Karaoke was very exciting. Many of the singers were actually quite good, especially a young misshapen woman who sang The Judd’s song Love Can Build a Bridge; it brought tears to my eyes. Many sang big Motown hits. A man who had legally changed his name to James Brown gave a much talked about, much anticipated performance of a James Brown song to the wild excitement of everyone. There were duets and group performances. Sherri hugged me and kissed my cheeks and my forehead and touched my nose and my hair, and she wrapped her arms around me and sat on my lap as though I was her date in a way that suggested something greater than a friendship. She gave me a ring off her finger and told me she loves me in a way that can neither be described as friendship nor love. She was clearly having the time of her life and dancing up a storm, her wild hair looking even wilder and her intense blue eyes wide with joy. She often pumped her fists as she did whenever she was excited. She told me so much I could not hear nor capture with my tape recorder for the loud music and singing. She fed me pizza after each bite of her own, the way two in love might feed one another. I waited for the inevitable kiss on the lips. It came soon enough but was very brief as I turned slightly away so that her lips brushed the corner of my mouth.
She asked to take me to the promenade in Santa Monica before I left. She told me she had a bus token and can be gone until about four o’clock. I told her we should go when I next return to visit but she begged that we go before I leave this time. The promenade was her nearest favorite place and she told me she wanted to see it with me. Then she wondered out loud if her ban from Santa Monica had expired. She would not tell me why she was banned from Santa Monica but said she doubted they would even recognize her since she was younger then and had much longer hair. I promised we would go to the promenade when next I visit.
“See that girl over there? The one with the white coat – that one,” she said pointing in the direction of two primped-up tall girls across the room. “She has a dick down to here,” she said touching her right ankle.
We left the church at about 9:30 PM and returned to her house, it appeared discarded. Carroll who was supposed to watch the house while we were gone was there with several men, including the young man who serenaded Sherri earlier in the afternoon. They were all smocking crack-cocaine. Carroll sat glazed-eyed on the sidewalk with her back against the white-washed brick wall. She had smoked the last of the crack she bought from selling the flowers I gave her.
Sherri was upset but too distracted with trying to get me to stay the night to do anything about all the people at her house. She wrapped her arms around my neck and pleaded with the voice of a little girl begging for something she suspects persistence might get her.
For the first time I felt I had become a part of Sherri’s life and she a part of mine, a memory that will never be forgotten. I wore her ring where Karen’s belonged, it was the only finger on which the ring fit and I did not worry of losing it. She held my hands often or wrapped her arms around me and kissed my cheek every few minutes, and she rubbed her face against mine so that her scent sank into my skin and I could smell her incense on my fingers and my pillow and my clothes for days after. For the first time I allowed myself to imagine particular days in the life she has lived, of days she might have laughed and skipped with the irreverent heart of a child oblivious to life’s deceits; of days not long after, a child in the dispassionate grasp of a groaning, sweating man; of days spent playing cards in a friend’s prison cell; of that terrible day on which she took the life of another.
An alcoholic since she was a baby — her daddy would put liquor in her formula to put her to sleep — she was a rebellious child who gave her mama no end of troubles. She began running away at twelve and survived on the streets by selling her body to any man. She has married four times, men that are but names save for the first with whom she had a child. She has spent many of her 48 years in prison, twelve for killing her second husband with a knife — he raped her 6-year-old daughter; and she has spent several shorter terms in the California and North Carolina prison systems for an assortment of other offenses, including grand theft and assault with a deadly weapon. She once was a member of a violent motorcycle gang and has been hit by a fast-moving car while she walked along a highway; she once took my hand and placed my fingers just above an eyebrow so I could feel one of many metal plates that hit-and-run car gave her. She shakes badly when she has no alcohol in her, and she is a heavy, heavy crack addict. She had been hooked on heroin but gave it up because it fucked her over real good; the devil’s drug, she calls it. She told me she avoids weed because it makes her paranoid. She survives in the street by selling crack pipes and screens — filters that are strips of Brillo pads she rips with fingers blackened and cut and crooked from years of hardship; and she sells condoms and lighters and whatever else happens to come her way and isn’t too large to fit in her backpack. Yesterday I saw her peddling crack-cocaine for the first time. A brand new walker she’d like to sell sits on the sidewalk next to the blanket no bigger than six feet wide and four feet deep she calls her house. She gets food largely by the kindness of strangers, although food is the least of her priorities, coming only after she’s had a bottle or two of Cisco Blue and smoked a few nickels of rock cocaine. She reads fluently and frequently, the bible and Joseph Wambaugh being her favorite distractions. She is bipolar and diabetic and suffers from several other ailments whose names I cannot pronounce. She is human, more so than most people I have ever met; a leather-wearing, wild-haired, wild-eyed, foul-mouthed, hard-living rebel and mother to anyone more lost than she. On this day that felt different from all the days since we met I wondered what I was doing here, on this rat-infested sidewalk that stank of urine and rotting food, of how deep I have gone. On this night she was my valentine and my date, and I hers.
Karaoke was wonderful. Every type was there: drug addicts, the homeless, drug dealers, gang bangers, the mildly and severely mentally ill, social workers, prostitutes, cross-dressers, outsiders like me, blacks, whites, Hispanics, Asians; there were no social or color lines. It was a rare few hours of child-like happiness. Sherri smiled often and leaned her head on my shoulder and held my hand in hers, and I wrapped an arm around her; a look of contentedness, if only for a few fleeting hours.
The end of karaoke and a return to her house brought back the uneasiness. I never felt it before this night. I am sure the darkness of night, which Sherri had described in this place as same as day except it hides the evil that people do, contributed greatly to my uneasiness. For the first time I felt a disquieting sense of being in the midst of drug addicts and drug dealers, unpredictable if not dangerous people whose company it is unhealthy for me to share. I worried of being arrested or caught up in the sort of dispute that often ended in this place with a bullet in the head. I found myself more vigilant than I had been in the nearly two weeks I had spent with them. While Sherri playfully locked her arms around my neck and suspended her legs so that I bore the weight of her tiny frame and half-listened to her child-like pleas to stay just a few more minutes, I imagined that unseen eyes bore into me, intent on taking possession of the camera and tape recorders and my precious notebook I am sure they have seen me fish from the backpack I carried always. Even the young man who serenaded Sherri with the voice of an angel and swore to kill anyone that made her sad, on this night looked to me like a hungry yellow-eyed predator when our eyes locked for a brief moment. Earlier, before going off to church, to karaoke, they smoked a lot of crack and I sat in the middle of Sherri’s blanket, right in the thick of all the smoke that smelled of burning plastic. While I blew the white blanket of cocaine-infused smoke from my face Sherri and the others hungrily immersed their bodies in it and inhaled deeply. I had allowed myself to forget that my friends may not be my friends for the things I could provide to extend their mood of drug-induced euphoria. I had allowed myself the comfort of ignorance to the realities of this place most people avoid as though it is Hades. I felt an increasing urgency to leave yet feared that the lonely walk to civilization and street lights might prove my undoing. Perhaps it was better to wait for the relative safety of daylight. I could huddle with Sherri on her blanket; bury myself under a pile of clothes like I find her each early morning. I felt annoyed with myself for risking my notebook by staying so late just so I did not spoil this perfect day. She was happy today. She laughed and showed everyone the flowers I brought her, and she held me often so that others would see; proof that she is alive and loved. I stayed so that I would not spoil that.
Sherri’s house on 6th street, skid row, LA