the Dark Side of Calgary

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“Maybe I’ll go on a killing spree! Maybe there’s gonna be human flesh all over the pavement!”

The man was shouting at no one in particular. He was just kind of yelling into the sidewalk. He was in his late 30s, approximately, Hispanic, with a buzzed head and thick lips. He sat on the ground, wearing camouflage pants and a thick black coat, his back to a concrete structure, and he just yelled. He didn’t seem to see me walk by. I only paused briefly, and as he quickly scratched at a purple spot on his head, I determined he was on drugs and kept walking.

Encounters like this in big cities seemed relatively commonplace. Just in the last year, in San Francisco, and again in Seattle, I’d witnessed bizarre encounters like this on the streets. My boyfriend and I, during our travels, had seen one woman scream about the entire world being rapists while she scratched at open sores on her legs, and we’d seen a homeless man in a wheelchair masturbating in a stairwell right outside our hotel. Still, something about the human flesh comment left me feeling a little frightened this time around.

It was my final night in Calgary, Alberta. After a few lovely days of exploring various parts of the city, including the national park, the zoo, a couple of gay clubs, a shopping district, and a professional theater, I wanted to make my last day leisurely. Sunday had been full of church bells, slowly sipped coffee, and contemplation. I’d been writing poetry, thinking deeply about where I am in life, and determining what goals I want to work on next. The trip overall had been deeply healing. And this evening would be my last quiet night before flying home at the ungodly hour of 4 am.

I briskly walked away from the man in camouflage and noticed a beautiful courtyard park in front of a massive church just across the way. It was gorgeous in layout, with steel benches, curving sidewalks, and small manicured gardens in front of the large church. I hurriedly cross the street to check it out.

As I entered the park, I noticed the tall brown building against the dull grey sky. It had been grey my entire time in the city, but somehow it was perfect. This weather is what people think of when they think of Seattle, this gray overcast heaviness. But it didn’t bother me. I liked the drizzle, the clouds over the river. It was music to me.

I looked back down and realized that several different men were watching me from benches. It wasn’t a casual gaze, they were staring me down. I did my best not to make eye contact, but counted four of them, all of them clearly homeless and very likely high. Suddenly I remembered the building I’d passed a few blocks back, the one that had “JESUS LOVES” written across the top in giant red letters, and I realized it might very well be a homeless shelter. Had I wandered into the local version of Pioneer Park? Back in my home in Salt Lake City, there is a downtown park in a prime location that is generally very unsafe and full of homeless people due to its proximity to the shelters. This could be downright frightening.

I paused briefly at a small manicured garden full of what looked like cabbage plants. They were green, purple, and white, and came out of the ground in jagged spikes. I stared at the plants for a few moments, stunned by their strange beauty, yet still aware of the men in the park behind me.

Then I got scared.

“Fuck everyone! I fucking hate humans!” A woman stumbled from behind a group of trees as she yelled into the sky. Her hair was sloppy, pulled back into a shaggy ponytail, and she had far too much face paint on, bright blue over her eyes, pink on her cheeks, and red on her lips. She was slightly plump, likely in her early 40s (or maybe in her 20s but far older than her years). She wore a leather jacket over a black t-shirt that was cut low to reveal cleavage, a pair of jean shorts that had the legs cut off of them (likely with a pair of scissors), fishnet stockings with holes in them, and a pair of scuffed high-heeled boots. I immediately assumed she was a prostitute.

The woman tripped slightly and dropped a white container of some kind onto the sidewalk. “FUCK!” she screamed, then she bent down, nearly falling off her heels, picked up the object, and threw it across the street. “FUCK!”

She then took a leather purse from off her shoulder and threw it hard into a bench, where it landed in a pile on the concrete. “FUCK!” She slumped herself down onto the metal bench near her purse, unzipped her jacket pocket, and wrestled a cell phone and headphones out of her pocket. The cord was tangled up and as she unraveled it, she just kept screaming. “Fuck, fuck, fuck! I hate humankind!” Finally, she just dropped the headphones, put her phone on top of her purse, and just collapsed her head into her hands. She started sobbing her eyes out.

I stood there frozen for a moment, wondering what to do. Should I go to comfort her, ask if she needed anything? She shook with deep, silent sobs. I looked closer and saw needle marks up and down her legs under the fishnets. I was just remembering the men behind me and how I needed to leave when another man came from behind the trees, and I immediately wondered if he was this woman’s pimp.

He was bald with a spotty goatee and a patchy face. Shorter than me, he was missing teeth and wore a dirty white T-shirt and blue sweat pants over his white sneakers. He looked at the woman, then looked at me. He had a bizarrely playful look on his face.

“Hey.” His voice was almost calm. “Trust in JC, am I right?” I didn’t answer, and instead gave one last look at the woman. “Hey, that’s my coat, right? You take my coat?” I looked at the red jacket I was wearing, then back up, and simply shook my head. “That’s my coat.”

I almost answered, but instead just turned away and started walking quickly, not running, away from the cabbage plants, the crying woman, and the bald man. I crossed paths with the men with scary eyes again, and turned right out of the park. I kept walking fast, noticing the other people around me on the sidewalk, just regular civilians, realizing none of them had been in the park. I walked a full block before I turned my head around and realized the bald man was following me. He was only 20 yards back. We made eye contact and he playfully spoke again.

“Just trust JC.”

I went from nervous to downright scared now, and walked more quickly. Was he that woman’s pimp? Was he mad at me for having looked at her? Did I step into his territory? Was he mentally ill? Did he just really like my coat and want it? Or was he just high and curious? I walked faster.

Two blocks later, he was a bit farther behind, but he was still following. I was a mile from the Airbnb where I was staying. This wasn’t going to end well. I came on a new block and realized I was passing a business. I stepped inside without looking, and realized I was in an ice cream shop.

The shop was empty except for a small Asian girl working behind the counter. She greeted me, and I approached a bit nervous. As she described their unique ice cream methods, I felt myself begin to calm, and then I heard a tapping behind me. I turned around and saw the bald man standing right outside, tapping his hand softly on the glass. He was staring through the window right at me and wanted my attention. What kind of fucking Stephen King nightmare was this?

I turned back to the Asian girl, and told her how the man was following me, and how maybe we should be ready to call the police. She couldn’t be more than 17. She looked over my shoulder at the man, then smiled reassuringly. “This is a sketchy area sometimes. I don’t think he will come in.”

“No, but I have to go back out at some point.”

A few minutes later, I sat at the table, eating a scoop of mango ice cream that I didn’t even want, and tried to avoid the man staring at me from outside. There were no other exits that I knew of. How was I going to handle this? I opened up my phone and began to Google the Canadian police phone number. There was no way I was walking out there.

When I looked back up from my phone, the man was gone. I waited ten minutes, then wandered up to the window, wondering if he was around some corner. A mile was a long way to walk with someone after me, and I’d been mugged pretty badly once before (back when I was a Mormon missionary in Philadelphia). Instead, I summoned an Uber. The car pulled up within two minutes, and I rushed outside and jumped in, my heart thudding in my chest.

Twenty minutes later, I called my boyfriend to tell him what had happened. Knowing me far too well, he responded simply.

“Huh. That’s scary. I’m glad you are okay! But I bet this will make one hell of a blog post.”

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Woman in Pieces

Woman

“You don’t understand! They will kill me if they find out! They might be listening to this call right now! You don’t know what they are capable of! They watch me, everywhere! They have cars on the roads, they hide in alleys, they listen to every word and every sound! They cut up my dog!”

She spoke swiftly, in a rush, as if all of her words had to be used before she ran out of time.

“They did! They did! I don’t care what you say! They cut up my dog!” She stopped to sob for a moment, taking several deep breaths as tears flowed down her face. “I don’t know! I can’t un-see it! I don’t know who they are! But they cut up my dog and I can’t ever get him back! It’s my fault!”

I curiously looked around the corner of the hospital waiting room, where the woman was sitting, speaking on a courtesy phone in the lobby. Several people around her were looking distressed as she kept speaking rapidly, every sentence out of her mouth ending in an exasperated exclamation point. People began to move away, not sure what to do or say.

“Listen to me! No, listen! They cut off my food stamps first! They can’t do it, but they did! They said they needed proof of where I live, but then they said they didn’t! They got the proof then said it was never there! They don’t want me alive! They won’t even feed me! And they cut up my do-ah-ah-g!”

She began wailing louder this time, fully histrionic, her gestures getting wilder. She was small, skinny, likely only 30 but looking much older. She wore a baggy black coat, frayed jeans, and a new-looking pair of tennis shoes. Her brown hair fell loose on her shoulders, and she wore no makeup. Her face looked lined, as if she’d had several years of hard drinking and perhaps methamphetamine use. I wondered who she was talking to so frantically.

“My dog, my dog, my dog!” Her voice grew strangely quiet with conspiracy suddenly, and she started to look around frantically. “Listen, I think they are watching now. They’ve been trying to drive me crazy for years. Years! In every different apartment. They’ve watched me, messed with me, tried to kill me.” Then she shouted again. “They tried to poison me! I don’t know what kind of poison, every kind of poison! All of them! Poison!”

The mental health professional in me starting doing an auto-diagnosis. If this woman wasn’t currently high on drugs, she was very likely an untreated paranoid schizophrenic, or was suffering some kind of psychotic break in conjunction with a medical condition. I wondered if there was even anyone on the other side of the phone. I saw a nurse, an employee across the room, dialing a phone for assistance.

Her voice went dangerously low again. “Listen, I don’t have long. They killed my dog. They killed my dog! They killed my dog. They cut him up. They want me to be next.” She yelled, then went quiet again. “I’m at a hospital. Now, I don’t know where. I don’t have food. I–I’m going to need help. Listen, you can do it. You can help me. They are after me.” And then a powerful shout once again. “They tried to poison me! They killed my dog!”

I watched the worried looks on the faces of the few people who remained in the room. My brain shifted back to years ago, when I was working with the extremely mentally ill in various hospital or drug treatment facilities. I considered walking over to the woman to ask if she needed help, or to de-escalate her, but the hospital had staff for things like this. And sure enough, a security guard walked down the hall and took a seat near the woman.

“They’re here,” she whispered, ever so softly, then hung up the phone. She immediately shifted her energy and turned toward the guard with a bright smile on her face, no sign of distress at all. “Hello, officer, how can I help you?”

The man had a kind face. He looked weary, like he was at the end of a long shift. “Hello, ma’am. You sounded pretty upset. Anything I can do to help you?”

She made her voice sugary sweet. “Oh, no. Well, I’m just going to go to the bus stop. I seem to have forgotten where I am. I just, maybe you could help me get to the right place? I’m not sure I can walk.”

“Well, I could get a wheelchair and do that, take you outside to the stop. It’s not far.”

“Oh! Sir! You’d do that for me!” She batted her eyes briefly. “That plus a sandwich and a few dollars? That would absolutely wonderful.”

“I’m afraid I can only get you to the stop, ma’am.”

“Well, fine. You just get the wheelchair and I’ll step outside for a cigarette and wait for you.”

Apparently forgetting that she couldn’t walk, she got up and walked through the double doors and I quickly lost sight of her. The nurse looked toward the security guard.

“Thank you!” she exclaimed. “I couldn’t listen to how they cut up her dog one more time!”

Within a few minutes, the hospital was back to normal. The woman never returned for her ride in the wheelchair. I wondered where she might go next, and if she still thought people were watching her. Then I realized I had been watching her. I wasn’t trying to poison her, nor had I killed her dog, but my gaze probably hadn’t helped.

I left the hospital shortly after that, and I worried after that poor woman who was in so much pain. She’d left a piece of her with me when she’d departed, I realized. She must scatter pieces of herself wherever she goes, and then wonder where she left herself later.

He Said

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he said

“You’re husband material,” he said, looking into my eyes with candor. “And I have a terrible habit of only falling for guys who are bad for me. So I’m not really interested in seeing you again.”

“I made a huge mistake,” he said, looking away. “Making out with you sent the wrong message because I don’t think you’re that cute. But maybe we can hang out again some time.”

“Chad was the one who got away,” he said to a friend, who later told me. “He was sweet and good-looking and actually wanted to date me. But he expected me to text back, to put in effort. I know he’s still single, but I’m just not ready for that kind of guy.”

“You’re the kind of guy I could move across the country for,” he said, with those blue eyes right on mine, “and you’ve accomplished so much. I can’t do this, not until I’m someone who’s done as much as you have.”

“You’re friends are crazy hot,” he said, eyes mischievous on the dance floor. “But they aren’t my type. I prefer guys like you, guys more average.”

“I like everything about you,” he said with a reassuring lopsided smile, “and there is nothing I would change. I could spend my life with you if you just change the following things about yourself.”

“I love you,” he said, with sincere eyes much too quickly, repeating it often and consistently until I believed him. Then one afternoon, he shrugged, averted his gaze, and said, “You know, I’m just not feeling it anymore.”

“If only I wasn’t married,” he said.

“If only I was younger,”  he said.

“If only you were younger,” he said.

“I’m not ready for kids,” he said.

“Can you bring your kids on our second date?” he said.

“You have nice skin but you have some work to do on your body,” he said.

“I might be busy for a month or two but maybe I’ll give you call some time,” he said.

“I only like older guys,” he said.

“I only like younger, skinny guys,” he said.

“I only like beefy bears,” he said.

“It’s only been three days, but do you want to be my boyfriend?” he said.

“You’re not Mormon enough,” he said.

“I don’t date ex-Mormons,” he said.

“I like you, but not as much as I like meth,” he said.

“I like you way too much way too soon,” he said.

“I’m just not ready to date someone again,”  he said.

“I’m just looking for sex,”  he said.

“You actually look good now, what changed?” he said.

“Don’t call me handsome, it makes me insecure,” he said.

“I’m ashamed of myself as a person,” he said.

“I’ve never dated a therapist. Do you think I have depression?” he said.

“I’m not capable of trusting another person again,” he said.

“Yo keep a lot hidden,” he said, his brown eyes focused on me intently. “It makes me wonder what you’re thinking. It makes me wonder about you. You seem like a great guy. I mean, how is a guy like you still single?”

 

 

 

 

“What a Sticky Mess.”

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“I don’t know what to do, okay!”
The voice shrieked over the noise and bustle of Pike Place Market, a woman’s voice and it sounded like she was in distress. I navigated my way through the busy crowd and down a flight of stairs, past a couple of strollers. A woman dropped her freshly purchased flowers and the bag of water they were in broke, cascading all over the floor as she swore.
A man shouted back. “Well, that’s just perfect! That’s just fucking perfect! Isn’t that just perfect!”
I looked over a ledge and down into the section of the market the breaks into the alleyway with the famous gum wall, a wall of brick that is covered in chewed pieces of gum, varying colors floor to ceiling in a polka dot design that is both beautiful and makes you want to retch all at once. I still couldn’t see them, but I heard her yell back.
“I did my best, okay! What do you want me to do! What, you gonna hurt me now!” Her questions didn’t sound like questions, but like yells.
I couldn’t hear them as I worked my way around a group of people and down a flight of stairs. When I made my way into gum alley, I finally found them in a corner near the base of the stairwell. The girl was sitting down in a heap on the ground, knees up, the skirt she was wearing bunched up around her thighs, leaving little to the imagination if you were at just the right angle. She had a frayed sweater on top, light makeup (when she uncovered her face with her hands long enough for me to see), and her hair was in dreadlocks and a red bandana. A very muscular man stood over her with strong calves, red shorts and a tanktop, and a ball cap; his arms were massive. He was bending down, elbows on knees, and shouting at her, his face level with hers. He appeared to be establishing dominance somehow, making me even more worried about her.
“I told you to watch for it! I told you I wanted it! But you wouldn’t listen and you were a total bitch and now it’s too late!”
“I said I’m sorry!” She uncovered her face again and screamed up at him, and he stood and walked around, pacing angrily in front of her, clenching and unclenching his fists.
I looked around the crowd, the usual bustling group at Pike Market, and wondered why no one seemed to be stopping to notice what was happening here. There was no concern or regard for the situation, which was clearly escalating. A mother walked by with three kids on a leash, three young girls were staring at the wall of gum and making fascinated grossed-out faces at it, a man held his wife’s hand as she held her pregnant stomach, another couple spoke French as they looked at a map in their hands. Just around the corner, an older Willie Nelson type, frayed denim shirt and jeans and a long white beard and ponytail, played the guitar and strutted around, singing in an amateur voice while hoping people would toss money into his open guitar case. His voice carried over the alleyway though I couldn’t see him, a bunch of unintelligible melodies, and the only word I could make out was ‘bastard.’
The man yelled while strutting. “It was the perfect present! What else am I gonna get for her!”
And she screamed back, tears streaming down her face. “I already told you! I was looking at the other shelf for ideas when someone else grabbed it! Back off!”
Wait, they were fighting over someone buying something that he wanted her to buy? I looked confused. There were a hundred different shops with a thousand different shelves and ten thousand different items for purchase all around them, and this is what they were fighting over? I watched closely, ready to move on but just wanted to make sure she wasn’t in any danger.
The man pulled his cell phone out of his pocket to check something, and things were silent while he texted something and the girl sat there crying. Then he put his phone away, looked coldly at the girl, and said, a bit more softly, “I should have never shared my Ecstacy with you. What a waste.”
Then the man walked away, up the stairs, and out of sight.
The woman sat stunned for a minute, then leaned back against the wall, hands dropped onto the dirty ground, and she screamed at the top of her lungs, “Great, but what about me!”
This time people took notice. A couple of the college girls walked over to comfort her, make sure she was okay.
Me, I looked over at the gum and, with the events that just happened playing in my mind, said out loud, “What a sticky mess.”

Boys will be boys

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“Boys will be boys,” parents say, to excuse skinned knees, black eyes, broken windows, and bad smells.

“Boys will be boys,” school officials say, to explain absences, aggressive behavior, and drug and alcohol use.

“Boys will be boys,” wives say, to quiet doubts about late evenings at work, lipstick smudges, raised voices, and household budgets.

“Boys will be boys,” the courts say, to dismiss drug offenses, sexual assaults, and domestic violence.

And in this boy-loving culture, where boys fill the seats of court stands, elected offices, church leadership positions, and chief executive officers, the boys are excused, the bad behavior overlooked and shrugged off. Because, after all, boys couldn’t possibly help their very nature. They are driven toward aggression, sex, and conquest, and it simply can’t be avoided. In fact, boys who aren’t driven toward those things are aberrant and less valuable.

And thus, the politicians go to war over oil and debt and revenge, and millions are killed, while human atrocities are ignored, rape and famine seen as the natural consequences of male behavior. And the fathers smile at their sons, pat them on the back, tell them “I’m so proud of you.”

And this was the world in which Stu Ungar was raised in. Stu, often called “the Kid” affectionately, lived from 1953 to 1998. Stu’s father, Ido, had a wife and a child when he started his bookie business, paying off all those he needed to to keep the cops and the mafia off his back. Ido soon left his wife for one of his mistresses, Fay, a beautiful socialite who liked a lot of attention. But that’s okay for Ido, because boys will be boys.

Fay had two children, and the oldest, Stuey, had an aptitude early on for cards, realizing that a mix of skill in the game and a capability of reading people lead to victory every time. Using contacts from his father’s business, Stuey played a lot of cards and won a lot of money, shirking school to do so, because boys will be boys.

After Ido died, Fay sunk into drugs and depression, and Stuey found a new mentor in Victor Romano, a made mafia man, one who had memorized the entire dictionary during his lengthy prison sentence. Romano got Stuey involved in mafia-led card games of Pinochle, Poker, and Gin Rummy, giving him protection and women and money for as long as he kept winning for them, because boys will be boys.

And as Stuey watched men around him die and disappear in mafia hits, he racked up debts, more than he could pay off, so he ran to Las Vegas to try and make more money. Without a drivers license or a Social Security card, and having never worked for a wage, Stuey drifted from game to game, winning vast sums then losing every dollar within hours, over and over and over, for years, because boys will be boys.

And then Stuey started cheating on his wife, leaving her home with his daughter and stepson and using drugs, disappearing for weeks at a time. But he was great at poker and began winning world championships, and he was celebrated, lauded, and honored, because boys will be boys.

And when Stuey’s stepson committed suicide by hanging himself at a construction site, Stuey grieved by gambling and snorting cocaine, until his nasal cavity finally collapsed in on itself, because boys will be boys.

And when Stuey was found dead at 45, in a hotel room, from a drug overdose, everyone shrugged at the sadness, because boys will be boys.