The International Writers Magazine
: The crack on your street

26th Avenue
Diana Hurlbut

There’s a crackhouse down the street. I didn’t think it was true when Tony first told me that, I try not to think badly of people and places right off the bat, but it’s true. There’s a crackhouse down the street—or at least a house where people do drugs, I guess not exclusively crack. I’ve never personally seen anyone smoking crack there, but I have seen people shooting heroin.

That sounds pretty drama-queen, but really, I have. See, one evening toward the end of November when the weather had just turned cold, I decided to take a walk, wearing the big olive-green Navy issue coat of my father’s. With the collar popped up against the chill, I headed down the street, drawing almost even with the big brick building Tony had said was a crackhouse, I saw three men sitting on the front step, and I could see, even from the sidewalk, even in the falling dusk, the dull gleam of needles.

The buzzing porchlight at the front of the house flashed on long hypodermic needles, in and out and in and out of the mens’ arms. I wasn’t close enough at the time to watch their eyes glaze and their heads begin to nod, but I have a good imagination and in any case, I’d get my chance.

I walked more quickly. You never know what’s going to happen, right? I didn’t tell my sister I went, she has enough to worry about as it is, and I definitely didn’t tell my mother; some things—most things—you just don’t tell your mother. I guess I’m making it sound like my sister and I live in Needle Park or something, but really it’s not that bad. There are much worse areas of our city, and our neighbors are mostly very nice. The kid who lives next door cuts our grass sometimes, when we’re home to pay him. The people across the street yell a lot, but only at each other, and anyway they yell in Spanish, so it’s easy to ignore them. Occasionally, if you’re driving at the right hour of the night, you see a few hookers out on Nebraska, but really there’s not much to worry about, as long as you mind your own business.
That, at least, is what I tell myself, and others. I try not to be racist or paranoid or anything. Openmindedness is what everyone should strive for.

My sister says I probably shouldn’t take walks at night, but that’s usually the only time I have to walk. College gives a lot more homework than high school, and we have bills to pay, so I work a lot too. I work at this place called The Pita Pit, which makes good pitas but is always very hot inside. In any case, when I’m not in class, I’m usually at work whipping up extreme veggie pitas for students and yuppies, so if I want to take a walk, it’s going to have to be at night.

Besides, it’s undeniably more interesting to walk at night than in the daytime. You see things that you just don’t see in daylight. Like men shooting smack on the steps of an old faded brick house, and prostitutes lurking on corners, groups of kids holding freestyle jamfests in the middle of the road, and gangs having quiet talks on one of the neighborhood’s back streets; maybe a precursor to violence, who can say?

My sister says taking walks in our neighborhood at night is just asking for it, especially since I’m skinny and white and I don’t own a gun or know kung fu, but I like to walk and I like walking at night, and it’s not my fault that we live where we do, I was still in high school when my mother, grandmother and sister went house-shopping here, looking for a real home instead of a dorm or apartment.

"Kid." I looked up from the pavement. One of the men on the steps of the brick house was addressing me. Automatically I jammed my hands deeper into my pockets and burrowed, turtle-like, into the collar of my father’s coat. "Kid." The man squinted at me, his voice was molasses-slow and deep; a cigar stuck out of the corner of his mouth. I thought it a strange contrast to the needle in his hand. "You live around here, kid?" I stuttered out, "Yeah." For some reason one of the other men sitting there began to laugh, a hoarse continuous giggle. I shivered. "You wanna buy me a bottle of soda, kid?" I stared at the man. He stared back. In the flicker of the porchlight I could see the pinprick pupils, shrunk to dots by the drug. His head wavered oddly, dipping forward and jerking back, as though he was trying to keep from falling asleep. In the cold night air his left sleeve was rolled all the way up to his shoulder, a belt still knotted around his stringy bicep as a tourniquet. I could see open sores on the underside of his arm, veins like worms beneath his skin.

"Kid. You hear me?" The man’s rambling voice was becoming slower, but he appeared completely awake and lucid. "You wanna buy me a bottle of Coke? You wanna go down to the 7-11 and buy me a Coke?"
"Uh," I said. "Coke?" He smiled around the unlit cigar. He had a very nice smile. "I need somethin’ sweet. I’d get it myself, but you know, I can’t walk just now, you know, I’m pretty sleepy just now. And I can’t see so well in the dark." He winked conspiratorially. "Besides, you know, there’s always cops at the 7-11."

I stood there like an idiot. How the heck do you respond to that? Maybe my sister was right; maybe I just shouldn’t take walks. Ever. "Look." The man rummaged in his pocket and came up with a handful of change. "You don’t even gotta pay for it yourself, kid, here, take the change and buy me a soda, huh?"
Suddenly my hand was heavy with quarters. I don’t know how that happened. Slowly, feeling like my own brain was drugged, I said, "A Coke, right?", "Yeah, that’s right, kid. Coke. I like some Coca-Cola, you know, after I get off." The other two men nodded agreement. They all smiled at me like some kind of warped barbershop trio, avuncular addicts indulging the young naïve boy instead of the other way around.

Hardly believing my own movements, I continued down the street. There’s a convenience store at the mouth of our street, maybe three blocks up. I could see the lights of the sign already. Once I looked back, and the three men were still sitting there. I don’t know if I expected them to disappear, as if I’d imagined them, some strange apparition to teach me a deep spiritual lesson about life and how doing drugs is a no-no. But they were still there, three hunched figures like skinny trees rooted in the concrete step. I thought I could see the eyes of the man who had given me the change gleaming in the streetlight.

The convenience store was thronged with kids in Scarface t-shirts and Phat Farm gear, and, sure enough, a cop car in the corner of the parking lot. The kids eyed me as I walked to the door and yanked it open. A blare of hiphop music spilled out with the neon lights inside. I went in, back rigid, expecting the worst. Somehow I was more afraid of the kids, my own age or a little older, than the proven junkies with whom I had just exchanged improbable conversation.

I went to the back of the store, passed the rows of beer and wine, and pulled a bottle of Coke out of the cooler. The girl at the counter took the quarters the old man had given me, then handed me a receipt. She managed all this without taking her eyes off the TV attached to the ceiling. It was tuned to BET—106 & Park—and I could hear Janet Jackson playing guest VJ. I couldn’t help but feel twitchy. It seemed strange to me that I could buy this bottle of soda like anyone else, and who would dream I was buying it for a sixty-year-old drug addict?

Back outside the kids watched me walk back down 26th Avenue. As I went away I could hear them start up freestyling again; one of them was very good, his voice popping like melodious gunfire in the night.
Despite the complete weirdness of the current situation, I enjoyed my walk back up the street. The night was beautiful, chilly and still, and I could see the stars through the network of trees overshadowing the street. The houses were quiet, windows glowing in the light of television sets.

The three men were waiting when I came back to the brick house. The man with the cigar beckoned.
"You got it, kid, that’s great. Great. Thanks." His bony hands reached for the soda. I handed it to him, along with the rest of the change. "Thanks, kid. Thank you a lot." He swigged from the Coke. I stood there awkwardly, watching him savor the soda. A car swept by on the street, headlights blinding us for a minute. Finally I shifted on the pavement and said, "Well, good night." As I went back onto the sidewalk the old man called, "’Night, kid. See you around. Thanks for the soda, kid. You’re a good kid." His voice faded into the wind as I walked away.

When I reached our house my girlfriend’s car was sitting in the backyard, and the chain-link gate was closed. I’d forgotten she was going to come over; we were going to a concert in Ybor that night. I came up the front walk and saw her sitting on the porch. "Where’ve you been?" she called. I smiled at her, kissed her quickly, digging my keys out of my pocket. "Have you been here long?" I asked, barely realizing I was avoiding her question. "Nah, not even five minutes." She flipped her long ponytail over one shoulder and looked around. "Do you think it’s safe to walk around here at night?" I laughed, opening the front door for her. "You sound like my sister." We went inside. She persisted, "I’m not trying to be racist, but seriously—when I drove up here I saw this bunch of people sitting at that big brick house down the street, you know the one, right? The one Tony says is a crackhouse?", "Well, Tony ought to know," I muttered. I went to the coffee table and hunted for the concert tickets among the jumble of bills and magazines.
She slipped her arms around my waist and kissed the back of my neck. "Just want you to be safe."
I turned in her arms. "I’m safe. Really, I’m careful." I winked at her. "You know I carry my Mace with me at all times." She let out her laugh; my girlfriend has this beautiful, fabulous big laugh. "Come on, we’re going to be late."

We took my car down to Ybor—hers is really too obtrusive to drive around there. She has a candy-apple red convertible, as red as her lips, which her dad gave her for graduation. My car’s just an old Intrepid, less likely to get keyed or slashed than a flashy Mustang. To get to Ybor City from my neighborhood it’s shorter to go west and take Republica de Cuba instead of Nebraska Avenue, so we didn’t drive past the old brick crackhouse and its elderly junkie denizens. But I could see them in the rearview mirror; one of them flickered a lighter and the flame lit the world-famous Coca-Cola label of the soda bottle.

© Diana Hurlbut December 2005

In Order to Forget
Diana Hurlbut

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