|by Francine Rodriguez
Today the crack smokers are getting older. Getting high in the open air of South Central is not a common sight anymore, and the behaviors that sometimes accompany it have for the most part, gone underground. I’ve been carrying this memory around for all these years. So, here goes:
I think it was some time in 1996, at the waning end of the surge in the crack epidemic in South Central. It was the point where rehabs had opened their doors up and down the coast. Some of the doors opened onto pastoral seaside hideaways, or non-descript suburban homes tucked away on side streets.
In South Central where the motto is; “too little, too late,” choices for the average street addict were severely limited. I only knew of the one offered by King Drew Hospital whose doors opened onto Central Avenue, and where the parking lot at night also housed the homeless, pushing battered shopping carts that contained the last remnants of their lives. Every morning with regularity several large and imposing Black guys who worked for the facility, (we didn’t use African American then), cleared the lot so the cars could park. I don’t how they did it or what they said to those men to make them move, but by 9:00 A.M. you could park pretty much anywhere you could find a space.
Monday, Wednesday and Friday, I arrived around fifteen minutes early and helped arrange the battered chairs in a circle and fill out the sign in forms for the out-patients who attended. Monday morning was assigned to the Recovering Women’s Group, and I was completing an internship for an advanced degree with a specialty in chemical dependency. I needed an advanced credential so I could continue to work a second job since my primary career alone was not paying the bills.
I, myself, was an oddity. My skin color was off, (for all practical purposes I was not Black), I wasn’t a recovering addict, and I was quite a bit older than most of the addicts and the staff for that matter.
I picked the program at Drew in South Central because I figured I’d get more hands-on personal experience than at any of the programs on the West Side. I’d worked on the West Side before and lost patience with the neurotic whining from those I was assigned to counsel. Drew was a test for me too. If I felt no empathy there in the midst of all that despair then I needed to move on.
The center was active with various kinds of counseling and support groups running throughout the day. Every few weeks the Center hosted gang summits. They were well-attended by the burly tattooed opposing factions in the neighborhood. I don’t know what went on in those two hour meetings once the doors were closed and the packaged doughnuts were brought in on trays with pots of hot coffee. The gang members exited quietly, the same way they entered. I figured there must be some progress since they kept coming back, all the doughnuts were eaten, and so far nobody had to call the cops.
I worked with the Women’s Group. That in itself presumes that I could make some sort of identification with the group members. But you can’t always go on presumptions. I too was female and had kids to care for at home, just as most of them did. Similarities declined at this point.
I’d had graduate degrees, and back in those days they counted for something. The women here for the most part had very little education and had difficulty with basic reading and writing. I’d had my kids late in life as opposed to these women who had started in their very early teens. I was generally speaking employable, with a stable work history. They weren’t employable for a number of reasons. Most of them had never held an actual job. They’d supported themselves by selling their bodies, or if they were too old for that, drugs, or if possible, both. They primarily depended on some form of welfare or social assistance to pay for their minimal food and shelter.
I could, with a lot of scrimping, afford to leave my kids with a babysitter when I worked. They generally left their small kids alone, or with a slightly older child, or even a stranger if available, when they went into the streets, night or day. They’d survived lives of deprivation and abuse going so far back they couldn’t remember the origin.
The other difference was that they were addicts, mostly crack addicts, and almost all of them were HIV positive. The majority of them had already begun their downward spiral, and each time I saw them I watched them grow just a little sicker.
I was used to seeing a few children parading through the Center on their way to being handed over to some adult who had finished attending one of the groups. If I noticed them at all I tried not to focus too closely. It was one way of not absorbing the sadness that permeated the environment. Generally I don’t recall them laughing or giggling, or watching them run or skip down the halls. They were small silent shadows, little adults, their heads downcast, their figures stick-like, and their general clothing and appearance disheveled. It was as if they had already resigned themselves to the bleak life that was waiting for them. I’d think of my own children; grateful that they had no knowledge of this world and were free to think and live the way children should.
The woman was late arriving to group. She hesitated and peeked around the door that had just been closed. The sign in sheet had just been put away. I motioned her in and she entered slowly, her right arm dragging behind her. She was a good deal older than the others in the group, who aged out in their mid-twenties, or maybe she was just further along and sicker. We never asked those questions.
She was painfully thin, long fragile skeletal bones, beneath frayed corduroy pants, and a print blouse several sizes too big that had begun to yellow many wears ago. The rubber shower shoes she wore were two different colors. When she asked if she was in the right group I noticed that most of her front teeth were missing. That wasn’t uncommon here. Her hair was pulled back severely from her face and twisted tight with a rubber-band. It looked as if she had tried to clean some of the dirt from her hands, even though the nails were broken and black-rimmed, and her fingers were rough and chafed. Somehow I felt that she had tried to pull herself together for this day.
She was pulling somebody behind her. Somebody short. Rules were rules; we couldn’t make exceptions and expect to keep things orderly. Besides children shouldn’t hear the kinds of things that the group’s members shared.
“I’m sorry but we don’t permit children in these groups. You need to arrange for somebody to pick her up if you plan to stay. Do you have somebody to babysit for you?” I knew the answer before I asked the question.
She shook her head, “no,” and the child stepped forward and looked at me directly, studying me, staring in curiosity. I stared back startled.
TO BE CONTINUED