Toward the Transient Camp….
There’s a branch of the County’s credit union on the east end of the building, downstairs, and just west, to the left, there’s a drive-through rolling garage door that one can access with their County badge or after speaking with the person at the other end of the button that’s available at the key-pad. The sign above the drive-through garage door said “Employees Only,” so I figured that meant I could park in there, given that I work for the County, as well. After I pushed the button at that key-pad, the speaker-man’s voice said to go ahead and park in the next garage, the one just a bit further west that has a sign over the drive-through door that says “Public Parking.” Whatever….
I learned on a particular summer afternoon that it’s better to park on the right-hand side in that “Public Parking” garage, as the sun will stream in through the mesh-wire covered window spaces and heat your vehicle just as if you were parked outside…and because the pigeons fly in through the open drive-through doorway, perch on the water and electrical conduit over the left-side parking spots, and then shit all over your vehicle for however many hours you’re parked there. Go inside the jail and speak with an inmate, listen to his variously interesting or depressing stories, and then come back out to your roasting vehicle and deal with pigeon crap on your windshield. Park on the right.
There’s a plastic tarpaulin type thing covering the slanted and handicapped-friendly approach to the jail’s public visitation check-in waiting room just south and east of that parking garage. Years ago, that covering wasn’t there and it was only ever hot in that outdoor and public smoking waiting/approaching sidewalk ramp area, only ever hot, cement upon cement, with metal doors and institutional 1960s era buildings that house the low-risk, minimum security prisoners. Of course, back then, in those years ago, I could just walk in through the employee entrance and go straight back to the clinic where the nurse would have the inmate/patient already waiting for me in one of the exam rooms.
But times changed, years passed, regimes came and went, another disease investigator did something stupid and raised the institutional ire of America’s Toughest Sheriff and he or his minions decided that we could no longer have such simple and ready access to his prisoners, could no longer occupy one of his valuable exam rooms for half an hour or longer, and we were then relegated to visiting with the rest of the “privileged” people, the public defenders, chaplains, social workers, probation officers, and other miscellaneous agency volunteers, in the glass or wire-mesh separated individual visitation rooms, or even at one of the handcuff adorned wood laminate covered tables in the larger room.
Those privileged people and uniformed staff could watch and try to read your lips and cameras could watch with their silent eyes, but in those little rooms, you would be away from their direct listening and direct loud voices talking over the other visitors’ questions, asking canned questionnaire questions with flat voices and bored eyes and slow fingers that typed slow answers into open laptops one key at a time, two keys and the space-bar, or the robust look-at-me laughing of fat-cheeked White men with their sweating red faces, backwards collars, and bad breath; we would be away from all of that.
This particular jail had an open room with those dark wood-grain laminate tables and slide-in benches, all of which had been bolted to the tiled floor, all of which had been deemed visitor and inmate friendly and safe and not able to be lifted and thrown at someone in anger or whatever. The tables had a huge “U” bolt affixed to the scarred and worn table-top surface and a pair of handcuffs that the previous sheriff, the toughest one in America, had painted pink, along with the inmates’ boxers, t-shirts, socks, and gelled flip-flop sandal-type shoes (those things weren’t “painted,” but were dyed or manufactured in pink…an apparent insult by said sheriff to the incarcerated manly men?). The pink paint was chipped and flaking off the otherwise chrome-plated handcuffs, maybe somewhat symbolic of the regime that had been removed after 24 years’ time. The inmates’ outfits are orange now, or white with wide black stripes, or maybe black with wide white stripes, whichever you choose, like institutionalized and tattooed zebras with the bold letters of “MCSO” on their backs.
I try to get there early, before the public defenders and questionnaire questioners arrive, try to get one of the visitation rooms on the far side of that great room with the handcuffed tables, which I did manage to do on this particular day. They are small rooms, probably only four by six feet in their floor-space taking dimensions, and they have a smaller dark wood laminate table inside with two bright orange resin chairs with their chrome metal tube legs and back supports. The rooms are so small that one has to move the inmate’s chair to even close the door. And then it’s just you and him in that small room with the window in the door and the narrow dark gray walls and your pen and paper and his pink-paint chipped handcuffs. Rooms 1, 2, and 3 are favored over Room 4, as only Room 4 has exterior windows and catches the ever burning sun. The ventilation in the room sucks and it’s only minutes before you’re starting to feel sticky and irritated. Interviews never go well in Room 4 because nobody wants to be there…and because infrequently showered inmates don’t smell so nice in Room 4.
So I was in Room 2 wearing my three shades of blue plaid button-up untucked collared shirt, blue jeans with a slightly fading left knee, and black and gray New Balance shoes. The patient came into the room with his bright orange jumpsuit, white socks, tan gelled flip-flop sandal type shoes, buzz-cut haircut, multiple tattoos on his face, neck, arms, and hands: tear drops next to the left eye, a woman’s name on his neck, children’s names on his arms, spiderweb on his elbow, and whatever else thrown into the mix, along with his official MCSO inmate ID bracelet. I didn’t wear any tattoos, just a $17 dollar watch from Wal-Mart and a Road-ID wrist band with my emergency contact information so the EMTs or coroner’s office know who to call if I’m found incapacitated (or beyond) while out working in the County or hiking in the desert or mountains.
The man came into the room with a smell so warm and alive, yet nearly dead, like fermented and plastered skin and sweat and oil sheen on an old pillow case, so thick and unwashed that its fibers and weave were lost. It was more than a smell; it was like a cellular mist kind of odor, a vaporous emission with a flavor, a taste that rode from the back of my throat and up into my brain on a rail and informed me at that deepest level that he is dirty and stained, yet human and alive and close to kin, or like a brother, even, that I would know in the dark; his hands were mine, and if I steeled myself enough to look closely, to stare and examine the depths of his eyes, I might see them as my own, or as our fathers’, full of a hope and despair that we might know like the ticking of a clock or the falling of sand down through an hourglass holding the time in our lives, joined and separated as worlds and planets apart, as eons of thought and memory gone, passed unbidden between the cells of our hands in greeting touched.
Still, we were quite a contrast, the inmate/patient and I, sitting in Room 2 of that particular jail a couple of weeks ago. His blood test was positive for syphilis and negative for HIV, he had already received his three weekly penicillin injections, and was going to court the next day with a hopeful release coming shortly thereafter. We spent about an hour talking about his infection, his drug use, his 38 year-old self living between the Street on the east side of town and his aunt’s house on the west, his being a self-professed “entrepreneur” who earned a living by dumpster-diving and rescuing various household items and video game terminals from said trash cans. He said people “get mad and throw everything away…perfectly good cameras, Xbox and PlayStation consoles, watches, iPhones, kitchen appliances, you name it.” He managed to get arrested, this time, he says, after having just climbed out of a dumpster while wearing only his boxers and a pair of socks. He said the police were called about a noise disturbance or some other shit happening in the alley, said he was minding his own business and didn’t notice everyone else running away, said the cops ran his name and then told him that he was going to jail on an old warrant. He asked if he could at least put on his pants and they told him no. The man explained to me that he had finally turned his life around, was focusing on staying out of trouble, taking care of his kids, not using so many drugs, all of it; he was getting squared away and then the police showed up.
The conversation also touched on risk behaviors and sexual partners, those people who could be the source of his infection, or a spread, the unwitting origins or beneficiaries of his known or unknown sore(s), the new homes for his self-grown and cork-screw shaped bacteria that entered their blood streams within 30 minutes of their couplings, that would incubate for three or four weeks and then cause sores on their bodies, on their organs of generation, or in their mouths or nether regions…whatever body part they used for that fleeting act that exposed them to his sore(s). The literature claims that they are painless, the sores, unless they’re infected with another bacteria or virus, and they can be the size of a pinhead or a quarter, so maybe they would be unknown, or maybe they would be noticed and not of concern. At any rate, some would get attention and some would get neglected. The neglected ones would resolve on their own and the sore’s owner would be relieved or still unconcerned…for another couple of weeks or months…until the rash appeared in chicken-pox form, or like a heat rash, or welt-like, but not itching…spots on the palms of their hands and soles of their feet, or chunky wart-like protuberances or wet and snotty sores in their mouths or other mucous membranes…maybe they would even lose their hair, clump-like disappearances, or fading and gone mustaches or eyebrows.
If those things weren’t enough to encourage some health-seeking behavior (medical attention), they, too, would resolve on their own in a matter of time, again bringing relief or unconcern to their bearers, as no treatment is necessary to make them go away; it’s what they do, all on their own. If they’re lucky, it might be many years until anything else happens to them, or if they’re really lucky, they’ll never have another problem, big or small…but if they’re unlucky to any degree, they might start to lose their vision or hearing, they might suddenly have headaches and dizzy spells, difficulty thinking or remembering, or trouble walking upright, they might even suffer a stroke from an aneurysm in their brain…or have any number of other things happen to them.
We talked about those things and the need for him to tell me who he has had sex with so I could find them and get them tested and treated…cured. He was open during the discussion and told me everything I could want to know, told me about the trans-gendered man and the two women he had been with in the last eight months, told me that he met the trans-gendered man at a local Burger King and then walked to a transient camp and had sex with her there, said he met one of the other women at that camp, as well. The man told me what they looked like, how I would be able to tell that they were the people I wanted and not someone else, told me how tall and dark they were, how their faces were thin from drugs and how their noses remained large as their cheeks sunk in over the months, and then gave me the time-frames in which their exposures had occurred. The other person was on the other side of town, closer to where his aunt lived, a girl he met as she was riding her bike through the neighborhood; they had sex in an abandoned house four or five times over a week or so, said he wouldn’t know where to begin to look for her other than by simply walking the streets in that particular part of town.
The transient camp was located at a “T” in the alley that was just south and east of an intersection that I knew well; it happened to be directly east of where we had our clinic in the long-ago. The alley itself hasn’t changed over all this time; it remains a thoroughfare of garbage trucks, a shortcut for neighborhood kids trekking from one place to another, a convenient dumping place for people who live in neighborhoods where they don’t have alleys, and it is now an increasingly utilized space for the growing numbers of un-housed people whose lives have gone to shit by choice or by circumstance.
Within several days of visiting with the man in that particular jail, I went to the streets and found the transient camp in the alley, just where he said it would be. In the photos above, you can see that several someones actually frequented the place, ate there, maybe even slept there, but nobody was there when I visited and nobody has responded to the cards I left for the people on the chairs in the photographs. As evinced by their names, transients are not long in areas where we sometimes find them; maybe a couple of days or weeks, but not likely for months, as was the situation in this case. The man in the jail said he had last seen these people 2-3 and 5-6 months ago…so they could be anywhere now…or nowhere.
***Homelessness in Arizona Annual Report
***Phoenix’s Homelessness Defies Answers
***Central Arizona Shelter Service (CASS)
There was a certain feeling of nakedness and vulnerability that came with being the only visible white person within several blocks…who was also standing on the second-floor landing of an outside staircase in front of a faded and worn, black security door and having an invisible dark-brown voice coming out from somewhere on the other side of the door telling me that I needed to leave…telling me that I needed to go, to be gone, to be absent, to be somewhere else…anywhere else…and away.
It was full daylight on a bright desert weekday in some kind of month when the sun was making my face run with sweat, smack-dab in the middle of the neighborhood at 15th Avenue and Buckeye, easily within the perimeter of the inner to mid-city boundaries of central Phoenix. The address used to be 1502 West Buckeye Road, but the two-building, two-storied, and L-shaped apartment “complex” has gone the way of urban-renewal and no longer exists. It was deemed to be part of the blight in that particular city-council precinct. The corner was now home to just a traffic-signal pole and an empty and graveled lot that sparkled with the detritus and glass of a Mad-Dog and beer-bottle graveyard. People parked there sometimes when they were visiting the tent-revival meetings at the “church” on the south-side of the street and a little east of there…other people parked their taco-wagons and multi-colored, plastic patio chairs there and sold those spring and summer-time evening tacos and birria (goat-meat) burritos to passers-by with a middle-loud to real-loud loud-speaker playing various folk-tunes from south of the border. If you’ve heard them before, you know what I mean when I describe them as sounding like they come from a Bavarian Oktoberfest celebration with the polka-accordion-esque tunes that seem foreign and absurd in their central Phoenix surroundings.
As I said, there was a certain feeling of vulnerability, standing there, elevated as I was, on the back-side of the complex on that four-by-six foot metal platform at the top of the stairs. There was nothing to hide behind and no porch-cover overhead, no posts or poles to hold an awning or sun-shade that no longer existed. It was just my tall-assed, white-male self standing there beneath the sun with that soft dark voice talking to me through the security door. I didn’t even have to knock –
“Hey,” I said, as I was held-up my ID tag. “I’m with the health department….”
What do you want?
“I work at the clinic and I’m looking for So-and-so….”
I know who you are, he interrupted, put that thing down.
“Oh…ok…. Well, I need to talk with So-and-so. Is she here?”
I said you need to put that thing down…really…you need to leave, man.
“Ok…it’s really important that I talk with her….”
I know that, man, but you need to leave…please.
Yes, he really said “please.” He was articulate and warm and kind and sounded like he didn’t belong there, either.
I almost whispered, “Alright, can I leave a card for her?” as I was pulling-out a card and envelope and pen and turning sideways to look back and around and into the neighborhood.
No, man, you have to leave, and don’t be turning around like that.
His voice was urgent, yet gentle…like it was coming from someone who was almost my friend…someone who, if he was in a different place, would be my friend, big brother, or mentor. It felt like he was trying to protect me…to urge me away and back into some kind of safety where I belonged.
I tried to hand him my business card, not the one that I would have had to stand there longer to write on, but just my card.
Put that down, man. Don’t try to give me anything. Just go. I’ll tell her. Go on now.
So…I left. I walked back down the sun-faded and shiny and greasy and dirty staircase and out through the alley and toward my car. I fought against the urge to turn and look back at the door I had just left, so I occupied my mind and eyes with slowly panning side to side, searching for other people and eyes that might be looking in my direction. Maybe they were inside other houses or buildings and sitting behind the partially closed mini-blinds that faced the sunward side of the alley and street where I walked…maybe they were in the truck or van that drove down the street and turned away and gone.
What was there? What was going to happen or might have happened…what did I walk into…or away from on that long desert day in that whatever month where the sun was hot and bright on my face?
…you need to leave…please….
****This is a Favorite Re-post from March, 2010