Homeless, Hungry and High

A former marine turned crack addict finds himself panhandling and running from the law until a wakeup call in the back of a police cruiser.

marine-addictI sat under the overpass wondering about the destination of the cars that passed below. I was completely without responsibility and also completely without possessions. I did not arrive at this point overnight— no, it was definitely a process. The state I found myself in was the culmination of many years of bad decisions.

My day began this morning with me standing at an exit ramp with a cardboard sign in my hand. The sign had the words, “HOMELESS AND HUNGRY PLEASE HELP” scrawled on it with black magic marker. I had accumulated over $35 within a half-hour period and had managed to judiciously remove myself from the corner before the local police happened by. It was always in one’s best interest to avoid the heat whenever possible. The $35 that I had collected was used to purchase $20 worth of crack cocaine, a pack of cigarettes, some beer, and a sandwich.

After eating the sandwich, I smoked the crack, and now I was sitting under the overpass drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and getting lost in thoughts; “What if…” and “If only…” I had been starting my days like this for over seven months now. I would finish my beer and go back to the exit ramp and the process would be repeated in an endless, mind-numbing cycle of madness.

This particular morning I had a lot on my mind; the previous night, Patch, another panhandler on Eight Mile road, had been killed by an automobile while trying to elude the police. He had run down the embankment from the service drive to the freeway and had slid on the ice and snow, landing on the freeway in front of an oncoming vehicle.

Such was the fragility of life for a drug addict on the harsh streets of Detroit. We live our lives in a constant and repetitive cycle of getting money, getting drugs, then getting more money. During my morning reverie, I had a sudden moment of clarity. The harsh reality of my situation became all too clear to me. This was the reason that I strove to maintain a constant high. Being high became reality in itself, therefore eclipsing the reality of my wasted life.

Like I said earlier, I had been on a run now for seven months. This was not the first time that I had blended into the streets like this. No, this was yet another in a series of devastating events that had contributed to a failed life; a life devoid of love, affection, kindness, and most of all, devoid of sanity. I knew that I was living far below my capabilities, yet I could see no way out. The road out of here seemed so steep that it could not be negotiated. Enough of these morbid thoughts, I rose and headed back to the exit ramp.

It’s midnight and 10 degrees below zero. I am so fixated with getting one more hit of crack that I am still at the exit ramp. The motorists can’t even read my cardboard sign in the dark. The money is coming real slow this evening. After all, it’s midnight, I am rough looking, and this is Detroit. After one hour, I have only collected seven dollars. I give up and head back to the overpass that I am camped under. Danny, my road dog, is already sleeping, so I climb into our makeshift wind-break and prepare myself against the cold. I am already wearing three pair of pants, a half-dozen shirts, four pairs of socks, and an overcoat. I pull my hat down to my eyebrows and pull a hood over the hat. I climb beneath four blankets and cover my head so that the warmth of my breath will not be wasted. I drift off and sleep the dreamless slumber of the crack addict.

Morning comes and I wake up shivering in the cold winter air. It is time to crawl out of my cocoon and face another day of hustling up money and getting high. The only bright spot on my horizon is the fact that I still have the seven dollars that I panhandled before I called it a day last night. I head out to purchase some crack with the seven dollars. This will be my “eye opener,” something to get my day started. This is actually a rare occurrence as I seldom go to sleep with money in my pocket.

I make my way over to the spot and make my seven dollar purchase. The dope man gives me a pretty decent size piece of crack for my seven dollars. After all, he is a businessman and is aware that this starts me on yet another day of endless trips to and from the corner to the crack spot. I smoke the crack in one hit. As I exhale, I feel that rush, that euphoric surge. I sit for a moment and enjoy that momentary respite from reality.

It is only a few minutes before the euphoria turns to panic, the panic of coming down. The only thing that will help to delay the panic is movement. I move into action. I head to the corner, the exit ramp where I spend the better part of each day plying my trade. When I arrive at the corner; I spot Danny on his corner. Danny is using a wheelchair today. Sitting in a wheelchair elicits sympathy from the motorists. Myself, I have never used props such as this, preferring to stand and be mobile. I do make sure that I present a clean-cut appearance. I feel that a clean-cut appearance shows that I am at least trying to maintain some degree of dignity.

I take my spot on the corner. The spot I work from is on the opposite side of Eight Mile Road from Detroit. The police do not bother panhandlers on the Detroit side but on the side that I am on, I run the risk of arrest by the Ferndale police. The light turns red, stopping traffic on the service drive. I hold my sign in front of me and walk slowly down the row of backed up traffic. Windows roll down and bills are proffered, bills, which I collect and stuff into my pant pockets. Traffic is heavy this morning and I figure that I will stay there for four lights at the most. By the second red light, my pant pockets are bulging with crumpled bills. Two more lights and I will slip off to the side of the overpass and count my earnings.

I walk under the overpass and carefully remove the bills from my pockets. After counting them twice, I put the $47 back into my pocket and set off to see how Danny is doing. Danny signals me over and he counts his money. He has accumulated $34 so we head off together to the crack spot to get our batteries recharged. It is about 30 degrees out so we slip into an abandoned house to smoke our drugs. Crack pipes are loaded, lighters struck, and then there is the sound of the crack sizzling in the pipe as we fill our lungs with the sought after bliss. A respite from the harsh reality of how far down I have slid. With a head humming pleasantly I head back to the corner.

As I have mentioned earlier, I have been caught up in the grip of this insanity for seven months now. As my head begins to clear in the cool late morning air, my thoughts turn to what life used to be. I had a wife, a job, and a home up until I walked off one day and chose the bliss of intoxication over the security of the straight life. More and more these days, my thoughts wander to what I could be doing instead of what I was doing. I would stand holding my sign in a quiet self-reflection, wondering if I could ever get back to some form of a satisfying lifestyle. One in which I could once again enjoy the warmth and security of a stable home. I just couldn’t shake the thought, the feeling that there was so much more that I could be doing.

It is now early evening, around four o’ clock and I am on the corner hustling money from the rush-hour commuters on their way home after a day in the auto plants or offices of Detroit. Money is coming in pretty good, after all it is Friday and spirits are high as the city’s workers head into a weekend respite. A window slides down and a $20 bill is offered. I take the bill and thank the man who gave it to me. He responds and tells me that he will pray for me. For some unfathomable reason those words struck me like a hammer’s blow. Those words were sharper than any samurai steel, cutting through layers of deeply calloused emotions and finding a softness that still existed deep within a hidden place in my soul.

I wish that I could say that I put that $20 bill aside and used it to start a new life. I wish that I could say that I did not purchase drugs with that money, however, that simply would not be the truth. No, my pursuit of insanity did not end in that moment, as a matter of fact, it continued for another month until I was arrested and jailed for 30 days. The charge was possession of a crack pipe. I was so high one evening that I crossed Eight Mile road to panhandle and neglected to hide my illegal instrument of chaos, a three-inch long piece of antennae used to smoke crack out of. When the police rousted me off the corner, they searched me, and promptly arrested me for possession of paraphernalia.

After 30 days in jail, I was released and returned immediately to the corner to resume the cycle of madness. It is one circumstance to be caught deep within the grips of active drug use, but now I was working with a brain that had been drug-free for 30 days. Yes, it was with a brain totally free of the effects of drugs that I chose to use drugs once again. The man who once told me he would pray for me kept popping up in my mind while I held my sign on the corner. I was torn, full of ambivalence. The drivers in their vehicles were handing me money as I passed down the queue of cars at the red light. My mind raced with thoughts of getting high and yet was besieged with the guilt of heading once more into chaos and confusion. I was truly in a dissonant state of mind.

My dissonance was short-lived. I had soon collected enough money to purchase some crack and put all those thoughts to sleep. It was March and I was snow-covered and cold. I went into an abandoned building to smoke my crack and the madness started all over again. The beast, which had been caged for the past month, was once again free to ravage my life. I returned to the endless ritual of hustling on the corner and taking my gains to the crack house.

Around 11 o’clock that night, my first night out of jail, I was seen heading into an abandoned building by the narcotics officers. They grabbed me and searched me. They didn’t find the drugs I had hidden on me but they did find the crack pipe. The cop threw my crack pipe in the bushes and put me in the back seat of the car. He started asking me questions to which I made no reply. I did, however, answer some personal questions about myself. When the cop learned that I was a former Marine, his attitude towards me changed. He told me that I should reach out to someone.

The conversation with that cop impacted me deeply. It made me think about the way that life used to be and could be again. It made me face the person that I had become, the level to which I had sunk. I walked over to Woodward Avenue, my stride purposeful, and got on the bus towards downtown. There was a place downtown called the N.S.O., the Neighborhood Service Organization, a large, open hall full of folding chairs where people could get out of the cold. The social workers there could help someone like myself get into a treatment facility.

At seven in the morning, I got in line to see the social worker and by noon I was on my way to a 90-day treatment facility. I remained at the facility for three months and then stayed on an additional four months as a resident trainee, which is a stipend working position. At the end of those seven months, I moved to Birmingham, Alabama for a job in my field.

I continued to have bouts of binge-using for another four years, some of those binges running for months, until a psychiatrist at the V.A. Hospital, in Birmingham finally saw me. I was diagnosed as bipolar with major depressive disorder. Today, I am on Prozac, Zyprexa, and Lithium. My moods are stable, my impulsiveness is under control, and I am able to lead a better quality of life.

Now, I cannot say whether the chemical imbalance in my brain was caused by my drug use or my drug use was my way of coping with the chemical imbalance, but this is immaterial. As long as I take my medication and report honestly to my mental health worker, then I don’t care which one caused the other, I need only enjoy a higher level of functioning than I have ever experienced. Read more “the fix”…

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