Hell As A Place, Part One
I was in the kitchen, making dinner. I live in a halfway house for drug addicts and alcoholics, these days. You made one bad decision, and then another bad decision, and then another bad decision, and then all of a sudden there you are — living in a halfway house. Of course it doesn’t happen that quickly; it takes a lifetime of bad behavior. But it seems to happen so quickly.
So I was in the kitchen of the halfway house, making dinner for the house. I live with a bunch of ex-drunks and ex-heroin addicts, in a crumbling white-painted hugeness in the middle of the city of New Orleans. I was making roast beef with bearnaise sauce, plus collard greens and garlic mashed potatoes. We don’t usually eat that well, but I had found a bunch of good ingredients that we had stored up. Plus it was the holidays. People get depressed in halfway houses during the holidays, so good food seemed important. So I mashed the potatoes. I stirred bearnaise sauce mix into some simmering milk. I cut slits in the roast beef and stuck cloves of garlic on the slits. Then I rubbed down the whole roast with some olive oil, and coated the whole thing with various spices — salt, pepper, basil, oregano. Then I put it in the oven at 375° over a dripping pan.
I was finishing up the cooking when they brought a new guy into the halfway house. If anyone gets kicked out of the house for drinking or doing drugs (or if anyone actually pulls their life together and moves into a real house), then a new person moves into the house. This new person can be anyone who’s trying to get sober. They can be black, white, young, old, rich, poor. (Well, generally they’re not rich, but it has happened once or twice.) It’s like… living in a halfway house is like a big ol’ spinning slot machine or something. Someone gets kicked out of the house, and the wheels of the slot machine spin around, and then a new face pops up! And this new person can be anyone! Maybe he’ll be assigned as your new roommate! Maybe he’ll be the nicest guy in the world; your new best friend! Maybe he’ll be an insane paranoid schizophrenic who steals your computer and who sells your computer for crack money and then smokes crack in your bathroom! It’s all so exciting, because you just… never… know.
They did the new guy’s paperwork and interview in the living room while I finished dinner. I finished dinner, people wandered in and ate. Then the new guy entered the kitchen while I was washing the pots and pans. The new guy lingered in the kitchen in an annoying lingering sort of way. He didn’t eat or do anything or sit down. “There’s plenty of food if you… want some?” I said. Mustache, horrible vinyl jacket, overly tan, 40-ish. He had stubble in addition to the mustache and he smelled kind of bad and I was guessing that he was so very tan from sleeping out on the street.
Then guy started talking. He told me his name was Gary. Gary started talking. Man, no one talks like people in halfway houses. Gary was detoxing and so he was talking manically, as people who are detoxing often do, so he told me his entire life story. He used to do heroin and booze. He used to live in Vegas, where he was vaguely associated with the mob, and made $200,000 a year. Now, he said, he owes the Feds $3.5 million. Three point five million. They’re not going to get it, he said. Gary liquified all his assets before he came to the halfway house. Now, he barely has any money; barely money for a bus pass, even. The Feds will never get their money from him, he said. People in halfway houses often tell horrible stories like this and expect you to sympathize. They figure that you’re an addict too, so you’ll automatically be sympathetic about everything — which is not the case, or at least, it’s definitely not the case with me.
Gary was telling me this story and expecting me to say something, like, “Oh, man. I been there, brotherman! The fucking Feds, amirite?” Instead I was thinking: Ugh, crap like this is probably why we’re so in debt. Doesn’t Obama need that money? To like, I dunno, to fix the health-care system? Or to build orphanages or bridges or something?
Then Gary finally turned his attention to the food. He started poking and prodding at the various pots and pans. He got a plate and served himself mashed potatoes, collard greens. Then he was checking out the roast beef, stabbing at it with a knife.
And he said this to me, I swear to God; he said: “Is this roast beef medium-rare?”
And I said: “Well, I tried to make it medium-rare, actually. But I’m not great at cooking so it think it turned out more medium.”
Gary sort of sniffed. “I prefer mine medium-rare.”
There was a long pause where, I’m not sure, but I think I was supposed to apologize or something. Instead I was thinking, OH FUCK YOU MR. CRIMINAL HEROIN ADDICT HOMELESS PERSON WHO HAS NO MONEY AND JUST ARRIVED AT MY HOUSE. SORRY THAT THE INSUFFICIENTLY MEDIUM RARE ROAST WITH BEARNAISE SAUCE VEXES YOU. I HOPE THAT THE HANDMADE GARLIC MASHED POTATOES ARE UP TO YOUR STANDARDS.
I was in a bad mood. And sometimes, you just shouldn’t talk to people.
So instead, I went outside.
I went outside. We had moved all the broken TVs out of the halfway house the day before, as part of our holiday cleaning. There were six of them. We had left them on the curb. Just really old broken TVs that no one wanted: Zenith, Panasonic, Samsung, Sharp.
I went outside and lit a cigarette, and as I stood there, there was a weird noise. I turned my head; identified the source of the noise. A guy was standing over the row of abandoned TVs, smashing them with a hammer. His pregnant girlfriend stood idly by while he did this. This is the sort of neighborhood that we live in. Nothing to see here.
I had no idea what the guy was doing. Why does he hate TVs so much? I wondered. Then, he paused in his labors. “Hi!” he said. A friendly, neighborly type.
“…Hi,” I said.
I went back inside and asked Tim, my roommate, what the fuckhead outside was doing. We each have three roommates and sleep on bunk beds. Tim is my favorite roommate. He’s twenty-four, wiry, and used to do heroin. Heroin is big these days. Tim likes electronic music so sometimes I ask him confused questions about electronic music.
“What’s that dude doing outside?”
“Smashing the TVs so he can get the copper wire.”
“How much money do you get for copper wire?”
“Three dollars. A pound.”
I frowned; I went back outside, stared at the city. The copper-wire people were gone now. New Orleans is a very beautiful city. But the sun was setting — setting behind the clouds. And at 5 p.m., with the setting sun and with the sky all red, it can look like the whole world is on fire.
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