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The Best Thanksgiving Soup Kitchen

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Wednesday, November 23, 2011

The Best Thanksgiving Soup Kitchen

Could've been '98 or 2000.  I don't think it was 2000 because I was with Becky by then, and we were living at the Casa Loma Hotel, not the Heights, cashing the bad checks.  I think that Thanksgiving I spent in jail.  I am pretty sure the year was 1999.

I was living here.

There it is.  Hepatitis Heights.  I stole this pic off Tom Pitts's new blog (, which he's using solely to advertise his recently published work, although I'm hoping he'll start using it to write new posts, like I do here, about those dark days, because, honestly, I could use the reinforcement; my memory from back then is kinda hazy.  I can tell you this: that house used to look a fucklot worse. For one, there were no garbage bins out front.  The city took ours away because no one had paid the bill in forever.  No one paid anything there.  No trash.  No lights. No heat.  Giant black trash bags were piled high along the side of the house.  A transvestite lived downstairs, and he liked me so I got to take the occasional shower. The biggest difference, you don't see the newly released dogs from the pen waiting on the stoop to beat the shit out of you and steal your stash.  Oh, and there was no sun.

I've described the hell that was Hepatitis Heights before, both in the blog (somewhat) and in my memoir (extensively).  I am sure the sun shone at some point like it does in this picture, but the way I remember it, it was always raining and it was always nighttime.  Jerry Stahl has a line in his autobiography, likening addiction to a permanent midnight (which is also the name of his memoir), and when I first heard that title I rolled my eyes, thinking it a bit overwrought, and I was an addict.  But now that I'm not, I look back on that time and he's right: it always seemed dark.  Then again, I did so much fucking meth, I was up most nights, crashing during the day.  Kinda like a vampire.  Who also didn't get laid much. Maybe I'll get a million hits from teenage girls today.  Or randy 40-year-old moms.

So this Thanksgiving I'm thinking about, 1999, I was living at Hepatitis Heights, and I want to say I had a girlfriend, or a wife, and that she was gone.  Believe it or not, I usually had a girlfriend (or wife) back then.  Not exactly high class; top tier prospects aren't out trolling the bowery after midnight.  They were less girlfriends and more running partners.  There's not a lot of time for fucking when you're day is divided into two ten-hour, drug-hunting shifts.

I've always hated Thanksgiving.  It's a goddamn depressing holiday.  Even when I was kid.  I've never been much of a foodie, and the idea of a holiday revolving entirely around people gorging themselves fat seemed stupid to me, especially when we're talking about Thanksgiving food, gourds, cranberry and gravy, turkey, and add to that being stuck around people and that the television programming sucked, and T-giving was, by far, my least favorite holiday growing up.  But if you think it sucked when I was kid, can you imagine how depressing it is for a junkie?

Forget for a moment that I got what I deserved, that I was a bad, shiftless person and all that.  Just try to picture waking up in that shithole above, dope sick, hungry, and its being Thanksgiving.

I think I called my mom and begged her to send me some money, using the ol', "But Mom!  It's Thanksgiving!" college try.  I was fucking 30 years old.  So after she hung up on me, I must've gotten well somehow, enough so that I, this gimp, Gavin, and another guy, Paul, decided we'd find a soup kitchen that would feed us, make the day slightly less awful.  I think it was Gavin who said they had the best Thanksgiving soup kitchen in the Haight.  I, of course, avoided the Haight every chance I could, because even then I hated hippies.

So we went in search of the Best Thanksgiving Soup Kitchen.

You never get all three things you need at once when you are a junkie: drugs, food, cigarettes.  I mean, it might happen, but it's usually by accident, and not with enough frequency that you can remotely count on its ever happening again. Hepatitis Heights was on Potrero Hill, and we walked all the way to the Haight because we didn't have the three dollars apiece to ride the bus, and even if we did have the three bucks we would've bought cigarettes and walked anyway.  But we didn't have $3.  And we didn't have cigarettes.  So it didn't matter.

San Francisco is only 7 miles by 7 miles, so it wasn't that bad of a walk, but I can only imagine what we looked like to other respectable folks about to carve the bird with Junior at Grandma's, three dirtbags shlepping along, like Moses' rejects, wrapped in filthy rags, Gavin and his abnormally craned neck, like a glorious fried bird, leading the way.

We got there pretty late, but they still had food.  It was soup kitchen food, so we're not talking Chez Panisse or anything, but when you are starving, even crackers taste really good.

I'm probably conflating all this, combining six different occasions into one, like it was actually Glide Church that I went to with Paul and Gavin, and maybe this Thanksgiving I was alone or with Tom Pitts.  Either way, there was musical accompaniment, a plump woman playing a Casio.  And a lot of hobos.

But here is the part that really sticks with me.  The cigarettes.  There were three of us, so we'd probably been picking up butts from the streets and ashcans and sharing them along the way.  But after dinner, when we'd finished the canned meat and powdered spuds, this really sweet young girl who was volunteering there came to our table, and without asking or saying a word, just laid three cigarettes on our table and smiled.  They weren't doing this for any other table.  She only came to our table.  It honestly was one of the nicest things anyone had done for me in days, or maybe weeks.  Hell, months.

I remember so clearly, standing outside with Paul and Gavin (or Tom or whomever), in the sweet November carbon bus dioxide, the hoodrats and gutterpunks squirreling away spare change from strangers, and smoking that full cigarette, which I didn't have to share with anybody else, my belly full, and being genuinely thankful.  Not sure if it was the best Thanksgiving soup kitchen.  But it was the best goddamn cigarette I ever had.

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