April 26, 2013 | 1
This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade’s photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty, prostitution and urban anthropology in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
In response to the newly-released US 2013 National Drug Strategy (PDF), I’ve written a portrait of those who feel the direct impact of the War on Drugs’ street-level targeting, the same people who find themselves affected in a large way by policy decisions but who rarely find notice in the media. Those mentioned below have all served time in jail for non-violent drug offenses and live day-to-day to fuel their drug habits. Here is a slice of life from the afternoon of April 21, 2013. The outsider noted is me.
A woman approaches on the sidewalk from the direction of the expressway, a bag on her shoulder. She walks stooped. It’s heavy. She approaches a familiar outsider, asks for money. The woman’s been trying to sell clothes all morning, to sell them anywhere, to anyone, and hasn’t had any luck. The woman puts her head in her hands. The outsider takes the bag, walks with the woman the spans of a large block.
Under an alcove, another woman calls out to the pair. She’s dressed in baggy clothes borrowed from a man and has a thin metal stick in her hair, stowed behind her ear. She stays under the alcove, doesn’t move much behind glassy eyes, but smiles. The stick’s for safekeeping, she says.
It’s been a while since she’s seen anyone from the neighborhood, months and months. Now, the stick woman has a double piercing through her chin and matted hair and a waxy face. She tells the woman with the heavy bag that the outsider has white magic. The outsider has heard this before, months ago, when the stick woman spoke of voices — ones that no one else seemed to hear — that would save the world from death. The woman with the heavy bag waves the outsider on. “She looks awful.”
The woman with the stick in her hair: Sunshine. Photo from February 2012. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
The walk continues but the pair stops after another few minutes. The outsider gives the woman $6. The woman needs $4 more. Maybe she can make do with $3. The pair doubles back — the stick woman is gone — and stops at a shop with an apartment above it. The apartment window is open, sheer curtains yellowing and blurring the view inside. It’s windy. The woman yells a name up into the window. A face appears, then a motion with a single index finger.
The pane of the door where the man-who-wants-to-be-a-woman emerges is cracked in a sideways V and resealed with off-white adhesive. The door itself, smooth, has no handle and requires pushing. The woman with the heavy bag greets the man-who-wants-to-be-a-woman as a woman. A woman she is, here.
The man-who-wants-to-be-a-woman: Michael. Photo from August 2012. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
The two women argue on the sidewalk, who has what to buy where mid-afternoon. The first woman, the one with the heavy bag, is dope sick. Does the second woman have $4? Does it look like she has $4? The second woman gestures to her sweatpants and makeup-less face.
Despite her sickness, the first woman decides to work. It’s awful because a dry mouth makes giving a blow job difficult. She uses a cell phone, calls somewhere for 4 bags of somethings. Words under veils. She needs $40. The second woman scurries around the corner and returns a few minutes later with a man wearing too-blue crisp jeans. The first woman and the man walk off together. Business.
The second woman and the outsider sit on a sidewalk tree’s shin-tall fencing to wait.
The second woman catches the outsider up on a few things: the apartment has a new woman roommate (one paying $100 a week for a room, but who isn’t home now because she’s staying in a hotel with her new man — now that her boyfriend’s in jail — because the apartment doesn’t have hot water).
The new woman roommate: Takeesha. Photo from August 2012. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
On Thursday the first woman was punched by the official apartment tenant who now lives away in Red Cross-provided housing after the fire. Also, the apartment no longer has electricity. Even the apartment above, the burnt-out one, where they were stealing electricity by way of spooled-out extension cords, had power cut because the landlord isn’t likely paying the bill now that he’s in jail for drug trafficking.
The second woman wonders if she has a blood infection. She’s had them before and has been tired lately. She’s up to 12 bags of dope a day, an attempt to otherwise not think about her declining health. Yes, $120 every day and isn’t that a lot of money.
A drunk woman walks by with a woman in a floral dress. Floral dress has lip liner outlines darker than her lips. Drunk woman has an Absolut bottle jutting from her bag and wears black suede platform heels with tassels. The shoes kill. She drinks from her Absolut and says she wants to find a half-decent man. She had a decent one for 19 years but then he went and died. She was lucky once and maybe that’s all she gets. She tilts her head at a strange man in a Hawaiian shirt walking by, making a face to be sexy. She stands up to follow him and blows kisses to the outsider.
The drunk woman: DeShawn. Photo from February 2012. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
Floral dress goes the other way. The second woman said if you didn’t know Floral dress, you might think she was a normal person going to church on a Sunday.
The woman in the floral dress: Pepsi. Photo from August 2012. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
A very pregnant woman nears with a little girl toddler. The toddler has sparkly hoops through pierced ears and pink pearls around her neck. She hides from the two strangers. The second woman asks the pregnant woman if Vice was still bad out, or if she caught a date today. The pregnant woman says it’s still bad and leads the toddler, who plays with faux buckles on her miniature shoes, away by the hand.
The pregnant woman: Sarah. Photo from July 2012. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
A woman with a bangs-mussed wig waves and yells from down the block. She wears pajama pants adorned with miniature skulls tucked into black winter boots, a tight vest covering her chest, belly button bare. She has a mini bottle of vodka and asks to use a phone to call for a bag of something, like the first woman. The wig woman’s husband is in jail, but that’s ok because he gave her a concussion the other day. She doesn’t care how he’s doing. He deserves whatever lockup brings. The wig woman talks of an apartment where she stays down the street, shows a key made into a bracelet on her wrist.
She leaves to trace the voice on the other end of the phone.
The woman with the wig: Egypt. Photo from December 2012. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
At the apartment, the outsider becomes immaterial.
Up, one flight, then double-back on another, into a door. A man sleeps on an L-shaped couch, bare chested, cartoon tiger racing on his pajama pants. On a neighboring couch a woman sleeps, shuttering her eyes to look at the door when it opens. On the left lies an entry to a bedroom, one able to fit a child-sized bed but no more, which it did, once.
The man with tiger pants: Jose. Photo taken April 2013. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
Inside now, the man who wants to be a woman sits on a floor-made pallet bed. Cigarette smoke lines up from the Newport in her hand, plumes and drifts. Two women come in, one harried, with heavy bags, the other styled with a black belt the width of a palm.
The harried one hands over tiny squares to the woman on the pallet. The pallet woman has needles waiting. She says not to be a baby and shoots for the harried woman. Harried is new at it, taught only two weeks beforehand.
The harried woman with heavy bags and the woman on the pallets (left to right): Brenda and Michael. Photo from April 2013. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
Pallet finds a remaining vein on her own arm, cinches above the elbow with the drawstring of a NYC Marathon Finishline Recovery bag pulled from a brown box. Brown boxes and suitcases are everywhere people aren’t. Someone get Pallet a tissue in one of those boxes, her arm’s bleeding. She can’t get the vein. Belt paints her nails, silver.
Crack emerges from hidden folds of clothes once heroin’s done. Harried needs a stem. Someone give her a stem. Belt has one wrapped in tissue in her vagina, but she’s doing her nails. Can someone else get it? Belt stands. Harried does too, and undoes Belt’s belt. Pants down, Harried extracts the stem and puts it to her mouth. Belt blows on her nails and tells Harried to hurry up, quick, smoke. The stem passes from Harried’s mouth to Pallet’s to Belt’s.
The woman from the couch enters, seeking heroin. Pallet promises, later, later. Sleep now, Couch. Tiger pants sleeps on.
The woman on the couch: Rachel. Photo from April 2013. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
With the stem in her hand, Belt says she’s clean, kind of. She only relapsed yesterday, and it’s just crack, she could quit if she really wants. She lives in the shelter, where she has fellow residents take photos of her posing, photos where she’s pressed against walls, in primary-colored berets and tops that match. She was prettier back then, but she has lupus now. She pulls up her shirt to show how the red eats her body. Her body: patchworked sores, and her shoulder, a deep Valentine’s bouquet. She points to hot spots on her cheeks. Belt feels like she’s on fire.
The woman with the palm-width belt: Jackie. Photo from April 2013. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
Harried curses and tells Couch and Belt to get the fuck out of the house. Get the fuck out now. She droops like a leaning flower and sorts through the bag of pants she was trying to sell on the street corner, in search of something she isn’t able to name or remember. Belt and Pallet call Harried crazy.
The harried woman with heavy bags: Brenda. Photo from April 2013. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
Pallet cleans the room — she has to clean now, why doesn’t anyone understand– stepping over Belt on the suitcase and Harried on the floor. The room doesn’t get cleaner.
Belt shows a video from her smartphone that someone took in the shelter. In the screen, she pouts her lips, juts her hips. Belt blows her nails, replaces the stem in her vagina.
Harried uses Pallet’s body spray on her neck. It smells like vanilla. Belt takes it, spritzing herself and the outsider’s hair before dropping the bottle in her purse when she thinks no one’s looking.
The man with the tiger pants sleeps on while the woman on the couch rises.
The smoking, shooting friends trail downstairs and disperse without speaking on the sidewalk.
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