An abandoned factory rests just outside of the city. It is eight stories tall and offers a segmented view of the city along the banks of a concrete viaduct, on the parallel shore a railyard. On the Eastern side, a North-South Interstate Highway. We’re in an odd little corridor of misbegotten industry and commerce. We stand tall only amidst this cut and as we face the North – until the following derelict structure. As gargoyles posted on this high-ground, but a shadow is cast over us by the spire-like hills to the East and West. On the Southern horizon, lay the skyscrapers and structures through the humidity and smog. Four Afghanistan and Iraq homeless veterans guided me from their subterranean hideaway in this building and up the ravaged and rusted floors to show me the layout of the city.  Here, one of them, a man named Martins said,

Fuck them, man, fuck all it – I don’t’ give a shit about any of them or this. We owe none of these fucks nothing. We got nothing for anyone. We have no obligation to stay alive or die . . . Who’s got the dabs?

Leftover Crack

Jake shook me awake as the city shelter still slumbered. I mumbled, awaken and asked, “What time is it?” It felt like I just fell asleep and I had. Jake responded, “It’s like two, but I have to go. Are you staying, or do you want to roll with me?” I didn’t respond, but I collected my things, and we checked out.

The old streets smelled of garbage and rainwater mixed with sewage. Around us laid a dense fog which the lights a few blocks away shone like distant beacons, only partially offset by the few shelter lights. Between them and us was veiled darkness mixed with random beats from the shadows. Yet this was Jake’s world, and he was on a mission. He walked a bee-line and was nearly jogging as he was digging through his pockets on the go, and cursing to himself. At the corner he stopped and dropped his pack, frantically searching its contents, and said, “Where the fuck is it?” The question was rhetorical, but I had to ask, “What?” Jake ignored me, packed up, and was on the move again. I then tossed him a pack of cigarettes hoping to buy some sanity.

He paused to tear into the pack and light one and then said, “Fucking leftover crack man. Leftover crack.” It didn’t register immediately, as I replied, “Yeah, they’re kind of a rad band – Oh, you mean crack, as in crack.” He nodded his head and said, “They are pretty good, though, let’s go.”

Underpass Prison

We moved a few blocks up and headed towards the nearby interstate, and approached the overpass to slip down the side and underneath it. There we kicked through piles of garbage and entered an encampment, hidden beneath walls of blankets, cardboard, debris, and plastic with a fire in the middle. A twenty by twenty, sloping palace to addiction, Jake introduced me around the fire to them. These were not other veterans, but they were the Railway Kids he knew from before. From them, Jake negotiated for some new crack, and as a few of them passed an improvised glass and metal crack pipe around, I was offered to drink from a rotating five-liter plastic bag of wine with the others who rambled on about things of insignificance. There I thought to myself, in regards to Jake and who we had surrounded ourselves with that this is a very special kind of prison that they have built for themselves.

Around a small fire we sat and worked into a second bag of wine as Jake and the other crack-smokers embraced their high. In the background, vibrations from nearby highway traffic shook the ground of the makeshift structure, the sounds only slightly drowned out by the small Bluetooth speaker streaming music from one of the Railway Kid’s phones. Intermittently, I sat and listened to their complaints about their parents, the world, and their quest for their own freedom. It was intriguing, and perhaps if I were younger and more foolish, I would have been as so naive to believe it. Despite my alcoholic’s breakfast of champions, I still saw this whole situation as a prison sentence. The freedom they sought, it was something they kept locked away, as they ran further away from it. Perhaps for them, freedom meant no responsibility and no rules.

Life as a Homeless Veteran: Direct From a Rustbelt Shelter and the Streets (Pt.1)

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Street Bar

Jake and company returned to a semblance of sobriety around first light as the sounds of morning rush hour commute made its stop and go work-day flow just down the slope. Groggily he looked over at me and spunked up and said, “Oh shit, you got to meet the fucking boys. Yeah man, they’ll get you squared the fuck away man. They know the game, they got cash, booze, a place, girls whatever and they’re vets like us and not like these fucking pussies.” A background voice whispered, “Hey.” But, for the most part, people were and were not listening to one another in this disconnected reality. It was only when Jake and I started to leave that anyone else made a move. Jake said we’re off to meet Martins and the gang. Only then, did it become apparent that the Railway Kids all knew Martins and the gang, and some of them decided to join us.

Before we left, there was a scramble for empty soda cans, and I knew what was up here. From the bag of wine, we filled the soda cans for discrete public carry. We were to have a street bar morning, at least until our next location, or I hoped. The last thing I wanted to do was become too intoxicated, but I needed to be on their level. If I weren’t, then they would have closed me off or got rid of me. When in Rome, after all.

As the elite, pompous citizens of Rome would, we also stumbled to our feet after an early morning binge on intoxicating substance and went forth into the world; blind to all reality that was not part of that moment and the ground that we stood upon. We walked as such, a few more blocks to the North in a drunken parade as they carried on about the obscurities of an addiction coated lifestyle, I laughed upon cue only. Within the procession, their arrogance angered me, and I damned them all in my head as I tried to think of a way to lure them into a shipping container to drop them on the coast of a nation that is truly poor and without. Yet, that wasn’t why I was there, and that seemed like a waste of resources and time.

Camp Paradigm

The abandoned factory is an eight-story shrine to a forgotten time. Its façade is boarded up and decorated with various, overlapping attempts at graffiti art, and the signs of seven different developer groups who have promised renovation and change throughout the years. All the development groups proved to be shams in the end, quite possibly the parents of the Railway Kids, which would explain where they got their atrocious and vagarious outlook on life.

We rounded the building to the rear loading dock, where Jake peeled up the corner of the metal rolling door so that we could make our way inside. As I fumbled for my lighter to see, the Railway Kids had all activated the flashlights on their smartphones, who like every other homeless person I encountered had newer and nicer model smartphones than I. Meanwhile, mine was locked up in a file cabinet next to Saul’s office at the shelter.

Once we were all inside, Jake announced us, “Hey motherfuckers, quit sucking each other off; you have guests!” And from a bleak and distant corner came a voice from an echo, “Jake, fuck off you god damned junkie, we don’t have any money for you bitch!” The checkered crew meandered by phone light around stripped machinery, heavy crates full of wares, and broken glass to the echoes and down a flight of stairs. The smells of the building struck in the basement, it was like walking into a cave made with iron as the stench of the damp concrete, mold, rust, and collected waste compacted into a narrow passage. The smells were now amplified by a grouping of homeless addicts and drunks who just spent their early morning hours under a bridge. Wet dog, meets Indian food, wrapped in an old diaper. I stopped breathing on the descent; otherwise, my belly full of bagged wine would have covered my guides in an Exorcist level of bile.

The next step was through a very large, cracked metal door that could have just as easily been on a submarine. Through the door, and pushing through several wet blankets, it opened up into another world.

Who in The Fuck is This NARC?

I immediately took in the settings of a different class of homeless veterans. The area was about as clean as you could get a basement in an abandoned factory, clearly seen as they had tapped into the electrical grid and strung lights throughout the basement. While Jake and the Railway Kids went forward, I lingered behind taking note of the organization and clear areas for the bathroom, shower, and kitchen for this they had clearly tapped into the water as well. They stacked pallets and built walls for privacy around bedrooms, or whatever else was in those multiple rooms. The construction looked like deployment barracks, with counterweights functioning as door springs. We made our way towards the center, several busted couches on some dirty rugs around several tube televisions. I was impressed. There four men and what I assume their girlfriends were waiting on us.

Indoctrination as a Homeless Veteran (Pt.2)

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It was clear that everyone knew each other except for me. Although, Jake seemed to be the target for immediate damnation as they berated him over several missing items following his last visit, and the Railway Kids skirted to the back with the presumed girlfriends. I sidestepped from the line of fire directed at Jake and anticipated it to come my way, and it did. The man apparent in charge was a half-cocked, half-balding, angry man in his mid-thirties and he was lighting up Jake about being a thief and a junkie, but paused looked and me then back at Jake and said, “Who in the fuck is this NARC?”

Jake clearly welcomed the subject change and introduced me, reciting my backstory, and at my surprise, near verbatim. My accuser now fully turned his attention to me and said, “Is that true, or are you another one of his junkie fag-boys?” I arched up, and replied, “Motherfucker, the first part it true, but I’m no junkie fag-boy, and I just met this honkey less than a day ago. Just what in the fuck is happening here?” My response seemed to settle him, and Jake jumped in, saying, “I wanted you guys to show him what’s up. He’s an Iraq vet, and he won’t get fucked up. We just came from getting fucked up, and he wouldn’t even have a taste.” The other three now walked off to join the others, and the angry man approached me, and introduced himself as Martins while shaking my hand and looking me dead in the eye. Then said, “Iraq, huh? Where?” I replied with what I could be quizzed on, “Al Anbar, 08-09.” In a quick and snarky response, he stated, “You ain’t no Marine from what I can tell, just don’t tell me you’re Air Force.” I assured him that I was Army, and we all sat down to relax for a moment.

Obstructed Views

Martins percolated some coffee, and he and Jake caught up on things. Despite the greeting, Martins was concerned about Jake’s well-being as well as the Railway Kids. Apparently they had all rode the rails together, and about half of the Railway Kids, Martins, and Jake were all from the area in and around the city. The other two veterans were Chuck and Nick, also Army veterans of Iraq, in their mid to late 20’s. This odd grouping centered on the city and they all at various times have traveled together. Although, Jake had fallen out with the group of other veterans due to his addictions.

After our coffee, Martins said, “Alright John-boy, I reckon we should give you the rundown on our little slice of hell.” He paused and looked at me, and then Jake and said, “Chuck bring the pipe, and Johnny you better be cool with pot, because if I don’t smoke, I get fucking angry boy!” We collected ourselves, as Martins, Chuck, Jake, and I climbed through the internal factory debris to the rooftop.

On the roof, Martins and the gang took to what I assume was their regular spot, within the rusted scaffolding of a sign taken down long ago. Our view looked out into the city, and Chuck prepared a pipe to smoke dabs, a marijuana derivative. I didn’t have a problem with this, as I maintain that the marijuana laws are archaic and counterproductive in America. Nonetheless, as we looked out on the city, Martins said, “Well, what do you want to know?” I replied, “Why all of this; it all seems like a lot – I’m new here, so just break it down to Barney math for me.” Martins laughed, and said,

 Fuck them, man, fuck all it – I don’t’ give a shit about any of them or this. We owe none of these fucks nothing. We got nothing for anyone. We have no obligation to stay alive or die . . . Who’s got the dabs?

Featured Image – Wikimedia Commons