The plastic basins sit in the sink. I would say “kitchen sink” but there is only one sink, spring-fed, in the cabin my father and uncle built with their friends on the first backwater of the Cheat Lake in West Virginia almost 50 years ago. The basins are now used to soak crusted egg off the white plastic plates with their pea green and yellow floral design. The plates, like the colored glass lamp hanging over the table and the embroidery of mushrooms on the wall, are relics of 70’s beer and cigarette bacchanals, before us kids, when the place was still called “Mecca South”.
The basins, however, date from the early 90’s, and before they were used to soak breakfast dishes they were used to collect my father’s excess bodily fluids, mostly bloody phlegm, as I recall, brought up by long bouts of a painful, hacking cough.
They came from Ruby Memorial Hospital, and are still, 24 years later, the easily identifiable (at least to anyone who has spent a lot of time in hospitals) hospital pink that they were in 1993. My memory of my father’s facial features has faded more- much more- than the color of these plastic basins.
The pink is very tasteful, actually, which surprises me when I go back to the family place once every year or two and re-discover them. One of my aunts built a house on the property and lives there year-round now, and the past few years my cousins have been bringing their small children for impromptu family reunions. I always find the basins still here and notice again that the pink is not a bubble-gum pepto-bismol pink but rather a dusky, purplish-pink, somewhere between blush and bruise.
That summer, the summer of ’93, my father was hospitalized for a month (or a little more? or a little less?) with a septic knee infection (I think this is what it was? All I really knew at the time was that the knee was the size of a grapefruit, and it was very serious). My older brother was in Mexico visiting Aunt Julie and Tio José, and my mother, panicked and doing a less expert job of hiding it than she generally did, mostly stayed at the hospital. That left me largely at the cabin with a dumb Brittany Spaniel named Calvin and a field mouse-obsessed orange tabby tomcat named Popcorn, listening to the same mixtape cassette (Duran Duran, U2, SWV), or top 40 country music on the radio, eating toasted and buttered english muffins when I got hungry. I also learned how to meditate by following the instructions in a worn paperback called “Yoga Meditation” which I had purchased at the used bookstore in Morgantown. The cover had a photo of a lady in a white leotard with long blonde hair sitting in lotus position with a tall candlestick burning in front of her.
I would walk the narrow path hacked into a ridge of the steep hillside, following the shoreline of the backwater below, until I got to what I had designated as my meditation spot; a boulder protruding out over the long drop to the lake, with a small, quiet stream running beside it. I would sit cross-legged, close my eyes most (but not all) of the way, count and concentrate on my in-breaths and out-breaths, and try to notice my thoughts as they came up and dismiss them, like blowing a soap bubble out towards the lake, watching it drift and pop. My favorite type of meditation was 360 degree listening meditation. I focused on individual sounds, and then gradually learned to notice them together, to be aware of the spontaneous symphonic qualities of sound. The stream running close by on my left, stillness as it fell over the ledge and the splash on the rocks below as it continued on it’s way down to the lake. Wind in the thick, bright green foliage all around me. A cricket somewhere behind me. a distant jet-ski’s roar and stop. An outboard motor idling as someone pulled into a shady fishing cove on the opposite bank. loud laughter from the Graziani’s dock, echoing over the backwater. The hum of a plane overhead. By the time I was back at the cabin, changed into my bathing suit, and wading, then diving into the cool, sun-dazzled green water of Cheat Lake, my mind was often nearly empty. It may not be an accurate recollection, but I do not recall feeling lonely or scared.
At some point, after maybe two weeks or so, Grandma came down from Pittsburgh to stay at the cabin with me. She brought white bread, chipped ham, mayo and iceburg lettuce. She brought milk and Frosted Flakes. She brought a semblance of normalcy, and a flurry of activity. To every day, it’s project. We hiked up to the bright, sunny pastures at the top of the property to pick blackberries. Grandma with a kerchief tied over her silver hair. We tried our hand at fishing from the dock. We collected firewood. We built a “handicapped ramp” up to the front porch of the cabin out of clay that I dug out of the lake by the bucketful and large flat stones that I dug up all up and down the shoreline, and hauled up the path in a little red Flyer wagon. Grandma explained that the ramp was because my father was going to get out of the hospital and come back here, but would have no flexibility in the knee, and would certainly be using a walker or a cane, if not a wheelchair. I see now that my grandmother conceived of this project as a way of occupying my time and distracting me, as a way of giving me some structure (little did she know I had done fine without it), and to give me Optimism writ large, as a concrete thing I could feel and hold, even build myself, one stone, one handful of wet clay at a time.
Optimism was sort of a moot point for me, though. It really did not seem conceivable to me that my father would die. When I was near him I was enormously, inarticulately concerned with his suffering. I felt his suffering physically, in my own knobby, twiggy wisp of an almost-pubescent body. But at that time his death, his inevitable death, for a full-blown AIDS patient in 1993 had virtually no hope of survival, simply was not real to me. His death belonged to the realm of impossible- I should say impermissible– things, and so did not concern and pre-occupy me as it has off and on in all the years since it did occur.
When Grandma drove down to West Virginia from Pittsburgh and hiked in to the cabin with groceries, straining to haul her petite body over fallen trees that blocked the path, she may have brought, tucked in with the groceries, a fashion magazine. I can’t remember, but it strikes me as likely, because both my mother and my grandmother bought me fashion magazines as a form of reward or comfort. My mother always gave me the hulking behemoth September issue of Harper’s Bazaar. Grandma may have brought me the July, or the new August Vogue.
Decades later, it is with the eyes of an aesthete, a now confirmed devotée of Fashion (studied at Parsons, apprenticed to a bespoke tailor, etcetera), as well as for many years a practicing visual artist (Junior year of college painting in a Paris Atelier, etcetera) that I see the darkish pink of these hospital spittoons in the sink. I think, “I would like a linen dress in that color. A cashmere tunic with big pockets and a scoop neck. Silk lounge pants. Suede high-top sneakers.”
I am well aware of what they are and how they came to be here. He did insist on leaving the hospital, despite the doctor’s warnings that it would kill him. As my mother never tires of reminding me, I get my stubborn, bullheaded streak, as well as my temper, from him. My father came back to the cabin on an old pontoon boat, ferried in by loyal, deeply good, gutter-talking, chain-smoking, large, loud-laughing mountain neighbors who had known him since he was a child and loved him. He used the ramp that Grandma and I had built. He was not well and I distinctly remember him, after having insisted on going out sailing and getting caught in a storm (that stubborn streak again- Death be not proud!), lying on the sofa under an electric blanket and a couple other blankets, shivering, irritable. I lay down beside him, put my arm and leg over him, and lay my head on his bony, caved-in chest, determined to give him whatever warmth I had.
We returned to Boston when the scent of Fall was on the air, just in time for the start of school. He survived for almost two more years after that summer; an incredible feat considering that he had no functioning immune system of his own at that point, only a sister who was a blood match, and who was willing to have white blood cells sucked out of her body and pumped into his body to buy him a little more time.
Sometimes I think any normal family would get rid of those pink plastic basins. But then I realize that “normal” doesn’t mean anything. There is no “normal family”, just as there is no “normal person”, no “normal life”.
Yesterday, out on the porch after work with a quesadilla on the plate in front of me- mixed mexican queso, avocado just a little under-ripe, vegan cilantro dip, lime, salt, smoky hot sauce and sour cream. The Belcher on Otis Street let out a terrific, huge belch which resounded down to the Thai Temple and back, and brought our conversation about which friend, family member, pet you would eat first (if forced to due to a massive earthquake) to a sudden stop. I kept right on eating, remarking simply “oh, the Belcher’s at it again”, only to discover that my housemates and visiting friends had not been privy to events on this special low frequency. They were having a brand-new experience. Only later when we left on our bikes for the bar did I happen to notice that another character around here- let’s call him “motorized wheelchair man” for the sake of clarity and simplicity, and because that’s what we call him- was sitting in his wheelchair with a brown-bagged beverage at exactly the spot on Otis, in front of the Meth Laundry Lesbian’s place, from which the epic belch had emanated a short time before. It seems increasingly possible that the Belcher and motorized wheelchair man are one and the same person.
So much has happened since I last weighed in on the state of the world that I hardly know where to begin. Plus, you are all glued to your array of information sources, just as I am, juggling words and images in your brain, shifting from panic to numbness to moments of sweet forgetting. You know how bad it is. Here in Berkeley the rain is coming down like mother nature is trying to cleanse the earth of the foul stench of moral rot. It’s not working. At the beginning of the week we saw the confirmation of Betsy Devos as secretary of education after Senate Democrats actually did their damn job and stayed up all night fighting tooth and nail against it. Not because they’re saints, mind you. Because they want to get re-elected and they know that the huge majority of Americans send their children to public schools and are much more aware of and impassioned over the handling of public education than almost any other issue. Yes, the constituency is quite aware that Devos is a woman who seems to have no appreciation for education, learning, and literacy as good things in and of themselves. Nor does she have any grasp on the role public education can play in creating some socio-economic mobility, some possibility for the realization of big dreams for children who are not born to wealth, as she was, and who do not have access to financial resources. She wants to privatize public education. Which means you can get a voucher for 7000 dollars a year (that’s taxpayer dollars that have been siphoned off from their previous allocation to support and improve Public schools) to send your kid to a private or parochial school. The only problem is most private and parochial schools annual tuition, even for kindergarten, is 15 grand or more. So if you don’t happen to have 8-13 thousand dollars a year lying around (according to multiple recent studies, including this one in Forbes, most Americans can’t come up with 500 dollars in an emergency, no less 8,000 every year) you are shit out of luck. Your kid is going to be one of those shunted off to a public school system that’s been catastrophically defunded. Considering how difficult it is to deliver anything resembling a quality education in the U.S public school system with the current levels of under-funding, over-crowing, teacher shortages, underpaid and overworked teachers and staff, etcetera, it is difficult to imagine the Devos plan leading to anything other than public schools that are little more than holding pens (read: Prisons) for the very poorest of children and teenagers. And even these public schools will be privatized, the way prisons are now. You see where I’m going with this. The whole thing is basically a neat way of transforming our public schools into an expansion of the for-profit prison system. The public schools will become for-profit prisons for poor, mostly black-and brown children and teenagers. And it’s an even better business model than the for-profit prisons, because they don’t even have to do anything wrong (aside from being born poor) to be there! there’s no need to criminalize particular behaviors, substances, ways of dressing, etcetera. These children are forced to be the prison population simply because they’re poor and their families can’t buy them out of it. Furthermore, most families rely on public schools to be the only free child care that exists in our country, enabling the parents to go to work. The dream of pulling those beautiful little people out and taking them for a hike and teaching them to read the best books and ask questions and think critically under the big blue sky is just that- a dream that could only be reality for those priveleged enough to not need to go to work to put food on the table every day. And last but not least, delinquency/failure to attend school can lead to interventions either from DSS or from law enforcement, which leads to those other hells of the foster system and the prison system. Now if this is not sophisticated coercion, I don’t know what is. Isn’t it disgustingly clever? I’d like to think that Betsy Devos is stupid and doesn’t realize the massive profit potential of privatizing public schools, but the functioning part of my brain is sure that she has holdings in private prison companies and whoever manages her portfolio has made her fully aware of how much money can be made by turning the public schools of this country into for-profit private prisons for poor children. I imagine many of the contractors behind the private prison industry are standing in the wings, eager to step in and place their bids as this new business opportunity opens to them.
As I said in my Post ‘Don’t Tread on Us’: “The collective contributions of the good, dutiful, obedient American taxpayer add up to a huge pot of money. After all, there’s a lot of us. It is infuriating to those who want to play with or pocket some of this money (and are used to getting what they want) that we’ve managed to keep their hands off it for so long.”
That, my friends, is the beating heart of the drive to privatize all that is public. It has driven them crazy for too long that they haven’t been permitted to put their hands in this money. Privatizing is just inserting a middle-man who will take a cut for himself and his share-holders (of which Devos is sure to be one), and who in so doing will pull even more of the meager resources allocated to poor families away from them and into some Cayman Islands account far out of the reach of the IRS.
Then there’s the confirmation as A.G of Jefferson Sessions, one of the most KKK-loving, black vote suppressing, power-abusing, white supremacist motherfuckers to ever be refused a seat in the federal judiciary of the United States due to the aforementioned KKK-protecting, suppressing of the black vote etc.
The day this man became the head of the Federal Justice Department should be regarded as a day of national tragedy, shame, and sorrow. To think that we will need to fight AGAINST the USJD to secure equal protection under the law- to secure JUSTICE- for all our people. Whew. Excuse my language, but that is fucked up. We are living in some dark and twisted times when Jeff Sessions is Attorney General. It’s so mind-bogglingly messed up and infuriating that I can’t even be articulate about it.
And to top it all off, 45 has another executive order coming through today or tomorrow, which is worth taking a look at. It’s just a couple pages, so you can really read the fine print. The thing to focus on (I think), is the huge discretion given to the Attorney General, Jeff Sessions, notorious racist and supporter of white supremacist terrorist groups in this country, to determine what constitutes an insupportable level of resistance to “local law enforcement”, and to alter the criminal codes in order to “protect local law enforcement” from what he feels is an undue amount of resistance, lack of compliance, lack of cooperation etcetera. That sounds to me like drastically expanded criminalization of protests, marches, and resistance activism generally. In particular resistance to White Supremacy in this administration (such as, I dunno, the Justice Department halting it’s investigations into local PDs all over the country murdering unarmed black people with impunity?) We are about to see the new COINTELPRO. We are about to see Black Lives Matter surveilled and brutally attacked the way the Black Panthers were in the 70’s. This Executive Order is just one of the things- this designation of authority to the racist A.G – that might just make it all “legal”. We must remain vigilant and be prepared to fight. If you’re Black, start thinking of yourself as a warrior (you probably already do)- if you’re White, start thinking of yourself as a human shield, and get good and comfortable with the idea of putting your body on the line to do all we can to protect our Black family. There will be no sitting this one out.
Oh, just one more thing. Every Authoritarian regime needs a propaganda arm, and 45 took care of that (or at least laid the groundwork) with his stealthy, Putin-esque re-structuring of the Voice Of America. This one is gonna be a slow burner, folks, but the importance of an entirely regime-controlled broadcasting arm has never been a thing to scoff at, from Hitler to Pinochet from Rwanda to North Korea to the USSR to Putin’s Russia, so it’s probably a good idea for all of us to pay attention to this. Hats off to Rachel Maddow and her team at MSNBC for this invaluable piece of real reporting.
Also, just in case these assholes are over there, making a file on me- put this in there, will ya?
*painting by Hans Memling, 1470
I should start by saying I am indebted to a couple of things I read recently for the brain-storms behind this post: Thomas Piketty’s Capital in the 21st century, and the Wall Street Journal of Monday, November 14, 2016.
So… “Make America great again”. Let’s dig into that for a minute. What does it mean? Sure, to many it means a return to a world in which straight, white, cis-gendered, gentile men ruled over us all and didn’t have to worry about anyone successfully elbowing in on their hoarded stores of power, money, respect, freedom, and basic physical security. Maybe some of those people would like to re-live the thrill of the rest of us stepping off the sidewalk, curtsying, and hiding in the shadows in shame. But there is more to that time, that time that is so great in the collective memory of these former masters of the universe. In fact, there were some things in that time- the middle of the 20th century- that did hold a promise of greatness, if yet to be fully realized in equitable distribution, particularly to non-white people. Specifically, as Thomas Piketty shows, it was the only time in history that wealth has been re-distributed from the top percentiles of earned income and more importantly from the greatest inherited fortunes, to a middle 40%- the much touted great American Middle Class, which has been in decline since roughly 1980. During that great time in the mid 20th century, Private Capital, through unprecedented high post-war tax rates on the top decile that has always held a great majority of the wealth of all nations, became Public Capital in the form of subsidies and support- the G.I Bill and all of it’s provisions being an important example- in Social Security, Medicare, a well-funded public education system that was affordable to all, through the University level, a well-funded and powerfully unionized Public Sector from Teachers to The Postal Service, to Public Utilities, and on and on. The Quality of life and broad prosperity of that era were due almost entirely to the transference, through taxes, of Private Capital into Public Capital. During this same era, and again, in large part due to government aid as part of the G.I Bill, a significant number of American families were able to build equity through home-ownership.
The middle class in America lost a huge part of the equity that differentiated it from the bottom 50% (those with no equity, no capital, nothing they can pass on to their heirs) in the subprime mortgage/foreclosure crisis of 2008. A massive amount of housing stock at that time became bank-owned and was then auctioned off to already-wealthy venture capitalists, leading to a boom in the rental-market for these re-couped single-family homes. Many Americans now are not even given the option of owning a home, even a fixer-upper in an undesirable neighborhood. They must rent, and the main difference between renting and home ownership is that through home ownership one can build equity and potentially have something of value to pass on to one’s heirs, improving the lot of the next generations, if not ones own. In the rental scenario, one is forced to pay and pay to a (increasingly likely to be corporate) landlord just to stay housed, while building no equity, and probably not saving anything for future generations.
The loss of equity in home ownership left the middle 40% (and even the bottom 50%) with one precious resource. Increasingly the only thing we, the bottom 90%, own. Though we own it collectively, and not individually, we do own it. We paid for it, and continue to pay for it, together. That is our “Public Capital”- Social Security is our collective savings account for retirement. Medicare is our collective safety net for our medical needs in our old age. Our Public Education system is a collective investment in the care and education of our children. When we look at our paystubs and see certain dollar amounts accruing to these programs, we have a level of confidence in that investment. We are okay with handing over that money, because we feel confident that we are going to see that money again, that it will be properly safeguarded, will accrue a little interest, and will do us a world of good someday when we really need it. Enter the Republican Congress intent on “privatizing” Medicare, Social Security, The U.S Postal Service, our Public Education system, etcetera etcetera. The argument, as far as I can gather, is that the private sector will far more efficiently manage our money. If we turn the huge well of taxpayer money in Medicare and Social Security over to portfolio managers on Wall Street, they will most certainly maximize returns in morally defensible ways, and we will all benefit. Never mind the bailout they so recently required for their recklessness. Never mind the 401Ks so recently reduced to crumbs by their shitty greed and life-lived-in-blinders-made-of-money. Supposedly the Postal Service will benefit from privatization. Really though, The idea seems to be a brilliant way to (As with the privatization of public schools and elimination of the Teacher’s Union) phase out one of the last good forms of public-sector employment, one that offers job-security, good pay and benefits, and enable the replacement of employees one is obliged to take care of with temporary workers to whom one has no such obligations. I’m sure it is an added enticement that privatization of the Postal Service can happen simultaneously with the selling off of Post Offices themselves, since they are public property- one piece of the physical infrastructure that is part of our “Public Capital”- the things that all the people, including you and I, own. Our Prison system has already been largely privatized, which has led only to an impetus to grow the prison population through racist policing practices, to keep that federal money flowing into the pockets of investors and the private prison industry. Our State-funded mental hospitals were privatized by Ronald Reagan, and the result is that we have a huge and ever-growing population of homeless individuals with untreated severe mental illnesses on America’s streets. Our Public Universities have been largely privatized, and the result is annual tuition hikes that make higher education a giant debt-trap for anyone whose parents can’t fully foot the bill, if they’re even able to get there at all.
All of this push to privatization means a fire-sale of public capital- all we, the people, have left of the middle-class equity built in the mid-20th century, to the highest private sector bidders. In other words, to the people who already own everything else. We will continue to need these services (or at least to want them. I guess we’ll find out how much we need them when we no longer have access to them), but from the moment they’re privatized there will always be a middle man taking as large a cut as he can get away with. There will always be some asshole on Wall Street playing with a chunk of your paycheck and my paycheck, and maybe giving some of it back to us down the line. Or maybe not. It depends on how he’s feeling.
The collective contributions of the good, dutiful, obedient American taxpayer add up to a huge pot of money. After all, there’s a lot of us. It is infuriating to those who want to play with this money (and are used to getting what they want) that we’ve managed to keep their hands off it for so long. If they do get their hands on it, what will they do with it? An article in the Wall Street Journal on The Alaska Permanent Fund, which manages Alaskan Oil Revenue, gives us a clue. As global oil prices have plummeted, Alaska’s oil revenue has declined 80% over the past 2 years, but the fund made a lucky bet four years ago when it put major funding behind a company (now publicly traded), called American Homes 4 Rent. This company is one of those (mentioned above) that swooped in after the 2008 crash and scooped up huge numbers of foreclosed homes at bank auction. It is now permanently operating as a corporate landlord for single-family homes that, if on the market for purchase, would have been an opportunity for working americans to build equity through home-ownership. The headline for the article is “Alaska’s bet on Housing Bust Pays Off”. My point is, an increase in risky mortgage swap-type financial instruments are the almost inevitable outcome of a de-regulated financial industry (virtually guaranteed under a Trump presidency), and we should have learned our lesson from 2008: investments of this kind, as profitable as they may be in the short term, are risks that cannot be taken with people’s retirement and healthcare savings. Particularly since risky financial instruments are certain to be damaging working Americans in myriad other ways, as the foreclosure crisis shows. Privatization of our public capital and de-regulation of the financial sector, taken together, can only lead to utter ruin for millions of people.
Which leads me to my conclusion. I am fucking pissed. I am fed up to here. I thought I had reached a zenith of fury during the Bush/Cheney war profiteering years, when it was completely clear to me, and I believe, to most Americans, that these guys had illegally invaded and destroyed a country halfway around the world so that they could pillage that country’s oil reserves (Geneva Conventions be damned) and award massive government contracts (read: TAXPAYER’S MONEY- OUR MONEY) to their buddies, or in the case of Halliburton, to themselves, to “rebuild”(not very well) the country they had illegally destroyed. The Iraqi people and all the U.S Military and civilian personnel, including relatives and friends of mine, who were and continue to be traumatized, injured or killed in Iraq, are collateral damage in a massive transfer of wealth from the bottom 90% of American people to the top 10%- mostly to the top 1%. I remember thinking at the time “god-damn them, they really will not rest until they get it all”, because the scheme was so transparent. I had already considered going off-grid to avoid paying federal taxes at that point, due to my deep discomfort with war profiteering and my natural resistance as a being with a modicum of self-respect and some healthy moral fibre to the idea that a chunk of my hard-earned and meager paycheck was going into the pockets of the slimy greedy pigfuckers at the top by way of foreign plunder, rape, and murder. I just couldn’t figure out, logistically, how to do it. But if they pull off this privatization crap, I have to figure out how to do it. WE have to figure out how to choke off their money at the source. As long as we all sit down every April and obediently send our few coins down the chute into the pool of grease and blood and deep dark shadows, they will not give a flying fuck that we’re protesting every night. They will wipe their satanic buttholes with all of our petitions demanding equal rights and respect and dignity and an end to wars for plunder and “regime change”. The only way forward is to just stop giving them our money, because if they privatize what is left of our public capital, the collection of federal income taxes will be reduced to mere naked, bald-faced robbery of the poor by the rich. Will we stand for that?
I think it is interesting to ponder the realities of other countries, where rulers and governments are known to be entirely corrupt, leaders known to be eager thieves with fat offshore accounts and golden mansions far from the common thoroughfares: In those places, a majority of economic activity takes place on black markets, thereby entirely surpassing the corrupt government intermediary, and choking off the flow of tax dollars that would be pocketed by the oligarchs in power, never to be seen again. There may be systems of barter and trade in place, and all sorts of under-the-table informal economic arrangements. We here in the U.S would do well to study the informal economies people around the world have designed to bypass the groping hands of a greedy and corrupt central government and its tax authority. We would also do well to remember that the initial inspired rebellion that led to this country’s independence was a refusal to bow under the yoke of unjust taxation.
In the crumbling East Oakland public schools he attended as a child, Seamus had been a pariah. He was invariably the only white kid in his class. He had never learned proper hygiene from his depressive unkempt mother or his mostly-absentee drunk father. He was not funny, or smart, or in any way talented. If you had been standing on the corner back in ’96 as Seamus walked by, slump-shouldered, his pimply face with the too-long jaw lowered so as not to make eye contact, you probably would have heard someone say “Stupid retard”, someone answer “Man, that’s just sad”, and someone else laugh.
One day when he was 15, Seamus stood for about five minutes looking at a bottle his father had left on the coffee-table, looking at the overflowing ashtray beside it, hearing police sirens wailing, looking at the T.V where the A’s were down three in the 8th inning. Then he picked up the bottle and got his first taste of whiskey. The burn travelling down his throat and into his gut was almost the only pleasure and was the only relief he had ever felt.
Seamus stopped going to school. His mother kicked him out saying he was a piece of shit like his dad. Four years after that, he had become a fixture on Telegraph Avenue. He sat alone, cross-legged on a ragged blanket in front of Amoeba Records, a crumpled paper cup before him, a water bottle full of cheap vodka beside him, his forearms crossed over his belly, rocking slowly forwards and back, occasionally mumbling “spare change”. He wore dirt-encrusted blue jeans and a ragged army-surplus jacket. His dull brown hair was long and hung down over his downcast eyes, and his beard was long and scraggly. The tight community of street people avoided him.
It was a bright, clear September day when a young traveler came striding, long-legged and curiously peering up and around him through his brown eyes, down Telegraph. He had a pack on his back with a bedroll, and carried a cheap, battered little guitar, on the body of which someone he had written with a sharpie, in unself-conscious imitation of Woody Guthrie, “this machine kills fascists”. He sat down beside Seamus. “Hey, man”, he said, “I’m River. What’s your name?”
On the day they met, River had just gotten a ride over the bridge from San Francisco, where he had been sleeping in Golden Gate Park with some meth-heads who he said were too negative for him. He said he grew up in New Jersey. He got hooked on heroin when he was a teenager, and his mom had sent him to Washington State to stay with his dad, who she hoped would beat some sense into him. Instead, they started doing heroin together, which was great, because his dad was a former army medic, and could always find a vein. Eventually, River had hopped a freight to Portland. He was pretty sure it was there, sharing needles with hobo kids in the train-yard, that he’d been infected with HIV. He didn’t figure it out until months later, when he got a cold and instead of getting better he began to waste away, so he went to the E.R. They told him he had AIDS. After he found out his status, he couldn’t see any of the people he’d been hanging out with in Portland without wondering if they had infected him, or if he had infected them, so he came south, thinking it would be warmer in the Bay, easier to stay healthy. At first it was. Through September and October River went to the methadone clinic, he and Seamus spare-changed and often got enough for Chinese food or pizza, and they slept up on a hill above campus where nobody bothered them and they could look out at the twinkling East Bay and San Francisco and the Golden Gate beyond. One warm night as they lay there just a little bit drunk gazing out on the constellations of streetlights down in the flats River said, “Hey man, Isn’t this amazing? Aren’t we lucky? We’re the kings of all this.”
But then, after almost five years of drought, the sky opened and day after day and night after night of freezing cold rain came down. The blanket and the sleeping bag and all their clothes were soaked. There was almost no foot traffic on Telegraph, and after buying vodka at 7-11 there was no money left over for food. There was no shelter on the hill, so they stayed, huddled together and constantly drunk, under the awning on the sidewalk. River started to get sick. At first he had a little wheezing cough. Then as the rain continued, He coughed harder. Fever set in. He lost weight so quickly it would have alarmed Seamus if he’d been sober. Then one day Seamus woke to see his friend’s face a whitish-blue beside him, and if River hadn’t been shaking so hard, Seamus would have thought he was dead. He didn’t know what to do, so he lay on top of River to try to warm him up. He lay his head on River’s chest, heard his heart beating faintly.
A girl on her way to work at the herbal apothecary saw them, and noting the blue tint of River’s face, decided to call 911. The ambulance arrived and several uniformed, efficient EMTs jumped out. They pulled Seamus off of River, whose unconscious body they lifted and strapped to a stretcher. As they loaded River into the ambulance, Seamus sat cross-legged, rocking himself, eyes downcast. A ponytailed, scrubbed-clean female EMT bent from the waist, and barely heard Seamus mumble, “That’s my best friend, man. He’s dying.”
“What’s his name? He doesn’t have any I.D on him”
“Is River his legal name? What’s his last name?”
Seamus seemed to shut off, drift away. The woman seemed impatient.
“I don’t know”, he mumbled at the ground, finally.
The ponytail straightened up, and scoffed to a male EMT who had joined her,
“That’s his best friend he says, but he doesn’t even know his name.”