadpoles. We’d use them for fishing.”

“That’s in North Bay, isn’t it?” I asked. “No, Deep River, I remember.”

“When I was kid,” I said, “at Lake Superior, I used to catch sea lampreys. They’d be a foot or more in length. I had a long stick and would flip them out of the water onto the beach. Sometimes, I’d have half a dozen of them coming towards me at the same time. If they attach themselves to you, the only way to get them off is to burn them with a cigarette, or a lighter.”

“Those are really good to use as bait,” said Curt, “especially for pike. You cut them up, put them on a three pronged hook, throw them out in the water and jig with them. Now, I want to go fishing.

“The last time I was in Deep River I wanted to get some beer. The beer store is right beside Tim Horton’s. It was still open, but I decided to go to the liquor store to get some single ‘king size’ cans. I arrived six minutes after they closed. It wasn’t far away and I had directions, but I still missed it. I went back to the beer store. I thought it was open for another hour, but it was closed. I was so angry. Where was I going to get a beer?

“I asked a cop if it would be okay for me to set up my tent behind the beer store. They had some school busses parked back there. This was summer so they weren’t being used. The cop said, ‘It’s fine with me. You should be okay there.’

“I was at the beer store as soon as it opened and I was the first person at the cash. There was an old guy who is usually the first customer. He was really pissed off that I beat him.

“Jake, do you remember that old guy who was always the first one at the beer store? I can’t remember his name.

“Irene, have you seen Miss Vickie lately? I haven’t seen her for about two years. She had a bubbly personality, really fun to hang out with. She was pretty and had store bought tits. I remember how nice they looked in a sweater.”

“We paid for those tits,” said Irene. “She was working for me, so I got a percentage of everything she brought in. Curt you wouldn’t have been able to afford her. You would have had to pay for a hotel room. It would have cost you your entire monthly check.

“Well, we paid for the implants,” said Shark, “the nipples she had already.”

“Shark,” asked Curt, “did you ever get a look at them, since you paid for them and all.”

“No, Irene wouldn’t let me.”

“Remember when Weasel tried to carry her up to his bedroom?” asked Irene. “He was so drunk that he dropped her. That was as far as he got.”

Irene was pestering Shark, trying go get him to leave. She was pulling the strings on his woolen helmet hat (beneath which he wore a leather Maple Leafs cap). She moved his backpack, so he couldn’t reach his beer. “I’m waiting for Buck,” said Shark. “I have some business with him. You go! Leave me alone! I’ll catch up with you later! What is it about women? They’re so like… women.”


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Stabbing in the Hall

2013 April 17

I wore a windbreaker to the park bench today. The weather was relatively warm and sunny, 48 degrees Fahrenheit with a 15 mile per hour wind. Shark was passing around a bottle of Fireball to Hippo, Longjohn, Katy, Jacques and Peter. Loretta was asleep on the grass. Serge was sitting off by himself.

Shark said, “I took a demerol earlier, later I have to go to the doctor to get a morphine shot for my liver. I wonder how that’s going to mix with the Fireball?”

I was standing next to Peter who has long blond hair and a guitar slung on his back. “I can’t believe that this still hurts so much.” he said to me. He he lifted his sweater to reveal a partially healed, two inch, stab wound in his side. “This happened over a month ago. The blade went in six inches, and just missed my vital organs, I saw the x-rays. I’ve got another up higher, but it was deflected by my rib cage.

“A crack head named Roy, did this. He lived downstairs in the same building as me. He knocked on my door at 10:00 pm. I’d been sleeping. I answered the door and he said, ‘I’m going to buy some weed. If you give me $5.00 we can split a gram.’ I said, ‘Since I’m awake now anyway, I might as well.’ He never came back.

“The next morning I heard him trying to do the same thing to my neighbor. He was even bragging about ripping me off. I argued with him and said, ‘Since you ripped me off, I want $10.00, or a gram of weed. He refused and went into his apartment. I walked away and he came up behind me and hit me twice in the side. At first I thought he’d punched me. Then I felt something warm running down my side. My neighbor handed me a hammer and I started chasing after him, but then thought better of it. I decided to go to the hospital.

“Because I was a crime victim there was a cop posted in my room. I was hooked up to an I.V. I said to the cop, ‘Watch this!’ I pushed the bedside button and a nurse came in. ‘It hurts!’ I said. She gave me a shot of morphine. I saw a Doctor walking past, I said, ‘Doctor, it hurts!’ He gave me a shot of morphine. The cop said, ‘If you do that once more I’m going to have to report you.’

“The cop drove me home. Just as we were leaving the parking lot I said, ‘I forgot to get a prescription for pain medication.’ He said, ‘You’re probably going home to smoke pot anyway. I think you can do without a prescription.’

“Since then, Roy has been evicted from our building. There’s a sign by the front door saying he’s not allowed to enter. He’s being held in jail, pending his court appearance. I don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“So”, I asked, “what kind of music do you play?” I asked.

“A bit of everything, Bob Dylan, the Beatles, Cat Stevens. If you mention a band I probably know at least one of their songs. If you mentioned the Eagles, I could play “Lyin’ Eyes’. If you mentioned Creedence Clearwater Revival, I could play ‘Proud Mary’. I can play for about six hours without repeating myself. As I get older my memory gets shorter. If I learn a new song; I forget an old one.

“Today I’ve been busking on the bridge, in front of the mall. I had to sing over the noise of the busses. My throat was getting dry so I stopped here for a few beer. I’m going to try a mall down the street later on.”

Peter had to rescue his bicycle from Shakes, who could barely walk; riding a bicycle wouldn’t have been a good idea.


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Conversations with the Homeless

29 Apr 2013

When I’m with the homeless I don’t judge. I ask a minimum of questions, only enough to keep the conversation moving. I don’t interrogate or ask about their past. Mostly, I listen and try to understand. I am often asked why I am there. Although the reasons are deeper, I usually answer by saying, “The conversations here are more interesting than where I work.” I visit them before work, and at noon hours, so I always have an excuse to leave.

What I have learned over the past two years has changed my life. The people, who I consider my friends, are alcoholics, drug and other substance users. Some work as prostitutes, some have AIDS, most or all have served time in jail for various offences. All of them I would trust with my life. They have declared themselves my family. I am honored to consider them my family.

I have heard sickening stories of abuse as children and babies born with drug dependencies. Most have mental and physical illnesses, suffer beatings, broken bones, stabbings, and have a fear of abusive partners, or the police, or both. Authority in any form is seen negatively, as a means to control their lives. The homeless shelters are noisy, infested with bed bugs, the scene of fights and a place where personal items are stolen. Most of these people prefer to sleep inside common areas such as bank foyers, outside under bridges, or behind dumpsters.

In the conversations I recall, and write on these pages, I try to be as truthful as possible. I leave out details that I think might incriminate, but generally I try to give an accurate picture of the conversations I have with my friends. These people need help, but they want it on their own terms. They don’t choose to be addicts. It’s a disease and should be treated as such.


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