Last week, we enjoyed a beautiful day of nearly 80° temperatures. Spring arrived in February! Only it hadn’t. That same night, the temperatures dropped 50°, and the next day brought a deluge of cold rain. Then ice. Ice falling from the sky. This is one of the most bizarre things about Oklahoma. I will never get used to it.
The same day the ice came, I was struck by a ferocious stomach virus. After a day of violent intestinal torment, I felt like I had been hit by a truck. Every muscle ached, and a walk from the couch to the kitchen required several hours of recovery, before I could attempt another such trek. I was down for three whole days. In a warm house. With my family nursing me. While my friends who live outside were enduring an ice storm.
When I returned to Joe’s Addiction, the weather had warmed a bit. Icicles were melting, and spirits were high. My friends greeted me and filled me in on the goings on. I am so grateful for the ones in community that step up to fill in and take care of each other and of me. The place was clean. Folks were cheerful.
I needed to make a bulk quantity of masala chai to fill a wholesale order from another coffee shop, so I headed down to The Kitchen Table to get to work. One of my Love Gang guys followed. As I pulled out the bins of spices, I asked, did you want to talk to me about something, or are you just hanging out? He said, “Just hangin’ out, if that’s okay.” Of course!
A memory from my childhood came to my mind. I often sat on the kitchen counter, while my mother cooked dinner. Just hangin’ out, spending time with my mom. I smiled.
The door opened and in walked Tommy. I was surprised. We hadn’t seen him in a couple of months, since the homeless camp down the street was disbanded just after Christmas. I greeted him, “Hey dude! So glad to see you! How have you been?” He took up a position leaning against the end of the counter and said, “I been aight.”
I dropped another measure of cardamom into the scale and asked, “Where you been stayin?” He said, “Under a bridge downtown.”
I paused measuring and looked at him. “You’ve been under a bridge in this ice storm?” He nodded and hurriedly said, “It’s okay. I have the 0° sleeping bag you gave me, and I get up where the wind doesn’t reach. It’s dry up there. I’m okay. Really. I’m fine.” I looked sideways at him and sighed.
I asked, “How are things with your PO?”
He said, “I’m behind on my payments. It’s my own damn fault. I trusted this guy who had a great job opportunity for me, but it was a bust. I should’a known better than to trust him, but you know.”
I measured out some cloves and dropped them in the scale. “How far behind are you?”
“Is your PO freakin?”
“Nah. He’s okay so far. He’s a new guy, and he doesn’t have it out for me yet.”
“Does he drug test you?”
“No, so that’s good.”
I looked up at him. “How’s the addiction?”
He pulled up his sleeve and extended his arm toward me. Tracks marked the inside of his arm. He pulled up the other sleeve and swiped his fingers over the red places. “Yeah,” he said, “But I’m done. I’m just done. I ain’t used since Sunday.”
“Five days, dude. That’s good.”
I poured tea leaves into the bowl, as he went on. “I never used drugs til I came here to Oklahoma. Alcohol, yeah. But drugs, no. Not til I got here. I hate this fucking place. Look at me now.” I looked up to see his eyes filling with tears.
I put down the bag of tea and looked him in the eye. “Dude, I am so sorry. I wish I could do more to help. I don’t know what to do to provide more support for addiction.” That familiar helplessness spread like an empty space in my gut.
He said, “You do more than you know.”
“Dude! So much of the time all I know to do is put food in your mouth!”
The tears in his eyes spilled over, and he said, “You do so much more than that. You look at us like we’re human.”
After a long, awkward pause. I said, “Tommy, you are so much more than just human. You are a great guy, a great human. I have never heard anyone ever say a bad thing about you around here. You are kind. You’re generous. You watch out for others.” My Love Gang guy jumped in, “Yeah. Dude! You’re the coolest!”
The tone shifted, and Tommy said, “Me and him go way back. You ‘member when you was livin’ in the tin can, man?” “Yep.” I smiled. The two of them began reminiscing about their time together in the homeless camp. Funny stories. A pet dog that Tommy and his girlfriend had shared together there. Inside jokes had them laughing. I continued to weigh and bag chai, as Tommy asked about So-and-So and about Someone Else, catching up on the news of Joe’s Addiction family life.
When I finished the chai order and put everything put back in its place. We traded hugs. The two guys clasped hands and fist bumped. We gathered the bags and headed out the door, down the sidewalk to Joe’s.
Back in the shop, Sonny came to me. I asked him how he’s liking his new house. Just before the ice storm, Sonny got a place. It’s a “rent to own.” What that means is that the plumbing isn’t functional. There isn’t even a bathroom sink. The heater needs to be replaced. The house needs a lot of work.
Landlords offer “rent to own,” with the understanding that since you will own the house, any repairs must be done by you, the renter. A renter may or may not have a little extra money. He may or may not have any skills. Often renters just continue living in a house that is in terrible disrepair. At least the rent is affordable. Until any number of life circumstances cause inability to pay the rent, and the renter loses his house. It’s a great deal for the landlord. If repairs are made, good! If not, nothing’s lost. Except a shelter. A home.
I asked Sonny how he likes his new house. “It’s sweet! $18,000 for a three bedroom house. It has a kitchen and a living room and three bedrooms. I pay $400/month. Isn’t that a great deal?” He squinted his eyes. Then he lowered his voice, leaned in, and said, “But I think it’s haunted.” “Really?” I asked. He said, “Yeah. I had really bad dreams. I’ve been letting Tracy and her daughter stay with me the last few days, and she had bad dreams too. Could you come and bless my house? You got power. I know if you come and pray for it, whatever is in there will leave.” I told him I would be happy to go and bless his new house. He gave me a thumbs up.
A few conversations later, I looked around the room. Tommy was gone. I asked, “Did Tommy leave?” “Yeah. He left a while ago. You were talkin’ to Sonny.” “Did he eat?” “Yeah. He had a bowl of soup.”
I don’t know when I will see Tommy again. I do know the ravages of drug addiction. Every day, I watch my friends dying slow, agonizing deaths. I hate the shame, the stigma, the illness that strips their souls of dignity—of humanity. I don’t feel tired. I feel mad. A fire is growing inside of me. That familiar fire in my belly that says, “This is not okay. It’s just not okay.” We have to do better.
(Names have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.)