Thursday, June 14, 2007

The high price of crack

Miguel is, by far, the best person I've had working for me. He just rode up on his bicycle one day, while I was yanking the enormous weeds from the front yard with both hands, and asked if he could help. He was wearing one of those orange, reflective vests, even though it was the middle of the afternoon. "I can help you with los weed-ays," he said, tearing one from the ground with one bare hand. "I strong. I fast. I can help you!" He pointed to me emphatically, then to the wagon he had tied to the back of his bicycle, which was full of rakes, shovels, picks, and other tools stuffed into a plastic trash can and tied down with rope.

Miguel wasn't the first person to stop by looking for work. The meth addicts and the crackheads (my neighbors) have all wanted a piece of the action since the beginning. But Miguel, I could tell, was different. He didn't gasp for air or struggle to look me in the eye. His eyes weren't bloodshot, nor did they bug out of his head like fried oysters, wet and crusty. He looked clean, and had all of his teeth, except for one, which had been replaced by a square of gold. He was off of his bike, pulling weed-ays from the ground like a machine, whipping them out by the roots. "I can do los weed-ays?" he asked. "Very good work for you!" I told him that I was sure he was a good worker, but that I couldn't afford to pay someone to weed my yard; I could do that myself. (I confess, however, that I've learned I'm much more inclined to pay someone to do something I don't particularly care to do. When it comes to fixing up the house, I'm into outsourcing. If I had the cash, this place would be done. Sure, I claim to be a do-it-yourselfer. But, really, I much prefer to be a pay-you-to-do-it-er. So much easier that way! It's like running a little corporation.)

I told Miguel I wouldn't pay him for the weeds, but that he could put up the wooden fence I'd bought months ago. Could he do that? Miguel did the fence and the weed-ays, cleaned my hideous backyard (littered with a decade's worth of dog shit, plastic action figures, crushed beer cans, and soggy cigarettes), and has been continually happy throughout. "Look, look!" he tells me, waving me over to show off his work. He takes the plastic level from his pocket, which is probably no longer than a foot, and holds it to the fence at every angle. "Look! It's level! I do good work for you! I work very, very fast." And it's true. I tell Miguel, in my broken Spanish (he, in turn, speaks to me in broken English), that he did a buen trabajo, muy rapido, y tienes mucho cuidado. "Siiiiiii," he groans, nodding his head. "Very good. Very careful. Good work for you!" I tell him that I am muy feliz, por que no puedo see the crackheads across the street any longer, now that the fence is up. "They used to stare at me whenever I washed the dishes," I told him. "They could see right through the kitchen window." I give Miguel the thumbs up, and a muchas gracias for his buen trabajo. "No more drogas," I tell him, and he winks. I've already pointed out most of my neighborhood drug dealers to Miguel, just so he's privy. They're always asking me for work, and, after hiring one of them months ago (when I'd first bought the house and didn't have any wits), I know their game. I don't even want them looking at my house, never mind welcome them onto my property and give them work. Miguel understands. "Ay, siii! I see them, ah, smoking the pipe! Pipe over there on the ground." He points to the neighbors driveway. "Si," I say. "Como se dice, ah, how do you say, smoking crack?" Miguel opens his mouth in shock. "Smoke-ah the crack?" He shakes his head. "Noooo." He clucks his tongue, tsk, tsk, and says, "Ah, that is horr-eeb-lay!" I agree, and Miguel goes back to busting the hideous concrete wall around my front yard.

Miguel noticed three Elm trees on the side of my house, where I've been keeping Pip, the ever-pooping puppy, that need to be cut down -- stat. They'd already grown into the roof when I bought the house, shoving their way through the gutter and to the sky, and the inspector told me that I should have them cut immediately. Likewise, Miguel warned that the roots would grow beneath my house, strangling pipes and bursting them with wrestling-strength grip. I agreed to pay Miguel extra to cut down the trees to prevent total disaster (they're growing right outside of my bathroom), and he proceeded to look for help to do it. It's a serious job, as the trees are big, and growing over my and my neighbor's houses. Disaster, although not imminent, isn't easily avoided: shattered windows, broken fences, dinged stucco, dead dogs... If one branch makes one false move, it could all be over.

Miguel interviewed a few people for the job, including the ice cream man who pushes his cart up and down the block, ringing a bell and screaming, "heladoooooooos!" at the top of his lungs. Everyone was asking too much ($600 to $3,000, to all of which Miguel said, "riduculo!"), except for the crackhead junkie who agreed to do it for $200. He and his woman knocked on my door the day prior, asking me if I wanted to buy paint that they'd clearly stolen from somewhere else. I told them I had plenty, before slamming the door. These are not neighbors you want to befriend. Actually, they're homeless, but their primary dealer lives in the house behind me (with his fucking mother, who walks to church every Sunday and offers a dainty wave as she strolls by, arm-in-arm with her elderly boyfriend). Miguel didn't ask me before he hooked up the deal, and although I was upset that he'd selected a strung-out crackhead and his whore (seriously) for help, I figured things would be cool. Miguel is a good guy and, as I understood it, they'd be helping him -- not doing the work themselves.

When I left that night for dinner with a friend, Miguel rushed over to the car with a last-minute thought: "No pay them," he said, pointing to me. "No give them money, you. I give them money. Okay?" I told him I wouldn't, that I understood their arrangement. After a lovely dinner, I returned home in darkness to find four crackheads in my yard: the two guys manning a chainsaw and spotlight, while their bitches smoked joints in my front yard. The dog wasn't even barking. What the fuck was going on?!

"Oh, hiii," the ladies said, as if we were old friends, as if I was about to invite them in for a frikkin' nightcap. The guy beckoned me over to the side yard to show me the trees. "See? No damage! No damage!" he practically screamed, pointing to the trees (which weren't completely cut down -- not even close). In the darkness, I heard another man beside me. It was my drug dealer neighbor, with a chainsaw in his hand. Suddenly, I was sandwiched between two crackhead, in the dark, and one of them was holding a chainsaw. This is not a situation I hoped to be in, ever, and especially after leaving NYC. It was like a wetta sandwich, on two slickes of crackhead. (Sounds delicious.) I couldn't see shit in the dark, so whether or not there was any damage, I couldn't tell. It was already after nine, and I told them they'd have to leave by nine thirty. "It'll only take five minutes," they said. "No problem."

My brother, who's been staying with me (thank god), told me that Roger was helping so he could get a deal that night -- the crackheads would get paid for the job, pay Roger, and get their fix. And to all, a good night. Crackheads, happily ever after. I recalled Miguel's warning not to pay them (which I had no intention of doing -- they're not working for me, but Miguel) and approached the two ladies who had made themselves at home on my front lawn. They were chain-smoking joints and cigarettes (who knows what else) and wearing heavy make-up, despite the summer heat. "I uh, I just want to make sure...I didn't want to interrupt the guys while they'r working, so I thought I'd tell you..." They stared at me, smiling too hard, as I tried to get the words out. They were pretty short, but I bet they were nasty fighters. "I want to make it clear that Miguel is going to pay you, not me. That was the deal, as I understand it." They nodded. "Oh, yeah. Of course," they said. "Sure." My brother had said they'd wanted me to call Miguel -- but he doesn't have a phone. I told them so. "He'll pay you tomorrow," I said. "That's the deal."

I left home for the movies, after I'd tossed them out of the yard at nine thirty, a little shaken up, but thinking they'd return in the morning, as promised. My brother called, not twenty minutes after I'd left, to report that they were back, begging for money, screeching for pity on my front porch. I asked him if I should call the cops, but he said he had it under control. Rex was being a big pussy, meanwhile. My brother called again later in the night (twice, I think?), saying they were back, begging, looking for me. He said I should stay away for the night. I was FUMING! The third time, I called the cops, who sent three squad cars (according to bro), and, if nothing else, the homeless, beggar crackheads noticed and left us alone for the night -- until this morning. They literally just showed up again, and I gave them a sweet piece of hell for disturbing our peace all night. "But we just wanna get paid for the work we did," they whined. I told them it wasn't finished -- not even close -- and that they're working for Miguel, not for me, and to take it up with him.

Seriously, this shit is going to make me want to start smoking crack. I don't want to escape reality, just the clutches of being a wetta in the ghetto. I'm renting/selling stat. I'm always asking myself if this endeavor is worth it's price. Sometimes, it feels too high.


Carolyn said...

hi kate,

hmmm, the house is looking beautiful despite the neighborhood drama. I just moved to a new place in philly, renting is my style, but seems like everyone over age 25 and under 30 is busy buying themselves a piece of this forsaken city...

would you be interested in a guest in august?


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