In a homeless camp, just below The Mile, a guy named Shane sits inside his pup tent and rolls back his shorts to reveal scars girdling his thigh. Fleshy and jagged like a shark bite. He is damn lucky the leg is attached at all.
"Something went through me," he says, running fingers over the ruddy mutilations. "Whatever it was threw me 50 feet. I have no idea why I am alive." The train hit him not 100 feet from here and Shane doesn't remember. It just happened and he came to in a hospital room, where he spent the next month and a half, before rehab. Trains run through here day and night, some days more than others, get too close and then ...
Twenty-eight-year-old Adam Brechka produces a small tin and pulls from it a few tiny brown cotton balls dirty with heroin and hands them to Shane, along with a couple hard-to-come-by smokes. Everything is shared here.
Shane is polite and well-mannered, yet doesn't feel like he should be, and asks if it is OK he fixes himself. He digs a syringe from underneath a sleeping bag, pours water from an old Pepsi liter into a cooking spoon, sparks a lighter and fixes in the tiny tent.
It's hot out here today, man. Sun blazes burned foreheads and dirt fills cracks on necks. Shane is shirtless and bleary-eyed, and in train-wreck hard-to-walk pain, junky pain, homeless pain. An unholy trifecta of agony. The dope does little to help. Cars and trucks and busses filled with thick faces and personal freedoms whiz by at high volume on the nearby overpass and a silent graybeard on filthy yellowed foam pad leans against a fence in mesquite shade, house-sized piles of refuse behind him. He opens his eyes, moves his head once, up and down.
Mermaid, that's her name. She rises from a nearby sleeping bag, girlish belongings in backpacks, full liters of soda (riches) where she rests her head in the shade. She steps over and her complexion is a mess of picked pimples, and her teeth are going fast, but she's young and pretty. Wears an aqua-blue dress decorated with yellow and red flowers, blond streaks and bangs, dirty chucks. She could be anyone in her early twenties at a rave, hunting for community. She is waiting for her man, asks us if we've seen him. Seems like someone is always waiting for someone out here. We see him later up at the Circle K working the angles. His luck is thin but determination will win. She is coming up on 30 hours dopesick.
Mermaid pulls lovely stones and minerals from a velvet jewelry pouch. She spends an inordinate amount of time staring at the ground so it stands to reason her collection from this filthy camp and Tucson streets is impressive. She's particularly fond of a glassy black, palm-sized fossil of some kind of vertebrae. She places it into my palm, saying "just look at how beautiful this one is. Just look." She reveals another prize possession, a vintage Disney watch, attached to her wrist. She outstretches her arm to admire its beauty. Emphatically adds, "I'm going to mail it to my mom."
Adam is handling her stones and recognizes one. "This," he says. "I think it's malachite." It doesn't seem to bother him that Mermaid owns the rock now. How it is out here. He explains a pissed ex-girlfriend destroyed his campsite and tossed his rock collection to the overgrown weeds and junk.
The site smells of human feces and dirt and late-spring desert. An acre or two of filthy things, random coats and moldy sleeping bags and warped bike wheels and doll parts. All manner of human waste scattered, against an industrial backdrop of recycling center. Everything blends into a wan tint, colors dulled by sun; your garden-variety post-apocalyptic.
As Adam and I step to leave, Shane says, "It was nice meeting you." Shane is one of Adam's three best friends now. One of four people he can trust.
"I know Shane probably wishes the train killed him," he says stepping over debris, heading back to Miracle Mile. "I can see it in his eyes."
His observations are keen like that. His current world suits the shit out of him; some things, he figures, you can't do much for.
Adam is as much ready to die as he is to live. Either way, he says, it is a world free of exclusion, and free of paid work, because there is no paid work. Free of homeless shelters because strict regulations won't allow his dog Chubbs. And he needs his drugs.
* * *
Adam's face is calm and pleasing like younger Christian Bale, and he speaks in a loud whisper. A thin, tied beard compliments an overall sartorial sense, including homemade rings and bracelets, beaded necklaces, and closed ear gauges. Lens-free specs atop his snapback cap and thick mop. Black, baggy knee-length black shorts and Mizuno T-shirt on a spindly frame. Hell, he could be mixing smoothies at Whole Foods or curating EDM playlists somewhere in Silicon Valley. Maybe a grant-funded muralist working L.A.'s Highland Park. But not a nod-out addict from South Jersey lost to the streets of Tucson. (His smile is telling though, got punched in the face foraging a Dumpster, busted a front tooth right out.)
His girlfriend Tia is attractive too, 28 with short blond hair, soft features, perfect skin. "Everybody is shocked she's out here on the streets," Adam says. "She is far too pretty." He met her months ago Dumpster-diving. Adam's pretty sure Tia's dad is an ex-con, somewhere out here homeless too.
We are outside of the dirty trailer where Adam, Tia and his other close buddy, Billy Huffman, have been temporarily crashing. (Billy is a 60-something Nam vet with liver cancer. He arrived in Tucson from Florida three years ago to reestablish a relationship with his son after 40 years adrift. He quit drinking two years ago, white-knuckle style.)
Adam and Tia were up all-night Dumpster-diving and neither have slept. She marches off toward Miracle Mile, angry at Adam about something, pushing a baby cart with no baby in it.
Adam shrugs and explains Dumpster-diving lately has been good because school's out. "University students from overseas can't take much back so they throw everything away," he says, "phones, tablets, desktop computers, even pharmaceuticals." He names off prescription drugs he's pulled from Dumpsters ("It's insane what people get for prescriptions and how much"), and the various antibiotics, which he uses to treat spider bites and street bacteria.
I first noticed Adam on Miracle Mile walking a monster bike like it was a pet giraffe. The bike is that, a marvel of home-welded mechanical ingenuity, unlike anything I have ever seen. The puzzle-beast is one part old Huffy, two parts mountain bike, and found pieces, including rebar and metal roof scaffolding. Two chains and a pair of chainwheels drive it and the steering extends at least five extra feet. Its saddle rests six and a half feet above ground, the handlebars taller still. Rusted welding marks decorate lime green paint. It takes balance and skill to ride, and it weighs a ton.
To straddle, Adam first leans it against a telephone pole and climbs it like a ladder. Dismounting requires a lean to the side while executing a perfectly timed jump to the ground, or a fall against a pole. No easy way up or down, like this life. "I'm going to find a crutch to attach to this and it'll serve dual purposes," he says later. "One, to brace a fall. The other as a way to climb."
He built the bike with a homeless pal and his uncle (who died recently, and, Adam says, "is in a better place"). They pieced it together trial-and-error style, and Adam learned to weld.
In the dirt near the trailer's front door, Billy lifts a small drill he traded for cigarettes and bores a screw into an aluminum hand truck, a trashcan score he'll sell. Soon he pries open a dollar-store solar light, and manages to charge the drill with the solar piece. While it charges he shows off his hybrid mountain bike and its attached trailer, which he fabricated from found parts. He says, "I pulled a 250-pound man in this thing to the methadone clinic. He had a broken leg, and I got him there. He was huge, man."
Adam repairs an innertube for his bike's front wheel, so he can ride it. An elaborate repair process involves drawing self-sealant green slime from another trashed tube into an empty milk container, and inserting said slime into this tube and super-gluing the valve back on. The method reveals a mechanical intelligence and street ingenuity, which Adam and Billy have in spades.
These guys talk community and its street-bartering offshoot, never offer the other a confused or disagreeable look. "It'd be a much safer world if we bartered," Billy says. Adam nods.
Adam and Billy share stories of certain cops who harass homeless, and getting hassled for everything from littering ("I had my clothes out of my backpack") to pushing a shopping cart.
"There are many ways they can fuck with you," Billy says. "For example, it's a $250 fine if you have a shopping cart."
"The only thing I don't like about being homeless," Adam adds, "is the stealing. It's crazy how bikes get stolen out here. It's like stealing someone's legs. People can be so cruel. They'll take everything from you. Even your feces. You don't really sleep and if you do, you do it with one eye open. Even my dogs get stolen."
He laughs, "The bike is a difficult thing to steal. It's hard to maneuver and it can't be hidden."
Billy: "When I got here three years ago, the stealing wasn't as bad as it is now. It's the drugs. So many drugs now."
Opioid ODs are a thing again, particularly among Tucson homeless, and Billy carries Naloxone, an opioid antagonist, in his backpack. He doles out clean needles too. Adam says, "He's like that; when Billy had a house he allowed so many people with nowhere to go to stay with him. My friend
Solo was living in his closet."
After an hour and a half of wrestling with the filthy tube, Adam pours the extra slime into a vial to save. Slime tube-sealant is liquid gold out here.
He inserts the tube into the tire on the wheel. Uses Billy's battery compressor to fill it with air. He slips the wheel onto the bike, rolls it to a nearby telephone pole and climbs up. He pushes from the pole, nearly topples, but rolls instead. Suddenly he's the pied piper to a trio of pre-teen kid brothers on bikes. They howl innocent gee-whiz joy at the sight of the boy-man on this monster machine balancing precipitously down the street. They follow him around a corner and all four disappear after a slight rise, but you can still hear them.
Later, Adam needs food and smokes and we manage to cram his bike in and drive around in my van. He explains he needs but $10 a day for heroin to stay normal. He paces himself. He does G (meth) mostly to combat the sleepless weariness of street-living and it miraculously helps him to stave off any junk jones. "One shot of G lasts me 12 hours," he says.
Rolling north down Oracle to Denny's, Adam points out street dogs and folks he knows, where his uncle lived off Stone. His dope-cloudy story unfolds in sentences light on self-pity.
Here's a basketball-playing kid who grew up in suburban New Jersey (Blackwood, a Philly suburb) with a naval engineer dad and special-ed teacher mom. He skateboarded "sunup to sundown," graffiti got into his DNA and art bloomed, painting and drawing, from still life to figures. Soon brutal street photography specializing in dead things and graphic design.
Drugs bloomed too, at 12 years old. When the street price of Percocet rose to $30 a pill, he switched to heroin, the cheaper fentanyl-rich China white, all the rage in Camden, New Jersey. He learned functional addiction at a tender age. "I'd drink milk to come down off PCP so my parents wouldn't notice."
Smart and bored in high school, he ignored teachers and etched tattoos into his arm using Sharpie ink and a needle tied to a pencil. His arms and legs are a kid's story in tats, including an Arabic platitude about strength and the Hindu elephant god Ganesha, unblocking and unifying his chakras with the help of a bong and a pot leaf. A forearm Jim Morrison is about shredded off from so many skater wipeouts.
China white routinely killed off many of his friends and "I just couldn't stop," he says. His parents bailed him out of jams, placed him in rehabs, paid for college. He shakes his head at all of it. The parents and the dead friends. He still graduated from Hussian School of Art in Philly, high the entire time. Now he dreams of earning his MFA. Self-sabotage is easier for addicts, and after art school he phoned dealers before gallery owners. That was that.
He had to get out of Jersey, thinking a geographic shift might be a sweet trick. So he vanished about four years ago, worried friends and family, and backpacked and hitched and turned up in Tucson working at Circle K. Got involved in some graffiti crews here and things were OK. He would skateboard from his apartment at Prince and Romero to Ina and I-10, six days a week. He worked hard and was liked at work until he got caught smoking heroin in the K bathroom. Three times and he was out.
Now he'll sweep up an am/pm parking lot and they'll give him food. He'll walk a dealer's dog for dope, he'll barter Dumpster winnings with other homeless. His food stamps go fast. He stays away from panhandling and flying signs if he can. ("It's a whole other job in itself.") In winter he fills his clothes with newspaper, in summer it is about wet rags. He showers where he can. It is certain misery.
The indifference and sadness about him is surpassed by a hard-won fearlessness and fierce desire to survive. The sadness is mostly for others.
"It's easier for the women out here to get money than men," Adam says. "But they have it so much harder. Every woman out here I know has been raped. It's hard to believe."
No, he does not own a camera or phone now, not even a sketch pad or pencils, because everything gets jacked. He sketches on rocks and sidewalks, and builds rock piles around the city, as public art.
He's been arrested here for a failure to appear stemming from a weed-possession charge. He skipped on community service because he had nowhere to live. Years ago, in Jersey, he got popped for breaking and entering after stealing scrap metal from abandoned semi-trucks people torched in the woods for insurance cash.
* * *
Adam remembers his dad taking him deep-diving on submarines and how he loved aircraft carriers and watching jets take off. Yes, the grief Adam's parents suffered weighs on him, the grief his younger sister suffers. He says they have come to terms with his choices, even visit him. But that's it. He knows exactly where he is and why. His self-reflection is honed despite the odds, and he says, "My parents raised me right." He stares out the van window. Adds, "The drugs, I just don't know what to do. I've tried and tried."
Near sundown, I pull up to the trailer court and we lift that heavy monster bike out the side doors. He says he'll likely collect Tia and head to the ugly campsite tonight, near Shane and that graybeard, near Mermaid and her man if he ever makes it back. I watch Adam walk the bike to the trailer. That bike he made that is taller than he is, taller than any man, really. Like some giant gorilla on his back.