San Francisco, 1997
By Patrick O’Neil
A thundering sound rushes into my brain like a subway train screeching to a halt in an underground station. Senses so overloaded all I can do is lay on the floor my eyes wide open wondering what the hell is going on and what these people in uniforms are doing standing there looking down at me. I touch my face and realize a plastic mask is covering my nose and mouth and I try to pull it off. A paramedic kneeling next to my shoulder puts her hand out preventing me from doing so. She wags a finger back and forth and says something, but it’s garbled. Behind me, out of my vision, a walkie-talkie screeches. A distorted dispatcher’s voice drowns out whatever the paramedic is trying to tell me. I look up at her and wonder if she is really talking. I see her mouth forming words, so I assume she’s talking, but I can’t make out what she’s saying. I close my eyes and feel my head throb, my body tense, and I finally understand what’s going on. Fuck. You OD’ed motherfucker. How the hell did that happen?
Someone gently shakes my shoulder. When I don’t respond, they try a little harder. I open my eyes and watch the paramedic remove the oxygen mask.
“How ya doing?” she asks, her fingers pressing into my wrist.
“Don’t know,” I tell her and look over her shoulder and see my girlfriend Jenny talking rather hurriedly to a man in uniform writing on a clipboard. Her hands flail around as she gestures towards me. Through a whirlwind of noises, I hear short bursts of their conversation. But I really don’t care. All I want to do is go back to sleep. Somewhere comfortable and warm.
“He didn’t fucking OD,” says Jenny.
“He sure as hell ain’t takin a nap.”
I feel pressure on my shoulder and look back at the paramedic’s face.
“You with us?” she says.
“I’m not goin nowhere,” I tell her and feel a prickly sensation creep up the back of my neck.
“You almost died,” she says. “You were out there.”
“No I didn’t,” I say and run my hand across my chest. It feels like someone has been pounding on my ribcage. The rest of my body is numb and I’m cold.
“Yes, you did my friend. Took three shots of Narcaine before we even got a pulse.”
The metallic taste in my mouth says she’s telling the truth. I’m jonesing. I’m freezing and my skin is starting to crawl like I haven’t shot any dope in days. But that’s what Narcaine does. Reverses the effects of opiates. Pulls junkies out of OD’s. I’ve been through this so many goddamn times. Seems I'll never get it right and just go all the way and end this fucking thing for good.
“Been doing CPR for the last ten minutes. It ain’t like you was breathin on your own.” Releasing my wrist she yells to the man talking to Jenny. “He’s alright, he’ll live. Let’s pack up and take ’em for observation.”
“Observation?” I say knowing full well this is the procedure.
“Gotta come with us to the ER,” she says.
“He ain’t fuckin going nowhere,” says Jenny.
“I appreciate everything you folks have done and all, and don’t get me wrong. I’d go with you if I had a way to get back. But SF General is all the way across town.”
“You know the drill,” says the man. “If ya don’t come with us, we call the cops. You want us to radio it in, have the police come over and make out a report, maybe even arrest you?”
A fireman I hadn’t noticed before standing in the doorway of our bedroom asks if I can get up and walk, or do I need a stretcher. I sit up, my head throbs and my entire body feels stiff and unresponsive. Standing, I feel dizzy, every part of me aches. Mentally, I’m calculating how long this is going to take. The ride over to the hospital, a one-hour observation, filling out the paperwork, getting released, and then the bus ride back. It’s not looking good. With the Narcaine flowing through my blood stream, in less than an hour, I’ll be in full withdrawal.
“Can I get a cigarette?” I ask, shifting my eyes at Jenny.
“The man almost dies and the first thing he wants is a cigarette. There just ain’t no justice,” says the paramedic, shaking her head and packing up her gear. "Sorry, there’s no smoking in the ambulance.”
“We ain’t in the ambulance.”
“You wanna do this the hard way?” says the man in uniform. “Call the fucking cops. I ain’t playing with this motherfucker.”
The fireman starts talking into his radio and I tell him to hold on, it’s okay. No need to get crazy man. I just wanted a cigarette. Jenny hands me my leather jacket and starts pulling on her hooded sweatshirt. Then she grabs the cigarettes and a ring of keys. Touching my shoulder she tells me it’s all right, we’ll do this quick and come right back home.
There’s nothing quick about San Francisco General. Once you’re in their system it takes forever to get back out. Every intern, orderly, doctor, and nurse at the ER knows I’ll just sit there biding my time waiting for them to cut me loose so I can go shoot more dope. Of course they’ll keep me for as long as possible, locked up in some examination room off the side of the ER. If they really got it bad for me they’ll fill out the 5150 forms claiming I’m a suicide attempt and then turn me over to the psych ward for a seventy-two hour evaluation.
“Babe, you alright?
“What?” I look into Jenny’s eyes and we’re outside by the ambulance. “I’m fuckin freezing. Need a cigarette.” Behind me are two fire trucks and an ambulance, their lights flashing away in the night out in front of our apartment building.
“How ya doin sport,” says a paramedic as he opens the ambulance's back door.
“Been better,” I mumble and start to get in. “Alright if I catch a quick smoke before we take off?”
“Just hold up on that,” says the woman paramedic walking towards us carrying a large black nylon bag. The firemen behind her turn toward their vehicles, one of them laughs and I’m sure he’s laughing at me.
“He coulda smoked one already,” says Jenny, an annoyed pout plastered across her face.
The woman paramedic stands in the middle of the street clutching her bag and glares at Jenny. “You know you ain’t the one being taken to the hospital. I could not let you come along for the ride. So please shut up.”
Nobody says anything and we all stand in the street by the back of the ambulance staring at one another. Jenny glances at me, shrugs, then turns to the woman paramedic. “Whatever.”
“Haven’t we met before?” says the other paramedic holding the door open and gesturing for us to get inside.
I look at him. He doesn’t look familiar. Actually nothing looks familiar. Everything has this fuzzy edge. Just a little out of focus, and all the lights are way too bright.
“Didn’t you have a problem with some Valiums?” he says pointing to Jenny.
“Valiums? Like Valiums would be a fuckin problem,” snorts Jenny. Darting her eyes at me, she shakes her head.
“Nah, nah, they were pills you thought were Valiums.”
Something about this is starting to sound familiar. I remember, like a long time ago, Jenny had taken some little blue pills thinking they were Valiums and then an hour later she started doing all these spastic contortions. Trying to curl her body backwards. Her head touching her toes as her back arched like a distempered cat and I’m thinking she’s lost her fucking mind.
“Yeah, they were psych meds, remember?” I say to Jenny and then turn to the paramedic. “You picked us up and drove us to the hospital and all we needed was to take some Benadryl to combat the side effects.”
The paramedic nods his head. “Those pills do some nasty things.”
“Never happened,” says Jenny as she steps into the ambulance. “Can we get this over with?”
“That was fuckin weird,” I say.
“Never forget a face or a drug induced complication,” says the paramedic, his hand on my elbow helping me through the door. “Watch your step sport.”
“I hate to cut ya all’s beautiful reunion short,” says the woman paramedic. “But we got a long drive to General and a whole lotta other calls to make before the night is over.”
“Love you too,” I say and lie on the gurney.
As we roll into the hospital parking lot, I sit up to look out the window and see three other ambulances, some cop cars, and a group of people in various uniforms standing around blocking the emergency room’s entrance. An orderly and a security guard walk up to the driver’s window and ask our paramedic what she’s got. When she tells them it’s an OD and I’m alive and just here for observation they laugh and tell her she’s at the back of the line and it’s going to be a few hours. There are gunshot wounds, stabbings, a woman giving birth, and two attempted suicides in front of us.
“You wanna smoke?” she asks as she turns around in her seat rubbing the side of her face with her fingertips. “Go ahead, kill yourself some more, looks like we got time.”
“Cool, thanks,” I say and step out the back of the van.
“Ain’t this a bitch," says Jenny handing me a cigarette and lighter. Her hair falls over her eyes as she leans forward, a cigarette in her mouth.
“It’s like a goddamn dead people’s convention, huh?” I say and then give her a light.
Jenny brushes her hair out of the way and I look at her in the glow of the lighter’s flame and think how beautiful she is. “That’s not funny,” she says. Her eyes glistening, she glances away and wipes her face with her hand. “You almost died.”
The cigarette tastes incredibly good as I inhale the smoke deep into my lungs. Putting my arm around Jenny, I lean my head down on her shoulder and stroke her hair. “You know nothing’s gonna kill me. I’ve OD’ed six, okay, seven times already. If it was gonna happen, it’d’ve happened. I'm thirty-nine, twice your damn age. I'll live forever baby.”
“You weren’t breathing. Your lips were blue.”
I tell her it’s okay, I love her and not to worry. Standing together in the shadow of the ambulance, I hold her in my arms and we stay that way for a long time, until a man walks up and asks us for a cigarette and I tell him to fuck off.
Behind us the din of hospital workers and paramedics talking among themselves and on their radios grows louder, their voices becoming more agitated as they wait for something to happen. The blazing spotlights from atop the hospital glare down on the chaotic mess of humans and haphazardly parked emergency vehicles causing everyone to squint and grope their way through the blur of shadows and iridescent glare.
A commotion jumps off across the parking lot by the ER’s entrance. A man yells he needs a doctor, the police rush forward jostling the crowd, the paramedics following. The atmospheric confusion intensifies, everyone sensing something is about to happen. But the caustic payoff of violence doesn’t come and the crowd is left waiting, watching, wondering what’ll happen next.
“What the fuck are we doin?” I say to Jenny. She just shakes her head and takes another drag. “Let’s get out of here.”
Grabbing Jenny’s hand I start walking across the parking lot pulling her along as we weave our way between the ambulances and police cars. With every step the noise lessens, the garish lights grow dimmer, until we walk out the gate and the shadows of the night engulf us.
Out on the street a few of the neighboring houses have their lights on, but most are dark and silent. There’s nobody around. Nothing else here but a closed liquor store, turned over trashcans, and walls covered in graffiti. I can see traffic passing a block away on Potrero Avenue and we start walking in that direction.
With a screech of tires a lowered Impala careens around the corner and slows down. The thud of the bass from its stereo reverberates inside my chest as a bottle comes flying from out of nowhere and smashes onto the sidewalk in front of us. Trying not to look in the direction of the Impala I start walking faster, moving Jenny with me.
“How we gettin home?” asks Jenny.
“I don’t know? One of the motherfuckin buses that run out here.”
“We don’t got enough for a cab?”
“Shit babe, what we gonna do when we get home and there’s no dope?”
“You callin the dope man?”
“Maybe he’ll give us a ride?”
“Like a block and then he kicks us out after we buy. What the fuck you thinkin?”
The Impala slowly continues down the street, the sound of its stereo fading when it turns the corner. I can hear someone shouting behind us, but I don’t turn around. Somewhere in the near vicinity a dog howls. A siren, way in the distance, is getting closer and I let go of Jenny’s hand and wrap my jacket around me and keep walking.
Something’s burning, I can smell it in the air. A fire truck flies through the intersection, its horn blaring and lights flashing. Tossing my cigarette in the gutter I glance behind us and see nothing but empty sidewalk. At the corner there’s a bus stop with a payphone and as Jenny stands at the curb looking for a bus I call the dope man’s pager and hang up.
Sitting on the sidewalk, leaning against the fence, is an old woman surrounded by two small sleeping dogs, a couple of tattered suitcases, and a pile of black plastic garbage bags bursting with crushed aluminum cans. Eyeing us she takes a drink from a bottle of cheap red wine, a hand rolled cigarette dangling from her lips. Jenny kneels to pet the dogs and they come to life, jumping up and licking her face while scampering around in circles.
“Look,” squeals Jenny.
I roll my eyes and ignore her and stare at the payphone, praying the dope man will hurry up and call. Across the intersection the light changes and the traffic starts up. A couple of kids dressed in baggy clothes and baseball caps walk by laughing. A crowded bus full of passengers careens past without stopping.
I can hear the stereo before I see the lowrider pull around the corner. As it creeps closer the passenger window lowers and some scary looking dude with a goatee and a bandana wrapped around his head stares menacingly trying to make eye contact while I look the other way hoping he’ll lose interest if I don’t respond.
“They like you,” says the woman pointing at the dogs. They're running around Jenny jumping and yapping.
I consider picking up the phone to make sure there’s a dial tone, but realize if I do the dope man won’t be able to get through. Instead I ask Jenny for a cigarette and lean on the payphone’s enclosure.
“They don’t like nobody,” says the woman. She takes another swig of wine and grinds her cigarette out on the sidewalk.
“Nice dogs,” says Jenny.
“You a gypsy?” the woman asks, then she turns to me and tells me the phone don’t call back and besides I shouldn’t be trying to buy drugs in the first place. I ask her how she knows it don’t and she tells me all the junkies from the Methadone clinic at the hospital use the phone on 24th Street and maybe I should look into getting on Methadone and quit wasting my life being a dope fiend.
Behind me the Impala sits idling at the curb and the scary looking guy with the bandana leans out the window and yells something about my mother and asks what neighborhood I’m from.
“Wha-da-ya, my fuckin conscience?” I hiss at the old woman and then turn to the lowrider and gesture with my hands in the air in a what-the-fuck-do-you-want stance.
“Only a gypsy could voodoo my dogs and make them be nice,” says the woman. “Besides, don’t look to be a real good time for you to be makin a phone call.”
“You pick some odd times to have moments of clarity don’t you?” I say to the old woman and then turn to Jenny. “Come on babe.”
“Hey, Holmes. Where you goin, I’m talkin to you,” yells the scary dude, the sound of manic laughter erupting from a shadow inside the car behind him. For a second I think I see the glint of something metallic in his hand reflect off the streetlight.
“I’m not a gypsy,” says Jenny. “At least I don’t think I’m a gypsy. Patrick, am I a gypsy?”
“Jenny. We gotta go.”
Attempting to appear as unconcerned as possible I check my surroundings. But I can’t decide which direction we should take. The streets are dark and deserted and the concrete and steel spike fence running along the perimeter of the hospital keeps us from immediately going anywhere.
Behind us the scary dude and whoever else in the Impala continue yelling threats and I feel my heart beat faster, the adrenaline kicking in.
“Your friends are calling you,” the old woman says. “Gypsies always attract trouble.”
With nowhere to go I turn and face the scary dude and his carload of friends just as a bus lumbers up to the stop, its brakes groaning as the doors open and people start piling out.
I grab Jenny’s hand and pull her through the exiting passengers, around the front of the Impala, and up into the back door of the crowded bus. A large man overloaded with bags of groceries tries to get out while we run up the steps and I push him aside, dragging Jenny with me. Stopping just long enough to cuss me out he struggles almost losing one of his bags before the door closes behind him with a pneumatic whoosh.
A beer can slams against the window leaving a drool of suds and then falls back onto the street. Through the blurry Plexiglas I can see the scary dude on the sidewalk by the old lady and her dogs. Two equally scary looking dudes are standing next to him. They’re all gesturing with their hands and I wave and smile and turn to make my way to the back of the bus.
A fat lady dressed in a black and silver Raider’s jersey with two kids at her side stands in the middle of the aisle blocking my way and yells to the bus driver that there’s people getting on the bus for free and he’d better do something about it. She’s paid her goddamn fare and ain’t going to be having no damn freeloaders messing around causing the price of a bus ticket to be raised.
“Out of my way bitch.”
“Who you callin a bitch?” she screams and shoving her kids to the side, starts fumbling around in her purse while mad-dogging me with her eyes.
“Mind your own business,” I say and push past her.
“Motherfucker call me a bitch.”
A small can of mace appears in her hand and everyone around us moves in different directions trying to get away from her. Suddenly the bus takes off and we’re all being shoved backwards by the force of the acceleration. I grab a pole with one hand putting my arm around Jenny pulling her to me and hold on.
“What’s her fuckin problem?” Jenny yells in my ear.
I start to sweat, and my stomach churns. I close my eyes and wipe my brow with the sleeve of my jacket. When I open them I see the fat lady talking to two teenager boys who stare at me while she points her finger and yells threats. Then she cups her hand in front of her mouth and says something to one of them who nods and heads down the aisle towards the front of the bus. Her other hand is by her side still holding the mace. A tall guy in running shorts and a stained t-shirt looks at me and shakes his head, like he too is wondering what the commotion is all about.
Jenny hands me an unfolded Buck knife and I look up to see everyone staring at me. This is one of those moments that you really should try to avoid. Eyes shift from the knife to the woman and back to me. Everything has changed. Where before I was just some guy in an argument with an irate fat lady. Now, with a knife in my hand, I’ve turned into a cold-blooded psycho about to go on a killing spree aboard a city bus.
“What the fuck babe, I don’t need this.”
I jam the knife into my jacket pocket and turn my back on the fat lady and her kids and glance out the rear window trying to see if the Impala is following. There's no one behind us and I notice we’re passing 19th street.
“Lets get off,” I whisper to Jenny and pull the cord. As the bus slows and begins to stop I move towards the back door keeping Jenny behind me. The passengers part as they try to get out of my way and the fat lady makes a grab for her kids while holding the mace pointed in our direction.
“Let us off the bus,” I say to no one in particular and slip past the fat lady and back out the door.
The night air feels cool after the stifling confines of the bus. When my feet touch the ground I let out a sigh and release my grip on Jenny’s arm. While the door closes I give the finger to the fat lady and spit on the window. With a mechanized groan the bus pulls away and we’re left standing on the sidewalk in the dark.
“What the fuck?” says Jenny. “I’m sorry, but that bitch was wrong.”
“I know,” I say and light a cigarette. “Wonder if there’s a phone around here?”
Fifteen minutes later we’re in front of a corner liquor store with a payphone. I punch in the dealer’s number as I check the payphone’s number and then put it in when the paging service responds. Hanging up I look down the deserted street and then stare up at the liquor store’s windows covered in advertisements for malt liquor. A blond haired woman in a bikini holds a sweaty bottle suggestively to her cleavage as she stares out from one of the signs. Someone has scribbled, “I love cock” in a small balloon next to her mouth.
The dope man’s not calling back and I’m running out of patience as well as change. I lean on a wall and gag. Then puke thick yellow bile on the ground by my feet. Swallowing the hot saliva that’s seeping into my mouth, I pound my fist against the payphone. A clerk sticks his head out the door of the liquor store and asks me to take it easy. I apologize and look around for Jenny. She’s standing inside by a rack of candy doing what she always does – holding each bar in her hand and judging its weight. Jenny swears they weigh differently, and Snickers are the heaviest. When I catch her eye she holds up a candy bar and raises her eyebrows. I tell her I can’t even look at that shit right now. She buys two and then comes outside and puts her arms around me.
“What we gonna do?”
“He ain’t calling,” I mumble pulling her arms off of me. “Let’s walk up to Mission Street and see what’s flowin. If it’s good, score, then go home.”
“Buy off the street?”
“What else we gonna do?”
This is always the dilemma. There’s always a better deal somewhere else. A bigger piece of dope for less money, or stronger dope from only one source, or someone kicks you down extra cause you buy a lot from them. When they’re not around, and no matter what, there’s always a time when a dealer is not around – usually really inconvenient times like this – then you have to make the decision to spend your money elsewhere and be prepared to be less than enthused at what you receive.
16th and Mission Street has been the destination spot for dope fiends for as long as I can remember: A four-block open-air drug market with dealers and runners plying dope to every strung-out junkie in the Mission. Jenny and I used to live in the neighborhood, but even then we hardly ever bought off the street.
As we cross 16th I look around. There are people everywhere. Standing in front of stores, sitting on parked cars, and hanging out windows of hotels and apartment buildings. Small groups huddle in dark areas between streetlights, everyone constantly yelling while the drone of boom boxes blare distorted music, sounding as if they’re about to explode. A half conscious hooker in high heels, torn fishnets, and a micro-mini dress that barely covers her ass, calls to passing cars. Her voice so doped out it’s barely a whisper.
Two young dudes careen by on bicycles. One makes kissing sounds and the other says something to Jenny. She flips him off and screams fuck you. Then grabs me by the shoulder and asks if I saw them. I tell her yeah I saw them, I just don’t have time to deal with their shit. She stops walking and starts to sulk and then says fuck it, and runs after me.
The stench of crack smoke floats by in small clouds as we walk past a parked car, its window open, a large man who appears to be naked sits in the front seat with a crack pipe between his lips.
“Yo white boy, you lookin?” I turn towards the voice, a short woman with corn-rows is staring at me. I shake my head and Jenny and I keep walking.
“Fuckin place is nuts,” says Jenny.
“Hasn’t changed. Huh?”
A man steps out of the shadows and quickly walks towards us. My body tenses as he nears.
“Yo man, where you been?”
“What the fuck you mean where I been? Who the fuck are you?” I say and look around to be sure he isn’t just trying to get my attention while his friends come up behind us.
“It’s me. Joker,” he says and puts his hand on my shoulder. “You lookin?”
“Yeah, I’m looking,” I say and slip out from under his grip. There’s something about him that’s recognizable, although I’m not really sure what. Dressed in baggy clothes, oversized jacket and a baseball cap worn backwards, he looks like every other runner on the street.
“How much you want?”
“Two,” I tell him. Then glance at Jenny. She nods and Joker says wait a minute and walks down the block in the direction we just came. I ask her if we know this guy. She shrugs. I can remember a Joker from when we lived here, but I’m not sure if this is him.
“It’s not him,” she says. “That Joker’s eyes were green and this guy’s aren’t.”
“How do you notice shit like that?” I ask and then I see Joker on his way back with another guy following.
The dealer can barely speak English. But he knows enough to tell me he wants forty. I don’t want to pay forty and tell him no. He won’t take less. Fuck that I say. I’ll go somewhere else and look at Joker for support. Joker shrugs and stares at the ground. He doesn’t care. He just wants me to buy the dope so the guy will break him off some for doing the deal, then he can go get high. I don’t want to be on the street haggling. I don’t even want to be here, but there really isn’t any other choice.
“Thirty-five man, that’s it, that’s all,” I say and hand him the money.
“Pinche cabrón,” he says, as he hastily puts his hand to his mouth, pulls out two wet balloons and shoves them into my hand. “In yo mouff ese,” he hisses and turns away.
“Do not put those dirty balloons in your mouth,” says Jenny. “Did you smell that guy’s breath? Hello, brush your fuckin teeth dude.”
“Wasn’t gonna,” I protest and shove them in my pocket.
“Kick me down a taste,” whines Joker.
“Out here? No way,” I say and shake my head. Joker immediately runs after the dealer whose about to disappear into the shadows.
A woman yells as two men burst out the front door of a bar. One of them shoves the other against the wall. His beer bottle falls crashing to the sidewalk. They begin to fight and a small crowd forms. I grab Jenny and we cross the street.
The sidewalk is crowded with people standing in doorways and shadows. Thin, emaciated, and dirty, with torn filthy clothing and blank expressions on their faces. These are the dope fiends with no game looking for handouts, and stickup artists that wait until after the deal, and then try and put a knife to your throat for your dope.
At the bus stop a man limps toward us, a plastic cup in his hand. He mumbles something but it’s totally incoherent and I think of the paramedic trying to talk to me in my bedroom a few hours ago. Jenny tells him to go away, we don’t have any spare change, but he’s persistent and follows us. I turn around to confront him and when he comes into the light I can see there’s something wrong. He’s wearing really thick glasses, and his jaw sticks out with all these teeth jutting in different directions. His face is contorted and he’s drooling and I don’t want him to come any closer.
Slipping behind the wall of the bus shelter I pull Jenny towards me. “I gotta get home,” I whisper in her ear. She puts her arm around me and I lean on her shoulder.
A car stops in front of us waiting for the traffic light. The woman in the passenger seat looks over, sees the two of us standing a few feet away, pushes the door lock down and then stares straight ahead. Behind us the demented panhandler screams and shuffles across the sidewalk in our direction. Jenny grabs my hand, tells me the bus is coming, and we move to the curb. When the door opens we get on and take seats in the back. The bus is empty. It’s only the driver and us and a lot of trash strewn on the floor.
The chaos of 16th Street becomes a blur as the driver steers the bus into traffic. A cold wind blows through an open window. I want to close it but don’t want to get up.
We’re only about a half hour from home. I can feel the dope in my pocket. I can still feel the Narcaine in my veins.
“I told you we’d be home soon,” says Jenny. “And I got candy for later.”
My eyes feel heavy as they start to close.