People ask, "How's the new job?" and I answer, "It is shockingly easy to ask strangers if they hear voices."
We had gotten a community call (i.e. an e-mail from local millionaires who, out of enlightened self-interest, funded our annual operating budget in exchange for junkie-free jogging paths) about homeless encampments near the train tracks and found a young man set back in the trees, friendly but distracted. I steered him toward the social worker.
She didn't bother with introductions. Do you hear voices? Do they tell you to do things? Dangerous things? They tell you to kill yourself?
She pulled him aside for a five minute pow-wow and, asking the same questions several different ways, unearthed a long history of childhood sexual trauma and undiagnosed schizophrenia.
Along with his diabetes, John was the perfect housing candidate (housing programs always require a mental AND physical disability. You could have been foaming, hallucinating, raped by your brothers at age 9, and locked in a cage by your birth parents, but still be denied housing if you were physically healthy), and we made plans to visit him again in a week.
A police car met us at the end of the trail, a nice Mexican officer who could think of a hundred more useful tasks than scanning hobos for outstanding warrants. I answered his questions about who's camping where, and in exchange I tell him who has AIDS and under no circumstances should be dragged to jail. His partner arrived five minutes later, trailed by his pastor and two enormous ex-convicts-turned-evangelists.
All four of the latter are white dudes who mean well, but they go to the gym and they go A LOT and would scare the shit out of any skinny black boy. We convinced the pastor to go into the camp alone and his meeting with Mr. John went well (I later learned that the white officer believed that drug addiction was a form of possession, and I like to imagine the demons Crack Cocaine and Black Homophobia, alternately a puff of smoke and a thumb in your mouth that asks if you're Daddy's Girl).
I drove home to check on Little Mermaid, a homeless woman who'd lost all ten toes to gangrene four months ago and still had the staples in her feet (we learned this later, when the screaming began) and, with no public shelter beds available, stayed in a heated shack beside my house far from her coke dealers.
I had never seen such fucked up feet, like two miniature black breadloaves they give out at chain steakhouses but with a ring of staples on top. She begged to go back to her old camp. The doctor's meds weren't cutting it, and she could buy pain pills from her neighborhood ice cream truck. I handed her food and cigarettes and said I'd consider it tomorrow, I had a show that night.
Two hours later my pianist and I rolled up to a riverside mansion where we'd been invited to play chamber music for an audience of five: the producer, the attorney, the curator, the 300-pound Peruvian splatter artist, and our hostess whose official title was Wealth Protector. With the exception of the artist, all those present were A-type personality women whose task it was to calculate the street value of talent, and they formed a tight cluster around the artist as he expounded on his latest venture.
He had found a haunted house. It wasn't actually haunted, he had made sure of that the night he broke in and lit a cigar waiting for ghosts to appear before calling his banker for a loan, but the bedroom door had 45 hatchet marks from the previous owner and that shit sells paintings. I was in some of those paintings. The hostess was a particularly big fan of his, which meant that, besides asking if the venue had a piano or if we needed to bring extra lights, I had to formally request that any nude portraits of me be kept elsewhere.
I wandered around the mansion to check. The living and dining rooms were furnished but everywhere else served as art storage. Nothing looked inherited. I got the impression that she grew up poor and mainly used the place to host auctions.
One recital and several bourbon shots later, his paintings came back into the conversation and the hostess asked if I'd seen the ones of me. I had not. With great discretion, she led me drunk and tired and tottering on six-inch heels thru the house to one of many doors, inside of which was a darkened stairwell with my framed tits at the bottom. Then another. Then another. Other women were featured too, their bodies outlined in his signature blobs of color, and the very last was a life-sized pose of my bare ass on a coffee table. It brought her no erotic thrill. She commented on each picture with the cool appraisal of a luthier in a violin shop.
I staggered home at midnight. The screams came around 4 a.m.
Mermaid was in too much pain to walk to our door, so instead she bellowed from the shack for over an hour until it finally woke us up, after which I rushed her to the ER (it would take four hospital visits in over a week for a doctor to acknowledge her ruined feet). I spoke to our housemate, asking if he'd heard her. He paused and said he THOUGHT he'd heard a voice in the woods shouting Help Me Help Me Somebody Please Oh God It Hurts, but hadn't thought too hard about it. We're lucky no one called the cops.
I can still hear her voice in my head. I have to keep feeding it food and cigarettes.