Sometimes people do things on a whim that can change or even save a life. My friend Paul was one of those people who just seemed to do things like that on a habitual basis.
In 1981, I was 16 years old. In February I had given birth to a daughter that I had no choice but to give up for adoption. In September I signed the final adoption papers, and then went on a rampage of self destruction.
By January of 1982, I was so out of it that my father, who was by then dying of cancer (although we thought he was in remission at that time), moved me out of the house that we shared with 5 other people, because household vote was that they could no longer live with the chaos and insanity I was bringing into the home. Parties and bikers and drug dealers and a friend who was a prostitute bringing her tricks home to do them on my sofa, that sort of thing. So my Dad moved me into a rooming house by the beach, paid my rent 4 months in advance, stocked me up with enough food to feed a small army, and visited me twice a week to give me a few bucks and see how I was doing.
How was I doing? I was discovering codeine and other opiates. By March of that year, I was popping a couple of Tylenol 3s every couple of hours. I was well and truly hooked. Then my father discovered that he was not only out of remission, but that his cancer had spread to every major organ and into his bones. No more twice weekly visits from Dad, he couldn’t get out of bed because of the pain he was in. Of course I felt that he had abandoned me, being a classic example of an utterly self-minded junkie teenager.
In April the prepaid rent ran out, and I didn’t have a clue how to find a job. I had never had to have one. I was evicted instead, and moved in with my new boyfriend, Vinny. Vinny was a mainlining drug addict. He would slam anything he could get into his veins. His drug of choice was heroin, but he hadn’t been able to get his hands on any of that for a while, but he had a connection for percocet and percodan (morphine based painkillers, one in an aspirin base, the other in an acetominophen base). Vinny’s veins were so battered that he could never find one to hit, so I became quite the talented little hypodermic lady. Crush the pills, add water, cook it in a spoon, throw a cotton ball in, put the needle into the cotton, and suck up the dope. Wrap a belt around his arm, slap a vein up, and blam, instant oblivion for Vinny. I continued taking my codeine, and added percodan to the cocktail of pills I was taking every day. I’m amazed that I never started slamming my own veins, truly I am. I did sink so low as to visit my Dad at his apartment and steal his percodan, though. Way to go, swiping the pain meds from a dying man.
Money was tight, we could eat or get high, and we had our priorities all set. We got high. The girl next door was a stripper, and she told me about Amateur Night at the club she worked in. They would pay me $50 just to dance and take off my clothes. Far out, I was out of drugs, so I went that night, and got hired on as a permanent dancer.
In mid-May, I came home one night to discover Vinny laying on the floor barely breathing. He was dead from a hot hit of smack (a hot hit is a particularly strong mix of heroin and cutters, usually caused by poor mixing by the dealer when they are cutting the strong stuff with a non narcotic base to make it both weaker and result in more quantity) by the next morning, 27 years old. And I was out of a place to live. But never fear, the strip club I worked in just happened to have a motel attached to it. I moved in there.
On June 21 my friend Lisa, who also worked at the club, came to me and said, "Hey, my friend Jimmy and his friend Paul and me are going to Cambridge for lobster. Wanna come?" Sure, why not, so we got in Paul’s Mustang. I noticed that the passenger seat wasn’t bolted down, it was really shaky, but so what, right? In I got.
Jimmy sparked up a gigantic spliff (big fat joint - marijuana cigarette for you lucky folks who aren’t up on drug culture) and we toked and talked and laughed and drove along. When we got to Somerville (the town next to Cambridge) a thundershower started. I remember that it was so intense that we could not see out of the windshield, even with the wipers going full blast. I remember asking "Where the fuck are we?" and that’s the last thing I remember clearly.
I’ve got flashes of memory of somebody screaming, an impression of being drenched with water, and then waking up in an ambulance. We had struck the back of a parked semi truck, and I was in pretty bad shape. The screaming person had been me, the wet was when my friends pulled me out of the wreckage and laid me on the sidewalk because the car was on fire and they were afraid to leave me in there for fear it would blow up.
At the hospital they cut my clothing from my body, and I couldn’t feel a thing. I was freaking out, screaming, yelling, until they sedated me. X-rays, a plastic surgeon called in special to handle the damage to my face (over 300 stitches in my forehead), they called my father who was on his death bed and told him that his daughter was probably dying. My sister appeared beside my gurney in the trauma room, crying.
My spinal damage was of such concern that I was put into what amounted to a body cast to immobilize me. I couldn’t speak. I had damaged my vocal cords in two ways, first my throat had struck the dash on impact, and then I had screamed for nearly 15 minutes straight. The end result is that where most people have two functional vocal cords, I have one. The other is paralyzed. I can speak now, but my voice has a funky raspy quality to it, and where I used to sing and sing damn well, I can sing damn well for about 5 minutes at a go now before I’m in agony. Even more to the point, at that time I still couldn’t feel anything below my shoulders. I knew that I was a human vegetable, and I wanted to die. Over the next few days, feeling returned as my spinal cord slowly came out of its shocked state. I was far from a model patient, particularly because I was going through withdrawal from my valiums and percs. I was truly lucky, and I walked out of the hospital, drug free and on crutches, with an immense bandage on my face.
So where is the random act of kindness, you’re probably asking yourself. It’s coming soon.
When I went back to the club/motel, I discovered that my belongings had been tossed out of my room and into a storage closet. I was on crutches because I had torn the ligament in my knee and I couldn’t dance. I was out of a job and out of a place to live. I sure couldn’t go live with Dad, he had enough to deal with, he was dying, and his girlfriend wouldn’t even allow me to call him to say I loved him. What to do?
The only thing that I could think of was to go to Boston’s Combat Zone and see if I could drum up business as a hooker. The question of what kind of freak would pay a bandaged, becrutched teenager to have sex with them never crossed my mind. I was in Harvard Square and about to take the train to Washington Street and realized I didn’t even have 35 cents for the MBTA. I just broke down. I sat down on the curb behind the news stand and started to cry. I sat there for hours, crying the whole time, completely astounded that I had ended up in this position, while hundreds of people walked by me, staring, pointing, some even laughing, but I was pretty oblivious to them, it just rolled right off me.
"Hey kid, what’s wrong?"
I looked up, and saw a cabbie who was fairly well known among the Harvard Square crowd. We called him Tijuana Taxi, because he had that emblazoned on the door of his cab. He sold pot, and he always had a pretty girl riding shotgun seat, and us teenagers all thought he was pretty cool for an old fart (37) with a dumpy gut.
I just started blubbering more as I tried to spit it all out. My father was dying, I was hurt, I was homeless, I hadn’t eaten for 3 days and hadn’t slept for as long because I was afraid to sleep in case I was raped by street people, I needed to get to the Zone to make some money so I could sleep somewhere tonight and I didn’t even have a few cents to do that...
"Get in the cab, kid."
"I don’t have any MONEY, are you fuckin’ DEAF?"
"The ride’s free. Get in."
At this point I was thinking that even if he turned out to be a psycho who drove me to Walden Pond and strangled me there, anything was better than this. I climbed in and we drove off. The opposite direction from Boston and the Combat Zone. And I didn’t protest or care.
We pulled up in front of a three story tenement apartment building in Somerville, and he got out. He opened my door for me, took my hand, and led me into his third story walk up. That took a little time, try doing stairs on crutches, it’s not fun. I figured at this point that he was my first customer.
We walked into his living room, and he pointed at the couch. "You sleep there. There are blankets in the hall closet. There’s food in the refrigerator. You can wear any of my clothes that you can manage to keep on your body, but take a bath first, you smell foul. I’ll be back in a few hours, I gotta go make some money to pay the rent. My name is Paul. Stay out of my bed." And woosh, he was gone, leaving me alone in his apartment with his expensive stereo, and God knows what else. All I could do was sit there and blink and blink and blink some more.
Over the next couple of months, I learned a few things. The pretty girls Paul always had in his cab were other lost waifs. He picked us up, took us home, fed us, clothed us, nursed us back to physical and emotional health. He taught us how to find jobs and how to find places to live and how to stand on our own two feet. He gave us a safe refuge while we pulled our heads out of our asses and got our lives into some semblance of sanity. And he never asked any of us for anything in return, never allowed us to do anything for him.
When my sister called to tell me my father had died, Paul was the one who took the call, came to my place of work, told my boss I had to leave, walked over to me, wrapped his arms around me and kept me from falling on my face as he whispered the news into my ear.
Paul is and was the best friend that I and many girls like me have ever had. He did his kindnesses to utter strangers, major lifechanging, life saving kindnesses that will never be forgotten. I was talking with my friends Laura and Tracey, two more of Paul’s girls, the other week, and we realized that Paul was de facto Older Brother or Father stand in for us. Each of us has moved on in our lives to be happy, healthy productive people, each with children who have a Grampa Paul in addition to the blood kin we all get by dint of birth.
Because of Paul, I try to do what I can to help people who are in the down and outs. I can’t do as much as Paul could, but I do what I can, and each time I do, I say to myself, "This one is for Paul".
As I wrote this, Paul was in Rhode Island, suffering from multiple myeloma which eventually killed him. I would have given anything to be able to be there with him, but I was in San Francisco and living paycheck to paycheck.
Laura and Tracey, Tinka and Caryn, Sherry and Chloe, and the rest of Paul's girls were there. What a legacy he left behind.
(Afternotes: Paul died about three years ago. I was unable to make it to his funeral due to health issues and financial woes of my own. I sent this along to Laura, who edited it slightly (for cussing, mostly) and read it as Paul’s eulogy. Paul had been an outcast within his own family, and his sisters, when they heard this said "We never knew what a good person our brother really was.")