ShoesAfter getting booted from high school three times, I joined the military. Three years into my enlistment, the Navy cut me loose. I moved back to Pennsylvania and got married, but then my wife split, taking our baby boy with her. I was a 24-year-old cyclone of poor decisions.

In time, I landed in county jail. At least nobody gets thrown out of jail. Drug treatment followed, but even that didn’t work: I went to AA meetings high. One night a woman named Alice pulled me aside and hissed: “You are going to die!”

I told her the obvious: “We’re all going to die, Alice.”

Another court date loomed. Without treatment, the judge would put me in jail. The rehabs in Pennsylvania wouldn’t take me but suggested a facility in the Bronx. New York City seemed like a long shot, another poor decision. Without options, I took the Greyhound to Times Square.

At dawn, I went to a drug bazaar in Alphabet City. My last fix, my last twenty dollars. I walked to 99th and Amsterdam for an intake appointment—my last stop before the Bronx. Around 3pm, a Puerto Rican named Americo started my paperwork. He had greasy hair and asked the last time I got high. I was nervous and thought a joke might lighten the mood.

“What time is it now?” I asked.

“You got high today?” Americo scowled. Instead of sending me to the Bronx, he sent me to a shelter downtown. “Get outta here,” he said.

I went to Saint Mark’s Place in the East Village. About a dozen homeless people wandered about in a cavernous room with soaring black walls, large hand-painted hippie flowers, and purple peace signs.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“The Electric Circus,” said a slight Latino man with glassy eyes. “A night club from the 60s. Hendrix played here.” A disco ball hung from the ceiling and fold out cots were clustered in twos and threes on the dance floor. One thing was certain: Jimi didn’t play here anymore.

Food was scarce. Weekdays everyone would sit on the front steps to ask passers-by for change. I couldn’t bring myself to beg. At the corner deli, I slipped two ice cream sandwiches into my jacket.

“You,” a tousle-headed man from behind the counter said. “Put those back.”

I feigned innocence, but his dark eyes shone fiercely. “The ice cream in your jacket,” he said. “Put it back.”

I did as he requested and headed for the door.

“You hungry?” he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he sailed an oven soft roll over the counter toward me. His kindness made my face burn with shame.

Weekends they held dances to earn money for the shelter. These lasted until 3 or 4am and you couldn’t setup your cot until after. I just wanted to hide from all the handsome people, so I went to the basement, which everyone called the Dom. I was told the Dom was Andy Warhol’s, “Exploding Plastic Inevitable,” as if this explained everything. Now the Dom was home to round-the-clock AA meetings.

At one meeting, the chairperson started reading the literature, but then he got up and headed to the back of the room. An old homeless man had fallen asleep with a cigar, setting his overcoat ablaze. The chairperson stopped reading long enough to swat the flames out. Good God, I thought.

In Pennsylvania, I had boosted a pair of Nikes: hi-top leather, white on white, my favorite kind of sneaker. I considered swapping these to another homeless guy who may have had some dope. As I was trying to decide what to do, the person in charge at the shelter, a beautiful Puerto Rican woman with an ugly scar that ran from the left side of her mouth all the way to her ear (this meant she had snitched), asked everyone to help decorate the Christmas tree.

Someone had rescued a pathetic little plastic tree from the trash. There were no ornaments or lights: just newspaper folded into origami and some macaroni noodles threaded with string.

I decided it was beneath me.

Sitting in the corner, I cupped my hands to light a cigarette. The wind began to rise. If everything worked out exactly the way I wanted—best case scenario—I would be high for a few hours, and then…

I would be barefoot.

In the city.

In December.

I decided I had better start decorating that ugly little tree.

Tim Elhajj‘s work has appeared in Modern Love and a special summer bonus edition of Brevity 27. Currently in a homemade, self-imposed witness protection program, Tim is hard at work on a coming-of-age memoir. He takes frequent breaks to write about his elementary school kids, parenting, and a past life shooting dope.

photo by Kristin Fouquet