I'm supposed to meet L at six, near Leavenworth and Jones, but I keep getting lost. Keep calling his cell and he's impatient and testy, he keeps hanging up on me without saying goodbye. And as I enter the heart of the city I shiver, the sun sinking behind skyscrapers, so impossibly steep, mechanical and grey.
I'm a ghost here, one that everyone sees, my skin a milken hue bleaching out the other white boys—the ones who make full-time work of it all. There's always that filth about them, letting you know they spend their youth, like me, trying to hustle another day's habit, until nightfall and heavy sleep. They wear a tan the color of earth, like they shower under a nozzle of dust, their sweat maintaining a coat and a caking, protecting and soothing their sad little souls.
But I don't usually deal with the white boys, financially speaking, cause most of 'em are middle-men, strung out and sketchy. It seems best to hire dealers in the biz like L, just trying to make rent out in Oakland, commuting in on the Bay Bridge in a silver Buick.
At last I find the corner and it's quarter after six, the sunlight filtered through steel and glass, everything taking on the icy slant of an early-spring chill. Parking, I slouch down, and take stock of my surroundings.
From the top of the hill, I gaze down the next block, to a corner store. Calling him once more, I scan a cluster of people and see my dealer, standing in front of the market. He pulls his phone out of a camouflage bomber jacket—he wears it every time we meet, puffy and shiny, making scratching noises when he walks.
“Hey L, it's JJ,” I say, “Just pulled up.”
I can't help but reconsider my self-christened street name—JJ . . . it just doesn't seem to have it, that toughness. I mean sure, it could be kinda cute, like if you're younger and it's something like TJ . . . yeah, that would be better than fucking Jay Jay, how dandy—
“Alright-alright,” hey says, “I'm coming up now—“
I notice the way he darts his eyes, watching the cars and buses and cabs fly by: back, forth, back, forth—ping pong eyes—an afterthought, a quick gloss of the tongue across his chapped lips, a ponder. As he closes the flip phone I'm struck by this strange technology, allowing us to watch people talk to you from afar—and here I am: voyeur, philosopher, drug-seeker.
I slink further into my seat—my greasy body odor, my high BPM a' thumpin'— anticipating this jungle which considers me dinner. I'm sweaty too don't-cha-know, my stomach full of nervous bile, that narcotic emptiness.
Wait, who's that?
A thin man holding a cane limps behind L, wearing a faux leather jacket, bits of vinyl flaked off, hanging loose over his frame. In his late-sixties, his hair's a salt-and-pepper lamb's wool—a puff of dark clouds above an oily face. They move slowly, clusters of scraggly pedestrians maneuvering around them.
Who is this old dude?
I get out, try to stand-up straight, I broaden my shoulders, my ass soggy from the long drive through rush hour. I've been in bed all day, but now I wear a pair of blue Dickie's, a lumberjack flannel, and a ball cap issued by the company I work for: 1-800-GOT-JUNK?
No time for irony, I've gotta be tough, so I button up my shirt and pull down my hat, trying to cover my eyes. I cross the street, catching up with L and the old man.
L sees me coming.
“Yo—” he says, “you just parked in front of the PO-lice department.”
I say oh shit, rubbing the back of my neck.
“This is uncle Charles,” he says, “He'll be helping you out tonight.”
I realize uncle Charles is kind of a front, an evasion tactic, as men his age aren't usually out here hustling, and a cop's gonna be a real dick shaking down an old-timer. He rests his cane on his hip, outstretching his hand for a shake—a big toothy grin; he's too polite. I've grown suspicious of such accommodation.
We continue climbing the hill, but I trail them about fifteen yards, to avoid association—Chicago Joe taught me this. We stop in front of the post office.
“Are you ready?” the old man says, meaning do I have the money prepared for transaction.
We try to hide behind a mail box, one of those four-foot high, blue-painted bullets with the hinge-mouths for drop-offs. It's the verge of a bone-chilling Tenderloin nightfall, assorted streetwalkers and hustlers shuffling past. A white tuna flopping on a black sand beach, I swear everyone takes double when they see me.
I say I'm ready, but try to play it cool, anticipating Hollywood stick-ups, bad ideas turned to horror.
He reaches into the back of his trousers, pulling a sandwich baggie from the crevasse of his buttocks, and with a stinky whiff, hands it to me.
No time to cringe, I give him the sum of over one hundred dollars, only to look at the dope and see I've been shorted significantly.
I mutter an unnecessary thank you—what the fuck am I gonna do—heading back to my truck.
It's twilight now. I start power-power walking, the cars rushing by, side-blinders on the driver's peripheries—they never make eye contact, not at this hour. The outsiders are out, the bums and dealers, the cons, tweakers, and me.
There's yelling. I cross the street. I can't understand what it's saying—it's booming, soul-sick aggressive. But it calls on me. I focus down on the pavement, burying my hands in my pockets, my heart pounding. It's my dealer.
I mutter I'm never short on the money—I should be yelling at you, mother fucker. Reaching my truck I jam the key into the lock as fast as possible, I'm centered on survival, each movement precise with Buddha clarity.
I lurch into the cabin, igniting the engine, reaching for the handle, closing the door—and right before it slams shut, I hear the voice again, insistent, knowing its power, it says:
“Hey Jay Jay—hit me up, dog!”
And I mutter does he really think I have another dealer?