Getting off the bus in downtown L.A. was like getting dumped in the middle of the jungle with predators all around. On the run because I shot some fool in Chicago, I ended up here without a dime in my pocket. I walked downtown and when I got there, I watched six men digging through dumpsters in an alley. The alley smelled of rotten meat, the sidewalks smelled like piss, and people slept in cardboard boxes on the pissed up sidewalks in downtown L.A.
“Suckee fuckee,” a teenage skank said as I walked by. Don’t know why she thought I had any money.
“Hey man, got a butt.” A burly white guy said. He was accompanied by a size xxx black man who looked at me like I was a bacterial growth and he was disinfectant. I pulled my shirt back so they could see the pistol stuck in my belt.
“Don’t smoke,” I said, not taking my eyes off of them until they were a good distance away. Guys like them rob other down and outers. Shows how fucking stupid they are. There are lawyers and other professionals walking around who would have cash, credit cards, and shoes worth taking, but these dummies robbed each other. Hell, I had walked by the jewelry center just down the street. They could do a smash and grab job there and get more in a few minutes than they’d steal in a lifetime from one another.
Three guys looked at me and saw something interesting. They headed straight for me. I opened the six inch knife I always carried, slipped on the steel knuckles I used when fist fighting. Didn’t want to shoot anybody my first day in town.
By the way they spread out around me, so I could only see two at a time; I knew that even though they were young, they were experienced robbers.
“You’re new around here, huh?”
I didn’t know if it was a question or a statement. “What’s it to ya?” I flexed my knees and got ready to scoot out of the way when the one behind me tried to jump on my back.
“Jeremiah, you leave him alone, he’s with me.” Miss suckee, fuckee said as she appeared beside me and grabbed my arm.
“Yo, bitch, he buying you a bit o paradise? Cause if he is, I want some.”
“Fuck off,” she said, led me to a doorway, held out a dirt encrusted hand palm up. A gray pill with an image of an angel stamped onto it sat staring at me. “Swallow that before those fuck heads see it. MDMA>
It tasted like iron when I swallowed it. “Thanks, but you didn’t need to save me. I can take care of myself.”
“Don’t think you could have bested three of them.” Her meth mouth showed as she spoke.
Think I’d rather kiss a mangy dog than her. A chill ran up my back, and I knew the pill had gone to work. Suddenly I fixated on her beautiful blue irises. The drug I swallowed was fast acting. Her nice features and friendly personality gave me a warm feeling. I put my arm around her, pulled her close, forgot how ugly her teeth were and put my mouth on hers and stuck my tongue into her mouth.
“Let’s go to my box,” she whispered.
I followed her past rows of cardboard boxes that were beautiful, especially the ones with colored lettering on them. The heads I saw sticking out of some were magnificent. Some with grey streaked beards, others were women with big questioning eyes set in alabaster faces so intriguing that they belonged on canvas and could be hung beside the Mona Lisa.
“Here.” She pointed to an empty box that must have held a refrigerator it was so big.
We crawled inside and I watched in awe as she took off her top. She was so beautiful. I couldn’t believe my luck. Lying beside me she squirmed out of her jeans and I saw that her legs were covered with puss filled red sores. As I stared at them they became erupting volcanoes and the puss became lava brimming over the sides. Mesmerized, I kissed the miniature volcanoes and as I did a fishy aroma entered my nostrils. I wanted to be repulsed, but everything was beautiful today. The fish stink blew away the smell of piss and replaced it with what seemed like an ocean breeze blowing through the box.
“Lily is my name,” she said as she blew into my ear.
Lily gave me pills every day. I could live without many of life’s comforts, but after a while, I knew I couldn’t live without my daily pills. It didn’t matter that I didn’t shower or shave. I didn’t need money or food. Lily became my everything, and became more beautiful every day.
I didn’t care how she got drugs. As long as she gave me what I needed. Life was good, until one day, she didn’t return. Without any drugs I got sick. I lay in our box for three days shivering, cramping and sweating. On the fourth day I went out and saw the world for what it was. Ugly, stinking, and a terrible place to be.
What have I become? I’ve got to get out of here. I headed down the street when a dirty, ugly girl grabbed me by the arm. I shook her off and backed away. Her greasy hair hung on her like broken spaghetti and her clothes hadn’t been washed in a long, long, time.
Her aroma surrounded her like an aurora. “Don’t touch me,” I said.
She held out her hand palm up. In it were six angel pills. Lily became beautiful again.
Old Gold Cigarettes
At age eight, my first cigarette caused me to choke, cough, and my eyes watered, but I persevered and learned to suck in the smoke and not to choke. Held it in my lungs like a real man would, and took a drink of beer that flowed down my throat through the smoke.
Later that day, I cashed in four Coke bottles and got eight cents, enough for a pack of cigarettes.
“What brand do you want?” asked Sam, the store owner.
I gazed at the stack of cigarette packs, Old Golds came in yellow, Lucky Strikes had a red bulls-eye in the center of white, Camels had pyramids on the pack. Pall Malls were longer than the rest in puke green packs, but Old Gold rang a bell, and I smoked them my entire life.
In my neighborhood, it seemed that none could afford to own a full pack of their own, so when anyone met another they asked, “You got a butt?” Most kids hid their cigarettes in their sock so others wouldn’t bum them. I often saw someone counting how many cigarettes they had left after someone asked for one, and then say, “I only have enough to last me the day . Dicky Smith even counted his matches when asked for a light. To own a Zippo Lighter was first class. It would stay lit in the wind and light everyone’s cigarette.
Addiction was common, but was called a habit. I wanted, no needed cigarettes every day, but it was difficult to scrounge up enough money to buy them. Then one day when I was sixteen, I broke into a warehouse by the railroad tracks and they had cases of Old Gold Cigarettes stored in there. Like a dream come true, I carried enough cartons of cigarettes home to last a few years.
When asked if I had a butt, I’d give away a pack. Someone told the cops. I got sent to Shirley Industrial School for boys. It was a crazy place where I was put in a cottage with 40 other boys. The overseers were what they called house parents and there were two sets. One man and wife would stay with us for four days. They were normal compassionate people and treated us boys like human beings. The Rujo’s worked as house parents three days a week. They were insane.
Mr. Rujo was part American Indian and hated to be called Chief. He was a maniac who would beat a boy for no reason and we didn’t like one another. During meal time we sat in a dining room where the boys sat at five tables and the Rujos sat at a table facing us.
Out of the side of my mouth, I’d yell, “Hey Chief.”
Rujo would react without thinking and grab whatever was in front of him and fling it in the direction of my voice. Boys would duck, and I’d yell, “Hey Chief,” and he’d throw everything on his table and his wife would join in. Within a few minutes the dining room was a bedlam with boys scurrying to escape the barrage and me laughing all the time because the Rujos threw away all their food.
When Mr. Rujo took us outside after the melee one day to march us somewhere, I gave the “Hey Chief,” yell. He knew it was me then and wanted badly to beat my ass, but I ran so fast, he couldn’t catch me.
“No smokes for you today,” he said.
We were allowed four cigarettes a day, and the house parents passed them out. I had a stash of my own so I could smoke whenever I wanted. That night in the dormitory I lit up a cigarette. I wasn’t allowed to smoke before bedtime because of Rujo being pissed.
We boys slept in one big room with a high ceiling. There was a watchman who gazed through a window to be sure we behaved ourselves during the night. He saw the glow of my cigarette and came running into the dormitory.
“I see ya smoking, ye little bastard,” the watchman said in an Irish brogue, as he headed for me. “I’m gonna beat your ass.”
He was a big man. I knew the beating would hurt, and when he told Rujo, I’d be beat again, so I said, “Wait, wait, you don’t understand, I have to smoke, I have smokaramious.”
He stopped in his tracks, scratched his head and said, “Okay, I’ll give ye a break this time, but no more.” He turned and left. I lit up another cigarette.
What happened got back to Rujo and he beat me bloody that morning. When he finished, I asked him for a cigarette. He beat me again. I was starting to think that maybe smoking was hazardous to my health.
Years went by and I coughed up blood, went to the doc, “Lung cancer,” he said.
I was upset, so I lit up a smoke and figured it was too late to stop now.
The doc opened a closet door, yanked out a guitar, and started singing, “Puff, puff, puff that cigarette, until you smoke yourself to death.”
I knew I didn’t have long, so I got a date with the cutest little gal. Hand in hand we strolled down lover’s lane. I gave her a little squeeze. She squeezed back, but I said, “Scuse me please, I just gotta have a cigarette.”
She looked at me and said, “You’re going to die with a cigarette in your mouth.”
“I’ve been told I’m a feller with a heart of gold, it’s probably from smoking so many Old Golds,” I said. “When I get to the Golden Gate, I’ll tell St. Peter that I gotta have another cigarette before he lets me in?”
“There won’t be smokes in heaven.”
“Satan will have a cigarette stand right beside the gate.”
“What’ll you use for money?” she asked.
“My soul, for a pack of Old Golds.”