Something is in the air. My accupuncturist friend says it’s “crazy season.” Last night my children would not stop jumping like jack in the boxes no matter how much I put my thumb on their heads.
This morning a woman walked onto the courtyard like a queen from her carriage. She began shouting at anyone and nothing.
“I want a fucking bed!” came roaring at one staff member.
“I want my drugs!” was hurled at another.
Heads were gunna roll.
Most everyone on skid row is a ticking bomb. It’s just a matter of time before the last straw breaks. It’s hard to tell what came first, the mental illness or the addiction. Sometimes I feel that if I stay here long enough I’d join right into the song, crooning like an alleycat at midnight when the other ferals start their party.
Even when I’m hiding in the laundry room I know when something is going down. I can hear the shouting over the whir of the washing mashines and the mechanical clanking of the dryers. The woman’s timer had hit zero.
It always starts with one staff member yelling, trying to talk sense into someone with no reference for why gravity doesn’t point upward. And then like leopards creeping in from the corners of the courtyard, more staff members approach tactically, as they slip on gloves. The gloves are for protection in case they have to physically move the person who cracked. Cracked people have sharp edges. Some of those edges are uncapped needles and some are bleeding cuts and oozing sores.
Fortunately, this woman left without much prompting, shouting expletives over her shoulders as she did so.
A couple hours later a woman carried a complaint of mistreatment to Greg, the supervisor. She was cracking slowly, not all at once like the lady before her. Eventually her rage reached a climactic crescendo and she accused Greg of hitting her. I stood, shocked, wondering how Greg would handle this wrinkle in reality.
He reached accross the counter for his phone.
“Imma call the police right now and report it for you.” And he held the phone up for her to see as he dialed 9-1-1.
“Thas right. I want to press charges.” She seemed delighted that he had saved her a walk to the pay phone.
“Yes, ma’am, I’d like to report myself for allegedly hitting a woman here at XXX San Julian Street. She’s standing right here and wants to press charges.” He pulled the phone away from his ear for a moment to double check with the client, “You said you want to press charges, right?”
“Yes’m.” She had her arms crossed now and was starting to look a little uncomfortable.
“Yes, ok, yes. We will wait right here for you. You say you’ll have a patrol car here in about ten minutes?” And then to the client, “they can have a couple officers here in about 10 minutes so you can give then yo information and ask them to arrest me.”
“They won’t arrest you…” she said, “I don’t wanna cause you no trouble…”
“Well, you want to press charges, right?”
“Oh… are they really coming here? You ain’t really talking to them are you?”
“Yes. Sho am. Here.” And with that, Greg put his phone to the client’s ear.
“Hello? Who is this? Oh. No. No ma’am. I don’t wanna press no charges. I don’t wanna cause no trouble. No need to send the officers here to see me. But I just want you to know, the man DID hit me.”
It was a moment of amazing clarity for me. Love in the face of fear. Boldness in the face of intimidation. Truth and light in the face of lies and insanity. He called her on her claims and diffused the bomb.
These people are pros. Yet, despite this fact, they are rarely treated like the experts they are. All of them but one or two are black. I am by far the only white person in the client area and I am the lowest thing on the totem pole that’s out there. Heck, I’m not even ON the totem pole! I do the work nobody else wants to do. I’m there to learn a lesson and it’s not supposed to be fun.
But for some strange reason, whenever someone comes onto the grounds from another non-profit– a social worker, a medical provider, a community educator– they look at me when addressing staff and asking for direction. They assume that I’m in charge because I’m white.
Racism is alive and well, even here, even now.