Tucson Salvage 

The ballad of John and Pepper, hurting and homeless

click to enlarge Family portrait

Brian Smith

Family portrait

Pepper lifts her girlish red dress and with an arthritic finger traces deeply etched lines on her milk-white thighs. Ruddy scars forming indecipherable words might as well read "helter skelter." Then she raises an arm, and the other, and her fingers find more old mutilations, these coiling caterpillars and puffy butterflies and blossoming flowers, on wrists, elbows, shoulders and torso.

She gently pushes fingers into her thick blond mane, pushing along her scalp and hairline, and relates harrowing stories of unrestrained binges smoking way too much of the shit, which led to wounds on her scalp and a deep one below her chin and a permanently hoarse voice.

She has cut herself up in the past, others have sliced and burned her body too, and she's shot coke and dope so many times that her skin abscessed with such force the infections alone nearly killed her. In 2007 she was hit by a car in a crosswalk and about died.

Doctor's say she's likely suffering congestive heart failure. Just another ailment aligned with her liver disease and blood flow problems, degenerative disc disease and diabetes, the spinal fluid collecting around her brain, the bad knees and holes in her feet.

She can only laugh. "I swear I'm like patches. Just patched up together."

Her smile shows few teeth standing askew like gravestones defiantly hanging on in a derelict cemetery.

Her grin seems effortless though, and there's no shame here. She's upbeat even, sometimes like a schoolyard girl ready to grasp the future. And it's strange. How there's little cynicism.

Pepper will tell you that she loves life. Still. She'll tell you that she loves people. Still. She'll tell you how she's grateful to have a place to sleep at night, a floor under a roof and four walls.

Her man John hops down off the wall after a futile hunt for rolling papers. They kiss in the church parking lot shade behind the methadone clinic on 5th Street, where a half-hour earlier they picked up their daily doses. John collects the leashes for their dogs, a sociable pit-bull/terrier mix named Deuce, and Chico, a bouncy, mirthful Chihuahua.

Pepper tenderly strokes the back of his John's neck. Says, "I've never been loved like this in my entire life."

* * * *

The next day Pepper's collecting trash, cups and wrappers and cigarette butts, from the front of a Circle K and tosses it into the receptacle. In some small way her actions are a contribution to a greater good, a self-defining deed as a way to not surrender. And it's for a "cleaner world for my children."

John and Pepper occupy the same purgatory 24/7. They live and breathe each other's failures, chaos, and addictions, which are now limited to cigarettes and methadone. Like true lovers, they inhabit each other's fears, but these are the brutal kinds of despairing fears that burn in their guts, those born of homelessness and loss and sickness and abject poverty and self-hatred, born of shitty parenting, insane circumstances and molestation, and the horror of growing up with an increasing understanding that you're only a speck of some tiny existence the rest of the world wants nothing to do with. Wreaks daily devastation on the human psyche. They're always terrified.

And they greet each morning by vomiting hard.

They're sick. Their stomachs are distended because their livers are badly swollen and barely functioning. They each have Hep C. To get off heroin and provide relief from the physical pain and conditions they chose legal, state-funded methadone. They can't do illegal drugs and they're tested, and they've been dropping clean urine.

Methadone is the medicine, as man-made and harsh as it is. It's dated shorthand for heroin addicts with no other options, and it's harder to kick and more brutal than heroin, just ask any junkie. In fact, it's so wretchedly persuasive that if they lessen their doses they get violently ill. If you're as sick as Pepper and John, it's about impossible to wean off of. They've tried. John did it cold turkey once and he just shakes his head at the thought. Pepper's been on methadone for 12 years, she bore three babies on it.

They could use weed to ease the pain, but they're having trouble securing medical marijuana cards because they have no money. Government weed is pricey too when you're jobless and homeless. They can't buy weed on the street because whatever panhandled coin goes for dog food, bus fare and smokes. That's why a pack of cigarettes is absolute riches.

Deuce and Chico don't know the predicament their in. They're happy and they play and they sleep. They've water and food and love.

So it'd be really easy to say Pepper Kenney and Johnathan Williams, who were homeless when they met last year at the methadone clinic, are experts at destroying their own forward momentums and livable actions through unconscious self-sabotage. But it's way more than that.

Each was doomed by the time they were six.

Buzz-cutted, sharp-boned 38-year-old John grew up in Virginia. His coal-miner dad died in a mining accident when he was five. His mother never recovered. At 12 he was shooting up morphine, Dilaudid and such. He sold drugs and wrote bad checks and got popped, a lot. His record shows six felony arrests, and prison was home for 13 years of his life. In '05 John's wife suffered a freak aneurysm and died. Two of his children are in foster care. He has a daughter who lives with his mother.

John has a warmth and kindness, once suspicion of you recedes. He's filled with hurt. And he's no idiot. He's worked jobs in warehouses, in sales, and so on. He wants to work. He's hoping he lands the job at a pizza place near where they're staying, but nothing's easy "when you're a six-time felon."

Pepper's his recompense and he can't live without her. And he prefers to let her do most of the chatting.

"People have always said that bad things just happen to me," Pepper says between bites of a burger at Carl's Jr. "Like I have a dark cloud that follows me wherever I go ..." As she says this she pulls a long hair from inside her food and makes a bit of a sour face. John shrugs and takes the burger up the counter to get a new one made.

"I've been abused by men in some way my whole life," she continues, looking up at John at the counter. "But John is very old-fashioned. He the nicest man I've ever met. He doesn't call me a bitch. He doesn't call me a whore. I used to always have to walk catch-up behind my guys. John walks with me side by side. I mean he cares about me like I've never been cared about before. He carries the backpack and pulls the dog carrier, holds the leashes for both dogs, carries whatever groceries, the whole load, and still manages to hold my hand."

Pepper knows intimately street-living repulsions, as much as the ugliness of negotiating governmental programs for the disenfranchised. How easily you can slip through cracks when you're trying to, say, get section 8 housing, just a place to stay. Or how shelters won't allow dogs, even though Deuce is Pepper's doctor-certified service animal. How there's no financial assistance available to them. How John can't get much help because he has felonies. The two are on AHCCCS but still wait months to see medical specialists after getting appointments, and Pepper still can't, for whatever reason, get the disability papers signed by her doctor. Loopholes loop, and there are many.

Born and raised in Southern California, Pepper had been raped numerous times by her sixth birthday, and beaten. Her biological dad pulled her from that living situation after discovering the bruises, and took her to live with his parents. She discovered meth at 14, got pregnant at 15, which led to an abortion. ("I had nightmares for years after that abortion. It was brutal.") She bailed on high school junior year — where she was enrolled in advanced classes. (Earned her GED in '01.)

By 17 she was working Sunset Boulevard as a prostitute.

"It was that cliché. I was having sex with guys who were using me, I might as well get paid."

She talks of her "wife-in-laws" and having to down 151 and Cokes everyday ("that was my only way") and the guy who turned her out.

"He was a light-skinned African-American. He was polite. He gave me his card; it said 'Goldies Treasures' on it. He told me how it all worked and how much I would make, and I did it. It was horrible."

She begins to cry. "At this point I had no morals."

She was raped and robbed numerous times at knifepoint and gunpoint. "Once I got in the car with this preppy college dude, I checked his body and I didn't feel any weapons. He took me up Laurel Canyon and he had a gun hidden in the car ... He raped me and took everything."

She married one who helped get her life in order.

"It was total Pretty Woman," she says. "We got this place in Malibu for six months. We got married in Vegas at Circus Circus."

Pepper began working straight jobs in salons, radiology labs. The marriage didn't last. A series of unstable men, unexpected pregnancies, and a move to Tucson ensued. All of her five kids were delivered caesarean, all taken by Child Protective Services.

She'd begun to raise the first two, a boy and a girl, in a stable environment, which got dicey with the boy's anger issues. Pepper was late administering medicine to one of them. Someone called CPS. That's where it started.

She fought for those children with a court-appointed lawyer. Did parenting classes. CPS gives you a year to show you're a worthy parent, but bad things can happen in a year. Pepper lost her job in a radiology lab. Then her new beau offered her something to kill the pain. The heroin was an instant addiction; she lost her kids because it. (She only recently established a relationship with that son, because he turned 18. She can't talk much about him or any of the others without weeping.)

By 2001 they were homeless. She had three more kids. She was arrested twice for shoplifting.

Yet Pepper completed schooling in 2011, no mean feat when you have no home. She earned an associate degree in healthcare administration from the for-profit Brown Mackie College. The job interviews invariably go poorly.

"There are three reasons for that," she says. "A, my teeth. Who's going to hire someone with my grill? B, my voice; it goes out quickly, and, C, I get sick a lot and can't stand up for very long. I get migraines and the pressure in my head from the spinal fluid is unbearable. If I talk too much I go mute because of the damage I did to my voice."

Then she offers herself up as a walking cautionary tale for young junkies, or anyone bent on selling their bodies. "If I can help anybody by my story, then it's worth telling," she says. "It wasn't until years down the road when the consequences of my life started coming back. If you don't deal with it, it all comes back."

"Hey, I'm privileged to be alive," she adds. "And I can say that some of the most wonderful people I've ever met are ones who have had the hardest, sickness-riddled lives—just these devastating lives, and some are happy to be here. But life isn't fair. The chick we're staying with right now is on disability. She had cancer as a kid. That's the hand she was dealt. Everyone's had a rough life. I've had a hand in how my life turned out."

Pepper and John get in at night and out in the morning of that small place they're staying in. They try to leave no trace that they actually sleep there out of respect for their host, who's at the mercy of her apartment management company, which doesn't take kindly to pets, or strangers. In exchange for a floor to flop on, they provide food using pretty much all their food stamps. They're an inch from the streets.

* * * *

Pulling and pushing, tired and hurting and there's no rest. Each day is primitive, exactly like the previous one. There's no music. No books. No movies. No computer. No sleep. No bed. They're hopelessly and horrifically fucked.

"It's so scary living outside," Pepper says, sitting on an island-like swath of grass that separates Wetmore Road from the parking lot of a busy strip mall. "I always covered my neck because I was afraid somebody would slice it. I would stare at the sky for hours. You ever see how many things move in the sky at night?"

She says you don't dream, not when you're awake, not if you manage to sleep. You're too terrified about food and shelter, just the basics, and your dogs come first always. They say this is better than death, better than suicide. They can't afford to wash their few clothes but they believe in god. She can see a world dying slowly daily, at least the part they're allowed to participate in. And you wonder, what is the word of god, and who is that god, any god? You wonder is death truly the opposite of life?

She tells me it's silly to even think of luxuries in a life like this. "I want simple things: I want a plant. I want to have a birthday party. ... I'm tired of being poor. And panhandling is so humiliating; two no's and I want to go away and cry. People have no idea what a quarter means."

"Don't get me wrong," she continues. "I love life. I love colors. I love happy. I'm happy when people get ahead. But where did our humanity go? Everyone is so me me me me me me now!"

Pepper relates a story about John being attacked involving the drunken, knife-wielding boyfriend of a friend. She leans over and pulls John's T-shirt up exposing a 10-inch knife wound over his ribs. They filed a police report but nothing's happened.

"And yet he's so calm," she says. Her latest worry is that John now has liver cancer. She begins to cry.

"Sometimes I feel like we're going to die out here. I don't want my kids to know that their mother died homeless."

John nods and pets Deuce in long slow strokes. The dogs are now sleeping a few feet away from gleaming cars motoring by on Wetmore Road, in the shade and exhaust.

Pepper wipes her eyes, looks over at Deuce, his chest rising and falling, and says, "this dog is so judged. It's because he's part pit-bull." She lingers on the thought. "He's not judged by content of his character," she adds, "but by his species..."

More by Brian Smith


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