to the System - Jim Flynn
Services Professional's Corner:
to the System
By Jim Flynn
Jim Flynn spent dozens of hours interviewing street people at Tompkins Square Park on the east side. He's allowed us to present this excerpt from his upcoming book, Strangers to the System, published by his own Curbside Press. If anyone can help with funding for the project--or to get in touch with him for any reason, write JimFlynn@hotmail.com.
James doesn't look like a homeless person. He is wearing a clean button down shirt, and holding a twenty-two-ounce bottle of ice tea. When he approaches and asks about my tape recorder, I find out that he is currently looking for a job and trying to pull himself off the street. James is very eager to tell me his story, and he enunciates his responses with cathartic vigor.
My father wasn't an educated man, but he was street smart. He ran his own tailor shop uptown on 141st and St. Nicholas. In 1971 he bought a house for thirty thousand dollars in South Yonkers. My two sisters and me were the only kids, because my brother was twenty years older and going to college. My father sent all of his kids to college except for me.
Back in the seventies, it was a privilege for me to be Black and live in a middle-class neighborhood. We were on the more upscale side of the tracks, newer houses with newer money. It was mostly black with a few mixed race people. They used to bus us out to other schools in North Yonkers so that they could have a ten percent black student population. That was a good experience, because I learned about rock and roll from the middle class white kids. One of my best friends had a punk group called Fat Head Suburbia. He wanted to take me to CBGBs, but I was scared. We traded tapes, and I was into the culture, but as a black kid, I didn't have the balls to dress that way. My school and my neighborhood were different worlds. Like, I couldn't wear a rock and roll T-shirt on my block. People would call me a sellout.
My father was real big on education. He wanted me to be better off than he was. Like if you see his handwriting you would think it was a school kid's, but he knew math, and that's what saved him. My brother took from that and got real good at calculus. Today he's a nuclear engineer. My sister's a paralegal. My other sister died when she was twenty-four. She was a model, very pretty. She committed suicide over a man. That really hurt me. Her ashes are still in my mother's house.
The first time I smoked crack was in 1985. I was seventeen. Everything was going good in life. I had a job working at Shop Rite. I even had a car. One day my friend's older brother asked me for a ride to the city. We drove down into Washington Heights and bought some crack. A vial cost twenty dollars then and we shared it. There was nothing to it at that time. It was speedy and it made me feel unusual. Like wow, like in a zone, know what I mean? I only did a little bit at the time, because I didn't know it, and I didn't trust it. Then crack started moving to the Bronx, where it was closer to Yonkers. I started going down more often. One day I said let me smoke a whole rock instead of breaking it up. That was a big rush. I had tried sniffing cocaine, some of the best, but this was so intense that I fell in love with it. It was better than sex. It took the place of girls. It took the place of hanging out at the skating rink, playing video games. My childhood was over as I had known it.
I would sleep, smoke, and stare into space, basically enjoy the wave. (Laughs) Know what I mean? Ride the wave, man. When I came down, I would fiend. I sold my stereo, and then one day I stole my father's wallet with like two hundred dollars in it. I lied and said I used it for this girl's abortion. That night I went down to the city and bought five vials. When I got back they ended up being stale breadcrumbs. The same night I went back with another fifty dollars and scored. When I got back, I started smoking it in my parents' bathroom. My mother started banging on the door, and I just froze. I finished smoking the rocks, and my dad busted in on me. He told me that I needed to stop or I was gonna die.
A few days later, I was creeping on my stomach to steal my father's wallet a second time. The light came on and he jumped up. Motherfucker! Bowwww! He shot at me with a gun. It was just a scare tactic, but it really shook me up. I ran from the house and came back hours later begging him. He talked to me and told me that I had to leave. He basically forced me to join the Army.
Basic training was the roughest experience of my life. You walked around like robots. Everything in that barrack had to be spit polished. They didn't even let you smoke cigarettes. When I finished basic training and went to my permanent duty assignment, I was shocked. The barracks were like a fraternity house, full of beer bongs and kegs. People were out in the back barbecuing. I loved it. I met different kinds of kids from all over the country and saw a lot of new things. Like I was used to eating grits with butter and salt, but I saw people putting sugar on it. It was a totally different world. I thought that all the Southern white folks would try to kill all the black folks, but it wasn't like that. We were like brothers. If we had to fight, it would be black and white together for our company, I Company 227 3rd Armor Division. That was what you represented.
Our unit got sent to a base near Frankfurt, Germany. My MOS, or job, was a diesel truck mechanic. I worked on jeeps all the way up to ten-ton trucks. I was proud of it, because I was good. It was like a puzzle. You felt proud. I had a good work ethic, and the sergeants liked me. They could count on James. James would be there when he was told to be and get the job done.
I still maintained my addiction through the Army. There wasn't any crack, but there was alcohol. That was promoted to be used as a social thing. The sergeant always said, "I don't trust a man who doesn't drink." It was pretty much pushed down your throat. We'd go to the civilian guesthouse to have a few beers. I started drinking pretty hard, and I'd get into fights. That's how I got my fake tooth. I was a blackout drinker, and I wouldn't remember what happened. One time a German girl stabbed me in the leg (pulls up pants to show a scar.) Word about this got back to my superior officers, and they gave me an R15, non-judicial punishment, not a court martial. They could have kicked me out, but I was valuable to them as a soldier. Instead they made me go to treatment. I had to take a pill called Antabus. If you tried to drink when you were on Antibus, you'd get violently sick.
One night, I was hanging out with some girls at a club called the Funkadelic in Frankfurt--cool clothes, girls--the place to be. We met some local girls, and they said lets go get high. They hooked us up with some hashish and heroin. Heroin made me drunk! It was like an alcohol high without the hangover. See I didn't do enough to get the dope sickness, so there weren't any negative consequences. I still had my faculties, so I wasn't fighting or scaring away pretty girls. I fell in love with it. That's been haunting me for ten years.
My habit got to the point where I was going down to Frankfurt every day. When I got high, I would do weird stuff. Once, I was watching that movie Sid and Nancy about the Sex Pistols, and I started poking at my arms with a pin, because that's what Sid Vicious was doing in the movie. It got to the point where I either had to quit heroin, or the officers would find out. Drugs are taboo in the army. Plus, they had snitches. You could be real close with somebody, and they'd rat you out for a court martial in a second. I decided to go cold turkey on my own. I was real sick for a few days, but I did it. After that, I started being a better soldier. My uniform looked sharp, and they promoted me to a specialist. I was looking into getting certified as an X ray technician.
Things were going good. I met this fraulein, Gretchen, who wanted to domesticate me. I lived with her, and we played house. She would cook for me just like a wife. Eventually, she talked me into leaving the army so that we could live together as civilians. I had two jobs, and I was going to school. She was working too, and we both had cars. Then Gretchen ended up pregnant. It wasn't that bad of a situation. See in Germany people take you for who you are. There're no real racists.
Things were looking good, but then I found out how to get cocaine. I was at a bar drinking a couple beers, and the next thing you know, I was freebasing. I spent my savings up, and I stole from Gretchen. Then I cheated on her and she found out. I had told her before that if I ever start using drugs to get away from me, because I turn into a monster. That's what she did. Her family gave me a five hundred dollar plane ticket and sent me back to the States.
When I came back into JFK, I went to see my mother in Yonkers. (My dad had died when I was in the service.) That lasted about a minute, because she knew what I had been up to. She said she didn't want to see her baby son kill himself, and she kicked me outta the house. It was like I was on a suicide mission. I lost my girlfriend. I lost my lifestyle--being respected--being a man. I also had a son who I was never going to see.
I ended up drifting through the Bronx, spending some nights on the street and bouncing in and out of shelters. It was hell. I was dirty, hungry, chasing drugs--always going to scary neighborhoods to cop. The other homeless people at that time were like mentally ill bums. I was walking around with an army C bag, and digging in dumpsters for cans. Finally, I went to the Veterans Domiciliary in St. Albans, Queens.
That program worked because I had peers with a similar military background. These guys were Vietnam Vets, so they knew the meaning of comradeship. Cigarettes, coffee, and food took the place of beer, cocaine, and heroin. They sent me to school to become a nurse's aide. I was working with AIDS patients in Bellevue. That really shocked you and made you think about how precious life was.
After fifteen months I graduated the program and got my own apartment in Long Island City. I was doing volunteer work and getting social service checks. Things were starting to fall back into place. People were happy for me. I was going back over to my mother's house for dinner in my nurse uniform, and she would show me off to her girlfriends. One thing that I really enjoyed was going out at night down to the AA meetings on St. Marks.
Then the same shit always happens--a girl fucked it up. Just like Adam and Eve with the apple, but instead of the apple, it's dope. I was in St. Marks Meeting House one night, and I met this Greek woman from Astoria named Eliana. She floored me. She dressed like Jackie O--nice hat and nice clothes. I thought that she came from some classy family and was out of my league, but it turned out she was a regular joe. I thought she had like four years clean, but it was only thirty days. Most people aren't too stable at thirty days clean. One night, she walked into the meeting high as a kite. That got me thinking about the good old days when I used to sniff dope. Next thing you know I'm in Tompkins Square.
This place was out of control. I saw the crusty punks, the gutter punks, and that really turned me on. It reminded me of high school. I started hanging out with that crew, and they hooked me up with heroin and fifty-cent beers. It was kind of scary for me, because back in '95, this was still the ghetto, almost all Hispanic. I didn't fit in, because I'd wear an Izod shirt and tight jeans with Oxford shoes. But it was exciting. I ended up bringing girls back to my place in Queens, they'd eat my food up, and steal my change. I was basically using them for sex. One time I brought a dealer back to Queens and he just trashed my place. The VA caught on and kicked me out of the extended care program.
I ended up going into another program in Albany, but I just didn't have the desire, and I ended up back out on the street. The drugs up in Albany cost twice as much as here. I went to a church up there, and they gave me a ticket back to New York. I ended up living in Tompkins and sleeping on 9th Street. As the years slipped by, people started dying. One friend went out a third story window in St. Marks Hotel. I know another girl who hung herself in Riker's Island. There were ODs left and right. People were getting AIDS. I saw people just picking up needles off the ground. They were dropping like flies. If all the ghosts came back to Tompkins, the place would be so packed you couldn't even walk.
I used to panhandle for money, then I'd hit Kmart and start boosting stuff. I'd go in with a flannel shirt and start stuffing disposable cameras. Then I'd walk out, sell the shit, and get maybe twenty bucks if I was lucky. I always tried to keep a respectable appearance, because you can't go into a store looking like a piece of shit, or security will be on you. All the money went to drugs. I probably wouldn't have eaten if it wasn't for Trinity Church and the Salvation Army trucks. When the wintertime came, I'd go into shelters. I went four years like that.
When I first came to the park it was about partying. I'd sit at this place called Downtown Beirut and drink eight-dollar pitchers. You could sniff your dope in the bathroom and then relax with your friends. Those were the good old days. But once I got caught in the grips of my addiction, there was no more of that, no friends, no girls, just the next score, trying to stay one step ahead of the TNT street crime unit. Once Giuliani came in, I started getting busted for possession. I even got arrested for a B felony for just being there at a drug deal. I went to Riker's for the first time at thirty. I felt like a fool, because I didn't know how to use the phone. I was lucky that my court case was dismissed, but when I got out I was stuck in the same shit--hanging out in the park.
An energetic man strolls by, shouting, "White van, sandwiches, juice and cookies. How you doing John?"
Did you hear about the guy who fed the people in the park a dead girl? He used to cut himself and say he was Jesus Christ. He killed his girlfriend, chopped her up and made a stew out of it, then he served it to the people in this park. They found out because there was a finger in it. He kept the bones in a locker in Port Authority. They put him in a psyche ward instead of jail. That's some wild shit.
Then two years ago, these three gutter punks killed an off-duty cop. I guess the cop was gay. He took the punks to a hotel in Jersey to party, and they beat him and cut him up. Then they took his car and drove to Tompkins and double-parked. Within a minute, cops were swarming out of nowhere, and the kids got arrested. One of them ended up escaping from the Jersey Youth Facility and came back to the park again. They busted him on Avenue A.
At this point in my life, crack has caught up with me. About a year ago, I was smoking up on 23rd street, and I just started hearing voices of people who were trying to kill me. I was running like a maniac in a movie. I was stopping traffic, opening doors screaming, "Help me, let me in, please!" The cops were all over me. I jumped on the bus, and then ran off the back into a church. I thought the priest was going to set me up for murder. The police surrounded me with a SWAT team. They had sharp shooters and everything in case I was gonna take a hostage.
A few months ago, I was smoking crack on 13th Street. I bugged out and ran into a bodega and locked myself in the meat freezer. I tore up all the food in there--major damage. Then somebody was jiggling the door, and I said, I'm gonna bust through these fuckers. I ran out, and the cops wrestled me and handcuffed me. I kept screaming. They sent me to a clinic. It's so embarrassing. Now, I've got to take Respitol and Zoloft for depression. If I smoke even a little bit of crack I'll lose my mind.
As I get older, living on the street loses its appeal. I used to have friends out here, and some of them are still here, but now I'm mostly alone. I was sleeping out in Greenwich Village a couple months ago, and some kids kicked me in my head. There was like eleven of them, and I had to fight my way out. One of my friends got his back lit on fire while he was sleeping. He's got terrible scars all across his back. There's a lot of other people out here who drink themselves to death.
The people on these benches are laughing and joking, but their life is hell. They're just waiting for the grim reaper. I've been in programs with a lot of these guys. None of us stuck with it, but I'm only 33. I still have time. I'm tired of it. I can't spend another ten years out here. It's not fun. You're just scheming to get ten dollars so you can get a bag of garbage. It ain't even real dope. Half this stuff is crushed up pills.
I have one friend who got clean, and now he's after his life long dream of hiking the Appalachian Trail. He's walking the whole thing. That kind of inspired me to get it together. The only way to do that was move back to my mom. If I called her she wouldn't want to believe a word of it, so I had to show her that I was clean.
Two weeks ago I just went up there and knocked on her door. She didn't have the heart to turn me away. I've been off dope for about three weeks, and crack for a couple months. I can't drink beer anymore, because I've got acid reflux disease. If I drink one or two beers, I'm sick. It's like God stopped me.
If I went to college, my life would be much different now. If I had that piece of paper, I could bounce back. Most of the people who do well at rehab programs are those who have the skills to get back on their feet financially. When you sit around broke, you're depressed. That depression makes you want to say fuck it. Next dollar I get, I'm getting high.
Even though I don't have college, I do have some intelligence going for me. I just took the Civil Service Exam, and I got a ninety-eight, an eighty-eight with an extra ten points for being a veteran. My only roadblock from getting a state job is my misdemeanors. I'm going to try to go down to the courthouse and get that taken care of.
I just applied for a job as a nurse's aide. I got a new pair of slacks, a tie, and some shirts. I just got to get a new pair of shoes--some Oxfords. I like them Oxfords. You know, what the policemen wear. I like dressing clean, a nice haircut. Once you grow up with good home training, you never lose it.
Do you think that this is the last time you're going to have to kick?
Yeah. I don't want to die. My heart isn't good. I can feel it in my arms and legs. It's like tension. Every time they put me on EKG they say I've had many heart attacks. I need to be focused. The man that you see now is not the same man that I used to be when I was drinking. I couldn't even hold a conversation with you. I was obnoxious and angry. I really hope I get that job, because I want to have another kid. That's my next mission in life. I wanna be in the baby's life. I just don't wanna be a sperm donor. I wanna go to ball games, fishing, riding bikes...
As our interview ended, I handed James ten dollars and told him to make sure that he spent it right. For three months I didn't see him in the park, which was a good sign. Then one day I called the phone number for his mother's house to request a follow-up interview. The voice of an elderly woman answered.
"James Carter? No he doesn't live here. He's a homeless person."
I asked the woman if she knew whether James had entered a program or was living in a shelter. She said that she had not spoken to him in months and had no idea of his whereabouts.