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.
So…I took my camera to work the other day….
What is that sound, that scratching, that tapping away, that scraping and prying I heard along the way. I passed down the hallway, around the corner and into my room; I heard a shuffling, a movement, and a something-is-there kind of sound. What is that gnawing, that board coming loose, that crack of a something being pressed against and pushed into, forced to be somewhere it wasn’t, and then. I saw the doorknob turning, heard the pin and tumbler move aside, the light from the window caught on the bronze and tarnish and sought my eye, that twinkle where a twinkle wasn’t just a moment before. What caused that thing, that coming to, that vapor from a floorboard, and that mist between the hinges, what could it be…that tiny kind of burning when I started to pee?
A telephone call from a stranger’s place, an office with signs and slogans on the wall, pamphlets in display cases, numbered tickets on the floor, a welcoming eye and a wavering smile, those things greeted me and disturbed my peace, different words from that stranger’s place on that cloudy afternoon. I took the elevator to the second floor and could have sworn there were rats in the walls. The cabin loomed with its scratching sound, that scrape and tear at the insides from something there….
The nurse was gentle, she was not unkind, even with the purple gloves that lifted the boys and pulled back the hood…but there’s no amount of peace or distraction that can help one not notice a swab being stuck into Mister Johnson and slowly turned and dragged along that tender opening in the effort to collect some kind of hiding or tucked away cells from their resting place within the membranes’ coating…it’s gonna hurt, plain and simple…probably…unless you’re one of those guys who like that kinda pain…with the rings and piercings and, well you know what I mean. Anyway…it would have been so much easier if I had just waited to pee…no scraping and grinding and….
…and what are you, I said to that thing? “I am the thing that you thought you’d hidden away, that secret, that something that was lost even to your memory. I’m that laboratory finding, the antibodies’ keys, the hooks and pins, and whatnots, and the swirls of helices in your pee, the elemental bodies in your babies’ eyes, the cysts in your belly and the rash between your thighs. I’m the dysplastic cells in your girlfriend’s womb that means your cauliflower garden is about to bloom. I am that drip, that burn, that strain, that clap, that chancre and rash, those blisters and bumps on your secret place and places and that goopy something leaking from your nether region…I’m the substance of things you never hoped for and the evidence of things you can’t see…I’m that disease you caught in your stolen or random intimacies, your rendezvous-es, and your closing-time hook-ups…. I didn’t come from a toilet seat or a hot-tub or a door-handle or a soiled seat in a locker-room…you got me, you caught me, and you catched me, too, when you got down and dirty, doing the nasty, plowing furred furrows and other kinds of things…and now here I am…the skeleton in your closet…come knockin’ again….
More memories from the STD Clinic Journal….
November 8, 1996 – I spent a couple more hours in Estrella Jail this morning. I conducted two interviews on patients for whom we had been looking since July of this year.
Crystal B. was finally in jail long enough to receive her twice-daily doses of Doxycycline. The last time I had spoken with her, she was released the next day and never made it to the clinic. She had sworn that she would make it to the clinic so she could be “cured.” It never happened. Since August 7th, her blood had risen from 1:128 to 1:256, bringing forth new symptoms of the infection. This time, she had vaginal and perineal lesions. The chart said that she may also have herpes.
I mildly admonished Crystal, telling her how I had driven for hours, several times, trying to find her on the street. I also told her that one of my partners had driven around looking for her, as well. Even “ex” prostitutes have feelings – Crystal’s blue-green eyes filled with tears as she told me that she had made a mistake. I wasn’t looking directly at her, and not seeing the tears, continued with my scolding. I told her that I wasn’t concerned with all the aspects of her life, I was just interested in how this disease had come to play. When I looked up and saw her tears, I felt that I should back-up and go more slowly. “Can’t a person make a mistake, huh? We all make mistakes, don’t we?” Crystal asked. Yes, I said; we all make mistakes. I was just concerned that she was going to become sicker and possibly spread the disease further. She assured me, kind of, that she hadn’t had contact with anyone since both of her sex partners were locked-up. She denied any contact with dates. Crystal could have been acting, but she seemed sincere.
Crystal had been on twice-daily Doxycycline for about a week now, halfway to her cure. The sores were healing nicely and she said she’s feeling better about herself. She said that she is tired of this life, here in Phoenix. Crystal said that she never had a record till she moved here. Now, at 24yo, she is ready to move back to California where her family and children are. Crystal told me that she will be released on November 21st and hopes to leave right away. My proof of this move and restart on a new life will happen when the health department from her California town calls to let me know that she has had her blood tested again. We’ll see what happens.
After leaving the jail, I went to the field to try to locate a person with 1:128 dilution blood that had just been released from another jail. The person didn’t even know the results yet. I had spoken with Stephanie at the jail this morning and she had given me the address and phone number, supposedly belonging to the patient’s uncle. I had already called the number and left a message, so now, in the field, I hoped to be able to speak with the patient face to face.
Approaching the door, I wondered if this was really where the patient lived. I am almost ashamed to say it, but the house did not fit the stereotypical house of a young, black male who was recently released from jail. As it turned-out, the house was that of his girlfriend. She, Nicole, answered the door, and to my question about whether or not Sammy lived there, she replied that he did. After I learned that she was his girlfriend, I told her that both she and Sammy needed to come to the clinic. Suddenly, Nicole’s face changed from a look of curiosity to one of fear. Then, just as suddenly, she recognized me. She said, “You came to my school and did a talk on STDs. You’re from Maricopa….”
Nicole recognized me from the presentation I conducted at her school, The Center for Xxxxx, where my wife was serving her internship for the BSW program as ASU. Nicole remembered the pictures of syphilis and gonorrhea. The realization of who I was and what I represented slowly spread across her face. She assured me that she and Sammy would be to the clinic that day, and they were. Nicole ended-up having the infection and was treated the same day. Sammy ended-up being the dog, having at least two other sex partners, completely unbeknownst to Nicole.
It’s now March 28, 1997, and I’m just now finishing this entry. Nicole didn’t return to The Center for Xxxxx until just last week. Five months have passed since she was there, working on her GED so she could become independent of her family’s support and get a job on her own. Nicole never mentioned anything to my wife about that afternoon in November, she did, however, ask her to tell me “thank you.” For several weeks after Nicole failed to return to The Center, my wife and I occasionally discussed the situation. I had resolved to go past the house and check-in on her under the guise of follow-up for the syphilis. I never made it to the house, and further, don’t know if that would have been a good thing to do or not. Maybe things would have been too difficult for her in the face to face encounter that would have occurred in her doorway or in the front yard of her house. At any rate, she is back in school and it’s almost time for me to get back to The Center for another STD presentation. “Thank you” is a small reward, but in this job, it is often everything that we can hope for. A few times in my almost eight years here with the county, a patient has ended-up dead, sliced to bits and tossed into a garbage dumpster after finding-out she had something and subsequently telling someone else of her situation. I will take the “thank you” any day. It means more to both Nicole and me than words can really describe. Not that I thrive on the appreciation of my clients, it just doesn’t come often, and is, therefore, a real reward. Thank you, Nicole.
Here we go again….
April 4, 1997 – I went to Estrella Jail this morning to talk with two syphilis cases. I found there, two very different, yet similar, individuals. Mary Lou, who my partner, Sylvia, knows as “Lulu,” is 40yo and has been prostituting for 27 years. She started this mess when she was 13yo. Mary Lou was either kicked-out of the house or simply left at that age and started dancing at one of the clubs in town. She said that she carried herself like a woman and convinced the manager that she was really 22yo. He never asked for her ID. Mary Lou said that as she was dancing, some of the guys would talk about how they wanted to do things with her. She said, “That’s fine, but if you want to fuck me, you’re going to pay for it.” That began her 28 year career as a prostitute in Phoenix. She said that she is ready to retire, though. She is just waiting for that golden watch so she can quit in style. Mary Lou is very straight-forward, a characteristic which Sylvia says has always been hers. They know each other from childhood. Sylvia said that Lulu had always been the black-sheep of the family, her sisters would have relations with several people on the side, but Lulu would at least charge for it. This lady said that it is too dangerous to be on the street anymore. When she first started, a girl could go out on the street and within just a few hours, make about two hundred dollars and there was nothing to worry about. There were no beatings and no worry that one of the dates would turn bad and kill you. Now, she says, the money isn’t very good because there are so many girls on crack who will get fucked or suck someone’s dick for five or ten dollars, sometimes even less. And now, too, you have to worry about AIDS. In the old days, the worst thing around was herpes. Syphilis and gonorrhea could always be cured, but not herpes, and now, not AIDS. So, Mary Lou wants to retire and move up to Globe and get a job, something she’s never had, maybe working at “Jack in the Crack,” she says. Mary Lou is about five-five or six, weighs probably 155 or 165, big-breasted and flat-bottomed. Her mouth is foul and full of the street. She and I are both surprised that she has lived so long. When I asked if she had any children, she said no, “He (looking upward) has taken care of that.” She has had two miscarriages and one tubal pregnancy. Mary Lou said that He knew what her life was like and took care not to allow her to have any kids. That throws a twist into my picture of what God does and doesn’t allow. I know another lady of the street, Von, AKA: Lepizia, who is my age and has eight children; had nine, she said. Being only thirty-five with her oldest child turning 21 this year means that Von had her first baby when she was 14yo. What does God allow and disallow? Who can tell?
Anyway, Lulu is looking to change her life, and that is good, we agreed. She has been smoking cocaine, pot, crack, and all other types of things for these many years. Her mind seems to be all there. The whole time we were talking, Lulu was hitting on me, asking if I was married, telling me that I looked fine. She is a character who, in herself, is a whole book. She said she is going to look me up when she gets out of jail in June. I told her that she, Sylvia, and I could sit and talk for a while.
The next person I talked with at the jail today was a 20yo Hispanic girl named Martha. After talking with Lulu and having a pleasant time, it appeared that things would be different with Martha. She seemed sullen and removed, almost business-like when I began telling her why I was there, explaining her test results, etc. She appeared to be the “typical” hard-nosed Chicana from the street. Her eyes had the dark underlining that is common with some of the Hispanic girls. Martha’s eyes were also beautiful, very dark, almost black. She was missing her top front four teeth, which, I later learned, were lost in a car accident that she had when she was high on crack. Only a steel cable had prevented her car from falling from the overpass at Van Buren Street and the freeway. As it was, Martha lost those teeth and cut a big gash in her right eyebrow. The doctors told her that she was in a coma for seven hours following the accident. When I asked Martha how long she had been prostituting, she told me that she started when she was 14yo, so that has been six years. I also asked Martha why she started selling herself and she explained that an aunt had given her a hit from a crack pipe when she was 13yo and she had to have it from then on. So the prostitution was a way of “earning” the money to buy the crack. Where was Mom at this point, or Dad, or anyone else who could have made a difference? Mom left her when she was six years old and she was sent to live with her grandparents in Payson. Martha explained that she had two different sides of her family. One, she described as living off of food-stamps and welfare, the others were very well-off. Her grandfather or uncle, I forget which, is a judge and is living very well. These are the grandparents with whom she lived after her mom dumped her and ran off with a boyfriend and Martha’s older sister. What does that tell a child, Mom ran off with sister and not you? Well, her mom came back when she was 11yo, and deciding that she was old enough to “wipe her own ass,” as a friend put it to me, she took her with her, back into whatever life she had carved for herself. This became the introduction into the life which she herself now lived, but being of her own mind, having a brain of her own, she said, she is responsible for everything that happens in her own life. Nothing that has happened to her is anyone’s fault but her own, she said. I countered that with the responsibility that her parents, mom or whomever had to her when she was only 13 and 14yo, should have prevented half of the shit that happened to her. Well, she responded, she was witness to her mother’s boyfriend killing her mother’s brother when she was only 11yo. She was the only witness and ended-up testifying against the boyfriend. The mother then hated her, accusing her of trying to ruin her life by taking away her man, rather, having him put away. If this isn’t enough for one person to endure, two years later, Martha watched yet another boyfriend of Mom stab a man and woman to death who were tied into their chairs. Where is God, I wondered? I like angels and have thought that they truly exist, but in situations like this, I begin to wonder if I am not mistaken and there really are no celestial beings whose jobs it is to protect the innocent lives. I am beginning to feel strongly that my wife is correct when she says that there is no God. What loving God could allow this shit to happen? Tell me, Child of God, where is He? Martha spent five months in the state hospital for “crazy” people. “Those people were really fuckin’ weird, talking to themselves all day.” She said that she uses the crack so she doesn’t have to think. I can’t blame her. I asked her what she was going to do when she gets out in August, the day after my birthday, and she said that she doesn’t know. I said that she had been here for two months already and she hadn’t yet figured it out? She said that her mind is just now beginning to get straight. Martha said she was so sick from the drugs that she was down to 112 pounds. She is five-feet eight-inches tall…and she was down to 112lbs. She said that she has gained about 40 pounds since being locked-up and eating three times a day. She wants to go back to the street because she is more comfortable there. “People baby me,” she said. Everything she needs is there and it is exciting. She would go stay with her grandparents, but it is too boring up there. Her grandfather did promise her, though, that if she stayed there for a little while, he would pay to get her teeth replaced, so she is considering that heavily. As I sat there listening to Martha tell me things that had nothing to do with my syphilis investigation, I couldn’t help but just stare into her eyes, realizing how absolutely beautiful she is. It is such a fucking shame that her life has come to this. I know it isn’t over, by far, but where is it going? She graduated from eighth-grade in Adobe Mountain, the state facility for juveniles. She has never had a job and she has a two year old daughter who lives with the biological father. When I was questioning Martha about the one steady contact that she has, a somewhat, but not really, boyfriend, she said that she knows he loves her, and she even admits to herself that she loves him, but she refuses to tell him. She said that if she did let him know in words that she loves him, that is when things would fall apart. I suggested that this might be something that she really needs, to be loved and to love somebody back. Martha agreed, hesitantly, but confessed that it is something that she doesn’t want to do. She added that her boyfriend is probably the best thing for her, but he is too nice to her and she wants someone to keep her in her place. Not someone who is going to be mean to her, mind you, but someone who is more assertive than she is. She says that he’s always kissin’ her ass, trying to make her happy. When I asked if something was wrong with that, she said that she didn’t know, but she probably should try to be with him. The interview ended with her thanking me for making sure she doesn’t get any more shots in the ass, as the nurses had planned, and me wondering what was going to befall this beautiful young girl. Life sure is fucked-up sometimes.
The patients were unremarkable on that particular day, July 17, 1996; however, there was one older man who we treated for secondary syphilis that might be worth mentioning. He was roughly fifty years old and lived around 15th Avenue and Tonto. When describing the situation of his meetings with the unknown people with whom he had sex, he said that it is similar to being thirsty in the middle of the night and going to the refrigerator for a glass of milk. It was that simple. He just goes out to the street, finds some female walking past and asks if she’s interested in having sex. Of course, there are a few dollars that must change hands, and given that this wasn’t one of the more posh districts of town, there were literally only a “few” dollars that must be exchanged. The prostitutes in this part of Phoenix did not require much in exchange for their wares, five to ten dollars, sometimes as much as twenty dollars, was all that one must have to find a willing sex partner on or near West Buckeye Road. Any amount would help them get what they needed in the way of rock cocaine. With the fee paid, they got down to business. They cleared a spot on the alley floor, consummated the act, redressed, and went about their respective ways; the woman continued down the sidewalk and the older man turned the corner and walked back to his house. Free enterprise, supply and demand, capitalism at its finest. Thirsty for a glass of milk in the middle of the night….
My work didn’t hold anything real exciting for me that day…April 7, 1993. I needed to check-up on some near forgotten pieces of paper. They, the pieces of paper, represented people that I’d never seen or known. Up till then, they were just hand-writing images of maladies and locations and the people who owned them.
I went to see Mary…for the fourth or fifth time in the space of a month or so. She lived in a small trailer court that looked like old people lived there…43rd Avenue and Maryland or Missouri, something like that. Gene, her boyfriend, was sort of old, I guessed – late 50’s to 60’s – gray hair on his head and body – spots and scabs all over his arms and legs from the scabies that his prostitute girlfriend brought home to him. She, too, looked old…bad old – even though she was only six to eight years older than I was, her body was thin and weary, her teeth were gone – some “date” that went bad – all beat out of her ragged, road-map wrinkled face.
On that particular morning, Gene greeted me at the door in his underwear and tossed hair. The day’s light was making his eyes squint by themselves – “Mary is in the back in bed” – he told me to come in and go talk to her. I squeezed my way between the couch and chair that was blocking the sliding door. The trailer was stuffy and smelled like warm sleeping bodies. Not dirty, just very warm – so much so that you could smell the oil from their skin. Mary’s face was all wrinkly and shiny from sleep – she stumbled out of the door – skinny body bumping into the door jamb.
Mary said that she knew she needed treatment but hadn’t had the transportation to get there – she smiled and confided that “at least I haven’t been out spreading it.” I gave her a card and told her to come see us – very soon. She glanced at the time and told Gene that “we can come down in the afternoon, see….” I nodded my approval and watched Gene scratch his belly.
My senses were aware of the stillness in the trailer – the warm stuffiness – Mary slid open the window on the back door to let it out and I heard mourning doves in the mulberry trees outside. Sounds that soothed me as I watched an old worn-out prostitute wake-up and realized the day was half over – to me – and just beginning for her.
As I drove to the park, I remembered Mary’s daughter from the last time I came to visit. A younger version of Mary – already tall with long straight brown hair – not a lot of meat on her body – sunken cheeks, small breasts, long white legs, clean thin arms that hadn’t seen hundreds of needles and hot pipes. Little Mary’s eyes were questioning and untrusting as I asked for her mom – “Who are you?” was her answer. How intelligent already, looking out for her mom. “Where does she stay when she’s not here?” I asked. A small smile and a single lifted eye-brow belied the knowledge of what a girl shouldn’t have to know about her mom. I hoped I wouldn’t get papers on Little Mary someday. Maybe she was learning what she didn’t want to become when she grew-up. “She doesn’t have another permanent address when she’s not here.” Of course not…a street corner or drug store parking lot or stretch of road couldn’t really be called a permanent address.
There at the park, sitting in my non-air-conditioned Tercel, parked under the shadiest tree I could find, I listened to the familiar sounds of children playing on the merry-go-round, roller blades rolling and clacking on the sidewalk, wind blowing and moving through the leaves in the branches overhead, and doves coo-cooing in the mulberry across the way. Two years earlier, Mary told me that she shared a shack with Little Mary behind some friend’s house just north of the street where she would work. “She knows that I have to do things so we can eat sometimes and have new clothes for school. I always come home when I can and my friend is almost always there in the front if Little Mary needs something.” Instead of roller blades on the sidewalk, it was the sound of Mary sobbing about being beat-up, thrown out of the van and losing her teeth. Instead of mourning doves in the trees over there, it was mice and other scurrying, scavenging, living things under the bed and outside that you could sometimes see through the chinks in the wall.
Were the miles traveled by Mary going to strengthen her daughter’s resolve not to travel the same road, or were they going to condemn her to the same journey? Did Mary learn this road from someone close to her, or did she stumble onto it by herself? What destructive, violent, self-losing act started this? Would it ever end, or would it only continue to repeat itself? I didn’t know; I still don’t.
Like I had said earlier, it wasn’t going to be too exciting that day, only full – full of every thing and emotion and experience. They were all out there and I would only get to see a glimpse of it that day, any day. I got to feel it, though, and smell it…and sometimes only sense it. That was part of why I loved my job; I got to touch the essence of being alive, of being a human struggling to live.
And it continued…as things did and do…January 13, 1997…and on this day, this one particular day, came the final news about Mary. That inevitable end had come. Eugene, or Gene, came to the clinic because he was named as a contact to syphilis again. “Again” was the third time in the seven years that I had been there at the health department doing that type of investigative work. Gene spoke with my partner, Gilbert, and revealed that Mary had been found dead on West Van Buren about four months earlier. She was just found dead – that’s all. The incompleteness of that answer, the pure lack of substance found therein was nearly as sad as the death itself. “Oh, I don’t know. She was just found dead.” That’s all? That’s all he could tell us, this man who slept with the woman for five or more years? She was just found dead? I wondered…and wonder. I did and do. Mary died in August or September of 1996. While we were all bustling about getting ready to begin the school year, trying on new clothes, getting sports physicals for the fall league, setting about to do whatever we were going to do for that particular Labor Day weekend, Mary died on West Van Buren. Was she shot? Did some bastard date pull a hunting knife on her and slit her throat like the guy did to one of her prostitute friends four years earlier? Did he stick the knife into her belly just above the pubic bone and peel open the skin clear up to her chest like he did to the girl with the cut throat? As skinny as Mary was, it would not be difficult to imagine that she had AIDS and was killed by some vengeful date who thought she had given it to him. That was the rumor then, that dates were killing some of the prostitutes they believed have AIDS. That was the rumor, then….
So, Mary was dead, possibly from an overdose of heroin, a bad grade of cocaine or batch of crack. Maybe even by a sour date. I didn’t know and don’t know, and further, I didn’t know if I would be able to find out. It was too late to contact the Medical Examiner’s Office…too late then…and now. And what about Little Mary…where was she living with her mom gone? Where was she the day she died? Was she at school, at work…on the street…looking for her mom? Was she still living there in the stuffy trailer with her mom and Gene, or was that living arrangement as much a part of the past as the rest of it? With as much time as had gone by, she might have been out on her own already. She might have been in school somewhere, living out-of-state somewhere with her grandparents or an aunt. She could have been in as many places or situations as my imagination could have offered or created. It was possible, too, in recognition of life and the reality that exists therein, that Little Mary was on the street herself…working. Her virgin soul might have already been tormented and abused and raped by the same shit that snuffed-out her mother’s life. Time would tell…maybe. I don’t know….
Mary had a little lamb…I wonder where she is now….
After leaving the apartments, I drove to the jail to have a chat with the guy. My job required that I interview him and try to get more contact-information…disease intervention stuff. While that was my reason for going to the jail, officially, I also wanted to see what kind of person this Carlos was. I wanted to see, for myself, what the textbooks and psychologists have been talking about all these years when they discussed ‘anti-social personality-disorder,’ or ‘psychopath,’ or ‘sociopath.’ It was just my opinion, of course, but what else could he be to conduct himself the way he had during these recent events?
The buildings and other vehicles passed thru my periphery in something of a blur as I drove from the neighborhood of West Pierce and into downtown Phoenix where I would find the Madison jail, and inside – this guy, or man, or Black man, or 20-some-year-old male, or person, or living-breathing human organism, or creature, or thing, or whatever he was, who would try to rape a 73 year-old woman. What type of being would do that? What type of person could do that and then go home, kiss and hug his mother, and then ask her about her day, or if her knees have been bothering her, or if she went to the doctor like she said she was going to do last week? How could he pick-up his three year-old niece and nephew, toss them into the air, catch them, and then smother them with whiskery kisses and tell them that he loves them? Is that possible? Is it possible, too, that this type of person could have, earlier in the day, lain down with his girlfriend and made tender, passionate love, gently caressing her skin, body, and soul, tenderly moving the long strands of black hair out of her face so he could look into her eyes at that one, terminating moment? Would he be capable of something as gentle, or tender, or as humanly passionate as that? I doubt it.
It’s more likely that he went home and asked his mom for money, opened the fridge and pulled several, deep swigs of milk directly out of the jug, asked his mom for money again, and then pushed the nephew out of his way and picked up the niece and set her on the table – getting her out of his way, too, as he went to the cabinet and rummaged through whatever dry goods he hadn’t pilfered the week before. “You know my check don’t go very far, Carlos.” No, it doesn’t, not with the twins (his niece and nephew), their mother (his 19 year-old sister), and her own nine and ten year-old boys (his half-brothers) – all living off of her one income and the little that AFDC gives her. “Well don’ you have nothin’ left from it? I need some money.” His mom’s face twists about as she tries to keep herself from starting-in on him again. “He hates it when I do that,” she thinks to herself. “Then why don’t you get a job, boy? Quit smokin’ that rock ever’ day n’ night, n’ get a damn job!” – words that echoed in her mind alone.
And making love with his girlfriend – no, there was no love made that afternoon. One person got satisfied, that’s all. There was no tenderness to speak of – unless ‘tenderness’ means that he didn’t’ rip her clothes this time. They were removed without passion, and after a few quick squeezes of her breasts, he pushed her onto the bed and mounted her. She wasn’t ready, of course, so it hurt while he was moving on top of her, and then it burned when he was done. “So quick,” she thought, and was glad when he rolled off of her and went into the bathroom. “Gotta take a quick piss so no female burns me,” he said with an almost benign chuckle, standing there at the bowl, waiting for the muscles to relax enough for the stream to flow, “can’t trust anyone, know what I’m sayin?” “Yeah,” she thought, “I know what you’re sayin’. I noticed a rash last week, Bastard – bumps and spots starting to grow on my shit down there. What’s that mean, Mother Fucker?”
The blood had already been drawn when I got to the jail, so I didn’t have the opportunity to jab the needle into his arm myself.
“Been looking for you, Carlos.”
“Why’s that, man?”
“You been messin’ with someone and caught syphilis.”
“Who told you that?”
“I spoke to someone who’s being treated for syphilis and they said they mess with you. So, we don’t know if she gave it to you, or if you were doin’ someone else and caught it, and then gave it to the person I talked with.”
“Okay, so who’d you talk to? Some female?”
“You mess with guys?”
“Alright then, it was ‘some female.’”
“Yeah, but which one?”
“I can’t tell you who it was. I’m not allowed to. We got rules, you know. Like you and your lawyer, your public defender. You guys can talk and he can’t tell anyone what you said, right? Well it’s the same with us. Medical confidentiality. It’s the law and I can’t say anything that’s gonna make you know who it is. But, that person asked me to get in touch with you to make sure you get treated. That way, they won’t catch it back from you when you get out of here. You know what I’m sayin’?”
“Yeah, but that’s fucked-up, man. People be sayin’ shit about me and I can’t know who it is.”
“Nobody’s talkin’ shit about you, Carlos. The person had syphilis. I read the chart and saw the blood-test results. They just wanna make sure you get cured.”
“Whatever, man. I still say it’s fucked-up.”
“Okay, so it’s fucked-up. What else is fucked-up, Carlos? Why are you in here?”
“Had some problems with some dudes, you know what I’m sayin’? They said I stole some of their shit and then the cops were lookin’ for me. This shit happened a long time ago. I don’ know why they’re still after me. So then I was at these apartments last week and BAM!, there they were. And now I’m here. I told you man, it’s fucked-up, you know what I’m sayin’?”
“That’s why you’re here?”
“Yeah, it’s fucked-up.”
I already knew the truth, so when my anger and disgust for him overwhelmed my sense of responsibility for the job, I didn’t care anymore. I went ahead and took a chance at fucking-up the rest of the interview. I had already decided that he wasn’t going to give me shit anyway, so to hell with it. It was unlikely that he had, or was going to have sex with anyone I knew, so I thought, “What the hell. This wouldn’t be my first bust-interview and it wouldn’t be my last.” Sometimes the job just didn’t get done the way it was supposed to, and usually it wasn’t my fault. Today, I didn’t care that it was, or would be.
“Well, that’s not what I heard. When I was out on the street looking for you, someone told me you beat-up some old lady, really kicked her ass. What’s that about? They said you really beat on her, punched her in the face, ripped her pants off, tried to fuck her, and then stole a bunch of her shit. Is that what it’s about? Is that why you’re here, ‘cause you tried to rape some old lady and then stole her cell phone an’ shit?”
He didn’t care – didn’t give a flyin’ fuck what I thought he’d done. He stopped shuffling about the room in his flip-flopped feet and fixed his dead, empty eyes on mine and said, “Fuck that, man. You got it all wrong.”
Unimpressed, and still operating outside of my normal realm, I stared back with contemptuous, angry eyes. “Really?”
After a moment, he broke away, and turned to shuffle back and forth, again, on his side of the exam table. And now, with less conviction, “It’s not like that at all, man. I was over to the apartments and this old lady starts throwin’ my shit at me, you know what I’m sayin’, gittin’ in my face an’ shit. So I hit her, BAM! Told her to get the fuck out of my face, you know what I’m sayin’, an’ then I hit her, once. An’ the rest of that shit, like tryin’ to rape her an’ shit, that’s fucked. I got all the pussy I want, man. Wouldn’t try gittin’ it from some old lady. Someone’s lyin’ to your ass.”
“Is that right? Old lady’s got her head busted open, choke marks on her neck, bruises all up and down her thighs – someone seen you doin’ it, they called the cops who came and arrested you, an’ now your ass is sitting here in jail saying it’s not you. Okay. Right. Whatever. Anyway, had to get that shit squared away in my own mind before we went any further.”
“Naw, it ain’t me, man. Not all that shit. I got my own female to mess with. I don’ need to fuck that ol’ bitch.”
“Right. Like I said, I just needed to get that shit squared away in my own head before I do the rest of my job here. So…who else you mess with? You’re usually around 21st Avenue and Van Buren, or Adams, right? Who’d you mess with around there? I already have you named by three or four females, so I need you to tell me your side of the story.” And then, for effect, I added, “So I can make sure people aren’t just talkin’ shit about you.” He responded with a quick, sideways glance. I couldn’t help smiling as I said, “You know what I’m sayin’?”
And it went from there. I didn’t screw things up too badly. He still talked to me. Before the interview, I only had his one contact, the young pregnant girl who was the original patient. By the time the investigation was closed, there were three other cases related to Carlos. Unfortunately, there were too many unknown contacts from the five cases, and we couldn’t take the investigation any further. This is not uncommon, considering the area and the traffic it gets – transients, prostitutes, drug dealers, child-stealers, passers-by…anyone who comes to West Pierce Street.
There was a Thursday-morning kind of glow to the sky that could be explained in only one way – it was a Thursday morning. The air was different than it was on the other days of the week and the slight sense of expectation was at once tangible and reassuring. You could say with a certainty that the week was almost over and today would have to be conducted seriously. Whatever things you had slacked on during the week had to be made up for today, because you knew, you just knew that you weren’t going to put any kind of conviction-based effort into whatever you might encounter tomorrow, Friday. The reason for that being, of course, that so many supervisors take Friday off as part of their flex-schedule, combining to give them a three-day weekend, every other weekend. And, again – of course, every other Friday is payday, and although the stipend is small, it is enough to throw many into fiesta-type frenzies, causing them to splurge on donuts for everyone in the office, or to spend a few dollars more on lunch than they did earlier in the week. So, again, the Thursday morning sun was making its way across the eastern sky, providing any onlooker with what I knew was a special hue and a certain something else that meant I should conduct myself diligently in the task that I had before me.
You could enter the neighborhood through any one of the many side roads or thoroughfares and eventually find yourself heading toward Pierce Street. There was nothing remarkable about it from my perspective and if you would sample the people who might pass along your same path, you would probably find that it wasn’t too inspiring to them either. Yes, you might encounter the one or two souls who have lived there for most or all of their lives, and sometimes run across another person or two whose family was born and raised in the neighborhood, but all in all, it was just another one of the central city streets named after a former president and has come to represent a poorer, or more disadvantaged part of town. Without much effort, you can find prostitutes and drug abusers, transients, drunks, and incorrigible juveniles running, or walking, or pacing, or stumbling along the street. Come back in the darker hours and you might encounter the drug dealers, gang-bangers, auto thieves, murderers, suicides, and prostitutes who were too busy sleeping or working their day jobs to have been running around earlier.
Two streets west of Willow Park, another haven of the un-blessed and a favorite spot of the Public Health Clinic’s disease investigators and Terros out-reach workers trying to stop the spread of some of society’s plagues, the passerby will encounter two sets of white, almost ramshackle apartments that run lengthwise from the street back. There are two or more buildings, actually as many as several buildings spreading almost diaspora-like from the small curb-front property-line. The individual property seems to just keep going farther and farther back as you walk north from the curb. And, of course, the farther back you go, the more hovels you will encounter in the various stages of disrepair and decrepitude that are not uncommon for the area. And yes, you will encounter the little bungalow-like homestead amidst the ruin where flowers have been planted or in some other way adorned in life-like representations of multicolored plastic leaves and nearly natural-looking flowers, stuffed or placed gently, gingerly into dust inviting, brown or whitewashed baskets that cannot help but be remindful of Easter Sundays gone by. There are sometimes little, freshly-scrubbed children peering out from behind Windex-streaked panes or standing in open doorways whose breeze-enhancing currents are touched with the healthy aromas of Pine-Sol or Mr. Clean. The dens are often dirty as hell, but the occupants have tried to transform them into clean, sweet smelling Home Sweet Homes, something that is admirable and honorable from any perspective.
On this particular Thursday morning, I was looking for a guy named Carlos Bur… something or other. Earlier in the week, I had spoken to one of his lady-friends who told me that I might find him here. The girl was, at the time, wearing black and white striped, baggy clothes that resembled operating-room scrubs or jail attire. The latter was correct in this case. Michelle, a Hispanic-looking Native American mix with Black type of young lady was in jail for criminal trespass, prostitution, and possession of narcotics with the intent to sell. Her medical record said that she was twenty-three, but the little waif in front of me appeared to be just pushing sixteen or seventeen – possibly even fourteen. She sounded like she was eleven or twelve, and excepting the basketball-sized belly that she was sporting, someone might be tempted to say that she was one of the more innocent inmates that they’d seen in the jail. I don’t know. There was an immediate sense of pity, confusion, paternalistic hopefulness, and then from somewhere else – there was that something that reminded me of the reason I was there – the rash on her face and arms, which was also on her chest and back. I had to interview her and determine, or at least begin the investigation and hopefully, later determine where she had acquired her syphilis infection. The innocent, soft-spoken, little girl slowly told me about her boyfriend, Carlos, whom she had been hanging-out with for the last several months. No, he wasn’t the alleged father of her very soon to be delivered baby, but he was already “in love with him” and promised to take care of the child like it was his own. I have heard these words before, from not so dissimilar looking and sounding young girls or women in the same jail.
Michelle told me that I could locate Carlos at any of several of the apartments that I found this morning on West Pierce Street. I immediately went to the specific apartment where they had been staying before she was locked-up and found that it was occupied by three Hispanic males who spoke only Spanish – even when I tried to converse with them in their own language, they held fast to the ‘no speak English’ phrase of their hiding. Usually they put up a front, denying even the possibility that they could speak English when someone looking almost professional, and white, approaches them and asks questions about certain somebodies’ whereabouts. Yes, that statement is probably tinged with a bit of stereotype, but it occurs often enough to give me reason to mention it – and besides, stereotypes can be true. Anyway, the guys told me, in Spanish, that they did know Carlos, a young, heavily tattooed, Black male, not Hispanic, though he was light-skinned enough to pass as such from a distance. He was recently taken to jail and might still be there if I would hurry up and leave their apartment and go look for him – there – in the jail. One of the guys nodded to another apartment, the one in which Carlos had actually been arrested, and told me to look for the manager/owner of the property, an older woman named Linda Kalinowski, or Calaminski, or some other name that began with ‘Cal’ and ended in ‘ski.’ The man said she was very old and drove an equally old and beat-up white pick-up truck.
I did find Linda, in that other apartment, cleaning up what looked like the aftermath of a hurricane or tornado. Actually, I heard her before I saw her, yelling and swearing at near the top of her lungs at the destruction that she was wading through as she walked about the apartment.
“Goddamned filthy pigs! What the hell’s the matter with people nowadays? Can’t they clean up their own shit when they leave – look at this mess! What? Who are you?”
She looked more used than old, the poor lady did; dark-golden, leathered, wrinkled, and veined skin covered her face and arms. Linda was 73 years-old, by her own report, and was getting “goddamned sick and tired of cleaning up other people’s shit.” She stood about 5’9” and might have weighed 125 pounds if her jeans were wet. Her shoulder-length, white hair was thin and I could see the rosy pink of her scalp when she removed her San Francisco Giant’s baseball-cap. Her glasses weren’t too far out of style, but the lenses were so scratched that I couldn’t see her eyes clearly. As the fiery oaths spilled from her quickly moving jaw, I could see that the years of smoking and drinking coffee had left their mark in the yellow hue of her teeth and fleeing gum-line.
“Good morning! Linda?” – I greeted her. “My name is Scott and I work with the County Health Department.” In my hand, at the end of my outstretched arm, was an official looking badge, with a picture that resembled me in my just-out-of-the-Air-Force street innocence of nine years ago, that would have confirmed what I just said…if she had cared to look at it.
“Well, it’s about time you guys got out here! Do you see this mess? Can you believe people actually live in this shit? And you think it’s bad right now? You should have seen it when I first got here this morning. I’ve already loaded-up my truck two times and hauled some of the crap to the dump. Who called you anyway?”
“Actually, nobody called me,” I said, “I’m not here because of the mess in the apartments. I was hoping you could help me find someone. I was told that you know Carlos and might be able to tell me where to locate him.”
“Well you shouldn’t have any trouble finding the bastard! That son-of-a-bitch tried to rape me last week. That’s right! Called the cops on him, I did, and they got here right quick and hauled his ass away! Talk about a piece of shit! He punched me in the face, slammed my head into the doorjamb, dragged me down to the floor, and then was ripping my pants off. Look at my neck and the side of my head!” I had already noticed the stitched laceration near her right temple and the finger-mark bruising around her throat. “Look at me! I’m 73 years old! What’s he doing trying to rape me? I’ve seen the girls he goes around with, and besides them, all he has to do is go out to the street and they’re giving the stuff away – so why mess with me?”
“I’m…not sure Linda. Maybe it has to do with power…like he’s trying to show you who’s in charge around here. You said you’d already 86’d him from the property…so maybe he was trying to get back at you…I…I don’t know.” Who the hell knows? And, goddamn!
Before I left the apartments, I learned that Linda has two sons in California. One is a doctor of some type and the other is a consultant with a computer software company. They have begged her repeatedly to sell her properties in Phoenix and move out to California to be with them. She said they were concerned with her getting so old and having to put up with the constant problems from her tenants. Linda confessed that she never tells them what’s happening in her little corner of the world…doesn’t want to add to their worries. “I don’t do this for the money…I’ve got plenty of that. I just do it to keep me going. My other old-lady friends have all died off, just sitting around the house or going to the country club, playing cards, and going to art shows. No thanks.”
No, instead you get to deal with the likes of Carlos.
To be continued….