Monday, February 27, 2012

The People's Park: Part Two

The rainy season hit hard for the people in the park.  Mud and dampness made for a perpetually wet camp and often sent them into the bathrooms adjacent to my office to get their fix.  The acrid smells of chemicals afire hung in the air.  Their marathon smoke sessions infuriated me.  I was being poisoned, and soon their paranoia seeped into my office too.  I was forever denying their accusations that I was a NARC and the existence of cameras in the trees.  But maybe there was some truth to their suspicions. 

As a kid I’d duck below the front windows when Gordy passed.  He was a teen who lived in the corner house.  I’d heard that he’d fried his brain on drugs.  Like Victor he walked around shirtless with unfurled curly hair.  I wanted to catch a glimpse of him, but I didn’t want his eyes to meet mine.  I was captivated and terrified that part of a person could be erased and that drugs could be the eraser. 

After school specials preaching “just say no” only fanned my paranoid flame.  My brother and cousin teased me with such pranks as blowing piles of baby powder cocaine in my face with an oscillating fan.  I screamed in panic, and to this day am unsure how nine year-olds acquired such contraband. In fact, my paranoia lead me to become an amateur NARC.  I’d creep up to my newly renovated bedroom carefully looking for joints in the cracks of the sub-floor.  I’d overheard my Mother worry over the “hippie” painters who looked like they were on drugs.  I was certain I’d find real evidence.

At the park I was among genuine hippies—at least some of them were.  They were sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, and mothers and fathers, but most chose at some level to inhabit the park.  Petra, the toughest woman in the park, would often remind me of this saying, “I have a home; I have daughters,” yet she remained in the park as its best hustler and perhaps the most feared individual.

Petra and her entourage would repeatedly and respectfully ask me what I was doing at the Park.  I didn’t fit. They and everyone else could see that I wasn’t from there or even California.  I could never answer their queries.  My supervisor told me I’d been hired because I had character.  I knew they had their doubts about my toughness but I managed to convince them of my desire to work with the homeless.  I thought I saw them differently, had aspirations of community art projects, and a handful of ideals that seemed ridiculous when I looked into Petra’s eyes.  The truth is I wanted a job, but what was I really doing there?  Other than a bus pass there certainly weren’t any perks, and my ideals went up in crack smoke.

Petra wasn’t the only one to question my presence.   I was a cultural oddity.  I spent hours talking to the bike police, the man who emptied the trash cans, local park advocates, passers-by, and park people.  They’d stand in my office door trying to get me to join the police, join the union, or become a customer hustling their merchandise discarded items, drugs, and sex acts. One morning I even let a toothless drunk kiss me on my cheek.  He’d been celebrating all night long.   I’d try to assess their sanity and sobriety---my opinion forever wavering—in hopes that I’d find a reason why I was there.

Eventually a park person torched the free box, and I soon departed People’s Park.  My boss from the deli called the park “a failure of the left,” and I felt his comment could have applied to me as well.  I left the park corrupted.  I had been fried on drugs and left only with additional fear and paranoia.  I was lost more than ever and upon reflection realize how much I had in common with the park inhabitants.  I was desperately trying to figure out who I was, too.  Nonetheless, I closed my office for the last time after meeting my replacement, a happy looking student from the university.  I ran from the park before I could recognize myself in the eyes of its people.