Tuesday, May 03, 2005

Chicken Soup for the Crack Addict’s Soul

Hey everyone. These are getting to the size where I have to apologize…

The more you get to know anything at all in this world, the lovelier it becomes – and simultaneously, the more horrifying. In March I spent a week painting that ruin at the base of the cobblestone ramp, each day getting to know the community there a bit better. One afternoon a passing prostitute asked if I'd heard the latest: the night before, the military police had killed a man named Alex up by the waterfall behind the ruin. A co-worker of hers came by, and she repeated the story. "Alex? The guy who owed me three bucks?" That was the man. I hadn't been back to the waterfall since my first day – in my mind it stayed beautiful, unsafe, curled up out of sight. But the next day a Brazilian friend wanted to see the place, and a local guy I'd drawn took us up for another look. The waterfall was there, as before, a silent retreat of wild jungle where by rights there should have been none: I was able to look directly into the pool this time, and right where I'd seen the man washing his clothes, it was swimming with countless rainbow-coloured fish, tiny and thumb-sized, filling it restlessly to the brim. Did people eat them, sell them? Apparently not – they just lived there in that water on the hill, generation after generation, untouched. And then you turn around, and behind you on stone steps leading farther up are bright brown smears of blood, still there, of a man named Alex, who you didn't know … and you ask yourself, what is this place.

To get home from my painting spot, I'd head back down the hill and cut through a side street to Cayrú Square, where a 19-story public elevator joins the upper and lower cities on the landward side, and against the sea is the block-wide colonial market building, whose basement is a half-lit memorial to the slaves who were storehoused there, in the damp, until 1851. Under the shade of the elevator today are seedy bars buzzing with secret street slang, which the milling tourists hurry past on their way to the batteries of stalls now at the market, to buy handicrafts and get their cameras stolen, and through the middle of it all runs a trunk road whose bus stop will take you anywhere in the city, and is busy at all times of day or night: university students, subsistence shrimpers, people high and low on either side of the tourist trade. As a hurrying tourist myself, I was used to making a bee line to the bus stop and home, only once ever having entered into any of those bars, on a late night in particularly dire need of a toilet, and never glancing at the homeless people lying on boxboard under the spreading trees.
After my second day in the neighbourhood, I heard my name from one of the homeless men, which stopped me short. I looked, consciously: it was the young guy who'd asked me to draw his son the day before, and he was grinning broadly from the ground. My eyes flicked across the busy late-afternoon street life as I realized, improbably, that I knew his name now too. "How you doing, Fábio." He was all hospitality, wanted me to hang back and talk about his family. Before I knew it, he'd taken my plastic painting stool for himself, and was beckoning me to sit in front of him on one of the concrete retainers around the base of the trees. A woman who'd been lying beside him muttered, "Mess with this kid and I'll kill you, Fábio." Fábio talked, eagerly, with little prompting from me. He was from an outlying clifftop neighbourhood I'd gotten to know and like in 2001, via a Swede who'd been working to help with the leprosy there. Fábio had been on the street for four months, was eating morning and night … it was better than the seven months he'd spent in jail, where he'd learned to shut his face up cold, like so. But as to why he was here today – his eyes flashed and his voice darkened when he described the "disgrace" he'd shot dead, who'd deserved it. I was looking hard at the furious man sitting on my stool. Fábio was just a few months shy of my own age, the whole right side of his face a sickle-shaped scar, and there were gunshot wounds to show me too. No, I said, I didn't have the pen and ink on me to do any portraits today – but I'd bring them the day after next, after Aneri and I went to go check out a rehab clinic for a crack addict we knew. He said: "Aw, you're not coming back." I shot over my shoulder as I left with my things: "Fábio, we don't trust each other yet. I'll be back on Monday." He said he'd buy the paper for his portrait.
Taking the bus back to the square on Monday, I mulled over what I was about to do. I had my pen and ink with me, but I wasn't sure about drawing this murderer. I'd be able to take in the scene from the crowd before committing. He turned out to be sitting around with his friends, men and women, under the same tree where I'd left him, and somehow it looked okay – and the smile on his face was genuine when he saw me. No, he hadn't bought the paper, of course, but he ran off promising to be back with it in five minutes. Meanwhile I teased a worn-down woman who said she was in no shape to be drawn that day, I said she was looking just fine, way better than any of the guys there. Fábio came back with a roll of posterboard, and sat down on a tree retainer with his friend Nei. Pencil first, get the eyes to look alive, the features more or less in order, then layer on smooth ribbons of wet black India ink: sideburns, pectorals, tattoos. The work of twenty minutes for the two of them, big – and Fábio's eyes danced when he saw himself, and Nei groggily came back to life. Everyone who lived there came up to watch, Júnior, Vanessa, Marcos, Anacélia, Jazevan, André, all of them shaking my hand or telling me I shouldn't waste my time on bums, I should set up in the upper city where the money is. I shook my head, promised to drop by the next day and do some more.
Fábio trailed up to talk to me again that afternoon, while I was painting the ruin and surrounded by local kids. School-age boys ask to have spiders and weightlifters drawn on their arms, and one, Jeorge, tended to stay longer than the rest, using impeccably educated language with me, but spitting at the kids who made fun of him for going to a social-project school, or at the drunk old men who called him a "son of a prostitute," an awful insult which turned out to be factually accurate – when his tiny mother walked by with him later on, I was happy to tell her how much I liked him. Fábio's mind had been whirring … he'd come to announce he wanted to go into business with me, round up clients for me to draw, we could split the profits. I demurred and said something about maybe teaching him to draw a thing or two himself, and it seemed as he looked high up through the vines at the building I was painting, opened-eyed and seeing it as interesting, that he'd agree to just about anything I had to offer. I frowned and went on with my work. Toward sundown, Jeorge came back to show me something he was sure I'd like to draw – he'd laboured to describe it earlier, it was round and high, and you could stand on it, and I packed away my stuff and let him lead me down to a nearby city square, where he proudly pointed out his prize. "That's called a 'statue,' Jeorge." And as I looked at it, it did look interesting too, and I thanked him, and asked if he could maybe draw it for me himself.
The bus ride home from there takes half an hour, enough time to heave my stool and paper folder through our front door in total darkness. I asked Aneri if she'd come by the square the next day to meet with Fábio – I'd built some friendships, maybe, but in doing so I'd reached the outer limits of my experience, and now that I might be poised to make a difference in any of their lives, Aneri was the only person I knew to turn to. What would she do?
Tuesday afternoon I introduced Aneri to Fábio as "good people," and then hung back and watched their conversation unfold. She sashayed along beside him in one of her long hippie dresses, she admonished, she needled, she leveled her whole charisma at gaining his filial respect. The work of twenty minutes. That afternoon Fábio took us further up the cobblestone ramp than I'd felt able to alone, to a house carved into the side of the mountain, where I drew Marina, the big-eyed, androgynous matriarch, and her coterie of young men lolling around on the streetfront. Aneri watched with pleasure as that door opened up too, and I was happy to have her judgement on hand as she accepted their invitation to come inside the house for a visit. It was two stories inside solid rock, who knows how many years old. When they'd moved in, they said, there'd been shackles strewn around the dusty floor. The steps leading upstairs would have been near-vertical concrete in a tight, lightless stairwell, but they'd decayed away to the point where we had grope our way up on the remaining stubs of rebar. Later, one of the neighbour boys would tell me these houses are also home to "crab spiders," tarantulas that can be caught and nursed to size of dinner plates, to be sold to unconscionably sinister scientific institutions. We came out into the upper living area – under its curved ceiling was a TV burbling an afternoon novela, birds chirping in cages, dressers, hot plates, marijuana fumes, a whole whirring life. I think Marina must like showing off her place.
Aneri arranged to come back the next night – Wednesday – to start a weekly meeting with the homeless people living down below, to say some prayers and talk things through, starting with self-esteem. With Fábio and Marina in particular, I was to start a study course that had been developed by the Colombian Bahá'í community in the 80s, to look at the moral basis for the decisions we make, and discuss the direction we want our lives to take. We scheduled our first session to fall during an upcoming Black Diaspora conference the Bahá'ís were holding off on the other end of town. To Aneri, this was an opportunity for them to change their surroundings, see people thinking and celebrating, walk in quiet orchards instead of down a downtown drag. This all made sense to me, I was grateful and looking forward to what might come of it all – but when Aneri told them we'd wouldn't pick them up, that they'd have to make their own change and take their own buses for an hour and a half, I bit my lip. With drug-addled lives like the ones they were leading? No way. They'd never come on their own steam. They were earnestly nodding their heads, saying they'd make it, Fábio writing down directions so he could take Marina, who couldn't read. Fábio bought us each a pinha fruit as a gift – Aneri ate most of mine, they look like artichokes filled with sweet mucus – but Aneri insisted they had to give us some concrete proof they wanted to leave that place.
We spent the conference weekend waiting. They didn't show. I crossed my arms, Aneri said how great it would have been if they had come on their own. We made our way back to the square the next Wednesday, ready to hear their excuses and regroup. As it happened, Fábio was in no condition to defend himself. The night before the conference, Nei and Júnior had found him on a back street in a coma, bleeding from a gunshot wound to the back, and piled him over to the general hospital. By now, the stories doing the rounds were that he was either transferred to detention for his crimes, or dead.
Aneri and I have been paying Fábio near-weekly visits ever since. He's alive: paralyzed from the waist down, peeing down a catheter, handcuffed to the frame of a bed in a crowded ward marked "Orthotrauma." Aneri has history with this hospital: the loved one she took there years ago, he died with his drug-related bullet woundsuntreated. She talks repentance with Fábio, who has his ups and downs with the thought that he has a detention cell in his future and will never walk again. We've met his too-young mother, who blankly refuses to believe her son's ever done anything wrong, and wants a lawyer she can't get, and his son, who's a feral little creature who runs away with cookies. His street friends ask after him, and we ferry messages back and forth. One man who won't be running around with guns anymore.

To demand proof of people's will to change, rather than try and lever it onto them cold: this was something Aneri learned from a man named Sérgio, whose name shows up throughout this religious community of ours, on buildings, development initiatives, everywhere. Anyone who grew up here in the 70s and went on to serve Brazil as Bahá'ís – as social workers, therapists, teachers, administrators, there seem to be no end of them – looks back at Sérgio as the copyright holder on who they are today. A direct line can be traced back from Aneri's drive to mother everyone she meets, through to that mustachioed man.
Sérgio was born in 1942, when Brazil was eight years into military rule, in fact if not yet in name. President Vargas was being puppeteered against a background of national unrest, becoming within 16 years a champion of civil liberties, a deposed dictator, a re-elected Great White Hope, and a suicide. The youngest in his family, Sérgio received a seminary education to match his brilliant mind, which it seems he applied largely to tormenting his older sisters during his childhood, and figuring out how to get his hands on alcohol in his teens.
At 12 he became one of the first Brazilians to hear of the Bahá'í Faith, and it stuck with him. I can only guess at what he must have seen in it at the time: a strange new brand of revolution, for a boy and a country that needed one? Because the following decades show him to be an iconoclast of the very first water: the praise his contemporaries still shower on him is the only thing that can reasonably counterballast the singular weirdness of his actions. There were no other young Brazilian men who shined shoes to attend to the 1963 international Bahá'í conference in London – where he met the Irish girl he would marry years later. There were no other Brazilians who devoted their adult lives to teaching a new generation of teens how to spread such an unthinkable message of unity. In the 80s he turned his experience with kids toward therapy for drug addicts, who would go on to occupy him until his death in 1996. Before accepting a patient, he'd demand to know their will to change, on a scale of 1 to 10 – and if they said 10, he'd dive in.
You flip through the things Sérgio wrote, and you're hit by endless dizzy aphorisms, and metaphysical algebra full of plus signs, ratio bars, coefficients like "time," "space," "order," "beauty." Among the tributes his friends wrote for him upon his death, I found the most satisfyingly contrarian to be one by a current youth therapist named Feizi, who helped run Aneri's daycare some years back. Addressing Sérgio, Feizi writes: "We'd meet each other from time to time, until (on one of the world's many turns), ten years later, I returned in need of therapy and healing. And you, your wife and daughter welcomed me into your home and hearts. For three months I stayed with you and followed you day and night, to every group and appointment. This was how I learned to be human, a step that, in our impatience to be divine, many of us leave by the wayside." (My fingertips are trembling as I translate … I just don't know that there's room for naked faith in this kind of public forum. My whole liberal education rears up against it. I sense his story is essential to mine, but I'm really unsure my charisma is up to the narrative, and it leaves me wanting to beg for your patience. This was the man who taught Aneri what she knows about dealing with drug addicts, then. Fast forward to the present day.)

One day in early March, the phone rang while I was at home alone. It was an unfamiliar woman, in a state of panic at a payphone: her daughter had tried to overdose on sleeping pills, and for the love of God could Aneri come over to their house right away. It turned out Aneri was going to run late, but in a few hours Jérôme – another boarder at our house, a cherubic 17-year-old Luxembourger in the throes of some self re-invention of his own – was going to come home, and he could show me the way, for the two of us to pay a visit in her absence.
The girl we found was 28, emaciated, coiled naked in a towel on her bed. Her husbandless mother was nervously plying her with food, and her fatherless daughter was playing with candies on the floor. Honestly, I have it in for crack addicts. Right after I moved into my first apartment here in 2001, when my Portuguese was just on the dangerous side of operative, I went to the Old City, full of scoundrels and backpackers, high on life and wanting to see where my freedom would take me. A thin young black woman started up with some patter, asking if I was in town for capoeira and doing some highkicks by means of demonstration. She followed me along as I kept walking, and I started asking random laughing questions about who she was. Vague answers, vague life? I showed her my sketchbook, tried to show her a bit about myself, she'd flash grins and pick at a head of garlic she had in her cargo pants, suggest I was up to no good. I was up to plenty of good – I'd show her not every swishy-haired gringo was after the same thing. The sun was slanting, I invited her to grab some supper. She said she knew a place – on the way down, we passed one of her thousand billion rasta friends, who reassured me she was "good people" when I asked. She led me down a sketchy street. I'd been through there on one of my very first nights, driving quickly with the windows rolled up tight, staring at the passing glare of unfurnished bars and darkened pairs of women at the corners, while my driver said the whole colonial centre had been like this until the 90s, when the government drove out block after block of destitute squatters to make room for UNESCO-worthy promenades. We took a folding table in one of the bars, she gave a big bill of mine to the hulking barkeep in exchange for two plates of rice and beans. He went to get change, she came back and chatted, then hopped up again to go find a powder room somewhere. As she ran out around the corner, I was left to stare back at the prostitutes and their spilling bellies alone. The food came, I looked down at it and then back over my shoulder, and realized there was a washroom right in the bar, of course. I went glowering back to the barkeep, who glibly demanded I pay up, as if a fifty hadn't already disappeared into his hands. I damn well wouldn't pay twice for two meals I hadn't even touched, and walked out shaking. There were no streetlights, and I moved as fast as I could to the nearest jack-booted cop. "That's Bruna – she's a master thief. Sorry kid, but she's blown it all on crack by now." And that was that. She had left on her seat a single clove of garlic, which I placed on my bookshelf back at my nice new apartment with the view of the sea. Over the coming months it dried hard and yellow, and I would sometimes roll it across my fingers, thinking that it somehow represented justice, if I could only understand – to me, to the miserable, to the world.
So here I was now, listening to Jérôme, former Low Countries pothead, speak words of wisdom to a new Brazilian crack addict on a bed with her back to the world – "You can change if you want to" – and I wondered how _I'd_ changed in the past four years. I tested the waters with a few quiet jokes, acknowledging that she hadn't asked us to come, and probably didn't want us there. She laughed and turned her head to see me, and I could see she was smart, and in a bit we were playing with her daughter, and she agreed to have me and Aneri back the next morning. Aneri got in the driver's seat, called the girl's absentee relatives around the world, raised money for rehab, pledged to spend every day by her side while she fought her compulsions. The next morning, before we dropped by, the girl did her nails for the first time in months – so what was my role in all this going to be? Aneri flatly forbade us from seeing each other, predicting some sort of disaster. The one night the girl came by to see me unchaperoned, I wasn't yet aware of the rule, and went out in the shade of the neighbourhood hospital to talk. She came up with a story about needing money to get some sort of ID card, and I didn't believe it, but felt I owed her one chance … I went with her to the building where she said her lawyer worked, she went in and didn't come back out. After I finally left the mocking patrons at the street-level bar, I learnt she'd collected over a hundred bucks from various people that day. She didn't stagger home till the following night. Aneri pushed and pulled at her for a month, dragging her to clinics full of junkies, minds blown, drooling and toothless, Aneri scheduled and rescheduled appointments that she kept wriggling out of, until facts demanded to be faced. Recoveries are rare. In life I could look at the girl and see her as happy, but now all I have are a few photos in my computer – and their sunken eyes, painful smile … they chill my blood.

What blows my mind is that there were people like this who Sérgio actually helped. That tribute I was quoting makes a lot of his humanity – he is "deeply," "contradictorily," "marvelously," "angelically" human, "with the limitations and incongruities that the nature of that station entails." I'd always pictured him as a towering sun-baked man, like my grandfather, striding big strides across the backlands, and I sighed when I saw his picture for the first time: bald, goofy, a man who belonged on a bus. The tribute goes on in apostrophe: "Weak-hearted, you smoked recklessly. Overweight, you left your diet unchecked. Sedentary, you didn't exercise. And willful, to top it all off! Any advice, requests or admonitions about this all only seemed to fuel your resistance." I understand Sérgio had an unwavering self-confidence, which allowed him to laugh at his fragile teenage wards, and make all their friends laugh at them, until they learned to laugh at themselves, and love him for it. He'd whistle at the shy blonde girls, he'd threaten to take his pants off in public to get his way, and the next second he'd be welling up in tears about martyrs or St. Francis of Assisi. At the age of 50 he had his potbelly tattooed to prove a point. A man to strike fear into the hearts of demons, then – and who'd get a kick out of it, too, like he was popping Jolly Ranchers.

So the weekly meetings with the homeless downtown are a going concern. Aneri and I, and sometimes another fearless girl from one of the rough ends of town, we get there at night, when the handicraft booths are locked up and the square is a dark gridded maze of empty awnings. Out from under each one come sleepy-eyed occupants, who sometimes fetch us chairs, sometimes sit in a circle on the ground. We say prayers, which they're eager for, talk about life, try to understand what to do. The vast majority of them can read, and although most of them are deep into drugs, more of them seem to be lying low from the law, for various half-stated reasons, rather than simply down and out. Some have come from as far as the Argentine border. Early on, Aneri gave bus fare to Jazevan for him to head home, and we gave David a lift to his hometown on our way north to help set up a daycare in a former escaped-slave community … Within weeks, both guys were back in the square. Aneri fumed, they sheepishly apologized. She latched onto one pregnant woman who'd spent seven years in jail for what she called self-defense, she made invitation after invitation, and was devastated to hear the woman had forced a miscarriage. I've been trying to turn to people who know the field, friends who distribute needles, women who've gone on to work with the Landless Movement in the interior, or the white-haired night guard who has the neighbourhood's respect. In return, I've been learning about the inside politics of local detox centres, hearing that the people in the square need to learn to fight less, and above all being told: be patient. Build relationships, and courses of action will become clear.
There's a mean streak in American writing, which I've heard described as "gangsterism" – as in, a nation founded on land grabs and self-made men is necessarily slow to condemn the guy with the gun. We lap up the underbelly of just about anything, from caper flicks and CSI: Miami to tell-alls about the marginal and dispossessed. But try to be a humanist for just one second, and you get this sinking feeling that there isn't much more morbid than making a popcorn thriller out of a young mother as she dies from daily crack inhalation a few blocks down the street. This religion of mine, which I hold so high in esteem, tells me always to cast people in the best possible light, because speaking ill of others blackens your soul for a hundred years. Cohesive Society 101. But with the suffering here around us all … we can't just meet that with an equally deafening silence. Until the ageof 40, Sérgio was a model of outspokenness, and as his chain-smoker's teeth wasted away he grew his moustache out and just kept exhorting with empty gums – about self-sacrifice, hypocrisy, you name it. In 1982, though, there's a change in his correspondence that coincides with a sudden retreat from the community, which would last until the end of his life. He starts to dwell on obedience – "You know, obedience is so sweet. So very sweet. It's a mix of musk and honey, and dusted in flower pollen" – and here too, it seems, is a story that cannot be shared. Whatever all-too-human underbelly contributed to his withdrawal must be left unautopsied, whatever final contradiction untold. We are left with a resolutely triumphant official hagiography, yet the silence that descends over Sérgio in these twilight years of his life leaves me with a lingering sadness that, if anything, must cast the miracles he worked into even sharper relief.
One April night after trying to get my paintings scanned downtown, I passed by the square and ran into Júnior, one of the guys who'd come to Fábio's help after he'd been shot. Júnior doesn't pray, but he shakes my hand like he means it, and he was looking bummed out. His woman, Vanessa, whom he'd asked me to draw, and who later on had offered me some kind of dripping stewed meat that they were sharing, she'd lost it on him, demanded half the money from the shopping cart they'd bought to collect trash together, and took off. He said he'd given her the money without a complaint, and he kept asking if I thought he'd done the right thing, as he went over and over their relationship. She'd collapsed in a bloodied heap one day by the church steps where he slept, and he'd fetched a wet cloth from a nearby bar to wipe her face. From then on, they'd been a good-looking item, through good times and bad – because she became a different person when she smoked crack, and now she was saying he'd thrown her to the ground in front of the city elevator, but it was a lie! And how was he going to spend the night alone. Vanessa walked past drunk, holding for some reason a big carved wooden bird, and I talked between them both for a while. Once she wandered off again Júnior started fessing up. He'd used their money for crack too, it's true he'd lost his temper. Lord, what do you say? Crack blots out people's character, I could expect as little from him in that state as he ought to have from her. I ended the conversation by hugging him, and it looked like he was taking things better.
In one of his poems, Rilke says we're all born losers … what matters isn't the size of our victories, but the size of the adversary we'll all inevitably succumb to (I don't remember the name of the piece, just that the English rendition was pitiful, something about seeking enemies "ever grandlier great" … I should find the German again and have a crack at it). Sérgio lost to something the size of the world, I am sure. Fábio, for his part, has retained his conquering gaze: the last time we went to visit him at the hospital, we ran into two pretty sisters who'd come in from out of town to fawn over their new paraplegic crush. If these stories are to mean anything beyond gangsterism, it has to be that they'll make us question the size of our own chosen battles, doesn't it? Doesn't it have to? I leave it in your capable hands … me, I just got $500 and my only bankcard conned off me by an operation using fake bank machine slots at one of the ritziest malls in town.

Every junkie's like a setting sun/A little part of it in everyone,



Blogger daisy said...

I was just passing by and I really enjoyed your post. Keep doing what you are.

7:05 p.m.  

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