The woods are lovely, dark, and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep. – Robert Frost
Whenever I think about Skid Row I become hyperaware of my chronic sinusitis. The two are inextricably linked. The infection emits a peculiar stench when inflamed, usually after a hardy cry or athletic sex. It may be no accident that this odor is similar to the one that this port of rock-bottomers emits, the sweet earth and sour smell of our universal human functions, urban debris, and all manner of broken things saturating the air.
It’s not that I blame the entire geographic landscape of Los Angeles’ Skid Row district for cursing me with the most resistant infection of my life, but until I invent another cause for this ailment, that land will bear accusation. Each block displays a carnival of wretched and heartbreaking happenings: persons being physically ill, adults letting go in their pants, most partaking of lethal substances both prescribed and illegal, rowdy couples copulating with a lack of tenderness, real mammals clawing at airy nothings and invented beings, a diaristic range of angry and forlorn laments directed at the haze kissed sky, desperate prayers issuing from mouths of crouching forms…a broad spectrum of behaviors and incidents deemed “abnormal.”
Adding insult to injury…rubbish. A clean house equating to a clean mind is never a possible correlation here. The amount and types of defiled and putrefying objects littering the avenues of this region are incalculable: Pipes (glass, metal, wood, aluminum, corn cob, apple, clay, gutted Bic pens), discarded prescription bottles, tents, boxes, wrappers, peels, diapers, lettuce, bras, peanuts, receipts, carts, condoms, religious tracts, dice, marbles, lone shoes, lighters, chips, candy, mutant pigeons, pillows, feces, vomit, syringes, maimed gulls, foil, skeletal dogs, things manufactured in China, Mexico, India, Japan, Korea (objects and people journey from afar to settle here), microscopic agents composed of unchecked bacteria, fungi, viruses…impossible concentrations of human mucus.
It is one thing to bear witness to all of this from within the armor of a vehicle, sunny music playing, a tepid temperature maintained, body scooped in a way designed to sustain comfort, quenching beverages in holsters, head craning on its neck like on a mock safari, lost on the way to some monolithic museum full of precious cultural specimens or en route to an adventurous “slumming excursion” to a bustling, ethnically charged indoor swap-meet, but it’s entirely another thing to come face to face with Skid Row, to truly inhale its feral breath.
I was a seemingly innocuous, privately neurotic, stone-broke girl seeking hiatus from the soul-sucking world of fine art, writing, coolly inebriated boys and waitressing. I hatched a practical life plan, one that was going to guarantee me a 401K, a “salary,” self-respect and an opportunity to change the world one person at a time (we can unpack notions of altruism here or we can just stay optimistic)–I wanted to become a “Certified Psychosocial Rehabilitation Specialist” a.k.a. Green Beret of social work. During the interview to be admitted into the training program, I was asked if I had any objection to working with the mentally incapacitated residents of Skid Row. I responded with a mustered enthusiasm that played puppeteer with my eyebrows, “No objections! I would benefit personally from such a challenging assignment. I have plenty of street smarts and I really do love people.” Lies. This was an interview after all. So I was submitted by the well-intentioned representatives of anonymous mental health association as an “agent of wellness” to LAMP Community, a shelter dedicated to providing immediate housing for boarders without the “threat” of sobriety or compliance requirements (forced medication namely), thus fostering a most compassionate breeding ground for the purest forms of misbehavior.
I began my training at LAMP, believing I was fearless, kind and just mentally unhinged enough to be able to properly relate to these consumers. To suggest that I entered into this assignment naïvely optimistic, romanticizing the situation into cinematic proportions, not understanding the enormity of such a task, is to understate matters. An intern can be defined in several ways, but I learned quickly that I was to be cloaked by two definitions:
1. One who is confined during wartime.
2. One who is studying while under supervision.
While I maintained a kind of boldness, a state I attribute to a weak survival instinct, low-grade Manic Depression and a dash of Borderline Personality Disorder–Skid Row’s participants and particles slowly overtook me. San Pedro and San Julian streets were new territories, psychic war zones begging conquer and I was fully armed with therapeutic terms and protocol, an educated but inexperienced soldier.
Who is sicker?
I submit to you two specimens:
Fran, the 250 pound African-American woman who suffers from brutal Schizophrenia and carries thousands of dollars in government aid shoved into a plastic baggie slung over the crook of her heavy pockmarked arm, sagging jeans unzipped with no undergarments underneath to guard her from lecherous gazes and infection, occasionally ferocious. Possessing a mind that cannot be checked, equal parts hallucinating child and hell-hath-no-fury type, of course potentially genius. A body that has given in to unchecked diabetes and various sores but somehow subsists exclusively on Funyons, Shasta and grape flavored Now-and-Laters. Past the point of suicidal ideation, so far gone she seems. She may even be reduced to contentment (cue Pink Floyd’s “Comfortably Numb”).
I, the 120-pound Asian-American woman who suffers from mildly debilitating panic attacks and occasional suicidal ideation with only one half-assed attempt to hang myself in a bedroom while my child slept peacefully (Sylvia Plath Syndrome) but no malignant physical ailments, with my belief that one of these days Fran is going to snap right out of it, whatever it is, look over at me and smile genuinely from where she sits swatting flies for so many hours in her banged-up black leather recliner, the one she has claimed with every pound of her being, while I play mommy-make-you-better, my hand on her shoulder and fingers pulling affectionately on a wisp of her dread-locked, parasite-ridden hair, swinging my legs like a carefree child munching on Funyons, Shasta and grape flavored Now-and-Laters, as she says to me (here I speak for her in a clever tongue, for the sake of art, in utter disregard of the grave systemic problem with such an action)–
Fran says to me in my imagination:
“You have been trying to get close to me despite my repeated attempts to burn you with my death-ray-sonar-powered gaze, you persist in cooing at me and suggesting that I look pretty (you don’t believe this), chirping at me like a stupid fucking parrot with your see-through bleeding heart, cloaked in your odd thrift store ensembles that beg SEE ME, your mouth slathered in glossy coral lipsticks meant to mimic an orgasmic pout. Your overdone eyes embarrass me. No amount of midnight-jet-black liner will hide your eyes, why even suggests it? Why won’t you handle your own baggage and let me be? Who sent you? Have you noticed that I am a black woman? That you are a Korean woman? Do riots ring a bell? Well, even so, I have decided against my better judgment, lacking strong survival instincts (like you), that you are a good girl and yes I would like to journey into your territory, maybe to your favorite Sunday evening watering hole, a sordid hipster dive flooded over with emaciated pale skins posturing unnaturally. I will stick out like a bloody thumb. I will agree to sit with you in a tore up vinyl booth, smelling like privileged piss and vomit, sweating skin to skin. Can I can finally tell you my entire fucked-up life story, starting from once upon a time not long enough ago when my blood relatives were chained up in the dark, disease-ridden lower portion of a musky boat all the way up to the point when some white man’s blood entered my family line without consent and finally ending at the awful present? Would you listen? I will let you dribble your sorry little stories about minor domestic disputes, your overbearing mother with her knotted-up apron strings and customary homework beatings, your bastard son and amateur junkies loved. The soundtrack to this scenario, my little pet, will be a string of pathetic modern-day derivatives of the black man’s powerful and beautiful music. These aural wounds will blast out of speakers so that I can hardly make out half of the things you say to me. Karaoke night is it? Halle-fucking-lujah! All this while you slam down one drink after another without any consideration for the plain fact that I cannot partake with you, in this common social bonding custom, as it is contraindicated with the cocktail of anti-psychotic medications that ghetto street physicians urge me to swallow daily, because, you see, I am mentally insane without consent, bat fucking god damn shit ass crazy (I don’t mince words like you do for a hobby)–an entirely different beast than you contend with, your first-world anxieties are so pitiful, so comparatively manageable. I want to be drunk. Just as you have been so many nights, legally poisoned into slumber, a regular Juliet to no Romeo. I want the various voices stilled. The lurking shadows to drown away…I want to be wasted more than anything, but “cocktails” with cocktails may kill me by sun up…sister, let’s rock!”
“Dear Fran (here is the letter I did not send),
“I want to believe that we can still wash bad blood away between us, the blood we never even asked to exchange. I know that someday, maybe when we are finally dead, you will see through this bravado and know the ease with which you and I might have traded places. All it takes is one drink, one huff, one needle, one abuse, one abrupt departure, one instance of disorderly conduct, one job lost, one breakup, one death, one terrible misunderstanding, one letter not sent or received…to cross into the territory of rock bottom. A place from where you may not be easily rescued. So sunk below, to a region where you dare not care about anything and find that you are in communion with the animals in the jungles, forests and deserts–taken from a human civilization. In that place you growl. But still, I view you as perfect. Though I admit that I can barely tolerate the hormonal smell of your body, your frightening yellow eyes that I cannot read and your inhuman and simultaneously truly human yowls. I believe I am dirty down to my bones, even with many types of washing. I am weak with womanly howls and growls withheld. Can this kind of knowledge make you feel a little stronger again, or are you too far away now? Look, I am not merely being sentimental or acting on Christian guilt or seeking martyrdom. I will admit that seeing you to your inarguable right to live with dignity, helping you smile, and acknowledging that you are indeed my sister–is partly motivated by my pathological desire to be loved by every single thing that breathes and has landed me in the business of service ever since I was old enough to bleed like a woman. If you won’t love me, then I don’t know what I will do. If it sounds like a threat, it is. Do you know that I believe all people are born exactly equal, hearts of gold aglow, deserving to be served, and one good turn deserves another? So Fran, you will owe me and so will everyone. The whole universe will owe me. Please, will you not judge me like a book on a shelf, the ridiculous book with the fluorescent cover, aggressive font and overdone speeches filling the pages inside? I want to be like you, a stark white book, smudged all over with different fingerprints, dense with thick pages of difficult history in strange tongues. It makes no sense that almost everyone will pick me up first and take me home, that you will be left there babbling under the covers. I sometimes feel ashamed and embarrassed for you, because you are baring your private parts to the ever-leering men and women surrounding us. The leering, which is a completely natural human inclination but a faux pas in most civilized company. Isn’t it terrible to be watched but more terrible not to be able to watch? Please put your pants on please. I am afraid to sit where you were sitting because I know that your monthly blood has seeped from you and you have not the sense right now to plug it. Even though we both know that in some cultures being naked is the most perfect and natural state, and to share the time of bleeding is divine, but it isn’t like that here. Is that why we don’t feel well? Do you remember when we were children how we used to prick the fingers of our friends and selves in order to press a bleeding tip to a bleeding tip, all for the ceremony of brotherly/sisterly vows? Exchanging fresh blood. Seems a right way to be. Let them call us insane! Can we agree that we were both born in the same way–totally exposed, individuals looking for a home, a breast to root on, skin? Do we agree that this is also how we will die? Shouldn’t we be brave in the face of it, holding bloody hands all?“
More letters never get sent than do.
We are sick in equal measure. Fran has forgotten me. A soldier, just one in a chain of many sent in to search and rescue. I am lucky if I have or will ever appear to her in visions or dreams, as a soft hallucination at most. But I will not forget her, what little I even know of her–her body, her eyes, and her difference. So little that I can only write fluently and abundantly of my own self now, myself in relationship to that mysterious woman I elevate because in my mind she embodies what is wild and free (or so it seems). A splendid case study (I risk something by saying this aloud but I need to), someone I failed to “rescue” but who may have rescued me. Save from what? What were we a hostage to? That is exactly the problem. The simple fact that we don’t really ever know what we need to do in order to help another being, if they even desire aid, and the impossibility of engaging with a person fully is even further hindered by the supposed necessity of correct protocol, cultural propriety, safe distance, anxious arms lengths and the navel gazing/self-preserving air we don when we are faced with wilderness–I should know Fran better than this. As long as this Skid Row-born infection stays with me, throbbing so close to my brain, leaking foul air and trickling over my voice box making me gurgle, I will be reminded of her and the place she lives. We are collectively interned. All of the aggressive treatments I will use to be rid of my infection will fail–it is as hardy as the homeless huddled in tents lining the streets, ill spirits and bodies blasted by policemen brandishing high power hoses and coarse words. A vicious cycle is at play, this washing and rebuilding, sanitizing and re-populating, toying with the surface of things–never actually getting down to the core of our problems in order to gain that elusive archetypal American dream of absolute individual freedom married to mental strength with truth as their mistress. The state of being that elevates and separates us from mere mammal-hood to expressive humanity can be ours, dear Fran, but we have miles and miles to go, never forget letters not sent and conversations not shared, maybe then the distance will get shorter.