“You’d better not write any of my shit down,” the man said, his voice passing through wet gravel vocal chords into words that emanated from a stinking cave of a mouth. “I’m a very literary man,” he said.
His missing lower incisors and crooked premolars were jagged, yellow stalagmites rooted tentatively beneath the considerable degradation of his blackened upper incisors and canines. Behind the forefront of rot I noticed the gleam of a tongue piercing and it struck me as out of place, but only upon initial consideration. Nothing, I realized, should surprise me about what was to come from my interaction with this man.
I nodded and smiled with false warmth as I put away my notepad and pen that were a matching bright blue and entirely out of place with our drab, litter and refuse strewn surroundings beneath the bridge which 7th Street becomes just east of Red River, before the interstate. My eyes lingered on Trevor’s fidgeting hands as one of my own flicked the record button on the tape recorder in my vest pocket. After my previous encounters that day, it wasn’t unreasonable to be wary of some quick, unexpected form of violence.
“What kind of stuff do you like to read?” I asked, trying to keep him engaged. He stared hard for a moment, thrown.
“Well…” he paused and raised his arms, indignant. “What’ve you got?”
I nodded and shrugged and Trevor proceeded to jam the knuckles of his left hand in front of my face.
“You hear that?” he asked, flexing them. I heard the normal cracks of synovial cavitation.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
He surveyed his right and left, even though we were the only ones beneath the bridge.
“The cops been coming around,” he said, confident we were alone. “They been showing me pictures of people.”
“Why would they do that?” I asked, hoping he was lying, or, at the very least, that the people in the pictures hadn’t been murdered and photographed in grotesque displays of the human capacity for violent sexual depravity.
“Why would they do that?” he parroted. “They were pictures of people who’d been hurt. Been hurt bad.” He held his hand out diagonally and in a chopping motion showed me how the blood had run along the faces of the people in the photographs. “In the pictures,” he said, “they was cut like this.” He illustrated the patterns the blood had traveled by drawing invisible lines down my face with his hand.
“The cops,” he pulled his hand back and showed me the knuckles again, “they said the marks on their faces matched up with the marks on my knuckles.”
I nodded and took a drag on my cigarette. “That’s pretty intense,” I said.
He shrugged. “Don’t put me in together with a pedophile... With skills like this,” he made a clumsy karate chop motion through the air, “You just don’t miss.”
Trevor proceeded to freestyle rap for roughly five minutes, attempting to get me to join in at random intervals by saying, “Now… now, show me what you got.”
After my third insistence I had nothing to spit, he proceeded to tell me how he wasn’t gay, but was willing to engage in prostitution in order to keep the booze flowing through his veins. As he said it, I made eye contact with the tongue ring and noted that even though I would never stick my wang anywhere near his degenerated oral cavity, the lingual modification might make an interesting experience for his prospective clients. I resisted asking if this was the reason he had the piercing and instead proceeded to excuse myself for a much needed drink in lieu of continuing our one-sided conversation.
Trevor was the last of my last interviews for the afternoon. In many ways, though, my time beneath the bridge with him made clear the implications which had been thrust before me by the day’s earlier interactions with our city’s indigent population.
I had initially been directed beneath the bridge by the first couple I made contact with, a man and woman named Mike and Shirley. Mike and Shirley were posted up on the staircase at the corner of 6^th^ and Red River, near the one-time inside entrance to the now defunct Emo’s [Side note: fuck Emo’s East—Emo’s is dead].
“Hey, you got any change?” the woman asked as I turned the corner from where I’d parked on my way to the arch. Normally I only give to panhandlers when I’m driving and have spare change laying about, but given the day’s mission, I’d come prepared with pockets of change and a vest full of cigarettes.
She thanked me as I handed her a dollar and the three of us introduced ourselves.
“Lemme ask you something,” she said. “Don’t take this the wrong way—have you ever had a girlfriend?”
“Yes,” I nodded. “A few here and there.”
“Well,” at this point she turned and glared at Mike, “and don’t you say nothing right now—well, did she ever fuck around on you?” she asked.
“Sure,” I said.
“She did!” Shirley’s eyes widened from stoned-drunk slits to half-dollar size. “And what’d you do?”
I shrugged. “I left her.”
“You left…” Shirley trailed off. She made a pouting face which highlighted her gray and patchy mustache as she nodded.
Then she hauled off and punched Mike in the head.
“You hear that?” she yelled in his ear, punching him again. “I should leave your fucking ass, bitch,” she said, stringy, white spittle flying at Mike, catching on his tattered shirt.
“This fucker,” she turned back to me, “I caught him eating the fat pussy of some fat cunt under the bridge. Isn’t that right, bitch?” She punched him again as she said, “bitch.”
“Aw, come on now,” Mike held his arms over his head in a half-hearted defense. “We’s just friends.”
“Just friends… hah,” Shirley shook her head and punched him several more times. He hit her back in the head once and she proceeded to give him one to the dome once more before they both settled. In spite of their ongoing altercation, they both still sat close together, their thighs resting against each others’.
“So is that where people go to hook up?” I asked. “Under the bridge?”
Mike shrugged. “People hook up all over,” he said, holding up his track mark-lined arms. “Under the bridge, in the alley, down in the drains, in parks…”
“People hook up at the nuthole,” Shirley said.
“What’s the nuthole?” I asked.
“The nuthole—” she grabbed Mike’s crotch, “is right here.”
Then, in spite of his protests and insistences of infidelity innocence, she punched him in the head again.
“I’m going to kill you tonight, bitch,” she said.
“Aw, you ain’t going to kill shit,” he said. “You ain’t hard.”
“Ain’t hard? Bitch, I been to the pen five times,” she said, holding up an open hand to show me how many five is. “I tell you what,” she threw her hand in the direction of the bridge, “I’d like to take that fat cunt down to the pen with me.”
Despite the fact that the entire conversation was marred slightly by the omnipresent feeling that I might at any point witness the outbreak of a violent case of abuse, my talk with Shirley and Mike was rather fruitful in that it proved quite illustrative about the interpersonal dynamics of sexual (I hesitate to use the word “romantic” in this particular instance, though surely instances of what normative society considers “romance” do occur between street dwellers) partnerships on the street. Although there was clearly a high level of dysfunction to their relationship, neither member of the couple truly struck me as wanting to leave the other. Not for the death threats, or the punches, or the alleged infidelity. In some ways, it seems, it’s really not so different from the dysfunctional yet ongoing relationships in which I have viewed my friends take part. There is, after all, much to be said for finding comfort in someone’s embrace in the long hours of the night, whether the setting happens to be a bedroom, a cheap motel, or even a street corner.
To be sure, Mike, Shirley, and Trevor all present difficult cases to take seriously as being objectively representative for a sociological understanding of human sexuality as it pertains to the homeless population of our city. The prevalence of pre-street life mental illness, drug abuse and addiction, and the mental illnesses which can strike previously stable people after experiencing both the drug abuse and hardships often found in street life, make the interview an exceptionally tricky tool to use when attempting to understand the intricacies of how this subculture fits into mainstream society and what it can highlight about sociologically normative behaviors. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration cite the prevalence of severe mental illness as being 20 to 25% amongst the homeless population. This is in contrast to the 6% nationwide occurrence of severe mental illness.
Along with the cases of Mike, Shirley, and Trevor, one of the things I found the most intriguing during my initial interview process was the reticence I faced when attempting to ask many of the street people about their sex lives. Some shied away from me entirely, not sure whether to trust me. Others would talk, but when a mention of sex came up they would smile sheepishly and say that they weren’t comfortable talking about it.
All of the behaviors and responses I noticed on the streets in regards to sex—everything from open bragging of sexual conquests, to violent jealousy and lamentations over the selling of one’s body for sexual purposes—are all behaviors and attitudes towards sex which are found in mainstream society. The obvious difference for those on the streets being that they have no walls in which to barricade their sexual activity.
Life on the streets is often exceptionally difficult in comparison to life in mainstream society. Drug abuse, loneliness, prostitution and poverty can combine to form a bitch of an existence. Everyone I met seemed to have been finding their own unique way to deal with the problems of daily life. Trevor, in particular, had a rather interesting plan to deal with his particular set of problems.
“I’ve got me a plan for the next twelve months,” he said. “A twelve-month plan!”
“And what’s that?”
He smiled wide, tongue ring flashing as his eyes bugged behind beer bottle lenses.
“I’m going to turn myself in,” he said.
[Next month I talk with people from the institutions charged with trying to help our city’s homeless.]