“So what becomes of little boys who never comb their hair?
They’re lined up all around the block, on the nickel, over there.
And if you chew tobacco, and wish upon a star,
Well you’ll find out where the scarecrows sit,
Man, they look just like punchlines between the cars.
But I know a place where a royal flush can never beat a pair,
And even Thomas Jefferson is on the nickel, over there…”
—Tom Waits, “On the Nickel”
Cheryl drove me to the homeless shelter in her BMW Z4. I could stay with her as long as I wanted, she said, but I had made up my mind long before to experience the other side of L.A. before leaving. She, of course, thought I was insane.
The place we were heading was called The Midnight Mission. It stood on South San Pedro Street, smack in the middle of a district called Central City East, better known to the world as Skid Row. In the late 1800s this used to be the last stop on a train route that ran the whole length of the United States, so every vagrant, run-away and train hopper tended to wind up here. The current population is about 20,000, about half which are estimated to be homeless.
Transients lined the pavement in filthy jackets and torn jeans, some so unkempt they seemed feral, with wild eyes, dirt-caked skin, and wispy untended hair.
The incongruity of Cheryl’s sleek sports car and the poverty-ravaged streets was almost surreal. I realized that anybody working at the mission would immediately turn me away if they saw me stepping out of a shiny Beamer driven by a beautiful woman, so I asked my friend to pull over a few blocks from our destination.
“Make sure you call me if you need anything,” she said with an expression of concern. I promised that I would, and thanked her for the ride, slinging my small pack across my shoulder as she pulled away.
I was wearing scruffy ripped jeans and a stained shirt, the ugliest, rattiest clothes I had with me, hoping that I could pass for a homeless person. The fact that I actually was a homeless person, oddly, never crossed my mind.
It was a little past eight. I walked up to the entrance and found the gates locked. A group of elderly black men were loitering nearby. I asked if the mission was closed.
“Yeah man,” one of them croaked. “They shut them doors a while ago. Guess you’re outta luck.”
The first and most important thing to know about homeless shelters in America is that they usually close well before nightfall. There is a strict schedule. Early in, early out. You line up to get a bed at six, and they usually stop letting people in around eight. If you aren’t inside by then, you’ll be sleeping on the streets.
I moved on, walking down 5th Street and wondering if I would be passing the night on the pavement. It wouldn’t be the first time, I thought, reminiscing on the nights I had spent sleeping on streets in China, Cuba, and Sweden. It would be the first time, however, to have so much company. Filth-caked vagrants sat with their backs to the stained brick buildings all around me, looking at the ground, avoiding eye contact. A woman hobbled past, pushing a jangling shopping cart full of useless trinkets.
According to Tom Waits, America’s patron saint of the down-and-out (a musical legend who is known to put strings on dumpsters and play them like a harp), the L.A. homeless refer to 5th Street as “The Nickel.” He even wrote a song about it that he called “a hobo’s lullaby.” The tune was written back in 1980, but it looked like the situation hadn’t changed a whit in the more than thirty years since.
After a few blocks, I came to another shelter called the Union Rescue Mission. Fortunately, this one still had its doors open and I was able to go inside. I walked up the steps and slipped past the unoccupied front desk. The place was already nearly full. Around a hundred small folding cots had been laid out inside, end to end and side by side, and they were covered with a landscape of sprawling indigents. I walked between the rows until I found an unoccupied bed and laid my sleeping bag across it.
I sat down and surveyed the prostrate forms that surrounded me. Arms dangled over the sides of the narrow cots and feet jutted from their ends. An emaciated figure nearby tossed and moaned. An obese man with an unhealthy-looking purple countenance staggered past me to the bathroom. I tried to strike up a quiet conversation with the man lying awake next to me, but he wasn’t up for talking. So I lay down and opened a book.
It was amazing to me that so many of them were asleep at such an early hour. They knew something, however, that I did not. Before I had read five pages, the mission workers killed the lights. That’s the way it works in American homeless shelters: in bed and asleep by nine, if not earlier.
The lights came on the following morning, bright and unbidden, at five o’clock sharp. Men walked between the beds rousing the sleepers, sending them outside so the room could be cleaned. I got up and wandered into the gated courtyard outside, mingling with the rest of the bleary eyed transients.
“Do they give any food around here?” I asked an old man wrapped in a long, dirty coat. Shallow wrinkles framed his angular features, and thin gray hair clung limply to the sides of his head.
“Gotta wait til six,” he rasped. “First they clean up, then they open the kitchen.”
“What do we get?”
“Fruit and cereal, usually. Sometimes a muffin.”
“Any chance of finding a shower?”
“Did you miss the evening shower?”
“I guess I did.”
“Then sorry son, you’re gonna hafta wait till evening.” He looked at me with a quizzical expression. “You’re new round here, ain’t ya?”
“Yeah, I’m from Canada.”
“Canada?! Hell man, you’re a long way from home!”
“Aw, we all a long way from home,” a thin black hobo sitting nearby observed glumly in a deep voice. “I thought you didn’t have no homeless folks up there.”
“Oh, we got ‘em, all right,” I said.
“Gotta be damn rough on them streets when winter comes,” said the first man.
“It is,” I affirmed. “Sometimes people commit little petty crimes just so they can get locked up for the season.”
I had once worked in a Canadian prison, but thought it best to keep that to myself.
“That’s rough, sure enough,” the black guy observed dolefully.
“You all from L.A.?” I asked.
“Nah,” said the white guy. “I’m from Portland originally. Just kinda wound up here a couple months ago and haven’t been able to leave.”
“I was born and raised here,” muttered the other, with a tangible lack of civic pride.
A middle-aged Latino was pacing the courtyard with several canes draped on his arm, selling them to the people for a few bucks apiece.
“What’s that about?” I queried, pointing at the cane seller with my chin.
They broke out laughing.
“Man, you really are from Canada, ain’t ya!” the black man scoffed. People with canes looked sicker, he went on to explain, so they got privileged access to the front of the food line and could grab the best grub. I watched as a bedraggled twenty-year-old with long hair and a goatee bought one and practiced his stagger.
“Seems a little… I don’t know… wrong,” I commented.
“Yeah, it is,” responded the white guy. “Me and Max here, both of us served in Vietnam, and we gotta stand in line behind punks like that because we don’t wanna buy a fake cane. Sometimes it really gets my goat.”
I asked if there were any other veterans at the shelter.
“Hell yeah,” Max reported, scanning the crowd and pointing out several nearby indigents scattered throughout the courtyard. “I’d say, what, forty… fifty percent of the people here have served in the forces.”
The other man, whose name I still did not know, nodded his head in agreement.
“Even got a few folks here that went over to Iraq,” Max continued. “Man, did they ever come back wasted from that mess! All stressed out and fucked up…”
“More than the guys from ‘Nam?” I asked.
“I’d say so, wouldn’t you Floyd?” Max asked his friend.
“Maybe,” Floyd mumbled noncommittally.
“Sure! Lots of people I’ve met talk about that weird-ass ‘Gulf War Syndrome’ they caught,” Max said. “How they came back with their nerves all frayed, coughing and puking blood and all kinds of shit.”
A worker came out and announced that the people with disabilities and special needs could go inside to start eating. The guys with canes hobbled exaggeratedly through the door, alongside several other men suffering more legitimate-looking handicaps.
We waited about fifteen minutes more before the same employee came out again and told us that it was our turn. We queued up outside the canteen and they counted heads as we came, letting twenty people in at a time. When it was my turn, I walked through the doors and was greeted by a heavily tattooed man standing behind a glass trolley. I picked up a plastic tray and he dolloped some oatmeal onto it with a serving spoon. Then I grabbed an orange and a bagel from a couple of nearby baskets, before making my way to a table.
Max came and set his tray across from me, and we set to work devouring the meal. It was pretty good fare, all in all. Hearty and filling. I peeled the orange and asked Max what he thought of Barack Obama. Did he feel that things were getting better in America?
“Well, he damn sure can’t be no worse than the sorry-ass son of a bitch he replaced!” Max scoffed. “That dumbass piece of shit couldn’t even read, man! Obama… yeah, he’s all right, I guess. And that wife of his is fine too! Damn!”
“Yeah!” He whistled in appreciation. “And smart! She’s even got a Harvard degree and shit!”
“Ah, Obama’s gonna get it,” a man seated at the next table chimed in. He was a young, dark-skinned black kid in his early twenties, dressed in loose jeans and a baggy T-shirt. “He’s too good, man! They’ll find a way to get rid of him.”
Max nodded. “Yeah, you’re probably right,” he said.
“Just wait for it,” the kid muttered darkly. “They say Obama gets 300 death threat letters a day! A couple days ago I watched this interview with an old Secret Service agent who said he had guarded every president since Eisenhower, and he was saying ‘we ain’t never seen no fucking shit like this!’”
“I bet,” I said, doubting that those had been the exact words.
A man in a corner of the room suddenly hollered something piercing and incoherent. Startled, I twisted in my seat to look. He was a thin, haggard-looking Caucasian, probably in his mid-thirties, and he was sitting alone at his table. His head was wobbling on his neck and his right arm, the one holding his fork, was noticeably twitching. As I watched him, he let out another bestial howl and slammed a fist on the table, causing his tray to clatter noisily.
“Damn,” the man next to us whispered. “I gotta get the fuck outta this place.”
I turned back to Max. “What’s that about?” I asked.
“Never seen him before, but I’m guessing he’s strung out on meth,” he said, measuring the man with an experienced eye. “That’s what all these white junkies seem to be getting hooked on these days.”
“Yeah,” the other guy muttered uneasily. “Give me a roomful of crackheads any day. Those tweakers give me the creeps.”
Crystal methamphetamine, or “crank,” is a synthetic upper that Harvard sociologist Patricia Case has called “the most American drug.” It is especially appealing to Americans because it causes users to work harder and stay focused, instead of other drugs like heroin or cocaine, which make addicts lethargic or scattered. Meth is therefore the quintessentially American narcotic, and is manufactured primarily by working-class whites to help them work longer hours in pursuit of the American dream.
Addicts are called “tweakers” because coming down from a hit of crank is extremely stressful and referred to as “tweaking.” Usage of the drug causes the spontaneous eruption of bleeding pores, shrinkage of internal organs, shut-downs of large areas of the brain, black and decayed teeth, bodily shaking, hyperthermia, muscle cramps, shortness of breath, insomnia, inability to orgasm, lack of appetite, intolerable depression, debilitating anxiety, memory loss, heart attacks, strokes, vivid delusions of insects crawling out of one’s skin, spontaneous acts of extreme violence, and according to Nick Reding, author of Methland: The Life and Death of an American Small Town, “an almost otherworldly, hallucinogenic dimension of evil.”
The best part about all this is that the American government effectively created the entire scourge. In the year 1944, methamphetamine was heralded by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration as a panacea cure for nearly everything under the sun, on a par with penicillin. Doctors across the nation prescribed it as a treatment for obesity, schizophrenia, alcoholism and about thirty other common medical conditions. Throughout the Second World War, American, German and Japanese soldiers were all given meth to stay alert, and when they came home many of them were hooked. By the 1960s, about thirty million prescriptions of meth a year were being doled out by medical professionals to the American public under the brand names of Methedrine and Benzedrine.
At the beginning of the 1970s, the officials finally began to recognize what they had unleashed and started to regulate the stuff, creating incredibly lucrative careers for illicit dealers. An Iowa biker named Lori Kaye Arnold suddenly became the national meth kingpin. She set up a gigantic superlab on a horse farm in a town called Ottumwa and almost single-handedly inaugurated industrialized meth production in the American heartland. Arnold raked in money hand over fist for nearly two decades, buying fourteen houses, a nightclub to launder the money at, and even her own car dealership—just to have enough vehicles to drive all of her crank around the country. Her stuff was reportedly going for $32,000 a pound in 1987, and every pound she produced was diluted into three or four more by a hierarchy of lesser dealers that cut it with bleach and laundry detergent before selling it to desperate addicts.
Things were clearly getting out of hand, so the Drug Enforcement Administration had a crusader named Gene Haislip craft harsh new laws to turn the tide. In 1993 he pushed through legislation that banned the sale of prescription drugs containing ephedrine, the base substance known to be used by crank labs. This ill-fated law converted the rising swell of meth addiction in the United States into a churning flood. The problem was, when lab workers deprived of ephedrine turned to unregulated cold-medications with pseudoephedrine as their new source, pseudoephedrine turned out to create an even more potent drug at a far lower cost! The DEA thus induced the rise of a supermeth far more powerful and available than anything they had been dealing with before, and law enforcement was faced with the daunting task of cleaning up the government’s mess.
We finished our meals, watching the man sitting in the corner as he mumbled gibberish and flailed about frenetically in his chair. Then Max and I headed back to the main room, where the workers had set up chairs and turned on a large television at the back of the room. The mission workers had turned on Fox News, and Bill O’Reilly was doing his daily excoriation of the Democratic Party. I told Max that in Canada we did not consider Fox a legitimate news source.
“News?” he laughed. “This ain’t no news, man. This is propaganda, pure and simple.”
“Then why do you watch it?”
“No choice,” he said. “It’s the only station they play here.”
I was amazed.
“You ever read 1984?” Max asked.
“Um, yeah,” I responded, perhaps unjustifiably taken aback by his knowledge of one of my favorite books.
“Well, welcome to Oceania, my friend!”