“I had the remote first and was here before any of you, and I want to watch SNL!” Eunice’s voice boomed through the women’s wing of the homeless shelter. Standing at over six feet of elderly substantial weight, not many people argued with her. Eunice was angry and crotchety most of the time, but I had glimpsed her rare soft side as well.
“Well we have been watching what you want for over an hour and I’m tired of it!” Terry, Eunice’s small and skinny counterpart flared back. Several women in the small lounge voiced their agreement.
Outnumbered, Eunice threw down the remote, hefted herself out of the cheap recliner she had occupied and lumbered away, huffing her rage.
No sooner had Eunice turned the corner and the six or so other women crowded around the small box TV at the homeless shelter flipped the channel back to Saturday Night Live. Not having heard of the show before, I watched and laughed with the other homeless women as the “Jizzed in My Pants” music video rolled across the glass screen. At nineteen years old, I was far younger than the other residents but after logging nearly a week in the shelter, I was beginning to make friends in spite of the age gap.
The secure door behind me beeped and clacked open. A human services worker entered, pushing a cart laden with colorful donated bedding. Behind the worker was a girl roughly a couple years older than me, entering with her head down. I had made that same walk, cart and all just a week earlier and my heart silently went out to the girl. They walked briskly by, down the hall and into the room which I had been assigned to. No longer interested in “Jizzed in My Pants”, I slid off the writing desk I’d been perched atop and followed the pair into the room.
I didn’t particularly like the human services worker who had escorted the new girl into the wing, but my curiosity overrode all else. The room, in stark contrast to the sterile white prison hallways of the shelter, was filled with color. Four bunks, situated carefully within the space, centered around a single handicap bathroom which the eight of us shared. The wooden bunks were draped in every imaginable color and fabric: recent finds from thrift stores across the town were freely exchanged in the market that was our room.
I pretended to preoccupy myself with a reading packet in my bunk as the worker rattled rules, times and classes off at the girl and departed, pushing the cart ahead of her as she left the room. As the formidable rumble of its wheels faded, I studied the girl curiously. She didn’t give me long to ponder.
“What’s your name? I’m Allie.” Her voice was surprisingly chipper and charismatic.
I peered from my top bunk into hers, roughly five feet apart. Allie was making up her bed with a clearly handmade donated quilt. I wondered for a moment if the loving hands that had formed the blanket had intended it to end up in this transient place.
“I’m Skye. Been here like a week. Hey you made sure not to report if you drink or anything right?” I remembered how a helpful soul had told me the same and how it spared me from regular drug testing and mandated AA meetings.
“I think so. My mom and dad dropped me off. I hope they didn’t tell the staff.” She chatted as casually as if we were sitting together during high school lunch.
Allie hopped down from her bunk, seized a bathtub-sized purse and began folding the contents and placing them in her assigned cubby. She grinned at me and I suddenly noted her straight, white teeth and designer clothes. Her tangles of long brown hair framed her peaked but warm face. This girl, I realized, was much more like me than anyone else here.
“So what’s your deal then? How come you’re moving into the Hilton?” I used slang I’d picked up around the shelter automatically and had to remind myself what was funny when she laughed.
“Dad went through the roof. I stole some stuff from him to get loaded and I didn’t have anywhere else to go.”
“What’s your poison?”
“I’m an upper kind of girl. Crack was starting to get to me so I switched to meth.”
I nodded. Many of my friends loved stimulants, or ‘uppers’. I had used them for the better part of a year myself but had developed a love for ‘downers’.
“So what then? Are you off now?”
“Yeah I have to go take a drug test in the morning and then I guess I’m done. Once I’m clean Mom and Dad will let me come back.” Allie sighed casually as the words slipped from her mouth, but the wist left in the corners of her eyes didn’t escape me.
I leaned back into the corner my bunk occupied. Kids my age weren’t doing so well. Not only was the Recession in full swing; we were in Michigan, one of the states hit hardest. Someone had told me that the Burger King in town had a part time job opening earlier that day; I had hopped a bus to apply immediately. Even so, my application was one of several hundred before the job was ever posted. If kids my age weren’t away at college, they were lucky to be living with parents and working minimum wage jobs. In that time and place, the opportunity to get help from family that could afford to help was the difference in having a future and not. Allie, I realized, still had not lost all hope.
“What about you Skye? What do you like? Where’s your family? You look like a baby; you don’t belong here.” Allie’s brown eyes connected with mine. Now settled in her bunk, we faced each other above the rest of the room.
“Uh I’m still coming down. I’ve got to get clean again so I can join the military. Smack and drones are my favorites but I’ve never tried a bad drug. I’m not that young. I just have a baby face.” My voice rose in protest at someone my age referring to me as a baby.
“How much time do you have?” She looked at me, warmth emanating from every question in spite of my answers.
“This is going to be my second night off smack.” I couldn’t hide the dread in my voice for what the night’s cold sweats held.
“Oh honey. Are you going to be ok? What are you coming down with?”
“I’m going cold turkey. I just want to get it over with so I’m not taking anything to help.” I could smell the naiveté of my words but held fast.
Our conversation was cut short as a distant beep and clack echoed down the bleached hallway, followed by a growing rumble. Allie and I looked at each other questioningly; it was far too late for anyone else to be permitted into the shelter under normal circumstances. The door to the room swung open, pushed by the usual heavy-duty gray cart, covered in the usual donated bedding. The worker rattled off the usual directives, swiftly unloaded the cart and was gone within the minute; shift change was near, I realized.
The woman left to the final empty bunk in the furthest corner of the room from me stood, still by the door, looking overwhelmed. Before anything more than surprised introductory stares could be made between the three of us left in the room, the door behind the woman breezed open and the rest of our bunkmates flowed around her, readying for bed. Not willing to wait hours on end for everyone’s bathroom routine, I reacted accordingly, swinging my small frame down from my bunk and seizing my backpack. Few people in the shelter other than my room mates knew I owned a laptop and fewer still had actually seen it. It went with me everywhere, including the shower. Sleeping with my arms wrapped around the bag had proven to be an important choice; my cubby had been forced open more than once in obvious search of it.
As I swung the shoulder strap onto one arm, I heard a muted clatter. My unzipped bag had catapulted the laptop out of the bag and in a small arc before crashing onto the new woman’s quilt on the floor. Exposed in all its new, expensive glory, I stammered and hid the computer from view as quickly as possible. If word got to the wrong people in the shelter about exactly how nice my computer was, I stood a much higher chance of getting stabbed for it.
As I straightened, laptop safely tucked out of view once again, I stood face to face with the new woman. I’d forgotten she was there in the sudden bustle, but staring her full in the face, she had my attention. I tried to look past the crazed stare in her eyes and stuck my hand out to break the awkward exchange.
“Hey. I’m Skye. How did you get in here so late? You ok?” One thing I was beginning to love about being homeless was skipping pretense.
For a moment I though her eyes would burn a hole through the bag I held. Her eyes focused intently, they flicked up to meet mine.
“Nice laptop.” Her words were crisp as the perfect golden apple crunch, loaded with meaning. Her demeanor changed sharply as I watched clouds roll in behind her eyes. “Lisa. I’m Lisa. I…I..just got out of the hospital and they left me here.” She seemed foggy, as if she suddenly wanted clarity for the sake of feeling panic for her situation.
“What are you sick with?” I didn’t know what else to ask.
“Honey; you said you’re Lisa right? Do you have a bag? The elderly woman assigned to the bunk above Lisa beckoned reassuringly to her. The instant the energy and attention in the room shifted, I stepped backward silently into the bathroom.
As I set my backpack in the bathroom and clicked the door shut, I heard the women flocking around Lisa, clucking about sizes and colors and cute boobs. Behind the safety of the polished wooden door, I looked down at the backpack. If I got rid of my laptop, no one would believe me and so long as it was known how much value I carried on my person, I was in danger. To my surprise, I heard a knock on the bathroom door. I cracked it open and peered out; it was Allie.
“Hey is it cool if I do girl mirror stuff while you shower? That lady is giving me goosebumps.” For the first time, Allie seemed a little uneasy.
In spite of my usual obsessive modesty, I let her in and closed the door behind her.
“She’s from the psych ward, isn’t she?”
“That’s what I heard the worker say on her way out.”
“Did you see the way she looked at my computer?”
“Girl, you know it. You need to do something.”
“What am I going to do? I sleep with it.” My voice rose in exasperation and the bunk room fell suspiciously silent.
“Well if you’re really doing cold turkey, you’re not doing any sleeping tonight. Let’s talk in the morning.” Her voice reassured me; surely someone was thinking clearly.
It was a strange night to lie through.
My bunkmate, a sweet quiet woman in her 60’s, had horrific gas every night. The first time I’d choked on the nightly surprise, I’d gotten down immediately from my bunk to brush my teeth. As the organic cloud wafted up each night, I had adopted a habit of rolling myself in my blanket facedown for the first few hours of the night. When staff came in to do the nightly headcount, they would often mistake me for a blanket and put me down as missing.
I listened to the usual sounds of final headcount: snores, a beep, clack, a loud knock down the hall, then a closer one as the staff member worked her way down to my room at the end of the hall. The same people grumbled in loud protest every night as each room was checked. As count ended and I heard a final clack down the hallway, I new sound greeted my ears.
Allie, attempting vainly to navigate the belongings strewn around the room stumbled into the bathroom. I heard her bathtub bag hit the tile floor and then the sound of the rushing tap roared through. Twenty minutes went by and the tap continued to run, drowning out any telling sounds from the bathroom.
Suddenly again aware of my withdrawals, I shivered. I knew it was pointless to change out of my freezing, soaked clothes; I could sweat through five sets. Rolling onto my back and hugging my laptop closer to my chest, I stared at the dirty ceiling not far from my face. I wondered for the millionth time why I was trying to get clean; for everything my recruiter had told me, I knew how impossible it would be to clear my name and join the military from a homeless shelter. I watched my demons make shadow puppets of my fears with the limited moonlight streaming into the hibernating room. I was going to die here, they laughed. Something beyond the pain and despair consuming my body felt off, but I’d given up asking questions. Eventually, I drifted off.
I woke around 5am to waves of nausea. I leapt from my bunk, bag in hand, to make it to the toilet in time. In the habit of swinging from my bunk almost directly into the bathroom, I woke up with a thud and slid to the floor, nose bleeding. The door was closed; the tap was still running and Allie was nowhere to be seen.
The pain only held the contents of my stomach back long enough for me to dive to the room trash can and retch noisily. Feeling somewhat better, I jammed a tampon in my nose to stop the bleeding and bagged up the trash and put it in the hallway for when I was allowed to take it out. I clambered up to my bunk and looked inquisitively over towards the bathroom door; even after smashing full force into the door, there were no signs of life beyond the roaring of rushing water. I dozed off.
8am came within a blink. As the PA speaker four feet from my head blared, I groaned myself upright and shook my head lightly from side to side. I looked over at Allie’s bunk, but she was gone. Two bunk mates, preparing to leave for the morning, were talking about something that just happened. I always sleep through the cool stuff, I thought as I tuned in.
“So that’s it then? She just sat up and threw up all over herself and left?” The pregnant girl whose name I could never remember sounded surprised.
“Yeah. I thought she was like, going to tell the staff, but she just didn’t come back.” The other girl sounded disgusted.
“She wasn’t using last night though! It would have woke me up!” I had nicknamed the pregnant girl, my foggy mind told me. That’s right; I had named her Shino the Fung-Fu Princess and for some reason, she had loved it.
“She was in the bathroom all night with the tap on.” I had sat up and was trying to rub the confusion from my eyes.
The girls stared at me, realizing what had likely happened in the bathroom. Suddenly aware of the tampon in my nose, I tried to continue as my face reddened.
“Did you see any needles?” Shino the Fung-Fu Princess had expressed worries about sharing bathrooms before. She placed her hand protectively on her belly.
“I didn’t see any. I just know I’m leaving before they ask me to clean up her puke.” The other girl shouldered her coat and the two left, still chatting.
I had an appointment with my case manager that morning at 10am, so I was not required to leave with everyone else. I lay back, considering sleeping longer until my back hit my icy, wet sheets. Giving up, I pulled the tampon from my nose and climbed from my bunk.
In order to be granted time extensions at the shelter, residents were required to contribute and sign up for daily chores. The smell of vomit in the room was beginning to permeate the hall, so I gloved up and starting bagging the bedding. As I shoveled the handmade quilt into a biohazard bag, I again wondered what the hands and heart that had formed its folds had imagined for it. Drawing the bag shut and grabbing the bag I’d left in the hall, I made my way to the dumpster.
I killed my first hour rocking the mop more as a microphone than as a bleach smearer, lip syncing Rilo Kiley and singing for real when I was sure I wasn’t being heard. I worked my way through the community halls and backwards through the Family Wing and into the Women’s Wing. I dragged the mop bucket through the door and made my way down the hall to start by my room. Somewhere through my imagined jam session, the sound of knocking cut through. Startled and embarrassed, I turned to face the person who had caught me. It was Allie.
I let her in, feeling the winter air that still clung to her coat. We stared at each other, friendship reformed at her return.
“How did you get through last night?” She seemed genuinely concerned for my haggard appearance.
“It sucked. It all sucks.” We knew the truth of withdrawals too deeply to pretend. She nodded.
“Listen, I don’t really like downers. I was going to use these to help me come down but I think you need them more. You’re actually going to use them to get clean. You deserve them.” As Allie spoke, she rustled her bathtub bag to her other arm, reached into her coat and withdrew pain pills.
I don’t remember reaching out to take the pills. My eyes flashed and suddenly my upward facing palm held the three pills, tiny even in my hand. ‘They could help,’ I thought for a moment. ‘They could soften this.’ If I took the pills and nothing more, my withdrawals would be doable.
I stared intently at the tic-tac sized pills. Though I know the moment didn’t last longer than a few seconds, my mind held hours of conferences. I saw nothing beyond the contents of my palm, willing for them to somehow absorb through my skin. For the first time in my life, the spell suddenly broke long enough for me to speak.
“I….I..wow that’s nice. I can’t. I really have to get it over with and I only have a couple more bad nights.” My hand remained open between us. She didn’t reach for the pills.
“Skye do you see how dope sick you are? I’ve barely been here and I know how worried everyone is about you. Take them.” It was hard for her to say and offer, I realized. Her face mirrored mine, focused on my hand. It was a real sacrifice; I knew she needed the pills to prevent a more painful withdrawal than mine.
“Allie, listen to me. Don’t look at it now, but there is a ceiling camera directly behind me and they watch it. My back is blocking these; they’re going to search me anyways. Please, please don’t get kicked out. I’ll be ok. I promise.”
Embracing me in a hug, Allie slid the pills back into her pocket and eyeballed the camera pointed directly at the door, where we stood.
“You saved my ass you know. They said if I hadn’t come back and cleaned up they were going to kick me out. You did that, didn’t you?” I smiled, thankful to have easier conversation.
“No biggie. The ladies cleaned up my puke and let me sob all night my second night.” I giggled in shame.
That evening, the shelter was deluged in red and blue lights; Lisa was being picked up on serious warrants that had surfaced during the day. I arrived back at the shelter from a long day of walking right before 10pm curfew, nearly directly passing her as she was led out of the shelter. Exhausted, soaked and freezing, I scarfed down a Meals on Wheels, took a hot shower and went straight to bed. Hoping my fatigue would carry me through the last brutal night of withdrawals, I lay facedown in my bunk and let it pull me into the depths of blackness.
I awoke the next morning to almost the same scenario as the day before; Allie had run the tap all night in the bathroom again, puked all over herself and left. The girls told me not to clean up the mess and went to tell a staff member.
I never saw Allie again, but two months later I got an update.
Sitting in my hometown’s central bus station, I could usually overhear enough conversation to update me on how other transients were faring. My Zune on this particular day had broken and I sullenly jammed it into my windbreaker jacket. My bus pulled in and I boarded, noting the bus driver was the guy who would give women a monthly pass for blowjobs. Plopping down in one of the few available seats, I turned and found myself sitting with a guy who had left the shelter around the same time as Allie. The man had been rattled by ‘crazy shit wit dem clinks’ and wanted to update me on what had happened. As the bus rumbled from the station, I listened in shock.
Allie had been kicked out of the shelter and couldn’t seem to find anywhere to stay. Knowing her parents were on spring break vacation, she had slipped into their house and stayed in her room. Unfortunately, Allie hadn’t just been lonely; she’d been high too.
Allie invited three other couples from the shelter to come stay with her at her parents’ house. For nearly two weeks, my homeless friends had been driving the family BMW and sports cars, selling items off for drugs, etc. Her parents, having a strange feeling, decided to come home from vacation early and had called the police as soon as they got home, opting to press full charges against Allie.
The man, who said he had been the primary BMW driver, had slipped out through the back woods when the police were called. As the bus crunched through morning ice and hardened snow, he laughed as he told me she was facing a minimum 17 year sentence. I stared at him, shocked. ‘How is that going to help her?’ I wondered.
Eight years later, I went looking for Allie. In order to protect her identity, her name has been changed. Her first mugshot looked like sicker and tattooed version of the charismatic, designer Allie I had known. I wasn’t able to get in touch with her but her life laid out on her novel-long rap sheet told me she never got the help I was given. Her most recent mugshot left me in silence.
‘This can’t be right’ I thought again and again as I clicked through records. Casting out to be disproved, I shot Shino the Fung-Fu Princess the records. She confirmed the picture. Still in denial, I made some calls before admitting that this is what has happened to my friend.
I think of Allie often now as I drive past the darkest corners of the city and wonder: what help could have saved or still could save Allie? What help could have saved her family?
Like what you read? Don’t forget to like, subscribe and share!