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Nature is interesting. You can get lost in the beauty of it, and it's so tempting to idealize the natural world in a state untouched by human influence.

But human beings will always be the most fascinating thing on Earth to me. Foul, dirty, loud, brazen, overconfident, ugly, silly human beings. We show up, thrash around for a while, fuck stuff up, and then poof, we're gone.

In an effort to not dwell on that last part too much, here are some of the most interesting people I've ever met.

"We all gotta go, it's just how we be, humans frail and tired out eventually. But some in more a damn hurry than the others. Think they can do it twice as fast as the rest."

Long after the end of that sweaty desert summer, Mama Jay's answer stuck with me. It was an answer to a rhetorical question, but I wasn't about to say a word and still wouldn't.

We sat in front of the aging television, Mama Jay tugging my sun-fucked and over-bleached wannabe hair into neat, quarter inch cornrows just to see if she could.

"I ain't never braid white folks hair. You want to try?" she asked me one day after finishing up some touchups on her son's stately and intricate 'do. With a shrug, I said "Why not?"

I was halfway worried it might break off, what with all the stupid shit I'd done to it to try to keep up with the dangerous tides and currents of SoCal fashion, and didn't quite understand what CJ meant when he told her "Don't pull it too tight, you know he ain't used to it."

It was two hours until dinner, and the local news was covering the police blotters for the surrounding counties. So, we sat in front of the TV and watched, laughing and rolling our eyes.

Nothing really out of the ordinary. Some jackass who had been holding up liquor stores two nights a week for three weeks had finally been cornered by police in a run down apartment complex and got mowed down when he pulled his piece instead of giving up.

Anyway, Mama Jay's answer was in response to a question along the lines of "What kind of dumbass robs every liquor store in walking distance of his own apartment without even wearing a mask?"

I still laugh about my first and only case of braid ache, and I still think hard about her answer. She worked two jobs to pay the bubble-induced rent in a decent apartment on the nice side of town, just about a hundred feet inside the boundary for the best school district for 100 miles.

Mama Jay and CJ were quite literally the only black folks in the city, and you bet your ass they knew it just as well as everyone else did. They'd been slowly moving west for about 10 years, she told me one time, because you could sit on your porch all year long if you wanted, and even though they might not be welcome, people out in California were "too polite or maybe just too scared to say it to our faces".

More than anything, she wanted CJ to graduate high school, because she never had. CJ was instantly popular at school, a real life black kid in a desert valley dominated by white kids who loved MTV, but they were all scared to ever visit his house or meet his family.

Me? I didn't give a shit. Mama Jay made the best chicken and told stories about growing up outside Montgomery, Alabama and Dallas, Texas. The kind of stories you'll never read in a textbook about civil rights.

Mama Jay was a Black Panther, one of the vocal women Black Panthers who brought gender equality to the fore of the movement in its later years. Mama Jay was a hardass.

"You know what, though? Every single one of them tries to get a quarter inch of dickmeat wet, like it makes a difference other than they know it's going to piss me off."

A friend of mine hooked to pay the rent, since the merit scholarships only covered tuition. When she needed someone to scream at, she would sometimes meet me at the Denny's or the IHOP and we would drink coffee and she would rant. I don't think she necessarily liked that I thought it was as funny as I did, and still do, but I know for certain that she appreciated having someone who didn't shove pamphlets at her, try to "rescue" her, or try to convince her, even obliquely, that she was doing The Wrong Thing.

She brooked absolutely no bullshit, didn't touch drugs, and had a sound exit plan. Who the fuck was I, a dude on Uncle Sam's payroll, to say a damn thing about the morality or ethics of selling one's body?

She was, in apparent industry terms, a "good girl" and always insisted that the Johns wrap it up before she would even touch it. She provided the rubbers, too, since apparently "Woops, it broke" and particularly "I didn't notice" happens about sixty times as often when they provide their own.

That quarter inch of dickmeat that made her so mad was when a John would try to keep a ring of skin exposed around the base and then shove it in far enough to get some direct contact on that narrow little band.

"And they think they're just so goddamn clever! Every one of them thinks it's the first time it's ever been tried!"

All I could do was choke and cry into my coffee and hope the waitress wasn't so disgusted that the pot she'd left on the table wouldn't run too low.

She said, when I asked her about it, that hooking was better than stripping. According to her, if you were smart and independent, not only was it more money for less hours, but less stressful and less dirty as well. Having never hooked or stripped, I can only take her word for it.

Last I heard, she'd taken a job in an active research department for a very large chemical company.

I like to think she's building a better rubber.

"Hey man, want to see a trick?"

Normally when a guy sitting on a loading dock eight feet into an alleyway says "Hey man" you just keep fucking walking. But I'd seen the guy around every few weeks, and judging on his bindle and the frequency with which I saw or didn't see him, he was almost surely a crusty kid from in or around Chicago riding the rails East and West, coast to cattle to corn to coast. The hub for certain communities of people like this seems to be Chicago.

Yeah, you know what? Fuck it, show me a trick.

So he takes his shirt off, links his hands in front of his waist, steps through the loop made by his arms, and then pulls them back around to the front - all without letting go of his hands. And then he turns around and does it again facing the other direction, which looks even more horrible, what with all of the bones swiveling in perverse and infeasible directions.

So I laughed, told him he was a disgusting human being, and gave him the last of my cash, a fiver. I didn't need anything else to drink that night and knew it, so I walked home direct instead of stopping for a couple forties.

Fast forward a couple years. I'm sitting in Humboldt Park in Chicago, waiting for some friends to show up that I haven't seen in years. These friends of mine, well, let's just say that they're not the kind of people that you put down as references for anything you actually want to get approved for, but they're the best friends you'll ever have if you return the effort.

Unfortunately, I find out, they're going to be a little late. Having been involved in, well, some sort of fight, they were busy doing whatever it is you do when you're trying to not be found by the police and also the friends of the people you just fought.

Which puts me in Chicago, alone, with no other contacts, no car, extremely low on funds, and no idea how to get around the fucking city.

In Humboldt Park.

And it's getting dark.

As a sort of latent paranoia sets in, I figure if nothing else, I can find a greasy spoon or a dive bar and hole up for a few hours, wait for someone to come get my narrow ass. So I do. I dodge into some place I couldn't read the name of and post up at the front.

And then some disgusting human being comes in, does a double take, and asks if he knows me from somewhere. I laughed and asked him if he wanted to see a trick.

His name, his street name that is, was Animal - named after the Muppet. He asked if I was from Chicago, and I told him I was just visiting. He asked who, so I took a gamble and told him the names of a couple of my friends. This was a calculated risk - I knew the collective to which my friends belonged was on mostly good terms with the majority of the mutants, crusty kids, transients, and hobos in the city, and had a lot of overlapping membership with most of the clubs, gangs, and tribes in a similar demographic.

Sure enough, Animal lit up like a Christmas tree at the Fourth of July bonfire and asked if I'd eaten anything, since "There's a bigass barbecue tonight, we're headed over there in a minute."

Learn to tell the difference between a street person who will shank you and take your shoes, and a street person who will feed you sausage and beer and make sure you have a corner to sleep in behind a lockable door, and you can do all kinds of neat stuff - like climb the Kinzie Street railroad bridge with two naked freegan chicks who smell like hot garbage and want to introduce you to the positive aura of urban renewal.

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