Strangers in the Night


WALKING THE STREETS on a rainy Sunday night in October, everyone but you is taking care of business, old overcoats collars-turned-up, fedora brims turned-down-against-the-weather because only the rich junkies can score out of the rain stand beneath a blue neon sign that says Police Station #4, in a parka, soaking up the wet like a DuPont Cellulose sponge. Inside, the good guys are drinking coffee and munching doughnuts as you call a taxi.

Checker assures you, "Sure, ma'am, we'll have someone right over..."

Outside again, a man looms out from a corner like Harry Lyme. "Hi," he says. "Hello," you mumble nervously. But what the hell, surely the good guys do something more than drink coffee, what could possibly happen on the corner outside the police station anyway, with your down jacket and notepad you look like a stake-out so he's probably scared out of his mind--but why would he be talking to you then instead of running as if all Beezlebub's minions were after him?

"How're ya doin' beautiful?" he asks, leaning against a lamp-post with no lamp on top. "You a policewoman?...No?...Your boyfriend inside there?"

And there don't seem to be any other people around any more and it seems an awful long way to the station door and down and out ain't it like Orwell, it's scary here in the 500s on Tremont St. when the show is over.


The man has a dazed look, talks slow, slurred, not drunk, more as if he's been hit on the head, he doesn't know why or by who, just knows that he hurts and it's cold and he can't stay much longer because the good guys don't want his germs in their apple pie and there's only a seat in the church pew if you've had a bath in the last week. And he tries to light a joint; fourth time defeats the wind and the drizzle. The match illuminates thin, brittle wrists, hollow brown face, crows-feet that are a mockery on this head with eyes that could be 15 or 50, skin drawn tight, and always he's hearing noises that aren't there, following shadows, running scared even when he's sitting down.

And still your taxi hasn't come.

What do you say you woman so worried about your grade-point average, what do you say to this man who's not had a conversation in so long that his phrases creak and jar into sentences like a gate on rusty hinges, what do you say you woman whose family has paid their tax-deductible contribution to worthy causes every year, what do you say you woman who's been lectured since you were small never to talk to strange men, this kind of situation spells rape--or an obituary in The Globe more likely.

"It's sorta nice out tonight, ain't it? What're you doin' out here?" the man continues, gesturing towards the street. Taxi-cabs swish by, lots of them, all with their VACANT signs turned off. And it doesn't look so good to you. But their headlights shimmer in the rain and are kind of pretty and the sidewalks look like patent leather with all the garbage washed off for once...maybe if you weren't sated all the time with Chopin and ivy-covered brick and first editions of Shelley you might get something out of this back street, might see beyond being nervous about what or who was in those shadows. Your friend sits down on the curb and you'd envy him his ease but you know that in a few minutes he's gonna have to be moving on, finding someplace sheltered to shoot up that pale orange goo that'll do him for awhile more. And you think about Timothy Leary's hyperbole about the glorious things that happen to the brain cells when you take drugs and you think about this man that you will never see again because of the not-so-glorious things that drugs are doing to his cells and you think about acquaintances who brag at parties that they shoot smack every weekend. ("Like multiple orgasms," they say, " should try it," they say. But they're "not hooked...Oh no!" they say. They tell you they can control their lives so well, hanging in there, later baby, so together, oh yeah, they know they have the strength of character to keep a hold of it and not vice versa. Well, you start to wonder as you wait in the rain that Sunday night...)

And still your taxi hasn't come.

MAYBE YOU'LL think of somebody, somebody you've seen approaching the condition of this man with the musician's fingers that tremble with his second joint. I think of a man who had grown up next door to my best friend in England. Where you can register, legally, as an addict and the glib talkers can proclaim, "See, heroin itself doesn't do any harm. What's wrong is the social system of a country like America, where the addict is a criminal because he's hooked, and because he's hooked he has to become a criminal." And that's all? I wonder. I think of that man in England. Carrying around his syringe and stuff the way I carry a pack of cigarettes. And there was the same brain-damaged air about him as the man on Trement St. Both sledge-hammered. So one is a medical problem, the other a social one. But the look in the eyes is the same.

Harry Lyme stretched, stood up, and started walking in tight figure-eights. "You know," he said, "the hilarious part about it is that my old try buy some syndrome is so true, girl. You tell yourself for ages that you'll never smoke. Then it's you'll never take pills. Then you're doing both but of course you'd never do anything with a needle, you're not crazy...and then you's like every time you're making promise to yourself and with each time you break one there's that much less of yourself to respect, and you get into the habit of it and pretty soon you can't break the habit...But don't you start playing the Lady-Angel of Sweetness-and-Light with me, chick, I can do just fine."

On Tremont St. it is getting colder. Harry Lyme offers you a drag. As you take one you wonder, college-kid-guilt seeping through you cold as rain, how much you can spare from your wallet. Oh God! You can't really...Coop bill, phone bill, that record you promised your roommate, boyfriend's birth-day present--oh well, you console yourself, it would only hurt his pride to be offered money.

And still your taxi hasn't come.

BUT ONE OF the good guys has. Harry Lyme sees him before you do. "So long sister, good talking to you. Take care and don't let them work you too hard at that hot-shot school of yours." And he is gone, padding away noiselessly into a doorway a block down in no time.

"Was that man bothering you, miss? You should come inside and get warm. You can call a taxi from the station." The good guy is all concern. And you follow him inside to the coffee and doughnuts. That man has bothered you. Not the way the good guys think, just made you mad and miserable and aching-bitter as bones that never have a dry spot to rest on Sunday nights. But you and the good guys are on the same side, really. And with them you don't get confronted by anything that makes you uncomfortable. So maybe you'd better wait inside.

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