“Still Shooting” – Non-Fiction by Todd Pate

Drink Coca-Cola - Weegee (Arthur Fellig), c. 1950
Drink Coca-Cola – Weegee (Arthur Fellig), c. 1950

Our good buddy & hobo journalist extraordinaire Todd Pate gets personal and shares “Still Shooting,” a plaintive account from some of his darker days, which you can also find in our Summer 2014 issue.

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I CAME UPON THE OLD JUNKIE at the corner of 111th Street and 3rd Avenue. Spanish Harlem. He’d just finished shooting up in the middle of the sidewalk. The thin rope he’d used to cut off the circulation to his left arm dangled loosely around the elbow. The syringe lay on the sidewalk at his feet but he still held his right hand to his left arm in shooting position, pressing his thumb down on the invisible plunger, over and over. People passed by with Spring afternoon speed, going in and out of the bodega, dollar store, fried chicken shack, Cuban or Chinese joint or liquor store. Never noticing, never caring.

I can’t say I cared, either. I’d quit drinking that Winter, I cared about very little then. I had no compassion for myself, much less for that old junkie, in those early months without the drink. I didn’t even know what compassion was anymore. I knew nothing about anything in those days. Without the drink, everything was one greasy unformed thing. The only thing that made sense was drinking and I wasn’t drinking anymore and the only thing to do about that was to walk, day and night, above freezing or below, around Spanish Harlem. The noise in my head faded a little when my feet were moving. While in motion, I could forget about the gaping hole running through the center of me, quit worrying if it would ever close up. I took each step as if they’d been predetermined. But my feet froze about 10 feet from that old junkie. Seconds after I stopped, the noise rushed in. I fought to push it away, putting all my focus on the old junkie…

His eyes were broken windows in his sagging gray face, curtained by stringy, salt-and-pepper hair. Sparse cactus-needle whiskers grew around his open mouth that looked to be stuck on a syllable of a word he’d failed to finish. A skinny and bony creature, but rogue flab managed to collect about his midsection. Shoulders rose and fell with each slow breath. Dirty sweater, holes in it. Dirty pants hanging below a pale ass. Belt buckled in the last hole, excess of belt swinging about like the withered remnants of some mysterious appendage. Sockless feet disappearing in tattered tennis shoes much too large.

He took three tiny crab steps toward me as if to balance against a wind blowing in his mind. Once stabilized, he looked at me. I looked down. I was wearing a sweater, too. Belt buckled on the last hole, too. My green cargo pants too big, cuffs shredded. The pants I wore the last time I drank. I pulled them up over my waist and there were my black tennis shoes. I felt the hole in the right heel. I wore them the last night I drank, also. I looked up just as the wind blew the junkie again. He crab stepped closer, I crab stepped further away as if he were the bull and I the matador. I couldn’t take his eyes anymore so I looked down. The same pants, the same shoes. But I can’t remember anything else about the last time I drank. Crab steps, crab steps. I just know Mount Sinai was the hospital…

…on a bed in the ER. Completely naked. A hospital gown dangles from the IV tubes in my arm. Bed sheet on the floor. Pungent odor of urine rises up to my nose. Wet, lukewarm bed. Everything bright and a million beeps. Blurry figures dressed in white roam about, maybe looking at me, maybe not. A stout blond nurse comes into focus, leans over me. She gets a whiff of the urine, steps back, shakes her head.

“Hmm,…did somebody tinkle?” She kneels down, picks up the sheet and the gown, stands up, holds it in front of her with one gloved hand. “Hmm, somebody sure did.”

“When can I leave?”

“At 10,” she says as she pulls the gown over my body.

“I want to leave now.”

“I’m sorry, but you came in an ambulance, you were admitted, so we can’t let you go until 10.” She walks away, holding the sheet as if it’s leading her somewhere.

I pull the tubes out of my arm and get out of bed, nurse be damned. I pull off the gown, drop it on the floor. Feet cold on the floor. Pale skin covered with the normal, random, unexplainable green bruises. Nobody notices, cares. I find a plastic bag under the bed containing my clothes, my tennis shoes. My wallet’s also in the bag, and my keys, my phone. I smile. I didn’t lose anything. So many wallets, keys, and cell phones lost in New York City, so many IDs and debit cards, so many notebooks of songs, poems and stories, lost forever. But not this time. Nothing is lost this time. Turns out it was just one of those crazy nights. Happens to the best of us. I stumble into my clothes, walk out of the ER, walk to my apartment in Spanish Harlem.

I spend my last bit of money on a pack of cigarettes. I light the first one and realize I never want to smoke again. But I’m not going to quit. God I’m not. I finish the smoke, stub it out and light another. Fuck it. I’m not gonna quit drinking, either. Fuck you, God, and fuck it all. But in the middle of the second smoke I hear a voice. You are going to die or go to jail. Gentle raindrops begin to fall on my shoulders. Raindrops rattle through the trees. One by one, raindrops mark the dry sidewalk. After a couple of blocks the sidewalk’s completely wet and suddenly it’s a rainy day. And cold. Low dark clouds hover above the city, they ache to rain harder but only small drops fall. My sweater grows damp and heavy, then wet and heavier. I’m colder and jail is worse. Block after block, heavier and colder and jail is worse. I manage to carry all the icy weight up the stairs into my apartment and where I collapse and shiver and jail is…

…that mysterious wind pushed the old junkie again, but this time he crab stepped toward a black lady and her kids. They effortlessly moved around him and continued onward into the sunny day. He bobbed in the family’s wake for a long moment before swinging into the same hunched position and resumed shooting the invisible syringe. Thumb up, thumb down. The real syringe on the sidewalk still had fluid in it. In the crook of the junkie’s arm, little dots of blood where he’d tried to find a vein. Was he too high to notice he’d dropped the needle? Or had he managed to shoot in any of the junk? Was he too strung out to know he wasn’t high? Could he no longer feel the difference between his heaven and his hell?

The old junkie’s eyes found me again but this time I returned the gaze. But I realized he wasn’t looking at me at all. His eyes were fixed on something so far, far behind me. His mouth open a little wider, that word was nearly out of his mouth, a word that could possibly catch the attention of whatever he saw back there, that could possibly compel whatever it was to return to him forever. But the wind blew again and he looked away. Crab steps. The spell broke and I walked around the him to the corner and waited for the walk light.

The sunlight hit me harder. I had to squint. Sweat droplets on my forehead. The lady next to me and the three little girls orbiting her waist all wore shorts. Spring had pushed Winter out of the city once more. The walk light flashed and I darted into the street, ahead of the other pedestrians. Breathing heavy when I made it to the other side. I stopped, took a deep breath, let it out and looked up over the buildings to the blue sky. Then I turned around. Through the crowd of pedestrians there was the old junkie, still shooting.

And he’s still shooting today. Thumb up, thumb down. Forever. Vacant eyes, crab steps, mouth open. That unknown word. Forever. I know he’s still there, because I’m still standing on the corner of 111th Street and 3rd Avenue in Spanish Harlem, under that hot sun, looking right at him. I will always be there. I see the old junky so clearly, still shooting, as the endless stream of brown and black and pink humanity flows around him, crosses the street and rages through me forever.

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TODD PATE

TODD PATE is a writer, actor, musician, carpenter, cowboy, and whatever else he has to do to pay the bills. He’s wandered across America several times. His non-fiction novel about a recent bus trip through the country – Here, In America – is due out this year. He writes a weekly blog called El Jamberoo: Adventures in Americaland – commenting about whoever he’s with and wherever he’s at at the time.

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