A gaunt Indian man behind the counter slowly takes his eyes off his customer’s alcohol to glance out the window. “Toe-me… Lowks…” and the large man by the doors turned the locks, slid the metal security gate, and pulled out a Ruger LCP.380. Outside, a crowd of about 60 mostly young adults and teenagers circled around two men. One of them had a crown on his hoodie and stood perfectly still with a customized chrome Glock 36 pointed at the asphalt. His eyes glaring at the other man with a tattoo of what appeared to be a skull in a top hat, who was swinging his arms in the air and yelling so loud that we could hear him inside. “That boy ain’t right,” says a woman peering out one of the little windows. The man then shouted something that must have been funny since everyone laughed and he walked up to his foe, took a deep breath, and POP! A soldier of the silent man punched him from the left side. All hell broke loose as rivals threw fists, kicks, and anything else they might have. Others cheered on. It was hand-to-hand combat until BANG! A gun went off somewhere and everyone scattered into the street, the neighborhood, and nearby field. When the police finally arrived 20 minutes later, the only people around were the one’s who just showed up to get drinks and didn’t know anything had happened. The security gate slid open, the line moved, and I finally got my whiskey.
The glass crunches under my sneakers as I come out of the yellow corrugated steel store toward the edge of the lot. Floodlights and cop flashers create day on this corner. I take a seat on the guardrail between stores and open my fifth not-so-discreetly hidden in a brown bag. It smells like ammonia. I hold it away, look at it for a second, and throw it back trying to drink as much as possible in one shot. It’s terrible. Like someone just mixed up cheap vodka and burnt molasses in a bottle. The aftertaste makes my mouth and throat pucker up so much that I can’t close my eyes. But, it’ll do the job alright.
This whiskey was earned under the table collecting the cover charge at a dive called McCracken’s. I do lots of odd jobs: cleaning gutters, painting houses, lawn work, furniture moving, answer phones, kitchen help, chauffeur; all of which prove that going straight gets you nothing. I make my way across the vacant four-lane street to the ol’ engine cylinder head factory. The three-story reinforced concrete and steel structure has been empty for years. My grandpa use to work here. Started right before World War II and had all kinds of stories about co-workers, being attacked by police at union strikes, and the pride of becoming middle class, and being able to send my mom and her siblings to college and all. The boarded up windows and doors don’t keep out the kids or the homeless. But, it’s not as bad as the vacant department store they turned into a “convention center” down the street. This plant survived mergers, the Great Depression, Unionism, and even technological advances. But, it couldn’t survive NAFTA. Division by division, the factory was dismantled and shipped to Mexico where the average worker makes $4 a day in pay and benefits. Now, no one is middle class. Only 100 workers remain in a dilapidated admin building where their only job is to receive a paycheck so the company can meet the minimum requirements to collect an annual multi-million dollar subsidy from the city and state, which expires in 12 years. Those subsidies, paid with the taxes from the laid off, still go to the CEO who moved production and has since retired to his eight bedroom, nine and a half bath, 23,000 square foot home in the deep south. Which bootstraps do I have to pull myself up by to get that gig?
Now that I’ve got enough numbness, I shuffle down Court Street. The only noise is from the bar all the old men from the Bubba Network (local politicians) drink at. It seems only the alcohol-related businesses survive in this economy. Makes sense. I peek in the windows and see a lot of people, but no one I know. Just a lot of geezers hiding their corruption and incompetence behind fancy suits. I continue on. Swig of whiskey. Empty store. Another swig. Parking lot. Swig. Pawn shop in neon lights. Gulp, gulp, gulp. More parking for more places that were torn down. Ever notice the worst places have the most parking?
I make my way up 5th Avenue just past the commercial district. I wonder if Kate’s home? Kate’s had a rough go of it. She had a decent job at the nearby hospital she worked at for over 30 years, but was let go because she was over 50. That’s not the reason they gave her, but let’s be honest. Anyway, she’s been looking and looking for work and no one will hire her because she’s too old (again not the reason they give her). The stress of long-term unemployment and credit card debt got to her and she developed Lupus. Now, she’s living off disability and has insurance. God finds a way. Anyway, the lights at her house are out. So, if she is home she’s probably already asleep.
This use to be a nice little residential street. Well built older homes that the flippers loved. All these houses were given little more than a beige paint job, marble countertops, and stainless steel appliances, which sold for enormous markups. For a while, the “for sale” signs stayed up longer than they use to. Those were replaced by “foreclosure” signs. There’s no signs anymore. The banks own many of the houses on this street, but don’t do anything with them. They just sit empty and the only activity is a landscaping company comes by every few weeks to butcher the grass. A friend of mine was foreclosed on a few blocks over on Cherry Ave, but fortunately get to still live in the house. They still pay about the same amount to the bank each month, but instead of calling it a “mortgage,” it’s called “rent.” With so many renters, it makes sense they are about to open another apartment complex nearby.
At Williams Street, I see The Shack is open and make my way over. What an interesting business model. The Shack is a tiny food hut that opens from midnight to 3am. They buy cheap frozen pizza and other snack foods from a bulk warehouse, cook it, and resell it to drunks at jacked up prices. Chuck owns the place and is always wearing some old heavy metal band t-shirt with cut off sleeves. And, he’s constantly yelling, “Are the (fill in the blanks) done yet!” at his three teenage daughters and wife. The four women of this family business are dressed in the skankiest matching uniforms that change weekly. The clientele is what you’d expect at this time of night; grizzled old men not ready to face angry wives, an obnoxious bachelor party, and a few high school kids curious about what happens around town at night. The yellow florescent lights somehow makes this place look even grimier. A pouty underaged girl in a tight pink shirt and possibly a tutu (?) stomps up to me in heels she doesn’t know how to walk in, tosses a paper plate of cheese fries on my table, and stomps back behind the counter. There’s some good people watching: a leather wearing biker gang that I recognize as tax attorneys from their ads, a prostitute that had her fair share of meth, and rich suburban kids pretending to be thugs by blowing out their parent’s Mercedes speakers in the parking lot. I could have had leftovers at home, but why microwave something myself when I could pay someone to microwave this for me?
With fries in my belly, I can get back to work on the whiskey. There’s not much to talk about with the rest of 5th Avenue. It’s nothing but Post WWII subdivisions with ugly ranch and tri-level houses as far as the eye can see. I think it was Hemingway that said of his hometown, “Wide lawns; narrow minds.” That about sums it up. If Hemmingway didn’t say it, someone else did. If someone else didn’t say it, then I guess it’s mine. Either way, it’s a lot of ugly houses.
Now, I’m not going to tell you where I end up. Where I am is empty and peaceful. If I tell you where that is you may come and ruin that. But, I pace around thinking and making sure nothing is out of place. What am I going to do? I’m too educated and lack experience. Most importantly, I’m not connected. That’s something you are born into. How come the only things I care about don’t make money? No one’s going to pay me to watch baseball or draw pretty pictures for them. And, I didn’t intend to take on all these student loans to only file papers or do small jobs for slightly more than minimum wage. Work ain’t a reason for living, but I still have to pay the rent. I need money. I am for sale. Forget about virtue and commonwealth or equality. How much will you pay for me, sire? I am a mere peasant dependent on your favored status for survival, my lord.
I climb up the stairs and there’s a sleeping bag spread out on the floor with a couple of books and necessities nearby. Overall, very Spartan. An orange glow in the sky clings to the shadows of trees and buildings below. I swirl the last awful sips of a bad whiskey; not that I can taste it anymore anyway. I toss it back for the last time, lay down on the sleeping bag listening to the faint whirring sounds in my head. It is what it is. What else could it be?
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