The third time I returned to Plaza de Foch, it was to buy drugs, like all the others. Foch was where you went to find things. I’d been told not to go to Foch, but from time to time, I liked to smoke a little marijuana.
Allow me to explain. I was in Quito, Ecuador, building an iglesia with the members of my church. We were twenty-somethings from Wilton, Connecticut, and of all those lovers of God, I was the only one of them that liked weed. This necessitated leaving our hotel, and for obvious reasons, Father John not to discover. The others didn’t know, either. Because my parents couldn’t ever understand, so I’ve always had this thing about hiding my habit, and then after a while, it became like a fun little secret I enjoyed with myself.
The first few times I’d gone to Foch, it’d been in the afternoon. At night, the place crawls with cops, but by daylight, it’s easy. You cruise down a side street and eventually some shady character will ask you if you want to buy coke. Then you smile and say, “how about some of that marijuana?” You’ll give him your $, he’ll give you a bag. The weed here is usually shwagg. That’s a bad thing, in case you’re wondering.
But the third time I returned to Foch, it was at night. We (the church and I) had rented out a local pizza parlor. Yes, they have pizza down there. It isn’t terrible. After dinner, I found myself wanting to get a little high, so as they were hopping into taxis, I told Father that I was going to walk back to the hotel. Before he could refuse, I was already gone.
Look, it’s not like I didn’t like being down there, building churches. All of the helping hands of the church, together, spreading the love of The Lord: there is something beautiful about it. I get it. But, so, okay, it’s that time of year again, the brains of the congregation decide it’s time to volunteer and suddenly we become good people. But it wasn’t my idea to come down here.
It’s like every year, the church hosts this big pasta dinner for the community right before Christmas. Everyone cooks and bakes, and there are music and decorations, and for the weeks leading up to it, everyone comes out to help. Father jokes that if he had this much help all year round, he wouldn’t have a job. So what I wonder is: where are all these people the other forty-nine weeks of the year? It’s great they want to pitch in, but isn’t there always work to be done? When the calendar says its time, we put in our hours, and then we go our merry ways. But the problem, it’s still there. Nothing changes.
So while the benevolent souls that came down with me sat in the hotel at the end of the day, kicked off their shoes, turned on their TVs, and surfed the channels to find the two or three channels in English that they have back in Connecticut, I would go on walks through the city to try understand how the streets, and how they looked through the eyes of the people that lived here. Often these walks took place at night. Sometimes they culminated in a joint. I know…I liked me some pot, back in the day.
When I got to Foch, I turned down a side street. Half-way down the block was a trio posting up just a little too casually. I knew as I approached that these were my guys. Two of them were standing, the other was sitting on the curb. One of the guys standing turned to face me. He was wearing a New York Mets jersey. Sizing me up in a half a second, and asked, in perfect English:
“Looking to score some coke?”
“How about some of that marijuana?”
“It’s five for shwagg and ten for diesel. You want some of that diesel, don’t you?”
“That sounds great.”
“Alright, you wait here. I’m gonna go get it. You don’t even have to give me your money or anything. Cool?”
“Awesome, thanks man.”
He wore this little hammer as a necklace, laced on a metal chain, and he brought it towards his face. There was a lighter in his hand, and then I realized, as he lit it on fire, that it wasn’t a hammer: it was a pipe. There was this yellowish powder inside, and he torched the whole bowl. Without waiting to exhale, he was off down the street, disappearing ahead of a smoky wake.
I turned towards Mets’ friends. The one standing was a guy about twenty, dressed in midnight black, and the one on the curb was a woman, wearing a dirty white blouse. She spoke first.
“I know you.”
“Have we met?”
“You came down here before.”
I didn’t remember her.
“My friend, he doesn’t know English…”
I looked at the friend, and he looked back at me. He shook his head menacingly, and said, “Loco.”
“…but me, I can speak, a little.”
“Good, because my Spanish is terrible. Where did you learn English?”
“Here. I understand more than I say.”
“What was your friend smoking?”
She became very serious.
“I don’t ever want you to know this.”
I noticed that she had a necklace, too, hanging around her neck.
“What is that?”
“I don’t want you to know.”
“I’m not interested, just curious.”
“Do you know crack?”
“Yes. Well, no, not personally, but I’ve heard of it-uh, before.”
“This is like that. I don’t know how to say in English.”
She spoke with Loco in Spanish.
“That stuff is bad.”
Her hands suddenly came to life, and seized the pipe around her neck. She procured a lighter and inhaled the powder, and then the pipe dropped from her mouth, and reeled backwards and coughing a plume of gray ash. She took off the pipe and handed it to Loco, and then sagged her head back into position. Loco procured another lighter and took a hit, then exhaled, slowly, before handing the pipe back over to this woman. She had the eyes of someone who was there without really being there, lit like candles burned dull behind glass. Perched on that curb, in that dirty blouse, her white knuckles clutching the concrete.
“What I don’t understand-”
We looked down the block. Mets appeared out of the dark, racing towards us, mad with rabid energy.
“Alright so my guy wants to see the money first so let’s bring it to him sound good?”
He turned back down the street. Loco went after him, and just like that, the woman rose from the curb, almost gracefully. With a smile, she beckoned me to follow her, deeper into Foch. We passed smatterings of drunkards, rambling through the streets. Some of them were white. The occasional pair of cops, posted at a corner. Dark houses amongst convenience stores that looked like they might never again open. Figures, waiting in the shadows, or hiding from something. We passed an old playground, where the weeds were overgrown in the cracked pavement. Then I realized it was, or is, a school. What was it doing there?
We drifted a few more blocks while Mets and Loco rambled in Spanish. Loco was crazy, but Mets had the amphetamine intensity of a jacked-up ball blayer at the peak of career. This woman, whom I walked beside, was quieter. Her eyes were a glassy gray, as if everything she saw was underwater. Eventually we found a corner with a single lonely streetlight, where we waited. There was a brick building and she posted up against it. I went and stood next to her.
“Do you live here?”
“I have two kids. A girl and a boy. She has 8 years and he has 4. But my baby girl, she lives in Columbia.”
“Do you miss her?”
“How many years do you have?
I told her my age. She took a drag from what I hoped was a tobacco cigarette that Mets and Loco were smoking.
“Why are you here?”
“I’m building an inglesia, with some people from my church.”
“No, I mean why are you here?”
“Oh, Foch? For the same reason you are, I guess.”
She laughed, and then turned to smile at me, this twinkle in her eyes. There was something more there that the drugs hadn’t touched.
Someone came storming down the block. We were standing close together, but the figure went straight for Mets. Like a javelin, she threw herself, running from the street and pummeling into him. He fell one two three steps backwards before landing on his feet and this crazy lady began screaming at him in Spanish. I stood a few feet away, mute in confusion, watching as he got angrier and angrier and then started giving it right back to her. My woman appeared front of me, and guided me aside.
Over her shoulder, I watched the lady shove Mets again and again. For a second, it looked like he was going to hit her, knock her down cold to the curb…Should I be doing something? But he just threw his arms up in the air and tried to back away. The crazy lady continued beating her palms against his chest. Loco stood beside them, oddly resigned to whatever was happening.
Failing to elicit whatever it was she wanted, the crazy lady threw her fists up in wild exasperation and fumed away into the night, a volley of curses trailing behind her. Mets returned to us, also fuming.
“Look, man, I don’t normally like to talk bad about women- but that bitch is FUCKING NUTS!! She had a fucking boxcutter!”
“Fucking nuts, man! Let’s get out of here, we’ll meet my guy somewhere else.”
He took off. That had been a bad moment to not understand Spanish- the whole scene became much scarier after realizing the crazy lady had been carrying a weapon. If it hadn’t been for that woman, would I have gotten involved? I ran and caught up to Mets.
“You curse like a New Yorker. What are you doing here?”
“I’m from Queens. Born and raised. I have family down here, but I grew up in New York. Except a few years back, I got in trouble for carrying a key.”
“What’s a key?”
“You know, a kilo.”
“Oh, a kilo.”
“I was supposed to do five years, but after three, they said I could leave right then if I didn’t return to the country for another five.”
“How many has it been?”
“Do you miss it?”
“I’m from Connecticut.”
“Welcome, brother. What are you doing down here?”
I told him.
“That’s cool stuff.”
“It’s cool how much trouble you’re going through so I can smoke a little.”
“Don’t mention it.”
We continued down the street, and every once in a while, we’d pass another pair of cops, more of a reminder than anything else. I was getting the feeling they weren’t really there to do anything. There were some nasty types hanging around, and if push came to shove, the place was run by the strange and the addicted. I noticed that none of the cops walked alone.
We found another corner that looked like the last, and I was happy to see another streetlamp. There was someone waiting under it. The woman whispered by my neck that he was somebody’s husband, but I didn’t have time to ask because the transaction was already starting.
What’s up man, what’s up, what’s up. High fiving, friendly banter. Some talking. Looks like it’s going well. I can’t wait to smoke. I can’t wait to get out of here. But then Mets starts to look unhappy. Why is he getting angry? Shouting, cursing. Loco is again standing nearby and unconcerned. The two engaged grab each other by the collar. Jesus, are they going to fight too? The woman delivers me aside with an arm like a mother who’d stopped short while driving. I begin to worry if I’m going to my drugs at all. Oh Father, if you could only have seen me then.
You can understand a lot watching two people argue in another language. The emphatic gesturing helps. So does the repetition of phrases. But even more was the way these people came alive when fed by free-base cocaine. Those fires: so raw and angry! Here, there was some misunderstanding of product. Price was also an issue. Eventually the men stopped talking and each stared down the other. This continued for a while until they reached a stalemate, and the guy stomped off into the night and Mets returned to us in even worse shape than last time. Why does drug dealing always have to get so personal?
“He tried to give me half a bag…for full price…NOT going to happen!”
“Oh. Um, thanks for looking out for me.”
“I know one other place we can go for sure.”
“You still want it?”
He took off down the street and his friend hurried beside him. The woman and I followed behind. I turned to speak to her.
“Hey, thanks for looking out for me back there. I appreciate this- everything, tonight.”
She stepped by my side, but our feet didn’t fall together. There was this rigid, spastic quality about her movement, going and stopping and going again. I suspected she hadn’t heard me.
“I just wanted to say thanks”
“I don’t usually get this sort of hospitality.”
She didn’t understand or the comment didn’t register. You know how sometimes you’ll see two people walking down the street, perfectly in sync, and you’ll know that whatever they are discussing, they’re on the same page? We were the opposite of that. I tried my best to keep pace with her, but it was like she was trying to dance forward while shaking off tiny invisible demons. Mets and Loco were already at the end of the street.
“They’re waiting for us.”
She says something I don’t quite catch.
It sounded like “cat sleep ring bell.” She says it with a giggle. I repeat the phrase back to her, and she finds this even funnier. This continues for a while longer and then I stop trying. She is laughing so hard she has to stop walking.
“Hey. Help me out here. I’m trying to understand.”
“Let me breathe…”
“Let me breath-”
“Are you okay?”
“…in your mouth.”
She went again for her pipe. Her hands performed the sacrament well-rehearsed, and then having received her sweet absolution, she exhaled, still rooted to the same spot. People say that drugs can open new worlds, higher levels of consciousness. Yet as I stood by this woman, her drugs didn’t seem to be at all like that: this seemed like a possessed madness, desperately managed. Her eyes burned very far away. She was still there, but the drug had gotten so much bigger. So this was what she worshipped?
“What’s it like?”
“I don’t want you to know.”
“I want to understand. Do you like it? Do you love it?”
“I…I like it.”
“Then why do you tell me you don’t want me to know it, but you use it yourself?”
“I have to.”
“Why do you have to?”
“How you say…I’m-”
“There is always a choice.”
“I’m…there are so many things I want to say-”
And like that, she went back to dance-walking. I ran after her. I was still fumbling for words by the end of the curb, but then the others took off, and the moment was lost.
We drifted through a few more blocks until we came to an intersection, where we turned left. There were no lights here, no cops, and I found myself missing the streetlamped corners. I advanced cautiously behind Mets. There was a garage, closed, on our right and then some strangers across the street. One of the figures tore away from the group and came towards us. We advanced up the sidewalk as the figure crossed over, and we convened in a silently agreed upon location. The woman followed me while Loco waited with her pipe.
Our new dealer was female. She was fifty pounds heavier than the last lady we met, with the fierce hardness about her reserved for women who hold their own in predominantly male professions. I hoped she wasn’t as crazy as the other. With professional acuity, she spoke directly to me.
She turned again and headed back to her group. Mets asked me for $. I handed some bills to him automatically. He went to the dealer on the other side of the street. I looked over at my woman, standing by my side. She looked like she wanted to say something, but couldn’t. Wearing this faraway look fixed up on me, I wondered if this was still the drugs, and then for a second, I saw clearly into the grays of her eyes.
“God bless you.”
Then I realized so completely what she couldn’t understand: that the problem with my drug problem is that it isn’t a problem. I could descend into a crazy place like this, so utterly desperate and decomposing, yet emerge unscathed. That was the only difference between us.
And then I realized that the exchange had been made, and Mets had returned to us, looking happy.
“I told you we’d come through. Here.”
He extended his hand as if to shake, and even before our skin made contact I felt the bag nestled between his fingers. That sweet, sweet bag- then the sudden grumble of an engine down the street. We didn’t hear them coming. Two cops on motorcycles flashed on their sirens. Of all the chances they had to make an appearance, they choose that moment. They pulled alongside the dealer and her friends. What had they seen? Mets looked sharply at me.
“When they aren’t looking, hide that somewhere.”
With the haste of a fourteen year old choking one out in a Sunday School bathroom, my hand went down my pants.
“Nice. Let’s get out of here.”
Mets was already facing me, his back towards the cops, and as he continued forward we followed him. We strolled out of there as nonchalantly as three people high on free-base cocaine and a white man buying weed can, but a few steps into our departure, we heard the engines rev our way, having finished their investigation a little quickly.
They cruised by us slowly, the blues and reds of their lights circling round the dead-end buildings. My woman started taunting them with the playful air of the mildly intoxicated. I disappeared to the other side of her and hoped I wouldn’t get noticed. The cops began questioning her, but when Mets and Loco chimed in, Jesus, they were professionals. The bikes were down the street and out of there before we were.
After everything that had happened, I could hardly believe that there was really weed in my hand. But there it was, green and dry and- fuck, schwagg. We made our way to the end of the block and turned right. Mets pointed to a gas station a hundred yards down.
“Follow the street lamps when you make it down there, and when you get back to the bars, you’ll be home free.”
“Ahh, I almost forgot.”
He extended his hand again, this time filled with my change from the drug deal. Without counting, I picked out the gold ones and handed them to him.
“Thanks again, brother. For everything.”
“Don’t mention it. You ever need anything down here, just ask for me.”
We touched hands and I waved to Loco, who was still shaking his head, but smiled as he waved back to me. Then I turned to face the woman.
“Muchas, muchas gracias. I don’t know if things would have ended up this well if it hadn’t been for you.”
“Thank you for everything.”
“Hey, what’s your name?”
She told me, and just like that, I forgot it. There was a comfortable silence, and then I reached out to hug her. As she held me in that embrace, I felt the weight of those tired shoulders, and sweat on the neck that held them up. As we came apart, our eyes met; she smiled at me, and I smiled back.
“I wish only the best for you. Take care of yourself.”
“You do the same.”
And with those parting words, she turned to follow her friends down the street, and disappeared into the dark with the others. I stood by myself, watching her return the way we’d just come. Alone, far from the haven of my hotel; pampered like a prince, and completely unconscious of my royal wardrobe. I knew that some of the shadows I’d floated past with had been dangerous. Yet at no point in our adventures had I felt unsafe. Maybe I’m just an idiot, but isn’t that the point of faith, to find it in people? I turned towards the gas station, vanishing the opposite way they’d left.
Had I chosen another corner, another night, I might have gotten my drugs and gotten out of there in under ten minutes, or I might have wound up caught in the middle of a cocaine-binged knife fight, my blood slowly feeding into some dead-end gutter. But on that night, I choose that particular alley, and that woman found me.
God, what was her name? In that stillness, I stood watching her disappear down the street, and I wished there was something more I could do for her. There were only so many ways out of here, and she was walking in the other direction. Then again, what more could I have done?