One of these guys is a rep from the mayor's office and the other is a crack dealer. It's 10am, I'm in a strip club parking lot with only two other cars, a white SUV and a black Challenger, both new, both gleaming, both containing well-dressed black men. They step out to greet me, but Mr. Challenger moves too fast and talks too loud on his phone, and the crack dealer dissolves back into his car.
Behind the strip club is a trailer park and behind that is one of the saddest homeless camps in the city. Mr. Challenger is tall, handsome, graying at the temples, neck tattoos peeking out his starched collar, wearing a sky blue suit and a six pound watch. He stares at the mud and I stare at his patent leather shoes.
Challenger: "How long does it take to get in there?"
Me: "It's only five hundred yards."
Challenger: "I thought it'd be cleaner."
He proposes we wait until a formal medical team has been assembled before venturing in, but I'm already walking. He needs to smell this place.
The camp entrance is blocked by the charcoal skeleton of a car, the tires four puddles of melted slag. The whole place smells like a dead animal, but despite all my searching since last summer I've yet to find the source. Up the hill, turn left, and the field is dotted with blue tarps.
They're all young, age 19-25. I'm thankful the first two we meet are white men, so Mr. Challenger can see how truly filthy their skin is out here. A cold January meant a month of dumpster diving for firewood with no access to running water, and their faces are gray with soot.
Finding my lady, the sickest candidate in the camp, I convince her to get dressed and tell Mr. Challenger about her situation while I hang out with the Soot Brothers and exchange Little Debbies for intel on who else has HIV. They eye Challenger suspiciously, and I kick myself for not bringing a drug rug for him to change into.
Having thoroughly depressed the mayor's rep, I run down my shopping list:
Me: "There's ten more out here. They need burner phones, transportation to a methadone clinic, and STD testing.
Mr. Challenger: "They seem service averse."
Me: "They. Are. HIGH."
He drives back to City Hall, I pick up three older clients for their doctor appointments and I text with Captain Jake about the mayor's rep. He says, "Keep pushing those encounters. No one ever said that the moral process of humanization was necessarily a pleasant thing."
A boarding house alerts me at noon that, yes, the room we've been fighting to pay for the last week is finally ready and my client (we'll call her Mama Legs) can move in today. I call her and tell her to pack her bags.
On paper, Mama Legs sleeps in an overgrown parking lot behind a gas station, but her health had deteriorated so quickly that when Daughter Legs moved her onto a cousin's couch, I turned a blind eye so as not to endanger her federal homeless status. I pulled up to the overcrowded apartment and Daughter started carting out luggage.
Daughter: "Did you bring a wheelchair?"
Me: "No, everyone's out, she has that walker I brought last time."
Daughter: "She can't walk."
A cousin wheeled an office chair up to the door. "We can get her in this, we just need some men to lift her."
I wasn't really paying attention. Two weeks ago I'd taken Mama Legs to an appointment, and she had ambled about fairly well on a cane. I chalked up the whole "can't walk" business to general old age and soreness.
Two minutes later a fire truck arrives. I leap out the van and into the apartment, asking Daughter why the fuck did they call the fire department, and she replies, "We need men to lift her. She's too heavy."
The smell hit me. Mama Legs hadn't left the couch in days, blankets damp with urine, no clue when she'd last had her insulin shot, and weeping with pain. Three firemen enter but the leader, a shaven-headed white guy with a Mustache In Charge, quickly read the room and barked orders for a medical evaluation.
(Side note: There's a reason Harlequin publishes so many fireman romance novels. The men were calm, decisive, included me in the evaluation, opened doors for me, said things like "pardon me darlin", and can power-lift a sick old woman like a six-pack of Bud Lite.)
I text my neurosurgeon pal Dr. Girlfriend and list the symptoms, none of which were good. She says, "Tell the doctor she needs an MRI of her spine with and without contrast. If they give you shit, put me on the phone and I will slap them with my UCSF dick."
I tail the ambulance to The Shitty Hospital where the doctors are missing, the nurse's station stops receiving calls from 4pm to 8am and sends everyone to voicemail, and they have no compunction about delivering disabled clients of mine to a sidewalk if the shelter front desk doesn't answer during the discharge process.
I scratch down all my contact info to the nurse and run out the door to pick up my kids from school and hunt down a recuperative bed so my client has somewhere to go when she's discharged. My daughter draws comic book characters on the whiteboard while my office manager and I blow up every shelter phone. It's Friday at 4:30pm. No one answers, no one answers. I snarf down slutty brownies and keep calling.
Finally we nail a shelter and beg for them to set up a cot in their conference room. They say yes and we lock the office.
I find my son down the hall in a choir room, lifting the lid on a grand piano so he can inspect the inside. He inspects the wires with the same fascination he showed toward Auspice's engine block. I watch him thru the door window, wishing I didn't have to interrupt.