The guys hanging out in the Downtown Emergency Service Center overnight shelter when I arrived one December night in 2009 looked way older and weirder than me. But I was a homeless, clinically depressed alcoholic at the end of my rope, so I fit right in.
I told myself I was different, though, and I teamed up with a few other guys who liked feeling superior to our fellow sufferers. In our joking conversations my group divided everybody else at the shelter into the crazies, the junkies, the stinkers, the itchers, and the hackers.
The itchers, hackers, and stinkers were to be avoided like the plague because some of them probably had it, and the crazies were to be watched because there’s no TV at the shelter. One would stand in the smoke room, point his finger like a gun, extend his arm, and roar “BOOM!!!” Then he’d grit his teeth and snarl in the direction of his imaginary shot. We named him Aqua Man on account of the wet-suit top he wore. Another would walk up to residents one by one, look deep into their eyes, and hum a long, drawn-out “Hmm-m-m!”
Over 200 people sleep each night at the DESC shelter. They’re admitted on an emergency basis, meaning the streets would be their only alternative bed. The shelter is like what Robert Frost said about home — “the place where, when you have to go there, They have to take you in.” You aren’t turned away unless the shelter’s full or you’re violent.
The staff generally does a good job of enforcing the rules, which are No Drugs, No Drinking, No Fighting, and No Exchanges Of Any Kind. One guy was kicked out for exchanging 15 cents for a coffee. Smoking is permitted because if shelter clients were allowed outside after curfew to smoke, there’s no telling what they’d bring back in with them. Keeping us indoors is good for the general public, too, who don’t have to see us lined up on the street like auditioners for a reality show called The Wrong Stuff.
The smoke room was the gathering area for people-watching as well as for clandestine drug activity and cancer. There’s a term used in the smoke room called “shorts,” meaning the last few puffs or quarter-inch of a cigarette, as in “Can I get shorts on that cig?” Guys in my group liked to apply the term to other things, as in “Can I get shorts on that bagel?” “Can I get shorts on that soda?” and my personal favorite, “Can I get shorts on them shorts?”
The men’s dorm accommodates 130 men in bunk beds, wearing 130 pairs of dirty socks on 130 pairs of smelly feet. At night a symphony of bodily noises is always playing, and the orchestra is occasionally paid homage with lighter flames twinkling in the blackness like an Aerosmith concert. The lighters belong to crack smokers and junkies cooking up bedtime snacks they hope to get away with because staff numbers decline in the evenings.
The first time I closed my eyes in that dormitory, lying in my assigned bunk, the tears ran down the side of my face into my ears. How the hell did I end up here?
Before I became homeless, I was engaged to be married and had worked at a big hotel near Sea-Tac for almost two years with a perfect attendance record. I was a functioning addict, single-handedly trying to reverse America’s depression (and my own) by injecting all my disposable income into the economy via my dealer. After wild weekend parties that were actually 36-hour benders during which I consumed diverse lovely drugs, my fiancée would ask me if I was OK, fear in her eyes.
Maybe addiction was one of the things that helped me come across as what my friends call a nice guy. People like me, but I have a hard time liking myself. The darkness has several tie-down points attached to my soul and tugs at them on a regular basis.
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