This post is part of a collaborative narrative series composed of my writing and Chris Arnade's photos exploring issues of addiction, poverty and prostitution in Hunts Point, Bronx. For more on the series, look here.
Michael walked into the bodega, hand at his sternum. Loud inhales, softer exhales. He said it hurt to breathe. He wanted a lift to the hospital.
Two days ago, drug dealers beat him up, guys called Mellow and Snap. Michael owed them $10 and couldn't pay. Knowing what was coming, he ducked into a corner of a building and covered his face while the two kicked and punched his back and chest.
From then on, when alone in his bedroom, blood laced his spit. That morning, he began to show trouble breathing. He asked to sit instead of stand, and shuffled slowly, in opposition to his usual hurry.
He sought the hospital, despite not having been in a while and his lack of Medicaid benefits.
Before leaving, though, he needed a fix.
The neighborhood wisdom said hospitals don't offer reprieve for dope sick patients, no methadone or subutex tie-over. A few months earlier, Charlie and her girlfriend Jen were jumped and beaten by a group of men. Bleeding, swollen and concussed, they managed to cop drugs on the way to the ER. "You have to wait at hospitals for hours sometimes."
Because of his trouble getting around, Michael asked Eric, a former street roommate, to buy heroin for him. Eric was clean, freshly out of detox and careening around the streets, invigorated at the prospect of turning his life around, at staying away from triggers. Still, Michael begged. After a deliberation riddled with gaps of silence, Eric left with the money, an act of selflessness. He knew how it was to be sick.
As Eric returned, the Tactical Narcotics Team (TNT) slid out of a black car and pressed him against the wall, searching. Michael shrugged and spoke of karma amidst his laughter, glad he himself wasn't getting caught.
The police found nothing, as the dealers had been tipped off that cops were around and, thus, weren't selling. The neighborhood was hot today.
Michael, seemingly immune to his friend's near arrest and subsequent anger, scurried to a pay phone, inserting coin after coin for another dealer. No answer.
Michael at a pay phone. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.
His walk was getting faster, his insistence, more forceful. He wasn't going to the hospital dope sick. His breathing no longer sounded labored.
He left to find someone, anyone, with heroin.
After a few street sweeps, he reappeared, a pinched cigarette in his lips. He had flattened it like a joint in his anxiety. More names and directives tumbled from his mouth -- tents, buildings on certain streets, people in front of certain stores. His face suddenly pinched like the cigarette, tears building. "I can't do this anymore. I'm tired. I'm tired. I just want…"
He put his palm to his nose, fingers over his eyes to stifle the tears before regarding the world again.
It took Michael another hour and a half to palm a hit, to find a dealer worth taking the risk of a sale, and for all the effort, the quality wasn't good. Still, he eased back to himself after shooting, body and personality melding, the ride to the hospital full of jokes.
While navigating buildings and corners, his health symptoms had waned. Now, he speculated: maybe his hepatitis was acting up. He had the European strain, so it never went into remission. But maybe he punctured a lung. He had had collapsed lungs before.
Whatever it was, he dragged on a cigarette outside of St. Barnabas, pinch gone.
Michael outside of St. Barnabas Hospital, Bronx. Courtesy of Chris Arnade.