A Swan Song for the Crackhead from Sixteenth Street
College changed my life. I know that sounds melodramatic, but it’s true. The things that happened in college turned me into the weaselly, squirrelly, buried little shithead hiding under the bed from the unmarked car sitting outside my window. I don’t know exactly why they are looking for me. Don’t know what they want. But if I had to guess, it started on sixteenth street, so probably best to begin there.
Me and two of my buddies stayed off campus, in a cramped split level house, on a small one way street a mile away from the university. We lived in one of those small cities that could never measure up to a New York, or Philadelphia, but it was a city still big enough to have a shitty part of town, and that of course was the part we claimed. The cheap rent made it an oasis for a couple obnoxious suburbanites-on-a-budget like my friends and me. The conditions were not great for most people. We had neighbors who liked to stay up all hours of the night. We had neighbors that liked to get into fights. And of course, naturally, we had neighbors who liked to sell drugs – and vacuums, and old TV sets, and whatever other kinds of miserable shit they could fit into their cracking four feet concrete front yard.
Robberies and arrests were common for the area. I passed by yellow tape more than once. We heard police sirens all the time. But we never really worried about it… and I couldn’t tell you why. I think about that part a lot. It could have just as easily been us. We could have been mugged, jumped, or just plain turned into one of Them. We were young, dumb, easy as hell targets. And I don’t know if we thought we were invincible, or if that’s just the arrogance of a bunch of over privileged assholes, plucked from suburbia and dropped into the shitty part of an overall nice city for the first time… but maybe it’s a little bit of both.
Regardless, we ignored the violence. We ignored the anger. We ignored the poverty, and the drugs, and the drunks, and the cracked vials cut into the cracked concrete like tiny bits of barbed wire. We stayed stuck inside our own little bubble. We went to class. We went to the library. And then we nestled ourselves inside stupid hipster parties spent inside overcrowded basements and creaking to capacity attics. Lather, rinse, repeat. We shrugged off the street requests for drugs or money or bus tickets. We didn’t help. We didn’t listen. We ignored at close proximity, and from a distance, we watched.
Sometimes we even made a little game of it.
I know that sounds cruel. Maybe even more than cruel to some. But you have to understand… in spite of our ignorance, inside of this arrogance, we learned more about the people of sixteenth street than anyone else in the world. They were our neighbors. Our constant morning and evening companions. We saw them every fucking day. So it was only natured that we wanted to know more about them.
We people watched.
The locals of Sixteenth Street were fascinating. I found it impossible not to stare, or to wonder, just what the hell they did every day. Almost every one of them looked medicated. Sleep deprived eyes, missing teeth, and track marks were as common as shirts and shoes in the local shops near our house. Nobody seemed to hide the drug use. Nobody seemed to shield their children, or their families, even their pets from it. Nobody seemed to care.
We created backstories for some of them. We couldn’t help ourselves.
There was the lady with six teeth. Derek called her Marge. Marge spent her days wandering between her concrete lawn and the corner store. She always had a cell phone in each hand. She usually could be heard arguing, or yelling, calling somebody a bitch, or an ass, or any one of a thousand insults that would make Webster blush. Marge had a boyfriend who stopped by sometimes. We called him George. George stood at about five feet tall, and his voice was so loud, you could hear him two blocks over. George wouldn’t be caught dead without his trucker hat, pulled down over the eyes at all times, probably because he looked even worse in the sun than Marge.
Then there was the DyFs family.
For those that don’t know, DyFs is an abbreviation for the Division of Child Protective services. A name born out of necessity. An unmarked squad car stopped by there so often, I thought they might move in. The family had about six kids under eighteen, to my best count. They stumbled in and out of the house at all hours of the night in various shapes of drunken disrepair. Sometimes they hassled us for money, or worse, drugs. Sometimes Mrs. DyFs would holler at them from the porch. Sometimes she wouldn’t. She could only control so much at her advancing age.
There were others, dozens of different stories, maybe, but their stories faded into the background of bad memory and time.
Finally, and most favorite of all sixteenth street residents, was Lenny.
We actually knew this guy’s name. Thank God. It would be impossible to live inside this miserable little shithole and not know Lenny. He chatted up strangers. He waved to absolutely everybody. He was just a pleasant and likable guy, in every single way, save for one unfortunate feature. A tiny nick in the armor to some, but an overwhelming perversion to others.
Lenny liked to smoke rocks.
Lenny didn’t just like to smoke crack – he lived it. He breathed it. He slept with it. He talked about his fix constantly and worshipped the stuff like a God or deity of some mythical proportion. The evening drug run made his day. We all knew where he bought it. He couldn’t exactly hide it. Every Tuesday and Thursday morning, on my way to Calculus, I passed by Lenny on the South corner of White Valley Blvd, and he always had a big dumb grin on his face, with a grocery store shopping bag around his arm, and I would say good morning, and how are you, and he would reply –
“I’m good, but about to be a lot better!”
And we both always got a good laugh out of it.
The unmarked cars seemed to know about this routine too. I caught one of them tailing him a couple times on my back. But they never really did anything about it. And I never knew why, at the time.
At night, if the weather was nice, Lenny would sleep out in his chair, lawn grass up past his head, with a sun hat dipped over his eyes. He looked exhausted. He looked like he just put in a hard day of work. You had to be there, to laugh, I guess, knowing the context. I never knew how Lenny kept up the money to feed this addiction. I knew he didn’t work. He never seemed to leave the area. But we appreciated the fact that he never hounded us for anything. Lenny only wanted to talk.
One rainy Friday in February, two of us decided to stay in for pizza. My roommate Derek just bought the new Playstation. We were wired. No class. No reason to sleep. We played video games for a couple hours. We drank a few beers. We ended up arguing over what game to play, and eventually, past midnight, the conversation drifted back to the sixteenth street locals. Derek mentioned that one of the DyFs kids had been asking him for money a lot more lately. Seemingly on cue, our third roommate, Miles, unlocked the door. He walked into the room with a complete stranger.
“We went to Lenny’s spot today,” he announced above the pouring rain outside. “Well, I didn’t, Phil did.”
The room grew overwhelmingly quiet. They got settled. The new guy dipped into his pocket. After a moment of struggling, he pulled out a tiny white baggy, with a couple small white rocks inside, and threw it on the table. Then he pulled up his hood and looked around at us with a big dumb grin. He looked like a character straight out of some corny movie, one of those stupid frat ones, the same kind he probably watched every waking hour of every day watching. His first words to us fit the description to a tee.
“We only do college once.”
Derek tossed the controller on the coach.
“Seriously?” I asked and was ignored. “Is that…? Phil? Hi. Who? Where did you guys meet?”
‘Phil’ laughed and pulled a glass pipe from his pocket.
“We texted you guys. Going to try it or not?” he coughed. “Good shit. I had some on the way over. This stuff puts you into overdrive. That’s what the man said.”
I looked at Miles incredulously.
“Not yet,” he laughed. “Wanted to start the fire here.”
“That’s so fuckin’ corny.”
Derek got down to join them. I cursed under my breath. I lost my support. I couldn’t be the only one. Panic erupted. The rain started to pour outside. I could hear it thundering against the window pane as my growing headache grew worse.
The lighter clicked. Miles smiled. But then he stopped.
Phil had been coughing since he got in the door. But his mild barks soon turned into a hacking spree that caused him to drop his gear to the floor. Miles looked on worriedly.
Phil couldn’t answer. Mucus leapt out of his mouth like a fountain. Derek jumped back in disgust. He signaled for water.
“Have you ever…? It would be this bad if you never have, right?”
Phil barked back.
Miles put down the pipe and went over to check on him. Something loud hit the wall outside and my focus shifted to the open window. There were more people moving in the street. A blinking light illuminated it a little bit. A couple kids walked out from behind a neighboring house. At first they looked confused. One kid ran into another, who was looking over his shoulder, stunned by something a couple feet in front of them in the dark. Something hit the wall again. Then they both ran. A third bang erupted. And then the street went quiet.
Miles yelled “Shit!”
I turned around to find the new guy sitting in a pool of his own blood.
He was still coughing. Droplets of blood covered his face and melted in with his curly blonde hair. Ribbons of red fell out his mouth with each hack. I didn’t know what to do. None of us did. We were all panicking. We were all cursing. Phil managed to squeak out one last sentence.
“Don’t call the cops, man,” he wheezed. “My mom will kill me.”
I ran out the house and down the stairs.
I don’t know why my first instinct was to find Lenny. I guess I trusted him. I guess I liked him. I guess if anybody knew anything about crack, or whatever smack the kid took, it would be Lenny. I pounded on his door, in the pouring rain, for what must have been ten minutes. I was just about to give up. But the king of sixteenth street himself answered in a bathrobe right before I turned away.
I blurted out that my friend’s friend took a bad batch. I told him that we couldn’t call the cops. I told him that I didn’t know what to do. But we needed help. Desperately needed help. He followed me back to the house in an instant, sprinting, without shoes or socks, across the same cracked vials that probably infected poor Phil.
He looked like a goddamn redneck action hero.
We arrived at an absolute shitshow. The upstairs window was broken out. Miles was screaming inside. Police sirens sounded from around the corner, and Lenny stood outside, unsure of what to do next, with a wild look inside his eye all the same. He understood. I realize that now. Somehow… he knew what was happening.
“Did he have a bad batch?” I asked.
“Of what?” he answered.
I ran into the house just as something exited the window. I only saw it for a moment. It was a flash of something massive breaking through the glass and leaping from an impossible distance. But a moment was enough.
Phil’s spine had ripped through the edges of his Giants shirt. I’ll never forget that image. White pieces of bone stuck through an otherwise ordinary Eli Manning jersey. His nails were elongated, and curved, wickedly, in a way that made the fingers themselves almost look longer. His teeth were sharpened past his jawline. His shorts were ripped and frayed, replaced by burgeoning muscles, impossible muscles, with skin turned pink and blue from the strain of whatever the fuck just happened. A snarl that sounded more like a roar erupted from the backyard. And then he was gone. Just like that.
I turned around to grab Lenny, but he was gone too.
I looked around and found Derek and Miles hiding in the closet. They were blabbering a mile a minute. Miles kept crying that we had to find Phil. We had to get Phil. Derek’s face looked whiter than the drugs still sitting on the living room floor.
I went to the upstairs window and looked out. It was impossible to see through the dark. But I could hear them. Glass ripped and shattered up and down the street. Metal grinded against metal. Somebody, presumably Lenny, was yelling, trying to lead the animal, otherwise known as Phil, and follow it did.
I saw him briefly. One last time. He was running through the backyards of sixteenth street, hooting along to some massive creature chasing him on the rooftops overhead. For a moment, Lenny slipped out of my vantage point, and then he stopped hooting.
He screamed instead.
The creature stopped stomping. The police sirens ceased. Their bright lights stopped spinning.
And then that was it.
The rest of the night stayed quiet.
We called the University about the broken window. We told them about the animal attack. We told them about our friend who went missing, but we couldn’t tell them if he was a student at our school, because we didn’t know. We couldn’t even tell them his last name. Miles met him at a house party. No missing person in the area has come up as a match since.
We couldn’t exactly tell them we took drugs, or had drugs, or even about what we saw with Lenny, because we were constantly worried about incriminating ourselves. I hated myself the most for that part.
Miles used the rocks as a crutch to explain everything. He ignored the fact that we didn’t smoke any. Derek didn’t bother saying anything to anybody. He just didn’t want to talk about it. School contractors came and fixed the window. They told us to install better locks to avoid animals.
Everyone moved on with their lives.
A couple days ago, I revisited Sixteenth street.
A lot has changed. They put in a McDonalds at the end. The old corner store is now a 7-11. The DyFys family left, sadly, assuredly replaced by some new brand of misfits and conspirators. I ran into Marge just outside her old duplex in the middle of the block. I couldn’t believe she was still there. We talked for a minute. We exchanged rude pleasantries. I explained who I was, in case she didn’t remember, and then I asked her about Lenny. I knew I probably shouldn’t have. The past is best left in the past. But I had to know.
“Heard he died,” she spit through a cigarette. “Nobody seen him around here for a bit.”
I thought about letting the whole thing go. Maybe Miles was right. Secondhand intoxication could be the answer. Maybe Lenny just found a new town for his benders. Maybe they caught him with dope and locked him up. College changed me, but it doesn’t have to become me, there was no need to go down this road. Maybe there are some questions better left unanswered. I think about that now, of course, after the questions are already asked and the unsettling answers have been given.
“Hey… did you ever notice those unmarked cop cars?”
Marge looked bewildered
“Cops?” she laughed. “Ain’t no cops.”
I must have looked surprised.
“C’mon, kid,” she smiled. “Where do you think Lenny got his stuff?”
I didn’t know what to say. Luckily she didn’t give me the chance.
“Big people. Big places.”
Marge pointed up the street, towards the university, White Valley University, before she spun in her heels and strutted back to the duplex.
I thought about that line for a long time. Did the cops sell it? If the cops weren’t cops, who were they? University security? Staff? Did they know about Lenny? Did they know about Phil? They had to. We heard the sirens. We heard them stop. They had to be involved in some way.
I tried to sleep. I truly tried for hours. I tossed and turned so long that the rotations could have burned holes in the bed. I realized around midnight that the story couldn’t stay hidden forever. I couldn’t run from the truth anymore. I have to know. I made up my mind to write this story and expose it.
But I woke up this morning to an unmarked black car parked on my block. I don’t think I was followed. On the kitchen table is a small baggie of white rocks. A white note is stapled to the top of a heating venting that says ‘it’s already in the air.’
I sure as hell didn’t put it there.
But somebody did.