It's almost dark as I reach the stoplight at the corner of 211 and Baker; the terror twilight just after the strip club signs turn on, but just before the streetlights do. The light is red. I put on my blinker and watch the last slivers of sunlight slip below the city's craggy Tetris block skyline. Sometimes I think the city is lonely like me. Other times I think it's happy like me. It really depends on what mood I'm in.
Something flutters in my periphery. Just a paper bag blowing down the sidewalk. But I'm on edge. The other day in the Drug Zone break room I picked up a newspaper. There was a story about a body being found in a warehouse on Baker Street. The person had been murdered so badly that they had to consult his birth records just to verify that he'd ever been alive to begin with. That sort of thing is par for the course in this neighborhood. But I shouldn't use a golf metaphor, because Baker Street is the opposite of golf: if you're white and middle class you're not welcome here.
As I wait for the light, a homeless guy walks up to my car. A syphilitic smile spreads across his face as he sees the Drug Zone sign. I start to roll up my window, but his bony fingers wrap around the glass. I smile back and roll the window down slightly, then up again, then down again, to make it look like I was just studying its mechanism.
"Hey, you're with Drug Zone, right? Saw the sign on your car. I was just wondering ..."
His face looks like a poorly-taxidermied corpse, all leathery and covered with scars and hepatitis lesions. His breath is a potpourri of Sterno and dead fish smells.
"I don't have any money," I lie. "But if I did, I'd gladly give it to you. I don't like the capitalist sluts who run my job either."
"Money?" He laughs. He coughs into his hand and some blood and a tooth comes out. "I don't want money. If I was after money, do you think I'd have chosen homelessness as a lifestyle compass? No, you have something else I want."
It hits me: he's a homosexual rapist filled with pangs of lust for my svelte, nontraditionally masculine body. Fear and a strange curiosity churn in my stomach. I'm not sure which is the antecedent of which.
"Look, I'm not a homosexual," I say. "I might kiss a guy if I was drunk, but it'd have to be a really effeminate guy. Way more effeminate than you, no offense."
"What?" He looks confused. Or maybe it's my own inner feelings of confusion being projected onto him. "I meant your sign. I was gonna ask if I could have your sign. Looks like it has lots of zinc and copper in it, which I could use to cook some killer Moon Meth."
Moon Meth. Now it makes sense. Moon Meth is one of the few illegalized substances on earth. The ease of its manufacture made drug retailers lobby against it for taking away their business. It's the drug of choice for homeless people, due to both their penchant for lawbreaking and the fact that it keeps them awake for 30 days straight, even after most of their organs have stopped working.
There's no way I can give him the sign - it would come out of my pay, which is rendered mostly in drugs and which I've already taken an advance on. But I'm caught in the Morton's fork of relinquishing it or refusing the request of a homeless person, which is extremely bad luck, mainly because most homeless people carry knives. But then I think of a plan.
"Sure, you can have it," I say. I wait for him to take his hand off the window and reach for the sign, then add, "If you can catch me, that is!" and slam on the gas.
There's an awkward moment as we stare at each other while my engine revs to 5000 RPM in neutral.
"You have to put it in gear," he says. "If you're trying to drive away."
"Yeah, I figured that, thanks." I put the car in gear and then, after stalling a few times, drive away.
Are you concerned that you may be a character trapped in a Tom Waits song? Be smart and learn the warning signs before it's too late. Also, it's too late. It has always been too late.
I'm haunted by a recurring vision of a skeleton flipping me off. To avoid seeing this terrifying image in bumper sticker form, I pay someone with a blank bumper to drive in front of me at all times.
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