“Yo man, you can’t sleep here. You gotta get up.”
I took the tarp away from my head and looked up to see Becca standing over me in her park ranger uniform. Tiny droplets of rain fell on my face as I squinted around to get a better look at my surroundings. Off in the distance, more rangers were waking the others, yelling out “Good morning! Time to get up!”
“Oh, hey Ryan,” said Becca. “It’s morning. You gotta get moving.”
I reached to my pocket and grabbed my cigarettes. The pack was soaked, hopefully from the rain. I shakily put one to my lips.
“No smoking in the park,” came the exceptionally loud voice again, “you know that.”
“Fuck,” I said. “Ya’ll need to keep it consistent. Damn rules keep changing.” I slowly raised myself up and knocked my head on something. It was the park bench, which sat underneath the overhang in the middle of Native Park, Seattle. I must have fallen asleep and rolled underneath it to try and block out the night winds that blew in from the waters behind me. I rolled out and made my way onto the bench and the questions started flowing in. When did I fall asleep? Where did Mark go? And Auntie? Where’s my backpack? Did Auntie take it? I looked to my left. Oh. The answers to the latter of my questions were answered. My Auntie Aly was hunched over, already half-awake in her wheelchair, and my backpack was attached to the rear of it.
“Morning nephew,” she said.
“Morning Auntie. Thanks for holding my backpack.”
“Cold night, wasn’t it?” asked Becca as she paced around us and took a look at the trash scattered across the ground.
“Freezing,” I said. My teeth began chattering as if in extra response and I pulled the tarp up over my body.
“I don’t feel too good,” said Auntie.
“Give it a few minutes,” I said, knowing fully what we both needed. “I need to take a walk and I’ll be back.” What I really needed was a cigarette to calm my nerves. I stood and folded the tarp and set it near Aly. “I’ll be right back,” I whispered to her. “Don’t open it until I get back.”
“We better!” I said. “I’ll be back.”
I started off and instantly noticed why my cigarette pack was damp — my pants were wet, and it wasn’t from the rain. No one would notice, so I just continued on and ignored it. I zipped up my top-layer jacket to block out the morning breeze. People were starting the trickle into the park to get a peek at the calm waters just beyond it. Off in the distance, the Ferris wheel was still, and the hustle and bustle of the freeway was just beginning to build. I got the normal looks, but I made my way past them and onto the street leading to the Pike Place Market. I was finally able to light my cigarette.
“Morning Ryan.” I turned to see Red walking behind me, wearing the same clothes since the last time I saw him a week ago. He was searching the ground for snipes — half smoked cigarettes.
“What’s up Red,” I said as I gave him a hug. “Find any?”
“A few,” he said. “You got a full one?” I reached into my wet pack and fished out a dry one to hand to Red. “Thanks man. Oh it’s going to be a good day, I can feel it! Can you feel it Ryan? I even already got two drawings done.” He whipped out two small paper circles from his pocket that were filled in with various colors and shapes. “Two dollars each. You want one?”
“I don’t have it right now,” I lied, “but let me see about later.”
“Thanks Ryan. They’re not biting yet but they will. It’s going to be a good day, I can feel it!”
“I’m headed to the bathroom,” I interrupted. “Are they open yet?”
“They opened the main one. Head there.”
“Thanks Red.” I made my way up the bricked streetway and left Red behind me as he made his way to the park to sell his drawings. My insides felt as if they were about to burst from me as the contents from the night prior churned inside. I knew I had drank a shitload, per usual, but I just couldn’t remember how much, and the morning-after shakes were already starting to get pretty bad.
Vendors were setting up their stations to the right of the street as the stores began to open on the left. Just normal people going about their normal lives, and I couldn’t stand the sight of it. I took my beanie off and wiped the sweat from my brow. “30 degrees out and you’re sweating,” I said aloud to myself.
I made it to the entrance of the market where the main fish vendors had their stand. They were the ones they showed in between commercial breaks anytime the Seahawks were on TV, with their long white, fish scale-stained aprons, tossing fish back and forth to each other. They weren’t hyped up yet, just pouring ice into the large bins to get ready for the day. I made my way to the stairs to the right of them and into the bathroom on the lower level.
This was my least favorite part of the day, when I finally got a good look at myself in the mirror. My eyes weren’t my own; they belonged to the undead — sunken-in and lifeless. The scratches on my face were becoming permanent scars. There was the one from falling off the bus the week prior, and two others from unknown sources. My skin was yellow and pasty, and sweat was already pouring from my brow. I washed my face, trying to erase all that I had just seen, and finished in the bathroom in a hurry.
I hobbled out, made my way to the store to grab some orange juice, and then walked back to the park and back to my post. Tourists were beginning to file in as the rest of the homeless crowd packed up their belongings and moved out to get on with their daily routine. It was time to get on to mine.
“Let me see the bag,” I told Auntie. She handed it over and I looked around to make sure no one was paying attention to us, and then grabbed the half gallon of vodka out. “Where did Mark go?” I asked as I poured some into the orange juice.
“I think he went with Chrissy somewhere to sleep,” Aly said. “Who knows. I don’t think she was feeling well again.”
“Who, Kyle? He’s ova there on the other side,” she said with her east coast accent, “You gotta go wake him.”
“Alright. I’ll get him in a minute.” I took a sip and let the warmth sink down through me. I handed the bottle over to Aly, who did the same, and made her normal face of disgust.
“You know I hate when you mix it,” she said and handed it back. I stashed the handle away back into the bag and attached it to her chair. My stomach churned in mutual disgust in what I was feeding it for breakfast, but I ignored it and sat back on the bench to wait for the ever-hiding sun to fully rise.
My family — that’s what I called them. I first discovered Victor Steinbrueck Park, otherwise known as Native Park, after my first stint in prison. It sat right at the end of the famous Pike Place Market in Seattle. The Department of Corrections called it a high drug area, so I technically wasn’t allowed to be there as a felon enrolled in a drug and alcohol offender program, but when I found it, I discovered acceptance for what I was — an alcoholic. I found a haven where I could drink freely, and the Natives soon brought me in and accepted me as one of their own. I became a part of something again, something to fill the void and help me to get through the awkward phase of reentering society. I came to love the elders of the group: my Aunties Aly and Annajo, and my Uncles Kyle and Sly. I had many other brothers, too many to name, and even a few sisters. The love of alcohol and weed bonded us together, but there was the unbreakable chain of the common homeless lifestyle and true family values that kept us coming back for more. We genuinely cared for each other, and, like the closest of families, if you messed with one of us, you messed with us all.
Uncle Kyle was a mess. There was a tarp which covered half of his body on the bench that he was trying to keep from blowing off into the breezy air, and his wheelchair was parked near his head. One of his shoes had fallen off onto the cement, and he was grumbling his normal old-man and irritated sounds as he fought against the wind. I reached and pulled away the part that covered his face.
“It’s just me Unc,” I said. “Come on, I got some stuff back in the middle with Auntie.”
“Enough for now, so come get some before I drink it all.”
He sat up and propped his legs on the ground so that he could be fully settled, and wiped his eyes of the night’s cold. “What time is it?” he asked.
“I have no clue, but they just opened the bathrooms and woke everyone up around here, so it’s got to be early, still, around nine.”
“Alright,” he said. “Help me into my chair. Grab my blanket too! It fell behind the bench on the ground, I think.” I did as he asked, as usual, and helped him into his chair. The man was heavy, and my diminished strength always had a hard time moving him, but he had barely any leg mobility as well as a bad hip that kept him from standing. I felt like his caretaker, but didn’t mind it at all; Kyle had become my best friend. We shared all of the same interests, despite our age difference, and could talk for hours about nothing in particular. He was one of the smartest people I’d ever met, but the alcohol crippled it, just like the rest of his body, and his talks turned from interesting and fact-filled to rubbery mumbles in a matter of hours. He often had undiagnosed internal aches and pains, which everyone told him to get checked out, but we were too caught up in the next drink for any of that to matter.
I took a look out to the water as he got himself settled. It was always so calm, unlike the park, which was always so busy and full of movement and event. Every day there were new people to watch, new activities to laugh over, and new dramas to avoid. There was the daily mass of tourists with their constant picture taking, the walking attractions that took in their daily financial contributions from said tourists, and the constant fights, drug deals, and the meandering, troubled, mentally incapacitated homeless individuals that had nothing else to turn to but crack cocaine. “Let’s go!” Kyle yelled, and I snapped out of my trance and wheeled him over to the middle of the park.
The first couple of hours of the day were always spent on getting well. We would sit with whoever was around and wait for whatever was next, which most of the time was some more weed or alcohol. I sat and took sips until the detoxing shakes abated and then took some more until my eyes began to grow heavy. Then it was nap time, until I woke up, checked to see if my stuff was all still there, and continued on. The world couldn’t resist and kept revolving around me as I stayed stuck in an isolated loop — stuck in my head, in my habits, and in my dissolved hope. People would walk by and either ignore us or stare, all wondering how our definition of normal had turned to this circular motion of chaotic simplicity. The fact was that this was what was comfortable. It worked, to a degree, until I ran out of alcohol. Then Hell presented itself.
“Now what?” I asked Kyle after a half hour had passed with no appearance of anyone new with a bottle.
“Go get something,” he grumbled.
“I don’t have enough money,” I said, knowing fully well that he was speaking about stealing, which I was in no mood to do after my last debacle. I had taken three bottles from Target only to be followed by private security for six blocks after leaving the store, who the whole way was threatening to call the police or to “flip my ass” should I ever enter the store again.
To that, Kyle folded his arms and huddled up in his chair, and I did the same in my seat to warm up from the gathering winds. It was too cold to live in that weather sober, and the anxiety in my stomach was already starting to gather in the thought that it may be too cold for anyone else to join us in the park that day. The warmth from the alcohol left my body with each passing minute, and I knew the buzz wouldn’t hold over much longer. I needed more so that the shakes wouldn’t return. I needed anything.
Just then, Red walked up with Mama.
Mama walked up with her walker and gave me a giant hug. “Hi son,” she said.
“Hi Mama.” She definitely wasn’t my mom, not even close, but she cared about me like she was, providing alcohol to me when I was sick and the warmth of blankets when I was cold, and I returned the gestures with kindness, and a little loose change when I could spare it. She was one of the only other African Americans in the park that I was close to, besides a drug dealer I had met and another guy that came around and always gave me alcohol. She was in her fifties but looked and moved as if she were seventy due to her drug abuse. I didn’t approve of crack and what I’d seen it do to people, but I cared about the woman; she was family. “Mama, I need something,” I said. “You got anything?”
“Just the usual,” she said, and I cringed at her response. She sat next to me and Red followed behind and hovered around us. “Watch out for us, will you?” she asked of me.
“I got you,” I said. Everyone was always on the constant lookout for police who rode through the park on bikes. If any were spotted, you were automatically tasked to yell “BIKERS” as loud as you could in order to give people time to hide whatever illegal objects were in their hands at the time.
“Don’t be doing that shit right here!” Auntie yelled. Kyle perked up at the commotion.
“Shut it, Aly,” said Mama. “Always butting in my business like it yours. I don’t say shit about what you be doing.”
“All I know is that shit makes you stupid,” said Auntie, “and you in particulars. Nephew, are we out?”
“No, there’s a little left,” I said. I took out the bottle and took my last swig. Mama grabbed into her purse and withdrew a small glass pipe as I handed to last of the alcohol to Auntie, which she finished, to Kyle’s dismay, and threw the bottle in the trash.
“Fucking drugs,” Auntie snorted. “Makes you stupid.” She and Mama had been fighting recently. Aly was a hard woman to get along with, especially when she was drunk, but luckily, I had never been on the butt end of one of her rampages.
Mama began to grumble quietly to herself as she tarped her head and took a hit from her pipe. I kept on the lookout towards the front of the park for any bike-type movements as she finished and handed the tools over to Red, who lit up out in the open. When he finished, he sat down next to me and said some words to Mama that I couldn’t make out, then turned to me and handed me the pipe.
“There you go Ryan,” he said, “just promise me some sips later when you got it.”
“Of course, man,” I said, and turned to Mama who was already shaking her head at me.
“You know I hate you doing that shit,” she said, “but you don’t look too good. Hurry up son! Before I change my mind!”
I took a hit of the pipe, inhaled deeply, and let the warmth hit my heart, causing it to instantly race. Crack was the dumbest drug in the world to me, mainly because the high only lasted about five minutes, until you wanted more, but free was free, and desperation had hit the minute I watched Aly throw the bottle away.
I sat for a minute before I reached into my pocket for a cigarette. I was oblivious to everything around me, and even if it were just for a minute, in that moment, everything was okay.
It ended by the time I put my cigarette out. Mama and Red were talking incoherently, so I sat up and moved to Unc and told him I was going to take a walk and would be back — going to steal in our language. I needed Mark for the caper, but he was nowhere to be seen, so I would have to go about it on my own.
I began walking downtown and started sweating instantly. The streets were made of hills and valleys, and my sober legs could never maneuver them very well without getting excessively weary. Seattle was generally a fit city — most everyone walked with such power and ease, and I passed each person with my head low and eyes down. But it was also a city in increasing despair due to the swelling homeless and drug issue that presented itself on each corner. People were huddled up sitting on cardboard or blankets with their signs out begging for any kind of help. I understood the desperation in their eyes as the working class men and women walked by with ignorance and complete disregard. It made me sad, but I got why they turned their backs to us — it was both out of love and annoyance. Of course they cared, but they were tired of the game, the constant weight of carrying another person and not knowing whether they were actually helping to get their life on track or just helping to keep them it the gutter. It was a gamble, and most people just didn’t want to play.
I continued to walk from store to store, only to stare inside and plan out my angle of attack. With each place I came to, my anxiety grew worse and I chickened out quickly. I was beginning to shake, and bad. I could feel pressure in my head as it pulsated the sweat out faster and faster, and I swear I could even smell the alcohol emanate from each droplet. It had been an hour, and I needed to get back to the park to see if anything had changed, and I needed to get there fast.
When I arrived, I quickly saw two of my close brothers, Mars and Four Corners, sitting and smoking a joint with Kyle near the Cutter’s restaurant. “Where’d Auntie go?” I panted out as I walked up and gave the new arrivals a hug.
“She went home to pay some bills,” said Mars. “Bro, you don’t look too hot. You getting sick?”
“Yeah, bad,” I said, and I sat down on a bench as he handed me the joint. I took two quick hits and passed it back. I got instantly dizzy, which wasn’t usual. Typically weed would help with these daily shakes, but not this time. Something was wrong.
Four Corners sat near me and put his arm around me. “You’ll be alright, man,” he said. “Brother Mark got some money today, I think. He’ll be here soon.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Yeah.” I looked up and I could feel my whole body quivering. Suddenly I felt a wave of heat wash over me and I tried to stand but was instantly pushed down by gravity.
“Whoa, bro,” said Mars. “Cool it.”
“Unc,” I said to Kyle, “I think something’s wrong.”
Suddenly my vision went blurry, and the world went black.
I woke up to two paramedics standing over me. I was confused and startled at the same time. I heard people speaking in the background but I couldn’t see who they were or tell who it was. I was loaded into an ambulance and carted up the hill to the hospital. When I arrived, the confusion had declined and the paramedics explained to me that I had had a seizure, and that everything would be okay once they got some fluids into me and gave me some medicine.
When admitted to the hospital, they instantly put an IV in my arm and shot me up with Ativan. I was back out and asleep in a matter of minutes.
I sincerely wish that this was the end of my journey as an active alcoholic, but it was only one seizure of many. While in the hospital, I unknowingly wrote the first of my blog posts called “The Hardness of the Homeless,” which I later posted on Facebook. When I was released a few days later I returned to the park and began drinking again. Many things happened after this story, which I may one day share, but I wanted to first write about what led up to that post and the feelings behind it. I was angry — angry at the world, at being homeless, at being alone and cold, at myself, at everything. I had no idea that all I really had to do was look inward and realize that living homeless was not what my god had intended for me. It was not my end-game. There is more to life than what alcohol will have us believe and trick us into thinking for ourselves. It took what it took to get to this point of my recovery process, and I will never take what I have gained for granted. I also will never forget the memories and experiences I went through in that park. For that place, I am grateful, because it has helped make me who I am today. And for the people — my family — I will never forget you guys and all that you did for me. I love and miss you all, especially you Uncle Kyle. You’ll be getting a special post from me one day. May you rest in peace. . .