Many mornings I walk west on Pike Street towards the Public Market. The space between about Third Avenue and the Market is one of the few slivers of the city core which the Downtown Seattle Association would doubtless wish to immolate and forever remove from public view. At Second and Pike, the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health operates a needle exchange, and the intersection is a harsh crossroad much of the time. Folks with collapsed cheeks pocked with telltale lesions grasp tiny styrofoam cups and move about in jerky, kinetic scrums, like the pigeons about them, beneath the ragged awnings covered in pigeon shit. The air is an acrid fog of urine and fryer oil from a nearby Teriyaki take-out.
Every once in a while, crossing Second Avenue, I see from a distance someone who doesn’t quite look like they “belong there.” One day I saw from behind a woman dressed like she might have been a bougie housewife from the suburbs. As I drew closer, however, I noticed her hair was unexpectedly disheveled and her clothes, though of good quality, were a bit more frayed at the edges than I’d seen from afar. As she turned I saw a face that probably would have been attractive not too long ago but was now touched by younger versions of the ravages that marred her sidewalk companions. Such characters make me wonder about the downward lines that connect these dots to the “normal” places such people last inhabited.
These thoughts remind of a spring evening in 1992, when I ran into someone I’d known as a very casual acquaintance from a small seminar course at the UW. We ended up sharing drinks at a bar in Pioneer Square. Rick, as I’ll call him, was more gifted than I’d realized. He’d recently graduated with a near perfect GPA from the honors program, and been accepted to several distinguished law schools. We laced lively discussion on a number of topics around several beers.
After a while, Rick asked if I’d come with him to visit a friend in Kent. I barely knew where Kent was, but I intuitively sensed that hanging out there did not likely overlap with my idea of a good time. Rick bought another round and moved on to a new topic. Twenty minutes later he asked again. I gave the same response. The volley continued, with greater frequency and conviction. After over an hour of this, some combination of fatigue and curiosity made me relent.
Rick called a cab and within moments we were driving south down I-5. Much better than public transportation. Sometime later (and over $50 in cab fare), we arrived at his friends’ apartment. His friend Ethan and his girlfriend, brought us into the living room, the focal point of which was a large glass coffee table, covered with what might have been a scale model of the Andes, crafted from the region’s most popular product. Rick’s friends apparently owed him a favor of some sort and were now squaring the debt with an in-kind contribution. After an extended period of prodigious consumption, Rick called another cab and his friends prepared him a generous care package for the road.
On the drive back to Seattle, the cab’s radio was tuned to an all-news station, which announced that the city was one of many where riots had broken out following the “not guilty” verdicts from the Simi Valley jury in the Rodney King case. People were smashing windows and starting fires downtown. We talked about going and looking around, but the cabbie refused to even get close.
Instead, we went to Rick’s apartment, near I-5 and Chinatown. We turned on NPR and Rick brought out a pair of binoculars to scope out the urban insurrection. While this was all most surreal, it also felt curiously natural. We spent several hours like that, absorbing each news report and scanning the skyline as Rick worked diligently away at his gift package. We were still there when the sun rose. Rick’s supply had dwindled to almost nothing. He got some ammonia, boiled a pan of water, and transformed his precious residue into a handful of rocks, which he quickly smoked. He then retired to the bathroom and emerged showered, in dress clothes, cinching up his tie. “I’m off to work. Help yourself to anything. Just remember to lock the door on your way out.” With that, he was gone. What a morning.
I never saw Rick after that day, and have no idea what happened to him. He may have gone on to a very conventional yuppie life, or taken any number of other paths. The possibility that sometimes gnaws at me, however, is whether he fell down some rathole of addiction. In the course of an evening, I’d seen a spectrum of behavior that went from speaking fluently on a range of esoteric social theories to scratching about on a kitchen floor searching for a rock that had gotten away during the cooking process. Who’s to say what other possibilities there might be?
Passing junkies and drunks on the street I often find it hard to suppress feelings of nausea and disgust. Less often than I’d like, I also feel compassion and curiosity. What must it be like to surrender one’s life over entirely to a single, all-consuming passion? Isn’t the addiction, in its own way, a morbid variation on the most extreme notion of romantic love?
And to extend the thought, if we all have a “perfect love” in the world, aren’t we all susceptible to such pure consumption? Passing the junky on the street we think to ourselves “how could they?” But presented with our own perfect poison, I ask myself, how could we not? It seems we’re a long way from home.