Yesterday I returned to the East Village, beginning with a stroll down 3rd Avenue. I saw a guy across the street that looked a little like Jimmy Hendrix, so I asked him for a photograph. As I was setting up the shot, two of his friends ran into the picture. One of them was a man I recognized from the day before. He was the man-in-black that I’d been sure was offering drugs to Rancid.
The photo turned out great. Afterwards, I decided to talk to the man-in-black.
“Hey,” I said, “I remember you. I saw you yesterday. With Rancid. What’s your name?”
“Oh yeah!” he said. “I’m Dave.” He seemed friendly enough. “Hey, I’m sorry about yesterday. I didn’t mean to ruin your shot or anything. Honestly. I just needed to talk to her.”
Jimmy Hendrix entered the conversation: “Is he talking about the girl with the pink hair?”
“Yeah,” said Dave. Jimmy looked at me.
“Dave keeps trying to say that girl is innocent,” said Jimmy. “He’s always talking about how innocent she is. But I say: ‘no girl living on the street, with pink hair, with a name like Rancid, is innocent.”
“She is innocent,” said Dave.
“She is innocent,” I said.
“Whatever,” said Jimmy. “I don’t believe it.” And he wandered off, leaving Dave and I alone.
There were things I wanted to know about Dave: what he did on the streets, if he was on drugs, and why he was giving drugs to an “innocent” nineteen year old girl from a bad home. But I couldn’t come straight out and ask how much heroin he’d done that day, or where he kept his crack pipe. So I tried a more indirect approach.
“So what do you do out here?” I asked.
“Oh you know,” he said. “You’re looking at it.” C’mon, tell me.
“Do you smoke weed?”
“No man, I’m allergic to weed.” I laughed. Tell me what you do out here.
“Hopefully you’re not allergic to other stuff,” I said. Tell me about the other stuff.
“Nah. Just weed.” Push harder.
“Do you do other drugs out here?” I asked,
“Nah man. I used to, but not anymore.” Yeah right. “Now I just drink.”
Dave was definitely drunk. He had a bottle of liquor in his hand. He was unsteady on his feet. But I refused to believe it was just alcohol. Remembering the hushed tones from the day before—the secrecy, the urgency with which he’d spoken to Rancid: Trust me, you want to take a walk.
“What’d you used to do?” I asked. “You say you just drink now, but what’d you used to do?
“Cocaine, Heroin. Only together though. Never alone. “
“You did them together?”
“Yeah, it’s called a speedball. You mix the coke and the heroin and you shoot it right in your arm. It’s the only way I could do it. I tried Heroin straight once and I couldn’t do it. You need the coke to level out the comedown.” He traced the air with his hand, illustrating a gentle, gradual slope.
“But you don’t do heroin anymore?” I asked.
“No.” Yeah, right.
“I always heard that once you got on that stuff, you couldn’t get off.” So you still do it. I’m suggesting you still do it.
“Nah, not the stuff I was on,” said Dave. He paused to take a sip from his vodka bottle.
Then he went back to his explanation of heroin: “I was on the black tar,” he said, ”It was nothing compared to this shit–” he waved his hand at the street, as if there were piles of heroin all around us, “compared to this shit around here, it was nothing.” He took another sip. “But I don’t do that stuff anymore,” he said, “None of it. I just drink.”
A man came from across the street and asked Dave for a sip of his liquor. Dave handed the bottle to the man: “Just one Steve,” he said. Steve started taking multiple sips. Dave grabbed the bottle. He flashed with anger. “I said just one Steve!” He held the bottle behind his back, out of Steve’s reach. “I said just one! What the hell is wrong with you?? Get the fuck out of here!” He turned back to me.
“Jesus Christ,” he said, “What the fuck is wrong with that guy?” Dave was clearly agitated.
I decided to pursue another line of questioning. “Where you’d go to school?” I asked him.
“Well,” he said, a little shyly, “I never finished highshool.”
“Well,” he said, again shyly, “I was in and out of jail from the age of fifteen. I never really had a chance.”
“You went to jail when you were fifteen?For what?” I asked.
“You know, lots of stuff.”
“Assault, Battery, Battery, Assault, Assault and Battery, you know how it goes.”
“Yeah, fighting.” He took another sip from his drink.
“Were you wasted?”
“Yeah.” At this point Steve came back over.
“Dave, can I have one more sip man, please?” Steve asked.
“What did I tell you Steve?” The anger flashed again. “What. Did. I. Tell. You.”
“Just one Dave.”
“GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE.” Dave screamed. Steve walked away.
“When was the last time you went to jail?” I asked Dave.
“A couple years back. I’d just gotten out of jail, and I was in Rhode Island because my sister lives there, and I didn’t have anywhere else to go. And I was out one night with my old lady. And this guy starts talking to her.” I could see Dave replaying the scene in his mind. He was getting agitated. “I go to the bathroom, and I come back and I see this guy talking to my old lady.” Dave started shuffling his weight from foot to foot, becoming more and more agitated just from his remembrance of the event. “I see him talking to my old lady, and I’m like wait wait wait wait wait.” Dave put his finger in front of his face. His face scrunched in a grimaced, pained expression. “Wait just a second here.”
Dave started pacing around while telling the story, his anger ratcheting up, on its way to the climax of violence that it had reached that night in Rhode Island. He was punching his open palm with a fist now. “So what was I supposed to do?” He asked. “Just let him try to pick up my old lady like that? No, No, No, No, No.” He again wagged his finger in front of his face. “You should of seen me.” He laughed. “You should have seen me chasing him around the bar, limping and everything. You see I got a bad knee, I got three screws in my leg.” He started to pull up his pant leg to show me, but then decided against it.
“How’d you hurt your leg?”
“A fight down by the Port Authority,” he said. “But that’s another story. Anyway I busted him up bad. You should have seen him. His eye was swoll up like this.” Dave made a giant circle with his thumb and forefinger, and placed it over his eye. “And he had meat hanging off his face. Meat was actually hanging off his face.”
“Damn,” I said. “Who was this guy?”
“A friend of mine named Jay.”
“He was a friend of yours?”
“Yeah,” Dave said. “Hey, I got an idea. Are you hungry?”
“A little,” I said.
“You want a Philly Cheesesteak? I’m gonna buy you a sandwich.” He emphasized the “you,” to punctuate the irony of his buying me a sandwich. “There’s a great place right across the street here. You wanna go?” He seemed a little tentative in asking this. Like he was afraid he may have overstepped the bounds of our relationship by asking me to lunch.
“Sure,” I said. “But you don’t have to buy the sandwich.”
“Naaaah,” he said, drawing out the word like a drunk. “I got money man. I’m buying you a sandwich. Let me just hide this somewhere.” He walked over to an empty newspaper dispenser, and stashed his bottle of vodka inside, down deep where nobody would find it. We started walking down the sidewalk toward the deli, and Steve, who had been hovering around nearby, began to follow at a distance. After we’d walked a bit, Dave spun around.
“Steve!” he screamed. “Why are you fucking following me?”
“I’m not following you,” said Steve. “I’m looking for Moose.”
“Bullshit you’re looking for Moose,” said Dave. “Why would moose be over here? You’re fucking following me.”
“I’m not following you.”
“You’re fucking following me. Get the fuck out of here!” Steve stopped walking with us, turned around, and walked back the other way. The anger had served its purpose. We continued on our way, alone.
“Do you talk to your parents?” I asked.
“I don’t know my parents. They abandoned me. And I was adopted. I’ll say that. I was adopted.”
“How were your step parents?” I asked. Dave laughed. A fake laugh. A pained laugh.
“We don’t talk about that,” he said. I stayed silent. He’d seem like he was about to start talking again, but then he’d stop. He started pacing back and forth on the sidewalk, stroking his chin, the anger building, like he was gearing up for a fight. “We don’t talk about that,” he said again.
“I understand, I said.
Another pained laugh. The pacing continued. It was an agitated pacing. A worried pacing. Dave kept stroking his chin. “That’s just not something we’re going to talk about,” Dave said. “Let’s just leave it at that.”
“We don’t talk about that.”
“I know, I understand.
Dave looked drunk. But underneath the drunk, he looked traumatized. We reached the Deli and went inside. Dave ordered a sandwich. (“You don’t mind if we split it, do you?”) While it was being made, we continued our conversation.
“Dave. You’ve had a pretty rough life…”
“Out there man.” He motioned toward the street. “Out there has been my whole life. That and jail.”
“Do you blame yourself? Or do you blame what happened to you?”
He stopped walking. “Well…” He thought for a bit, staring at the ground.
“Listen,” he said. He kept starting to speak, but then he’d stop. And think some more. Then, finally: “Ninety-percent of it, I blame myself. But 10% of it was society. But it was an important 10%. My parents left me man. That was society. Society put me with stepparents that abused the hell out of me.” He paused. He looked hurt. “So society pushed me in this direction, but I… the choices I made, that’s what kept me going in this direction.”
“Do you think it all started with your step parents?”
“Listen man, I don’t want to talk about this.” But he did want to talk about it, I could tell. Cause he kept looking like he was about to speak, but then his next words would be: “This isn’t something I talk about,” then he’d take a few steps away from me. Then he’d stop. Then he’d walk back toward me and say: “Man it’s messing me up even thinking about it.” He paced a bit more, he stared at the wall, “I can’t even think about this man.”
Luckily he didn’t have to think about it, because the sandwich was finished. He took it to the register, and paid for it with food stamps. He handed one half to me, and we walked out the door.
“How many fights you been in Dave?”
“Honestly.” He paused. “If I was to be absolutely honest with you, I’d say over 200.”
“Why do you fight so much?”
“People keep pushing me man. They just push me. Like my friends around here, the people who really know me. If they see me mad– if I tell them, ‘I need to clear my head,’ then they know to drop it.” He turned his back to me. If they see me like this…” He put his hands behind his head, and drew in a deep breath, as if he was fighting off anger. “If they see me like this, they don’t say another word. Cause they know I swell up and I can’t take it anymore. You just can’t push me then. You can only push me so hard and then something’s going to happen. And these guys come around– that aren’t from around here, and they hear about me. They hear about Wolf— that’s what they call me around here, by the way– they call me Wolf. Anyway, they hear about Wolf and they want to test me and they push me.”
“But we all get pushed, Dave. Everyone gets pushed but only you fight. We all get pushed.”
“Yeah but they keep pushing. They push me to the point where I swell up and I can’t take it anymore.”
“I understand,” I said. ”I snap sometimes too. I have a temper. But you’ve got to control it.”
“I’m not talking about a temper man. I’m talking about Anger. I got this Anger. It’s not a temper, it’s Anger. But you know what? You know what? I like my Anger. I’d die without my Anger. It’s what gets me up in the morning. The Anger is the only thing that moves me forward.”
“Yeah, but what’s it moving you forward to? You have to be moving toward something.”
“It moves me to get out of bed. The Anger is the only thing getting me out of bed. I need it. I got nothing left without it. I got nothing left.”
“Do you know what a psychologist might say?”
“About why you fight so much?”
“What?” He’d had 200 fights. 200 times when he beat a guy until there was meat hanging off his face, but I said it anyway. Cause you can dig if you care. You can stop being polite. Because it was all the polite ones, the smiling ones, who bounced off him and continued on their way.
“Because you couldn’t fight back then.” I said. “When you needed to the most.”
“What’s your name again?”
“Come here Brandon, I want to show you the Elephant.”
I had no idea what the Elephant was. I didn’t ask, I just followed Dave as he walked. He turned off of 3rd Avenue and began walking down a side street. “Hold up one sec,” I said.
“Stand right there, I want to take a photo.”
“Why here?” He looked uncomfortable. He complied very reluctantly.
“You have to bare with me on the photos,” I said, smiling. “I am a photographer, after all.”
“I know,” he said. “It’s just that—you know, I’m not picture perfect or anything.”
“Nah, I think you look good.”
“We’re almost at the Elephant,” he said, pushing on. “It’s right at the end of this block.” He brought me to a white building on the corner. He pointed at a set of stairs in front of the entrance. Someone had painted a picture of an elephant on the top step. “There it is,” he said. “That’s the Elephant.” He pointed at the painting on the top step. I used to sleep right here. Right on that Elephant. I knew the man who owned this place. He let me sleep here. Every night man, for three years I slept here.”
“Even when it was cold?”
“Every damn night. Even in the winter.”
“Why didn’t you go to a homeless shelter.”
“Ahh man,” he said. “You don’t want to go there. Trust me. Anything is better than there. You want to see how I slept? Here, I’ll show you.” He climbed over the small gate separating the stairs from the street, and curled into a fetal position.
“That’s how I slept, every single night.”
“Dave, can I ask you something?”
“Yeah, go ahead.” Something about the tone of my voice made him nervous.
“Yesterday. When you were talking to Rancid. What did you do with her?”
“Nothing man, nothing.”
“But I heard you. You told her to come on a walk with you. You said ‘trust me.’ Why would you say that?”
“I had a liter of vodka man, that’s it. I swear. She didn’t even drink it. She took a couple swigs but that was it. And I gave her twenty dollars to feed her and her dog, but she needed more for the bus.” Dave wasn’t taking this question lightly. “I swear man. I just took her over on Broadway, and she sat against the wall, and I panhandled for her.” He made the motions of asking for money. “And I got her twenty more dollars and we bought her a bus ticket. I swear man.”
“I believe you.”
“That’s what I do man, that what I do. I protect people around here. Ask anyone, without me, the people around here would be in trouble. I’m the protector.” He pulled out a wad of cash from his pocket. There were at least a couple twenties.
“Look at this,” he said. “I always have money. And if I don’t have it, I get it. And you know what I do with it? I protect the people out here. Ask anyone. If somebody gets sick, I go beg for money, and I get them medicine. If someone is hungry, I get them food. That’s what I do. If you followed me around for a day, you would know. You’d know that I protect the people out here.” Cause no one could protect you. “I’m the protector.” And the destroyer. “Ask anyone man, the people around here, they wouldn’t survive without me.” (“She is innocent, man. She’s innocent.”) “I look out for the people around here, they need me. Without me, they’d fall apart.” He motioned to the streets, as if there were piles of people around us. ”This whole place, it’d fall apart without me.”
“I want them to put that on my tombstone,” he said. ”The one thing I did well was protect people.”
The anger keeps me alive. I need it to move forward, to get out of bed. /You know who you’re fighting against, don’t you? / I don’t talk about that. We don’t talk about that. / It was only ten percent, but it was an important ten percent / They know I swell up and I can’t take it anymore / We just don’t talk about that. / I’m not picture perfect or anything/ If they see me like this… they know not to say another word / But I want them to put that on my tombstone: the one thing I did well was protect people.