Chicago is a drug dealer. He stands in front of the shelter from dawn until dusk every day selling sticks for two dollars, blunts for five. Of all the drug dealers at the shelter, he is the largest and most physically imposing. It is because of this, I believe, that he is also the most laid back. I have never seen Chicago behave aggressively towards anyone, or even raise his voice. Instead, he sits in the shade smoking enormous cigars of K2, his impassive expression never changing, as though set in stone.
His girlfriend Cat is the more vocal of the two. As Aaron was to Moses, or The Mouth of Sauron to Sauron, so Cat is to Chicago, “My husband has sticks for sale.”
(Me to Cat ) “What brand?”
(Cat to Chicago) “What brand?”
(Chicago to Cat, (almost inaudible)) “wtf...”
(Cat to me) “'What The Fuck?!?.'”
“OK, that's pretty good stuff. Will you give me three for five?”
“He wants to know if we'll do three for five.”
“Tell him, 'Thanks.'”
Cat has never struck me as a confrontational person, but her station as the harbinger of Chicago's will sometimes puts her at odds with the various riff raff that mill about the shelter. A drug dealer must be strong and unbending to survive in such an environment, with craven addicts always nipping at their heals, looking for some chink in the armor to exploit. A good street dealer is almost like a battleship commander: Honest and consistent, yet not given to misguided sentimentality, lest they lose the respect of their subordinates.
But you wouldn't have to be predisposed to conflict to develop animosity towards Patrick. A truly unusual character, Patrick is a challenge to describe. He is a constant presence around the shelter and, indeed, I have never seen him anywhere else. He's about my age, but gnarled and grizzled from years of hard living. He has red hair that juts out at discordant angles, and his glasses are held together with thick wads of electrical tape. His voice is effete, high pitched, nasal, and grating.
Patrick is an unrepentant beggar, and is amongst the lowest of the breed: those who prey upon their own kind. He spends much of his time sprawled out in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the shelter, bumming cigarettes from whoever should walk by. On the rare occasions that he is ambulatory, you will often find him directly in your face, pleading with you desperately for something you do not have.
Walking up to the corner the other day, lighting a hand-rolled cigarette, it was mere moments before he was on top of me, “Hey...hey, you don't want to share that do you? Please, please, please! I'll give you this food.” He held out a plate of macaroni and cheese that he'd obviously gotten from some Christian group, and had been saving uncovered in the sun. It was not appetizing.
“Nah, I don't really want to share this cigarette. I've grown attached to it.”
“Oh, it's a cigarette? I thought it was a stick.”
“No, sorry,” I said, and he stalked off sullenly down the street.
I turned my attention to finding drugs on the ground. I could tell by looking around that it would be an easy task, as it was obvious that a new shipment had recently come in. Drug dealers lined the entire block, each surrounded by his or her cadre of sycophants. Blunts being sparked all around, and a raucous, boozy atmosphere assured me that it would be only a short while before I found what I was looking for, and could get the fuck out of there.
I was rounding the corner at Neches when I heard Patrick's unmistakable whine ring out from above the crowd, “Get the fuck away from me, bitch. Get the fuck away from me. Get the fuck away from me, bitch.”
“Stop callin' me a bitch, goddammit!” it was Cat, as mad as I've ever seen her. Her face was beet-red, and she was advancing towards Patrick with malice in her eyes. I hadn't caught the beginning of the confrontation, but it wasn't hard to guess who had started it. “Give me back that fucking grape soda, you cocksucker.” she yelled, “I saw you take it out of my fucking cooler. You ain't slick.”
He retreated from her, saying, “Get away from me, bitch. Skank. Ho. Bitch-skank-ho! I bought this soda at the store.” He ran up the steps to the porch of the shelter and made as if to open the can.
“Don't you open that fucking soda.”
He opened the can and took a gulp, “I bought this soda at the store. I'm not afraid of your Frankenstein monster, you skinny little bitch.”
“You wouldn't be saying that if he was here. He's gonna stomp your ass when he gets back from court.” she said, walking away in disgust.
“Cunt.” said Patrick, unable to resist the urge to dig himself a deeper hole.
I wondered what he could be thinking. Was he secretly a martial arts expert? Chicago is slow to rile, sure, but anyone who saw him could easily imagine the damage he'd do if properly motivated. I guess Patrick was just living in the moment.
I didn't get to think about it long before another scuffle broke out, this one between a cold blooded stick pusher named Twig, and some metal dude with long hair who I didn't recognize. When I walked up to the scene, the stranger was loudly decrying Twig as a scoundrel and a liar, “I DIDN'T TOUCH THIS BITCH. I DIDN'T DO A FUCKING THING TO THIS BITCH. YOU THINK YOU RUN THIS BLOCK? YOU AREN'T THE MAYOR OF THIS BLOCK. YOU'RE JUST A NASTY, HATEFUL, DYKE BITCH.”
Twig sat silently and didn't respond in any way, yet manged to project greater menace than a man twice her size. I had seen her involved in these kinds of disagreements before, and have seen how they end. The simple fact is, Twig does run the block, and woe betide any who cross her.
A crowd began to form around the new guy, more than a few of them acolytes of Twig. Several members of the crowd were trying to reason with him and get him to move on, “Look man, why don't you just drop it and walk away. You made your point. Just get out of here and cool off for a little while.”
But he wouldn't let it go, “NO, FUCK THAT. YOU AREN'T KICKING ME OFF THIS BLOCK. I DIDN'T DO A THING TO THIS BITCH. YALL THINK YOU'RE SMART, BUT YOU'RE STUPID. YOU'RE ALL STUPID. I'M SMART, AND EVERYONE ELSE HERE IS STUPID!”
A few people laughed at this line, including me. It's true, we were no rocket scientists, but it was obvious to everyone present who was the stupidest of all. The guy began repeating “Dyke bitch!” at the top of his lungs, like a broken record, as Twig sat motionless.
After what must have been five minutes of yelling, the security guard finally showed up and somehow managed to talk the man down. I couldn't hear the conversation, but the guy stopped chanting and started walking with the guard to the corner. But after he felt like he'd handled the situation and walked away, the nut-job went right back over to Twig and started yelling, “YOU CAN'T KICK ME OFF THIS BLOCK. AND LET ME TELL YOU SOMETHING ELSE...”
He went silent. I looked over to where he had been standing but couldn't see him anywhere. Walking up, I saw him leaned unconscious next to a tree with blood dripping out of his nose. No one was paying attention to him, least of all Twig. I overheard one of her toadies say, “I wonder if he has a wallet.” but she said, “No, don't touch him.”
After awhile, he came to. It took him a few minutes to shake off the cobwebs. He slowly stood up, looked down, and saw the blood on his shirt, “What the fuck happened to me?”
“You better get the fuck out of here before it happens again.” Twig said quietly.
This time, long-hair finally got the message and stumbled off down 7th St. He was still cursing and looking back, obviously wanting to continue the conflict, but his survival instincts got the better of him.
I headed down 7th myself, but in the opposite direction. I was carefully examining an area people often sit to roll joints, when I heard screams coming from the Salvation Army parking lot, half a block away.
“Help! Help! Security! Help!”
I went over to the fenced in lot, and saw Patrick in a state of total panic. He kept screaming for help, and running around frantically, trying to find some way out other than the front entrance. I was about to ask what he was so worked up about, when I saw Chi Town stalking through the gate with a look of grim determination on his face. Cat and her best friend Raven came up from behind him, flanking him on either side, like the familiars of a dark wizard.
It was such a perfect set up, like something out of a movie. Patrick tried to climb the fence, but only made it halfway before falling to the ground. A large crowd started to form, and all in attendance agreed that the situation was hilarious. The Nigerian went up to the fence, and said in an voice full of earnest reassurance, “Don't worry Patrick, I'll help you.” Everyone laughed and several others spoke up, “Yeah, I'll help you too Patrick.” “Yeah me too. We comin' to help you Patrick.”
Patrick started running behind rows of cars, and trying to zigzag his way to safety, but it was futile. The women had him cut off from the left and the right, as Chicago hung back in the center. They kept creeping forward, cutting off all his escape routs. Finally, he had no choice but to turn around and face his attackers. He menaced them lamely in some kind of half-ass fighting stance, saying, “Get back. Get back right now. SECURITY!”
They were on him. They knocked him down, kicked him a few times, and clawed at his head a bit, while Patrick screamed like a girl and begged for mercy. The crowd went wild. Then Chicago, who'd been acting as backup until that point, stepped forward and gave Patrick one token whack to the head. Just a bitch-slap really, intended to humiliate rather than inflict injury. He watched the girls wail on him for a few more seconds, then said, “That's enough.” They backed off, and started walking quickly towards the entrance. Patrick, seeing that his atonement was complete, got up and ran past Chi Town and his gang, cutting them a wide swath. “Who's a bitch now?” yelled Cat, as he ran down Red River, not stopping to pick up the clothes that fell from his backpack. All told, the actual beating took about ten seconds.
And life at the shelter goes on. Chicago and Cat continue to work their daily shift, and Patrick continues to lie in the sun, begging for cigarettes. Not from Cat, though. He now gives her plenty of space, and never seems to be around the soup kitchen when Chi is eating lunch. If you're going to survive on the streets for any length of time, it helps to know who not to fuck with. Sociopathic, drug dealing, behemoths, for example. Or their girlfriends.