Downtown memories: A legless old guy in a wheelchair selling crack in front of the LAPD station on Skid Row. This was back in the early 90’s, in the middle of the afternoon. There is no circadian rhythm on crack; night time, day time, it’s all one hustle. When the traffic light turned red all the walking skeleton crackheads rushed up to the car with the filthy bags of crack they’d hold in their mouths, and he came wheeling up with them, spitting the bag into his hand and holding it up to the car window. His bloodshot eyes were frantic, pleading. I politely declined. A police car rolled by and all the crack baggies disappeared back into their mouths and the crackheads began spare changing. A guy behind me dropped a dollar into a hand sticky with saliva. The crackheads converged on him like it was Night of the Living Dead but the light changed and he zoomed way. In my rear view mirror I caught a final glimpse of the guy in the wheelchair looking hopefully at the oncoming traffic. There was a pathos there that seemed to elevate him above the garden variety skid row crack head. Maybe it wasn’t such a bad shtick after all, selling crack with no legs. After all, I remember him all these years later, remember his face, his eyes, his humanity, while the others seemed no more alive than zombies in a horror movie.
Many, many years ago I had a job for a few weeks at one of the Skid Row missions downtown, setting up their databases. Worked with lots of recovering addicts. That was interesting. My assistant had been an executive in an aerospace firm, with a huge house, expensive cars, a yacht, some beautiful children and a trophy wife. Speed had helped him get more work done. He’d been through every addiction program his company offered but finally wound up on the street and then in the mission. He showed me the ropes. The addicts there had a hierarchy, he explained, almost like a caste system. The cokeheads–strictly powder–were the aristocracy, the Brahmin. Even in the mission they wore bling. Then came tweekers. Very busy. Then junkies. They were the thinkers. Then the boozers and winos. Theirs was legal, they could leave anytime they wanted and get a bottle, or not. They always did though. Finally, at the bottom, were the untouchables, the crackheads. Even the sorriest Skid Row winos were above them. None of the other castes at the mission had any respect for them. They’d order them around, drive them off like stray dogs. They aren’t even human, my tweeker assistant told me, they’re just pure addiction.