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.
Literature addressing the relationship between substance use and physical and sexual violence against women is reviewed briefly. There is substantial evidence of a relationship between men’s substance use and perpetration of physical violence, some evidence of a relationship between women’s substance use and experiences of sexual aggression, but weak evidence that men’s substance use contributes to sexual aggression or that women’s substance use contributes to their physical victimization. Understanding the mechanisms underlying the relationship between substance use and violence relationship will be facilitated by narrowing the scope of research questions to identify for whom there is a relationship and under what circumstances.¹
Sarah, Ramone and Cowboy, Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
There is a house at the end of a street full of normal houses, houses containing their normal dysfunctional families, with padlocked doors and boarded windows. It is long-since abandoned. Someone has broken into a stone next to the foundation so that small people can shimmy in. Eventually, a boarded window is forced open in the back. A single wooden board is laid from window gape to backyard, over a ditch, where larger people can balance up.
Either way, you’re looking at scratches from rusted nails, scraped skin and a fall or two into the unknown, knowing that used syringes likely litter the floor.
Inside is pitch black, where no light can pass the boards concealing the windows outside, where no electricity has run for years. There are three floors. Navigating between them means intuiting where objects are: broken couches, mounds of soiled clothing, once, the skeleton of a cat.
Cat skeleton, Hunts Point. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
There are rooms no one goes near out of superstition (the far room of the second floor), fear (the entirety of the basement), or disgust (the second room towards the back on the third floor). Someone died there on the second; it’s only filled with bottles of urine on the third. The basement is dirt and offers the risk of being trapped if someone bars the upstairs door.
Everything is sealed. Inside is a snare.
The occupants, homeless, have no light. Sometimes they shoplift candles.
At night, when they smoke crack, they become paranoid over their candles and other sounds in the house.
Three women stay upstairs, on the third floor, alone. At times they huddle together in a single twin bed. Sometimes, it’s just two when one passes out. Sometimes they all pass out separately. Separate floor pallets, separate rooms.
A man started showing up thereafter, one who’s been sparsely out of jail for the past 20 years. It’s lucky more like him haven’t found the house.
Cowboy, the man, was named for how good he once was with a gun. Newly released, he wanders, waiting for a check from the government any day now. He shoots crack, gets shirtless, likes to be near females.
He points at his tattoos, gotten in prison. He evades why he was there.
He tells women that they shouldn’t wear what they wear because men can’t help themselves. Men see leg and need to have it. Women should know better about shorts. And sleeveless shirts. And dresses. And high heels. And anything low cut.
His levels of upset rise and fall with the moment and with the amount of crack he does. He says the gangs that operate a couple of blocks down are in a war, so don’t go there. His manner is agitated and fevered.
But don’t worry, if you go there, he’ll protect you. He does it for all the girls.
His hand touches a leg.
The women make attempts to secure their bedroom doors when leaving. When coming back, they glance into the room he usually occupies; they call into the blackness, are met with no response.
They bar the entrance to the third floor with a ladder set perpendicular, shoot their bedtime drugs.
At night, or in the unresting darkness of the wood boards, Cowboy appears in the backgrounds of the bedrooms, into the silence. He sits on edges of beds, grabs for skin he can reach.