By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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All week long at my job I’ve been telling people to eat. I’m supposed to be counseling them about HIV, talking about condoms and the needle-exchange program, but instead I find my eyes drawn to the hollows of their collarbones, to the sticks of their wrists and elbows, and I ask them when they last ate.
One girl must have been six feet tall. She had long, thin, aristocratic fingers and beautiful honey-colored hair. A long-necked filly of a girl, wasting away. Her bra strap, visible through a rip in her shirt, clung to brittle bone, and the curve of her cheek was cadaverous. She was living in Golden Gate Park and shooting heroin every day. She said she kept fainting and hadn’t had a period in months, and that her boyfriend had overdosed two days before, turned blue and toppled over on the grassy hill where they were sitting.
“I had to flip him over,” she said, gesturing with those impossibly long, impossibly thin fingers. As frail as she was, I couldn’t imagine her moving a child, much less a grown man. “Then I tried to give him mouth-to-mouth, but every time I blew out he just gave a little gasp. So I ran down the hill screaming, and, wouldn’t you know, the first people I found were cops. But I suppose that was good, ’cause they got him breathing and took him to the hospital. Later, he was pissed because I’d messed up his high.”
“Because you’d —”
“They gave him a shot of adrenalin or something, so when he woke up he wasn’t high anymore. He said it was a waste of good heroin, and I should have just let him go out like his best friend did last month. At least he would’ve died happy. That’s what he said.”
“What do you think?”
She shrugged, a veteran of many sessions with well-intentioned counselors. “I think he’s an asshole. We broke up.”
I suppressed the urge to congratulate her. She had red paint smeared on her face: turned-down lines at her lips, like a sad clown, and garish streaks across her cheeks and forehead. From a distance, she looked as if she were covered in blood.
My co-workers had reacted to her odd appearance with raised eyebrows. I got picked to give her the results of her HIV test because I’m white and so was she. They like to match us up that way: white to white, black to black, male to male, female to female. Any fragile thread on which to build a connection.
“You could tell that girl came from an upper-class family,” my co-worker Sam, a black woman, said when I’d finished the session. “I did her demo two weeks ago — tried to show her how to bleach a needle, and she just sat there with this superior look on her face like, ‘What could you possibly be able to teach me?’ ”
“She could be poor white trash,” I said, wondering what Sam could tell about my class background. Even after two years and thousands of counseling sessions, I still question what I’m doing, whether I belong. My co-workers talk about how they used to be out there ripping and running in the streets. I was never “out there.” While everybody else was getting loaded, I was at the library reading poetry, tuned out in my own way, by going deeper into myself.
Sam shook her head. “Trust me. I can tell class. She’s got that arrogance. I got the impression she’d seen the inside of many a therapist’s office; know what I mean?”
“It doesn’t seem to have helped her much. She’s riding pretty close to the edge.”
Sam good-naturedly stuck her face up in my business. “Honey, it look to me like Girlfriend fell off that edge a while back.”
What I talked about with this girl was food. We were giving her fifteen dollars for showing up for counseling, and I didn’t want her to spend it all on drugs. I wanted her to save at least a couple of bucks to buy a hot meal. We also talked about the places in the city where you could eat for free: St. Anthony’s, St. Martin de Porres, Food Not Bombs, Glide Memorial Church.
“I can’t really keep that food down,” she said, almost apologetically. “I eat so little that strange food is . . . unsettling. Like that soup Food Not Bombs was passing out in the park: it smelled funny. I could eat the bread, though.”
“And Glide?” I asked, knowing the answer before she gave it.
“I went there for lunch today: a hot dog and some potato chips.” She reached into her rucksack and fished out the little twenty-five-cent bag of chips. It dangled between her long, paint-smeared fingers like an amulet. “Sure, I know what a hot dog is. I know potato chips. I can keep them down. But have you seen that place?”
I nodded. I used to work up on the fifth floor at Glide, in the AIDS office, and remembered the smells that would float up from the kitchen. I wondered how hungry I would have to be before I would eat there.
After she left I gave test results to a regular who drinks a case of beer a day. He’s a walking testament to the strength of the human liver, living proof that it takes a lot of poison to kill a person. I think beer must be all he consumes. His clothes hang off him like a scarecrow’s. His nose is sharp and fleshless, and his voice seems to come from somewhere outside of his body. His expense breakdown is very simple: rent, zero; utilities, zero; transportation, dependents, medical care — zero, zero, zero. Rather than spend money on food, he eats out of garbage cans. He doesn’t buy anything except alcohol and drugs. They’re all he’s ever wanted, and they’re all he’s gotten.
This man made me wonder about desire. To want one thing and one thing only, to want that thing above life itself and all its ten thousand distractions and temptations, is the nature of saints and true lovers and mad-genius poets — and addicts. I once heard a medical researcher describe a study in which white mice had to endure a painful electrical shock in order to get food. (Who thinks up these studies?) The mice died of starvation rather than undergo the pain of the shock. Then the researchers replaced the food with cocaine. This time, the mice shocked themselves to death to get it. Some switch in their brains had been triggered, and they couldn’t turn it off.
There’s a Sikh at the local farmers’ market — not a Sikh from India, but an American convert, a skinny little guy in a big white turban. He sells the sweetest oranges and apricots and peaches. We got to talking one day, and he told me his wife eats nothing but fruit. A few root vegetables in winter, to keep her warm, but basically fruit; that’s all, he said.
I was shocked. Can a person live on just fruit? All through my vegetarian adolescence, my mother would point to my dinner plate and demand, “Where’s your protein?”
She gets along just fine, the Sikh assured me, bagging my dried apricots. Never gets sick.
What do we need to live?
Ecopsychology, a new field of scientific inquiry, has rediscovered the truth that humans are animals, and animals are not happy in cages. We suffer when separated from the earth. We feel disconnected when we are cut off from moonlight and starlight, when we spend most of our waking hours indoors, when we forget — or never learn — where our food comes from. Ecopsychologists link the psychological epidemics of our time to this original trauma. According to them, the chronic depression, addiction, and violence of our cities are not natural. They are a disease which can only be cured by a return to the sources of life: earth, air, fire, water, spirit.
At work they assign me another skinny, young white girl, another runaway starving to death, who is dragging around a huge dog with a bandanna around its neck.
“I remember you!” she says. “You’re the dildo lady!” (I gave her the standard condom demonstration several weeks ago.)
I laugh. At my other job they call me the poetry lady; here, I’m the dildo lady.
The girl tells me she’s strung out, living with a guy who eats all their food, and teetering on the edge of suicide. I may not know heroin firsthand, but I know despair. I know what it’s like to fight and fight against its magnetic pull. We talk about getting her into a recovery program. She says she wants to do it, that she once stayed clean and sober for eight months in a highly structured residential program, and it was the best time in her whole life; she felt at peace, had a purpose, and her body was her own. I believe her.
But the problem with a program, she says, is that she wouldn’t be able to keep the dog, and she’s committed to her. The dog’s name is Abby. Abby is the only living thing this girl can say for sure she loves; she can’t abandon her to the streets. She feeds the dog before she feeds herself. She feeds everything — her dog, her habit, her boyfriend, her boyfriend’s habit — before she feeds herself.
Afterward, I go back to the counselors’ room. The table is littered with boxes of rock-hard bagels and half-eaten doughnuts — we eat like cops. Sam and Maria are chatting between clients. Listening in, I discover that Maria’s son died of AIDS two years ago. You’d never know it. She’s always so cheerfully dressed, with red lipstick and colorful stockings and tight miniskirts, and she often brings in cookies or chips for the rest of us. She’s telling Sam how the funeral home messed up the arrangements. Then she glances over at a headline in the paper, and reads, “ ‘National Depression Week. Depression is now epidemic in the United States.’ Well, I could have told them that.”
“You know what it is?” Sam says. “People think they’re supposed to be happy all the time. Can’t nobody be happy all the time. Just trying is what makes some people so depressed.”
“And then there’s those people you never know are depressed,” Maria says, “the ones who run around doing everything, but underneath, they’re empty. It catches up with them eventually. Honey, I used to be like that, afraid to feel. But what I found out was you’ve got to just let the waves wash over you. You can’t always be happy, but you can always have peace.”
I ’m lying on the massage table. When Gabrielle puts her gentle hands on my heart chakra, I begin to sob. I’m embarrassed to tell her why, but finally I do: I see a chariot made of stars, and I feel a deep longing to climb on it and fly away. At the same time, though, I can feel in my bones that I’m meant to be here, on exactly this city street, in the middle of this sweet, brutal life that bruises me daily: The fig tree thriving in front of my little house, and the candy wrappers and beer bottles on the corner. The addicts in the park and the kids whizzing by them on their roller skates. And the many different languages we speak when we try to tell each other about it.
“Why should I care about these people?” M. asks when I bring yet another half-finished essay about drug addicts to our writers group. “I want to read about people who love life, who want to live.”
“Because they’re the same as me or you,” I argue. “It’s just a question of how socially acceptable our addictions are. We’re all addicted, one way or another, to practices that ruin the earth and our health: driving our cars, eating food that’s wrapped in plastic, ingesting junk because it helps to numb us.”
M. is not convinced. She says, “I don’t drive my car that much. I quit drinking and smoking years ago. I want to live, and I want the earth to go on.”
She’s right, in a sense. There’s a difference between eating too many chocolate brownies and waking up each morning needing to score fifty dollars’ worth of heroin to shoot into your arm. I continue the debate in my head on the long drive home. As a society, we have determined that money and power are more important than feeding everyone. Daily, we decide that bankers and lawyers are more important than farmers, that movie stars and athletes are more important than hungry children, that our collective human ego is more important than the earth.
I think of all the ways in which my decisions go against my deepest desire to live in harmony with the planet. Right now, for instance, I’m craving a Diet Pepsi in a cold, sweating, aluminum (bad for the earth) can, with a straw. I allow myself one only once in a while. I’m not as bad as my friend S., who drinks a six-pack of the stuff a day and smokes.
That’s the thing about addiction — there’s some way in which what’s bad for us feels good. I remember smoking: the satisfying ache at the bottom of my lungs, the sting in my eyes, the burn of exhaling fumes through my nose. I wouldn’t think of doing it now, but I remember. And I remember angel-faced S. at twenty, smoking a pack of Marlboros a day, gesturing to her lush body in full bloom and saying, “I need something that destroys me a little, to make a balance.”
Is that it? Are our sweet bodies sometimes too much to bear, knowing as we do that we have them for such a short time? And the beauty of this earth, which we can marvel at but never grasp, is it the same? And love, too? Sometimes, when my heart is full, it feels like it will break. It feels like grief.